Thursday, December 29, 2005

Goddesses, Gender & Archaeology

The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won't Give Women a Future, by Cynthia Eller is a fascinating read, one that highlights some of the many divisions among feminists.

I've always considered myself a feminist (at least for the last thirty years or so), but I never considered spirituality a part of that. On the contrary, my feminist interests tend toward science, and in graduate school in anthropology I helped put together a course called "A Gendered Past" that examined feminism and its application to prehistory.

In the last decade, the divisions between feminist archaeologists and what Eller calls "feminist matriarchalists" seem to have deepened, despite some valiant attempts at conciliation and tolerance on both sides. Check out Belili Production's webpage on What's the Debate? Marija Gimbutas - Legacy and Controversy for some recent discussions, and to explore some of the differing beliefs concerning women in prehistory.

Natalie Angier gave an even-handed review of Eller's book in the New York Times after its initial publication, but not all responses were so measured.

Lawrence Osborne's False Goddess, a review article in Salon, seems to revel in destroying the "lushly hysterical account of the rise of wicked, war-loving patriarchy", while simultaneously deriding anthropological and archaeological work on gender as "woolly" and "long on hot air, but rather short on empirical detail". While I can't deny the "hot air" in the sometimes undecipherable and torturous theoretical literature on gender and archaeology, I think recent work* shows that Osborne's statement that "Shards of pottery, meanwhile, are not especially eloquent about "gender relations" is downright shortsighted.

Amazon's reviews reveal some of the less coherent but impassioned responses to Eller's book:

"...she isn't worth whatever money she scrapes up from the misogynistic phallus worshipping patriarchal society she has obviously came to know and love. 'Glaring ignorance' should be listed on her credentials."

"However I guess since a male dominated Patriartical society has done a good job at distorting and destroying ancient Goddess evidence people have a hard time believing what is clearly in front of their eyes. The sadder part is that it is written by a woman, but I guess that when you are afraid of your own herstory and women's empowerment it is easy to support writtings that add to one's egotistical and false assumptions. All I can say is that if you are a TRUE Goddess woman you would be better to spend your time reading books like The Great Cosmic Mother which speaks of women's cultures and destruction by Patriarchy. The only real illusion here is the false notion that Patriarchy has always ruled. How very sad for everyone."

Now, being told that I have been "blinded by the patriarchy" or "brainwashed by the establishment" is just as annoying coming from a goddess worshipper as it was when Linda Hirshman said it about stay-at-home mothers. In both cases, I feel like I'm arguing with a religious fundamentalist whose devotion to dogma is stronger than any evidence that I could ever produce. And how on earth can I prove I haven't been totally blinded by the patriarchy? I can't prove that any more than I can prove that I'm free of original sin, and of course we are all undeniably influenced by our culture and history.

At any rate, I found The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory an absorbing examination of feminism's spiritual roots and its use of myth, and a very interesting discussion of the implications of belief in this particular myth (or theory, if you prefer). As one of those "feminist archaeologists", I thought Eller handled the archaeological evidence (and the often abstruse archaeological literature) very well, with logic and balance and a nice assembly of illustrations.

*see for example, Gilpin & Whitley's Reader in Gender Archaeology; Nelson & Rosen-Ayalon's In Pursuit of Gender; Joyce's Gender and Power in Prehispanic Mesoamerica, or numerous other recent works. Just google "gender archaeology (or archeology)" and "gender prehistory". Unfortunately, you need an academic translator for some of these books; someone should write a book like Charles Mann's 1491 on this topic. Maybe I can do it when my daughter starts kindergarten.

Interesting Question...

...from my nine year old son: "If we had a time machine and could go back in time and get a saber-toothed tiger for our house, would you be allergic to that like a regular cat?"

Friday, December 23, 2005

Santa in 1902

From the American Memory archives at the Library of Congress: a somewhat gaunt Santa Claus collecting for a Chicago charity.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Suntree Farms

There's a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons --
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes --
- Emily Dickinson, No. 258

5th Carnival of Feminists

is up at ScribblingWoman. As usual, I am particularly impressed by the multicultural posts - these are things I just don't read in the more mainstream media. Not I that I ever find more than a few superficial articles on feminism in newspapers or magazines, for the most part. But check it out, really.

A few of my favorites from what I've read so far: The Price of Motherhood is a thoughtful discussion on the Slate article on Amalia Miller's well-designed economic research; and Consider the Hijab: Blogging Against Racism.

Sunday, December 18, 2005


Monkeyluv: And Other Essays on Our Lives as Animals, by Robert M. Sapolsky was a fantastic, educational, funny, well-written book. I absolutely loved it. When it isn't brand-new and it comes down in price, I will buy my own copy to keep (this one was from the library).

Sapolsky is a neurobiologist at Stanford who studies stress hormones and their effect on health. He does field work with baboons in east Africa (detailed more in A Primate's Memoir, which I blogged about here).

In this collection of essays, originally written for magazines like Natural History, Discover, and Men's Health, he writes about our genes and how they interact with our environment. He explains things like why people who think nature always trumps nuture are wrong (or don't know how genes work), depression and PTSD and how a susceptibility for these disorders can be inherited (but not always developed), sexual attraction, dreams, cross-cultural religious patterns, Munchausen's by proxy, and more.

Since the essays were originally written for popular magazines, they are short and very readable. At the end of every essay, he's added a nice "further reading" section that tells you about the research about this issue, more technical works you may want to read, and interesting asides.

This is the kind of popular science we need to see a LOT more. It doesn't oversimplify the issues, but it doesn't bore the reader.

I could go on and gush about every single essay, but I'll stop here and just tell you to read the book if you're at all interested in your biology and your environment and health. Or recent scientific studies on any of these issues.

On "The Stay-At-Home Mystique"

After thinking about it a bit, I don't think there's much I can add to Naomi's critique of Rebecca Traister's Salon article, "The Stay-At-Home Mystique".

Like Naomi, I'm annoyed by both the author and the woman interviewed. It would have been nice if the editor from Total 180! magazine had answered Traister with some insight into the financial and cultural pressures that induce some women to stay home, rather than implying that if mothers didn't, all kinds of modern weirdness would ensue: kids joining gangs and participating in sexual activities in elementary school.

And Traister could have thought of some more interesting questions rather than just stirring the "Mommy Wars" pot with The Feminine Mystique. And still, nobody mentions Peskowitz's definitive work on this very topic. I really don't get it.

One part that did stick in my mind (and my craw) was the magazine editor's vague notion of a prehistoric matriarchy, as exemplified by Marion Zimmer Bradley's fantasy classic The Mists of Avalon. And although this was obviously a fumble in the dark for a relevant reference, more recent feminist writings, including one by The-Goddess in the last Carnival of Feminists shows that this idea is far from lost in the mists of the past. And that will be a subject for a future post.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Matters of Style and Presentation

I have to admit that part of the reason that I don't like the Darla Shine media group's magazine, Total 180! (the subject of Rebecca Traister's Salon article, which I still haven't written about) is because the whole cutesy "Happy Housewives 50's anti-intellectual chic" sets my teeth on edge. I much prefer Brain, Child magazine's slightly edgy literary presentation, which I think is aimed at the same audience of "mothers who think".

