Six-year-old Lenore was our fourth and supposedly last child. I desperately wanted a fifth, but for a multitude of reasons that was not happening. I simultaneously celebrated and mourned each of Lenore’s firsts, because they were my lasts. That culminated in her first day of preschool. While it gave me regular kid-free time for the first time in 11 years, it was without question a difficult transition. I made the best of it, mostly with more horse time, but I knew I would always regret that fifth baby we wouldn’t have.
Then along came Malcolm. Born five and a half years after Lenore, Malcolm reset the clock on kids at home. And once again I find myself celebrating and mourning all the firsts, because for the second time, they are my last firsts. In a way, it’s worse this time, because I know for sure how quickly the phases and stages come and go. Plus, Malcolm is in a race to get through them. As our pediatrician remarked at his one year check up, “He’s blowing right through all the developmental milestones!”
Today Malcolm and I spent some time at the park. During the 13 years we have lived in this area, our family has spent hundreds if not thousands of hours at this particular park. Malcolm is a pretty solid walker now, but climbing play structures is still relatively new to him. I walked with him as he edged to the top of a toddler-sized slide and made his way down. I saw how worn this little slide was, no doubt from legions of other kids. “That includes my other four,” the thought came to me. That struck me for some reason. However small, our family has had an impact on this park. My two oldest are now in middle school, and are just too cool for playgrounds anymore. My middle two are now getting their swing and slide time at their own school. That leaves the baby brother to make his own mark as he learns how to use his body.
For the second time in parenting, I am forcefully realizing what it is to let go of this phase of life. This time however, I have the newer insight that no matter how many babies there are, the last one will be a little bit sad. And even if by some miracle there is another baby in the future for us, the time of infancy is quickly passing for Malcolm, as it already has for his brothers and sisters. He is looking less babyish everyday. His hair is now long enough to again see the tint of strawberry in the blond. It was present in his newborn fuzz, but once it fell out and became full blond, I thought I must have been nuts to see it. Now it’s back, only this time the face it frames is decidedly not newborn. It’s that of a growing boy who has many of his own opinions.
I love watching my kids grow, and rediscovering everything all over again. I just know from past experience how quickly it all passes. In a sense, a parent’s job description includes making themselves obsolete, or at least moving from care giver to friend. I look forward to all of that. And yet, it’s difficult to picture a time when there won’t be a significant amount of nostalgia for the baby era, when everyday is something new.
With that in mind, I raise a proverbial glass to Malcolm’s first birthday, and my second last first birthday.
“Now here you are with your faith, and your Peter Pan advice.
You have no scars on your face, and you cannot handle Pressure.”
– Billy Joel
This is Mr Te O’Lena, AKA Teo. He’s a 26-year-old Appaloosa/Quarter Horse cross. (Mr T was a much bigger deal in 1991 when Teo was born. The Te is from his Appaloosa side and the Lena from the Quarter Horse side.) He came into my life in 1995, and has accompanied me on every move since then. I wish sometimes that he had an odometer so I could know how many miles we have clocked in 22 years. However, he does have one, or rather, several things that help me remember where we’ve been: scars.
This is the first one we added, at age 4. It happened so long ago that it’s no longer visible. There used to be a long pink line from the tip of the nostril to his lip. Within a week of getting Teo, and moving him into our first barn, the mare next door bit him on the mouth. He was minding his own business when she came around the corner and split his lip. We debated whether it needed stitches, but in the end it closed on its own, and within a few years, the scar faded.
Left hind leg. That horizontal line halfway up occurred at age 6. I let Teo loose in a sandy enclosure, surrounded by five bar pipe fence. As usual, the first thing he did was get down and roll in the deepest sand along the fence line. Then he rolled all the way over, as most horses do, and in the process stuck his left hind leg through the bottom two rails. In a panic, he jumped up and dragged his leg back through the fence and sliced it open. To this day, 20 years later, he will not roll all the way over, even if there isn’t a fence in sight.
Left foreleg. Those white marks on the front are leftover from the one bad case of scratches he had at age 8. Sometimes scars result in white hairs.
I have a scar on my right shoulder to match the one above his eye. And the show bridle I carefully picked out and saved for was never the same again. When he was 7, we went to a clinic with a new trainer. While cantering around the very deep arena, Teo found an uneven spot and we both went down, head over heels. I got back on, but we were both bloody.
Right hind leg. Here’s another example of the body’s amazing ability to heal. If you see a circular white spot in the middle, that used to be a piece of proud flesh. (Don’t google it. Seriously.) He had it from age 10 to age 13. It bled horribly anytime it was bumped, but most vets only talked about how inconvenient it was to cut it off, and that often it would likely grow back anyway. Then our vet in Oregon suggested we try caustic powder. Lo and behold, within weeks, it was shrunken and smooth. Hallelujah.
Right rump. You really can’t appreciate this scar unless you feel it. Just looking at it, you wouldn’t notice anything. And then you touch it and your finger sinks a half inch deep in what should be muscle. I’m not sure the exact pathology that led to this, but Teo came in from the pasture one day about 10 years ago with a bloody patch of missing hair. Nothing too noteworthy. Horses rough each other up all the time. It scabbed over as usual. However, when the scab fell off, the skin was depressed. It never seemed to bother him, but it’s jarring if you run your hand over it, and the landscape changes unexpectedly.
