Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Until Our Hearts Are On the Ground

Here's the last book review that I've done in the last few years for a website that is no longer maintained (but that can still be accessed via the Wayback machine). The Association for Research on Mothering (ARM) holds fascinating conferences and publishes an incredible diversity of books on motherhood (this year's on blogging).

"Until Our Hearts Are On the Ground”: Aboriginal Mothering, Oppression, Resistance and Rebirth, edited by D. Memee Lavell-Harvard and Jeannette Corbiere Lavell, is an eye-opening and diverse collection of papers published by Demeter Press, the publishing division of York University's Association for Research on Mothering.

The book's title comes from a Cheyenne proverb:

“A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground. Then it is done, no matter how brave its warriors nor how strong their weapons.”

Until Our Hearts Are On the Ground's diversity is both its strength and a minor drawback. The multiple voices, different indigenous peoples, varied histories, and the personal experiences of motherhood that Lavell-Harvard and Lavell (mother and daughter editors) bring together are amazing, but the diversity is sometimes overwhelming. It can be difficult to switch gears between the different topics and styles of writing in the contributions. Lavell-Harvard and Lavell acknowledge this in the first paper ("Thunder Spirits: Reclaiming the Power of Our Grandmothers"), noting that "There is such a range of Aboriginal women's experiences existing somewhere between "traditional" and "modernized" that perhaps the only thing we do share is what Mihesuah calls a 'commonality of difference'"(p. 2).

They go on to eloquently and convincingly explain how:

"the historical persistence of our cultural difference generation after generation (despite the best assimilative efforts of both Church and State) is a sign of our strength and our resistance. That we have historically, and continually, mothered in a way that is "different" from the dominant culture, is not only empowering for our women, but is potentially empowering for all women (p. 3)."

Lavell and Lavell-Harvard do a skillful job of organizing the diverse works into four sections: one on pregnancy and becoming a mother, the ideology and practice of motherhood, the state's influence on motherhood, and literary representations of motherhood.. And the references and the endnotes are remarkable - there are scads of wonderful, intriguing sounding articles, books, and papers from the most obscure places in each article's references.

A few of the papers are written in an academic style that can be off-putting for those not accustomed to it. If you persevere, however, the insights into different cultures and social groups, and the historical understandings gained, are definitely worth a few obtuse paragraphs of sociology, medical anthropology, ethnohistory, or literary analysis. I learned something, or was moved, or came to a new appreciation for the strength that the mothers portrayed have shown in the face of incredible hardship in every single one of the papers in this book.

The seventeen papers include reflections on motherhood amongst the Anishnaabe (Ojibway) of Canada, cultural and personal implications of the medicalization of birth (among Anishnaabe and Mi'kmaq communities), a fascinating look at historic Haudenosaunee (Iroqouis) mothering (especially interesting for those studying non-patriarchal societies and/or gender equality) , and one Metis mother's powerful account of how traditional parenting skills programs made a difference in her life.

“Back to Basics” describes mothering, and the impact that grandmothers and aunts - also prominent in several of the earlier papers on Canada - have on children’s survival (especially from kwashiorkor) in urban Ghana. On my first look at the book, I thought that Africa was a far cry from Canada, and wondered how this piece could possibly fit in with the other papers, but the authors do show how colonization and various forms of oppression have had a similar effect on motherhood in many areas of Africa, North America, and Australia. Similarly, three papers on Aboriginal mothers in literature, including works by authors Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich, and Nugi Garimara (aka Doris Pilkington, the author of Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence) fit well in this book.

"Aboriginal Mothering: An Australian Perspective" provides an important look at "the Stolen Generation" (which many North Americans first heard about in the movie The Rabbit-Proof Fence), focusing on how women and families are re-connecting after the long period of cultural genocide that happened when children were taken by the Australian government in the years between 1905-1970. This paper is fittingly followed by a couple of papers on Canadian state child protection policies and indigenous mothers, the history and lingering effects of Canada's residential schools, and a short but revealing look at the impact of Canada's Indian Act and its context in colonization and oppression, authored by the editors.

