Wednesday, December 31, 2008

How to Ride A Bike In 37 Long, Annoying, Painful Steps

A couple of months back, Popular Mechanics created a list entitled 100 Skills Every Man Should Know. Reading this list filled me with abject, unrelenting shame...

But as of today, I can proudly announce that I can check number 75 off the list: As of today, the Pillowfight Fairy can ride a bicycle without the training wheels.

Now, the way that the PM article advises how to accomplish this is intriguing:
Remember teetering precariously on a bike while your dad ran behind holding the seat? There’s a better way: Start with a bike small enough to allow the child to plant both feet on the ground. Then remove the pedals. Most kids begin using the bike like a scooter, pushing themselves along with their feet. Then they start lifting their feet to coast, which gives them the hang of balancing—which is much easier to learn without the distraction of pedaling. Next thing you know, they beg you to put the pedals back on so they can ride farther and faster.
I'd actually heard this advice before, from my sister-in-law. Apparently that's the standard way of doing it in much of Europe. Unfortunately, when I looked at the way the pedals were installed on my little girl's bicycle, I couldn't figure out how to get them off. I'm usually pretty good about figuring out mechanical things, but in this case, everything is sealed up tight, with no bolts or nuts or anything else visible. I suspect the entire bike would have had to be disassembled to get the pedal mechanism removed. Anyway, it wasn't worth the effort; I decided that my daughter would indeed have to teeter precariously ... while her dad ran behind holding the seat.

And that bit about "they beg you to put the pedals back on so they can ride farther and faster?" Fuggetaboutit.

You see, my little one has a particular vice.

(Oh, all kids have particular vices, starting at very young ages. The Happy Boy tries to eat anything not nailed down, except his vegetables. The Adrenaline Junkie has a hair-trigger temper that sends her into crying fits whenever she hears anything she doesn't want to hear, like "lets stop pretending to be banana slugs now." Every kid has something that we hope he or she grows out of eventually.)

The Pillowfight Fairy's particular vice is that she is highly averse to putting any effort into any task. She's got a lazy streak a mile wide. Now, she comes by it fairly; I remember my elementary school academic efforts, which primarily involved pretending that my pencil was a spaceship while my worksheets remained nice and pristine on my desk in front of me. Well, my daughter got the gene.

And in her case, it especially manifests itself when there's a physical task to be done--even little things, like opening car doors. I will ask her to open the door; so she'll take the handle in one hand, give a half-hearted little tug, then blithely announce that the door is stuck. I will command her to do it for real this time, or else, and she will try again with marginally more effort, and this time announce that "I caaaaan't! It's too haaaaard!" and beg me to do it for her.

Well, Mom and I are on to her now. She can often get other relatives or teachers to do her work for her by using a combination of charm and weepiness, but Mom and I have had enough of this, and so we're pretty heartless. "Get your *&^$% hands on the door and pull! No, not like that; put your weight into it! Now! That wasn't hard enough. That was too weak. Do it again! Harder! Harder!" Eventually she'll get the door open, though she's often weepy at how unfair life is by the time she gets it done.

(Note: I don't actually say things like "*&^$%". But I think them.)

We find we have to give her this treatment quite a bit, I'm afraid. If we didn't, she would never learn any new skill. Now, the thing is that once she has gained a new skill, she loves it and will do it for hours. Once upon a time she hated drawing, because it was haaaard, but now we can't stop her. Once upon a time she hated writing for the same reason, but she writes quite a bit on her own initiative now. So whenever we read the opinion of some "expert" telling us that we shouldn't be pushing our children or showing our disappointment with them when they fail to live up to our expectations, we just roll our eyes....


So it was time to teach the Fairy how to ride. How did I know this? Well, she's six. And she rather enjoyed riding on her bike with the training wheels. Of course asking her if she wanted to learn to ride without the wheels is a little like asking her if she'd like some giblet gravy with her ice cream, so I didn't ask; I informed her that she would be learning to ride without the training wheels.

For the last several days, I threw her bike in the back of the van and took the Fairy to a nearby park with long, wide walkways in it. And we started. And she did indeed teeter precariously as I ran behind holding the seat. The Fairy seemed to be taking it well; her mood varied randomly between terrified wailing and maniacal laughter. Sometimes the laughter followed her running into things; sometimes the wailing commenced after she had done something right.

We never claimed our kid was normal.

The difficulty with riding a bike--difficulty from the work-averse Fairy's point of view, at any rate--is that you're only stable when you have enough speed, and speed takes work. If one puts in an effort like the Fairy's half-hearted door-opening effort, one never gets enough speed, and the bike wobbles all over and eventually runs you into trees, fences, benches.... So I found I continually had to yell at her, "Pedal! Pedal like the wind! Pedal like a Dervish! Pedalpedalpedalpedalpedal..." just before the Fairy, wailing, drifted to a halt and fell over.

I'm not sure she knows what a Dervish is, either. And explaining would just have made everything worse.

By the end of Monday's practice she had gotten to the point that she could stay upright for extended periods. But she couldn't start herself; I always had to give her an almighty push at the beginning to give her the speed she needed for stability. She could keep it going, but she didn't know how to start. So Tuesday (yesterday) we worked on starting up.

It was pretty frustrating. I have now banned the words "I Caaaaaaan't!" from the Fairy's vocabulary, because she was using them way too much, and actually believing them.

Now, granted, starting up from a stop is a tricky thing to do, and even trickier to explain. In the Fairy's case, we ultimately worked out a system: she starts with one foot on the ground, and one on the raised pedal; then she simultaneously pushes against the ground, and stomps the raised pedal as hard as she can; then, with that (very) little forward velocity, she gets her first foot on the other pedal and starts "Pedal[ing] like a Dervish!" Usually while weeping, at least at first.

This system worked, when she actually put some effort into it. The trouble was, she rarely exerted herself hard enough. So by the end of yesterday, I decided to take a slightly different tack: I'm going to start running, and I want you to catch me.

Well, it worked. I'm probably going to Hell for it--playing on her fears of abandonment to get her to actually do some work, and possibly landing her in therapy when she's older--but it worked. The first several times, she was wailing, "Don't leeeeeave me!" as I took off. But then she got the message somehow, and found the strength to start up the bike and come after me. By the very, very end of yesterday's session, she was able to start up her bike mostly at will.

Somehow, by the time we got home, everything seemed much better.


Today we decided to do something a little different. We loaded the whole family (except me) in the van, along with the Fairy's bike. Mom drove them over to the park, and I rode my bike. The Fairy and I rode around the whole park, until the Fairy got too tired (and jealous of her siblings, who were getting to climb on the playground equipment). There were a few crashes, and occasional bouts of crying; but I think the Fairy is actually starting to enjoy the experience of riding. I noticed something a little odd: when she was supposed to be following me, she would go into a panic if I got too far ahead (that Abandonment thing again); but if I told her to ride to that oak tree way, way over there, she would do that without complaint and without panic, even though she was riding much farther away from me than she had been.

And the Fairy's well-being had to have been helped by the fact that every time we rode past the little playground, the Adrenaline Junkie was there, cheering and jumping admiringly as her big sister rode past. That's got to help one's self-esteem, at least a little.


So, after all this, I asked the Fairy this afternoon if she enjoyed riding her bike, and she said "Yes."

You know, after all the wailing, all the tears, all the half-mad cackling, all the Don't leave me's, all the crashes, all the frozen little fingers, all the I'm never doing this again's, it perhaps should have been surprising to hear her say that. But it wasn't. Mom and I know our daughter, after all, and we know that this is the way she operates. This happens every time she learns a new skill. She fights it, fights it, fights it... and then she gets it, and wants to do it a lot.

