Friday, July 29, 2005

A Couple of Books on Our Parents' Parenting

Today I'm going to cut & paste a couple of book reviews that I did on, because you can't discuss books there unless you're willing to pony up $15/yr. for an account upgrade on their self-proclaimed "bitchy, opinionated" parenting board (which I think is worth it). Just don't judge that site by whatever idiocy you read on the Main Event. That stuff changes like the weather. French Impressions: The Adventures of An American Family, by John S. Littell was a delightful, relaxing read that reminded me of Shirley Jackson's Life Among the Savages. It's the memoirs of the author's mother, which he added to and edited, of life in France in 1950 with a student husband and two young sons - a four year old and a constantly crying (from midnight-5am every night!) and very spirited 15 month old.

Part of the book's appeal is in how different things were back then - four year olds could go down the street a couple blocks to play with their friends without their parents worrying about it. I'm not sure the world is so much more dangerous (in some places, anyway) than it was in 1950, but most parents today wouldn't dream of letting their preschoolers roam like John Littell did.

The story about him peeing off the side of the Eiffel Tower was pretty darn funny, as were many, many other vignettes in the book. And now I want to go eat crusty French baguettes filled with dark chocolate.

Confessions of a Slacker Mom, by Muffy Mead-Ferro is a book that was featured along with Judith Warner's Perfect Madness in a February issue of Newsweek devoted to the stresses of motherhood.

I wanted to like this book, despite having read a damning review by a fellow Sybermom, but it sucked even more than she said it did. Can any nitwit out there get a book of smarmy, self-righteous essays published? I'm seriously missing the boat, if so.

It's the blanket statements that got to me, especially combined with Mead-Ferro's vapid writing. And like Naomi, I actually agree with many of the "slacker mom" ideals, like natural consequences and plenty of unstructured playtime. I agree that the huge amounts of toys that many parents buy are excessive. But here's a representative passage for you to ponder for yourselves:

But I don't feel sorry about the fact that I don't do my share of buying, assembling, picking up, sorting, or fixing toys.

I'm not simply trying to avoid a mess in my kids' rooms, though. I'm also thinking about the mess I don't want in their heads. I'm pretty sure if my children were continually supplied with every latest toy, that they would quickly develop a dependence on always having something new. Where the only good toy is a new toy.

I can only imagine the consequences if they never grow out of that. Actually, I don't think I have to imagine them. I think I've seen them for myself.

I know more than one gal with the expensive habit of always having to have new clothes. I'm distantly related to someone who thinks his new car is no good after a year. And I also know of an unhappy person who intermittently feels he needs a new spouse. Perhaps, just perhaps, this all started when they were little and had an endless incoming stream of new toys.

Can you say facile over-simplification? If I'd bought this book I'd compost it. Now I'm just going to write scathing reviews and urge everyone to read French Impressions or Life Among the Savages if they want to read about the "Good Old Days". They're both more interesting, colorful, and complex, and you can probably do without a heavy helping of sanctimony. Get yourself a loaf of pain au chocolat, take the afternoon off, and be a real slacker with your kids instead.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

A Field Guide to Sprawl

This book by Dolores Hayden, with aerial photographs by Jim Wark, is just what I needed to understand what's going on around me in southeastern Michigan. Actually, this kind of development is happening pretty much everywhere in the US. But her handbook gives you the terminology to understand it, with short, witty explanations and amazing photographic illustrations.

I'd heard of McMansions, and seen them increase a hundredfold around Ann Arbor, but Hayden's book describes the origins of the term (aka "tract mansions") and portrays its relatives, the "starter castle" and the "sitcom suburb". But my favorite entry in Hayden's book is called "Putting parsley round the pig" and describes tarting up an eyesore. All those huge subdivision signs I've seen, with their monolithic pillars or stonework, fancy lettering, ridiculous names, gates, and elaborate landscaping: Putting parsley round the pig. How apt and poetic.

