This editorial from the Washington Post wants to know: Why do Americans still dislike atheists—particularly given how much we like everyone else these days.
Atheists, after all, the author continues, are so much more awesome than everyone around them: They are smarter; unlikely to find themselves in barfights or to be called Junior or Bud; they have better fashion sense, thanks to Bravo; higher SAT scores; are more sensitive to the plight of underprivileged people in far off lands; more likely to travel to those lands, pose for pictures with those people and then post them on Facebook in order to “raise consciousness.” Atheists tend to have more food allergies or ‘sensitivities’, but this is only because the aforementioned heightened sensitivity extends to the plight of many foods–and not only those foods on the bottom of the pyramid either.
And now that you know we are so much better than you, it would be logical for you to stop hating us and elect us to a benevolent dictatorship, as the absence of God decreed.
Initially, I found these claims very plausible. A lot of my friends are atheists and they tend to be a sexy and good-looking bunch with all of their original fingernails. But then came the “evidence.”
Take, for instance, the assertion that atheists are less violent. The evidence? Denmark is a widely irreligious society and the murder rate there is super low. Huh. Three problems with this correlation immediately strike the rational mind:
1. Denmark is also: small, wealthy, very culturally and racially homogeneous, and enjoys a strong welfare state. So, you know, maybe it’s the atheism, or maybe it’s the fact that everybody is rich, blonde, and related by marriage. I bet if you studied rich blondes in America you would find they have an equally low murder rate.
2. Conversely, the most murderous countries on earth are in Africa, the former Soviet Union, and Latin America. Some in the middle category are also pretty irreligious. All of them are poor and/or unstable. But I’m sure it’s just because they aren’t atheist enough. Probably they believe a little, when they’ve had one too many, or are trying to get a Christian into bed.
3. You know which country has an even lower murder rate than Denmark? Saudi Arabia. Bahrain too. I guess using this author’s powers of deduction, we must conclude that Muslims are even less kill-y than atheists. And you know which country has approximately the same murder rate? Italy. So it must be that Catholics and atheists are equally murder-y.
The rest of the claims are equally weak:
Atheists are discriminated against because half of Americans wouldn’t vote for an atheist. Obviously they hate them, because when electing our representatives in a democracy, it is wrong to want to choose candidates whose worldview reflects your own. Instead we should base our choices on how superior to us they claim to be? I’m guessing the half of the country that is Republican also wouldn’t vote for democrats because they believe in public healthcare and abortion. It’s practically like racism!
Did I mention that atheists are smarter than the average American? Because the author did. Of course, we’ll studiously fail to mention that they also tend to be from the wealthier and better educated-class, whom I’m certain all got there by virtue of being inherently hard working and wise and not because of a mixture of racial preferences, inherited wealth and the various advantages attending these states.
Of course, if we really wanted to test this claim, we wouldn’t compare a tiny, ideological minority of a pretty uniform socioeconomic profile to the whole of the nation and then attribute their success to their ideology. But this is non-faith we’re talking about here. No need to test it with silly things like reason and rational thinking. That said, I must blaspheme and point out that what the author sees as superiority looks a lot more explicable by class to me.
Ultimately, the article succeeds: It tells you why Americans persist in disliking atheists–not with its undercooked figures which wilt beneath a blink of examination, but rather with its patronizing, superior attitude. If you need further evidence, I refer you to Flying Spaghetti Monsters and groups calling themselves, “Brights.” Neither of which are obnoxious at all…

So AC Grayling has put together a compendium of thought, purportedly without religious influence, to demonstrate that secular humanist ethics need no God to do their thing. Oh those secular humanists, always hurling that chip on their shoulders at religions that work. As far as I can tell, secular humanists tend to be comprised of well-read or educated, middle-to-upper-middle class Westerners who believe that humans are naturally good and moral (as they clearly are) with no need of threats or comfort from an authoritarian God.

That their own good, cooperative morality is a byproduct of circumstances never to occur to them. In all of this good-naturedness, the irony is, of course, their failure to note the cruelty inherent to men and women of the elite–themselves living lives of comfort and plenty–lecturing the majority of humankind–the uneducated and hungry–about how easy it is to be a good person without any higher moral order, nor any greater impetus for justice, forgiveness, understanding, morality than the fact that they feel like it. Indeed, why don’t these peons merely take solace in a meal out at a nice restaurant with friends? Or a good book? Perhaps a nice bottle of cabernet? Why not indeed.

Even ignoring this dimension of patronizing humanism, this particular Bible enterprise strikes me as intellectually shifty for a couple of reasons:

First, Buddhism–um, it is a religion, one complete with other dimensions, demons and a more or less neverending afterlife (reincarnation), if not the same conception of God.

Second, the Greeks and the Romans did believe in multiple gods and based their not-exactly-humanist ethics on divine moral fables, if ones dissimilar from those of the Hebrews. So Eagleton has trouble believing knowledge could ever be bad, ala Adam and Eve–well how about turning into a swan and raping a virgin? What does that even mean? If anything these civilizations were far less ‘humanist’ than the Christian ideal, given that they believed in a brutally strict, classist system extending all the way up to the Pantheon and back down again to slavery–for sex, labor, amusement–not to mention infanticide. Here there was no universal morality; no inherent worth imputed to man; moral norms and justice were doled out according to socioeconomic station. Killing or raping or torturing humans were only grave matters where said humans enjoyed a reasonably high status. Perhaps it is the high status of the author that makes this hard to bear in mind. As for me, I find myself identifying with the slave class–absent the right birth, the right gender, the right ethnicity. The fact is, Christ in particular appealed to the disenfranchised, ie the people who got screwed in these hierarchies–the poor, the disabled, and the ethnically undesirable. That was more or less his point–rather than believing we are superior to the slaves and various ‘others’ we should understand that we are all equal in our createdness and the highest mode of living is one of service to the weakest, rather than lordship over them.

