Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Questions about ethics

It's been two years since I stopped believing in God, but most people in my life still don't know.  When I do tell someone, invariably the first question they ask is some permutation of this: "How can you be moral without God?"

I find this strange, because at the tail end of my time as a believer, my main worry was, "How can I be moral while being religious?"  After all, religion constrains your choices; sometimes you might have to abandon something your conscience wants you to do because your religion forbids it.

But I do try to answer the question, because it's important.  Even if the asker never leaves religion, I want them at least to be thinking about which of their moral choices would still make sense in a godless universe.  Call it the Reverse Pascal's Wager -- act in such a way that, even if there isn't a God, you still haven't done anything horrible.  Believe in God without the Inquisition, is what I'm saying.  And the only way to do that is to know what would be moral if God didn't exist.

I've talked about this a lot before, so you can read all my posts on the topic if you haven't already.  Today I want to talk about a few other moral questions which I've untangled lately.

Question 1: But don't you need objective morality?

I really am not sure what people are asking for here.  Morality is mainly about being objective -- to stop being stuck in your own wants and needs, and consider what is best for humanity as a whole.  Imagine you could pop out of your own body and float above the earth, looking down.  Don't ask "what's best for me" or even "what's best for my friends" but "what's best for everyone?"  The answer that you get from that is a moral answer.  If what is best for everyone is for your nation to, say, allow refugees in -- because the risk to your nation is small but the benefit to the refugees is vast -- then that is the moral thing to do.

Ah, my interlocutor would say, but why should I care what's best for everyone?  You have to give me an objective reason to care.

Well, there is no such thing as an objective reason to care, because caring is a bit subjective, isn't it?  I could tell you there is an omnipotent being who cares, but that is a statement of fact, not a reason for you to care.  I could tell you you'll go to hell if  you don't care, but even that doesn't bring you to an "ought" -- you could claim that you don't mind going to hell.  So no, there is nothing I could say that could universally make you care about this.  It is an observable fact, though, that most people do care.  They don't actually want to make the world a worse place.  And if you really go over it with them, they might admit that they do, in fact, want to have positive relationships with other people, and you get that by being good to people.  The specific arguments against all the various evils people might attempt would be a longer conversation, but I think the arguments could be made.  It won't be an objective proof, though.  It will depend on what the person actually wants, and what their ethical concerns are so far.

Question 2: But why is it moral to care for all people, rather than just some people?

Here's a question that has troubled me for awhile.  A person who's not endowed with much empathy or conscientiousness might be talked into some basic decency because they want to have friends.  They might want to be loyal to their friends; most people at least like to think they are.  But why should they be decent to people who aren't in their tribe?  They might define their tribe as "people they regularly interact with" or "people of their religion" or "people of their race," but that still gives them plenty of people to have positive relationships and engage in trade with, without having to be moral toward strangers.  And human nature doesn't really give us much to combat this tendency with, because it naturally is suspicious of strangers.  This is why there's so much racism and ethnic cleansing and so on -- because neither our reason nor our instincts put the brakes on this tendency very much.

But it occurs to me that the basic game-theory motive for moral action still works on this level.  I am kind to the cashier who scans my groceries because we are both better off if we are both kind, while we will both be worse off if we aren't.  I could be mean, hoping she is still kind, so that I get what I want without being moral, but that doesn't work, because if I'm mean once, she'll be mean in the future.  And this is true of groups as well.  My group can practice reciprocal morality with other groups, just like I can with individuals.  It is better for the US to get along with Canada than for us to fight with Canada, so Americans should be nice to Canadians.

Of course, Machiavelli might say this only holds true if some group, in the future, might have power to hurt us.  If we wipe them out entirely, they can never get revenge on us, so we'll be better off.  And all I can say is that history does not bear this out.  Wiping out an entire race and everyone that cared about that race is virtually impossible.  It didn't work for Hitler, it didn't work for Milosevic, it's not going to work for you.  Keeping them as a powerless subclass doesn't work forever, either.  Haiti is an example of this.

Now the best way to solve tribalism is probably to increase inter-tribal interaction and relationships.  If you have several black friends, and they're actually close, odds are good you won't want to join the KKK.  If you have a Syrian friend on Facebook, you might stop suggesting "bomb the whole region from space" as a solution to the unrest there.  Basically, once you realize that the stranger is not all that different from you, that they have feelings, hopes, aspirations, and loved ones like you have, you will want to be kind.

Still, even if you're a heartless xenophobe, if you really think about it, you should be able to see that a world where people interact positively with one another is better for you to live in than a world where all nations are constantly at war and you're always watching your back in case one of your slaves shanks you.

Question 3: What is a person?

That's a brief way of asking, "How do you define the class of beings that are morally significant?" or "Who has rights?" or possibly, "But who is my neighbor?"

I was brought up keeping it simple: humans.  Humans are morally significant; no other life form is morally significant.  But that sort of leaves out aliens.  If we were to discover intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, I would argue that we should treat them ethically, for all the reasons discussed in question 2.  They would be able to participate with us in reciprocal morality -- perhaps they might share their technology with us, for instance.  Whereas if we tried to wipe them out, we'd probably get a reputation throughout the galaxy of "these people are mass murderers, kill on sight" long before we managed to wipe them out.  So on that ground, even if we're completely selfish, we should try to be nice to aliens.

Further, just as we can empathize with a fellow human from a different country, with different experiences, because we have many things in common with him ... so too would we have things in common with intelligent aliens.  Their culture and minds would be vastly different from ours, but their experience must have some commonality with us if they're rational like we are.  We might find they make interesting friends.  And our instinct not to kill a being that has hopes and dreams and friends will likely kick in, once we get over our squeamishness over their different appearance and start communicating with them.

But of course once you draw the circle larger than "the human race" you open a massive can of worms.  Are animals morally significant as well?  Should we respect the lives, liberty, and happiness of animals?  How are we to know whether or not we should?

This is a really, really thorny problem and it isn't something I'm going to be able to hash out in its entirety here.  I do think that, to some degree, intelligence matters.  A pig or a dog, which can be trained, read a human's intentions, and solve problems seems a lot more likely to be morally significant than a shrimp or a snail, if only because the "higher" animal will experience longer, more complex kinds of suffering if it's mistreated, while the snail doesn't seem to be capable of it.  (It may be impossible to say for sure.)

My general feeling is that it is good for animals to exist and not suffer.  However, for them to die is not such a big thing.  I know this sounds odd, but animals generally do not seem to comprehend death, and so they aren't upset by being in a situation where they will die, unless they are otherwise afraid or in pain.  Most domesticated animals don't mind a lack of liberty, either, so I don't consider them to have a "right to liberty" the way humans do.

Of course the reason this is so thorny is that humans like to eat animals.  So I feel like I should be able to justify, morally, why I eat meat, or else stop doing it.  My current reason is this: either we farm domesticated animals like cows and chickens, or these animals, with a few lucky exceptions, cease to exist.  If people stopped eating meat, farmers would probably kill their breeding stock, sell them for dog meat, and go out of business.  If there is no money in cows, there is no reason for cows.  They eat a lot, and humans cannot afford such a huge drain on the world's food resources unless we're going to eat the cows.  (We also kill an awful lot of mice and birds to keep them away from our crops, but that's a whole other problem.)  Cows and chickens cannot survive in the wild; they are too thoroughly domesticated.  Pigs can, but pigs are environmentally devastating if you let them run wild, so humans would probably end up having to cull them anyway.

Given that the cow is not distressed, per se, by being kept in captivity and then painlessly killed, it seems that if it had the capacity to choose, it would prefer to live a short time than not at all.  This might change if its life were guaranteed to be full of suffering, as the lives of many farm animals are.  But if you take farming in the abstract, if it were perfectly done, I don't see a problem with eating any animal that cannot visualize and be upset by the prospect of its future death.  It's going to die at some point, anyway, and Temple Grandin pointed out that, if she were a cow, she'd rather get knocked on the head than eaten by a lion.  "Nature is cruel, but we don't have to be," is a catchphrase of hers.

I do think that any animal that can suffer, should be treated humanely so that it doesn't suffer.  We shouldn't scare dogs on purpose, or keep pigs in tiny crates, or cut off chickens' beaks.  It's not my life's crusade or anything, because there are still so many humans being mistreated all over the earth, but ideally, we would be humane to all feeling creatures because we too are feeling creatures and can understand that no one wants to suffer.

This isn't something I am able to prove, per se.  There is a great deal of argument on either side of the question of animal rights.  But for the moment, I'm not vegan and have no real intention to be.  I am hoping to buy some pastured beef soon, though, because the more I find out about conventional meat, the less I want to eat it.