Left shoulder. Another pasture casualty. If you use your imagination, it’s just about the right size for an equine tooth.
Left foreleg again. That missing patch of hair happened when he sideswiped himself galloping on a trail ride. Even he would tell you it was worth it.
I was sad the day I realized I could no longer see the hoofprint on my forearm. When Teo was learning to jump, our trainer had us try jumping with no reins and no stirrups. It’s a pretty common exercise, but not usually done on young inexperienced horses. The reins ended up by Teo’s ears, and when I reached for them, he freaked. With no stirrups to balance, I slid right off and underneath him. The footing was deep, otherwise my arm would have broken. I didn’t fully add up what happened until my arm started swelling and bruising. The shoe and nail prints were plainly visible. It was the coolest scar, and it’s no longer part of my body’s story.
Scars aren’t something to hide. They remind us of our story, and they remind us how quickly things can change.
There is riding a horse, and then there are those rides where you find yourself on a different plane of existence. It’s more than just being technically correct, executing all the right moves, and receiving all the right responses. Words can’t quite do justice to the feeling of uniting with a horse. It isn’t just the speed. You can get that anywhere. It’s a sensation of flight. It’s the trust in the relationship. It’s the realization that there isn’t conscious thought, that your two bodies are actually in synergy to make something extraordinary.
The memory of those amazing rides keep us going when we have the opposite experience. When the chips are down, we have to admit how much more powerful horses are than we are. That wonderful ride on a quiet horse changes very quickly when something suddenly pops up in the periphery. A spooked horse can jump right out from under you. Or, as I’m living proof, one bad step can bring that thrilling run to an end. Anyone who rides long enough will experience these things and more. While it can make a rider fearful, the knowledge that the possibility is always there adds to the rush. Even if the odds are one in ten thousand that any given ride will go south, the fact that you both made it out unscathed gives you just a hint of that cheating death feeling.
No one is immune to the unexpected. We have the scars to prove it. The beauty is, we saddle up anyway.
In October of 2009, my parents came to visit me. Fall foliage in our area was in full swing, and I had a few things planned for us to do to enjoy the season. During the first day’s outing, it was clear Dad wasn’t relishing all the walking with his usual energy. That night, he and Mom tended to some painful looking ulcerated wounds on his legs that I hadn’t seen before, and he admitted to me that he wouldn’t be up for another day like that one. That was a shock coming from the man I had seen fly around the world at a rapid rate. It hit me that I was witnessing the beginning of the end, and that Dad wouldn’t be with us for much longer.
In March of 2010, I got the phone call I had been expecting since the previous fall. Dad had gone through emergency surgery, was in ICU, and things were looking iffy. My four siblings dropped everything and rushed to be there and I had a decision to make. I lived farthest away, and there aren’t great options for getting across the country when you need to be there yesterday. Plus, I was still nursing my third child. Leaving him home with no clear idea when I would be back didn’t seem like a good plan. But bringing him with me would add to everyone’s burden. I thought back to the last conversation I’d had with Dad, where we discussed a lesson I was preparing to teach at church. We’d had a great hour long discussion of gospel principles, and I realized I was okay with that being our last conversation in this life. Reluctantly, I decided to wait for the funeral I was sure would happen soon.
Step by shaky step, Dad progressed through ICU, and after several weeks moved to a step down unit before finally coming home. However, he would never again be the man who showed up and helped out with home improvement projects, or rallied the troops for a day of sightseeing.
There were still good years. We still had family reunions, and my parents still visited, but Dad was in constant pain and moved ever more slowly. Every call from home, especially at odd hours, I expected to be the big announcement.
After a hospitalization last fall, it seemed clear Dad wasn’t recovering up to previous levels. It was a one step forward two steps back process. Two of my sisters spent time with him and decided we all needed time together. That happened in February of this year. My siblings gathered for a weekend. I took the opportunity to announce my fifth baby, 20th grandchild overall, who is slated to join us in September.
My oldest sister was preparing for her wedding and wanted to do some shopping. That’s definitely not my thang, so I stayed with Dad while Mom and the others headed off to bridal shops. Dad wanted help getting out of his chair, so I positioned his walker and got him standing, and he started shuffling his way through the house. I turned my back for a moment and heard him fall. Over the next hour, I helped him slither across the floor and then crawl back into his chair. The whole experience left me very rattled. Dad seemed so fragile.
In May, my nephew received his mission call and my sister booked a Memorial Day weekend trip to see my parents, and make sure her son saw his grandpa before he left for two years. Her report of Dad’s decline just since February was sobering.
Only days later, Dad fell again, this time injuring himself to the point of requiring surgical repair. While the surgery itself went well, the long recovery was full of complications. On Father’s Day, Mom put Dad on the phone as he lay in a rehab center. It would be my last conversation with him. I thought there were cans rattling in the background, but it turned out to be Dad’s breathing. I didn’t sleep at all that night, absolutely positive the final phone call would be coming.
