Thursday, March 12, 2009

What Did the Children Know, and When Did They Know It?

On March 11, 2009, a high school student killed 16 peers in Germany. The commentary below originally aired on Vermont Public Radio in 1999, at the beginning of the U.S. epidemic of school violence. It may have relevance today, as well.

More than a third of women seeking help in hospital emergency rooms report that they have been abused by intimate partners. So say the results of a survey by the Allegheny University of the Health Sciences. Interviewing almost 3500 women, researchers identified something that puts women at especially high risk of domestic violence: raising young children.

Anyone who’s been a parent can tell you that young children are only really perfect when they’re asleep—and that if there’s a short-fused temper in a house, the normal antics of wide-awake children might ignite an explosion. So learning that women with young children are in the high risk group for domestic violence doesn’t surprise me.

But it does concern me. Here we are, the year in the midst of an epidemic of school violence, pointing our fingers accusingly at TV screens as we try to track the epidemic’s cause. And here I am, wondering: When dad is hurting mom are the high-spirited children awake? Listening? Watching? What’s going on in the kitchen between mom and dad is probably way more interesting than what’s happening on TV. Do the children know? And if they do know, how many of them now accept violence against women as an ordinary part of everyday life?

I’m willing to bet that TV, computer games, and teasing all play a role in the school violence epidemic. But did you know that almost all of the children killed in the school murders last academic year were girls—and that all of the killers were boys?

  • Norwalk, Calif.: A boy killed his 16-year-old estranged girlfriend.

  • Jonesboro, Arkansas: Four girls died when a 13-year-old, with help from his cousin, set out to kill all of the girls who had ever broken up with him. That was his threat just the day before.

  • Pearl Mississippi: Two girls died. According to a friend of the murderer’s, he had talked about killing one because she wouldn’t go out with him anymore.

By the way, the Allegheny University study reported another interesting finding: Women trying to end an intimate relationship are seven times more likely to be hurt by their partners. Last school year, of the eleven students murdered, ten were girls. And of the seven murderers, four were boys who seem to have been hunting specific girls; the rest of the dead may have been what military generals euphemistically call "collateral damage."

Do we know whether these four boys had witnessed violence between their parents? No. While we can safely assume that some of last year’s school murders were about romantic rejection, we can’t safely assume that any of the boys had learned violence at home.

But it does make one wonder about children in general.

Studies since the early 80’s have statistically tied witnessing family violence to violent behavior in boys. Interestingly, they have also tied witnessing family violence to "sitting duck" behavior in girls. According to the American Bar Association, witnessing family violence places children of both sexes at high risk of lifelong problems—the boys as offenders and the girls as victims.

“Home Schooling” I guess you could call it. But at the same time, many kids from violent homes do grow up to have healthy relationships. Why? How?

There are lots of good opinions from psychologists working with children of violence. One whose name I have long forgotten said something like: “If kids in these families are to keep from going crazy, someone in their lives—it doesn’t have to be a parent—has to be crazy about them.” It’s a simplistic analysis that ignores all sorts of factors, yes. But I love it. It suggests a course of action. And I, anyway, am grasping for ways to help.

Many children who witness violence are threatened by the abuser not to tell anyone, and they don’t. So if we want to help, we’ll have to let all the children in our lives know that we’re crazy about them. We’ll have to get crazy and stay crazy.

Children of violence often act out in ways that make them difficult to love. So, long-term, getting and staying crazy about every kid in town is not going to be easy. I hope we don’t just cut a wide swath of well-intentioned promises without any real follow-through. I hope we don’t ride roughshod in delicate situations.

And as much as we want to help, we will probably find that sometimes we can’t. Things conspire; fate wins. And when it does, we will be unbearably sad.

But if nothing else our lives and maybe the life of someone else will have been enriched by the happy lunacy of our actions.

And that, perhaps, will be something.

This was broadcast in 1999 as part of Vermont Public Radio's Commentary series.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

What Are Little Boys Made Of?

My boy used to make sense to me. That was when he was one year old and loved to vacuum the rug. “Big noise!” he’d shout as the vacuum roared.