We're just hoping that eventually she starts to see this for herself. I eventually got to that point, though it took me until after college to realize it fully: you force yourself to work on these things that scare or otherwise intimidate you, and then not only does it become easy, it becomes fun. But more than the fun, it gives a sense of accomplishment, which in turn gives more confidence that I can beat the next challenge I'm up against.

But in the meantime, I have to guide my little girl along, often against her own will. Tonya and I have to trust our own judgment that we know what is right for the Fairy, because she will often fight us tooth and nail the whole way. And it gets really tiring being the enforcers all the time.


And it means that I've caught myself sounding like Calvin's dad a lot lately. It's an odd experience: Ever have to stifle a laugh at yourself while lecturing a six-year old about character? You should try it sometime....

Saturday, December 27, 2008

May I Wax A Little Philosophical?

I want to thank you all for your kind wishes expressed here over the last week. It does mean a lot to us to know that so many people are thinking of us and praying for us.

Now, while all your thoughts and comments are welcome, I must admit I've been feeling a little weird while reading them.

What do I mean? Well, many of the comments we've received--not only on this blog, but through emails and in person--have expressed something along the lines of, "I'm sorry to hear the news. I know your heart must be breaking. Our family prayed for you, and we were weeping when we were doing it. We want you to know that we admire the strength you're showing, as we have no idea how we'd get through it if it happened to us...."

Again, these expressions of sympathy, and your prayers, are highly welcome. But the reason I feel so weird hearing these comments, is that Tonya and I aren't feeling particularly distraught.

And this is odd! I never would have expected that Tonya and I would have reacted the way we have, but we've had a very even-keel kind of week. We did a whole lot of Christmas stuff (Oh, Merry Belated Christmas, by the way), and otherwise took everything one day at a time (the way we said we were going to do), and we are actually doing well. Had you told us a week ago that we'd still be functioning after hearing this news--let alone that we'd be thriving--I would have thought you to be nuts. But here we are a week after first having heard the bad news, and the world has not ended, and we're still standing. We're even laughing from time to time.

It all feels so normal. What's going on?

Well, Tonya and I have been thinking about this quite a bit. Is it because the news hasn't really hit us yet? Is it because we just don't know what's in store for us?

Well, I don't actually think that's it. It may well be that we don't understand the pain that's waiting for us all too soon; after all, this has never happened to us before, and we don't know what to expect. However, I suspect that even if we did understand fully what's about to happen, we'd still be doing pretty well about now. Then what's going on?

I think a couple of things are going on. Here are a few, in no particular order.

For one, when you have a big thing on your mind, often times it tends to crowd out the little things. I like the way Tonya put it last Monday (shortly after we had gotten the preliminary diagnosis of Trisomy 13). She had been doing some Christmas shopping that morning, and said she was calmer, more serene, than pretty much every other Christmas shopper whose path she crossed. They were concerned about getting just the right present for everyone on the list, and getting done all the thousand little things that had to get done (and there's so little time left!) and getting that last parking spot!

And Tonya, who had spent the weekend contemplating something much more serious, didn't care one bit about that last parking spot. Lady, if you need it that badly, you're welcome to it with my blessing...

Somehow, when the health of your baby is at stake, everything else tends to fade into the background. Your mind gets refocused on the important things. And so much of what causes our day-to-day stress, in the grand sweep of the cosmos, are unimportant things. You let those unimportant things go, even when it's because of some kind of personal tragedy, and the stress tends to go with it.


So I think that's part of it. But another part of it is that those who haven't had these things happen to them really don't understand just how much strength they already have; you don't know until you're in a crisis what internal resources are available to you, or how you'd react.

A couple of years ago, my younger brother and his wife had a baby girl born with a severe chromosomal abnormality that took her life after nine days. I remember that during those nine days, I felt absolutely terrible for my brother and his family. I kept thinking about everything from the medical bills they were running up, to the parental dreams that must have been dashed when the extent of the deformities became known.

But now that this is happening to Tonya and me, my thought process is totally different: it's much closer to, "What do we have to do today?" It's practical stuff; it's "Here's the plan: we do X and Y now, and we're good. We'll worry about Z when we get there. You got the plan? Good! Let's go do it." Frankly, I felt worse when my little brother was the one with the crisis, than I do now that I'm the one with the crisis.

None of this is said to imply that we don't care about our littlest one. None of this is to say that we don't have grieving in our near future. But it goes back to what Jesus said about not borrowing trouble from tomorrow, because today has enough trouble as it is. Somehow, knowing that there's trouble down the road doesn't detract from the good that one can experience now, and it may in fact enhance it.


Another thought came to mind on this subject, regarding how we mere mortals experience "good" and "bad".

I've known a fair number of missionaries in my life, and nearly all of them that have spent time in Africa will tell you that the people of sub-Saharan Africa are some of the happiest people they have ever met--much more so than Americans. They come back from their travels absolutely astounded by how so many of these people, who have nothing--no goods, no medical care, no food, rags for clothes--still greet everyone they know with a hearty smile, still sing (out loud! In public!) whenever they feel like it, which is frequently.

Now, let such an African have what he considers to be a "good day." If you somehow were to capture all his experiences during the day, and then make a typical American go through exactly the same things, I suspect the American would declare it to be a very bad day. The African notes the fact that he ended the day with a full belly; the American notes the fact that there was no indoor plumbing, and that he had to drink fetid surface water that half the village had been bathing in.

What we consider to be "good" and "bad" (really, it should be "pleasant" and "unpleasant") depends a great deal on what our expectations are, and what we are accustomed to. One person can consider it a "bad" day when the soufflé falls in the oven; another considers it a "good" day when no armies come tromping through the grain field, and no relatives wind up summarily shot.

I suspect that people just naturally have an internal scale for measuring when a day is good or bad. The thing is, though, these scales can be re-calibrated by external events. If a person has way too many good days in a row, we cease to consider them good, and start to think of them as so-so; in order to get that good-day experience, we'd have to have a day that we would formerly have called spectacular. And this works the other way, too: if we have too many bad days in a row, we begin not to see them as particularly bad; they can become tolerable, even pleasant, as we become accustomed to them.

So where am I going with all this? Well, Tonya and I have been aware now for over a week that we're expecting a baby girl who probably won't live--and if she does live, she may never be conscious. So we had a couple of bad days there. Now what? Well, to borrow a term from finance, the news has now been discounted; to use my former metaphor, the scale has been recalibrated. The knowledge that would have produced a Bad Day a week ago now produces (by itself) merely a Normal Day, which can become a Good Day depeding on what other events occur.

That make sense?

One thing we haven't been doing is sitting around being miserable the whole time. Again, I like a point Tonya made recently: it's hard for a healthy person to stay depressed morning to evening, day after day. Unless someone is clinically depressed (and I mean that in the literal sense) or is intentionally focusing on and reinforcing the bad feelings (and I think a lot of this happens in pop psych therapy, by the way, but I won't go into that just here), we typically don't stay down for more than a day or three before something causes us to perk up and notice that the sky hasn't completely fallen. More likely is that we get recalibrated, then we start to shift from "Woe is Me!" to "What do I have to get done today?" and we move on.


Now, after saying all that, I want to let it be known that all this is speculation on my part, based on Tonya's and my current experiences. It may well be that we're just weird and that most other people handle things differently. We aren't that far into the whole world of Trisomy 13 and developmental abnormalities yet; we may well have some surprises in store for us. And there may be people reading this blog who are thinking, "this guy has no idea what he's talking about." They may be right! I certainly have no intention of offending anyone who is going through a genuinely tough time right now--I'm just throwing my own observations and speculations (given our current circumstances) up on a canvas for all to see. Take it for what it's worth.

For all those who've prayed for us to find strength, we again give you our hearty thanks. It may well be that we've handled everthing thus far as well as we have because God heard and granted your prayers.

