Quote: Don’t Worry, This is Totally Natural

“Childbirth is natural, and not an event that has to be conducted in a hospital. I am here to help women understand how natural this is. But I will have to go in just a moment. How may I help you?”

Rourke had delivered at least three babies in the back seats of cars and taxi cabs, and thought he was qualified to assert that there was nothing whatever that was natural about it. It was the craziest thing in the world. Women were the kind of people that people came out of, for crying out loud, and he thought it was the kind of thing best monitored by world-class doctors and sophisticated electronic gear, maintained closely by teams of nurses with graduate degrees in astrophysics. But that was just his opinion.

Evengellyfish, by Douglas Wilson, pp. 86 – 87

Those Creepy Fates

Left to right: Broken Top, South Sister, North Sister

There is a trio of mountains in Oregon called the Three Sisters. In fact, the town of Sisters, OR, is named for them. In this picture, you can only see two of the them (the third is hiding behind).

I use this picture for my illustration because, while there is a lot of great art portraying the Three Fates, it’s a little hard to find a picture that I can use without copyright infringement.

I recently read, with my kids, The Black Cauldron. My imagination was captured by the three swamp-dwelling little old ladies (if human?) who guard the Cauldron: Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch. As far as I can tell, Lloyd Alexander made up these ladies and imported them into his story. Though triple goddesses are a recurring feature in Celtic mythology, they are not really the same as the three fates and it’s even a falsehood that they always came in the form of maiden, mother, and crone, as you will see if you read the scathing 1-star reviews of the book The White Goddess by Robert Graves.

The Greek fates are named Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. Clotho spins the thread of a mortal’s life, Lachesis measures out its predetermined length, and Atropos cuts it. Norse cosmology also has fates, called the Norns … in some versions three, named Past, Present and Future; in some versions a large but unknown number, according to this article. Evidently the idea of fate personified as three or more women (or woman-like beings) goes way back in Indo-European cosmology. It shows up as late as Macbeth’s three witches.

I had ignored the Fates for some time (as one does); but reading The Black Cauldron made me wonder whether you can write a fantasy that draws on Indo-European cosmology and not at least tip your hat to them.

By their very nature, the Fates are creepy. Lloyd Alexander does a great job of making this feeling come through when he introduces Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch. The heroes of the book, on first seeing the fates’ house (and by the way, the word ‘fates’ is not used), think it is abandoned because it looks so run-down and blends so well into the swamp shrubberies. There’s a loom set up inside the house, on which is a tangled mess of a weaving. (Don’t touch!) Then the ladies show up. Rather like Tom Bombadil in The Lord of the Rings, they seem cavalier about things that ordinary people regard as matters of life and death. Orddu keeps offering to turn the travelers into toads (“You’ll grow to like it”). Orgoch is excited about this because if they were toads, it’s implied she could eat them. Orgoch, the only one of the three who is clad in a black cowl, seems to want to eat everything. As Orddu says, “It’s hard to keep pets with Orgoch around.”

The three ladies light up when they hear that the travelers know Dallben, who it transpires they discovered as a foundling and raised. They refer to him as “little Dallben.” (Dallben is over 300 years old.)

The travelers stay the night in an outbuilding belonging to the three ladies. Taran, the main character, wakes up in the middle of the night and sneaks up to the window of the dilapidated cottage, which is now alight. He returns, reporting, “They’re not the same ones!” Orwen, Orddu and Orgoch now look young and beautiful, and they spend all night working on their weaving. The next morning, however, they appear looking just as they did before, and with the same apparent disregard for human life.

Lloyd Alexander has set a really high bar with this fictional, Welsh version of the fates, and I’m not even sure I could approach it. Here is an article that dives more deeply into an analysis of the fates and of all of Prydain, the fantasy world in which the book is set. Be warned, the article assumes you are familiar with the whole series.

