Toad in the Hole November 2005 Archives

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November 30, 2005

Am I Oversimplifying?

I confess I have one of those brainstem-deep pet theories* about how people get wound up** and talk about things. There's talk of "living machines" that seems to underlie a lot of creationist nutbaggery as well as TV-level science explanation: the cell rotor and the sodium pump, just e.g. And there's "information theory" that gets slathered all over things that it doesn't help with at all, like sociology, as well as becoming opaque slang with such formulations as "genetic information."

I suspect a lot of the fuzzy thinking about biology originates in these phrases too. And they're metaphors, not descriptions. Animals and plants got described as machines in the age of machines -- the years when people were widely exposed to mechanical brilliance, to steam engines and typewriters and doorbells and aeroplanes. Someone had discovered ways to apply energy and motion paths, reproduce in a crude fashion some of what they'd seen in other bits of nature, and accomplish what they wanted -- move large objects and human bodies around, weave cloth, fasten cloth bits together with thread, whip cream. And that vision, that bit of reductionism, colored their vision so that for example animals became living machines.

But of course we aren't machines, any more than we are shadows of a Platonic ideal. That's just a metaphor.

So is "information," as I understand things so far. Is what is "transmitted" (is that what's happening, or is that just what it looks like?) in DNA actually information, or is it just something that acts like information, looks ot us like instructions? And insofar as you have "information theory" are you applying it to actual information, or to something that looks to you as acting like information? When it stops acting like information, will you notice? What will you call that?

Whatever we're looking at, we're looking through the lenses of our time and its ways of seeing. Better be careful with those metaphors. We can count on looking about as quaint as people talking about an excess of choleric humor to people in a few centuries, who, one hopes, will be looking differently at whatever we've left them to look at.

*I mean theories in the popular sense, of course -- one step more vague than "hypotheses."

** Hey! There's one of those metaphors right there!

Posted at 06:03 AM | Comments (2)

November 29, 2005

Some Life-Changing Events

(While we're being all polite: Thanks to Joe for preafrooding.)

The good: Carl Buell, who is just what the Miocene needed, has finally followed the urging of his friends and fans and got his blog running. Go now, and we can finish this recitation when you get back. Ta!

OK, back to annoyances. I don't know whether this is good or bad, but I have an appointment with an orthodontist on Thursday. Yes I need braces. Yes I'm finally doing something about it. Now, I know Life Ain't Fair and I could have been born with cancer or I could have had CF and died before puberty and all that stuff I told myself back when I was meeting people in those situations every day at work. Somehow that sort of reverse Schadenfreude just doesn't work for me, though. It's goddamn weird to have braces and zits and hot flashes all at the same time. And don't get me started on the effects of hormonal low tide on one's brain; it's true what they say about estrogen and nominal aphasia. Whatever the hell they say, I forget.

The orthodontist, it turns out, is one I've been driving past on San Pablo Avenue for years. I know this because there's a very strange ad-sculpture above the door, of a huge lipsticked smiling mouth with these little people on rappelling lines and scaffolding with hammers and stuff, working on the teeth. It's conceptually nifty but for some reason quite unsettling to look at. It makes me go nnnnngnnn every time I see it. I'm unsettled enough already, thanks.


I guess I'm not working for Terrain any more. I got this weird sort of drive-by firing embedded in a note about would Joe do a book review and by the way my paid position was being eliminated and did I have any ideas or sources about the topic that's planned for the next issue. When I had lunch with the editor and she made nice about the manner of its happening and wanted me and Joe to keep writing the columns we'd been contributing for free for the last decade (the note had said: "If you want to argue for writer's pay, I'll listen." Wow, gracious.) and talked about what was going on at the Ecology Center including the demand that she knock another 20 grand off an already skimpy budget while increasing the number of issues annually and quintupling the free distribution, I found I had no desire to go back under any circumstances. Joe had blown his stack at the original email and swore he wouldn't touch the thing again noway nohow. The best I could say was, "If the Center decided to fully fund Terrain, let me know and I'll re-think."

Mostly I was just feeling used up and worn out. I even like this editor -- hell, I was the one who campaigned to hire her, though her job interview did most of the work for me -- but between the (to be kind) klutzy manner of the notice and the general lack of institutional support for the publication -- and as Chris can attest, that's nothing new -- I mostly feel that the rewards aren't equal to the loss of stomach lining and tooth enamel and the general chronic debilitating demoralizing aggravation. I seem to have been asked to fight for a job that won't even pay me anymore, for an institution that has shat on me more times than I can wipe it off. Being taken for granted is one thing; contempt is another.

I've said the same things, made the same rousing speeches, the same passionate listings, to at least three sets of people now; I'm beginning to see that there really is an institutional culture that supercedes any and all of the individuals involved in a place. I've even had come-back lunches with two different editors of the same magazine... It seems I get do-overs in the parts of my life I'd really rather not do over, thanks.

Maybe it's too much of my life spent being a Good Catholic Girl (see previous posts) and maybe it's too much time spent grinding myself up in nonprofit institutions (or maybe that's two names for the same syndrome) but it's actually taken me all this time to start asking that question: "Why would I want to do that?" I'm not claiming to be generous -- just stupid. And I'm wagging my finger at all who read this: Beware of Nonprofits. They tend to see people -- their own staff and volunteers -- as renewable resources, and they're right; there's an endless line of highminded suckers marching forth from the wombs of the world. Put in some time for whatever cause you're passionate about and then get the fuck out before you're 30. Honest. You can always contribute in what kind and amount you can spare after that.

It's funny, that thing I mentioned in the post about my last Confession. (BTW, the Catholics are calling that the "Sacrament of Reconciliation" lately. Old wine, new bottles -- no, new labels. SOS.) That thing about knowing certain things in one's gut.