As described on page 188, Jeannette Corbiere Lavell (one of the editors and co-author of "Aboriginal Women vs. Canada" ) was the first woman to challenge the section of the Indian Act's Section 12(1)(b), which was finally amended by Bill C-31 in 1985. As an American, I had heard the Canadian term "status Indian", but I was unfamiliar with the implications of how the Canadian Indian Act worked (and continues to work with its 1985 modifications). As Lavell and Lavell-Harvard describe,

"For well over a hundred years, beginning in the 1870s and continuing until as recently as 1985, under the provisions of section 12(1)(b), upon their entrance into marriage with a man not possessing Indian Status, the Canadian government stripped tens of thousands of Aboriginal women (and any subsequent children) of their Indian Status, and all the rights such status entailed including access to health care, education, and perhaps most importantly the right to live in their own homes and communities. Conversely, under the Act, not only did Indian men not lose status upon marriage to a non-aboriginal, their spouses gained status as did their children...Furthermore, since the extinguishment of Indian Status was irrevocable, many Aboriginal women were left without recourse in the even of domestic violence, divorce, or widowhood (p. 187)."

As Lavell and Lavell-Harvard point out, Bill C-31 (which restored Indian status to over 100,000 people)

"has simply created several new categories of Indian and only postponed the extinguishment of Indian status a couple of generations. While Lavell, and many other women like her, were reinstated as 6(1) Indians, her three children were classified as 6(2) Indians, which means their children, her grandchildren, will only be considered Indians should her children marry status Indians. Should her children marry non-Indians, her grandchildren will automatically be considered non-Indian. In a sad twist of fate, or perhaps a particularly ingenious governmental trick, Lavell's struggle for the right to marry whomever she pleases and still remain an Indian is currently being relived by her children" (p. 191).

This papers in this part of the book - the section titled "'Big Mother': The Role of the State in the Performance of Mothering" - are the most disturbing to read, but also the most illuminating.

I believe that most readers will come away from Until Our Hearts Are On the Ground with a deeper understanding of how history (and current government policies) affect families through their actions on mothers and mothering, as well an enduring admiration for the women who showed such strength in the past, and who continue to fight for their rights today. Until Our Hearts Are On the Ground also demonstrates the richness and diversity of Aboriginal motherhood, and should lay the idea that there is "one right way to mother" permanently to rest.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Perfect Madness: Book Review

Again, a couple of book reviews from 2005 that were lost in the ether, retrieved by the magic of the Wayback machine. I fixed a couple of spelling errors, love that Firefox add-on.

Perfect Madness or Localized Insanity?

Well, I finished reading Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, by Judith Warner today.

I was very disappointed. The reviews were better than the book (and a lot more coherent). She totally disses Mothers & More and other similar groups, by the way, as:

“utterly corrupted by the competing religions of the American left and right”….(they) “purport to unite working and nonworking mothers alike in an ecumenical, pro-family social agenda. Their organizers, I found, were committed to this vision, and strove to make it a reality. But their membership, carried over from their pre-name-change days, was another story. Once you scratched the surface of their pro-unity slogans, all too often, something quite different emerged. Competition. Intolerance. And a big dose of sanctimony. Coming, most notably, from stay-at-home mothers seeking validation for the “sacrifices” they’d made in the name of motherly virtue” (p. 265-266).

It’s possible that other chapters are a lot different from mine. Do any of us seem sanctimonious here? I’m just not getting that vibe. But more on Warner’s book later, I have to go eat lunch with my daughter. She’s done drawing dinosaurs.


Imperfect Madness

Judith Warner’s Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety is first and foremost an opinion piece on “the current culture of motherhood” - it should not be taken as sociological or cultural analysis of even the most rudimentary kind.

I liked Miriam Peskowitz’s The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars a lot more for its examination of the work/family/time issues facing American mothers, and Douglas and Michael’s The Mommy Myth for its historical analysis of the media and its influence on modern parenting. Strangely, and very obviously leaving a gaping hole, Warner makes absolutely no mention of Douglas & Michael’s book, even though she covers a lot of the same issues (Peskowitz’s was published close to the same time as Warner’s).

Warner’s book strikes me as sloppy in terms of research, logic and presentation. Her endnotes are not presented in the text of the book, but arranged by page number in the back, so when you want to check the basis for a given statement, you have to turn to the back to see if it is endnoted. Almost every time I did this, I found Warner’s statement was based on a secondary source - a newspaper article or a magazine article usually. Very rarely was any scientific data (even from soft sciences, like sociology, psychology, or anthropology!) cited. For instance, her statement that today’s children display more anxiety, throw more tantrums, behave more disrespectfully, and are just overprotected brats is based on an article from Better Homes & Gardens.

