Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Moms, give yourself a break

I love Shannon Hayes recent post, "Homespun Mom Comes Unraveled." Shannon's story was featured recently in the New York Times. Reading these articles got me thinking about the discussion I witnessed last weekend at a screening of The Business of Being Born. Moms are so hard on themselves and each other.

The Business of Being Born is the brainchild of Ricki Lake. Apparently Lake wasn't satisfied with the birth of her first child in the hospital and sought out midwives and home birth for her second. She became somewhat obsessed with the topic, attending conferences and reading all she could. Rather than become a midwife, she decided to enlist the help of a friend, who happened to be a filmmaker. During the filming her friend gets pregnant and has to decide whether to go with a home birth or not.

I enjoyed the movie itself. Some of the statistics and historical footage of hospitals from the early twentieth century were shocking. I didn't realize what the standard procedures in most American hospitals were. The movie is definitely pro-midwife, but I thought did a fair job of being open minded.

On the other hand, the post film panel turned fairly quickly towards accusations and judgment. I don't know if the phenomenon is exaggerated in this time and place, but the pressure to be a perfect mom is on. For whatever reason it was amazingly easy for the discussion on the pros and cons of home birth to turn nasty. Home birth advocates are often highly judgmental of anyone advocating painkilling drugs. One the other hand, doctors are often dismissive of the risks of caesarean sections. According to the documentary approximately 1/3 of the births in the US are caesareans, a much higher rate than an other industrialized nation. The US also has extremely high rates of death and injury to both mother and baby in comparison to most industrialized nations. What's not clear, is whether one factor causes the other, or whether they are both simply the result of a substandard health care system. The movie also implies that in most European countries normal births are supervised by midwives and the outcomes for mother and baby are better. Again, the two things aren't necessarily causal, but it's certainly something to consider.

I haven't had a baby (yet) but the wisest advise I heard during this discussion was for women to share their birth stories with each other. Women have wildly different experiences of labor. Some women have massive orgasms while giving birth, most don't find it so pleasant. When I asked a friend about her experience of having her first baby at home she said, "It was the hardest thing I have ever done. It was like climbing a mountain." I can sympathize, having done some mountain climbing. I'm familiar with the feeling of just putting one foot in front of the other, taking it one step at a time, the entire time thinking to yourself, "I can't do it, there is no way I can do this, I have to stop." Only with a baby you can't just stop and turn back around. The funniest part of the movie was the film a New York midwife giving birth, the entire time whining and whimpering that she couldn't do it.

Many home birth advocates love the book Spiritual Midwifery, a classic from the heart of the counterculture. While I'm fascinated with the birth stories and the gumption of the midwives, I'm not sure the tone of the book is entirely helpful. Denying the fact that labor hurts isn't going to reassure expectant mothers that they can deal with labor. Passing judgment on anyone who decides to get an epidural isn't going to improve things for mothers and babies. On the other hand, the movie pointed out that most labor room doctors have never seen a birth without drugs. Many new moms don't seem to understand that having a
caesarean section is major surgery. It's risky. The second or third caesarean is all the more risky.

Useful information about the risks and benefits of various choices is helpful. Declaring one way of giving birth is the only "right" way, no so much.


One Day Until Thanksgiving...

Beorn and I went out to lunch at an Afgani buffet. As we walked back into our little cottage we discussed the fact that we are expecting a call from my father. After all the drama over the summer with my family Beorn and I agreed not to spend the holidays we them. My father never tells me the family plans until a day before the event. We already made plans to have Thanksgiving with another couple and Ian's best friend. So I wasn't surprised to find a message on my cell phone from my father. He called while we were out. He's feeling really bad if he didn't tell me about the Thanksgiving plans, of course he can't remember. He wants us to come to dinner at my grandmother's house. My uncle is cooking. The uncle who threatened to kill my father. The uncle who threated to call the cops on us or to sue us. The uncle who called us "welfare cases." Guess what? I'm not interested in breaking bread with him. My father seems to think it's OK for my uncle to behave that way. My uncle has my phone number, if he wants me to come to dinner he can damn well call me and apologize. I can't believe my father thinks I would be willing to sit down to dinner with my uncle. If I was at all important to my father I think I would rate more than a last minute call attempting to guilt trip me into spending Thanksgiving with them.


Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Hairdressing as an Academic Discipline, take two

Last winter, almost a year ago, I briefly discussed my discipline, let's call it "hairdressing." What I didn't realize then is that I was up for a rather large ass-kicking related to my involvement in the discipline and the direction of my academic career. Although I didn't know it at the time, April 2006 signaled the beginning of the end of my career in hairdressing.

