Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Why My Daughters - And Sons - Are Getting the HPV Vaccine

It seems like time has really flown. My eldest daughter is in 6th grade this year, and will be entering Jr. High next fall. Which means she has started her Jr. High vaccinations. (Cue ominous music…)

My daughters - and my sons as well - will be getting the HPV vaccine. Here’s why.

First, let me explain that I am a proponent of vaccines in general. It has been immensely frustrating to see the panic over the last couple of decades that continues to grow, despite overwhelming evidence that vaccines are safe and effective. Even more frustrating is the fact that the panic all stems from a fraudulent “research study” published by a man named Andrew Wakefield back in 1998 claiming to find a link between vaccines and autism. Without getting into the entire issue, I will simply point out that Wakefield had a clear conflict of interest (his plan to market, along with a personal injury attorney, a supposed medical “treatment” for autism), cherry picked his 12 case studies, and in general, didn’t follow basic accepted techniques for a meaningful study. I will repeat in case anyone missed it, this was all based on 12 - a mere dozen - patients, who were cherry picked by Wakefield to support his theory. In most circles, we call this fraud, but apparently there is a significant contingent that remains willfully blind to it. Whatever the case is, there were a good number of larger studies, with the correct control groups, that were conducted that showed no statistically significant correlation (let alone causation) between vaccination and autism. This is all readily available information, but the conspiracy theories and fears remain. 



One of my favorite science authors, Phil Plait (see my review of Death From the Skies), has referred to vaccine panic as the Young Earth Creationism of the left. Now, I agree with him that it is an equally irrational position, believed in the teeth of the evidence as is YEC, and that it does infect a certain contingent of leftists. However, in my experience, it is equally popular on the right. I also believe that a certain amount of the panic on the right can be attributed to another factor that doesn’t play out in leftist circles.

I know this is just anecdotal evidence, but I strongly suspect it plays out on a broad scale. With the exception of those right-leaning friends and acquaintances who have been into alternative medicine snake oil for decades (which means they have a lot in common with leftist anti-vaxers), the anti-vaccine panic in right-leaning circles really gained traction starting in 2006.

What happened in 2006?

The HPV vaccine Gardasil was approved in the United States. The rise of the internet - and Facebook in particular - contributed as well, but I believe this one vaccine sent many parents looking for reasons to skip the vaccine, and fell right into the clutches of the quacks peddling anti-vax lunacy.

If my lifelong experience in Conservative Christian circles has taught me anything, it is that the one topic which brings out the most irrationality and damaging panics is that of sex.

Sex may sell, but fear sells better, and fear of sex sells better than anything else in Christian circles.

My experience has been that, with the crunchy hippie exception, the vaccine panic took off once a vaccine for a sexually transmitted infection was released.

As Professor Harold Hill put it, “Mass-staria!”

Obviously [sarcasm font], this vaccine was a leftist conspiracy to get our young people to have more sex!

I’ll do my best to rebut that in a bit, but first, what are the actual facts?

Facts about the Human Papilloma Virus

I’d probably skip this segment, except that I am willing to wager (from my own experience) that many who are passionate anti-vaxxers don’t really know much about HPV beyond the name.

First of all, let’s call it what it is: warts. In really awkward places. That’s not pleasant.

And worse than that, some strains have a bad habit of turning into cancer. In really awkward places. That can kill you.

If you are a woman, HPV can also cause infertility. Also not a really great outcome, at least if you want kids.

So, you generally do not want to get this disease. At best, you get warts in awkward places.

It’s not difficult to get either. The best estimates for the United States indicate that 80% percent of women will contract at least one strain by age 50, with men close behind.


Worldwide, the mortality number is estimated to be 275,000 yearly. (By contrast, the yearly worldwide death toll from war is estimated at 55,000.) No matter how you slice it, that’s a large number.

I have had a couple of clients who had cervical cancer, and my wife has some co-workers and acquaintances who either have had it, or currently have it - and the prognosis isn't good for some of them. This isn’t surprising. It is out there, and it kills.

And that isn’t counting the other cancers associated with HPV. Recently, actor Michael Douglas reported that he was suffering from oral cancer, most likely caused by an HPV infection.

I suspect many of my Evangelical friends, particularly the older ones, will clutch their pearls, and dismiss this as just something that happens to those vile Hollywood types, who presumably sleep around all the time. (And have oral sex. The horror!) Of course, this is a rather dismissive attitude to have, but beyond that, it is foolish. It isn’t that hard to catch HPV, and many people have it. One exposure, and you could end up with cancer.