Question 4:  Is there any limit to how selfless you're supposed to be?

I've been bothered by "utilitarian guilt" for some time.  I mean, I've rationally worked out that I'm no more important than anyone else.  Then how can it possibly be justified for me to spend more effort on myself than on anyone else?  I just ate some ice cream.  Someone elsewhere in the world died of malaria.  Why did I buy the ice cream instead of a bed net?  Am I a monster?

I was going to call this scrupulosity, but I think if I were really all that scrupulous I would have bought the bed net.  Nah, I'm as selfish as the next person, but it does kind of bother me how selfish I am.  I mean, I could always be doing more.

And the answer, which I got from John -- whose lack of angst on this topic is refreshing -- is this: if you make the world a worse place, you're a bad person.  If you leave it the same, you're an okay person.  And if you make it better, you're a good person.  Instead of trying to divide it between "stuff I do for me" and "stuff I do for other people," why not take it as given that I, as a human being, am going to take care of myself, because that's what we do.  If I eat ice cream, and I pay the person who made it, I'm breaking even.  I didn't do anything good, but I didn't do anything bad either.  I'm still at the neutral place between good and bad.

But if once a week I skip the ice cream and give a buck to the Clean Water Fund, then I'm edging into positive territory.  I haven't done anything that great, but I did a thing and I don't have to weigh it against all the things I did for myself.  Taking care of myself isn't an ethical negative, it's a zero.

I do feel every person has an obligation to do good and not simply avoid evil, but perhaps there is no minimum amount of good you have to do before you count.  If you do something, that's good, and if you do more, that's better.

I am not sure if thinking about it this way helps anyone else, but I'm throwing it out there.

Does anyone have any other questions about morals -- either in the abstract, or my moral reasoning specifically?  Don't be bashful, I like talking about it .... to the point that I often mistake idle questions on the topic for Serious Curiosity and take up hours of somebody's time. 

(If anyone is wondering why I have been posting so rarely .... it took me a solid week to write this post.  That is how little time I have these days.)

Saturday, September 2, 2017

7 quick school takes


So the kids started school last week. [Edit: more than that now.]  That's been ... exciting.

Michael has been enthusiastic from the start.  He's been all about getting to start school and finally have some fun, learning, and social time with other kids his age.  I think he's been too much in Marko's shadow and hasn't gotten enough that's really geared toward his age, so it's great for him to have a chance to branch out.

Marko has been upset about this from the start, but he's slowly gotten more and more used to the idea.  There were only a few brief tears on the first day.  He wasn't the most nervous kid in the class, anyway.

John took off work so we could be lonely and nostalgic together.  And we were.  But ohhh, it was so QUIET!  I don't think our house has been so quiet in the daytime since 2012.


I expected things to be a lot easier when school started.  In fact, I was counting on it, and it was a major reason we signed them up in the first place.  And it kind of is.  I mean, there's a lot less noise and overstimulation and bored children clawing each other's eyes out.

On the other hand, I'm still not relieved of enough duties to actually get anything done which I wasn't previously, because Jackie is still far and away the most challenging and she's still here.  And she's going through a rough phase -- or rather, reverting to normal after a brief actually-taking-naps phase -- which makes life unpredictable and difficult.  Her naps go from five to forty-five minutes, max, while when she's awake she is either clingy and wailing, or getting into stuff.  I can't do any job which requires running up and down stairs carrying things, because then I have to take my eyes off her and I can't do that ever.  She heads up the stairs or pulls the trash can over on herself or eats legos.  If I try to clean the kitchen with her playing at my feet, she does what all cruisers do and pulls herself up by my pant legs, so I can't walk over to the sink without knocking her over.  And if my hands are covered in raw chicken or something, I can't detach her either.  It's not the end of the world, but I'm still super unproductive.  I also can't really type while holding her, thus how long it took me to write this blog post (three weeks, not even kidding.  And I'm still only on point 2).  Aaand now she's screaming again, because I pulled her off the stairs.

I just wish, if she were going to be so doggone clingy, she wanted to nurse.  But she doesn't.  Or rather she'll act like she does, and then yank off.  She's much happier grabbing stuff or clawing my face or digging her feet into my belly.  If Miriam was the World's Happiest Baby, Jackie is the World's Most Discontented.


Other reasons my life hasn't gotten much easier include the extra work that school entails.  I have to make the kids get dressed every day, with socks and underwear too.  I have to pack lunches.  I have to walk them to school.

We live approximately one block from school, as the eagle flies.  That's if we cross lots and come up behind the school.  But, despite there being doors ALL OVER the school, there are only two places you can drop kids off: the side door, which is for the "kiss and ride," and the front door, which is for parents who park and walk their kids in.  Walkers are supposed to use the front door too.

This means we have to weave through a line of cars waiting at the kiss and ride, cross the parking lot, go through the playground gate, clamber down a steep grassy hill, and take the sidewalk the rest of the way around the building.  It's too steep for a stroller, which means Miriam has to walk and our whole progress is very slow, plus I have to carry Jackie in the wrap, which neither she nor I really like.

I keep saying I'm going to call the principal and ask if we can switch our drop off and pick up location to the side door, where I can just pretend I'm a car, swing by, and pick up the kids -- but I've waited too long, and now Marko is attached to the door we normally go in by, and insists that we are never allowed to change it.  Meanwhile Michael sobs if I don't walk him to his classroom and help him unpack his backpack every day.  I could fight this, but right now the weather is nice and I'm like -- what's three times the distance, anyway?  I'm sure I'll be sorry when it's rainy.  Especially as, if I choose to drive, that means buckling two kids in, driving two blocks, unbuckling them both, walking to the door, checking my kids out, walking back to the car, buckling everyone in, driving two blocks ....

On the other hand, the kiss and ride line is so long that even with all that walking, we still get home while the cars are still stacked up.  Since school doesn't even get out till 3:40, every minute of our afternoon counts.

After school, we have snack.  I put the snack on the table before leaving to pick the kids up, so when we get inside they can just run up and eat it.  Before I started doing that, it was mass chaos as everyone was taking off shoes and throwing backpacks around and demanding snacks and hitting each other while Jackie would suddenly decide it was time for nurse and nap.  While the kids eat their snack, if Jackie isn't asleep, I unpack the backpacks and see what they've brought home.

Marko always has homework.  I consider this The Worst Thing Ever.  I mean, if I wanted to fight with him for an hour to do five minutes' worth of work, wouldn't I still be homeschooling?  It's an especial shame given that he has about two hours total that he gets to spend on unstructured play with his siblings before dinner, and half of that is going to homework.  And then I have to make dinner, so that leaves zero minutes for me to spend with Michael, who has no homework.

The hour total it often takes?  That's with me doing half of it.  I do almost all the writing, because writing is still extremely difficult for him.  There are often tears, flat refusals, hyperbole ("homework is the worst thing that has ever happened to me in my whole life"), threats ("I will never be nice to you ever again") and then, somehow, the homework gets done.  Generally I remind him of future rewards (computer time on the weekend) or that his teacher will be so happy and give him one hundred percent.  He really loves his teacher, and he loves earning good grades and points for good behavior.

Basically my day is frenetically busy between the hours of 7 and 9, and 3:30 to 7:30, but all the rest is peace and quiet.  Well, mostly.  Miriam is basically no trouble ever, as long as there are no brothers to fight with.  She plays nicely with Jackie or by herself.  Jackie is trouble, but it's baby trouble ... that is, you basically just hold her.  It's mostly pretty quiet and peaceful, and while I am theoretically supposed to be getting stuff done during the day, it's mostly a time to recharge.  I also run errands.  Running errands with only two children feels like a vacation.


What do I like about school?

I like that the kids' teachers seem super nice and they seem to be learning a lot and mostly like it.  I like that they're no longer bored and starting fights with each other all day just because they're understimulated.  I like that when they're home, they don't nag at me to turn on the TV, they get straight into serious playing.  I like that the teachers make a real effort to communicate often.

Marko's behavior in particular has gotten better.  He can be a bit on edge; he throws a fit from time to time, but not more than before.  And he's better at completing tasks independently.  He gets dressed usually with very little guidance (so long as there is a clean green shirt to wear! Lately he will wear only green shirts) and the other day he sorted all my laundry in return for a chance to watch My Little Pony.  He goes into his classroom by himself and unpacks his backpack and turns in his homework.  He's successfully communicating with people at school about his needs, and he's able to report at least some of what he did at school back to me when he gets home.  Sometimes the details are fuzzy; other times he knows in detail when the various teachers have doctor's appointments but has no idea if he has any homework.  But I'm mostly impressed he is communicating so well.  And he's started tentatively writing a few lower-case letters!

