Ryan Anderson

Science, Fiction, Life

My Baby Was Not Intelligently Designed

Baby is concerned about all of his design flaws.

The idea of intelligent design is silly, and has been thoroughly debunked by scientists with more patience than me, but now that I’m a dad, I have a new perspective on the idea. Instead of painstakingly giving examples of the independent evolution of the eye or calmly explaining that we share a common ancestor with chimpanzees, we didn’t evolve from them, I have realized that all you need is a human infant to illustrate how far-fetched intelligent design is. Babies have a number of fundamental design flaws that conclusively prove that there was no Designer.

First of all, before we even get to babies themselves, let’s reflect on the fact that human childbirth is a horribly painful and dangerous undertaking for the mother, with death of the mother and/or child in childbirth disturbingly common before modern medicine. This is, needless to say, not a good starting place for those who argue that humans were perfectly engineered by God.

And then you have the babies themselves. The reason that childbirth is so difficult is that humans have large heads containing large brains. Our brains are what make us special. And yet, babies are born with holes in their skulls that don’t close for years, and necks that are too weak to even hold their heads up for months. It’s also quite common for newborn babies to require treatment for jaundice. Why? Because their livers aren’t mature enough to effectively remove the bilirubin in the blood formed by breaking down red blood cells. Too much bilirubin can cause brain damage. I’m just saying, if I were engineering an animal that was so reliant on brainpower, I think I’d try to do a better job of protecting the brain and spinal cord.

Then there is the issue of eating and digestion. As we learned when our boy was born 5 weeks early, babies who are born even slightly early often lack the coordination required to be able to nurse, swallow, and breathe in a good rhythm. You would think that swallowing and not choking would be high priorities, something built in as an instinct, but apparently these things take practice. We also learned while in the NICU waiting for our baby to learn to eat that often when babies begin to eat, their body diverts blood to the digestive system, which causes the oxygen levels in the rest of their body to drop. Call me crazy, but it seems to me that getting oxygen to the brain should be prioritized over digesting food in the belly, since the one can cause damage in seconds, the other takes hours or longer to cause a problem.

There’s also the spitting up issue. After managing to master the complex art of eating without choking or falling asleep or desaturating blood oxygen, you would think that the digestive system would be designed to keep the milk in the stomach.  It is not good at this! Slight pressure on the stomach, too much excitement, a stray air bubble, all can cause the stomach’s contents to erupt like a milky Vesuvius.

Finally, there is the fact that newborn babies are completely helpless. They don’t even figure out that they can control their own arms and legs for months. They can’t see more than a foot or so at first. As mentioned above, their heads are squishy and poorly attached, and it is more than a year before they can walk reliably. Human babies are just born way too soon, leaving the parents and other adult humans to care for what is essentially a still-developing fetus as it struggles to survive in the cold, harsh world outside until it is fully functional. To me, this seems like a fundamental design flaw.

I can easily explain all of these things based on an evolutionary perspective, but there are simply too many bad engineering choices for me to believe that someone intelligently designed human babies.

The American Dream and Other Myths

It turns out moral bankruptcy is not just the domain of the White House. The arrival of the Republican bill to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, which does not repeal it but does distort it into something that has amazingly managed to enrage both liberals and conservatives (even leading some to speculate that it was designed to fail), has brought with it a barrage of horrifying statements such as:

And you know what? Americans have choices. And they’ve got to make a choice. And so maybe rather than getting that new iPhone that they just love and they want to go spend hundreds of dollars on that, maybe they should invest in their own health care. They’ve got to make those decisions themselves.” – Jason Chaffetz, in a 21st century “let them eat cake” moment

“The idea of Obamacare is … that the people who are healthy pay for the people who are sick.” – Paul Ryan, appalled at about how insurance fundamentally works

Statements like these boggle my mind, and I’ve been trying to figure out how a person can get to the point where they can say things like this and not realize what they are saying is evil. Because these guys don’t think they’re bad guys, and a disturbingly large portion of our population is on their side.

After giving it some thought, I have decided that it comes down to the myth of the American dream: the idea that anyone can achieve prosperity if they just work hard enough. It’s a wonderful sentiment that we all want to believe in, but viewing the world through this lens, you can quickly come to some troubling conclusions. If anyone can be prosperous if they just work hard enough, then the flip side of that is that if you’re poor, it’s because you’re lazy, and if you’re rich, it’s because you worked really hard. Your bank account balance becomes an indicator of your character. Being poor is a moral failure.

The other corollary is that it’s not the government’s job to help poor people, and that it’s morally abhorrent to tax rich people. After all, if poor people would just work harder, they wouldn’t be poor, and those rich people earned all that money fair and square, so why should it go toward helping people who refuse to help themselves? (I suspect that in some cases, this attitude toward taxes is exacerbated by a hazy and mythologized understanding of the American revolution that goes something like this: 1. Those who fought in the revolution were true patriots. 2. They fought because they were upset about taxes. 3. Therefore true patriots hate all taxes.)

This dovetails nicely with two related ideas about the world: Objectivism and the Laffer curve. Objectivism, the philosophy espoused by Ayn Rand and popularized in her novels, says that self-interest is morally good, altruism is destructive, individual rights are paramount, and the ideal social system is laissez-faire capitalism in which the government does not meddle in economics at all. The Laffer curve, a thought experiment originally sketched on a cocktail napkin, has grown to dominate conservative thoughts about taxation. It argues that at some point, increasing taxes actually decreases revenue because it slows economic growth. Conservatives have seized upon this and twisted it to argue that the best way to encourage economic growth and therefore help everyone (“A rising tide lifts all ships”), is to reduce taxes. These ideas raise capitalism up from being an economic doctrine to being a moral imperative. It becomes an article of faith that all problems can be solved by the invisible hand of the market, if only the market were allowed to operate free from government regulations.

