What I’ve been reading – the ‘My Friend Flicka’ series

In a complete and utter change of pace from my last ‘What I’m reading’ post, I’ve recently been revisiting Mary O’Hara’s classic series (My Friend Flicka, Thunderhead, and Green Grass of Wyoming) about life on a Wyoming ranch. I got onto this because I happened to find My Friend Flicka in a charity shop browse; I actually, as it happens, have had Thunderhead on my shelves for a while now having found a second-hand copy somewhere or other, probably in another charity shop browse, so I decided to go ahead and complete the set and ordered a used copy of Green Grass cheaply on Amazon and read the lot. I did read the books as a child, but in a skip-and-skim kind of way; parts of them interested childhood-me a lot, parts not at all. This re-read, therefore, was the first time I’d actually read them properly all the way through, and was an interesting combination of rediscovering sections that came back to me vividly as I read them, and being struck by aspects of them that had zoomed over my head the first time.

One thing I realised for the first time was just how long ago these were written; as a child, I don’t think I’d really taken in that they actually date back to the 1940s. (I’m not sure whether that’s a tribute to the timelessly good writing or an indictment of my powers of observation.) Reading it as an adult (and a doctor), I was struck by the fact that the reason Ken and Flicka both come so close to dying in the first book was because this was the pre-antibiotic era and there simply wasn’t much that could be done for severe infections. And by the fact that the McLaughlins don’t even get a phone until the third book and that this is so taken for granted it barely rates a mention.

More insidiously, there’s also the way the female characters are presented. When I read the first book as a child, the character I identified with was the eponymous Flicka, for the simple reason that the only human female character who gets more than a very brief walk-on part in the whole of the first two books is Ken’s mother Nell. Who spends half her time planning meals for the menfolk and half of it fretting over the way her husband is taking his frustrations and fears over their money worries out on her. Rereading the books, I found new appreciation for Nell’s character; she is beautifully portrayed, a complex, intelligent, sensitive woman caught in the hell of an insoluble situation. But, other than the occasional scene where her sons go to her for advice or homilies, she doesn’t really do anything that my childhood self could either identify with or aspire to.

In the third book we get two more female characters – Carey, beautiful and sweet but passive and immature (at one point in the book, her response to Ken’s attempt to discuss her plans for her future is to go into rhapsodies over how adorable the eight children she wants are going to be and won’t Ken join her in her game of planning names for them?), and her monstrously manipulative grandmother, whose determination to keep Carey under her thumb is largely responsible for Carey’s failure to grow up. O’Hara does an excellent job of portraying a deeply manipulative relationship and the difficulties of breaking free after years of being groomed to find this manipulation normal, and I can recommend this as a great piece of writing; but, again, it’s not something in which, as a child, I could find a role model or a character I really felt good about identifying with.

Even the way O’Hara writes about the horses drifts off into a male-dominated picture. This, of course, is partly because horses by their nature live in a male-dominated world – as unintentionally exemplified by this snippet from Green Grass of Wyoming, in which Ken tries to explain to the naive Carey why her filly Jewel has been stolen by his stallion Thunderhead:

‘…It’s kind of like falling in love. He knew she was a winner and he just kicked the crate to pieces until she was free and ran away with her – kind of eloping.’

‘But what if she didn’t want to go?’

Ken grinned. ‘Well, he’d make her. That’s what a stallion does. But he’ll take good care of her – Oh, the very best care! You don’t need to worry about her coming to any harm!’

Carey’s tears were drying and she looked at Ken, intrigued by this strange tale of wild-animal romance.

Ah, yes, that well-known sign of a great romance – one of the pair is quite happy to force the other one against zir wishes without, in fact, caring in the slightest what zie wants. Exactly the example we want to be giving to young people.

That, of course, is simply a case of horses not really being the best role models for human relationships; but it also occurred to me, as I read, that O’Hara even let her female equine characters fade into the background once a stallion was in the picture. In the first book, Flicka’s supposed to be Ken’s one chosen horse and true love forever (which ends up being quite a raw deal for Flicka, as the attempts to capture her for Ken unintentionally lead to her receiving a near-fatal injury which leaves her forever robbed of the incredible speed that caught Ken’s attention in the first place). But the second and third books focus on her son, Thunderhead. Flicka does go on to have a daughter, Touch And Go, who in fact becomes the one to save the ranch at the end of the second book by winning a crucial race and thus paying off the family’s crippling debts, but this scene is mentioned almost in passing as the book gets back to the far more important issue of Thunderhead’s fate. By the third book, Flicka barely figures and Touch And Go, gets one single brief passing mention; even though the racehorse owner who bought her figures largely in the story, there isn’t so much as a passing question or mention as to how Touch and Go is doing, and Thunderhead is talked about as though he’s the only racehorse in the bunch.