I knew in my gut that I was being marginalized at the magazine, and even tried to take some action about it, however pitiful -- I offered more work, asked to be let in on the story process earlier, etc. And I kept telling myself I was being paranoid.Two things at work here: One, the reasonable thing about fact-checking, not going with one's impulses and prejudices, that becomes reflexive in any honorable media worker. (This is something we have in common with science... I guess, in a way, like good field birding, it is science.) The second is a bit more invidious: When you've lived long enough in enough closets, knowing that one's feelings were unacceptable -- and this affects, aside from the obvious, anyone who has learned not to cry over certain "normal" slings 'n' arrows, certain routine official insults... yeah, any woman -- you stop recognizing them yourself. Really, you have to look at yourself from the outside to see from the diagnostics that you're upset, angry (especially angry!), sad, in love, whatever. So your gut feelings get relegated to the back of the line, and you sometimes even fail to notice them, or mistake them for indigestion.

Well, my gut was right about that one, sure. I've got a few other gut feelings -- hell, this is a 56-year-old gut, it ought to be educated by now -- and I'm now figuring our how to make provision for the future if they're true. (No, this is not about Joe.) It's an interesting dance, and more similar to fieldwork than to fact-checking.

Posted at 08:55 PM | Comments (0)

November 28, 2005

Guest Blogging: Monterey Bay Aquarium Rant

BY Joe Eaton

My thanks to Ron for providing space for a guest rant.

What set me off was a trip we made recently to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It had been a couple of years since the last visit, and while it was good to see the various inmates—the giant Pacific octopus, the ocean sunfish and sea turtle in the Outer Bay tank, the mesmerizing jellyfish—there were some things I found disturbing. One, as our friend Gene also noted, was that the signage and exhibit design seemed to be geared to about a grade-school level, not just in the hands-on lab upstairs but throughout. The dumbing-down was especially striking in a temporary exhibit about sharks and rays, which did have some nice touches (Haida dogfish masks, videos of West African hammerhead dancers). But none of the live specimens on exhibit were identified by Latin name. Come on, folks, a Linnean binomial or two never hurt anybody. I for one could have handled it at 7 or 8, which was around the time I imprinted on dinosaurs and was tossing off Latinoid polysyllables right and left. And the kid-oriented prose ("Doris the dogfish munches a mouthful of wiggly worms," or words to that effect) was a real irritant. Having visited a bunch of splendid natural history museums out in the hinterlands last year—places like Albuquerque, Flagstaff, even Norman, Oklahoma—I had to admit that the MBA did not shine in comparison.

Then, already working up to a cranky mood, I started looking harder at the signs in the rest of the Aquarium, the regular exhibit space, and the absence of the E-word began to bother me. When you think about it, what better venue for introducing the notion of evolution than an aquarium? All life came from the sea, after all; it still runs through our veins, and we respond to its tides. And some prominent lineages went back to it, sometimes repeatedly. Just looking at mammals, you have varying degrees of commitment to a marine environment, from the sea otters that are still broadly similar to landbound weasels, through the sea lions and seals to the whales. Whales, I would hope to the discomfiture of the creationists, have turned out to provide one of the best fossil sequences documenting a major evolutionary transition: ancient amphibious beasts paddling around in the shallows of the Tethys Sea whose descendants morphed into the likes of blue whales and bottlenose dolphins. Why not build that story into the Whale Hall?

I began thinking about the contested functions of institutions like aquaria and museums: they’re about education, or should be, but they’re also about show business. Just bones, even the real bones, aren’t good enough anymore; the dinosaurs have to be animatronic, and a flashy sound-and-light show can’t hurt either. If you start looking at an aquarium as a venue for entertainment, you have to think about capturing as broad a market share as possible—especially if, like the MBA, you’re positioned as the prime tourist magnet in a tourism-oriented town. Maybe, if you’re where you can set the tone for the institution, you try to play down anything with a whiff of controversy about it; you don’t want to offend those nice fundamentalist families from Kansas.

So much for sins of omission, occasioned by whatever mix of gutlessness and venality. But it got worse. Around the corner from the giant octopus, two large ugly fish, a wolf eel and a lingcod, share a tank. To one side, skeletons of each species are on display. The accompanying text goes into the difference between the abundant teeth of the lingcod and the blunter teeth of the eel, and says, as nearly as I can recall, that the lingcod’s teeth are designed for impaling smaller fish while the eel’s are designed for crushing mollusks. Right—"designed." Not "adapted," not "have evolved to" whatever—"designed." Nothing there that the good folks at the Discovery Institute could cavil with. This was late in the day, after a nice lunch at the Portola Grill, and I didn’t have the energy to retrace my steps and re-examine other labels for signs of creeping creationism. But I have to wonder how much of this kind of thing has gotten by under my radar in the past.

Let me be as clear as possible about my own biases: I believe the late geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky had it exactly right when he entitled an essay, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." The evolving concept of evolution—classical Darwinism plus Modern Synthesis plus Punk Eek and Evo Devo—is foundational to the life sciences. I would hope that it remains central to public school curricula, but with the political climate in much of the country, that’s not something we can count on any longer. Which makes it all the more important for independent institutions like museums, zoos, and aquaria to take up the educational slack. Who knows, a model of Ambulocetus, the prehistoric walking whale, might do for some tourist kid from Kansas what the Darwin-centennial series in Life Magazine did for me a long time ago: jump-start a lasting curiosity about the true history of the earth and its living organisms.