Just over a week later, Dad was brought home for hospice. This time, at my sister’s urging, I dropped everything and hopped on a plane to see him one last time, six months pregnant and all. I was the last one to arrive. I went in Dad’s room and spoke to him, and he tried to open his eyes. It was the last time I saw him respond to anything. I put his hand on my belly and the baby kicked while I talked about everything. That was on Thursday evening. Dad lingered until early Sunday morning.
In the days in between, my siblings and I sifted through hundreds of old photos, read aloud from Dad’s journal, laughed and cried together, and had some the most open and frank discussions we’ve ever had. We talked about our sister’s death nearly 28 years ago, how it affected us individually and collectively. We talked about the first time we thought Dad was dying. We compared our experiences growing up, which varied widely due to the long span of years from oldest to youngest. We made funeral plans and arrangements. And finally, we all joined hands around Dad’s bed while my brother gave Dad his final blessing. The spirit in the room was palpable.
Dad’s funeral was a great send off. Each of us kids spoke, my husband and I sang a duet, one sister sang while another played, my nieces played prelude, and I played postlude. We buried Dad in the family plot, next to my sister, near his parents and two of his brothers. Then abruptly, our time of commiseration and mutual support was over. We all went our separate ways, all of us going home to our new normal.
I’m left wondering about grief and loss in general. How much can I now relate to everyone else who has lost a parent? Is losing a father like losing a mother? Is my relationship with my dad comparable enough to someone else’s relationship with theirs? How much does cause of death factor into the overall grief? And surely losing a parent as an adult is different than losing one as a child, or never having known them. Maybe I should consider myself lucky I got 35 years with him, and it shouldn’t affect me the same way it would have had it happened when I was very young. Either way, I have concluded that a very visual, tangible link to my own history is now gone, something that would be a common experience for everyone who loses a parent or grandparent. Whatever stories he knew and didn’t tell, whatever memories he had and didn’t share, whatever advice he had and didn’t give, it went with him, along with a piece of my own past.
Grief is very individual. Each person’s loss will be felt and dealt with differently, even if they were comparable relationships. And yet at the same time, it is unifying. It will happen to everyone eventually. All you have to do is outlive someone to experience their loss. One blogger put it:
“And yet you are full of death and your heart is as broken and so I invite you up here on the stage to claim your loss, too. To everybody who wrote to me, come on up. To everybody who lost a pet who was their only child; who lost a parent they thought they hated but they can’t stop sobbing; whatever your loss, let it be what it is. We have all lost. One and all. Come on up here and make room for the gal next to you. All of us smushed up on this enormous stage are all the Biggest Losers. We have all earned our title.”
My dad lived a long full life. He accomplished great things, saw much of the world, and made long lasting fulfilling relationships. His family will miss him everyday. Thank you Dad for everything you taught me. And if you see your newest grandson up there, keep him occupied until September. You two probably have a lot to talk about.
This blog post is getting some national attention. Jenny Witte, AKA Mamatoga, is pregnant with her fifth baby and planning a fifth c-section. She’s tired of certain responses when people find this out. Some express sympathy that she’s had so many c-sections. Some question her on how well she knows her available options. She’s here to tell you that she doesn’t want your pity and she’s very well-informed, thank you very much.
If it isn’t already obvious, I had a very visceral reaction to her post. On the one hand, I perfectly understand where she is coming from. People make thoughtless comments right and left on any aspect of our lives, but probably none more than pregnancy, birth, and early parenting. Whether it’s the fact that it’s such a unique time of life that invokes strong feelings in everyone, for better or worse, or simply that we want to connect with someone at such a special stage, sometimes it feels like new moms can’t get away from unwanted commentary on what they should or shouldn’t be doing with their bodies and babies. I understand and agree with the idea that we should simply be more supportive of one another. As wonderful and magical as these times of life are, parents are also stress-filled, sleep-deprived, and self-doubting. Why should we add to that already great burden?
You sense a but coming, right? It’s a big but. BUT, I resent the premise that these are things that shouldn’t be said to any c-section mom. The very title implies all c-section moms feel this way. While the author has since clarified she never intended to speak for all women like her, she did nothing to change the post itself to reflect that. In a way, it would seriously weaken her argument if she changed her title to, say, “Please Don’t Say This to Me.” That might make her sound whiny and self-involved. Instead, she invokes the power of an entire classification of women, many, but not all, of whom feel as she does.
I’d like to address a few specifics on her post. Her first baby was born by unplanned c-section after a long difficult labor. “Being upset that the plan I had for giving birth didn’t work out is not something I waste time on. Ever.” I’m so happy she came through that experience with no lingering trauma. Unfortunately, too many other women weren’t so lucky. Too many other women did not choose to “waste time” on PPD, PTSD, nightmares, and panic attacks, all of which I experienced after both my first (a vaginal birth) and third (a c-section) births. Women like myself did not make the conscious choice to feel as we did, and her implication otherwise is offensive.