So much for the reasons to want to avoid said disease. What about the vaccine?

Facts about the vaccine

All vaccines have some incidence of adverse effects. So do all drugs, herbs, and pretty much everything else we might possibly contact, ingest, or do. Of the most common activities, use of an automobile is probably the most risky, but most of us do it anyway. So the question is not, “could there possibly be a risk,” but “is the risk high enough to outweigh the benefit.” I would have thought this was common sense, but research shows that humans tend to overestimate risk, while underestimating benefits in many cases. This is why people can get in a car despite a high risk, but get freaked out about extremely unlikely events like shark bites. Another example would be the way people can be paralyzed about the possibility of a stranger abduction, even though most sexual assault comes from someone the victim knows well. The unusual is more frightening than the mundane.

In general, vaccines carry an extremely small risk, both numerically and in terms of likely harm in the more serious cases. In fact, the risk from the disease itself is far greater than from the vaccine. (Um, that’s why we use them, right?) Again, the risks associated with any vaccine are extremely low.

However, even as far as vaccines go, the HPV vaccine is safe. In fact, it has fewer adverse reactions than the average vaccine. Perhaps this is because it is newer, and the science is better? Perhaps.

Let’s look at actual numbers. In the eight years it has been licensed, there have been about 12,000 reported adverse events. (Out of more than 23 million vaccinated.) That’s just a few more reactions in eight years than there are cervical cancer diagnoses in every year. What qualifies as an adverse event? It’s not a hard bar to clear. The most common ones were...wait for it...redness and swelling at the vaccine site. Also common was fainting, dizziness, and vomiting.

Hmm.

This should come as no surprise. These are all common symptoms of a common item: the needle.

I am a regular blood donor, working on my 10th gallon. That’s 80 donations. I have had two “adverse events” myself. The first time I donated, I stupidly reopened my puncture, and bled all over. (Don't ask. It was stupid and embarrassing...) My then girlfriend (now wife) had to catch me. Another time, someone else fainted after donating, and it got to me. I had to be given a cold pack before I fainted. It’s natural. Blood or needles.

These are the “adverse effects” we are talking about in the vast majority of the cases.

My wife, who is not only a nurse, but worked in a pediatrician’s office during nursing school, has a theory about this. The HPV vaccine is primarily given to middle school kids. When she assisted with vaccines, the worst, by far, were 12 year olds. Particularly 12 year old boys, who sometimes had to be physically restrained for shots. (I would have been embarrassed at age 7, let alone age 12, but whatever.) So, the idea that there was plenty of fainting and complaints of pain from humanity’s most theatrical age should come as no surprise.

I won’t go through it all, but you can read the CDC fact sheet on all this. I’ll merely note that in all the cases where deaths were reported subsequent to an HPV vaccination, the autopsy revealed a cause of death unrelated to the vaccine.
I’ll add my own bit to this, from the mouth of my own 11 year old. She got four shots, the last of which was (intentionally) the HPV shot. She said the others weren’t bad, but the HPV one hurt. She’s tough, so that meant it hurt. (This is the girl who fell off a wall, cutting her leg down to the viscera, and still had the presence of mind to notice that the viscera was interesting. I think she was 8 or 9 at the time.) She didn’t faint after the vaccination, and she did her gymnastics class without incident the next day. No big deal.

Is the vaccine effective?


That’s the truth about the vaccine. So why is it such a huge controversy in Evangelical circles?

Sex

I’ve noted this before several times in connection with other topics, but for some reason, Evangelicals absolutely freak out and do batshit crazy things whenever fear of sex is involved. It’s how you get the courtship/betrothal movement, the perpetuation of Rape Culture through slut shaming, and how you get fanatical opposition to a useful vaccine.

I remember when the vaccine first started trials. Predictably, Evangelicals everywhere started saying that if you gave your daughter this vaccine, she would have less incentive to avoid sex before marriage.

Really?