Posted at 11:48 PM | Comments (0)

More Why, Double-Barrelled

Heo Cwaeth -- Welcome! --
said in a reply string the other day:
He also openly stated -- in class, no joke -- that women had no business in the academy…

Oh yes. And this was in the ‘80s. It’s slow going, isn’t it. And with that, you triggered another one of mine. One of the reasons I’m a feminist is also one of the reasons I’m not a Catholic any more.

For the first time ever, in my freshman college year, I had a Philosophy course. Imagine the thrill: Pure Thought being taken seriously enough to own a whole course. We’d been undeniably admitted to the Olympus of Higher Learning. Plus it was taught by a priest I’ll call Father Thing (partly because I seem to have flushed his name), who was one of those photogenic stately white-haired types, just all approachable dignity and pink (but not round) cheeks. He was also the college chaplain and counselor.

His was the course where I learned that one use of long hair like mine is to hide behind when you’re sleeping in class. I learned something else, but it took a long time to sink in.

The course itself was basically rehashing Jaques Maritain about how Thomas Aquinas was correct about everything, and Aristotle was his prophet. Now, imagine – imagine! – a group of young women sitting quietly through months of hearing from that pigheaded misogynist. We were supposed to take things gratefully from the brain that had inflicted that "woman is misbegotten man" meme on European civilization, or at least reinforced it as church teaching, not just ancient Greek. You can find lots of intellectual tapdancing from Catholic philosophers and apologists to maintain that Aquinas never said that women are really inferior to men, or even, incredibly enough, that we ought to embrace our inferiority as it was assigned by God and therefore contributes to the perfect order of the universe. But the guy who taught our class never even bothered to go that far – and most of that stuff that I’ve seen was written years after my philosophy class.

After a few weeks of listening to this stuff – mind you, I was still a believer, all wide-eyed and receptive; one just gets used to this crap, growing up in the church, it’s as if all your shoes came with a built-in stone inside, and that was that – I at least figured out that this wasn’t exciting, and was basically just another catechism class. There was a standing joke that Father Thing graded exams by tossing the pile of bluebooks down a flight of stairs and grading them by what step they landed on. One of my classmates swore she’d written a straight answer on the first and last pages of hers and filled in the rest with repetitions of the Hail Mary, and got a B+.

Somewhere along the term, another classmate reported hearing Father Thing in conversation with a couple of the Jesuits from Scranton U. He’d said in so many words that he didn’t approve of higher education for women, and he wasn’t being the least bit embarrassed or clandestine about it, he wasn't disclosing any secret about himself. (Except he probably said "girls," but that wouldn’t matter much, would it?) And then other people mentioned that yeah, they’d heard that from upperclasswomen, alumnae older sisters, even a talkative nun or two. Well, it explained that class: we were supposed to be pious, not learned.

Understand that this was a women’s college. Not co-ed then (though I note with amusement that it is now), all women – to which, as chaplain, counselor, and philosophy professor, the Diocese had in its divinely inspired wisdom assigned a priest who right out loud didn’t believe in "higher education" for women. Why yes, that is a bit like putting a Creationist in charge of freshman biology.

But none of us, as I recall, ever complained that we were being cheated out of part of the education most of us, or most of our parents, had paid for. And as a full-scholarship student, I didn’t dare to rock any boats until a few years later. Even then I was awfully polite.

And it was also a couple of years later, and maybe even wiser, that I went to Confession for the last time. I don’t even remember why, but I was still devout, and maybe I wanted to clear my conscience before going to Communion the next day. I believe I was the last one in the chapel, and Father Thing was hearing confessions.

An aside here: I was even then pretty damned naïve about the anonymity of the confessional. In retrospect, I suppose the parish priests must have recognized me as the only third-grader who used words like "thrice" – and I used "thrice" in Confession because it was the only place I felt I could use it and not get hooted at. I have since been told that my voice is distinctive enough that people hearing it on the radio knew it was me, as I accidentally outed myself a decade ago as a Prozac user. Oops. (shrug)

So OK, into the confessional I went just as usual, and somewhere after the "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned" ritual I said I’d sinned against the Sixth Commandment. (Catholics number the Ten Commandments differently than Protestants do. Six is the one about sex.) The avid sharp intake of breath, the eager forward thrust of the head that I could just make out behind the cloth screen, the anticipation in the voice were unmistakable. "Sins of touch or intercourse?" he demanded… but not angrily. Eagerly. You know how phone trainers tell you that people can "hear a smile" in your voice? Well, yes they can, and I did.

I don’t even remember what I mumbled back at him, something polite, but I got through the rest of the drill and stumbled out to the pews, and then walked out of the chapel without bothering to say whatever prayers he’d assigned as penance. I was simultaneously numb and hyperalert. And I knew damned well what I’d just experienced. I thought it over, not really wanting to believe that of the old coot… and I still knew. And I know to this day.

No, I didn’t leave the church over one sanctimonious voyeur. It was an accumulation of nasties, the same as my – simultaneous, believe it or not – decision that I wasn’t going to join the Mercy order after all. (The biggest part of that was seeing how the nuns I liked most, who I saw as most like me, were treated. Interesting: all but one of the ones I got to know at all well dropped out of the order within about five years.) And somewhere along the string of outrages -- current and historical, traditional, even, it would seem, doctrinal -- that kept telling me "By their fruits you will know them and these aren’t plums" I realized that I didn’t believe any of it, so the whole thing was moot.

Somewhere in my college courses, I began expecting things to make sense. Not as divinely ordained, just as logical, and if we’re talking about explanations, as reasonable and as backed up with, of all things, evidence. And damn but it's intellectually and emotionally a lot more joyous and fulfilling.

Posted at 11:35 PM | Comments (2)

November 26, 2005


Since one current fashion seems to be recounting Thanksgiving menus, I'll do it too. Actually, I'm doing it mostly for fun.

