Tuesday, January 17, 2017

7 still-pregnant takes



1

I did not think I would be writing a blog post today. Today is four days from my due date, that is, the longest I've ever been pregnant.  Miriam was (if I remember correctly) due on the 24th and born on the 20th.  So either I have the baby today, or I break my previous record.  I was kind of counting on it being more of an average for me (say, 38.5 or 39 weeks) and it's kind of maddening to still be pregnant at this point.

You see, you hit 37 weeks and it's like "I could go into labor at any time!  Oh no!"  You rush around getting ready.  Then you've got all the stuff done but you're not emotionally ready -- you still don't want to go into labor.  But as the days go by and you get more and more uncomfortable, it becomes clear that there's no way out but through.  Every day, you're a bit more open to the possibility that you could go into labor today.  And somehow in your head it feels like, if you are really mentally ready for labor, it will happen.

But nope.  It will not.  You fully accept that labor will happen.  You visualize it and manage to do it without fear.  You think about what having a baby will be like.  You actually look forward to all this!  And you don't go into labor.  Pretty soon, this wonderful state of acceptance passes and you start to psych yourself out again.  You can go through this cycle any number of times before the baby actually shows up.  Basically the only way to make labor happen, as far as I can see, is to infect the children with the flu or run out of groceries.  Because it really seems there is a rule that you can't ever go into labor when it's convenient.

This weekend would have been great.  We got groceries Saturday morning and had a whole three-day weekend with nothing going on.  But nope.  Not a thing.  Instead it's presumably going to happen while John is at work, and I'll have to have the anxiety of trying to figure out if I'm really in labor early enough for John to get home in time.

The last weeks of pregnancy are a head trip, is what I'm saying.  They suck.

2

I'm going to try to jam in some book reviews here, because I wanted to write whole posts for them and I just don't see how I'm going to do that at this point.

The first one is The Sensory Sensitive Child, which I got because I was thinking that sensory processing disorder might be the root of Marko's issues.  My conclusion, after reading the book, is that it really doesn't sound very much like him.  However ... it does sound a great deal like me.

It turns out that SPD is kind of a made-up diagnosis, because there isn't really a hard and fast definition of it, and we don't know what causes it.  Depending on how you define it, between two and twenty percent of kids have it.  It seems to me that if a diagnosis could apply to 20% of kids, it's not really a disorder -- it's just one way kids can be, and schools and parents should be adapting to it rather than considering it a problem with the child.  On the other hand, if 2% of kids have a really severe problem that goes beyond what other kids do, we really need to find solutions!

In short, SPD means that a child isn't processing sensory input as well as other kids do.  For any given sense (sight, hearing, touch, sound, taste, balance, and proprioception) a child may be oversensitive (finding normal amounts of stimulus excessive or painful), undersensitive (not even aware of a stimulus, which can result in the child seeking more intense stimulus), or having trouble discriminating (they may mistake a pat for a shove, one sound for another sound, or whatever).  And it won't always be the same for all senses -- a child might be extremely greedy for more vestibular input, which will come out in constantly trying to hang upside-down or bounce a trampoline or climb things, while being overwhelmed by too much noise.

Standard treatment is occupational therapy, which anecdotally is said to help. Unfortunately, there's not a lot of really solid evidence.  There are specific kinds of occupational therapy that have been studied a little, but it's still not clear that they help.  What most OT's will do is practice sensory activities with the child.  If they fear a certain kind of stimulus, like getting their hands wet, they might try to coax the child to try it a little bit with some water play.  Or if the child has been climbing all over everything because of sensory seeking, the OT can encourage them to swing or bounce.  And if the problem is sensory discrimination, specific games can be devised that give the child some practice at that.  In short, more sensory activities seem to be the cure for everything.

In addition to this, the author talks about looking at the child's life "through a sensory lens," considering how much and what kinds of sensory input we are expecting the child to cope with every day.  This can help the parents and teachers understand why a child is melting down or refusing to do certain activities, while at the same time planning better to forestall future conflicts.  My answer to this was basically, "DUH."  I mean, what kind of parent does not consider that a noisy environment is going to lead to tears, or that when a child says they don't want to wear that shirt, it might be itchy?  But I guess I've always been aware of these things because they bother me.  My kids do have sensory meltdowns sometimes, and I always know that's what they are, because it seems perfectly understandable to me.  If we've spent all day at the museum, naturally they'll cry.  And where possible, I always alternate very busy days with days with a lot of outdoor time or a lot of quiet.  It's what I would want, and it seems to help everything go more smoothly.

The author also recommends making sure a child's "sensory diet" includes a lot of outdoor time, and not too much screen time. That seems obvious to me -- even the most educational game does not provide the sensory aspect of playing, and that's a big part of why children play.  Outdoor time encourages lots of exercise and a mild sensory experience.  I know that when I go outside, it feels like a weight lifts off -- noise no longer reverberates off walls, there's so much space, everything just seems a bit more friendly.  I wonder how many kids wouldn't even be diagnosed with SPD if only they got enough time outside.

But the book did not offer hope that I would someday be okay with a very overstimulating home life.  It had interviews with teenage SPD sufferers that basically said, "It's still difficult for me, but I have ways of coping with it by avoiding some situations and recharging in these ways."  That's what I do, too -- I try to limit sensory overload and, if given half a chance, I can cool down from it by spending time in a low-input enviroment (read: time without the kids).  But there isn't a cure, in the sense that I would someday be okay with lots of noise and touching, because no one really knows what makes my brain so sensitive to these things while other brains aren't.  No one can even decide if the problem is my brain, or the overstimulating environment of the modern world!

I would like further research to be done which explores the physical angle -- are there vitamin deficiencies or hormonal states which can make a difference?  Because my experience has been that pregnancy definitely increases my sensitivity, as does breastfeeding to some degree.  I've had times where things spontaneously got better even though my life continued to be overstimulating, and it's been quite a puzzle trying to work out what it is.  I know that exercise helps a lot -- as if noise and chaos were pouring a jangly energy into my body which has to be worked out again.  I know that attempting to distract myself does not help.  I know that there is no sense I have that craves more stimuli -- they all want less, though it's hearing, touch, and proprioception that are the most oversensitive.  I know that I cope better if I minimize the unnecessary kinds of stimulation -- the wrong clothes, for instance, or hair on my neck.  But I knew all this before reading the book.  Basically, the main thing I got out of it was, "Boy, my childhood would have been a nightmare if my mom hadn't totally understood all this."  As it was, the years I went to school were inexplicably overwhelming, while homeschooling allowed me to find my own comfort level a lot more.

3

The other review is Hillbilly Elegy.  It's such a great book that I mostly just want you to go read it yourself.  It's a memoir of growing up "hillbilly," explaining the culture and problems of Appalachia as well as the Rust Belt (where the author's family relocated).  What really hit home to me was how extremely similar rural white poverty is to the stereotypes of urban black poverty: broken families, drugs, neglected children, alcohol abuse, unemployment.  It can be hard to disentangle the causes from the effects -- maybe this person is unemployed due to drug use, while this other one got on drugs to deal with the depression of being unemployed.  But once it's started, it's hard to stop -- the diseases of poverty get entrenched and then spread.

He certainly convinced me that some aspects of redneck culture aren't positive.  The tendency to start fights over insults, for instance, or to have very combative relationships with one's spouse or children.  In fact, I hardly want to talk about this, because a lot of what he said would have been really offensive if said by an outsider.  I kind of wonder how "real hillbillies" would feel, reading this book.  At first it felt like an anthropological study, classy city people being introduced to this strange subculture. But by the end, it started to sound like it really was intended for the hillbillies themselves -- showing the way you, personally, can pull yourself out of that culture.