Ben no longer does rugs. He still likes big noises, though—much more than I like them. He likes bangs and explosions. He loathes predictability. He wants to make sudden, full-body motions and to hunt big game and fish big fish.

I, on the other hand, detest big noises and love predictability. I want to type small words on a small computer. I don’t even eat meat much less hunt. If I were to fish, I would use plastic bait. So, at age 7, Ben no longer makes perfect sense to me. Quite literally he sometimes seems to be from Mars while I am from Venus. Already.

Ben does make sense to his father, also from Mars. Trouble is, his father is gone a lot of nights and weekends. Then it’s just me and two kids—the quiet, sensible girl and the loud boy. There’s no way around it; that’s how I react on some level, even though I try not to. On good days we laugh about it together.

Ben’s plight in our mother-dominated house has gotten me to thinking about boys in general. An increasing number of mothers are single moms. Do their boys grow up feeling from the get-go like Martians on Venus? If so, how many become toughs and miscreants, just in ego-defense?

Try as I might I can’t find scholarly answers to those questions. I have found studies showing that helping boys feel less alienated can keep them out of jail. The Cornell Consortium for Longitudinal Studies goes so far as to say that the earlier we help boys feel less alienated, the better—and that the best “boy-saving” programs link overwhelmed parents and children to community resources and supports.

Last Spring I was feeling both overwhelmed and shy on support. Ben was feeling boyish—you know, impulsive, impish, wonderful to watch but difficult to keep up with. And then he wanted to go fishing. He was crazy with desire.

See? I said “crazy.” What does that tell you about the intensity of his urge and the rigidity of my perceptions?

Out of blue sky, a community support appeared. The local gun club was sponsoring a fishing derby for kids. I don’t think I have to help you imagine what my let-me-be-alone-with-my-computer, knee-jerk reaction is to ideas like “gun clubs.” But at that point I was desperate to help Ben feel good about being a boy—and I liked the idea that someone from the gun club might bait our hook.

We showed up with a line and reel, my plastic worms, and some live worms of Ben’s. I quickly learned that fish don’t eat plastic but that they do love the rich smell of a freshly impaled member of the genus Lumbricus.

Ben—whose genetic material, after all, is 50% mine—had some trouble learning that fishing is not the same as hitting “enter” on a computer keyboard. There’s a lot of disappointed waiting involved. In fact, while kids right and left hauled in trout, Ben had to wait to catch one of the last fish of the day. A man I only know as “Mike from the Gun Club" showed Ben how to kill the fish and clean it. Mike did both the killing and cleaning with respect for the fish and with respect for Ben. And Ben noticed. In those very few minutes my boy saw in Mike that it’s OK to do guy things and that manliness can also be gentleness.

As we left I watched for a moment while one of the gun club volunteers worked patiently on fly fishing technique with one of our school’s young toughs. Mind you, that volunteer was a pretty big guy.

By the way, have you ever seen fly fishing? I hadn’t. It’s fantastically beautiful to watch the line whip and weave. As I watched the big volunteer and his tiny new pal practice their fly fishing I retired a few of my prejudices about fishing—and about gun clubs (though not about guns). I thought, “Thank goodness for men like that big guy and Mike. I even thought, “Long live the Putney Gun Club.”

This was broadcast in 2000 as part of the Vermont Public Radio "Commentary" series.

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Monday, March 09, 2009

International Women's Day

In honor of International Women's Day I decided to create my post about women inventors in the language that for centuries was the international language of respectability. That being said, please understand that I speak French haltingly. Consider this French essay a best effort offered with good intentions.

Spécial Journée de la femme

Où serions-nous, en tout cas, sans technologie de rayons X, Nystatin, le téléphone informatisé le système échangeant, le Snugli, le médicament luttant contre leucémie 6-mercaptopurine, Kevlar, les poupées de Barbie, Actar 911 (le mannequin CPR) et les sacs en papier chargés-plats? Chaque année, les centaines de milliers de femmes demandent et reçoivent un brevet. Pendant la période de vingt ans 1977-1996, environ 83% des brevets décernés aux femmes étaient pour les brevets utilitaires, 16.5% pour les brevets de design, et 0.5% pour les brevets d'équipement.

