Thursday, August 29, 2013

Miley Cyrus' Twerking: More Compelling than Syria?

President Obama is oh-so-trapped when it comes to following up on the use of poison gas on innocent civilians in Syria. It's a press of his own making, having said that use of nerve gas was the "red line" that would "change the equation" and possibly trigger US action. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said any aggression would bring repercussions to the region, igniting a dangerous conflict that threatens to involve the Muslim world on one side, and European and American forces on the other, with Russia and China alienated and warning against any move not authorized by the UN Security Council. Tension is mounting as more grisly evidence and anecdotes about the torturous deaths of as many as 1,400 Syrians, mostly women and children on the outskirts of Damascus, surface.

It's in this consequential context that the world seems fascinated with child star Miley Cyrus, 20, whose "twerking" wiggles at the MTV Video Music Awards and foam finger made nearly every mother jump on a soapbox. From my view, Miley and Pres. Obama are unintentionally collaborating toward the same end.

President Obama wants focus on anything that will keep his foreign affairs faux pas and Syrian decision-making out of the news. Miley Cyrus apparently will do anything that will put herself in the news. The two dovetail nicely.

I'd wager more Americans know about Miley Cyrus' embarrassment of Robin Thicke on Monday night's awards than can name the president of Syria, a person, it could be argued, who could explode the security of the world. True, viewers are likely to have been exposed to images of swaddled bodies killed by sarin gas, simply because those images are ubiquitous. But Miley Cyrus images are equally prominent, and while few consumers are in a position to comment on the fragile mid-east, every mother and teenager holds an opinion about the flesh-colored lingerie-clad former Hannah Montana.

Miley Cyrus must be gloating. She managed to commandeer every entertainment page and blog and in a period of five minutes transformed her image from wholesome to skanky. She's now a candidate to replace Lady Gaga in outrageousness, which is an enviable place to be in a world now so bulging with competition that YouTube nobodies can in just a few days go viral and overshadow the cadre with agents and portfolios.

Do I want Miley Cyrus in my mind? Well, I'll admit it: I'm scared about Syria and would rather not think about it. And yes, Cyrus' thrusty gyrations were offensive, but no child was forced to watch, and the ones who did likely relished the naughtiness. 

Can parents protect their children from such overtly smarmy content? Probably not completely, but they'll mitigate damage by establishing a home culture where more lofty topics dominate, and where achievement and thoughtful discussion of values permeate. By themselves exemplifying the kind of adults they'd like their own children to emulate, and talking often about their own decision points, and the inspiration for their own aspirations.

My son, who's starting his junior year of college, watched part of Cyrus' performance on a friend's cell-phone. Then tonight, he stood over my shoulder muttering how disgusting it was, as I watched it via YouTube on my generously-sized desktop computer screen, for my cultural education. The whole twerking brouhaha is simply silly. The situation in Syria is decidedly not.

But we're more comfortable with issues over which we feel some control, and last I checked, turning off YouTube or the TV still qualifies for that.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Strongest material ever, just an atom thick, set to change our world

Remember that iconic scene in The Graduate where Dustin Hoffman, as Ben Braddock, a new college graduate, is taken aside by his parents' friend Mr. McGuire, who has "just one word" of advice for the young man's future? Of course that word was "plastics."

And indeed, since then everything from car bumpers to dental floss holders is made from the ubiquitous product.

Now the watchword is "Graphene." My spell-checker doesn't know what that is, but soon everyone will, as this thinnest material known, derived from pencil lead graphite--or "synthesized using carbon from sources as diverse as grass, Girl Scout Cookies and cockroach legs" will soon revolutionize just about everything. A front-page story in the Wall Street Journal left me agog about graphene's properties. It's one of the world's best conductors of heat and electricity, absorbs and emits light over a broader range of wavelengths than any other, and is the hardest, thinnest, lightest and most stretchable material ever found.

