Friday, August 31, 2012

"Radiant Things"?

Yesterday I redid the header for this blog. I considered scrapping the title entirely. It seemed kind of pretentious to call your blog after a quote, especially the kind of 19th-century quote that capitalizes important nouns.

But I couldn't let it go. First, because Emma Goldman is one of my favorite people. When she gave lectures about birth control (which was illegal at the time under "obscene speech" laws) she always carried a book so when she got arrested she would have something to read in jail. How could you not love her?

The full quote from Goldman's autobiography:

At the dances I was one of the most untiring and gayest. One evening a cousin of Sasha, a young boy, took me aside. With a grave face, as if he were about to announce the death of a dear comrade, he whispered to me that it did not behoove an agitator to dance. Certainly not with such reckless abandon, anyway. It was undignified for one who was on the way to become a force in the anarchist movement. My frivolity would only hurt the Cause.

I grew furious at the impudent interference of the boy. I told him to mind his own business. I was tired of having the Cause constantly thrown into my face.

I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from convention and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy. I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to become a nun and that the movement would not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it. "I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody's right to beautiful, radiant things." Anarchism meant that to me, and I would live it in spite of the whole world — prisons, persecution, everything. Yes, even in spite of the condemnation of my own closest comrades I would live my beautiful ideal.

I love the passage (often misquoted as "If I can't dance, it's not my revolution"). To me, it's an echo of the "Bread and Roses" motto popularized by striking millworkers.

The phrase came from James Oppenheim's poem, now better known as a song:

As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient cry for bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes, it is bread we fight for — but we fight for roses, too!

We need bread to survive, but without love and beauty, there's not much to live for.

A couple of years ago, I remember thinking how stupid it was for a depressed person to have a blog with such a happy title. I was too sad to go out dancing, and here I was preaching "life and joy" to others? And yet I wanted to have that effervescence again. I held onto the title in hopes that something would budge. And it did: my brain chemistry has been kind this year, and I'm a pretty happy person these days.

For Goldman, joy was apparently just waiting to burst forth. That's not how I experience life. Anarchy is not my Cause. Global inequality is. But I agree with Goldman that we've got to fight the tendency to view all such causes as joyless. The day I heard a friend dismiss Toby Ord's plan to give away a million pounds during his lifetime as "dreary", I knew I needed to write about the joy that can be found in this life. Thus my second blog, Giving Gladly.

Find your cause, or even your Cause. Make it dance. Make it shine.


Jeff and I recently watched the Beatles movie Help!, which was way better than I remembered. It doesn't make much attempt at a plot: the band tries to evade a band of deranged foreigners who want to make Ringo a human sacrifice, with lots of breaks for music and horseplay.

If you can get past the outrageous 60s-era xenophobia, it's really enjoyable. The Beatles wear silly costumes, flub their lines, and spend most of the film goofing around. Locations (the Alps, the Bahamas) were chosen based on where the Beatles wanted to vacation. Paul and Ringo were stoned for much of the production. It's an excuse to watch the antics of four guys who were so famous they didn't have to try to impress people anymore.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Why kids come out that way

I just read something that cast new light on my previous question of whether stigma against single parenting would be good for kids. Scott's summary of a point from Judith Rich Harris's The Nurture Assumption:

"Studies do show that parents who adhere very meticulously to the standard parenting advice have children who, let's say, do better at school. But Harris points out - what personality trait is necessary to adhere meticulously to the latest parenting fads? Conscientiousness. What personality trait is necessary to do well at school? Conscientiousness. And what personality trait is about 50% heritable (recall that most things are about 50% heritable)? Conscientiousness. So the discovery that parents who adhere to parenting advice have children who adhere to school rules is absolutely worthless until you control for conscientiousness - after which the finding should disappear. . . .

Harris thinks that these sorts of problem explain the much-trumpeted findings that kids from single-parent homes and children of divorce tend to turn out worse. After all, what kind of fathers abandon their partners and young children? Low conscientiousness fathers who probably have a lot of personal issues. So what kind of children would we expect them to have, just by genetics alone? Low conscientiousness children who probably have a lot of personal issues. And surprise! Children of single parent homes are low conscientiousness and have lots of personal issues! But - and here's something I had never read before - this is true only of homes that are single parent because the father left. If the father died - in a car accident, of cancer, whatever - those children turn out exactly as well as children of double-parent homes! Exactly what one would expect if the problem were caused by what the split implied about genetics and social situation rather than by the parenting itself."

I'm always pleased to find evidence that I don't have to be a frantic parent.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

We know better now . . . right?

The early twentieth century was an interesting time in birth and childcare.

