Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Thunder Tree: Book Review

The Thunder Tree: Lessons from an Urban Wildland, by Robert Michael Pyle, is a hard book to summarize. I think the different chapters work better as free-standing essays. Some of them waxed so eloquent I was in tears (and I’m not even pregnant, so I don’t cry at the drop of a hat anymore), and a few others I had to struggle to finish because I got mired in the plants, ecological relationships, and butterfly species Pyle describes. If you are acquainted with Denver and the history of its suburbs, or the history of water use in the western US, you’ll also like The Thunder Tree, but I imagine that this isn’t a huge group of readers.

It is probably more interesting to most as an autobiographical work that combines personal stories about growing up in Aurora, Colorado in the 50’s & 60’s with a look at the importance of “wasteland” (specifically, the High Line Canal) to both children and local ecology. If you want to learn more about how kids interact with nature, you have to read the chapter
“The Extinction of Experience” – it is one of the best things on this I’ve ever read. It deserves to be reprinted somewhere with a much larger audience. So check this out of your library, order it on amazon or (seventy-five cents for hardcover! Unbelievable), put it on your wish list, and then skim through the parts that don’t grab you and read the rest when you need to learn something profound about the importance of place, parks, vacant lots, creeks and ditches, children’s play, and bugs.

Here's some interesting biographical information on Pyle and his work, including a link to an online story called The Way of the Monarch that illustrates why I like his writing so much - it combines people and place in such a compelling way.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Hummingbird Moths and Other Insects

I guess blogging about my arthropod-filled composter, my hidous cache of compost on the kitchen counter, and the bugs on our swamp milkweed brought a whole new genre of Google searchers to my blog. "Bagworm and revolution", "found earwigs in my kitchen", and "tiny maggots" have replaced "fat housewife blogger" and "housewife 1 on 1" as the most recent keywords that Google has directed here. Maybe that's an improvement, although I'm really wondering about bagworms and their revolution. Evolution, yes, but revolution? I don't even want to think about the bagworm revolution. And except for a few earwigs that came in nestled into some flowers (quickly removed), we don't have earwigs in our kitchen.

Meanwhile, our swamp milkweed (aka rose silkweed, flesh-colored milkweed, rabbit milk, rose milkweed, silkplant, swamp silkweed, water nerve root, and white Indian hemp - so called because its fiber was used by several Native American groups - check out Dan Moerman's wonderful database here) is attracting hordes of butterflies: monarchs every time I look, tiger swallowtails, some giant black butterfly with orange and blue on the outside of its wing that may be a black swallowtail. The most interesting nectar-sipper we've noticed in the last few days has been a giant hummingbird moth. It is almost as large as a hummingbird (which we also have, but they seem to prefer the jewelweed and the hummingbird feeders).

It looks like ours is the hummingbird clearwing moth, or Hemaris thysbe, which is a type of sphinx or hawkmoth. I had no idea that this is the kind of creature that comes from those disgusting hornworms.

Friday, July 21, 2006

The Second Stage: Book Review

The future of the family is
an overriding feminist issue.
~ Betty Friedan, on page 73
of The Second Stage

The Second Stage, written by Betty Friedan, was first published in 1981 - twenty-five years ago. This was the year after Reagan was elected. I was 18 and had just voted for the first time (and not for Reagan). This was also the beginning of the end of the fight for the ERA, as Friedan laments in her often overlooked and occasionally vilified book on what she perceived as the next stage of feminist "evolution", or the most important issues facing the women's movement that she helped found in the 60's with her publication of The Feminine Mystique.

Reading this in 2006 gave me a big dose of that "history repeats itself" feeling. In addition to critiquing what she saw as some of the excesses of feminism (which she called "the feminist mystique", as opposed to the "feminine mystique"), Friedan also examined Reagan-era politics and their relationship to women's emerging roles and issues. The similarities to the last six years of Bush politics are striking.