The problem is, these ideas don’t really jibe with reality. Everyone wants to believe in the American dream, and there are plenty of rags-to-riches stories out there to fan the flames of that belief, but actual data throws cold water on the idea. Multiple studies show that compared to European countries, Canada, and Australia, it is harder on average for Americans to make more than their parents did. Upward mobility is particularly rare for the poorest Americans.

And if you think about it, this is obviously true. There are poor single moms out there working two or three minimum wage jobs just to be able to afford rent and food for their kids. Meanwhile I easily make more than them sitting at my comfortable desk for 8 hours a day, thinking about Mars, doing work that has no tangible benefit to anyone. Hard work is clearly not the only factor leading to prosperity. Yes, I worked hard through years of school, but I also had literally every possible advantage helping me out along the way. There are inescapable structural and cultural factors that are outside of any individual’s control, and they can make a huge difference. The American dream is just too simplistic.

“If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire.” – George Monbiot

The obsession with individualism and rejection of the “social contract” is also complete bunk. In much the same way that anti-vaxxers oppose vaccines even as they benefit from the herd immunity of those around them which keeps dozens of horrible diseases at bay, libertarians and objectivists who think they don’t owe society anything ignore the countless ways that they benefit from programs and facilities put in place for the public good. Working together for the benefit of all is literally the foundation upon which our species and our civilization is built. As the Author Yuval Noah Hariri argues in his book Sapiens, it is our species’ ability to work together that elevated us from just another ape to the dominant species on the planet. The social contract is what makes our civilization function and what makes us human.

And of course, blind faith in capitalism to solve all problems ignores some major flaws. Most notably, not all markets are “free”. This brings us back to health care. If I’m having a heart attack, I can’t shop around and choose the hospital that gives the best service for the lowest price, as the free market would have me do. There is one hospital in my town, so I’ll go there or die. If I lived in a larger city with multiple hospitals, I’d go to whichever was closest. Even if my major health issue was something I could plan ahead, like a scheduled surgery, it’s still almost impossible to find out prices ahead of time and shop around. And that leaves aside the fact that capitalism dictates that health insurance companies should do everything in their power not to pay for people’s medical bills, so as to maximize their profit, even if that leaves people bankrupt or dead because they couldn’t afford life-saving treatment.

As for the Laffer curve, too often it is used as shorthand by conservatives to argue that taxes should be decreased, when in reality most evidence indicates that if the curve does exist, the US is firmly on the left side of the peak. That means that raising taxes should raise revenue, and lowering taxes should lower it. This was put to the test in the real world in Kansas recently, when their governor cut tax rates significantly, which unsurprisingly drove the state into a massive deficit.

The bottom line is this: today’s GOP has become obsessed with several inter-related myths about how the world works, and base their actions on these myths instead of reality. The American dream, while a nice story, is not attainable for many, due to complicated structural and cultural issues. The social contract is the foundation of our civilization, not some burden that you can shrug off in favor of “individual liberty”. Capitalism is not a panacea. Cutting taxes doesn’t raise revenue. Being poor is not a moral failure.

Above all, we must be careful of the stories that we internalize, because they are the lens through which we view everything:

“It is easy to forget how mysterious and mighty stories are. They do their work in silence, invisibility. They work with the internal materials of the mind and self. They become part of you while changing you. Beware the stories you read and tell: subtly, at night, beneath the waters of consciousness, they are altering your world.” – Birds of Heaven, Ben Okri

 

Rapid Fire Book Reviews: New Baby Edition

It’s been a while since I posted a book review: I’ve been slightly distracted. But, I’ve still been reading, so here are some quick thoughts on what I’ve been reading.

 

The Warded Man

This is a pretty decent fantasy novel about a world where demons come out when the sun comes down. The demons can only be stopped by painting wards which create a sort of magical force field, so most people in this traditional European feudal-style fantasy world just cower in their homes at night and hope nothing messes up their wards. The story follows Arlen, a boy in a small village with a knack for warding who is sick of hiding from the demons; Rojer, a boy orphaned when demons killed his parents and adopted by a jongleur; and Leesha, a beautiful girl who is learning to be an “herb-gatherer” (doctor) from the old crone in her village. Through the course of the book they grow up and develop skills that will be needed to fight the demons, and Arlen in particular gets obsessed with it, tattooing himself all over with wards.

I mostly enjoyed this story and would have given it 4 stars if it weren’t for how it handled Leesha. I think the author tried to be feminist when he was writing this: In the big city, women have a lot of the positions of power in the government (though there’s still a Duke), and in the backwater villages it’s clear that we are supposed to be appalled by how women are treated poorly and valued mainly for their ability to make babies. But here’s the thing: it’s not that feminist to show us how bad it is for Leesha without also making her story have to do with more than her status as a sex object. And yet, just about every part of her story is driven by men’s lust for her and/or women’s warnings that she better start making babies soon. The last straw for me was (spoiler alert) when she and Rojer get ambushed on the road and, you guessed it, she gets raped. Then, not two days later, she has met Arlen, fallen in love with him, and they have passionate sex. Rape as a plot device is overused and lazy, and I have trouble believing that Leesha would want to be intimate with a strange man only a day or two after being gang raped. Call me crazy, but I think maybe she would need more time.

Anyway, other than that the book was mostly enjoyable, though clearly the beginning of a series. I’ll read the later books, but I hope the author gets better at handling women characters.

Brain Rules for Baby

With a newborn, I find I spend a lot of time laying on the couch with a baby napping on me. Perfect for reading a book about baby development! I liked this book a lot better than Happiest Baby on the Block. Although still sometimes simplified and cutesy, it also referred to actual studies and used technical terms when necessary. It’s an interesting book, but like other parenting books I found that most of its advice was pretty basic common sense. Some of the key points were:

  1. Empathy and understanding and managing emotions are key. It helps kids to have the words to name the emotions they’re feeling.
  2. Having friends is the key to happiness.
  3. Kids do best when rules are clear, fully explained, and consistently enforced. No “because I said so”. No spanking. Praise good behavior as well as punishing the bad.
  4. Praise effort, not intelligence.

