Tuesday, August 31, 2010


Followed this link from martinimade to an eggsperiment to determine whether or not pastured eggs really taste better.

As a college professor, I feel like this account actually might be useful for teaching basic concepts in research methods - like how and why science is based on comparison, what is a variable, the challenges of controlling for x, y, or z, and that engaging in research really ought to be recognized as itself a creative endeavor.

As an anthropologist, I appreciated the recognition that eating is shaped by its context. It really means something to me that I eat eggs from "happy" chickens.

Monday, August 30, 2010

All hail the czarina

I always wondered why people whose job descriptions entailed overseeing somewhat impossible projects came to be called "czars" (or "tsars"). Johnson, the language blog at The Economist, considers the issue, and proposes an alternative.

Over at The New York Times, science writer Natalie Angier offers these thoughts on why not ma'am.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

I wish I could tune out...

Sometimes I envy the people who watch Fox as though it really were Fair and Accurate. I wish that I, too, could stick my head in a hole in the ground where all I could hear echoed back at me was what I just want to believe. Instead, I see as a responsibility of citizenship the need to be informed, whether or not I like the news that is being delivered. So, I even force myself to know what Fox is all about - like the "tea party" in DC yesterday, which I cannot help but see as a fitting end to what seems like a Summer of Hate, during which even the birthright to citizenship became challenged.

Because I did not have my head stuck in a hole, I heard this interview on Fresh Air - with journalist Jane Mayer, who published an article in the current issue of The New Yorker on the two billionaire brothers funding the alleged grassroots "tea party" movement.

The article itself had me in half a mind to boycott products like Dixie cups and clothing made with Lycra - two products in the holdings of the Koch brothers. I mean, why should "my" money become diverted to their causes, which ultimately serve their own interests?

Frank Rich, in his column today, commented:

The New Yorker article stirred up the right, too. Some of Mayer’s blogging detractors unwittingly upheld the premise of her article (titled “Covert Operations”) by conceding that they have been Koch grantees. None of them found any factual errors in her 10,000 words. Many of them tried to change the subject to George Soros, the billionaire backer of liberal causes. But Soros is a publicity hound who is transparent about where he shovels his money. And like many liberals — selflessly or foolishly, depending on your point of view — he supports causes that are unrelated to his business interests and that, if anything, raise his taxes.

Which caused StraightMan to declare that the so-called Giving Pledge among billionaires like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates really might not be such a great idea after all. (For more on this, I now have Ralph Nader's novel, Only the Super Rich Can Save Us! on my to-read list.) Do we want to - can we - trust them to give to the causes that matter most to most people? The "right" causes and not the "right-wing" causes?

(I admit my own partiality. OK?)

For the thoughtful billionaire who wants to do good, but is not certain how to do it, StraightMan proposes a solution: Pledge to give more in taxes, which will go to public works like universal pre-K and school nutrition programs and universal health coverage and infrastructure.

True, you will not receive all the adulation given to the Buffett-and-Gates gang, but you need not defer the good you will do until you pass on - which means you also might reap some rewards, like healthy and skilled employees, which contribute to your bottom line. Win-win!

Here is another take, from Slate, on how to "fix" the Giving Pledge.

Given how the summer went, I dread the coming season of mid-term elections.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Art science?

I am not an art historian, nor do I play one on TV, but I have enough hubris to offer the following note about a recent visit to the MOMA to see the exhibit, "Matisse: Radical Invention."

The focus of the show is on paintings that Matisse made between 1913 and 1917 and that were received poorly at the time. The exhibition offers an argument for how and why the paintings were "radical invention" in their time, marking new direction not only in Matisse's work, but also the work of other painters.

What especially interested StraightMan and me was that this re-interpretation of the paintings is based in part on the use of imaging technologies (like X-ray) to trace - or rather, reconstruct - Matisse's process. What did he do to make these paintings, and what likely was he thinking about when he made particular choices (including repainting portions of his canvases)?

