Episode 9: Childbirth rights … and wrongs

Adam Wilson Talks to Everyone, Episode 9 Jessica Wilson

Contrary to what you may have heard, women are not poorly designed for childbirth. Jessica Wilson talks about why we fear mothers will die in childbirth in the United States, starting with her own terrible experience having her first child. We talk about the cascade of interventions, America’s dismal statistics of maternal mortality, and what we know about childbirth in the old days — before doctors were around to get involved. We talk hospital birth vs home birth, and not unrelated, about fear for moms versus confidence in them. 

Listen to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Google Podcasts. Below is a transcript of this episode. I use an electronic transcription service, so check the audio to clear up any confusion.

Adam Wilson (00:00):
Wilson here, we’re celebrating the end of the podcast. 2021 season with a Christmas episode. We’re going to talk about babies, especially having babies. Childbirth. ‘Tis the season folks. We’re going to talk about having babies with someone who is blindingly brilliant, intensely passionate about this subject, deeply informed by personal experience and by a lot of research. It’s the one, the only Jessica Wilson. Hooray! She’s also a phenomenal and phenomenally patient mother. I think I can give you a flavor of what we’re going to talk about here by giving you some facts. Jessica and I were walking down memory lane and after we recorded, she said she wanted to check and make sure her facts are still solid. So she checked again and it should come as no surprise that she had her facts straight like a laser. In fact, the situation with maternal death rates in our nation has gotten worse since Jessica and I had our last kids.

There are only two countries in the world that have increasing maternal death rates, the Dominican Republic, and the United States. The US has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the first world. You’re talking about deaths of mothers per 100,000 live births. The US is at 17.4 for the year of 2018. That’s 17.4 for the U S compared to say 6.5 in the UK, or say 1.8 in Norway. We’re comparable to Oman, where the rate is 19. You’d literally have better chances having a child in Kazakhstan where the maternity mortality rate is 10, as you will hear, this is at least partly related to how and where we have our babies. Jessica was right. American black women with a college degree are 60% more likely to die in childbirth than black women without a college degree. Listen on to hear how that fits in. Meanwhile, Ireland did not lose a single mother in 2018 or 2019. A small country. Yes, but again, zero mothers dying in childbirth. Hooray! That’s what we want, right? Okay. You got thoughts? Questions. Get in touch with me through my website, Adam E H wilson.com. Please give me a review on whatever podcast app you’re listening to. Tell your family, tell your friends, spread the word and away we go.

Music (02:41):

Adam Wilson (02:42):
I am here with the lovely and brilliant Jessica Wilson. But the rules are, you have to introduce yourself. So who are you?

Jessica Wilson (03:00):
I’m Jessica Wilson. Okay. You have to tell me what the question is.

Adam Wilson (03:02):
The question is, who are you?

Jessica Wilson (03:04):
There’s many layers to that.

Adam Wilson (03:07):
Right? Let’s move on. Where are you from? Okay. I ask everybody where they’re from.

Jessica Wilson (03:12):
I, although I was born in Southern California, that is not an accurate description of where I’m from. I was raised about 65 miles outside of Chicago in a very small town fairly close to the Wisconsin border. My parents were both from the city of Chicago and particularly my father’s line has been in Chicago for a very long time. In fact, I think it’s not an exaggeration to say that they helped build Chicago. There’s many buildings that we can point to and say that, you know, the men in our family helped work on that. And yes, my parents felt like, you know, there was a lot of problems in Chicago, a lot of social issues going on. So they felt like having a more bucolic assistance for their children would be better. However, they didn’t really,lean in to any research for the particular area that they picked.

And they actually landed us in a place with arguably more social problems than the city of Chicago. The area where I grew up was absolutely solidly rust belt. The manufacturing jobs had dried up more or less in the late seventies. And by the time we moved there in the late eighties, the only people left were those without the means to move on. And so I grew up in a place where there were very few children. There weren’t, they actually had closed the elementary school in the town that I grew up in, in bused us to the town over. So I wrote on the bus for over an hour each way, every day. And there was a lot of alcoholism, a lot of drug use. It wasn’t maybe what you might consider to be an idyllic small town existence.

Adam Wilson (05:22):
Well, I guess not.

Jessica Wilson (05:25):
Yes, so, that’s where I’m from. That’s where I grew up with

Adam Wilson (05:28):
This is where see a good marriage has lots of commonality and you and I are similar in that. My parents grew up in Spokane and I was born in Spokane, I guess the difference is I was born,where they were from, but then they too were, you know, that was the time right in the, when the baby boomers were going out to make their fortune, they decided to go to small town America. And so I grew up away from Spokane, but we kept traveling there all the time when I was a little kid. So like all my young memories are Spokane, but I grew up in fabulous Genesee Idaho. The difference there, of course, being that Genesee to my knowledge was not riddled with job loss. Yeah.

Jessica Wilson (06:05):
I can tell you right now having visited Genesee that it is nowhere near what the experience of the town that I grew up in.

Adam Wilson (06:16):
Let’s see. I don’t know. Yeah. That’s my, I guess my parents did more research.

Jessica Wilson (06:20):
Yes. They had more of an understanding. I too spent a quite a bit of time. I basically almost every weekend in Chicago. Yeah. So I had a lot of exposure to search Chicago, so it’s not like we just moved there and then I never went to anywhere or gained any culture because absolutely. We spent quite a bit of time there. So there you go.

Adam Wilson (06:41):
Listen. But that’s enough about where we’re from. We’re not here to talk about where we’re from. We’re here to talk about where babies come from. Cause this is something that you and I have experienced it. And it’s something that I thought it would be great to talk to you because you have you have some deep cuts on how babies get born in the United States. And I was not aware of when we first got married. So

Jessica Wilson (07:06):
I remember having a conversation with you about this before we even dated or anything when we were still just coworkers and I was talking to you and another gentleman, very nice guy that we worked with about it. It was, it was Todd and I was clearly blowing both of your minds and yes. And so then eventually I just, you know, when that happens, which is not infrequently when I’m having conversations with people eventually I realized like, okay, I just need to like end this conversation because I’m dropping too much knowledge.

Adam Wilson (07:45):
Yes. I remember that Todd and I were both like, what is going on? We were just talking, I don’t know what we were talking about, but soon we were discussing the various intricacies of the medical establishment

Jessica Wilson (07:58):
Yes. And why there is such a high C-section rate.

Adam Wilson (08:01):
Oh was it the C-section rate?

Jessica Wilson (08:03):
It was talking about C-sections.

Adam Wilson (08:05):
Yeah, man. So anyway, this it’s, we’re coming up on Christmas. This is like a Christmas episode, a season of rebirth.

This was special, special kind of way. All right. So anyway you and I have a blended family of yours, two of mine and one of ours. So we’ve been around the horn. This is five times around the horn. And I guess I will just say that my experience with the, my, my two older boys was that we, you know, it was like the traditional, you go to the hospital and there’s like nurses and doctors and you have a baby. Right. And there’s like lots of attention, but you have a more dramatic story, which leads you to your in-depth knowledge, which is that when Felix was born, it was like a colossal medical, medical intervention. Right?

Jessica Wilson (09:04):
Yeah. So a couple things about that when I was pregnant with Felix, I of course like anything else I do. I wanted to educate myself very thoroughly on the experience because, you know, it was new to me. It was my first and in the process of that education. I really came to understand that there were some big problems with the industry around giving birth in the industry, around babies and everything, you know, that whole package from pregnancy to birth, to, you know, having a baby, that there was some problems there. And I had committed myself at that point that I very much wanted to have a natural childbirth. And so I had contacted a nurse midwife in the place that I lived in Northern Illinois a big city up there. And one thing to understand is that Illinois, although changes have happened since I have left there is very much culturally perhaps in some ways behind Washington when it comes to an understanding of the best, best care practices around giving birth.