Next: “I have read countless Facebook announcements along the lines of “My wife was a true warrior, giving birth naturally and with no drugs!” That’s great, and I am happy for those women, but I’m a warrior too, let me tell you. Just because I require a different, less “natural” way to get those babies into the world doesn’t make me a failure at giving birth.” Those countless Facebook posts weren’t about her. They were not directed at her. Those people did not post on her wall bragging about their births and shaming her for hers. She took personally a post to all their friends. This makes me doubt her claim that she chooses not to “waste time” on her birth plan gone awry. If she wants people to simply congratulate her, then can’t she reciprocate and not take personally something that was not even remotely about her?
“Now, I know, from experience, some of you are going to argue with me about c-sections, and here’s where I am going to shut you down. Giving birth naturally isn’t an option for me, so this is how I am going to do it.” I simply disagree with her wording here. I always question in my mind when someone says “it’s not an option” because here’s the secret: you always have a choice. Always. It may seem like you don’t if one option is the clear winner, but it is always your choice. Mamatoga’s choice is for a repeat c-section and that’s fine, but what that means is she rejected the option of VBAC, not that VBAC doesn’t exist.
I also have very personal reasons for disliking the idea that “it’s not an option.” Mine was not a typical c-section. It was done at 26 weeks due to a placental abruption. Because it was so early, the surgeons had no confidence they could perform the standard low transverse incision on the underdeveloped lower uterine segment and instead used a classical (vertical) incision. For those who are blessedly unfamiliar with this concept, a classical incision is the scarlet letter of c-section scars. Official guidelines from governing obstetric organizations state that women with classical scars should have scheduled c-sections for all future pregnancies, and in some cases earlier than the standard 38-39 weeks of most scheduled c-sections in order to avoid any signs of labor. I knew all this going into that c-section. I knew what I would be up against should I choose to buck the system and pursue VBAC anyway. I count it a miracle that, after a long search, I was able to find supportive care providers who assisted me in my full term VBAC of baby #4. That was my choice, when I very easily could have accepted the repeat c-section and said “VBAC wasn’t an option for me.” Since then, I’ve connected with dozens of women who have made similar choices through Special Scars. While not every special scar woman pursues VBAC, they learn from the organization that others have done so and it is an option. They generally won’t learn that from their health care providers. That brings us to our next excerpt.
“Mostly, what also bothers me is when people will ask WHY I had a c-section, and then will speculate on whether or not THEY think it was “necessary.” Not one of these people have been a medical professional, and it is rather offensive to assume I haven’t educated myself on what is going on with my body and the way I am going to give birth to my children (yes I have heard of VBAC and no it was not an option for me). Thanks for the rundown on c-section statistics, but if I have any major questions about it I’m going to go ahead and ask my doctor.“
I get it. I’ve made some unpopular decisions in my time too. I’ve put countless hours of research into those decisions and I’m not about to go into great detailed descriptions for every last person who questions me on the matter. However, while I won’t speak for the motives behind the people questioning and speculating about Mamatoga’s situation, I can state that my reasons have much less to do with a desire to be right or to feel superior than they do with a deep desire to spare other women what I went through. When I ask another woman how well she knows her options, that is mostly my own trauma talking. I want every first-time mom to know that she has the right to say no, and even eject people from her health care team who are doing more harm than good. I wish I’d known that 12 years ago. I wish I’d known it was well within my rights to decline interventions, especially those that were non-life-saving and simply for the hospital staff’s convenience. I wish I’d known, simple as that. I will risk offending someone like Mamatoga if it means another woman will come through her birth feeling healthier than she otherwise would have.
Finally, Mamatoga closes with this gem: “What is one piece of advice I will give to moms who are having a c-section? Be sure to ask to hold the baby afterward, the same way they do for “natural” births to get that same “skin to skin contact.”” I should have done that with my 26 week preemie, who was immediately put on a ventilator and taken to the NICU where I didn’t hold him for a full week due to the sensitivity of his skin that required a high degree of humidity and where he spent the first 99 days of his life. All sarcasm aside, if they could have intubated him and inserted the IV line in his umbilicus and everything else they did on my chest in the OR, that would have been wonderful. Seriously unlikely, but maybe it could have happened. But it hightlight the problem with her advice, which is that it paints the picture of a very calm scenario, one that simply isn’t the case with many births. That brings me to my final point.
“No matter how you are going to bring that baby into the world, keep your eyes on the prize, a healthy mama and a healthy baby, nobody should ever be sorry about that. And us c-section moms don’t need to have your pity, we need to have your congratulations and support.” C-sections do not guarantee the health of either mom or baby. Mine did not give me a perfectly healthy baby and my future reproductive health was compromised. We both came through it still having a pulse, but there is far more to health than simply having survived the experience. This could be a separate post all on its own, but in my 12 year history as a mother, I have never, ever agreed with the sentiment “All that matters is a healthy baby” and it’s variants.