And Friedan seems positively prescient when she looks at what is now termed "work-life balance", child care, flexible work, maternity and paternity leave, and the danger that the right wing would claim "the family" and "family values" if feminists didn't address the problems engendered by their own revolution:

But what about the family work? The responsibility that used to be the woman's, in the home and family, as the man's duty was earning the money, out in the real world? How are we to put a value on family work? What is it really worth, compared to that other money-earning kind of work? How long will she keep doing it, by herself, if it's not valued, or shared?

....Still, the sophisticates who shrug off all this hysteria about the family as sentimental cant betray their own blind spot. We have to break through the cant and the blind spot and deal with the problems of the family now, which neither feminists nor antifeminists can avoid in real life (p. 70).

Why, with the majority of mothers now working, haven't feminists put as much energy into the battle for a multifaceted approach to child care - developing new options, using services and funds from a variety of sources...demanding tax incentives and innovations like a voucher system - as they have put into the battles against sex discrimination or for abortion?....There was, in fact, cold silence, or even open annoyance, in various feminist ranks in response to our appeal, in the fall of '79, that the women's movement come to grips with the practical problems of the family which our move to equality entails (p. 73).

It seems like it has only been in the last ten years (or less) that most feminists have really taken motherhood and its problems seriously again - as shown by the many websites and books discussing the two and how they've proliferated in the last decade.

Note the new page on Mothers and Caregivers Economic Rights on NOW's website, for instance, and the founding of the Mothers Movement Online in 2003. Then there's this year's and the publication of The Motherhood Manifesto, by Joan Blades and Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner. The recent frenzy of discussion on "the mommy wars" can even be seen as evidence of increased attention on what Friedan characterized as feminism's failure and blind-spot:

To the degree that feminists collude in assuming an inevitable, unbridgeable antagonism between women's equality and the family, they make it a self-fulfilling prophecy (p. 74).

Equality in jobs, without taking into account family, leaves women doubly burdened. And equality in the family isn't real for women if it is isolated from economic measures of worth and survival in the world....Part of the problem comes from the lack of real economic measures or political attention to the previously private woman's work, in home and family, an irreducible minimum of which is necessary for human and society's survival...(p. 80)

The women's movement did not fail in the battle for equality. Our failure was our blind spot about the family. It was our own extreme of reaction against that wife-mother role: that devotional dependence on men and nurture of children and housewife service which has been and still is the source of power and status and identity, purpose and self-worth and economic security for so many women - even if it is not all that secure any more (p. 156).

There were some passages that I didn't find particularly enlightening or interesting (such as Friedan's discussion of Alpha vs. Beta politics, and the look at cadets in the newly integrated West Point), but overall I found
The Second Stage a surprisingly timely and interesting work. I was a bit uncomfortable with her continued use of "evolution" (with its connotation of directed evolution towards progressive ends, as opposed to the more biological or modern anthropological use of the term), but that's minor in the scheme of things.

The parts of the book for which some feminists scorned Friedan for betraying feminism, I saw as again, relatively minor asides. She basically quibbled with the second wave feminists' focus on sexual identity, sexual discrimination, "rape culture", and abortion at the expense of economic inequality for women in families. Friedan never actually comes out and says the former are not important, but she does repeatedly argue against the polarization of politics that emphasizing these issues may incur. I'm not sure if that's a good or complete explanation for changes in feminism and national politics in the last 25 years, but it's interesting to ponder. Friedan herself sees this polarization at least partially as an over-reaction to the "feminine mystique", where the feminists wanted to get as far away from their housewife roots as possible.

While reading more about the transition from second wave to third wave (but "second stage"?) feminism, I ran across this interesting article & interview - The End of Herstory, by Kay S. Hymowitz - published in 2002, that explores some of the generational differences (in feminism, and popular culture as a whole) that I straddle. Although Hirshman is mentioned (as one of the old-style "radical" feminists), I thought it was interesting that Friedan's Second Stage was not - although Hymowitz does describe a "Feminist mystique" and "feminist career mystique". I don't think Hymowitz could still say that "Motherhood too interests orthodox Feminists only insofar as it overturns bourgeois norms."