Les appelons les "mères d'invention." La décade après la décade quelques inventions créé par les femmes a aidé des autres femmes sur leur voyage vers l'émancipation. Par exemple, le Costume d'Émancipation de flanelle a été inventé par Susan Taylor Converse. Elle a reçu un brevet le 3 août 1875. Les femmes qui ont porté le Costume n'ont pas eu besoin de porter un corset. Par conséquent, ils ne se sont pas évanouis comme leurs "soeurs." D'autre part, quelques inventions créé par les femmes ont été utilisées par plus d'hommes que les femmes. Le Kevlar de Stephanie Kwolek est un exemple. Kevlar est une fibre. Par le poids c'est cinq fois plus fortes que l'acier. C'est la composante protectrice primaire dans les gilets pare-balles.

Certain des femmes qui ont inventé ont été l'équivalent femelle du geek mâle solitaire. Mais certains ont été des succès de ce monde. L'actrice de film Hedy Lamar a travaillé avec un partenaire pour développer un "Système de Communications Secret" utilisé par les forces armées pendant la Seconde Guerre mondiale pour transmettre le code. L'actrice Julia Newmar a joué la Femme de Chat dans le film. Mais elle a aussi inventé le collant ultra-absolu, ultra-douillet.

Une des créations que j'aime le mieux est la "Maison qui se nettoie," conçu en 1915 par Frances Gabe. Chaque pièce avait sur son plafond un artifice qui a lavé et a séché les contenus de la pièce. (Tous les murs, les plafonds, les étages et les meubles dans la maison étaient imperméables.) Il n'y avait aucun tapis. Tous les étages étaient slanted. "Au fond" des étages étaient des trous. L'eau vidée dans ces trous et a été emportée par les pipes.

Un inventeur que j'admire particulièrement est Ada Lovelace. En 1843 elle a écrit un papier scientifique qui s'est attendu au développement de logiciel, intelligence artificielle, et musique informatique. Elle a aussi créé une méthode pour utiliser des cartes perforées pour calculer des nombres Bernoulli. Cela l'a faite, essentiellement, le premier programmeur informatique. En 1980, dans son honneur le Ministère de la défense américain a appelé sa langue informatique "Ada."

C'est tout. Ayez un magnifique Spécial Journée de la femme.

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Monday, March 02, 2009

Family Mysteries

Remember that Thanksgiving when Uncle Ed fell down the stairs? Does everyone remember his fall the same way? No. Some say Ed was drunk when he fell. Others say he got drunk later to dull the pain. Some say Ed tumbled down two flights. Aunt Ruth says he only missed a bottom step. Twenty years later, the whole family disagrees about what happened, and they do it loudly every Thanksgiving.

According to researchers at New York University, that family mystery will never be solved. That’s because the worst thing you can do to a memory is recall it. In fact, remembering is a “practice makes imperfect” kind of thing.

It was standard rat research: Phase I. Rats. A short tone followed by an electric shock. Rats learn that tone means shock.

Phase II: Same rats. Next day. Short tone. Rats still show fear even though they’re not shocked. Short-term learning has become long-term memory.

Phase III: Same rats. Same tone. Again no shock. This time inject rats’ brains with a drug that blocks protein synthesis. Do it at the very moment that they look fearful.

I know. Poor rats. But why the protein-blocking drug?

It’s an axiom of brain biology that memory is encoded indelibly when the chemical bonds between the nerve cells holding it are protein-enriched. The scientists wanted to test that axiom. Are the bonds really indelible? Are the memories? If protein bonds were indelible the drug that blocks protein synthesis would have no effect—because no new protein would be needed. If protein bonds need to be re-made each time a memory is recalled, injecting the drug would interfere with the memory.

Which brings us to Phase IV. Same rats. Same tone. Again no shock. But this time, no fear behavior. Interfering with protein production at the moment of a memory’s recall erases the fearful memory. Which, according to the scientists, means:

First, the physical circuitry of a memory changes when a protein is replaced. Memory is no more than circuitry. Change the circuitry, you change the memory. Second, at the very moment of recall, any long-term memory is lacking its protein-enriched bond. It is extremely labile. Any sort of present sensory input could get wrapped up in the memory.

Now what does all this mean to us bigger rats?

