Man in the women’s room

The Thinker by Rodin

The last few months have certainly been an eye opener. No, I haven’t drilled a hole into the women’s restroom, but I have been attending an Intuitive Eating course locally. I discussed it briefly in January. Since that time I’ve been meeting with a small group of people generally once a week trying to relearn the art of eating intuitively. The surprise for me was not the material itself; it was that I was the only man in the room.

I can’t remember this ever happening before, at least for not such a long time. I immediately felt like slapping myself in the forehead. Of course an intuitive eating course is going to be populated mostly by overweight or obese women. That’s because for the most part men avoid taking courses like these. Some men join Weight Watchers but it too gets far more women than men enrolling. And having taken Weight Watchers courses, it largely doesn’t get into the emotional aspects of eating. It’s all about points, carbs, exercise, sticking with the program and trying to fit you into some company’s model of how you should eat and behave, which is true of all diet programs. Men who want to lose weight are more likely to be looking for a “manly” way to do it, so they are doing it by mail for the most part, i.e. joining Nutrisystem.

An intuitive eating course is not about dieting; it’s about shedding the diet-forever mentality, which has the counterintuitive effect of causing weight gain. It’s more about eating naturally, which is why the French eat very well, smoke, drink to excess but largely avoid obesity, heart disease and other weight issues, oh, and outlive us as well. Eating though is very primal so unsurprisingly there is a huge amount of emotional baggage attached to it. The women in my group brought their lifelong experiences into the group.

At first I felt pretty uncomfortable. Teachers know what tends to happen in co-ed classrooms. Men, being men, tend to dominate discourse and women tend to ask fewer questions and hold back. I didn’t want my presence to inhibit the women from expressing themselves. They have been dealing with weight issues their whole lives. The message women get is relentless: much of who you are has little to do with your capabilities, but how well you fit into the stereotype of who women should be. It’s not just men who tend to prefer the skinny and attractive women who are to blame. It’s also a lot of other women projecting these same values, generally the popular and skinny ones, but more often an obsessive and controlling mother. So I found myself deliberately holding back. I didn’t want my default male attitude to keep the women from getting what they needed from the course.

Over just a couple of weeks I discovered that in many ways it sucks to be a woman. Women do get to have children, and I imagine that mothering a child can be a great pleasure. I was aware of some of the obvious ways it sucks to be a woman: generally being paid less for doing the same work as a man, sexually harassed off and on the job, feeling you have to always look good, not just to attract the perfect man but because you have to keep up with the competition: other women. It’s not hard for anyone to put on weight, but when women do the impact of it is often devastating. There are lots of obese men who feel the same way. But I believe that most men are not nearly as impacted emotionally by weight gain as women are. I certainly wasn’t. A lot of these women spent significant parts of our classes relating their emotional issues with eating and literally crying about it. I never once felt like crying. I could not empathize because I had never gone into these deep emotional wells that these women spend much of their lives inside.

The curious thing was that many of these women didn’t look all that bad. Overweight: yes. Obese? Maybe half the class qualified. Many were quite attractive but it was like they were carrying an extra fifty-pound pack on their backs that was purely the weight of emotional baggage. One exercise late in the class involved writing down things about yourself you didn’t like and having a partner read them back to you. The idea was to respond back with something positive or nonjudgmental, but some women could not go there. It was devastating to one woman. She went to a corner to cry; she simply could not participate. There was a lot of crying that day. Me? I was clear and dry-eyed. It was like Why are you crying about this? But of course I had not lived with all the projected shame these women had, both from outside and inside. That’s because for the most part overweight and obese men don’t get ridiculed and teased the way women do. And it’s devastating.

I got to know these women well enough to learn that this was only part of the psychological baggage they carry around. Men don’t understand. I thought I understood. But I really didn’t understand until these last few weeks. I think this is because I was seen as a safe male. (Confidentiality was also required). Being a woman is tough and most men if they were honest would not wish it on themselves. Very few women develop the stamina and resilience to learn to be comfortable with the person they are. And that’s the real shame. Men like me often see women as women first, not people first. We project our own needs onto women and expect them to deliver. For the most part women are not allowed the dignity of simply being who they are, freed from internal and external judgments. If they don’t fit our projected model of whom we think they should be, we denigrate or marginalize them instead.

The course ended yesterday. I can repeat it at no extra charge so I am thinking of doing that, because there is a lot of material to master and it’s hard to do it in ten weeks. But also, my curiosity and empathy genes are now engaged. Also, I am aging. As I age and my testosterone levels recede, aspects of women like how pretty they are tending to recede. In this class I did not see women; I saw people. I saw beautiful, warm and caring people struggling through difficult issues.

The really sick part of all of this is that we do this to ourselves. Everyone suffers by fruitlessly trying to live up to the expectations projected by others, of course. But women in general suffer magnitudes more than men do. Most of this suffering is so unnecessary and pointless, but it’s something society projects onto people and women in particular from birth. Its impact is devastating and lifelong.

Moreover, we make it worse. Look at the horrid laws being passed in mostly conservative states that are trying to take away reproductive choice from women. Women support many of these measures too. WTF? Why would any woman be so cruel as to keep contraceptives away from other women who can’t afford it? It’s all part of a process, perhaps largely unconscious, of belittling and dehumanizing women as a class of people, wholly for the type of sex organs they happen to have. It’s a choice we can change. We could end all this harmful and pointless nonsense. We could allow women to live full, happy and productive lives instead. First though we have to stop seeing them as fulfilling ridiculous gender roles and see them as whole people.

I’ve intellectually felt this way for most of my life. Now, at last, in my sixtieth year, I feel I’ve bridged that emotional distance too.

