Mothering Feed

My life as an attachment parent: feminists should have understood but mostly didn't

The New York Times has a mothering discussion centered around the question, "Has women’s obsession with being the perfect mother destroyed feminism?"


I read this exchange and it feels to me like it comes from a different planet than the one I have parented on. I am, in the vocabulary of this discussion, an attachment parent. I never found myself to be part of the kind of cultural hegemony implied by the NYT discussion. (Though, for a while I seemed to be the person the BBC Radio called to speak about public breast feeding.) Rather, I went about the matter of parenting my children while pursuing my career in science fiction, such as it is, without much feeling of being part of any larger movement.

The strain for me was not a tension between motherhood and career, but rather the lack of support for the idea that with a little extra help from those around me I could remain a full participant in the intellectual and cultural life around me. I would get all the way to the convention, but in the end often couldn't get the support to allow me to attend any program items except those where I was a panelist.

This experience has left me deeply disappointed in the science fiction field's brand of feminism which should have understood what my parenting choices represented, but mostly didn't. Gradually, I stopped showing up at events like World Fantasy Con and ICFA because I could no longer ignore the professional disrespect this state of affairs implied.

Yesterday, received an evaluation from the school district of one of my children who has substantial learning disabilities which contained a sentence that makes me very proud. The evaluator remarked that my son seems to have a positive sense of self “rooted in close and supportive parental relationships.” And that is what I was trying to do. 

Kate Eltham, baby Elizabeth, & Kathryn Camer

I do not demand of other people that they do nearly all of their business travel in the company of children, or that they breastfeed while giving speeches, signing books, speak on panels, like I did. But in my life there would have been a lot less conflict between motherhood and career if there had been a little more recognition of the project of combining the two.

The idea articulated in the NYT that by doing what I did I have somehow been a threat to feminism makes me want to kick their editors in a particularly sensitive spot in the ankle.

Making a quilt for my daughter: a meditation

quilt for Elizabeth

When we were first sewing pieces together for the smallest block, I told her, "Never sew the pieces together unless you know what they mean."

She asked, "What do these pieces mean, mommy?"

I said, "These are angry men running in the grass. This one is the moon rising over the lake. This one is our house. This one is about thinking about the tiny little creatures in the water."

This is not a quilt make from a pattern, but from a method of construction. This is a method to be done fast, in love, in anger, and as a form of meditation: Use only scraps, as much as you can. Cutting from the big pieces of cloth should be a last resort. Make small blocks as though you were spelling words, combining letters. Then make bigger blocks as through you were making sentences.

quilt for Elizabeth

The bigger blocks will not all be the same size. The easy way out would be to trim them so that they are and then sash them with a plain fabric to spread them out so they don't have to mean together. Don't take the easy way out. 

Arrange the pieces on the floor in relation to one another. If some are too simple, cut them apart and sew them back together in a different order. Add strips of fabric to fill in the gaps, but using the same grammar that you have used so far.

Work fast, but observe things like seam allowances carefully. Because this kind of quilt is made in the heat of the moment, it is prone to structural flaws.  Overwork the structure just a little to make sure it will all hang together in the end.

quilt for Elizabeth

I did have to reach for the larger pieces for the outside edges, and needed a trip to the fabric store in Lake Placid, NY to get the batting and the backing.

Also, I did a small amount of applique using some of the better scraps -- 20 years ago I had experimented with hand-cutting rubber stamps and then printing on fabric with fabric paint.

quilt for Elizabeth

I am going to tie the quilt, rather than hand-quilting. Elizabeth and I discussed it last night, and she wants the binding to be sunshine yellow like the backing.

It will be a gift for her seventh birthday.

Vinson on ironing board

A clarification for K. Tempest Bradford & Jane Carnall, et. al.

I have discussed in public that my civil rights and those of my children have been violated and that these violations have to do with clashes of parenting beliefs and parenting practices, and I have discussed such civil rights violations in terms of oppression since they involved the use of state power and physical force by the state. 

Jane Carnall and Tempest Bradford and a bunch of their Internet friends seem to think that the appropriate response to this is public ridicule. 

While such blog posts may make Jane and Tempest popular within a certain Internet clique, such posts undercut their claims to be feminists and their claims to be advocates of anti-oppressive practices.

Oppression, Feminism, & Motherhood

I was on several excellent panels at Anticipation which I hope to write about later, and on one panel that was hopelessly ill-construed. It was a panel on which four white people were assigned the task of discussing whether ethnic and sexual minorities ought to write for the mainstream sf audience or whether they could or should write for more specialized audiences more connected to their concerns, and if they were to do that, how would they make it into the SF canon (this last point was illustrated by a quote from Joanna Russ.).

One of the designated panelists did not attend the convention, one overslept and missed the panel by accident, so it was me and this white guy who later remarked online that he has clearly been assigned to the wrong panel. 

This was not THE most socially awkward panel assignment I've ever been given. That would be the panel entitled "Politics & Bad Manners" at a Minnicon many years ago, where as I recall one of my fellow panelists was dressed in a monk's habit, and everyone but me had known in advance that this was the annual Libertarian revival panel. I  spent the panel defending things like the existence of public sidewalks. But this pannel at Anticipation was certainly up there.

Several audience members seemed to have a lot to say on the actual topic assigned, so I invited "Ide Cyan" and a woman whose name badge said "Isobel" to join me as panelists. "Isobel" declined, but made many productive comments from the audience. "Ide Cyan" joined me on the panel, but only after anxiously showing me her name badge so I would know who I was tangling with. She tried hard as a panelist, but also was extremely tense and trembling and talking very fast, as though frightened of me. (I think that is the first time I've ever been on a panel with someone who appeared physically frighten of me.)

The panel went how it went, which is as well as could be expected given both the panelist problem and an oddly constructed mandate. (Canonicty is a completely separate issue from the economic and artistic viability of subgenres with specialized audiences.) I'm told that Jo Walton had written beautiful and lucid panel descriptions that were then mercilessly pruned by a clumsy editorial hand. I think this panel description was one of the victims.

"Ide Cyan" argued that the central issue was oppression. I attempted to get her to unpack her argument, and asked interview style questions about what she meant by oppression. Another blogger has described her as becoming "tongue-tied" when presented with this line of inquiry.

After the panel, I invited her to join me for a cup of tea for further discussion, but she declined; she and a group of other audience members, who seemed to be a portion of Fail Fandom, left as a group. According to their blogs this group went off and discussed how appalling it is that I claim to be oppressed because I am a parent and because of where I live.

Before departing, "Ide Cyan" instructed me to read Joanna Russ's book What Are We Fighting For? Sex, Race, Class, and the Future of Feminism, a book which as it happened was sitting on my night table. A while back I blogged my dismay with the opening chapter. It is a book that Joanna worked long and hard on, the book in which she intended to reconcile socialism and feminism, and which was published too late to have the impact it might have had because it took her so long to write. (Our collective recollection is that she was already working on that book when I attended the Seattle Clarion in 1984; its copyright date is 1998.)

Joanna Russ was my first science fiction mentor. She was my professor at the University of Washington for two years. I spent many happy hours taking up her office hours when everyone else was scared to talk to her. A few decades ago, I knew her pretty well. She was in chronic pain. She was on heavy-duty anti-depressants that messed up her short-term memory in ways that were sometimes comical. She is also a genius, and I treasure the time I spent sitting at her feet (sometimes literally) listening to her hold forth.

That having been said, I don't think What We Are Fighting For? works in the way she intended. In trying to reconcile socialism & feminism, she has for the most part left out the problem of motherhood and the relationship between the parent and the State. Her discussion of motherhood is extremely slight. The most extensive passage I was able to find, via index and skimming, is a mother-blaming section on the role of families in perpetuating oppression and sexism. (p. 347) Clearly, something had to go or this book never would have got finished, but I think it is unfortunate that the oppression of mothers by the State was omitted from discussion.

So what is oppression? Its definition is not one of Joanna's central concerns in this book; she is writing for an audience that thinks it already knows what oppression is. Oppression is depression — "a feeling of being oppressed"; persecution —"the act of subjugating by cruelty";  and subjugation — "the state of being kept down by unjust use of force or authority." In my daily life, I have experienced all three in connection with being a mother and it is not a minor thing. It is a major force in my life.

I seriously doubt that Joanna Russ I know would argue that I and other American mothers are not oppressed. And I wonder by what right self-described feminists discard out-of-hand claims by individual mothers that they suffer oppression.

Is 21st century feminism really feminism at all? If it has abandonded mothers as such, it has abandoned its task of advocating the liberation of women. 

A response to Christopher Elliott's "Should kids be banned from first class?"

Angel As the opening to an article entitled, "Should kids be banned from first class?" Christopher Elliott (writing for Tribune Media Services) begins by explaining that drugging his toddler worked out badly the time he and his wife got a first class upgrade.

I think I'll begin by saying that I don't think I've ever actually ridden first class on a plane, though I was once given a business class upgrade on a flight to Japan. The larger seat was uncomfortable as it seemed to be constructed for a large man, rather than someone of my proportions.

Elliott's article contains such amazing passages as:

One of the most persuasive arguments for limiting first class to adults is that the premium cabin is essentially an adult product. Which is to say, it's difficult for a youngster to appreciate a wine list or a gourmet meal. It's just no place for kids. Plus, it's pricey -- even if you're using miles to upgrade.

Flying these days is such an ordeal that I avoid it whenever possible. On a recent trip to California, it couldn't be avoided since we were traveling coast to coast. My first question when my husband booked the tickets was "They're going to feed us, right?" He replied that the tickets seemed to suggest they were giving us dinner. After many delays, the plane finally left the gate and the kids and I instantly fell asleep and missed the food service. Afterwards, my husband told me that we were lucky; that the food had been some awful plastic cheese enchilada thing that he regretted having eaten. 

When we finally made it to our hotel at 3AM (6AM NY time), my 6 year-old daughter said "But we haven't had dinner yet." I said, "Go to sleep. It's almost breakfast time."

It seems to me that the issue is not whether children who fly are worthy of "a gourmet meal," but rather that they are entitled (like to rest of us) to eat and to be provided with edible food. Also, all passengers behave better when fed adequately on a regular schedule.