As cultural anthropologists, we are partial to "process." It is also a radical invention itself, I think, to apply imaging technologies to "art." Yet, I also wonder whether or not this might be another sign of the "scientization" or "technologization" of yet another arena of thought and experience.

I am not for mystifying art as ahistorical "genius" - I find explanations of literature and art in terms of their structures to be robust: I am not alone in thinking that Pride and Prejudice is interesting not because of the players, but because of the rules of the game itself.

Yet, I also wonder at the significance with which imaging technologies are greeted as giving us the "truth" about Matisse.


Pet peeve: Museum goers, put down the phones and the devices transmitting your "audio tour," and just look at what is in front of you.

Because this is what I feel that you are missing, as described by short story writer Deborah Eisenberg (whose Collected Stories is reviewed in the August 16 / 23 issue of The Nation):

Looking at a painting takes a certain composure, a certain resolve, but when you really do look at one it can be like a door swinging open, a sensation, however brief, of vaulting freedom. It's as if, for a moment, you were a different person, with different eyes and different capacities and a different history - a sensation, really, that's a lot like hope.

Friday, August 27, 2010

That not-so-fresh feeling...

Sitting here at my desk, eating my Kashi Southwest Style Chicken for lunch - which I nearly spit all over my brand-fraking-new iMac - when I eyeballed this post on feminist philosophers.

The connection between bodily hygiene and success is not novel in itself. Remember the TV commercials for Sure deodorant / anti-perspirant ("Confident, dry, and secure... Raise your hand, if you're Sure...")?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Speaking truths

Classes started yesterday. 'Nuff said.

Here are two links to people speaking truths:

Adrienne Martini on the dog days between the start of the college calendar and the public school calendarr. StraightMan and I sometimes think we are just figments of her imagination, and she is scripting our life, but we have been to her house and partaken of her (and the Featureless Saint's) hospitality. Unless that is part of the narrative, too. Hmm...

Frank Rich, aka My Hero, on the spectacle now known as the "Ground Zero mosque." Quoth My Hero - a journalist who has both the commitment to his job and the platform to be able to spread the word and make a difference (when too many journalists today have either one or the other...): "Perhaps the most threatening thing about this fledgling multi-use community center, an unabashed imitator of the venerable (and Jewish) 92nd Street Y uptown, is its potential to spawn yet another coveted, impossible-to-get-into Manhattan private preschool."

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Keeping up with the Times

Tomorrow marks the first day of the fall term here at Central State University College, where I teach.

StraightMan will be sitting out the academic year. He is on sabbatical!

To mark the occasion, here are links to two Times features marking the start of the semester that caught my eye:

How American families pay for college today. I have been thinking about this quite a bit, as I had attended a presentation on children and finance during a visit with friends at the Chautauqua Institution. The audience clearly came from a privileged strata of American society: When the question was posed how much families should be saving for college, the rule-of-thumb figure suggested was $500 to $800 a month per child.

Another reason that I love StraightMan is that he is the kind of guy who, when I quoted him this figure, retorted that their kids would be heading to Hampshire and Bennington. Which is an elitist joke in itself, but still funny to me, as we are nowhere near saving what we are "supposed" to - I thought we were doing well just saving at all!

Redshirting in kindergarten. Look, I think there can be good reasons for why parents, in consultation with teachers, might consider delaying a particular child's entree into school, but at least some of the reasons for redshirting might be addressed more systematically - for example, I think the concerns about schooling boys ought to be addressed more broadly, for the good of more than a select few children who have especially engaged parents.

As an aside, Bubbie, age 3, just started his first week in the "pre-school" room at his child care - I feel a little like he is just too young (i.e., immature) for it, but the other boys (all 14! and only 2 girls...) seem equally too young.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The tide is high

Enjoyed the opportunity this past weekend to celebrate my 40th birthday (!) with a whirlwind visit to the city, which I called my home in my 20s. I am happy to report that as good as my 20s were, I am glad to be where I am now, metaphorically and literally. Midlife need not be a crisis.

I figure this is not a bad start to the next half of my life :)

However - and you knew that this was coming - there are more than enough crises brewing around us. Climate change is one, with attendant other crises like the rising of sea levels.