Warner makes some sweeping (and unfounded and just plain inaccurate) generalizations about kid’s food allergies and the use of medication for ADHD & other behavioral problems that are sure to piss off many parents who deal with children with real problems of this nature.

And “Attachment Parenting” - even a middle class watered down version gets given extremely short shrift as just an example of the bad side of over-parenting: “baby-wearing, co-sleeping, long-term breast-feeding and the rest of it — cruelly insensitive to mothers’ needs as adult women”. According to Warner, co-sleeping makes for unhinged, sleep deprived mothers. Funny, everyone I know that co-slept did it because it enabled them to get more sleep.

Some other things that bothered me were the chapters on how this socio-cultural phenomenon that she calls “The Mess” is a personal psychological failing, like bulimia or anorexia, caused by mothers:

1. trying to capture their own idyllic childhoods (repressed overworked mothers & all)

2. trying to compensate for horrible childhoods and neglectful mothers

3. trying above all to gain CONTROL

But then she implies it’s a cultural thing, a mass hysteria, or a cultural OCD where the compulsions include making cupcakes, arranging birthday parties, etc. , and the obsessions are “perfect” children.

My main problem, though, is just with Warner’s basic premise: that the majority of mothers today have this “widespread, choking cocktail of guilt and anxiety and resentment and regret…poisoning motherhood for American women today”. Maybe it’s just her wacko friends and the women (about 150 of them, selected how?) that she interviewed in Washington, D.C.? Do I just live in a small bubble of sanity? Ann Arbor is a relatively wealthy (but too idealistic and activist oriented?) place, and I’m just not seeing this compulsive over-parenting and cult of hyper-motherhood she describes in sometimes hilarious detail.

The sad thing is that I agree with many of the (politically liberal) solutions that Warner proposes that would help American mothers. But this material is tacked onto the next to last chapter, “For a Politics of a Quality of Life”, and hardly given the emphasis or the detail invested in the preceding ten chapters. And Warner completely ignores all of the other people who’ve already called for these changes, making it sound like the solutions are something new and innovative she discovered after she returned from France and discovered a lack of affordable childcare and a bunch of DC area neurotic mothers (not unlike those portrayed in Danielle Crittendon’s Amanda Bright@Home, or perhaps in Desperate Housewives? I need to watch Desperate Housewives). Also, it is hard to see how these laudable structural changes would actually improve “The Mess”, which is supposedly self-imposed, all-encompassing, and inextricably intertwined with our American lifestyle and identities as mothers.

Thanks to the Wayback Machine

I've retrieved a book review that I did for Mothers & More for their "Mothers at Work" blog campaign in 2005. Since you can't access it anymore through regular avenues, I didn't think they'd mind if I put it on my personal blog, so all of my book review links work.

It Really Is All About Time...

….according to Miriam Peskowitz in The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars: Who Decides What Makes a Good Mother?

What a great book. Here’s my review from my personal book log:

A really good, thoughtful, well-written book. I don’t know why it hasn’t been reviewed anywhere but a couple of blogs, when Judith Warner’s book (which I haven’t read yet, so no comparisons) is all over the place.

Peskowitz looks at SAH moms, moms who work PT, and WOH moms, and every permutation of work/childcare and “sequencing” you can imagine. She examines the stereotypes, politcal manipulation, media & marketing, and what women (and some men) really do, and how women’s “personal choices” (as in “opting out”) may actually be more being “squeezed” by culture, companies, and just the time crunch that being a parent entails. She looks at feminism’s role in this and in motherhood.

This book was a huge breath of common sense. Peskowitz doesn’t rant, she doesn’t tell gut-wrenching personal stories (or especially hilarious ones), and she doesn’t over-simplify the issues. Maybe that’s why it hasn’t been a big hit? It’s too reasonable? I dunno.

One thing lacking: an index. There are good footnotes, and you can tell that her statements are backed up by fact (and you can check the facts yourself via the footnotes), but an index would help you when you think, hmm, what did she say about FMLA (the Family Medical Leave Act)? What chapter was that in again?