After my first son was born and I was traumatized and looking for validation, mostly what I heard was “At least you got a healthy baby.” First of all, how many helpful comments actually begin with the words “at least”? Secondly, I was my baby’s mother, his primary care giver. I spent more time with him than anyone else. Did these people think I was unaware of his health? Did they believe they were giving me new information? The kicker came after my third birth. It was a long time before I felt comfortable bringing my preemie out in public. By the time I did, he looked, to all outward appearances, like a normal healthy baby. That’s because we didn’t go about our daily lives with an entourage of all the specialists who were still following him. We didn’t carry his medical chart to show to complete strangers. Health isn’t always obvious to the casual observer, and you have no idea if you are rubbing salt in a raw wound with that “healthy baby” comment. And finally, healthy babies matter, but so do unhealthy ones. Do you know what happens when you have one of those unhealthy babies? Do you reject them? No. You love them. You take care of them. You do your best to meet their special needs and raise them for whatever amount of time you may have with them. People matter, whatever their health.
So what should we say to moms? It’s hard to go wrong with “How are you?” Then listen empathically. Don’t interject advice unless she asks. More likely than not, she simply wants someone to listen.
I have a confession to make, just between us. I’ve watched way too much Netflix in the last year. I’ve already written about a few things that came to my attention through the wonders of streaming TV shows, but I skipped over the implications of having spent the time watching them.
It all started as we were preparing to move. I found a show to watch while packing boxes. Periodically, I would finish a set of boxes before the episode was over. Then the next episode would start of its own accord. Pretty soon, I was hooked into yet another. It’s kind of a miracle I got anything done.
It has been interesting to compare and contrast watching a long running TV show over the course of weeks or months versus live. Like most things, there are trade offs, and it depends on the type of show whether more is lost or gained by mass consumption.
I watched The X Files in the ’90’s, along with millions of other fans. Each week, I turned my lights off and tuned in. I can remember calling a friend during commercial breaks when Something Big had happened. The next day, it was talked over, analyzed, and theorized. Summers were long and we wondered whether Mulder had really died this time. It was a rush to see the movie on opening day with other ardent fans. The show was one of the first to gain a large internet following, and the so called X Philes are credited with coining the term shipper, to describe fans of a particular romantic relationship. And yes, I was absolutely a Mulder/Scully shipper.
The next show I watched live was Fringe, almost 10 years later. I caught up on the first two season over a summer and joined in for seasons three through five. By then, the internet was very well established part of life, so along with other fans in between episodes, I picked apart, wondered, and even created. Yes, I’ll admit it. I am guilty of theorizing through fan fiction. The show was multi-layered and full of Easter eggs for the observant, so plenty of fans pulled together to decipher it all. We also fretted over ratings, which steadily dwindled until the show ended.
I contrast that with watching Buffy, Angel, and Lost over a short period of time, years after their finales. It’s so much simpler to sit back and watch when the next episode to start automatically, than it is to attempt spacing them out and allow time to digest and speculate about what is to come. Much of the fan-generated content is still out there for each of these shows, but it feels obsolete as those mysteries have largely been solved. And while the short time span allows a viewer to remember much of the complicated mythology and back story unique to each show, you barely have time to absorb anything before the next episode starts. I missed both the fan camaraderie and the chance to savor each new development.
Other shows are less complicated and start getting stale on a binge watch. Most sitcom episodes begin to look alike after awhile. Then there are shows like House, MD and Bones that are a series of standalone episodes. They tend to be formulaic and become predictable. I find it easier to get my fill of House or Bones because there isn’t a central theme story arc carrying from one episode to the next. And while their fandoms may be just as dedicated, I personally find less need of it because of there isn’t as much to wonder about where the story is going.
I have wondered if a currently airing show’s availability on Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime has reeled in new live viewers. I caught up to Fringe and watched to the bitter end, but I wouldn’t have been willing to do that if I’d had to start in the middle. Last year, I caught up to Supernatural and I watch it live now too, because it’s another show that lends itself well to long terms story arcs and fan theories.
When I went looking for evidence that current long-running shows gain new viewers from the internet, all I found were laments from TV networks about the loss of live viewers. According to Fortune, as much as 40% of the decline in TV viewing is directly attributed to online streaming services. Forbes shows the trend has been going on for years. Digital Trends places Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon far down the list of ways to view if you want your favorite show to be renewed.
Then there are those who are a bit paranoid about the effect Netflix is having on our viewing habits. Salon says we’re being turned into puppets. Netflix records every time we pause, rewind, or fast forward, and looks for trends.
“Perhaps the action slowed down too much to hold viewer interest — bored now! — or maybe the plot became too convoluted. Or maybe that sex scene was just so hot it had to be watched again. If enough of us never end up restarting the show after taking a break, the inference could be even stronger: maybe the show just sucked.”
I wonder if the powers that be at Netflix have clued in that I tend to fast forward through scenes of childbirth. I can’t stand the way it is generally portrayed in movies. Regardless, this is a new capability that no one could possibly have done 20 years ago when I happened to rewind and watch one or two especially sweet Mulder/Scully scenes.
