Tuesday, June 24, 2008

What's so bad about a pregnancy pact, anyway?

Why are local officials so eager to determine if a "pregnancy pact" led to 17 teenagers at Glousester High becoming pregnant in the same semester?

I'd be more impressed with the gumption and drive of these girls if they got pregnant from a pact than if they got get pregnant by accident. But sex and pregnancy are are apparently still seen as moral issues for teen girls. Studies beginning in the 70s showed that the more guilty z girl felt about premarital sex, the less likely she was to use contraception. Like murder, its morally worse to plan for sex than to be swept up by passion.

Which made me wonder outloud during our after-dinner reading/news watching: "Why is a pregnancy pact among teen girls so terrible?"

H ignored me, wrinkling his brow over some oddity in James Wood's The Broken Estate .. or maybe he was reading Pages from the Goncourt Journals.

I persisted, "Is it because the current power structure and rule by elites could topple if people banded together to support each other in making life-changing decisions?"

H snorted. "Because teens are suppose to be at school to get an education, not to do a loser thing like get pregnant."

Me: "Oh. But why is getting pregnant for teens a loser thing..." I was reminded of my awe at young women: they have that incredible power, whenever they want, to become pregnant.

Evolution has prepared teenage women to become pregnant. Its the most natural thing in human biology for a young woman to desire to be a mother. Would we make more progress with our goals as a society if we accepted this, and then started social planning from there?

But H cut short my reverie with a reminder that more is going on than society's lack of understanding of the naturalness of teen pregnancy.

H: "Its because Glousester is a loser town."

I realized I was finally understanding. There are conflicting goals in American culture. These are girls from working class and low-income families. Their cheap labor serves a societal function in this sea-side resort town: inexpensive hotel maids, waitresses, factory workers, and girlfriends. Their presence in the labor force, rather than collecting wellfare as new mothers, has a ripple effect across the economy, keeping wages where elites like to see them: low.

To its credit, the Time Magazine article hinted at what sociologists have long known: Young women will stop getting pregnant when they have something better to do with their lives. 10 years ago Planned Parenthood's slogan was "The best contraception is a future." (Write me if you know if they still use this slogan.) "

In the book Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage, authors Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas uses national statistics backed up with myriad interviews to explain why early pregnancy makes economic and emotional sense for women from low-income families, even though it most certainly does not make economic sense for women from middle-income and high-income families.

Altough economic mobility is possible in our culture, it is statistically unlikely. Women from middle-and high-income families are likely to earn substantial salaries in the future if they avoid early motherhood and continue their education and training. Low-income women have no such future, so there is little economic loss from early parenting. Single-parenting also makes sense, because the pool of available men is not of sufficiently high quality to afford a benefit, since getting married when pregnant means you may need to take care of a low-earning male in addition to a child. (Readers may enjoy Bitch Ph.D's thought-provoking review of this book.)

So what should be done in Gloucester? It all depends on what kind of society you'd like to engineer.

For me, I'd start with getting Medical Director Dr. Brian Orr and chief nurse practitioner Kim Daly back on the payroll. Then let's take some some public planning advice from Europe, which stole the American Dream a few decades ago.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Exploring the Atheist Personality

" I love the idea of debunking or analyzing the veracity of the common stereotype of atheists. I think this is an excellent direction for scholarship. Furthermore, your results do provide some interesting preliminary evidence."

So wrote Laura King, Editor-in-Chief of Journal of Research in Personality.

"Given the vast increase in public discourse about religion and atheism, and books like those of Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris, this is indeed a good time to be doing scientific work on the types of questions raised in this manuscript. There are interesting questions about whether the stereotypes about atheists are true. Are they indeed immoral, immune to awe experiences, unhappy people? This manuscript therefore opens up interesting questions."

This was the opening paragraph of the review Dr. King obtained from an expert reviewer.