How about printing circuits with graphene ink? That would allow "flexible phones and
electronic newspapers that can fold into a pocket" or wrap around a wrist. Or, because of graphene's ability to carry electronic charges without any mass (called "the anomalous quantum Hall effect") combined with its chemical properties, it could attach to cancer cells and zap them in the body. Or, because graphene is so strong, combined with plastics it would produce very light airplanes and cars. It can be used as a filter to desalinize sea water. It can be attached to a mini tone-maker to become a flat-keyed piano.

Nobel winners Andre Geim & Kostya Novoselov; graphene pattern
Researchers Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov at the University of Manchester, England isolated graphene in 2004 by pulling apart layers in thin pieces of graphite using sticky tape. They finally got the layer down to a single atom's breadth, and found a flexible honeycomb pattern that is stronger than diamond and 200 times stronger than steel. The illustration they give is that a graphene line the thickness of a human hair could easily suspend a piano.

The research group received the 2010 Nobel Prize for Physics for their work on the substance. So far, 9,218 patents have been applied for or granted. Many tech companies like Samsung, Nokia, Apple, IBM and Lockheed have multiple patents; Dozens of universities including Cambridge, Columbia, Rice and Harvard and Sungkyunkwan in South Korea are engaged in graphene research. Georgia Intstitute of Technology grad student Mike Sprinkle produces an up-to-date compendium of research on graphene, the Graphene Times.

The manufacture of graphene is still too expensive and delicate for immediate industrial use, but its potential is so wide-ranging and revolutionary that scientists and companies are scrambling to be the first to apply it, and make its production economical.  Another issue was that scientists couldn't figure out how to build in an on-off switch in a one-atom-thick material. They'd tried by fusing two layers of graphene, putting a gap for the switch between them, but it never quite worked. Last week Berkeley Labs' Aaron Bostwick found that the fusing of the two layers caused an eensy misalignment that now they'll be able to account for. This type of discovery is happening on hundreds of graphene fronts, in labs world-wide, which makes me hopeful that graphene-containing products will hit the market in just two or three years.

In the meantime, I'm reminded of the miracle of man's industry, of our God-like power to imagine and then create. Technological change seems to be accelerating, with the benefits more quickly and widely shared and spread. Makes me humble and grateful and excited to see what's to come. Here's an informative video by Jonathan Hare, if you're scientifically inclined.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Outlawing goals for therapy is a Pandora's Box

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie
I was astonished to see that New Jersey governor Chris Christie actually signed into law a bill banning therapy to change minors' orientations away from homosexuality.  If he'd done nothing, the bill would have become law anyway. But he chose to step forward and sign.

I'm just surprised he did it. Not because he risked his Republican cred by jumping headlong onto the side of gay supporters--in what some think is preparation for a presidential bid.

I'm perplexed, but not even because Christie inserted the State in parents' decisions to work with their own children on a delicate issue in their own ways. The law now makes New Jersey an adversary against traditional, religious families whose biblically-based beliefs inform their childrearing decisions.

I'm flummoxed at his signing, but not because Gov. Christie sides with the American Psychiatric Association, which condemns conversion therapy by citing frightening and extreme tactics used, we're told, "in some cases." I don't know what goes on in sessions addressing minors' sexual preferences, so I won't comment on what is also called "reparative therapy." But I do wonder if it's appropriate to peg a child's sexual orientation before that child can legally comment or consent.

No, the thing that shocks me is the audacity of New Jersey to interfere in the content of any therapy. If conversion therapy does produce in some participants negative consequences, shouldn't state licensing boards and professional groups step in? And if crimes occurred, shouldn't courts decide the evidence in individual cases?

As a therapist, I've seen plenty of discomfort on the part of clients as they confront and work through difficult issues, so I'm astounded that a state can pick one client goal and rule it forbidden for everybody at all times. It seems bizarre that a government can start rooting around the confidential relationship of therapist and client should that client desire a particular outcome that affects only himself.