Airlines may market first class tickets as a luxury product, but 21st century flying on commerical flights is not luxurious. Eliot partakes of this marketing kool aid:

Like a five-star restaurant or a luxury resort, the first-class cabin is not particularly welcoming to young fliers. Or, for that matter, their parents.

Elliot, you're being had! First of all, the rich have children, too, and five-star restaurants and luxury resorts can be quite welcoming indeed to families with children. But more importantly, the privilege you are being sold when you buy into a first class ticket is a ride that only slightly less resembles a ride in a greyhound bus -- PLUS it comes with a really hefty sense of entitlement, something which costs the airline nothing.

Flying these days is a pretty degrading experience no matter how much you paid for your ticket. Some people pay for an upgraded ticket in order to be less degraded. Scapegoating children and their parents for the need for this extra expense seems to me foolish.

(Image swiped from the Retired Greyhound Trust.)

manufactroversy: a word I've been needing

From Leah Ceccarelli at Science Progress:
Manufactroversy (măn’yə-făk’-trə-vûr’sē) 
N., pl. -sies. 
1. A manufactured controversy that is motivated by profit or extreme ideology to intentionally create public confusion about an issue that is not in dispute. 
2. Effort is often accompanied by imagined conspiracy theory and major marketing dollars involving fraud, deception and polemic rhetoric.

I first encountered this in the Wikipedia entry for Artificial controversy:

An artificial controversy, or variously a contrived controversyengineered controversyfabricated controversymanufactured controversy, or manufactroversy is a controversy that does not stem from genuine difference of opinion. The controversy is typically developed by an interest group, such as a political party[1] or a marketing company, to attract media attention,[2] or to facilitate framing of a particular issue. Creating controversy is also a controversial legal tactic used to gain advantage in a negotiation or trial.[3] The controversy may stem from a minor incident blown out of proportion,[4] from a false claim of controversy where no serious dispute existed,[5] or no reasonable doubt remains,[6] or unintentionally from misinterpreting data.[7]

Writing on the politics of cancer and the influence of special interest groups on the public policy debate, Dr. Robert N. Proctorhistory of science professor at Stanford University specializing in scientific controversy and the cultural production of ignorance,[8] which he calls agnotology,[9] described the use of artificial controversy: "The relation between knowledge and ignorance in these matters is complex....The problem is partly that ignorance can be manufactured, controversy can be engineered."[10] In a 2006 interview regarding public perceptions of the press in the United States, journalist Carl Bernstein lamented, "Well, let's take a look at what we're talking about: misinformation, disinformation, celebrity stuff—gossip, sensationalism and especially manufactured controversy.... Increasingly, sensationalism, gossip, manufactured controversy have become our agenda instead of the best obtainable version of the truth. We've become frivolous."[11]  . . .

Writer Valerie Tarico, referred to Prof. Leah Ceccarelli's writings on "teach the controversy" as a manufactroversy.[35]

The Tarico reference is her article from The Huffington Post, Ben Stein: Front Man for Creationism's Manufactroversy, concerning the movie Expelled.

University of Washington professor, Leah Ceccarelli has pointed out that their "teach the controversy" strategy depends on a very specific sleight of hand: blurring the difference between scientific controversy and manufactured controversy or Manufactroversy.

You can say you first heard it here, well, if you haven't heard it already on MySpace or Facebook: Manufactroversy -- a made up word for a made up controversy. 

Reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable


I realized with some sheepishness, after writing about Bruce Sterling's story "The Black Swan," that I had only read second-hand accounts of Nassim Nicholas Taleb's Black Swan idea, but not his actual book of that title. So I ordered it, and now have read the book itself. A "black swan" as defined by Taleb, is an event of "rarity, extreme impact, and retrospective (though not prospective) predictability." Taleb is an ex-quant turned iconoclastic mathematician. This book was a bestseller, and like many best-sellers on arcane topics, it is chatty, opinionated, and a bit on the loose and sloppy side.

As I expected, I enjoyed the book a lot. His subject matter appeals both to my taste in mathematics and my aesthetic of fiction. (My favorite section of David Hartwell's The Dark Descent is The Fabulous Formless Darkenss, which is the section for what he and I call "nature of reality" horror -- stories in which the parameters of what one thought was possible usually change for the worse.)

Other than having it confirm my belief system (always a pleasure), there were two basic things I got out of reading this. 

As I told my husband (David Hartwell) while reading the book, for me this is partly a book about how David's way of doing things is right. The way David publishes books as an editor, the way he runs our small press, the way he collects books, the way he runs the family finances, etc. all tend to limit downside risks while at the same time leaving him exposed to positive Black Swans -- serendipity. (Aren't I a good wife for blogging about how I just read a book that tells me how right my husband is?)


In the second half of the book Taleb spends a lot of wordage and emotion on condemning the "intellectual fraud" of the Bell Curve. I don't really need to be able to judge whether he is correct in terms of all of his examples. But it set me thinking about standardized testing.

Last week and this week, the school district is doing extensive testing of my son, which they do every three years. (This is separate from the group standardized testing.) When my husband I meet with the district in June, we will be presented with a sheaf of paper in which, page after page, our son will be raked in terms of percentiles and numbers of standard deviations from the norm. And we will try to make sense of all this data. Again.

Years ago, I read Stephen J. Gould's The Mismeasure of Man (another book which confirmed my belief systems) and I have a deep distrust of standardized testing anyway. And yet these tests mean something, and it is of crucial importance that I understand what. In past cycles of this, I've wasted a lot of time reading up on what is meant by "processing speed" and how to understand things like the results on subtests of IQ tests. 

My son tends to produce an anomalous pattern of results on such tests, and so far no one has yet to be able to explain what this actually means, though -- who knows -- this year's tests may be different. (We expect to be having our independent expert read the results for us this time.)

So I'm reading along through Taleb's attack on the uses of the Bell Curve, and I realize that of course all of these tests are normed to Bell Curves. They wouldn't give them if they weren't. But all around me I see human attributes that do not fit that model: the ability to draw a recognizable portrait, the ability to play the piano, gender, eye color, etc. Many human differences are not meaningfully normalized to the Bell Curve.

 And so I realized there was one further aspect of what these tests measure that I need to keep in mind: that the imposition of percentiles and standard deviations on what attributes are measured may be no more realistic than contemplating a spherical cow. We somehow need to try to consider whatever we're told each of these these tests are measuring is distributed Bell-Curve-like over the population, or whether it is a different kind of thing. I find this a bit daunting, though probably worth trying.

I seem to have been prophetic: The Madlyn Primoff "Incident"

The other day, I wrote a meditation on Lenore Skenazy's Free Range Kids in which I compared the plight of American mothers to what it must have been like to live in East Germany. I said:

It seems to me that the object of control of all this anxiety is not children, but rather their parents, specifically their mothers. And what Skenazy describes is a three-decades-long process of de-liberating their mothers by insisting that anyone too young to get a driver's license needs direct adult supervision at all times. Further, though Skenazy tries to deal with this cheerfully, there is a kind of police-state-like enforcement of this de-liberation which reminds me of what it might have been like to live in a place like the German Democratic Republic (except that you don't get shot): every one is watching you and anyone can report you to either the authorities or the media at any time. Something innocent can bring Child Protective Services or a Nancy Grace to your door at any moment.

People can and do call the cops on their neighbors for allowing a 9-year-old to leave the yard, and in this day-and-age the police take this seriously. Off-handed and inaccurate statements by children can be used to incriminate the parents. If anything about you makes the parents of your kids' playdates nervous, beware. Someone may make an example of you.

. . . and went on to say . . .

Skenazy is tough and brave and I wish she lived in my neighborhood, but she does not offer much of a solution for the problem of overzealous adults: For American mothers today, to quote Jean Paul Sartre's No Exit, L'enfer, c'est les autres (Hell is other people).

This morning, I happened to look at my blog's Sitemeter before heading off to a Church sale, and I noticed that for some reason that this post had suddenly attracted a huge amount of traffic, though I couldn't tell why.

Now I know what's up. I went over to Skenazy's blog and read about what the Wall Street Journal is calling . . . [drum roll, please] . . . "The Madlyn Primoff Incident." 

From the WSJ:

Madlyn Primoff, a 45-year-old mother of 10- and 12-year-old daughters, couldn’t take their squabbling anymore as she drove them on Sunday through a commercial part of White Plains, N.Y., in suburban Westchester County. She ordered them out of the car and drove off. The 12-year-old somehow managed to catch up with Ms. Primoff and get back in, but the 10-year-old, lost and frightened, was found by someone on the street and taken to the police. Ms. Primoff, who had called her town’s police to report her daughter as missing, was directed to the White Plains police, who arrested her on a charge of child endangerment. She has pleaded not guilty.

(John Edwards III, writing for the WSJ, even compared her to Skenazy!)

I seem to have been prophetic. Primoff's parenting transgression, about ten miles from my house, which should have been something for her family, Child Protective Services, and a therapist or three to hash out, has become the Bad Mommy Perfect Media-storm. She's suddenly being treated like the next Andrea Yates over something that is basically none of our business.

Not only did her family's difficult afternoon make the Wall Street Journal, it made The New York Times, ABC, the TimesOnline, USA Today, Fox News (God help her!), MSNBC, etc. And the ever-classy Lower Hudson Journal, managed to weave Primoff's story into an article entitled, "Police: Cortlandt mom used daughter, 12, to shoplift." 

The press ran around with TV cameras, and got her neighbors to condemn her, published her mug shot world-wide, and have in essence branded her a Mama bin Laden: a mother terrorist.

And some of the bloggers are , if anything, worse. I found one guy, with a fetish for child abuse stories,  who posted her address and  a Google map showing how to get to her house. He also published the name of her employer, her office address, and the names of some of the law firm's clients. (A sick man, if you ask me.)

Listen people, the Baader-Meinhof gang used to have to rob a bank and hold the guards hostage to get this kind of coverage. This is a private matter which should be reolved privately, and is none of our business.

See also Romi Lassally at The Huffington Post, Lenore Skenazy, Aylette Waldman, and Jezebel.

Reading Lenore Skenazy's Free Range Kids

Free-range-cover13 I pre-ordered Lenore Skanazy's book Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedon We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry in January and when the book was released this month, it came in the mail.