I wonder if the same subset of women that love Happy Housewives would like HRT's new Kiss My Axe cd. After listening to a sample of their lyrics & music (at the cd link above), I'm definitely sold on HRT. Unfortunately, I can't listen to it while driving my kids around in the minivan, as they would certainly learn some new vocabulary we're trying to keep them from picking up. I'm hearing "Jingle Bells, Batman Smells" enough as it is.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Read the 4th Carnival of Feminists...

...and not just because there's a post by me (in the "Women's Work" section), but because it is really interesting. It's got controversy, it's got Birkenstocks, ancient goddesses, a look at chick flicks, lawyers, guns and money and feminist Mormon housewives, and more.

4th Carnival of Feminists

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Book Index Works

Sorry about the lack of a working link for the book index. It works again now. I wish Blogger had an easy way to post selected links to your own blog archives in the sidebar. I like those "reading now" book cover pictures some people put in their sidebars. Except I would have to change the damn thing every other day, as I'm pretty much always reading a couple different books. And I would probably only want to put the intellectual looking ones in the sidebar.

Next up, because I can't stay away from the topic: a look at Rebecca Traister's Salon article, The Stay-at-Home Mystique. Yes, you have to watch an advertisement in order to read the article, but it's worth it to read all the responses to it. And the excerpts and responses on Pandagon and 11D.

Argh. Why isn't anyone citing Miriam Peskowitz's book? The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars covers these questions with interesting research, logic, and compassion. But all anyone can talk about is Happy Housewives and Desperate Housewives.

Monday, December 05, 2005

The Three-Martini Playdate

subtitled A Practical Guide to Happy Parenting, by Christie Mellor, is a very funny book that you probably have to be a parent to appreciate. As a commenter pointed out when I trashed Confessions of a Slacker Mom, this book captures a certain bracing tongue-in-cheek attitude perfectly, without the condescension and holier-than-thou feeling that drips from the Slacker Mom. Yes, Mellor goes a bit over the top sometimes. It's like those Saturday Night Live skits that are so funny, then just veer into poor taste. But overall, the whole thing is still damn funny and worth watching (or reading, in this case). Besides, it's short, only 143 pages. It would be a good choice to balance out the over earnestness of the Sears' Baby Book as a baby shower gift.

Here's an illustrative excerpt from "The Family at Table" chapter:

We have all seen those glossy photo spreads in gourmet food magazines of the joyful yet sophisticated Italian family sitting down to a long table, alfresco, joined by aunts, uncles, and happy wide-eyed youngsters. The children are seemingly enchanted by their watered-down glass of wine, their plates heaped with blood sausage and fava beans. We are led to believe that the adorable Italian children do not pick the garlic and onions out of their food, nor do they bolt from the table after the five minutes it takes them to suck back nine noodles and a baby carrot, leavng you with gaping holes in the well-thought-out alfresco seating arrangement.

If you like this, you'll probably like the rest of the book. The retro pencil illustrations by the author are wonderful, and perfect for the book.

Final Feminism & Choices Post

OK, this is the last post I'll urge you to read. But the comments are so thought-provoking! See Litmus Test Feminism at Half Changed World.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Mothers & More again

It occurs to me that I should post a link for the local chapter of Mothers & More, in case anyone in Washtenaw County or the surrounding area is interested. A once a week toddler playgroup saved my sanity back in 1998 when I was home with my son and most of my friends were childless.

From the national organization's Advocacy and Action page:

Founded as both a support and advocacy organization, Mothers & More has been on the forefront of a "mothers' movement" since the '80s, advocating for business and government policies that recognize and support the critical social and economic work all mothers perform as primary caregivers.

Mothers & More has two primary goals for its advocacy programs:

* To raise consciousness, in mothers and others, about existing social, economic and cultural conditions that have an impact on mothers.
* To secure economic and social equality for all mothers.

Through our comprehensive programs and our nationwide network of members and chapters, we strive to raise awareness about the fact that society presents significant barriers to mothers' ability to succeed as women, citizens, parents or participants in the workforce. We also provide the means to empower mothers, providing the education, knowledge and tools they need to effect social change on behalf of themselves and all mothers. By working through both the public and private sectors, we aim to transform society in three areas:

* We seek broad acceptance that the work of caring for others is valuable and essential to our families, communities and society as a whole.

* We believe that all mothers, fathers and others who care for their families, whether or not they work for pay, merit access to basic public and private protections from economic risk.

* We need to reshape our workplaces so that mothers, fathers and others who need to care for their families have more and better options for combining achievement on the job with a successful home life.

Mothers & More represents mothers who are at home full-time, mothers who work for pay full-time, and everything in between. We understand that, due to choice or circumstance, not all mothers make identical decisions. Some leave paid employment entirely and spend a number of months or years at home full-time. Others pursue volunteer work or continue working for pay but opt for flexible work options including part-time, flex-time, flex-place, job sharing, and home-based businesses. For over fifteen years, Mothers & More has been uniting women from all walks of life, supporting them through the rewards and challenges of motherhood.

As a non-profit organization serving 7,500 mothers in the U.S. and beyond, Mothers & More is poised to play a leading role in creating a society whose practices and policies successfully balance the needs and interests of those who work for pay, those who care for their families, and those who do both.

Over-Educated Stay-at-Home Moms Made Feminism Fail

This could be an alternative title for Linda Hirshman's Homeward Bound article published in the December issue of The American Prospect magazine. Since being picked up by AlterNet and retitled America's Stay-at-Home Feminists*, this article has been a source of great debate amongst bloggers - especially those that are also feminists and mothers.

There are so many critiques and comments out there (many of them written much more cogently and persuasively than Hirshman's article) that a couple of helpful bloggers have compiled collections of links to aid readers who want to explore the different types of responses. Ann Bartow on has one of the most interesting ones, at Linda Hirshman Makes Me Feel Like a Freak (with a follow-up entitled Wolf Dressed in Feminist Clothing). 11D offers a delightful commentary called Invisible Worlds, followed by an entry simply titled Links, taking you to several other well-known blogger's musings, and then some interesting Thoughts on Crazy Week. MUBAR wrote a couple of very insightful columns for both her blog and the Literary Mama Blog: The "Elite" Talk Back and The "Elite" Talk Back: Linda Hirshman and Miriam Peskowitz Respond.

Linda Hirshman's comments and e-mails to several blogs are interesting in their own right, and just as inflammatory and patronizing as her original article:

I think -- and can defend the opinion -- that perpetuating hierarchy with women on the bottom by psychological, ideological, economic or any other means is immoral whether it occurs in the family or in the pages of the New York Times. So I don't blog on about my roofer or my morning sickness or whatever qualifies as sincere feminism in the weird space the internet creates," from LiteraryMama's comments.

"I will say this: I have answered almost none of the hysterical internet commentators on my article, because I am not interested in engaging in dialogue with people whose thinking cannot sharpen or challenge my own," as cited by Ann Bartow.

Speaking of hierarchy: Hirshman knows the truth about feminism and its failure, and her many detractors are fuzzy thinking, hysterical women that busy themselves with the trivial in some kind of alternate (and weird) universe.