Thursday, July 20, 2006

19th Carnival of Feminists up at Figure: Demystifying the Feminist Mystique. It's got borgs, and snowflakes, and lots on careers and feminism, and Frida Kahlo, Rwanda, the gendering of housework, and quite a lot more on the intersection of race, class, and gender. If this Carnival were a magazine I'd be so impressed with its quality and its ever-changing (but related) subjects, and willing to pay for it. But it's free, and it doesn't have advertising. Amazing, go and read.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Now We Can Begin...Eighty-Six Years Later

It never ceases to amaze me when something written generations ago seems as fresh and relevant today as it was for our grandmothers. I've added the bold emphasis, for passages I think are relevant to current debates.

What, then, is "the matter with women"? What is the problem of women's freedom? It seems to me to be this: how to arrange the world so that women can be human beings, with a chance to exercise their infinitely varied gifts in infinitely varied ways, instead of being destined by the accident of their sex to one field of activity - housework and child-raising.

And second, if and when they choose housework and child-raising, to have that occupation recognized by the world as work, requiring a definite economic reward and not merely entitling the performer to be dependent on some man.

...It must be womanly as well as manly to earn your own living, to stand on your own feet. And it must be manly as well as womanly to know how to cook and sew and clean and take care of yourself in the ordinary exigencies of life. I need not add that the second part of this revolution will be more passionately resisted than the first. Men will not give up their privilege of helplessness without a struggle. The average man has a carefully cultivated ignorance about household matters -- from what to do with the crumbs to the grocer's telephone number -- a sort of cheerful inefficiency which protects him better than the reputation for having a violent temper. It was his mother's fault in the beginning, but even as a boy he was quick to see how a general reputation for being "no good around the house" would serve him throughout life, and half-consciously he began to cultivate that helplessness until today it is the despair of feminist wives.

...Cooperative schemes and electrical devices will simplify the business of homemaking, but they will not get rid of it entirely. As far as we can see ahead people will always want homes, and a happy home cannot be had without a certain amount of rather monotonous work and responsibility. How can we change the nature of man so that he will honorably share that work and responsibility and thus make the homemaking enterprise a song instead of a burden? Most assuredly not by laws or revolutionary decrees. Perhaps we must cultivate or simulate a little of that highly prized helplessness ourselves. But fundamentally it is a problem of education, of early training -- we must bring up feminist sons.

...If the feminist program goes to pieces on the arrival of the first baby, it is false and useless. For ninety-nine out of every hundred women want children, and seventy-five out of every hundred want to take care of their own children, or at any rate so closely superintend their care as to make any other full-time occupation impossible for at least ten or fifteen years. Is there any such thing then as freedom of choice in occupation for women? And is not the family the inevitable economic unit and woman's individual economic independence, at least during that period, out of the question?

...But is there any way of insuring a woman's economic independence while child-raising is her chosen occupation? Or must she sink into that dependent state from which, as we all know, it is so hard to rise again? That brings us to the fourth feature of our program -- motherhood endowment. It seems that the only way we can keep mothers free, at least in a capitalist society, is by the establishment of a principle that the occupation of raising children is peculiarly and directly a service to society, and that the mother upon whom the necessity and privilege of performing this service naturally falls is entitled to an adequate economic reward from the political government. It is idle to talk of real economic independence for women unless this principle is accepted. But with a generous endowment of motherhood provided by legislation, with all laws against voluntary motherhood and education in its methods repealed*, with the feminist ideal of education accepted in home and school, and with all special barriers removed in every field of human activity, there is no reason why woman should not become almost a human thing.
~ Crystal Eastman, shown above, writing in 1920, in The Liberator, (read the complete text of "Now We Can Begin" here).

The second wave of feminism made some amazing progress in the 60's and the 70's, but it is also more than a little shocking to realize how clearly some of feminism's basic challenges were articulated long before that, and how little real progress has been made in these areas.