Skenazy was dubbed "America's Worst Mom" after she wrote about letting her 9-year-old ride the New York City subways by himself. Her writing style is cheerful and entertaining, but what she's writing about is, to me at least, a scary subject: the near-total loss of autonomy by American children over the past 30 years. While I never rode the New York City subways until I was an adult, when I was nine, in 1971, I rode the Munich subways by myself, and so did other kids. And my habits of independence continued once I returned to the US (though Seattle had no subways for me to ride).

America is now gripped with terrible anxiety about what will happen to kids if they are not constantly under the watchful eye of a parent or some paid professional. And, as Lenore Skenazy points out, the crime statistics do not bear out the claim that this is a more dangerous era. It is not. We only behave as though it is. Skenazy discusses the issue of balancing children's freedom and safety and aims to empower parents to give their children the kind of freedom they themselves enjoyed as children.

I read her book immediately after reading a book about genocide, Ponary Diary 1941-1943: A Bysrander's Account of Mass Murder by Kazimierez Sakowicz  -- see my post, Reading Kazimierz Sakowicz -- an odd juxtaposition, to say the least. Sakowicz's eyewitness account describes the brutal murders of many children and infants. And indeed, other than natural disasters and epidemics, the main cause of large-scale deaths of children is military, political, religious, or ethnic violence. So first I read a book about genocide and then about how relatively safe children are if we let them out of our sight.

This raised, for me, an interesting question. What is all this anxiety about that Skenazy describes? Is it just a function of our fear-driven media and Americans' very shaky command of statistics? Is it a function of litigation-mad parents? Did women trade in their children's freedom for their own? Or is it a function of the rise of the suburbs and car culture? Is everyone expecting a burned turf divorce? Is this the war of the super-mothers? Where does the anxiety come from? 

It seems to me that the object of control of all this anxiety is not children, but rather their parents, specifically their mothers. And what Skenazy describes is a three-decades-long process of de-liberating their mothers by insisting that anyone too young to get a driver's license needs direct adult supervision at all times. Further, though Skenazy tries to deal with this cheerfully, there is a kind of police-state-like enforcement of this de-liberation which reminds me of what it might have been like to live in a place like the German Democratic Republic (except that you don't get shot): every one is watching you and anyone can report you to either the authorities or the media at any time. Something innocent can bring Child Protective Services or a Nancy Grace to your door at any moment.

People can and do call the cops on their neighbors for allowing a 9-year-old to leave the yard, and in this day-and-age the police take this seriously. Off-handed and inaccurate statements by children can be used to incriminate the parents. If anything about you makes the parents of your kids' playdates nervous, beware. Someone may make an example of you. (These days, you're not even supposed to let your cat outside!)

Why the de-liberation of both mother and child? Whose interest does it serve? Certainly not the children. It serves the interests of towns that don't want to pay for sidewalks. It serves the interests of rating-hungry media like CNN (known in this household as Child-abuse News Network). It serves the interests of cultural conservatives. It serves the interests of car makers if our kids have to be driven everywhere. It serves the interests of lawyers, especially divorce lawyers. It serves the interests of insurance companies. In short, there are many conflicting social forces at work.

I can easily follow her instructions for how to feel at ease letting my children have freedom. The hard part is other adults.  Skenazy titles her chapter 6 on the problem of overzealous adults "Ignore the Blamers." The hazards presented by overzealous are not just social disapproval of the other mothers of the playgroup. In upper middle class suburbia, the other mothers really do not need you, and so are capable  of terrible behavior towards you or your child if made even slightly socially uncomfortable. 

Skenazy is tough and brave and I wish she lived in my neighborhood, but she does not offer much of a solution for the problem of overzealous adults: For American mothers today, to quote Jean Paul Sartre's No Exit, L'enfer, c'est les autres (Hell is other people). 

What I've been reading lately

Cov0903lg-250 I've been bouncing from book to book and as is often the case with me I am reading several books. As usual, I am reading short stories, though I haven't really geared up for seriously plowing through the short fiction of 2009 yet.

Regarding fiction, I was most recently reading the March issue of F&SF: "Shadow-Below" by Robert Reed is terrific. Reed stories vary widely in technique, tone, and approach. Here's he's writing a Gene Wolfe-type story. Good stuff. "The Unstrung Zither" by Yoon Ha Lee is also really fine; I appreciate it for its mathematical/musical aesthetic logic. Getting to the ending is like reading a good proof. I've read half of Marc Laidlaw's "Quickstone" which is going well so far. In general, this seems a really strong issue of F&SF.

But mostly I've been reading non-fiction: either ordering books on impulse and then trying to remember why I bought them when they come in the mail a week later, or cooling my heels while David loots shops large used bookstores.

9780230218659 Today, I was reading Social Work: Themes, Issues, and Critical Debates (2nd edition), Robert Adams, Lena Dominelli, & Malcolm Payne, eds. I bought it for Mary Langan's essay "The Legacy of Radical Social Work," but have dipped in here and there reading individual essays.

Diffjacket Based on a comment section recommendation, I ordered Scott E. Page's The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Schools, Firms, Schools, and Societies. I've read the beginning, which was pretty good. Then he got into arguments concerning how problems that are hard from one perspective can be easy when translated into a different genre of though, and I found myself nodding, yeah, yeah, category theory and decided to put the book aside until I was willing to follow the actual mathematical and logical arguments closely, since in terms of the arguments that draw on category theory, he's preaching to the choir with me. Seems to be a good book, though not bedtime reading; I was reading it at bedtime. (He does discuss the extent to which ethnic and gender diversity are and are not what he's talking about.) Page is "a professor of Complex Systems, Political Science, and Economics." It is a rigorous book, which is good.

Bookcover The book I finished yesterday is Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace by Noa Davenport, Ruth Distler Schwartz, & Gail Pursell Elliott. It is a very useful book for anyone who has experienced mobbing. The writing is very utilitarian, and while it does pull the plow, one could wish for the prose style of someone like Oliver Sacks. 

Cover The book I was reading, with some fascination, on the way back from Westport this weekend is Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief by Bill Mason. I bought it in Lake Placid while waiting for David to finish going through the stock at With Pipe and Book. What is most interesting about the book is the point of view. Mason robbed celebrities, because they felt socially compelled to show of their jewels. He viewed the society pages as a catalog. And once he'd seen someone with what he called "serious stones" it became an idea fix: he couldn't stop thinking about the details of how he would take them. For lack of a better phrasing, Mason seems to be a man with tremendous discipline and almost no impulse control. To an extent, the jewel heists are things that happen to him rather than things he does. I'm about a third of the way through the book.

3124124AWXL._SL500_AA240_ Recently read: White Awareness: Handbook for Anti-Racism Training by Judith H. Katz. I have the 2nd edition. It is a quick read, a book rooted in the 12-step movement, conceiving of racism as a disease in need of treatment. By reputation, it is the book that coined the equation "racism = prejudice plus power." In the book, it's on page 53, almost an aside, an optional addition to dictionary definitions of racism. The failings of this book's approach are discussed in Mary Langan's  essay mentioned above. It tends to cause acrimonious confrontations.

There are several books I have in hand but have not yet started: 

Update 4/15/09: I finished Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief. Fun book.

What are the three forms of a number?

The question "What are the three forms of a number?" came home on a worksheet in my son's homework. I have a math degree and work with real math in my daily life. I can think of lots of different forms a number can take, but was unable to come up with the trinity of number forms on my own.

I have a mind like a steel sieve, so I thought maybe I'd learned this but had forgotten. So I Googled it.

Google was no help. The only Google hit for "three forms of a number" is an oblique reference to a Powerpoint presentation for teachers.

And so I consulted a Prentice Hall book entitled Preparing for the New York State 6th Grade Math Test which my son had brought home from school, and in that book, there is an answer to this question.

Am I to conclude that the idea that there are "three forms of a number" is an invention either of the authors of the New York State 6th grade math test, or of text book writers? Or is there out there in the world, some other provenance for this coinage?

Help me out here. I want to know. Are they teaching to the test? Or what?

I am unsettled by the idea that a reason that it is necessary to teach to the test is that the test authors are making up new mathematical coinages of their own that students are responsible for regurgitating.

UPDATE 9/24: So I had a meeting with the teacher yesterday. In summary, the phrase I reacted to comes from the Everyday Math curriculum that was in use in the elementary school when Peter was there, and so there was an expectation that students would recognize it in that form. Other answers differing from the Everyday Mathematics formulation would have been acceptable and were accepted with full credit. (The district has since replaced the U. of Chicago's Everyday Mathematics with a different curriculum, at least for my daughter's first grade class.) Peter's teacher is not using that curriculum (thank God!) at this point. The use of NY State practice tests was as a tool to assess what gaps in knowledge were there to be addressed, but the day-to-day classroom curriculum is not particularly oriented toward the test except as necessary to meet state standards.

I'd say I over-reacted to the assignments given by the middle-school teacher based on experience with the attitudes of the more testing-oriented elementary school teachers. Based on our conference, I'd say that preliminarily, I think the situation with the math class is going to be at least fine, if not better.

So my reaction was not baseless, but my experience as a Chappaqua elementary school parent left me with enough post-traumatic stress that I can be a bit quick on the trigger to judge the middle school which is, in the words of a local pediatric psychiatrist, a good bit more "touchy feely" in its academic stances than our elementary school.

McPalin Culture Wars Round-Up

A couple of favorite pieces:

First, there's the New York Times op-ed Running Against Themselves:

The difficulty for the Republican ticket in talking about change and reform and acting like insurgents is that they have been running Washington — the White House and Congress — for most of the last eight years.

Mike Littwin of the Rocky Mountain News: Palin isn't making this easy
I don't think John McCain understood exactly what he was doing picking Palin. He was looking for a new face in a party dominated by old faces, a Republican who wasn't tied to the rest of the Republicans (read: George W. Bush). But what he also got was another battle in the culture wars.

I leave it to Rudy Giuliani, of all people, to give us the lesson.

It's Giuliani - not your typical Republican on issues such as abortion and gay rights and wearing dresses at New York balls - who was Palin's warmup act. And in fact, he did about 20 minutes of standup, mostly mocking - and that's the right word - Barack Obama to the delight of the crowd, but in way that had to be cringe-making for much of the rest of America watching at home on TV.