Quote: How Moms “Vacation”

What, oh what, will I do to fill the days that are usually taken up with errands and housecleaning and laundry and Max and Ron and their various time-sucking wants and needs? Don’t for one minute think I don’t absolutely adore my life as a wife and mom. But even the best lives need a vacation and, let’s face it, renting a house with your family at a ski resort is NOT a vacation. It’s basically moving your life from one location to another. Unless someone else is making the beds, doing the laundry, and cooking, it’s just the same old life with the added inconvenience of not knowing where anything is in the kitchen.

from Class Mom by Laurie Gelman, page 219

Quote: The Kindest of Lies

We waltzed slowly around the room, between the rows of booths, past the pool table and the chairs, never hitting anything. I guess the loser had spent so much time in that bar that he knew where everything was. He had the gift of all the best dancers: he led you so that you felt as though there was no leading or following involved … The scar tissue above his empty white eyes was furrowed with concentration, and he smelled of sweat and gin.

“Are you beautiful?” the loser whispered toward the end of the song.

I lied a little. “Yes,” I said. “Very.”

The loser smiled to himself and closed his sightless eyes.

Fulton County Blues, by Ruth Birmingham, p. 52

Props to the Bald Guys

“But … but …,” Taran stammered. “Coll? A hero? But … he’s so bald!”

Gwydion laughed and shook his head. “Assistant Pig-Keeper,” he said, “you have curious notions about heroes. I have never known courage to be judged by the length of a man’s hair. Or, for the matter of that, whether he has any hair at all.”

The Book of Three, by Lloyd Alexander, p. 24

Chronic Pain: Poorly Understood

Chronic Pain Could Have a Unique Genetic Basis in Women

You might think this article is going to tell us that women are more likely than men to suffer from chronic pain, or to be underdiagnosed for it.

It’s not.

My main takeaway is that the causes and manifestations of chronic pain are super duper complex, tied up with immune and psychiactric stuff, and (this is the only new bit of information) on a genetic level they appear to operate very differently between the sexes.

We already know, based on our experience living in the world, that women in general are more likely to get sick than men in general. We know that female athletes are more likely to suffer injuries. But this doesn’t mean that men don’t get sick or injured, just that the circumstances are usually different.

We know that different people experience pain very differently and that pain can be made worse by a variety of factors, including being clinically depressed; being hormonal or pregnant (trust me, it’s true); having red hair (sorry, Dutch and Irish ancestors!); or suffering the effects of diseases such as dengue, malaria, fibromyalgia, or Lyme disease. We know that amputees can experience pain in their missing limb, which seems really unfair, and that pain can take on a life of its own and linger in a person’s system long after the initial cause has passed.

The bottom line is, I think we all would like a world where no one experiences chronic pain. Failing that, we’d like to help sufferers as much as possible, above all by believing them. This article nudges us a little closer to that, mostly by confirming: Yep, it really is really really complicated.

I Really Do Love Lucy

(Don’t cry, Lucy, I love you!)

I Love Lucy is one of those shows that everybody feels like they’ve seen, even if they haven’t. Or perhaps they have only seen one or two episodes, such as the famous Vitameatavegamin episode:

(This one was not her fault. The “medicine” had a high alcohol content.)

That was me until recently. I started watching it with my kids because in our chronological study of history, after several years of study we have made it up to the 1950s and 60s.

The first episode came out the year my parents were born. Now, their grandkids, of the generation that loves Anime, Minecraft, and Mario, watch it and they enjoy it. In TV terms, that’s practically Shakespeare. Timeless.

I’m no comedy professional, but here are some thoughts about why the show has aged so well, and what make Lucy so good (besides Lucy herself, of course).

Lucy and Ricky don’t have kids (in the show). This makes all their marriage foibles more lighthearted. The stakes are lower. It makes for a smaller cast (basically just them, Fred, and Ethel as regulars). It means things are less complicated, and the show doesn’t have to deal with all the problems that come up when you have a multigenerational family involved. In that way, it’s almost like Seinfeld, but less bleak because they are not living in New York City.