How Bernie Sanders blew it … but also won it

The Thinker by Rodin

The primary season comes to an end next Tuesday in Washington D.C. where Bernie Sanders is unlikely to win, mostly due to the demographics of the city. Of course it’s been over for Bernie for some time. Tuesday made it semi-official but it was hardly a secret as his path for winning continually narrowed and became more improbable with every passing week.

It’s time for a postmortem, and perhaps now is the best time, as the body hasn’t cooled yet. Where did he go wrong? There are lots of mistakes to point to, some not obvious at the time. For me, I don’t feel like chastising Bernie Sanders. I think his campaign was remarkable. Most Americans had no idea even who he was when he announced his campaign, and yet he ended up with more than forty percent of the pledged delegates. Certainly a lot of it was due to frustrations by Democrats unhappy with Hillary Clinton as a candidate and wanting a different choice. There were other choices (Chafee, Webb and O’Malley) but it soon became clear that only Sanders was a real alternative. Put a wig and a tight dress on the others and they might have passed for Hillary; their policies were basically the same.

However, Bernie was something different and fresh. Mostly, he was authentic in a way few candidates can be today. This was part luck and part wisdom. The lucky part was he was a senator from Vermont, a state with a tiny population. Languishing in the far northeast the state was unseen by the rest of the country. Its small size and insular location made it ideal for a progressive candidate who didn’t want to deal with the usual bullshit of campaigning: the rubber chicken dinner circuit, dialing for donors and needing to compromise principle. The wisdom was knowing that by being an independent he could speak authentically. He joined the Democratic Party very late, and primarily just to have the ability to have a realistic shot at running for president.

Authenticity made him singular among politicians and gave him a real Mr. Smith Goes to Washington feel. It opened up doors to being heard that others did not have. For all her speeches, we basically know what Hillary is going to say, and thus for many of us she feels fake, inauthentic and calculating. With authenticity Sanders could be heard, and we heard a new message that reflected the obvious truth around us: that wealth had purchased the transfer of more wealth from the lower and middle classes to the rich. From any other politician it would have sounded calculating. From Sanders, it was obviously sincere and heartfelt.

While Sanders may have lost the nomination, his ideas are now mainstream and won’t go back in the closet. There are now few Americans that haven’t heard of democratic socialism, know exactly what it means and its potential. It doesn’t surprise me that his message resonated so well with whites. Middle and lower class whites have been getting the shaft, just like everyone else. Both Sanders and Trump appealed to these whites, but Sanders did it in a way that was free of racism. As a result he pulled Hillary Clinton substantially to the left because she had to compete to win these voters. He energized people, but mostly he energized younger voters. He has changed the path for our future. As millennials gain power and displace us older voters, his vision will guide these new leaders. I just hope Sanders lives long enough to see it happen. I think it will.

In a way, he wins by losing. Had he been elected president, his ability to get his agenda done would have been no better than Hillary’s, unless Trump’s candidacy so implodes the Republican Party that Democrats retake both houses of Congress. He doesn’t have to take the fall when Congress discards much of the agenda. But he has lit a fuse that will go off sometime in the future. He has given us a picture of what our country can look like and we can taste it.

Sanders mistakes were many but largely due to naivety. His biggest one was simply not reaching out to minorities. It’s not that women and minorities are that enthused by Hillary; remember that she lost to Barack Obama eight years ago. Sanders hadn’t paid his dues. Yes, he was often marching with civil rights protesters but he didn’t make the connections, mainly because he abstracted their problems into a larger agenda, rather than make an emotional case although he is white he was one of them. As a result he was seen as new and thus dubious to women and minorities. He probably hadn’t planned to run for president. Had he, he might have spent years cultivating this network.

He was to some extent a victim of forces outside of his control. Women in particular are anxious to see a woman president. There was no obvious candidate other than Hillary. While not burdened with the hassle of moneyed connections, not having them left him not agile enough to create them quickly when he started his campaign. Everything had to be built from the ground up. It helped give him authenticity, but the process took too long to reach the necessary critical mass.

In short, the lab dish was just partially cultured for Sanders to grow to a critical mass. But because he was part of this campaign it will be in the future for someone with the skills and was drawn to his message. Then it will be obvious to most that he birthed real change. However, his baby is still en utero.

Should we applaud that a woman is likely to be nominated for president?

The Thinker by Rodin

Is it remarkable that a woman will finally be leading a presidential ticket in this election? Yes it is, primarily because it took so long for it to happen. This makes Hillary Clinton’s status of the presumed nominee of the Democratic Party something of an embarrassment too. It might have happened eight years ago but of course Barack Obama narrowly won that nomination, which was also historic for transgressing the color barrier. So while this one took some time, it does say something that it was the Democratic Party that managed to pull two such historic nominations in eight years. Alan Keyes, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina never really had much of a chance within their parties. As for Hillary, I noted eight years ago that a woman’s time was likely to come soon.

Still, it is somewhat disappointing that of all the women out there that Hillary Clinton would be the first to get the nod. I am not one of those Hillary haters and I will happily vote for her in November. She was one of our better secretaries of state but was only a so-so senator from New York. Of course as first lady she had the opportunity to understand how the White House works and that’s one of my disappointments. Hillary was the opposite of an outsider. Her success came from being an insider and having the support of powerful people, particularly her husband Bill. Yes, some of her success due to being effective (but sometime catastrophically wrong) in office, but mostly it’s due to opportunity. Not many women can be married to a president of the United States. Her path to senator was smoothed over due to Bill’s connections. Her most distinguished role is really as secretary of state. In this she was a surprise pick and turned out to be a good choice. Obama had every reason to throw her to the wolves, but did not.