For better or worse, TV watching is changing. Really, the only claim live TV has left is sports events, and advertisers know it. How many non-football fans watch the Superbowl knowing the quality of advertising will be a cut above the usual? But sports fans and players pay the price in the form of longer games with more interruptions,
Big changes are ahead as technology continues to evolve, but who knows exactly what they are and how they will affect fans of good storytelling. Fans will adapt as always, but I will probably continue to feel nostalgic for the simpler time of the ’90s
“Many of us have a mistaken idea about large numbers, namely, that they are like small numbers, only bigger.”
-Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness
Statistics. Booooorrrrinngggg. At least, I think that’s commonly the response when the subject comes up. I personally like it, but I’m weird.
Numbers and figures are quoted everyday in media, but they can be misrepresented or simply misunderstood. I believe statistics should be taught in high school. Replace one of the other maths, such as trigonometry or even algebra 2. A little knowledge of practical statistics makes life easier. Here are some of the ways I see statistics used and abused on a regular basis.
Practically Perfect in Every Way
When I hear a stat quoted, I usually want to know the story behind the numbers, and by that I mean, how those numbers were calculated. That’s especially the case whenever I see 99%. It sounds like such a good, big number. An irrefutable number, really. How can you argue with it? It’s practically perfect.
My favorite example of how deceptive 99% can be is in the case of the false positive. A medical test with a 99% accuracy rate can give a false sense of security. Do you know more than 100 people? I do. It’s really not as big a number as it sounds. One person out of every hundred who take the test receiving a false positive is more common than it seems at first glance. What’s even more insidious is when the false positive is more likely than the odds of having the condition to begin with. A 1% false positive rate for a condition that represents .1% of the population for instance means the positive test is 10 times more likely than the condition itself.
The Power of Sample Size
Do you remember drawing Punnett squares in high school biology? Something like this:
You show what available genes both the father and mother have, and what combinations they can make in the offspring. In this case, both parents have one dominant and one recessive gene available to pass on. Gregor Mendel established the idea with his pea plants, but in classes, blue versus brown eyes is a perennial example because it was more relatable than pea color.
(On a side note, I hated that the common example was blue versus brown eyes. Where do my green eyes fit in? Or the different shades of each color? Eye color inheritance is way more complex than a Punnett square can show. But for simple dominant/recessive traits, the Punnett square works just fine.)
Years ago, I met a woman with PKU, a genetic metabolic disorder. Inheritance of the condition is simple autosomal (non X or Y chromosome) recessive. You need two copies of the gene to have the disease. This woman’s parents were both carriers. According to the Punnett square, that meant each of their kids had a 25% chance of having PKU. However, in their family, three of the six kids had it. This woman concluded her parents genes were somehow more potent than average because 50%, not 25% of the children were affected.
For most practical purposes in life, six children constitutes a large family. However, statistically, it’s nothing. If there were 100 children and 50 were affected, we would start to wonder, but with six, each child represents a 16% difference one way or another. Do you see the problem here? Having 3 children expressing the gene is well within the realm of possibility, instead of the 1 maybe 2 we might have concluded based on our simple Punnett Square. By my calculations, there is a 13% probability of this family turning out the way it did. While that isn’t a huge number, it’s way too large to be considered rare.
Your run into something similar with gender balance within a family. Mathematically, a family of four children is more likely to have three of one gender and one of the other than they are to be balanced two and two. There are five possible combinations with four children.
Overall in the population boys are born at a very slightly higher rate than girls, but assuming 50/50 doesn’t significantly change the percentages while it turns the calculation process into a thing of beauty. That leaves the probabilities looking very evenly distributed in a nice neat pyramid.
An evenly split family is the most likely single outcome. However, combining the probabilities of the two three-and-one families gives us 50%. With four children, you have fully 50% odds of having three of one gender and one of the other. Add in the odds of having all four the same, and that leaves 62.5% biased one way or the other, compared to 37.5% for a balanced family.
Every choice has both ups and downs. Some are clear cut, others, either aren’t. And most, sadly, can’t be weighed, measured, and plugged into an equation to help in the decision making process. So often, we don’t know all the variables, nor do we even know the right questions to ask. We don’t know what we don’t know.
On occasion, however, each side of the decision has several measurable risks and benefits. The latest issue of The New Yorker contains a simply brilliant piece on the overuse of medical technologies. One of the examples given is as follows:
“My friend Bruce told me what happened when his eighty-two-year-old father developed fainting episodes. His doctors did a carotid ultrasound and a cardiac catheterization. The tests showed severe atherosclerotic blockages in three coronary arteries and both carotid arteries. The news didn’t come as a shock. He had smoked two packs of cigarettes a day since the age of seventeen, and in his retirement years was paying the price, with chronic lung disease, an aortic-aneurysm repair at sixty-five, a pacemaker at seventy-four, and kidney failure at seventy-nine, requiring dialysis three days a week. The doctors recommended doing a three-vessel cardiac-bypass operation as soon as possible, followed, a week or two later, by surgery to open up one of his carotid arteries. The father deferred the decision-making to the son, who researched hospitals and found a team with a great reputation and lots of experience. The team told him that the combined procedures posed clear risks to his father—for instance, his chance of a stroke would be around fifteen per cent—but that the procedures had become very routine, and the doctors were confident that they were far more likely to be successful than not.
