Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis

Sinclair Lewis’s novel Arrowsmith is a fascinating look into the personal and societal questions surrounding scientific research and the lives of those who pursue it.

I just finished Sinclair Lewis’s fascinating novel Arrowsmith, published in 1925 (plain text here). If you are a scientist or are very interested in science, you should consider reading it. Arrowsmith plots the trajectory from youth to middle age of Martin Arrowsmith, a medical doctor turned researcher, and it touches on many of the daily topics a researcher encounters, as well as the personal and societal impact and questions of their work. In no small part, the force of this book comes from the fact that it was actually co-authored by Paul de Kruif, who had worked both as a professor at the University of Michigan and researcher at the Rockefeller Institute. In addition to the tremendous attention to scientific detail, it is likely that many of the characters and situations arose from his personal experience.

The book influenced many people, especially in increasing their appreciation of carefully controlled clinical trials and their skepticism of quack remedies and “scientific” therapies that were rushed to market before they’d been properly vetted. The book goes into great depth about the pressures put on a scientist (Arrowsmith) to rush to publication and creation of remedies. Lewis touches on these topics both in the context of a university (in the fictional mid-western state of Winnemac) and a top-flight research laboratory in New York City. These topics and many other aspects of the book remain relevant today.
 
The plotting is a bit slow at times, but the writing is delightful. The brief and wonderful descriptions of incidental characters especially stand out. Here’s a great example:

Watters’s house was new, and furnished in a highly built-in and leaded-glass manner. He had in three years of practice already become didactic and incredibly married; he had put on weight and infallibility; and he had learned many new things about which to be dull. Having been graduated a year earlier than Martin and having married an almost rich wife, he was kind and hospitable with an emphasis which aroused a desire to do homicide.

As someone raised in Michigan and who did my undergraduate degree in Ohio, I love the critiques of the boosterism and conformity in small to mid-sized towns in the context of bland sameness across the mid-west. As an atheist, I also appreciate the way Lewis brought up the explicit religious overtones of the mid-west and navigated his essentially agnostic/atheist main characters through that without hammering on it too much (which probably would have been unthinkable for a novel in the 1920s anyway). It was interesting for me to discover that de Kruif was born in Zeeland, Michigan and died in Holland, Michigan. Zeeland is less than an hour drive from my hometown of Rockford, and when I was growing up, we used to joke that God had his address in Zeeland (because it was such a religious town). In general, West Michigan is overwhelmingly and stridently Christian of the you-will-go-to-hell-if-you-don’t-believe-in-our-version-of-Jesus variety. This became annoying and tiresome for me growing up as a non-Christian in that area, so I personally appreciated the well-placed satirical points on organized religion in Arrowsmith.

As a scientist, I love the description of the joys of research and the tensions between doing research, earning a living, and having time/headspace for the other things in life. Here’s a great passage about Arrowsmith’s burning passion for research at a time when he is working an intern en route to becoming a doctor:

But on night duty, alone, he had to face the self he had been afraid to uncover, and he was homesick for the laboratory, for the thrill of uncharted discoveries, the quest below the surface and beyond the moment, the search for fundamental laws which the scientist (however blasphemously and colloquially he may describe it) exalts above temporary healing as the religious exalts the nature and terrible glory of God above pleasant daily virtues. With this sadness there was envy that he should be left out of things, that others should go ahead of him, ever surer in technique, more widely aware of the phenomena of biological chemistry, more deeply daring to explain laws at which the pioneers had but fumbled and hinted.

I have often felt this fear of missing out while devoting myself to other things (teaching, family, etc), and this passage captures that brilliantly. Arrowsmith eventually returns to research, after a circuitous path through being a physician and public health worker. Though I myself have chosen quite different priorities on these than Arrowsmith does, I’ve experienced the same scientific thrills and motivations, and I know plenty of people who tend more toward the pained but satisfied scientific asceticism that Arrowsmith ultimately reaches. A review of Arrowsmith by Noortje Jacobs puts it well like this: “the novel in many ways also presents its readers with a bleak vision on the possibility of having a scientific life while remaining a sociable human being.” I think it is fair to say that pretty much everybody engaged in serious scientific research navigates this tension: when research is going really well, it is an amazing experience of flow that begs for more and provides further rewards if you give it; however, we are also social animals that must nurture the relationships we choose to (or must) keep. Arrowsmith provides a detailed window into a person who chooses to live for his pure research and it highlights the costs of that choice for others, without getting sentimental about it.

So much has changed, but so much has stayed the same. While I was reading the book, I found myself already working out the storyline for a modern day Arrowsmith, with an emphasis on artificial intelligence rather than biology and clinical medicine. We have lots of ethical issues to sort out in this front, and as an atheist mid-westerner who has worked in academia as a research professor and in industry as both a consultant and co-founder and chief scientist of a startup and who cares a lot about what we do with machine learning, I’m perhaps particularly well-suited to do that someday.

Improving race relations: a path forward

This a long and personal post about racism in the USA. It’s an outpouring of some of what I’ve felt this past year, with an appeal for us all, whether white, black, Hispanic, Asian, mixed, decidedly undeclared, or whatever, to not give up, to keep working to make this country, this world, a better place.

The united colors of Baldridge: my hand, my wife's hand, and my boys' hands.
The united colors of Baldridge: my hand, my wife’s hand, and our boys’ hands.

This a long and personal post about racism in the USA. It’s an outpouring of some of what I’ve felt this past year, with an appeal for us all, whether white, black, Hispanic, Asian, mixed, decidedly undeclared, or whatever, to not give up, to keep working to make this country, this world, a better place.