Jessica Wilson (10:29):
And so, for example, there’s no a certified professional midwives — They’re illegal. — They were, I think that they just recently, like this past year passed legislation to make them legal. I’m not sure what that looks like. Cause I haven’t looked at that legislation, but I assume that it’s probably more restrictive than Washington. Point being. The nurse midwife is not authorized to practice on her own. She has to have a doctor directly supervising her everything is conducted through the hospital. So while I did have a nurse midwife attending me and attending my birth, which was in the hospital with my oldest it was definitely a very medical experience. And so I got high blood pressure when I, toward the end of that pregnancy. And it’s sort of a mystery why this continues to happen, but also not a mystery because I’m you know, I’m a tightly wound person. And I assume that you know, especially

Adam Wilson (11:35):
When it comes to areas of childbirth.

Jessica Wilson (11:37):
Yes. And so I’m sure that, you know, coupled with the fact that, you know, I had just recently quit smoking, right. I had smoked all the way up until I found out I was pregnant. But you know, my cardiovascular system wasn’t in stellar shape. So the cascade of interventions came down.

Adam Wilson (11:56):
There we go, the cascade of intervention.

Jessica Wilson (12:00):
So this refers to when you, when they identify you as needing one particular intervention, often that leads to many, many other interventions happening. So what this means is because I had high blood pressure, they determined that I needed to be induced and I needed to be induced early before my due date. I was able to kick that can down the road a little bit, but they didn’t really let me kick the can down very far. So the day after Christmas I showed up at the hospital and they began the induction process. And I had, you know, expressed to them that I wanted to be able to get up and walk around. I wanted to, you know, have sort of this more natural experience. But you know, once I was there and once they had hooked me up to the machines, it became very clear that it was not convenient for me to walk around. That they wouldn’t, you know, that, that wasn’t going to be a part of my experience.

It wasn’t going fast enough for them. So they came in and they decided they needed to break my water again, invention intervention, number two which then actually introduces a whole host of other things because then you’re on a definite time clock. Right. And after that happened which I, I really didn’t want to happen. I wanted to be able to have a chance to, you know, let my body do its thing. And I was very aware that that made me, you know, that put me on a time frame. And pretty soon after that the Pitocin kicked in and the contractions were absolutely more than I could handle. They were overwhelming and extremely painful, which anybody who’s been induced can attest to.

Adam Wilson (13:49):
And part of the, when they induce it’s like hyperdrive, right?

Jessica Wilson (13:53):
It’s hyper drive and, you know, there’s different ways that they do it and, and different things that they might use to do that. But I believe that they just went ahead after they broke my water and cranked up the Pitocin as high as it could go. And it, I could not breathe through the contractions. I started to hyperventilate. So I asked for an epidural intervention number three, right. They came in to do that. Yes, yes. And it turned out to be quite serious for me because they didn’t do something quite correctly. And it introduced some air into, or as it was explained to me, likely what happened is that air was introduced into my spinal fluid and a bunch of it went up into my brain, which then mimicked the effects of a stroke. So I felt like I having a stroke the people in the room felt like I was having a stroke all panic and chaos ensued.

Adam Wilson (14:58):
Right. Then it’s like really one of those like made for TV birth scenes where everyone’s freaking out,

Jessica Wilson (15:04):
Everyone was freaking out. My oldest child’s father was actually wheeled out of the room because you know, he was in like some sort of panic attack from it. And fortunately my father was there. So my father was able to come into the room and be with me. And that was great. So my dad was there with me. They kind of figured out what was going on. They figured out that it was the epidural at that point. I started getting other complications from the epidural, including my feet. I got a really high sudden fever went up to about 104. So which then led them to believe that somehow I may have had a, an infection, which was not true. It was just a fever induced from the epidural, which can happen. All of that aside, I was able to, you know, give birth naturally.

But because I had the fever and because, you know, I assumed my oldest was a little stunned from everything that was going on they took him over and they were like, oh, he’s not breathing quite right. And so then they started performing a bunch of very invasive,things to him, including innovating him or trying to, trying to put a tube down his throat just to stimulate his breathing. Uand I started to panic and say, I want my baby put my baby on my chest. This is not necessary. And then somebody came over and gave me something which then knocked me out.

Adam Wilson (16:36):
And they just like, they, they just tranqed you, They’re like mom is acting up.

Jessica Wilson (16:41):
And when I woke up, my baby had been taken to the ICU and I didn’t even know it was 12 hours later. That’s crazy. I also of course, wanted to,ubreastfeed and I had found out that they had started giving him formula there. They had given him a spinal tap to determine if he had had an infection. Of course, all that came back clean because there was no infection to begin.

Adam Wilson (17:06):
Right. Because the symptoms were wrought by the earlier, like the one intervention creates symptoms of some other problem that you then go after with more interventions. And

Jessica Wilson (17:18):
Yes. So yes, he had been formula fed and had been given a pacifier and everything, which I had specifically asked them not to do, but I was knocked out. So, you know, what else were they going to do, I guess? And so he had to stay there for several days after I was released just to monitor him again for what turned out to be nothing. But I religiously went there every two hours all the way through the day and the night. So I didn’t basically sleep at all for three days while he was there, just to make sure that I was there to nurse him because I was absolutely determined that they weren’t going to like get him hooked to a bottle. Right. And it was very, very tricky and hard. And it was very hard when I brought him home because you know, he had gotten used to a bottle. But ultimately I was able to establish a successful nursing relationship with him, which then led me to become a leader.

Adam Wilson (18:20):
Yeah. So, I mean, it’s a, I’m very sorry. That’s a terrible, terrible experience, but I think that is a good blow by blow to understand like how you came to being like, I’m going to like, learn all about this.

Jessica Wilson (18:33):
Cause I, I had already been pretty well-educated right. I already knew what the cascade of interventions was. I already knew that I didn’t want like, a traditional OB GYN attending me. I already knew basically what the risks were of all this stuff. I didn’t want an epidural. Right? But I ended up needing one because you know, the pain that I was in was fantastic. So yes, absolutely. And so I was like, okay, there’s obviously even deeper layers to this that I didn’t previously understand. And I need to first understand like how I got high blood pressure, but also understand what’s happening here in the medical system that made this, you know, what I considered to be quite, it was extremely traumatic to me. And I know that it was traumatic to my oldest, you know? It’s hard to say what specific parts of his personality might have been, you know, sort of formed by that early experience of extreme separation and anxiety and everything.

Adam Wilson (19:35):
Right? Yeah. That was a terrible way to start. I mean, obviously everyone was the thing I guess, is like everyone assumes birth is like, I have always assumed that birth is like a super dangerous events you need, like all the people around that are skilled professionals, you need the obstetrician, you need the, the nurses, you need the machines and the scales and the x-rays and the medicine. And just like all this stuff. Like it’s like, yeah, like it’s a huge hosp, it’s like a traumatic, I guess it’s like, it’s almost like we treat it, like it’s like a car wreck or something, right. Like total intervention needed. So I guess the first thing to go do there from like, okay, there’s like a terrible sequence of events and bad experience for mom and baby to like, but isn’t it, you know, what people believe is that wasn’t quote unquote natural childbirth, like when bef pre doctors’ pre modern industry, like, you know, when we were all like working in the fields and living in huts, wasn’t it like a terrible traumatic event that everybody died in?

Jessica Wilson (20:40):
Well I will take us then from the scene of me in my early twenties hospital. Exactly. Imagine the mists of time are coming in right now at this point in the podcast. And that will take you back way back. Let’s say 600,000 years. That’s a long time to our very early human ancestors folks that lived in hunter gatherer tribes. They lived in small tribes that were self-governed they were fluid with the other tribes in the area, meaning that people would often come and go between the groups that recognized each other often, you know, they’d have similar languages and everything. Right. but there weren’t many humans at that time. In fact I think in the world maybe 600,000 years ago, they think maybe roughly 300,000 maybe 500,000 people in the entire world. And that was true all the way up until the

Adam Wilson (21:50):
There was like a Detroit in the world.