The show doesn’t always tie up at the end. Unlike the later generations of sitcoms were infamous for, Lucy doesn’t try to “solve all the problems in half an hour.” Sometimes it does, especially in the sense that the characters’ relationships usually reconcile. But often, things just get more and more chaotic, and then end suddenly right at the most chaotic point. Here are some examples of how shows have ended in the season I watched with my kids. Lucy is in tears because she got on the cover of Life magazine dressed as a hillbilly. All the extra meat, which Lucy hid in the building’s furnace (long story), has just been accidentally cooked. Lucy’s increasing efforts to get Ricky to stop ignoring her have escalated until she is dressed as Carmen Miranda.

The men and women are different. Different from each other, that is. Nay, they are stereotypes. And by stereotypes I mean the old-fashioned kind, not the generally much less pleasant modern kind. Ricky and Fred, though perfectly capable of cracking wise, are basically straight-man types who just want to go to work, come home, and eat a good steak. Lucy, while not dumb, is obviously a bit flaky, and prone to take a random idea and run it all the way out to its ridiculous conclusion. And her friend, Ethel, is usually willing to encourage her in this. These stereotypes of men and women stopped being used in entertainment, frankly, before I was born. Or at least before I started watching TV. By the time I tuned in, the women were all super smart, capable, and morally serious, and the men were either their sidekicks, the villains, or the incompetent weights they had to drag around.

Now, I strongly dislike being treated like I’m not capable. But for comedy at least, I’ve got to say, Lucy’s stereotypes of men and women are both funny and refreshing. I actually did not realize that being “the zany one” was even a role that was available to me, much less that such a character could be beloved and not an object of contempt. Ricky seldom loses his temper (beyond an eye roll), and he always still seems to respect Lucy, even when she has (in my view) humiliated herself. The standards are a little lower for respect in Lucy. You don’t have to be genius, perfect, or even competent all the time.

A Special Valentine’s Day Excerpt from The Strange Land

If you are a father of daughters, and you are in a Mugrage novel, just be warned you might find yourself in this situation.

* * *

Hur grinned as he saw out of the corner of his eye his daughter Amal slipping away with some young man. Then he took a sharp second look at the man’s tall, lean silhouette. He darted into the dark and seized his daughter’s wrist.

She jerked back, pulled for a second between the two of them. The man realized what was happening and came to a halt. He approached, and Hur’s face fell.

It was as he had feared. Amal had her eye on Jai, Endu’s eldest son.

“Absolutely not,” said Hur.

Now it was Amal’s face that fell. “But, Papa!” She looked at him in dismay. Her face was round and pale in the twilight; her black hair was falling loose around it. She looked on the verge of tears.

Jai was not on the verge of tears. He was, as always, master of the situation. He took a step closer, looming over Hur without letting go of Hur’s daughter’s hand.

“Do you have something to say to me, Uncle?”

“I do,” said Hur. “No daughter of mine is going to marry a son of Endu. That is final.”

“Oh, Papa!

“It has happened before,” said Jai.

“I am ending it now,” said Hur.

Jai shrugged as if to say that his heart was not broken. “I will take this up with the chief,” he said. He let go of Amal’s hand. Then he walked away, trying to appear nonchalant, off into the darkness.

He stood head and shoulders taller than Hur. Hur could remember when Jai was born.

He could remember when Amal was born, very vividly at this moment.

“I am nineteen years old, Papa,” she snapped.

“I held you nineteen years ago,” he replied, dragging her back towards their hut. “I made a covenant then to protect you. And I still intend to.”

There was no further confrontation when they reached home. Amal hid herself in her bunk, white-faced and crying.

Hur’s wife looked at him with a question in her eyes. Hur cast up his hands and sank to a seat, elbows on knees. He felt weak and dismayed.

He did not say to himself, What was my daughter thinking? She was a nineteen-year-old girl; he did not expect her to think clearly. It was his job to think for her.

And he had failed, or at least left it a bit too late. “It has happened before.” Had Jai been lying, trying to rattle him, or had he told the truth? Hur thought it was the truth. He could think of a few times recently when Amal had been unaccounted for. Well, now she would hate Hur when he forbade the match. She would just have to hate him. Better that she should hate her father for a little while than that she should suffer an abusive fate.