It's just that I'm suspecting that God answered these prayers, in part, (cheesy metaphor alert!) by invoking some software that comes pre-installed in all of us, but which lies dormant most of the time. If you'd asked me two weeks ago how Tonya and I would have handled this crisis, I would have predicted we wouldn't have a clue, and I would have considered it a scary question. Now the answer is much more like, "Eh... the same way we handle anything else. Whatever."

And the thing is, I'm not saying this to brag; rather, I'm saying this because for everyone who's looking at our situation and saying, "I have no idea where you guys find the strength to get through the day," I strongly suspect that you have the same reserve of strength lurking somewhere in there, put there by the Creator. It's just waiting for the right crisis.

(Though I hope you'll forgive the term "the right crisis." And I pray that no one reading this ever has to go through our kind of crisis.)

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

O Magnum Mysterium

I know I've linked to this before, but seeing as it's Christmas time, and that it's my blog, I'm going to link to it again. So there.

I'm not sure that "Carol" describes this piece, but it is a Christmas song. The words (in Latin) are:
O magnum mysterium,
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
jacentem in praesepio!
Beata Virgo, cujus viscera
meruerunt portare
Dominum Christum.
Translated into English, this becomes:
O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
Christ the Lord.
The particular setting is by Tomás Luis de Victoria, a Spanish composer who lived in 16th and early 17th centuries. My brother Rick and I actually did this in our high school choir many moons ago, and I've loved it ever since. Sometimes, when I hear music like this, it makes me wonder whether I was born in the wrong century (indoor plumbing notwithstanding). If this were a more rational world, most music would sound this way. ;-)

Anyway, I hope you enjoy.

Oddly Enough, This Was Exactly What I Needed

So last night we got home from our appointment thinking, "Now what?" And we started going about our normal evening routine.

These days, that routine involves getting online to look at the comments y'all have left. Now, anytime one of us is online, the girls come up to us and start asking us to play various youtube clips.

(It's really quite charming. My four-year-old now makes up lyrics to the tune of Stayin' Alive. That's quite a kick, when it happens.)

So the first one they wanted to see yesterday was a fun little animated rendition of I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas that our kinswoman-by-marriage (and sometime commenter) Timeless sent us a few weeks back. (Many thanks, by the way!) The kids loved that one. So, we complied.

And then we started surfing through the other youtube offerings, linking from one to the next. And wouldn't you know it, before very much longer we wound up on a Muppet clip from Sesame Street.

I'll take this as sign number MDLXXXII that God sometimes works in extremely mysterious ways, because this clip was exactly what I needed to see last night. Not only did the kids rather like it, but by about halfway through it, I had a big, dopey grin on my face too. Take a look at it and see what you think.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Word Of The Day Is "Semilobar Holoprosencephaly"

Tonya and I got back from our appointment today with more information about our baby's condition.

Before I go further, a quick caveat: even though this is my unborn daughter I'm writing about, what follows likely will sound detached and clinical. I hope the tone and content doesn't offend anyone reading this; just consider it part of my way of coping.

And for many, what follows will sound like Too Much Information. If you are easily unsettled by descriptions of medical conditions, then the rest of this post is not for you. I'm writing this for friends and family who want to know the details about what's going on.

The news is not good; even if the baby survives for any length of time (which does not appear likely), she won't have anything that resembles a normal life.


Our examination today was in the form of a very detailed ultrasound. Incidentally, the doctor said that Tonya--who, despite her added pregnancy weight, is naturally a slender person--has a body that is good for making high-quality ultrasound images of her inner bits. This also means that the things we saw today are almost certainly the real deal.

Here's a rundown of what was detected.

The Brain: our baby has what the doctor termed semilobar holoprosencephaly. The "holoprosencephaly" part basically means the brain has failed to split properly into left and right hemispheres. The "semilobar" part means that this is not a complete failure; some of the structures do exist in the right places. However, just because this is an intermediate form of holoprosencephaly does not mean it is a minor condition. In our little girl's case, there is some separation between hemispheres in the posterior portion of the brain, but the anterior portion is missing some important structures. In a normal brain, the brain tissue folds back and forth on itself in a big wrinkly mass; in our girl's, there is a thin, smooth layer of brain tissue lining the inside front of the skull, with a large fluid-filled empty spot just behind it where that big wrinkly mass should be.

And the cerebellum, which normally shows up on an ultrasound as two large side-by-side ovals right at the base of the skull, in our girl's case appear as a spindly mass on one side of the brain, unmatched on the other side.

The bottom line here is that our little girl is missing large portions of her brain. And, as is normal in such cases, her head is smaller than expected for her developmental age (microcephaly).

The Face: The development of the face is controlled by a lot of the same processes that control the development of the brain, and so when there is a problem with one, it is frequent for there to be a problem with the other. Our little girl is no different in this regard. In her case the ultrasound detected two abnormalities, both of which are common in cases of holoprosencephaly. First, the nose only has one nostril, centered; second, the eyes are spaced much more closely together than is normal. These two conditions together are called Cebocephaly.

The Heart: Several defects were detected in the heart--including its location, perfectly centered within the chest (as opposed to slightly on the left, where it should have been). It also appeared to be turned in an odd direction.

The most serious defect was referred to as a "trunc defect"; when I looked it up online, it appears the more technical term is Persistent Truncus Arteriosus. My understanding is this: the Truncus Arteriosus is a structure that is formed along with the embryonic heart very early in the pregnancy. As the pregnancy progresses, this structure is ultimately subdivided and split into the aorta and the pulmonary artery. In cases of Persistent Truncus Arteriosus, this subdivision never really occurs, and instead of a separate aorta and pulmonary artery, only a single blood vessel leads from the heart; both ventricles pump their blood into it. In fetal hearts this isn't necessarily a big deal, since their oxygen comes in through the umbilical (not the lungs) anyway; but after birth, when the lungs are supposed to supply the oxygen, this mixing of oxygenated blood from the lungs and depleted blood from the body results in insufficient oxygen getting to the rest of the body.

Also, a ventricular septal defect was detected as well; there's a hole in the wall between the left and right ventricles.

The Kidneys: Instead of two separate kidneys, our baby has one horseshoe-shaped kidney--or, rather, two kidneys that come around in front of the spine and join each other. Now, horseshoe kidneys don't always work. It appears, though, that our little girl's kidney is functioning; they were able to detect on the ultrasound two little, symetrical reservoirs of fluid that it had processed.

The Hands: The doctor was able to get a good look at one of the hands, and counted six fingers (or five plus a thumb). Also, it appears the thumb was folded over in front of the hand. We weren't able to get a good look at the other extremities, but strongly suspect that they are polydactyl as well. It turns out that polydactyly is fairly common as a "syndrome of congenital anomalies" (according to Wikipedia).

Those were the main findings, which they pointed out to us on the ultrasound.

Now, nearly all of these anomalies have something in common: they all (with the possible exception of the extra digits) are related to the development of left-right symmetry in the body. The holoprosencephaly is a problem that occurs when the brain fails to divide in half; the development of the close-set eyes and single nostril, involve facial features appearing too close to the centerline of the body; the failure of the Truncus Arteriosus to divide properly into Aorta and pulmonary artery; the failure of the heart to develop a strong wall between left and right ventricles; the failure of the kidneys to separate fully--all of these things suggested to the doctor a common origin. Any one of these symptoms can happen in isolation, as one-offs; but for them to happen all at the same time, suggests some kind of common cause.

The doctor thinks that there is a chromosome abnormality behind all of this. And, indeed, nearly all of the symptoms on the above list show up in the list of symptoms of Trisomy 13.