Here’s a nice summary of the book. As you can see, even though there’s more to this book than “Happiest Baby on the Block”, it still boils down to a pretty concise list of advice.

The Darwin Elevator

This was a fun sci-fi action novel. The premise is that aliens have come to earth and built a space elevator that touches down in Darwin, Australia. At the same time, the planet has been infected with a disease that makes everyone go crazy, consumed by a single emotion until they’re essentially zombies. The only area where the disease can’t reach is the immediate vicinity of the elevator. So, the human race now is basically confined to Darwin and a series of huge space stations attached to the elevator. The space stations provide food to the people on the ground, and the ground provides air and water to the stations. The main characters are a rare group who are immune to the disease, so they make a living scavenging supplies from outside the protective aura of the elevator. When the elevator starts to malfunction, they get embroiled in the conflict between those on the ground and those in space.

This book has a little bit of everything: post-apocalyptic zombie fighting? Check. Political maneuvering? Check. Ragtag crew of misfits? Check. Decent science side to the sci-fi? Check (though this is by no means “hard” sci-fi). All in all, this one isn’t great literature but it was a fun read and I’ll probably pick up the sequel.

The Slow Regard of Silent Things

I loved this, even though it’s barely even a story. This is a novella about Auri, a minor character from The Name of the Wind. She is an odd girl who lives in the subterranean ruins beneath the college of magic. It’s basically a long vignette rather than a true story. Auri believes that all of the various knick-nacks that she owns have personalities and spends a lot of time placing them just so, so that object A isn’t jealous of object B, or so that object C has plenty of space. There’s a whole surprisingly engaging passage about making soap.

If it sounds weird, it is, but that’s what makes it so charming. It’s a great example of how good writing that puts you inside the character’s head can make you care about anything, even if you don’t fully understand it. You don’t have to understand, you just have to understand that it’s important to Auri.  Also, in typical Rothfuss fashion, the prose is gorgeous. Plus, there is a lot of fun wordplay as well, including chemistry puns.

I would have enjoyed this in any case, but it will always hold a special place in my heart because it’s what we were reading on Christmas eve during a snowstorm while we sat by our 5-day-old baby’s bed in the NICU. Our lives had just been turned upside down but somehow everything felt just as it should be, and this book was part of that.

Snow Crash

I posted this quick review on Goodreads right after I finished this, but I’ll paste it here too:

This book has some really interesting glimpses of the future as it looked from the 90s, and at times some really nice turns of phrase, but ultimately fails because of its nonsensical plot and massive, boring, incoherent info dumps. It’s like the book was so concerned with showing off gee-whiz technology and bizarre ideas about how society will develop that it forgot that stories need to make sense. Also, the underlying premise is such a warped misunderstanding of how memes and computer programming and language work that I just couldn’t take it seriously.

I had a similar problem with Neuromancer: nice writing, cool vision of the future, but incomprehensible plot. Maybe cyberpunk just isn’t the genre for me.

The Fight of Our Lives Has Begun

I know. Things are looking pretty grim these days.

The new administration rode a wave of nationalist and racist rhetoric to power and kicked off with an inauguration speech centered on the anti-semitic phrase “America First.” They vowed to publish a weekly list of supposed crimes committed by immigrants, drafted plans to have the military review what students are learning in school, and their official press briefings are  full of blatant lies, part of a broader campaign to gaslight us into questioning whether facts even exist. The president himself continues to work to undermine public trust in the free press, the electoral process, and even the judiciary branch. Government agencies are being censored for statements of fact. There is talk of the president establishing his own personal intelligence agency, and he has appointed a political adviser (and vocal white nationalist Nazi-sympathizer) to the National Security Council while demoting the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

It is no longer hyperbolic to compare recent events to the rise of fascism in the 1930s.

On top of all that, the cabinet is being stuffed with billionaires with a combined net worth greater than a third of Americans (or the GDPs 70 small countries), many of whom seem to be hand-chosen to be as destructive as possible to the departments that they will lead. Our new Secretary of State will be an ex-oil CEO who is friends with Vladimir Putin, the man who meddled in our election to get Trump elected. The nominee for Secretary of Education has stated that she sees education reform as a way to “advance God’s kingdom.” The nominee for attorney general was deemed too racist for a federal judgeship in 1986. The nominee for secretary of health and human services wants to dismantle the Affordable Care act, denying insurance coverage to millions. And on and on and on.

Meanwhile, Republicans are striking while the iron is hot, pushing their own awful legislation at the national and local levels, and exhibiting such breathtaking hypocrisy regarding the supreme court position that became vacant with almost a year left of Obama’s second term that thinking about it too hard renders me incapable of coherent speech.

In the face of all of this, depending on your political persuasion it’s easy to either dismiss the ongoing freakout among liberals as overreaction, or to become overwhelmed and just give up.

We must do neither.

Believe me when I say that I sincerely hope that things won’t be as bad as they seem, but lives – and arguably, the foundations of our government – are in peril right now, so I’d much rather overreact than be complacent.

Believe me too when I say that I am living on the edge of being overwhelmed by all of the bad news every single day. I understand that feeling and the temptation to just tune out, look away, and hope for the best.

After all, none of this was supposed to happen. It was supposed to be self-evident that truth matters, that facts are real, that other human beings are deserving of our empathy rather than our hatred. We took for granted that a presidential candidate so mendacious and morally bankrupt, so openly racist and misogynist and ignorant could not win the nomination, let alone the election. That he did shines a harsh light on the flaws in our electoral process and our culture as a whole, and his actions in the first two weeks of his presidency reveal that the very edifice of our government is not as sturdy as we once thought.

It’s easy to despair, but despairing won’t make this better. It is clear that we can’t just count on progress to happen. It is time for us to stand up and fight, and despite the doom and gloom associated with the last couple weeks, I am also encouraged to see that people are doing just that.