* * *

I Just Stayed Up Late Reading this Horror Story … Oh, Wait, It’s Real

Many people have trouble loving their bodies. Not everyone struggles with this, but many do. “The outside does not match the inside.” We are given a body, and our body continues to be a stubborn fact that cannot be overlooked, and as we grow our body continues presenting us with a steady stream of stubborn facts about what sort of person we were designed to be.

So naturally, I figured Love Thy Body was going to be a healing, affirming sort of book that helps readers along the road to accepting and even celebrating the set of stubborn facts that is our particular body.

And I guess it could still do that, but you’d have to dig deep. Because mostly what this book is, is a terrifying ride through a dystopian nightmare not terribly different from Brave New World, except this one is true and is happening to us. I started to binge on this book (late at night, appropriately), but finally I couldn’t take it any more and had to start skimming. I really can’t think of a scarier book to present you with, as we approach Hallowe’en.

The two-story divide

The author, Nancy Pearcey, who is described on the jacket (and, apparently, by The Economist) as “America’s pre-eminent evangelical Protestant female intellectual,” dives right in to the philosophical developments that have served to sever human beings from their bodies. This divide goes all the way back to ancient Greek (and also Hindu) contempt for the material world and veneration of the spiritual or intellectual world. The Greeks actually taught that the creation of the physical universe was a huge mistake and was carried out by a lesser, evil, deity.

This philosophy has been with us, waxing and waning, ever since and has led to all kinds of dichotomies that even today dominate most people’s thinking:

  • Values vs. Facts
  • Morality vs. Science
  • Postmodernism vs. Modernism
  • Sacred vs. Secular

Each of these dichotomies can be diagrammed using the same “two-story” image. The immaterial thing is on top. The physical, or “real,” thing is on the bottom. The first “story” of the house (Science, say) is furnished with public, verifiable facts that anyone can access. The second story is home to all the immaterial stuff. In some of these dichotomies, the lower story is considered superior (facts; science). Some people even consider the lower story to be the only one that really exists. Thus, we are encouraged to keep our upper story “private” and not impose it on others. In other dichotomies, the upper story is given more importance. For example, in the evangelical world, “sacred” jobs are considered more spiritual than “secular” ones and this is supposed to be a good thing. Postmodernism, with its suspicion of materialism and reason, was a reaction against Modernism, which considered physical objects and reason to be all that existed; and, not surprisingly, was felt by the Postmodernists to be dehumanizing. The Postmodernists were right to stop devaluing the immaterial, but unfortunately they went in the direction of rejecting the entire lower story, leaving the sharp dividing wall in place.

The problem for human beings with this sharp divide between spirit and matter is that is splits us right in two. We are embodied spirits. But the prevailing philosophy of the last several centuries has tried to tell us that our bodies are not, in fact, really us. They are just a tool we manipulate, a machine that we drive. Our spirits are the “real” us.

I’ve never liked the phrase “the ghost in the machine.” It is supposed to describe what a human being is, but instead of capturing what it feels like to be a human being with a body, it does the opposite. It gives a spooky, lonely feeling. I imagine the poor ghost wandering the circuits of the computer, unable to make it do anything.

And that is the effect of splitting people off from their bodies. You make the spirit a mere ghost and the body a mere machine, and suddenly they can barely even influence each other.

This is “Personhood Theory,” and it is the foundation for all the horrors in the rest of the book. Personhood theory, like a good dichotomy, shows the Person in the upper story and the Body in the lower story (diagram on page 19). The Person has legal and moral standing, but unfortunately, according to personhood theory, just because you have a body doesn’t necessarily mean you are a person.

You must earn the right to live and/or have children

The most obvious example of beings who are inarguably biologically human, but yet are not considered to be persons, in our modern society are unborn babies.