I remember hearing this argument from my youth, and I never bought it. I mean, really. There are a variety of situations where one might have sex, and I don’t think any of us would calculate, “Let’s see, I could catch, say, 22 diseases. Oh, wait, it’s only 21. I’m good!” This is to say nothing of the risk of pregnancy, for that matter. But even then, for the very most rational of us (the Spocks of sex…), the difference between herpes and herpes plus HPV is unlikely to change behavior one iota. For the more normal situation, the decision to have sex, or to use protection, is likely made without reference to any particular disease. It is made from hormones and desire. The more prepared and rational use at least some protection. The others don’t.

So, does the HPV vaccine make a difference in sexual behavior?

Absolutely freaking not.

Here is the relevant study. (There are others too. I just link one of several.) Guess what? No difference. 

I’m not surprised.

The Evangelical Obsession with (Female) Virginity

I’ve been thinking about this a good bit, in connection with my Modesty Culture series, and also in connection with my observation of Evangelicalism during my life of experience.

I believe that there is a bit of a sadistic side to our tribe, that really, really, wants to see sexual sinners punished severely for their sins.

We want to see blood, death, abject misery.

This is why we resist AIDS research. At least as long as it was associated primarily with homosexual men. Because we really wanted to see them die. 

We were Jonah sitting outside the gates of Nineveh, waiting eagerly for the smiting.

And so it is with (women) who fail to meet our standards of purity. We really, really want to see them punished to the utmost for their sins. (We can’t stone them anymore, at least in the Western world.)

I believe that this is a significant reason for the resistance to this vaccine, and why I also believe that it would have been a different story if the consequences of the disease fell primarily on men, rather than women.

After all, it is mostly women who suffer the infertility, cancer, and death. They are (presumably) sluts who weren’t careful who they screwed, and now they pay the penalty. If the primary result of HPV was that penises fell off, I strongly suspect the discussion would be completely different.

Even for those who lack the true inner sadism, I believe there is a deadly fear of young people, particularly women, having sex. Thus, losing even one potential deterrent is terrifying. If the primary goal is to deter sex before marriage (which is, after all, the worst sin except for homosexuality), then all extreme measures are justified. The saving of the soul is more important than the prevention of death of the body.

Likewise for birth control. While my parents did a fantastic job of educating me about sex, birth control, and STIs, many Evangelical parents believe that to explain birth control and disease prevention is tantamount to giving permission and encouragement to have wanton random sex. (Again, the evidence is contrary, but that is a subject for a future post.)

But the bottom line is, that there is a widespread belief that having sex before marriage is a much worse event than the possible preventable consequences. If a girl (let’s be honest, this is primarily about women and sex) has sex, she might as well (and probably should) get pregnant and die young as an example to other girls to avoid her fate.

And hence the hostility.

I have a number of problems with this. Theologically, it is problematic to tie a woman’s worth to her virginity, although it sure is a cultural constant over the course of recorded history. But we seem eager to dismiss the worth of those who have failed to follow the rules.

I believe, however, that this is not only lacking in empathy and compassion, it also flies in the face of the actual real-world risks.

It’s possible to catch HPV without being a slut

I know this will come as a terrible surprise to many older Evangelicals - although it shouldn’t. Even within the most conservative circles, very few people - even Christians -  are virgins on their wedding night.

I know. Terribly shocking.

Statistically speaking, most are not. And probably even more rare is the couple where both are virgins. Sure, it happens. But it is far from universal. Also, this is nothing new. Rates of premarital sex have been north of 85% since the 1940s. (Yes, the “greatest generation.” Many of whom probably continued the age-old tradition of having a little fun with the local whores while on deployment...the double standard sure rocks.)

Beyond the statistics, however, let’s examine the implications. If the only people who are “acceptable” are those who are virgins on the wedding night, what does that say about Christianity? Are the only people we care about the few that lack a sexual history? Should everyone else be dismissed?

What about someone who comes to the faith later in life? Do we still wish for them to be punished as much as possible for their past failings? (Don’t answer that. I suspect I know the answer.)

As someone who works on the legal areas of Family Law and Estate Planning, I get to know a bit of information about people. Nothing like comparing marriage dates and birth dates of the children to reveal something about many wonderful, religious people. It is a common human event, shall we say. And believe me, you don’t know by looking at people. Many of them make it 50+ years and are some of the best people you have ever met…

But let me make this more personal. And yes, if you are a high profile pastor and author, you are fair game. Particularly if you made your reputation preaching “purity culture.”