Jessica Wilson

Yes. And so there was vast expanses of land. People were sparse and that was true basically all the way up until the agricultural revolution. So there was about that number of people, a stable number of people all the way up until that point when population exploded at that time. So I guess what I want to say here is that our modern physiology, the way our brains are more or less constructed and certainly the way that our bodies are constructed is supremely adapted to that time and space, right? Our psychological connections with one another, our need for relationship our intense curiosity, our brilliance, all of these wonderful, wonderful things about human beings are just phenomenal, evolutionary adaptations to that time and space because our modernity and frankly, even agriculture is, but a blip in the amount of time that people have been around.
Jessica Wilson (23:02):
Right. So, so, right. So what my point here is that our physiology is adapted to that. It doesn’t make sense. So again, I want to go back to like, there’s a very low population, right? There’s not a lot of people, it would not make evolutionary sense for women who wouldn’t have come to sexual maturity until about the age of 18 because a low body fat percentage meant that their mentees would have been suppressed until around 18 or so. So again, agriculture introduced you know what, for again relative human time would be early onset, you know, at the age of like 11 or 12, right. Women wouldn’t have had Menzies until about 18. So it wouldn’t have made sense to take 18 years to reach sexual maturity in sort of this you know, again, very sparsely populated environment.
Jessica Wilson (24:05):
If childbirth was just going to kill her, that is absurd. That is an absurd notion. I, you know, I do, and again, it’s, it’s really about the frame and the understanding in which we hold it, right. If we hold the frame up to what the world population is like during agriculture or the fact that, you know, girls could start having babies in their teens and as there was a sort of an over abundance of people, anyway, of course it makes sense that, you know, women could die and it wouldn’t really be that big of a deal. But at that time it would have absolutely been a big deal. And I will say again, that women are not meant to die in childbirth. That was never a part of the evolutionary plan. Right. and you know, they go into this great depth you know, there’s been all this research done into like, well, women’s hips are so narrow that they can’t allow the baby to pass through and, you know, babies are born premature and this and that. And I say, that’s just a bunch of hokum.
Adam Wilson (25:10):
Well, it is. I remember we listened to some scientists talking about that, but yeah, the old theory that like, well, because we walk upright, we have to have babies earlier because of the narrow hips to do upright walking, unlike our primate friends. But it turns out it’s all about like the amount of nutrition the baby needs, right. Brain is ready to go,
Jessica Wilson (25:34):
That in babies are born at that point because our number one, most important thing that we do is bond with one, another babies need to come into the group. They come ready. They’re, they’re innocent, innocent, isn’t the right word, but they’re very vulnerable like that because it is absolutely imperative that they get a very firm understanding that the group is there to care for them. That is what psychologically is normative, and we can get into why it’s very, very damaging for babies not to have that experience because again,
Adam Wilson (26:09):
All babies need cuddles. We
Jessica Wilson (26:10):
Agree all babies need cuddles, but that actually wasn’t the parenting advice for much of the industrial revolution time. But perhaps we can table that conversation talking about the mechanics of birth and the so humans evolutionarily are also, what’s interesting about that argument is that it basically says like every other animal is supremely adapted to be able to give birth and nurse their young, except for humans who are stupid. Right. And who are just going to die. And so it’s really, it’s a myth that was created around the reality of women dying, right. They were trying to make sense of like, why are so many women dying doing this? It must be that we have some sort of mal adaptation. What they failed to understand is actually
Adam Wilson (27:05):
The mal adaptation is the society in which we find ourselves that the social structures and the environment like the human environment rather than our physiology, which is absolutely supremely wonderful and adapted to be able to give birth without killing any that’s true. And I will admit the, see, we were just having this conversation like a few days ago, because I mean, it’s still, there’s still like a very, there was a lot of deaths throughout human existence, including, you know, whenever throughout or inevitably we die because it’s a dangerous world
Jessica Wilson (27:42):
And we’re mortal. We are
Adam Wilson (27:44):
Mortal. We have bodies that carry on. Then we did have this discussion about like, well, I thought that the birth, even the mortality rate, not just not from birth, but just like kids died more frequently pre you know, pre-modernity because of they’re exposed to things and there wasn’t the medical care and there would just be like more, they were more vulnerable if you will. And then we looked it up and they did do a study where they found that, like they found some folks that were still partly hunter gatherers and sons that had moved over and become like, you know I don’t think Agricultural’s the right term, but they had like moved into farming and they had regular access to food. And what you find every time that happens to humans is that they have way more babies. One woman goes from having like three or four kids to having like 10 kids in her life.
Adam Wilson (28:36):
And the mortality rate for the modern living kids is actually higher, but more survive. You have, you know, instead of having like, this is not right, but you know, like one out of four kids dying, you know, is not what would happen. Like maybe one out of 10 kids would die pre modernity, and then you would have maybe three out of 10 die. I’m making up these numbers people, but three out of 10 when every woman’s having a 10 is still seven per woman instead of four per woman, which means that the population just because of,
Jessica Wilson (29:09):
And we used to go up that coupled with the early onset of mentees. All of that means that women are going to have a longer time fertile and more frequent babies, which actually helps to contribute to more maternal mortality. Women were not meant to have babies really any closer than five, five to seven years apart would have been the norm biologically. And that’s about the time that a woman’s body needs to be able to completely heal itself and prepare itself for the next pregnancy, like are truly healthy pregnancy. And having babies closer together increases maternal mortality. And the world health organization actually has a big campaign like now, nowadays they campaign to try and help women particularly in developing nations, understand that the longer they wait in between children, the more likely they and their children are to survive. You’re less likely to have birth defects or you know, placental abruption, or any of these things that might contribute to maternal mortality or infant mortality.
Adam Wilson (30:23):
Right. So, okay, we’ve beaten this one down, but we’ve established that. So like we know that there, there was higher maternal mortality and infant mortality when you have more kids closer together and
Jessica Wilson (30:41):
The cultural revolution increased world population dramatically, it all, at the same time, it increased mortality dramatically. So this is where we get the whole myth that people died in their thirties. Because so many babies were dying. So many women were dying giving birth. And so many people were dying in general because they were suddenly being put into cities and in close contact with one another and close contact with livestock that dramatically increased the instances of viruses and bacteria and so forth that, you know, people’s again, think about it. We are extremely well-suited to the evolutionary conditions in which our ancestors found themselves these sorts of conditions where we’re sort of living on top of one another are not normative. And that’s part of where we find our high mortality from disease.
Adam Wilson (31:38):
Okay. All right. That’s enough of that. We’re not talking about the agricultural revolution. We are talking about babies
Jessica Wilson (31:50):
And so women aren’t meant to die during
Adam Wilson (31:52):
Birth. They aren’t meant to die and let’s bring it up to like the modern era. We’ve come back from our little visit to the Cape man.
Jessica Wilson (32:04):
And well, that’s pejorative.
Adam Wilson (32:07):
Yes. We, they didn’t all live
Jessica Wilson (32:10):
In caves. Yes.
Adam Wilson (32:12):
This, we are coming back. They, they did not care about those things like that. But my point I wanted to get to was like, so how do we move from? So there’s high mortality and it’s very dangerous to have women in the Mo to have women giving birth so frequently, but didn’t why wasn’t it an improvement to move them to the hospital. I made it, why isn’t it good then if, if all these things are true and there is a higher risk to the baby and to the mother given the way we have kids, we had kids a hundred years ago why isn’t moving to the hospital, like a great thing.
Jessica Wilson (32:52):
So here’s something interesting as that just thinking about it from a perspective of the United States pre 1939, the vast majority of children were born at home. The vast majority
Adam Wilson (33:09):
Grandma’s time.
Jessica Wilson (33:11):
Well, for some of us, some of us would be great grandparents or perhaps even great, great point being most babies were born at home. There’s a couple of things to say about this. The first is that there was a concerted campaign to make women feel as though giving birth in the ho in the hospital was a much more clean sanitary beneficial, high class experience than giving birth at home. And in some ways it was queen Victoria that popularized the notion of giving anesthesia during childbirth. It was thought to be, you know, I mean, think about it. You childbirth. Does indeed more so than perhaps any other experience we have outside of our, our death, put us in touch with our animal selves. It puts us in touch, very viscerally with that. We are animals, right. That human beings with all of our brains and everything else, we are animals.