The big question throughout was, "Are these people victims of circumstance, or do they create their own problems?"  And the answer, as usual, is both.  They do have a harder start than other people do, but in many cases they could overcome this if they tried. The trouble is that a lot of their circumstances teach them learned helplessness -- the belief that nothing they could do would really help, so why bother?  Why save money when you'll never actually get out of poverty that way?  Why go to rehab when nine times out of ten it doesn't work?  Why try to keep this job when it's a crappy job that will never go anywhere better?  Yet in the end, the author did "make it" -- not only graduating from college but getting a law degree from Yale!  He credits some extra advantages he had -- a supportive grandmother who rescued him from his abusive, drug-addicted mother, a biological father who gave him a stable second home to go to, a huge leg up from his time in the military -- but he also points out that it was still very difficult to succeed.  He wonders if other people from his hometown could have done the same, while still admitting that they would have been able to achieve a lot more than they did if they had put in more effort.

Here's a quote that seems to encapsulate a lot of this message:

"We can't trust the evening news. We can't trust our politicians.  Our universities, the gateway to a better life, are rigged against us.  We can't get jobs.  You can't believe these things and participate meaningfully in society.  Social psychologists have shown that group belief is a powerful motivator in performance.  When groups perceive that it's in their interest to work hard and achieve things, members of that group outperform other similarly situated individuals.  It's obvious why: if you believe that hard work pays off, then you work hard; if you think it's hard to get ahead even when you try, then why try at all?

Similarly, when people do fail, this mindset allows them to look outward. I once ran into an old acquaintance at a Middletown bar who told me he had quit his job because he was sick of waking up early.  I later saw him complaining on Facebook about the "Obama economy" and how it had affected his life.  I don't doubt that the Obama economy has affected many, but this man is assuredly not among them.  His status in life is directly attributable to the choices he's made, and his life will improve only through better decisions. But for him to make better choices, he needs to live in an environment that forces him to ask tough questions about himself. There is a cultural movement in the white working class to blame problems on society or the government, and that movement gains adherents by the day.

Here is where the rhetoric of modern conservatives (and I say this as one of them) fails to meet the real challenges of their biggest constituents. Instead of encouraging engagement, conservatives increasingly foment the kind of detachment that has sapped the ambition of so many of my peers.  I have watched some friends blossom into successful adults and others fall victim to the worst of Middletown's temptations -- premature parenthood, drugs, incarceration. What separates the successful from the unsuccessful are the expectations that they had for their own lives.  Yet the message of the right is increasingly: It's not your fault that you're a loser, it's the government's fault."

While the author mentions a lot of causes of poverty in these depressed areas, his most important point is this: as long as people believe they can't rise above it, they won't.  That doesn't mean every poor person in Appalachia could be bootstrapping their way out of poverty -- but that they have to believe they can, or they surely can't regardless of how many legs up they get.  The rest of us might do better to think of it as an external problem, so that we don't forget to offer that leg up that might make a difference, but the poor person himself needs to believe that success is possible and dependent on his own effort.

4

This is something that I often wonder about myself, too.  So many times I've felt like I just couldn't get past some handicap of mine -- my exhaustion, for instance, or a spell of depression -- and then one day I make up my mind to just get over it, and I do. And I always wonder afterward -- if I'd just made up my mind to shake it off sooner, could I have done it?  And if that's true, does that mean the whole problem was of my own creation the whole time?  Or was it, perhaps, just the right moment, and no amount of resolve could have solved the problem until the moment I actually did?

Either way, the same thing is true: when you've had a problem for awhile, you can get used to it and assume it can't be changed after it can.  You say, "This is the amount of energy I have," and resign yourself to it, so that you don't necessarily notice when it starts to get better.  Only when you convince yourself that you can shake it off, and you put all your effort into trying, can you really do it.

5

Which reminds me that I did eventually think of a word for 2017. It's "rise," as in "rise to the occasion," or "rise above the circumstances."  I don't know if I will succeed at rising to all the occasions I need to this year -- but I'm resolved to do it.  I am trying to convince myself it's possible and just a matter of determination, because only with lots of determination do I even stand a chance.

What I can't do -- what will utterly destroy me -- is spend the whole dang year feeling like a victim.  Yeah, I'm mad that NFP was sold to me as something that would work, and it totally did not work.  I'm mad that I don't have more control over my life than I do.  But, good golly, I still have an awful lot of control over my life!  I can choose to let problems ride right over me, or I can choose to rise above them.  I can choose to be a good mom of four, or a bad one.  I have to spend the next 18 years with more responsibility than I wanted, but I'm sure as heck not going to spend the next 18 years whining about it.

6

The one nice thing about not having had the baby yet is that I have been trying out a lot of short projects to fill up my time.  I've been playing a lot on my spinning wheel (and actually wrote two posts on my spinning blog!).  I got some peanut oil and have done a little deep frying -- something that's always been a failure in the past because I didn't have a good thermometer and never had enough good oil.  In the past week, I've made french fries, chicken fingers, and donut holes, and they all turned out great!  I've done no end of coloring, in the coloring books I got for Christmas.  It isn't useful, but it's a good way to use up nervous energy when I mostly can't be on my feet. And the kids are usually very happy to sit next to me at the table with some coloring pages for quite awhile before they get bored and start throwing all the pencils on the floor where I can't reach them.  (In fairness, that would just be Miriam.)


These kaleidescopic designs are my favorite.

7

I have had just the worst time finding books that are on Marko's level.  If a book has too many words he can't sound out, he gets frustrated and refuses to try anymore.  And he also randomly decides he hates whatever books I do manage to find.  So finally I resigned myself to making some easy readers for him myself.  I just fold a paper into a 16-page booklet and write a sentence on each page.  That's just about the right size for him, and if I'm careful about the words I choose, everything is within his ability so that he can get in reading practice without feeling frustrated.

The topics?  Minecraft, of course.  It is very difficult to come up with a story about Minecraft that uses an "ai" or "ay" word on each page, but hey, I like a challenge, and he isn't picky about the plot being particularly interesting. So long as it's about Minecraft, it doesn't really matter.

This is the sort of thing I really enjoy.  I love teaching; I've waited and waited for six years to actually get to start some serious homeschooling and here we are at last. I love using my creativity to find the perfect way to get through to a student, and I love the thrill of the two of us actually learning something at last.  When Marko and I get through one of his little books, he and I are both ridiculously proud of ourselves.

The only downside is, each of these books is good for exactly one use, because he memorizes the whole thing.  This kid.  Very much too smart for his own good.

I doubt I'll be blogging again before the baby shows up, sooooooo ... see you on the flip side.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

2016 can go die in a fire

I hate to be overdramatic about a year.  But 2016 really has sucked in so many ways.  I think a lot of the cultural fuss about 2016 being awful is mostly a way of superstitiously convincing ourselves that it will magically stop on January 1st -- that no more celebrities will die, no more gorillas will get shot, and Trump will crawl back wherever he came from.

But really, the reason 2016 has been so awful isn't actually because it was immediately bad.  Rather, it's a year we came into with a lot of optimism, only to have our hopes dashed and the prospect of a grim future laid out ahead of us.  So looking to 2017 to save us isn't going to help.

I know that, personally, that's been the way 2016 has been for me.  2015 was a really hard year, but I had a great deal of confidence 2016 would be better -- that it would be the year I finally pulled out of the rut it was in and saw some improvement in my life.  I mean, look what I wrote one year ago!

However, it is slowly getting better.  I realized today that 2015 is the first calendar year since 2008 that I haven't been pregnant for any part of it.  If I can just keep plugging away, there will (hopefully) be a day when I can sleep through the night again.  When I can put a cartoon on for the kids and take a nap because all of them are old enough to be briefly unsupervised.  When I can count on some time to work on my own projects every day, and the energy to do it.  I'm dreaming of a day when thinking about my garden or my next novel doesn't make me overwhelmed and exhausted, but excited and ready to start.  It'll happen.


Just reading these words makes me feel kind of bitter.  I had such high hopes.  And for awhile it looked like things really were starting to get better.  Miriam got a little older; that helped.  And around April or May I started feeling alive again ... instead of struggling to stay awake all day and accomplish a few tiny things, I actually started feeling like doing stuff!  Probably it was my hormones returning to normal at last, which would be why I got pregnant that same month.

If it hadn't been for that momentary improvement, maybe I wouldn't have minded so much.  But to have things get better, to remember how it felt to feel good, to be able to go places and do things again, to be doing well financially, to feel for a short time that I was actually doing well as a mother, and have that yanked out from under me?  That was what made it so horrible.