The Museum of Modern Art currently has an exhibition called Rising Currents: Projects for New York's Waterfront that I highly recommend viewing.

Five interdisciplinary teams were assigned to design projects for five sites around New York City, including lower Manhattan. The projects addressed ecology / environment in terms of biological, social, and economic concerns - an approach that an anthropologist might call holistic. They considered humans, other animals, plants, water, and other elements. They considered history and future.

Here is a link to the Rising Currents blog.

Still recalling the fresh taste of Wellfleet in my mouth, I have to say, I found a favorite in the Zone 4 oyster-tecture project.

Here is a link to a Bloomberg new service report on oyster-tecture.


As an aside, visiting the MOMA, along with visits this summer to the Clark Art Institute and the Corning Museum of Glass, reminded me that the role of museums is not only to preserve the past (even were that possible to do in the first place).

Museums provide us with spaces (and times) where we can imagine. That is the delight and thrill that I first experienced when my parents took me, as a grade schooler, to the American Museum of Natural History - I liked looking at the gems - and the Metropolitan Museum of Art - I liked the arms and armament, the musical instruments, and the rooms of period furniture.

Some parents instill in their kids a love of sport or craft or the great outdoors. Not being athletic or skillful myself, I suppose I might be handing along, at least, a love of museums and the recognition that they ought to be places where possibilities become re-presented to us (and not just go there to die)...

I think E.L. Konigsburg captured what is wonderful about museums so well in a book that I especially loved at that age, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, which I plan to share with Beanie. When she is finished reading that classic horse tale, Misty of Chincoteague.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Queering ponies

If Beanie is horse-crazed, then I am a bit horse-crazed-crazed, as this turns out to be a fascinating topic to examine in parenthropological perspective. For example, while browsing google scholar, I found a reference to Sexy Bodies: The Strange Carnalities of Feminism, edited by Elizabeth Grosz and Elspeth Probyn (Routledge, 2002[1995]). Rooted in feminist theory (which at heart questions the “natural” order of gender and calls attention to its constructions), queer theory (which further questions sexuality), and cultural studies (which “reads” a range of cultural phenomena, including literature and film), the essays are considerations of “carnalities,” or bodies and sexualities.

As an aside: Before I was an anthropologist and before I was a journalist, I was an English major with a concentration in women’s and gender studies in the late 1980’s / early 1990’s. So, I confess to a slight weakness for overwrought readings of text(s), though I admit also to impatience with the breathlessness exhibited in the writings themselves. In any case, if an aim of scholarship is also creativity – a point on which even empiricist friends might agree – then works like this are worth entertaining.

Elspeth Probyn, in her introductory essay, titled “Queer Belongings: The Politics of Departure,” considers the phenomena of “horse-crazed” in terms of relationships between girls, and relationships between girls and horses. In so doing, she reminds us that horse-crazed is not just an idea of the mind, but also an experience of the body or bodies:

While I have always been fascinated by this connection of girls and girls and horses, body against body against body, I am far from alone in thinking that there is something wonderfully thrilling about the movement of women on women on horses. From National Velvet to My Friend Flicka, horses figure in any number of ways. And as far as I remember from the pony-club stories and experiences of my youth, it was always girls and girls and horses together, with nary a boy in sight (and if there were, they tended to be ‘sissy boys’ – but that’s another story that requires another storyteller). Within popular culture this generalized coupling of girls and horses (‘pony-mad’) then operates in opposition to that of girls and boys (‘boy-crazy’). Of course, equine associations vary – consider Jeanne Cordova’s reaction to the onset of puberty:

The day I became a girl, my life was over. ‘This is the stupidest thing I ever saw.’ I flung the bra out of the window and screamed at my mother ‘You can’t expect me to wear that. It’s meant for a horse.’ (Cordova 1992: 274)

I think Probyn reminds us here that the relationship between girls and horses undeniably carries the charge of sexuality - I mentioned in an earlier post that googling "girls and horses" is a mistake for the PG-minded - but it is not necessarily about sex (with references to Catherine the Great bracketed for the moment).