Jessica Wilson (34:25):
And so it’s kind of this very Victorian notion that you can overcome your animality. You can that there’s an amazing, you know that technology can help separate you from this experience of your mortal body. These are the the medical system. Right, right. And so with the advent of anesthesia, which dramatically separates you from this experience of your animal self there was this push to get women into hospitals. It was also, you know, it’s very profitable and it continues to be very profitable. In fact, I would argue that you know, again, I haven’t really looked at this recently, but when I was looking at it, it’s absolutely one of the most profitable thing that hospitals have going for it childbirth either vaginal or our Suzanne area. So it’s very profitable for hospitals. It’s a pretty clean procedure overall, right? Like there’s the have a formula for it. Women have been told that they have a right to anesthesia epidurals and everything else, and that I’m not getting it is not feminist, right. That they have a feminist right. To these things.
Adam Wilson (35:49):
Well, but isn’t it like horrifically painful and awful. And then, you know, this is the argument, like why not make it better? That was painful, the screechy.
Jessica Wilson (35:58):
So again, I want to come back to that human beings above all else are extremely social. We don’t exist outside of a social context. I don’t want to denigrate the experiences of women giving birth in our social context, because it is scary. It’s scary to give birth in our social context. And when you are in a state of fear, when you’re in a state of feeling like you’re in this place you know, in this liminal realm between life and death, you’re going to want to put yourself into a place where you feel the safest. And so for many women, that experience has to be medicated because there is no way that they’re ever going to feel safe enough or supported enough in the experience of birth outside of that, because that’s the only context mainstream only mainstream contexts that people are handed. Right. that is the societal support that we give women is like, you can go to the hospital and you can have these trained professionals do these amazing things for you. That’s where you’re safe. Right?
Adam Wilson (37:18):
Yeah. And that’s like, how it’s depicted now from the time, like, when you were growing up as a kid you were going and the idea which like, is, you know, like not usually dealt with that much. I feel like, like, we don’t really talk about like babies being born that much, but when they are, I mean, all the books
Jessica Wilson (37:37):
And all the shows as a big crisis. Well, yeah,
Adam Wilson (37:40):
It’s like a big like, oh my gosh, we’ve got to go. There’s an emergency. You know, and then for kids, it showed us, like mom goes away to some special place the hospital where the doctors take care of her and then she comes back and there’s a baby and it’s not. And like, I guess I’m just getting to the idea, like, this is like part of how we have babies. And it seemed very strange to me when you brought it up, that people might want to have a baby at home because, you know, it seems like, like you said, like a very visceral experience, like a scary experience, like a messy experience. And why would you want all that, like pain and fear and mess and possible danger, like in your home versus in like the, the, the SWAT center for,
Jessica Wilson (38:26):
Yeah. Yeah. And so I just, I want to come back to like that you know, what you’ve described as a part of our culturation process and a part of how, you know, girls, as they become women come to understand their own generative power, their own femininity, their own eventual experience of giving life. This is the, this is what we hand to girls and women as like, this is your template. It’s scary. You might die. Your baby might die. This is the only thing that you know, is going to kind of keep you from harm that isn’t accurate. But I don’t want to, again, I’m not trying to denigrate anybody’s experience here because it is a, it is a valid and accurate experience because they have been inculturated into this, right. You have to be really motivated and willing to step outside of it and sort of look at it with a different perspective in order to see it in its totality.
Jessica Wilson (39:28):
Which is what I, I was very motivated. I was very motivated to do that. And it led me to there’s a woman named C Sheila Kissinger, who is a well respected British anthropologist who has done extensive work, looking at birth all across the world specifically in what we would consider to be a hunter gatherer tribes. And what comes across very clearly in that cross-cultural context around this is that birth is not scary. It’s not a scary experience. It’s not when, when she showed them depictions of the way we in Western cultures depicted, like in movies and stuff, they laughed, they thought it was hilarious. And they were a little concerned. They’re like, what, what is this? Even, I don’t understand, like, this is hilarious to me. Because this is just so far outside of our understanding for it, right?
Jessica Wilson (40:35):
So the reason that somebody might want to give birth at home. And I think that you know, increasingly are making that choice here in the United States and never stopped making that choice. I want to be clear that women never stop making that choice in many of the very industrialized European nations that have far better maternal mortality rates have far better infant mortality rates like Holland Denmark, Sweden in particular Holland where something like 90% of their births are still at home. Wow. Only 10% of them have to go into the hospital and 5% of those on dialysis area. So they’re not any physiologically different than we are. They just have a totally different model when it comes to birth. And so you, you, somebody would want to give birth at home because a, they understand that the model this paradigm that we’ve been handed in the United States is not biologically normative. It was not normative for our ancestors, even our grandmothers or great-grandmothers. And here’s the icing on the cake for me, because I’m very much you know, as esoteric as I am, I’m also very much a data person. The outcomes in hospitals for women and babies are far worse than the outcomes at home.
Adam Wilson (42:04):
It is amazing. That
Jessica Wilson (42:07):
Is very striking. And, you know, people who want to defend hospitals say, oh, well, it’s because people who go into the hospital have these complicated cases and this and that. And certainly there’s some of that that’s going to be true, right? People are going to self-select who are healthier, who might be more upper-class and this and that into the home setting. But then how do you explain places like Holland, or how do you explain these other countries? And again, they might say, oh, well, this, because they have a better standard of living and this and that. And but if you, even when you look through the data and they’ve done many, many studies on this and sort of match people for socioeconomic status and everything, you cannot get away from the fact that hospital attended birth is more dangerous.
Adam Wilson (42:52):
Well, then it’s just amazing. And I can see that we should have had like seven episodes on this because there’s so much to them and you have a lot to say all pretty amazing. And I think it’s all something people should hear because like, it’s just so it’s such a reverse image of what we expect to be true. It’s a reverse image. Like it’s actually safer to do it at home. It’s actually more normal to do at home, but, and I feel bad because like, I don’t, I don’t like the way that comes across as being [inaudible] or being elitist or hipstery or whatever it is when people talk about home birth, or it’s the same thing about talking about like locally grown, organic food or something, you know, like it just comes across as like, yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s like, sounds weird and like just super out there, but it’s actually the norm for us as people and it should be more accessible. And I think he wants told me that like you know, it’s not an elitist thing in the sense that like, I think even in like the deep south, like African-American women had more success staying at home with their family and having babies than being taken to those hospitals.
Jessica Wilson (43:59):
Yeah. So are the maternal mortality rate for our African-American women in the United States should make us ashamed. People should be ashamed of this. And I don’t understand why it isn’t, well, I can’t understand actually why it’s not talked about more because of our deep cultural prejudices against African-American women and our feeling, you know, like it, it goes back to the times of chattel, slavery and everything. But it should be a blemish on our image of our technological expertise when it comes to medicine and this and that African-American women die at greater rates in the United States than in, in many developing nations.
Adam Wilson (44:50):
Yeah, that’s crazy.
Jessica Wilson (44:52):
We have one of the worst more, especially when you control out the other racial and ethnic groups, even when added in we have one of the worst maternal mortality rates in the entire world.
Adam Wilson (45:08):
No, just no sat down now,
Jessica Wilson (45:14):
But I don’t, again, it’s like, we don’t, we don’t want to see this. We don’t want to acknowledge this. We don’t want to say, how can we make this better? And when Africa, so they have in the African-American communities coming out of the times of chattel slavery they had this tradition of what were called granny midwives. And they were lay midwives as we would turn them these days or midwives without formal college training in gynecology and obstetrics. But they had been trained in the most important way possible, which is attending actual women giving actual birth,
Adam Wilson (45:50):
Right? Yes.
Jessica Wilson (45:52):
And, and a lot of them had, you know, informal apprenticeships. But they had trained a whole network of lay midwives that would come and be with women during labor performing a role similar to what we might consider doulas these days. And when given access to the, these lay midwives, these granny midwives, women in those communities had better maternal mortality outcomes than they do in 2021.