Josh Harris Didn’t Marry a Virgin

Veterans of the homeschool movement all know about Josh Harris. Son of Gregg Harris, one of the luminaries of the early movement (and probably the least nutty of the Reconstructionists.) Josh wrote I Kissed Dating Goodbye, probably the most influential piece of work in the history of the Courtship movement. It took the idea mainstream, beyond the environs of Bill Gothard’s cult movement.

The point of “courtship,” if it wasn’t obvious, is to prevent young people from entering romantic relationships in any way that might lead to sex before marriage. In the most extreme (betrothal) cases, the couple was not allowed to develop feelings of any nature, before they were irrevocably committed.

My wife attended a few homeschool conferences at which Josh spoke, and she can attest that all the good Patriarchy girls were mooning over the outrageously hunky Josh, and dreaming of the day when they could marry him - or at least someone like him.

So what happened?

Josh not only didn’t follow his own courtship prescription - he dated just like anyone else from the secular culture - he married a girl with a sexual past! He admits as much in his book, Boy Meets Girl.

Now, let me say at the outset that I have zero problem with this. He met a girl and fell in love. I would imagine she is a decent sort. Love is unpredictable sometimes, and I find no shame in unexpected love. Hey, I don’t believe in “love at first sight,” but… 

But think of the poor Patriarchy girls that kept themselves pure - without even a hint of romantic involvement with anyone - until the time that a young man approached their fathers. They were promised, explicitly or implicitly, that the Josh Harrises of the world were available only to the pure, and that they would receive the reward of their purity. (And, I might add, many of these girls were not permitted to attend college, because their destiny was to be a wife and mother. Oh, and did I mention that Josh met his wife at their mutual place of work? Hmm.)

Okay, so that happened. How does this relate to the HPV vaccine? Well, because his wife has a history, she might (potentially) have HPV. In the Fundie worldview, she would richly deserve to become ill as punishment for having sex. But what about Josh? He might catch the disease from her and become ill. Should he be punished for not marrying a virgin? (Again, don’t answer that…)

But what if you flipped the script? Even Fundies tend to - in practice - support a sexual double standard. A man can reform after a wild youth, unlike the forever-tainted woman. What about the D-Day soldier, American hero, who had one night with a local girl, but returned and married the wholesome Donna Reed sort? He could be infected, and not know it. She then marries him, not knowing his past, gets sick, and pays the penalty for his past indiscretions. Do we punish her? She couldn’t guarantee she knew his history?

Or what about the woman whose spouse cheats on her, eventually infecting her. Do we wish cancer on her as well?

Or what about the worst case scenario that we hate to even contemplate? What if the woman was raped as a teen? Surely she didn’t choose her partner in that case! Unless we consider her responsible for her rape. (Wait! Don’t answer that one either!)

This reaches a lot further than just the person who initially caught the infection. It can have negative effects on down the line, from the “innocent” spouse to the children who may have an ill or dead parent.

Sexual Sin is the one we care about punishing

Did you know that the direct costs (medical expenses) of diabetes in the United States was around $176 billion in 2013? That’s close to double the annual budget of the State of California (my home state). If it were a country, California would have the 6th largest economy in the world. And its budget is significantly lower than the cost of diabetes in the United States.

I know there are exceptions, but a significant percentage of the diabetes in Western nations - particularly the US - is caused by obesity. In traditional Christian terms, we might say “gluttony.” (Again, I am oversimplifying. Obviously, overeating is a factor, but not the only factor. Just like promiscuity is a factor in the transmission of HPV, but not the only factor.) So, one could arguably attribute this disease to sin.

We are spending a lot of money on mitigating the effects of that sin.

Why are we okay with trying to mitigate the effects of gluttony, but not sex? Is it just because we can’t think logically when sex is involved? Or is it because of the need to control young people? Do the sins of older people not really count? I don’t get it.

I sometimes feel that this issue reveals the insecurities of our tribe. We are deathly afraid that we really don’t have a convincing case for some of our doctrines, so we panic when we lose any weapon, no matter how small. Losing even one STI as a threat scares us. If we were really confident that we had a solid case, I don’t think we would feel the need to make dire threats about death, disease, and hellfire. But I think the older generation in particular is terrified that the younger generations, even Purity Culture luminaries like Josh Harris, don’t find that a girl’s virginity is the most important thing about her. (For a bit more on this, check out this installment of my Modesty Culture series: it’s at the bottom in the footnote section.)\

The bottom line

I believe the science is in favor of vaccinations in general, and the HPV vaccine in particular. I strongly doubt that vaccination status will have any effect on the sexual decisions my children make. If they marry virgins, stay faithful, and only ever have one partner, then I suppose they might get a needle stick for no reason. But they can only control themselves, not their partners. Why not have the extra protection against the sins of a partner? 