The catalyst for me to write this was a series of tweets by Shaun King (@shaunking) several months ago. King has emerged as one of the leaders of #BlackLivesMatter, a movement to document and address racism in the USA, and especially focus on police misconduct and brutality. In those tweets, King noted his acceptance of a pessimistic view that racism is a permanent feature of American society. It’s not an unreasonable perspective, but it deeply saddens me. As a white husband of a black woman and father of biracial children, I desperately want to remain optimistic. I need to remain optimistic. My family lives between two worlds, and we can’t pick sides. In this post, I want to give some support for embracing a more optimistic perspective. But first, let’s establish why there is good cause to be pessimistic.

It’s been a hell of a few years for race relations in the United States of America. From Trayvon Martin through to the Charleston shootings to Sam Dubose and Corey Jones, black people have been disproportionately killed. Included in the body count are far too numerous instances of police misconduct and brutality. This is violence meted out by the state, and the individuals are disproportionately people of color. It’s been going on for years and it’s nothing new to the black community. Nearly ubiquitous video cameras and social media are now finally making it less easy for the wider community to ignore.

As sad, frustrating and angering as this all is, this moment presents a tremendous opportunity. To put it simply: systemic racism can’t be addressed effectively without white Americans being aware of it and acting to reduce it. Until recently, most white people in the country seem to have been living under the convenient but false perception that racism is a more or less a problem of the past. Now, white Americans see racism as a national problem, but generally don’t think it is a major problem in their own communities. In general, it seems white Americans tell themselves that perhaps there is some discrimination that we still need to address, but it’s not violent, really serious stuff. Maybe there are some backward people down south who are real racists, but by and large we’ve gotten past it, at least in our own communities. Unfortunately, that’s wishful thinking. Ignorance may at times be bliss, but that only really holds for the privileged. And, anyway, there are outright racist people, and they aren’t just in the south.

My wife is African-American. Our nine years together have been a crash course in race relations for me. There is so much I could never have guessed about the black experience in the United States without being with her. To learn at the age of five that there were people who wanted you dead because of your skin color, and furthermore, to learn this from a six-year-old friend. To wish at the age of seven that you are actually a white girl so that you could avoid the burden of being black (this is not uncommon, and Whoopi Goldberg has a powerful performance about it in her 1985 standup show Direct From Broadway). To hear your mom talk of seeing the severed head of a black man rolling down the street in the 1960s. To ask your husband not to stop in Vidor, Texas—even though you are in a traffic jam, pregnant and really needing to pee, because during college you saw “Nigger, don’t let the sun go down on you in this town” written on a wall there. To fear interactions with the police, even though you are a law-abiding, upstanding citizen with graduate degrees from Harvard and Yale. Just last week, she was driving down a road in Austin, at the speed limit, and a police officer in an SUV pulled up beside her, eyed her and matched her pace for some time—nothing happened, but it felt very threatening. Frankly, I didn’t really get her concerns about the police until last year. Now it is all too clear, and it was really driven home by what happened to Sandra Bland, right here in our home state of Texas, and in a city we often pass on our drive between Houston and Austin.

My wife and I have watched the events of the past year with sadness and horror. We have two bright and beautiful sons. Like any parents, we have huge dreams for them and want to set them up to live the happiest, most fulfilled lives they can possibly realize. Yet, we live in a country and time where not only black men and women are killed without justifiable cause or with extremely fast judgment, but even children like Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice. Where a 14-year-old girl in a bikini is thrown to the ground and sat on by a police officer for several minutes—an officer who also pulled a gun out to threaten two other teens who were concerned for her and who swore repeatedly at other teens at the same incident in McKinney, Texas. (I wrote to the chief of police to ask that officer be dismissed.) Where Chris Lollie, a man waiting to pick up his kids in the St. Paul skyway, is apprehended without cause, tasered, and body searched by the police (and being polite didn’t help in the least). Where a 7-year-old boy is handcuffed for an hour for being unruly in class. It goes on and on—far to many to enumerate here. And because of all this, my wife and I frequently find ourselves watching and listening to the advice that many thoughtful people are giving about raising black children in the USA (e.g., Greta Gardner, Clint Smith, W. Kamau Bell). These are all concerns that were foreign to me and played no part in my own upbringing.

This July, my family took a vacation road trip from Texas to DC to Michigan and back. You learn a lot about the different parts of the US as a biracial family on such a trip. We nearly always stop at McDonald’s for bathroom breaks because we know there are cameras more consistently than in gas stations. We are quite accustomed to the hate stares directed at us, especially in poorer regions in the south. We also get disapproving looks from many black people, especially in black neighborhoods in cities like Houston and DC. Though it is usually just looks and stares, one white woman in a North Carolina rest stop loudly stated that she found our family “disgusting”. We planned our driving so that we wouldn’t have to stay the night in Missouri because of the recent racial tensions highlighted in Ferguson. (There is great irony in this, of course—our own state of Texas has its own poor track record with racism and police brutality, including recently the McKinney pool incident and Sandra Bland’s wrongful arrest and death and more.)

There was only one time on our trip that we felt real fear of more than looks and words. We were low on gas at one point and exited the highway to refuel, only to find the station we’d spotted was no longer operational—however, there were several trucks idling around this otherwise abandoned gas station. We immediately started to go, but our six-year-old declared he needed to pee, so I took him to the forest line—during which time more trucks started to show up. I hurried back as quickly as I could, and my wife had already hopped into the driver’s seat. We got out and back onto the highway fast. It may have been nothing, but it felt like something was possible. When I looked the location up later, I found out that it is a small township that hosts a chapter of the KKK. (I’m now definitely going to map the locations of such chapters out before we go on such a road trip again.)

So, we’ve thankfully only experienced mild discomfort as a family (my wife has experienced much more on her own, including being called a nigger by two white men in a car while walking on Harvard Square), but there is lots of stuff that is pretty bad going on out there. Shortly after our road trip, a similar biracial family on a long drive was stopped and cross-examined by police in a very intimidating manner. And there are plenty of people having rallies for the Confederate flag, and they don’t know their history, so let us admit is not about “heritage”. They even show up at kids’ birthday parties and threaten people. They definitely don’t seem to like black people.