Indeed, I don't think the political strategist who have brought us to this point understand how complex and unpredictable the politics of mommyhood are. (And no, Sarah, your family doesn't have "the same ups and downs as any other.") To work full or part time or to stay home with ones kids are complex decisions about which American women pronounce judgement upon each other every day. Every school PTA is split between the stay-at-home and part-timer moms who do most of the PTA work, and the full-time working moms who (despite Palin's PTA credentials) mostly don't.

Every employed mother has decisions to make about when to work and when to drop everything and take care of the needs of a child, and mothers pass judgement on each others' choices every day. New baby, special needs child, pregnant teenage daughter, five kids -- each of these individually might cause even a suburban upper-middle class mother in a left-leaning community to be subjected to peer pressure to surrender her ambitions in favor of taking care of her family. How can this fly?

Are questions about whether Sarah Palin should be spending more time taking care of her family fair? Perhaps not, but our culture isn't fair to mothers, and worse, mothers are not fair to other mothers.

Margaret Wente in The Globe and Mail has an interesting piece entitled The culture wars are baaack!:

For a while back there, I thought the culture wars would not be a big deal in this election. We had two serious men of substance who had vowed to grapple with the serious issues of the day - the staggering economy, America's shattered moral leadership in the world, the health-care mess, loose nukes, stuff like that. Silly me! It turns out the real issues are abortion, evolution v. creationism, the role of God in public life, why Sarah tried to get her no-good ex-brother-in-law fired, what's up with her mother-in-law, and whether she herself was pregnant when she got married.
In it she quotes a McCain adviser:
"Frankly, I can't imagine that question being asked of a man," snapped John McCain's campaign manager, Steve Schmidt. "A lot of women will find it offensive."
Oh, were Sisterhood that power! Wouldn't it be nice if women didn't say terrible things about other women's mothering choices all the time?

In his speech last night Rudy Guiliani asked, "How dare they question whether Sarah Palin has enough time to spend with her child and be vice president?" They dare, Rudy. They dare. They dare all the time.

She is apparently breastfeeding. Wouldn't it have been fascinating if Sarah Palin gave last night's speech while breastfeeding her infant? (I have nursed an infant from the podium, though out of necessity, not for fun; it's a good way to keep a baby quiet while mommy talks to the audience when the expected convention childcare does not materialize.) Having her pregnant daughter hold the baby doesn't deflect the scrutiny that a new mother out in the world is subject to. And Palin hasn't really explained who is taking care of the kids. The implication of what is left unsaid is partly that the kids will take care of themselves and each other, an impression I wouldn't dare give at the World Science Fiction Convention, let alone the national convention of a political party.

Jonathan Freeland, The Guardian also discusses the culture wars theme: Who knows if Palin will bring victory or defeat? But the culture wars are back

In his stirring speech last week, Obama urged America not to "make a big election about small things". Yet here we are, discussing not Sarah Palin's record or programme but Jesus, guns, and as one feminist blogger put it yesterday, "the uterine activity of her family". This is a setback for women, especially in a year that seemed to promise a breakthrough, but it is also a setback for America itself.
For obvious reasons, conservatives would like to see this mess in a different light. Janice Shaw Crouse of the conservative think-tank Concerened Women for America writes,
The media’s frenzy over the Palin nomination contrasts negatively with the positive way that the Palin family is coping with their daughter’s pregnancy; it shows how out-of-touch the media is with the rest of America and how distorted their view is of pro-life Americans who put feet on their policy stances. . . . The media frenzy also demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of social conservatives and the importance of the social issues for most Americans.
Is the fuss all about whether Palin is alienating the very conservative base she was supposed to lock in? I don't think so.

What Palin and her complications represent is a social conservative running against a broad personalized non-political type of social conservatism concerning childbearing and childrearing; she presents an entirely new model of conservative motherhood that bears a lot of explaining in order to seem like responsible behavior.

UPDATE: See also Nancyy Gibbs in TIME: Can Palin Escape the Parent Trap? and Teresa Nielsen Hayden on Making Light: Pay attention to the little man behind the curtain.

This Year's Valentines

2265269730_e1027633e6_m My kids are passionate about Valentines Day. Every year they spend a lot of time hand-making valentines. In years past it has seemed, when the valentines came home from school, that mine were among the few children around here who did this, in that most or all of the other valentines were store-bought.

2265265170_41acb74830_m This year, about three weeks ago, I bought a ream of red paper and since then the house has been awash in sheets of red paper with their hearts cut out. Usually, in the home stretch, I carefully shepherd the kids through organizing their creations so that everyone they intend to give to gets a valentine. This year, the flu has been circulating in the house in the five days before Valentines Day. (Apparently there's an epidemic.)

(Also, I should admit that last fall when I was trying to round up flu shots for me and the kids, I wasn't persistent enough. The only one in the family who had this season's shot is David.)

This morning began with tears. It seems that while both kids had spent a lot of time and paper making Valentines, in her exuberance, my five year-old had regarded the products of my ten year-old as raw material for her art. Most of his Valentines got recycled into hers. I was only vaguely aware of this until this morning when it was too late to do anything about.

Next year we'll all get flu shots. And next year, I will orchestrate the festivities more carefully. Oh, well.

(Above left: a Valentine Peter made for his father in art class at school; above right: one of Elizabeth's lavish creations.)

YouthCan 2007

Monday, I took my son Peter to YouthCan 2007, a conference for kids on helping the environment through technology held at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Most of the people attending were part of school groups, some from as far away as Argentina, Russia, and Iran, though most from the US. In all, attendance was about a thousand.

A couple of years ago, I tried to arrange for a delegation from my son's school to attend, but in our district there were too many bureaucratic obstacles, and so I failed. This year, when I received a reminder of the event via email, on whim I decided that Peter and I would attend.

I decided to drive in rather than take MetroNorth from Pleasantville, since once you get off MetroNorth it is a bit cumbersome to get -- via public transportation -- from Grand Central Station to the museum. We left home about 8:30 AM and got a nice parking space in the museum parking garage (for which I later paid a hefty sum: $43).

(I had arranged for a babysitter for my daughter in in the afternoon [$30-something], and for the Mother Hen bus service [$30] to get her from pre-school and take her there, so Peter and I had as much time as we needed. Museum admission was free with the event, but I had already run up over a $100 tab as soon as I set the plan in motion. And Linda Hirshman wonders in a New York Times OpEd piece wonders at the struggle of moms rejoining the work-force, or meditates on our competing obligations; or something. It cost a hundred bucks to spend the day with one child in NYC without the other. In my utopia, this would be cheaper.)

IMG_0264.JPGWe arrived before opening ceremonies began; opening and closing ceremonies were held in the Hall of Ocean Life -- with the full scale model of a blue whale hanging from the ceiling -- a great venue for any event. The room full of kids and chaperons was better behaved than one might have expected as we waited for the rest to arrive because there was so much to look at just in that one room.

Andrew RevkinAndrew Revkin, a science writer for The New York Times and author of the kids' book about global warming, The North Pole Was Here, gave what was essentially the keynote speech. He made the interesting point that he realized that after writing 300 NYT articles, the people he should have been writing to were kids, since the decisions affecting our current climate are already made and that the decisions made now and in the near future most affect those under 19. I would have liked to see his one-hour presentation on his trip to the North Pole, but I had Peter signed up for something else, and so just bought a copy of his book to read later.

There were three program slots to sign up for. Our first was EcoMedia, held by The Bronx River Art Center:

Become educated about the Bronx River environment through several student multimedia approaches with different tools involving ecoTV, ecoGames, ecoWeb, ecoSound, and ecoPhoto.  See an amazing project unravel before your eyes as students in this ecological workshop, translate ideas like invasive species or watershed physics.

This was my first exposure to 13-year-olds giving software demos. I suppressed the impulse to try to help. It made the biggest impression of all on my 9-year-old son, who had seen mommy do many or all of the things the kids were showing him how to do, but having kids show him was different.


Miamia Country Day School on combating world hungerThe next session we went to was held by third graders from Miami Country Day School and consisted of a series of presentations by groups of third graders on solutions to the problem of world hunger.

How much land is actually useful for agricultural purposes? Find out and learn about a more effective way to grow crops in many of the poor regions of the world. Be ready to take home all you need to make your own container garden. Make up a recipe with organic herbs flown fresh from our school garden for your enjoyment! This workshop is hands-on, nose-on, and mouth-on.

The kids were doing a splendid job. But the room was hot and crowded (too small for the number of people there) so we slipped off for lunch before the end.

In the cafe, we found the group who had given the ecoMedia presentation, so we sat with them when we ate our lunch.

Guerilla GardeningThe third session we attended was Guerrilla Gardening, held by sixth graders from the Salk School of Science in New York City.

Save the plants and save the world! Learn how you and/or your school can create amazing indoor gardens while recycling and reusing your kitchen refuse. Plant beans, corn, potatoes, ginger, and much more. Leave with a head start on your own garden!

The students collectively taught a lesson that they might have had at school with their teacher. We drew sketches of various kinds of seeds found in many kitchens (kidney beans, bird seed, popping corn, etc.) then we made planters for them out of clear egg cartons and each came home set up to sprout the seeds on our windowsills.

IMG_0306.JPGAfter that, we attended the lively closing ceremonies in which there was some moderated discussion of what we had gotten out of the day. One of the teenagers attending had submitted a compelling short essay that was read out loud.

Peter at the microscopeAfter the official conference was over, we paid a visit to the Discovery Room, one of Peter's favorite parts of the museum. He looked at live grubs and butterfly wings under the microscope. We also spent a while in the museum's enormous gift shop.

eathing a snack at the end of the dayAfter a snack in the museum's main dining room, we went up to the top floor and saw the Audubon exhibit and the dinosaur skeletons. we saw a few more exhibits and then headed home.

For next year, when Peter will be in middle school, I think I'll try again to get a school delegation together to give a presentation.

Coining a Word: To Delegofy

Surely, there is already a word for removing large quatities of legos from one's child's bedroom floor or from the living room rug? I'm sure I am not the first parent to spend an unreasonable amount of time doing this. But it seems there is no specific word for this.

So I guess I get to coin the verb:

v. de•le•go•fied, de•le•go•fy•ing, de•le•go•fies

  1. To rid [a surface] of legos.
  2. To remove legos in order to clear a path where one might walk without hurting one's feet.

    To become free of legos.

(Bet you can tell what I was doing this afternoon!)