There were, conversely, many aspects of the book I appreciated far more on a reread; Ken’s development and growth through the novel and the beautiful and vivid depictions of Wyoming ranch life. I remembered why I did like these books as a child, but I also had more conscious awareness of what it was about them that left me not feeling as comfortable.

Who here has read the books? What did you think of them and what do you think of them on looking back?

How true…

This cartoon from the Doc Rat site appeared in a recent British Journal of General Practice. Maybe it’s a bit too much of an in-joke, but it amused me so much that I cut it out and stuck it on my study wall.

Reminds me of the old joke about dermatology that we all heard at medical school: ‘Describe it in Latin and give them steroid cream’.

Friday the 13th and sex work advocacy

A few years back, I used to read a blog by a retired escort worker who now blogs, under the name of Maggie McNeill, for the rights of sex workers. I drifted away due to time constraints, and, since then, have gradually realised that I actually disagree with her on some very fundamental issues around feminism and consent, so if you check out her blog (The Honest Courtesan) do be aware that there is a lot of stuff on those topics that I would not endorse and that I think most people here wouldn’t either. (Also, of course, there’s a lot of very NSFW stuff on there.) However, I do agree with her on the main point her blog seeks to make; sex work should be decriminalised. What’s more, laws intended to provide legal protection for sex workers need to be worked out with the guidance of actual sex workers, using a model that puts their agency first rather than framing them as helpless victims who need protection.

Anyway, I’m posting about this now due to a rather nice idea that Maggie had- namely, to make every Friday 13th a day for sex workers and non-sex workers alike to speak out in favour of decriminalisation of sex work. As Maggie wrote:

Let’s start getting the word out that whores are no different from other women, and that “a woman’s right to choose what to do with her own body” is more than just a euphemism for abortion.

I quite agree, and so, ever since running across this custom of hers (a year or two after she’d instituted it) I’ve tried to stick to it, every Friday 13th. (Successfully, in fact, if we gloss over the one time I missed the precise date and sent a text to a friend about it on Saturday 14th instead.) You can read two posts about this on my old blog (on other Friday 13ths between then and now, I’ve posted or commented in other places):

  • Their Bodies, Their Choice is a general explanation of my view on the matter (sorry about the paragraph breaks, by the way – I moved that blog from Typepad to WordPress and some of the formatting on the archives got messed up in the process)
  • Anti-Prostitution Laws: The Trouble With The Swedish Model is a post in which I discuss the problems with the commonly-advocated idea of making prostitution itself legal but making it illegal to be a client of a prostitute.

This, of course, will be the first Friday the 13th post on Geeky Humanist. Yay! A chance to spread the word to a wider audience.

As I’m in the UK and I know the readership here is heavily, though not exclusively, from the US, I think it’s worth explaining a bit about the different laws. Unless I’ve missed any recent updates, the law in nearly all of the US is that prostitution itself is illegal; a draconian waste-of-resources law that benefits nobody (other than, I suppose, politicians looking to score points with the Religious Right) and is simply not morally defensible under anything other than a religious or quasi-religious form of sexual morality. Anyone here really want the police spending their time and resources on prosecuting consensual sex (which most prostitution is) when they could be putting that effort into better prosecuting crimes like rape or domestic violence?

In the UK, we’re at least somewhat more enlightened, in that it’s not against the law either to sell or to buy sex. (The latter is unfortunately in danger of changing – see below – but I think at least we’re safe on the former; I’ve never heard of anyone here wanting to make prostitution itself illegal.) But we do, alas, still have several laws on the books that make life far more difficult than it needs to be for sex workers.