We had TG with Kate and Gene, which is now somewhere between habit and ~Tradition~ (too bad there isn't an HTML tag for some Gothic font) for the four of us. This is because we like it so much.

We went to their place in San Francisco. They were on the porch, OK, the porchette, looking at a raven and a couple of crows that had been going overhead. We unloaded ingredients and Gene made us each a French 75, named after a WW1 gun of some sort and involving champagne, vermouth, and Grand Marnier... was there something else? I forget. But they're tangy and very good. Right up there with Lolitas in my estimation. A bowl of pumpkinseeds and almonds, light stuff because we had plenty waiting.

Intersperse this description with retiring to the comfy chairs now and then to just yak. That's at least half the fun.

Chestnut soup, with the French equivalent of five-spice... um, white pepper, cloves, um, uh-oh, Kate? What was that? Duck Two Ways -- duck confit and, because Gene just didn't feel right about so little fuss, grilled duck. Kate had also made this wild rice thing with cranberries and pignoli. Little onions, red and white. Parsnips. (Turns out we're all parsnip fans.) Joe made a Spanish chard recipe involving pignoli (we voted to keep the pignoli in both dishes, and no regrets) and slivers of jamon serrano. I also forget the name of the wine, but it was red and very good, especially with the chestnut soup -- there was something going on between the two that evoked a faint and lovely taste of mushrooms. Spooky wine alchemy!

For dessert, Joe's Shaker lemon pie and, in the sort of detail I love them for, custom newly invented drinks. The Veronica (damn name must be good for something) is coffee with frothy milk and a shot of the orange liqueur that the cranberries had been infused with. The Joe substituted Wild Turkey for the liqueur, and that's about ethnicity, thank you, not an invidious comment on character.

The best part's always the company, and damn but the food is good. I could rhapsodize, but let this be it for now. I think it's time for my annual brief post-Thanksgiving depression. I have a lot of theories about the cause, but I can pretty much rule out turkey.

Speaking of love/hate times of the year: It rained last night and today, though not exactly a monsoon, and it's getting less and less warm when the sun does come out and more and more cold at night. I don't want to put away the aloha shirts and dig out the sweaters, but I'm more than ready for fire season to be over.

Posted at 05:23 AM | Comments (0)

November 23, 2005

I'm Wondering

...who will be Bush's Edward R. Murrow?

I'm also wondering whether what I'm really wondering is: Who will be Cheney's Edward R. Murrow?

Posted at 05:10 AM | Comments (0)

November 22, 2005

Why: Learning Experiences

A reply from PZ at Phayngula to a reply to one of his posts from me (Got that?):

#49860: PZ Myers — 11/19 at 10:24 PM
Ummm, atheist here. Guess who's quite familiar with gritting his teeth and smiling?

I wouldn’t play at one-upmanship with a promising young guy like PZ, but if I did, I’d be telling him that I was a girl in Catholic school for years before he was an atheist, even if he was born that way. (Insert cackling and creaking of rockingchair.)

Make no mistake: I was a devout young kid. I loved the way church made me feel; I honestly felt lighter, that walking-on-air cliché, after a Saturday trip to the confessional, even if I did have to invent sins on principle sometimes. I studiously followed the Latin in the missal Grammy Adams gave me, all through every Mass. Singing (in the shower) or even remembering some of those hymns and Masses we sang still makes me high. First Communion was a great big deal, though I must allow that my chief memory of the day was my first taste of raw scallion dipped in salt, a grownup treat, at the party my parents threw afterward. That was, between one thing and another, the year I became an adventurous eater.

But mostly that was the year those Waitaminnit moments started happening in school. Maybe it was because we’d reached the Age of Reason, seven, when the Church starts holding you accountable for your sins (including mortal – none of that juvenile-penalties stuff for them) or maybe it was that for the first time, school was all day instead of half a day. In first grade, Sister Jean (pronounced zhohn) Marie managed to teach us all to read and write, or at least print, and all the usual stuff plus elementary French just for fun, in a half-day shift because hey, it was the Baby Boom and things got crowded sometimes. In second grade, suddenly things weren’t so much fun. There was more emphasis on sitting with our knees together – just the girls, of course – and walking in line and being silent when told to. Oh yeah, and reading "with expression." When we took turns reading those stupid readers aloud, we were supposed to "read with expression." I had never in my short life heard anyone talk that way, "Oh! Oh! Oh!" – and had no clue what sort of "expression" was expected.

Sister Eleanor Marie, unlike Sister Jean Marie, called me "Veronica" instead of "Ronnie." I found it unsettling. If I got Veronica’d at home it meant I was in deep shit. And in hindsight, I figure Sister Eleanor Marie just plain disliked me. She provided me with that Waitaminnit the day she decided to do Desk Inspection.

We had desks that year that were separate chairs and tables with little shelves under the tabletops for books. Mine was a mess. I had to cram books plus Kleenex plus a bag for used Kleenex (those allergies) and, oh, pencils and crayons and all that stuff into this cramped space, and I’m not exactly of a Zen aesthetic by nature anyway. Maybe she gave us a chance to clean up and I was absorbed in reading something, I forget. But my desk was a mess inside. I knew where things were, but it wasn’t neat. She didn’t just inspect our desks; she made us show them for everyone to see. And of course when she got to mine, she wasn’t pleased. She made me back away – I think I was even making a pitiful attempt at hiding the mess – and told me and the hooting class that "The state of your desk is the state of your soul!!"

Deep in my head, that little voice said, "Wait. That’s not right." I knew I was in better shape than that. And I knew, though it took me days to get the words around it, that she’d done me wrong with that lie and that ridicule.