If I have any readers who've forgotten their college biology, the cells of the human body each have 23 pairs of chromosomes, with one chromosome from each pair coming from the father, and one from the mother. These chromosomes contain all the "software" (actually, this is an excellent analogy) needed to build every protein the body needs. But every once in a while, as the cells are dividing, one copy will get a chromosome too many (or too few). The extra (or missing) genetic material can have unpredictable, and undesirable, consequences. If the cell that gets the extra (or missing) genetic material is a sex cell (sperm or egg), then every cell of the person formed when the sperm and egg fuse will have the wrong number of chromosomes.

If our little girl indeed has Trisomy 13, it means she has three copies of the chromosomes that make up pair number 13. Now, my understanding is that these chromosomes are heavily involved in building the structure of the body while in utero. This extra genetic material has thrown a proverbial monkey wrench into the entire process of fetal development, messing up one organ after another. As I mentioned above, any list of symptoms for Trisomy 13 contains many of the things we saw in that ultrasound today: polydactyly, holoprosencephaly, heart problems, face and eye problems, and other organ problems.

Of course, we won't know for certain that it really is Trisomy 13 until we get the results back from the amniocentesis. (And for all we know, it could still be Trisomy 18, which has a lot of similar symptoms, or some other condition.)


So what is the prognosis?


With the exception of the problems in the brain, most everything else here is treatable to some degree or another. The doctor said that if the heart problems had happened in an otherwise normal child, the treatment and recovery--though difficult and dangerous--would be possible. And the kidney(s) seem(s) to be functioning.

But with all these issues at the same time--plus the fact that the problems in the brain can't be helped--her outlook is not good. The genetic counselor described for us the survival rate of Trisomy 13 babies, and it is pretty low. Most babies with the problems we're seeing never make it to full-term. Trisomy 13 babies that do, according to the counselor, have a median lifespan of two days. Only 5% make it to six months. And with what we learned today, we seriously doubt that ours would be in that number.


So what to do?

Anyone who's made it this far into my little essay is probably wondering about whether we'd consider terminating the pregnancy. And truth be told, even though our attitudes toward abortion are what you would typically expect from conservative Christians, I don't think either of us would pass judgement on anyone in our position who decided to make that choice. However, that won't be us. The thought of taking her life--even when it's highly unlikely that she will ever become conscious--just does not sit well with us. We do not feel competent to decide when her life should end--that's God's job, not ours.

Our job, which God has assigned us, is to love her for as long as we have her.

So again: what to do?

The answer, really, is just to keep putting one foot in front of the other until we get where we're going. We know we'll lose her at some point in the not too distant future, but we don't know when and we don't know the circumstances under which it will happen.

If we do wind up going to full term--a probability that is not necessarily high--most likely they will schedule a C-Section. They don't want to do a natural delivery because that takes too long, and the baby's vital signs are hard to measure when the baby's internal organs are as nonstandard as her's are.

And then, we'll wait and see what happens.


I've gotten a lot of comments from people over the last few days, telling me that they've been praying for us and giving us what encouragement they can. To all of you who've dropped in to support us with your thoughts, I want to thank you for your support. It really does mean a lot to us. I may not have the biggest readership on the planet, but I've got one of the best. Thanks!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Getting Through It

For all of you who read our last post and have been praying for us, a hearty thank-you is in order. We humbly ask that you keep it coming; we suspect we're going to need it in the coming weeks and months.

It was about an hour or so after we got back from the ultrasound appointment on Friday that we got the call from the genetic counselor, telling us that they had detected the various abnormalities in our baby.

I thought I'd fill everyone in on how we've been doing since then.

Upon getting news like this, that the baby we're expecting is going to have deformities of some as-yet-unknown severity, the first tendency is to imagine all the terrible things that could happen. This tendency is exacerbated by our natural desires to look up any information we can, so we can see what we're dealing with. And if one googles "Single lateral ventricle" and starts looking around, one very quickly starts coming across the worst-case scenarios, which I'll not get into here.

So Friday was a bad day. We were rather numbed by the news. But we still had to function: one's own kids don't stop getting hungry just because one's in a funk over whatever-it-is that grownups worry about. So we told the two girls (the boy being too young to understand) that there is something wrong with the baby growing inside Mommy, and we don't know what's going to happen. And we called up the church, and both sets of grandparents, and a few others with an immediate need to know (like our wonderful sister-in-law, who agreed to look after the kids tomorrow while Tonya and I go in for more tests). But on the whole, we were still borrowing trouble from tomorrow--a whole lot of it--in direct contradiction to what Jesus told us to do.

Well, now it's two days later. The news has had a little time to sink in. And with that time and some reflection, things don't seem so bleak.

For one thing, I've noticed that I have shortened my time horizon, so to speak: I've been thinking a lot about what Jesus said, about not borrowing trouble from tomorrow, and trying to live it. And in fact this is what nearly every person I've known who's lived through a serious personal crisis has said: "I take it one day at a time." Right now, I don't have to worry about what will happen in May: I only have to worry about what's going to happen today. What do I have to do today to get me, and my family, through the day?

And for right now, the answer is, pretty much what I've already been doing.

Great! Problem fixed, for now. Of course, when May runs around, things are going to get more complicated. It's likely Tonya and I will have some tough decisions to make then as well. And we don't even know what May's problems will be yet! And yet, the way to approach May will be the same: What do I have to do today, to get me, and my family, through the day?

Now, I'm aware that this may sound awfully sanguine, now. Maybe it is. Maybe all this sounds, to someone who's actually experienced tragedy first-hand, like I'm completely unprepared for what's about to hit. And that may in fact be the case. Nevertheless, Tonya and I have, in the last two days, come to a point where we can function, where we can keep our family going, and that counts for something.

Especially given that it's Christmastime. For those families whose babies are not well, this can be an especially difficult time of year. Everyone is supposed to be so happy! And there are so many things to do! For those who are hurting, the desire is that the rest of the world would just shut up and go away. And it doesn't help that what is being celebrated this time of year is the birth of the perfect little baby. When the baby one carries is known to be carrying some kind of deformity, it can be heartrending to hear songs like,
Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head....
Nevertheless--it's still helpful to have our other kids around, because they keep pulling us back into the present, where we belong. We went tonight to see a play my Church is hosting about the birth of Jesus, and my girls were particularly taken by the scene where the angel appeared to all the shepherds (who were played by several elementary-age kids). When the angel appeared, they all jumped in fright and hid. Our girls, upon getting home, started acting this out: one would jump out and say "Shalom!" and the other would scream, "AAAAAAAAAHHH!!" and start running around in terror. And then the angel would start running around after the shepherd, which only made the shepherd more afraid...

And Tonya is sitting here laughing just remembering the scene. It's pretty funny--especially when the shepherd was played by our six-year-old girl, and the angel was played by our hyperactive four-year-old.

And the humor has been helping too. We keep doing little things that break the tension. Even when we're practically trying to make ourselves mope about, we do little things that bring us back to the present. Tonya delivered another of her magnificent mixed metaphors the other morning, complaining about our lot in life being a "bowl of tears." I looked at her with a cocked eyebrow and repeated, "Bowl of tears?" And about the point that Tonya started giggling at herself, I couldn't resist the obvious conclusion: "Too bad it's not a vale of cherries, either." The resulting laughter by both of us was much needed.

Anyway, we've settled into something of an equilibrium, for the moment. We still worry ourselves when we think too hard about the future. And neither of us has any idea what tomorrow's trip to the perinatologist will bring. But on the other hand, we've both started to accept the fact that the worrying doesn't change a thing--it just makes us miserable. We already know what we need to do to get through life, at least in principle. So we've settled into a mood that--depending on your viewpoint--is either wise acceptance, or fatailism...

...possibly mixed with a little defiance. What, you say? We might have a special needs kid? It might wind up really, really expensive? We might have some tragedy in our lives in the near future?