We cannot shed context and historical realities when these don’t suit our ends–or at least I am sure Grayling would not be eager to do that favor for the actual Bible.

To remove divine references from quotations, or to quote only those individuals who made none, and thus conclude that human thought doesn’t need a holy reference point for its morality seems a bit of hocus pocus to me. Merely ’taking gods out’ does not relieve this cabal of the religious milieu that informed their ideological evolution. Neither does stringing together a bunch of quotations a revolutionary philosophy make. Putting together this humanist bible is a worthy effort on one hand; however, to imply that it makes some greater statement about the necessity of religion for the formation of our moral norms is to make a supernatural claim. The fervent, no doubt, will believe. Those of us with a rudimentary understanding of history will remain skeptical.

I pushed Ed into the park yesterday around five. Springtime is lively upon Rome. The atmosphere parts its lips and exhales a shower of pink Judas petals. They flicker down through the sunlight and form mounds on the sidewalks, fill its rivulets, create a cartograph of entropy. They highlight in dying violet the top-to-bottom tension between dumb earth’s imperative and man’s drive to fling his dreams out far past his crown.

Lemons startle in the breeze. 

Periwinkle manes of wisteria clamber over the rugged walls of the convent down the street, while a crayon-set of blossoms peeks over the edges of the great stone bowls atop them. In the half-tamed park where I run, constellations of oxeye daisies have colonized the underfoot. These humble margarita flowers have inspired a new tradition between Edda and me on our afternoon journeys to the park: She demands that I pick one for her; I oblige. Then she insists that I pick one for myself. (I tried today to continue moving without doing so and she erupted in protest.) Once we both have our little blossoms, she starts our dialogue, using the flowers as puppets:

-Hi!!!
-Hi. I respond.
-Io sono Ed.
-I’m mamma.
-Dov’e pappa?
-Why don’t you tell me? Where is papa?
-Pappa e a lavoro.
-That’s right! He’s at work
.

I give her flower a kiss with my flower and we move on.
Ed is famous around the park. She greets everyone, working the swing-set crowd like an old politician, while looking like a little, blonde sasquatch. She races frantically from one enterprise to the next with her unruly mane of curls following close behind. Her preferences run to things she can push, climb, disassemble. The little plastic play kitchen does not capture her imagination except insofar as she can shove it over to the tune of a big crash. The most appealing aspect of the plastic playhouses, as far as Ed is concerned, are their rooves. She drags a chair over, clambers on top, stands on their precipices and crows like a rooster. I hover nearby, fending off another in a long line of near coronaries.

It’s sort of like Cheers there in the park, except with no beer and a lot of parents–and everybody knows your kid’s name, not yours. I’ve had to memorize so many toddler monikers at this point… it seems utterly understandable that parents in the Arab world, upon giving birth to their first son, become Um or Abu of so-and-so, subsuming their individual identity to their new role as child shepherd. I’ve discussed birth, in-laws and all of the uneasy sacrifices of parenthood with an assortment of men and women whose names I have yet to learn.
I think about this submission, historically, about the days when identity was linked to places, parentage, professions—one of modernity’s marks that our names no longer grab at a communitarian sense of self. Potters and Smiths no longer occupied with clay and iron. Eriksons not born of anyone named Erik. Welshes who’ve never been to Wales. Porpoises with no purposes. I read the other day that our current obsession with the self is reflected even in popular music. Song lyrics over the past generations were analyzed and it seems that “I”s have shouldered out the “we”s and “you”s of a bygone era.

I once argued with a Finnish friend who claimed that any infringement on his individual will and personal goals by obligations to family or ideology or culture would essentially be a form of enslavement. He would rather die than live like they do in the global south, he claimed, with all his big dreams strangled by a loathesome emphasis on family. He lauded his native Scandinavia for its embrace of autonomy, its utterly secular and mostly relativistic morality. Its salted fish products.

-Oh, oh, don’t forget its incredibly high suicide rate! I added.

-Bah. He replied. (Some Europeans say ‘bah’;  I think they think we say it too. It’s sort of cute.)

-No no, you’re right! So what if you end up alienated, purposeless and living in a shack, first befriending and later eating squirrels, building ineffectual explosive devices. As long as noone objects to your public masturbation performance art, it’ll all be worth it! After all, isn’t that how humans got where we are–not social cohesion and cooperation between a bunch of relatively foppish monkeys–it was your mercenary, self-indulgent, rebel consumerism.  Welcome to Whole Foods? Welcome to Thunderdome! How did I not see that?

I think it was around this time that Kim stopped talking to me.

(On a related note, I privately suspect that the death of moral outrage will drain both performance art and Marilyn Manson albums of their life’s blood, if it does no other good.)

If these days it is about us, when we are women, it is also about our bodies. By which I mean on this day it was about my body, when the smiling Filipina nanny looked me over and then asked me, or rather declared:

Oh, are you pregnant again!?

Pause.

Now, in fairness to her, this was mostly my fault. My body was perhaps not yet suitable for the rose-colored, skin-tight, wife-beater I was wearing over my black sweatpants. I’d just been out for a jog and it was hot and I was in too much of a hurry (too lazy) to change into a t-shirt before going to pick Edda up. But really? Pregnant?! Where was the cultural forbiddance against ever asking any woman who wasn’t moaning in labor at that very moment whether or not she was pregnant?

No, no, no. I said, smiling broadly, trying to reassure her that I wasn’t offended, knowing that she would feel bad about basically saying I was fat.

I just had a baby four months ago…well, five months ago.

She looked embarrassed, moved to the far end of the park and stayed there.

An English-speaking, half-British friend of mine showed up shortly thereafter and I told her what had happened. She guffawed: “Oh, it’s happened to me several times.” She said this in that tone women reserve for untrue claims meant to comfort their girlfriends—like: “I am SURE no one will judge you for not breastfeeding!” or “No, I don’t think his new girlfriend is pretty!” or, most commonly, “Oh, I feel fat too!” These claims should be considered almost as authentic as when our grandmas tell us how pretty we are.