Objectively, this year has been less horrible than I might have feared.  Our move did set us back financially, but we were able to manage it better than we would have been able to a year or two before -- our frugality for the past five years paid off in our ability to make this happen.  This pregnancy has been unpleasant, but I don't think I've had any prenatal depression this time around.  The kids have struggled -- Marko quit making those amazing gains in schoolwork that he was doing last spring; Michael has returned to his baseline level of "could power a small city with his whining," Miriam has slept way worse -- but they're still doing better than they were when I was pregnant with Miriam, probably because I am taking better care of them than I was then.  And while the wonderfulness of John and I getting to spend time alone together from time to time, and having our room to ourselves, is ending soon, so far at least this pregnancy hasn't put a noticeable strain on our relationship.  We're a lot better at getting along than we were in the past, for one thing, and neither of us is horribly depressed.

Basically what has gotten me through this year has been asking myself the question, "What am I objectively suffering right now?"  And often, it isn't a whole lot.  Maybe I'm tired, or I'm achy, or my stomach's bothering me, but that isn't the source of most of my unhappiness.  My unhappiness is caused by worries about the future, and I can choose to set those aside as much as I can and focus on how, right now, things are okay.

I still get sad if I think of it too much.  Like how I was not able to write a single word of the book I wanted to write this year, or how we've basically given up on our dream of ever living on a farm because we don't want to have to move again.  When any of the kids gets needy and whiny, I feel like I am failing them because I'm not as emotionally available as I want to be ... and because I know that's only going to get worse when they have to share me with a needy baby.  That's especially the case with Marko right now; it seems he's going to need a lot extra from me this coming year, and it's a year when I won't be as able to give much.  I would like to imagine a reality in which it was no big thing for me to be able to care of a newborn while also taking him to assessment appointments and speech therapy, but that has never been my experience of what having a newborn is like.  Instead I have always barely been able to keep everyone fed and not biting each other.  I don't know who's going to fall through the cracks the most, but it seems inevitable that somebody will, and that kills me.  I thought mother guilt was bad when I had only two kids!

I wish I had something optimistic to say at the end of this post, but I really don't have much.  I'll certainly be cheering 2016's demise, but I have few hopes for 2017 being better.  I fear the post-Miriam lethargy will return, and that I will never find a cure for it (I've had several things tested; no luck).  I fear that Marko will fall behind in school because I won't be able to work with him; that he'll miss out on help he needs because it takes us so long to get him diagnosed; that I'll fail to bond at all with the new baby because I will resent it so much for its neediness when the other kids need me too; that I will resent Michael and Miriam for still expecting me to pay attention to them too; that John and I will drift apart because we are so busy putting out brush fires with the kids that we never spend time together anymore.  Maybe it won't be as bad as that. But I remember, before Miriam was born, saying "maybe it won't be so bad" and it totally was that bad.  Optimism is a hard thing to keep renewing when it keeps getting blown up in your face!

I hold onto small things.  We will soon have paid off the extra costs from moving and the midwife, so that starting in February we will be making financial progress again and I can buy myself some new socks.  John has been working long enough at the library that he is going to earn some time off next year, and we'll actually be able to take a family vacation.  I have found a good babysitter who may be able to help ease some of the burden.  And lately I have felt very encouraged and supported by friends and family -- the more crappy stuff life flings at me, the more people have made a point of standing by me.  It means a lot.

Still stuck on what my word should be for the next year.  I have an image in my mind -- of me rising to the occasion, of being a different kind of mother than I thought I'd be.  A more active mother, one who manages crap like appointments and therapy plans, even though I'm scared of making phone calls and terrible about writing stuff on my calendar.  I meant to be a laid-back mother, one who trusted my kids to blossom into adults with help from me, but without any pushing.  But it's looking like I may have to take the lead more, seek out professional help, and make more concrete plans.  Already I've started being more of the leader in terms of Marko's schoolwork -- setting a time for it every day and choosing the work he'll do.  It doesn't suit me, but it suits him, and isn't that what it really means to follow the child?

Basically, I have to be way more type-A in the coming year than I want to be ... and I have to be that way despite any postpartum exhaustion I may have.  I have no idea how I'm going to make that happen, but I have to, because my kids need it.  I need to take charge of my life more.  I need to quit putting off going to the dentist and I need to schedule a physical and I need to buy new clothes.  The year when I feel totally prostrated by the increased demands on me is not a good time to do all that -- I was supposed to get a year when things steadied out so I could take care of things.  But that year did not come and I can't keep putting stuff off forever.  I have to find a way to be the person I need to be, regardless of how little that is like the person I am.  Comfort or accomplishing some of my own dreams will just have to be a project for another year.

Can you think of a one-word way to explain all that?

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Problems with the infancy narratives

Heresy warning: This post does not question the existence of God or Jesus.  It does challenge Biblical inerrancy.  If that will ruin your Christmas season, please skip this post.

If you've heard the different versions of the Christmas story enough times, you generally aren't listening very critically when you hear them again. For instance, many people believe that somewhere in the Bible it says there were animals present, or that the birth of Jesus was in the winter, or there were three wise men, when in reality that's just the way we've traditionally imagined it.

However, if you look at Matthew and Luke side by side, some contradictions start to appear right off.  Other problems show up when you study the historical background.  I'd like to list a few of these problems briefly; if you're interested, you can research further on your own to see what responses apologists have made as well as the responses to those responses.

1.  The genealogies.

This is well-known but not really a huge problem.  Matthew and Luke list different names in their genealogies of Jesus, even while parts are the same.  There are two very simple explanations for this: first, you can be descended from the same person by two different lineages; and second, genealogies of the time didn't distinguish between fathers and grandfathers, so it's not a huge deal that whole generations are skipped.

Of course, you can also believe that the genealogies were never intended to be factual in the first place.  It's quite possible that neither Jesus nor Mary knew his exact genealogy (heck, I only know like three generations of mine) and so the evangelists made up something they thought was fitting, for symbolic and typological reasons.  It doesn't really bother me that they would do this; I don't think it necessitates that the more obviously intended-as-factual parts of the Gospels are equally untrustworthy.

2.  The reason for traveling to Bethlehem

Both Matthew and Luke are intending to deal with a problem in Jesus' credentials -- the Messiah was supposed to come from Bethlehem, but everyone knew he came from Nazareth.  The Gospels report that Jesus' hearers thought no one good could ever come from there.  So both evangelists had to explain how, despite being well-known as a Nazarene, Jesus really was born in Bethlehem.

Matthew seems to assume that Mary and Joseph lived in Bethlehem all along; at any rate, they are living in a house when the Magi arrive.  The reason they have to leave is that Herod is seeking to kill Jesus.  They go to Egypt first (to fulfill another prophecy) and later avoid Judea for fear of Herod's son, so they choose to settle in Nazareth.  In Luke's account, they live in Nazareth at the beginning, going to Bethlehem only because of the census and then returning home after visiting the temple in Jerusalem, when Jesus was forty days old, to offer him to the Lord.

These accounts are usually mixed together and conflated, so that we can come up with a single narrative.  Yet it doesn't seem they can really be reconciled.  If the family was only in Bethlehem for the census -- for something under forty days -- why would they have a house where the Magi could visit them?  If, as in Matthew's narrative, Herod is seeking for Jesus so that they have to sneak out of Judea, why would it make any sense for the family to go to Jerusalem of all places -- where Herod is -- and allow Simeon and Anna to speak publicly about Jesus to everyone there?  The shepherds, as well, are said in Luke's gospel to have spread the news everywhere.  It seems it would be difficult for Herod to miss finding him if Bethlehem is overrun with shepherds telling the whole story.

The usual answer is that the Magi show up well after Jesus' birth, and after his dedication at the Temple as well.  After all, Herod later tries to kill all infants under two, so Jesus could be any age two or younger when the Magi finally arrive.  However, if he were under two, it seems he'd be back in Nazareth already, and Matthew seems to imply pretty clearly that the choice to go to Nazareth at all was only made later.

