Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Mother 'Hood

Sunday I read an article in the Daily Poop by Judith Warner, who posted the original on her blog for the New York Times, "Domestic Disturbances." So, of course I went to the source to find the post, "The Choice Myth" in its original provenance, since the Poop can't be trusted to print anything in its entirety.

In the article, Warner explores evidence that while many women are staying home with their kids, this fact alone may not represent a choice on their part, and that the "myth" of women opting out of high-power jobs in droves to go home and raise little Chauncey is baloney.

Warner is actually responding to an article in the Washington Post from earlier in the month, ("Debunking the Mommy Myth," by Donna St. George and Pamela Stone) which presents statistics that indicate less choice-making than media attention implies. In fact, the number of mythologized drop-outs may be rather small and select.

My response to the whole thing is that I'm bothered by the need to choose at all. I'm beginning to think that my generation's demand for equal rights might well have led to equal opportunities to become harried cogs in the industrial machine. Mind you, I burned my bra with the rest of my cohort, but then stayed home to raise my kids.

I'm reminded of this choice (and for me it was a choice; in fact, I chose to stay home not only for my kids, but because I thought I might be taking a job away from someone who needed it more) whenever I get my Social Security statement in the mail. There, between 1976 and 1986, is a large gap: zero income for all ten years. Once I got my first TAship, the money started dribbling in until I got my first full-time teaching gig only fifteen years ago.

There are several problems with questions about who's staying home and why. One is the lingering notion/prejudice that stay-at-home moms aren't doing "real" work. I can't tell you how many times I had to respond snittily to remarks like "Oh; you stay home with your kids. So you don't work." Of course I worked. Just like the people who take care of working women's kids work. Only harder, because I did it 24 hours a day.

When my children entered school I started volunteering: Montessori school art teacher and materials designer, elementary school library and Junior Great Books, school district's library committee and outdoor learning center. This experience kept me in touch with my son and then my daughter even when they weren't home, and also helped prepare me for teaching once they'd fled the nest for high school pursuits and college. I went to grad school in the evenings when their father was home, and full time when they were in high school. My own family's rule had always been "18 and you're on your own" (because nobody could have afforded to send us to college), and even though my kids did get their college paid for, they were still pretty much independent from the moment they left the public school system.

I certainly didn't fall into the high-achieving power-job category (although I did "give up" a promising college administration career at Penn), nor was I married to a six-figure earner like one of the women in the Washington Post panel. There were some sacrifices, but I don't think any of us missed anything we did without. And even though it wasn't all peaches and flowers, I did like being with my kids and keeping house--and reading and writing and cooking and gardening--all the things I seem to have so little time for now that I have no kids at home and a "real" job.

The core question about the kind of work people do reminded me of similar questions posed by Wendell Berry, the agrarian philosopher I read more than almost anyone, who wrote an essay years ago about why he wasn't going to buy a computer, and then followed it up with one called Feminism, the Body, and the Machine (both were published in What Are People For, 1990).

Berry is a true essayist in the sense that his prose represents a journey from one idea to another, with connections made through stops along the way. So, what starts out as a response to comments made on his original essay ends up as a small treatise on craftsmanship--and because of this I'll probably put it on the reading list for my Winter course on the evolution of the Arts and Crafts movement. It's also a defense of choosing to stay home and practice home economics, the nobility of meaningful work, and everybody's stake in not succumbing to the power of industrial civilization to turn us all into robots.

This strikes me as being at the center of all of these "mommy wars" discussions about whether we should stay home, "work for a living," or somehow combine the two without driving ourselves nuts and bringing up spoiled brats or little monsters: meaningful work. Does it really benefit anyone (except perhaps manufacturers of stuff we may or may not need) if a woman goes to work on an assembly line, tightening the same set of screws every day of her working life? Do men find this kind of work worthwhile? What kinds of work are women choosing (if they do choose, that is) when they stay in the workforce after having kids? Is it more worthy, intellectually challenging, or rewarding than teaching youngsters how to bake bread or grow tomatoes?

I don't know the answers to any of this. But I do know that the so-called choices we are making are being framed by people who care far more about profits on Wall Street than about real lives of real people, and by people who care fare less about the environment and the world as a whole than they do about their bottom line.