Being "horse-crazy" is different from being "boy-crazy." Probyn suggests that the relationships between girls and between girls and horses – at least as depicted in so many popular stories – are ideal and innocent, like a true sisterhood, a community between humans and animals, or culture and nature in balance with females mediating the connection. Interestingly, I find this consistent with what I have heard other thoughtful adults say about supporting girls' interests in horses - that it can be empowering for girls and that it can encourage their concern with nature and environment.


On being "horse-crazy" versus "boy-crazy" - and providing us with another glimpse of the class dimensions of girls and horses - an observation from The Official Preppy Handbook (1980):

The Horse Phase is a standard condition of a girl-Prep's adolescence. More aesthetic than pimples, less worrisome than cars, but colossally boring while it lasts, it is the activity for girls ages ten to fourteen....

Then one day, she discovers Boys. The breeches hang in the closet, the horse-show ribbons get dusty on the wall, and the objects of her affections thereafter walk on two legs instead of four.

So, it is interesting to think about the taken-for-granted status of The Horse Phase as connected to the taken-for-granted status of girls being crazy for boys (i.e., the normativity of heterosexuality).

At least as a parenthropologist. As a parent, I still need to deal with first grade.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Twenty minutes into the future

While I am on the topic of consumption - albeit not of ponies, at least for the moment - my heart skipped a little drum machine beat when I read the news about the release of "Max Headroom: The Complete Series" on DVD.

"Blank is beautiful!"

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Consuming ponies, Part 1

What is the appeal of this Pony Pals pony bike (above), which its manufacturers / marketers describe as having been invented for this reason:

What we love most of all is watching the joy children get when riding ponies. Four simple words describe it best; "saddle up and smile." But, unfortunately, not every child has the chance to experience this thrill. So that's why we created Pony Pals.

The bike pictured above is priced at $220.

What are American middle-class girls made of? Apparently, a mania for horses and ponies - which to parenthropological eyes like yours and mine does not emerge from a "natural" affinity with horses (despite what the story books tempt us into believing...), but an even more fascinating cultural and social relationship that I have been musing upon in recent posts.

If you know a little girl who is horse crazed, then you know that part of the relationship involves lots of stuff, like the bike above, or what anthropologists call "material culture" - and the production and especially consumption of said stuff is what we American middle-class parents decry as "materialism."

As an aside, I confess that I do not dislike stuff and in fact, derive enough enjoyment out of it that I sometimes get a little bit tired of everyone climbing on their high horses all the time about stuff... The problem with "consumerism" is that it deflects our attention from production and the work that we do and the conditions in which we do it (and also create). Stuff itself is not intrinsically "bad" and "evil," as I sometimes hear other parents describe it. Is it?

The pony bike probably makes more sense and has more appeal to a child than to an adult. I know, I know, I am an anthropologist and should be all about hybridity, but I find this particular hybridization a bit unsettling... The whole "Godfather" aspect with the horse's head, I think.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Keeping up with The Times

Just interrupting my stream of thought on horses to wonder whether or not Mark C Taylor is a tenured tool of corporate academia / higher ed?

Here is his August 14 op / ed piece proposing that universities and colleges ought to look at their bottom lines and act toward economic sustainability - through such measures as merging departments of philosophy at institutions like Columbia and NYU. I take it that the point here is largely rhetorical, as Taylor, a professor of religion, uses his own current affiliation (at Columbia) as an example.

In today's Room for Debate blog, Taylor, who is currently professor at Columbia and a professor emeritus at Williams College, calls for mandatory retirement of faculty.

Not that I do not see informed debate as vital - and the rethinking of academia / higher education as critical - but I do not see what Taylor says as especially imaginative. Yet because his is Mark C Taylor, his ideas find a forum in The New York Times and become part of the discourse.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Classing horses

As a parenthropologist, I am thinking about what it means for little girls today to be "horse crazy" - and of course, I am asking why American middle-class girls, like my daughter and her friends, read books that tell stories about girls and horses, play with toy horses, beg for horseback riding lessons (not to mention ponies), and so on. Here are my continuing notes on this topic.