Maybe that’s how it has to go for our first female presidential nominee. Maybe it would be too daunting to have happened any other way right now. I say this not because I think that women don’t have these skills, but connections and establishment trust are imperatives, at least within the Democratic Party, and those are harder for women politicians as they are fewer in number and tend to have been in office for shorter periods of time compared with male politicians. Certainly she broke a glass ceiling, but not alone. Bill and friends of Bill did a lot of the pushing for her.

Hillary has high negatives that I frankly don’t get. I certainly have concerns about her judgment. Setting up a private email server was quite stupid and a more astute politician would have not ignored these red flags. While stupid, it was forgivable. It’s understandable that Republicans want to make hay over the killing of our Libyan ambassador and two others, but it’s quite clear from all the evidence that what happened was not her fault. She was hardly a perfect secretary of state, but she was a competent one and navigated that fine line quite handily between being empowered and following direction from the president.

Of course our foreign policy could have been handled better during her tenure, but the same is true of every secretary of state. We cannot control foreign events. All any president and secretary of state can do it position military and diplomatic forces effectively to reduce the likelihood of conflict. Diplomacy is tough and it rarely makes headlines. It involves creating and maintaining effective international collations. Radical change in foreign policy such as Trump would implement tends to not really be a good option. You must deal with the realities across the globe in all their enduring messiness. You should strategically move resources to reduce the messiness if possible. This can be done through long-term proactive strategies and the limited short-term application of military and diplomatic muscle when they can be effectively leveraged, such as with Iran.

Regardless, our next president will be either her or Donald Trump. While the choice is pretty obvious to me it’s apparently not obvious to plenty of voters. Voters need someone else to look at to help in their decisions, which is why who Hillary picks as her running mate may actually matter for a change. I don’t expect her to pick Sanders; they temperamentally too different as Hillary is a pragmatist and Bernie is an idealist. To me her choice is obvious: my senator Elizabeth Warren. Warren is frankly a far better speaker and communicator than Hillary is. Like Sanders she has a gift of connecting viscerally with voters. It’s unclear if Warren would accept this offer, although she had not ruled it out. Party insiders expect someone more milquetoast to get the nod. Tim Kaine and Sherrod Brown are names being bandied about. A prominent Latina would make a lot of sense but at the moment there is no one aside from Warren that would really be ideal.

I pity the fool Trump picks as his running mate and it’s unclear how many would accept. Newt Gingrich is not so secretly running for the position, but perhaps is less in the running since he has overtly criticized Trump over his racist remarks about the Judge Curiel, who overseeing the Trump University case. My bet is that he chooses New Jersey governor Chris Christie, because they are both temperamentally the same (bullies) and are both from the northeast. It would not surprise me at all if both the vice presidential nominees come from the northeast, which would be quite surprising as my area of the country is hardly representative of the rest of the country. Of course, time will tell.

I don’t worry too much about Sanders voters ultimately voting for Trump for the same reason that pissed off Clinton voters ultimately came around and voted for Obama in 2008. Wounds tend to heal given some time and there are five months until the election. In addition, pretty much all Democrats like and trust Obama. As long as the economy doesn’t implode, his opinions will carry a lot of weight. Obama endorsed Hillary today and will go on the stump with her next week. There is no downside for Obama: his legacy depends on having a Democrat succeed him. As this is a very rare occurrence (it hasn’t happen after two or more full terms since Harry S Truman) pulling it off would be another feather in his cap.

I also don’t worry about Trump finding a “presidential” footing. Like a leopard, there’s no way to change his spots. He may be a bit more cautious about putting his foot in his mouth but it’s not hard to predict he’ll do more of that than not in the months ahead. It really felt like with the latest reactions to his comments on Judge Curiel, he has finally jumped the shark. His hardcore supports won’t waver, but he has made it infinitely harder to bring in those with any doubts.

Barring some major external event and even given Hillary’s negatives, I don’t worry too much about the election either. She hardly has it in the bag, but she is intelligent and focused. Trump shows no inclination to be strategic, to raise serious money, to support fellow candidates or to act presidential. He’s effectively thrown his dice already and given the velocity and the angle it’s not too hard to predict he’ll land snake eyes.

The game is now truly afoot.

Give ’em heaven, Kate

The Thinker by Rodin

Religions are supposed to be about love and finding God. Sadly too many of them, if not most of them, are far more concerned about getting their believers to march in lockstep with them than embracing them in loving ways. The latest somber case in point is the excommunication of Kate Kelly, who believes that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (i.e. the Mormons) should ordain women and allow them to direct the church.

Naturally it was an all-male panel of senior bishops that decided on her excommunication. At least they were clear about her real sin: she was promoting her beliefs, which were okay as long as she didn’t actually express them. In his excommunications letter to Kelly, Bishop Mark Harrison wrote: “You are entitled to your views, but you are not entitled to promote them and proselyte others to them while remaining in full fellowship in the church.” These merciful clerics though did open the possibility that she could rejoin the church, providing she repents long enough and consistently tows the line. In other words: shut up already, keep shutting up and keep telling people you were wrong.

Dogmatic religions tend to excommunicate people all the time. Pope Francis recently excommunicated the Italian Mafia. Thus it’s not particularly surprising that Kate Kelly also suffered this fate. Still, to those of us outside this faith, this decision sure smells. What crazy reasoning justifies this belief? Well, Jesus only chose male apostles, hence there must be something unworthy about having women as clerics because men, well, must know better! How condescending this is, particularly given the poor record of male clerics within institutions like the Catholic Church. If I were a Catholic, I would sure want my kid to have a female priest. I might feel safe leaving him or her alone with the priest in the sanctuary.

