RIP to Science: One Hair Dryer (Mask Test)

I was attempting to answer the question for my kids of whether an improvised mask, such as a cowboy-style bandana over your mouth and nose, could help slow the spread of disease.

Hypothesis: Even though an improvised cloth mask won’t filter viruses, it does limit the distance air coming out your mouth travels, and therefore reduces how far any germs get spread while talking, coughing, sneezing, etc.

Experiment: Well, about that.  So my plan was to set up a measuring tape on the bathroom floor showing the six feet of “social distancing” and then blow various lightweight items (dust, loose powder, wadded up scrap paper) using the hair dryer.  We’d see how far the hair dryer blows these items when unmasked and how far it blows them when masked with various garments — my favorite scarf, a standard bandanna, etc.

I decided to run some preliminary tests before the kids woke up, because if my hypothesis (or my experiment) was obviously wrong, that was something I could learn on my own, thanks.

I got the measuring tape out, found a scrap of (clean!!) toilet paper on the floor (note to self: CLEAN BATHROOM), and dug out my circa-1994 Salon Selectives hair dryer, currently collecting dust thanks to social-distancing.

==>Thanks Mom! That was an awesome Christmas present, even though I wasn’t sure what to think about it at the time. Just a few months ago we were marveling it had held up so long and showed no signs of giving up the ghost.==>

With the dryer on its high setting, I could blow a scrap about four feet.  I put the bandanna over it, and could only blow it about one or two feet.  Also, there was this slight burning odor, which I figured was all that collected dust burning off.  No big deal.

I was pleased by my preliminary findings, but more pre-testing was in order before calling in my skeptical children.  It was possible, for example, that I was seeing such dramatic differences in how far the paper scrap would travel because I was not consistent in how I aimed the hair dryer.

I did some experimenting with holding the dryer at different angles, un-masked, chasing that scrap of unused toilet paper around the bathroom.  Then I put the bandanna over again.  Not nearly as much air-power, again with the burning smell, and then: Experiment over.  Hair-dryer shorted out.

Yikes.

No amount of hoping I’d tripped a breaker bore fruit. After a quarter-century of faithful service, my hair dryer is no more.

Conclusions:

(1) I should not be left unsupervised with valuable machinery.

(2) An ordinary bandanna provides enough airflow resistance that it can wreck a hair dryer.

(3) If you’re contagious and you want to share space with me, yes, I would much rather you covered your mouth and nose with one of those masks that “does nothing” because it sure seems to me like having your germs go not-very-far is better than having your germs fly closer to me.

(4) I can’t afford to resume this experiment on my kids’ hair dryer, because I have three teenage daughters who will mutiny if I wreck their machine, as they do style their hair in quarantine. Therefore,

(5) I’d be grateful if other people would take up the cause and run experiments to see if my preliminary findings are reproducible.

Thanks!

Me with bandana over my face.

Photo: The guilty parties (me and that bandanna), posing in my makeshift office in the garage.  I love having my family at home all day, and I’m grateful my husband and I can both work from home, no matter how crazy the set-up is. Not everyone is so lucky.  Pretty sure those on the front lines keeping our infrastructure together wish you’d do whatever you can to reduce the odds you make them sick when you run your essential errands, even if it isn’t perfect and 100% foolproof.

View from My Office: Social Distance

As of this morning we’ve got six people working from home in our 2.5 bedroom house — and one them is a child with a cough who’s taken over the master bedroom because she’s in quarantine.  Thus, picking back up with our intermittent penance, my office now looks like this:

Laptop on a shelf in a crammed-full workshop

Photo: Yes, I fled to a corner of our crammed-full “garage”, because it is the one space that no one else wants, and there’s a solid door separating me from the rest of the house.  I’m happy about the arrangement:

Me posing next to the water heater

Photo: Me just finishing up morning prayers in the warm, consoling presence of the water heater, perhaps a little too smug in having stolen the SuperHusband’s folding lawn chair from his exile in the camper (because: we’ve been evicted from our bedroom by the sick child).  I need a folding chair, not one of the good lawn chairs from the patio, because I need to be able to clear the emergency exit out the back door of the garage when I’m not using the chair, and we’re not working with the kind of spaciousness that lets you just put the chair somewhere else.

This would be why there’s a construction project in my yard.

***

At least until everyone starts remembering I can now be found hiding behind crates of books and a table saw in my 16 square feet of personal space, this move is game-changer.  I’ve been struggling for the last two years with no office space of my own, and due to construction the SuperHusband has been working from home several days a week all fall, therefore needing during the day the small, cluttered office we previously shared in shifts.  Many colleagues can attest that this has not had a winning effect on my productivity.

Hence my one recommendation for those now embarking on the everything-at-home lifestyle: Even if it means setting up your office in a closet or a bathroom or behind stacks of crates in the corner of the garage, get yourself your OWN space.