I like getting to spend quality time with Miriam instead of just dealing with the kids as a pack.  I like knowing when Jackie wakes up five minutes after laying her down, it's not because of the noise because it's nice and quiet at home.  And I like that when everyone gets home and everything's hectic, I've been keeping my calm better because I've had a (quasi) break.

What don't I like?

I don't like being away from my kids so long.  I miss them.  I wish it were only a few hours a day, or better yet, that I had it in me to provide the amount of fun and learning they need all by myself.  They leave the house at 8:30 and don't get back till almost four.  That's almost a full workday .... for a five and a seven-year-old.

With all their time spent on school, I have no time to teach them to do chores, or have fun learning experiences, or read aloud to them, or answer all their zillion questions.  Sometimes they have a ton of questions and I think "ooh we could do a cool project to learn this" but there isn't any time to do it.  Marko asked a question about why the word "indivisible" was in the Pledge of Allegiance, and I wanted to teach him about the whole Civil War, but there was no time.  I like homeschooling and so sacrificing time learning with my kids is something I kind of resent.  I envy their teachers for getting to do that kind of thing with them, and I can't even volunteer in the classroom because I have little kids.  I miss being a teacher.

I also don't like that they have only one recess per day, or that most of the day is spent on reading and writing so science and history are basically just electives.  I bet the teachers don't love that either, but it's a result of the testing and ranking that American schools are plagued by.  Apparently our school is not ranked very high.  That doesn't matter to me at all, though, because regardless of what test scores are, I can tell the teachers are caring, the class sizes aren't that large (like 24 kids each), special needs kids are getting the help they need, and pretty much everyone we run into knows my kids' names.  That's what counts for a lot more in my book.  I just wish the teachers with my kids were the ones choosing what to spend time on, because I think they'd make better choices.

I don't like all the paperwork, the fundraisers, the pick-up routines, the socialist kindergarten snack (bring a snack for the whole class once a month instead of packing for your kid), or the germs the kids bring home.  School is not the bureaucratic nightmare I would have assumed, but it is a bit bureaucratic.

Basically, Marko and I have about the same assessment of it: not as bad as we thought, but we still like homeschooling better.  So far I'm still planning to return to homeschooling next year; I figure with a toddler and no baby, it'll be a heck of a lot easier to do co-ops and activities and stuff.  But I think I'll be a lot more official about my homeschooling, with more ready-made workbooks and more hours a day spent.  I can tell that increased time and effort spent really does result in more learned; counting on my kid to eventually want to write resulted in zero writing, while Ms. M's gentle guidance has gotten him writing a little every day.   The idea is a few hours a day on the boring math and spelling stuff, and then we can keep unschooling the history and science with books and movies and projects.


So we had that eclipse, of course.  Here we had about 85%.  That's code for "basically nothing but weird shadows, unless you have eclipse glasses."  On the other hand we did have eclipse glasses, so we got to see a crescent sun.

Teeny tiny little sun!

Miriam holds a colander for some crescent shadows.

All the dapples turned crescent-shaped.  Kind of cool.

The famous "diamond ring" effect, with my head playing the part of the moon.  This was right at the peak of what we had, so you can see the sun remains extremely bright -- you couldn't photograph it without just getting a bright smear, and I couldn't even try to look at it.  All that fuss about "don't look at it" and I was not tempted at all.  It was amazing to look through the glasses and see just how tiny the sun actually is.  It looks like it takes up a huge chunk of the sky, but nope, it's as small as the moon.

I was really upset, ahead of time, that the boys would be in school when it happened.  Not only would we not get this fun, educational experience together, but they were being kept inside altogether (for fear they would look at the sun and blind themselves) and weren't going to see it at all.  But since they get out at 3:40 and the eclipse wasn't completely over till 4, I brought the eclipse glasses along and we stood on the sidewalk and had a look.  The sun was down to the "cookie with a tiny bite out of it" stage but they still thought it was super cool.

But both they and I agree that what we really want is a total one.  There's one not far away in 2024, and it makes me happy imagining having kids from 7 to 14 and having really no trouble zipping up to Ohio or someplace for a little camping.


About a month ago I first heard that pertussis was going around the area.  This ticks me off because apparently the first cases showed up in May, and nobody said anything, so I spent all summer going to the park and the library and every playdate we could.  That, and putting off the girls' vaccines till after school started because I didn't want to haul four kids to the doctor together.  Regrets: I has them.

Well, they've now had one dose, and we're not going anywhere.  So far I don't think we've been exposed.  It seems to be centered around the parish, and we haven't been there, or to any church activities.  However we've all had a slight cold, which past in a couple days for everyone but Jackie.  Of course I am worried it's pertussis and she will die.

I am also finding my new pro-vaccine views are getting more emphatic.  After going through all that research and deciding the AAP and CDC are trustworthy sources about vaccines, I'm really frustrated to see "alternative" sources peddling misinformation.  I've become pretty good at judging a website straight off -- if you're familiar, you can easily catch the phrases quacks use -- but proving it's wrong is another matter.  For instance, someone in a local group was trying to convince everyone that the pertussis vaccine doesn't prevent you from getting the bacteria, but only prevents the symptoms.  I knew the article she shared was bunk, because the blog was obviously "alternative" and peddled some theories I know are false, but it was packed full of (probably meaningless) detail and the footnotes led back to the CDC website, so it looked like it must be by someone who knew what they were talking about.  Immediately vaccinated people started worrying they were carriers and should quarantine themselves even though they had no symptoms.

In time, I eventually managed to find a reliable source that answered the first one.  The very first comment?  "That's clearly a pro-vax source, you can't expect me to trust that!"  Well ... actually, no.  I know exactly how it is.  The science itself is too complex to pick apart, so you're stuck just testing the author on how much they agree with your other beliefs.

You know how I'm always changing my mind about what I want to do when I grow up when the kids grow up?  Right now I'm thinking biology teacher.  People are growing to adulthood with no idea how to decode scientific studies and articles, journalists write about them in a way that's downright irresponsible, and you can't possibly make good decisions if you don't know the facts.


Basically, life's going fine.  I'm not actively unhappy.  I think my anxiety is a little better lately too, since I've finally been able to outsource some of the worrying.  But I'm still not back to where I was before I got pregnant with Jackie.  I'm definitely in the trenches.  I haven't gotten out my spinning wheel since she was born.  I've brainstormed some story ideas, but written nothing down.  I am still barely cranking out a blog post every three or four weeks.  It's just been a really long time since I was caught up enough on my job to do anything I want to do.

I guess that sounds greedy.  Many people would love to be able to care adequately for their kids, feed them sufficient food, have a big clean(ish) house to put them in.  The recent flood really brings that home.  And I am thankful.  Even in the past year, I have been a lot worse off than I am right now.  But it's still just a wee bit demoralizing to finish the day's work, finally collapse on the couch to watch some TV or text with a friend, and get interrupted by the sound of crying and have to slog up the stairs to nurse the baby again.  It's been seven years now that I've been doing this -- seven years that I've always been on call, always had to drop what I'm doing and go nurse somebody.  I'm tired.

And I really had hoped that I would have an easy baby this time around.  Miriam was so chill, I guess when I got another girl I was hoping it meant another chill one.  And Jackie is severely unchill.  She is fun too, at last, and I'm grateful I can play with her and exchange smiles and all that.  But she is really, really demanding.  I would have thought a fourth child would shrug its little baby shoulders and say "guess I can't be high needs, with all these other kids around here," but nope, high needs babies don't care how many resources there are around.

How high needs is she?  Well, she spends probably half an hour per day on average wailing inconsolably, even in arms.  Sometimes it's a lot more than that.  Even when she's not crying, she's not contented -- she spends a lot of her time climbing up my body, digging her feet into my gut and clawing my face.  I have a scab on my nose where she took a chunk of skin off -- even though I'm pretty careful to cut her nails, obviously.  I have scratches and pinch marks on my belly and breasts and neck.  But if I put her down, usually, she howls.  Sometimes the swing helps.  Sometimes not.  It's good that she's getting more active so she can actually play -- Miriam and Jackie and I spend a lot of the time in the playroom while she crawls all over.  If you turn over the trampoline so she can't climb on it and fall off, and make sure the legos are put away, there isn't much trouble she can get into in there.  Even then, though, she spends a lot of her time using me to pull to a stand, then grabbing my face or hair.

I'm just kind of looking forward to things getting easier.  Like when she's two, or maybe three.  I've never had no kids under three.  Imagine the things I could do.