It began with the amazing Women’s March, and continues with acts of resistance large and small. Lawyers working pro-bono in airports to help travelers stranded by the anti-Muslim ban. Strangers working together to erase Nazi graffiti on the subway. Tens of thousands planning a March for Science. Acting attorney general Sally Yates refusing to enforce the ban. The national parks service standing up for truth.

Just last week I attended my first political activism meeting ever, and I know I’m not alone. Other friends of mine are doing the same, or even organizing their own groups. Members of congress are complaining that they are being swamped by all of the phone calls they’re getting.

We must fight. And we must keep fighting every step of the way. We may have lost the white house due to the quirks of the electoral college, but we won the popular vote by more than 3 million. We are the majority. We have facts and human decency on our side. The Republicans won the latest battle, but they are going to lose the war.

There’s no doubt that it’s going to be a rough few years, but I sincerely believe that if we fight, what we are experiencing right now will not be the beginning of a right-wing authoritarian regime, but the dying gasp of a toxic brand of politics that has been growing and festering for decades. The demographics of this country will continue to shift in our favor, and most people, even if they don’t identify as liberal, agree with liberal policies once they hear them. Trump’s election is horrible, and the policies that the white house and the Republican congress will put into place are going to harm our country and ruin countless lives. But I think this will also serve as the catalyst for a new era of left-leaning grassroots activism that will first minimize the damage done and then carry on to steer the country to become that “more perfect union” that president Obama always talked about.

For that to happen we must commit to our duty as citizens to speak out any way we can. Our resistance must not fade once the flurry of confirmation hearings and shocking executive orders dies down. Republicans are counting on us losing the interest and will to continue resisting. They think of liberals as spineless, poorly organized, easily distracted and discouraged. We must prove them wrong. We must accept the fact that this fight doesn’t end in a few weeks or months. This fight is going to continue for the rest of our lives, but if we can work together and keep up the pressure, we can do our part in bending the moral arc of the universe toward justice.

We are the majority. We need to act like it. Stop second-guessing and questioning ourselves, stop playing nice in congress, and start fighting for what we know is right. We are going to face losses in the near term, and there will be times when each of us needs to step away from the news for a bit, take a mental health break and refocus. But the key is, once recovered we have to jump back in.

Keep calling.

Keep writing.

Keep protesting.

Keep resisting.

We are strong. Individually it may feel hopeless, but together our voices are too loud to ignore.

 

 

Pale Blue Dot

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

– Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, 1994

Parenthood: Month 1

We’re back at the hospital again. Yesterday we came in because Erin was having some contractions that felt different from the normal Braxton-Hicks that are expected at 35 weeks. They sent us home, telling her to relax and that these might go away or they might persist for another month. We were instructed to come back if they got “longer, stronger, closer together.” Sure enough, they intensified overnight, keeping both of us awake and miserable. So we’re back at the hospital again, first thing in the morning. We are fully expecting to be turned away again. I didn’t bother to pack a change of clothes or food in our hospital bag because this is surely another false alarm.

Our nurse today is younger and nicer than the one we had yesterday. She checks and Erin is 3 cm dilated. We are informed that the baby is coming today.

We try to digest this information as Erin is whisked to a delivery room. This was not the plan. It’s 5 weeks too early. We are told that most babies born at 35 weeks do fine. I was born at about 35 weeks and I was fine. But we’re still terrified. What if this is happening because something is wrong? What if he can’t breathe because he’s too early? At the same time, it’s thrilling. We’ve been waiting and preparing for this and now it’s finally happening! We get to meet our son. Today!


It’s early afternoon and the delivery room is in chaos. Erin is standing beside the bed, holding both my hands, doubled over with the pain of a contraction. The nurses are frantically changing the mattress on her bed, because somehow it had the wrong type of mattress and she’s about to get an epidural so they need to change it before she can’t stand. The anesthesiologist has wheeled his cart into the delivery room and is complaining about how they’ve moved everything compared to how it used to be in the old rooms.

The mattress is finally changed, Erin is instructed to sit just so, and then during another contraction the doctor inserts the epidural and starts the drip of pain killer. Half an hour later things have changed dramatically. The pain has faded, the anesthesiologist has left, and the nurses leave too. For the next few hours, Erin rests.


Evening, and the room is crowded again because the baby is about to make his appearance. The doctor is all suited up, a team of nurses from the special care nursery is standing by along with the regular nurses to check out our preemie.

One more push and the baby is out, he is lifted up and placed on Erin’s chest, and we are both massively relieved when he starts to cry. It’s not super strong or loud, but it’s a cry. The next little while is a blur of activity and emotion. At some point the doctor asks if I am ready to cut the cord. I am handed some surgical scissors and shown where to cut. I had been told the cord would be tougher than you think, so it is instead softer than I expected.

The doctor asks if we want to see the placenta. We say no, but she doesn’t hear us and shows us anyway. It’s a big bloody bag made of surprisingly large veins. They take it off to the lab to be tested (standard for preemies) and ask if we want it back. No, thank you, we do not.

They weigh the baby (our son!) and he is a respectable 5 lbs 11oz. Not bad! He is breathing, he’s a healthy weight, his temperature is good. We’re feeling relieved. He’s going to be ok. The final hurdle is getting him to eat. Erin tries for a while but he is too exhausted and doesn’t nurse. The nurses prick his heel and check his blood sugar. It’s too low for them to get a good reading. We’re going to NICU.


We are in NICU and my son (!) is sucking on my gloved finger. The nurses told me to dip it in sugar water and let him suck it as a distraction/pain relief while they try to put an IV in his tiny veins. They are having trouble. They have tried both hands with no luck. They’re back to the first hand, using a bright light to shine through his hand and find the vein. They finally give up and tell me that he will need to get an IV in the umbilical vein. Erin comes down at some point in a wheelchair to see the baby, but there’s not much room and they need room to work. She heads upstairs to rest.