Think about the work that you do. When SuperHusband works from home, he has two needs.  One is the big computer with all the monitors (which I kinda need too, buuuut . . . some office chores are going to have to wait), and the other is the ability to pace around while he conducts phone calls in his booming made-for-the-choir-loft voice.  Our shared office is, acoustically, in the same space as our kitchen and living area — in which living area our college student is now going to be doing all his classes online, since the university shut down.

The boy is already a pro at claiming the 11pm-2am shift for getting work done, and since we have all teenagers now, SuperHusband can pace and exclaim on the phone all he wants before noon, the dead aren’t rising unless they absolutely must.  Once the kids emerge from their slumber and start needing to do schoolwork, though, we agreed that the Dad is gonna need to go out to the dried-in construction zone and do his phone calls there.

Just as well I cede that space, which I’d been using as a day office when too many people were home and I had a lot of editing to knock out, because it is possible for contractors to keep on keeping on without spreading contagion (not a real touchy-feely profession), so SuperHusband’s planning to take a few vacation days this spring to accelerate construction.

***

Notes on separating kids during illness: In the past, we didn’t strictly quarantine sick children for cold-type symptoms.  We did our best to keep actively ill children out of the kitchen, but beyond that to an extent we accepted the inevitable.  With COVID-19, however, the parents decided that if at all possible, we’d like to not have two parents sick at the same time.  Yes, our young adults living at home can run things in a pinch — we have two now old enough to wield a power of attorney if it comes to it — but it would be better not to have to lay that much responsibility on them.

For our kids, the decision to make the master bedroom sick-central is victory.  Many many years ago we did start strict quarantine for vomiting children.  We have the luxury of a second bathroom, and once we began the practice of setting up a camping mattress, portable DVD player, and a collection of easily-bleached toys in the spare bathroom, and insisting ‘lil puker stay put until the coast was clear, we stopped having stomach viruses run through the whole family.

That arrangement is just fine for a clearly-defined illness of short duration; a nasty cough, in contrast, can linger ambiguously for weeks, and COVID-19 is growing notorious for its waxing and waning.  So our current exile is thrilled to have her own bedroom for the first time in her life, with private bath, big bed, space for all the Legos on the square of open floor (I insist a path be cleared before delivering room service), and even a sunny window seat on top of a big ol’ storage box.

If our system works, corner of the garage is a small price to pay.

***

Related Links

The Darwins are blogging about many aspects of pandemic-living, including some pro-tips on homeschooling.  If you aren’t already a regular reader, that’s something you need to change in your life.

Looking through my years of homeschool-blogging, here are a few that may be of help:

And finally, Finding Writing Time, Homeschool Mom Edition. Two things to learn from this older post:

  • No, you really cannot work full time from home and homeschool simultaneously;
  • Scheduling is everything.

At the time I wrote this one my kids were younger, so the natural flow was kids in the morning, mom-work in the afternoon.  With teens, I’d say it’s the other way around.  If you’re Simcha Fisher and have it all? The job from home, the morning shift getting littles out the door, the  big kids trickling home in the afternoon, the babies hanging around all day, and the dinner on the table? I don’t care if your kids do wear odd mittens and think that’s normal. You’re my hero.

Listen people: You can’t fully-totally-amazingly homeschool and work a full time job from home with no adult help.  Childcare is work.  Educating people is work. Work is work. There’s no magic.  Pandemic season is going to be hard.  Drop your expectations. Hold together the absolute minimum and you’ll be ahead of the game.

What More Do Old People Have to Give?

If you have not already seen it, watch this sorrowful video showing the increase in deaths in Bergamo, Italy, since the coronavirus outbreak began.  The speaker shows you first a newspaper from mid-Febuary: One and a half pages of obituaries. Typical for the area, apparently.  By mid-March, flipping through the paper as the coronavirus epidemic intensifies: Ten pages of obituaries.

Most of these deaths are elderly people.  At this writing, my own grandmother is 96 years old, and though now facing what will probably be her final illness, she’s had many long years of healthy retirement.  My mom died when our children were ages 0-6, and her mother became very ill with dementia about that same time, so for my children, their experience of “visiting grandma” on my side of the family is long road trips to Florida to see their great-grandmother.

They have many happy memories of playing dominoes and taking Grandma to eat out at local chain restaurants, and listening to her approve and disapprove of various styles and habits. Two years ago there was the never-to-be-forgotten discovery of toy bananas when we all went to Walmart, in which the elder and younger generations ganged up against the mother in the middle in the Great Banana Impulse Buy Debate.  (They eventually won, but I exacted my price. Totally worth it.)

It is not unlikely, now, that my grandmother’s final illness will be COVID-19 instead of the slow-moving cancer she’s currently dealing with.  “But she was old and sick,” people will say. Well, yes, but we were hoping to see her again in June.