And there she goes.  Awake again.  In the time she was asleep, I wrote point 7.  I did not clean up the lunch mess in the kitchen, or use the bathroom, or carry the laundry upstairs.  I prioritized this post, and I may be sorry.

On the other hand, she has a blond curl on the top of her head.  Were my other kids this blond at this age, and was their hair so long?  It could not have been. *rubs face in baby hair*  It's not all bad.

How was your week?  Or rather, month?

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Mimi at three

Happy birthday to my sweet older daughter!

Trying to think of words to describe Miriam, I feel like I can't without talking first about what a dark place it was she brought light into.  It was, in many ways, a bad time to get pregnant; Michael was still extremely needy and I felt I couldn't possibly handle another so soon.  I spent a big chunk of the pregnancy crying.  My page-a-day journal has several months of blankness where I would try to think of something to put down for the day but couldn't think of anything that wasn't horribly depressing.

Her labor was a horrifyingly stressful experience, but she arrived in the middle of misery and was perfect from the first moment.  Her first achievement was being a girl -- I had tried and tried not to get my hopes up, but I really wanted a girl and there she was.  She was healthy, dark, and blue-eyed, just like all of them.

The first weeks of her life were a nightmare for me -- sickness among the family, stepping on a bee, fights breaking out among her brothers -- but she, herself, was zero trouble.  Mostly she slept and ate.  She had no trouble nursing at all; she liked nursing but wasn't ridiculous about it like Michael.  She was several weeks old before she ever cried.  That includes her baptism and the heel stick by the midwife.  At most she might make a little fussy sound.  She just wasn't fazed by much.

Like all my kids, she's always been a horrible sleeper, but in every other respect she's been pretty easy.  She was early on all her milestones -- early crawling, early pulling to a stand, early walking.  And yeah, she got into some trouble that way.  But I seem to remember that she was coming when called at about 12 months.  I remember wondering whether she was a significantly easier toddler than the others, or if I was just way better at parenting now.  She's just always been pretty agreeable.  I don't think I ever had any trouble getting her to hold hands in the parking lot or get in her carseat.  Generally if you let her know you want something, she'll do it with a giant smile on her face.

Okay, she has her moments.  She throws screaming tantrums from which there is absolutely no soothing her -- except letting her hug her baby sister.  She often resists going to bed.  She still wakes up at night pretty often, and sometimes for a long time.  When she sees a sibling with a toy she likes, she sometimes forgets and snatches it, or starts to howl or smack them.

Yet that's really an aberration for her.  She actually likes sharing; when she sees a littler kid at the library or a friend's house she gets really excited about handing them toys.  While her brothers sometimes love and sometimes hate each other, she always loves them both and plays great with them.  She is rarely competitive and doesn't get sucked into the whole "who got into the car first" race the boys always have.

She doesn't like crowds or strangers at all.  When we have someone over she often glues herself to me, and if someone says hello to her at the store she wigs out.  But babies are an exception -- she always likes babies and toddlers.  She isn't scared of anything other than strangers and maybe spiders -- she will go to the top of the highest jungle gym and slide down the tallest and steepest slides.  But only as long as there aren't strange big kids on it!

All toddlers like to be an "apprentice mom," but Miriam more than anyone.  She loves to watch me cook, help with dishes, and carry laundry, and she's offended if I ever attempt to do chores without her.  This child, the other day, unloaded the whole dishwasher for me without being asked.  She just wanted to do it.  She often picks up her toys, with or without my help.

She's so stereotypically girly -- babies, cooking, and now princesses are her only obsessions.  As a toddler she liked to watch cooking videos to fall asleep.  She spends lots of time with her toy pots and pans, making food and narrating the whole experience.  (As I'm writing this she's serving me lego ice cream.)  Or she'll tie her doll to her with a scarf and carry it around everywhere.  She often goes through three or four outfits in a day, just because she changes her mind.

When I got pregnant with Jackie, she was always my comfort.  I might have been miserable but she was excited -- it made me feel like I was doing her a favor, when otherwise I might have felt guilty she was getting less attention.  From the very first moment she has loved Jackie unreasonably much.  She self-weaned the day Jackie was born and never nursed again, because that was for Jackie.  She no longer needed to nurse for comfort, the only thing she wanted for comfort was Jackie.  She misses Jackie when she goes down for a nap, and when the baby wakes up she always asks "did you have a nice sleep Jackie?"  She wants them to dress in pretty clothes and get their picture taken together.  She's sometimes a bit rough with her love, but she's utterly unfazed by Jackie's usual lack of interest.  In her mind, Jackie loves her and she loves Jackie and nothing can ever get in the way of that.

I'm no longer number one in Miriam's heart, but she's still lavish with her affection.  She loves hugs and kisses and learned at a very young age to tell when someone was hurt and to give them a kiss.  She loves her daddy, too.  John usually puts her to bed, and for awhile there he was the only one who could.  Lately, though, she'll go down for either of us, and we don't need to stay till she's asleep, so I actually enjoy taking her upstairs and spending some time lying in her bed snuggling.

Sometimes I look at her and I can almost see the adult she'll someday be.  Tall, probably; naturally tan; blue-gray eyes; probably light brown or dark blond hair.  I hope she keeps her enthusiasm for life, her inability to be stopped, flapped, or fazed; and her intense love of her special people.  I think she will.  I expend very little worry on Miriam.  She makes me happy just by being herself.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Culinary alchemy

All I want is to be able to turn lead into gold.  Culinarily speaking, that is.  I want to be able to pick up the same basic staples from the store -- ground beef, chicken thighs, potatoes, rice -- and somehow magically have something totally different and interesting for dinner every night.  But it has to be ready in 30 minutes or less.

I might even be able to do that, too, if it weren't for all these troublesome restrictions.  For instance, dinners in our family are gluten-free, because John is home for those and I want him to have something he can eat without relying on pitiful substitutes (i.e. no burgers in buns for everyone else and plain burger on a plate for him).  Marko and Michael now both dislike chicken, though they will accept chicken breasts because they don't have "gristly bits."  Marko also hates pork of all kinds except sausage.  John and Michael both hate spicy foods, and Marko hates soy sauce.  Oh and Marko also hates pretty nearly all vegetables, so even if the meal is otherwise perfect there is always a bit of fuss over the vegetables.

Basically I've had to compromise on all of my ideals from time to time -- some days Marko complains, some days Michael complains, some days (okay, all the days) Miriam leaves her potatoes or rice on her plate, some days John's meal is a little pitiful, and some days I'm bored.  But I try to make sure everyone has something they like at least fairly often.

So here are a few meals I've made lately that made everyone happy:

Cheeseburger casserole

I looked online for something by that name and they all had noodles or biscuit dough or something.  So I made up my own thing, and it goes like this: a layer of potatoes.  Cooked ground beef.  Cheese.  Rings of onion.  Tomatoes (sliced would be better, but I used diced canned.)  Pickles.  Ketchup and mustard squiggled around.  Another layer of potatoes, and some more cheese.  I put that in the oven for 20 minutes or so and it was pretty good.

Tamale pie

The usual way to do it is to put some chili (or similar meat & bean mix: I usually just throw in cooked ground beef, black beans, canned diced tomatoes, frozen corn, and seasonings) in a casserole dish and dot spoonfuls of cornbread batter on the top.  But last time I tried pressing the cornbread dough into my cast iron pan to make a crust, and filled it up with chili, and that was great too.  I put some cheese on top too.  Cheese isn't cheap but it has this way of silencing any objections anyone might offer and magically ferrying the food into their mouths.  Can't put a price on no whining at the table.


I just do chicken, cumin, lime juice, onions, and peppers.  John can have a corn tortilla while the rest have wheat and everyone's reasonably happy.   Especially if there's sour cream.

Chicken nuggets

I chop chicken breasts in small pieces, dip them in egg, and roll them in gluten-free flour or corn flour.  Some seasonings in there are nice, though I can't tell you what exactly I throw in there.  Adobo mostly.  I would like to pretend that I use adobo to introduce the kids to their Dominican heritage rather than because it's all in one shaker and tastes okay.  There is always some leftover breading, so I put it in the freezer for next time.  I wish I could make them in the oven and have them taste as good, but let's get real: the only reason anyone even likes chicken nuggets is because they are fried.  That, and because you are allowed to use your hands and dip them in ketchup.  Marko really struggles with a fork and everyone loves ketchup.  I like to serve them alongside oven-roasted potatoes.  French fries would be better but I'm not up for frying TWO things for one dinner.