There's a part of me that wants to say (in my most annoying teen-age impression I can manage): What-EV-uh.

There's something liberating in looking at fate, and being able to quote Khan from that Star Trek movie (who in turn was quoting Capt. Ahab from Moby Dick, but Khan said it better): "To the last, I will grapple with thee... from Hell's heart, I stab at thee! For hate's sake, I spit my last breath at thee!"

There. I feel much better.

Anyway, continue to pray for us.

P.S. In the spirit of grappling with fate from the last, and stabbing at it from Hell's heart, don't be surprised if I start blogging about mundane things again in the not-too-distant future. Remember, if you don't go on about your normal business, then the terrorists will have won....

Friday, December 19, 2008

Prayers Needed

Tonya had an ultrasound today, and all is not well with the baby (who appears to be a girl, by the way).

Shortly after we got home we got a call from the hospital, saying that they had detected some abnormalities. Specifically:
  • Instead of two lateral ventricles in the brain, they only detected one, and
  • They detected some abnormalities in the face (which I understand is common when there are problems in the brain), and
  • the baby's kidneys are abnormally large as well.
At this point we don't know more than this.

We are scheduled for another ultrasound, and more tests, at a larger medical facility in Sacramento on Monday. It's hoped that the doctors will be able to get a feel for the extent of the abnormalities and the baby's prognosis at that time.

So, as I mentioned in the title to this post, prayers are definitely needed. Tonya and I are still a little numb from the news.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Watch Out What You Do With The Remote

I once remember a preacher giving a set of anecdotes about his preschool-age son, whom he had diagnosed as having really high testosterone levels. And you know, there are just some boys where you can tell they're going to turn into men's men practically before they're out of diapers. Well, this preacher once described how he was wrestling his little jock-in-training on the floor of the living room, when a Victoria's Secret ad popped up on the big-screen TV that was playing in the corner of the room.

The wrestling suddenly stopped, as the boy sat there transfixed....

The preacher described how he scrambled to get the remote (which is never where you want it to be, when you need it right now), as the kid watched that glorious display of voluptuous female curvitude...

And just as the Daddy got to the remote and changed the channel, the boy proclaimed matter-of-factly: "Those are pretty. I want to touch them."


Now, we don't have a TV in our house, so sadly, it's unlikely we will have the experience over here of scrambling for the remote to change the channel before the Happy Boy discovers the differences between boys and female underwear models.

But we did have a remarkably similar episode last night. Our church has scheduled regular Open Houses, where the homes of the church leadership are open for members just to drop in, visit, and pray about anything they want. So last night we went to the home of one of the elders, and had a lovely time visiting.

They had their TV on, but (at least at first) they had put on one of those mood videos--you know, the kind that shows a fire crackling in the fireplace, or a long uninterrupted woodland scene? Well, they had one on that showed a snowman, with snow falling on it. (We were joking that "At the end of the video, if you wait long enough, his nose falls off...," but we don't think the kids bought it.)

But while we were sitting there talking, eventually their video ended and started playing credits. (And you know, the credits on that video were really boring.) So at this point our hostess grabbed the remote and started going through the channel options, looking for "The Winter Channel", which apparently shows nothing but these peaceful woodland scenes.


As she was scrolling through all those menus, the TV was running ads in a display in its corner. And wouldn't you know it, they were ads for pay-per-view professional wrestling.

The Happy Boy, who had been playing happily up until this point, suddenly stopped, stood up, and started staring at the upper right corner of the screen. And the ad showed all these really big, muscular, macho people in brightly colored spandex pants and no shirts, snarling at the camera and throwing each other around the ring.

The Boy was transfixed for several long, long, moments. Then he was slowly drawn toward the television, like a moth drawn to a candle, and his finger reached out and touched the screen right where the Beefcake Monsters were doing battle.

About this point, the ad ended, and the window was filled with something else. And our little boy, who's not talking very much at this point, started communicating in his wee little not-quite-two year old voice, that he hadn't had enough yet to be satisfied:

"Moh'! Moh'! Mmmmohhh'!"

Geez. The dude isn't even two yet, and has never been exposed to the fighting sports (boxing, wrestling, martial arts) before, and the first time he sees a 30-second ad for the WWE, he's a fan.

Anyone who thinks that "Gender is a Social Construct" has obviously never raised children. This boy is a male, he was born a male, and there's no fooling him--or anyone else--about this fact.

And if he keeps growing the rate he is, one day he'll be about the size of those wrestlers. We keep trying to tell our girls that they need to be nice to him now, while they still have the chance. And I need to make sure that I've fully disciplined him when he's still a kid, because he's on track to grow to at least an inch taller than me....

It's a Labor of Love, Actually

So after having a good laugh at the expense of Daniel MacIntyre, I decided to check to see whether my blog is any better than his.

He'll be happy to know that his blog is just as good as mine.

So what's your blog worth?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

A Wee Bit More on Corruption in Government

I've said before that I don't particularly want this to become a political blog, and that's why I put the words "A Wee Bit More" in the title of this post. Fact is, you could fill whole encyclopedias with nothing but instances of public corruption. I prefer to think about more uplifting things, like homemade catapults.

But Roger Z left a comment to my last post that caused the wheels to turn another quarter rotation, and I thought I'd explore the ramifications briefly before going on to other stuff. Roger said:
I think this is the first step on the way to the meme that "everyone does it." Blago goes to jail for graft? Heck, it's universal, it's not THAT big a deal. You can see where, if the public buys into that, it might be a useful defense in the near future for certain media darlings.
I think the "everybody does it" defense is an outright threat to our democratic system, actually. It works like this: one side gets really, really paranoid about all the "dirty tricks" the other side plays--say, regarding voter fraud. That side becomes convinced that the game is totally corrupt, and no one can win an election unless they successfully rig it. So, justifying their actions by saying everybody does it, they start rigging elections. Then the other side notices that the elections are being stolen, and they can't get satisfaction in the courts, so they decide that they have to rig the system just to stay viable as a political party.

Pretty soon there's enough corruption going on in the electoral system that the legitimate votes don't actually decide the elections anymore, and--by definition--you no longer have a democracy. The belief that "everybody does it" became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And this doesn't just occur around elections; it's anything sleazy that anyone in power might do, from selling offices, to selling influence, to auditing their opponents....


But in all of this, there is an opportunity, if the electorate is alert enough to seize it. So consider this post as my little part in raising the alert.

How do you tell apart the real reformers, the real clean-government advocates, from those who just use the "reform" brand to gain votes?

After all, there is a political victory to be won in taking down the crooks in the other party. If a Republican gets in legal trouble, you can count that all the Dems in the world will get in front of the cameras and denounce the rapscallion, with grave countenance and stern voices. But it's impossible not to notice that the Dems in question have more of an interest than just high-minded defense of ethics in our Republic; if a Republican goes down, it typically gives more power to the Dems. This obviously leads to questions in the public--are these guys actually serious about reforms, or are they just opportunists looking to profit by the fall of their adversaries?

And of course, it's not just the Republicanss who get in trouble and the Dems who claim to be reformers. We're seeing the flipside of things now with the Blagojevic(D) scandal in Illinois.

So, how do you tell apart the real reformers from the opportunists?

Here's one sign: Real reformers are willing to take down the crooks in their own party, and are willing to make real personal sacrifices to do so. That is, they want their own party to be the "Party of Reform", so much so that they're willing to drive out its corrupt elements, even if it gives a congressional majority to the other party, and even if it makes them a pariah in their own party.

Now, not everyone who takes on enemies in their own party is a reformer. In some cases, it just means they're even more opportunistic than everyone else. After all, some of the worst dictators in history started out by driving out all potential rivals from the parties they eventually headed.

