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Category Archives: Uncategorized

Giving a little on our Amendments

I don’t tend to describe things as “sacred,” but for me the First Amendment comes close. When I contemplate it, I feel a flutter of awe and respect. I think enshrining citizens’ freedom to believe, speak, report, and associate as they see fit is a monumental achievement in history. I consider it a key component of both patriotism and freedom, and I don’t take infringements of it lightly.

Yet after Friday, I’m willing to consider some further restrictions on the press. That’s not something to take flippantly – it’s a potential threat to the foundations of our society to consider legislating against free dissemination of information. But I think it might be worth it. We need to openly investigate whether breathless, lurid, 24/7 coverage of mass killings leads to more mass killings. And if there is a reasonable indication that it does, we need to try to craft careful, narrow, reasonable limitations that might prevent fame and notoriety from inspiring carnage. The press can never rein itself in on this subject, because there will always be worry that competing media outlets will embrace “if it bleeds it leads,” ad-grabbing sensationalism. It may be that it’s worth government intervention to mitigate that pressure.

Please know that I’m only talking about talking about it. I’m not calling for sweeping legislation or doing away with freedom of the press. I’m saying that we need to discuss the issue, to investigate whether there might be a significant risk created by the way media covers this subject, and if so, to see if there is anything we can reasonably, Constitutionally do to address it. If we ask these questions, it may well turn out that there’s not enough evidence of causation, or that there is, but there is no rational way we can ameliorate it without infringing too far on basic rights. But we must ask the questions. What happened in Newtown means you have to have the conversation before you decide it’s a no-go.

And so, I’m also asking my fellow Americans who cherish the Second Amendment to join me. Please, please be willing to have this conversation! Don’t shut down any discussion that has a whiff of gun control by saying, “Criminals will get guns anyway, discussion OVER,” or declaring that the only relevant subject is mental health. The relevant subject is how to prevent mentally ill people from using guns to make headlines. And that involves mental illness, guns, and headlines. Again, it may be in the end that we can’t make things significantly better through gun safety laws. It may be that we could, but not in a way that complies with the Constitution. But we need to investigate and discuss these issues before coming to that conclusion.

Until now, I’ve viewed mass shootings as akin to lightning strikes – random, something that may be lethal and horrifying, but nothing I can do much about. I have insulated myself from the details of the massacres because “I can’t do anything, so there’s no point in worrying about it.” But I just can’t do that anymore. Maybe it’s because my child is in school, or because I grew up 15 miles from Newtown, or maybe it’s just because finally the weight of accumulated incidents has become too much. I may find in the end that I really can’t do anything, but I have to at least ask the question first.

I am willing to engage in some creativity and openness, some brainstorming in which even impractical, ridiculous, “unthinkable” ideas get put up on the blackboard to be pruned away later. Even when those ideas make me feel profoundly uncomfortable; even when they could threaten the foundational ideals of our culture. I’m begging you to do the same.

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Instructions on showing love to your children – really?

Because I’m a masochist, I listen to Christian radio from time to time.  A few days ago I heard the intro to a Focus on the Family episode discussing how to show your children you love them.

This is a question that has never occurred to me in nine years of parenting.  “How can I make sure my kids know I love them?” is a completely bizarre question to me.  I may be anxious and uncertain about a lot of things in life, but I have always had 100% confidence that my children know I love them, such that it’s been a background certainty like the sun coming up each morning.

Now that I stop and think about it, they know I love them because I have always taken care of their needs, had fun with them, read to them, cuddled them, and treated them as individual human beings deserving of respect. I tell my girls I love them at least once a day, without calculation of how much it will reinforce our bond or boost their self esteem, but because I love them so hard it just bubbles up out of me and must be expressed!

I suppose there are loving parents out there who would like some concrete guidance on communicating love.  Maybe some people are just more naturally reticent, or they didn’t have role models in their own parents for being affectionate.  I’m not saying this show was a bad thing.  It just surprised me at first!