Some of the entrances to these neighborhoods that leapfrog out from Ann Arbor to my house in Saline sport gazebos, guardhouses, waterfalls, or bizarre arrangements of hostas, daylilies, Japanese maples, ornamental grasses, petunias and impatiens, along with smaller signs advertising the price range (and implied exclusivity) of their houses. In a related vein, Hayden talks about "Privatopia", "where residents are legally bound to obey the covenants, conditions, and restrictions (CC&Rs) of a homeowner association" (p. 84). This is something that Louv talked about so eloquently in "Last Child in the Woods" (see previous thread).

Wow. You give up a lot of your freedom to live in these "safe" neighborhoods. CC&Rs can specify appropriate paint/brick/siding colors (and curtain treatments visible outside!), types and colors of plants that may be used in your yard, and all kinds of tenant behavior. Welcome to Stepfordville, please leave your tomato plants, clotheslines, and folk art at your previous residence. And don't even think about putting up a basketball hoop or letting your kids draw with chalk on the sidewalk.

Other notable entries include LULUs - Locally Unwanted Land Uses - often the target of NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) campaigns; and TOADs (Temporary, Obsolete, Abandoned or Derelict) sites. Tani, you'll be interested to know that their scary photograph of a TOAD is from downtown Youngstown.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Serve It Forth

Too few of us, perhaps, feel that the breaking of bread, the sharing of salt, the common dipping into one bowl, mean more than satisfaction of a need. We make such primal things as casual as tunes heard over a radio, forgetting the mystery and strength in both. From "Meals for Me" in Serve it Forth, by M.F.K. Fisher, p.43; 1937

A couple of years ago, we had a guest speaker at a Mothers & More meeting whom I think was a nutritionist. She gave a presentation on “Women’s Healthy Lifestyles”, which reminded us that we all need to eat more fruits and vegetables and exercise more. Not much of a newsflash there, but it’s always good to remember when you’re about to have doughnuts and coffee for breakfast, then sit your kids in front of the tv and yourself in front of the computer.

The other thing I remember about this now nameless woman’s talk was her insistence that it is bad to eat your children’s leftovers for your own meal, especially if you are a stay-at-home mother. I think the idea was that eating leftover kid food showed you didn’t care about food for yourself. You deserve a real meal, one like M.F.K. Fisher would eat, prepared with wholesome ingredients that can be savored and appreciated, even if eaten alone or with offspring that are only interested in blowing bubbles in their milk.

I pondered this while I ate the other half of my three year old’s lunch banana. I didn’t want to just dump it in the compost container with the coffee grounds and strawberry tops, after all. No need to waste perfectly good food. This was a refrain that I often heard as a child, as my father made a sandwich out of the last piece of fuzzy green bread in the plastic bag, meticulously shaved white spots off cheese, and ate almost liquid bananas. He also discouraged us from having "eyes bigger than your stomach” and taking too big a portion, which was any amount that would leave leftovers on our plates.

I often eat my kid’s leftover food, as a quick supplement to whatever else I’m eating. The rest of today’s lunch was a (dinner leftover) pork chop with peanut sauce, iced coffee, and some pretzels. I’m not sure if M.F.K. Fisher would have approved, but it was a strangely satisfying combination.

A lot of dieticians out there on the Internet would definitely not approve. Apparently, cleaning up your children’s leftovers is one of those unthinking habits that add extra flab to mothers’ thighs, making it impossible for us to shed those post pregnancy pounds. I suppose this is true if you eat a big meal and then feel compelled to clean all of your kid’s plates afterwards -- or if you finish their yogurt & hot dogs before you have your adult meal later in the evening. My kid’s leftovers are heavy on the fruits and vegetables, though, and I don’t feel the need to eat every scrap they leave behind. We do have a dog, and a composter with a thriving population of invertebrates; both are more than ready to devour food remains. Occasionally, I finish pieces of cake from which only the frosting has been consumed, but I think that dealing with a birthday party for ten or so two-to-four year olds probably cancels out the extra calories.