The doctor comes over. I have to stand back because this is a sterile procedure. The doctor seems very disorganized, not knowing where things are, and the kit of supplies he is using is missing things. Assorted items are cast aside on the ground. He complains about how short the umbilical stump is and admonishes our ObGyn for leaving it so short. (I feel an irrational pang of guilt, since I cut the cord) But in the end the catheter is inserted, and baby gets the sugar he needs. After the procedure, the nurse apologizes for the doctor: he is very experienced but new to Flagstaff and still learning how things are done here. It’s been a few hours since the birth. It’s after midnight and I’m exhausted and there’s nothing more to do. I now have to leave my baby in a plastic box, connected to wires that read his pulse, his breathing, and his blood oxygen levels, along with the IV that is feeding him. I go upstairs and try to rest.


It’s been a couple of days, and after all of that, we are home and our baby is still at the hospital. This feels wrong on a visceral level. The dogs are happy to see us home, the house is just the same as it has always been, but it suddenly feels very lonely.

We are grateful for the flood of love and support that we’re getting on Facebook because we don’t have any local family and our baby is in the NICU instead of home in our arms.


We decide on the name Shane. Middle name is mom’s last name, last name matches mine. It feels good to finally settle on something after months of thinking about it, but it’s also very strange. Naming a human being is hard!


Christmas eve day, and we’re just about to leave the NICU to go home for lunch. Our jackets are already on when Shane wakes up and opens his eyes. Other than right after the birth, he’s had his eyes closed most of the time. We get our first chance to really look him in the eye. He’s beautiful, and it is heartbreaking to leave him.


It’s Christmas eve. Shane has been put on a “bili blanket” to treat newborn jaundice, a common problem. The glowing blue blanket makes it look like he is acquiring superpowers. A winter storm is blowing in, promising everyone in Flagstaff a white Christmas, and making it extra inconvenient for us to come in to see our baby. But we do of course. We complain about the storm but it’s also sort of nice to have a concrete way to demonstrate our love. We will not be prevented from visiting our baby by a little snow!

We have been moved to a roomier cubicle, right by the window, and so we spend Christmas eve in the dark, warm NICU with a view of colorful Christmas lights on the trees and snow coming down hard. Inside, we have the dim light of the ever-present monitors, showing us our baby’s vital stats. We sit there as a family and I read aloud from The Slow Regard of Silent Things and even though we’d rather be at home, everything seems right with the world.


The days begin to blur into one another. His IV gets swapped out for a feeding tube in his nose, which means he’s also allowed to wear clothes now, which is seriously adorable. His jaundice clears up and the light blanket is removed. He gets moved to a smaller crib, and back to our original, more cramped cubicle. Our lives are now scheduled around the feeding times and meeting times set by the hospital. Every day, we get in before 8 so that baby can eat at 8 and one of us can get an update from the NICU team. The euphoria of the first few days starts to wear off. We thought he would only be in the hospital for a few days but here we are, still at the hospital. I start to worry about health insurance, especially since it looks like his hospital stay will cross over into the new year, making us pay twice.

Shane’s oxygen levels also start to fluctuate. When he goes into a deep sleep they drift down, flirting with the 85% level which sets off the oxygen alarms. Sitting with our baby switches from being relaxing to nerve-wracking. Instead of looking at his peaceful face, my eyes are glued to that oxygen number, willing it to stay up.

One morning we are told that he may need to go on oxygen, which is a huge emotional blow. The number one thing I was worried about with a preemie was that he would have breathing trouble, and I thought we were past that once he was born and cried and breathed well immediately. That same morning, he does his best breast feeding yet, 19 minutes, but the nurse assumes he isn’t going to get a full feeding and pumps him full of a full meal with his feeding tube as well. She also refuses to weigh him before and after the breastfeeding to see how much milk he got. We are annoyed and distraught.

At rounds, we get a little more information about oxygen. Apparently babies sometimes need oxygen once they start having to digest larger meals because the digestive system uses more oxygen than they needed before, This makes absolutely no sense to me: why would the body prioritize digestion over proper blood oxygen levels? If having a full stomach causes his oxygen to dip, why the heck did the nurse just force feed him a second meal on top of the one he was already eating? But the nurses assure us that oxygen isn’t a big deal, that it’s very common at our elevation, and that if necessary he can come home on oxygen. Despite that, we’re quite upset. He’s supposed to be getting better. Requiring oxygen is not a sign of getting better.


It’s a few days later and we’re getting used to the oxygen. I am giving him a bottle, tilting it to give him a break every few sucks as we’ve been instructed, when he chokes. After a weak cough, he stops breathing. His oxygen levels drop and the alarm starts going off. Unlike other times that this has happened, his levels stay low. I am holding him in my arms and watching him turn blue and there is nothing I can do. Erin rushes to get a nurse, who turns up his oxygen and sits him up. He finally takes a breath and recovers. We give him the rest of his feeding through the tube and then head home for lunch.

I manage to keep it together until we are home, and then break down. I’ve never felt more scared and helpless than I did watching him go limp and change colors. I still desperately want him to come home, but now I’m also terrified. What if that had happened at home with no nurses nearby and no oxygen? Maybe I don’t want him to come home after all. I stay at home that afternoon and try to emotionally recover.


The next few days are up and down. Sometimes he does really well, other times he falls asleep after hardly eating anything. It’s a very confusing mix of emotions to feel all the love of having a new baby but also being angry at him for refusing to eat day after day (even though we know it’s not his fault). Sometimes the frustration is so strong I can barely handle sitting there and watching him ignore the milk he is being offered. Nurses try to make it better by joking “Get used to it, this is just a sample of how frustrating being a parent is.” But I hate it when they say that. This isn’t a behavior issue with an older kid. I actually feel pretty confident in my ability to handle things like that. This is a baby failing to fulfill biological necessities. This is brainstem-level behavior and he isn’t doing it and it is driving me crazy. I start to get paranoid that there is something developmentally wrong with him (and I am eternally grateful for the nurses and other support people who recognize this concern and repeatedly reassure me).