I can understand that every state seeks to protect its citizens from fraud. And many gay advocates hold that changing one's sexual orientation is fraudulent--that one cannot change, even if he sincerely desires it.

Chirlane McCray de Blasio, the wife of New York mayoral frontrunner Bill de Blasio, wrote an
Chirlane McCray with husband Bill de Blasio
in Essence Magazine in 1979 proclaiming, "I am a Lesbian." She was "out, loud and proud," according to the magazine. Now, 34 years later, she's been happily married for 19 years to the candidate, with two teenaged children, living, as she described in a May Essence update, in a "traditional marriage."

When she "came out" at age 17, she told Essence, she hadn't really dated any men, but later was attracted to them. Asked if she is bisexual, the articulate McCray responded, "I am more than just a label. Why are people so driven to labeling where we fall on the sexual spectrum? Labels put people in boxes, and those boxes are shaped like coffins."

I agree with McCray that there's a wide spectrum of sexual attraction and response, and I respect that she changed her orientation and her own label of herself from "lesbian" to "conventionally married."  But the professional psychology associations are against voluntarily changing one's orientation. I wonder what they think of Ms. McCray?

Why would Gov. Christie sign a bill that outlaws therapy to assist clients who, like Ms. McCray, choose to move to another point along the sexual spectrum?

If New Jersey can ban one type of change efforts because they're "unlikely to be successful and have some risk for harm," disgruntled clients may bring the same standard to bear on just about every form of therapy. After all, even mainstream modalities often produce negative reactions, even under the most gentle and professional of circumstances. And when the likelihood of a client achieving a goal is slim, should therapists be banned from aiding someone who still wants to pursue it?

After I authored a bestselling book describing the harms of divorce, many readers sought me out with the goal of saving their marriages. Often, their spouses were emotionally long gone, sometimes enmeshed in other relationships or new pursuits, and a remaining spouse faced devastated children, a reduced standard of living and extreme hurt.

Sometimes such couples approached me together, even though the agenda for one partner was to repair the marriage while the other was there out of guilt or to placate a pleading mate. Should I have turned away these people in their emotional pain and life transition? After all, at that point marital therapy "is unlikely to be successful and contains some risk for harm." That's the basis for outlawing conversion therapy, according to the American Psychological Association; why not apply the same standard to poor-prognosis marriage counseling?

Obese people frequently receive psychological counseling (along with diets or other program components) with the goal of reducing their weight. The recidivism rate for people who lose weight is extremely high (90-95% regain, according to a 1997 study in the New England Journal of Medicine); failure to lose or maintain lost weight can lead to anxiety, depression and even life-threatening eating disorders. Oh wait, these results would qualify weight-reduction counseling for elimination by law.

The kinds of sticky issues that arise once a state chooses one type of psychological therapy to target just keep multiplying. We're talking about clients' most personal, intimate issues, in a context protected by confidentiality and by federal laws guarding privacy. Just imagine how the client and his therapist would feel knowing they may not stray into forbidden topics like certainty about one's sexual attractions. Imagine the intrusion and taxpayer funds necessary to investigate whether someone's desired outcomes for their sessions are lawful.

States aren't protecting anyone by censoring aims of voluntary patient-doctor efforts. One could reply that the anti-conversion therapy bill that Gov. Christie signed pertains only to therapy for those under 18--but then why not censor other potentially wrenching goals of youngsters' therapy? The dangerous issue here is the state's deciding the content of therapy it will approve or disallow.

Psychology is an idiosyncratic pursuit. The fit between therapist and client may shift, or it may never work. The course of therapy may be re-adjusted as progress is made or new issues arise. Professional psychiatric organizations change their definitions, and modalities go in and out of style. The reputation right now of reparative or conversion therapy is mud. I remember when electroconvulsive therapy was vilified in the films "Snake Pit,"  "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "Francis" and many others, yet now it's receiving new respect as a treatment for severe depression. We don't need laws prohibiting out-of-favor methods any more than we need them promoting modalities currently in vogue.