Now, I have to concede a bit of vanity. I’d been feeling proud at having stripped off all but four pounds of my pregnancy gain in just five months. Gloaty, even. I almost posted my BMI as a Facebook status update before the not-being-a-douche imperative took over. So no, I am not immune. But that little fist of fatness, apparently concentrated in the sub-bellybutton pooch as if containing a little, cellulite fetus, was the last gasp waiting to depart. In truth, it’s not so much fat, but rather the stretched out stomach muscles still making their slow migration home. They say the changes wrought in the body during pregnancy are easily the most dramatic thing we ever put our forms through. But I’d thought it wasn’t noticeable.

Unlike most women, I tend to imagine my body looks better than it actually does. Whatever body dysmorphia inspires some women to starve themselves, work out for hours each day, try to get down to a size double-zero so that gay fashion designers will still not want to have babies with them—Yeah, I have the opposite of that. If I see a picture of myself looking slightly rounder than I do in my imagination, I think to myself: Wow, I must be really skinny, since the camera adds ten pounds.
If Ed inherits anything from me, I hope it is this deluded narcissism.

In America, conventional wisdom says that having kids ‘changes your body.’ This is code for ‘makes you fat.’ Not long ago, I pointed out to a friend that most Americans have no difficulty getting chubby without ever being pregnant. And personally, I will take a little extra flesh on my friends and family any day if the alternative is seeing their skeletons peeking out from behind the curtains or having to watch them not eat and feel bad about doing so myself. Here in Rome it is more problematic. Italy never got the memo about kids = fat. A couple of years back we went on vacation with another couple. The wife had given birth three months before and I watched in disbelief as she pranced onto the beach with a more bikini-ready body than I have ever boasted. Clearly because she is evil…and magic. So if I put on some poundage, I am going to have to look beyond the babies to place blame. Given that it’s Italy, I also won’t be able to point the finger at a high (all) carb diet, since they are having babies and eating pasta and still not obese. I don’t actually know what Italian women blame when they get heavy. In their shoes I might say Berlusconi. The next time I meet a morbidly obese Italian I will have to remember to ask her.

So, after an hour of frantic play, I took Ed home, and once she was safely ensconced in her Lego universe, I took some personal time with the full-length mirror.
I examined myself. The tummy was indeed a little provocative, but the hips were no wider. Same old Kentucky Fried chicken legs. Same humble chest. Same old football-ready supershoulders. Hair, still oily. Skin, still spotty. But overall in good, working order. No third nipples weeping from the forehead. No bizarre nest of skin tags. (I have an irrational fear of skin tags.) Upper arms–still not flappy. No one was about to mistake me for Heidi Klum, but I felt content again. In part I have my mother to thank for this. As a child she gave me a hard time about my looks, so the bar has long been set to low. She was a very pretty woman herself and probably disappointed that I didn’t appear to be carrying that mantle. On mornings before junior high she would join me in front of the big, bathroom mirror and list her grievances with my visage: My eyes were too buggy; my mouth too pouty; skin too zitty; horse face, and my nose, oh, but my nose, for my bulbous nose she reserved the majority of her disdain:

 As soon as you turn eighteen we’re getting you a nose job!

(She,of course, had one of those perky, pixie noses.)
As a girl, this promise of surgery filled me with dread. Whatever the failings of my face, it was mine and I didn’t want to look in the mirror and see some shape in the middle picked from a book. In my imagination choosing a nose would be like going through a book of fabric swatches; I’d maybe have to decide between the Barrymore and the Madonna models and then wake up looking like someone who knew how to match her clothes. The burdens of being good-looking would follow. People would notice me in the mall. I’d have to pay attention to fashion, learn how to use an eyelash curler, not wear the same jeans for a week. There might be glitter and bangs involved. It was all very overwhelming. After all, I was the girl who thought of Barbie as an appropriate subject for gruesome, human experimentation. I found it amusing when the toads I’d pick up would pee all over my arm. This relationship with the new, beautiful me was never going to work.
In this, I felt like the nose and I were on the same team. We were the underdogs. We always stood by each other. It had never wronged me. It did its job, smelling and warming air and so on. As an adult I have even learned to appreciate it. My husband calls it the little potato. Babies like to grab it–anything that gives babies pleasure can’t be all wrong.
In any event, while I can’t declare an absolute immunity to vanity, I learned early on that I would have to get by on my nerditude. I was pushed further from dreams of perfection when my transition to womanhood corresponded with advances in photoshop and an increasing popularity of plastic surgery, such that even the naturally good-looking girls at my school would, in just a few short years, no longer be able to hold a candle to their good-looking counterparts who could also afford a personal trainer and sketchy doctors willing to surgically disappear the unwanted parts of themselves. These days, being ‘perfect’ is attainable to virtually everyone, if they can afford it, and so to virtually no one.

In my own life, in the struggle between vanity and baked goods, vanity inevitably loses. Anyway, if it’s not the body, it’s the face. If it’s not the face, it’s the hair. If it’s not the hair, it’s the height. If Tyra Banks has taught me nothing else, it is this.

But isn’t it odd, I wonder, that our collective increase in self-centeredness doesn’t come with an increased appreciation of our physical diversity? We must all be unique turkey feathers, but only within the boundaries of button noses, wasp waists, and a shining carpet of princess hair. I get the feeling that both loving our bodies as they are and, in life, giving occasional fealty in our interests to those of others is the dissent of the current age.
In pursuit of the former, we have good models in children. I look to Ed. She lives so unabashedly. Not afraid to get her hands in the dirt. And then into the gray puddle on the side of the road. The one swimming with dog droppings and engine fluid. Verily, she is not afraid to stick them in its depths. Nor afterwards to hurry them into her mouth, before her mother, screaming inexplicably, can stop her. She cares not if her hair is a bird’s nest of tangles, so long as that means mamma won’t brush it. She lives without shame even for her bodily functions. On that same afternoon, as we were walking home from the park, she greeted a well-dressed, middle-aged woman passing by:

Ciao! –She cried. The woman didn’t look.
Ciao!!! She insisted.
This time the woman looked up and replied, “Ciao.”
Ho fatto caca!! (I made a poop!!)