Twilight Sleep
In 1899, German doctors began treating wealthy women with scopolamine and morphine to create labor in a state of delirium. The drugs created an amnesia that made women unable to remember the birth process. The practice was common in the US for decades afterwards. After my grandmother delivered her son in the 1940s, the nurse asked her if she wanted to see her baby. She asked, "What baby?"

"Twilight sleep" was discontinued after people realized that drugging mom (and thus baby) with morphine meant the baby came out weaker and with more breathing problems. In 1958, Ladies' Home Journal published nurses' stories of what the mothers themselves couldn't remember: women giving birth in a drug-induced psychosis, women clawing to get out of the wrist straps that were used to restrain them, women's cries stifled with masks. Husbands didn't know, because they weren't present for any part of the birth.

While mothers spent days in a drugged state waiting for birth, someone had to care for their other children. It wasn't normal for fathers to take time off work to care for the kids while the mother was in the hospital, so if no grandmother was available, rich kids were farmed out to residential nurseries. It was assumed that children would be fine as long as someone was taking care of them, even if that person was a stranger. Because staff rotated shifts, no one person consistently cared for the same child. (Of course, we now put our children in daycares with strangers, but not 24/7.)

Psychologist John Bowlby documented the reaction of young children to a stay in such nurseries: first a distressed searching for a familiar adult, then despair, then an emotional withdrawal. Social worker James Robertson documented similar effects of long hospital stays on young children in a time when parents were discouraged from visiting. As a result, hospitals and nurseries changed the policies that kept children away from their parents for weeks or months.

But not all institutions recognized the importance of any human contact at all. The invention of incubators resulted in babies who got food and heat but virtually no affection. They created a new diagnosis for the resulting failure to thrive: "hospitalism." Infants in poorer hospitals weren't susceptible to this new ailment because they were still held by staff rather than in incubators.

In the 1940s René Spitz and Catherine Wolf studied 91 babies in orphanages where they basically lay in cribs all day. Despite getting good food, 1/3 of the children died in their first year of life. They compared this group to babies who were with their mothers in prison - all the imprisoned children survived to age 5, despite worse food and sanitation. The orphanages were acting on scientific principles of the day - it was reasoned that isolating children would keep them safe from communicable diseases. Turns out that isolation is much worse than disease: babies can literally die from a lack of affection.

Starting in the 20th century, baby formula began to be marketed as the most "scientific" way to feed your baby. (To be fair, it was better than the cow's milk and sugar concoctions people had been using for formula before!) Hospitals used to proudly report their high rates of bottle-feeding.

Now every health authority is backpedaling and trying to get moms to return to breastfeeding. Now we know about the immune-system benefits of the first milk, even for moms who don't plan to breastfeed more than a day or two. And the evidence is clear that breastfed babies have less risk of ear infections, diarrhea, and pneumonia. For mom, the benefits include less cancer and less heart disease.

Birth interventions
Today, we've learned from much of the evidence. We don't handcuff birthing women. We place children in foster homes rather than orphanages (though, sadly, not everywhere). Currently, "kangaroo care" or skin-to-skin contact for premature infants is gaining popularity. Skin time with an adult gives the baby the heat it needs while also helping parent and child bond.

And yet our birth practices could stand to return to some of the methods of past centuries, before birth was medicalized. Medical interventions like c-sections and fetal heart monitoring can save lives when they are really needed, but in most cases a low-intervention birth is safest. The US has a rate of Cesarean section of over 30%, double what the World Health Organization used to recommend when it still gave recommendations. Maternal mortality is on the rise in the US, and some of that is probably due to an increase in unnecessary c-sections.

Evidence-based practices for birth include moving around (rather than lying on your back, which means gravity works against you) and having a doula or birth coach for support. One medical professor describes the evidence that a low-intervention birth is safest: "Our midwife could be trusted to be scientific, whereas our obstetrician could not."

As I approach parenthood, I don't want to be enslaved to the current attachment-parenting style that implies, as my housemate put it, "if you break eye contact with your baby, it will explode." But I do want to know what the evidence is when I make my choices. Hopefully we won't look back in 50 years and wonder why we made such terrible choices in the name of modernity.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Review: Falling Apart

I decided to read more books I think I'll disagree with. In that spirit, I just finished Charles Murray's Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.

Murray lays out the evidence that while upper-class white Americans haven't changed much in terms of work, religiosity, and marriage, lower-class whites have. By upper-class he means college-educated people in the top 20% of earners, and by lower-class he means the bottom 30% of earners, which encompasses some working class and some non-working people. (He limits his discussion to whites to demonstrate that he's talking about class and not race differences. He states that the same patterns hold true among other races.)

While my sociology and social work background have emphasized economic and structural disparities in explaining why some groups have it worse than others, Murray points to cultural changes. For example, while the rate of physical accidents is much lower than it was in the 60s, the percentage of people on disability is much higher. To be fair, I'm not sure how much of this is due to the increase in laziness that Murray alleges, and how much is due to changes in definitions of disability such as the inclusion of mental illness.