But alas.... research is hard. I think I'm gonna hafta file drawer this paper because I don't have the resources to collect more participants as both King and the reviewer felt was necessary (and I do see their point).

But if the topic interests you, check out the complete paper here, because "preliminary evidence" can still be worth a look.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Trouble recognizing faces?

Oliver Sacks brought prosopagnosia to public consciousness a few decades with his provocative story about a neurological patient with a temporal lobe lesion in a location we now know as the fusiform face area.

But only recently have researchers begun to study congenital (or developmental) prosopagnosia.

After attending some scientific talks on children and adults who have grown up with this disorder,I began to wonder: Do I have prosopagnosia?

Always on the low-end of the face-perception ability continuum...Examples:

2005. Walking up the stairs in the History building, I was surprised to come upon my former housemate P, who I hadn't seen in a while but who I knew worked in a building a few blocks away. She brightened to see me, and I blurted out, "Hi, P, What are you doing here?"

"What --this is my building, my office is just over there."

So she's not P, but she knows me and I don't yet know who she is. I think she didn't hear the P salutation in the mix of walking up stairs and the unexpected meeting. Hm..

"Oh, I guess I didn't realize your office was here. Well, how are you doing anyway?"

We chatted, and she dropped a name of a mutual friend, and I realized she was S, a political science professor who I'd met a few times at Faculty for a Humane Foreign Policy and she also had showed up to a party at my house.

I felt bad for the awkward exchange because she's someone I like and would like to know more -- what is wrong with me? I resolved to be more careful, told myself not to jump to conclusions when I run into a person in an unexpected context, study people's faces if I expect to run into them again and try to memorize their features.

Imagine the challenges of following the plot when multiple TV characters are of the same race, body type and hair color

I used to call it my problem with the films of the 1940s and 1950s because the males were all whtite and wore suits, and the women had homogenous clothing and hair style. But the intimacy and constant mental sharing of marriage has made me realize that my bad face perception is more than just a quirk, because H has started to say that my problems watching TV are "scary."

At first he doubted I could be as bad I am and had some chuckles at my expense.

When watching TV together, when a promo or clip for a new show would appear, H would say, "Ok, who is that actor? What show did we see him in?"

And for me, its as if I've never seen that actor before. I'll ask for hints. I'll try to think of who matches the gender, height, body type, etc of the unknown actor. I'm then embarrassed to learn its the actress who played the mother on Six Feet Under or someone else whose face I must have seen 50 times. Although I enjoyed Trixie on Deadwood, I had little recognition for her on her brief appearance on Lost.

In an interesting twist, when the actor speaks, I may suddenly realize who it is, just as I'm unimpaired at recognizing friends' voices on the phone.

Distinctive faces help. I'm good with Hugh Laurie, even when he speaks in his British accent.

Early on in a drama, I frequently must ask H for help -- is that the same person now? Which character is that one?

In Battlestar Gallactica, Saul Tigh consorts with the imprisoned Six, and imagines he is seeing the face of his wife Ellen. I was impressed with the subtle means by which the director had conveyed this, asking H after the show, "Did you notice that they made-up Six's face to resemble Ellen?"

H: "No, that was the actress who played Ellen! They changed the actress. You're kidding, right?"

me: Really? They shot back and forth between the two actress' faces?

H: "Now you're scaring me."

So when I brought home a computerized test to diagnosis prosopagnosia, H was enthusiastic. Yes, he'd do it too, what a good idea. I realized he was reacting the way one does when one's disabled spouse finally wants to confront her disability.

Next: My results (and H's) from the Cambridge Face Perception Test.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Tourist attraction at the Summer Palace, Beijing

Even though it had happened five times before, my instinctive response, when two people approach, gesturing with a camera, is that I am suppose to take *their* picture. The next thing I know they're posing with arms loosely around my shoulders. Ha ha. Wanting to be a good cultural ambassador even though I have deep ambivalence about "my" country, I took off my glasses and visor when they mimed me to do so.