Adam Wilson (46:26):
It’s astounded. And listen, I, yes, I should have left more time for this because actually we have to go get,
Jessica Wilson (46:33):
We have to get
Adam Wilson (46:37):
[Inaudible] and I well that’s okay. You
Jessica Wilson (46:41):
Can be on any
Adam Wilson (46:42):
Time you can be on any while you are brilliant. And I think that you should have a platform to talk about this stuff because it’s very important, but what I wanted to say is it, so after your terrible experience, having Felix and you got totally into like, what’s a better experience and you had kid number two, dear Gigi at home, and then you convinced me, and it took some convincing that we could have our little boy at home. And we went down that path, which was, it still fills me with nervousness even to this day. And they talked to me about having tubs and things like that. And it’s not an absurd thing around here in the Pacific Northwest to have a midwife or a doula, or to have a birth at home. Like it’s not the norm, but it’s not
Jessica Wilson (47:26):
There’s far more cultural acceptance of it here. And you know, midwives are licensed here in Washington. And then in fact there’s one of the highest home birth rates in the entire United States here in the Pacific Northwest Washington and Oregon.
Adam Wilson (47:40):
Right. So it was not like a big ASP is what I’m saying, but we didn’t get that. Like, even though we were totally educated and we went down the path and the path was possibly as good as it can be in the United States to have a non-hospital natural birth, we were forwarded nonetheless.
Jessica Wilson (47:58):
Yes, by again, my high blood pressure.
Adam Wilson (48:01):
It was really fascinating to see this because when you talk to folks who are in like the, into midwifery or, or these other things, like they really are encouraging, they want you, they believe in everything. You’ve talked about, like the value of having A home birth, but it’s also like regulated. And once your blood pressure went up, it was like, you know, like the gates were closing like, oh, I don’t think that you’re going to be able to do it. Like, you know, like they basically like dismiss you. And they were like, sorry, Jessica, find somebody else because we don’t deal with people with
Jessica Wilson (48:35):
Yeah. And ultimately it was a choice that I made where I felt like, you know, given everything that was going on, that it would be better for me just to go in and do it in the hospital. And as it turned out, because I had so much education and because of my strong convictions around this, I was able to basically order them around. And you know, they couldn’t tell me what was going on. They weren’t going to tear me down. I walked that whole hospital up and down. I said, no, you can’t pit me at AKA pit me for those not in the no means, no, you can’t give me the Pitocin yet. I said, you’ve got to try some other things first, which they did. But eventually I think one of the nurses got tired of me and they’re like, no, we’re going to pet you now.
Jessica Wilson (49:23):
And she just like put it in, like cranked it up to 10 or whatever. And I was pretty aware that she had done that because I went from like, not having any feelings or, you know, you know, maybe mild contractions to suddenly. I was like, wow, it feels like I’m transitioning. You know, again, having that feeling of kind of having to like, you know, I was hyperventilating and all that, but I knew what was going on and I was able to breathe through it. And so from that time to the time I gave birth was actually less than an hour.
Adam Wilson (49:54):
And he was a
Jessica Wilson (49:54):
Beautiful, healthy little guy. And the doctor that came in which wasn’t the original doctor that worked with the midwife that I was seeing who was, you know in, down with all the natural birth stuff, he came in, he had never, never attended a woman who didn’t give birth on her back. I was
Adam Wilson (50:12):
The first thing we could talk about like always
Jessica Wilson (50:13):
The first woman. And this is a very busy hospital in Tacoma, which is a big city. I was the first woman who was like, no. And he tried to get, he, he tried to order me and I was like, I’m sorry, who’s the one in labor here? No. And so the nurses were all like looking around at each other, like they were, you know, sort of a gas that I was like saying, absolutely not, no, you can’t tell me, you can’t tell me to do this. And so then as our little boy I was coming out, he decided this doctor decided that, you know, he was just going to go ahead and grab him. And again, I had to very firmly say, do not pull the baby out. Like, what are you even doing? Babies come out. They don’t need a doctor to grab them. And again, this you know, later the nurses told me, like they never had, he had like, had anybody, anybody that he had just like, let the baby come out and catch the baby. He was just accustomed to, and again, I assume that’s because these women had been anesthetized and couldn’t feel what was happening because any woman who could feel that would immediately tell that person to stop whatever it is you’re doing. Just stop that, right. Because it’s a very definite sensation. And, you know, that’s a, no-no, don’t do that
Adam Wilson (51:35):
Dangerous for the baby
Jessica Wilson (51:37):
And dangerous for the woman. That’s how women ended up, end up. So torn up and, you know, ripped up and everything else is because they’re being treated roughly the baby comes out. There was no question that our baby was coming out. There was no question. So there you go. So I gave him quite the education in that moment.
Adam Wilson (51:55):
Yes. It was well so much. You should have your own podcast here, all about these issues. There’s not one. Now there should be,
Jessica Wilson (52:07):
There’s lots of great, great people out there talking about these issues some of which you know, have very definite like political viewpoints and stuff, because of course this whole thing can be wrapped in many different layers of, you know, political and religious overtones and everything else. But perhaps I could be the first, you know, non political. Yeah.
Adam Wilson (52:28):
Let’s just say that we you know, thank you to all the nurses and doctors who want to help out they’re slamming people.
Jessica Wilson (52:35):
No, no, not at all. In fact, it’s amazing, you know, the things that are available to us in 20 20, 21 are just absolutely amazing. And I am totally glad I would, I am glad that the 5% of people who need to Syrian in sections to save their lives or their baby’s lives have access to sterile, clean ones with, you know, very talented people who know how to do it. I’m just saying that it needs to be applied judiciously and it needs to be applied without a profit motive,
Adam Wilson (53:13):
Again, so much to impact. But also what to say, we, we love all the mothers and the fathers and the babies. They’re all great. You have to say that this is all about humanity and Christmas, the joy of new people coming into the world, right.
Jessica Wilson (53:27):
More people should be encouraged to have babies. And perhaps if it was less of a scary experience and more of a pleasant wine, more people would be encouraged to do that. Also social support.
Adam Wilson (53:41):
I said, I know you listeners think that I’m constantly trying to get in, but she is she’s on fire. And again, we can do this again. Okay. Yes.
Jessica Wilson (53:50):
And have to be back, or we can talk about the social support side of things. Oh man.
Adam Wilson (53:56):
Jessica Wilson (53:56):
I didn’t, you did in your readings or something. We can talk more about pre agricultural society. It’s one of my,
Adam Wilson (54:04):
Yeah. I, I know. But if, wait, okay. We have like a couple minutes left and you have to, this is always the final question. What about where you grew up shakes? How you feel this subject here? What about growing up on the outside of Chicago looking and made you feel like you were going to smite the birth industry?
Jessica Wilson (54:23):
You know, a couple of things. I think that it was growing up on the Prairie. I grew up on the Prairie was in rough shape. The place I grew up suffered from a lot of chemical contamination, which in fact has claimed the lives of many people that I went to school with third cancer. And the river that ran through the town, I grew up in the Kish Waukee at one point was so poisoned that it was basically dead. They, there was a hogs celebrity facility up the road that was just dumping all of their waste and blood into the river. And I remember that and that coupled with there not being many children had me spend a lot of time out there on the Prairie commuting with the river communing with the grass being in that space, which is a very sort of empty open space.
Jessica Wilson (55:24):
And I think that not having those other kids around me and not having you know, my, my time may have been filled with cultural activities or something had I grown up in Chicago, right. It allowed me to think very creatively and think in a way that was outside and different from what other people may have told me to take. Right. And so growing up in that space, which, you know, one might consider lonely or desolate or poisoned instead gave me a perspective that I don’t have, like what I think can come from my own sense of what’s going on. I can trust myself, I can trust my intuition. I can trust the earth. I can trust these things. And I don’t have to rely on anybody telling me what I need to think.
Adam Wilson (56:21):
Well, you are brilliant. And I love your independent thinking. You are just, everyone needs to hear you. You have your deer. And we can also have a whole nother episode about the importance of boredom, because let me tell you how much time, how much of our lives is taken up, being harassed by small children, asking to be entertained when you know the key is to get out there and be totally bored in a small town. I totally relate to that. Okay. That’s where we got to go get this other kid. You’re a great,
Jessica Wilson (56:52):
Yes. Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas to all of you out there. I hope this Christmas, this podcast encourages you to think about how you are Supremely adapted to living here now. And you don’t need to worry about anything that people are trying to sell you to be even better. Goodbye. Merry Christmas.
Music (57:39):