But, if a person has never butted heads with the leadership of their own party over ethics issues, it either means that he or she hasn't been in politics very long, or it means he or she can't legitimately be called a reformer.


Considering this standard, the identifications of the real reformers--the real ethics crusaders--in the last election is left as an exercise to the reader. With one major exception, that is:

One of the big reasons that Sarah Palin was so popular within the Republican base, one of the things that put her on the political map in the first place--and brought her to the attention of McCain--was precisely that she took on the Don Youngs, and Ted Stevens's, and Frank Murkowskis of the Alaska Republican party. She primaried a sitting Republican governor who had become notorious for corrupt practices, and she won. Now, the charge has been made that she's actually one of those opportunists who knows how to play their opponent's flaws for personal gain; and I'm not going to try to refute that argument here. But nevertheless, any candidate who wishes to claim the mantle of Ethical Reformer has to do the kinds of things that Sarah Palin did: they have to take on the corrupt people on their own side. If they haven't done that, they have no legitimate claim to make to being anything but an opportunist on ethical issues.

As I said, I think this is one of the reasons that Palin has remained so popular within the Republican base, even after the November 4th election loss. There are a lot of Conservatives out there who have become absolutely disgusted with their party--the orgy of earmarking, the bailouts, the quid pro quos. There is a sense that the elected officials of the party, fearing the party's sliding popularity, threw out their principles, and tried to hold on to their jobs by using tax money to bribe their constituents. As a result, there was a big chunk of the Republican base that felt betrayed, and many were planning on sitting this election out to teach the party a lesson.

And then Palin came along. And with her came the implicit promise, to those disaffected Republicans, that she would clean house. And not primarily by taking on the Democrats; she was popular among the Republican base because she had a reputation for taking on the Republicans. The fact is, the Republican base wants the Republicans to be the Party of Ethics, and when the Party falls short of its ideals, the base gets very angry, and very discouraged. Palin gave the 'Pubs hope that the party would be cleaned up and put back in order.

And if she keeps butting heads with the party leadership over ethical issues, she'll be back in 2012--and will be a force.


Anyway, that was a bit of a digression. The takeaway is: if you want reform, you have to look at a candidate's willingness to bite his or her own party. The most ethical candidates are those who try to keep their own homes clean before they try to clean up everyone else's. And if a candidate hasn't done that, then their ethics claims need to be taken as only so much hot air.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

How To Lie With Statistics

So I happened to see an eyebrow-raising headline the other day at USA Today: North Dakota tops analysis of corruption.

This smelled a little fishy to me. More corrupt than Illinois? More corrupt than Louisiana? More corrupt than New Jersey, for cryin' out loud?

Well, that's what the story said:
On a per-capita basis, however, Illinois ranks 18th for the number of public corruption convictions the federal government has won from 1998 through 2007, according to a USA TODAY analysis of Department of Justice statistics.
Ay, therein lies the rub. This is a case where, as we move from the original statistics to the journalistic analysis to the news story, that the truth gets increasingly buried. I'm reminded of the old dictum--attributed to Mark Twain--of there being three kinds of untruths: lies, damned lies, and statistics.

The Justice Department statistics list the number of convictions for public corruption that have been made in the federal courts, broken down by state.

And it turns out that if you take each of these numbers and divide them by the number of people in the appropriate states, North Dakota has the highest number of federal public corruption convictions per capita of any state in the nation.

I suppose it's inevitable that the headlines would start trumpeting that North Dakota is the most corrupt state! But that conclusion does not exactly follow from the evidence they present.

Here are some potential ways their conclusion breaks down:
  • This metric only counts the number of convictions, not the number of crimes. You only get a conviction when the person is caught. If no one ever gets caught, you can have all the corruption in the world, and still have a low number of convictions--and thus a lower ranking than everyone else. It may be the case that North Dakota is just better at finding its crooks than everyone else--resulting in more convictions, and thus a higher ranking on the list.
  • This list only counts federal public corruption convictions. What about state public corruption convictions? It could be that other states catch their own crooks and try them in the state court systems, and North Dakota just happens to be deficient in this regard, so the feds are the ones doing all the work there. It doesn't automatically mean that North Dakota actually has more crimes going on.
  • The statistic is counted as a per-capita with respect to the population of the state, not with respect to the population of the state's public servants.
Here's what I mean by this last one: California has 120 people in its legislature--40 in the senate, 80 in the assembly. But California has 36.5 million people. Now, suppose that--on average--one crime is committed per year by each member of the legislature. (I don't know the true figure here; I'm just assuming that they're all crooks, for the purpose of this analysis.) :-) That means 120 crimes are committed by the legislature, or 3.3 crimes for every million people in the state.

North Dakota, on the other hand, has 141 people in its legislature--47 in the senate, and 94 in the assembly. But North Dakota has not quite 640,000 people. If the legislators of North Dakota were just as corrupt as that of California (in our example), there would be one crime per legislator per year, or 141 crimes committed by the legislature, for a total of 220 crimes for every million people in the state.

With the probing analysis of the USA Today headline writers, they'd conclude that North Dakotans are (220/3.3=) 67 times as corrupt as Californians--whereas the truth is merely that the legislators of each state are equally corrupt, but North Dakota just has more corrupt legislators per capita.


To be fair, the story does walk back its headline somewhat, and it gives the North Dakota partisans the opportunity to give their opinions as to why the reporters are full of it:

Don Morrison, executive director of the non-partisan North Dakota Center for the Public Good, said it may be that North Dakotans are better at rooting out corruption when it occurs.

"Being a sparsely populated state, people know each other," he said. "We know our elected officials and so certainly to do what the governor of Illinois did is much more difficult here."

And later:
The analysis does not include corruption cases handled by state law enforcement and it considers only convictions. Corruption may run more rampant in some states but go undetected.
Yeah, yeah. But the trouble is, when you have a spectacular headline like this, that some non-trivial percentage of people will read the headline, and get the meme North Dakota is the most crooked state of the Union! in their heads--without bothering to read through to the end where all the walk-backs are, and without bothering to think about whether the evidence presented in the story actually adds up to the conclusion they're trying to push in the headline.


My wife just asked the question: "So were the reporters from Illinois?" I'm shocked, shocked that she could be so cynical.... :-)

But then, her mom grew up watching the political scene in Kentucky....

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Happy Fourth Birthday, Adrenaline Junkie!

Well, this post is a FULL DAY LATE. I'm such a lousy father....

Ahem. Actually, we didn't think much about the Adrenaline Junkie's fourth birthday yesterday, because we already celebrated with cake and presents and extended family on Saturday. Still, I gave her a really good birthday tickle, which was duly appreciated.

Yup, the Adrenaline Junkie is now officially four years old.

In this picture, the Junkie is not being tickled. She looks contemplative. (But don't believe it. I was there when I took the picture, and she wasn't actually very contemplative.)

The Adrenaline Junkie has turned into the party girl of the family: she's always getting into things, finding fun (and usually pretty loud) games to play, and sucking everyone else into it. When the Junkie is around, often all three of my kids wind up in a tangled ball of pillows, blankets, and toddlers in the middle of the family room, accompanied by the continuous sounds of giggling from all of them. This doesn't seem to happen as much as when it's just the other two.

Here she is, obviously deep in concentration. Either that, or she's emulating Michael Jordan.

And as I noted in a previous post, the Adrenaline Junkie--who is tall and very slender for her age--has the bodily proportions of a much older child. She could be a pre-teen, or even a young teenager. This is especially true when she wears her glasses, which accentuate just how narrow her face is. While there's no mistaking her for a teenager when you see her in real life (she's only about three and a half feet tall, after all), the moment you take a picture of her next to a non-descript background, all the size-indicating context clues vanish, and all one is left with to judge her age are her bodily proportions. As a result, she occasionally looks like she's almost twelve, and she's about to get asked out to the middle school dance.