In a lot of traditional cultures, the elders eat first and the children eat afterwards (sometimes it is the women & children). This can be a sign of respect for the aged, which is laudable and arguably lacking in our culture, but it can also be hard on the kids. One of the things I remember most from Dancing Skeletons, Katherine A. Dettwyler’s amazing book on children & nutrition in West Africa, was how shocked her informants were when she picked her meat out of her bowl of stew and made sure her daughter got enough first. A lot of the children she saw were malnourished, because the elders got most of the meat, leaving the starchy stew leftovers for the kids. Extended breastfeeding helped counteract this deficit a bit, but when another child came along, weaning meant hard times ahead.

As Jesus said to the Syrophoenician woman, “Let the children first be filled: for it is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it unto the dogs.” But after she answered that “yet the dogs under the table eat of the children's crumbs” (Mark 7:26-29), a demon was cast out of her daughter. So let that be a lesson to you, however you interpret it.

Baby Team Spirit

OK, I know there are a lot of university alumni parents out there who are nostalgic about their days on campus, and they would be happy if their children went to the same college they did. But this is just fuh-reaky: Baby Wolverine video.

On the other hand, I found this link through a very cool parenting blog I'd never seen before: PlayIsTheWork.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Some Suggestions for a Wonderful Anniversary

Like if it's (unbelievably) your 19th anniversary.

Surprise your spouse by taking the day off work, allowing you to take the family to the local Botanical Gardens. Spend the morning walking through gardens and woods and reassuring your children that you are not lost and you will be back at the safety of the car soon. Eat some wild raspberries, successfully avoid lots of stinging nettles, see frogs and minnows and a muskrat swimming.

Then let your spouse spend the late afternoon shopping and reading without children. Now reveal that you have arranged for a babysitter, and the two of you get to go out to dinner at a nice local restaurant, without needing to clean up spilled chocolate Silk soymilk or attempting to convince your three year daughter that tears are really a bit extreme when a macaroni noodle has dropped out of the bowl.

At your relaxing dinner, give your spouse some exotic bronze earrings and chocolate and a photo album. Exclaim at her thoughtfulness in giving you an electronic dohickey. Finally, walk around town, go to a coffee shop, and then find a trumpet vine growing on a wall right next to your car, and surreptitiously cut a shoot to start a clone in your own backyard.

The Day the Great Lakes Drained Away

by Charles Ferguson Barker is a wonderful new kid's book that anyone who lives in the area should enjoy. It gets a little preachy, but maybe it'll help your kids remember to turn the water off while they brush their teeth. The illustrations of all the fascinating stuff under the lakes near Chicago, Detroit, etc. are wonderful, as are most of the rhymes using city names.

My favorite definition of rich: able to buy any hardcover book I want without agonizing about it. I wish I could have just bought this one when my son grabbed it at Nicola's, but instead I requested the AADL and SDL libraries buy it.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Free: Two Potty Chairs (One Never Used)

The unused one is this truly obnoxious offering from Fisher-Price, which plays a royal flourish like the one that used to be on some margarine commercial "Dat dat for a king." My husband bought it after my daughter swore she would use the potty chair if she could pick out a new one. So she picked this one, with an infrared sensor that plays the freaky song when something passes through the light beam. It also plays when you hit the chair with your foot in the middle of the night when you check on your sleeping child.

Anyway, it almost goes without saying that my dd never used this thing, except for the fun of putting toys in it and having dolls and stuffed animals "pee". I didn't hate it quite so much after I removed the battery, but I am a bit tired of seeing it sitting in our living room (where it was moved after tripping on it one final time).

My daughter did just start using the big toilet in the last month, after months of telling me she would do it "when I'm 8. Or maybe 12."

But I don't want to be one of those mommy bloggers who bores everyone with the fact that they're done with diapers forever, hallalujah, well except for one for poop and when confronted with a strange scary "foreign" toilet.....although I did really enjoy Raising WEG's post on that today.