Hey Assholes, it’s August.

Listen, I know there are market forces at work initiating the removal of the camp chairs and tiki torches. But that doesn’t give you the right to move us all into late October. It’s still August, you assholes.

A quick celestial reminder. Summer ends on Sept. 22, when we are halfway between the longest and shortest days of the year. It’s called an equinox. In your giant store it’s always 72 degrees and fluorescent, so I realize this means nothing to you. But trust me, I have seen the latest sunset and it’s still fucking August. As in barebeques and beach balls and mojitos.

It’s still August.

And yet I notice your cardboard Frankenstein monsters and five-pound bags of Tootsie rolls and pink fairy princess costumes and plastic pumpkins and it’s not Halloween, you bastards. That’s October 31, and if you are checking the math, you are skipping two months there. Important ones, too.

I realize that August has no marketable holidays, which when you think about it is a gross oversight by Congress. But the first weekend in September has Labor Day. I can’t prove it at the moment, but I believe this was intended to recognize the essential workers who sell us things at stores on every holiday. Why degrade their one day of recognition by forcing them to sell us purple and orange stockings? Who benefits? Only you.

Also, Labor Day signifies the traditional end to summer vacation and the beginning of the school year. But you skipped ahead. You had back-to-school specials right after the Fourth of July, at a time when the only kids who going back to school were the poor saps the district suggested could use “continued learning.” Your rows of camo backpacks and yellow boxes Crayola of markers sent shivers down the spines of other kids who had been begging for s’mores supplies. I know because I was with a few of those kids.

No, for you pushy pricks, summer was back in April. Have you thought about what you are doing to us? You’re like a waiter asking what we’ll have for desert before bringing out dinner. Can’t we just sniff the carnitas of life before you shove flan under our nose? Is it too much to ask to be able to buy plastic pool toys all the way through the hottest month of the year? It’s August.

Since you have forced the discussion, let’s talk about Halloween. Culturally speaking, this is an Irish holiday falling just before the hallowed Roman Catholic holiday, All Saints Day. I say “hallowed” because it’s also know as All Hallows Day, a moment to remember all the pious women and men who dedicated their lives to serving others and their God. Before things got especially pious, one had to worry about the especially spooky. The eve of All Hallows Day was … put it together. You take the Irish, move them to America, they don’t carve turnips, they carve pumpkins, they knock on doors. Bada-boom.

I’m not even going to argue with you about turning holidays into cheap crap from China. I mean, we lost that war long ago. And at least Halloween got to be called “creepy” and “satanic” for a lot longer than Pride Month, am I right? The price of being accepted around here, I will allow, is having your culture sold as t-shirts (rainbow for Pride, black and orange for Halloween, pink and purple for Easter, and so forth). You aren’t mainstream if you aren’t on the display racks in the front.

I would like to ask you, on behalf of humanity, for the opportunity to observe the changing of the seasons at the time the seasons are actually changing. Just to pick a random example, take Christmas. I’m not even going to get into what this holiday about. Could be about the birth of Jesus Christ. Could be about the Roman cult around Sol Invictus. Could be about Santa Claus and Coke. I’m setting that aside. See me? I’m picking that who steaming shit pile and placing it over there. Also, that awful Halloween-Christmas-tree hybrid, which is an abomination. It goes with the steaming shit pile.

What everyone can agree on, my friend, is this stuff happens in the dark of winter. Not to badger you with more astronomy, but it’s kinda important to our species, so just remember that this is the time in our hemisphere when days go from being shorter and shorter to longer and longer. So, that’s the key factor here.

And yet you, you godless savages, I know what you are going to do. You’ve already made orders. Fucking shipping logistics have been worked up. About a week before Halloween, in the middle of October, you’re going to spring Christmas on us.

You assholes.

You can’t tell us that to purchase holiday merch is to observe the holiday, you can’t convince us all we aren’t doing Halloween right unless we buy your 18-foot tall inflatable Jack Skelington, and then keep us from buying said merch at the actual time of the holiday. That’s just cruel. We’re going to be excited to go get some high fructose corn syrup bombs, maybe a sexy pirate costume, a cinematic bloodfest, and you motherfuckers are going to yank it all out from underneath us. We’re going to faithfully visit the store, and it’s going to be full of snow globes and wreaths and shit. What a mind fuck.

So here’s the deal — fuck you. You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to celebrate the shit out of something you don’t stock on the shelves. Maybe I’m going to be the damned king of Thanksgiving. That’s right, you bastards. You thought you merged it with Christmas, like it was a half-football, half-shopping pre-December fluffing of the American shopper. But maybe now I’m going to Thanksgiving it up. Hard core. I don’t give a fuck about what those people did back in the day. Pilgrims, Native Americans, cranberries. Doesn’t matter. What matters is some seasonal celebration. I will make myself a funky hat. I will put buckles on my shoes, my belt, my fucking funky hat and maybe my sleeves., too I will buckle up for fun.

And then, I’m going get myself a turkey. Ha! I know. The one thing you had on me was selling me a turkey for the only time of the year when anyone eats a whole damn turkey. But I’ll go kill one instead. How about that? Then what are you going to do? Sell me some handi-wipes for my bloody hands? Too late. I’ll lick them off.

But first, mojitos. Because, you ass holes, it’s still August.

Fuck this.

Maybe I should give to those I see

Never before 2020 can I recall handing cash to poor people waiting at street lights. I believed, and I’m pretty sure I was told, it’s better to give to the organizations that can help them find housing, food and employment.

I see weathered men with the handwritten cardboard signs that say, “Anything helps,” or “Need $ for shoes.” I think, you probably have shoes. You made it to this median, to stand next to a traffic light near a popular freeway on ramp. And now the shoes are in the backpack next to you. These days, though, I start to shift around in the drivers seat to reach my wallet, power down the window and hand over a few dollars. Because who the hell am I to know? The truth is there’s a person who is very clearly telling me they could use some money, and I am literally sitting on cash as I look at them.

Don’t get me wrong. We all should support the charities and nonprofit organizations that support the homeless and near-homeless. They get people in need what they need — warm food, warm beds, warm showers. My sister works for a food bank, and she will tell you writing a check to your local food bank helps people. Food banks can get more food for the dollar than you can, and they can more efficiently deliver it to the people — adults and children alike — who need it.