She’s 96.  We knew last summer that our visit then might be the last. But what if she were eighty?  We’d have lost an entire lifetime of visits for most of the children; none of them would have any but the faintest memory of her.  I would have lost nearly two decades of mentoring from a woman whose vocation and outlook on life is so much like my own, and whose differences are like iron sharpening iron (clean your house, Jennifer!).  I think I can safely say that her children and other grandchildren and great-great-children feel the same: These last nearly twenty years she has enriched our lives so much, despite “doing nothing.”

Suppose you’re sixty right now.  You are looking at retirement soon, you’re tired out, thinking about downsizing, probably dealing with some health problems, and maybe beginning to feel like you haven’t got much more to offer the world.  And yet, if you don’t die of COVID-19, you may yet make it to eighty.  During which time:

  • You could grandparent a child (your own or a neighbor’s) from birth to adulthood.
  • You could mentor a young professional from young adulthood into the peak of his or her career.
  • You could, from the comfort of your desk, armchair, front porch or fishing hole, provide another ten or twenty years of incisive analysis and otherwise-forgotten experience related to difficult issues developing in your area of expertise.
  • You could finally write that memoir or novel, learn to paint, play the piano, or perfect your putting game, and in the process encourage some younger person who needs to hear by your example, your words, or your companionship, “What you are doing is worth it.”
  • You could write letters to the editor and bless out upstart politicians and conceited middle managers, in the process saying what the rest of us wish we had the nerve to say, but aren’t old enough not to care what other people think.
  • If you’re a priest, you could . . . well, you don’t get to retire.  Sorry.  Nice try.

People with “not much more time” still have much to contribute.

I won’t say that every old person is therefore wise.  I won’t say that every younger person facing a shortened lifespan due to medical problems is therefore living the well-examined life.  Nor do I say that the value of human life can be measured in utilitarian terms; your life is of infinite worth even if you can’t do anything at all.

But sick people and old people and the perfectly healthy young person who also dies of this thing do bring value to the world.

Nothing we can do, individually or as a society, can eliminate every untimely death that this new coronavirus will cause.  We can, however, delay the spread of this disease so that our healthcare systems are not swamped, and therefore no one needs suffer for lack of all the current treatments medical science has to offer. Slowing the epidemic also buys us more time for doctors and nurses to learn which existing treatments are most effective, and for researchers to develop new treatments or preventatives that will save people who would otherwise perish.

They are worth it.  Stay home.

File:St. Wolfgang kath. Pfarrkirche Pacher-Altar Sonntagsseite 01.jpg

Photo: St. Wolfgang Altarpiece, Austria, showing scenes from the life of Christ.  I’m sure you can think of ways it relates to this post, but honestly I just thought it was cool looking.  You can read about the artist here. Image courtesy of Wikimedia, CC 4.0.

 

 

COVID-19 Mind Games II

[Quick update: Fr. Marcin died this morning.]

I’ve had this weird on-and-off cold over the past week.  Sore throat and headache Tuesday, perfectly fine Wednesday and Thursday.  Slight cough Friday morning, then fine all day.  Fine Saturday.  Woke up today with a definite sore throat and runny nose.  So . . . any other year, it would be no big deal.  Not even on the radar.

Meanwhile, an interesting bit of science-ness via Trevor Bedford confirms what many of us have suspected, that in the absence of widespread testing (S. Korea being a counter-example), there’s a significant delay between when the virus first begins circulating in a community and when it is finally recognized in the form of serious cases that get correctly diagnosed. Which causes one to think: Is my child’s runny nose just another round of the sniffles, or are these SNIFFLES OF DEATH?

And thus a surreal moment for my youngest child, when I told her that no, I would not be allowing her to pack into the pews with all the old ladies at Mass this morning, but yes, she may still go mountain biking with her father this afternoon.  Unheard of happenings in this house.

My logic? The trees will be fine, whereas we do not need the backbone of the American church getting infected with who-knows-what.  Think about this: If you unwittingly kill off scores of old church ladies . . . Who’s gonna do the funeral meals?  Who’s gonna get those altar linens CLEAN? Who’s gonna torment Father while the rest of us are distracted with pre-retirement busyness and can only whine and scold on evenings and weekends?

***

Even in a “young” parish, a disproportionate share of the load, lay and priestly, falls on older shoulders.  When we received the news this morning concerning Fr. Marcin Zahuta (our son attends his parish), SuperHusband asked, stunned, “But isn’t he young?”  Weeellll, dear . . . I don’t know his age exactly, but he’s at least as old as us.  Turns out if you have adult children, then you might not be so young anymore.  Fr. Marcin was already well-established as “that young priest” who wasn’t so so young way back when the boy was attending Catholic summer camp in elementary school and Father was the chaplain.