3. Dating problems

This one's simple but extremely problematic: Herod died in 4 BC, while Quirinius did not become governor of Syria until 6 BC.  These dates are considered pretty solid by historians from multiple sources.  So Matthew's account comes ten years earlier than Luke's, rather than at the same time or two years later.  Any reconciling of them requires at least small inaccuracies to be admitted in the text -- that the Herod referred to is Herod's son Archelaus, or that Quirinius wasn't really governor yet but still referred to as a governor because the author knew he eventually became governor.  The first can't be right, because Matthew specifically mentions Herod dying and being succeeded by Archelaus, and the second is directly contradictory to what Luke actually says ("this is the first census that took place when Quirinius was governor of Syria").

4.  Historical context

Unlike much of the gospels, the infancy narratives include information that one might expect to see attested elsewhere.  For instance, if a census had been conducted of the whole Roman Empire, we would expect to have heard about it.  Yet there is no evidence that any such thing happened.  There is a record that there was a regional census in 6 AD, under Quirnius, and it makes perfect sense of course that this is what Luke would have been thinking of.  But there is no reason why people would go to the places of their birth for a census; this wasn't the custom for a Roman census so far as we know.

The other big issue is the slaughter of the innocents.  If all the babies in an entire town actually got slaughtered, that seems like the sort of thing that would be remembered and recorded.  Herod's biographers were big on recording the awful things he did -- would they really have ignored a mass infanticide?  In fact, it seems likely that the slaughter of the innocents would have sparked a rebellion.  Wouldn't you protest at least a little if soldiers came to your door and demanded to kill your youngest child?  But not a word appears about this event anywhere else.  Personally I find this comforting, because it's one of the most horrible stories in the Bible, but it does of course cast some doubt on the rest of the infancy narrative if it didn't really happen.

Of course another thing that seems odd is that even within the Gospels, none of the infancy events are remembered by anyone later.  When Jesus' neighbors ask, "Isn't this the son of Joseph?" no one says, "Ah, but remember, he wasn't born here, we don't know where he comes from."  No one ever brings up that the entire region of Bethlehem heard the story of the shepherds, or that everyone who visited the temple in Jerusalem heard Simeon and Anna talking about him.  This isn't impossible or anything, but it sure is unexpected.

Conclusion

Most of the narrative of the Gospels is more or less unrefutable.  No one else wrote about Jesus in any detail, and few historical facts are mentioned, so you can't easily fact-check anything in there.  And when the gospels contradict one another, that isn't really a problem most of the time because you can always assume the same event happened twice with slight differences -- that Jesus fed five thousand one time, and four thousand another time -- if you're interested in preserving exact numerical accuracy.

The infancy narratives are one of the two places (the other being the Passion narratives) where we can clearly say we're dealing with the same time period and so some things must happen only once.  And the differences between the only two accounts we have are so drastic as to cast doubt on the whole story.  Is it possible that the evangelists invented their infancy narratives for symbolic and typological reasons?  Matthew, of course, as is his habit, is mostly interested in demonstrating that Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecies; while Luke wants to talk about the virgin birth and include beautiful canticles.  Maybe they never intended to be accurate; or maybe each was recording a completely different tradition already going around in his congregation.

Still, this is worrisome for the accuracy of the Gospels as a whole.  If a story is unverifiable for most of it, but all the verifiable parts are verifiably false, what reason would you have to believe any of it?  At the very least it downgrades how confident we ought to be in a source, because if some facts in it are false, others may be as well.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

7 quick grievances

I hear today is Festivus, the day for the Airing of Grievances! I don't have many grievances from this year, because most of the things that have gone wrong aren't personal, but let's see if I can come up with seven, in honor of the day.

1

My uterus. Seriously, I hate that dang thing. Not only does it get pregnant when I don't want to, it's giving me Braxton-Hicks contractions all the dang time and I hate those.

My pelvis is also as out-of-joint as it's ever been, so grievances for that too.  I take good care of it, and it just does not return the favor.  The big thing that kills it is lying down with Miriam at night, which I have to do half of every night because it takes her a lot longer to fall asleep than it takes me ... so long before she's still enough for me to creep away, I've drifted off on the floor mattress beside her.

At this point I have some really painful separated abs -- every time I bend over to pick something on the floor (an activity I can't easily avoid) it feels like the baby is going to clamber right out the front.  Hurts like the dickens.  And my stomach is too squashed to eat much of anything, and yet somehow I can't quit snacking all the time.  Especially if it's dry Cheerios, which I've oddly become addicted to.

Anyway, I won't be dealing with this much longer, because I'm 36 weeks today. And yet, I'm not to the point yet where I want it to be over, because I know what comes next.  Hint: it involves screaming.

2

Miriam.  Don't get me wrong, she's still sweet and cute and hilarious, but she is in the thick of a difficult stage.  She wants to nurse every half hour or so, which I won't let her do, so there is wailing.  (She is on my lap wailing right now.)  She can't bear to be more than about twelve inches from me, and even when she's right on top of me, that's not good enough unless I am nursing her, feeding her, reading to her, singing her a song, or otherwise giving her my undivided attention.  If she's not getting that, she'll go deliberately break something in front of me in the hopes of getting it back.

This is either the effect or the cause of her terrible nighttime sleep, which ranges from one wakeup a night to five or six wakeups.  Or sometimes an hour in the middle of the night where she can't go back to sleep and just kicks the wall and whines.  I wanted to nightwean her but I honestly don't know what else I'd do -- she always wakes up a little panicky and if she doesn't get to nurse she screams.  No reasoning with a half-asleep child ... but of course if you get her fully awake then she might stay that way for some time.

John is going to be taking over her night waking soon and I am not sure what he's going to do.  I don't think he knows either.  He can get her down for her initial sleep better than I can, but in the middle of the night she only wants me.  It's something I worry about a lot.

3


Michael.  I'm pretty aggrieved at Michael just now, which mainly isn't really his fault. He just whines a LOT.  See, he likes to play with Marko, but he is about done with Marko dictating all the rules of every game and yelling at him for any detail he attempts to improvise on.  And he likes to play with Miriam, but she's gotten very grabby and pushy lately.  So there's a lot of him either lashing out at one of them or running to me screaming and wailing that they're being mean. And they are.  It's just, I used to be able to count on him to be the mellow kid who'd adapt to his demanding siblings, and he just isn't right now.  Instead he flips out long before they've actually done anything to him, because he's so sure they will.

What he really wants, more than anything, is to run around wild, screaming and roughhousing.  In the summer there are ways he can do that that don't make me lose my mind ... in the winter, not so much.  So I find myself telling him to SETTLE DOWN and BE QUIET 47 times a day, and I feel bad because he needs to get that energy out somehow.  Sometimes I allow some craziness downstairs while I'm upstairs, or upstairs while I'm downstairs (yay big house!) but he really can't moderate his wildness so often he or someone else gets hurt.

Also: did he really need to spend half an hour sobbing this morning because I poured the milk into a measuring cup (to sniff it and make sure it was still good) before I poured it into his oatmeal?  I think not.

4



Wouldn't want to leave Marko out! I'm aggrieved at his extreme rigidity.  Hard to say if I'm noticing it more now that we are working on his assessment, or if he's stepping it up to match with his siblings' demandingness, but it feels like anytime he's crossed at all, there's yelling.  He throws a fit if I ever serve chicken.  He throws a fit if anyone says something inaccurate.  He throws a fit if someone pretends differently from how he's pretending.  Last Saturday he screamed and cried and tried to hit people for half an hour because, I kid you not, Michael said his lizard, Swampy, was made of scales, and Marko says no one is allowed to pretend that because lizards in real life aren't entirely made of scales.  I feel like I'm walking on eggshells, and it's not fair to his siblings either to have to always be telling them "just don't talk to Marko, you're upsetting him."  (Though that's something I have to tell every kid, because every last one of them seems addicted to repeating over and over whatever phrase they have found makes their sibling scream the most.  It's the worst.)

About Marko's assessment: the bad news is, our stupid fake insurance will not cover him seeing the specialist he is supposed to see.  The good news is, the school district will "unofficially" assess him on their own.  By law it doesn't matter if a child is homeschooled; if a child has or may have a disability that is affecting their ability to get an education, the school must provide him with whatever it provides the other children in the district -- whether assessments or specific educational help.