Today, I am wondering about the classed dimensions of the horse world. Michael Korda, in his 2004 book, Horse People, notes that more than 5 million households in the United States own a horse or horses - and that the U.S. population of horses stands around 13.5 million. "That seems like a lot of horses in a country where most people had made the switch to the automobile by the end of World War I and in which horses – with a few exceptions like police horses, or carriage horses in places like New York’s Central Park, or among the Amish, are no longer working animals, strictly speaking" (1).

The number of horses suggests that the sociological reality of owning (or at least caring for) a horse involves a certain amount of diversity - but it also makes me think about horses as symbols of particular kinds of lives.

One kind of life that horses represent is an English aristocratic life, as Korda suggests:

“In England, you have to understand," Margaret says – giving me a look that means, Take this seriously! – “there’s a whole lifestyle that revolves around ponies, like the one in the Thelwell cartoons, full of cross-looking little girls in pigtails, with velvet hard hats and jodhpur boots, and tiny, fat Shetland ponies, each with a mind of its own. In the English countryside, a pony gets passed on from child to child as it gets outgrown, like clothes in a large family, so most of them don’t stay at one place all that long” (75).

From a child’s point of view, a pony in those days involved some of the same desires that center on learning to drive and owning a car today for teenage Americans – freedom to come and go as you please, responsibility (“You can have it, but you have to look after it”), a sense of power and control, on top of which, unlike a car, a pony is warm, furry, accepts – indeed expects – treats, and responds to love, affection, and attention (76).

The whole notion of a little girl and her pony is deeply entrenched in English life, and also provides an early statement about class, status, and athletic ability, very much part of the Diana the Huntress syndrome that permeates a certain stratum of English society when it comes to little girls (77).

An Anglo-American aristocratic life becomes represented in The Private Passion of Jackie Kennedy Onassis: Portrait of a Rider, by Vicky Moon (2005):

Almost every little girl dreams about owning a pony, but for Jacqueline Bouvier, it was a given…. In the privileged circle into which she was born, riding was a necessary social grace, as was playing a decent game of tennis, knowing which fork to use, and writing a proper thank-you note.

In other words, horses seem to represent the good life - and the accessibility of horses to the daughters of middle-class families (as well as aristocratic families) becomes a sign of social mobility.

Also, the riding ability of the girls themselves itself might serve social mobility: In Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1871), the poor-but-genteel March girls manage to become accomplished riders, even without their own stable of horses, and they are invited on riding parties, at which their skills are praised. Amy is mortified, however, when, on their round of calls to the wealthier families in their neighborhood, Jo reveals that they practiced on a saddle mounted on a low-lying branch of an apple tree.

In the 1940 film, "The Philadelphia Story," the aristocratic Tracy's "man of the people" fiance is shown to be lacking in class because he cannot ride a horse.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Domesticating horses

From the back flap of Kathleen Duey's Katie and the Mustang, which Beanie is reading currently:

Girls throughout history, in almost every country, have grown up trusting horses with their friendship, their secrets, and even their very lives.

I begin my parenthropological examination of this quote with questions about when, where, and why horses were domesticated - which happen to be exactly the questions that archaeologist David Anthony addresses in his 2007 book, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language.

Chapter 10 is titled "The Domestication of the Horse and the Origins of Riding: The Tale of the Teeth," which begins with a story about how finding the answers to larger questions require finding the answers to smaller questions. It goes back to the wisdom of looking at a horse's teeth. "Bit wear is important, because other kinds of evidence have proven uncertain guides to early horse domestication. Genetic evidence, which we might hope would solve the problem, does not help much" (Anthony 2007:196).

The female bloodline of modern domesticated horses show extreme diversity.... Wild mares must have been taken into domesticated horse herds in many different places at different times. Meanwhile, the male aspect of modern horse DNA, which is passed unchanged on the Y chromosome from sire to colt, shows remarkable homogeneity. It is possible that just a single wild stallion was domesticated (Anthony 2007:196).