The person who got me to literally open my wallet, in addition to opening my checkbook, was Pope Francis, in comments that took a few years to sink in with me.

 “There are many arguments to justify oneself when you do not give alms. ‘But what, I give money and then he spends it on a glass of wine?’ If a glass of wine is the only happiness he has in life, that is fine. Instead, ask yourself what you do secretly. What ‘happiness’ do you seek in private? Or, on the contrary to him, you are more fortunate, with a house, a wife, children, which leads you to say, ‘Take care of him yourselves’. Help is always right.”

Pope Francis

I took it as a reminder that we shouldn’t anoint ourselves social worker, judge and financial advisor to beggars. They are people. A person asked something of you, and God considers your response to that fellow human, not your analysis of the causes of poverty.

It got me to thinking about who is in my mind when I do give. First, I’m not that generous overall. Something to work on. But on top of not being especially generous, I used to give only to organizations, not to individuals. Then I realized when I made donations online to do-gooders, maybe subconsciously I imagined I was giving it to a more trustworthy person. A person like me, with a house and a degree and pants that fit.

What I definitely was not doing was giving to the poor people I saw with my eyes in real life. I was not responding to the signs written in black Sharpie, or the words repeatedly directed to me on sidewalks and in parking lots: “Do you have a few bucks you could spare?”

What I would say is, “Sorry, man.” And yes, it’s almost always a man asking — not actually always, but nearly. But maybe what I meant was, “I don’t give money to people with missing teeth, or unwashed hair, or three coats on.”

So, I’m trying to change that. I’m trying to do something that’s hard for me, which is to physically part with my hard-earned cash. To give that money I got for doing my professional job to a stranger who will do whatever he damn well pleases with it. Because that’s what is being asked of me.

Just to be clear, I am not holding myself out as some kind of expert on donation, or even as significant donor to any cause. As my wife frequently remarks, I can pinch pennies until they scream. So you do what you like, fair reader. I’m not the judge. I’m just sharing a way of thinking about giving that has been meaningful to me. I think I’m not supposed to begrudgingly make my donation via the mail or Internet to an abstract good cause just so I can ignore the panhandler and still feel like I’m a contributing member of society.

It’s been dawning on me that I am probably supposed to be listening to the fellow humans who come up to me and ask me for a favor. I don’t have to do as they ask. I’m allowed to consider and choose. But I should actually consider. I should listen to the real voices reaching my ears, the signs my eyes behold out in the sun and rain.

I didn’t know it until I wrote this post and looked up the Pope’s full comments, but Francis also reminded people to use their eyes — to look into the eyes of the poor. Here’s the rest of his comment.

“Certainly, it is not a good thing just to throw a few coins at the poor. The gesture is important, helping those who ask, looking them in the eyes and touching their hands. Tossing the money without looking in the eyes, that is not the gesture of a Christian. Teaching in charity is not about offloading one’s own sense of guilt, but it is touching, looking at our inner poverty that the Lord understands and saves. Because we all have inner poverty”.

Pope Francis

There’s a Robot in My House

Behold, my mechanical servant. He rolls with a pleasant humming sound, but not with a plan in mind — there’s no mind in that can. He’s got program on board that jogs his disc body 20 degrees left when encountering an obstacle. We were told by the manufacturer the disc needed a name. Son No. 2 said, “Sven.” Now the robot has pronouns (he/his/him).

The three year old (Son No. 4) likes to wake him up in the morning. He summons Sven with the remote control, pressing the button with crushing force. Sven beeps, whirs his brushes and emerges from the darkness under the couch, on patrol for breakfast crumbs. Son No. 4 believes he eats these, and they do end up in his “tummy.” Daughter No. 1 is skeptical. Son No. 3 wants to paint a face on him. Son No. 1 says, “How long before he makes us his slaves?”

Domestic robots were a nerd’s fantasy. Then they were the rich person’s luxury. Now, when we are working and schooling from home, this one is affordable. It’s awkwardly animate. It, Sven, gets stuck under the one chair, heaving it’s disc over and over without making it across a leg. Then we have to rescue it. If it gets lost for too long, it sends a distress signal to my wife’s phone. One more moving object to track in a house with a few of them already.

But Sven does get the job done. He sweeps up the debris twice a day so we don’t have to. He goes right to the edge of the stairs to get that stuff. His disc teeters on the cliff, an inch from toppling to the doom of his plastic housing. Then he backs away, obeying the sensors and the program, and heads off again, 20 degrees to the left.

Modern living, friends.

Why Portland Protesters Will Never Tire

The Battle of Portland rages still. Having worn down federal agents and local police, leftist protesters spent a recent weekend in gas-choked melees with a motley, right-wing “Back the Blue” rally. 

The remarkable endurance of these protests is subject to debate. The May 25 death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer sparked a historic outcry against police brutality and racism. Three months later, marches under the Black Lives Matter banner have faded away elsewhere, but protesters — mostly white — are still in Portland’s streets. Why? 

My take: Portland, uniquely, is home to a far-left branch of a warrior culture that exists mostly in conservative areas of the United States.

Well documented by historians of cultural geography, this group originated in the war-ravaged borderlands of England, Scotland and Ireland. Displaced by aristocratic landlords in the 1700s, they bypassed America’s coastal settlements to settle in the Appalachian Mountains, far from government regulation or taxation. They moved south and west, dominating areas like Kentucky, with some following the sunset through Missouri and across the plains.  

Wherever they settled, they brought their aggressive ethos. Overrepresented in the US Marine Corps, they have supported every war the United States has ever fought. The group has been credited with producing hard-charging American presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Andrew Jackson and Lyndon B. Johnson.

In Oregon, Puritan-type New Englanders first arrived by ship and quickly took over the government. But they were outnumbered 15-to-1 by individualistic Appalachians who came along a certain famous wagon trail. In Portland, especially, the result has been a unique blend of Yankee politics and bare-knuckle tactics.

Today, hard-to-trace groups like Antifa and the Youth Liberation Front are active in recent protests. But based on my reading of history, there’s only one cultural group that — instead of clever signs and uplifting songs — brings skateboard helmets and baseball bats to a protest. 

Conservative heirs to Appalachian culture recognize these protesters like a Hatfield knows a McCoy. In May, would-be militia members with long rifles and body armor took to the streets of Spokane, Klamath Falls, Oregon, and Coeur D’Alene, Idaho. They were ready to stop what they believed was a pending Antifa invasion from Portland.

Turns out President Trump did the invading. In July, federal officers dressed in camouflage and without badges appeared and reportedly threw protesters into unmarked SUVs. Protesters shifted their attention to the Mark O. Hatfield federal courthouse. They used leaf blowers against tear gas and chanted “Stay together! Stay tight! We do this every night!”

Portland leaders, including some in the Black community, questioned what was being accomplished through continuous street combat.

“The focus has been moved from where it is supposed to be and made to be a spectacle, a debacle,” said the president of the Portland NAACP, the Rev. E.D. Mondainé.

Ferocious portesting is dangerous. A leftist videographer was beaten by a group of men on suspicion of being a police informant. Another man was pulled from his pickup, kicked in the head, and left unconscious on the street.

Ferociousness is overwhelming.  Federal officers made a “phased withdrawal” from Portland. Protesters turned to police union headquarters — first attempting to break down the doors, then running a hose into a window, then attempting to burn it. Next came the “Back the Blue” confrontation, complete with bats, fireworks and pepper spray but no intervention by law enforcement, local or federal.

Dakota Means, a former Marine of mixed race, was knocked out when a pro-police protester shot him in the head with a paintball gun. But the day ended with the Back-the-Blue crowd retreating and Means standing his ground.  