Looking for up-to-date information on British law for this post, I found this useful leaflet from the English Collective of Prostitutes’ site informing sex workers of their rights, which lists the laws in straightforward layperson’s language. Some of this I already knew; I was aware, for example, that it is illegal in the UK to earn money from organising prostitution, and that, while this law was probably set up with the good intention of wanting to prosecute genuinely abusive pimps who are forcing women into prostitution in order to make money off them, it has backfired badly by preventing many, many sex workers from seeking the extra protection that could come from working together/organising brothels with proper security services.

didn’t, however, know about the law on prostitute’s cautions, and this one really shocked me. Apparently, it is still quite legal in the UK for two police officers to record a ‘caution’ about anyone whom they believe to be loitering publicly for purposes of soliciting, without having to present any evidence – and the person cautioned has no right of appeal against it. Good grief – I’m sure that law never gets abused, then. Two such cautions in a period of three months can lead to a conviction for soliciting, which then shows up on any further enhanced criminal records check done during the person’s lifetime. This article describes the problems this archaic law can cause.

On top of this, there’s a vocal lobby in favour of outlawing the buying of sex (the legal system known as the Swedish or Nordic Model, which I discussed in the second of my two linked posts above). Despite the fact that the English Collective of Prostitutes vehemently oppose this idea, the Home Affairs Committee are currently looking into the possibility of recommending this change in law to the government. That one is still a ‘watch this space’, and the latest development seems to be positive; three days ago, the Committee heard evidence from retired sex workers Brooke Magnanti and Paris Lees, who are also both firmly opposed to bringing in such a law, and they seem to have been willing to at least take that viewpoint on board and consider the possibility of recommending more constructive changes such as abolishing the law against brothel working. The transcript (which also has a link to the video, if that’s what you prefer) can be found here and makes excellent reading.

So we can hope that that one will be a non-starter. But it’s nevertheless clear that, when it comes to protecting sex workers or to taking them seriously as people who should have input into the laws that are supposed to protect them, UK law and UK society still have a long way to go. I guess I’ll be blogging about this on a good many Friday the 13ths to come.

Pregnancy test before X-ray?

Browsing the Internet, I came across Jessica Caldwell’s essay Fractured: A First Date, in which she tells her story of breaking her arm in a drunken flirtatious arm-wrestling session. What struck me about it was that, when the doctor saw her in the emergency room, he told her that he would need to do a pregnancy test to confirm she wasn’t pregnant before he could X-ray her arm.

Wait, what? I get that, if a woman is pregnant, it’s worth thinking about whether a particular X-ray/CT can be postponed a few months until she no longer has a passenger to share in the radiation dose; doses from X-rays are trivial, but can add up over a lifetime and it makes sense to limit them. But Caldwell had a broken arm. Her X-ray was essential and couldn’t wait.

I’m wondering – what on earth would that doctor have done if Caldwell’s pregnancy test had been positive? Left her with a second elbow in her arm for the next nine months? Put a cast on it sans X-ray and kept fingers crossed that it didn’t heal too crooked? You know, I formulated those questions as flippant ones… thinking about some of the scary things I’ve heard about the dominance of pro-life thinking in the USA, I’m actually not too sure. If Caldwell had been pregnant, would she actually have found her doctors putting that embryo’s priorities before hers and denying her the X-ray she needed for her medical care?

I now have a header!

Took me long enough, I know. Well, it’s nothing to write home about – just something I threw together on Canva – but I like it and, at any rate, it’s a big improvement on not having any header.

If anyone has any particular suggestions about how it could be improved, fire ahead.

‘The Martian’ – book vs. film

One of life’s many joys is to see a book you’ve loved made into a film that does it justice. I had that joy a couple of weekends back, when I watched the DVD version of the film based on Andy Weir’s The Martian, which I’d already read and loved last year. The film is awesome – brilliant visuals, great characters, and true to the spirit of the book.

What I want to do now is geek at great length about how the book compares to the film and what I think of the inevitable differences (mostly good, but I have some gripes). This will contain about a billion spoilers and will be in large part incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t seen the film/read the book (preferably both), so, if this is something you were planning to read and/or watch, this might be a post to bookmark for a later date.

[Read more…]

The Apologist

I’ve been reading an interesting opinion piece by my sister over on The Pool: Sorry, but people need to stop telling women they shouldn’t apologise. The background to this is the increasing recognition that apologising is a gendered phenomenon, with women doing far more of it than men, which has led to many declarations that women should cut back on the apologising habit. Ruth’s argument here is that the problem is not with women tending to apologise too much but with men tending to apologise too little. What we should actually be doing about the apology discrepancy, she argues, is expecting men to bring their apologising up to appropriate levels.

The various anti-apologising op-eds and think pieces often quote a 2010 study, which showed that the reason women say they are sorry more often than men is because they have a “lower threshold for what constitutes offensive behaviour”. This finding tends to be framed by journalists as an example of female deficiency. But, really, isn’t a person with a “high threshold of what constitutes offensive behaviour” actually just another name for a dickhead?