Wild horses were likely to have lived across the Northern Hemisphere, but became extinct in North America 10 to 14,000 years ago, with climate change.

Evidence of the domestication of horses has been found in the Eurasian steppes, located north of the Caucasus Mountains and the Caspian Sea.

What was the incentive to tame wild horses if people already had cattle and sheep? Was it for transportation? Almost certainly not. Horses were large, powerful, aggressive animals, more inclined to flee or fight than to carry a human. Riding probably developed only after horses were already familiar as domesticated animals that could be controlled. The initial incentive probably was the desire for a cheap source of winter meat (Anthony 2007:200).

Surprising as it might seem - it was to me - I think this bit of information about the domestication of horses is relevant to the stories that girls like Beanie and me love(d). In books like Katie and the Mustang or the American Girl story, Meet Felicity, a wild horse, in fact a stallion, becomes tamed through the care of a young girl. This fiction seems to be an echo of a larger fiction about why horses became domesticated in the first place. Consider that, in human history, the significance of horses has changed. They have become sentimentalized and romanticized.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Neigh, neigh

Took Beanie to the library this morning to borrow a book. She finished Kate DiCamillo's The Tale of Despereaux, which she immediately followed with DiCamillo's The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. Beanie, who likes to remind me that she will have her half birthday on my full birthday, in two weeks, making her 6.5 years to my 40 years, tells me that she likes stories that have sad, but happy endings.

So, of course, the book that she selected this morning had to be a book about a girl and a horse. Also, not just any girl, but a misunderstood orphan, and not just any horse, but a mustang too wild for any man to handle, but that the kindness of a courageous girl could tame. Sigh. If you are 40 years old, like me, then you know this story already - and have loved and cried over its iterations.

The book that Beanie is reading is titled Katie and the Mustang, and it is the first of four parts in a series called Hoofbeats by Kathleen Duey, who is quoted on the book flap as suggesting:

Girls throughout history, in almost every country, have grown up trusting horses with their friendship, their secrets, and even their very lives. The Hoofbeats books are about that trust.

In future posts, I want to consider, as a parenthropologist, Duey's claims about the relationship between girls and horses. My hunch is that it is part of an American middle-class experience, which clearly seems connected with fantasies about the American frontier and anxieties about urbanization and industrialization - not to mention gender - but I am willing to be proven a chronic overthinker who is plain wrong on this.

Here is an essay that considers the question, Why do girls love horses?

By the way, a bit of advice on pursuing this topic - typing "girls and horses" into google yields some results that you never wanted to know existed, along the lines of the historical rumors surrounding Catherine the Great's demise.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

What had me laughing aloud

Oh, David Sedaris... If only they could bottle you...

See his essay, "Standing By: Fear, Loathing, Flying," in the August 9th issue of The New Yorker. I was reading it aloud to StraightMan as he washed the dishes. It was hard to get through because I kept choking with snortles:

Everywhere I go, someone in an eight-dollar T-shirt is whipping out a cell phone and delivering the fine print of his or her delay. One can't help but listen in, but then my focus shifts and I find myself staring. I should be used to the way Americans dress when travelling, yet still it manages to amaze me. It's as if the person next to you had been washing shoe polish off a pig, then suddenly threw down his sponge, saying, "Fuck this. I'm going to Los Angeles!"

I am laughing aloud, again, as I type this.

I confess that this comment felt spot-on to me:

It was one of those situations I often find myself in while travelling. Something's said by a stranger I've been randomly thrown into contact with, and I want to say, "Listen. I'm with you on most of this, but before we continue I need to know whom you voted for in this last election.

If the grandmother's criticism was coming from the same place as mine, if she as just being petty and judgmental, we could go on all day, perhaps even form a friendship. If, on the other hand, it was tied to a conservative agenda, I was going to have to switch tracks, and side with the [teenage father wearing the T-shirt printed with] Freaky Mothafocka, who was, after all, just a kid."

Petty and judgmental, but no friend of Glenn Beck, thank you.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Ars moriendi

Atul Gawande has a thoughtful essay, titled "Letting Go: What Should Medicine Do When It Can't Save Your Life," in the August 2nd issue of The New Yorker.