It didn’t occur to Bruce until later to question what the doctors meant by “successful.” The blockages weren’t causing his father’s fainting episodes or any other impairments to his life. The operation would not make him feel better. Instead, “success” to the doctors meant reducing his future risk of a stroke. How long would it take for the future benefit to outweigh the immediate risk of surgery? The doctors didn’t say, but carotid surgery in a patient like Bruce’s father reduces stroke risk by about one percentage point per year. Therefore, it would take fifteen years before the benefit of the operation would exceed the fifteen-per-cent risk of the operation. And he had a life expectancy far shorter than that—very likely just two or three years. The potential benefits of the procedures were dwarfed by their risks.”
It’s a good illustration of weighing not just immediate but long term consequences. I wish more analyses took both into account.
Once the decision is made, it’s easy to assign either credit or blame, based on the outcome. If things turn out well, we congratulate those in charge. If not, we look for a scapegoat. But here’s the kicker: You cannot judge the merit of a decision based on the outcome alone, because that was the one piece of information you did not have when you made the decision. This is an example of what’s called hindsight bias. If you had known ahead of time how it would turn out, it wouldn’t be much of a decision, would it? The outcome by itself does not determine whether you can accept either credit or blame. In his book Fooled by Randomness, statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb said, “I will repeat this point until I get hoarse: A mistake is not something to be determined after the fact, but in the light of the information until that point.” (p. 58)
Stories are important. They put faces on the numbers, and help humanize any decision to be made. They can be especially powerful in the cases of outliers, those who don’t fit neatly into the rest of the data set. However, one single story does not completely negate a study’s findings. More often, it means you fell into the “other” category.
In most studies that make it to mainstream press, there is an association between some habit, health practice, or physical trait, and a resulting health outcome. Then someone reading a press release will completely dismiss the findings because they don’t happen to match up with personal experience. The pitfall is in trying to apply percentages to individuals. It simply can’t be done. All a percentage can do is predict relative proportions in a given set of the population. It cannot completely predict who will fall into which category.
For example, this study shows an association between low BMI and dementia. I could read this study and point to the thin people in my family who made it to old age with their wits about them. However, that won’t single-handedly refute the conclusion. There are other factors involved. Who knows what they are, but for whatever reason, my family members weren’t affected. Others are, as the nearly two million people in this study can attest. (Two million is a pretty awesome sample size, by the way.)
Another aspect of anecdata is how another person’s story affects your decisions. As I said, stories are important, but they need to be put in context. It helps to know the source. First hand accounts are best, but sometimes the stories come from your best friend’s sister’s boyfriend’s brother’s girlfriend who heard from this guy who knows this kid who’s going with a girl. Stories get slightly distorted with every retelling, some details emphasized, others left out. But more importantly, you have no clear idea how well your situation compares with whomever it actually happened to. Just keep a perspective.
Lack of Evidence is not Evidence of Lack
“Never say never.” We’ve all heard it, and it’s true in so many way. It’s darn near impossible to prove something will never happen, especially if it never has happened. How long do you wait before you conclude you’ve reached never?
How long will you keep searching for something? Let’s say you are looking for your keys and you remember leaving them in a room that happens to be very cluttered. (If you have absolutely no clutter in your house, congratulations. And I hate you.) How long do you search before deciding they must be somewhere else? What if they don’t turn up there either? Really, until the keys are found in another location, it’s difficult to conclude they aren’t in that huge mess somewhere.
We run into the same issue in scientific studies trying to “prove” something doesn’t exist. At the end of the day, all they have the power to do is accumulate a lack of evidence, but they cannot definitively prove it’s not there. Much like the search for missing keys, most researchers will reach a certain level before agreeing there is reasonable certainty that we can stop looking. However, we will never know for sure.
Where Does That Leave Us?
My goal is to give a greater appreciation for the subject of statistics. I happen to really enjoy the field, and wish it were more widely studied. I myself didn’t take a single class in it until grad school when I minored in it. That’s a travesty, but at least I got something. Those classes opened up a whole new way of looking at the world, and perfectly complemented my major field of population genetics. But even for those who don’t want to make a career with numbers, I think it’s beneficial to have a good grasp of what they can and can’t do.
I highly recommend books by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, quoted above. I’ve read Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan and both are excellent and very readable. Nudge by Richard H Thaler and Cass R Sunstein is another good one. It’s not directly about statistics, but it shows how subtle influences in our lives affect all of our decisions, in measurable ways.
So the next time you hear “Four out of five dentists recommend this product.” or “Kills 99% of germs!”, take a closer look at the numbers. What you find might just be interesting.
Creator and writer Joss Whedon is much celebrated for compelling stories. Many of his works have become cult classics, and rightly so. Not only are his characters relatable, they are consistent without being static. And who doesn’t love a little girl power on display? Whether it’s Buffy’s or Faith’s superhuman strength, Willow’s or Fred’s intelligence, or Cordelia’s or Tara’s nurturing, we enjoy seeing these young women playing to their strengths and becoming integral parts of the fight against evil.