Here’s one of my favorite quotes: “With the kids interrupting and needing attention, who can finish a setence, let along organize a piece of a revolution?” (p. 173).

I don't even feel the need to change anything I wrote over four years ago! The book is still a breath of fresh air.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Busy Tree: Book Review

I got two review offers a couple weeks ago. I turned down the offer for Tucks Pads (I'm not sure what I would say about them....maybe I could have looked at the medicinal uses of witch hazel? Hemorrhoids in history?), but I happily accepted a free copy of The Busy Tree, written by Jennifer Ward and illustrated by Lisa Falkenstern.

My seven year old nature lover mostly picks chapter books for herself now, but luckily (for me, because I love them, too) she still enjoys picture books. She agreed to review The Busy Tree with me, to give everyone a kid's perspective.

Here's her comments:

"I like the cover.

It's really realistic! It shows underground! And it shows animals there."

Basically, she raved about the artwork and the progression of the story, and happily read the simple rhymes.

I enjoyed The Busy Tree a lot, too. It's nice to be able to give such a positive review to a book. The last free book I got I hated (but luckily only had to discuss in an online salon), and I was critical enough of Maximum Ride: Saving the World and Other Extreme Sports to enrage a few tween readers who couldn't stand seeing their favorite book series criticized. They were downright polite compared to Darla Shine's fans, though.

Anyway, The Busy Tree made me mourn the loss of the giant elm tree in our back yard, and long for a big old oak tree. The kind that takes about a hundred years to mature, unfortunately.

Like my daughter, I loved Falkenstern's illustrations, and all of the different aspects of the single tree that the authors brought forth for us.

When I first saw the cover, I was afraid the book was going to be too precious and and/or overly cute, but as my daughter pointed out, the cover is just a clever collection of many of the different creatures shown in the book. She noted that the moth there was probably the result of the bagworm cocoon pictured on one of her favorite pages. There's nothing terribly cute about bagworms, though they are definitely an interesting and common tree dweller. My son actually actually considered some of the bagworm caterpillars on our pin cherry tree as pets one year (then again, he also wanted to keep maggots as pets).

The graphics I found of the cover online were kind of dark, so I took the pictures here so you can get a better feel for the book. Which I happily recommend for kids and adults who like gorgeously illustrated picture books featuring realistic natural settings, or trees (especially oak trees), or who may be interested in the ecology of a single tree.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Libraries & State Parks - Hammocks Subject to Availability

If you're in Michigan and you have a library card (and if you don't have a library card, what's wrong with you?), there's a great deal going from now to the end of September, combining two of my favorite things: books and nature. You can go to your local library and get a free pass for any state park (98 of them!), good for seven days (usually there's a $6 vehicle fee, unless you've got an annual pass). It's part of their new Park & Read program:

Many parks will also have a hammock available at no charge for Park & Read participants to borrow while on-site for the day so they can fully enjoy a great book in Michigan's great outdoors.

"The program was designed to give people a free trial visit to experience what a fantastic family and recreational resource their Michigan state parks and recreation areas can be," said Maia Stephens, recreational programmer for the DNR Parks and Recreation Division. "Besides, what's more relaxing than a day at the beach or under a shady tree with a good book?"

Here's a list of the Park & Read Parks with hammocks. Although the Saline District Library isn't on the list of participating libraries, since I found the link for the program on their website, I think they offer the passes, too. The Ann Arbor District Library is listed, along with Chelsea and Brighton libraries.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Catching Fire

Strangely enough, I have two very different books with the same title on my "to read" list right now:

Weird coincidence, eh?

And for a short review of some fiction for kids about archaeology, combining the two interests above - anthropology (Richard Wrangham's Catching Fire) and Young Adult fiction (Catching Fire is the not yet released sequel to Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games) - check out my goodreads.com review of Reading the Bones, by Gina McMurchy-Barber. It's one of the only pieces of fiction that I've read (for adults or kids!) that deals with many of the issues that archaeologists face. Amateur collectors, the repatriation of Native remains and sacred objects, scientific goals, and homeowner's feelings about private property are mixed well with overly authoritarian adults, a rebellious pre-teen girl, and some suspense. I hope McMurchy-Barber writes another and that this book gets a little more press - it was hard to find!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Fun with Google Searches

I hope the person who searched "babababababababababa babababababababababa babababa" enjoyed the book review of All the Fishes Come Home to Roost, by Rachel Manija Brown. No, there is no sex in Maximum Ride (not the Extreme Sports one I reviewed, nor the others), and I'm sorry I don't know where you can find Tastykakes in Michigan.