So… where’s the room for optimism? My best guess is that the availability heuristic is playing a big role here, in multiple ways. If it is possible for you at this point, go read the book “Thinking, Fast and Slow“, by Daniel Kahneman, to learn about the availability heuristic and much more. But you probably can’t do that, so here it is briefly: the availability heuristic is a shortcut used by the human mind to evaluate a topic by using examples that are readily retrieved from memory. As an example, consider the question “is the world more violent today than it was in the past?” Perhaps a majority of people would respond yes—it is certainly easy to come to that conclusion if you watch the news. However, Steven Pinker carefully argues in his excellent book “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” that the data points convincingly toward the opposite conclusion. In fact, he spends a large portion of a large book to get the reader past their own sense of the problem as biased by the availability heuristic. As it turns out, there has is fact never been a time when the probability of a given individual dying violently has been lower. But sex and violence are what sell news, so that’s what we hear about. Then, when we consider the question, the availability heuristic brings those examples quickly to mind. It’s much harder to think about the billions of people just boringly living their lives. There are obviously many pockets of the world and our society where these trends are not as encouraging, so it isn’t time to sit back and say all is well.

It seems quite likely that when someone like Shaun King considers a question like “is racism a permanent feature of American society?”, examples like the ones I’ve mentioned above easily come to mind and dominate the mental computation. Frankly, it happens to me too—it gets me angry and upset and I find myself listening more regularly to artists like Killer Mike, The Roots and even going back to Rage Against the Machine. And, this is not to say “yes” isn’t the right answer. It is just to say that we need to consider the availability heuristic’s potential role in arriving at that answer. I believe we need more data and perspectives before we truly give up hope. The other thing is that it is notoriously hard to make predictions, especially about the future. As just one related example, I heard one family member lament—just a year before Obama’s candidacy—that we’d never have a black president.

As another example, consider American slavery in the decade before the Civil War. It would have been reasonable to feel that slavery would be a permanent feature of American society. In the concluding chapter of “The Slavery Question” from the 1850’s, the author, John Lawrence, writes:

Are there any prospects that the long and dreary night of American despotism will speedily end in a joyous morning?

If we turn our eye towards the political horizon we shall find it overspread with heavy clouds portentous of evil to the oppressed. The government of the United States is intensely pro-slavery. The great political parties, with which the masses of the people act, vie with each other in their supple and obsequious devotion to the slaveocracy. The wise policy of the fathers of the Republic to confine slavery within very narrow limits, so that it would speedily die out and be supplanted by freedom, has been abandoned; the whole spirit of our policy has been reversed ” and our national government seems chiefly concerned for the honor, perpetuation and extension of slavery.

Lawrence goes on to make further points of how dire the situation is, and quotes Frederick Douglass. But his book is called “The Slavery *Question*”, so he of course isn’t giving up. In fact, he flips it with excellent rhetorical flourish.

But dark as is this picture, there is still hope. The exorbitant demands of the slave power, the extreme measures it adopts, the deep humiliation to which it subjects political aspirants, will produce a reaction.

Inflated with past success it is throwing off its mask and revealing its hideous proportions. It is now proving itself the enemy of all freedom. The extreme servility of the popular churches is opening the eyes of many earnest people to the importance of taking a bolder position. They are finding out that it is a duty to come out from churches which sanction the vilest iniquity that ever existed, or exhaust their zeal for the oppressed in tame resolves, never to be executed.

The truth is gaining ground that slaveholding is a great sin, that slaveholders are great sinners, and that he who apologises for the system is a participator in the guilt and shame.

In other words, it’s a systemic problem, and not taking a position against slavery is to be complicit in its evils. In his concluding paragraph, he declares “The day of deliverance is not distant.” It took a bloody war, but a decade later, slavery was abolished.

And this brings us to what can be so frustrating about discussing current race relations with white Americans—namely that they have a very hard time discussing it. In fact, there is now a term, “white fragility,” that describes the odd sensitivity that nearly all white people have when discussing race. We just aren’t very good at it and it’s for a pretty obvious reason: we aren’t required to navigate race to function in our society, while any person of color must. There is also plenty of ambiguity to deal with since race itself is a social construct with very fluid boundaries, and a frequent white response is the well-intentioned but ultimately naive and counter-productive statement “I don’t see color”. One side of this leads to awkward, relatively harmless everyday encounters that can even be made light of — see “What if black people said the stuff white people say” (see also the videos for latinos and asians). But there is a deeper problem of systemic racial disparities that disproportionately benefit white Americans (for a very effective analogy, see this post comparing it to being a bicyclist on the road). The tricky nature of these benefits is that few white Americans realize and admit they are receiving them. They are working hard, dealing with their own successes, failures, pleasures and pains, and it sounds crazy to them that they are privileged. And in fact, this a natural conclusion to reach when you rely on the availability heuristic to consider the topic.

Another dynamic here is that so few white people have close black friends. I don’t mean your co-worker or a person you see from time-to-time. I mean deep personal connections that allow true sharing and sympathetic understanding of another person’s life and experiences. It’s not uncommon for a black American to be THE black friend for many white people, and they are probably keeping a good share of themselves out of reach. My wife learned to do that after even simple comments led some friends and acquaintances to go into conniptions. One man asked my wife “is the singing in black churches as good as they say?”, to which she responded “the singing is great in all the black churches I’ve been to.” He became hysterical and declared that this was a racist thing for her to say. She tried to continue the conversation by contextualizing it more specifically, saying she hadn’t been to every black church and every white church, and that she was just stating her own experience. He just became more irate, and it really seemed that he just wanted to validate his existing prejudices. After exchanges like this and many others like it, it’s often easier just to avoid racial topics altogether.