Will it provide complete protection against disease and pregnancy? Of course not! But why not reduce the risks we can? 

But more than that, I don’t believe that it is my job to ensure that my children are punished for any possible future sexual sin. Life is messy. My own extended family has its own failures. Crap happens. We make mistakes. Sex happens. I don’t believe I will be thwarting divine justice by reducing the consequences of human frailty. Whether it is my child that has an encounter leading to exposure, or their eventual spouse, I would prefer that they not suffer lifelong and possibly fatal consequences for that mistake.

My approach to sex and sex education is better left to a future post. Suffice it to say that so much of our current Evangelical fixation is inextricably bound up with a view of women as property, which leads to an obsession with female purity and modesty. My approach leans toward a strong emphasis on consent, and in linking sex and love rather than sex and power.

Some links:

This is my go-to resource for actual facts regarding vaccinations. It is a wealth of primary source, and links reliable sources, not conspiracy theory artists like Joseph Mercola and Mike Adams

Another great source of information, updated regularly, about “alternative medicine” falsehoods and the actual research is this site.

My own post from last year on cancer, pseudoscience, and victim-blaming. 

Late addition: An excellent take on the "mitigating the effects of sin" debate from the Christian Medical Fellowship (UK)

Just a bit on naturalnews.com

I considered doing a separate post on this one, and I might reproduce and expand this bit in the future.

Before I figured out how to block links from specific sites in my Facebook news feed, I noticed that a number of my friends - both liberal and conservative - were posting links from this site. Many of these people were otherwise intelligent and well read sorts, who I would not have suspected of being gullible.

Still, the headlines seemed so obviously out there that I did a little poking around. It turns out that Natural News is a site run by a certain Mike Adams. In many ways, it is pretty typical for alternative medicine snake oil. It has the usual canards: vaccines cause autism (no), fluoride is the cause of most heart disease (no), everything can be cured with diet and herbs (um, no), and recently (although the post was removed) that Ebola can be cured with herbal supplements (um, freaking no).

But, I do want to point out that he also uses his site to promote some even more out there conspiracy theories. To my friends who link this guy, you need to consider if you really want to be associated with these ideas.

For example, he is a “birther” (President Obama wasn’t born in the US, and there is a huge conspiracy to cover it up), a “truther” (9/11 was an inside job, the project of GW Bush and a Jewish cabal), and claims that the Sandy Hook shooting was a government fabrication.

Oh, and he is also an AIDS denialist, and claims that contrails from airplanes are actually “chemtrails,” intentional spraying of poison by the government. Um, yeah. That’s your go-to guy for medical information. Good luck with that.

Oh, and Mercola too:

Many of my gluten free friends like to quote this guy. (Note: celiac disease is real, and if you have been diagnosed with it, don’t eat gluten!) He is probably the most popular proponent of the idea that all humans should stop eating grains.

Guess what? He is also an anti vaccination advocate.

And an AIDS denialist. Yep.

And he has been disciplined by the FDA for making false medical claims about his lucrative supplements and selling untested supplements. (In other words, God only knows if his supplements actually contain what they claim to contain.)

Cite at your own risk.

The AIDS denialist brotherhood:

Adams and Mercola are in “distinguished” company with their AIDS denialism. The ever-entertaining-and-loathsome Douglas Wilson, he of the plagiarized pamphlet and book defending the institution of slavery, and he of the “A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants” fame.

Yes indeed, these are your AIDS denialist brothers...

Check your sources:

Seriously, the internet has made it comically easy to actually check the abstracts of studies - and in many cases, read the full reports. There is a wealth of knowledge available to help determine what studies actually say, and whether they are particularly useful. (A knowledge of the science of statistics is probably helpful too.) Only the most lazy or ideological simply link questionable stories from sources given to fabrication and conspiracy theories. 

At best, you will reveal yourself to me and others who actually do look at primary sources to be lazy and deluded. At worst, you could end up harming yourself or others with "treatments" that don't work and can cause harm. 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Four by Shakespeare (2014)

This year hasn’t been a great one for my drama reading project. I’m not sure why, but I have had a hard time sticking with a play. Probably, fewer consecutive evenings with free time have been a factor. Whatever the case, I have done less reading.