Kate Kelly is guilty of a number of “sins”. These include understanding the logical fallacy of this argument, understanding that no God worth worshipping would require such a silly restriction, understanding that women are equal in all ways with men and inferior in no ways, understanding that we are all equal in the eyes of God, and understanding that the Mormon Church, like all churches, is an institution made up of flawed human beings and thus can only aspire to be holy, but is not actually holy or flawless. A church is a human institution that aspires to bring people closer to God. Given its imperfect nature, it must from time to time review how it’s doing and see if it fits the current reality.

The reality of the 19th century when Mormonism was founded was that women did not have the right to vote or much else in the way of rights so it’s not surprising Mormon dogma echoed these beliefs. It found what it thought was a foundation from the Bible. These facts were also true when Jesus walked the planet. It was true in Abraham’s time when he had multiple wives and when losing your virginity before marriage would require that you be stoned to death. In two millenniums, we have come to understand that women are equal partners. Thus they have the inherent same rights as men to everything. Kate Kelly is guilty of knocking on the Mormon Church’s door and reminding them of this obvious fact. In short, Mormonism needs a little revising because it isn’t optimally serving the needs of its members, and some of its teachings are undercutting its essential message.

I wish Kate Kelly lived nearby so I could give her a hug. She could use a lot of hugs. I wish I could also get her to see that she is better off without Mormonism as it is currently practiced. Mormonism really needs a dose of Protestantism. It’s largely as cloistered and insular as the Catholic Church was prior to the Reformation. During the Reformation, of course, the dichotomy between the church’s teachings, its actual practices and the needs of its parishioners became too large to tolerate anymore. Protestants discovered that they had power greater than the Catholic Church. When enough people stand up and demand changes, new denominations emerge when existing religions won’t adapt. If enough Mormons stand up with Kate Kelly, and more importantly boycott the faith until its leaders see the light, the Mormon Church will see the error of its ways as well.

Yell like hell, Kate, but do in a loving way that shows your better nature and the truth of your position. Yell outside the gates of the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City. Yell outside their conclaves. Reach out to every liberal Mormon you can find, and there are plenty of them. Have the nerve to worship separately and call yourself with a new name, perhaps the Reformed Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Show that you offer a better way. Network. Like Harvey Milk, it will be lonely for a while, but if your cause is just and your work sincere, you will in time triumph. And if the Mormon Church insists on totally denying reality, let it shrivel. It’s better off dead than to be so fundamentally wrong.

I believe that when enough people simply vote with their feet and leave the church that they will see the light. And you, the excommunicated, will be revealed as a woman who had the courage to put the church on a path that actually makes it more inclusive and a better institution.

Yell like hell, but realize that you are actually giving them heaven, and bringing them closer to God.

Putting yourself in a woman’s shoes

The Thinker by Rodin

Okay, not literally. I vaguely member trying on my mother’s pointy shoes when I was a lad and that definitely felt weird. I have learned a lot about women since then, mostly by listening to them. I now know that I was lucky to be born male. Recent news reports show some of the violence against women, including the planned execution of Meriam Yehya Ibrahim, a Sudanese woman sentenced to death after refusing to renounce her Christian faith. Just murdering her is not enough though; she first is to endure a hundred lashes for the “adultery” of marrying a Christian man. In Sudan, only marriages between Muslims are considered legitimate, hence “marriage” to a Christian man must be adultery. (If this outrages you, take action here.)

Maybe you are thinking, she’s a weird exception. Just like that woman in Pakistan who was recently stoned to death by her own family is a weird exception, although it happens all the time in less public spaces in Pakistan. Except violence and discrimination against women is widespread. I recently wrote about pay disparities between women and men, which rarely results in lawsuits simply because it is so hard to prove. The gap in the United States is 23%, in that women earn on average 77% of what men make. Think about the lost earning power that represents over a lifetime. It’s no wonder that more women are in poverty than men.

Blacks know what it is like to be guilty of being black. Women are guilty of being women. Even if they are not particularly attractive, it’s not like they get a free pass from the likelihood of sexual assault. Sexual violence statistics against women are frightening. One in 6 women have been raped or have been sexually assaulted. A majority of women say they have been harassed or have been worried about violence because of their gender.

Think about what it’s like to spend your life with these realities. As a guy, when I go outside I don’t give any thought to any kind of assault, least of all rape, unless I am in a really bad neighborhood. (It doesn’t hurt to be 6’2”.) Unless I end up in prison, there is virtually a zero chance that I will be raped. Nationwide, three percent of men have been raped, and my guess is almost all of these happen in prison. For a woman, pretty much any strange man is a potential rapist. So they keep their purse clutched close to their chests. They try to travel in groups and avoid running alone or in the dark. Danger could lurk pretty much anywhere. It never stops.

Having relationships with men is dangerous. You never know what some guy you are dating may do to you. Will you be date raped? Will you be stalked? Will he turn out to be emotionally, mentally or physically abusive? What if you spurn his requests for sex? Typically the man is taller and stronger, so overpowering a woman is not too hard. You have to hope that men you date are civilized, and can remain civilized under stress. It’s a tall order, given these sexual assault statistics.

Then there are all these people treating you like a second-class citizen. Not only are you likely to be paid less, you are considered impulsive and unreasonable. If you are emotional by nature, it’s attributed to being that time of the month. Many politicians want you to get pregnant by making it hard to get birth control. They will bend laws to make sure you can’t terminate an unwanted pregnancy. They want you to bear children of men who raped you. They will even write condescending laws that require doctors to tell you lies about abortion or make you wait for days before having an abortion, assuming you can get one at all in your state. They will even write laws requiring that you to be penetrated against your will by an ultrasound wand before having an abortion. All of this is because you are a woman, and not to be trusted. You are a second-class citizen.

Not only are you paid less; you have more expenses than men. Before Obamacare, you paid more in health insurance because you have breasts and a uterus. Your clothes cost more. You need a wide variety to escape scorn. Try to find a decent bra for under $30. Okay, it’s not a problem if you are a guy, unless you are a cross-dresser. Need your hair cut? You will likely pay twice what a man pays. Men just put on the same kind of pants and shirt, and maybe change their tie. Women bear all these additional expenses while making less money.