Somewhere in that year, along with the intensive prep for First Communion and First Confession (which happened the afternoon before, just to be on the safe side I guess) I read "The Night People vs. Creeping Meatballism" too, remember. I suspect the first seeds of subversion were planted that year in my till-then-innocent soul.

And I learned to grit my teeth, and even smile when necessary (and when it was absolutely necessary to not smile, necessary instead to look duly chastened) and be silent. Be silent in all subjection, I suppose.

Posted at 06:26 AM | Comments (0)

November 21, 2005

PZ Myers Would Hate This

Well, maybe he wouldn't. But this column from Susan Ives of the San Antonio Express-News is a nice slap at Intelligent Design from, in some respects, the other side.

Speaking as an old laddermonkey, I'm hoping Prof. Myers is feeling OK today, and speaking as an old nurse, I'm also hoping he's listened to some of his blog-reply friends and got that damned wrist X-rayed. Whoever he goes to will want to palpate that lump on the professorial head, too, I'd bet. Gently, gently.

Posted at 05:12 PM | Comments (0)

November 20, 2005

Yet Another Interweb Quiz

Which Fantasy/SciFi Character Are You?

Oh, come now. I have much more hair.

Posted at 06:32 AM | Comments (0)

November 18, 2005

WHY, Cont'd: A Grade School Moment

Junior high, to those of you with US public school backgropunds, and it was rather more fun than a clarifying click generally is.

I grew up in Harrisburg, but was born north of there, in the (anthracite) coal region. I prized my out-of-town connections. My uncle Jackie had given me one of those "automatic" pencils, imprinted with the name and address of a relative's car-repair shop in Girardville. (The smell of fresh rubber still gives me flashbacks of the place.)

Sixth or seventh grade. We were usually seated alphabetically, so a kid named Billy Schell was right in front of me most years. (They shuffled our class of 60 in various combinations between two rooms from year to year, I guess so no one would get bored.) There was some weird energy between him and me; I never did quite understand it.

The teacher (Da Nun, whose name was, honest, Sister Mary Aloysius) stepped out of the room for some reason, leaving us with instructions to shut up and work. probably phrased differently. Billy reached behind his back and grabbed that pencil out of the pencil groove on top of my desk. Pissed me off, he did -- I couldn't replace it easily. I grabbed his wrist so he wouldn't get away with my pencil.

Now, I spent much of my asthmatic childhood using a hand-held nebulizer to inhale epinephrine solution. I carried the damned fragile weird thing with me most of the time -- it was glass, about six inches tall, with an intricate little set of glass twists inside, two rubber corks, and a squeeze bulb to make it go. Bigger than a perfume atomizer; you had to use your whole hand to pump it, and it took several sprays every time. So I developed rather a strong grip without ever noticing, until then.

When I grabbed Billy's wrist, I just wanted him to drop the damned pencil. But he wouldn't, and he'd let me get him in a mild hammerlock, with his arm twisted up behind him. He stood up, and I stood up with him. I didn't do anything else, but I didn't let go either. Actually it didn't occur to me to let go. Billy was a sandy-haired freckley kid, and was turning bright red at this point. The rest of the class was noticing, and the boys especially started hooting. "Lookitthat, she's beating him up, she's twisting his arm!"

I was about to indignantly deny that -- though scrawny and sickly, I wasn't real dainty even then, and if I'd been twisting his arm it would've been rather more strenuous -- when we heard the Footsteps of Doom in the hall, that unmistakeable stomp of nunshoes and the jingle of the big rosary she had looped in her belt.

Billy dropped the pencil. I reflexively sat down. When the nun came in, Billy was still half-standing and bright red. Of course Sister Aloysius had heard the hoots and racket and I was sure I was in trouble. She demanded that Billy, obviously the focus of it all, tell her what had happened.

He wouldn't. I was baffled. it wasn't as if were were buddies and he wouldn't rat me out -- there was plenty of that in that class. He got detention and I got away clean and nobody else ratted me out either, also surprising because I was never particularly popular, and I knew some of the girls thought I was a snob and most thought I was Too Smart.

Honest to the god of your choice, it wasn't until somebody else told me that I realized it was just that Billy would never admit to anyone, including Da Nun, that he'd been "beaten up" by a girl.

Posted at 10:07 PM | Comments (0)

More Whys: A Little Bit about Sex

When my mother had to explain what we in the early Pleistocene called "The Facts* of Life" to me, she resorted to a little blue book called Mother’s Little Helper. (It had a counterpart for boys, a little red book called Listen, Son.) It was an instructional book put out by the Catholic Church, about sex and reproduction. Sort of. For your contextualizing pleasure, this was, oh, maybe 1962.

Now, my parents were, at least when I was young, relatively progressive. They were good Catholics and all, put us all in Catholic school, church every Sunday and novenas for Mom and me on Sunday night, regular donations, that stuff. Still, when the younger kids wanted to go to Lutheran Bible School with all their little friends, Mom looked into the course of study, saw that it was all Old Testament and nothing they couldn’t have seen in Catholic school, and sent them. (Think of it: a situation where sending your kids to Lutheran Bible School was progressive. Lord, Lord.) The pastor was pissed off at her for this, and actually scolded her (though not by name) from the pulpit one Sunday, the old prick. But she stood her ground. Go Mom!

In our stratum, which I’ll call lower middle-class, the Church was where you went for help – we never thought of seeing a shrink, for example, and of course a Church source was logical for "FoL" instruction. Mom herself had been an only child, born when her mother was 40, and raised, from what she told me, without much information about sex, to such a degree that she was scared half to death when she had her first baby – me – because nobody had told her quite what to expect. So she took it upon herself to find a helpful book; the idea was she was supposed to read it to me.