The further bad news to that is, they're taking their own sweet time setting it up, and that's not great for us because now is a great time for me to be taking Marko to appointments and a month from now is not.  Legally they have to move on this by February, which, hello, is no comfort to me at all.

John recently introduced the boys to Minecraft, having heard it's really educational and so on, and Marko latched onto it with the full force of his obsessive personality.  He talks about it so incessantly I fear my brain will leak out my ears.  He's only allowed to play on weekends, and only if he's done schoolwork every weekday (which means we are being a lot more consistent about that, and no real power struggles about it), but the rest of the week is all taken up with talking about it, asking questions about it, flipping through the Minecraft books he got from the library, playing "real life Minecraft," refusing to wear any clothes but dark pants and a blue shirt like the character in it wears, etc.  He's suddenly amazingly cooperative, but only if you remind him that only good listeners get to play Minecraft.  So much for my self-motivated, no-rewards-or-punishments approach to education.  And every time I try to do something else fun with Marko -- convince him to go outside, read a book to him, get us all playing a game that another kid wants to play -- he tells us he just isn't excited or interested by anything else anymore but Minecraft.  He even spent a few days hating Christmas  because he was afraid he'd miss the chance to play Minecraft because we were opening presents and eating cinnamon rolls for breakfast.  I kinda hate Minecraft by this point.

Yet, when an obsessive kid has an obsession, you have no choice but to read up on it and try to take an interest, so I have.  And Marko is getting a Minecraft action figure for Christmas.  I have hopes that it will make him appreciate Christmas at least a little -- and that he'll use it for some creative play instead of just following me around reciting different rules of Minecraft.

6


Might be cheating, but my sixth grievance is all of my kids together.  They just are all going through difficult stages at the moment, and these stages work together synergetically to result in a massive cluster of awful.  They spend their time antagonizing each other, winding each other up in wild games, or fighting over who gets to be closest to me.

That last is probably the most annoying.  You know how you can go outside and it seems pleasant and not buggy at all, but within five minutes gnats are swarming around your head?  That's what the kids do whenever I attempt to sit down.  They all want to sit next to me, and of course three kids can't all sit next to the same person.  So they either start pushing and pinching one another, or they try climbing on top of me to stake out my lap.  But of course once one kid has done that, the others get jealous because someone else is closer to me than them, so there is screeching and pulling at each other.  A couple of weeks ago we all had the stomach flu and every time I tried to lie down on the couch, they would actually pile on top of me like a rugby scrum, kicking each other (and me, accidentally) and wailing.  Mothers should never have to be sick; it is simply not feasible when you have children.

The funny thing is, I was looking at old posts the other day and saw that at this stage of Miriam's pregnancy, the exact same thing was going on.  Lots of fighting, and lots of clinginess and jealousy.  What is it about being massively pregnant that makes children misbehave?  A few months ago I felt a lot worse than I do now, was crankier and more prone to neglect them, and they just played downstairs half the day and left me out of it.  I know that pregnancy makes sensory stimuli more annoying to me, but I'm pretty sure that objectively, they really are being more overstimulating now than they were then.

One possibility is that we just aren't leaving the house enough.  It's too cold and wet for them to want to play outside, and there are very few places around here to go in winter.  And, of course, every time we do go anywhere they come home with the plague, so I'm not eager to try.  Once I hit 37 weeks I'm planning to cloister myself because they pick up germs so easily and you all may remember what a disaster it was giving birth with sickness in the house last time.  But that always does leave the kids bored and bouncing off the walls.

Another is that I'm feeling a lot less willing to treat Miriam as the baby lately.  I do hold other children on my lap now, even when she throws a fit and tries to pull them off yelling "MY Mama!"  So instead of the peaceful coexistence of "Mama belongs to Miriam so everyone else had better go find something else to do" there's jockeying for more lap time.  And Miriam gets super needy because she's not getting the attention she's used to.  I could just go back to open season on nursing and hold her 100% of the time she wants, but ... that just would be pushing back the inevitable, and I'd rather get it out of the way now so it's not a new-baby thing.  Though experience with Michael was that it took him over a year to get over the not-the-baby-anymore wailing and clinginess.  I certainly HOPE Miriam doesn't react the same way.  She certainly is excited enough about everything baby-related.

And maybe it's just a matter of them all just happening to be having a hard time at the same moment, or one kid's hard time spreading to the others, and therefore not really my fault.  I may be able to help -- I think adding a bit more structure to our days has been good, when I've done that -- but in the end the kids might just have to struggle through it and hopefully be done with it by the time the baby gets here.

7

You know what?  Six is enough grievances and I honestly don't feel that negative about life.  So I'll cheat and talk about good stuff that's going on.



First, I still have a pretty decent energy level.  While it's true that I can't do much of anything without putting my hip joints in excruciating pain, I still would pick that over the horrible dragging feeling that I dealt with a few months ago.  When you have energy but lack mobility, you can still knit, spin, read challenging books, write emails to friends, and come up with activities for the kids.  And I am getting more housework done than I was then, albeit at the price of some pain.  And the thing about pain is, you can kind of get used to it, especially if it's not one of the really bad kinds like headaches or labor.

Second, I've been getting a lot of good crafting done.  No time like the third trimester to knit hats.  I even dug out my loom for one special gift.

Third, everyone has been extremely nice to me lately.  Friends keep showing up at my house to listen to my problems and sweep my floor.  I was in a panic about childcare for labor and a post to the local parish's Facebook page got me a ton of responses.  The person we've found is so perfect I want to adopt her.  I remember having all these doubts about being the "heretic" among the tight Catholic community here, but the reality is that these are great people with an actual functional community and that's not the sort of thing one should give up.  Maybe I don't fit in perfectly, but I am being welcomed and treated with kindness even by the people who know my Awful Secret.  Whereas the other friends I've made in the past year or two?  I still like them, but I wouldn't call them up in a pinch because I just don't feel like our relationship is up to favor-exchanging yet.



Fourth, with the leaves off the trees I get gorgeous sunrises and sunsets every day.  I really like living here.  Still puzzled by the radiator -- why does the thermostat downstairs read that it's set to 66, the actual temperature is 76, and the radiator is on, while the thermostat upstairs reads it's set to 70, it's actually 68, and the radiator is not on?  Or why, in the middle of the night, is it boiling in our room and freezing in Miriam's room, even though the thermostat in the hall supposedly controls both radiators?  But propping doors open is mostly taking care of all the weirdness.  Our fridge also started to fail recently, but it turned out it was covered in our home warranty and we got a whole new fridge for a $100 deductible!  Not too bad at all, even though it took them forevvvveeeerrrrr to get to it.  Home warranties are pretty cool, and I'd recommend them to anybody who doesn't have a lot of savings.  If you've got the savings to buy new appliances as needed, you'll save money just doing that, but if not .... the amount of panic that you are spared when you realize that you pay this month exactly what you pay every month, even though a major appliance broke, is definitely worth the money.  It means that one terrible month can't wipe you out.

I would have liked to visit family for Christmas, but of course that isn't feasible at 36 weeks pregnant, and it looks like we are going to have a very nice Christmas at home.  And it's nice not having to stress about travel.  Our plans are very simple and relaxing; no 12-hour drives or plane flights or anything.  I've baked cookies a lot lately. Tomorrow we're having bacon and orange juice and some kind of sweet bread for breakfast, and then for dinner a beef roast which hopefully everyone will enjoy.  (ONE DAY where no one complains about the dinner would be delightful.)  Our tree is set up in the living room, where it does not dwarf our entire living space, and I have a wreath outside.  It's all very low-key, but that's kind of how we roll.  John even has the next week off, so he and I can knock out some new-baby chores and maybe go for one last date.

I hope you and yours have a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

TV babies

Sorry for the recent gap in posting ... that is, if anyone has actually been here to check.  It's partly that I haven't had anything interesting to say, partly that I've been tired and busy, and partly that the spacebar on my tablet is sticky so typing anything requires an annoying amount of effort.  Suffice it to say I'm still alive, and I still haven't had that baby.