Thus my thesis: If you love the Church at all, do what you can to slow the inevitable so you don’t overwhelm your local hospital.  We have an incredible amount of medical technology at our disposal to deal with pulmonary diseases, we have skilled healthcare workers who excel at helping marginal lungs hold it together, but we don’t have magic.  We can’t snap our fingers and quadruple our capacity for treating highly infectious patients with extreme respiratory distress.

Hence the mind game.  Am I being ridiculously paranoid, or am I just doing my civic duty?  I don’t know.  We’re muddling through, refraining from blatant acts of infectiousness like sneezing on elderly people but not going into complete isolation over the sniffles either.  Maybe we’re not being careful enough.  You don’t know.

***

Meanwhile, my brother called the other day to ask about bringing his family to visit over spring break.  (Yes!  Please!) They’d be flying, which is a germy proposition regardless of hot new respiratory viruses, but I don’t think for healthy, low-risk travelers the threat of infection is the chief concern.  The big question mark is whether you’ll accidentally end up quarantined.

Worse things could happen than getting home from a trip only to be told you’re now on forced-staycation because you traveled through a freshly-declared epidemic zone, and of course you’ve got no milk in the fridge because you were just out of town for a week.  The more serious question he needs to answer is . . . what if my town is that place, and he’s here when the airlines quit servicing our nearby airports, and neighboring states shut their overland borders, and he gets stuck with us for a month?

He’s a brave a guy, but how brave?

If this thing goes pandemic the just the right way, we could end up with some genius help finishing our construction project.

Me with my laptop on a folding table in our unfinished garage / office.

Our Daily Photo Penance: Evidence my office needs drywall, plumbing, HVAC, and oh, and um, lots to be done outside with dirt and pavers.  Family reunion time for sure. 

Related: Darwin Catholic has a superb reflection, “Life in Uncertain Times.” Worth your minutes.

 

 

 

Why Black History Month Can Make Your Life Better

Last day of February, and because it’s a leap year we get one extra day of Black History Month.  This year I’ve been enjoying @Menny_Thoughts daily posts on Black Catholic history. (He blogs here.) The bulk of the mini-biographies he shared were familiar names to me, but not over-familiar by any stretch, and there were quite a few new-to-me stories, at least one of which made me briefly jealous I hadn’t included it in my array of saints for the book.

The thing that bugs me every year, though, is the implicit question when you set aside a specia- month-for-special-people: What about the other 11/12ths of the year?  Goes for womens’ history too, and don’t get me started on that one.

It’s a question I asked myself at the start of the month, and now that I’ve had twenty-nine days to think about it, here are three reasons I think Black History Month is important.

#1 Sooner or later you discover there’s more to Black History than MLK and Harriet Tubman.

Start there by all means.  Those are need-to-know stories.  But if enough years of enough days go by, eventually you start digging into lesser-known luminaries.  This is important because of something a friend of mine said way back in high school.

The topic was a television show neither of us watched much.  I found the characters one-dimensional, the plots predictable, and the dialog stilted.  His complaint: “There’s that character who is supposed to be the spoiled rich girl from the elite family, but there’s no such thing as black people like that.”

I instinctively knew he was wrong?  But I had no evidence with which to make my case.

My friend was not alone. What we learned about African-American history in school consisted of slave, slave, slave, slave, emancipation, Jim Crow, MLK, and then somehow magically you are surrounded by all these black professionals you encounter in daily life, but actually black people are mostly poor and helpless and need social workers to save them? (Always them.)  And also there’s that guy who made the pottery.

Mmmn . . . not so much.

Thus even though it’s fantastically dumb that we need such a thing, it’s good that we eventually get so bored of the same half-dozen African-American figures getting shared around every February that we start to uncover, bit by bit, that there’s a whole lot more to know.  And it’s interesting.

#2 African-American history is American history.

Let’s talk about white people.

White people can get uncomfortable admitting to an interest in Black History.  It’s like if you’re white you are contractually obligated to either have an Official Reason to study such a thing, or else you must use the word “vibrant” to gush about those special special people who are just as good as you — honest! even better! — because of course they are so vibrant.

Me with a copy of All Blood Runs Red, a biography of Eugene Ballard by Phil Keith and Tom Clavin

Actually we know this is true, because look at our daily penitential photo.  That’s me posing with the cover of All Blood Runs Red: The Legendary Life of Eugene Bullard — Boxer, Pilot, Solider, Spy. You’ll notice that Eugene Ballard looks a little skeptical on his cover photo.  He’s totally thinking: Why do I have to pose with this white lady I don’t even know?

Or maybe he’s thinking: Why yes, I am a World War I flying ace, thank you very much.

(I can’t promise you the book’s any good, but the dogfight sequence in the prologue made it well worth the trouble of grabbing it off the new books shelf at the library today. Looks promising.)

You don’t need an official reason to study this or that type of history.  If you feel like you have to explain yourself because you take an interest in the actions or language or heritage of people who aren’t part of your officially-designated special-interest group? Then you need to give yourself some desensitization therapy.

