I got life

29 09 2015

So: “pinched nerve” might be a lay and not medical term, but it does describe a real phenomenon, in my case, an impingement upon the sciatic nerve.

No, I didn’t get this diagnosis from a doctor—there’s not much she could do, so why bother—but it’s pretty clear from my symptoms that my occasional lower back troubles can cause what is literally a pain in my ass.

If I want a more exact diagnosis than “o.l.b.t.”, then, yes, I’d need to see a doctor and undergo a variety of expensive (e.g., MRI) tests, but as a more exact diagnosis would likely lead to no greater precision in treatment—rest, time—there’s seems little point in doing so.

I am gonna have to get more ibuprofen, though.

I.

While I haven’t enjoyed in any way the pain from my grumpy sciatic nerve, I did take interest in the (non-pain) side effects of the jumped-up nerve, namely, the random twitching up and down my lower right side.

At one point early on I watched the middle toe of my right foot flutter like a drunk hummingbird. It didn’t hurt at all, and if I concentrated, I could stop the movement; in any case, after 10 or maybe 20 minutes, it stopped.

Sometimes my glutes twitched, sometimes, the muscles in my calf. It’d start, then stop, seemingly at random.

I still get the occasional muscle-shudder, but as whatever is annoying the nerve is slowly retreating, so to is the twitching.

II.

One of the reasons I love teaching my bioethics course is that I get to talk about human biology, which is so astonishingly jerry-rigged that I can’t help crowing “biology is so cool!”

Most of us Homo sapiens sapiens have 46 chromosomes occupying the nuclei of our somatic cells, but some of us have 45 and some have 47, 48, or even 49 (that’d be one of the varieties of Klinefelter’s).

A woman with Turner syndrome is missing a second sex chromosome (45,XO), and while she’s infertile and may experience some developmental delays, she likely will have normal intelligence and may live out a normal life span. On the other hand, a child born with a deficiency in the short arm of the 5th chromosome will be born with Cri-du-chat syndrome, which affects both her physical and intellectual development, and may leave her unable to communicate.

So, missing an entire chromosome might have fewer effects than missing a portion of an arm of chromosome. A man who is 47,XYY is likely to experience no effects whatsoever, 47,XXY will have Klinefelter’s (and thus be infertile), and 21,XXX (Trisomy 21 or Down syndrome) will experience profound physical and intellectual effects.

Oh, and some women are 46,XY.

Now, one of the things that can be inferred from this little recitation of chromosomal abnormalities is that the genes on these chromosomes are tremendously important, such that the genes on the short arm of the 5th chromosome are involved in aspects of our development that genes on the sex chromosomes are not; similarly, the Y chromosome is so gene-poor (~350) that doubling up on the Y has no discernible effect.

Then again, the few genes—most importantly, the SRY gene—that do remain on the Y are clearly important: their dysfunction, after all, can result in an XY woman.

The second thing that can be inferred from all of this is that biology is messy—I haven’t even discussed mosaicism or chimerism, or situs inversus or any of the other kinds of weirdnesses within us—and that the messes themselves are messy: sometimes they matter a whole lot, and sometimes not at all.

III.

So the first day my sciatic nerve commenced its protest it hurt to stand, was uncomfortable to walk, and running felt fine.

The second and third day, it hurt so much in the morning that shortly after rising I would sit down, gasping, from the screaming in my leg; after moving around a bit, however, the pain receded.

A couple of days I limped. Some days it hurt to put pressure on my right leg, some days it hurt not to put pressure on it. If I positioned my foot this way I was fine, that way, not; later, the fines were reversed.

I can walk quickly, but for the past 4 or 5 days, can’t run. Going up and down stairs was initially problem-free; now I grasp the railing.

Slowly, slowly, I am getting better: while the troubles migrate, they also abate. I was hoping they’d be gone by now, but I expect by next week, they will be.

IV.

Aging sucks.

V.