I've been watching Scrubs lately, which I mostly like, but lately it's getting very baby-heavy.  Don't get me wrong, I like babies, but I'm often dissatisfied with TV babies. They are a very popular plot device .... and handled totally unrealistically.  I understand why -- I mean, there's only so much you can do with baby actors, for one thing; and for another, not everyone who writes TV scripts has any kids.  But I wonder if people actually get their impressions about what having kids is like from TV.  So I thought I'd clear a few things up with some facts about real babies.

1.  TV PREGNANCIES:
They involve three symptoms, usually: feeling queasy, getting huge, and going completely bonkers.  All pregnant women experience all of these, and generally no others.  They bounce around like normal people and gain no weight except in the belly.  They eat a lot, even when they're nine months pregnant and their stomach is the size of an egg.  But MAN do they go bonkers.  They go from laughing to crying and back again in seconds, because it's so hilarious to watch a woman go crazy.

REAL LIFE:
Pregnancies vary a lot. Some people puke incessantly and some never feel queasy.  Some people gain weight just in the belly, and some gain a little everywhere.  And the stages of pregnancy progress slowly -- you don't actually go from flat-bellied one week to pillow-strapped-on the next week.  Almost everyone eventually gets the pregnancy waddle; somehow actresses aren't always informed of this, because they spring out of chairs and dash down hallways like spring chickens.  And the emotional roller coaster?  Yeah, okay, emotions can be harder to manage during pregnancy.  But it doesn't usually stop us from being competent adults.  Also, your average pregnant woman is not going to bite your head off one moment and the next tolerantly watch you laugh at her with your friends saying "Pregnant women be crazy, amirite?"  No, you're going down for that one. IT'S NOT FUNNY TO FEEL LIKE YOU'RE LOSING YOUR MIND.

2.  TV LABOR:
You know the routine: the woman's water breaks somewhere embarrassing.  Everyone rushes around trying to get her to the hospital RIGHT NOW because if they don't go RIGHT NOW the baby will be born in the car!  Once at the hospital, the woman shrieks and curses and begs for drugs, while still looking pretty.  For mysterious reasons the mother never gets any drugs (unlike 80% of women), probably because watching someone scream and cry is so fun.  There's time for a few conversations and then bam, out pops a baby!  (Generally a two- or three-month-old because actual newborns don't act in movies.)  Unless, of course, there's some kind of problem, in which case everyone acts like the mother is absolutely going to die.  I remember a clip from a soap opera in which the dad is told in whispers that the baby is breech, and then there's a long montage where he pictures life without his wife.  Breech birth is not a serious complication!  After the birth, the mother always looks exactly as she did before getting pregnant and is capable of all her normal activities.

REAL LIFE:
Labors tend to be long, especially first labors.  They usually start with contractions, not water breaking, and nobody knows at first if it's the real thing.  The smart thing is to stay at home for awhile because there is no point in going in while it's still getting started.  There is usually no rush.  Once you get to the hospital, there might be some time for screaming and begging for drugs, but when labor gets serious, the mother probably isn't going to be able to talk at all during contractions.  She'll probably look a fright -- no more TV makeup.  Pushing usually involves more grunting than screaming.  And while complications are common, doctors are pretty good about reassuring the parents that a c-section is not normally life-threatening.  Newborns look totally gruesome.  They are covered in blood and vernix; they do not have belly buttons; their skinny little arms and legs flail around in a jerky way.  Call the Midwife is the only show I've watched which actually has newborns in it; any other "newborn" you've seen on TV is an older baby or a doll.  Oh, and mothers who have just given birth still look pregnant for several days or weeks after.  For the first week or so they can often barely walk.  They cannot chase down bad guys.  They can barely make it to the bathroom.

3.  TV CHILDCARE:
This one drives me bananas.  In television, you see, children only need to be cared for when the plot requires it.  Single mom spontaneously decides to stay at her boyfriend's overnight?  She can just do it, no need to call the babysitter and ask her to stay over.  The baby just vanishes as required.  Oh, and if the spouses are having a fight, both of them can meet up at random in a non-home location, without the baby, and that's totally fine.  Dad does not see Mom and ask, "Where's the baby?" because of course the baby is perfectly fine unattended late at night.  It's probably doing the dishes so they're sparkly when Mom and Dad get home.

Conversely, it's no biggie for parents to bring their babies anywhere, at any hour.  A toddler can come to a 10 pm concert, no sweat, and rather than getting overtired and throwing a fit, will make cute comments or entertain himself in someone's lap.  A crawling infant is a real asset at work and nobody ever says anything mean about it; they are all happy to abandon their own work and watch the baby.

REAL CHILDCARE:
Babies have to be watched 24/7.  That's the reality.  It does in fact put a massive kink in your life, and unless you're independently wealthy and/or have a live-in grandma, there are going to be dramatic moments you'll just have to miss.  I'm sure, of course, that in all these TV shows there's some reasonable explanation; they just don't *include* the frantic 10 pm call to the babysitter explaining that Mom just *has* to chase down her husband to yell at him for playing too many video games, she'll pay time-and-a-half!  But it leaves anyone who actually is a parent asking themselves, "Where is the baby? Who is watching the baby?"

And in real life, when you take a baby somewhere, they can be very intrusive.  Doubly so for a toddler. You have to consider their usual schedule, they will definitely melt down if they can't have a nap when they are used to one, and even a toddler on his best behavior is a great deal of trouble.  But even if you've got an infant and they are peacefully slumbering in a carrier, people always think they're intrusive, even when they're not.  They do not (with rare exceptions) say, "Oh, cute, you brought a baby with you!"  They say, "Are you serious about this job?"  Or, "This is a nice restaurant, not a Chuck E. Cheese."  People vary, but in any group of ten people or so there's likely to be someone who dislikes babies.



Now, of course, TV shows and real babies aren't all the same.  Some real babies act like movie babies (quiet and totally accepting of whatever you do) and some pregnancies and labors actually go like on TV, which is why the scriptwriters thought that was realistic.  And we can ignore the little details (like newborns not being newborns, or babies very obviously leaning away from the person who is supposed to be their parent) because of course there is only so much you can expect a baby "actor" to be able to do.

The only TV shows I've seen that consistently portray babies and parenthood realistically are Jane the Virgin and Call the Midwife.  The former is so good that I want to make every first-time mother watch it.  It covers the real stuff -- the emotional journey of motherhood, the anxiety, mother's groups, juggling childcare, the conflict between career and parenting, postpartum depression, breastfeeding problems.  My only tiny quibble is that there is no way a girl of Jane's economic class and frugal habits would have such gorgeous maternity clothes.  She never wears the same thing twice and it's all super cute.  Your average real pregnant woman, by 40 weeks, is wearing the same pair of maternity sweatpants every day and her belly is hanging out of an XL tshirt.  Nice maternity clothes are hard to find and extremely pricey.

And as for Call the Midwife, it absolutely is what labor and birth are like.  True, it was the 60's, so some obstetrical practices have changed, but the stages of birth are accurately depicted, along with the emotional challenges of each.  I would recommend it to anyone who wants to have kids someday, as well as everyone who thinks the past was so much better than now.  But I don't recommend it if you're actually pregnant -- it will make you ugly-cry about 50% of the time.

Scrubs is hit-or-miss -- you can tell some of the scriptwriters have kids and some don't.  There's a PPD episode that is totally raw and real ... and then there are whole episodes where apparently no one actually remembers they even have kids.  And even the shows that manage babies terribly have their moments.  House MD has a scene where a mother wonders if being a parent was the right choice, and it hit me where I live.  And on Friends when Phoebe has the babies .... well, there was one very real moment in there.  (Also, her maternity overalls?  Hideous but tempting ... no waistband!)

I'm sure I didn't include all the terrible inaccuracies of TV parenthood -- feel free to chime in!