#3 You deserve to be well-educated.

By way of example: If you are a teacher in any capacity, you owe it to yourself to read Up from Slavery.

Yes indeed, it is a massive fundraising letter (missionaries take note, if you need ideas).  Yes it’s also one of those things you need to read in order to claim to be knowledgeable of African-American history (I make no such claim — I’m strictly an amateur). But if you are a teacher?  Booker T. Washington happens to have written a practical philosophy of education that is far more useful than the bulk of the pedagogical blather that gets shoved at education majors.

If you want to learn the art of rhetoric from a master of the English language, read Martin Luther King, Jr.  If you want to learn how to be a saint during an epidemic in a city with neighborhoods under quarantine, read the life of Venerable Pierre Toussaint.

Black History is human history.  You might show up for some other reason, but you stay because you found something of enduring value.

The Corona Virus Mind Game

So here’s a fun way to spend Mardi Gras: Be home with a cold, and have a kid home with a cold, and another one still coughing from what is likely the source of this present round of family plague . . . and then check in with The Guardian’s updates on the ripple out of northern Italy sending folk all over Europe into self-isolation.

I’m on about my third cold-type illness for 2020, and no it’s not just me, my kids bring these things home from school.  No one’s been seriously ill (though I did not love that fever I had the other week while doing edits on the book).  I can’t keep kids home from school until they are asymptomatic or they’d virtually never attend.  Last year teaching, I ran out of sub days (and the school’s not stingy) just taking off when actually feverish or coughing badly enough you could hear the wheeze across the room (and no, I didn’t get sick any more often than my own children or the other students).  Most of the time as a teacher if I was feeling under the weather I’d just arrange the desks so the kids could keep their distance and then remind the crew to wash wash wash those hands.

And thus, assuming the entire rest of the world also catches colds and also has to keep on moving through life regardless, there can be very little in the way of good data on what COVID-19 is doing.  Even countries that can be counted on to publish reliable statistics are limited by local variations in (1) the effectiveness of their diagnostics and (2) the proportion of sickish of people who actually go in to the clinic to get diagnosed.

So we don’t know, and we won’t be able to know for a while.

Not a whole lot you can do.  But pro-tip: If you were going to buy some child you live with a toy or game or book for an upcoming holiday or birthday or milestone event . . . you might go ahead and acquire the item and stash it in a hiding place.  Then if you end up in quarantine before-times, you’ll have a surprise to pull out some desperate afternoon when you really, really need it.

If not? Give it on the intended day.

When life gives you mind games, go with the no-downsides precautions.  Win-win.

File:Lego Color Bricks.jpg

Photo of Lego bricks, courtesy of Wikimedia CC 2.0.  Another pro-tip: Certain toys are easier to disinfect than others.  Ask yourself, “Can this be run through the hot wash and dryer? Can it be dropped in a bucket of bleach?” If yes, that’s a plague-friendly activity.

5 Things That Won’t Hurt You to Prep for Corona Virus, and #6 Will Shock You

Whether or not COVID-19 will become a problem in the Americas remains to be seen. So far so good?  But look, it’s almost Lent, and anyhow there is almost nothing you can personally do to prevent a pandemic or cause it to be more or less dangerous to yourself.  But almost-nothing isn’t nothing-nothing.  Here’s a short list of cheap, simple things that might make your life less bad in the face of a mortal threat, and will probably make your life better regardless.

# 1 Get Your Affairs in Order

It’s tax time anyway, right?  It won’t hurt you to organize your papers, see if your will needs to be updated, hunt down your logins and stick the updated list in the fire safe, etc etc.  Possibly throw out that stack of old catalogs and the wadded up paper towels you shoved in your purse just-in-case.  In the event you get in a car crash next week and your kids need to transfer money to their bank account to pay for groceries while you are laying in the hospital arguing with the cell phone company over your phone that got smashed to bits in the accident, everyone will be glad.

#2 Eat Your Fruits and Vegetables

And lay off the soda.  With the flu, colds, stomach viruses, and presidential primaries going around, you want to be as healthy as possible.  In season in the northern hemisphere at the moment: Root vegetables, winter squashes, cabbages . . . maybe not your favorites, but they are comparatively affordable, nutritious, and the internet is available to help you learn how to cook them into something not-disgusting.

If you are gearing up for Orthodox Great Lent (as I am not, who are we kidding, but some of my friends will be), check out “How to Eat Well During Orthodox Lent” by Chris Masterjohn.  Just because certain Girl Scout cookies are Great-Lent-Compliant doesn’t mean you should build your diet around them.  As I might.  This is why we lazy-Latins are so grateful for the other lung of the Church where the fasting and praying gets done for serious.  Thank you.

#3 Taper Off the Drinking

Your liver thanks you.