I’d rather not have gone through this and will do my damnedest to forestall a recurrence, but it does make me wonder what is going on beneath my skin.

Yes, I pay attention to my body, but usually when something is wrong I can trace it back to its source: I ate too much, didn’t stretch after a workout, wiped out on an icy sidewalk;  thus having linked effect to cause, I lose interest.

)And with migraines, well, they’re just SO irritating that I become preoccupied with the pain itself; the rare occasions when I get auras I am less fascinated than, well, irritated. Knock it off, shimmering lights, you’re blocking my view.)

In this case, I’m pretty sure I know what set off the latest back pain, but how that migrated down into the sciatic nerve, and how that nerve proceeded to respond to this trespass hopscotched around predictability. Why is my toe shaking? Why is my calf muscle clenching and unclenching?

What the hell is going on?

Oh, I know: what’s happening is that my body is now more assertive in letting me know it is unhappy with my treatment of it, i.e., that I’m getting old.

It’s not that when younger I thought I was in charge of my body, but, yeah, I thought I was in charge of my body.

I’m not humbled, but bothered, to learn otherwise, and I will not be gracious in relinquishing control.

It will be a fight to the death.

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And I’m losing control

9 02 2014

This is shit, isn’t it?

I mean, I’m not a social psychologist, and even fellow political scientists doubt the soc-sci cred of theorists like me, but Jonathan Haidt seems to be siphoning way too much meaning out of a poorly-designed linguistic study.

To wit:

When I was doing the research for The Righteous Mind, I read the New Atheist books carefully, and I noticed that several of them sounded angry. I also noticed that they used rhetorical structures suggesting certainty far more often than I was used to in scientific writing – words such as “always” and “never,” as well as phrases such as “there is no doubt that…” and “clearly we must…”

To check my hunch, I took the full text of the three most important New Atheist books—Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, and Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell and I ran the files through a widely used text analysis program that counts words that have been shown to indicate certainty, including “always,” “never,” “certainly,” “every,” and “undeniable.” To provide a close standard of comparison, I also analyzed three recent books by other scientists who write about religion but are not considered New Atheists: Jesse Bering’s The Belief Instinct, Ara Norenzayan’s Big Gods, and my own book The Righteous Mind.

To provide an additional standard of comparison, I also analyzed books by three right wing radio and television stars whose reasoning style is not generally regarded as scientific. I analyzed Glenn Beck’s Common Sense, Sean Hannity’s Deliver Us from Evil, and Anne Coulter’s Treason. (I chose the book for each author that had received the most comments on Amazon.) [delinked two items]

Anyone else see the problem? He’s comparing three books explicitly against religion to three general right-wing texts, i.e., not three texts explicitly in favor of religion.

That’s some shit sampling right there, providing shit comparisons. If you want to compare the effect of a variable on x across two populations, then you need to hold everything constant except that variable: You need to compare anti-religion text to pro-religion texts.

Even a political theorist knows that.

And which had the most comments on Amazon? Uh huh. (Others at that second link point out problems with linguistic analysis generally.)

I am admittedly a skeptic of Haidt’s work, precisely over the issues of definition and control. I haven’t read The Righteous Mind so can’t comment on the arguments he presents there, but I have read other, shorter pieces by him and about his work. And while I do agree that American liberals and conservatives may—may—assign different priorities to different values, I think it’s just as likely that we assign different definitions to different values.

For example, libertarians and social-welfare liberals may both agree that fairness matters, but disagree as to what fair is. To the libertarian, fairness may mean being able to profit from the fruits of one’s labors; to the liberal, fairness may mean that every person has a shot at/be guaranteed a decent life.

Again, I haven’t read Haidt’s book, so it is entirely possible that he covers the definitional issue. It’s pretty basic, after all.

Then again, controlling your sample populations is pretty basic, too.





Hazy shade of winter

22 09 2013

I have—surprise!—some sympathy for declinist narratives.

It’s easy, it’s fun, and it adds a nice gloomy depth to one’s otherwise-apparently shallow existence.