Sometime in April 2006 I broke my foot. Considering the fact that I had been, once again, rushing from one obligation to another, the universe, it seems to me now, was signaling me to slow the fuck down. Maybe the fact that all my hairdressing classes were held on the second floor of a building too old and run down to contain an elevator should have been a clue. At the time all I knew was that I needed a break. I assumed that I would get back to the hairdressing curriculum as soon as I was well. But that fall I decided I had better not take more hairdressing classes, and instead took research units and became, unfortunately, embroiled in a confusing attempt to do fieldwork related to hairdressing. After nine months of "field work" I came out with virtually no data, completely frustrated and demoralized about applied research in hairdressing. During this time I also began to confront the mess that is qualitative data coding. It took me six + months to convince my adviser that the coding on her data was incomplete and inconsistent.

In the spring of 2007 I attended my first two academic conferences. A large one and another small one, recommended by my adviser. To my surprise, during the large conference I attended few hairdressing related presentations, being attracted to another sub-discipline entirely. The presentations in this new sub-discipline opened my eyes. True, many of these folks where unnecessarily pretentious and obsequious, but at least they were interested in the kinds of questions I was. In contrast, I felt strongly out of place at the small conference. I was neither comfortable with the practicing hairdressers reporting on their latest hairdressing projects, nor the academics trying to mix research and applied projects in hairdressing. The quality of research presented varied wildly, but more importantly, it became clear that hairdressing researchers were afraid to admit the fact that some of their projects were less than successful. No one wants to write up a new haircut if that cut is unpopular with it's recipients or in other ways problematic. Unfortunately, the haircutting process is not simple, requiring a significant investment of time and money, and so academic hairdressers need to produce journal articles for each hairdressing project they are involved in.

Also, during the 2006-7 school year I spent a significant amount of time searching for an internship at a hairdressing office. I had a couple of interviews, but it became clear that entry level positions involved the rapid production of haircuts using computer programs and long hours in the office for low pay. It would take me 3+ years as an apprentice hairdresser before I could take my hairdressing exam. During that time I would have trouble making a living and paying my student loans. Hours would be long and hairdressing offices are not known to be family friendly. Once I had a hairdressing license it would likely be quite a time before I could have my own hairdressing office, which is what I really wanted. If I really had my heart set on hairdressing maybe I would have stuck it out, but during the last school year I discovered other interests, other passions, and people who shared my interests.

If I hadn't had my ass kicked repeatedly, I might not have realized that hairdressing was not my thing. Don't get me wrong, I'm still fascinated with many aspects of hairdressing and may pursue it as a hobby or side business, but I have let go of my academic aspirations in that area. My new subdiscipline fits much better with my central concerns and questions. People researching in this area aren't expected to be both practitioners and researchers. My questions and interests are no longer marginal. Also, I no longer work for the hairdressing department, which abuses it's TAs terribly.

In my experience, this is the way of life. At the time I never understand why I'm facing a particular trouble, but looking back, I see the pattern, the direction I'm being pushed. The key is to understand the difference between patterns that direct me into more productive directions and those which, shaped by the over-culture (whether you call that capitalism, the patriarchy, or the man) seeks to put me in "my place."


Joss Whedon, a Writer Before His Time

Beorn and I have been watching lots of Sci-Fi since we no longer have cable. Giving up on broadcast TV (including cable) is a relief. I know lots of people enjoy their TiVo, but that's one area in which I don't feel the need to be surveilled. Now I'm watching the occasional new episode online and mainly relying on our extensive video collection. Recently we re-watched the entire FireFly series and Serenity. When FireFly was first broadcast in 2002 I wasn't a big fan, but after five years the series has grown on me.

In 2002 FireFly's western setting appeared strange, in my mind consigning it to B-movie land. For whatever reason I couldn't get past the mixture of space travel and the wild west. Fast forward to 2007 and the mixture doesn't seem so strange. Considering the recent surge in science fiction and fantasy TV series, Firefly's eccentricity seems less geeky and more visionary.

Once you get past the strangeness of the western costuming (I used to be a costumer for a community theater company, so costumes are important to me.) the characters are just as challenging and fascinating as those from the more widely appreciated Buffy. Like the new BattleStar, Firefly deals with challenging, relevent themes, like what happens to veterans after the war is over and the freedom to be unhappy.

The special effects rather than distracting from the story, either through their showiness or amateurishness, are almost invisible, a natural part of the world. Characteristic of Joss's world, the female characters break out of stale stereotypes. Kaylee, the ship's mechanic, manages to be girly, sexy, and a mechanical genius all at once. The character isn't tough or boyish because she has mechanical abilities and although she sometimes displays little-girl characteristics, she's not asexual as female geeks are frequently portrayed.

If there is anything to find fault with in either the series or the movie, it's that the male characters are less interesting than the females. At times the men seem flat and predictable in comparison. (Also the naming of the series, which rightly should be called, like the movie, Serenity.)