The woman smiled weakly. I thought of adding that she could smell it too, if she just stepped a bit closer.

Yep. In the end, as long as none of it is broken or being washed, Ed is pretty happy with her body. I think part of what religions counsel, when they suggest that we become like children, is the necessity of abandoning self-conscious scrutiny in the interest of appreciating ourselves and our lives as they are, in the here and now.
These days I am Um Ed. Before that I was a grad student. Before that a run-of-the-mill weirdo with the face of a horse and a nose like a tuber. The primacy of these other identities has kept me on good terms with the full-length mirror. My trips to see her are rarely extended and never revelatory. Awash in female laments about ‘problem areas’ (inevitably and obnoxiously from women without actual problem areas), I find myself shrugging and changing the subject.

My daughter believes we are analogous to flowers. Albeit talking flowers, whose biggest concern is when papa will get home. But after another glorious, exhausting afternoon in the park, I tend to agree.

According to the latest research, support for same-sex marriage among Catholics and other Christians of the younger generation is high and rising; support for abortion stays static.
More on this here.

Conclusion: No longer is it statistically accurate to conflate Christianity with homophobia. Thank God.

“Pain and blood and all the rest, you’d better get used to it if you’re going to give birth.” This was Stef, my ob/gyn. The same man who explained amniotic fluid as being “like a golden shower, but on the inside.” He also told me that, although birth is painful, half of all new mothers say they would do it again within an hour of giving birth; the remainder follow suit within the week.

I beg to differ. It was at least three weeks before I thought I could do that again.

My labor began, as so many of life’s great moments do, with an argument in a Mexican restaurant; specifically, a place called ‘Julep’s New York Mexican Restaurant,’ in Milan, Italy. This place served bar grub on white tablecloths while playing doo-wop at an uneasy volume. It was all very confusing. However, I am from Texas and therefore suffer a chemical dependence on Mexican food along with a tendency to elevate its quality and stature among world cuisines to disproportionate levels. This isn’t just my problem. Growing up in the (former) Nation of Texas, one inevitably develops a sort of state-level Stockholm syndrome when it comes to belief in the superiority of the things we taste and our taste in things. After all, we count putting sugar into iced tea and frying breaded steaks among our great cultural contributions. This may be why the rest of the country laughs at us.  That and the oversized belt buckles. Once, a wonderful, Texan friend of mine on a visit here dismissed Bottarga, ie dried caviar (a Sardinian delicacy grated in very small amounts onto fettuccini), as being not unlike ‘garbage’ or ‘cat food’—certainly not something that could hold a candle to pinto beans mushed up and then fried in pig’s lard, a staple of most Tex-Mex meals.

So there I am, a pregnant addict out with her husband, sampling the Franken-Mexican food of Julep’s (cucumber in flautas…why not?). And the conversation was not going well:

9,000 Euros for this Dragon School? Why? Because Monica Bellucci’s kids go there? She’s three years old, we’re paying them to play with her.

In English. We’re paying them to play with her in English. And Monica Bellucci’s kids go to Rome International, not St Georges. Besides, they have this whole curriculum of books they read and whatnot. And all of the schools basically cost that much.

Why can’t we just wait until kindergarten. It’s not even real school.

There won’t be any spaces by then. Anyway, when it’s kindergarten you’ll think of another reason it’s a bad idea, just like you’re doing now. You just want her to be Italian—cento per cento!

That’s not fair.

Well, you always say something is ok, and then come up with reasons we can’t do it. It drives me crazy. She’s never going to speak English; I should just accept it. By age five, I will no longer be able to communicate with my child. Have fun teaching her about menstruation.

That’s not true. She’s learning from us.

From me. And one person is not enough, as evinced by the fact that she, um, doesn’t speak English!? Ever. Even to me.

I speak English with her.

Maybe thirty percent of the time.

At least sixty.

Maybe twenty.

You can’t go do that.

What?

Go lower.

I was being generous the first time.

Marriage arguments are at once less scary and more frustrating than dating arguments. Less scary because there is little chance of either party walking out. More frustrating because there is little chance of either party walking out. The ‘her’ in question was our daughter, born almost three years ago and until now speaking almost exclusively in Italian.

Maybe it was the tension, or the way he said ‘Dragon School’ (emphasis on the Draaaagon), or maybe it was the fact that Julep’s, Milan’s New York City Mexican Doo Wop restaurant, didn’t bring me any tortillas with my fajitas, but by the end of that Friday dinner, my contractions were pulsing away every five minutes, steady as sonar.  I had been told these contractions would be ‘different’ than the Braxton-Hicks contractions very pregnant women experience leading up to birth.

Different, in this case, being the stand-in for “painful.” In birth discussions, there are a lot of stand-ins for painful. “Pressure” (pain); “cramping” (serious pain); “riding the waves” (not passing out from the pain.) The natural birth movement has even substituted the term contraction with the rather inexplicable term “rushes.” I can only imagine this is meant to convey the rush a laboring woman is in to have them stop. At least, the contractions themselves didn’t seem to be in any hurry. For my part, I would describe early contractions as swelling crotch gas—meaning they felt like bad gas pain, but in the crotch, and occurring in a distinctly soap bubble pattern: pulsing slowly outward to a shrill crescendo over the course of about forty seconds before bursting into their previous oblivion.

This was “pre-labor” the period during which the cervix thins out and opens to two of its ten centimeter goal. How does a baby’s head fit through a ten centimeter opening, you wonder. I was on my way to finding out. This first stage is supposed to take seven or eight hours or, in my case, thirty six. Might I add, thirty six non-sleeping hours, sixteen of them overnight. I would pass out for three or four minutes in the bed of our rented apartment in Milan only to be reawakened by the “pressure” (pain.)