Sausage and potato casserole

I brown up some ground sausage (the Aldi kind tastes of sage I think?) and onions in my giant skillet.  Then I mix in some frozen peas or spinach.  I layer some potato slices on top and pour in about a cup and a half of milk, with 3 Tbs of cornstarch mixed in along with salt, pepper, and garlic powder.  Then it goes in the oven for 20-30 minutes, until the potatoes are cooked and the sauce has thickened.  In a hurry, you can boil the potatoes in a pot and layer them on after they're cooked, in which case you can thicken the sauce on the stove.  But it isn't quite as good.

Sweet and sour chicken

I roll some chicken pieces in gluten-free flour, panfry, and serve with rice, broccoli, and sweet-and-sour sauce.

Ranch chicken

I had this complicated way of making ranch gravy, but it turns out all the children really want is for chicken to be cut into manageable pieces and served with with ranch alongside.  Typical sides are mashed potatoes and sliced cucumbers.

Turkey meatballs/meatloaf/patties

My kids have not yet discerned the difference between ground turkey and ground beef.  (The difference is one whole dollar per pound.)  I also find it needs a bit more seasoning than beef.  To make meatloaf and meatballs without breadcrumbs, I use mashed potato flakes.  I don't rehydrate them (or else I get clumps of mashed potato) but I sometimes make the meat more liquidy by thoroughly mixing in some milk before sprinkling in the flakes.  I also include an egg.  I've tried lots of recipes and this is what holds together best and doesn't taste bad.

The above are the winners, of the stuff I've tried.  None of the crockpot meals I've tried have been any good.  And the stuff I most commonly make -- deconstructed hamburgers, chicken and rice with various seasonings (soy sauce, curry, or adobo), and bolognese sauce over rice or gluten-free pasta -- is too boring to even describe.  The kids are bored, I'm bored, John is never bored but he's not keen either.  So that's why I've been doing more "fancy stuff" lately.  Sometimes John even pitches in.  He made a good goulash the other day.  Another time he made twice-baked potatoes, and they were delicious but a bit too hard for the kids to eat.

This post is brought to you courtesy of my new tablet keyboard, and inspired by Simcha Fisher's "What's For Supper?" posts.  Simcha is a more adventurous cook than I am, but in fairness, her family has no allergies and doesn't seem too daunted by spices.  I feel like I do pretty well with what I have to work with!

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Hobbesian parenting

Years ago I wrote a post about libertarian parenting.  I still believe in giving kids freedom to do what they want within reason, but experience showed that there's only so libertarian you can be as a parent.  I don't just mean "kids are a bit dumb and would forget to eat or sleep if we weren't there to make them," which is true as far as it goes.  A little gentle direction usually is about enough, so actual forceful interventions don't have to be an everyday occurrence.

However, I never could figure out how to deal with violence in a "libertarian" way.  Nobody should have the liberty to hurt anybody else.  I asked in my libertarian parenting group what you do when kids fight, and they mostly just said, "Fighting is against the non-aggression principle so I don't allow it."  Well, yeah, but what do you do to stop it?  Do you (as some libertarians argue) have the right to take any action you want so long as you weren't the one to initiate aggression?  On the other hand, since you weren't the one attacked, perhaps you have no right to intervene and your bullied toddler has to duke it out on their own.

I did try, for awhile, the "just let them work it out" approach.  I thought that perhaps they fought so fiercely because they were relying on me to swoop in and sort things out, and thus if I kept out of it they would eventually realize they should watch their behavior.  But it didn't help at all.  Things got worse and it seemed every day the kids woke up with a chip on their shoulder against the other one.  It was a textbook example of a cycle of violence, enacted daily by preschoolers.  Not good.

From watching my kids, I learned the flaws of radical libertarianism, or anarchy. (Anarchists often call themselves "libertarian," but real libertarians usually agree that the government has a role of defense and crime prevention, so I'm going to leave the libertarians alone from here on and speak specifically to anarchists, who made up 90% of my "libertarian parenting" group.)  Flaws like these:

1.  Not everyone follows the non-aggression principle.  This is obvious, right?  The reason no anarchist utopia has ever worked out is that people keep conquering anybody that tries.  Of course anarchy tries to deal with this by claiming that when bad guys attack, anarchists will voluntarily band together to defend themselves.  But ...

2.  Not everyone is equally strong.  So a sufficiently powerful enemy can wipe you out.  This is easily observed when my kids get in a fight.  Do I really want things to settle into a "peace" where the bigger or more aggressive kid beats up everyone else?  Because kids are kind of famous for getting into these social hierarchies when they're left alone.  (In some cases, they don't, and I'm not entirely sure why, but suffice it to say that whatever I was doing was insufficient.)

3.  Not everyone agrees on what aggression is.  Is humming while someone else is trying to play the piano aggression?  What about breathing on someone?  What about eating their food when you thought they were finished with it, but it turns out they're not?  What if you accidentally brush against them and they think you bumped them on purpose and clobber you, does that make them the aggressor and are you allowed to hit them back?  These questions come up ... kind of a lot around here.

4.  People (children especially) are not always rational, and sometimes they get carried away.  So rather than simply defending themselves, they try to avenge themselves.  Or they see a sibling coming and panic and hit first.  Adults do the same, cf. Afghanistan.

Anarchy provides principles which would work if everyone followed them, mostly, but it has no way to get people to follow them, to account for human nature, or to de-escalate violence once it's begun.  So it's not really very useful for this.  (Anarchist communes that take place under the auspices of some other government sound lovely, but of course they rely on the government defending their title to the land, arresting trespassers and other offenders, and generally providing a safe place to be an anarchist.)

Hobbes has the answer to all this, and I never knew it because my poli-sci class was mostly spittle-flecked rants that you could safely tune out because the professor wanted you to just find an old test and memorize the answers.  *still bitter*  And we spent, like, one day on Hobbes.

Hobbes gives three reasons why conflict begins: competition, defense, and reputation.  Let's take a few kid examples:

Competition, or gain: Michael sees a toy Marko has and wants it.  He's hoping he can get away with taking it, so he snatches it.

Defense: Marko sees Michael going for his toy, so he shoves him away from it.  Quizzed about it after, he'll say, "I wasn't TRYING to hurt him, I was just trying to make him stop taking my toy!"

Reputation: After having been shoved by Marko, Michael leaps to his feet.  He knows that if Marko hits him and gets away with it, he's going to do it more, so he punches Marko in revenge.  His revenge is disproportionate to the amount he was hurt, partly because he's angry and not in good control of himself, and partly because he rationally wants to let Marko know he's not to be messed with.

Once the fight has started, it's bound to continue to escalate.  Each becomes suspicious of the other and sees the worst in all the other's behavior.  If they tried nonviolence, it would surely help, but they're all afraid to because they might be taken advantage of.

There is one thing that can help: the Leviathan.  I mean me.  In a family, the parent takes the role of government.  I can prevent all three causes of violence.

Gain: Every time one child steals from another, I can make them give the toy back.  That way snatching ceases to be a useful behavior, and children do it less.

Defense: They know that if they are attacked, I will help them.  If I were faster it would help even more, but even at my delayed response rate, they are assured that yelling "Mama" will get me to come peel the attacker off them.  So about half the time at least, they choose that approach over the attack-back (or pre-emptive attack) method.

Reputation: If they revenge their own wrongs, they always overdo it.  But if I assure them that I will give some kind of consequence to the attacker, they are more willing to accept it.  I still think that the desire for vengeance is one of the dark sides of human nature, but it's there.  If I don't punish the offender, they will.  The goal is to reassure the child that you've done what it will take to convince their attacker not to do it again.  When I'm not going to punish the child -- like when Miriam was the attacker and I know she's just being tired and cranky so a timeout isn't really going to be helpful -- I still take her out of the room so the boys think she is getting punished.  And when the attacker is someone completely irrational -- like Jackie, or the dog -- I still give them a little lecture: "Gilbert, you must be more careful!  No stepping on people's feet!"  Somehow the kids consider this satisfactory.  But they do demand that something is done, and I'm beginning to see the sense in it -- they fear that if their attacker is allowed to get off scot-free, they'll do it again.

The Better Angels of Our Nature explained this stuff a lot, pointing out that honor culture flourishes in places where there is little or no government, whereas a strong government gets wronged people to press charges, file a lawsuit, or mutter "there oughta be a law."  When there is no higher authority for people to appeal to -- like in a corrupt state, or when kids are left unattended -- people feel they must create fairness for themselves through vengeance and preemptive attacks.