If you haven't watched these sci-fi classics, or were turned off five years ago, I highly recommend you take a second look now.


Saturday, November 17, 2007

This Blog's Reading Level

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I feel good about this. Long ago, when I worked at a small science center, my boss gave me a hard time because I was writing at too advanced a level for elementary school teachers. I guess I was assuming that elementary school teachers would want to be reading stuff at a high school level. My boss learn in grad school that all written materials aimed at the public should be written at a 5th grade level. Ick.


Wednesday, November 14, 2007

reminding myself

Lately I have been grumpy. Still, there are many things to be thankful for:

1. Both Beorn and I are healthy enough to work. We aren't disabled or chronically ill.
2. As students we have decent health insurance. That's more than we often had while we were both working full time.
3. We have a working car.
4. We have a safe and secure place to live, with heat, electricity, and running water.
5. There is no war or major threat of violence in our community.
6. We have access to a world class library including subscriptions to the top journals in most any field.
7. We have enough food.
8. We have shoes and clothing to keep us warm in inclement weather.
9. We each own our own computer and have internet access.
10. We have cell phones.
11. We have clean, disease-free water.

When I taught science to small children one of the most basic lessons was,

"What does an animal need in its habitat in order to live?"

The Answer:

Many, if not most people in this world struggle to get the basics. And yes, we, as humans, have more specific needs than that, but those four are pretty darn important.


Feeling Betrayed

I really, really, really want to write about the politics at Big Ag U and my feelings around of betrayal and frustration around academia in general. I'm not sure I can do this without revealing more about myself and the U. than would be wise. One thing I'm trying to learn as a grad student is how to practice restraint, but I haven't quite got the hang of it yet.

Since starting at Big Ag U I have experienced a number of incidences in which faculty members have said one thing, and done another. (I know, surprise, surprise.) Some of these have been small, like not getting papers returned to the class on time. No big deal, things like this happen, who adheres to strict deadlines these days? Others have been not so small...

Last week a key faculty member in my graduate program announced his retirement effective Jan 1. This person will be leaving several courses untaught because of his sudden departure. When I heard this I assumed that someone must be sick, that there was some unexpected event that precipitated this, but he claims not, that he had received offers for more interesting work elsewhere. This is a full professor who directly stated to his department last year that he had no plans to retire.

In light of earlier betrayals by other faculty members in that department I'm starting to wonder if the majority of faculty at Big Ag. U are so two-faced or if it is something particular to that department. I really try to understand how to deal with politically charged situations, but there is some part of me that just has trouble with people who don't tell the truth. Just be honest.

I'm frustrated because it seems everywhere I turn someone is being dishonest or not following through on their commitments. I just don't understand why people can just say what they mean. So here are somethings I would like to say to folks...

Coworker in a related department: If you aren't going to answer my repeated emails, phone calls, and other requests for a meeting just tell me that. No problem, I can then go back to my supervisors and let them know that your department doesn't want help on that project.

1. Last winter I explained to you very clearly who I was working with and that we were going to try to get some more data from folks in Midsized City using your research protocol. Why did you act surprised when the people that organization called you? You told me that you were fine with my plan. I stated several times and in writing what I was doing.

2. After all that why did you then go back to my research site and begin using it as a site for one of your class projects while excluding me from any involvement? Didn't you know I had been working all year to build a relationship with that organization? Didn't I explain to you that I was trying to develop trust between myself and the organization? Why not include me so that I could continue to work with them after your class had gone?

Big Shot Professor: Why did you claim that I could complete a dual degree with your department and then fail to do anything to support me when, after several years of work, the U. claimed I couldn't?

Literature Professor: Why bother conducting an independent study if you aren't going to actually read or comment on student work? When I wrote you several months later to request comments on my paper because I was considering submitting it to a special issue of a journal why not write and say "Sorry I don't have time right now?" rather than promising to look at it? Stating "I'm sure its great" does not inspire confidence.

Grad Student Coworker: Why do you say you are frustrated and confused by the data coding when we talk privately, but then turn around and claim that everything is great when discussing it with Adviser? I know you are angry at me because my desire to get some research done made it clear that almost nothing had been accomplished in almost a year of "work." I wasn't trying to ruin your gravy-train, I just need to write my thesis and couldn't do that when Adviser thought that all the work had already been done. I can't write up research I know to be based on incomplete data entry and sloppy, unclear coding.

Sorry, I had to rant. I could go on, but those are the big ones. Although I have met some great people in academia and learned some interesting things, I'm starting to believe the the system rewards people for being co-dependent, narcissistic backstabbers and that all others are the exception to the rule. Seriously, I'm trying to have compassion for these people, but at the moment, I'm failing. I don't see the harm in being truthful. You aren't sparing my feelings when you lie to me, you are just lying. I don't mind hearing NO. Really. Just say it and I will move on.