In it, he considers end-of-life issues and reports on the benefits of hospice and palliative care. Here is a finding that seems important:

Like many people, I had believed that hospice care hastens death, because patients forgo hospital treatments and are allowed high-dose narcotics to combat pain. But studies suggest otherwise. In one, researchers followed 4,493 Medicare patients with either terminal cancer or congestive heart failure. They found no difference in survival time between hospice and non-hospice patients with breast cancer, prostate cancer, and colon cancer. Curiously, hospice care seemed to extend survival for some patients; those with pancreatic cancer gained an average of three weeks, those with lung cancer gained six weeks, and those with congestive heart failure gained three months. The lesson seems almost Zen: you live longer only when you stop trying to live longer.

Gawande notes that hospice, both in principle and in practice, departs from the rest of medicine today - for example, enabling people to live their everyday lives, keeping them comfortable, talking and listening to them about their wants and needs. I find it telling that an oncologist interviewed in the article admits that it is "easier" for her simply to prescribe another round of chemotherapy, even a second or third-line drug that in all probability will make no difference, than to have a conversation about the fact that a patient will die.

Yet, he notes also that doctors and nurses can learn what to do and how to do it and to become practiced in it. Susan Block, a palliative care specialist, tells Gawande: "A family meeting is a procedure, and it requires no less skill than performing an operation." She notes that words matter, so that instead of saying, "I'm sorry," you say, "I wish things were different," and instead of asking, "What do you want when you are dying," you ask, "If time becomes short, what is most important to you?"

Gawande, a doctor's doctor, is thinking aloud in this piece about how our ability to do (e.g., develop new therapies that might not cure disease, but at least can prolong life) outstrips our ability to make sense and esp. meaning of it all: In other words, cultural and social challenges for the individuals deciding what their lives (and deaths) are all about, including for the doctors and nurses.

This is, in fact, a point that I feel is important to make in my class on Medical Anthropology. So, I might consider assigning this article. The issues and the reporting here already have been published widely - from the journalist's perspective, there is no really new news here - but the article is compelling to read, in part due to Gawande's assured and compassionate voice, and in part due to the heartbreaking story that frames it: Towards the end of her pregnancy, an otherwise healthy woman in her early 30's learns that she has an aggressive cancer. She delivers her child and immediately begins what reads like a painful and unending course of grasping at straws. Yet, who could blame her? I thought about Beanie and Bubbie, and I suddenly became conscious of my own breathing.

The point I present to my students is that perhaps medicine as we take it for granted in our society both succeeds and fails at what matters to us. Gawande points out that there is "a still unresolved argument about what the function of medicine really is" - which I suggest has to do with the aggressively ahistorical stance that medicine itself takes. The only history that seems to exist is a path of "progress." There seems little perspective that as medicine "progresses," our experiences and expectations also change - and that progress and change are not the same. It seems like resorting to "heroics" in medicine might have meant one thing when death was what Gawande describes as "typically a brief process" of hours or even days or weeks, but it seems to mean another thing when it involves months or even years. Is that not enough time to consider living, and if so, then what is? Is it then not worth remembering that living itself is the process of dying?

Here is what Gawande says to the doctors:

We are increasingly the generals who march the soldiers onward, saying all the while, "You let me know when you want to stop." All-out treatment, we tell the terminally ill, is a train you can get off at any time - just say when. But for most patients and their families this is asking too much. They remain riven by doubt and fear and desperation; some are deluded by a fantasy of what medical science can achieve. But our responsibility, in medicine, is to deal with human beings as they are. People die only once. They have no experience to draw upon. They need doctors and nurses who are willing to have the hard discussions and say what they have seen, who will help people prepare for what is to come - and to escape a warehoused oblivion that few really want.

I would add that this is not the responsibility only of the doctors and nurses, though they clearly can have one to their patients, and they might be able, in fact, to serve as the agents of change.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

I can't fix it

Today, I am going Garrison Keillor on you. No, not by cracking jokes about Lutherans - ha ha ha! Here is a poem that I think summarizes exactly what a house of one's own means for StraightMan and me, esp. in this summer of repair.