Every time you tell the story of your Uncle Ed’s Thanksgiving tumble, the memory itself is changed—and you are open to suggestions from others. Whatever your Aunt Ruth says can get seamlessly recorded in your brain as part of what you think is pristine memory.

Does this rat research shed any light on the argument about true and false accusations? Obviously. Families that have long debated the truth of certain accusations should realize that the more they try to remember what happened the farther they may be from knowing. And the more they talk about the mystery together the muddier things may become.

What about the supposed epidemic of false memories? Sorry. No illumination. This new research says that the worst thing you can do to a memory is to recall it. But the true and false memory debate was mostly about memories that allegedly lie dormant until they are recalled years later for the very first time.

In fact, studies show that about half of such supposedly “iffy” memories can be independently verified.

Truth or lies? Lots of people would like simple answers. But in old family mysteries, it’s actually getting tougher to tell.

This was originally a Vermont Public Radio commentary.

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Your Cheatin' Mind Will Tell on You

It's been a little over 100 years since Sigmund Freud claimed in “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality” that women who have orgasms by means other than direct penile penetration of the vagina become prone to neurosis and hysteria.

Back near the turn of the century, women responded to Freud’s warning by beginning a multi-generational, transcontinental tsunami of faked vaginal orgasms. Or so the lore tells us. But who cares anymore? Any supposed physiological differences between vaginal and clitoral orgasms were debunked in the 60’s by Masters & Johnson.

No one fakes it anymore. Right? Not. Sexual surveys conducted since 2000 place the incidence of fakery at between 51% and 73% for women (and slightly higher for Democrats than Republicans). At last, however, technology has caught up with the liars. Indeed, recent advances may have made faking orgasms both nearly impossible and completely irrelevant.

Item: As of September 2005, faking orgasms became much harder to get away with for people having sex in magnetic resonance imaging tubes. Neuroscientists from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia declared ready for prime time their lie detection technology. Using functional MRIs that display changes in oxygen levels in a subject’s cerebral cortex, the scientists are almost always able to detect when test subjects lie about the identity of cards they are dealt. Now imagine this: A sexually as-yet unsatisfied woman relaxes near her spent lover in the MRI tube. Only moments before, hoping to fool him about the quality of his performance, she sang loudly, in soprano registers, of her pleasure. Now imagine that her lover asks, “Wow. So it was good for you, too?” Imagine that she answers, “Wonderful!” rather than, “Actually, no.” Were her lover to chance a look at the MRI screen, he would notice tell-tale elevated oxygen levels in the picture of her anterior cingulated gyrus and left prefrontal cortex. The gig, as they say, would be up.

Item: Another recent lie catching breakthrough is a P300-detecting electroencephalograph (or EEG) developed at the Brain Fingerprinting Lab in Seattle, Washington. The presence of the brainwave called P300 on this EEG’s readout denotes that a test subject is familiar with the details she has been asked to recall. Theoretically, therefore, the absence of P300 in the brainwave of an as-yet sexually unsatisfied woman would be telling. Immediately post-coitus, her lover might ask, “So, was it good for you, too?” But even a quick glance at her EEG would tell him that she has insufficient data with which to answer the question. That would be a disappointing performance review for him -- no matter how theatrically she may have tried to hide the truth.

Item: Faking orgasms is now unnecessary, as may be sex. An Orgasmatron has been developed by an anesthesiologist at the Piedmont Institute of Pain Management in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It’s a box of electrodes that is implanted under the skin of either a man’s or a woman’s buttocks and that stimulates nerves in the spine. Triggered by remote control, the device lets lovers proceed from A to Z without dallying at B, L, or W.

Barbarella, watch out.

”What do women want?” Sigmund Freud famously asked shortly after he had announced that what women shouldn’t want is any stimulation of the bundle of nerve endings that actually produces orgasm. Freud readily acknowledged that he was not well-informed enough to answer the question he had posed. Now, 150 years after his birth, we still can’t answer the question in any but the most superficial ways. However, functional MRIs, the P300-Reading EEG and the Orgasmatron may be about to change all that. True, they probably won’t ever tell us what women really and truly want in their hearts of hearts. But they may give both men and women what they need: No way to lie, and no excuse to, either.

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