Clients dissatisfied with their therapies should have redress, and every session should contain respect and understanding for participants' backgrounds and beliefs. With that in mind, licensing boards, professional organizations and in some cases the courts are available to ameliorate specific conflicts. Legislating the types of therapy that may or may not occur is just stepping too far into the interior worlds of people already suffering and reaching out for help.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

"Having It All, Child-Free" is an Oxymoron

Gloria Steinem in early Ms. days
The White House just announced that Gloria Steinem, co-founder of Ms. Magazine ( to which I was an inaugural subscriber), has been awarded this year's Presidential Medal of Freedom, our nation's highest civilian honor.

Ms. Magazine proudly proclaimed her selection, adding that three others so elevated were also female: Oprah Winfrey, songwriter/singer Loretta Lynn, and Judge Patricia Wald. The story neglected to mention that the rest of the sixteen winners, 75% of the total, were men.

I spent an hour on the Michael Medved radio show confronting a topic Gloria Steinem popularized: "Having It All." I debated Laura Sandler, who's in publicity mode on her current Time Magazine cover story, "The Childfree Life: When Having it All Means Not Having Children."

In it, she sympathizes with women who opt out, admonishing our culture for a pro-parenthood bias with little room for deviance from the norm. She bemoans the cultural "pressure" women feel to procreate, even as more reach menopause without motherhood. Her anecdotes of child-free-by-choice women standing up to pro-parental assumptions are meant to illustrate "a deep problem" in our society, as she said on the air.

My mom and me

And yet, she argues, because fewer women want kids, a "new female archetype" of "having it all" sans motherhood has emerged. On the one hand, she suggests, non-moms find it tough to face the well-meaning stare-down from others who think they're missing out. On the other, the freedom to pursue interests, extra earnings and indifference to a ticking genetic clock let child-free women feel fine. A 50-year-old woman Sandler quotes put it succinctly: "Now I don't give a s--- what anyone thinks."

I own the premier issue of Ms.
Gloria Steinem's magazine first defined "having it all" as an ideal combining power career, marriage, motherhood and personal development--though she's asserted attaining "it all" is impossible. "...a recalcitrant society said you had to do it all," she told a PBS interviewer in 2011.

But "all" always included children. That's why "Having it All, Child-Free" is an oxymoron. Non-parents can have, do and give a lot, but let's get the term straight. Without that huge time-and-emotions soaker called parenthood, they're missing an enormous chunk of the equation.

I took issue with Lauren Sandler on the Medved radio show because in the 30 years since I wrote Children: To Have or Have Not?, a book that grew out of my doctoral research at UCLA, much has changed. My dissertation tested a decision-making process that I created, and later used as workshops with hundreds of couples. Thirty years ago, choosing "have not"did come with more of a stigma--though even then, the choice had its advocates. The National Organization of Non-Parents, later renamed the National Alliance for Optional Parenthood, whose LA headquarters were right there in Westwood a few blocks from UCLA, regularly offered discussion groups, public events and even demonstrations.

Now that 48% of babies are born out of wedlock, gays marry and obtain children using surrogates and donors, and divorce, step-families and live-togethers form a myriad of cohabiting configurations, an individual or couple without children earns a big...shrug.

Not to mention that even parents spend perhaps 25 working years alone. The average age for first marriage has leaped to 27 for women and 29 for men, which means a decade in the work world before getting hitched; then if a couple has two kids in their early 30's, they're back to an empty nest when they're close to 50.

The lifestyle hook for the Time article is that the percentage of women aged 40-44 who remain childless--or "child free" if it's their choice--has increased. Well, fecundity is down a bit--but not more than you'd expect. I suspect Ms. Sandler's piece doesn't present the figures, because a 4% decline in the last decade--and 8% over thirty years--just doesn't seem that surprising given expansion of women's careers, and much later ages for marriage.