It is also just common for white Americans to lack deep experiences with black Americans. Until I started dating my wife, I also was similarly removed. I grew up in Rockford, Michigan. We had just a few black students in our high school and I didn’t know any of them. My eyes were opened to a number of things by listening to rap in the late 1980s, especially Willie Dee’s album Controversy, which included songs like “Fuck the KKK” (and many unfortunate misogynistic songs on the second side). My freshman college roommate at the University of Toledo was black and we got along great, but we didn’t hang out together much outside the dorm. I recognized that there were many problems for black Americans living in the inner cities, but I had little knowledge or appreciation for the day-to-day hurdles that black Americans faced regardless of their social status and location (often referred to as “paying the black tax”). It was never through any personal desire to be distanced, but it just didn’t happen until I fell in love with my amazing, wonderful wife in 2006. (Side note: we actually knew each other as students in Toledo in the 1990s. I had a crush on her, but considered her out of my league and didn’t do anything about it at the time. Doh!)

Much of the nation, it seems, expressed huge outrage about the killing of Cecil the Lion. At the same time, we had footage of a police officer shooting Sam Dubose in the head—and it hardly even seems to register outside the black community. I’m not setting up a false dilemma here: it’s fine to be upset about both killings; however, I’m highlighting the apparent higher proportion of the white population that is moved to express outrage by the former and what that says about priorities (especially when considering that much big game hunting is supporting nature preserves and endangered animal populations). Regardless, what I actually appreciate most about contrasting the two killings is how Cecil provided a platform for humorous, but serious, comparisons—most importantly, to highlight how every killing of an unarmed black person turns into an analysis of their character and actions and how those led or contributed to their being killed (as if it’s okay for police to be executioners). Doing the same for Cecil highlights the absurdity of this. Don’t forget that #AllLionsMatter, and can we also please have a serious discussion about lion on lion crime?

In case it isn’t obvious, many of the common defenses of police violence meted on black Americans are not much different from blaming a rape victim because she wore a particular skirt, flirted too much, drank too much, was out too late, and so on. If you don’t believe me, go back and watch the videos of Chris Lollie, Sandra Bland, and Sam Dubose. Consider that for the latter two, the statements about the stops by the officers involved were contradicted by the video evidence. Then consider the many cases where people have died at the hands of the police and there was no video to check the veracity of their version of events—the police are always cleared of wrong doing. In the case of Sandra Bland, consider that there has been tons of focus on whether she committed suicide or was murdered, but let’s not forget it started with a completely ridiculous traffic stop. She should not have died in that cell because she should have never been there in the first place.

We need the police, but we need them to do their job right. That means to serve and protect all citizens, regardless of race, religion, sexual preference, etc. I hope that efforts in community oriented and evidence-based policing will start to improve matters. It makes a lot of sense, but the data is still inconclusive as to whether it actually reduces crime and improves public perceptions of the police. I’m also encouraged that many police departments are adopting data-driven methodologies that have the potential to help reduce racial profiling and identify problem officers. We must also analyze and evaluate the potential for both improved policing and even worse racial profiling that are offered by new algorithms—a topic I wrote about in my article “Machine Learning and Human Bias“. Getting policing into better shape in the country will nonetheless require sustained efforts such as Justice Together and Campaign Zero, and those have a greater chance of success if white people are agitating for change as well as black people.

My family at the Lincoln Memorial.
My family at the Lincoln Memorial.

I am optimistic that we can get to a better place as a society. My family’s road trip brought us to Washington DC, and we went to the Lincoln Memorial. It’s a powerful place, especially for a family like ours. The words of Lincoln’s second inaugural address are on the wall. At that time, the nation was nearing the end of its greatest existential crisis, but Lincoln showed tremendous restraint and forward-thinking, concluding:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

They did it—they actually defeated slavery and kept the nation together. One-hundred and fifty years later, we are still working through the divisions created by that vile institution, including how we view that time and institution itself now. It’s hard, but we must remain optimistic as well as realistic.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the scale of racism in the USA. But we can’t just throw up our hands. It’s not enough to be well-meaning and holding good intentions. All of us, black, white and more, must own our part of the solution. There is much that white Americans can do to understand and help. Talk to your kids explicitly about race and racism. My mom has gotten through to white friends who dismiss #BlackLivesMatter by talking about her black daughter-in-law and grandsons and how events impact them directly. Even if you have no strong personal connections to black Americans, you can start by reading books like “Between the World and Me” by Ta-nehisi Coates to get a better sense of what it means to grow up black in the USA. It’s the best book I’ve read this year. I particularly like it because he states things starkly, with no sugar-coating: he puts forth a grounded, atheist viewpoint that doesn’t romanticize. Coates discusses what is done to black bodies, not black spirits, hopes and dreams.

“The spirit and soul are the body and brain, which are destructible—that is precisely why they are so precious.” – Ta-nehisi Coates

The focus on the body allows him to dissociate the cultural from the perceived biological components of race, and remind us that white people aren’t white people, but are “people who believe they are white”. That’s an important, powerful distinction.

Actions such as legislation against racism (possibly limiting free speech) are not likely to improve things, and will likely make other things much worse. Support policies that seek to diminish our out-of-control prison system, which includes locations like Rikers Island and Homan Square where people have been held with out being charged, sometimes for years. These places breathe life into Kafka’s book “The Trial”, and they destroy actual lives. Perhaps some of the biggest payoffs on societal issues like racism is to support policies that truly improve educational and economic opportunities for all Americans (no easy problem, I know—the important thing is to realize this is surely more important than symbolic actions). The more that each of us, regardless of our background, can fulfill our potential, the better our chances of getting along better.

Black lives matter, and ALL our lives depend on that. Spread love, not hate, and work for justice and equality of opportunity for all. My family wouldn’t have been possible if others hadn’t done the same. Meaningful change generally takes a long time, but it can come relatively rapidly too. Consider that couples like my wife and I could not legally marry in Texas and many other states until 1967—just seven years before we were born (many thanks to the Lovings and others of their generation!). Consider that it wasn’t until 1993 that marital rape was illegal in all 50 states. Consider that gay couples could only legally marry each other in all 50 states, well, this very year.