Well, she started out doing so, and got embarrassed enough to just let me read it myself after a chapter or two. What embarrassed her wasn’t the subject; she shrugged and said, "I think you probably know all this by now, so how about if just read it for yourself?" What embarrassed her, and ticked me off when I thought about it later, was that the thing was so damned uninformative. There was lots of talk about God’s wishes and sanctity and such, but I don’t recall "penis" or "vagina" or "vulva" in it, and certainly the word "clitoris" never appeared. Never mind the possibility of lusting (not that "lust" was exactly explained either) after a member of one’s own sex.

There was some stuff about menstruation, no surprise, and it was pretty discouraging. I don’t think it went as far as "Eve’s curse" (because of course that was all about subjection and painful childbirth) but the one sentence that stuck with me was approximately, "You can do nothing to stop the flow, and you would only hurt yourself if you could."

A friend of mine has argued that if there were a loving God, not only would She have made chocolate-flavored semen, but She’d have given us one more sphincter. Can’t quarrel with that.

What I am certain about, because I found the thing and took it back to the dorm with me one year for a more critical reading when I was being that English lit. major, was that the closest to mentioning actually having sex was the phrase "the marital embrace." As in explaining that children were conceived during "the marital embrace." That was it; that was as specific as it got. An ordinary seventh-grade kid at the time could be expected to know what "embrace" means – why, a hug, of course, unless one was embracing something abstract like principles.

I re-read that silly thing just to be sure I hadn’t missed anything when I was young and stupid; no, I was right the first time: that book left the reader with the idea that a women became pregnant via hugging. Hugging one’s spouse, of course. That was some official someone’s idea of what girls needed to know about puberty.

Fortunately, my mother was right, and I already knew better than that. I don’t exactly remember where I learned it, either – possibly from my aunt Jean’s antique nursing manuals, which my cousin Jane and I used to dig out of the attic trunks and read on rainy days. Good thing I had street knowledge to fall back on, huh?

*This was enough of a cliché that the seventh-grade boys made the word "facts" a sort of dirty word. High times in grade school!

Posted at 12:33 AM | Comments (0)

November 17, 2005

We Interrupt this Diatribe

Got a call from the Planet yesterday about a couple of loose ends, and Anne mentioned that she'd fielded a call from a guy who had a bird question. Joe and I both write for the Planet, and I think it's kinda neat that people would call there about birds, for whatever reason.

This caller had been walking "up on Euclid just past the Rose Garden" -- a residential neighborhood in the Berkeley Hills, fairly pricey, not new -- that morning and had encountered three birds, at least three feet tall and with gray feathers, walking down the middle of the street. Then they flew to a rooftop, where two more similar birds were awaiting them.

No, they weren't turkeys, which was Anne's first suggestion. (Wild-type turkeys have been spotted in Live Oak Park, not far from there.) he knew what wild turkeys looked like; these were bigger, long-necked and long-legged. They looked "awkward walking but beautiful flying."

Now, my first thought was great blue heron, which would be odd but they do breed in seeral places along the Bay and coast here. Though the thought od them walking around on a street was odd, they do hunt in fields sometimes.

But they don't flock. The only place I've seen great blues gathered was at the rookery. Even when they're fishing near their nests, they scatter -- great egrets are much more likely to hang out together, and they don't especially flock, but just scatter across the same field sometimes. However, there were strong winds from the east and north over the few days before that, as Chris mentioned. And there are big flocks of sandhill cranes in the Delta northeast of here now -- we went out and visited them, and wild swans and geese in their thousands on Sunday. They have been known to stray as far west as Point Reyes, in small groups. They certainly do flock, and very often within a flock (or in places like Point Reyes) what you see is pairs and trios together, and sometimes a pair of pairs or trios, as if they were hanging out with friends. Who knows, maybe they are.

There are a couple of grassy fields in Codornices Park, across the street from the Rose Garden, that might have looked like reasonable places to kick up mice and such.( We went up there, of course, but the birds were long gone.)

So, given the description and the habits and all, I'd say there was about a 70% chance that a group of sandhill cranes visited Berkeley yesterday.

Posted at 11:24 PM | Comments (2)

Why I'm a Feminist

Reading some stuff in Twisty’s blog roiled up some memories of clarifying moments – what Ms magazine used to call the "Click!" – and of stuff I came embarrassingly late to realizing. Here, pretty much at random temporally but in categories and spread over a few days’ posts, is a list.

I’m so old that:

I didn’t attend the university of my first choice because I wanted to keep the option of changing my major from German (language) to English literature, and while I’d been accepted into the school of foreign service – where the languages and linguistics division was -- with a decent scholarship, the liberal arts school with the English lit. department was still segregated and wouldn’t admit me.

When I’d graduated from college with my officially useless English lit. degree (I guess I’m using it now, though, as a writer) and applied for assorted entry-level crap jobs in Harrisburg to earn my keep, I had to fill out at least one job application that demanded the date of my last menstrual period.

At the time, jobs were listed in the classified ads under "Men" and "Women," just by the way.

I was incredibly relieved when I first heard of ("second-wave") feminism because it was somehow easier to be called a "crazy man-hating feminist" than just "crazy" – which until then I’d half suspected myself. The point was that I wasn’t the only one.

I had no words for what I was trying to tell a guy I dated in highschool – come to think of it, maybe the only guy I dated in highschool – that I wasn’t somehow insulting him when he said, "I want you to be my girl," and I answered, "Let’s just keep going out and not calling each other things like that, OK?" To his credit, now that I think of it, he accepted that, if with some wounded puzzlement, and didn’t stomp off in a huff. I’m not sure he ever got why I wasn’t quite so honored as I was supposed to be, though. It wasn’t as if I wanted to play the field, and I’m pretty sure he realized that. It was just that the possessive pronoun gave me the heebiejeebies.