But I couldn’t help thinking that Focus on the Family in particular has to puzzle over how to express love to children in part because it advocates beating them.  FotF’s website has an extremely detailed manual on spanking, which instructs parents to hit their children with a wooden spoon, while weirdly saying it’s not violent, but also that it must inflict pain.  Oh, and equating this process with showing love:

The Bible never implies that the rod of discipline should be violent.  . . . When you spank, use a wooden spoon or some other appropri­ately sized paddle and flick your wrist.  . . . If it doesn’t hurt, it isn’t really discipline, and ultimately it isn’t very loving because it will not be effective in modifying the child’s behavior.

This bizarre, contradictory approach is continued in their recommendations for the “discipline” surrounding the spanking, which calls for extreme authoritarian interrogation and demands for capitulation, but also holding and hugging the crying child and telling God how thankful you are for them, in an “intimate, touching moment.”  This is supposed to demonstrate that you deeply love your child while also being willing to discipline them, but to me it seems more likely to make a kid very wary and confused.  You can’t average out abuse and emotional manipulation and call it an expression of love. (Frankly, it reminds me of the cycle of domestic abuse, where violence is followed by extreme affection, and yet also blamed on the victim: “You made me hit you by doing X.”)

And yes, I have smacked my kids on the butt a few times, when I flew off the handle.  But you know what I did next?  I apologized and said it was wrong for me to do that, as you do when you mistreat a fellow human being.  I can’t help but think that’s a better approach to making sure your children feel loved.

In which attachment parenting makes me a bad parent

You wouldn’t like Mom when she’s angry.
(Image by Sarah G via Flickr.)

Well, not a bad parent overall.  But I have noticed a big problem with my parenting lately, and I can trace its origins to my attachment parenting inclinations.

In short, I let my kids get away with too much, put up with their whining way too much, and generally don’t provide enough structure.  Then their behavior drives me nuts and I get too angry with them!  And while AP doesn’t endorse this by any means, and I’m sure many AP parents don’t succumb to this pattern, I do think being a crunchy, responsive, gentle, giving mother to my infants set me up to be a bit of a pushover to my older children.

The problem of course is that a newborn has only needs, no wants.  It’s perfectly reasonable, responsible parenting to respond to your baby’s cries immediately and constantly.  It’s very black and white.  Sure, especially as they grow older, you might take a moment to pee, or to eat before you keel over, but generally the baby’s wants are the baby’s needs. When the baby cries, you as the mother have an intense visceral reaction that spurs you to do what it takes to stop the crying.  This is how it should be.

But the rub is: they grow and mature.  And even when you’re aware that they have wants that can (and should!) be denied, it’s awfully easy to fall into that old “the loud, abject misery must be quelled!” approach.  I’ve forged such an emotional connection with my kids that I feel the desolation when they cry their guts out over not being allowed to have a snack 15 minutes before dinner, or when they have to pick up their toys.  My intellectual side knows that I’m being reasonable, but that’s not the problem.  The problem is I get so engaged with their emotional reaction to my reasonable rules that it exhausts me.

You can imagine what happens as a result – inconsistent discipline, and a stressed-out mom who builds up resentment and tension until I snap and, well, I have to confess it once got so bad I yelled, “Claire stop being a butthole!” (I apologized.)

So, for me, it has been helpful to use the system 1-2-3 Magic.  The absolute key to that approach is staying calm while setting limits, and I really need that.  A little distance, and frankly, being a little more of a hardass, has started to improve my own mental health and my relationship with my kids.  It’s easier to empathize with them and to be loving and gentle when I’m not sucked into an emotional maelstrom, and when I don’t feel resentment over the ten thousand times they’ve already resisted my directions that day.

I fully expect other parents to find other styles to be more appropriate for their families, but I think everyone has one thing in common – we need to navigate this tricky gray area where our children are still children, and require all the love, understanding, and responsiveness that we developed as AP-ish parents, but also have desires and behaviors that must be opposed by those same empathetic parents in an effective and consistent way.  It’s really tough territory, and it can make you crazy if you’re not careful.  Whether you go for the 1-2-3 Magic style or prefer Alfie Kohn, I think every parent would do well to stop and think about this issue once in a while, as our children grow up.

Important Stuff

Hi all!  I apologize for neglecting my blog.  I’ve been distracted by Important Stuff like cleaning all the things and crafting the perfect mojito.

So rather than just not posting anything this week, I’ll at least share the mojito recipe.