Secure Computing: My Letter to Paxworld

This is part of a series on Secure Computing and SmartFilter.

I just sent the following letter to Anita Green, V.P. for Social Research at Paxworld, a socially responsible mutual fund with significant investments in Secure Computing (SCUR):

Dear Anita Green:

I am writing to express concern about one of the companies in the Paxworld Balanced Fund's portfolio, Secure Computing (SCUR). While I am not one of Paxworld's investors, I support the general philosophy of companies like yours. I am an investor in the New Alternatives Fund which emphasizes alternative energy.

I have several concerns about the SCUR. Chief among these is that it is my understanding that they are licensing their censorship software, SmartFilter, to the oppressive governments of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Tunisia.  It really ought to be illegal for them to export content restriction software to governments that restrict freedom of speech and freedom of the press. It isn't yet, but this practice should be strongly discouraged on human rights grounds.

Secondly, this same software has been licensed to the US Military and is in use controlling what military personnel and security contractors can read overseas. If all they were filtering out was hardcore porn, that would be one thing. But their filtering is much more expansive and includes, for example, the popular weblog BoingBoing which no reasonable person would consider smut. Also there seems to be a political bias to which sites are available for viewing and which are not. And the company seems to have a very aggressive idea of what constitutes pornography and nudity. I had a very unsatisfactory correspondence with Tomo Foote-Lennox of Secure Computing yesterday about what kinds of depictions of breastfeeding might make it through their filters, for example. Mr. Foote-Lennox seems to have a very sexualized concept of the mother infant relationship which bears some examination in light of the censorship power he exercises and his claims that he is protecting the interests of children.

I would like to encourage you to consider divesting Paxworld of their SCUR holdings.


Kathryn Cramer

I suppose I should also have mentioned SCUR's unsubstantiated claims in their 2004 report about various domains hosting vast troves of porn but I didn't want to go on too long.


Secure Computing, Smart Filter, & the Female Breast

MbThis is part of a series on Secure Computing and SmartFilter. The image to the right is via the Got BreastMilk? Project.

Following the New York Times story Popular Web Site Falls Victim to a Content Filter, concerning Secure Computing's product SmartFilter blocking BoingBoing,  I wrote the following letter to Tomo Foote-Lennox, of Secure Computing, who is apparently the guy in charge of deciding what is smut and what isn't. He claims to be a defender of the interests of children:

In an e-mail message to Xeni Jardin, another of Boing Boing's chiefs, Tomo Foote-Lennox, a director of filtering data for Secure Computing, asked why the bloggers were starting a war. "We discussed several ways that you could organize your site so that I could protect the kids and you could distribute all the information you wanted," Mr. Foote-Lennox wrote.

One of the BoingBoing posts that Secure Computing used to justify classifying involved a shot showing a cat attempting to nurse on a woman's breast: Japanese TV show about cat that loves human milk. The image was very blurry and involved less actual nudity than your average shot of an Oscar-night dress. As a very experienced nursing mother, my hunch was that nursing, not an interspecies relationship, nor the expanse of cleavage, was at issue. So I wrote to Secure Computing's Censor-in-Chief to ask about this issue.

Nursing_1Regular readers of this blog are aware that I write with some frequency about breastfeeding issues, and may even be aware that when BBC Radio needed a Representative of American Womanhood to talk about nursing in public, they picked me. I have spent hundreds of hours nursing in public and have nursed on most major airlines and even nursed from the podium while doing public speaking. This is not a political stance, but rather a matter of pure practicality. The BBC pitted me against a man who said over and over that Public nudity is not socially acceptable, in the context of arguing that a nursing mother (Margaret Boyle-White) who refused to stop when confronted by UK police should have been arrested. I was followed on the program by Scottish MP Elaine Smith, who had introduced the bill recently passed at the time of the program making it an offense to stop mothers breastfeeding in public. (Preventing a woman from breastfeeding is already illegal in the State of New York.)

So I wrote the following letter to Foote-Lennox, to try to tease out whether what I suspected was true:

Dear Thom Foote-Lennox:

I am writing to express concern about your remarks concerning BoingBoing in the New York Times. As a long time BoingBoing reader, I am quite certain that it is by no stretch of the imagination a porn site. But I am also a nursing mother, so I am also concerned about what exactly causes you and your company to draw the conclusion the the nursing cat post was porn.

Nursing is not a sexual act. While there exist adults who sexualize children and the activities of children such as nursing, that is not what is going on in that image. The nursing cat seems to me simply a stand-in for a breast pump. Breast engorgement is a real phenomenon and dealing with it is a practical, not a sexual problem.

So what exactly about the nursing cat is sexual?


Kathryn Cramer
Pleasantville, New York

He replied:

We never called it porn.  We have categories for pornography, but we rated this as nudity.  Some of our customers want to limit the viewing of nude pictures in their schools or offices.  We give them the ability to make that choice.

- Tomo

I wrote back:

So a site that, say, depicted public breast feeding would make your list as nudity?


He replied:

Look at our categories on our web site.  Medical diagrams (women nursing cats on television don't count) are rated as nudity if they are explicit, but also as health, educational or consumer information.  Many elementary schools choose to block all nudity, but high schools usually exempt health and education, meaning if it is health or education, you ignore any other category it may have.

- Tomo

I wrote back:

You are aware that in some countries where women are not even allowed to expose their faces in public, it is socially acceptable for women to bare their breasts to feed their infants, yes?


It strikes me when I read his replies that, first of all, my basic intuition is correct. It was exposing the human breast in the context of nursing that was perceived as sexual and inappropriate, not the surreal twist given it by Japanese TV.

Nursey_1When breastfeeding in public for those hundreds of hours (sometimes even in elementary schools [gasp!]; always with at least one child present), I utterly failed to to provide health, educational, and consumer information. Here's voice-over I forgot to give: You know, dear, using breastmillk as eye-drops works as well for clearing up pink-eye as commercial pharmaceuticals! And it works pretty well in clearing up ear infections when used as ear drops as well! I assumed you knew. You did know that, didn't you? Mothers: always remember to educate the public while nursing in public, lest your public nursing be taken as some kind if sexual act!

Secondly: here I am talking to the Internet Censor-in-Chief for the US Military and their overseas contractors and for three countries (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar), and he has this oddly sexualized idea of breastfeeding. He's just this guy, and he's entitled to his personal quirks, but exactly how did this situation evolve to put him in charge of deciding what is sexual and what is not? What is porn and what is not? What he was giving me was distanced by being a description of how software works, but was really very close to the rantings of that strange little man the BBC pitted me against who just kept repeating "nudity is not socially acceptable."

Combining this with questions about the legitimacy of Secure Computing's claims to have found vast quantities of porn on some sites, I conclude that the awarding of these sweeping contracts to them was really quite premature, even if you accept the idea that the military and three whole countries need their Internet censored (which I don't). What exactly qualifies this guy to evaluate what is and is not nudity, porn, inappropriate, etc.? Did he have some special training? Even Justice Potter Stewart was reduced to trying to define porn by saying "I knowing when I see it." Secure Computing offers much more than a definition: multiple categories of inappropriate material, each with their own definition. So just where does this guy Tomo get off telling the world exactly the manner in which the female breast may and may not be displayed on the Internet?

What I think we have here is censorship practiced as a kind of fetishism: Secure Computing employees read the Internet with a dirty mind and then have their way with it based on what they read into what they see.

Breastfeeding on the BBC

I was just on the BBC Radio Show Have Your Say a few minutes ago discussing (or perhaps debating) the topic of public breastfeeding. The segment was apparently prompted by an incident in which a UK policeman stopped a woman, named Margaret Boyle-White, from feeding her baby:

A woman in the UK was asked by police to stop feeding her baby as she sat on a bench in Watton town centre, after another shopper complained.

BoylewhiteHere's the whole story from the London Times. My favorite bit is that the officer suggested that a pub might be a more appropriate venue for breastfeeding than a public bench. Woohoo.

Needless to say, I was advocating the position that a woman should be able to take care of her baby without interference, as was the member of a Scottish parliament who introduced the bill passed earlier this month making it an offense to stop mothers breastfeeding in public. (I didn't catch her name, but I think it was Elaine Smith.)

(Public breastfeeding is legally protected in the State of New York, where I live.)

The opposition, while I was on, was this guy who just kept saying over and over that "public nudity is not socially acceptable." He was pretty funny. Someone should take him to the beach from time to time. It would improve his disposition. When we weren't taking his point, he finally said, "If it is OK for women to breastfeed their babies it public, why isn't it OK to make babies in public?" (On second thought, maybe he shouldn't be taken to the beach.)

I was pleased to have the opportunity to strike a blow for Motherhood!

Gotbreastmilk_1MEANWHILE, a photographer named Amber Parmley in Tennessee, along with a friend of hers, has just launched Project Got Breastmilk?, a site with a really lovely breastfeeding photogallery. The photo to the right is one of my favorites from her site. She's doing a Got Breastmilk? calendar which you can preorder. Beautiful work!

AND MEANWHILE, a huge recall of Nestle infant formula has been ordered.

A FURTHER THOUGHT, 11/23: For those tempted to buy into the argument that bodily functions are private, I'd like to point out a couple of thing. First of all, if you think about what the person on the park bench would have to be doing for you to call a cop and ask for them to be stopped, asking for police action, or expecting police intervention is actually a pretty extreme remedy. and that is specifically what was at issue in the situation with Margaret Boyle-White.

Secondly, while a certain number of specific bodily functions are expected to be private, most of them are expected to be private with babies as well. (No one is asking you to watch babies poop.) And many other bodily functions, like sneezing and farting do not (except in extreme situations) confine people to their homes for fear they might sneeze or fart in public. And some things, such as public smoking, continue as common practice long after their practitioners have been informed that many people find smoking objectionable.

If the general rule were that one must stay home if there is a  risk that one might offend someone or make someone uncomfortable, pretty much no one could leave their houses. And for the mothers of small children, the greater risk of offending is in fact the possibility of a crying child. While I have had very little negative social feedback from my hundreds of hours of public nursing, I can say with some authority that most people object to a crying or screaming child. The claim that the mom should stay home if she might need to nurse because she might offend is absurd in the face of the number of times she has to face public disapproval because her little bundle of joy is screaming at the top of its powerful little lungs.

And finally, why should nursing mothers be singled out?