Speaking of urinating on strange toilets, though, I am definitely going to buy myself a FUD. It would have been wonderful all those years I worked as an archaeologist in the field, and it will still be good for scary truck stops, park portajons, and the occasional camping trip. If I can convince my husband to go camping, but that's another post.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Last Child in the Woods;

subtitled Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder is the title of a new book by Richard Louv. It has been getting a lot of press, most notably reviews on NPR and, and rightly so. It's an important, interesting, and well-researched book. But the interaction of kids & nature is also a topic that I've written about and researched from a different perspective, so I can't help but look at Louv's book critically, picking at a few irritating spots as well as acknowledging the ideas that made me smack my head and say "Why didn't I think of that?".

Louv's premise is that "the current generation of young Americans" (which he describes as part of the "Third Frontier" in a rather confusing bit of historical analysis) is characterized by "at least five trends" (on pg. 19):

-a severance of the public and private mind from our food's origins
-a disappearing line between machines, humans, and other animals
-an increased intellectual understanding of our relationship with other animals
-the invasion of our cities by wild animals
-the rise of a new kind of suburban form

These are not totally new ideas, but Louv seems to be the first writer to get this information out in a widely reviewed book that is both engaging and not overly academic. Although Last Child in the Woods does have some rather poetic parts, some of the chapters are a bit repetitive and forced, and may disengage less tolerant readers.

The different trends above vary widely in how well they are explored and explained, and I wish Louv had researched the rich literature on these topics in anthropology, ethnobiology, and environmental history a bit more deeply. Instead, sociology, education, developmental studies, environmentalism, and psychology provide interesting (if not always convincing) fodder for his argument that children today are increasingly incarcerated in artificial environments, with unforeseen and undesirable results.

Now this is an assumption that I believe to be true, so it's just the evidence provided that I'm debating. The parallels between ADHD and "Nature-Deficit Disorder" (which Louv also characterizes as "cultural autism") are weak, and the argument that limited access to natural environments causes ADHD or other disorders is even weaker. The idea that nature can cure or mitigate psychological disorders is an old one that is coming into vogue again, but Louv doesn't really marshal enough data for the reader to decide if this is ecopsychobabble or the shaky but scientifically grounded beginnings of an exciting new area of research.

Where Louv really excels is in his absorbing interviews with the researchers, naturalists, and activists attempting to bring kids and dirt, rocks, plants, and animals of all kinds closer together. And in his occasionally autobiographical stories of his own children and the canyons and beaches of his southern California home range. His examination of the effects of litigation and the covenants and rules enforced by neighborhood associations and subdivisions on children's outdoor play is fascinating, as are the descriptions of green urbanism and his suggestions for changing the way we and our children live. I'm sorry there wasn't an index, but Louv's endnotes and his "Suggested Reading" are wonderful resources.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Just a Picture.... test the new upload photo capabilities of Blogger. Our house is at the far right on the west edge of the wheat field. This photo was taken a few years ago, and the farm is now in soybeans, which is prettier than corn but not as amber wavy as the wheat was. I'm just glad it ain't WalMart, which wants to build a few miles away on the already overburdened corner of Michigan Ave. (US-12) and South State.

Check out the local grassroots billboard on US-23.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Win Some, Lose Some

A couple of things that brought me down today: my son found some sandpaper in the garage last night and took a couple of experimental swipes on the glossy front of our brand new minivan. Of course the 1990 Accord with rust flaking from every side was not tested in this manner.

Our elm tree appears to be dying. The entire canopy is wilting and brown leaves are drifting onto the deck like it's autumn in July.

But the swamp milkweed that I grew from seed last year is flourishing alongside the deck, and attracting monarch butterflies just like it is supposed to do. We also have a bumper crop of volunteer amaranth and sunflower, which is nice as we really neglected gardening this year. Hurray for perennials and self-seeding annuals! I think that next time I make lasagna I will subsitute chenopodium (goosefoot) for spinach in it, as we also have a good "crop" of that.