Since I am a stay-at-home mother with a couple of degrees in anthropology, I almost fit into Hirshman's "cultural elite". I did work for about ten years in my chosen career. I certainly never became affluent, but as Hirshman notes, this is common in the Liberal Arts & Sciences, which thus ought to be shunned by real feminists. My own "opt-out" from my dissertation and the pursuit of an academic job was certainly influenced by childcare costs and the lack of its availability for a child with some special needs; it was also largely why I joined Mothers & More - a national support group for mothers that was called FEMALE: Formerly Employed Mothers At the Leading Edge back when I joined in 1998.

However, in contrast to the New York Times brides that Hirshman interviewed for her article, I have met very few other mothers that are "not committed to a life of work"; most of us would like to resume paid (and preferably meaningful) employment as our children age. If we can find it. Many of us would currently jump at the chance for part-time employment, or work with hours that are more flexible and more family friendly....but this is another another topic, and one that has been well covered by authors like Miriam Peskowitz and Judith Stadtman Tucker. Obviously, since Mothers & More is all about support for women that chose to "sequence", or interrupt their careers, my sample of friends and acquaintances is pretty self-selecting. But I think that the very fact that this organization exists calls Hirshman's assumptions that most stay-at-home mothers are happy with the status quo (or simply deluding themselves when they call themselves "feminists") into question.

Hirshman claims that in addition to failing society, mothers who leave their jobs for childcare are hurting themselves individually:

A good life for humans includes the classical standard of using one's capacities for speech and reason in a prudent way, the liberal requirement of having enough autonomy to direct one's own life, and the utilitarian test of doing more good than harm in the world.

Although Hirshman firmly places mothers without paid employment on the bottom of her ideological and intellectual hierarchy**, the flood of eloquent responses to her article makes it clear that these women have not lost their ability to reason and speak. They may not have as much autonomy (especially when it comes to available jobs, financial security, and social status) as they desire, but I find it difficult to believe that they are doing more harm than good by caring for their own children full-time. But unlike Hirshman, I don't think that "private lives have hardly budged" in the last generation, nor do I see evidence that "marriage is essentially unchanged" in the last fifty years. I do think that a lot more women would be willing to identify themselves as feminists if they saw the pursuit of increased autonomy for caregivers - however many hours they get paid for their work - as part and parcel of the feminist ideology.

*note the 270 response comments in the week since it was posted

**see an interesting discussion on whether stay-at-home parents can think at Half Changed World's Do Only Rich Families Have At-Home Parents?, More Thoughts about Income and SAHP's, and especially What It Takes.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Spook: Book Review

Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, by Mary Roach, is a fast moving, very funny book, though you probably wouldn't expect a book on what happens to our souls (or whatever makes up a person's personality) after death to be so engaging. Unless of course you've already read her previous bestseller - Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers - in which case you already know about Roach's ability to ferret out bizarre and strangely fascinating stories.

Each chapter of Spook reads well as a free standing essay. Her topics range from an account of a reincarnation investigation in India, a history of the discovery of sperm and "ensoulment", ectoplasm and how a talented medium can produce it from various bodily orifices, descriptions of historical & modern devices to measure various spiritual phenomena, to studies on near death experiences. I think my favorite chapters are the one on how EMFs (electromagnetic fields) affect human perception and can either produce hallucinations of ghostly presences, or (if you are a believer) make humans more sensitive to psychic emanations, and the chapter about infrasound, pipe organs, and ghosts, complete with a link* for you to test your reaction to an 18 Hertz tiger roar.

Spook is filled with digressions and asides**, some of which are far from the original topic, but are enormously entertaining. She is honest (and sometimes a bit snide) about her reactions to the various studies and the people she meets, and while that may turn some readers off, it made it more personal and readable for me. The only thing I really missed, which I realize I've now complained about in many of the books I've reviewed, was an index. It took me forever to track down the story about Tesla, Edison, and the electrocution of Topsy the elephant in 1903.

As one of Roach's interviewees notes, between the genuinely true and outright faking lies a wide middle ground of unconscious delusion. Roach includes many engrossing stories that are clearly in the latter two categories, and perhaps...maybe...a few that may belong in the true, or least presently unexplainable, group.

*Click on the speaker icon in the 5th paragraph down. For the best effect, turn your computer speaker WAY up. Be prepared to jump, even if you know it's coming.

**For more interesting tangents, see the recent interview with Roach at Powell's Books.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

First Snowfall, Tomato Watches, and Birthdays

We had our first real snowfall today, where the air was filled with big blowing flakes for a couple of hours. There wasn't enough to shovel or even to sweep, but the edges of the streets and sidewalks and the leaves that blew back into our yard after being raked to the curb last weekend all have a little white on them.

Just a few nights ago we had a "tomato watch" and a thunderstorm. That's what my daughter calls tornados - tomatoes - which makes it hard to stop laughing and collect flashlights and clear a safe space in the basement.

My kids will turn 9 and 4 in the next two week period on either side of Thanksgiving, so I'm going to be making many cupcakes for school treats (chocolate, with "lots of sprinkles - the long kind, not the little ball-like ones") and doing more traditional mom work and less reading and blogging than I'd like.

But I would like to highlight The Mom Salon, which bills itself as a place "where women find the smartest mom blogs". It is just getting started, and has a few rough edges, but it could be a great way find other mom bloggers both geographically and according to their interest in topics like academia, adoption, cooking, feminism, infertility, knitting, politics, and work.

And finally, the 3rd Carnival of Feminists is up, showcasing reasons to thank a feminist, giving many insights into women's lives in other cultures (including that of the US in the 1970's), looking at female computer geeks, "the fear, the guilt, the worries, the organization, and the sheer hard work that goes into child-rearing", and many other perceptive and surprising looks at how our gender affects our lives.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Goodnight Nobody: A Novel

Jennifer Weiner's new book is a bit different from her previous novels. Good in Bed, in particular, is often pigeonholed as chick lit, especially by those who decry novels with male-female relationships that end happily ever after. Goodnight Nobody is more of a mystery, despite the subtitle that declares it "A Novel". But it's a lot more substantial than a "mystery with Mommy as sleuth and social commentator". And I don't mean to disparage Ayelet Waldman's "Mommy Track" mysteries, which I find breezy, insightful, and funny.

But Goodnight Nobody is sharper satire, like something like you would expect of Jodi Picoult's characters if they were living in Judith Warner's Perfect Madness (or perhaps on Desperate Housewives, but I haven't managed to catch an episode of that yet). The stay-at-home moms at the center of Weiner's story have left New York City and their careers to live in safe, upscale Connecticut McMansions, where concern for appearances, social status, and the cult of "The Good Mother" seem to predominate.

Initially, I thought the book was interesting but a bit trite and overdrawn, like David Brook's Bobos. It's fun to recognize your neighbors (or note that your neighbors couldn't be more different) in the first chapter, but how much more can you really say about latte drinking, Pilates practicing, SUV driving, Bugaboo stroller using moms? Some social trend stereotyping is better suited for newspaper columns than full length books. I'm guessing that goes for Maureen Dowd's latest - Are Men Necessary? When Sexes Collide - too.

As with Weiner's other books, the characters get more complicated and occasionally surprising as the book continues. Weiner reveals a fine understanding of women's friendships, how family relationships can change when offspring enter the picture, the alienation and ambiguity many stay-at-home mothers feel about their circumstances, and how easy it is to prejudge people. Insights into feminism, politics, and conflicts between generations are deftly drawn into the picture.