We had been tooling around Milan for a couple of weeks at this point waiting for the baby to make his appearance. We’d been to every museum twice, including the boring ones, hoping that all the jostling would move things along. In Rome, no public hospital would allow a vaginal birth after a caesarean, and no private clinic was set up to perform an emergency c-section. The rather glorious Buzzi hospital in Milan, however, was prepared for us on both counts.

In the months leading up to childbirth I surfed the web, read books, and quizzed every mommy I knew about her “birth experience.” Two consistent themes surfaced:

  1. The majority of women, and particularly those who had done so recently, agreed that childbirth was extraordinarily painful. There was a strong correlation, in fact, between how recently someone had given birth and how terrible they said it was. New moms described it in ways like: “mind bending” “horribleHORRIBLEhorrible!” and “I thought I was going to die. Literally. Die.” Conversely, moms with several, apparently ameliorating, decades between themselves and their last birth were more apt to say “meh, it was bearable.” Bearable. I heard that word a lot. For the record, bearable should be taken as code for: “I did not die.” Vale, S’s wife, also an ob/gyn, put it in the most useful terms: “Just when I thought I couldn’t take it anymore, it was time to give birth.” That was the height of accuracy.
  2. Childbirth is extremely political. There was not a man, woman, or blog article out there without a shrill opinion on: c-sections, laboring techniques, episiotomies and, most pointedly, the epidural.

Oh, the poor epidural. A fairly simple, statistically very safe, procedure which has, in the past decade or so, become the bad boy of childbirth. The wimp’s way out. That thing that bad mommies do. Mothers who oppose it formulate in terms of a sort of sin; mother’s who had one as a sort of miracle. I did not get an epidural myself, but it was not for lack of begging.

What of the epidural? On its surface it is a spinal catheter which runs nerve-blocking painkillers to the lower body, erasing the elephantine agony of late labor contractions. In spite of it having been made the bogeyman by natural birth activists, the rate of complications with the epidural is exceedingly low. The most common side effect—a powerful and persistent headache—occurs in approximately one percent of cases. For other side effects, you have to dig in the point zero something percents—odds not unlike those of the myriad other things that can go wrong without it. There is some evidence that epidurals increase the likelihood of other interventions, but there is equally compelling evidence that they do not. And yet other evidence that, if they do, it is because they tend to be requested in more complicated deliveries. That epidurals have any significant impact on the baby is yet to be established by anything resembling science. However, given that upwards of forty percent of women receive them, it seems that, were there a big impact on nearly half the babies born, someone might have noticed.

The hippie birth activist I visited once, early in my first pregnancy, made it clear that, were I to receive an epidural, this would cause me to give birth to a zombie baby (technical term) who would be unable to nurse immediately after the birth. Thus failing to bond with me, my baby would be condemned to a future as a serial killer, or a cat food eater, or maybe Bukowski without the talent. Ok, she didn’t say that last part, but the rest she did. As evidence she played me a videocassette of a movie from the seventies where someone said this was all true…on tape!… followed by a woman nursing. A woman with a lot of underarm hair.

Speaking from my own experience: I was under heavy epidural anesthesia for my first delivery—a c-section—and my daughter came out howling like a wet cat and nursed successfully at the first opportunity. With my son–born au natural—the opposite was true.

Suffice it to say, I am not religious about the epidural. I don’t believe embracing the pain of delivery makes me or childbirth magical; nor do I believe that the epidural is the seventh wonder of the world. As S put it: “It’s a neat invention, if you want it.”

More interesting than the epidural, however, were the ways and reasons along which ranks broke in the debate over its use. Among the Americans, objections tended to issue from my beloved left-progressive corner. The same group likely to make you feel like a slug for using disposable diapers, or not breast feeding, or destroying your child’s health via juice box, could be counted on to be anti-epidural. My armchair anthropologist/Marxist-minded grad student wondered to herself: “Could this divide be reminiscent of the same wall thrown up between classes to differentiate between “us” and “them” since time immemorial?” For instance, when poor people starved, the wealthy embraced their plumper selves. When the masses labored on farms until their necks turned that fabled red, the nobles piled on snow white powder. In the Arab world, when poor women worked the fields with their hair necessarily uncovered, wealthier women wore hijab as a status symbol, not unlike early twentieth-century Americans wore white to evince their leisurely lifestyles; nowadays, when junk food fills out the waistlines of the hoi polloi, thin is suddenly in. The list goes on…

I therefore found myself wondering if ‘natural’ birth—doulas, midwives and home births (oh my!)—might be our new subconscious status symbols. Could the real shame of epidurals be not that they are a fearsome intervention, but simply that they are widely available? The Frankfurt School posited that when objects become available to the masses, they lose their mojo for the elite. Is it possible that part of the glory of midwives is that Betty Sue from the gas station can’t afford one? That she doesn’t have time to invest in natural birthing classes and will have to settle for a little dope if she can’t hack it? Is that what constitutes better this time around on the carousel?

These questions came up as I read Ina May’s (rather useless) Guide to Childbirth. Ok, let me preface that by saying there is something reassuring about page after page of women saying that natural birth is awesome and utterly doable. The second half, at least, is true. On the other hand, the horror stories it conjured of the alternative–insensible male doctors strapping laboring women on their backs in clinical white rooms, prior to doping them up and literally yanking the babies from between their legs–bore little resemblance to both my experience of a pleasantly autonomous birth in a hospital and the statistical reality of an ob/gyn specialization increasingly dominated by women. I saw a sum total of two men during my entire labor, one the anesthesiologist, the other my own, beloved ob/gyn. While the book, and others like it, did point out the need to bring down shamefully high c-section rates, no acknowledgment was given to what medical advances have done to bring down infant and maternal mortality rates, the latter of which, in some parts of the world, still reaches a devastating ten percent. Overlooking that particular accomplishment struck me as not a little disingenuous. Overall, I respect the movement’s aim of empowering women to make their own choices about birth (provided these choices line up with the movement’s ideals, of course); however, I thought it somewhat cruel when I read that the pain of childbirth is caused largely by one’s own fear (fault). I don’t doubt that tension makes it harder, but for the record I was not scared at any moment and it still hurt like the dickens.