*when she speaks of "voluntary motherhood and education in its method", Eastman is referring to birth control - involuntary motherhood being what happens without access or educated use of contraception. Considering that I recently read that about a quarter of all pregnancies are unplanned, we haven't come such a long way here, either.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Civil Discourse or Refreshing Honesty?

Clearly, a lot of the people who take issue with Linda Hirshman (see previous two posts) object to her tone and style as much as to the content of her arguments. As I was thinking about this (and the difference between blog commentary and letters to the editor, or face to face debate), I got around to reading the rest of the 18th Carnival of Feminists, particularly this interesting post: Thoughts on blogging, hostility and feminist dialogue, by Winter at Mind the Gap!

Although I'm sure a lot of the vitriolic commentary left on blogs (or online articles, like Salon or many online newspapers) is not particularly productive, I usually find it some of it entertaining, and I guess I'd rather have trolls than censorship. It is ironic that Linda Hirshman decries all the pejorative e-mails her public pieces have attracted at the same time that she celebrates her own caustic approach, mocking those that plaintively ask if we can't just support each other as mothers making choices. Or "choices", as Ampersand might put it.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Addressing the @#%!& Issues

And yes, I do realize that my last post on Hirshman doesn't actually address any of the important issues that her original article and her book (presumably) address. I wanted to look at her Washington Post article in and of itself, because I found it fascinating, in much the same way that I found Caitlin Flanagan's trainwreck interviews compelling. I'm hoping that the article actually holds as little relation to Get to Work as Flanagan's interviews did to To Hell with All That, especially since I see that I'm next on the (pretty small - 1 of 2) library request list.

Is this a new phenomenon, this thing where authors make petty
ad hominem attacks or other outrageous statements badmouthing large groups of people in an attempt to publicize their books? Probably not, since I'm sure everything under the sun has already been done in publishing, but the internet and blogs certainly add a new element to it. Perhaps some of the author invective I've seen is a response to the immediacy, the crudeness, and the anonymity that e-mail commentary and criticism allows, if not actively encourages. Hirshman certainly implies this in her Post article, where she mentions the good old days, when only a few hardy (and presumably well-educated) souls wrote letters to authors or newspaper editors, and "iron-fisted editors" kept the riff raff out of the discussion (and perhaps back in the kitchen, where they belong if they sell out to the patriarchy). But wait -- isn't that exactly what Linda is supposed to be protesting?

Katha Pollitt adds a pretty funny essay to the whole "no such thing as bad publicity" idea with yesterday's article on "Thank You for Hating My Book". It's a much more reasonable response than I've seen from the other authors - or should I say from their public relations advisors?

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Hirshman and Feminism Again

Well, I still haven't read Linda Hirshman's Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World, so I really can't blog about it. I'm on the library waiting list for it (and I didn't even request that they buy it, as I prefer to only do that for books I really think are useful to more people, such as Miriam Peskowitz's The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars), so I don't have to give Hirshman any of my money to read it.

The latest round of articles (both on the web and in the print media) on Hirshman is basically a reaction to her inflammatory, self-promoting article "Unleashing the Wrath of Stay-at-Home Moms" in last month's Washington Post. As you might expect (see my response to her American Prospect article here), she made some statements with which I vehemently disagreed. And although I learned my lesson about blogging about a book before reading it with To Hell with All That, this doesn't mean that I can't comment on Hirshman's Opinion piece. So let the fisking begin:

The mommyblogs vilified me as a single, childless, bitter loser; the feminists claimed women weren't quitting; and a chorus of other voices didn't care what I said -- criticizing women just wasn't allowed. A handful of political thinkers did concede that I had raised the biggest issue left for feminism -- justice in the family -- but it was definitely a minority report.

Talk about a gross exaggeration. Some commenters on some blogs certainly speculated that someone who used such vituperative language about mothers must not be one herself, but none of the other bloggers that I read (see the many listed in my previous blog post on Hirshman) said anything like that. Note Hirshman's use of "mommyblogs" here - she might as well say, "Now, now, little mommies, you just leave this heavy thinking to the philosopher here." Please also note that the article that she touts as evidence of how maligned she has been - Everybody Hates Linda - is actually a pretty thoughtful piece that "positively applauds" some of Hirshman's ideas - while not shirking from a dispassionate analysis of its flaws.