We can do this. We must do this.

When words are racially insensitive

There seems to be a relatively frequent back-in-forth in American society involving one group asking the wider society to stop using a racially charged word in certain contexts, and members of the wider society reacting to this as political correctness or thinking it is just plain wrong. For example, @KaraRBrown posted “Stop calling shit ‘ghetto’”, in which she calls out the increasing use of the word ‘ghetto’ as an adjective for less desirable stuff and strongly recommends people stop using it in that context. To summarize: “… this [using ghetto in this way] is something that can make a seemingly OK person immediately sound like an ignorant, possibly racist asshole. Don’t be that person.”

One response on Twitter to this remarked on how she must mean it is racist toward Jews, and this led to a non-debate with no improvement in mutual understanding. Ms Brown took it as trolling, but it is also indicative of responses I’ve seen elsewhere in similar discussions. I’m fine with viewing it as trolling if you are tired of that kind of typical response, but it can also be viewed as an expression of general misunderstanding about don’t-use-the-word-X-in-certain-contexts requests.

An example that I deal with all the time is the use of the word ‘slave’ in distributed computing contexts, where there is commonly a “master” compute node that is in charge of many “slave” worker compute nodes (e.g. look at systems like Hadoop and Spark). This terminology comes from general use of master and slave in technology. When I started working with Hadoop, I asked my wife (who is black) what she thought of that terminology, and she responded simply that she found it somewhat insensitive and offensive. Mainly, her response was just “Why? There are lots of other good descriptive words one could use instead.” I looked into it a bit, and it turns out there was a bit of a furor over master/slave terminology years ago when, in 2003,  the County of Los Angeles requested that equipment suppliers avoid such terminology on equipment labels. The internet had a conniption about it, with many posters crying foul that this was political correctness gone crazy—even though it was just a polite email request. It is remarkable how vehemently offended some people got by the request and how they went through great lengths to defend the terms as the best ones possible. I’m personally with those who point out that there are many other perfectly good words to describe the relationship, e.g. primary/secondary, supervisor/worker, and that those have the added benefit of not being insensitive. My favorite response (which I unfortunately cannot find the link to now) was something like “we don’t call computer components rapist and victim: let’s not use master and slave either.”

One of the things that was often pointed out regarding master/slave is that the term goes back a long long time and that it neither began nor ended with American slavery, so why should black Americans be bothered by it? And anyway, slavery ended with the Civil War, so why can’t black Americans just get over it? It’s the same thing with the point about ‘ghetto’ being associated with Jews rather than black Americans. These comments ignore context, and the strong associations such terms have for some segments of American society. Context is everything, and unfortunately, American slavery is not out of context — it is the genesis of the struggles for equality that black Americans have faced over the past 150 years. Most white Americans feel it is far, far in the past, but it isn’t such a long time.  Oddly, many white Americans feel that we live in a post racial society, but this is at odds with the experience of many black Americans, and you don’t need to look far to see ugly examples of it right in our faces on Twitter.

Here’s another example of where context matters: a Boston policeman was fired for calling a baseball player a “Monday”. But “Monday” is just a day of the week, so what’s the big deal, right? Well, you know, regular words can be racists slurs in context. Consider this as well: it is still unfortunately common for white people born before the fifties to refer to black men as “boys”. This is highly offensive, even though they may wish no offense and often harbor no explicitly racist views. It’s the echo of times past reverberating through language still used today, and it still has power.

So, now to circle back to the main point. Some people seem to get quite offended by statements like “word X is racist in such-and-such context, so don’t use it that way.” Why? My guess is that quite often the offended person thinks “I’m not racist, but I’ve used that word in that way, so now you are calling me a racist, and that’s just crazy.” They then go on to justify that use of the word or otherwise make the request seem unreasonable. What they seem to be missing is that the original request is not saying that you are racist because you say X, but that it is racially insensitive to do so (and you probably didn’t realize that, so here’s your public service announcement). These are usually reasonable requests (and not calls to ban words, etc), so just consider changing your use of such terms out of respect and good sense.

Where The Birds Always Sing

Remembering Belle Scarlett Baldridge, Sep. 29, 2011.

On September 29, 2011, one year ago today, my family experienced the late-term stillbirth of our daughter Belle (see my post last year). It hurt like hell and it’s a loss we’ll always feel acutely. Despite this tragedy, we have emerged through the year stronger than before, in no small part thanks to the strength of our relationships and the amazing support of family, friends and community. And, just this past Sunday, on September 23, we celebrated the birth of a beautiful and healthy baby boy. This new addition was obviously very well monitored during the pregnancy, given the loss of Belle. We were quite confident that he would come out fine; nonetheless, his healthy arrival has been an immense relief for our family. He’s a very calm baby (so far), but I still do find myself rejoicing a little when he cries, even as I try to take care of whatever it is that he needs at the moment.

Our kids (my older daughter from my previous marriage and our three-year-old son) clearly had Belle’s loss very present in their minds with this pregnancy, even if they rarely voiced their concerns. My daughter was very worried before the birth, and her relief was palpable after she knew that he was alive and well. Our three-year-old was less direct about it, but it was very much in his mind. The day after the birth, I announced at  “Hey, he has been alive for a whole day!” not even thinking about Belle at that moment. Our three-year-old said “Belle wasn’t alive for a long time!” After I affirmed that statement, he followed it with “But he (the baby) will be alive for a long time!”, with a big smile on his face. It’s always amazing to see how kids are sorting through very complex emotions, and I think it is often at levels that are far deeper than we tend to give them credit for.