If you're not finding what you want with "patriartical", may I suggest you try "patriarchal"?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Twitch and Shout: Book Review

"Son, neurological disorder is the wave of the future."

This statement by the author's father is from the frontspiece to Twitch and Shout: A Touretter's Tale, by Lowell Handler. I've said something similar to my son, but reading Handler's memoir gave me more a bit more insight into what he deals with every single day. In middle school, no less.

On one level, Handler's book is an enjoyable coming-of-age, overcoming disability, finding your niche story. But it also has some startling (to me, anyway) insights into Tourette's Syndrome and OCD:

I know a woman with OCD who thinks continually of the word Ebola. Regardless of what is happening around her in conversations or on the television or radio, she is thinking Ebola. The fact that the word represents a horrible, deadly virus does not matter to her; more significant is the sound the world makes audibly and in her mind when it's repeated. She is fascinated by the "acoustic contours" of the word itself. Touretters often develop such an obsession with words, lost in an amusement park of the mind where thy can spend hours turning over the vocal and mental variations in form, inflection, pitch, and even the meaning of a world or phrase. A single word may become the roller-coaster ride for a Touretter on which he or she can be carried away for hours, unable to complete another task (p. 37).

Handler relates his interviews with several other people with TS (including those featured in the film he helped make, with the same title) and I thought this explanation by Adam Seligman was intriguing:

"My theory about all Tourette symptoms," Adam continued, "is that you have a buildup of pressure, which must be relieved by an action. The action is either a physical movement, a sound, a ritualistic compulsive act, or an obsessive thought. If you don't relieve this pressure it builds up, and you feel like you are going to explode (p. 92)."

Twitch and Shout is was clearly ahead of the game when it comes to explaining the need for health care reform and orphan drug support (it was published in 1998), and it also includes fun and interesting stories about eating nasturtiums with Oliver Sacks, Zulu ideas about Tourette's, self-medicating, humility, degrees of disability, and humor.

As an unexpected bonus, I love black and white photography, and Twitch and Shout is nicely illustrated with some of Handler's photographs. In fact, a little web browsing shows that Handler's photographic work is amazing. Check it out, along with his book.

Monday, March 09, 2009

No! Let Them Eat Thin Mints and Samoas!

And you can buy them from my daughter's troop if you happen to be at Cabela's in se Michigan next Saturday morning. Forget about the new Dulce de Leche flavor - they sound much better than they are. The sugar-free chocolate chip isn't bad, though, and I think the lemon cremes are sadly unappreciated.

We already did our part selling at Busch's in Saline last Saturday. Thank goodness there was an overhang there that our table was under. Still, dismal weather.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Let Them Eat Kale

I've been reading some interesting stuff on food and its economics and politics.

The Politics of Food by 11D is a wonderful post that includes the following quote that sums my feelings up nicely:

Food is not a priority to most people. Pressed for time and energy, most people are going through the drive-through window at Wendy's. Even if it was cheaper and more readily available, kale and okra are only important to the intellectual fringe. And people don't want to hear about it. They don't want the guilt. Vegetable-guilt drives people to Sarah Palin's rallies.

...as well as a link to Ezra Klein's Foodie Politics post at The American Prospect.

I'm seeing the same split between foodie ("pie in the sky"?) intellectuals and people who are struggling to pay for their food and don't have time to cook it in the comments on feministing.com's post titled Low-Income Children Shamed by Cheese Sandwich Policy, which spun off a Chicago Tribune story about the policy that the Albuquerque Public Schools recently instituted, where students whose parents are behind on paying for their lunch bills get a cheese sandwich, milk, and fruit for lunch.

It's too bad the Tribune didn't bother to do a local story on this, because I'm sure there are schools in Chicagoland that have similiar policies. Here in Michigan (hey, maybe we're an economic bellwether for the rest of the country!), both my first grader and my sixth grader's schools have done something like this for years - if your child's account is more than $5 in the hole, your kid gets offered a PBJ sandwich if they didn't bring their own lunch. They don't get to have one of those cheeseburgers that makes McDonald's look like gourmet food, or even a little pool of the fluorescent liquid cheese-food-product with a pile of tortilla chips (all served on a lovely styrofoam tray) that passes for nachos.