It's important that the Leviathan is separate from the parties it's arbiting among, and that it is stronger than any of them.  Obviously an arbitor that is obviously partial, or which can't enforce its judgments, is no different from none at all.  That's pretty easy in my case, though -- I am definitely a lot bigger than my kids, and I'm not a part of any of their fights.

The embarrassing part is that it took me so many years after first "studying" Hobbes to figure this out.  I had thought Hobbes was the bad guy.  Turns out all he was saying was, "Without some way to arbitrate disputes, life is going to be nasty, brutish, and short."  Or,  ya know, full of squabbles over toys wherein everyone winds up covered in teeth marks.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Why I'm finally vaccinating my kids

Part 1: My story

As regular readers know, until recently, all of my kids were unvaccinated.  That was for a lot of reasons, but the main was that John was strongly opposed.  He believed that vaccines caused autism, and he didn't have much trust in doctors.  I didn't have a strong opinion on that matter at the time, so I said that would be fine.  Later, when I began to research the issue, I admit that my reasoning was somewhat motivated -- since I had already agreed not to vaccinate the kids, I didn't really want to find anything that would convince me differently.  However I did think that I might reopen a discussion the subject when the kids were a little older -- perhaps a few vaccines after the age of two.

My main worries with vaccines were serious reactions or death.  I saw a photo of a child that had died of a severe allergy to the Hepatitis B shot, and it really horrified me.  It just seemed to me that giving a vaccine shortly after birth means you don't know what allergies they might have, whereas if the baby had been vaccinated at six months or a year old, the parents surely would have discovered his allergy by then.  Another worry was SIDS, because I'd read some articles suggesting that vaccines at two and four months were the real cause of SIDS.  And I do know that encephalitis can be a real vaccine reaction -- albeit a very rare one.

I spent some time trying to find out which was more likely, a vaccine reaction or my child catching a vaccine-preventable disease.  But this was impossible to discover, because official sources (like the CDC) claimed that serious vaccine reactions were extremely rare, while more "alternative" sources said they were extremely common and covered up by the medical establishment.  In some cases they also denied that vaccine-preventable diseases were dangerous, or that they were even caused by viruses at all (for instance, they claimed that polio was actually caused by pesticides).  So if I chose a source to listen to, the decision would be easy; each had quite a convincing argument with the facts they had.  But I couldn't find any common ground on the facts, which I could use to prove one or the other correct.

At the time, though, I was pretty anti-authoritarian, and the idea that the entire medical establishment was in a conspiracy to poison my children seemed pretty credible.  After all, I knew just how flawed the medical community could be where childbirth was concerned, so why not vaccines?  You don't need to be an evil person to be part of a conspiracy like this.  You just have to be convinced it's for the greater good.

And then, of course, I read Evidence of Harm and it definitely played up the conspiracy angle.  There are things that don't quite fit in that book, but it's just so packed with difficult scientific ideas it can be a little hard to catch.  Whether vaccines caused autism wasn't really a big question for me, because, I mean, autism isn't death, and if it was a choice between having an autistic kid and having a kid die of tetanus, I'd pick having an ALIVE kid.  But it did make me think there might be a connection.  I mean, look at those skyrocketing rates!

The shift in my thinking happened very slowly.  I started occasionally finding out that the government, for instance, wasn't all evil, and that some regulations actually had good reasons for existing.  John won a seat on town council and immediately started finding out that government wasn't so evil as all that.  Yes, sometimes it was incompetent and slow, but the people meant well and what's more, sometimes I found the right answer was the government answer.  Like the way this town has tons of unsafe slums, which the free market hasn't done a thing to fix -- rental codes probably are the answer, even if someone looking at them for the first time might think they were too burdensome and detailed.

I started to feel more friendly to the medical establishment thanks to having good doctors instead of that mean one who fired Marko from his practice for not being caught up on vaccines.  Our current doctor is a really sweet guy who respects my decisions as a parent and never pressured me to vaccinate.  Yet many times when my kids had minor problems, he helped in ways I couldn't have on my own.  He knew that Michael's round rash was ringworm and not Lyme disease.  When Miriam had impetigo, he prescribed antibiotics that started working within a day, after my home remedies had failed.  I started to realize that he (like most doctors) cared about his patients and had knowledge I didn't.  They're not all that nasty obstetrician who wanted to give me an episiotomy without asking.

I also learned how science works, something that I wasn't really taught in school. In school they teach you the conclusions that science has come to, but they don't really explain where each discovery comes from.  I learned how to read a study, that a review of many studies is better than an individual study, that a large sample size is better than a small one, that a randomized, controlled trial is better than an epidemiological study.  I learned that it's possible to "chop" the data you get in a study to get the results you want, and that peer review helps catch that sort of shenanigans.  And I did start to notice that most of the really high-value studies were on the side of "vaccines are safe and effective" while many of the anti-vaccine studies were small and weak.

Most of all, I realized that alternative medicine practitioners are no less likely to be sleazy than real doctors, and in fact there are fewer safeguards to prevent them from being sleazy.  "Follow the money" is often used to mean "look, these studies can't be trusted because some of them were funded by pharmaceutical companies," and yet very often alternative practitioners make huge amounts of money from the treatments they peddle.  Desperate people, who have been taught to be afraid of conventional medicine, pay more than they can afford in the hopes of curing ailments which conventional doctors have told them can't be cured.  The quacks take their money and over-advertise their treatments, trying to convince sick people that they can cure things which have no cure.  Today I read a sad article about people with ALS or other incurable conditions being told they had "chronic Lyme" and spending tens of thousands of dollars on treatment that did nothing and sometimes caused harm.

Basically, no one is entirely to be trusted, but if you have to trust somebody, doctors are probably a better choice because they have more oversight.  Scientists work to create a standard of care for each condition which is proven to be safe and effective; a doctor who doesn't follow it or who is careless is subject to malpractice suits or even jail time.  Whereas alternative practitioners sometimes don't have any oversight at all.  And when you hear of this guy going to jail for malpractice, and that guy losing his license, and this guy is marketing cyanide for cancer treatments, and so on,  you start losing faith in the alternative medicine community.  You might not have proof that they are lying about vaccines being dangerous, but when they lie about so much other stuff (or are just dead wrong in obvious ways) you don't have a lot of confidence.

The last step was when, two years ago or so, I started making serious efforts to be more rational in my decisionmaking.  I realized that my instinctive fear of needles and medical stuff was affecting my judgment.  I also had reasoned in the past that it was better to run the risk of my child dying from something I didn't do than from something I did, because I would feel more at fault in the latter case.  But I realized that whether I would feel more at fault wasn't actually a moral consideration, it was simply an emotion of mine which had no bearing on whether or not I was actually responsible.  We're responsible for our actions and our omissions; inaction isn't a guarantee of not making a moral error.  I also got into Kant a little bit.  Kant says that we should always act in a way we would like everyone to take as a moral rule.  I didn't want everyone to not vaccinate -- I wanted them to continue vaccinating so polio and diphtheria didn't circulate, while at the same time personally opting out.  And that is just not fair.

There was awhile there where I thought vaccination wasn't dangerous but thought John disagreed with me.  And then I found out he also had changed his mind about it, but I was too overwhelmed with life to do anything about it.  And then I found out that if we wanted to put the boys in school, we had to get on it Right Away, and actually Yesterday.  They're not going to be fully vaccinated in time for school to start, because of how they have to be spaced.  But the health department has been wonderful working with us -- they made a nice catch-up schedule for us (at their age they don't need so many doses as a baby would) and will certify for the school that the kids are in process to be vaccinated and should be allowed to attend school.  There was zero judgment about having waited this long and they have respected my right to choose what they get when.  The health department is ten minutes from my house, has lots of available appointment slots, and gives all legally mandated vaccines for free to all uninsured patients, or if your insurance does not pay for them.  I highly recommend your local health department if you need to get any vaccines.

Part 2: Answers to objections

So that's the personal-journey part of this post: the main reasons why I, personally, came to change my mind.  But of course there are facts in question, too, so I wanted to address some of the specific arguments that I found convincing against vaccines, and explain why they don't bother me anymore.

1.  Vaccines and all-cause death

If vaccines increased the risk of death, one would expect infant and child mortality to be increasing right now.  But as the number of vaccines has risen, infant and child mortality have dropped.  These charts start in the 80's, so we're not talking about the invention of sanitation and antibiotics.  There have been many medical advances in that time, but that does include vaccines, so it seems plausible to me that some of the reduction in mortality is due to them.  Certainly wishing for a vanished time when everything was better and people were healthier is not based in fact.