When my mother went to our parish priest, a youngish, very liberal (even radical in some ways) friend of the family, and asked him to help her out with my father’s abuse of her and us when he was drunk, he told her she had to stay with him "to save his soul." As far as I can determine, that’s all he told her.

Leslie Gore was my second hint that there might be kindred spirits out there: "You Don’t Own Me." (The first, rather different, was the Mad Magazine piece "The Night People vs. Creeping Meatballism" that I read when I was seven, and I remember the feel that tantalizing experience vividly.)

A good part of my senior-year highschool theology course was devoted to two kinds of rhetoric training: how to argue with non-Catholics and how to argue with boys who wanted sex. ("Sex" is here construed to include what was then called "petting" – which, by the way, was also a mortal sin, whether you did it or had it done to you.) Never once was it admitted into the discourse that we girls might also get turned on and/or want to have sex. What we wanted didn’t matter so much, because a/ we were presumed not to want it as strongly and b/ we were the gatekeepers and mysteriously responsible for whatever happened. And because it didn’t matter so much what we wanted in any context, really. We had Duty.

I was part of an almost inadvertent revolution on my college campus: We started wearing pants to class and to the dining hall. And into town, heavens! This started in the winter, when it got to about ten below zero Fahrenheit, and the wind blew mightily. No, in fact, there weren’t any ankle-length skirts on the market to wear long woollies under – ironically enough, those started with the hippies.

(The place was so isolated that I had to be both the hippies and the politicos, with very little company in either. And I thank whatever gods there be for the company I did have in both.)

More later.

Posted at 05:50 AM | Comments (11)

November 15, 2005

Another Cheap Internet Horoscope


You are one of life’s enjoyers, determined to get the most you can out of your brief spell on Earth. Probably what first attracted you to atheism was the prospect of liberation from the Ten Commandments, few of which are compatible with a life of pleasure. You play hard and work quite hard, have a strong sense of loyalty and a relaxed but consistent approach to your philosophy.

You can’t see the point of abstract principles and probably wouldn’t lay down your life for a concept though you might for a friend. Something of a champagne humanist, you admire George Bernard Shaw for his cheerful agnosticism and pursuit of sensual rewards and your Hollywood hero is Marlon Brando, who was beautiful, irascible and aimed for goodness in his own tortured way.

Sometimes you might be tempted to allow your own pleasures to take precedence over your ethics. But everyone is striving for that elusive balance between the good and the happy life. You’d probably open another bottle and say there’s no contest.

What kind of humanist are you? Click here to find out.

OK, more or less on target. But none of the alternatives in the garden question quite got it.

Posted at 03:34 AM | Comments (1)

November 13, 2005

For the Birders

Joe and I spent part of yesterday doing more gardening maintenance and some planting at Chaparral House with some Habitat for Humanity volunteers from UC. I like the people this group sends us; on the whole, they seem baseline competent, quick and eager to learn, and hard workers. Anyone wants to call me for resume help, hey...

Leading a couple of them around the back garden to get tools, I was stopped by bird movement across the space in front of me and into a nearly bare low branch of a mimosa. Black-and-white warbler! White throat, otherwise pretty snappily adult in plumage, and I had a good unobstructed look at its stripy back as it walked along a branch.

It was in a fenced, private part of the grounds, but seemed to be heading toward the Strawberry Creek riparian corridor, and anyone who wants a look would do well to try Strawberry Creek Park, where one can sit and wait for birds to make their rounds. It was associating, but very loosely, with the usual bunch of chickadees and goldfinches that hang out around the neighborhood.

Posted at 03:30 PM | Comments (0)

November 12, 2005

Quote of the Day

Alternatively, rattlesnakes have souls and serious procrastination issues.

Posted by: lindsay Beyerstein | November 11, 2005 at 10:42 PM
in this comment string on her blog, Majikthise. Which I'm still not sure how to pronounce.

I knew there was a reason I liked rattlesnakes, from a respectful distance of course.

Posted at 03:48 PM | Comments (0)

November 11, 2005

More Things that Go Bump in the Night

Have you ever seen a dead Hollywood juniper?

Me neither.

Posted at 12:46 AM | Comments (0)

November 09, 2005


The Mechanics' Institute Library, one of San Francisco's best secrets, issues a monthly short publication called The Stereopticon, with a couple of pages of editorial content, a list of events, and -- the biggest portion of the 12- or so-page flyer, a categorized list of new acquisitions. The November 2005 issue lists the audiobook version of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale under Nonfiction.

Posted at 11:38 PM | Comments (0)

A Shot in the Dark

On one of those frantic errand rounds this afternoon -- reverse-burglary at Emma's and pick up her uneaten rat pup, fetch groceries -- we noticed a couple of women at a table inside Andronico's back entrance. This branch of the supermarket is set up so that there's a street entrance from University Avenue and another from the parking lot in back. The back entrance has a sort of half-assed lobby, with two automatic doors at right angles to each other, a railing that nearly obstructs one of them, a public phone wedged in between, a free-publications rack to trip over... Just a cramped, klutzy space.

On the way in, I'd wondered what odd sort of sample-mongering required a whole box of latex gloves. On the way out, we both realized it was flu shots, and pounced on the opportunity. I keep missing the shot days at Costco, and my GP hadn't got the vaccine last time I saw her; neither had Joe's.