Still, sometimes the dread is a real question, as in, Are we humans nearing the end of a long moment of open society and democratic governance? Will our polities at some point transform into mere corporations of some sort of consumerist, militarist, or theocratic bent?

Two linked—or maybe one double-sided—dynamic(s) seem to be emerging: i) no work, and thus no use for, those who are unable to fit themselves into an increasingly technologically complex economy; ii) increasing control over the lives of those who are employed.

Tyler Cowen has been hitting on the first theme at his blog, Marginal Revolution, and in his new book, Average is Over. From what I can tell of his numerous references to the book, our present economic situation is dissolving into one in which most people, precisely because they are “most people” (i.e., average), will be squeezed out of economic life and will have to make do with a marginal social existence.

And the second? Consider Penn State’s desire to reduce its health care costs. It’s instituting a new wellness plan aimed at creating healthier, which is to say, cheaper, employees; a part of that plan, since shelved, required those employee to fill out a mandated survey in which they were probed about their plans to become pregnant, whether they’ve suffered depression, or been divorced.

Capitalism has always required the worker to conform to the workplace—the creation of the manu-factory is one of the markers of capitalism—but out of this required conformity emerged a counter-trend of uninterest in what the worker did away from work. (Owners didn’t want the responsibility, and labor wanted the liberty.) At higher levels of corporate life managers might have to sign contracts with morals clauses, and non-unionized workers might know that to criticize their company could be firing offense, but, for the most part, if you did your job you’d be left alone away from the job.

I hasten to add here that I think this remains the dynamic, at least in the US, and there’s no clear sign that our society will inevitably devolve into one of en masse control of the low-employment outcasts and individualized control of the fully employed.  I don’t know what will happen, and given the complexity of human life, I am leery of making any kind of long-term predictions about us.

But the hazy signs of decline? They’re all around us, just waiting to be plucked for a Sunday afternoon musing on how the story ends.

 





We don’t need no education

27 05 2013

If your local  high school students thought Martin Luther King had something to do with slavery or never heard of Abraham Lincoln, you’d probably think, Huh, that’s a pretty lousy school.

And if those local school students attended a school  in a community in which education is required only through the 8th grade?

Would you think, My, isn’t it wonderful that the oppressive state isn’t forcing that nice community to teach anything contrary to their values?

Or maybe, How marvelous that parents retain the right to so completely control their children that those children are utterly unequipped to find their own way in the world, and are thus effectively prevented from ever leaving the community?

It’s even better when they get state support for such community-building. . . .





One day it’s fine, the next it’s black

5 03 2012

Buncha thoughts, none of which currently coheres into an argument or essay:

Why should I have to pay for a woman to fuck without consequences?

An attack on women’s sexuality—yeah, yeah, nothing new—but the logic behind this bares not just hostility to women claiming their full humanity, but to insurance itself.

Why pay for contraception is a question that could be asked of any medical intervention. Why pay for Viagra is the obvious follow-up, but the underlying sentiment is why should I pay anything else for anyone for any reason?

Actually, that’s not just an attack on insurance, but on politics itself.

~~~

When to stay and when to go?

This is an ongoing conflict between my civic republican and anarchist sides: When should one fight to stay within any particular system, and when should one say I’m out?

One part of me wants the full range of women’s health services wholly ensconced in medical education and practice, an integral part of the medical establishment, and another part of me says Enough! We’ll do it ourselves!

I’ve mentioned that when I was in high school I helped to start an independent newspaper. We wanted to be in charge of what was covered and what was said, and decided that the only way to assert that control was to strike out on our own.

Given our options, given our willingness and our ability to do the work, and given what we wanted to accomplish, it was the right choice.

I’m not so sure that peeling ourselves off of the medical establishment would be anywhere near as good an idea, not least because the conditions are, shall we say, rather different from starting a newspaper; more to the point, what would be the point of such disestablishment?

In other words, what’s the best way for us to take care of ourselves?