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Distrusting "the media"

Most people I know, on either side of the aisle, "distrust the media."  However, they don't distrust all media.  Everyone's selective about what they dismiss as "the lamestream media" or "the right-wing noise machine."  And unfortunately sometimes media which confirms a person's preexisting worldview gets accepted uncritically.  But, I mean, you have to trust something, at least a little bit, or how would you know anything?  I have yet to hear someone say, "I'm not sure who won the presidential election; it's true that the media says it was Trump, but we all know the media can't be trusted."  So we make a choice to trust some sources, and sometimes we choose the wrong ones.

We've all been seeing it a lot recently, as Facebook erupts with stories that are disproved by a two-minute factcheck, or false "facts" get quoted at us by people we thought of as intelligent and skeptical.  For instance, in the past few days I have read that Trump really did win the popular vote after all (he didn't), that three million illegal immigrants voted in California (there is no evidence for this), and that Steve Bannon is an open white supremacist (the most that can be verified is that he does not appear to mind profiting off of white supremacy).  But rather than just seeing sketchy links that proclaimed these "facts," I heard them cited as common knowledge by people who I don't think of as dumb.  So clearly the purveyors of misinformation are getting really good at what they do.

My first idea to combat this was to compile a list of reputable news sites and junk news sites, so that people would stop sharing stuff from Infowars and thinking that made them look knowledgeable.  But the trouble with that is, any list I could possibly compile would appear biased to someone.  If I criticized a site you trust, rather than take my word for it, you'd mistrust me.

So instead, I'm going to offer some tips for assessing a story that you see shared online.

1.  Scrutinize the website.  A site crowded with intrusive pop-up ads is a bad sign, while a paywall or free-article limit is a good sign -- their content is good enough that they fully expect people will pay up for it.  Poor site design is a bad sign -- if they can't afford a web designer, it's unlikely they employ a fact-checker either.  Look at the other headlines featured on the site -- are all of them stories that seem reasonable or credible?  Boring stuff like "Trump meets with foreign ambassador" or "Paul Ryan considers tactics for next year" are good signs.  Outrageous headlines like "Trump in the pay of the Russians" or "Chemtrails increase in 2016" are terrible signs.  If there is even one headline on the site that you know for sure is false, the site itself clearly is untrustworthy.

In general, sources that are not only online are more professional and therefore more trustworthy.  If it's the online version of a TV network, radio network, or (best of all) print newspaper, then it has a reputation to lose which it will very carefully protect by hiring factcheckers and going over the information carefully.  Otherwise, it risks a lawsuit or a loss of subscribers.  An internet-only source is more likely to be short-lived and operated on a shoestring, perhaps without any factcheckers at all.  Local papers are often very professional, but you want to be careful to make sure that's a local paper you're reading and not something deceptively named to trick you into thinking it's the hometown paper of Omaha when it's really a junk website.

2.  Read the article.  Keep in mind that the body of the article is where the facts are -- the headline is written by an editor afterward and may be misleading.  Ask yourself: what sources does the article cite?

Best: "Joe Schmoe, assistance secretary to the chairman of the board, said..."
Acceptable: "A source close to the official said ..."
Worst: "Dan Whackadoo, president of [organization you've never heard of that clearly lobbies for a certain point of view] said ...."

There should be multiple sources quoted in the article, and they should not all be anonymous.  When I was interviewed by the AP for their article on my boarding school, the journalist urged me to go on the record by name if at all possible.  She might throw in a quote by an anonymous source (provided, of course, that she knew who it was), but she couldn't base the crucial facts of her article on those.  Good news readers give the most credibility to named sources who can be proven to be close to the story.  Even within a single story, when a fact is tied to a named source, it is more likely to be true than facts supported only by anonymous sources.  And quotes from the spokespeople of lobby groups are there only for flavor and opinion -- they aren't close to the story so they are in no position to know.

3.  Consider bias.  Here, it helps if you know the slant of the media outlet you're reading.  Most of the most popular professional outlets in America are slightly left-of-center.  They try to be balanced, but no one really is.  So if you can guess at the direction the bias is coming from, it'll help you interpret the story.  Ask yourself: what facts are not included?  What facts might completely change my interpretation of this story if they were included?  A reputable paper will be very careful not to include any facts it can't verify, but they are a lot sneakier about leaving out details that make their side look bad.  Or they'll slip in bits of interpretation or opinion here and there -- can you identify them and mentally set them apart from the actual facts described?  Ask yourself: what actual verifiable facts are in this article?  So if the article is about Steve Bannon being a white supremacist, throw out anything that smacks of hinting or generalizing and dig for the actual facts used to support the opinion that he is a white supremacist.  What can we verify that he said, wrote, or did?

4.  Check multiple sources.  The simplest way to do this is to simply copy the headline, paste it into Google, and see what you get.  Google ranks its search results based on the credibility of each site -- more linkbacks from other sources mean higher pagerank -- so the links on the first page are probably as good as it's going to get.  Are there any sources on the first page that are reputable papers you've heard of?  If so, go there first -- preferably picking one each from the left and the right.  If both accept the story is true and offer sources, then I think you can safely say, it probably happened.  If not, pick a couple and look at all of them.  If the story seems outrageous or incredible and it isn't being covered by the "mainstream media," there is probably a reason.  Major news outlets love their clicks as much as anyone and if there were a story that exciting, they would either post the story or post an answer or rebuttal of the story.  Unless, of course, they looked into it and couldn't find any evidence it actually happened.

If you're in that boat, try adding the word "factcheck," "hoax," or "snopes" to your search.  If it's really a scam, these usually appear within 24 hours of the original story.  But don't jump to conclusions!  Just because a factchecking site covered it doesn't mean it's a hoax.  The factchecking site should go through the evidence for the story and assess whether it is credible.  Usually they will include outside links for you to go look for yourself.  So that should help put to bed the idea that "Snopes is biased so I can't trust it when it debunked this story."  Maybe it is biased, but if it provides sources or good reasons to disbelieve the story, you should take that into consideration.  Sadly what most people mean when they say "Snopes [or whoever] is biased" is, "It debunked one of my pet conspiracies, and I'm just so sure it's real."  If you're so tied into continuing to believe what you already believe, you will never succeed at wading through the media to find the truth.

5.  Finally, if you don't have time to do all this, or you've tried and you still can't find any strong evidence to be sure about the story ... don't share it!  Or, if you want to mention the story in a discussion, make clear that you are uncertain about it.  Say, "I heard that x, but I don't know whether to believe it," or "Have you heard the rumor that y?  I can't find a good source for it, but maybe you should do some research if you're interested."

Nothing drives me crazy like people trotting out rumor as fact, who, when called on it, say, "Well, sorry, I hadn't looked into it yet!"  Yeah, okay, then don't tell people it's true!  You all know I have issues with people standing as witness for things they haven't honestly looked into.  What happens then is that other people repeat the story, convinced it's true because Bob, who is such a smart honest guy, said it was.  You trust that people checked their sources, when often they did not.  Which is why I would advise doing this same diligence on a story even if your best friend who is in Mensa told you it's true.  They might be a bit lazy and didn't check.  Don't be another link in the rumor chain.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Calmer thoughts about the election

I am happy to report that my initial distress following the election didn't result in a downward depressive spiral, as I had feared. Instead, two friends came over Wednesday afternoon and cheered me up. John brought chocolate after work.  I woke up Thursday with a lot more optimism.  Sure, this election is bad news and bad things will probably happen as a result of it.  However, I can create enough distance for myself to live my life, and I don't need to feel guilty about doing this because it's not like my distress was helping anyone.

Facebook has been nastier than expected; I thought this would happen if Clinton won (because Trump supporters would be livid) but I did not think that I would see so much anger and mockery from Republicans if they won.  Clinton supporters, too, have been very upset and not all of them have been trying as hard to keep civil as I have.

So I've been turning from the immediate fears I have to reflecting on deeper trends.  What does it mean, that nationalist movements are gaining steam around the world?  How exactly would one even define these movements?

Fitting this into my usual frames of reference, I would say that Trump-ism is, first and foremost, zero-sum.  All his rhetoric and his policies support this: he feels America is losing and other countries are winning, and he wants other countries to lose so America can win.  A good deal, to him, follows not the ideal of Adam Smith and Milton Friedman, that everyone walks away feeling like a winner, but that you win and the other guy loses.  His trade policy is, "Other people are doing better than us out of our trade deals, so we should stop trading."  His foreign policy is, "Other countries are getting more out of alliances than we are, so we should stop honoring those alliances."  In short, America first.  The same attitude is common in nationalist movements in other countries, such as Brexit.