But there’s a rub, and this only occurred to me after going through my laundry list of questions with my fellow moms at the local playground in Rome: Italian women of the same class and political attitude saw things completely differently. Almost to a one, these well-educated, liberal women recommended the epidural, even looked at me like I was smoking something when I suggested I might try to go without.

Q. What accounts for this ideological flip flop in a demographically similar group? Asked my intrepid anthropologist.

A. As far as I can tell, the Catholic Church. Specifically, the longstanding prohibition by the Catholic Church of epidurals in non-emergency situations in their big, fat, Italian hospitals.

Yes, the Catholic Church, much like the La Leche League (LLL) and its companion natural birth movement, considers the pain of childbearing a woman’s natural birth right.

How weird, that they would agree! You think.

Wrong.

LLL was founded by a group of Catholic ladies who thought women were getting too far from their breast feeding duties. What’s more, these same women were instrumental in starting the natural birth movement in the US. It was only later that Ina May and her more hippified cronies took the helm—and if you look closely at her book, you will see that spirituality peeks around the edges of her philosophy to a greater degree than does recent science. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)  On the other hand, for Italian women, the natural birth movement was never about feminist uprising. In the land of Catholicism, this pro-traditional stance was always dominant. The epidural itself was the insurrection.

It’s now been a month since the birth. The memory is fading as nature probably ordained. It was an unusual birth. In the worst of it, I recall a few things that probably won’t fade. That when the contractions became truly immense I could not broker noise or movement. Ina May’s tales of women dancing around and making out with their husbands suddenly seemed as likely as finding a cottage made of twinkies in the woods. In order to not succumb to the magnitude of the pain I had to close my eyes, stare deep inside myself and count. What I saw in there was more or less the unblinking Eye of Sauron. Held hostage, I negotiated with the pain, but it was as if I were negotiating not with the criminal but with the cell itself, a deaf dumb space unresponsive to my pleading.  Earlier in the day, when my contractions were ‘manageable,’ (meaning I could still hobble around between them) the nurses had walked me to the birth hall and I’d heard howling which, for a split second, brought to mind the mass slaughter of peacocks. The nurses looked at each other knowingly as it dawned on me that this was the place I was heading. Not the location, but the physical place.

“I think I want to go back to my room now,” I’d whimpered.

It was not as if I had never experienced serious pain before. The inner ear infections which visited me with an unforgiving frequency in childhood were no small matter, leaving me feeling for hours as if part of my head was about to erupt in a fireblind hell. My grandmother would blow smoke into my ear, which, no matter how you might quail as politically correct anti-smokers, worked, if temporarily. A tooth infection in Doha, which ended in a comparatively blissful root canal, had me threatening to hurl myself from our tiny, pigeon-scat-covered balcony. And in truth the pain of childbirth, on the elevator of agony, was several floors down from those experiences, and yet not so far removed.

It all really got going after they broke my water. The all-consuming ‘surges’ came accompanied by feverishness and some vomiting. “That’s good, said the nurse, it means you are really progressing.”

Oh, wow, great. I thought. Vomiting = Progress.

“I don’t think I can do this,” I gasped. She placed a hand on my forehead and with perhaps the kindest look I have ever seen in anyone’s eyes replied: “You can do this, cara.” The subtext being: “You have no choice.” ”This” was going to get done.

What neither of us knew was that my labor was proceeding at an extremely unusual speed. That pre-labor that lasted about a day and half too long was matched by an active labor which was equally brief. Active labor, the transition from two centimeters to birth, is supposed to happen over another eight hours, during which time your body releases some measure of mitigating endorphins. In my case, this stage went by in ninety minutes, with no time for amelioration, natural or otherwise.

Most of the ninety minutes were spent sitting, perched on a stool, legs akimbo, arms tense with the exertion of holding my upper body upright. It was a nice room, as places to suffer go, spacious, silent and blue, with windows open and a nice breeze filtering in. All of the accounts of women hanging out on birthing balls, sitting in tubs, attempting orgasmic births, seem absurd to me in retrospect. The labor of labor is coping with the pain. I did not want to dance with my husband—throttle him for getting me into this situation, perhaps, but dance, no.

We were alone in the room for most of it, my husband and I. I was on my stool, watching my belly convulse and grunting like a randy heifer when the pudgy little epidural man finally arrived. After being half carried to the birthing throne, the lady doctor reached in for a check while he laid out his instruments. Looking not a little alarmed, she turned and told my superhero to leave, then looked at me:

It’s time to start pushing.

I often wondered what would have happened if the anesthesiologist had gone for a coffee before coming to see me, because, unbeknownst to me, my body had already begun pushing the baby out–with noone there but me and G to enjoy it. On some level, I had sensed that what I was going through, perched on my stool, was too intense to be normal labor, but had reassured myself that every laboring mom must think it is too intense. So the top of my belly has begun to act like a wave pool–probably just more of that ‘progress.’

I would like to assure you that, no matter how long you have held in your pee on a long car trip, nothing in the world will prepare you for the relief of pushing out a baby. I yelled and yelled, but these were not the bovine grunts of the final round of contractions, these were screams of ecstasy, victory, relief, crossing the biggest finish life on offer in this life.

I’ll spare you the gory details of the next storm of pain which descended upon me, but let us just say that I reached down to bat the scissors out of the doctors hand–and she wasn’t snipping anything. Women refer to this as the “ring of fire.” You are free to look it up. I only wish to add that, when it’s over, it’s hardest of all to imagine the bliss of a lovely, crinkled new life being placed in your arms.

Women, no matter how good or bad their experience, categorically agree that in the end it is worth it. I totally agree.