A Dermabond Evening

LizwcutI had other things I was going to blog about, but I've had my first direct experience with Dermabond -- the topical skin adhesive -- this evening. I was fixing dinner. My son was carrying a small bowl of cornchips into the livingroom, since he said he was too hungry to wait. My daughter, apparently, was running down the hall at top speed.

I didn't see it, only heard it. There was a collision as my son went out the kitchen door. Entirely by chance, the bowl he was carrying was ceramic, rather than the plastic ones I usually give the kids. Entirely by chance, it had a chip out of the side. Entirely by chance, the bowl impacted my daughter's face just to the right of her right eye. When I went to investigate, she had her face turned, so I didn't see the blood. At first I thought she wanted chips, too, and that that was why she was crying.

When I saw the other side of her face, I knew we needed to go to the ER. Our local emergency room now has a "Fast Track" system whereby those with minor injuries can be seen quickly by nurse practitioners. So we were in and out in an hour. The wound is glued shut with what is essentially superglue. It's got a bandaid over it to keep her from picking at it.

I feel extremely calm. But at 43, I also know that this calm is an illusion. Soon our delayed dinner will be ready and we will eat it and go to bed. Ah, motherhood.

I just looked at the Dermabond website:


I don't think Elizabeth would agree that there was "no discomfort."  But there are a lot of nerves in the eye area. Also, I'm sure glueing the cut shut probably hurt a lot less than stitching it would have. She had been very brave up until the glue was applied, but she cried the whole way home.

Farewell to the House of Sticks

Houseofsticks_1Over the weekend of the 15th and 16th, our House of Sticks fell down. To the left is a picture of the House of Sticks in October of 2002. That's me with the tummy. Elizabeth was born a few days later.

I have been putting of writing about this, since it marks sort of the end of an era for me. When Peter was very small, under three as I recall, he wanted me to build him a tree house, but I didn't want to build him a tree house at anything like the usual height because I was afraid he would fall out. At the time I was cleaning up fallen branches in the wooded area of your yard to make the yard more playable.

And I had this great idea: I could use all these nice long sturdy branches to make a groundlevel treehouse, which we called the House of Sticks. I think we began it around June of 2000. It actually took me over a year to construct it, working off and on, and in fact it wasn't just me, but Peter and I, since I let him help put in the decking screws that held it together. Making the walls was easy enough. First I made a pile of sticks all cut to the same length. And then I screwed them to sturdier sticks to frame it.

I briefly contemplated a House of Straw made of straw bales and a House of Brick involving fake brick from the hardware store, but decided that not only was that too much trouble, it also might involve large piles of rotting straw bales, and futher that I was not insane so I should put the thought right out of my head. (I also did not want to get into the kind of straw bale construction that involves protecting the bales from moisture.) One hand-made playhouse was enough.

Our yard is very hilly, which is why I was concerned to make it playable in the first place. And it turned out to be remarkably difficult to find a spot level enough to site the house of sticks without having to do really a lot of site preparation of a kind I didn't want to get into.

Houofsticks0501Eventually, I settled on an area near the edge of our property line which, while mostly flat, also was one of the wetter areas of the yard. But unless I wanted to something involving pouring concrete, it was the best spot in the yard for the house.  Here I am with the house assembled, but still lacking a roof.

I was all ready to build a roof right away, but I have a Mechanical Engineer for a mother who kept telling me that each proposed design for the roof was going to be too heavy. And so I think it was the spring of 2002 when the House of Sticks finally got its roof. (Most such structures do not have the benefit of an engineering consult.) I ultimately settled on the wooden latice roof you see in the first picture.

Once the roof was up, I planted wisteria next to it with the intention that the wisteria engulf the structure, weaving between the sticks and giving it greater stability. The wisteria had other ideas. It wanted to run up to the weathervane and stay there. Most of the weaving that went on was done by me, not by the uncooperative wisteria.

Here is Elizabeth in the House of Sticks last October, a photo I took with my cellphone camera:


Each winter, the house would sustain some damage, and each spring I would go out with decking screws and a few more sticks to shore things up. The house was made of sticks from the yard, not from commercial lumber, so I knew that ultimately it would rot out and have to be torn down. This past spring, most of the new damage looked unfixable, so I knew that this was probably the last year for the House of Sticks.

So we came home from Washington, DC two weeks ago, where we had celebrated the kids' birthdays with their cousins attended Capclave. The House of Sticks had fallen down in a storm while we were gone:


In a day or so, I'll start tearing it down. But for me it has symbolized what I think is best about my mothering and so it is hard to part with. I have a photo album for it on Flickr, to which I'll add other pictures as I come across them.

Next spring, we'll build something else.

Cindy Lee Berryhill: "When Did Jesus Become a Republican?"

CindyleeFurther to the subject of women taken out of circulation because of taking care of children, singer/songwriter and anti-folk heroine Cindy Lee Berryhill is emerging from semi-retirement. (I was not able to make much in the way of helpful sugestions to questions like How do you go on tour with a toddler?)

Her son Alexander, is now about 4. She appeared on Air America on October 21st. She is currently working on a CD, and on her webite, you can now listen to her new song, "When Did Jesus Become a Republican?" (click on the link in the upper righthand corner).

My husband David was in California and visited Cindy and her husband, famous rock critic and former executor of the Philip K. Dick Estate, Paul Williams. David took a lot of pictures.

Here's a nice shot of the Berryhill Williams family:


Conditions of Absolute Reality

InjuredIn the past three weeks of confronting the situation of the Pakistan Earthquake (admittedly, from the comfort of my own home), I have often been reminded of the opening passage of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

Many evenings I have felt when I've gone to bed that I've come a little too close to those conditions of absolute reality. I am having a really hard time with Halloween, for example. Years ago, as a teacher of horror writing, I was nearly impossible to gross out. The class I taught attracted really bright early entrance students who sometimes seemed to make a sport of trying to gross me out, and instead I would say things like, "but wait, is that physically possible? I don't think so. You just can't do that with a can of hairspray."

But here I am at 43, with an 8-year-old son, completely banning anything remotely gruesome from our Halloween celebration. I would like to claim that this is just good parenting, but my aversion goes considerably beyond that. Rather my mind's eye is just too good at visualizing the absolute reality of the situation in certain parts of rural Pakistan. Bad injuries. Untreated for three weeks. No one will sleep indoors for fear of being crushed in their sleep. Aid agencies still having not arrived. When I look at those maps, I'm pretty sure that I know what I'm looking at.

But I hadn't looked at it yet.

Well, this afternoon, I was perusing certain tags in Flickr, looking for live reportage, not just redistribution of press photography. I didn't used to know what three-week-old untreated wounds look like.

Now I know that I had nothing to fear from the manufacturers of fake Halloween gore because they really had no idea, no imagination for just how bad it could be.The photographic point of view is so caring. The lens is smeared not for effect but because the photographer is out in the field under rugged conditions. And the people look so greatful because someone has finally arrived to help them.

By the conventions of blogging, I suppose I ought to link to the pictures. If you go to my Flickr page and paw through the photos of my contacts, you'll find them. But I don't want to make it easy, since they are not, shall we say, lunch safe. I am still adjusting my reality to them.

They don't tell me anything I didn't already know. Rather they point out to me the limits of my own imagination.

My Kids Meet Wolfram Tones

WolframTonesGiven confidence at my own skills as a cinematographer by a look through the GoogleVideo, I opened my own account and I uploaded this bad little clip I shot on the 28th of September of my kids in their first encounter with Peter Overmann's Wolfram Tones. It took a while for the busy folks at Google Video to approve my clip, but now it has finally been unleashed upon the public.

Back on the 28th,when I first uploaded it, I wrote:

After dinner this evening, I sat my son Peter, who has just started 3rd grade, down at my computer and let him play with Wolfram Tones for the first time. The first interesting thing that happened was that my daughter Elizabeth, who turns 3 in October, started jamming to the Wolfram Tomes soundtrack on the toy piano in the living room. (I had gotten the video camera out to film Peter, and she started while I was getting set up.) After about 10 minutes of fiddling, Peter came up with something he really liked.

I got out the video camera for a kind of personal note-taking to watch how Peter used the program. What happened while I was getting the camera out and turned on, I find quite remarkable: Elizabeth's jamming along with the music coming from the computer is something she usually only does with live music, implying that somehow the music coming from WolframTones passed the Turning test for her.

Criminalizing Pregnancy?

Not that I think that this bit of legal surrealism is likely to actually become law, but why are Indiana Republicans cooking up legislation to discourage motherhood? It seems to have all kinds of strange provisions, but especially has it in for anyone pregnant without a ring on her finger or—and this is the part that would raise deep outrage in this neck of the woods, where as nearly as I can tell a significant number of the children are conceived under circumstances involving medical assistance—anyone needing the help of a fertility clinic to get pregnant.

It contains such bizarre passages as:

The intended parents shall pay the fees and other costs of the criminal history check . . .

. . .  and  . . .

Before intended parents may enter into a gestational agreement and before conception occurs, the intended parents shall obtain an assessment from a licensed child placing agency in the intended parents' state of residence.

Never mind that this is evil, wrong, and dangerous, these people seem completely innocent of the reproductive habits of the class able to make large contributions of political parties. And I think that's just too funny.

(Via Feministe and Booman Tribune.)

Future Shock & Third Grade Math

DonpostmutantI'm a bit unsure what I shold have said this morning when my son's new third grade teacher told me, in the context of a discussion of the math cirriculum, that in the third grade "we don't teach memorization; we teach concepts." Perhaps she was a little too candid.

Good thing that here in the Future we can all work out multiplication problems from first principles whenever we need to multiply, isn't it?

A Windfall Kite, Mass Pike Sunday Drivers, & the Oncoming Storm

Img_0042Here is a photo I took yesterday morning  returning to our motel from the beach in Marshfield, Massachusetts. Before heading home, I got the kids up at 7AM, so we could go to the beach one last time.  It was high tide, but almost immediately we found a kite. The string was stretched a long way down the beach, and at the end of the string was a wet, but flyable, Dragon Ball Z kite.  I shot this picture as we were carrying our windfall kite back to the motel just before changing clothes and checking out. This is the beach where David's grandfather built a beach house in about 1910 which remained in David's family until the 1970s, so it is the beach where David spent summers as a child. We stayed over on our way back from Maine.