~~~

For all my anarchist sympathies, I am not an anarchist, and my sympathies do not run in all directions.

I am not a fan of homeschooling, for example, and have at times argued that, in principle, it should not be allowed. I have at times argued that, in principle, no private K-12 education should be allowed.

I have principled reasons for these arguments, but, honestly, there is a fair amount of unreasoned hostility to such endeavors.

This is a problem.

No, not the contradiction, but the lack of reflection. If I’m going to go against myself, I ought at least know why.

~~~

I might be done with Rod Dreher.

I’ve followed Dreher on and off for years, first at BeliefNet, then at RealClearReligion, and now at American Conservative. He’s a self-declared “crunchy conservative”, writing about a kind of conservation care, community, and his own understandings of Orthodox Christianity. He also wrote quite movingly of his beloved sister Ruthie’s ultimately fatal struggle with lung cancer.

As an unrepentant leftist I think it’s important for me to read unrepentant rightists: not to get riled, but to try to understand. And Dreher, because he has so often been thoughtful about so many aspects of his own conservatism, has been a mostly welcoming guide to a worldview not my own.

More and more often, however, that thoughtfulness about his own side is being drowned by a contempt for the other side. This is not unexpected—one remains on a side because one thinks that side is better—but Dreher has turned into just another predictable culture warrior, launching full-scale attacks on the motives of the other side while huffily turning aside any questions regarding his own motives.

Perhaps he thinks the best way to deal with the alleged loss of standards is to double them.

And that, more than any political difference, is what is driving me away: he no longer writes in good faith.





Home away home

24 08 2011

That’s my current title for my second novel: Home Away Home. It may change—it’s changed many times before—but I think it fits the tale. And a quick check on B&N and Amazon didn’t reveal any other novels with that name.

Unlike The Unexpected Neighbor, I edited the shit out of Home Away Home (back when it was called Split Lives) and thought, at the end of the process, that I was finished.

Oh no. No no no.

Now, it is in better shape than was The Unexpected Neighbor before I got out the hatchet, but this baby still needs a sharp blade slicing through it, to wit:

    It was Amy’s turn to breathe deeply. ‘You’ve been thinking?’ she enunciated. ‘Really? And when did all this deep thought occur? While you were doodling in your notebook? Out drinking with your friends?’ Her lips flatlined. ‘For chrissakes, Maggie, how can you say you’ve been thinking about this if you haven’t spoken to your dad or me about it?’ Amy watched as her daughter swung her leg against the side of the chair, carefully avoiding her mother’s face. ‘A wonderful education, and you want to throw it away, because you’ve been ‘thinking’. Jesus.’

Dixie wandered into the room, sniffing Maggie’s backpack before jutting her nose beneath Maggie’s overhanging hand. Her tail whisked the floor as Maggie stretched to scratch the long ridge. Dixie shook off her fingers, padding around to the front of the chair and climbing halfway in it. Maggie responded with a full embrace, bending over to rake her fingers through Dixie’s fur. ‘Dix. Gotta get the full treatment, don’t you?’ she mumbled into the dog’s ear.

‘What, you’ll talk to the dog, but not your parents.’ Amy leaned into the corner of the couch. ‘Good thinking.’

Maggie continued scratching Dixie, looking over the dog’s shoulder at her mom. ‘Just because I didn’t say anything to you doesn’t mean I wasn’t thinking about it. I can think for myself, you know.’

‘Oh, really? Like the time you got so drunk your friends had to pour you out of the car on to the lawn? Or when you puked all over the neighbor’s driveway? Or when your dad caught you and Tom half-naked in the car?’

‘What does college have to do with cars?’

‘Don’t get smart with me!’ Amy propelled her body forward. ‘These past few years are not replete with shining examples of your analytical abilities.’ Dixie dropped down on all fours, and looked over to Amy. ‘What about the accident? You didn’t even think—that’s right, there’s that word again—you didn’t even think to wake us up to tell us.’ Amy’s lips again disappeared. ‘And you still have headaches, don’t you?’ Maggie raised her eyebrows and lowered her eyelids, saying nothing. ‘If it weren’t for all the bad decisions you made before that, I’d think that knock on your head was responsible for your faulty reasoning. But no, that’s just another result.’