“They’re not welcome in the city. I’m gonna make sure they are run out,” he said.

When will it all end? Based on the history of Appalachian culture, I would say they won’t stop fighting. The best you can hope for is that they find someone else to fight.

The “III” Symbol (Car Decals Decoded)

This interesting and cryptic symbol includes the Roman numeral three, “III,” and usually a ring of stars.

What III means

The three refers to the 3 percent of the American population that supposedly fought in the American Revolution against the British. We should say “supposedly,” because I don’t get the sense this was an especially well-researched figure, approved by historians. But maybe so.

The stars are a reference to the American flag during the Revolutionary War, often referred to as the Besty Ross Flag. It’s often shown along with various other symbols, such as period-specific muskets and the like.

If you are displaying these, the idea is you are part of the noble but tiny minority of people who will actually put your life on the line to defend freedom.

What actual battle you are fighting or what “freedom” or “liberty” mean in these instances is up for grabs. These stickers definitely seem to be linked to Second-Amendment-type sentiments, as in, the freedom to own firearms, and the threat being the United States Government, not foreign powers.

In some areas, the “Three Percenters” are numerous enough to form actual organizations and chapters, hold rallies and participate in paramilitary activities like marksmanship training. They recently made headlines in Washington State, where members appeared at the state Capitol in Olympia heavily armed, in support of a lawmaker accused of participating in domestic terrorism.

The Punisher Skull (from the Field Guide to Car Decals)

A few years ago a long-toothed white skull began appearing on the back windows of pickups on my local highways. Always curious about the symbols people display, I looked it up. It’s the Punisher skull, and it has traveled from Spider Man comic books to the killing fields of Iraq, to your local Trump supporter’s trunk.

Identification of the Punisher Skull

The Punisher skull or logo is easily distinguished by its elongated teeth (four of them) and lack of a bottom jaw. It’s always shown face-on, with empty eye sockets conveying menace.

Habitat of the Punisher Skull

The logo frequently is found on pickups, a vehicle of choice for members of the military who popularized it. Consistent with its fan base, it is also frequently found near firearms-related symbols and other conservative causes. The photo above shows it displayed on a sedan, with a patriotic red-white-and-blue color scheme and “Trump” printed on it, near a National Rifle Association sticker.

History of the Punisher Skull

The skull is the symbol of the comic book character the Punisher, a Vietnam veteran who takes the law into his own hands after his family is killed in mob violence. The Punisher is described by creator as an “anti-villian,” some one who does the wrong thing, like torturing his victims, for the right reasons.

Although the Punisher was introduced in 1974, his icon surged to fame after 2014, when joint Iraqi/U.S. forces were fighting a brutal enemy, ISIS, for control of parts of the country. The same year, biopic “American Sniper” told the story of Chris Kyle, who belonged to a military group that called themselves the Punishers and painted the skull logo on everything they could.

“As a poorly-guided vigilantes, the Punisher is a well-suited icon for the Iraqi security forces and Shi’ite militia that have been accused of looting towns, burning homes and murder in their fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).”

Time Magazine in 2016.

Meaning of the Punisher skull

When used by soliders fighting ISIS (which was known to burn captives alive) the skull was clearly meant to symbolize their own bad-assedness. That is, they literally dealt death to their enemies.

On sedans parked near grocery stores, the meaning is less clear. Certainly it conveys toughness, and a sense of deadly resolve, especially when near other symbols of weapons. It seems to say that the owner is armed and dangerous.

This, of course, is not a welcome message for some. In 2017, a Kentucky police department stopped using the skull logo on its cruisers after complaints. And in 2019, Salon.com published an article titled “The Punisher skull: Unofficial logo of the white American death cult.”

Our Politics Aren’t As Red vs. Blue as You Might Think

After the 2016 presidential election, I decided I didn’t understand America as much as I thought. So I spent the last few years readying American history. And you know what? Despite the many, many news stories saying otherwise, there isn’t a red/Republican America and a separate blue/Democratic America.

It’s true that we are deeply polarized politically. A recent in-depth poll by Pew regarding the impeachment of President Trump found 86 percent of Republicans think the Senate trial should end with Trump remaining in office, while 85 percent of Democrats thought he should be removed — exact mirror images. But we shouldn’t take findings like that to mean there are Republican and Democratic Americans sprinkled evenly across the country, torn in half like two sides of an open book. It does not imply we have each carefully considered our own philosophies of the proper role of government, the meaning of freedom and the goals of public policy.

In reading history, I noticed one state kept popping up in the text — South Carolina. You don’t read much about South Carolina, at least where I’m from. More than anyplace else, it seems to pop up in politics, especially during the presidential primary. But it’s not Texas, New York or California, dominant in economics, pop culture and politics. Once I realized South Carolina seemed to be disproportionately historical, if you will, I began to notice a sort of echo in the history books — Massachusetts. If you see one mentioned, you can expect that nearby in the chapter there is an answer from the other.

Following this intriguing thread of regionalism in political history and perpetual power struggle, I found Colin Woodard’s work American Nations (actually first in a NYT op-ed, but this was based on the book). Woodard will lead you to David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed. These two works do more to explain the American polictal dynamic than any others, in my experience.

I wish there was a snappy name for their approach, but I haven’t come across it. The premise is simple, however. America was not a single culture, founded on Plymouth Rock and spreading west to Waikiki. England and other European powers colonized North America more than once and in more than one place. Each one colony, even those from the same mother country, had its own cultural approach to freedom, government, power, labor, class, religion — all of it.

Massachusetts and South Carolina represent the seed beds of the two most dominant of those cultures, the former founded by priggish Puritans, and the later by slave-holding planters from Barbados.

Most of us have a place on the political spectrum, but that spectrum is set by the culture in which we live. A Boston conservative is not necessarily in much agreement with a Charleston conservative. When we look at the map, we see that there isn’t a blue America, in which everyone mysteriously agrees with the Democratic Party. Rather, the Democratic Party has it’s power base in the land of the Yankees, and to the degree it can flex to attract dissidents in other regions, it creates a map of blue America.

Likewise, the definition of what it means to be a Republican has evolved to resemble a prototypical patrician of the Deep South.

The upshot is this: America hasn’t been pulled apart into red and blue camps of liberals and conservatives. American political parties have been pulled back into alignment with the oldest and deepest divide in America itself — North vs. South.

What this is all about

I’m launching this blog to advocate for seeing American politics and society differently.

All politics are identity politics of a kind. I say this as some one who has spent his adult life working in and around politics. Some of it is beneficial to society (“We’re the kind of people who care about kids”) and some is harmful (“Those people want to hurt our kids”).

For some time now, the harmful species of identification has been growing in the ecosystem. While much of it is well-intentioned, an effort to erase longstanding injustices, or create new levels of acceptance for marginalized people, some is definitely not. All of it has side effects. For now, I’ll just paraphrase Alan Abramowitz by saying more and more, we see people of a different political stripe not as people with whom we disagree, but a different kind of person all together. In identity terms, we could see the other side as belonging to the same national group as we do, but a different political sub-group. Instead, most of us see the other side as a whole different tribe. We see them as “them.”

To me and my reading of American history, this is dangerous ground.

What I would like to do here is start questioning our hardened political identities. I want to talk about what are actual differences between us, and what are perceived differences. What are the strong, deep divisions, and what are the small differences that happen to be apparent on the surface. I want to start a conversation that starts from the premise that we are people with differences, not different peoples.

That does not mean we have to check our values at gate of the public square. It doesn’t mean we declare ourselves “united” and quit talking about imbalances within our unity. This isn’t about preserving the status quo.

What this conversation is about — and I hope it becomes a conversation — is talking with respect and integrity. It’s about talking about different views with passion, and caring. Its’ about zooming out a little bit to remember every one of us has many identities, but we are all — all — human.