#4 Get Your Blood Sugar Down

Hey, look, fasting! Coming Soon to a Church Near You!  If you have Type 2 Diabetes, or a predisposition to it, fasting with appropriate medical supervision can get your metabolic health in order long before any significant weight loss occurs.  Which in turn improves your ability to fight off all kinds of illnesses and generally makes your blood vessels much, much happier.  You can give yourself the gift of healthier blood vessels any time of year, you don’t need to wait for a pandemic to come around.

#5 Exercise

Exercise will not solve all your problems.  The amount you can do is limited by the reality of your life.  But doing the amount that you can, in the way that you can, makes your life better.  Ignore the haters.  You can be fat, sick, exhausted, depressed, disorganized, unfashionable . . . and still benefit from exercising the amount that your life allows.  Do that amount. If it’s too much, back off and try again.

And since you might end up in quarantine, and that might make you go absolutely bonkers, go ahead and figure out now what you can do for exercise and leisure in the confines of your home to maintain your mental health and your friendships with your housemates.  Not a lot of things we can control about the spread of new viruses, but this we can prep just in case.

And finally but foremost, brought to you by a person who needs to hear this . . .

Go to confession!  For goodness sake you shouldn’t need a deadly threat to clean up that crusty ol’ soul of yours.  But some of us are regrettably slack in this area, and if we won’t listen to reason, then we’ll just have to panic our way into holiness.  You could do worse.

 

File:Confession - N&B by JPC.jpg

Photo: Open confessional, by Jean-Paul Corlin, via Wikimedia, CC 4.0.

 

Transplaining J.K. Rowling

Quick update: Rod Dreher has excerpts of the ruling against Maya Forstater, if you wish to know what all the fracas is about.  Read it.  Forstater’s crimes are thought crimes and speech crimes.  Is this the society you want?

***
For insight into the state of the culture war, here’s Katelyn Burns at Vox explaining that J.K. Rowling, the poor dear, just doesn’t know any better because she’s been raised by those dreadful backwards British feminists.  Holds onto these horribly unscientific ideas about gender and biological sex, dontcha know.

Full Disclosure: I am one of seven people on the planet who have no opinion whatsoever about the Harry Potter books.  Haven’t read ’em, don’t plan to, don’t care if other people do or don’t. Not my genre.  As a result, I’m in that rare position of not caring, one bit, whether J.K. Rowling and I agree on issues dear to my heart.  But weirdly, she’s been caught holding an opinion not unlike* my own:

Dress however you please. Call yourself whatever you like. Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you. Live your best life in peace and security. But force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real? #IStandWithMaya #ThisIsNotADrill

So let’s talk about her need to Woke Up!

Feminism is a Big Tent

The group of people (and I’m one of them) who believe men and women should have equal rights is an extremely large and varied population.  We have, at times, different ideas about what “equal rights” looks like in both theory and practice.  There are sharp divides over questions such as whether women should have lots of children (I think women should be free to do so), whether they should stay home to rear those children (I think women should be free to do so), and whether one ought to practice distinctive gender roles within marriage (I think women should be free to do so).

So it is no surprise that the varied group of persons calling themselves feminist, and holding in some general way to a belief in equal rights for women, would be divided on the question of where male-to-female transgender persons fit into this equation.

Are There Things Only Women Experience?

One of the divides among feminists is about what exactly the female experience is, and how it plays out in society.  Are there power imbalances between men and women?  If so, where and how do they occur?  How does one’s experience of being a woman vary based on social class, race, wealth, education, political power, physical ability . . . all these questions are dealt with by feminist thinkers in varying ways.

And most importantly, feminism has from its inception looked at the question of What does it mean to say someone is a woman?  What does it mean to say someone or something is feminine?

One answer, and the answer to which I and many other women (and men) hold is that something is feminine by simple fact that a woman experiences it.

The Fight Against Gender Stereotypes

We who hold this view do so for logical reasons, but also for reasons seated at the very foundation of the feminist movement.  In fighting for equal rights, a significant hurdle to overcome was the challenge that xyz items (legal status, political power, equal pay, certain jobs . . . and the list gets longer and more absurd the more restrictive the culture) were not open to women, or appropriate for women, because it wasn’t “feminine.”

This leads to experiences like my beautiful, stylish, teenage daughter dropping in at Lowe’s Hardware this week to buy more flashing tape for the construction job going on at our house . . . and being directed to the command hooks.  Yes, she is in the middle of a DIY project  — but it’s not hanging knick-knacks, thanks.  She eventually helped the employees find the product and showed them how to scan the barcode on the box, because she knew what she wanted and they’d never heard of it.

Is construction a “feminine” activity?  Well there’ve been female contractors on all the crews that came to our house, and the parts we’re doing ourselves keep involving me and my daughters . . . so I say yes.  The fight of the feminist movement is to not be told Honey you need to leave that dangerous, dirty construction stuff to the men, it’s not for people like you.