We are sitting, talking to the NICU social worker, whose job seems to be to ensure that the parents are ok and that when baby goes home the family will have a safe and supportive environment. Just as I am telling her about how my main complaint about the otherwise wonderful NICU care is that sometimes we are told something that, without context, seems pretty alarming (for example, the oxygen thing), a nurse comes over and listens to Shane’s heart and says that she hears a murmur. We get to panic about that for a little while until it is explained that they check for heart murmurs by default whenever a baby has to go on oxygen, and that it sounds minor but needs to be followed up with an ultrasound.

The next day, a giant futuristic-looking ultrasound machine appears, and we watch as they look at his heart and take lots of snapshots and recordings. Of course the tech can’t tell us anything, so it’s another day before we know the results: Shane has an ASD (atrial septal defect) and a PDA (patent ductus arteriosus). PDAs are present in all babies in-utero and tend to close on their own in most cases. ASDs are less common, but we are told his is small and also likely to close on its own. We are told they tend to get loudest right before they close which may be why it wasn’t detected before. If it doesn’t close on its own, it should be treatable without surgery.

I swing between being pretty upset about it and being philosophical about it: these defects were only detected because he was in the NICU and on oxygen. There’s a good chance that he could have grown up with them and nobody would have known. Many people don’t learn they have an ASD until they are middle aged and have a mini-stroke. It’s better to catch these things early so they can be monitored and treated.

But still, the last thing you want to hear is that your baby has a problem with his heart. One more apparent setback. One more complicated emotion to add to the mix.


Suddenly he’s doing better. He is weaned off of oxygen overnight on the 7th, and he eats reliably for two days in a row, is actually acting hungry when he wakes up, and suddenly the nurses are talking about going home! To go home he has to pass the “carseat challenge” which involves sitting in his car seat for at least 90 minutes with no oxygen issues.  He passes with no problems. We are told to go home and get some things, we will “room in” with him tonight and if all goes well, he can go home tomorrow.

The “rooming in” room is like a hospital version of a hotel room. Big, decent bed, private bathroom, but just down the hall from the NICU in case anything bad happens. We wheel him back in his crib and for the first time we have an (almost) cordless baby. The leads for the ECG and breathing monitors are still attached, but they just get tucked into his clothes. We can pick him up without having to worry about unplugging something from the wall! We have privacy and space to move around with our baby for the first time! One of the things that we notice most is how quiet it is. Three weeks in the special care nursery and we had stopped noticing the constant background hum of monitors and babies fussing and nurses and parents talking.

We settle in for our first night with our baby (still punctuated by nurses coming by to check him). We don’t sleep much, but it’s great because it means we’re done with the NICU.


And then we are home! After waiting so long it hardly seems real, but there’s our little boy in his own bassinet in our own bedroom. No wires attached, no oxygen tubes or feeding tubes. No monitors giving us a heart attack every few minutes. Just our baby. In our house!

We introduce him to the dogs. Renly is quietly excited, wagging and licking his face a few times. Pippin is oblivious, and responds the way he always does when we’re paying attention to him: by rolling over and showing us his tummy.

The first night is rough. When he is stirring and making noises, we worry that they’re noises of distress. When he is silent, we worry that he has stopped breathing. We don’t get much sleep. We realize we need some dim lights in the nursery. We realize we need a laundry hamper handy near the changing table.

It is amazing how relaxed life seems now that we don’t need to rush back and forth to the hospital multiple times a day.

Over the next couple weeks, we take Shane to his first pediatrician appointments, we get newborn pictures taken, we give him his first bath at home and his first infant massage. He gets to meet some friends, and my parents get to see him at home instead of at the hospital, trailing wires.


It’s the middle of the night. Nobody is sleeping. Why didn’t anyone tell us about the noises? Crying would be one thing, because then it’s clear that something is wrong, and you get up and fix it, but he hardly ever cries. Instead he spends most of the night squirming, kicking, straining, grunting, gurgling. All while apparently remaining asleep. He sounds like a little tauntaun and it’s driving us crazy. Is it gas pain? Does he think that straining and grunting will help with hunger? If so, how do we teach him that, no, they don’t?

We look online and this seems to be the norm for newborns. Nobody has a good solution for it. I don’t know who the heck coined the phrase “sleeping like a baby” but it’s awfully misleading. I had assumed the sleep deprivation that people talk about was related to crying, not this weird grunting.

We understand now why all the warnings about SIDS are drilled into parents so forcefully, because it is awfully tempting to bring him into bed with us and let him sleep on our chests (the only position where he really seems to sleep quietly) while we sleep.


And now, as I write this, I have reluctantly started to ease myself back into work. I am extremely lucky that I’ve been able to take so much time off, but for some reason the world has not put itself on hold while I’ve been away and I need to get back. I find that my perspective has shifted. It’s awfully hard to care about esoteric questions about Mars when current events are so awful and I have a baby at home to take care of. Can’t I just be a stay-at-home Dad and snark about politics online for a living? No? And even though I’ve been off for a while, it feels like three weeks of my leave were stolen from me: I expected to spend all of my leave at home with my baby, not shuttling back and forth to the hospital, sitting in an uncomfortable chair in a cramped cubicle, unable to enjoy my time with my baby because he won’t eat and his oxygen keeps dipping too low and because I’m stressing about what health insurance plan to choose to cover the likely $100,000 hospital bill headed my way.

I guess the lesson in all of this is that life doesn’t go as planned, and to be flexible and grateful for what you have. Because at the end of all of this, the only thing that matters is that my family is home and happy. We know that despite everything, we’ve been very lucky. Lucky that he is healthy, lucky that we could take time off of work, lucky that we live close to the hospital, lucky that we have health insurance, lucky that we live in a time when Shane could get the treatment he needed. We are incredibly grateful for the many excellent nurses who took care of him (and us).

Now we get to enjoy our new life with him, watching him grow and change every day, and figure out this next chapter in our lives.

Truth, the Lesson of the Election, and the Rightward Ratchet

Like much of the country, I have been reflecting on the election in the weeks since Donald Trump’s shocking win. I am of course horrified by Trump and what his administration will mean in terms of policy, but I want to talk about something even deeper than policy that has been bothering me: the lesson that this election will teach the GOP.