Now I have admitted in the past that some conflicts really do have zero-sum solutions.  Land ownership for agriculture is a big one, which is why I've grudgingly abandoned agrarianism.  But trade and world peace are, in my opinion, perfect places for non-zero-sum thinking -- and it's exactly that sort of thinking that has made the world as prosperous and peaceful (comparatively) as it currently is.

The second thing I would point to comes more from Trump's followers than himself -- it's placing the unit of mattering on a culture rather than an individual.  That is, they don't simply value the human rights and happiness of the people they live alongside, but also the preservation of their community in its current state.  If, for instance, they come from a dying factory town, they don't just want to be retrained for new jobs, or move to a different state where there are factory jobs available. They want to bring back their town the way it was, factory jobs and all.  And this is often the same sentiment that is interpreted as racism -- a desire to keep their culture intact, rather than changed by immigration.  I don't have a lot of sympathy for this, personally, because I am primarily an individualist.  But I don't think those who feel this way are necessarily just "racist" or "xenophobic."  Perhaps a better word would be "nostalgic"!  Because of course change happens, regardless of how hard you fight it, but it's happening particularly fast at the moment and I understand if it feels very unsettling.

The Better Angels of Our Nature discusses this divergence between individual rights versus cultural and communal values.  The author comes down very hard on the side of individual rights, pointing out that liberal democracies which consider themselves to be defending the rights of whichever individuals happen to live there (America, Canada, modern European nations) do a lot better than countries which see themselves as preserving a certain kind of culture (Nazi Germany, Islamic democracies, ethnocentric Balkan states).  But then, that sort of depends on your measure, doesn't it?  It's true that individual rights are preserved more in the individualist societies, but it's also undeniable that social change has tended to be rapid, including the decline of religion.

And the third major issue is a mistrust of global elites.  In our increasingly globalized world, it is very hard to draw the line between "there's a global conspiracy pulling all the strings behind the scenes in order to rip off the little guy!" and the actual truth, which is .... that in fact there are a lot of wealthy people, both in politics and business, who wield an undue influence, buddy up to each other, and don't care very much about you.  It's not so much a conspiracy as a situation in which the incentives don't always line up for decent behavior.

Thus, if you've read at all into the details of any political question -- as I have, on the topic of food and farming -- you reach the part of the story where elected representatives get together with the owners of massive corporations in a back room and work everything out between them.  And guaranteed, it's not what you or any ordinary person would have wanted.  I don't actually believe that all elites, or all multinational corporations, or all politicians, are as corrupt as all that.  Sometimes they deal with each other to actually make the world a better place; sometimes they aren't really working with each other at all because they're a diverse gang that wants different things.  But it's not unreasonable to be untrusting of these people.  The only unfortunate part is when people start to demonize anything that goes along with being "elite," such as expertise, and only trust people who are complete outsiders and thus totally clueless about the complexity of the system.

The really miraculous thing is that Trump managed to pass himself off as not a part of this untrustworthy crowd.  But once he had done so, and so many elites (for good reasons) expressed their dislike of him, that seemed like proof that he was a good guy -- on our team, not the elites' team, because if he were one of them, they would like him.  Which would work better if the global elite really were a massive conspiracy with a single set of goals rather than the messy tangle it really is.

The second question is, why now?  What has caused such a sudden backlash, when a short time ago it looked like the world was on one long march in a progressive direction?

1.  Economics.  I am not convinced by the narrative that Trump was elected by poor factory workers who lost their jobs -- because all the evidence is that Trump supporters were mostly middle-class.  However, I think there's a good argument for a broader kind of causality.  The whole developed world was doing very well in the early oughts, and suddenly we had our recession in the US, along with similar issues around the world.  That led a lot of people to feel that they're doing less well than they once were, or than they expected to be, and to blame global elites (some of whom absolutely were responsible).  And I think it also caused people to lose faith in the capitalist/democratic system that's been working so well up to now.  If it can't prevent recessions or austerity measures, what good is it?

2.  Islamic terrorism.  While xenophobia always finds something, real or imagined, to latch onto -- inventing global Jewish conspiracies or Catholic immigrant mafias -- in this case, the feared outsider group actually does contain some people who will literally kill you.  So it spurs a panicky backlash as a single terrorist attack reverberates around the world, leaving people thinking, "What if that happens here? We must block these scary outsiders from entering or it will happen here for sure."  Repeated attacks increase the fear, and also drive further reduction of faith in democratic pluralism.  Democracies get along really well with one another, we know this, but are they equipped to handle radical Islamic states and terrorist groups?

3.  Enlightenment values have been a victim of their own success.  Just as vaccination rates for a disease drop when people have never seen the disease -- imagining that polio could never come back or that diphtheria can't have been so bad, because no one has ever seen either -- faith in democracy drops as people lose familiarity with the alternatives.  Europe has been at peace so long we imagine it will always be at peace and can never be otherwise.  Human rights have been defended so long that many people have been telling me that we really don't need to worry about racism any longer, no matter what racist things some leaders say, because it's just dead and won't come back.  And I think that's a dangerous assumption.  There are reasons for the level of peace in the world right now -- stuff like free trade and alliances -- and if you axe those things, there is no reason to assume the standard level of peace and prosperity the developed world enjoys would continue.

4. Putin????   Okay, this one is more of a conspiracy theory than a reflection.  But I have been quite shocked lately to hear of how many  of these nationalist parties have been sponsored or supported by the Russians.  There have been cases of the Russians hacking into news networks before elections to display fake ISIS propaganda, or leaking juicy details about establishment candidates to help nationalist ones.  I can't be sure of this; my only source was in TIME magazine and they put all their best stuff behind a paywall.  (I read it in the doctor's office.)  But it's something worth thinking of.  If Putin himself is a nationalist, and he feels threatened by the united strength of Europe and the US, might he not wish to fracture that unity by encouraging go-it-alone attitudes in each country?

* * *

So that's what I think is going on.  I don't think it really matters that Trump is a playboy millionaire with a history of general skeeviness; I don't think that's why anyone voted for him.  Honestly, it may have helped, by getting Trump a lot of free coverage in a primary field where it was hard to get noticed.  Rather, his win is a triumph of anti-Enlightenment forces: zero-sum over cooperation; nationalism over globalism; culture over individual.

But that doesn't mean, of course, that we will now see a world or even a nation run by only these forces.  Half the country -- well, more than half -- never agreed with Trump in the first place, and many of those who did support him did so simply for partisan reasons, as our two-party system encourages.  It may be that he screws things up so bad in his first two years that he loses the Senate again, and the next two years accomplishes little or nothing.  Then again, it may be that his reluctance to uphold our alliances results in a nuclear Iran or Russia encroaching on the Baltic states.  I don't know, and this uncertainty is scary.

I do feel some confidence, however, that the Enlightenment values Trump's movement opposes are the exact reasons why the world is going as well as it is: why developed nations no longer fight one another; why individual rights are being championed so well.  Yes, the capitalist/democratic/progressive/globalist system has flaws -- its ability to be manipulated by the few people able to understand its complexity being one of those flaws.  Yet I think these flaws can be battled from within that system rather than trashing the whole thing.  That's the main reason I've opposed Trump all along -- though don't get me wrong, I detest him as an individual too.  He opposes everything which has been making the world a better place for the past sixty years: free trade, international alliances, pluralism.  (I could write a whole post on the ways immigration makes the world a better place -- maybe I should.)

Yet I am going to try not to read Trump's win as the definitive victory of the forces of darkness.  It's a setback, hopefully a temporary one.  Most of the world still wants to move forward, not backward, and there are ways to do it even if the most powerful man in the free world isn't on your side.

Recommended reading:
Don't Mourn, Organize - Thing of Things
White Riot - Vox [Note: facts very interesting. Tone very inflammatory.  If you are a typical conservative who absolutely cannot handle anyone thinking that anyone you like is racist, it will make you mad.]
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