Who are these women? Their padded jackets, demeanor, physiognomy and dark tans suggest they traveled long and hard, all the way from some distant province, for their big tourist visit to Beijing. And what do you do on your once-in-a-lifetime trip to Beijing? You bring your digital camera and take a zillion pics of all the exotic sights in Beijing. And yes, one of the exotic things you may get to see in Beijing is a real live Meiguoren (literally, "M" country -- the letter "M" sounds like America), so run and stand by her and get a shot. H got his own snap in as soon as their friend had gotten two off, remarking that I was their prize marlin.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

I ruined the postwoman's day

I came down to sign for my USPS package in the lobby of my condo, and was squinting in amazement at the large heavy box which I'd had shipped via "ground" from China, marveling that it had arrived in half the estimated 3 months -- no, marveling it had arrived at all. I was pre-occupied with my thoughts on the package, the swirl of memories brought on by the distinctive "China post" stamp, memories of the hour I spent mailing this big box on the day I call "escape from Beijing", April 23, 2008. Still, I noticed some awkwardness in the handoff of pen and signed slip to the postwoman, a tall big-boned woman with a curly, neck-length blond hair, ruddy face, wearing those postoffice uniform shorts on this 90+ scorching day.

Exiting, she had to navigate the door propped ajar by trash-can and commented, "There is something wrong with your door."

I had battled the door yesterday and knew about it.

"Thank you," I mumbled.

Sharply, she said, "What?"

Still gazing at my package, I repeated, "Thank you."

"No, you said something before that, what did you say?"

"I just said thank you."

Her face was a snarl of anger and resentment at me.

The glass door closed between us.

I stared through the glass at her, dumbfounded, unable to move.

She stood watching me, her face glowering, eyes narrowed. She then stalked off to her van, tossing back angry glances. Was she thinking: "You can deny it, but I heard you, you bitch." Or was she scrutinizing me through the glass door, trying to figure out what kind of person was I, what reason did I have, that I would say *that* to her?

Friday, June 6, 2008

Sex and the City -- "Just Say No" to Commodity Porn

If you have no desire, ever, to see the 'Sex and the City' movie, but would enjoy some schadenfreude at the pain I suffered last night ("life is short -- why am I here?), then read on.

Women came to New York for Love and Labels

Carrie opens the new Sex and the City movie with that line, claiming that's how it all started when she arrived 20 years ago. But in my memory as a confessedly avid watcher, labels weren't so important in the early, banter-rich, go-girl seasons.

Sex and the City challenged the sexual double-standard in a light-hearted, comedic, "go girl" way that first made you laugh, and then made you think (apologies to my pals). This brought me along to root, cheer, and forgive it its other excesses. Samantha unabashedly appropriated traditionally masculine sexual privileges. Miranda counted up her sexual partners, and came up with a number over 40. The girls giggled, cried and chortled over their orgasms -- how many, how often, how reliable, and the men who gave them good or didn't. The show was creative in its discussion of dating: what happens when you meet your boyfriend's mother -- and you click more with her than him? What if you've been without sex so long that you decide to accept the offer cat-called by a construction worker -- and he turns tail and runs in fear? You're trying to climb the corporate ladder, but your boss's wife thinks you're a lesbian, and she so wants a real live lesbian in their social circle -- act the part, or come out as a heterosexual? Should you give up the great sex because the guy is a recovering alcoholic who probably won't actually recover? Is it okay to pass around a guy to your girlfriends because he's really good in bed but otherwise not a keeper? How should you react when your fun one-night stand leaves greenbacks on your bedside table? And myriad timely issues: infertility and adopting a baby from China; breast cancer and chemotherapy; having a child as a single mother and handling a high-end corporate lawyer job; marrying and being the primary breadwinner.

Sure, I recall cringing when the Manolo Blahniks got big in the show, but shoe time and expensive clothes were a quirk, not the main point. The focus on glossy material possessions was slight enough in the TV shows that I could skip over them like annoying ads in a magazine.