That night, finally alone in my bed and in my body, my son removed for inspection and myself removed for a little rest after two days of crazy, I enjoyed a burger. I’m not a big meat eater, but as Stefano said, blood and pain is what it’s all about. I laid trembling for several, ecstatic hours and then slept, the hard work of motherhood awaiting me. Outside my window a stone angel on the adjacent church stood trumpeting in perpetuity. We all have our work to do.

When my lady friends ask me now what it was like, I don’t lie: By the time it feels like you can’t take it, it’s almost over. And shortly after that, it’s all worth it. World without end, amen. (And if you opt for the epidural—no judgment here.)

Of all of the traditions imposed on me as a deeply Catholic little girl, Lent never crossed my radar.  A ritual of sacrifice at the onset of spring seems ill-timed in the first place, and besides it was not a holiday for kids. Easter was more memorable, in that way that recurring events bleed into one, generic memory–in this case a holiday rolling itself out in a burst of fuzzy, pastel glory right around my birthday. We usually celebrated with my grandparents out at Lake Buchanan, in their little neighborhood, a collection of trailer homes occupied by hunters in the fall and bungalos for retirees and wealthier vacationers year round–all situated on roads which were paved in sections but mostly dirt.

The neighborhood sat in a lost corner of the Hill Country–a great, otherwise-unsettled sea of stunted shrub trees and interjections of granite shouldering out of the earth. It was a lonely little collection of streets which seemed to have been sheered off of a small town somewhere and set afloat. On the Saturday before Easter, we would set sail in my grandparents suburban, venture into the countryside with big plastic water buckets, which we’d fill to brimming with bluebonnets and Indian paintbrushes. Near the backdoor of my grandpa’s mobile home, atop the arabesque of laminate flooring,we’d arrange these into concentric circles to form a nest for the Easter bunny. Yes, it did occur to me that rabbits didn’t live in nests, but there was chocolate at stake, so I said nothing. This anthropomorphic rabbit with avian tendencies always snuck in at night (presumably because he was also nocturnal) and left behind enfoiled goodies, those wonderful, spongy peeps, and a rainbow of jelly bean eggs, which I rejected where they tasted dim and rubbery next to the rest. In my imagination he was a giant rabbit and not a little scary, but if it meant chocolate, I could put up with a lot.

Equally vivid among these quasi-religious memories were my weekly trips to confession before mass–a requirement of students on Friday at my Catholic school, save for my friend Roxanna, who was Jewish and so immersed in a whole different tradition of guilt-inducery. As a girl, I would struggle to summon and release my sins upon a shadow drifting around behind a screen of brocaded metal. At that age my missteps were yet scant: a “damn” or “hell” here, a lie that seemed urgent at the time, maybe some sassback. All in all it was a useful exercise, one which forced more conscientiousness on me than naturally occurs in eleven-year-olds, though I have to say I never felt less sin-y after my five Hail Marys.

All of these events took place between the steady drip of masses. Those ordinary Sunday hours–the hard labor of sitting still while grown-ups talked and prayed over things beyond my limited range of interests. Had the sermons involved unicorns or Thundercats, or the the hymnal included one or two hits by the Stray Cats, it would have been another story. As it was I was adrift in a sea of old people, a geriocracy, my cooperation dutifully rewarded with the donut of my choosing afterwards in the recreation center adjacent to the church. Most of mass was spent contemplating whether chocolate or strawberry icing would call to me from the long table that week. No plain donuts, please, and for certain none with gelatin filling. Donuts were sometimes followed by a short trip to the on-property petting zoo, time permitting. The zoo boasted a monkey house with one, shy simian and a pen with a goat or two. You could never really see the monkey, it’s possible he wasn’t there at all, though many claimed to get a glimpse of him. As an adult, I am forced to wonder what business the church had keeping a monkey prisoner and who among them might have deemed him or herself expert enough to care for an incarcerated primate, but I digress.

When I got older I became a reader at mass. I was famous among my classmates (in my head) for being chosen for this starring role. It must have seemed funny given how little I spoke in general, but my teacher was never at a loss for kind words concerning my crisp enunciation and mastery of the antiquated vocabulary. Later I was promoted to altar server, a post newly opened to girls and only at some churches–meaning the liberal ones. From there I went on to youth group, once again looking forward to the cookies that accompanied meetings, in this case sugar cookies shaped like stars or with icing; such things were never allowed at home and therefore were the most delicious things in the world. While I might have a love-hate relationship with Catholic doctrines, their sugar-policy was all win. 

All of these years culminated in a service trip to rural Mexico when I was fourteen and just before I was removed from my home and dropped out of the organized religion game. Mostly I remember eating buttered noodles out of fresh tortillas, sleeping on concrete church floors, and surviving a bout of dysentery which nearly floored me in the middle of dawn mass. Later that day a local man tried to trade his horse for me. I was told it was because of my blonde hair, which he would have been disappointed to know was a product of bleach and not genetics.

Through the years I remained respectful, though not particularly reverent, which is my holding position to this day. On one memorable occasion I snuck up to the altar with some of my wayward friends when the church was empty and we found and snacked on a tin of communion wafers. Afterwards I expressed guilt and one of my friends rolled her eyes and made a big sign of the cross over me in the air, like a priest. Much like the Hail Marys after confession, this didn’t make me feel much absolved.

And yet Lent, through all of this, never registered.

Funny then, that as an adult, genuinely ambivalent about religion, Lent is the only holiday I look forward to. The others strike me as child’s play, full of garish costumes, mystical fauna and, of course, chocolate. But I can dress up and get drunk with strangers pretty much anytime. In Austin, you can’t swing a pig without hitting some sort of costumed bacchanalia.  If you’ve seen one tranny in a buckskin g-string and Victorian wig made of glittery Christmas ornaments taking tequila shooters, you’ve seen them all. Lent, on the other hand, is my metaphor for adulthood: a celebration of striving and sacrifice and self-improvement. On their face, these things sound burdensome: Why can’t we just go back to childhood and keep the parties without the penance?  Kids have it so easy (or so I used to think.)