Also close to home, Mark Maynard has a post called The President Calls for Victory Gardens. Despite the fact that a commenter said my contribution (a link to Eat the View, and their cute historical video on the White House lawns & gardening) was the stupidest shit he'd seen in ages - and I have to confess, it does highlight the gulf between foodie intellectual and "what's for dinner tonight?"Americans - I'm still planning on planting a few tomatoes in the back yard when the ground thaws in....oh, three months or so. Maybe I'll even buy some kale at the Saline Farmers' Market when they open again. It probably doesn't taste too bad in ramen soup, and if I tell my 12 year old that's how they eat it in Japan, he may even try it. Maybe I'll go wild and use the entire flavor packet.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Newbery Winners and Where to Put Them

I haven't mentioned all of the Newbery winners that I've read (and blogged about over at The Newbery Project) for a long time. So here are links to some of the best of the ones that I've read in the last year:

The Twenty-One Balloons
, by by William Pène du Bois - won in 1948 and I think this is the most underrated of my favorites. It belongs on your shelf along with Jules Verne, and both my (then 11 year old) son and I loved it.

Miracles on Maple Hill, by Virginia Sorensen - set squarely in the 1950's, I think this is another winner a lot of people have never heard about. Great story about the healing power of nature (think The Secret Garden).

Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon, by Dhan Gopal Mukerji - sadly, no boy (and few girls) over the age of 8 or 9 will ever check this out of the school library, and it was surprisingly modern and engaging for something that was published in 1927. Maybe you can find a copy published in the U.K., where it carries the title Chitra: The Story of a Pigeon. Seriously, this story of a pigeon was pretty darn cool. Who would have guessed?

Dear Mr. Henshaw, by Beverly Cleary - another book that sounded booooring but was fun. If you've ever written a letter to an author (or your child has to for a school project), you might enjoy this. And you don't have to be divorced or have divorced parents to like the book, either.

Hitty: Her First Hundred Years, by Rachel Field - yes, old-fashioned again (hey, it won in 1930), but surprisingly interesting, especially for a book about a doll. I don't even like dolls and I liked this a lot.

and finally, my favorite out of all of these: The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman - this year's winner. I didn't want to read it at first, because I'm not a huge fan of horror, but the reviews (even before it won the Newbery) convinced me that I should give it a try.

The first chapter is scary - not graphic and gory, but definitely scary. And if one of your kid's anxieties is that people are going to sneak into your house and kill you all while you sleep, you might want to steer them away from The Graveyard Book for a bit. Anyway, because of the nature of the story, librarians are having a hard time deciding whether to put it in the regular kid's section or in the YA or Teen section.

The Ann Arbor District Library gets mentioned in this article as having

"hit upon the most Solomon-like solution to the problem — it classifies Gaiman’s book under Y for youth fiction, which is in between J for juvenile and T for books in the teen room."

I see that my local library (the Saline District Library) put it in the youth section ("birth through age twelve"). I kind of hope that they buy another copy and put it in the Teen section, because some of the comments on the School Library Journal article note that older kids don't want to check stuff out of the "little kid" section, whereas readers that are 11-14 years old are usually eager to venture into the Teen room. My 12 year goes happily back and forth between the two sections, but he's oblivious to some of the social rules and status distinctions that rule his peers.

I liked Roger Sutton's perspective on this. Really, though, you should just buy your own copy of The Graveyard Book, read it yourself (because I predict you'll want to read it again and again), and decide if your kids can handle it.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Another Good Reason for Kids to Have Recess

And for them to have trees and bushes and flowers and the like on a playground, not just flat grass, pea gravel, and plastic and wood play structures: there's good evidence that "interacting with nature" improves cognitive function, especially memory and attention. And if your kid has ADHD, the more nature the better.

I read an interesting newspaper article on this research last month: How the City Hurts Your Brain, by Jonah Lehrer (and kudos to the Ann Arbor Chronicle for it's blurb on UM research that lead me to this). Unfortunately, our recent weather (just how many mornings has the temperature been in the single digits or below zero?) has pretty much kept all of us indoors. We don't even have to go out to walk the dog anymore. And as much as I like WiiFit, I did suspect that it's just not quite the same as actually jogging, snowboarding, or taking a yoga class or walking to school.