The Experience of Being a Woman is Distinctive

Some of what feminists write about is experiences like this one, where, due to societal prejudice, people still assume girls like my daughter couldn’t possibly know what flashing tape is or how to use it.  Other experiences are distinctively feminine regardless of culture: Menstruation, intercourse as a woman, childbirth, breastfeeding, weaning, menopause . . . these are uniquely feminine experiences.

Cultures vary, and so do the experiences of individuals within a culture.  When we look at situations like the hardware store example, there may well be men who can relate in some way to my daughter’s experience; there may also be women who never experience that low-level bless your heart prejudice.

Likewise, not all women experience their reproductive sexuality in the same way.  There are situations where a given man and a given women might find more in common with each other than they do with some other men or other women.  It happens.

Still, and this is the assertion of the strand of feminism that I and J.K. Rowling appear to have in common, there are certain experiences that are distinctive to being female, and should not be explained away.

Where Does This Leave the Male-to-Female Transgender Person?

Here is an interesting story from those who are old enough to remember a time when transgender wasn’t a thing, we just had drag queens and transvestites and dinosaurs: Back in those days, no one was paying attention to who used what bathroom.  If you looked like a woman, you used the ladies’ room, done.

Passing was everything, of course.  “Success” was the friends sitting out on our porch, he a man of variable sexual interests, his date a man in drag, and our housemate coming in late, chatting for a few minutes, and the next day asking, “Who was that?  A couple from church?”  Well, no.  Good friends, but not church-friends, heh.

Now it is clearly on record that I do not hold that the correct treatment for gender dysphoria is an attempt at a sex change.  But allow me to assert something that I think is important in respecting people who experience gender dysphoria, whether they consider themselves transgender or anything else: Other people who have not been there don’t know what it’s like.

Other people might be able to relate, to some extent, because they have had analogus experiences in some other context.  But to be a man who feels strongly that he is a woman? To be a man who undergoes any number of personal changes in a sincere attempt to embody the womanhood he feels is his own?  That is a unique experience.

It is not the same as having the privilege and ease of being born with a female body.  It is not the same as growing up with a firm sense of your masculinity or femininity.  It is not the same as going through life with the whole world agreeing with you about what your gender is or should be.  It is not the same as showing up in the ER and doctors just know what to expect from your body where sexual differences are concerned.

Can Harry Potter Feminism Serve Transgender Persons?

Among the many strains of feminism in the big tent, there’s a brand that I and many women have rejected.  This brand says that “equality” means men and women must be the same. I need to surpress my fertility, pretend not to have a period, show indifference to motherhood, and all the while prove to the world that I’m just as strong and mathematical and scientific as any man.  (In fact I am more mathematical than most of the men I went to grad school with, but that’s not what confers equal rights — theirs or mine.)

I find this abhorrent.  My equal worth as a woman doesn’t depend on my ability to pass myself off as smaller, pudgier, breast-laden man.  My right to equal pay for equal work doesn’t depend on my supressing my fertility or weaning my baby prematurely.  I don’t deserve to be treated with respect only if I can somehow prove that I don’t experience “girl” emotions or “girl” interests.

We who hold that the experience of being born a woman is distinctive, valuable, and deserving of equal rights and equal respect don’t subscribe to the “woman are defective men” theory of gender differences.  Femininity informs many aspects of our lives, but it is not what gives us equal rights.  Being human is what gives us equal rights.

I assert that for transgender persons, this kind of feminism is not the enemy.  This is the path to genuine respect and genuine equality.  On this path, the unique experiences of being transgender are not brushed away.  Your worth as a human being is not measured in how well you “pass” as the gender you identify with.  To openly acknowledge that being a male-to-female transgender person is different from being born female is to get off the hamster wheel of forever having to prove yourself “woman enough.”

Shall We Cancel Harry Potter?

I don’t expect many beyond my ordinary readership will find this point of view persuasive.  We are living in an age of soundbite philosophy.  Logic and the examined life are, at present, out of fashion — and the fashion police are vicious.  The idea that one could have an honest opponent, or even an opponent whose freedom of speech is worth preserving? Unthinkable.

So J.K. Rowling may or may not hold up in the twitterstorm.  If she does, perhaps Harry Potter becomes one of those embarrassing franchises now requiring the cultural-safety warning.  Perhaps, in one of those twists only our warped times can produce,  Chik-Fil-A starts issuing wizard cows.  Who’s to say?

But I’m grateful there are still a few voices championing the strain of old-school feminism on which I was raised, because I believe it’s a point of view that serves all men and women well.

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Photograph of Sojourner Truth, whose “Ain’t I a Woman” speeches should be mandatory reading on this topic, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

 

*I am somewhat flexible on the question of whom you sleep with, but I think you ought to save sex for your faithfully wedded spouse.  But let’s not get into the co-sleeping debate, okay?

Mind Your Narratives!