In addition to receiving support from others, I also processed Belle’s death through music. Like nearly everyone who grew up in the 1980s, I have a special fondness for the mixtape, and I’ve created plenty of playlists over the years. Last year, my younger brother Justin and I decided to each create (independently) a playlist of 100 songs that we connected with in 2011. In part, the idea was for the playlist to reflect the course of the year. When Belle died, my playlist obviously took a tone for the music that got me through it, and I ended up with a 20 song segment that I have come to think of as “the Belle cycle” (see below). Perhaps, the key song was one that I had long loved, but that Justin reminded me of – The Cure’s “Where The Birds Always Sing”. It’s lyrics beautifully capture the powerlessness we experience when dealing with death and attempting to make some sense of it. And, every time I’ve been to Belle’s grave, the birds have been singing.

The aftermath of Belle’s death taught us a lot, and there is much I discovered about myself. And, as we found out, it affected others greatly. We experienced an amazing outpouring of support from across the world — every little email and tweet of well-wishing helped. We heard from friends who, upon hearing about Belle, reflected on their own lives and made changes to enable them to lead happier, more fulfilled lives. Some even made pretty major changes in location and/or career. I heard from many others who had experienced stillbirths, and from yet others who were children who had come after stillbirths — and the tremendous, positive influence those siblings had had on their lives. It is still incredible to me that Belle has already had such an impact, even though she never drew her own breath.

So, one year on, all is well. We still feel the loss of Belle and remember her daily. We are now filled by the joy of having our new baby, and, of course, our other kids. It’s quite a mix of intense emotions, but the human heart has room for them all. Life goes on. It can be hard. It is rarely easy. But, it is good — very, very good.


Musical addendum: The 20 songs that formed what I’ve come to think of as “the Belle cycle” in my 2011 playlist run through the gamut of emotions I experienced just before and well after her death, and were drawn from songs that I was listening to a lot during that period. For some songs, it was the lyrics that spoke to me, but mostly it was the emotion conveyed by the music itself. They didn’t pop out that way, but as I organized the songs, they fell into a fairly clear narrative, for me. I’m sharing it here because maybe it, or some portion of it, or just the idea, can help someone else. It goes something like the following.

To begin, I’m on top of the world — I had just been promoted to associate professor and I’m in love with the little girl who I’d have soon. Heck, there was even a song with her name!

1. Kanye West – Touch The Sky
2. TV On The Radio – Will Do
3. Jack Johnson – Belle
4. Yo La Tengo – Our Way To Fall

The last song somehow transitioned for me: it has to do with falling in love, but that being transient, or hard to capture, as Belle was to evade us. The music actually conveys this much better than the lyrics alone.

Zoe Keating’s cello on “Sun Will Set” captured the echoing, sawing emptiness and desperation of discovering that Belle was dead.

5. Zoe Keating – Sun Will Set

The next is a song about watching a loved one die that has always moved me, but which took on particular poignancy. The lyric “love is watching someone die” beautifully captures the ache of losing someone.

6. Death Cab for Cutie – What Sarah Said

We struggle to make sense of death, regardless of our personal belief system, and The Cure captures it perfectly (see lyrics below).

7. The Cure – Where The Birds Always Sing

The next songs go to a dark place and then a raging hole inside. “Bury The Evidence” and “Ruiner” have long been songs for me to vent rage, and they served me well last year.

8. Danger Mouse – Dark Night Of The Soul (Feat. David Lynch)
9. Tricky – Bury The Evidence
10. Nine Inch Nails – Ruiner

Trent Reznor can express rage, but he can express calm equally well, though still typically with an edge to it. As such, NIN and then Radiohead and Danger Mouse express the calm after the storm, but an uneasy one, one that is nursing its wounds and wants revenge.

11. Nine Inch Nails – A Warm Place
12. Radiohead – Codex
13. Danger Mouse – Revenge (Feat. The Flaming Lips)

But perhaps things can still look up, and DJ Shadow gets a hook in that starts to bring it across.

14. DJ Shadow – Redeemed

As a kid, I was fascinated by Stevie Wonder’s “Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants”, and I found the song Power Flower haunting and mesmerizing. I had forgotten the name of the song and which Stevie Wonder album it was on, but I finally tracked it down last October — and it still haunts and mesmerizes me. And last year, it uplifted me.

15. Stevie Wonder – Power Flower

Still not out of the thick of yet — feeling much better, but still hurting and recovering.

16. Danger Mouse – The Rose With The Broken Neck – feat. Jack White

But, hey, you gotta pick yourself up and move on.

17. Deerhunter – Don’t Cry

Finally unfolding out of the gloom, slowly but surely.

18. Rachel’s – Water from the Same Source

And back up, able to smile again and see joy in the world.

19. Jónsi – Around Us
20. The Cure – This. Here And Now. With You

I formed this “cycle” in October and November last year, and listened to it again and again, revisiting and processing my feelings on each listen, drawing more strength each time. The very act of organizing the portion of the playlist in this way helped me immensely — essentially it was a constructive way to channel my emotions, and it produced something that allowed me to continue to process and understand them.

Finally, because they are so spot on, here are the lyrics for The Cure’s “Where the Birds Always Sing”:

The world is neither fair nor unfair
The idea is just a way for us to understand
But the world is neither fair nor unfair
So one survives
The others die
And you always want a reason why

But the world is neither just nor unjust
It’s just us trying to feel that there’s some sense in it
No, the world is neither just nor unjust
And though going young
So much undone
Is a tragedy for everyone

It doesn’t speak a plan or any secret thing
No unseen sign or untold truth in anything…
But living on in others, in memories and dreams
Is not enough
You want everything
Another world where the sun always shines
And the birds always sing
Always sing…

The world is neither fair nor unfair
The idea is just a way for us to understand
No the world is neither fair nor unfair
So some survive
And others die
And you always want a reason why

But the world is neither just nor unjust
It’s just us trying to feel that there’s some sense in it
No, the world is neither just nor unjust
And though going young
So much undone
Is a tragedy for everyone

It doesn’t mean there has to be a way of things
No special sense that hidden hands are pulling strings
But living on in others, in memories and dreams
Is not enough
And it never is
You always want so much more than this…

An endless sense of soul and an eternity of love
A sweet mother down below and a just father above
For living on in others, in memories and dreams
Is not enough
You want everything
Another world
Where the birds always sing
Another world
Where the sun always shines
Another world
Where nothing ever dies…

Happy Mothers Day to Academic Moms (We need more of you)

Happy Mother’s Day to all my female colleagues around the world, who produce amazing research and do great teaching while being moms!