In the middle of the book, the storyline jumps back and forth between (the main character) Kate's past and present. The backstory describes her relationship with the intriguing (unavailable, then unwilling to commit, shower-attachment-fantasy-hot, blues-lovin') guy next door, and then how she met her (now) perpetually absent husband and came to have three kids under four years old. The time jumps were distracting, but not enough to derail my need to find out how the story ended and what happened to these people. The violence and death that is usually downplayed in "cozy" murder mysteries had a real impact here, and Weiner didn't tie everything up in a nice little bow in the traditional mystery book conclusion. Perhaps that makes this more of a novel and less of a mystery. She did deliver a snarky surprise plot punch at the end, while leaving the characters' future relationships unclear - providing ample room for sequels.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

2nd Carnival of Feminists...

is up at Personal Political. How appropriate! And it's utterly fascinating, with links from all over the world to many thought provoking, intelligent discussions. How can anyone think that feminism is through?

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

More on Christian Pumpkins

Sometimes you can carry an analogy only so far before it becomes ludicrous:

Christians are like Jack O' Lanterns:

God picks you from the pumpkin patch and brings you into his home. He washes off all the dirt on the outside that you got from being around all the other pumpkins. He cuts off the top and takes out all the yucky stuff on the inside. He removes the seeds of sinfulness and carves you a new smiling face. He puts his light inside of you to shine for all to see.You can either stay outside and rot on the vine or have Jesus come inside and become something new and bright!

Is This a Trick or a Treat?

My son got an interesting little booklet in his pumpkin bucket while out trick or treating last night. It's a colorful story about Peter, who plants a pumpkin seed, takes care of it, and then...

Peter held the pumpkin tight,
Sliced the top off with a knife.

Peter reached into the goop,
Pulled out slimy pumpkin soup.

Peter carved a smiling face,
Set a candle right in place.

Peter's pumpkin shone with light,
Chased away the gloomy night.

You are like a pumpkin, too!
Jesus picks you, washes you;

Takes away the slime of sin,
Lets his light of love shine in.

There's a sticker from a local church in the front, and a letter to parents and teachers in the back, urging them to "turn the most familiar symbol of the holiday - the jack-o'-lantern - into a symbol of faith!"

I'm not offended by this offering, but I do find it strange. I know that there are fundamentalist Christians out there who think that Halloween and its trimmings are satanic and ought to be shunned. Apparently (and happily), our neighbors aren't so extreme, but Shine, Smiling Pumpkin's attempt to appropiate a Halloween symbol is a bit irritating and quite unintentially funny, especially when Jesus pops up on the last page of the book to wash the pumpkin-like "slime of sin" from Peter. The company's "Faith Pops" and "Scripture Smarties" are just bizarre. I think I'll stick with a Snickers sans scripture.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

63 Years Ago Here

Someone from the Farm Security Administration, a division of the Office of War Information, took this photograph near where I live outside of Ann Arbor. I wonder when farmers stopped using corn shocks.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Small Towns...

...have their pros and cons, as do their newspapers. My husband & I still talk about the time the "Police Report" column in the Saline Reporter described the investigation of "a suspicious smell".

I was checking my hometown newspaper's website for my friend's mom's obituary, and after reading it took a look at local news. It was somehow reassuring to read that "firefighters responded to a call that a house was on fire at 6:03 a.m. today in the 400 block of Oak Ridge Drive. Upon arrival, firefighters found the resident burned toast." Some neighbor must have a really sharp sense of smell.

Tagged for 20 New Things... Heels, a book loving mother from the South. I'm supposed to think of 20 New Things that I've never blogged about before.

1. The midwest. I like it a lot. I know people think it's boring, either culturally and/or geographically, but it isn't.

2. Above you see a recent photo from webshots, a photo upload/download site I just found. It was taken in Hennepin Canyon, in Starved Rock State Park, near where I grew up in northern Illinois.

3. I've been distracted by the American Memory site at the Library of Congress. You can enter a few key words and find documents and/or photographs of just about anything. I was thinking about Starved Rock and my hometown, and found a nice black & white photograph of the Illinois & Michigan Canal as it runs through the town of Utica there.

4. A bunch of my ancestors either helped build the I&M Canal or shipped their corn on it to Chicago. I like genealogy, especially when there are links to history.

5. My great-grandmother's former house in Utica, IL is now Patti's Pancake House. I have to say it is very weird to sit in a restaurant that has been made out of your grandmother's living room.

6. I like black & white photography a lot. If I win the lottery, I will do some of my own, which I haven't been able to do since college, when I took a course from Art Sinsabaugh. I had no idea how lucky I was, though I loved the course and thought he was an incredible teacher. I wish I could go see an exhibit of his work. Someday I will and I'll take some more of my own pictures, even if I don't win the lottery.

7. I've never bought a lottery ticket.

8. I don't really like Halloween, and I'm not sure why. I love candy, and I love fall.

9. I'm reading Frankenstein for my book club right now. I got distracted (yes, I am easily distracted) by Mary Shelley's life story. Unbelievable. Do some googling if you don't believe me.

10. My daughter approved my choice of music in the minivan today. She likes the new Eric Clapton CD. I'm a little disturbed by the chorus of crying babies in the background of "So Tired".

11. The calvacade of SUVs at my son's school disturbs me. I just don't get the whole monstrous SUV thing.

12. I wish my little local library was closer. Like right next door. They have some wonderful historic photographs of Washtenaw county on their website, and a little patch of woods right next to the library with a trail that is perfect for young kids.

13. I don't miss card catalogs a whole lot.

14. One of the funniest things I remember about working at the Ethnobotanical Laboratory at UMMA (University of Michigan Museum of Anthropology) happened when I gave my sister-in-law a tour. There was a Misc. cabinet filled with weird stuff that didn't fit into any plant family. I was pulling out the drawers, showing off the coprolites and the lacquered flea circus, when she saw the old-fashioned handwriting on the label on the next drawer and thought it said "Noses and Fingers" was actually "Mosses and Fungi".

15. What do you think appropriate discipline for calling your sibling "booger-butt" should entail? Hypothetically speaking, of course.

16. I miss burning leaves in the street. I don't want to pollute the air any more than it already is, and I know it's better to compost them, but I miss the smell of burning leaves, seeing whisps of smoke blowing across the streets, hearing the scritching sound of metal rakes on bricks and concrete, and lighting the fires and piling more leaves in.

17. I like chrysanthemums a lot. And asters, both wild & cultivated. Their abundance in fall makes me happy.

18. I like all of the squash around now. I'd like to do a photographic essay on all the different kinds of squash.

19. Squash has a really neat cell structure in its rind, which makes it easy to identify even miniscule pieces of charred rind from archaeological sites. It's now looking like squash is the oldest New World domesticate.

20. Unlike Heels, I like getting my hands in dirt and even into pumpkin guts. We need to go get our pumpkins from Makielski's tomorrow or Sunday. I'm happy now that I learned you don't need to rinse the seeds before drying them, coating them with butter, salt and other stuff, and roasting them. Mmmmmm.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Where Is the Mom Blog Carnival?

After writing about all of the Blog Carnivals out there, I belatedly realized there are no Mom Blog Carnivals circulating. Why not?