Here's my take on this: Time Magazine is gasping for air. Wrote Michael Rosenblum in the Huffington Post this week under the headline "Too Little, Too Late for Time Magazine," "Looking at last week's issue, the staple was wider than the magazine and you could see why. They forgot to put in any of the advertising."

What does a dying magazine do? Try to drum up controversy. And what topic is most near and dear to readers'--all readers'--hearts? Their kids. Put a good-looking couple lying on the sand wearing smirks and matching teal bathing suits, arms intertwined, on the cover of the magazine with a headline telling purchasers their kids are in the way of "having it all" and whattaya get? Dozens of comment threads, hundreds of "likes" and "shares," a bunch of TV chat show appearances, and an hour on the Michael Medved Show. Gives the illusion the magazine still breathes.

Meanwhile, in Americans' posting, Tweeting culture, non-parents are certainly criticized. But not as much as parents are. Given that the vast majority of adults do have children, there's plenty to say: Kids are ungrateful, and their parents aren't teaching civility. Kids are rude, and their parents have atrocious manners so what do you expect? Kids are tattooed, ruining their futures, but their parents' ink sags. Kids' tuitions are outrageous but parents' pushy insistence on exclusive schools drives competition and costs. Kids' clothes and accoutrement are expensive, but parents show off by spending. Kids are loud and slacking and selfish, and their cheering parents helicopter to fend negative consequences.

Halle Berry, pregnant at age 46
We therefore hear more about kids and parenting--though the child-free are among us. Twenty percent of white and 17% of black, Hispanic and Asian women aged 4-44 have no spawn.

The cut-off of age 40-44, however, slices away a growing segment of mothers. Childbearing for all ages declined over the past several years--except in women over 40, for whom the rate increased 10% between 2007 and 2011 alone. Women whose circumstances didn't coalesce earlier are pushing the envelope to take advantage of fertility treatments that can allow women through their 50s to deliver babies. Women Sandler calls "early adopters"--younger people who announce they never want kids--may change their minds, even after counted as "permanently" child-free at age 40.

It's true that as more women remain without offspring, the definition of "having it all" is sliding to accommodate them. Twenty-seven percent of professional women in a survey last year sponsored by Citi and LinkedIn said kids aren't required. Yet an Atlantic Magazine cover story a year ago by Anne-Marie Slaughter gained media furor (including a post by me) by asserting "Why Women Still Can't Have it All," seamless family life being a major part. Slaughter and Lean In'  author Sheryl Sandberg, CEO of Facebook, agree that "all" includes children.

As one who has worked with hundreds of couples deciding about childbearing, and as a former 'early adopter' who in my 20s didn't want to disrupt my joyous life, now, as mother of three, I finally "get it." Parenthood's satisfaction, investment, long-term perspective, motivation and connection far outweigh the (significant) inconveniences and costs of children. Each of my children is a unique, fascinating and compelling individual, and I'd have experienced and enjoyed far less in this life without them.

So, yes, if you think comfort, freedom and career top kids as determinants of what "it all" is for you, great. Few nowadays would spend more than a few seconds thinking about your choice, to pity, scorn or envy. But unless you're actually the parent to a real, vital, changing child, I'll never convince you that there's no substitute, if only in sheer intensity of emotion.  Far more women hear that ticking clock and don't want to miss this most major of life's adventures than decide to skip it. And there's always the "tombstone test:" what, in the end, really matters?

Friday, August 2, 2013

Moderation is Conservative

As a fan of talk radio and a long-time supporter of conservative Republican candidates, I'm getting frustrated with some loud-mouths on the right wing usurping the term "true conservative."

I hear radio callers attacking practical, get-things-done leaders, in disdainful tones, as "RINOs," and "moderates"--as if only media firebrands and mean-spirited activists get to define the terms. As if they've got the only conservative positions on major issues, and those views can't be discussed or varied. As if people with differing means to the same conservative goals should be ostracized and marginalized as "not true" conservatives.