More often than not, you are not seen as a person, but as an object. If you like to have sex casually, you are not a woman who happens to have a strong sex drive, you are a slut or words much worse. This doesn’t happen to guys. They get slaps on the back instead.

If you decide to run for public office, you will face higher standards than men. Just how good a mother were you anyhow? Did all your kids avoid drugs and get straight A’s? If not, don’t think about running for anything. Hillary Clinton knows what it’s like. People will watch your hairstyles and clothes and critique them ruthlessly. They will question your choice of spouse. They will count the number of times you go to church. If you are a male running for office, these simply are not concerns. No one thinks to ask such questions.

If you decide to take time off to be a mother, when you go back to work you are at the bottom of the promotion chain again, and at an entry-level salary. You will earn less social security because your wages were lower and your time in the workforce less.

In the workplace you are likely to suffer sexual discrimination, but also likely be doing work that is more menial and less engaging. Next time you visit your doctor’s office, look around. Look for a man on the clerical staff. You probably won’t find one. My wife worked in a doctor’s office for years. It’s a topic for another blog post, but suffice to say these women work like dogs, are vastly underpaid, and are treated very badly. The turnover in these offices is huge and the work is grinding and relentless. All their discounted hard work simply goes to feed the doctors’ bottom lines.

So, yes, I was lucky to be born male. So much of that humiliating and toxic crap is simply not part of my experience. Sadly, women have a long way to go to become full partners and truly equal before the law and within society. What’s holding them back is mostly us men. We have to evolve. Will we ever? Will you?

The abortion of a child’s potential is the real crime

The Thinker by Rodin

In case you haven’t been following the news, states are getting very creative in finding ways to skirt the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, which in theory allows a pregnant woman to have an abortion during the first trimester of a pregnancy. Calling these laws “creative” is generous. “Illegal” is more appropriate for some of these state laws. It will just take some years before courts fully strike them down or as pro-lifers hope, the Supreme Court overturns its 1973 decision. It’s hard to see though how some of these new laws can possibly cut the mustard.

For example, some states require counseling prior to an abortion, a curious requirement as in most other things, like smoking, drinking and gambling, there is no similar requirement. The law assumes that adults are entitled to make judgments without coercion by the state because they are, well, adults! Even more intrusive are vaginal ultrasounds, required for women who want an abortion in states like Texas and Louisiana. Curiously there are no similar laws requiring anal ultrasounds of the prostate before men undergo vasectomies. North Dakota decided that if you can discern a heartbeat no abortion is allowed, which suggests no abortions are legal past six weeks of pregnancy. Thankfully, a federal judge overturned the law but as there is only one abortion clinic in the whole state, it’s kind of moot. Other states like Virginia (where I live) keep tightening the screws for abortion providers, most recently by requiring facilities to have hospital-wide corridors.

The intent is not hard to discern: to make abortion as difficult to get as possible until effectively it’s impossible to get because it has been regulated away. Curiously many of these states claim to be all about freedom, such as the freedom to bring a loaded gun into a teen recreation center (yes, it’s legal here in Virginia). Apparently freedom of choice is not for pregnant women. Apparently the moment a woman gets pregnant they become value impaired.

An abortion supposedly destroys a life, but what “life” means to the pro-life crowd is peculiar. In the case of a fertilized egg that is not yet implanted into the uterus, it is arguably not alive as it does not move or grow. As the blastocyst matures into a fetus though clearly something (or someone as pro-lifers would say) is alive. A tiny fertilized egg is hard to see even in a petri dish but this is a life? Then the mole on my neck must be a life too. However apparently my mole can be surgically removed with impunity – no state counseling is required, even though, like the zygote, it can’t think but it does have something resembling a circulation system. In reality, there is no magic moment when a fetus becomes a person. At eight months it’s ridiculous to claim it is not. At eight days it is laughable to claim it is. The Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision was imperfect, but reasonable. I have yet to hear of a fetus expelled during the first trimester surviving through prenatal care.

I am hardly the first to remark (as many others have) that carrying a child to term does not mean that the child will be loved, clothed, fed and nurtured. With a few minor exceptions, the pro-life people are wholly indifferent to the fate of the child after birth. Mostly they are indifferent to the mother during pregnancy as well. I have not heard of any state law requiring pregnant mothers to take prenatal vitamins, for example, to increase the odds of a healthy child, but they are myopic about vaginal ultrasounds and hospital-wide corridors. Go figure. After birth, most pro-lifers could not give a crap what happens to the child. They willfully don the eyeshades of ignorance, start humming happy tunes and plug their ears.

This is usually not true for those women who are forced to carry a child to term. Typically the reason they seek an abortion in the first place is because they realize they cannot fit a child into their complicated lives. While the life of the poor may seem deceptively simple, in reality it is quite complicated, a far more complex chess match than any of us moneyed people are ever likely to experience. If you have ever lived in poverty, or near poverty, you know this is true. (I know this from experience.) Try surviving on Walmart wages, particularly with a child you are supposed to raise and doing it without government money. (So many Walmart employees are on food stamps that it’s practically required in order to work there.) Try doing this with no or little support system in place as well. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of these mothers either fails or does a substandard job.

It would be nice if government picked up the slack. Sometimes it does, with food stamps and credits for childcare and the like. Yet these are usually not nearly enough for a child to thrive, and sometimes not enough to even fend off malnutrition. Nor do these measures begin to measure the psychic cost to children from living in poverty: lack of parental attention, lack of a father in the house in most cases, lack of nurturing because the mother is usually working, the shuttling from one substandard home to another, neighborhoods full of crime and poverty, and schools where education is generally substandard. It’s completely reasonable to draw these inferences just by looking at scores of children at these schools on standardized tests.