I got started blogging for Mothers & More for their Mothers' Day 2005 campaign: "The Real Story - It's About Time", which was such an exhiliarating experience that I latched onto Blogger and kept going. This also got me hooked on reading a few other parenting blogs, and interested in the whole "mommy blogger" phenomenon. Hey, the NY Times did a story about this (their articles aren't free online anymore, but if you're a subscriber or you can get it via your library's website, it's called Mommy (And Me), by David Hochman, and was published January 30, 2005.

I'm wondering just how much work it would be to put together one of these travelling shows. Blogging was so easy...there's some truly amazing writing out there hidden in the insipid "mommy blog" pigeonhole, and I would love to showcase some of it. Hmmm.

Blog Carnivals & Entanglements

Blog Carnivals offer some of the best blog reading out there and are one of the easiest ways to find interesting new blogs to add to your bookmarks.

The latest one I've enjoyed is The Carnival of the Feminists, which has a truly fascinating collection of articles despite its rather mundane title.

I've been hooked on The Tangled Bank, a bimonthly collection of articles on science & medicine (aptly named after Darwin's metaphor) for a few months now.

It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. From The Origin of Species, 1859; p. 450.

An interesting story about the (probably) real "Tangled Bank" and the tragic death of Darwin's ten year old daughter turned up in a story in The Guardian Unlimited when I searched for the page number for The Origin of Species quote. And a fascinating argument about whether Darwin actually said "tangled" or "entangled" turned up in the archives of the Society for Literature and Science.

Anyway, look at all the carnivals listed at Blog Carnival, sorted by title. There's everything from Asian History to Wine Blogging Wednesday out there - an entanglement of riches.

Monday, October 17, 2005

A Midwife's Tale

A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812, by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, is a much richer and more enlightening book than I anticipated. I guess that's why it won a Pulizter Prize for history and its author received a MacArthur grant.

Ulrich uses Ballard's terse entries (like this one for today's date in 1799) as a starting point for her clearly written examinations of social class, women's work (especially gardening, textile production, and nursing), medicine, debt, taxes, marriage, sex (including premarital sex), the complicated web of community social relationships, and crime.

October 17, 1799: Clear, windy and Cold. mr Ballard and Cyrus up to our house. mr Brown Came for Hepsy and Shee Sett out for his home at 2h pm. I have been washing and Scouring yarn, but feel very unfitt for Such Service.

Ulrich has also created Martha Ballard's Diary Online, with photographic reproductions of the complete diary (try your hand at transcription!), as well as an easy text search feature.

I finished reading this at the laundromat (where I have to take my queen-sized comforter and quilt at least a couple of times a year), and remembered seeing a remark about "sauce" which seemed to refer to vegetables, as I wrote about in Garden Sass (aka Garden Sauce). When I got home I was able to find it in the online diary in seconds:

August 19, 1804: at home. Lemuel here for Sauce. had Beens, Squash, Cucumbers & apples. he brot a Leller from Bror Elijah of 7th inst. I wrote answr.

So the "sauce" that Ballard is referring to here are the beans, summer squash, cucumbers & apples from the garden.

Some of Ballard's most eye-opening entries (and Ulrich's most fascinating historical descriptions) concerned the epidemics that devastated their community. Strep throat, now a winter discomfort easily diagnosed & remedied, commonly turned into scarlet fever, and many died of the "Putrid Malignant Sore Throat" and its complications. Children also died from burns suffered when they fell into the fireplace, diptheria, and diarrhea, and both children and adults commonly "pukt worms":

May 21, 1802: Clear. I have been very unwell. we Cookt the head and harslit of the Veal. Jona, his wife [&] siStr, wm & Sally Dind with us. Dagt Ballard had an ill turn at Evng, Pukt up 6 larg worms.

Now that I think about it, Ballard's matter-of-fact notes are rather blog-like in style. Reading Ulrich's lucid interpretation, however, provides powerful insight into just how alike and how different life was two hundred years ago in Maine.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Reading to a Dog

Arborweb's entry for this interesting program gave me a moment's pause:

"Therapaws Paws to Read" : Ann Arbor District Library. All kids in grades K-5 (accompanied by a parent or guardian) are invited to read one-on-one for 10 minutes to a dog that's been trained by Intermountain Therapy to help improve kids' reading skills by behaving as if it is interested in being read to. Appointments required. AADL youth department story room, 343 S. Fifth Ave. at William, & Northeast Branch, Plymouth Mall. Free. Preregistration required. 327-8301. (emphasis added by me).

Well, maybe these dogs actually like listening to books. Maybe they're not just faking it.

This would be a good place to take kids that are not entirely comfortable around dogs. Well-trained animals that calmly sit and hang on your every word - that would help your self-confidence as well as your reading skills.

I think it would be nice to have this in schools, too. My son takes some of his "pressure release" breaks from class by going over and feeding the class guinea pig. Perhaps not coincidentally, I think this this is the best teacher he's had in the last three years.

Here's an interesting article on animals in the classroom.

Our dog (shown here) listens very intently when you say squirrel, cat, or treat, but tends to fall asleep during extended conversation or reading.


I'm not sure whether this is Amaranthus cruentus or A. hypochondriacus, since I no longer have the seed packet from two years ago. It re-seeded itself, and it grows well in the really poor soil on the south side of my house. It gets so big that it collapses in the fall, so next year I think I'm going to grow it along the chain link fence, where I can inconspicuously tie it up.
has nice introduction to amaranth called "Why Were Amaranths Forbidden?"

I found a link to some interesting amaranth grain recipes - sadly, the only thing I've actually made from harvested & "popped" grain is a kind of rice-krispie treat-like confection.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Front of the Class

Front of the Class: How Tourette Syndrome Made Me the Teacher I Never Had, by Brad Cohen with Lisa Wysocky

This author is young - only 32. He was in school in the 70's and 80's, for goodness sake! And it seriously sucked for him. Before he was diagnosed with Tourette's Syndrome, people told his mom he was posessed, he got beat up, he was teased and endlessly mocked by other kids, teachers humiliated him, and some of his family members shunned him. Even after his diagnosis with a neurological disorder, and some teacher & peer education at his middle school, the stories he tells about some of his teachers....well, they were just horrible to read.

Instead of being crushed by this, Cohen decided that he was going to be a teacher, and a better one than he'd ever had. He had an awful time getting hired, despite excellent credentials & recommendations, because so many principals were freaked out by his tics (barking, wooping, neck jerking). And of course tics are much worse when you're nervous, so the stories about job interviews were totally nightmarish.

Anyway, Cohen did get hired, and by all accounts was (and continues to be) a wonderful, passionate and skilled teacher. His students flourished (and easily ignored most of his tics, which subside when he is engaged in his classes anyway), his fellow teachers & administrators voted him "Teacher of the Year" for the district, and he went on to get the award for both the county and then the whole state of GA.

Sometimes the writing is a little over the top in the inspirational & motivational mode - I think Cohen could have used a better editor. The basic story is fascinating and often very moving, however. One very sad thing - when Cohen was at his "Teacher of the Year" awards, all of the award winners were supposed to thank a teacher that inspired them. Cohen honestly couldn't. It was bad teachers that motivated him. The only positive help he had outside family & friends was from a middle school & high school principal and a local Jewish youth group.