Murray looks at four of what he considers cardinal values: marriage, industriousness, religiosity, and honesty (in the sense of not committing crimes). While some of these raised my ideology red flags, he does back them up with data about actual quality of life. Declining religiosity, he argues, is correlated with weaker social ties and lower self-reported happiness. Nations without a hardworking population will fail, he argues (taking some cheap shots at Europe along the way). And the decline of marriage, both in terms of higher divorce rates and more never-married adults, is bad for kids. He lays out the evidence that children not raised by their married, biological parents (controlled for income) do worse in terms of delinquency, childhood illness, school dropout rates, crime, early death, and emotional health.

I kept waiting to hear what practical policy changes Murray suggested, but his recommendations were vague. He accuses the upper class of being out of touch with mainstream America (there's a quiz including questions like: have you watched a full episode of Oprah? Have you eaten at a Waffle House this year?) I agree that there's a cultural divide, but it's not clear why exactly this is bad, or how improving my knowledge of NASCAR will help the country.

The piece of Murray's advice I found most interesting was that the upper class "preach what they practice." He says upper-class families still have a grip on industriousness, marriage, and honesty, and that these values are good for them and their families. Keeping these values to themselves and allowing the poor to destroy themselves, he says, will ultimately destroy the nation. And he argues that staying politely silent when you watch people choose foolishly is not actually an act of kindness.

I'm not too interested in Murray's project of preserving the America envisioned by its founders. I'm not interested in blaming the poor for being poor. I'm not interested in blaming single parents for the demise of their relationships. And it goes against every bit of my training to say that some family styles work better than others. But I found the facts on marriage and children especially hard to look away from: both rich and poor used to have kids largely within marriage. The rich still do, but poor people now do it less. Which indicates culture, not just economic forces. And the kids whose parents aren't married to each other suffer for it.

Murray doesn't directly say that he wants more stigma against bearing children outside of marriage. And stigma seems terribly unfair, because it also targets the children who didn't choose their parents' actions. But I wonder - would it actually be better for children overall if there were more stigma? If having married parents is so important, would it be better to exert a bit more social pressure on parents to make that happen?

Followup post: Why kids come out that way

Friday, August 17, 2012


One of my favorite things in Boston is the produce market at Haymarket, where vendors resell what was left at the grocery warehouses that week.  Buy it quick and cheap before it rots.

This is not a farmer's market, and there are few yuppies here.  

 Produce is not merely labeled, but lovingly described: SWEET AS CANDY.  GOLDEN-RIPE.  TENDER FRESH.

And it's not described only in writing, but as loud as the vendors can shout.

 Vendors and customers hail from every corner of the earth.  If there's one thing everybody loves, it's cheap food.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Something's wrong with this picture

Yesterday I heard a friend explain why she wants to get out of the business she's in and work for a non-profit:

"I would actually earn more at a non-profit.  These for-profit companies, they put money first.  It's profit before people."

Of course, I would like a non-profit to put people first, but which people?  Surely the point is to help the beneficiaries rather than offer employees nice salaries and benefits?  If a charity is treating its employees better than they would be treated at a for-profit, doesn't that mean they could treat them a little less well and have more money for actual services?

Of course, there are cases where maximizing profits is bad for both clients and employees.  I'm thinking of a  local for-profit mental health provider that treats its employees so badly they all quit after a year, which means clients have a constant turnover of providers.  This is bad.

But in general, I think the existence of nonprofits that are cushier than their for-profit counterparts points to the brokenness of a system where donors don't ever see good measurements of a charity's outcomes. If donors don't ask for demonstrated impact, charities don't have as much incentive to do the best work they can.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Cooperators and defectors

Today in Harvard Square I watched a pretty young woman run the usual gauntlet of charity fundraisers with clipboards lining the sidewalk. One engaged her, but she made her way down the sidewalk apologizing.

Moments later, a second fundraiser veered toward her, pen in hand. "Hi! Do you have a minute to be a superhero today?"
She smiled nervously. "Sorry, I've got to catch a bus!"
I thought he would give up, but he followed her, asking, "Wait, how old are you?"
"I'm 24," she said, striding faster. "Sorry, I've really got to go."

I wanted to shout after her, You don't owe that guy anything. Sharing a sidewalk with him does not mean you have to engage in his sales pitch, and it certainly doesn't mean you have to tell him your age.

The thing is, I love the idea of friendlier cities. Boston is not a warm and welcoming place, and I try to change that. I ask lost-looking people if they need directions. I hold doors for people. A few days ago when a woman on the street told me, "That's a great hat!" it made my day.