The GOP has been steadily distancing itself from reality for years now, but Trump’s campaign took the trend and followed it to its absurd conclusion. According to PolitiFact, only 15% of his statements that they have rated are True or Mostly True . The Earth is warming and humans are responsible, but the GOP doesn’t want to hear it. The influx of illegal immigrants is at a 40-year low and Obama has deported more people than any previous president, but to hear the GOP tell it, we’re facing a human tidal wave of illegal immigration that is threatening our way of life. The vetting process required for refugees is incredibly thorough, but Trump says that Syrian refugees are pouring in and that they represent a Trojan Horse that will lead to terrorist attacks. The unemployment rate has been steadily falling since around 2009 to its present level of ~5%, but according to Trump it is higher than 40%. Our tax rates are relatively modest, and tax rates are currently drastically lower than they were back in the 50s (back when America was, presumably, “great”), but according to Trump we are the highest taxed nation in the world. President Obama is an American-born Christian, but Trump led the charge that he is secretly an African-born Muslim. You get the idea. The man is almost incapable of telling the truth. He lies so effortlessly and fluently that trying to pin down each lie and expose it is simply not possible, and has tied the media in knots.

Meanwhile, upon Obama’s election, the Republican party made its goals very clear: to stop Obama’s agenda dead in its tracks. Never mind that Obama’s proposals have generally been quite moderate. Never mind if some of those agenda items, like Obamacare, borrow many ideas from previous Republican proposals. Never mind if the nation’s credit rating is downgraded and the government is shut down for weeks because congress refuses to fund the government or pay the bills. The most egregious and recent violation of basic good-faith governing has been the refusal to even hold a confirmation hearing for Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, leaving a vacancy on the court for an unprecedented period of time.

Like many liberals, I assumed that Trump’s  blatant race baiting and disregard for reality would eventually come back to bite him. Likewise, I hoped that the GOP’s fanatical obstructionism would eventually cause voters to say “enough is enough” and shift the balance of power. In my most optimistic moments, I hoped that this election would serve to sort of “break the fever” of the increasingly unhinged GOP, teaching the party that it needs to return to the real world and work together with Democrats to actually compromise and pass legislation. I hoped the election would teach the GOP a lesson and set our country back on track to a situation with two moderate parties which agree on a common reality even if they disagree on the best course of action.

Instead, the lesson learned from this election is that there is no need to play coy and attempt to disguise the racism and disregard for the truth that has become the signature of the Republican party. You can lie all you want. You can be openly racist and sexist and xenophobic, to the point where the KKK and actual Nazis are celebrating your candidate, and you will still win elections.

The other day, I saw the following image making the rounds on Twitter. It is a quote by Jean-Paul Sartre about anti-Semites, but it resonates strongly with the current political situation in our country:

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This is what fundamentally troubles me about this election, even more than the giant leap backward that we are likely to witness on policies across the board. The Republican party has been learning this lesson for a while now, but Trump’s victory clearly illustrated that the party can make outrageous, racist, blatantly false statements and our media is so fragmented and divided that many loyal Republicans will take these statements to be true and vote accordingly. Meanwhile, those of us on the left are, in Sartre’s words, “obliged to use words responsibly”. We can froth with outrage and fact check until we’re blue in the face, but those fact checks fit neatly into the narrative of a biased “liberal media”, and the outrage serves only to exhaust us and keep us bouncing back and forth from one issue to another.

Meanwhile in Congress, the Republican obstructionist gamble has paid off in spades. The GOP was able to stop almost all of Obama’s reasonable policies, forcing him to rely on executive orders (something which itself sets a dangerous precedent). The GOP can get away with this tactic because it is far simpler to unite in blanket opposition than it is to unite behind actual legislation that is rooted in a complex and contentious reality. The GOP delights in obstructing progress because a gridlocked and useless congress plays directly into their narrative that government is ineffective. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Democrats on the other hand will (I hope) never be willing to act in such bad faith because their goal is for the government to do things to help people, and therefore they cannot pull stunts like shutting the government down or blocking Supreme Court nominees indefinitely.

I worry what the result of this may be. If the Republican party continues this strategy (and why wouldn’t they, given its success?) we will end up with a situation where during Democratic administrations the Republican party essentially shuts down congress, while during periods of Republican control we get a flurry of conservative legislation passed (and liberal policies abolished), gradually ratcheting our country toward the right. The only way I see to stop this is for Democrats to manage to take control of the executive and legislative branches, something made very difficult by poor performance in down-ballot races, along with gerrymandering that favors Republicans.

And the worst part about this is that I don’t know what to do about it. When your opponent refuses to act in good faith, and indeed refuses to even acknowledge reality, but somehow manages to convince large portions of the country to believe in his lies, how do you stop that? How do you ensure that truth wins out when facts themselves are seen as inherently suspicious? How do you defeat this strategy without adopting it yourself? I really don’t know, and it is making me despair.

Book Review: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

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I like home improvement projects and work trips that I can drive to because they both provide me with multiple hours during which I can listen to audiobooks. In the last couple of weeks I have been working on re-tiling a bathroom, and I had a trip out to Los Alamos, and the audiobook I chose to accompany all of that was Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari.

This book falls into the same genre of nonfiction as 1491 and 1493, two of my favorite recent nonfiction reads. Basically, the “big picture history” genre, where the focus is not a single person or war or event, but rather a wide-ranging look at the disparate factors that shape the course of history.

Sapiens is about as “big picture” as you can get, starting off with the evolution of homo sapiens and the long period of time during which we shared the planet (perhaps not peacefully) with other humans such as neanderthals, progressing through the development of culture, agriculture, religion, to the development of empires, science, colonialism, and capitalism, before finally concluding with a speculative look toward the future of our species as science allows us to edit or augment our own genomes or create artificial intelligence.