A couple of other books on Tourette's and/or OCD that I've read in the last few years, that helped me understand different aspects of what my son deals with: Passing for Normal: A Memoir of Compulsion, by Amy Wilensky (funny, more literary than Cohen's book), and Devil in the Details: Scenes from an Obsessive Girlhood, by Jennifer Traig.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Children and Geese...

...sound very much alike from a distance. We live about two blocks from my son's school, and I can often hear the screeches of kids on the playground when the wind is right. The other day I thought, geez, now it sounds like they're right out behind our house...must be the neighbor kids. Nope, geese. I didn't know they ate soybeans.

Friday, September 30, 2005

Banned Books for Kids; or Captain Underpants to the Rescue!

One of the most insidious ways to ban a book is to appeal to parents.

"It will damage your child if she reads this non-age-appropriate material."

Sounds reasonable, right? Except for that tricky part: defining what's appropriate. Check out the "Top Ten Most Challenged Books of 2004" on the American Library Association's Banned Book Week website:

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier, for sexual content, offensive language, religious viewpoint, being unsuited to age group and violence

Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers, for racism, offensive language and violence

Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture by Michael A. Bellesiles, for inaccuracy and political viewpoint

Captain Underpants series by Dav Pilkey, for offensive language and modeling bad behavior

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, for homosexuality, sexual content and offensive language

What My Mother Doesn't Know by Sonya Sones, for sexual content and offensive language

In the Night Kitchen
by Maurice Sendak, for nudity and offensive language

King & King by Linda de Haan and Stern Nijland, for homosexuality

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, for racism, homosexuality, sexual content, offensive language and unsuited to age group

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, for racism, offensive language and violence

Now I haven't read all of these books, and I'm not planning on reading The Chocolate War to my three year old daughter or handing it over to my eight year old son. But we own a complete set of Captain Underpants (not to mention its hilarious spin-off, Super Diaper Baby), and I am convinced that these books, along with a collection of Calvin & Hobbes cartoon books, are responsible for turning my "I'd rather play my GameBoy" kid into one who regularly devours 300+ page books. George and Harold (the real heroes in Captain Underpants) are good kids. Yes, they get into trouble, but who wouldn't with a teacher like Ms. Anthrope? And the offensive language is of the "It's snot funny" variety, which most boys that age certainly already use.

Attempting to ban this book from a school library is just wrong. Don't let your kids read it if you don't like it, but don't you dare deny it to other kids who might learn that 1) Even kids that are not academically gifted can be heroes; 2) Kids that draw cartoons instead of doing their math problems are not bad kids; and 3) Reading can be fun. And really funny.

Judy Blume (frequently challenged for her kid's books, including Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret) sums it up better than I could on her personal website:

I believe that censorship grows out of fear, and because fear is contagious, some parents are easily swayed. Book banning satisfies their need to feel in control of their children's lives. This fear is often disguised as moral outrage. They want to believe that if their children don't read about it, their children won't know about it. And if they don't know about it, it won't happen.

Today, it's not only language and sexuality (the usual reasons given for banning my books) that will land a book on the censors' hit list. It's Satanism, New Age-ism and a hundred other isms, some of which would make you laugh if the implications weren't so serious. Books that make kids laugh often come under suspicion; so do books that encourage kids to think, or question authority; books that don't hit the reader over the head with moral lessons are considered dangerous.

Censors don't want children exposed to ideas different from their own. If every individual with an agenda had his/her way, the shelves in the school library would be close to empty. I wish the censors could read the letters kids write.

Dear Judy,
I don't know where I stand in the world. I don't know who I am. That's why I read, to find myself.
Elizabeth, age 13

But it's not just the books under fire now that worry me. It is the books that will never be written. The books that will never be read. And all due to the fear of censorship. As always, young readers will be the real losers.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

The Bookseller of Kabul: Book Review

I'm glad I joined a book club last year (thanks to Patty K. & Kim M. for their determination to recruit me). I read a lot on my own, but this book club has pushed me to read several selections that I almost certainly wouldn't have chosen on my own, but that I'm very happy to have read.

Last year, this included The Known World, by Edmund P. Jones (the story of a slave-owning Black freedman and his family); and Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, by Jon Krakauer (the story of a Mormon family, and how two horrific murders were related to historical and modern revelations, polygamy, and patriarchy).

This month's selection - The Bookseller of Kabul, by Asne Seierstad - was not at all what I expected.

Perhaps this is because in the past year I've read a couple books that are set in the Middle East that were much more literary in style: Crescent, by Diana Abu-Jaber (though most of Crescent is actually set in Los Angeles, many passages take place in Iraq), and Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books (obviously set in Iran), by Azar Nafisi. I thought both were very good books, in very different ways. The authors are both extremely skilled with language and symbolism and all those literary things I vaguely remember from school.

Asne Seierstad is journalist, however, not a professor of English or literature (like Abu-Jaber and Nafisi), and it was surprisingly refreshing to read a straightforward account of her three month stay with the family of a bookseller in Afghanistan's capital.

The Bookseller of Kabul reminded me of an unusually well-written ethnography - an anthropologist's description of a particular culture. Seierstad immersed herself in this family's life: she ate with them, slept on a pallet beside the other unmarried women, wore a burka, went to the market, and helped prepare for a wedding with the women. Because of her status as a Westerner (not a regular "woman"), she was also able to accompany the men to work at the bookstore, on family visits, on business trips, and a religious pilgrimage. The different family members are intimately portrayed; the stories are fascinating, shocking, and sometimes unbearably sad. Seierstad's simple and matter of fact prose perfectly suits the setting and the stories.

The only thing I found truly lacking was a good map of Afghanistan and Pakistan, so I could look at the cities and places described. Luckily, National Geographic's map site filled most of the gaps, showing both cultural and geographic features. It would have been wonderful to also see actual photographs of the people involved - but I can see that would not have done much to keep them anonymous.

Apart from understanding a bit more about what it would be like to live in Kabul, to live in an extanded family, to be a man vs. a woman in Afghanistan, a few things that will stick in my mind from this book are some of the Taliban's rules for proper behavior. I never knew that washing clothes in the river, fighting pigeons, flying kites, playing drums, and virtually all music and dance was outlawed during their regime. And the images of the bookseller's books burning in the street in front of his store - several times over the years - is an appropriate one to think about this week, which is Banned Books Week here in the US.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Autumn, Fall of the Leaf, and Harvest

Last week the farmers behind us harvested their soybeans with a very futuristic looking combine. It looked a lot like a Dyson vacuum - but not the one I covet, which is purple and supposed to be especially good at sucking up dog hair.

My son wanted to know why there were two different words for this season. Why both fall and autumn? Which one is it really? Do they mean the same thing? I told him we'd have to google the answer when we got home.

It turns out that this time of year is mainly fall in North America and autumn in Great Britain. This makes sense to me - I bet if I ask most of my neighbors what the names of the four seasons are, they will answer "spring, summer, winter, and fall". They'll probably even list them in that order, though I don't know why it should be so. Possibly it makes sense to start the cycle with spring, but why put winter before fall? Maybe it just sounds better to end on a single syllable. "Winter, spring, summer, and fall" also sounds ok, like you're starting at the beginning of the new year. At any rate, autumn doesn't come into it at all.