Thus it’s wholly reasonable to ask pro-lifers: If this will be the fate of these children who might not otherwise be born, why did you force these mothers to carry them to term in the first place? Maybe, just maybe, the mother had a pretty good idea of what her life would look like, and this wasn’t what she wanted for her children. Maybe it was because it is how she spent her childhood and youth. The next reasonable question is: How can you make any person carry an unwanted child to term if you won’t take care of it once they are born if the parents cannot?

Sadly, our world is overrun with children whose mothers, if they had the option, probably would not have carried them to term. Many of them would have been happy to take a morning after pill to preclude the possibility, but in much of the world a $50 Plan B pill is unaffordable, if it is even available. Every child has potential, but that doesn’t mean that they can actually realize their potential when born into poverty or dysfunctional circumstances. It is only possible with a huge societal investment in time, money and nurturing. This seems to be the freight pro-lifers won’t pay for, unless it is for your own son or daughter. What could be much crueler than bringing a child into the world who will know little but insurmountable obstacles? Why do we want children in this world whose circumstances will doom them to be just ten percent of who they could be? These children are much more likely to be flipping burgers as adults instead of doing scientific research, writing a great novel and building our bridges.

This is the real abortion: the abortion of a child’s potential by requiring them to be born into substandard circumstances. A largely indifferent and uncaring society snuffs it out after birth. These children are cut off at the kneecaps at an early age. They face a life full of endless obstacles. Scaling over just a couple of them is beyond most of us, and we expect them to scale hundreds of them. Add to this sad story the cost to the planet to bring a child into the world and we have set up a cycle where each generation leads more difficult, shorter and less endurable lives. Through being “pro-life”, we are creating hell on earth and worse, being willfully ignorant of the consequences.

It is this versus giving the mother the simple dignity of deciding whether to have a child and if she does not then making it safe and legal for her to terminate the pregnancy. It is so much cheaper and actually much kinder not to have the child until she is ready. Birth control pills are quite cheap and can prevent fertilization altogether. Even if they are not available a morning after pill is much cheaper than 18 years of trying to care for a child with inadequate resources.

Every child should be a wanted and a nurtured child. No child should be born to live a life of misery, but only into conditions that will nurture him or her as a valued member of society where they have a reasonable expectation of achieving their potential. A sustainable earth and our common humanity require nothing less.

Extreme makeover

The Thinker by Rodin

Being fifty-something like me definitely has some drawbacks. Things I used to take for granted, like going a day without some aches and pains are now exceptions rather than the rule. When you are middle aged, every day you are playing a game of whack-a-mole with your health. Solve one problem and others unexpectedly pop up. In my case, I recently learned I had vein disease (in other words, my varicose veins are becoming a problem), a few neuropathies in my legs and feet, and tarsal tunnel syndrome in at least my right foot. On the good side, I weigh twenty-one pounds less than I did in January, my blood pressure has stabilized and I am hopeful my cholesterol level has dropped to normal levels.

Most likely if you are my age you are also dealing with medical issues. That does not necessarily mean that you have to look your age, particularly if you have $16,000 burning a hole in your pocket. Courtesy of London’s Daily Mail, I learned about the curious case of Janet Cunliffe, age fifty. Janet decided that she wanted to look like her daughter Jane and spent at least ten thousand British pounds to make it a reality. See if you can pick out Janet from this photograph with her daughter.

Janet and Jane Cunliffe
Janet and Jane Cunliffe

If you guessed that daughter Jane, age 28, is the woman on the left (as I did), you would be wrong. Jane is on the right, and mother Janet is on the left. Thanks to this rather extreme case of multiple plastic surgeries spanning more than a decade (as well as a lot of exercise and dieting) Janet actually looks younger than Jane.

Janet does look great but she seems to be a textbook case for why beauty is skin deep. From the Daily Mail story, it sounds like Janet has issues way beyond wanting to look unnaturally young. She divorced one husband then spent eight years in Spain in a dysfunctional and angry relationship that ultimately went nowhere. Eventually she returned to Great Britain into the welcoming arms of, well, not a husband or ex-husband, but her daughter Jane, who put her up and became something like her best friend.

In those distant pre-plastic surgery days, Janet used to be a redhead. Like many women pushing forty, she had sagging boobs, droopy eyelids and wore a size fourteen dress. All those trips to plastic surgeons resulted in the removal of puffy eyelids, uplifted and enlarged 34-DD breasts, a nose job, lips puffed up with collagen as well as blonde hair extensions. Perhaps the new Janet has become the Janet she always imagined herself to be. Perhaps this will allow her to become the attractive, anxiety-free twenty-something woman she wants to be some three decades after the fact.

I don’t think this is going to happen. Like me, she is still a fifty-something adult. If she is fifty, she is likely in the midst of menopause and is dealing with other medical issues that great plastic surgery cannot cure, like age spots. Selective skin bleaching might help with the age spots, but it will not fool a suitor for long. Last I heard, there was no plastic surgery for the bane of aging women: sagging necks. However, her plastic surgery, in addition to costing lost of money, has resulted in at least one complication. One breast implant ruptured. Janet though saw the incident as an opportunity to go from a pair of 34-C’s to a dynamic duo of uplifted 34-DD’s. It also meant she had to shell out another twenty five hundred pounds.

On the plus side, Janet now weighs a lot less than she used to, is eating healthy food and claims to feel better about herself. Perhaps by doing so she can retard many of the effects us middle-aged adults have to contend with. Beauty though is skin deep, which means ultimately she inhabits a middle-aged body like me. If she is not dealing with various aches and pains like I am, I would be surprised. She is chasing the illusion of immortality and youth, but an illusion it remains. Instead, she is setting herself up for more falls and grief.