They grow up so fast, don't they?

Anyway, here's to our own little party girl. May you have many, many more happy birthdays. And do try not to be too hard on all the boys.

Not Child-Safe Anymore

Anyone remember this image from last year, from my post entitled How to Child-Proof Your Christmas Tree?

Well, we thought it was such a great idea, we'd try it again this year. But this time around, the little guy isn't so little.
We actually caught him trying to climb the fence at one point, by slinging his leg up and over it.

Well, it was good for one year....

(And yes, we're aware that the little boy is blurry in the image. You won't find many non-blurry photographs of him. In fact, he usually looks a little blurry in real life, too.)

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Frosty Morning

Well, we had a beautiful winter morning here.

Ok, for all you pedants out there, it's not technically winter yet. Winter doesn't start until--what, the 21st of December or something like that? I always forget the exact day of the solstice. But while there's a certain logic to delineating the seasons by Solstices and Equinoxes, it just doesn't seem to fit. December just seems like a winter month to me, darn it! Somehow, the fact that two-thirds of the month are still autumn, doesn't compute.

Likewise, I think of June as a summer month and September as an autumn month. March--well, I've lived in enough cold places that the phrase "In like a lion, out like a lamb" is actually appropriate. Or if not that, it's "In like a lion, out like a wildebeest," or other creature that you can't actually comprehend. One year in Minot, North Dakota, we were joking that we'd celebrate the last day of school with a snowball fight. And in fact we did get a light dusting of snow on the last day of school that year, though it didn't stick.

But anyway: back to the beautiful winter morning. I've blogged before that I like snow a whole lot. Alas, the Central Valley of California gets enough snow to stick only once every two decades or so.

But we do get frosts here. And last night it got down to the mid-30's, which was enough to do the trick.

I happened to look outside just around breakfast time, and our backyard was absolutely lovely. Every blade of grass was outlined in gleaming white. The morning sun, shining through the fog, was almost pink in color.

So I grabbed the camera and stepped outside. It was quiet and cold, and my breath was clearly visible. Here are a few of the pictures I got.
This is a picture of the rising sun shining through the fog, over white rooftops and through the bare branches of our neighbors' fruit trees. The grass, as I said, was outlined in bright white and was downright crunchy under my boots.

This is one of our Japanese maples. Most of them are nearly bare by now, but this one still has most of its leaves, and for some reason the frost was particularly heavy on it.

Here's our strawberry patch, which will obviously be dormant until April or May. I'm not sure you can see it here, but I found the colors on the leaves--greens mixed with reds and browns-- were strongly accentuated by the bright, harsh white of the frost. Everything in the backyard had an intensified shape and texture to it that isn't normally there.

I felt alive. Like Calvin's Dad. ;-)

My wife, on the other hand thought it was just cold. Which it was, but for her that's a bad thing.

(Her: "Well, it's pretty, I just don't want to be in it.")


Well, we'll see what happens. This wasn't a hard frost by any means, so the orange trees and the native plants should be fine. However....

There's at least a decent possibility that a massive cold system is going to cover the western US--clear down to Southern California--sometime in the next two weeks. Apparently there are parts of Siberia right now that are at 81 below (Fahrenheit. 81 below Celcius would be enough to freeze the CO2 right out of the air), and this cold mass is heading our way. We'll see what actually makes it here, and whether it'll be cold enough to give us anything but rain. Rain is most likely what we'll get; but I'm still hoping that well get just a smidgen of the real white stuff.

From Russia With Love, indeed.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Here's A Problem They Never Expected To Have....

Ok, for lack of a better thing to blog about, here's a little item from Wired News, which is simultaneously a testament to the power of unintended consequences and a sign that we mere humans will always be able to find things to complain about.

It appears that the new Airbus super-jumbo jet, the A380, is a quiet plane.

Too quiet

Here's the problem. You're stuck on transcontinental flight for a dozen hours or so, so you're trying to get some sleep. Now, ordinarily you would think that the super-high-bypass engines on that plane would be a good thing, since they're quieter than older engines. And with the sheer size of the plane, those engines are actually spaced fairly far from the cabin, so most of the noise dissipates into the surrounding air anyway. Great!

Except there's a heretofore-unappreciated benefit to having loud engines--they drown out the sound of the lavatory flushing. And they drown out the sound of the baby crying three rows back. And they drown out the conversations of those two mall-rats sitting on the other side of the fuselage.

And they drown out the sound of your conversation, so you can't be overheard by nosy neighbors.

With all those wonderful sound reductions the Airbus people have put in their planes, now everyone is aware of a whole bunch of stuff that they'd rather not be aware of!

This is especially a problem for people who are trying to sleep--like off-duty flight crew. On other planes, those big engines produce huge amounts of white noise that drowns out everything else. Less white noise on the A380, and you can hear all that sneezing, coughing, flushing...

And it doesn't help that Emirates Airlines put their pilot sleeping quarters in the back of the plane, where the passengers mistake it for a lavatory and keep knocking to see if the pilots are done in there yet.


As I said before, this is a testament to unintended consequences, and it's a testament to the fact that we humans (or is it just us Westerners?) can find anything to complain about, even in something as otherwise praiseworthy as a quiet airliner. Somehow the phrase "there's no pleasing some people" comes to mind....

(Warning: some coarse language here, and some very dry British humor)

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Anti-Intellectualism? Well....

I've been making a mental tossed salad of many things I've been reading--and sometimes just sensing--over the last few weeks. Here are some of the ingredients of the salad.

First: Much has been written lately about the "anti-intellectualism" of Americans in general, and of the political right in particular. The observation that there is a distrust of the over-educated, of the professional academic, of the policy wonk, is a valid one. This observation is usually made with an air of disdain on the part of the observer toward those poor, benighted souls who don't recognize what's good for them. If people would just recognize who was smartest and most educated, and put them in charge, that would be good for the country, wouldn't it? And the fact that a big chunk of the population resists doing this is taken as a sign that we don't have a mature, sophisticated electorate yet.

Second: Along these lines, we have this column by David Brooks of the New York Times. Despite the fact that Brooks is generally conservative, he is highly impressed by the personnel choices the incoming Obama administration is making. They all have very impressive educational pedigrees: Harvard/Harvard Law, Yale/Yale Law, Stanford, Princeton, Oxford. Brooks sees this as something noteworthy, and praiseworthy.

Third: Well, Brooks' column provoked something of a backlash. With a hat tip to Carol Platt Liebau at Townhall, here's a column by a professor named Joseph Epstein, writing in the Weekly Standard. He reflects on the students who have passed through his classroom, and notes that the ones who got the best grades weren't necessarily the ones who were most insightful or intellectually curious, but the ones who were so focused on making the grade that they did as they were told. The highest-scoring students were often those who had such stupendous ambition that they were willing to adopt the teachers' worldviews, temporarily--just long enough to get that A so they could go on to graduate summa cum laude and then get into Harvard Law so they could become full partners at prestigious law firms, get rich, and then go into politics.... And he suggests that many of these "good students" are not particularly to be trusted.

Fourth: And along these lines, there's that column by Victor Davis Hanson that I linked to and wrote about in Thursday's post. Very briefly, Hanson alleged that the colleges aren't really what they used to be, or what they could be; they have abandoned the "Core" model of classical education in favor of a smorgasbord of trendy, politicized course offerings that indoctrinate instead of actually expanding the mind.

Fifth: Here's a post from Daniel MacIntyre, whose blog I link to, from a couple of weeks back. He acknowledges that Obama shows every sign of being highly intelligent, but warns that intelligence does not necessarily equate to wisdom, and questions whether Obama has shown many signs of the latter.

Thus, the salad.