In Language and Place, Peter Trudgill explains that

the word autumn is normal in most of southern England, but in parts of the Southwest and in Lincolnshire the traditional dialect word is fall. This reflects the introduction into England in late mediaeval times of the originally French word autumn. This eventually replaced the Anglo-Saxon word fall in Standard English in England and in some of the dialects, but not in others. It is obvious that at one time the use of autumn must have been much less widespread than it is today, since fall was the form which was carried by settlers to North America.

Autumn is definitely a more literary word than fall, although "fall of the leaf", as the season was originally known in England, is rather poetic. Roger Ascham was responsible its first recorded use in 1545, in his book on archery entitled Toxophilus. He explained that it is important to take account of the weather and season when shooting an arrow:

For diversitie of tyme causeth diversitie of wether,
as in the whole yeare,
Sprynge tyme, Somer, Faule of the leafe, and Winter

Peter Trudgill's article goes on explain that "in much of the north of England and Scotland another word, backend, is used" instead of either autumn or fall. After my son finished rolling around the floor after hearing "backend" ("It's the butt of the year!"), we also learned that neither autumn nor fall were used much before 1500 AD. In medieval times, they just called it harvest.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

On Bathrooms

The other night I was in the bathroom, and my 8 year old son came abruptly to the door. "Are you on the toilet? Are you going to be done soon? I need to go now."

When I told him that I was going to be a while and that he could go upstairs, he sighed loudly enough to be heard through the door, and then pounded up the stairs. A while later, after we were both out of our respective bathrooms, I commented on how it was a good thing that we had two bathrooms (well, actually 1 1/2, but it's the number of toilets that are important). I told him that when his dad was growing up, he had a brother and a sister, and their whole house only had one bathroom, and everyone had to wait if someone else was using the bathroom.

"Yeah, and their one bathroom was even outside," my son replied. I had to explain that Daddy wasn't that old, and I didn't think that anyone still used outhouses in suburban Chicago in the 1960's and 1970's.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Cutting the Mustard or the Cheese?

My husband informs me that I'm confusing "cut the cheese" with "cut the mustard", and that only the first phrase refers to farting. I must defer to his expertise in flatulence. I guess that I was thinking about mustard gas when I confused the two.

I e-mailed Michael Quinion and sent him the link my blog review of his book, and he very kindly e-mailed me back and thanked me for the information on Blue's Clues and how Blue and Steve skidoo through pictures to all sorts of educational places. He also corrected my spelling of etymythology, which I immediately went and fixed.

I am having loads of fun browsing his World Wide Words, and am planning on using all kinds of obscure but colorful phrases in my writing. Like makebate: A person who creates contention or strife. But enough bafflegab, the three year old's naptime is over and it's time to pick up my son at school.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

No Child Left Behind

A very cool bumper sticker:

...with information on how to get yours here.

Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds

Sometimes I pick out books based almost entirely on the title (like Christopher Moore's many wonderful books, including The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove). Especially if they're free from the library. This was one of those books, and it didn't disappoint.

The complete title is actually Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds: Ingenious Tales of Words and Their Origins, by Michael Quinion. In case you are in any doubt of his qualifications, the cover sports the word SMITHSONIAN in big red letters above the title, and "Contributor, Oxford English Dictionary" below his name.

It was a relaxing yet erudite read, perfect for browsing or people with small children and correspondingly short attention spans. Apparently, the internet has spawned quite a few messages on word origins that are best explained as folk etymology or etymological myth, also known as etymythology: "a group of illustrations of the imaginative ways in which people can work very hard to make sense of the unknown" (p.2-3).

Quinion has taken some fun words and phrases, starting with Akimbo and ending with Zzxjoanw, and written short but occasionally ever-so-politely imperious essays on the fictious stories, the obscure and fascinating histories, and the scholarly research that the wonks (yes, that's one of the words reviewed) at the American Dialect Society, the OED and other organizations have undertaken.

Several interesting websites are included in a "Webliography", including Quinion's own World Wide Words, which is definitely the bee's knees. My only disappointments, which I may have to write to him about: there is no mention of farting in "cut the mustard", nor any description of Blue's Clues under "Twenty-Three Skidoo". Possibly Mr. Quinion isn't around anklebiters enough to have absorbed these modern usages.


I am fascinated by weeds: the weeds in my yard, the concept of weeds, the origins and history of different weeds (part & parcel of my former academic interests in the origins of agriculture), and eating weeds, for which I recommend James Duke's Handbook of Edible Weeds. From the library, because I saw when I made that link that even used copies are selling for over $80.

In my yard: goosefoot (aka lambsquarters or Chenopodium album), pigweed (Amaranthus retroflexus), purslane, carpetweed, plaintain, dandelion, goatsbeard, jewelweed, Canadian thistle, black nightshade, goldenrod, ragweed, stinging nettle, horsetail, Japanese knotweed, wood sorrel (aka 'sweet clover'), white clover, shepherd's purse, prostrate spurge (one of the few I actively dislike), creeping charlie (or creeping jenny or ground ivy), crabgrass, Queen Anne's lace, pokeweed, knotgrass, daisy fleabane, and I'm sure many more. I think all of these except jewelweed and purslane are introduced (invasive) species. This isn't too surprising considering these weeds are adapted to my lawn, garden areas, and the disturbed edge of a soybean field/sump pump drainage ditch/creek behind the yard.

I know there were native chenopods and amaranths; I have some lovely Mexican amaranth (pigweed) volunteers. But the really agressive ones here are the European varieties.

A flowering weed;
Hearing its name,
I looked anew at it.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Peromyscus leucopus

...also known as the deer mouse, caught in our garage. Minutes after this picture was taken, this little guy (or girl) leaped to the edge of the five gallon plastic bucket, making my husband shriek in surprise, and scampered behind some of the junk we may need someday and so keep stored along the garage walls.

I think it's pretty cute, but I don't like him eating the granola bars right out of my car and pooping on the seats.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Where Did That Come From?

My three year old daughter informed me yesterday that "When I have a big butt and eat peanut butter, then I'll be a mommy."

She just said this out of the blue, too. I did not ask her if she thought I had a "big butt".

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Eyewitness to History via Blogs

I find something totally compelling about reading firsthand accounts. Back before I had internet options for used books and interlibrary loans, my husband & I joined the "History Book Club", and one of our selections was an uneven but occasionally riveting anthology called Eyewitness to History.

This past week, reading blog accounts by people in New Orleans, like the internet guys holed up on the 12th floor of an office building, and a couple of paramedics in the group that tried to hire a bus out of town have added a sometimes shocking, unfiltered side to my usual diet of CNN, MSNBC, and NPR. The photographs are amazing, too...and now that photo censorship is going into effect in New Orleans, I'm especially grateful to have Internet access.

Still Trying to Think of Ways to Help...

...that don't put you deeper into debt.

Give blood.

And imagine sitting in a shelter. Wouldn't it be nice to have a trashy book to read to take your mind off of things for a little bit? Wouldn't it be great if you had a bedtime story to read to your daughter? Not "My Pet Goat", though.

There are a couple of places collecting used books for people - Borders and Waldenbooks in Houston are accepting donations in their stores, or you can send them to:

Borders Books
3025 Kirby
Houston, TX 77098

And a Nora Roberts fan group is collecting all kinds of books here:

Books for Comfort Drive
c/o Turn the Page Bookstore Cafe
Boonsboro, MD 21713

Do this after you make that cash donation to the charity of your choice, obviously.