But the movie upped the ante, and 20 minutes in, this gal wanted to fold and get out. There's no skipping the ads when the magazine is Vogue. Imagine your eyelids are taped open while an entire Vogue issue pans before you, pages turned in slow-motion.

And as if the conspicuous consumption wasn't bad enough ... consider the, uh, "story line."

In fictional romances, the two lovers must be kept separated during most of the story to build tension and uncertainty about the outcome: will they finally get together? How? How much suffering will they endure before being united? Authors must contrive devices to maintain separation between the lovers. Pride and Prejudice maintained suspense for an entire book because of a misunderstanding that could have been resolved with a simple conversation. In Sex and the City, I writhed in my seat in annoyance over the contrivances that kept Carrie and Big from having the simple conversation that would have saved viewers 2 hours of Carrie's tear-stained, crumpled face.

The reward of romantic union requires the build up of uncertainty. So darn, how to break up the happy cohabitating couple? Let Big get a a few hours of cold feet, and Carrie be so fragile that she over-reacts and flips out.

Being left at the altar -- the disaster of our life?

At the rehearsal dinner, Miranda is recovering from her pain at her spouse's infidelity, and snarls at Big, "You're crazy to get married -- marriage ruins everything!" Third-time groom Big is spooked and calls Carrie for reassurance in the middle of the night, gets it, but remains unsettled.

On the day of the wedding the precious flower girl, enamored of cell-phones, covets and hides Carrie's phone.

Big can't be really bad, because then reunion can't be possible. We've got to string everyone along on a momentary confusion, compounded by over-reaction.

Big calls Carrie repeatedly asking for a chance to touch base. He just needs to see her, he says. With his limousine at the wedding, her veil drops over her face as, not seeing him, she mounts the stairs. Cars honk for him to get rolling out of the way, and he is so agitated he tells his driver to leave the scene. Twenty minutes late, he finally gets Carrie on the phone. He starts to explain, saying something to the effect that he showed up at the venue, but needed to see her and now he's left, but he just needs to talk to her --- Carrie freaks out, taking this as news that he has jilted her at the altar, and faints. Her entourage carts off the wounded bride. Big tries valiantly to explain that he's ready now, but Carrie won't hear that message, and in pain over the assumption that his feet are frozen, she stuns him with her bouquet and the car roars off.

It takes six months for the two to finally talk. The writers' contrivances were pitiful: When Carrie is finally brave enough to go through her voice mail, the sound of Big speaking on the day of the wedding is so painful that she tosses the phone into the beautiful ocean at the lush Mexican resort where she and the girls are spending the paid-for honeymoon. What about letters and emails? At the first news that the cad send her an email, she asks her computer savvy personal assistant to make all messages from him disappear into cyberspace. Because of her huge emotional would, she is too distraught to open physical mail and it piles up in her PO box.

The two finally meet when Carrie has learned that the apt they bought together will be sold and the locks changed. She can't miss out on $400 never-worn shoes, and goes to the apt -- to find Big there with the same thought, cradling the shoes in his hands, looking pained.

They realize they love each other and, thankfully the film rapidly concludes.

Why why why?

In the final 20 minutes, the film adopts an about-face regarding materialism and consumerism. Instead of the lavish 200 guest wedding with designer label dress, Carrie and Big get married by a justice of the peace and have a simple dinner with friends. Craven, unprincipled Panglossian that I am, I was grateful for those crumbs -- yes, we can all be happy if we just learn (a) to start talking to each other, and (b) that love is more important than labels!

Its a case of titillate and moralize. The good life, the fantasy life whose image most excites the children of capitalism, is the life of buying expensive, dazzling products. But to ensure the images don't cloy, revise it all with just minutes of the game to go, with the smarmy moral message that love triumphs over labels. But how can 10 minutes of justice-of-the-peace wedding triumph over 230 minutes of commodities porn?