Even for trivial matters, there are few things more grating than a social interaction containing a gaping apology-shaped hole… Saying sorry is a recognition that the time and feelings and convenience of another person are important.

Excellent points (say I without a trace of nepotism, natch), and I agree with this as far as it goes. Still… the implication seems to be that this is the only cause of the apology gap and that women in general typically have their apologising threshold pitched just right. I’m not so sure; I’ve certainly come across the phenomenon of overapologising, and my impression is that it is indeed a fairly gendered thing. (It’s also age-related, which is a whole other issue.)

Example from this same article; Ruth describes apologising to her agent every time she has to ‘bother’ him. I’m not an expert on how the whole agent/writer thing works, but I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb in guessing that the agent is making money out of this and that the things Ruth is ‘bothering’ him over are actual work-related things which he is getting paid to deal with. Routinely apologising for asking someone to do the job they’re being paid to do? That’s an apology too far, surely? When we apologise for asking for things that we actually are entitled to, we reinforce ideas that we should make ourselves lesser, use fewer resources, less space.

Of course, Ruth’s article also raises an interesting question; why, when we find that men and women are doing something differently, do we assume that the answer is to tell women to take responsibility for closing the discrepancy?

Any further thoughts?

Thoughts on the ‘Proselytising to Children’ Issue

I recently read a post by Hemant Mehta over at Patheos (which I initially took to be recent but which was actually posted a year ago; I guess there must have been some recent commentary on it moving it temporarily into the ‘now trending’ section) titled An Atheist Dad Left His Kids with a Relative… Who Used the Opportunity to Proselytize. What Should He Do? The title is fairly self-explanatory, although it turns out that what went on was above and beyond even proselytizing:

The Pastor and my sister in-law told my girls “They needed to accept Jesus as their master, and maybe if they prayed hard enough god would change their dad’s mind and he wouldn’t burn in hell.” Who would tell A 6 & 8 year old that shit??

Someone manipulative, emotionally abusive, and devoid of appropriate understanding of boundaries, that’s who. Happy to clear that up for anyone who was wondering. Have a nice day.

Anyway, while I hope it’s obvious to everyone reading that that approach (which also included the guilty parties trying to tell the children to keep the meeting a secret – guys, when you’re using a line that makes you sound like a child molester, it might just be a sign that you need to totally rethink your attitude) is so far beyond the pale that they don’t have ‘pale’ in their colour range, this did get me thinking more generally about the issue. What would I do if someone wanted to invite my children to a church service/talk to them about Jesus? Obviously, if there were any alarm bells to make me think that the person was likely to pull this kind of manipulative crap, then not a chance, sunshine – but suppose I didn’t have any reason to fear that this was going to be the case?

The answer’s simple; I’d leave it up to my children. If they were invited to a church or Sunday school session, I’d pass on the invite and let them decide. If someone wanted to preach to them, I’d check with them whether they were OK with listening and respect their decision. If they did decide to attend the session/listen to the spiel, I’d want to stick around to check what they were hearing and chip in with my two cents on the matter, but I wouldn’t stop them from hearing it. (Unless, of course, it did veer into the kind of abusive territory described above. Not staying quiet for that, thank you.)

By the way, I guarantee you that at this point in time, neither of them would be interested. My son sees life as divided into things which involve electronics in some way, and the boring bits. He reluctantly accepts that life intermittently forces him to endure the latter for periods of time between playing/talking about/watching YouTube videos about computer/console games, but he doesn’t have to like it and he doesn’t like it. Anyone trying to convert him would probably find themselves sitting through one of his autistic-fervour monologue accounts of every detail of every level of whatever game he’s currently into. My daughter has a more normal range of interests, but actively dislikes Christianity and religion. That, I swear, wasn’t me, and I’m not sure how she even reached that conclusion; but, there you are, she wants nothing to do with anything of that ilk, and anyone wanting to talk to her about Jesus would likely get short shrift.

But if they change their minds in the future and do want to accept any offers of proselytising sessions, or even seek the information out themselves, that’s fine by me. I’ll let them know my views, but I won’t try to stop them looking for different ones.

Addendum to the ‘Yay! Questions!’ post

You remember a couple of weeks back I wrote a post answering that TodayChristian ’10 Questions For Every Atheist’ meme that had been going round?