2.  Vaccines and autism

In this case it passes the test the previous chart missed: vaccines and autism are both increasing.  The original connection was supposed to be mercury: thimerosol preservatives in vaccines contain tiny amounts of mercury, and that was hypothesized to cause brain damage.  An alternative link was in the immune system -- Dr. Andrew Wakefield thought that it was the MMR, specifically the measles virus, which was somehow active in the gut and then damaging the brain.  His study is generally agreed to be junk, but that doesn't prove his theory is wrong.  And, I mean, look at the graph!

 At first blush it's pretty convincing.  The CDC keeps adding more vaccines to the schedule, and at the same time autism is increasing --- a lot.

But let's see if we can place some important dates on this graph.  I couldn't find a graph with these dates, so we'll have to eyeball it.

1971: Invention of MMR vaccine
1989: A second dose was added to the schedule
After this, the doses of MMR remained steady at two.  So if the MMR caused autism, we would expect one jump in 1971 (or a bit after) and a second jump in 1989 (or a bit after) and then the rates of autism remain steady.  As fascinating as the gut-brain-immune system connection is, I think the MMR theory is a flop.  It can't explain the rise in autism rates.

1930's: Thimerosal first used
2001: Thimerosal is removed from all children's vaccines except for the flu vaccine.  Children get significantly less thimerosal than before, and some get none (since not all kids even get the flu vaccine; it's not usually required).
So thimerosal was present in vaccines long before the autism rates started increasing, and its removal had no effect on autism rates.  I can totally understand why people might have thought it was connected, but the past 16 years have pretty much destroyed that theory.

1980: The DSM-III (the official manual of psychological disorders) includes autism for the first time.
1987: The definition of autism is expanded in the DSM-III-R.
1988: The movie Rain Man is released, making most people aware of autism for the first time.
1991: The IDEA act makes autistic children eligible for special services.  While previously parents would try to avoid a diagnosis to keep their child from being denied an education, now they started to seek a diagnosis in order to get their children services.
2013: Asperger's Syndrome is reclassified as autism spectrum disorder and the definition of autism is expanded again.
In short, there are very good reasons why more and more kids who are no more disabled than before are getting the autism label.  Marko is one of those kids -- he is not really any more quirky than some of the older members of my family, but to get services he's been assessed a lot more thoroughly.

An objection to the increased-diagnosis theory is, "But where are all the autistic adults?  Why did I never see any severely autistic kids when I was younger?"  The answer to the second question, sadly, is "in institutions or denied any education at all."  Before 1991 it was not illegal for a school to simply tell a child's parents they couldn't provide an education for him, and that would be that.  And in answer to the first question, autistic people do continue to develop as they age.  Most autistic children grow into adults who are capable of interacting more-or-less as other people do, so you might not notice them.  They're your quirky neighbor or uncle.  I certainly know autistic adults, diagnosed or not.   And the ones who still aren't able to speak or handle a job or house ... well, where do you expect to meet them?  Interacting with you is the main thing they're not able to do!  But you can find them on Twitter and the blogosphere.  They're certainly around.

A lot of autistic children, as well, would previously have been diagnosed as intellectually disabled.  Check out this chart: as autism rose, intellectual disability decreased.  Vaccines don't cure intellectual disability -- it's almost certainly the same kids just getting reclassified.  Plus, of course, more mildly autistic children who wouldn't previously have been diagnosed with anything.  That can be shown by a study cited here showing that the average autistic child has a much milder case than the average of years ago.


Of course when one theory is debunked, the vaccines-and-autism crowd moves to a new explanation.  So when mercury was removed, they pointed out that aluminum had been added and maybe it was causing the same brain damage.  But that doesn't make sense, because aluminum does not act in the way mercury does in the brain.  Aluminum poisoning seems to affect memory, if anything; there is no reason to expect it to act exactly the way mercury does.  I haven't yet heard a plausible theory connecting vaccines and autism besides the ones I've debunked here.

And of course anecdotal evidence can be the most powerful kind.  One single story about a child having an autistic regression after shots can outweigh all the studies you've ever read.  But in my case the anecdotal evidence is on the side of vaccines being harmless.  Marko has always been just as quirky as he is, despite not having had a single vaccine.  I will admit I was a wreck the day of the shots, terrified Marko would have a massive regression and stop speaking.  But nope.  He's had three batches of shots (including MMR, DTaP, polio, Hep B, and varicella) and is exactly as autistic as he was before.  Maybe less, because he's had a ton of gains lately, especially in verbal fluency and social skills.  It's been a huge relief to me.

3.  Vaccines and SIDS

SIDS is terrifying because we still don't really understand what causes it.  And it's true there is a spike between 2-4 months, which is around when babies get the DTaP.  But I feel pretty well convinced it's not caused by vaccines, because the spike in SIDS deaths at that age has been well-known for over a century and is the case in all countries, regardless of when first vaccines are.  Here are a couple articles demonstrating this.

Part 3: Recommendations

So with all that said, does that mean I now will abide perfectly by the recommended schedule?  Eh, probably not.  I believe that the recommended schedule is safe and is probably the best choice from a public-health perspective.  But it is also true that part of the reason vaccines are given at such early ages is because the CDC thinks we might not show up to get them later, or because we'll already be bringing in the baby for a well check so we might as well.  Not every recommendation is "do this or children die."  In our state only MMR, DTaP, varicella, polio, and Hep B are required, and the rest are only recommended, so we're getting the required ones for now.  I would get the recommended ones if I had babies in daycare, because most of these are for illnesses that are only dangerous in infants, and my babies don't get out much.  I want to give Miriam vaccines soon (though I dread it, because she'll basically have to be hogtied) and I am not sure when to give Jackie some.  Probably soon I guess?  I still really recoil at the thought of poking a tiny little baaaaaby with a needle.  But on the other hand, she's not so tiny now, and the doctors do say it's safe, so I'm sure I'm just having an emotional reaction here.  And the nice thing about vaccinating infants is, you can nurse them as the needle goes in so they barely notice.

I would definitely recommend people get at least the DTaP, since those diseases are serious, and the MMR, since they have pretty horrifying complications in a small percentage of cases.  True, if your kid got the measles, they'd probably pull through fine, but ... they might not.  They might die of encephalitis or pneumonia as a complication, or become permanently deaf or sterile.  It's not quite like the chicken pox.  Polio, I understand you have a very, very small risk of being exposed to.  It's almost eradicated worldwide.  But on the other hand it isn't gone, and people travel to America all the time from foreign countries where it exists.  We really should be careful to maintain a high vaccination rate so it doesn't return here.  On the bright side, in a decade it may be completely gone, and then, like smallpox, there will be no need to keep vaccinating for it.

I think varicella and hep-B are kind of unnecessary.  I wouldn't have gotten them on my own.  But the state doesn't really give me a choice to pick and choose.  There is a religious exemption and a medical exemption available, but to obtain either of these I would have to lie.  I don't think that's right.  Many Catholics I know claim a religious exemption when really they just don't believe in vaccines.  The only part of this equation Catholicism forbids is the lying.

Now for some recommendations for vaccine advocates.  Because I don't think they quite realize just how unhelpful some of their activism has been.  Since it's mostly a matter of trust, attacking people just makes them close ranks and trust you less.  Getting fired by a pediatrician didn't make me go "oh, guess I'll get the shots then."  It made me mistrust doctors more.  Getting called a baby killer didn't help.  Getting called stupid didn't help.  Scary stories about babies dying of preventable illnesses just gave me more to keep myself awake at night with, keeping company with the picture of the baby dying of a vaccine reaction.  More fear made things worse; it made me afraid to even think about the subject.  I know not everyone reacts this way, but some do, and it's probably best not to amp up the fear.  I generally remind people that both vaccine reactions and vaccine-preventable diseases are rare, and the most likely result is that your kids grow up perfectly healthy whatever you choose.  So all you're doing with this decision is managing extremely small amounts of risk.  Of course the most responsible thing is to pick the smallest, but this isn't quite as high-stakes as it feels.  Most people do vaccinate, and because of them, these diseases aren't all over the place the way they used to be, so you have the luxury of waffling a bit.

What does help?  Respecting people's judgment.  Building up trusting relationships.  Encouraging baby steps like actually going to the doctor at all.  Doctors should mention vaccines and then drop it, not lecture endlessly and pile on the guilt.  And people who vaccinate partially should be encouraged rather than lumped in with people who don't vaccinate at all.