Being an academic means a lot of hard (and rewarding) work, and being a parent on top of it brings an extensive set of challenges — especially as one effectively competes with others who don’t have kids! Compared to men, women face an additional set of challenges as academic parents, due to a wide variety of factors, including fixed biological ones (e.g. only they can actually bear children) and societal expectations which change ever so slowly (though thankfully generally for the better). It is important to have your perspectives as colleagues, teachers, and researchers, and I don’t think that academia does enough to allow you all to more easily balance the needs of work and family — much to our detriment. And there are still pay gaps between men and women, especially at more senior levels of academia. It all means that many women who may have provided fundamental insights into science sadly never go into academic work based on a very rational choice about the likely costs and benefits such a career brings. Many of my female colleagues feel they must wait until relatively late in their reproductive life to have children, often after tenure or after tenure is pretty much assured. This brings with it additional risks and challenges that women should not feel forced to take.

As it is we still have too few academic women, and even fewer academic moms. I believe the latter are an important group to support, since they are the ones who provide examples and can be role models for young women who are considering academic careers but who know they want children. Carlota Smith, a colleague in the UT Austin Linguistics department who sadly died five years ago, was a trailblazer who was a single mom academic in the 1970s and who I know directly inspired many of the female graduate students in our department. We need more Carlotas.

The less attractive it is to be an academic mom, the fewer women we’ll have in our midst, again to our detriment — this is especially true in fields like computer science. This has big effects on academic women who choose not to have children as it reduces the pool of potential female colleagues they could have. Even in our linguistics department, there are too few female graduate students who study computational linguistics, despite an otherwise reasonably balanced population of male and female graduate students.

So, knowing all the challenges you face on top of the usual ones — thanks again, and keep on being amazing. You all have my respect!

Belle Scarlett Baldridge

In loving memory of Belle Scarlett Baldridge
September 29, 2011

I buried my baby daughter Belle today. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Babies just aren’t supposed to die. We are fortunate to live in a time of favorable survival rates for babies and their mothers. We enjoy high degrees of order and predictability in our day-to-day lives (here in the USA, at least), and it is easy to forget that one still has innocence to lose. This has been the saddest, hardest week of my life. I had always heard that a parent should never have to bury their own child. I didn’t doubt it, but now I know it, fully. This morning, I gazed down at a gaping hole, my little girl’s grave, while I held her casket in my arms. It mirrored the hole already in my heart. It disarmed and terrified me, but also showed me that both were there to receive Belle and preserve her memory.

With this post, I seek to honor and remember Belle, to thank those who have supported us this week, to help myself grieve, and hopefully, to help—perhaps a little—others in the future who must unfortunately deal with the death of their child. My apologies if the post is on the (melo)dramatic side. It’s how I feel, and it seems to be part of my healing process, so please bear with me.

My wife Cheryl and I had long been anticipating Belle’s arrival, with a due date of today – October 4, 2011. Like most expecting parents, we had considered many of the possible outcomes of the pregnancy, including even the possibility of complications that would involve our baby and/or Cheryl needing hospitalization — but never the possibility that our baby Belle wouldn’t make it into this world, never the possibility of a stillbirth. The unyielding march of life and death has left us suddenly and unexpectedly bereft of a person we loved, cared for and were ready to teach and eventually send forth into the world.

We knew Belle from her kicks, and her responses to our voices, songs, and laughter. It’s an imperfect medium of communication, but it suffices to start the relationship that one builds with one’s child — they simply aren’t strangers when you see them for the first time. This is something that can perhaps be hard to understand for those who have not yet had children, and it is a common source of pain for parents of stillborn children: it is somehow perceived by many to not be as great a loss as for those whose children died after their birth date. A great line I read in one of the many materials I’ve been given about such loss is that on a scale of one to ten, the pain of losing a child is always a ten, no matter the age or circumstances. It’s true. I would submit that there is a further dynamic element for parents of a stillborn child: you have gone from a state of accelerating excitement and anticipation, to a huge resounding thud of shock and disbelief. The “what if’s” have in very short order become “never be’s.” This sudden reversal kicks in the first moment you are told that your baby’s heartbeat has stopped and then reverberates as you reel from the pain and try to regroup.

Little Belle is true to her name: she is beautiful, even in death. I can now only imagine what she would have looked like as she grew up, but thankfully I can do at least that. And, I can do that from a starting point of having been able to spend time with her on the day she was born, September 29, 2011. We had a wonderful team with us at Belle’s birth—including doctors, midwives, nurses, and doula—and they helped us through the intensely emotional and difficult process of bringing Belle into the world and, perhaps more importantly, to help us spend meaningful time with her before saying goodbye. They encouraged us to be with Belle, to hold her and take pictures, and not rush things. We now have at least those memories—even so bittersweet—to keep with us, something which many parents of stillborn babies are never given because no one tells them they can and should. This is a really important aspect of Belle’s birth that I hope to get across: you are hurting and spinning from the shock and pain, yet there are important decisions to be made from the very start; while you may have been provided with comprehensive and well-written literature on how to approach the situation, you have little emotional space for it and there is too much of it to possibly work through before you must make decisions.  If you or someone you care for finds themselves unfortunately in this situation, try to get across this message: take time with the baby and take pictures. You won’t get more chances later, and you’ll almost surely regret it if you don’t.