Through some odd combination of events, I missed Buffy the Vampire Slayer when it was live on TV. I was the perfect age to watch it, and my gateway drug, The X Files, had perfectly paved the way to enjoy the supernatural and horror aspects of the show. So just how it wasn’t a part of my life is a mystery. Now, more than a decade after the show’s finale and through the advent of Netflix, I am able to consume the six and a half season as well as the five seasons of the spinoff show Angel in a matter of weeks. WARNING: There be spoilers ahead.
Initially, I thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in the so-called Buffyverse. Doing so over a short period of time, as compared to years, allowed me to appreciate how certain characters evolved while still remaining essentially themselves. Cordelia, Wesley, and Spike come to mind. All three grow and evolve while retaining core aspects of their personalities.
That all sounds great, right? Good stories told well with relatable characters. What can go wrong? A lot, it turns out. The road to a happy ending is long and fraught with danger. By my count, all of these characters fall into two categories when it comes to happy endings: dead, or alone. Character death is to be expected. Epic battles and apocalypses are going to exact a human (or demon) toll. The alone category on the other hand flies in the face of most storytelling structure. We usually want the hero to “get the girl.” I put it this way on my facebook page:
“Here’s a fun challenge. Think of a romantic pairing from any Joss Whedon production who, at the end of the show, emerge from apocalyptic rubble, kiss, and limp off into the sunset of implied happily ever after. Go.”
In the ensuing comments, most agreed that Kaylee and Simon from Firefly came the closest. By the end of the movie Serenity, they have confessed their feelings for one another, and we can assume they move forward. However, their mutual affection seems lukewarm in light of the characters’ recent major losses, and one can easily interpret another ending for them.
It isn’t simply that there are losses along the way and some of them happened to be in romantic pairings. In the vast majority of cases, character deaths are inextricably linked with their romantic partners. Some examples from Buffyverse include:
Jenny Calendar. She was murdered by Angelus and left for Giles to find when he thinks he’s in for a romantic evening.
Angel. Buffy sacrificed him to save the world shortly after he regains his soul.
Buffy’s mother Joyce. Buffy arrives home and finds the flowers sent by Joyce’s new boyfriend. Immediately after, she finds her mother dead on the couch.
Tara. She is randomly murdered while she and Willow are in the glow of their recent reconciliation.
Anya. She dies in the final battle for Sunnydale, after she and Xander have begun their own reconciliation.
Spike. He sacrifices himself to save the world after Buffy confesses she loves him.
Doyle. He sacrifices himself immediately after kissing Cordelia for the first time, transferring his vision power to her.
Cordelia. Her departure and death are long and drawn out, and each step is exquisitely painful to Angel. However, her final death comes immediately after Angel kisses some supernatural representation of her one last time.
Fred. She and Wesley finally begin a relationship after years of friendship and his unrequited love, only for her body to be overtaken by the ancient god Illyria, snuffing out her presence.
Wesley. After he suffers a mortal wound, Illyria takes on Fred’s appearance one last time to hold him as he dies, sealing his fate as a tragic hero.
Each of these events carries emotional impact for the viewers, most of whom are naturally inclined toward the happily ever after. I can’t decide whether it’s the fact that I saw the shows over the course of weeks instead of years, or the fact that the last deaths were of my favorite pairing that led me to my current distaste for all things Whedon. Both possibilities are worthy of exploration, but I’ll save the mass consumption of long-running TV shows for another time.
Fred and Wesley hold a special place in my heart. Both are brainiacs and a little socially awkward. She is thin with long brown hair and definite OCD tendencies. He is tall, dark, and handsome with very careful diction. In other words, I saw myself and my husband Kurt in them, and I rooted for their relationship through the two and a half seasons it took to officially come to pass. When the aha moment finally came, it stirred warm memories of my own relationship at its inception, and great hopes that here at last someone would get that happy ending.
It was not to be. Their relationship last half an episode before Fred dies. Without watching the rest, I read ahead and found that Wesley dies as well.
Pictured: My final straw.
I didn’t finish the final season of Angel. After watching defeat being snatched from the jaws of victory multiple times, culminating in the sundering of my favorite pairing, I found my enthusiasm soured. Whatever enjoyment I had from both series was severely diminished by the continued emotional impact of might-have-been.
Psychiatrist Joseph Weiss wrote about why we cry at happy endings. To some degree it would make more sense to cry during the difficult, sad, and scary parts of the story, but at those times we, and the characters, need to hold it together as there is still work to be done. Once the happy ending is secured, we no longer need to expend the energy to hold back tears. We feel safe enough to let them go.
Now picture the same scenario but without the happy ending. Where does that energy go? Are we still hanging on to it? The story told in the final season of Angel never let up enough to allow for that safety release. I wonder if that is what people mean by craving closure. For viewers, there was no closure, only the untimely and, perhaps, unjust deaths of beloved characters.
Someday, maybe I’ll finish out the last few episodes I couldn’t bring myself to watch. In the mean time, I seek balance in happier stories.