Really drives me crazy.

First off, certain broad values are shared by all conservatives--like a belief in individual enterprise, with minimal governmental interference. A belief that charity is best conducted by voluntary associations and gestures rather than from forced taxes that the government  disburses. A belief that local is better than federal direction of most functions--education, health care, police and fire and just about anything that doesn't require the joining of the nation as one.

Most basic is conserving values and policies that work as you adapt and change with circumstances. This is prudent.  It's smarter to preserve the good in what you have, and cautiously change the rest.

Yes, that may make people "moderate," in their conservatism, but perhaps the more constructive way to see it is moderation. Moderation is a positive trait. "Moderate" has (wrongly) become a nasty slur.

I remember when an honored position was "mainstream Republican," someone whose views reflected the majority of conservatives. Mainline--accepted widely, representing the bulk of the party. The only way ever for conservative candidates to win is to appeal to a wide range of citizens, especially independents and folks in between the right and left ends of the political continuum--who are the real moderates.

How did the far right hijack the GOP and dominate conversation about the conservative movement? They're not even the majority of conservatives--not even "mainstream" on many issues. For example, the hot-buttons of abortion and immigration. Polls show sharply divided American opinion on abortion. Conservatives can personally fervently oppose abortion and yet acknowledge that banning it from conception just won't happen.

Similarly, conservatives can recognize the reality of 11 million undocumented immigrants in our country and think practically about means to address their presence. The extreme idea of deporting them all or driving them away is, I believe, harmful to our economy, inhumane, and completely radical and unfeasible, and yet, the position is often mentioned by those who claim it defines "true conservatives."

Moderation is conservative. Moderation demands the least disruptive course first. If it's not broken, don't fix it-- and if it is broken, don't boost our "disposable society" by pitching the components that still serve. And when proposing something new, look to previous successes as inspiration--don't jump into something because good intentions alone drive it.

Obamacare, for instance, may be well-intentioned. But its sweeping imposition now makes "The Affordable Care Act" a joke. Since its mandates have removed consumer choices and insurer options, rates for payers are much more un-affordable. Employers seeking to avoid its restrictions and added costs are cutting some positions to less than 30 hours weekly or holding their staffs to less than 50 workers. Few doctors are enthused, either. Good intentions hemorrhaged into a massive national peril. Yes, some Brits and Canadians and Israelis like their nationalized health care, but they started from a very different place, and even their beneficiaries offer plenty of complaints with their kudos. Brazil has a nationalized health care system. Just 7% of it's consumers are at all satisfied with it.

Conservatives value moderation; it's the natural conservative approach. This contrasts with the new favored term for liberals: "Progressive." Who would ever want to thwart progress?  Doesn't everyone want to move on, jump forward, progress? Leave the old behind and forge something new and untried? That's youth, excitement, possibility!

I recall George W. Bush's explanation for his early rash behaviors: "When I was young and stupid, I was young and stupid." While there's something exhilarating about daring experiments, and conservatives applaud most of them on a personal level, there's something risky about forcing 314 million people to bungee jump along for the ride. What's acceptable for a single college student is not when he's got a wife and several kids to whom he's responsible. We're the American family, and government is there to protect us physically, to be responsible, and to make room for us individual members to thrive.

Caution and pragmatism come with maturity, while impetuosity, impatience and utopian dreaminess mark adolescence. Conservatism is the ideology of grownups. No matter their places on the political spectrum, all parents want to provide their children a conservative homelife--a stable, loving environment based on universal values. And when it comes to creating policies, visions of perfection may be inspiring fantasies but a conservative grounding in reality lets us function in the real world.

Moderation in all things. That's conservative. That's responsible and prudent, and conservatives should use the term "moderation" proudly and repeatedly; it's the hallmark of practicality and wisdom, and will help us win.