For me, the important thing was to get the fresh flavor of the mint, without winding up with little bits of mint floating around getting stuck in my teeth.  I tried one recipe that makes a mint simple syrup, rather than muddling mint leaves, but I felt that that destroyed a lot of the flavor.  I experimented until I found a satisfactory way to extract the oils from the mint and lime, while keeping the mint relatively intact, and straining it out.

Christine’s Mojito (no floss required)

3 wedges of lime (1 wedge=1/6 of a lime)
about 12 leaves of spearmint
1/2 – 1 oz of 2:1 sugar syrup
3 oz light rum
ice
club soda
mint sprigs

Holding each lime wedge inside the cocktail shaker (you want to capture all those oils!), squeeze out as much juice as you can.  Then drop the wedges into the shaker.  Add mint, and gently press everything with a muddler or the handle of a wooden spoon, taking care not to pulverize the mint.

Add syrup and rum, a handful of ice, and shake just enough to mix.  Pour into one or two glasses (depending on your stress level and whether you have a friend handy who likes mojitos) filled with ice, and top with a splash of soda.  Garnish with mint sprigs, if you like.

Oh, and if you do have a friend over to share, make sure you have more than one proper cocktail glass, or you might wind up doing this:

You know you’re a mom when you’re drinking liquor out of a Scooby Doo glass.

(It still tasted just as good.)

I’m alive, but crazy

Hey all.  I’ve had a relapse of my depression, and just running the essentials of my life and the kids’ has been overwhelming lately.  I just got back from the drug store, where I obtained Prozac, organizing supplies, and ice cream, so hopefully things will be improving.

Not to worry, I will be posting soon.  The Catholic church has been doing too much evil and disgusting stuff for me to miss the chance to discuss it.  Hopefully I’ll get into it this week; if not, then next week, when I will also be sharing my experience at the Reason Rally.

Some off-topic Mass Effect fan fiction

Nothing to do with skepticism or mothering, but what the hell.

I’ve been consumed with Mass Effect 3 since its release last week.  The ME series is phenomenal, and my hat is off to the writers and artists who created it.  At the same time, I’m part of the huge cadre of fans who hate the last few minutes of ME3, not because it doesn’t end the way I wanted, but because it really fails on a storytelling level: it is disconnected from the wonderful complex web of decisions and repercussions that make the games so distinctive.  It’s also incoherent, and unsatisfying.  I am enjoying the different fan offerings for alternative endings though.  There’s so much creativity and passion out there, even if Bioware never tweaks the ending (as they are unlikely to do), it’s fun to watch the movement.

WARNING – Slight spoilers begin around here.

For my part, I was very dissatisfied with the explanation of the Reapers’ motivation.  The story seems to be that they preserve organic life by “harvesting” it, but that hardly fits with their malicious and relentless push to destroy every vestige of intelligent species each cycle.  So I crafted my own bit of fan fiction that indicates where the Reapers might have come from, and why they do what they do.  I’m not much of a fiction writer, so it’s probably pretty crappy, but I take comfort knowing that it can’t be as crappy as the nonsensical explanation offered in-game.

The First Cycle

“This machine will outlast everything!”

The salesman patted the demo model affectionately.  “And this isn’t just the most reliable piece of farming equipment, it’s the most advanced.  Fully automated, with the new long-life battery, plus solar panels integrated into the surface.  She’s even got a revolutionary laser cutter, doing away with the wear and tear you get on physical blades.  Once you turn it on, it’ll practically run your operation for you.”

Neela saw her husband nodding and staring at the harvester, his tail lowered in wonder, but she said, “How does it manage that?  It may look lifelike, but it can’t be that smart.”

The salesman ably maneuvered to the appropriate talking point: “Ah, this has the most advanced A.I. available.  Based on the platform that runs military drones, updated with biomimetic neurological circuits.  This unit can gather data and extrapolate from it to cope with novel situations.  It can care for your crops virtually unsupervised, from planting to harvest.  Then when there’s no work to be done, it automatically stores itself and goes into sleep mode to conserve energy, leaving some low-drain sensors up to detect when it’s needed again.  It even has a rudimentary thought-sensing capability – it doesn’t approach our telepathic communication, but it can get the gist of what you want it to do.”

Sinec nodded again in appreciation.  “Amazing!  And it’s cute, too.  Almost looks like a little robot kid.”