As a parent now, it seems to me that kids don’t need Lent because their whole lives are a sort of Lent. The shockingly short journey from infancy to individuality is a toil of its own. I’ve watched as my little daughter has been obliged to give up one treasured thing after another. First she shed the cicada shell of constant care and embarked on the long journey of school, well pre-school anyhow. She must strive every day to make herself understood in a language yet clumsy in her mouth. Her daily life is a barrage of ‘no’s: no crying for no reason; no touching that stove; no more television; no candy bar before dinner and no candy bar after. This all happens while her ant’s eye view of life prevents her from understanding why it must be so. While there is plenty of fun and no shortage of games, every day also brings with it a new winnowing of possibilities as the borders of life harden around her.

For me though, and for other grown-ups, the world has long since taken shape. It is our second skin. Once the major “no”s are absorbed, there are precious few rules left to stalk us and precious little agony left in the sacrifices we make. Indeed, sacrifices are little more than haunted choices. And that is the beauty of Lent: an opportunity to visit upon ourselves what parents and priests long-since lost the power to impose—a little discipline, a bit of engagement with our higher selves, an opportunity to think long and hard about our privileges and what we owe in return.

I haven’t been to confession in years. At this point, it would probably take a week kneeling there in the dark and countless rosaries afterwards to even put a dent in the transgressions I amassed in high school alone. God forbid we get to what I got up to in college. But sitting here at the onset of spring, with the neighborhood Judas tree already erupted in its blushing, pink blooms, I find it not so odd that this would be the season of Lent. I may be too old to find myself excited by chocolate eggs (or not), but I’m still young enough to be reborn around the edges, given a little holy imperative.

I came across this book review in the New Republic. It points out, correctly, that my progessive cohort has a weird relationship with premarital sex and promiscuity. Namely, we’re terrified to admit that casual sex might be something other than perfectly ok. And yet 3 out of 4 people who identify as liberal on this issue have felt regret after a hook-up, booty call, or other trip to the meat market. Not to mention that there is a strong correlatation between women with depression and women with a high number of sexual partners (though who knows which came first).

I was out walking around yesterday with this on my mind when I passed a couple of women pushing a stroller down the street while, (gasp!) smoking. Hah, I thought to myself, Italians and their smoking, I know more than one person back home who would have a fit if they saw these ladies.

Then it occurred to me: What’s the difference, really, between smoking and promiscuity? 

Think about it, both carry some pretty hefty health risks: Smoking can result in emphysema or lung cancer; promiscuity in unwanted pregnancy and a colorful (sometimes literally) assortment of venereal diseases, a few of them potentially deadly (HIV or cervical/anal cancer caused by HPV). Evolutionary biology further suggests that promiscuity is emotionally detrimental for women; it seems that, during sex, we apparently (unfortunately) release some sort of bonding hormone indifferent to the unsuitability of our partners.

Ah, you may be thinking, but smoking hurts everyone around while casual sex is just potential self-destruction between consenting adults. Maybe. But I feel obliged to point out that secondhand smoke outdoors is not really a big risk factor for anything. At least no more than traffic, almost certainly less. Indoors it’s largely banned, everywhere. But even when it was permitted in bars, one might point out that these were places where consenting adults went voluntarily to engage in risky behaviors, and so: once again, little difference.

Furthermore, I can come up with a number of scenarios where promiscuity is a threat to unsuspecting third parties. For instance, I learned on an hour-long segment from NPR that, as a result of increasing promiscuity, up to 50% of men are now infected with HPV. The more we sleep around, the more we increase our risk of picking up this and other (again potentially cancer-causing) viruses and passing them on to partners who may be making less risky choices. Condoms, it seems, don’t prevent the spread much more effectively than light cigarettes prevent lung cancer.

And let’s not overlook the psychological problems that can arise from sex. I once had an acquaintance who was enthusiastically ethical about her dietary habits, but blithely indifferent to the implications of bedding a married man with children. While I hardly think this individual would broker friendship with a remorseless child abuser, the prospect of causing a divorce–of tearing a family apart and making children aware that their father prioritized getting a bit of trim over their emotional well-being–caused her no great concern.

I have known people who have been slapped by their parents and I have known people whose families broke up over extra-marital affairs. Although this is anecdotal, the latter, in my experience, caused far deeper and more permanent damage to the kid. One guy I dated still carried an open grudge against, and deep distrust of, women twenty years after learning his mom was sleeping around on his dad.

Adultery, in effect, is child abuse, with plenty of collateral damage, often worse than the physical kind. And yet, once again, in our straining to be non-judgmental and sex positive, we force a hypocritical sympathy for the less damaging act. We say cheating is understandable where passion or love erupts–at least more understandable than a severe physical addiction to nicotine, or a moment of frustration at a screaming toddler. Really?

It seems to me that it requires less moral frailty to pick up an unwise habit like smoking, usually in a teenaged attempt to be cool, or to lose one’s temper and slap an errant child, than it does to engage in flirtation, establish a mutual willingness, check into a hotel room, disrobe and ignore the potential for destroyed emotional lives–the possibility of which our consenting adults tend to be well aware.

One wonders if we are even bothered by child rape anymore. After all, the French court system is pressing charges against John Galliano for his anti-semitic ranting while Roman Polanski, who drugged and sodomized a protesting thirteen-year-old and then fled prosecution, is deemed worthy of political asylum. As despicable as Galliano’s sentiments were (and they were) they were the ugly ramblings of a drunk to a stranger in a bar. Perhaps he should have flashed her, maybe then we would feel for him.

Have we lost our handle on sex, felt such a need to drag it down from its Judeo-Christian pedestal that we have stripped it of the biological and experiential import it bears even sans any mystical association? In our effort to rescue its pleasures from hysterical moralizing, have we stripped it of its rightful moral dimensions? I, for one, am following the smoke signals.