Another important thing for us was to have a small memorial service for Belle, and also a burial. As an agnostic without any religious affiliation, I had no default expectation for what to do. Cheryl and I had years ago decided that cremation would be the thing for us eventually. However, with Belle, Cheryl quickly realized that she wanted a place to visit her, so we went with a burial. I did not feel strongly about it, but it felt right to me when we did it today, so I’ll probably be glad for that choice in the long run. It was very hard to pick out her plot at the cemetery on Friday—it’s an area reserved for infants, a grid of small plots that serves as a concrete reminder of the fragility of the early days of life. Looking at the empty spot where Belle would be buried made it all seem more real, more this-is-really-happening, in the mix of surreal feelings of that day and the previous day. Of course, handing over a credit card to pay for the services and the plot then felt bizarre, an odd juxtaposition of a completely mundane action with the profound grief I was keeping in check. Regardless of that strangeness, it is one of those things which just must be done. Belle is now there, and it is a peaceful place, with trees and birds singing in them.

It turns out that stillbirths are more common than I would have ever thought. I had only directly known of one before Belle, and had assumed it must have been a case of extreme misfortune. Actually, in the USA, the average rate of stillbirths is roughly 1 in 150 births, about 26,000 babies every year. The rate is much higher in developing countries. Despite this prevalence, there apparently is not a great deal of research into it (and it seems to be an inherently difficult thing to research), so we still know little about specific actions that can be taken to prevent it. For the things we do know, such as tangled umbilical cords, there is very little warning — there is a window of perhaps 5-10 minutes from the time of fetal distress in which to save the baby. Knowing this actually relieved us of a great deal of guilt as we had initially second guessed ourselves, retracing our steps in the days leading up to Belle’s birth and imagining ways we could/should have known to try to get her out earlier.

Regardless of the statistics, regardless of whether we’ll know the cause of Belle’s death, it all just ends up feeling unfair. I’ve been robbed of my little girl, whose heart I had heard beating just days before. Belle should have had her fair shot at life, and I’m sure she would have made hers a great one. It shouldn’t have been this way, but that is what happened and now we must live with that and move on. In this, I’m so thankful for the amazing relationship I have with Cheryl. We’re both hurting, immensely, but we also are optimists who have both already overcome our fair share of challenges in our lives. Together, and with the help of family and friends, we’ll regroup and carry on, carrying Belle’s memory with us.

Little Belle, I’ll love you forever.

Addendum

There are many people who have provided us with amazing, and often unexpected, support over the last week.

Our doula, Shelley Scotka, was our shining light on the day of Belle’s birth. Many people have probably never heard of doulas — summarizing quickly, they are amazing women who assist in natural childbirth. They bring their knowledge of traditional birthing techniques and practical experience from many births to bear on yours, including translating what the doctors are saying and doing so that you hear what is going on, in simple, understandable terms. Shelley was there for our son’s delivery, a 50+ hour marathon that she did a great deal to ease. Little did we know that she would be every bit as vital for us for a stillbirth as she was for a live birth. She was a rock who helped before, during and after the delivery, and who continues to shower us with love and care.

We’re also incredibly thankful for the medical team that delivered Belle last Thursday at St. David’s North Austin. Our practice is OB-GYN North, and the midwives, doctor, and technician who had to tell us that Belle’s heartbeat had stopped were caring and kind, and helped us immensely with the initial shock and disbelief. Kathy Harrison-Short, CNM  had caught our son two years before and she immediately came to comfort us. Lisa Carlile, CNM stayed past her shift and was the one who ultimately caught Belle, at Cheryl’s request. Dr. Martha Smitz was the physician on duty that day. She demonstrated tremendous sensitivity, compassion and overwhelming competence throughout. She had an uncanny ability to put us at ease even in the midst of the sorrow and confusion we were going through. The nurses, other doctors, social worker and pastor were all similarly supportive and sensitive. The nurses deserve special thanks for taking such great care of Cheryl before the delivery and of Belle after it. Everyone treated us, and Belle, with tremendous dignity.

Since that day, our family, friends and colleagues have been incredibly supportive. One of the blessings in tragedy is the concrete realization that one is surrounded by a wonderful support network. My younger brother lives here in Austin and my mother had just arrived, ready to help us with Belle; they’ve been helping us through the whole thing, especially with our toddler son, even while dealing with their own loss and grief. My father flew in from Chicago, and my older brother immediately came over from Baton Rouge with his daughter. The sound of her playing with our toddler son over the weekend was a welcome, joyful addition that helped combat the otherwise tendency toward a somber mood. My brother’s wife helped us a great deal from afar, providing support both as a family member and as a practicing physician. My step-father will be here soon, a delayed visit (at my request) since I knew we’d need more backup once the main family contingent was gone.

Other have also given us great strength, including sharing their own pain and anger at the situation, and in a few cases, their own direct experience with stillbirths. There have been generous offers of help, including offers to teach some of my classes in the coming weeks. Though I’ve so far responded to almost none of them, I’ve read and appreciated every email of support from friends, colleagues, and students. In a way, this post is my response, so please consider this my thank you to you all. And to those who I have not yet gotten in touch with about Belle’s death, please understand that there has not been any particular plan or care with my communications regarding it — I’m just now getting geared up to pass the word on to more friends, and some of you are probably seeing this post as a result of that effort.

I must also give high praise to the people at Cook-Walden funeral homes. They have treated us very kindly and have been incredibly responsive to our needs. One of the things about the situation is that many decisions must be made in rapid succession, and you get some of them not-quite-right the first time around. Cook-Walden was very accommodating to changes in how we wanted to do the service and burial and to requests for articles of Belle’s that we only realized later that we’d want (such as a lock of her hair). They treated us and Belle with dignity and allowed us time and space to make decisions and say goodbye to her.

Finally, I must thank the volunteers from Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep, who Shelley called in for us. NILMDTS is a non-profit that has professional photographers who come to take pictures of stillborn babies and their families, and then later retouch them to provide nicer images of the baby than one could generally hope to capture by oneself. They were caring and professional, and we look forward to seeing the result of their work with Belle. If you are looking for a great non-profit to donate to, please consider them.