That ain’t right.

One issue I’ve had in both novels is making my characters too knowing, such that any conversations are a kind of smooth and clear representation of any position one might hold. But that’s now how we are with one another. We hem and haw and circle around and get things wrong and don’t always have the words for our thoughts or feelings and don’t always even know what are out thoughts and feelings. We don’t always represent ourselves well or truly, and to offer dialogue which indicates that we do is to make the characters mouthpieces rather than people.

Did you ever read BF Skinner’s Walden II? Or Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland? Or, goddess forbid, any Ayn Rand? There’s always a “point” to these stories, and the point matters more than anything else.

I’m not opposed to points, but it’s really fucking hard to make a novel with a point. Even Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 suffers from this, but the main set-up, of fire-fighters tasked with burning rather than saving from burning, is marvelous, and the action moves swiftly to its logical conclusion. As a short (very good bad) book it works, but stretched out to a Galtian thousand pages? Unbearable.

Anyway, I’m not interested in making points so much as offering a glimpse into the lives of these people for awhile. Yeah, I guess one possible takeaway is that even after a great rupture in one’s life, life still goes on. People may be changed by events (such as the aforementioned Maggie leaving home for good, and having no contact with her family), but they don’t have to be stopped by them.

That’s a pretty basic point, however, and pretty damned muted. I’d hope that readers could take any number of meanings from this novel—there are any number of dynamics to consider—and that I’d give them enough to find their own relationship to these people.

Yeah, I like control, and want to control my presentation of my characters, but I don’t want to cram myself into my readers’ heads and force them to see these folks through my own eyes. I want to use my control to make the characters separate from me, to make them their own people, with their own stories.

But that ain’t happening with the kind of dialogue I use, above.

Gotta sharpen that blade. . . .





I’m leaving it all up to you

7 08 2011

It was so obvious I forgot to mention it: the Big Fear.

About The Unexpected Neighbor, I mean, the main reason I hesitated to tell people  I knew that the book was now available at Smashwords.

And no, not whether or not they liked it. But whether they’d think less of me for this story. I mean, they could like it, but think it a trifle, and thus consider me. . . trifling.

Y’know how I mentioned a couple of posts ago that, however foolish the attempt, I nonetheless try to control what people think about me? Wasn’t kidding. Not one bit.

So here I tell people—you, my friends in New York, a friend in Wisconsin, my mom—that I wrote this book. Because I want you to know that I wrote this book. And I might even want you to read it.

Maybe.

But if nobody I know reads it, I don’t know if I’ll be more disappointed or relieved. I want you to like the story, and I think the story is likable, but I’d like you to like it quite apart from me—as in, AbsurdBeats is here and the book is there and never the twain shall meet.

Silly, I know, and embarrassingly neurotic. (Okay, so the control thing may have something to do with neurosis, as well, but it sounds so much. . . flintier to state I want to control than to say I want people to think well of me. Control, yeah, I’ll go with that.)

Anyway.

I want to get better at this, the novel-writing, and while I think The Unexpected Neighbor is a decent first book, I don’t know that I’d have published it if I thought it were my only book. I wouldn’t want this to be too big a piece of me.

It’s not me. It’s not biography, and no one in the story is me. But it came out of me and there are bits of me (and friends of mine) scattered throughout these characters. It’s not all or nothing; the twain has met.

It’s mine, but not me.

I know that. I have to trust that if anyone I know reads this, they’ll know that, too.

How they know that, well—deep breath—that’s not up to me. That’s up to them.

Or I could just hope that only strangers read it.

_____

(This is the real hat-tip to Susan Wise Bauer, but her site’s not loading; I’ll add a link when I can here’s the link.)