Unlike Wendell Berry, I've adopted the computer precisely because I don't write for a living. If I want to write, I have to write fast, and the computer helps me do so. But if I had my druthers, and if I were flush enough to buy a cabin in the woods, grow my own food, and ditch the car, I'd happily go back to pen and pencil, or to my Olivetti portable, to get the writing done. Nobody would read it, of course, but I'm not sure that's why I do it. Not many people read this stuff as it is, computer or no, but there's some satisfaction involved in organizing ones thoughts and essaying through ideas when they come pressing in from the ever-present outside world. Thankfully, the children are grown and gone and working at jobs they seem to like. So I think I made the right choice.

By the way, it's raining again.

Image credit: Carl Larsson's idyllic domestic paintings came to mind immediately when I was thinking about the combination of Arts and Crafts movement, family, work, and living without much technology. This one, Kitchen (1898), seemed an appropriate illustration. Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Skywatch Friday: Desert Longing

Seasonal Affective Disorder grips me from time to time, usually after a long, dreary, cold week in January. But climate change has produced some interesting effects in north Texas, not the least of which is the succession of rainy weeks that has filled the reservoirs but severly dampened (ahem) my spirits.

I get predictably homesick in the fall anyway, because the change of seasons in the desert usually happens quite suddenly. The Owens Valley would change colors from the green/brown/beige of summer overhung with clear blue skies to the gold, red, orange, yellow, and beige of autumn (and the arrival of clouds along the ridge line of the mountains) in a matter of a few hours. The temperature typically drops from 90s to 70s in the daytime, and the nights get cooler as well.

In north Texas, where I've spent most of the last thirty years, the change is less obvious--except that this year the transition from summer (hot, sultry, muggy, and bug-filled) to fall (usually less hot, less muggy, with fewer bugs) has been just plain wet. I think we've only seen three or four sunny days since the equinox, and have measured over six inches of rain. It's not that I don't appreciate the rain, since it promises a longer, greener, cooler spring. But for a desert rat, there's such a thing as too much water, especially all at one time.

I can be excused, I think, for succumbing to nostalgia--especially since I haven't spent much time in the desert since 1999, when my husband and I visited my folks on the western side of the Sierras, and then traveled over the mountains, through the sequoias, and down into the valley in which I was born. We then traveled out again over the Inyos to Death Valley on our way back to Texas. The photos for this post were taken then. At least I can enjoy the sun and the clear desert air in memory, until things get a bit crisper and more autumnal around here and I can start to appreciate what the prairie has to offer.

The opening shot was taken from Uhlmeyer Spring (named after the great uncle who prepared his ore there after prospecting) looking toward Big Pine and the Sierras near sunset.

We then traveled out over Death Valley Road, and arrived at the north end of the monument at Eureka Valley, near Ubehebe Crater, and took some photos while overlooking some pretty amazing geology and a nicely contrasting skyline.

On our way back through Pueblo country (Petrified Forest) we stopped to see some relict walls and rock drawings (peckings, really). I remember hearing a child ask his mother why the bird was carrying a baby--but I'm pretty sure it's a frog.

At the very beginning of this year (during one of those dreary weeks in January) I posted on "Desert Love" in response to a wonderful film a Brazilian friend recommended to me. This time my nostalgic musings took me back to my own desert, and I'm glad I remembered the trip.

Before I had a chance to post this, the sun finally came out, and by the time I got home the temperature had dropped (it was warm enough this morning when I left, in the dark, at 6:30 am to cause a heavy fog), so that I was considerably cheered by a sunny, fall evening. I have been promised sun tomorrow by the local weather wonks, but rain may return at the weekend. Hope everyone else has a happy Skywatch Friday.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Six Months Out

Some of the most aggravating pleonasms in use today include phrases like "first-year anniversary" or (even worse, and it's not really a pleonasm) "three-month anniversary." Anni is the Latin root for "year," so "first-year" (or second or third, or whatever) is redundant.

The proper way to mark the date is to say, simply, "first anniversary." Since a month is not a year, any "-month anniversary" is just plain wrong. Years ago, our family coined the term "mensaversary" (from the Latin mensa, month) to mark smaller celebratory events--like a baby's "first mensaversary" at age one month.

What brings the topic to mind is yesterday's sixth mensaversary of my valve replacement. Since I was, at the time, pretty sure I'd never get to this point, it probably is something worth celebrating--halfway to my first anniversary of not being dead (again).