“By sheer logic, in accepting abortion, we implicitly adopt some form of body/person dualism, even if we do not use those terms. Out actions can imply ideas that we have not clearly thought through. Of course, when people are making a decision about whether to have an abortion, their choice is often based on personal reasons … In discussing personhood theory, however, we are not talking about people’s personal reasons but about the logic inherent in supporting abortion.” (page 52)

“The most obvious problem for [personhood] theory is that no one can agree on how to define personhood. If it is not equated with being biologically human, then what is it? And when does it begin? Every bioethicist has a different answer. Fletcher proposes fifteen qualities to determine when human life is worthy of respect and protection (such as intelligence, self-awareness, self-control, a sense of time, concern for others, communication, curiosity, and neocortical function).” (page 53)

It should be obvious that this is a very, very slippery slope. I am sure that, as you read Fletcher’s list, examples sprang to your mind of adults who seem to lack these qualities in greater or lesser measure. It would be funny if this wasn’t a life-and-death topic. Obviously, these qualities are not present (as far as we can tell … and, honestly, how the hell would we know?), in newborns. Thus, bioethicists (and was there ever a more ironic job description?) are already deciding that newborns do not make the cut. Waston & Crick feel that newborns should not be “declared human” for three days after birth because some genetic conditions do not show up until then. So-called bioethicist (and the irony deepens each time I type that word) Peter Singer says “a three-year-old is a grey case.” (page 54)

But the difficulties in earning their humanity presented to babies and toddlers are just the tip of the iceberg. Qualities like self-awareness and a sense of time can be lost to conditions like dementia, brain injury, severe mental illness, and the list goes on. If someone who has previously been acknowledged as a person loses these qualities, does it then become moral to kill them? Personhood theory presents no logical impediment to their being “declared” nonpersons by whatever authority once declared them persons in the first place.

The qualification that is most frightening to me is “intelligence.” What the heck does that mean? Who determines it? When I read excerpts from eugenicist Margaret Sanger (founder of Planned Parenthood), I get the impression that her ideal society would give everyone an IQ test and sterilize, not just the lowest scorers, but everyone who scored average or below. Every time, I can’t help but wonder whether I would meet her criteria for sufficient intelligence to be allowed to reproduce. Probably not … after all, how intelligent could I be when there are several major points on which I disagree with Margaret Sanger?

You don’t get to say what kind of being you are

Once we have thoroughly severed personhood (upper story) from the body (lower story), it follows that our body is not at all a part of who we “really” are (the only “real” things being the upper story — our experience, thoughts, and feelings). This concept is applied consistently by the transgender narrative, which “completely dissociates gender from biological sex” (p. 197).

Because the trans narrative insists that the body does not matter — that it is not the “the real you” — some transgender people do not even bother to change their bodily appearance. A friend introduced me to a local musician who identifies as genderqueer. He appears completely masculine except that he wears eyeliner and sometimes a woman’s blouse or skirt. Yet he insists on being referred to as “she” and her.”

Ibid, p. 200

This man is not pushing the envelope. He is a person who sees clearly the logical implications of the trans world view and is following them (almost) all the way to their conclusion.

(And, by the way, that’s convenient for him, because one of the lousiest things about being a biological woman is female hormones, and I think it’s a little unfair that a person should be able to call himself a woman and not experience the joys of those, but I digress.)

“So,” you say, “What’s the problem? It’s all about personal choice. The individual should not be bound — repressed — oppressed — by his or her body and society’s response to that body.”

Pearcey understands the emotional appeal of this motivation:

The goal is complete freedom to declare oneself a man or a woman or both or neither.

The sovereign self will not tolerate having its options limited by anything it did not choose — even its own body.

Ibid, p. 210

Of course, having a body, having that body be an important part of your identity, and being among other people who have a certain response to the total package … all of these are important elements of what it means, and has always meant, to be human. But no matter. Individuals may fairly say that they don’t like what it is to be human, that it is a rotten experience, and that they think they have figured out how to fix it by completely denying the reality of their bodies. Onward! How can this be a problem for anyone who values individual autonomy?

The problem arises thusly. By seizing the ability to declare ourselves whatever we may want to be, we have created an awesome new power. And awesome new powers seldom remain diffuse, in the hands of every individual. When an awesome new power arises, so will a supervillain to try and monopolize it.