Here’s an article with a fascinating finding on ancient European social patterns that also showcases a modern western social pattern.  What DNA and isotope sampling from ancient German cemeteries has found is that it was customary, four thousand years ago, for adult sons to remain with their family of origin, but for adult daughters to leave home and marry into family groups elsewhere — groups that were far away in distance and distinctive in culture.

This is a pretty interesting discovery, because: Who does that?  Right?  Neat.  Lots of fodder for thoughts on what that ancient society might have been like.

Sooooo . . . where should our imaginations head?  We could take it any direction we want, and in so doing we’d learn more about our imaginations than we would about ancient societies.

Notice how the otherwise objective and informative article subtly adopts the narrative of poor, oppressed, rejected adult daughters.  We see the illustration of that sad, lonely girl looking back in misery as she’s pushed out of her home and forced to march towards an unknown fate.  The text tells us that the girls are “sent away” and that “you have to give away all your daughters.”

Well, that might have been true.

Or: Maybe girls looked forward to the adventure that awaited them?  At seventeen I was pretty happy to hit the road and see the world.

Maybe women were considered more capable of the emotional and social task of cementing extended networks of relationships across distant tribes?

Maybe wealthy young women (the social class that traveled, per this set of findings) appreciated not being stuck in the expectations of their family of origin, who would always remember their childhood foibles, and were privileged to be able to forge for themselves an adult identity uniquely their own, among a people who expected the new daughter-in-law to bring with her distinctive customs and perspectives, and who valued the combination of innovation and energy that an older teen brought to the community?

Maybe, because she was likely joining a society that was not completely unfamiliar, as there would have been older women in her own community who came from the culture she was traveling to, it could have been best-of-both-worlds?

Or maybe not.  Maybe it sucked being a teenage girl in early bronze-age Europe.  Maybe you got buried with all your arts and crafts from your native tribe because your nasty father-in-law didn’t want too look at your ugly foreign figurines one minute longer, and you were counting the days until you were dead and buried because your mother-in-law resented you for being part of this vast cultural norm that caused her to lose her beloved daughter and get you instead, and also you overcooked the cabbage every. single. time.

We don’t know.

In the study of history, we have to be careful not to foist our own narratives on the blanks in our limited trove of evidence.

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Photo courtesy of Wikimedia, Public Domain.

Need Your Help: Stories of Equal Access

I need your help with getting a door unlocked.

I’m a parishioner (and at last check parish council member) at a large and historically-significant parish.   Thanks to renovations over the years, there are three wheelchair-accessible entrances feeding the parish church.  Unfortunately, since November of 2017 all three of those doors have been locked.  The only way to get into the building during Sunday Mass or Saturday Confession is to either walk up a short flight of stairs (seven if I counted correctly) or wait around on the sidewalk hoping to flag someone down who will go unlock an accessible door for you.

Unfortunately, the pastor of the parish doesn’t seem to understand that it isn’t okay for someone with a disability to have to make advanced arrangements in order to be able to get inside the building for Mass or Confessions.  He’s otherwise a fairly stand-up guy, but he seems genuinely shocked that I would be angry about this issue.

I’m not above launching a massive public shame-storm, but that’s a weapon of last resort.  What I’d like your help with is attempting to show Father (and I tell you again: he is otherwise a pretty sane guy) that equal access matters.

Here is a form where you can share your story.  Can you share with him an example (or multiple if you’ve got them — fill out as many entries as you’d like) of how equal access, or lack of it, has affected your life?

My plan is to pass on to him your stories so he can see, person by person, just how painful it is to be the one stuck out on the sidewalk wondering how you’ll get in.  I’ll also put in a Mass intention for the collective intentions of those who share their stories (so Father L. gets to pray for you, cause that’s his job), and of course I’ll pray for you individually and I think he will too.

I’m not looking for angry.  He’s gotten plenty of angry from me, and believe me, I’m not as nice in regular life as I am on the internet.  I’m looking for your personal story of how being able to participate in parish or community life made a positive difference for you or someone you love, or how being excluded by needless barriers did the opposite.

The reality is that barriers keep people out.  After a year and a half of locked doors (in a previously accessible parish), the only regulars with disabilities are the few who are okay with the new status quo as second-class citizens.  Everyone else has disappeared.  If you showed up as a tourist (the parish receives many out-of-town visitors at weekend Masses), you’d follow the signs to a locked door and maybe succeed in waving someone down, or maybe just give up and move on.  As a result, Father L. no longer sees the people who are most affected by his decision: You’re all gone.

I need you to make yourself visible to him again.

Thank you so much.

I’ll post updates as I get them.  Also: If you choose to let me share your story (and only in that case — opt in or your story remains completely private), I’ll pick a few to post here and elsewhere, so that your voice gets heard far and wide.  Thank you!

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Image: No Accessibility Icon, courtesy of Wikimedia, Public Domain