The women were from the VNA. Both were having problems with the spot; every time the door opened they got a blast of increasingly cold air, as it was well past sunset and it has been a blustery day anyway. They joked that they were field-testing their vaccine by putting themselves at risk for pneumonia. (Yes, they were going to give Andronico's HQ a talkiing-to.)

"Hey," I told her, "Could be worse. You could be hospital nursing."

"Oh no -- I'm retired!"

Now, I'm something of a connoisseur, and this nurse's injection technique was excellent. Didn't feel a thing. My deltoid's a bit sore now, of course, but I've had much worse from flu shots.

As I was hassling with my shirt -- I couldn't get the sleeve rolled high enough, so the nurse lent me her lab coat to put on backwards while I unbuttoned and peeled the shirt off my shoulder -- I noticed a big orange orb-weaver trying to build a web between the trashcan and the phone hood.

I'm fond of this species. Our yard has lots of them every year, getting fewer and fatter as fall wears on. I'm getting easier with just picking them up, as they seem fairly peaceable. I also remembered that I'd found one in the car about a month, month-and-a-half ago, when we'd pulled into the Andronico's lot, it probably having hitched a ride with us from one of the bushes in our yard. I'd left it one of their parking-lot trees. So I felt a bit responsible, as there was a good chance this was the same critter -- I've never seen any others there.

I knew it wouldn't prosper in that spot, and would most likely just get janitored away sooner or later. Not everyone's as solicitous as I am, unfortunately. So I kept an eye on the spider as I got my shot, though I had to turn away to struggle back into my shirt. When I relocated the spider, I used one of our waiver forms to scoop it up. The idea was to rush out the door before the panicky spider could run off the paper.

Well. I turned around, there was a youngish women with a four - or five-year-old kid, a cell phone into which she was talking, and a big ol' stroller, with which she was completely trapping me behind that railing. Now how the hell attentive do you have to be...? She wasn't watching the kid, particularly; she was staring straight ahead, right through me, woth that thousand-yard phone stare.

I cleared my throat. Nothing.

I wasn't about to wait for long, so rather than engage in dialogue I excuse me'd and waved the spider at her. Worked like a charm, an aversive charm. Then I just had to weave through the half of the population of Berkeley that had suddenly decided it needed to be entering or exiting that door at that instant. Spider and I made it to the nearest tree, and I maneuvered the critter off the paper -- and had to do it again, using as a handle the web it had extruded in a Garylarsonesque reaction -- into the tree's first crotch. Safe and sound at least for the moment, hooray.

I do nevertheless wish we could get those shots the way we voted -- absentee.

Posted at 05:17 AM | Comments (0)

November 06, 2005

It's Official

You Are Creepy
Serial killers would run away from you in a flash.
How Scary Are You?

I've always thought of Medusa as my patron saint. Maybe it's just the lovely snakes. Via Pharyngula just before he started fooling around with his site this morning.

In other snakey news: Last night I put an adolescent mouse in with Shep the ball python. His appetite has been puny lately, and he seems to be holding out for small mice instead of bigger, feistier rats. I wouldn't dare do this with a rat, but I gave up and covered the cage and went to bed and left the mouse there, along with the toilet-paper tube he was hiding in.

This morning I peered in as Joe was unbagging his birthday present, and the toilet-paper tube was empty, no mouse visible anywhere. Wood shavings were shoved around in drifts and parts of the cage floor were bare; Shep's little house, in which he'd spent the previous few days, was shoved away from the wall and there was a bare patch behind it too -- in short, signs of a merry chase. Shep's back in his house on the warm side, presumably digesting. I'm thinking I should do this more often, just start earlier. In zoos, they call it "environmental enrichment."

Posted at 04:52 PM | Comments (0)

November 05, 2005

Slapthology Alert

I've been meaning to write a Hallowe'en story about my mother, but I'm clearly spending too much time reading the news. Especially the stuff about the HPV vaccine and the fundies' reaction to it. Between little bouts of physical nausea, I'm coping with a constant background urge to slap somebody across the face. Really, a physical urge -- I have to put my hands in my pockets sometimes because I can feel my right arm trying to lift itself up, semipronate, and whip hard horizontally. It's giving me cramps in the biceps, where the lift starts.

I'm probably too old and feeble to slap the way I want to just now, a slap that would result in jaw dislocation at least, and ideally with traumatic skin ablation. Including the lips. Especially the lips. I have quite a vivid picture of it in my mind.

However, I'm not sure of the origin of a dream last night, a first-time-ever occurrence in whch I was tasting a very interesting canape' involving avocado and something else. I woke up to discover I was trying to eat the topsheet.

I'm trying to remember the rest of the recipe; honest, in the dream it tasted considerably better than a purple cotton jersey-knit sheet.

Posted at 05:12 PM | Comments (0)

November 02, 2005

Un Dia de los Muertos

An interview for All Souls' Day, with the woman who wrote Stiff and Spook. I intend to read them both, especially the former.

In memory of Aunt Katie Reith, who ran the funeral parlor on Main Street in Girardville after her husband, the owner of record, died. (No, I don't think she buried him herself, but that was before my time.) I have no idea where she did the embalming and prep, but the viewing room was her living room, and the kitchen in back always smelled like gladioli. And when I was there, cookies. I do remember being entertained at her kitchen table, not during a funeral or viewing (if I was at one of those, I was expected to behave myself, meaning sit quietly) but incidental to visiting Grammy and Poppop Adams, who lived up the street.

I hadn't seen her for years when she died, in 1978. I heard the news when I was sick and depressed -- sitting in Alta Bates Hospital here in Berkeley with my IV steroids just discontinued, which was like hitting an emotional brick wall -- and reading the inimitable Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death. I sort of think Katie and Decca would have liked each other.

Posted at 06:25 PM | Comments (2)