These legal changes [Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity laws] do not affect only homosexual or transgender people. In the eyes of the law, no one has a natural or biological sex now; all citizens are defined not by their bodies but by their inner states and feelings. Your basic identity … no longer follows metaphysically from your body but must be determined by an act of will.

But whose will? Ultimately, it will come down to who has the most power — which means the state. “It does not matter what you or I mean by the word ‘gender,’ explains Daniel Moody. “The only opinion that counts is that of the state … In law, our gender identity is defined without reference to our body.”

By rejecting the biological basis of gender identity, SOGI laws empower the state to define everyone’s identity.

Ibid, p. 214

If that’s not the scariest thing you’ve ever heard, I don’t know what is.

If the state can legally declare a man to be a woman because he says he is, it could, in theory, legally come to my house and declare me not a woman, even though I’ve borne three children.

“Oh, come on. No one is going to do that.”

It is already happening. Not to me personally, but to much more vulnerable people.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the case in Texas where a father and mother are locked in a custody battle over their school-aged son. The mother insists the son is transgender, though he seems perfectly happy to identify as a boy when he’s with his dad. The courts have, so far, sided with the mother. This is just so tragic I don’t know where to start … but the big question is, In what sense is the little boy in this story making any kind of choice at all?

There are no such things as mothers and fathers

Until now, the family was seen as natural and pre-political, with natural rights. That means it existed prior to the state, and the state merely recognized its rights. But if the law no longer recognizes natural sex, then it no longer recognizes natural families or natural parents, only legal parents. That means parents have no natural rights, only legal rights. You, as a mother or father, have only the rights the state chooses to grant you.

Ibid, p. 213

This, of course, is a tyrant’s dream.

I am sure you have heard people make serious arguments along these lines: “Some people should not be allowed to have children” (by whom?); “There is no such thing as other people’s children”; “It takes a village to raise a child.” (I agree with that last one, but only when the village is an organic social unit, made up of lots of nuclear and extended families. When Hillary Clinton says “a village,” the village she has in mind is the national government.)

The people making these arguments wish to build a society-wide utopia. In other words, they are budding totalitarians.

The ideology of choice [being the only determining factor in forming a family] has ominous political implications. For if children must be chosen, if they do not belong to their biological parents as gifts from God, to whom do they belong? Answer: the state. If you read scholars like Ted Peters carefully, you consistently find statism lurking as an underlying assumption. In one passage, Peters writes, “Society places its children in the care of rearing parents as a trust.”

Stop right there: Society gives us children? Society gives us its children? This view reduces both parents and children to atomistic dependents on the state.

The totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century all sought tight state control of education, down to the earliest years, to inculcate unquestioning acceptance of the regime’s ideology.

History shows clearly that when biological bonds are downplayed in favor of choice, individuals end up forfeiting choice to the state. Demanding freedom from natural relationships means losing freedom to the state.

Ibid, p. 231

I would have to call that an unexpected outcome, wouldn’t you?

Yes, some natural families do really stink to grow up in.

All bureaucratic group homes for children would stink to grow up in.

Now that Pearcey has pointed this out, though, I can see this theme of a totalitarian utopian state undermining natural family bonds in all kinds of dystopias. Brave New World is the most obvious, where people are encouraged to sleep around, babies are grown in a lab, and the terms mother and father are considered obscene. But there is also The Giver, the YA book by Lois Lowry, in which babies are assigned handpicked parents after they leave their “birth mother” (which is a low-status role in their society … sound familiar?), and babies who are not thriving are euthanized.

This theme even surfaces in 1984. In that book, Winston’s neighbor is a rather simple-minded man who is enthusiastically in support of the Party. When Winston ends up in the Ministry of Love, there to be re-educated (sound familiar?), he is shocked to see his neighbor also there. The man has been turned in by his children, who claimed that in his sleep he would mutter, “Down with Big Brother.”

So, yeah, I recognize this theme from dystopian literature. I just didn’t realize, until I read this book, that legally and philosophically we were quite so far down that road.