It did in fact have some childlike qualities.  Its wide-eyed look evoked the large eyes of children, while its elegant contours and stylized shape made it seem non-threatening, even endearing.  Neela had read that the company wanted it to resemble a living farmhand, without being so lifelike as to be uncanny.  She thought they’d hit the mark pretty well.  

“Oh yes, some people get downright attached to them,” the salesman informed them.  “I hear there’s a sweet old lady in the next town over who chats with hers!  Spends the evening reading The Scriptures to it, if you can believe that.  I don’t know if she’s just lonely, or she thinks it’ll get religion!”  He began to laugh, but trailed off as he looked up at Neela.

“Oh listen to me, talking nonsense.  Of course there’s no possibility of the A.I. understanding such things.  Very strict controls put in to limit any, ah, evolution in undesirable directions.  They think well enough to sort out problems, much like your shuttle integrates GPS info and collision avoidance data to get you through traffic.  A far cry from philosophy, am I right?”

Sinec chuckled dutifully, waving a foreleg as though dismissing the whole line of thought.  “The real issue is the price,” he said.  “You’ve got to demonstrate that this will repay the upfront cost, and pretty quickly too.”

“Of course,” the salesman’s eye opened wide as he saw the sale coalescing.  “Now, it depends on the model you choose.  Most people go for the Regent model, but I really recommend the Sovereign.  It’s more of an investment, but it also pays back faster.  I’ve got the paperwork that lays it all out – maybe we could go inside and go through it.”

As Sinec ushered the salesman toward the house, Neela followed slowly.  She looked back at the machine hovering in the yard, its tail held high to capture solar energy, while its large red eye stared blankly out at the horizon.  She realized she was holding her breath.  She gave herself a little shake, and then went inside.

Please remain calm! Tips for staying rational during emotional discussions.

[Guest Post by theskepticalhippy]

I consider myself a skeptic.  I also consider myself a bit excitable.  These traits, however adorable, can work against each other.  Getting emotionally worked up during a discussion can completely color your point-of-view and remove you from logic.  I will, almost unexpectedly at times, attach myself firmly to a POV with very little information and often for motives that go well beyond “learning”.  My emotional charges into discussions are exhausting at times and I have learned that being involved in a discussion (and by “involved” this can simply mean observing the discussion) is much more rewarding when I leave my emotions and preconceived notions at the door.

I am not entirely to blame for my biases.  Neuroscience and psychology have shown that decision making is an emotional process.  Jonah Lehrer (Journalist with a BS in Neuroscience) presents evidence in his book “How We Decide” that in order to make effective decisions, we have to listen to our emotions.  Basically, the consequences of our choices make an emotional “imprint” by giving us constant feedback.  This creates an expectation.  When the expectation is fulfilled, we get positive feedback in the form of a dopamine release.  This is what many would call our “gut reaction”.  Despite the negative connotations gut reactions can have, these emotional reactions to events can be quite wise and learned.  Lehrer presents several examples of how a well-trained individual can readily rely on their emotional reactions to novel events.  However, it is this strong emotional  connection to decision making that can also make for bad decisions and set us up to continue making bad decisions.

No matter how highly evolved our brains are, they were shaped within an environment that made it impossible for humans to spend a good deal of time on every decision that is to be decided.  Those who could quickly decide were the ones who successfully propagated.  However, this quick-thinking can lead to a variety of bad decisions and erroneous conclusions.  We tend to bias our first experience with the subject/event/whathaveyou with more weight than subsequent experiences.[1]  We pay less attention to opinions that do not support our own.[2]  Dozens of logical fallacies have been identified (Michael LaBossiere has two books on logical fallacies, one book lists 42 and the other book lists another 30).  And, not surprisingly, the environment itself can lead a person to chose “left” when they should have chosen “right”.  All of these decisions are driven by emotion.  It can leave us stubbornly attached to a point-of-view even when presented with evidence that strongly suggests (or outright proves) our opinion to be incorrect.

Being aware of all of this can definitely help but it’s of little consolation when a conversation leaves you feeling stabby.  So, what is one to do?  Well, you can pick up the book, A Rulebook for Arguments by Anthony Weston, but that won’t help you later today when a Facebook status compels you respond provocatively.  Luckily I have some tips to keep you emotionally level and rationally sharp when conversing.  [You may notice a slight internet-centric theme.]