However, now that the kids are getting older, I have had the chance to see more plays live this year than I have since I was kid free. My youngest (age 3) isn’t there yet, although she tried with the two most recent ones, but I have been pleasantly surprised at how much my sons, ages 8 and 6, have taken to Shakespeare. Last year, I took them (along with my older daughters, 11 and 10), to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream. They laughed through the whole thing, and have begged to be allowed to go any time my wife or I want to go see a play. Unsurprisingly, they love slapstick, but they also got many of the puns and verbal wordplay.

This year, we made the effort to see four plays.


My wife and a girlfriend of hers made an extended trip and saw several plays, including this one. Since the kids and I were already planning to be at Bryce Canyon National Park for the Astronomy Festival, we worked it out so that I could send my littlest home with Amanda and take the older kids to see Comedy of Errors.

This play has a special meaning to me. The lovely Amanda and I saw it together on our first date, some 15 years ago, at a local theater. To share this experience with the kids was an opportunity too good to miss.

Comedy of Errors is a classic Shakespearean plot centering on two sets of twin brothers raised apart, and indistinguishable from each other. When they find themselves in the same city, hilarity ensues.

While Comedy of Errors is primarily a vehicle for slapstick and wit, but it also conceals a serious edge. The Bard explores jealousy and male-female relationships as Antipholus of Ephesus and his wife fall victim to unfair conclusions about each other and their motives as a result of the lack of information about the existence of Antipholus’ twin. Entirely innocent actions appear sinister outside their context, and each is all too willing to believe the worst about each other.

The Utah Shakespeare Festival is rightly regarded for its high quality - indeed, thoroughly professional - productions. The outdoor theater-in-the-round feels authentically Elizabethan, the costumes and sets show a delightful attention to detail, and the acting is first rate. (I’ll particularly note that all the voices projected exceedingly well.)

I am not a purist when it comes to Shakespeare: I enjoy the twists possible when the plays are transformed from their original setting to another time and place.

In the local production Amanda and I saw years ago, a framing story of a radio broadcast hijacked by actors tired of doing yet another Christmas play was used, along with a minimalist set and a small cast that played multiple characters. While interesting, I found that it was a little hard to keep track of who was whom. Of course, this is probably a hazard of extremely low budget theater, where enthusiasm is in greater supply than funding for costumes and sets.

The Utah version was set in the wild west, which I thought was an inspired choice. Most of Shakespeare’s comedies are really not set anywhere in particular. The Greek and Italian cities could easily be, say London and Paris - and sometimes are used to make insults at the French. In any event, Comedy of Errors worked perfectly well set in a gun-toting boom town. One touch that the kids found particularly fascinating was the remote controlled tumbleweed.


I should start out with a bit of background on this venue, as it is a bit unusual. Will Geer, best known as “Grandpa Walton,” wasn’t always a beloved character. In the 1930s, he was a major player in the US Communist party, and was blacklisted for refusing to rat out other members. Eventually, the panic blew over, the worm turned for Joe McCarthy, and Geer was able to work again.

However, during the interregnum, he sold his Santa Monica property, and bought some (then) rural land in Topanga Canyon, where his friend Woody Guthrie had a shack. The intent was to grow and sell vegetables, and do the hippie thing long before it was popular. The property became a bit of an artists’ colony, before Geer eventually had the idea to found a theater troupe and use the property for performances. After Geer’s death in 1978, the rest of his family continued with his vision, and Theatricum Botanicum, now directed by Will’s daughter Ellen, continues to put on a variety of plays (with an emphasis on Shakespeare) and concerts at its unique outdoor venue. If you live within reasonable driving distances of the Los Angeles area, I would certainly recommend catching a performance during the season. (June-September.)

All’s Well That Ends Well isn’t one of Shakespeare’s more popular plays. It is a comedy in form only, one of the dark “problem plays” of which A Winter’s Tale and Measure For Measure belong. The plot veers into a happy ending only at the last minute, transforming what would otherwise have been a compelling tragedy into a triumph of persistence on the part of the heroine.

Awarded the husband of her choice after curing the king of an illness, the servant girl Helena picks the son of her masters, the arrogant Bertram, who spurns and abandons her, telling her he will never be her husband until she bears his child and obtains his ring. Shakespeare chooses to upend class distinctions by having Bertram’s family embrace Helena as a foster child, and encourage the match. It is only Bertram himself who feels he is too good for a mere servant girl.