But there are interactions that take instead of giving. The men who follow you when you're not inviting further contact, who ask you personal questions - I have to remind myself that I don't have to talk to them. I don't owe them conversation or smiles or spare change. Sometimes they get angry at my silence, but that's further reason to not interact with them.

In game theory, the classic prisoner's dilemma sets up incentives so that both participants are better off if they cooperate, but if one person cooperates and the other defects, the defector wins big and the cooperator loses big.

In Ecuador, I was walking down a street in a small town. As I approached an auto shop I saw the mechanic leaning against the garage, and at first I decided to do the distant-stare method of not interacting with strange men. Then I reproached myself: after all, it was a small and friendly town where I'd seen neighbors greet each other cordially. When I reached critical proximity, I gave him a nod and a "Buenos tardes" at exactly the same moment as he wolf-whistled. I had just cooperated with a defector.

I hope he was as embarrassed as I was, but I doubt it.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Parent rights at what cost?

Recently, I've read two memoirs by adults who wished they had been taken away from their parents. One was Jeanette Wall's The Glass Castle, and I'm currently reading Daphne Scholinski's The Last Time I Wore a Dress.

Walls describes a childhood with two charming intellectual parents who just didn't prioritize things like groceries or heating fuel. At one point the child welfare people came to investigate, but Walls was able to head them off, terrified that she will be separated not from from her parents, but from her siblings.

Scholinski spent much of her adolescence in psychiatric hospitals for oppositional defiant disorder, which both she and the hospitals chalked up to her chaotic and affectionless family life. She describes her feelings upon being hospitalized:

"I didn't let on but part of me kind of wanted to go. Any place had to feel safer than home. Over the summer my father had sat on me, his knees on my shoulders, and poked me in the chest while I tried furiously to kick him, to get him off so I could breathe . . . I guess if I felt anything riding up the elevator to the third floor if Michael Reese, it was a stab of hope."

I realize these are extreme cases, but I wonder how many such cases are out there.

The social workers and judges who make these decision have two responsibilities. First, they must protect the health and safety of the child. Second, they must try to keep families intact. Those things don't always combine well.

I've heard parents say their children were taken away for no good reason. (Of course, they're free to say they weren't abusing or neglecting their kids, and if the Department of Children and Families has evidence to the contrary, they're not allowed to release it to the public.) And yes, I know there have been abuses of the system, especially against Native American families. Probably there still are incompetent or biased social workers taking kids away from families who could have cared for them if they had been properly referred for housing assistance, food stamps, etc. And yes, there is a shortage of those resources that may make the difference between being able to care for your kids and not.

But I've also heard social workers say they think the system is too permissive, that birth families are sometimes given too many chances, that children are moved from foster care back to the home too many times before parental rights are terminated. By the time the kids have spent a few years bouncing between homes, they're too old to be easily adoptable and have endured too many disrupted attachments.

Parents have a legal right to their children, unless they really screw up. Children need families, and in most cases their original parents are the best people to raise them. But in the cases where that's not true, I'm not so keen on protecting parental rights at the expense of the children.

I wonder what an outcome-based rather than rights-based approach to this would look like.

Children seldom say they want to be separated from their parents at the time, because children cling to the only supports they know. But once they're grown? I'd love to see a study that asks adults:

Did your parents lose custody of you?
1) No, and it was the right decision
2) No, but I wish they had
3) Yes, and it was the right decision
4) Yes, but I wish they hadn't

I don't know what results we would get, but it would be a good tool for knowing if our policy is tipping too much in one direction or another.

Saturday, August 04, 2012


Yesterday I was at the art museum and heard the strident voice of an old woman as she teetered up to a guard. "Now, you have some kind of chapel, don't you? Where is that?" she asked. She didn't add "young man," but she might have. He directed her to the chapel.

There's a certain air I notice in older women from privileged backgrounds. They command others without any seeming doubt in their minds about whether they will be obeyed. Of course, you see this attitude in men too, but I expect to see it in men. I think about all the people who didn't grow up with that sense of entitlement - the poor, the poorly educated, the disenfranchised. The people who have usually been bossed, not bossy. It makes me sad for the people who couldn't assume anyone would listen to them.

But I also love these old women. I love that they're not worried about charming anybody or asking permission. They simply expect to get their way. I love that they grew up in a pre-Second-Wave world and came out with dignity intact. A lot of them probably went to women's colleges, which I think are excellent for fostering that kind of confidence.

I was reminded of my great-grandmother, who informed her minister that the church would not be cutting down that oak in front, no matter how many limbs it had lost, because she had always taken her children under that tree to spank them when they were bad in church, just as her mother had spanked her under that tree. And the minister was wise enough to wait until after her death to have the oak removed.

Fortunately, I don't think it's a zero-sum game. You can be assertive without stepping on other people. I hope all our girls will grow into self-assured old women.