I suspect that if my own views were laid out for the whole world to see, I would be pegged by many observers as an "Anti-Intellectual". I do tend to sympathize with the proportion of the population that's suspicious of their intellectual "betters" and skeptical of schemes that give them too much authority over the important stuff. But I've given at least a little thought to the reasons I think this way. I'll let you decide for yourselves if you think this makes me an Anti-Intellectual, and just how negative you consider that term, anyway.


I would like to present three definitions, and compare and contrast them.

The first one is Intelligence. I like the definition that David MacIntyre gave in his post, so I'll use that as a starting point:
Intelligence is simply the effectiveness of your thought processes. If you can reason effectively, analyze communications accurately and draw inferences easily from various data, you are intelligent.

The second one is Wisdom. Again, here's the definition that David MacIntyre gave:
[W]isdom is the set of rules, guides and/or habits you have developed as "best practices" for life. When you choose not to [pee] on an electric fence, when you stick to a set budget and pay off credit card debt, or when you decide to go ahead and pay the extra money for the snowboard lessons rather than seeing if your limited experience on skis will translate to skill on the board, you are using wisdom.
"Wisdom" is a little harder to define than intelligence. It's a broader concept. And as much as I'd like to define it using words like "understanding", I have to stop myself; some of the wisest people in the world don't necessarily know why they make the decisions they do, they just do what seems right--and it turns out to be right. Think of a mother who knows just the right thing to do when one of her kids has become disappointed or hurt. Is that understanding? Well, maybe... but sometimes it's just plain maternal instinct. It counts as wisdom nonetheless, in my book, because she's still choosing the right thing to do.

Wisdom includes the ability to see ahead to the consequences of current trends and actions, but it's more than that. It also includes such things as experience, and it includes such things as self control, and it includes the discernment to see through distractions to whatever the core issue happens to be.

The third concept is Goodness. This, simply stated, is the desire to act for the defense and betterment of one's fellow man, and for the defense and betterment of society. If I care about the people around me enough that I'm willing to take the time and effort to build them up, that's Goodness. If I don't care about their well-being--especially if I'm willing to benefit at their expense--then I possess a distinct lack of Goodness.

I think most people will agree to this last definition, with the possible exception of the Objectivists. And even with them, I suspect they will have a different definition of goodness that can be substituted in place of the one I just gave without affecting the main point I'm trying to make here.


Now, here's the point that most American "Anti-Intellectuals" instinctively realize: Intelligence, Wisdom, and Goodness do not always show up together in the same person. It is common to find people who lack one or another of these three.

What does it look like when one or another of these virtues is missing?

Consider a person who possesses great Wisdom and Goodness, but is of merely adequate intelligence. Such a person will not necessarily be the font of scintillating conversation. Such a person may not be able to contribute much to the sum total of human knowledge. But on the other hand, such people are usually loved and respected by the other people in their lives. These are the ones who so often are willing to take care of the people around them who get sick or otherwise fall on hard times. When these individuals get older, they are often full of good advice, for anyone who will listen, on everything from having a good marriage, to how to fix a carburetor. When you think of this combination, Forrest Gump comes to mind. These people may not be very smart, but they are often very successful at life.

Now consider a person who possesses great Intelligence and Wisdom, but lacks Goodness. These people are clever, but they are also often disdainful of those around them. Often corrupt--but the corrupt ones aren't the worst. These types can also be ideologues, to whom the people around them are but pawns in their grand schemes. Their intelligence allows them to see and understand how the world around them works, giving them the power to manipulate; and their wisdom often gives them such virtues as courage, fortitude and patience; and these things, coupled with a lack of empathy for the ones around them, make them very dangerous. When I think of this combination, Vladimir Putin comes to mind.

Now consider a person who possesses great Intelligence and Goodness, but lacks Wisdom. What about these? Well, the Goodness of these people leads them to want to assist their neighbors. And their Intelligence gives them the ability to study a matter and come up with theories about how they work. But in many cases, the understanding necessary to do something worthwhile isn't there. Often these types of people mentally construct their own internally-consistent "realities" that allow them to think they are doing the right thing, while they remain oblivious to the negative consequences of their actions on those around them.

Examples of this sort of thing abound; consider "New Math", which as I understand was an attempt to completely rework the scope and sequence of the elementary-school math curriculum, so that it started not with simple counting and arithmetic, but with set and number theory. Such a program could only have been developed by some very intelligent people--who lacked understanding of the way kids actually think and learn.

For another example of this sort of thing: here's a fairly long article about attempts to clean up the original Skid Row (in Los Angeles), through the use of improved policing and social service efforts, and how these attempts were (are) routinely thwarted by well-meaning "homeless advocates" who use the courts to block them in the name of freedom and dignity of the homeless, without any comprehension of the damage their actions do to the very people they're hoping to help.

To put a name with the phenomenon of someone who possesses Intelligence and Goodness while lacking Wisdom, the one who comes to my mind--fairly or unfairly--is Dr. Benjamin Spock, whose 1946 book Baby and Child Care kicked off a revolution in societal attitudes regarding child rearing. His work ran against the grain of what was then considered conventional wisdom, and eventually came to supplant it almost completely. Whether or not he personally intended his work to be interpreted this way, it led widely to a much more permissive, much more obliging, less disciplined approach to child rearing than what has gone before, which has been cited (again, fairly or not) as one reason for the widespread social disfunctions that appeared with the Boomer generation in the 60's--narcissism, rebellion, moral and family breakdown, and the like.

So after looking at these three virtues--Intelligence, Wisdom, and Goodness--it should be apparent that if you can't have all three in a leader, if you have to leave out one of them, Intelligence is more dispensable than the other two. Highly intelligent people who possess goodness, but lack wisdom, are the ones to pave the road to hell with their good intentions. Highly intelligent people who lack Goodness are monsters. High intelligence lacking either Wisdom or Goodness is downright dangerous, both to the person who possesses it, and to everyone around him.

And the typical American man-or-woman-on-the-street instinctively knows this. From this, I think, follows the reluctance of the electorate to trust the supposed "best and the brightest" with too much power.

Any housefrau can bake a delicious, filling, nutritious loaf of bread. But it takes a scientist to make a Twinkie. ;-)


There's much more to be said on this topic, which (considering the late hour) I can't really do justice to. For example, I happen to think there are plenty of intellectual pitfalls that are particularly tempting to those who are highly intelligent and who know it. To name a few, they tend to overestimate their own competence, and underestimate the competence of the people around them to manage their own affairs; they tend to overstate the strength of their pet theories, and underestimate the value of experience (especially experience that runs contrary to their theories); they tend to undervalue the opinions and values of those they deem less intelligent; they tend to be afraid of being thought unintelligent by their peers, which makes them vulnerable to groupthink and intellectual fads; and they tend to see themselves as the natural leaders, who should be giving orders instead of taking them.

And all of these pitfalls are a manifestation of Intelligence coupled with lack of Wisdom, which can lead to all the consequences I mentioned earlier.

The late William F. Buckley--who was obviously very well educated and very, very smart, understood all this: that's why one of his more famous quotes is,
I am obliged to confess I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.
(That's not the only good WFB quote to be had. If you've got the time, read anything by WFB that you can get your hands on--starting with the rest of the quotes at that site.)

And the thing is... The general population of the USA knows all this, at least at some deep, instinctual level. So any time they hear an intellectual--whether a politician, or an academic, or a bureaucrat--proclaim something along the lines of, "We could solve all these problems if we just put the smart people in charge!"; or when they hear mutterings about how foolish they are to hang on to their time-tested values instead of putting academic theorists in charge of their priorities, they have a way withdrawing all trust from the intellectual in question.

This often gets them labelled "Anti-Intellectual". But I'm not always convinced it isn't the wise thing to do.