Theatricum Botanicum further twisted this idea by a creative casting decision: All the nobility were African American, while the servants were white. This isn’t quite the shock in 2014 that it would have been in the 1960s. Or even the 1980s. Nevertheless, it did highlight the discomfort in seeing one race subservient to the other, and like any good flip, the dissonance is all the more telling when it is the opposite of our cultural baggage.

Two actors in particular stood out from a strong cast. First, Will Geer’s granddaughter Willow Geer, was outstanding as Helena. The character is both challenging and full of possibility. Helena is a great example of a strong woman, capable of great feeling and greater action. She is able to gain permission to travel to attempt to cure the king - using the knowledge of medicine she was given by her father, who considered her the equal of a man. She convinces the king to let her try. She is nearly driven to despair by Bertram’s rejection, but she has the presence of mind to make the most of the opportunities given to her. Shakespeare writes the part with equal elements of emotion and strength, something women were rarely allowed to have in literature at the time and for the subsequent 300 years in too many cases. Willow Geer brought a lot to the part, which dominates the play.

The second was Melora Marshall as Lafeu, the aged nobleman. Marshall not only looked the part of an old man, but got the mannerisms and cracked voice perfectly. (In fact, she fooled my kids.) Lefeu is the perfect counterpart to the cowardly and irresponsible Paroles, Bertram’s worthless companion. As Lefeu says,

“[B]elieve this
of me, there can be no kernel in this light nut.”

Or this one:

"Here is a pur of Fortune's, sir, or of Fortune's cat, - but not a musk-cat, - that has fall'n into the unclean fishpond of her displeasure..."

Or, at the end, when all ends well, my kids’ favorite line:

“Mine eyes smell onions, I shall weep anon.”

  1. Macbeth (Bakersfield College)

Our local community college puts on a couple of Shakespeare plays each year, which is quite an undertaking, all things considered. The actors are typically a combination of faculty, local thespians, and students. Thus, the acting is not as uniformly good as in a professional production, the budgets for sets are smaller, and the treatments of the play a bit more experimental. Still, BC generally puts on good events, and I never feel bad about supporting local students in their endeavors.

Of the two plays put on this year, I felt that the Macbeth production was the weaker, primarily because of the high number of student actors. The concept was good, and the lead parts were well done, but some of the bit parts could have used some polish.

BC usually uses their outdoor theater (recently renovated) for their productions. It’s not a bad venue, but it does nothing to help the voices project. The actors must do it all, and do it consistently despite the changes in emotion and mood, or words tend to get lost. There were several occasions when I couldn’t hear, and I imagine it was worse for the older patrons.

That said, the parts of Duncan, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, and Macduff were well played, and a number of the lesser parts as well.

For this production, the cast made the decision to go with an (almost) all female cast. Apparently, this decision was made because of the lack of female roles, and the abundance of females auditioning for said roles. Actually, neither play had a particularly large number of women as they were written, and many parts were small. Hence, the fun of flipping the script. (In Shakespeare’s time, all the parts were played by men.) The setting chosen was that of a soviet-style kingdom in the cold war era. All the iconography and costumes match this, and the aesthetic of the set was that of the Berlin Wall.

Although Macbeth is presumably well known to most of us - I read it as part of my 12th grade English class - I thought I might comment on a few things.

First, Shakespeare has slandered Macbeth even more than he did Richard III. Although he did kill Duncan, he did so on the field of battle, fair and square. In addition, both Macbeth and Duncan - who were around the same age - had reasonable claims to the throne, and Duncan’s father had murdered some of Macbeth’s family. Beyond that, Macbeth actually ruled for 17 good years, enacting a number of popular and just laws. Most notable was the remarkably forward looking (for the 11th century) right of women to inherit property. When Malcolm defeated and killed Macbeth, it was with the assistance of the English, who were less interested in justice as in expanding their territory. Also, even in the most anti-Macbeth histories, it was clear that Banquo was a co-conspirator. That, of course, wouldn’t fly for Shakespeare, who knew that King James I claimed descent from Banquo. And thus, Banquo became a victim too.