Having already fallen off the rehab wagon (first the heat, and then the rain, and always the mosquitoes), I'm trying to celebrate by starting afresh, now that I've got a schedule that allows for a couple of days in which I can spend mornings gardening and taming the carbon sink, and more mornings I can use to get my butt moving.

As usual, however, I seem to have been waiting for a confluence of inspirations, and they've shown up in spades. First was Richard Wrangham's Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, followed by Prevention magazine's September issue, which featured an article on fatty acids, a blog post in NutritionData on the benefits of the "Paleo Diet" vs. the Mediterranean Diet, and finally Andrew Weil's new book Why Our Health Matters.

Catching Fire is the kind of book I absolutely relish (and no, I'm not going to launch into a series of food puns). Its about anthropology and things culinary all at the same time. Wrangham's premise is that what makes us human (or "uniquely unique" among a large family of talented apes) is not using tools to make stuff, or using metaphor (as I once thought was the characteristic, until Koko the gorilla started making them), or acquiring language (since Koko and other apes can do that, too). Rather, it's the fact that our distant ancestors tamed fire and learned to cook their food--opening up a much wider variety of culinary sources than were available before somebody accidentally dropped a fish into the campfire and loved the results.

The cultural significance of cooking was recognized in my generation by Claude Levi-Strauss but, as Wrangham points out, Levi-Strauss and his heirs saw cooking as a primarily symbolic act. But Wrangham, a biological anthropologist, digs into the biochemical changes that cooking introduces and reveals some interesting cultural implications that lead up to modern human behavior.

I've been interested in the subject of food and culture (so much so that I've been busy designing a course on it for years--but have so far only managed a "Taste of Tut" presentation with one of the chef instructors in the culinary program) for quite a while. One of my research interests in graduate school was the relationship between breastfeeding and child-spacing in hunting and gathering cultures, and calorie intake turned out to be a major factor. Wrangham confirms the connection and goes on to explore the impact of cooked food and brain development, along with a plethora of other ramifications. The book is fascinating and a wonderful addition to your culinary history bookshelf.

Every week a bulletin from NutritionData (know what you eat) shows up in my e-mailbox, and its blog is on my weekly path through cyberspace. Monica Reinagel discusses various nutrition-related topics, and one recent post asked "Is Paleo the New Mediterranean?" and noted the results of a couple of small studies comparing the long-appreciated benefits of eating like a Greek peasant to eating like a "caveman" (their word, not mine). The paleo-adherants (who eschew all grains, legumes, and potatoes, among other things) improved their glucose tolerance and waist-circumferences far better than did the pasta-and-fava eaters.

So I looked up the Paleo Diet (the Next Big New Thing, as far as I can tell), which differs from the raw-food diet (a less recent entry in the revolutionary diet pantheon) in that food can be cooked. As is usual with such things, there's certainly something to be said about eating fewer of one item or another, or more of another. But I am always suspicious of "diets" that require one to abandon cultural connections or adhere to a strict list of guidelines that completely eliminate certain groups of food from consumption at all. Increasingly listening to the moderate voice, I'm with the Greeks here: nothing to excess. My days of being a Kosher vegetarian are long behind me.

Which is why I was glad to see Dr. Andrew Weil's new book Why Our Health Matters: A vision of Medicine that can Transform our Future on the shelf of the local B&N. I like Weil, because he's the consummate moderate: a traditionally-trained physician who sees value in many alternative or non-traditional (at least in the West) therapies. I'm not an avid follower of any of them, but Weil's critique of our so-called "health care system" is an eye-opener if you haven't already realized that what we're participating in is really a "disease management system."

Part of our ignorance about what's good for us stems from a lack of good information in the past. But we're learning more and more every day about what causes disease--and what can prevent it--and we're running out of excuses for not working to avoid illnesses rather than focusing on curing them.

My health history is a prime example of how different life could have been with the right information early on. Had we known about the dangers of genetically high cholesterol when I was a child, and had we tested for it; had we known what a huge role diet and exercise play in lowering cholesterol levels; had we known about metabolic syndrome and how to manage it when I was young; had we realized that my heart murmur signaled the possibility of valve disease. Had we known this stuff, could we have in fact prevented the necessity of two open-heart surgeries in fifteen years? A simple combination of diet, exercise, and drug therapy might have saved me and my family a great deal of angst and discomfort, and saved my employer, my insurance company, and me a large amount of money. But prevention only entered the picture after a lifetime of bad habits and lack of information had already taken their toll.