I assume Janet wants to look younger in order to attract a suitable mate, someone who is less angry than her last boyfriend or better than her first husband. Janet should be careful though because she is likely to get a man attracted to the body she projects, which may be far removed from the man she actually wants.

Call me cynical or envious, but I cannot help but wonder if Janet would have been better off spending those ten thousand pounds on a good psychotherapist instead. She started her body sculpting adventure a decade ago. Had she invested the money in a psychotherapist instead, she might now be celebrating her tenth anniversary with a man who truly does cater to her physical and emotional needs. I suspect she would have gotten much better value for her money.

Hello G.I. Jane!

The Thinker by Rodin

From yesterday’s Washington Post:

Day after day, Guay has faced situations that would test the steel of any soldier. And female soldiers like her — as well as Army officers who support them — are seizing opportunities amid Iraq’s indiscriminate violence to push back the barriers against women in combat. As American women in uniform patrol bomb-ridden highways, stand duty at checkpoints shouldering M-16s and raid houses in insurgent-contested towns, many have come to believe this 360-degree war has rendered obsolete a decade-old Pentagon policy barring them from serving with ground combat battalions.

“The Army has to understand the regulation that says women can’t be placed in direct fire situations is archaic and not attainable,” said Lt. Col. Cheri Provancha, commander of a Stryker Brigade support battalion in Mosul, who decided to bend Army rules and allow Guay to serve as a medic for an infantry company of the 82nd Airborne. Under a 1994 policy, women are excluded from units at the level of battalion and below that engage in direct ground combat.

“This war has proven that we need to revisit the policy, because they are out there doing it,” Provancha, a 21-year Army veteran from San Diego, said from her base in what soldiers call Mosul’s “mortar alley.” “We are embedded with the enemy.”

Dozens of soldiers interviewed across Iraq — male and female, from lower enlisted ranks to senior officers — voiced frustration over restrictions on women mandated in Washington that they say make no sense in the war they are fighting. All said the policy should be changed to allow, at a minimum, mixed-sex support units to be assigned to combat battalions. Many favored a far more radical step: letting qualified women join the infantry.

Necessity is often the mother of invention. Women are generally prohibited from serving in positions that place them in danger. In Iraq though the distinction is growing very thin:

Although the Army is barred from assigning women to ground combat battalions, in Iraq it skirts the ban with a twist in terminology. Instead of being “assigned,” women are “attached in direct support of” the battalions, according to Army officers familiar with the policy. As a result, the Army avoids having to seek Pentagon and congressional approval to change the policy, officers said.

“What has changed? Nothing,” said Lt. Col. Bob Roth of the 3rd Infantry Division. “You just want someone to feel better by saying we don’t allow women in dangerous situations.”

My prediction is that we will continue to see more women in the military and that more of them will be tapped to fill combat positions. Why? Because we need a lot more soldiers. We especially need more front line soldiers.

Our current situation in Iraq has become untenable and our exit strategy is a joke. We have National Guard members and reservists already on their third tour of duty in Iraq. Armed forces recruiting are seriously lagging. And prior to last year’s election Congress went on record saying they would not reinstate the draft.

So where will we find the armed forces that we need to accomplish the missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere? Short of doing something pragmatic like declaring victory and leaving we will choose the easiest course. With the draft allegedly out and our forces overextended we will become pragmatic. I expect that these archaic and artificial distinctions between what women may do in the military will gradually disappear. At some point it will becoming so threadbare that there will be no real distinction. Perhaps Congress will simply change the law. Indeed we may see female only combat battalions.

Such a change will be a mixed blessing. Our forces will become fully sexually integrated at all levels. As they do now, women will serve with pride and distinction. But they will also demonstrate that they have the right stuff to handle combat level stress. We will see women as a critical part of our force structure and kick ourselves for having kept them from serving in the front lines for so long.

But I cannot say that I welcome it. My motives are entirely selfish. I have a 15-year-old daughter who may soon garner the attention of military recruiters. I doubt the military would be a career that she would choose, particularly since she is gay friendly and it is not. But I am far more concerned about the less likely event of a draft. I don’t want to see her placed in the armed forces against her will and to fight in a conflict that she already feels in morally wrong.

Yet I can feel it. Push is coming to shove. Something will have to give, and give soon. Hello G.I. Jane!

Uppity Pharmacists

The Thinker by Rodin

From today’s Washington Post:

Some pharmacists across the country are refusing to fill prescriptions for birth control and morning-after pills, saying that dispensing the medications violates their personal moral or religious beliefs.

To that small minority of pharmacists out there incapable of doing their jobs professionally: it’s time to get another profession. You are in the wrong business. Find some profession where your personal and moral beliefs won’t be so challenged. Sunday school teacher perhaps. Maybe Randall Terry will pay you to stand outside abortion clinics and heckle women going in and out all day. One thing is for sure: if you can’t put your convictions aside and do your job you must not be a pharmacist.

News flash: lots of us are called on to do things every day that violate our personal and moral beliefs. I am a federal civil servant. I find the policies of my ultimate boss, President Bush, to be reprehensible. Still, when it comes time to act on one of his dubious and unconstitutional policies like giving tax money to religious charities I follow his instructions. No, it’s not because I like them. Yet I do it anyhow. Why? Not just because I took an oath, but also because it is part of my job. It is my obligation. I cannot pick and choose which parts of my job I will and will not do. Neither can you, Mr. Pharmacist. So either suck up your personal beliefs like the rest of us or get out of the profession. But don’t tell some paying customer that you won’t fill their perfectly legal prescription. And especially don’t confiscate the prescription in the process, as apparently at least some of you have done.