The aggressive domesticity is not coming only from a bunch of women who can't manage all the demands on their time. Time and again, when I could identify the sources of the most rabid criticism and Google them, male and female, they had fundamentalist religious stuff on their Web sites or in the involuntary biographies that Google makes possible.

Once again, a ridiculous exaggeration. Very few of the many blogs that I read had religious ties, let alone fundamentalist ones. On the contrary, most of the blog criticism that I read (and enjoyed) came from overtly liberal and very a-religious sites. Well, maybe Linda found some secret cache of rabid bloggers that neither Technorati nor Google Blog could uncover.

Much worse than the roofing-and-barfing and salvation crowds, though, were the relativists, who criticized me for trying to give feminism some context and boundaries.

Well, since Linda has effectively discounted anyone who has written about the mundane aspects of life, and anyone who admits to any religious affiliation (please note that the latter does not include me), now she goes after the relativists. Damn all you compromisers, anyway! Remember, only Linda is qualified to provide the (ridiculously exaggerated) context for feminism, and its new more stringent boundaries.

These so-called liberals and feminists, who were once in the forefront of making social change, declared that people could no longer suggest that women should change their lives. A generation ago, such liberals included Betty Friedan, who called staying at home "the problem that has no name," and Alix Kates Shulman, who suggested that women should take on the problem by refusing to do 70 percent of the housework.

Apparently, Linda hasn't read anything that Betty Friedan or Alix Kates Shulman wrote after the 1970's. I suggest that she read Friedan's The Second Stage or Shulman's Drinking the Rain to see how more thoughtful second wave feminists matured. Wait, though - I have to warn you, Shulman talks about her roof and domestic pleasures at great length. Mind you, I am not a supporter of a domestic glass ceiling, I just don't think that Hirshman's solutions are workable or even reasonable.

Well. There was no chance that I was going to shut up. I'm retired. If I'm not going to raise hard questions for women, who will?

Why, Linda? Why? Why on earth did you retire if working at a law firm or as a philosophy professor was for the greater good?

And Katha Pollitt, Joan Blades, and Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner are my latest choices for people raising hard questions for women. Or the (yeah, I know, those democratic unwashed masses from the internet again) feminist and "mommy" bloggers out there (see blog roll on right side of screen). Which reminds me, I forgot to link to the 18th Carnival of Feminists. Don't forget to check out Redneck Mother's post in there.

I guess working women are too busy at work to blog about their lives and are already on their way to their jobs when "Good Morning America" puts me on at 8 a.m. Maybe a little scared? They're doing what beleaguered, overworked people do. They're publishing a manifesto.

Gee, a lot of the women I know with jobs outside the house have a lot more time to blog than those at home. Maybe the reason that they aren't showering Linda with praise is because they don't like her argument? Maybe they resent not having more choices and flexibility?

And Linda - we already have a manifesto. Check out The Motherhood Manifesto: What America's Moms Want - and What to Do About It and I think there's a lot there that many corporate workers (not just parents) can appreciate. Yeah, it's got choice, but that doesn't mean it doesn't also have boundaries.


Some more responses: Taking the Political Personally, from Crooked Timber - note many fascinating responses to his question of "why it is that this is such an emotive topic?"

The Personal Is (Still) Political, at Half Changed World - on how our personal choices (about feminism, in particular) can change the world

A Working Girl Can Win, in Slate, by Meghan O'Rourke - on some of the points that Hirshman makes that may be overlooked in the brouhaha

Understanding Betty Friedan: Why Linda Hirshman Doesn't
, in Slate, by Emily Bazelon - on some of Hirshman's mistakes and the mis-charaterization of an important second wave feminist

Do We Trust Mothers? and Spreadin Love - and well, many other cogent posts by 11D. Just read all of her blog, it's worth it.