The other thing that really struck me this time was that Lady Macbeth manipulates Macbeth into doing her bidding by attacking his manhood. The conception of manhood that dominates the play is one of bloodlust and power without compassion. Lady Macbeth asks to be “unsexed” so that she may act without conscience. Macbeth feels the sting of his wife’s words, and ruthlessly eliminates all “softness,” that is conscience, from himself, to the point where he barely flinches when his wife commits suicide. Indeed, even now, there is no worse form of insult to a man than to call him “unmanly.” Soft. A pussy. A - let’s be honest - a woman. No worse insult. And so, we glorify the worst effects of testosterone and call them “manliness.”

And yet, although Shakespeare does portray women in this play as the source of the crime, as it were, I don’t think he agreed with this portrayal of masculinity. Near the end, after Macduff hears of the slaughter of his family, he weeps. Malcolm tries to tell him to “take it like a man,” and redirect his pain into hate and violence. Although Macduff does take his revenge, he does so fairly and without unnecessary malice. He also responds to Malcolm with his own version of manhood. “I must also feel it as a man.”

  1. The Taming of the Shrew (Bakersfield College)

The BC production of this play was given the twist of portraying Petruchio and his henchmen as pirates. If anything was going to make Petruchio’s bizarre behavior make sense, this would be it. The idea of a sort-of-reformed pirate looking to settle down and find a rich wife isn’t far fetched, and a bearded, outlandish Petruchio worked quite well.

It helped that Katherine was played by Cody Ganger, the real life wife of Kevin, who played Petruchio. Cody is a fixture of the local theater scene, specializing in comic roles, and utilizing her rubber face to best advantage. The two of them had a real spark on stage, clearly enjoying the flirting and frisson.


Other parts were filled in by notable local thespians. Bob Kempf, director of The Empty Space, a local theater, played Baptista, complete with an over-the-top pipe. Kempf has played so many memorable roles throughout the years. From Oberon to Sir Toby Belch to Prospero, to say nothing of his hilarious turn as the noveau riche in Moliere’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Randy Messick, BC’s longstanding theater professor (my wife loved his Shakespeare class enough to take it a few times during nursing school for a change of pace) as Vincentio. Brian Sivesind, who played a key role in the production of Comedy of Errors on our first date, as the dirty old man Gremio.


The Taming of the Shrew can be an awkward play to watch sometimes, because it feels misogynistic at times. Indeed, if one reads it perfectly literally, it is a bit of an ode to male dominance and female submission.  I find it a bit hard to believe that even in Elizabethan times this would have met with approval, as there was already a move away from the permissive attitude toward domestic violence. Shakespeare himself wrote many strong female characters, and didn’t seem to feel threatened by women who didn’t kowtow to men.

There have been many interpretations of the play, particularly of the final speech where Kate extolls the virtues of obedience and submission. Some - including this one - have her deliver it with just an edge of sarcasm, indicating that either she is putting Petruchio on, or that the two of them have an understanding.

I lean toward the latter, particularly. One of the best books on Shakespeare that I own is Isaac Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare. Although primarily concerned with explaining the historical and literary references within the plays, Asimov also gives his editorial spin to the works, often coming up with interesting and convincing interpretations.

In Asimov’s view, Kate is clearly secondary to Bianca in everyone’s eyes, but particularly in her own father’s opinion. She therefore reacts by spurning all comers, adopting the posture not just of a shrew, but of a misanthrope. In order for Petruchio to pierce the armor, he must first reduce her resistance through his craziness and “kindness” that looks like cruelty. Only once she is able to give up, is she she able to see his love and accept it. In this view, the two of them are a match, and he truly sees the good in her, despite his blustery talk about marrying for money.

Whether one finds this convincing or not, it was hard not to see it at work in this version, because of the natural chemistry between the leads. Nobody could ever find Cody to be “tamed” in that sense, and the little wink at Kevin lead naturally into “Kiss me, Kate.”

BC’s production plays up the farcical elements, which were naturally of interest to my children. In this way, the questions of gender and power are allowed to be subsumed in the hilarity of two outrageous characters, both of whom find love in spite - or perhaps because - of their quirks. Amanda and I have always had a soft spot for this play because we too were persons that many assumed would have difficulty finding someone to tolerate us, and then assumed we would fight constantly due to our strong personalities. Instead, we recognized that we were a match. We shrews two have been tamed.

For more on the local productions, here is the local press.  Also, there is a facebook page for the Kern Shakespeare Festival