1.    Survey Your Environment – Are you feeling hot, cold or hungry?  Are your children screaming in your face or pulling at your hem?  Did your husband just tell you his parents are staying the week?  Before engaging in a conversation that could turn into an argument (I’m using the word ‘argument’ to mean: discourse intended to persuade), first decide if the environment is conducive to proper, logical, discussion.  If not, see if you can change your environment.  If you cannot do that, it would probably be best to refrain from the discussion until the environment improves.

2.    Allocate Appropriate Time – This is tied closely to the first tip.  Do you have the time to explain to your friend that acupuncture has, in fact, been properly studied and found to be no more effective than placebo?  If not, you may not want to invest the emotional energy into the discussion, especially if these kinds of discussions are known to raise your blood pressure.

3.    Assume The Best Of Your Audience – So, let’s say that you just put the kids to bed, have a glass a wine in your hand, a warm soft blanket on your lap and have a good two hours to dedicate to lively discourse.  To prevent strawmen from escaping from your fingertips and other such logical fallacies, one must assume the best of their audience.  I recently read a Cracked.com article that summoned up my thoughts on this fairly well::

“In many ways, everyone who is different from us is a bewildering, inexplicable enigma. They arbitrarily hate the things we like and like the things we hate, and behave in ways we can’t predict. That makes us hate them a little. We end up concluding that these people (members of the opposite sex, opposing political party, owners of a rival video game system) are just one-dimensional stock characters placed as obstacles or foils in the movie that is our life.
…it’s all due to the fact that we not only do not understand each other, but don’t even try.”

It reads like a bummer but it goes through and lists ways in which we can better understand each other.  For instance, not just picturing yourself in their shoes, but picturing THEM in THEIR shoes:

“Instead of learning two or three facts about people in a different situation and trying to fill in the rest by picturing ourselves if those two or three facts were true about us, you get a lot further much faster by just putting yourself away for a bit and maybe asking, or reading about, what a typical day for the other person is like.”

It boils down to assuming that those with a differing point-of-view came to their POV honestly and with at least some logic and rationality.  I believe this approach encourages the “why” and “how” questions that lead to a productive discussion.

4.    Does This Really Matter? – If you find yourself going ‘round and ‘round about whether or not Bigfoot is a mammal or some type of mammalian/reptilian hybrid, ask yourself if the truth of that particular discussion really matters to your day-to-day life.  If not, take a deep breath and reconsider furthering the discussion.

5.    Treat Differing Opinions As Learning Experiences – I find this useful in spirited exchanges.  Become observant, like Jane Goodall, just watch the behavior of those gentle apes so you can simply learn from them.  Not only can this distance yourself emotionally from the discussion (“I’m only here to observe!”) but you can take that opportunity to review your own behavior (“Am I being an asshole?”).  Pragmatically, the best way to properly engage with someone in a polarized discussion is to honestly and openly accept their views and then build from them.

6.    Don’t Assume You’re Right – Many times we enter into a discussion with some level of confidence that we are correct.  If you enter into a discussion without this assumption, you are less likely to get yourself emotionally attached to whatever opinion you happen to have.  Like tip #5, removing this assumption can leave you more ready to possibly change your mind, or at the very least, keep the discussion rational and respectful.

Discussions can be difficult but if you keep your emotions in check, even the most trying discussion can be a productive one.  I hope you find my tips useful the next time you contemplate tackling a topic that needs your rational and skeptical input.

Footnotes::
1.  Hoeffer, S., Ariely, D., & West, P. (2005). Path Dependent Preferences: The Role of Early Experience and Biased Search in Preference Development. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 101, 215-229.

2.  “Confirmation Bias.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 29 Feb. 2012. Web. 05 Jan. 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias&gt;.

Protesting SOPA/PIPA

Normally I’d be posting something new today, but instead, well here’s the short version, in graphic form.

Here’s the long version.

My biggest concerns are that whole sites could be taken down for one instance of user-posted material, that people will shy from fair use to avoid the draconian remedies, and that those remedies can be wielded by private entities.

Contact your congresscritter.

Contact your senators.