So now we're home in this final week of summer before school starts. Taking stock when we got home yesterday after a long grueling drive back from Massachusetts, it began to appear that New Orleans was in significant danger of being wiped out by the incoming hurricane.

Img_0067Looking at the photos of long lines of cars streaming out of New Orleans, I was reminded of our midday experience on the Mass Pike: Here are a few Mass Pike pictures. There was some kind of huge accident west of the Millbury exit, so the Pike was closed in both directions. This set the stage for some really appalling behavior on the part of frustrated drivers. I honest to God saw someone pull out onto the shoulder of the road and cut off an ambulance with lights flashing and sirens blaring. Here are the cars driving in the breakdown lane next to a guard rail, cutting off access for emergency vehicles, and the cop car and the car it was trying to escort. Most drivers behaved themselves, but there was a significant contingent that seemed mostly unconcerned with getting out of the way of emergency vehicles that were trying to reach the accident. There were scores of minor accidents as cars jostled each other in the bumper-to-bumper traffic. From the radio coverage, I gather that the traffic jam was ultimately resolved by the arrival of a Medvac helicopter. We didn't see the actual accident site.

I wish I'd thought to get out my video camera to tape the scene of a frustrated cop trying to escort a couple in a visibly damaged car off the  highway. He got out of his car and rapped on the window of the car in from of him twice. And he also went to one of the cars trying to tag along, put his hands on his hips and asked "Why are you following me?" I didn't hear the driver's reply.

Img_0069I hope the Louisiana drivers were more considerate of each other than the people I witnessed yesterday. 

And so now, a hurricane, a huge hurricane. Lucky me, we don't have cable TV. So I don't have the opportunity to subject myself to endless looping anxiety as CNN covers the story with way too little data because it would be potentially lethal to do the usual coverage. My first words to David this morning were "Well, New Orleans isn't gone yet."

My great-grandmother, Agnes Gleason Cramer, died and was buried somewhere in New Orleans in about 1908; we don't know where. She died when my grandfather was 10 months old, as I understand it from complications from childbirth. So my grandfather never knew his mother. A few years ago, we established that the family seemed to have no copies of her picture. Last night, I had a dream that her bones were floating out to sea.


Un-Glasgow Photos

I've begun a photo album of what we did while David went to Glasgow, which features such amazing shots as James Morrow climbing a tree, the skeleton of an extinct Stellar's sea cow, and even a live bear in a dumpster.

Typepad won't let me into the Configure screen this morning, so I'll have to wait until later to do the album design work.  (Also, I've got to get on with my day in a few minutes.)


Elizabeth shows her teeth.

A tech note: The photos taken in Washington, DC are by far the sharpest, because they were taken with my brother-in-law Tom's expensive Nikon digital. The photos of kids in the kiddie pool were, in fact, taken by Tom. After DC, all the photos are taken with my video camera (most extracted from video footage).

A Westchester Afternoon: Post-Scarcity Suburbia

Riding in the car this afternoon, the news came on the radio. After the news was mostly over, Peter (about to begin the 3rd grade)  remarked on the absence on any terrorists in our neighborhood and in neighborhoods nearby. He seemed to think that terrorists must be prevalent in other people's neighborhoods but that we were somehow lacking them. And he wondered why.

Meanwhile, there is something that's been eating me all day.  I was reading the NYT article about the high mortality rate for heart disease in the New York City suburbs (which, given David's angioplasty, I read thoroughly), defying all the usual socio-economic indicators. I couldn't resist the temptation to check on the socio-economic indicators for this precise area. And I came smack up against the cold hard fact that our income is just about half the median income for families in our school district. No wonder I can't afford much babysitting!

There are these studies that show that a really large percentage of the population thinks they are middle class, and on the other hand there are also surveys showing that 20% of the population thinks they are in the top 1% financially. I knew, in principle, that by the inflated standards of this area, that we are poor. It is quite another thing to have the numbers in hand, to know that if I had the highest-paying job I've ever held, it would bring us only a small way toward the "median" income for families in our school district. (I don't even want to know what the average is, because with the really high incomes averaged in, the average is surely much higher.)  But despite my shock at confrontation with the actual numbers (which are probably a little out of date, and therefore a little low) mental arithmetic suggests that they are about right. The typical household in this area probably does have an extra seven thousand dollars a month to spend. 

I would like to say that I can't imagine what I would spend that money on, but it isn't true, because I've watched them do it. Moment by moment I have to resist the social signals as to what "normal" households spend. So I know. I know it in my very bones. Just why haven't we remodeled our kitchen three times in the past decade? Why don't our kids attend summer camps that cost $5,000 per child per summer? Why haven't we added that stone facade yet?

In an earlier post, I referred to this area as "post-scarcity suburbia." I was partly joking, but I think that term was more accurate than I intended it. Definition: Post-scarcity suburbia is a suburb in which you are able to contract for nearly everything a neighborhood is supposed to provide. While there may be some reciprocity between neighbors, none is necessary since whatever services you require are available for hire and you can (or are expected to) afford them.

On Living in Someone Else's Utopia

Pleasantville, New York, is one of those places the suburbs were invented. It figures into the books on the suburbs in two ways. It is the place the Reader's Digest moved to when it moved its headquarters out of New York City. (The first Pleasantville  Reader's Digest headquarters is now the location of the Pleasantville Police Department.) And we are also about a mile from Usonia, a utopian housing development created in the 1940s by Frank Lloyd Wright and friends. In our street of houses, built ten years after Usonia, you can see the echoes of Usonia: curved streets with no sidewalks; houses very carefully sited on one acre lots to give the greatest sense of being in the woods. In our development, called Old Farm Hill when sold in the '50s, the houses were not individually designed; rather there are about six designs sprinkled throughout. About 10 years ago, we were invited to a dinner having something to do with the Mt. Kisco Unitarian church and arrived at an address in Bedford (as I recall) to discover that they had our house. In the past six months, two houses from the Old Farm Hill development have been bought by a building contractor who, I'm told, bought them for the lots. They are apparently to be torn down and replaced by 2 million dollar houses. (Could this be the same developer who talked the town into selling an acre of undeveloped parkland on the same street? Eight hundred thousand dollars is a formidable price to pay for an acre of land.) I have difficulty imagining relating to neighbors who paid that much for their house. And perhaps I have no need to be anxious about that: such houses usually come with keycard entrance driveways. Don't even think about trick-or-treating there. And so it goes: Pleasantville, one of the places where the suburbs were invented, is also one of the places where the suburbs are being reinvented.

So here we are, an hour and forty-five minutes into August 2005. The car service picked David up to take him to the airport nine hours ago. David is probably at his hotel in Glasgow by now.  One of our annual book contracts was not renewed and our publisher's contracts person seemed to need to reinvent the wheel in order to get our other contract out the door, and here it is August and we have not yet been paid for something that was supposed to be settled months ago, and so the financial chickens  (or are they ravens?) come home to roost. So despite our longstanding plans to go to Scotland as a family, David has gone alone; this despite our longstanding practice of traveling as a family as our own little nomadic band. There is something very primal, very natural about traveling as a family. When on long trips, it has seemed to me that nomadism is a much more functional lifestyle than it is ever given credit for. But David is a science fiction editor, in some ways the very Jungian archetype of The Science Fiction Editor, and so he must go to the WorldCon.

And the kids and I remain behind in the postmodern bastardization of Frank Lloyd Wright's utopia. Because we were planning to go to Scotland, I signed Peter up for a scant two weeks of day camp which have now been over for ten days. When Peter was about three, I remarked that if you say a child outside in midday on a summer weekday, it was like seeing a raccoon out at that time of day: it meant the child was sick. On summer weekdays, buses roar through here about nine and vacuum up all the children, returning them at about five. The idea behind this utopia is that in the future, everyone will have lots of money. (This is the future; post-scarcity suburbia, you have lots of money, right?)

Part of the idea of the post-Wrightian "Winners' Circle" suburbs is that they take lots of things that came for free, that were basic elements of the of the Seattle neighborhood I was small in, and they separate those out, so they can be sold back to you at a premium price. The summer-long price of that camp that comes with the bus, that is so popular in these parts: five grand per child, last time I checked -- for five grand, you can arrange for your child to have other children to play with in the summer. Peter's day camp was considerably less, and to my mind, better, but required nearly 2 hours per day of camp of maternal driving time. And I signed him up for only two weeks back during the January sign-up period, because we were going to Glasgow.

So David gets in the black car and drives away. In my mind's eye, both kids then look at me and say Here we are; entertain us. That's not actually what happened. It being a Sunday evening, neighborhood kids ran in a pack for about two hours. After dinner, I lulled Peter and Elizabeth to sleep with a mathematics propaganda video: Multiplication Rock. It would be nice to think that a mile away, the moms of Usonia are faring better, but I know that is not the case: a Usonian mom of my acquaintance was undergoing horrible but necessary eye surgery right about now which will require her to remain in a facedown position for ten days; when discussing the difficulties of this in the Tae Kwon Do waiting room, it did not sound like living in Wright's utopia conferred any special advantages. Camp. the kids go to camp. And when they're not at camp, they're yours, all yours.

When on car trips, we have a family term: utopia, as in, Oh, look there's a utopia! You know the kind of house I mean. There you are in the middle of nowhere and there on the front part of maybe ten acres of what probably this time last year was a farmer's field is now this brick house with fancy light posts and garden statuary and a gazing globe (or maybe one in each color?) and at least one "water feature," usually the ubiquitous fountain, but maybe a custom trout pond/skating rink with that statue of a black boy fishing. Someone finally got what she always wanted. These houses were built to be utopias. A partially inground pool was built in out yard in about 1967, lasting until about 1990. (This year, the old pool area is an especially productive raspberry patch.) And okay, I confess, I've got garden statuary: a winged lion, a frog gargoyle reading a book, a couple of ammonites. This year we are lacking a water feature because I didn't bother to set up the fountain. (Given Elizabeth's track record so far this summer with getting into tempra paint, it would have been spouting "nice clean black water" in no time.) You don't have to go more than a block here to find a house with a work in progress and obligatory backhoe or  bulldozer in the back yard. Make no mistake: the processes of utpoia are still in progress here.