Give Something Now

I know most of you have already donated to the Red Cross or another organization (see a huge list here, if you want some alternatives).

But if you have clean and gently used socks, underwear, children's clothing and towels, they desperately need them at shelters in Baton Rouge, along with new toothbrushes, toothpaste, diapers, baby formula, soap and "feminine hygiene products":

Katrina Disaster Relief
Salvation Army
7361 Airline Highway
Baton Rouge, LA 70805

and yes, the US Post Office is delivering mail there. So go on, pack up some towels and socks. You need to clean your closets out and simplify your life anyway.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Lake Huron's Shore

My son got to see some zebra mussels (something he's wanted since reading
The Day the Great Lakes Drained Away
, which the AADL just bought on my suggestion!) when we went to visit relatives up on the east coast of the Thumb. My husband found a petoskey stone (thought they were only supposed to be on the other side of the state?) and the lake was absolutely breathtaking.

So many shades of blue, green, grey, and brown, in both the lake and the sky. It's fun to be able to see the weather across such a distance.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

The Official Interview Game

from Heels at Mundane Superhero:

1. What childhood book influenced you the most and why?

I think Frances Hodgson Burnett's "The Secret Garden" had a huge influence - I read it at a very young age, and it is probably responsible for my love of "Pride & Prejudice" (both books and movies) and literature in general. Also, this was the start of reading romances (both gothic & otherwise), combined with gardening and nature-loving and an examination urban/rural differences and social class. What more could you want, really?

2. You may change one historically significant event in one way only. What will you change, and why?

The election results in November 2004, for obvious reasons. And I thought the Reagan years were endless. Ha.

3. Who was your favorite teacher and have you adopted any of the traits you admired in that person as your own?

I think my high school rhetoric teacher, Mr. Adrian, was my favorite. I've adopted some of his writing styles, and certainly many of his editing techniques. Cut that deadwood! Read Strunk & White.

4. Who's on your top 10 list?

Top 10 for what? I'm just going to list ten 'public' personas I'd like to hear or see more of in general. :-) Unsurprisingly, many of them are authors.

Christopher Moore
Natalie Angier
Mary Catherine Bateson
Liam Neeson
Colin Firth
Anthony Bourdain (it would be good if he could cook for me)
Miriam Peskowitz
Michael Moore
Lois McMaster Bujold
Marcia Ball

5. Dead People Dinner Party: you may invite 5 other people. Who and why?

Margaret Mead
Gregory Bateson
Stephen Jay Gould
Thomas Jefferson
J.R.R. Tolkien

They're all academic/author types who also were interested in popular culture & eduation. I think they'd all get along well (although maybe Mead & Bateson wouldn't, as ex-spouses) and would have some fascinating stories and conversations.

Want to play? The Official Interview Game Rules:
1. If you want to participate, leave a comment below asking to be interviewed.
2. I will respond by asking you five questions - each person's will be different.
3. You will update your journal/blog with the answers to the questions.
4. You will include this explanation and an offer to interview others in the same post.
5. When others comment asking to be interviewed, you will ask them five questions.

Free Books!

I love this idea (and thanks to Excrutiating Minutiae for suggesting it) - a book swap service called Frugal Reader. You list the books you don't want anymore (like the ones that still haven't sold on, because there's a billion of the same title already for sale at 75 cents plus shipping & handling), and if someone else wants it, they request it. You send it via media mail to them ($1.42 for most paperbacks), and then you get a credit for a free book to request for yourself. When you sign up, if you list five books you get two free credits for yourself.

It's the online version of the paperback swap rack at my local library, except the selection is bigger and no one gets to take and never give. Obviously, Frugal Reader will work best if lots and lots of people sign up. I think most of the books available are pretty mainstream, but that is exactly the kind of books that libraries often don't like to buy. Please don't mock me for reading and enjoying Nora Roberts and Amanda Quick.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Simplify Your Childrearing

Trees Make the Best Mobiles: Simple Ways to Raise Your Child in a Complex World, by Jessica Teich and Brandel France De Bravo

I like the basic premise of this parenting book a lot: you don't need a lot of complicated stuff to raise happy kids (basically the same idea behind "Confessions of a Slacker Mom", which I gleefully maligned here). What kids really need, this book repeatedly informs us, is you; your attention, your consistency, and plenty of opportunities for free play, reading, etc. There are short 2-3 page essays on all kinds of different topics, like "Octopus Mom: Setting Priorities and Simplifying Your Llife", "Mind Over Manners: Etiquette", and "It's My Party and I'll Cry if I Want To: Temper Tantrums".

Most of the suggestions are rather liberal, and pretty much in line with basic Attachment Parenting ideas. The preface clearly states that "Our book advises you to do less, listen more, speak directly to your newborn, involve your infant in her own care, and treat this mewling creature with the same respect you treat your partner, and yourself."

For a new parent, this might be a good common-sense introduction, and the lessons are all easily absorbed from the short, well-written essays. There is no index, though, and the chapter titles are sometimes ambiguous, so a frantic mother can't look up "tantrums" and then turn to see if her daughter's behavior is normal and if she is responding in a kind, gentle, yet appropriate disciplinary manner.

Some of the authors' pronouncements did strike me as a bit over the top and decidedly humorless. For instance:

Think of every activity as a chance to slow down down, to fill the moment with your concentration and care. Even changing a diaper can become - dare we say it? - pleasureable. It's a moment to connect with your child...Don't use toys or a mobile to distract your newborn. Your eye contact is more compelling than any rattle. Think of diapering as an activity you engage in together, and tell him so..."

Pfft. Tell that to the mom changing her five hundredth diaper of the month, the blowout that shot up her son's back and soaked through all his clothes. Personally, I found distraction with toys a wonderful technique for making diaper changes enjoyable, at least when my son didn't stick the toy straight into his poop.

But perhaps my kids just aren't the quiet, understanding type, happier lying on their back looking at the beauty of the natural world than being stuck in an evil mechanical swing or bouncy seat. I do know that my kids would react very badly to some of the authors' suggestions for dealing with tantrums. I'd say if you don't have a "spirited child", then the techniques described here have a much better chance of working well for you.

Furthermore, I'm not sure that I'm a true believer in Teich and De Bravo's assertion that "The natural grace and decency of children will often carry the day, if we trust them to behave appropriately", especially after observing the 1st-4th grade kids on the playground at my son's school. I'm guessing Teich & De Bravo are not big "Lord of the Flies" fans. Me, I do have a glass half empty mentality, but those that tend to consistently (and somewhat uncritically) see the sunny side of things might find this book just what they need to simply parent.

Monday, August 15, 2005


I've never tried this, but I'd like to add my blog to all of those attempting to make a point on "Intelligent Design" by linking it to the National Center for Science Education.

Skeptico looks like interesting reading. It is such a beautiful day, however, that we're going out to play now. We have to go to a park or playground because ChemLawn was spraying something awful smelling all over our next door neighbor's backyard, and I don't want to breathe the undoubtedly toxic pesticides wafting over our backyard now. Unfortunately, I don't think they'd respond well to some literature from the National Coalition for Pesticide-Free Lawns. In fact, I'm fairly sure they think we should be applying more chemicals to our lawn to cut down the crabgrass & other weeds, instead of waiting until next spring to use corn gluten.