The current debate on health care reform needs to address much more fundamental issues than simply how it will affect The Deficit. Monetary cost is only part of the equation. We're living in a world that can't imagine living without plastics, but seems blissfully unaware of what making plastic costs--in environmental and human terms. We drive like maniacs down the highway, spewing particulate matter willy-nilly, and we use power that adds even more crap to the air we breathe. We just don't think about the health-related consequences of economic choices, but we'll never have really effective health care or disease prevention until we do.

In the meantime, there are probably some fairly useful and effective measures we can take on our own, beginning with diet and exercise. And while I can't subscribe whole-heartedly to the Paleo Diet or to the Raw Food doctrine, they do have something to teach us by reminding us that we havent' evolved our big brains by eating Twinkies and Big Macs. Our technologically infused age has turned the food we eat into complicated hashes of chemicals and monocultural, supermarket-focused uniformity.

Our ancestors lived on combinations of raw and cooked, minimally processed foods, hunted and gathered with restraint and care not to exhaust their sources. Their animals were not raised on feed lots and fed alien diets. Cattle grazed, in fact, on grasses rich in Omega 6 fatty acids, but our lot-fed cattle eat corn--leading (according to Prevention's article) to an imbalance between "spring" and "fall" fats and to our current growing waistlines. It certainly couldn't do us much harm to rethink how we eat and where our food comes from. Yes, grass-fed beef and bison are more expensive than conventionally "finished" beef. But we don't have to eat large amounts of it, and frankly I like the leaner (and ethically more comfortable) taste of a cow that's been allowed to graze instead of made to stand in its own excrement for the last few weeks of its life.

And now, on that happy note, I'll adjourn to the kitchen to try a new variation on Grandma Clarice's Applesauce Cake, full of all kinds of healthful ingredients, and if it turns out well, I'll post the results in the Cabinet of Wonders [linked 18 October]. Food--warm, cooked food on a nippy, dreary day in early autumn--is a terrific mood enhancer, and until I see the sun again, I'm going to need something yummy to add a psychological and/or symbolic lift to my sodden spirits. A nice sweet-potato and bean soup is waiting to be made for supper (haven't decided which Neolithic ingredients to add to the stock I made last spring), so things are looking up already.

Image credit: A stereoscopic card with a photo called "Cooking Supper" by Truman Ward Ingersoll, part of the Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views at the New York Library's Digital collection, via Wikimedia Commons. My grandmother had a stereoscope with a box of images that all the cousins loved to look at. Alas, I didn't inherit this bit of family treasure, but I don't begrudge the cousin who did, partly because images like these are so readily available online. The photo reminded me of the many campfire meals I've enjoyed throughout my life, many of them in Western national parks with my family.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Skywatch Friday: Autumnal Equinox

I've been caught up in events both expected and unexpected for the last couple of weeks, so haven't had time to post anything anywhere. But since the Equinox has come and gone, I thought I'd at least get up a Skywatch entry for this week, and follow up in the next couple of days (five whole days before I have to start another quarter) with various items I've been musing about of late.

I managed to have the camera out during the runup to the Autumnal Equinox, so caught some clouds and stuff--and the farewell of the sun through the dining room window (I talked about this rather wonderful phenomenon last March, when the sun rose in the same window for the first time on the Vernal Equinox). The next morning, the sun rose behind the brick wall behind the fireplace, not to return through that window until next spring.

The opening shot is of what started out to be a pretty tame sunset, but developed into something pretty spectacular--although "uncatchable" from the back yard. So I moseyed on down to the corner for a clearer view, but discovered just how obtrusive technology can get. The result was a kind of "Sunset, with power lines interfering" (apologies to Eadweard Muybridge). In a few weeks, all these leaves will be gone, and I'll get a whole new perspective--and probably fewer technological obstructions.

The photos below are two views of a cloud formation from the previous afternoon--with and without trees. I like the contrast between the diagonal directions of tree line and cloud, but I also liked the wispy cloud all by itself. These are more typical of autumn around here, when we begin to get fewer big storm-bearing cumulus buildups, and more higher-level cirrus feathers. I can almost smell the upcoming crispness in the air--after we get through our Indian Summer.

Anyway, back to work. But happy Skywatch Friday--and Happy Fall!