We tried to go to the "swmming beach" in Croton Point Park on the Hudson Friday. Where do you get off, lady? What's the matter with you that you aren't by the pool at your swim club? The beach is covered with goose shit and we were run off by the patrolling cop because you're only allowed to swim on weekends when the county provides a lifeguard. As I wrote in the comments over at Making Light:

I hauled the kids through Metro North and the NYC subway system to the American Museum of Natural History Thursday and was surprised to see very little in the way of increased security.

On the other hand, I took the kids to the beach at Croton Point Park yesterday. It may be because the park has a view of the Indian Point nuclear power plant, or it may be because the county was concerned about the possibility of drunk, rowdy teenagers. But there was abundant security at the park, including guys in military fatigues guarding what looked like a side road leading into the Metro North train yards.

We drove in and I paid the rather steep eight bucks to park. On paper, there is a nature center there, but it was closed even though I thought the sign listed hours that suggested it would be open. That having not panned out, I got the kids in their bathing suits and took them to the "swimming beach." No one else was there, except about 100 Canadian geese, nearly as many ducks, and one shy blue heron. The beach was covered with goose poop. There were lifeguard chairs and a roped off area for the lifeguards to guard, but no lifeguards in evidence.

Elizabeth chased off the geese, and Peter found fairly quickly that there were little crabs in the water and set about catching them. There was a snack bar building that was boarded up and fenced off, and a building clearly meant to house changing rooms and showers which looked like it had been closed for years bearing a sign that it was being rennovated. The situation was pretty sad, since clearly if the beach had people on it in the summer on a daily basis, it wouldn't be covered with goose poop.

I managed to avoid having a conversation with the first cop who came by on beach patrol, because Elizabeth took her water shoes off at just that moment, and I didn't want her running around on goose poop in bare feet. When the second one came by about half an hour later, he informed us that "swimming" was not allowed without a lifeguard present; from the way it was phrased it seemed that what Peter was doing, looking for crabs in ankle-deep water, constitued swimming. The guy was clearly trying to be nice; these were just the rules, it seemed. There are a couple of other beach-like areas in the park, but it seemed to me that if the same cop caught us "swimming" on a different beach, I might really be in trouble. So we packed up and went home.

(Also, it occured to me while we were there that if the Health Department came out and tested the water at that particular spot, they might close it for health reasons because of contamination caused by the abundant poop.)

I had only ever been to the park before during the Clearwater music festival, which gives it a rather different ambiance. But without the festival, it had a very police state ambiance. Homeland Security: keeing America safe from little boys catching small crabs at the beach.

The situation was clearly the result of a collision between budget cuts for parks systems and the emergent Homeland Security infrastructure. I don't think we'll be going there again any time soon.

But here we are: David's in Glasgow. The pool is a raspberry patch. There is no camp except Mother camp. The cat has a thyroid problem, I was informed last week, requiring daily medication. One misguided part of my utopian process was getting Peter a bunny. My stepson Geoff Hartwell, guitar god, is teaching at the National Guitar Workshop (a utopia unto itself) for the next two weeks and thus is not available for vacation pet care. (The beta fish and various ampbians have slower metabolisms, and some of them eat alge and so are less of a probem.)

The obvious thing to do is to hit the road. But it seems I have four, not just the ordinary two small mammals, to accomodate. Do I load two kids, a hyperthyroid cat, and a ferocious bunny rabbit into the back of the van and drive of looking for the nomadic utopia tomorrow morning? Or do I do something else? Your guess is as good as mine. The process of utopia starts here.

Teaching Perfect Squares with Legos

Lego_pyramidOne of my summer projects is to teach Peter his multiplication tables before school starts. Our exceptionally fine school district had an extremely difficult time teaching him his basic addition and subtraction facts in the first and second grade, and I have no reason to believe that they will have more success in the third grade with multiplication. Peter has David's amazing associative memory, and while associative memory is great for learning about, say, red efts, since calling to mind all the information you have about surrounding concepts such as salamanders and newts gives you context and allows you to interpolate information you don't know. But for recalling information about, say, the number seven it is a disaster (as my Google search link handily illustrates: nearly a billion results for the numeral 7; only a hundred and sixteen million for the word seven spelled out).

I have arrived at this formulation: Memory is something I do; memory is something that happens to David and Peter. So in order to get Peter over certain academic hurdles, I need to teach him how to work at memory. Simple recitation does not do it for numbers. The public schools have a slightly more complex technique that boils down to repetition which has failed us utterly, so far.

So I have been looking for alternatives. One of the alternatives, has been assigning multiplication problems to particular places in a classically organized "memory palace" structured around the pool area and grounds of the hotel where the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts is held. Each memory place is a place where he found a memorable creature. (The iguana he spotted by the whirlpool is given the spot 7 X 7 and is names Fortunine to invoke 49; the place he found a favorite caterpillar is designated 8 X 8, and the caterpillar is named "Sticky Boy" to invoke 64.) This was succeeding up to a point, but lacked a structure that could be extrapolated upon.

So this afternoon, I hit upon the idea of building a Great Pyramid, complete with a Lego Pharaoh, to illustrate the concept of perfect squares in a way that could be generalized to other multiplication problems, and would also allow us to deduce the existence of prime numbers.

The hardest part was sorting his vast and diverse collection of Legos for the collection of 200-odd square Legos with four bumps on them. This allowed us the make the first 8 layers of the pyramid. Starting with one, I had him tell me what the product of each number was when multiplied by itself; then we collected the right number of square Legos,; then we built the next layer of the pyramid. (Because of the tightness of the fit needed for the Legos near the middle, I did the middle parts, and he did the perimeters.) Having verified that the square of each number indeed yielded a square, we moved on to rectangles; and then we demonstrated experimentally that there are some numbers of blocks that can't be made into rectangles (the example we tried was 19). Then I explained about prime numbers.

I am pleased with this Lego activity, but also think that it would not have worked if I had not first helped him memorize the perfect squares using the pool-side memory palace. I was taking things he had memorized as arbitrary concepts and giving them a more conceptually based architectural structure which can be extrapolated from.

PS: I must say I'm rather hardpressed to understand the intended mneumonics of the "Fact Triangles" in the Everyday Mathematics curriculum that Peter's school uses.

From the Annals of Post-Modern Parenting

A few years ago, I observed a preschool teacher instructing a room full of four-year-olds that if a stranger tries to talk to you, yell "GO AWAY!" in your loudest voice." I was very uncomfortable with this, and that scene has remained with me as an icon for well-meant advice gone terribly wrong.

And that was what I immediately thought of when I read this passage from the tale of the Utah boy's survival in the wilderness:

Brennan's mother, Jody Hawkins, suggested her son may have been avoiding searchers by following his father's advice.

"He had two thoughts going through his head all the time," she said. "Toby's always told him that 'if you get lost, stay on the trail.' So he stayed on the trail.

"We've also told him don't talk to strangers. ... When an ATV or horse came by, he got off the trail. ... When they left, he got back on the trail."

"His biggest fear, he told me, was someone would steal him," she said.

Brennan's uncle, Bob Hawkins, said his nephew may have been afraid to contact the strangers because they weren't using the password his family had adopted.

I hope these people understand that this stupid password system nearly cost their son his life.

Well Barbara, if you could be any kind of tree, what kind of tree would you be?

Year ago, I happened across Barbara Walters' book How to Talk With Practically Anybody About Practically Anything. While reading that book was when I first understood that a book could be sold on proposal. As I recall (and this was decades ago), it did actually suggest using the question "If you could be any kind of tree, what kind of tree would you be?" as a conversational opener. The book was almost content-free.

So a few minutes ago when David called to tell me about Barbara's big gaffe, those were the first words out of my mouth. Having spent years of my life nursing while talking with practically anyone about practically anything, I am shocked, shocked that Walters thinks women ought not nurse in public.  I'm nursing right now while talking to you!

NursingGo lactivists! The nurse-in outside ABC is a great thing.

This having been said, I should also say that I have only had one complaint EVER about my public breastfeeding, and that was when feeding Elizabeth in the infant room at her preschool when she was about 11 months old.

(To spell it out for those of you who don't know me in person: I have breastfed while signing copies of my books; I have breastfed on panels; I have breastfed while teaching a writers workshop; I have breastfed in literally hundreds of restaurants; on most major airlines and in more public places than I can even think of. It is like breathing. How many places have you breathed?)

PS: The person I'd most like to hear from is the one who made Walters uncomfortable. Surely one does not fail to notice that BW is in the next seat in the cramped space of an airplane? Should she have felt tongue-tied, I have a surefire line to get the conversation going.

Quiz question: Which was more likely to cause a problem with longterm consequences? A woman nursing her baby in full view of the Interview Queen? Or the Interview Queen breathing her germs on the baby in the close confines of an airplane?

What I really need is a second head

I was reading through the May 28th New Scientist article 11 steps to a better brain nodding along with stuff I mostly already knew, when I hit this passage:

The second step is to cut down on distractions. Workplace studies have found that it takes up to 15 minutes to regain a deep state of concentration after a distraction such as a phone call. Just a few such interruptions and half the day is wasted.

I looked at  that and wondered how I can think at all. How often do I get interrupted when trying to think during a normal day?  It is not possible to count. Night before last, I had a really good idea that was absorbing my RAM and managed to focus on it most of the day anyway. This resulted in things like me arriving at the grocery store only to realize that I had not delivered Elizabeth to nursery school and she was still with me. I knew she was there. We had been arguing for five minutes about whether I was going to pull over to the side of the road and retrieve the toy she'd hurled over the side of her car seat. I had just been driving on autopilot and had skipped a stop in our itinerary. And this followed in interesting conversation with Peter while I was in the bath; interesting enough that I discovered later that I had neglected to rinse the cream rinse from my hair. (These are mistakes I rarely, if ever make.)

Reading the New Scientist's accounts of medications that can increase focus is tempting, but for a mommy, focus is a double-edged sword.  What I really need is a  second head: one head could focus while the other maintained the diffuse awareness necessary for keeping everything on track.

Multi-tasking, so prized by industry, is a really poor substitute for a second head.

Lacking a second head, here is Kathryn's Big Tip: Address the cognitive impairments of motherhood by trying to work on things closely tied to what your biology will code as important, i. e. try to chose intellectual projects closely aligned to the interests and the best interests of your children. I find that I have much clearer recollections of what I was working on and what I was trying to do when I chose this strategy.