Well, it's going to be above freezing this weekend, and I'm determined that we go on some of the "nature hikes" we had been doing that my kids complain about but seem to enjoy once we're actually out there. One of the authors of the study cited above notes that "People don't have to enjoy the walk to get the benefits. We found the same benefits when it was 80 degrees and sunny over the summer as when the temperatures dropped to 25 degrees in January. The only difference was that the participants enjoyed the walks more in the spring and the summer than in the dead of winter."

I wondered about the "urban walks in Ann Arbor" part of the study - I mean, Huron Street isn't exactly New York City, don't all those trees in Tree City help mitigate the stress of this urban setting? The study noted that participants walked in the Arb and at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens for the "nature" part of the study, which sounds good. I found myself wondering how a suburban neighborhood falls in this natural/urban continuum. And congratulating myself for buying a house on the edge of town, with its views of rolling farmland and a couple of barns and lunch trees.

I'm reading Sarah Vowell's The Partly Cloudy Patriot right now, finding it much easier going than The Wordy Shipmates (yeah chapters! short chapters, even), if not as good historically. Her essay on "The Strenuous Life" touched on these indoor/outdoor themes, and as someone who would rather read than ski, ice skate, or even take the kids sledding, I found myself agreeing with her guilt about liking the indoors. Plus, this line made me snort:

What if I'm perfectly content that, on any given day, my only communion with the earth is watching the sun set over New Jersey or burning a "geranium jasmine oak moss" aromatherapy candle? (p. 194)

So I decided that I'm reading Bernd Heinrich's Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival next, and we'll contemplate hibernating animals while we slosh through the melting snow and mud sometime soon. Whether we like it or not.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009


Perhaps I took Reblock Yourself the Polly Frost Way! a little too seriously. I haven't blogged here since before Christmas.

Yes, most of my family did explore viral gastroenteritis in January. That's another excuse. I knew it was sweeping through my daughter's grade school. I suspected that it came on quite suddenly when we were at her school's Winter Carnival, when a nine year old a few people in front of us in line lost his dinner. At least his dad hadn't paid for that second piece of pizza yet.

And I've been busy shoveling snow. And putting plastic over our leaky windows. I'm glad to see the last of January.

I have been reading. Here are a few notes on what I've been reading since the beginning of the new year:

Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle, by Daniel L. Everett

This was a truly interesting book, if a little disjointed. The author combines an autobiographical account of his work as a missionary and a linguist among a group of Indians in Brazil (the Pirahã) with some classic ethnography and musings on linguistics theory, philosophy, and religion.

The Pirahã are really different, both culturally and when it comes to language. If you want to read about about some people that think about life in a fundamentally different way, this is a good introduction. Sleep, ambition, raising children, numbers - wow. It's hard to wrap your mind around their worldview, but even the little we can comprehend makes you think about your own life choices - this one of those things that is most seductive about reading good anthropology. And Everett writes better than most anthropologists.

Some might find the chapters on linguistics a little slow going (but if you've always wanted to read about Chomsky, Whorf, etc. this is a good introduction), but you can always just skim that and enjoy the parts about Everett's life and how the Pirahã change him. Whether their culture shaped their language or the language molds their lives is one of the points Everett discusses at some length.

The title comes from a Pirahã belief that sleep is dangerous, too much will make you weak and vulnerable to jungle threats. They get up a lot in the middle of the night, poke the fire, bake a potato, eat something, chat, etc. - an eight hour stretch of sleep is unheard of in their villages.

Right now I'm reading The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell. How is it that I've never read anything by her before? It's wonderful. Puritans and the Brady bunch and shining cities on hills. But why oh why didn't she use some chapter breaks? And an index? I'm halfway through the book and wondering if she is going to mention The Witch of Blackbird Pond (isn't that how most older girls of my generation learned about Puritan life?), and I can't check the index. Hmpf.

Speaking of Newbery winners, I am still reading them for The Newbery Project. The most recent one (a re-read) was Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, which was so good that until I started Sarah Vowell's book everything else suffered in comparison.