We have a process in this country. It’s called the law. And part of the law delegates to certain professionals what drugs may be prescribed. The doctor who wrote the prescription has already exercised his legal and professional judgment that the medicine is appropriate for the patient. In many cases, like the woman in the article, they can’t spend days running from pharmacy to pharmacy looking for a pharmacist who will fill their prescription. They may need the medicine immediately. You have no way of knowing and it is not your job to make any assumptions. You are not a judge. Your job is to fill the prescription, answer questions the patient may have about the medicine and take their money. It is not your place to impose your moral judgment on others, such as refusing to provide birth control pills to a woman who might be unmarried. That is a decision she makes, not you.

I think all drug store chains need a clear zero tolerance policy prominently displayed at the pharmacy window. For starters I suggest: “All legal prescriptions are welcome here. We will not employ any pharmacist who refuses to fill any prescription.” But apparently we now need laws to require that prescriptions be filled. It used to be you never gave a second thought that any pharmacist would go against a doctor’s judgment. It appears those nostalgic days are behind us.

I guess we are fortunate that at least physicians take their Hippocratic Oath seriously. There needs to be something with similar teeth in it for pharmacology profession. A doctor cannot usually provide the necessary patient care without the prompt cooperation of a neighborhood pharmacist. So renegade pharmacists are really undercutting the ability of the doctor to perform timely treatment. Rather than respecting the dignity of the patient, these renegade pharmacists are trampling on the dignity and human rights of patients by denying them their right to medicine. Sadly at least some of these renegade pharmacists will scold and humiliate these customers them in the process.

My thanks of course to the vast majority of professional pharmacists out there who have faithfully, promptly and professionally provided the drugs my family and I have needed. I hope these errant pharmacists are few and far between.

In Praise of Uppity Blues Women

The Thinker by Rodin

Quick question: what do you get when you combine the Blues with a bunch of very talented, largely postmenopausal women? You get what I sure didn’t expect: one hell of a really terrific show by a three women Blues band: Sapphire, The Uppity Blues Women.

Thanks to my wife’s friend Debby, who had seen them perform before we found ourselves last night at The Birchmere in Alexandria. It was our first trip to the Birchmere, an out of the way place that bills itself as “America’s Legendary Music Hall”. It’s clearly not the Kennedy Center since it sits off Mount Vernon Avenue in a neighborhood that has seen much better days and in a building that would otherwise be an ugly and undistinguished warehouse. The Birchmere seems to attract an eclectic mix of established and up and coming groups. At the Birchmere you sit at tables in front of the stage and generally order food before and during the shows. We arrived early for dinner, which was modestly priced and enjoyed our desserts during the performance itself.

Sapphire must have developed something of a local reputation because the crowd had many more women than men. Many in the audience had seen the group before. It attracts a liberal but down to earth snarky crowd of predominantly middle-aged women. All seemed more than ready (anxious even) to laugh and have a good time. Sapphire delivered because Sapphire is about attitude as much as it is about the Blues. It’s an in your face, no holds barred feminist Blues band, if you can imagine it. Most of their songs dwelled on the feelings and attitudes of middle-aged women that were for the most part completely irreverent and in your face. Somehow these women had totally missed charm school. At least during the performance they turn off their tactful side and enable us to see their femininity in its most raw form.

The result is hilarious and fun. Sapphire consists of Gaye Adegbalola, Ann Rabson and Andra Faye. You would expect a Blues band to be African American, but Gaye is the only one in the band that meets that qualification. Gaye and Ann appear to be older than Andra and could even be considered grandmotherly. None of these women could remotely be considered to be “babes” in the Hollywood sense of the world. But don’t make the mistake that they are not women deeply in touch with their femininity. They let it all hang out. They don’t care whether you are bothered by their less than model-like bodies, age or weight.

But here’s the best part: while their attitude is just delightful and often outrageous, the most amazing thing is how talented all three women are. All have wonderful Blues voices. All have an amazing command of the instruments they play. Ann Rabson, for example, is just a wizard on the piano. Gaye perhaps does her best work on the harmonica, but her true treasure is her kick ass voice and the way she gets livelier the more she gets riled up. Andra’s voice is also a treasure, but she wowed me with her mastery of the fiddle, mandolin and acoustic bass. Generally one woman leads off a number and the others back her up. No one woman dominates the group.

Many of their songs are so funny it’s hard not to find yourself rolling in the aisles. You wonder how they get away with some of them. One was a song in praise of her “silver beeper” (vibrator). Another was about the virtue of women with thunder thighs and the places they can take their men with this unique asset. At least half of their songs seem to be original. All are full of heart and very well done.

Looking at their booking schedule it appears that Sapphire is very much a part time gig for these women. I assume they have other lives and perhaps jobs outside of the group. Perhaps this is good because this allows them to have plenty of time to rest up between gigs. Sapphire is about the Blues combined with a sassy attitude. If you are for some reason offended by women singing about how she really feels you probably won’t like them. But I find it hard to imagine anyone other than someone who is completely soulless or stuck up (some conservative Republicans come to mind) who would not enjoy their music.

I found Sapphire to be not just good dirty fun but refreshing. It’s fun to see women without the masks. We men spend much of our lives pretending to be people we are not. Listening to Sapphire reminded me that women do the same thing: wholly investing themselves in the Madison Avenue version of femininity and Norman Rockwell’s depiction of motherhood. I can understand Sapphire’s appeal to women. Finally there is a group of women who unapologetically sing about the way they feel on the inside, in a soulful and in your face sort of way. For any woman who needs to escape from her tired feminine roles for a few hours I can recommend attending a concert by Sapphire as an ideal escape. Men should enjoy it too, even if we are sometimes the butt of their humor.