It’s a fascinating book that touches on many different topics, but it has one core theme, which is the idea that the main thing that gave homo sapiens an advantage over other early humans, and what underlies most of human achievement, is our ability to talk about and collectively believe in things that do not actually exist. Harari argues that this ability led to humans who could work together in large groups, and that is the key to our success. Examples of these things that exist only because we collectively agree that they exist are nations, gods, money, corporations, and human rights, and each of these (and many others) are discussed in considerable detail.

As you might be able to tell based on that list of imaginary things, this is a book that seems to strive to make everyone feel a little uncomfortable at some point. For me, I can nod smugly as he talks about why religion is an imaginary (but nonetheless powerful) human construct, but when he starts talking about how human rights also don’t really exist, or how scientific progress has been inextricably tied to brutal colonialism and heartless capitalism, things become less comfortable.

At times, the book can get somewhat speculative and tends to make grand, weakly-supported assertions and reductive statements that set off some mental warnings for me (and, apparently, for Charles Mann, the author of 1491 and 1493). But despite that, there’s no denying that it is thoroughly thought-provoking, and on the whole I found it to be a fascinating read that presents an interesting way of looking at the history of our species. Also, simply by touching on so many disparate topics (human evolution, politics, science, history, philosophy, religion, economics, etc.), it also serves as an introduction to any of those topics and situates them within the bigger picture of human history, which in my opinion definitely makes it a worthwhile read.

Movie Review: Arrival

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They did it.

I was excited but skeptical when I heard that the brilliant short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang was going to be made into a movie, called “Arrival”. Excited because “Story of Your Life” is among the best science fiction short stories that I have ever read, skeptical because it’s an unusual story and I wasn’t sure how a movie would be able to capture its brilliance. But they did it.

Fundamentally, Arrival/Story of Your Life is a first contact story (in fact, many parts of the movie reminded me of Contact). Mysterious alien ships appear one day all over the world, and linguist Dr. Louise Banks is brought in by the American military to learn the aliens’ language and allow them to communicate. She discovers that they actually have two forms of language, a spoken form, which humans could never hope to speak because the sounds are impossible for us to make, and a written form, different from any written language on Earth in that it has no correspondence to spoken language and has a very unusual structure. As she learns the language it begins to change how she thinks. At the same time, it’s a drama about Louise’s relationship with her daughter, and it bounces back and forth between vignettes of her daughter and scenes where Dr. Banks is figuring out the alien language.

It’s a hard story to describe without giving away what makes it special, so you’re going to have to trust me on this, but you need to experience it. If you can, set aside an hour or so, get your hands on the story, and read it. Once you’ve read it, or if you don’t think you’ll get around to reading it, then go see the movie. The movie is almost as good as the story. There’s a little bit of added geopolitical drama that I don’t remember being as prominent in the story, but that’s ok. The core idea is still there and it’s done well. This is the type of intelligent science fiction that makes my whole brain light up, and is a reminder that great sci-fi is about ideas, not flashy space battles.  Do yourself a favor, take a break from current events, and check out this excellent story.

 

What I’m Doing About the Election

Image from here

  1. Quitting the news and social media. Like most of the rest of the country, I spent this election watching in horrified fascination as the media relentlessly covered Donald Trump, providing free publicity for his campaign of lies, hate, fear and divisiveness. The media, like many of us, thought that exposing Trump for what he is would surely stop him. But instead, that non-stop media coverage is responsible in large part for his victory, because a significant portion of our country saw his behavior and instead of being appalled, saw a man giving voice to their own thoughts and fears (facts and decency be damned). Staying up to date with the latest news brings me little joy in the best of times, but now with the election still so fresh, I cannot look at the news without feeling physically ill. So I’m not. I was already considering quitting social media after the election because it was so addictive and was sucking up precious time, but now it’s not just a matter of saving time. It’s an act of self-defense and an act of protest. I’m going to try to use time I normally would have spent on social media on reading, writing, and family instead. I won’t be fully stopping social media – it’s still a useful tool – but I will be restricting my social media usage to posting things that I created and responding to notifications, direct messages, and the like. Yes, I’ll miss out on the cute animal memes and babies and jokes and other things that make social media enjoyable, but I think this is a necessary step for now.
  2. Donating. This is the easiest way I can fight back against a Trump presidency, a GOP-controlled congress, and a nation in which white supremacy, bigotry, and hate have surged into prominence. If you are feeling as sickened as me, here are some worthy causes to donate to. If you have others to recommend, post them as comments below:
  3. Writing. I have gotten so many kind and encouraging comments whenever I write about something emotional here on the blog, whether it is personal or political. I know it’s foolish to think that posting my thoughts and sharing them with the liberal echo chamber of my social network will make much of a difference, but the truth is, I need to do it anyway. Writing  helps me think, and lets me channel negative emotions into something cathartic if not necessarily positive. I’ve always thought that I wanted to write fiction (and I still do) but I always want my fiction to be perfect and it never is, so I get discouraged and stop. On the other hand, posting here about issues that are on my mind anyway is easy, and I think this may be one instance where doing what comes easier is the better choice. I have a LOT of thoughts rattling around in my brain after the election, and I plan to share them here for anyone who cares to read them. Maybe they will help in some small way. I will also be writing my representatives a lot more often than I have in the past. They are going to get sick of my letters.
  4. Volunteering. I don’t have time to volunteer. To be honest, much of the time I feel like I’m barely holding my life together, and we’re about to throw a baby into the mix. And yet, this election has made it clear that we can’t just sit back and assume that progress will happen. We have to fight for it every step of the way. I am not sure in what capacity I will volunteer, or how much time I’ll be able to devote to it, but I want to try doing something more than throwing money at groups that do good work and posting impassioned essays for my liberal friends to read and agree with. The challenge with volunteering, beyond just finding the time for it, is choosing from among the many worthy causes how to spend that time. Of the items on this list, this one is going to be by far the hardest, but I want to at least give it a try.

So that’s my list. What are you doing to cope with the election?

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