One of my favorite articles is Mommy Wars, Round 587, by Katha Pollitt in The Nation - it compares Hirshman and Caitlin Flanagan, who are so similar in their obnoxious self-promotion and self-righteousness. I think I'll be buying Pollitt's new book, Virginity or Death!

Katha Pollitt on Flanagan and Hirshman, on Alas (A Blog) - wonderful comments, including some from Pollitt.

and Echidne of the Snakes - again, check out the comments. Certainly not from a bunch of religious wingnuts.

and edited on 7/14 to add: Hirshman and the Value of Working, Round Two, by Leslie Morgan Steiner - many comments, but I didn't see anything really new jump out.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Swamp Milkweed

One of the more successful perennials in our yard. They attract a lot of insects, including this tiny praying mantis. Insects provide a lot of entertainment for my kids.

Monday, July 10, 2006

My Hideous (But Virtuous) Cache of Compost

Perhaps prompted by my recent reading of Caitlin Flanagan's critique of compost ("compost heaps in the backyard: moldering heaps of garbage, rich with worms and loamy rot...hideous caches of broken eggshells and wet coffee grounds squirreled away on kitchen counters" p. 143, To Hell with All That), I've been thinking about our compost. The black container out behind the fence is at the height of decomposition right now. It is full of rotting banana peels, watermelon mush, fuzzy green strawberries, and a couple of buckets of grass and dirt from our painstakingly edged sidewalks. It is seething with fruit flies, earwigs, pillbugs, and many other invertebrates, which I always hope don't erupt out of the top at my face when I pull the lid off to dump more wet coffee grounds and broken eggshells.

I think our compost's main benefit is how it allows my husband and I to feel a little less guilty about wasting food. When I put strawberry stems and green onion leaves and potato peels into my hideous kitchen counter cache (actually a large rubbermaid container), I get a slight "I'm so frugal" organic gardening buzz. When my husband sliced open a honeydew melon last weekend - one that we'd let sit on the counter for too many hot days - and we found it was too slimy to eat, my first thought was that at least it would contribute to next year's tomatoes and zinnias. At $3.29 (unlike Caitlin, I'm acutely aware of what most of the things on my counter and in my refrigerator cost), a honeydew melon makes pricey compost material, but at least I'm not adding to the putrescibles* that my garbage collectors have to haul.

Michael Pollan has a wonderful chapter entitled "Compost and Its Moral Imperatives" in Second Nature: A Gardener's Education, which is one of the most enjoyable gardening books I've ever read (and I've read a lot of them, I should blog about them sometime). Pollan really nails it when he talks about "the successful compost pile" as a sign of "horticultural grace", inferring virtue on its thrifty, ecologically conscious practitioners. But he doesn't also note how the composter redeems you a bit when your vegetable cooking plans exceed reality and you have to clean out the crisper drawer.

Don't get me wrong - I do appreciate the black loamy humus (partially composed of rotten hummus! ha) that we spread on our garden areas, though it is no longer true, as Eleanor Perényi said a few decades ago, that "You can't buy compost." But real (virtuous American) gardeners certainly don't buy compost.

Walt Whitman even wrote an ode to compost over 150 years ago. It's not too often you see naked body licking paired with "blood of herbs, roots, orchards, grain" and "distemper'd corpses":

Where have you drawn off all the foul liquid and meat?
I do not see any of it upon you to-day, or perhaps I am deceiv'd...

Behold this compost! behold it well!

The summer growth is innocent and disdainful above all those strata of sour dead.
What chemistry!

That this is no cheat, this transparent green-wash of the sea which
is so amorous after me,
That it is safe to allow it to lick my naked body all over with its

It distills such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor,
It renews with such unwitting looks its prodigal, annual, sumptuous crops,
It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings
from them at last.

- Walt Whitman, This Compost (read the whole poem here).

*see my review of Garbage Land (or better yet, read Elizabeth Royte's book yourself) for more on putrescibles and composting