Well… I didn’t recognise the question list out of context, but turns out that (with the exception of the ‘And there is a HELL!’ line at the end of question 3) it didn’t originate with the TodayChristian page. It actually originated with this post, by a blogger called Robert Neilsen, who writes a blog called Whistling in the Wind. You may notice a few things here:

  • Neilsen is, in fact, an atheist.
  • He wrote this list as a collection of some of the main questions-for-atheists going around the Internet, so that he could provide answers.
  • The TodayChristian page does not credit or attribute him.

So, this means that

a) The TodayChristian authors are happy with using plagiarised work. Kind of adds a poignant note to the questions on morality in the list, doesn’t it?

b) Someone has actually looked at a post in which all these questions were answered by an atheist, and quoted them without the answers in order to claim that these are questions atheists cannot answer. Which… does have to net them some points for sheer chutzpah, but that unfortunately has to be set against the large number of points deducted in the ‘basic honesty’ section.

Anyway, I have updated the post to make sure the meme is now correctly attributed, but I thought it was worth writing this post as well. The TodayChristian page want to try taking work that isn’t theirs; let’s shout it out so that people see what they’re up to.

The Wyndham Fallacy

Hi again! Sorry for my long absence! I had a pretty busy week followed by a week of being absolutely wiped out by a horrendous cold, so I haven’t had a lot of energy for posting.

I came across another Answers in Genesis post that I thought was worth a mention (via the same route as before; a post on Libby Anne’s Love, Joy, Feminism blog. So hat tip to her once again.) This one was written by someone called Avery Foley and is called Why Does God Allow Bad Things to Happen? The answer, in case you were wondering, is apparently because anyone who’s a Christian eventually gets to go to Heaven for all eternity. So, uh, that’s quite all right then and glad we cleared that up. Anyway, here’s the bit that I (like Libby Anne) wanted to comment on:

Evolution supposedly progresses by the death of the less fit and the reproduction of the most fit. So, if this the case, why should we help the old, sick, infirm, and disabled? Shouldn’t they be eliminated as less fit? After all, in the world of evolution the strong survive, and tough for you if you’re born weak or less fit. According to an evolutionist’s own worldview, how can death, disease, suffering, cancer, and disabilities really be “bad”? In nature, the weak and ill die off and the strong survive, passing on their good genes to the next generation—this is how evolution supposedly progresses. Death and weakness from disease and mutations is a must for “bad” genes to die out. So by what standard do evolutionists call these things bad? Certainly not by their own standard! To claim a standard for good and bad, they have to borrow from a different worldview—the biblical one—to define what good and bad even are.

Well, first off, I don’t have to borrow from the biblical or any other worldview to say that it’s bad for people to suffer pain or distress or loss of autonomy, and good to take steps to help or prevent situations in which those things happen. Sure, there’s room for plenty of complexities and grey areas and debate around those basics, but I’m still baffled as to why the ‘So how do you even define good or bad without a God, huh? Huh? Huh???‘ question is meant to be such a ‘gotcha’. But what I mostly wanted to comment on here is this bizarre claim that a belief in evolution as a scientific fact somehow requires us to also accept it as a moral imperative.

This is a fallacy that shows up now and again in creationist writings, and it is exactly as logical as saying that, having discovered that gravity causes people to hit the ground when they fall over, we are now morally obligated to push them down. I have for some time thought of this as the Wyndham Fallacy, because it’s rather nicely summed up by a line author John Wyndham wrote in his novel ‘The Kraken Wakes’; the main character tells his wife ‘Darling, if I happen to mention that, as a process, autumn follows summer, it does not follow that I am all for getting a ladder and pulling the leaves off the trees.’

‘The Kraken Wakes’, by the way, is unrelated to evolution and uses that line in a different context. In general, though, it’s in creationist writings about evolution that this fallacy typically shows up. After all, the story creationists believe about how the world got started is one that’s heavily tied in to their morality and their worldview in general; not only does this make it virtually impossible for a creationist to question that version of events (because they so strongly believe it’s morally wrong to believe anything else), but it actually makes it difficult for many creationists to get their head round the fact that beliefs about origin don’t, in fact, automatically have to tie into our moral beliefs, and that the two can be independent.

Or maybe they just push that line as a way of making non-fundamentalists look bad. Why go for accuracy when you can have propaganda?

But either way; no. Yes, in nature the less fit are more likely to die. No, that doesn’t put us under any sort of moral obligation to kill them off. If you think otherwise, I look forward to seeing you at the end of summer with that ladder.