And I think everyone should remember that not every person who doesn't vaccinate is completely closed to new information.  I went on a comment thread that I knew was pro-vaccination and asked for information, because I was looking into starting to vaccinate and wanted to be convinced, and instead was demonized and called names because I hadn't done it already.  I was told I was responsible for the deaths of babies - even though my kids can't very well have infected babies with diseases they've never had or been exposed to.  I was sent a link to a CDC site which stated that vaccines are safe.  Well, of course the CDC would say that, wouldn't they?  But when I asked how I could know I could trust the CDC, I was sneered at and called a conspiracy theorist.  Isn't that just what someone in a conspiracy would say? ;) I wanted to know how I could know how to trust their studies and why I shouldn't trust the studies the anti-vaccine movement had, but no one even bothered to try.

This post is meant as a bit of a counter to that attitude.  But I think the best way to encourage someone who doesn't vaccinate to start doing it is simply to have a conversation.  Start by asking why the person doesn't vaccinate -- don't assume you know!  And if they are willing to discuss it with you, research their specific objections and offer the most objective answers you can.  Be kind and show that you are really listening, not dismissing their objections out of hand.

I'll close with a story from about a year ago.  Marko had gotten interested in the immune system, so we watched a bunch of YouTube videos about white blood cells and antibodies and various diseases.  There was one about measles, which explained that the virus attacks the immune system, leaving the person vulnerable to other diseases for months afterward.  Marko found it terrifying (although it wasn't graphic or scary) because he loves his immune system and hates being sick.  "Is there a cure for the measles?" he asked.  "No," I said, "but there's a vaccine.  If you get the measles shot, you won't get the measles."  He instantly demanded, "Get me that shot, Mama!"

I guess it really hit home to me then that I was assuming the whole time that my kids wouldn't want shots.  I hated getting shots, and of course if I'd given them when Marko was a baby, he wouldn't have understood the reason and would have cried.  But given a chance, he's actually come out in favor of vaccines.  It really soothed that feeling of "I can't let my baby get such a terrible thing!" and reminded me that this is something I do because I love my children, because I know it is best for them.  Even if sometimes there are a few tears.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

7 quick takes


I know I haven't been posting a lot lately.  I'm worried people will think I'm sick, or dead, or depressed, or pregnant, but that's not the case at all.  I'm actually doing pretty well, but the keyboard on my tablet is broken.  The h key doesn't work, but sometimes h's appear when I hit other keys.  Probably got spilled on one too many times.  I use the onscreen keyboard for my facebook posts, but it's maddeningly slow so I've had to be a lot quieter on the internet.  Which is very frustrating to me because typing is one of the main ways I get my thoughts out!  I could switch to vlogs, I guess, but I find my own face and voice embarrassing.

I'm on John's computer at the moment, but that's not a very good solution because it's a desktop and I can't stay in one corner of the house for very long.  Especially not when it's the non-air-conditioned corner!


I really want to fix or replace that keyboard, though, because I am starting to get ideas for stories again!  That's always a good sign about how my life is going, when I stop worrying about practical problems and start wondering about different methods of faster-than-light travel and their effects on plot development.

I don't know if I would have time to write any of this stuff out, but I still enjoy planning it out.  The stuff I'm working out right now is easier than my previous writing, because it isn't historical fantasy.  Working with history demands research.  I enjoy the research, but it takes a lot of time and the trouble is, if you don't write anything right away, you start to forget key details.  The two stories at the top of my mind right now are one about an alien coming to earth for the first time, and one about a girl raised in a post-apocalyptic survivalist cult.  They're both very exciting and I hope I sometime get a chance to write them all out.


Maybe after the boys start school.  I am still a little mixed about it, but mostly looking forward to the first day of school in the middle of August.  I'm hoping it gives me time to pay attention to Miriam and Jackie, as well as giving Marko and Michael some extra attention and interest.  They have been both acting very bored lately, which results in them either being at each other's throats or all over me.  I know they need more stimulation in their life -- more play dates, more outings, whatever -- but that just isn't in me right now.  As it is I'm taking them places at least twice a week!  It's fun but Jackie misses naps and I can't get the housework done if we're always running around.

Marko has agreed to give school a try in return for a reward.  After the first month of school, Marko will get a video camera and Michael will get a remote control car -- that is, they will each get the thing they've been wishing and dreaming for for years.  Michael didn't really need any motivation, but you can't reward one kid and not the other.  Marko has decided one month of school is worth it, but once he gets the camera, he says he's not going to school anymore.  I'm hoping by then he's found out it's not so scary after all.

I still have to get them physicals, take them school shopping for backpacks and lunchboxes, and find out what supplies they will need for school.  What do you have to do to get ready for a year of school?  When do I find out who their teachers will be?  I feel really intimidated by the public-school scene -- I feel, just like when I was in school, like everyone else knows all the rules and I don't.


Jackie continues to get easier.  She sometimes takes a good long nap, and when she's awake she often is okay lying on a blanket.  She can roll over both ways and sometimes even gets on hands and knees.  She grabs toys and can sometimes put her pacifier back in if she drops it.  I'm so on top of life right now that I'm actually using cloth diapers for part of the day.  Which goes to show how my standards have shifted and how many things I used to think were important I have had to jettison.  But, so long as I eventually get back to those things, it's not so bad.

She took TWO hour-plus naps today. Pretty sure this is the first time that's ever happened!


Miriam is mostly a delight and sometimes terrible.  John calls her Destroyer of Souls because of how exhausting she is, especially at night.  She's almost three and still wakes most nights, sometimes several times.  And her bedtime can be really long.  However, last night I convinced her to let me sit with her for fifteen minutes and then leave, and she fell asleep on her own!  Fluke or the beginning of a wonderful trend?  I hope the latter.

In the daytime she is mostly very good for a kid her age.  She is a good talker and negotiates for what she wants.  Occasionally she has a total meltdown where she rejects all comfort and screams loudly over whatever you try to say to her.  She'll be screaming that she wants a cookie, and you can be trying to explain that she totally can have a cookie, and she won't listen to you.  This can go on for nearly an hour -- or, you can hand her the baby and she'll instantly calm down.  Nothing else in the whole world works, but her sister calms her right down to where she snuggles the baby and says in a sad voice, "I love my sister so much, I was so sad, I was crying, I had a sad face, Jackie makes me feel better."  It's super adorable.


As I write this, Michael is trying to look at a magazine by himself and Marko is trying to get up in his face for no apparent reason.  I have exiled Marko to one side of the couch and let Michael be on the other, but Marko is whining that he wants to get closer to Michael, and Michael is screeching at me that Marko is still too close.  Ugh.  These two.  Marko can be downright compulsive in his need to say over and over some ridiculous thing that upsets his brother, while Michael is amazingly oversensitive and goes bananas about the repetition of some innocuous thing.  So they had a fight a few minutes ago where Marko kept repeating "knights didn't have newspapers" and Michael was screaming and sobbing about it.  Sometimes it's just a noise Marko makes.  I hardly know who to blame for these fights because both are being so unreasonable!

The real solution is for them not to be with each other, but both are completely unwilling to be alone.  What they want is for me to lock up the other one so that they can stay with me.  But that's hardly fair, is it?  Especially when I too am getting annoyed by them.

And Michael is just really, really unhappy a lot of the time.  I don't understand it.  Some days he says his head hurts, which is something I'm definitely going to consult the doctor about.  But other times he's crabby for no reason and insists he's not feeling bad, it's just that everyone is being mean to him ... even when they're not.  I just don't get why he's always so unhappy!  But if I look back on his life, he's usually been like this.  He was a fussy baby unless he was nursing all the time, whined most of Miriam's first year of life because he wasn't getting to nurse and be held all the time, and while I thought he was cured of all that, I have to admit that he's getting awfully whiny again.  When he's happy he's just a delight -- he loves to help out, is super affectionate, and is always looking for new experiences and challenges.  But he often isn't, and I don't know why.  Not enough sleep maybe?  He gets the most sleep of anybody in the family, but that doesn't mean he doesn't need more.

Of course while I've been writing this they stopped fighting and collaborated for a bit -- to throw water on the dog.  I put a stop to that (no water play indoors, that's a hard and fast rule obviously) and now they are fighting because they both want to watch TV but can't agree on what they'd like to watch.  Marko wants a documentary about chromosomes and Michael wants a cartoon.  If I put on something Marko wants, Michael and Miriam try to watch it but get bored and start fighting (why don't they just go play???), but if I put on something Marko doesn't like (which is most things) he claps his arms over his ears and shrieks lest he accidentally hear a bit of a show he doesn't like.  These kids, I tell ya.


I forgot to mention that my family came to visit recently.  We had a really wonderful time.  It was just my mom and sister this time, but Juliana got along swimmingly with the kids.  Marko says she is his best friend now.  I really wish we could see them more often.

How have y'all been?
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