It is "Handymen" by Cornelius Eady, published in The New Yorker on October 8, 2007:

The furnace wheezes like a drenched lung.
You can’t fix it.
The toilet babbles like a speed freak.
You can’t fix it.
The fuse box is a nest of rattlers.
You can’t fix it.
The screens yawn the bees through.
Your fingers are dumb against the hammer.
Your eyes can’t tell plumb from plums.
The frost heaves against the doorjambs,
The ice turns the power lines to brittle candy.
No one told you about how things pop and fizzle,
No one schooled you in spare parts.
That’s what the guy says but doesn’t say
As he tosses his lingo at your apartment-dweller ears,
A bit bemused, a touch impatient,
After the spring melt has wrecked something, stopped something,
After the hard wind has lifted something away,
After the mystery has plugged the pipes,
That rattle coughs up something sinister.
An easy fix, but not for you.
It’s different when you own it,
When it’s yours, he says as the meter runs,
Then smiles like an adult.

BTW, we have this poem taped to the wall of our kitchen, right above the light switch for the basement, which as far as I am concerned is a place that contains things that certainly are vital, but also leak and rust and crust over...

Like my colon, I want to be able to take for granted the working condition of the nether parts of my house. It is bad news when they call attention to themselves.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The WC

The air around here has been thick with the dust of cedar shakes being scraped for restaining, and heady with the scent of trim being repainted. For the last two months... Yesterday, there was also the buzz of saws cutting rotted wood and rusted metal from the flat roof of our laundry room, which had been added onto the house some time in the last 50 or so years and apparently never maintained.

Not to worry: StraightMan and I hired someone else to work on it. They seem actually to know what they are doing. When they are here, but that is another story...

Even as I write this post, StraightMan is in the kitchen, replacing the kitchen faucet. Last winter, our furnace quit, our pipes froze, leaving thankfully minimal damage, but it included hairline fractures in the neck of the faucet.

(If you were, are, or know a breastfeeding mother: You know when a baby suddenly pops off mid-nursing, sending the stream shooting across the room in a fine white thread? Our faucet behaved like that. For those unfamiliar with breastfeeding, now you learned something new about human lactation.)

Meanwhile, this is the first summer in the six years that we have lived here that I have weeded and pruned and even grown a few plants in pots. Something resembling landscaping has been emerging around the house.

I also am researching a remodel of our upstairs bathroom because the time finally has come to do it. The paint and the wallpaper are peeling, the vinyl floor covering is prying loose, the area around the tub has dark spots of water damage, and the vanity around the sink is rotting. Sigh.

In an earlier post, I decried the tyranny of the kitchen island, which in fact was a way of expressing my irritation with the so-called "not-so-big" movement, which seems really to be about not-so-small spaces and kind-of-big budgets.

To get ideas, I am turning to Web sites like apartment therapy because I realize that we essentially live in a duplex apartment with a bit of outside space not unlike a Manhattan roof deck or even a large fire escape.

I also just read about vintagesimplehome in a Better Homes and Garden Kitchens and Bathrooms magazine that I bought at Home Depot. I * heart * the bathroom, which is just similar enough in size and layout to our bathroom - except it might be a bit roomier (or is it just the effect of the pedestal sink?) and our toilet and sink are on the same wall (which I guess makes the layout quite different...) - it gives me hope that we can have a pretty bathroom, too.

A sure sign that I am approaching middle age: I so covet subway tile.

On the other hand, there is always Plan B.

P.S. The photo above came from here.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

What the frak

StraightMan and I lag behind the curve when it comes to TV - and no doubt other things, but the point that I am making here is that we just became hooked on the reimagined "Battlestar Galactica."

Striking is (what I perceive as) the constant use of the word "frak."

Jesse Sheidlower, in his book, The F Word (Oxford University Press 2009), includes frak as "(a partial euphemism for) FUCK, in various senses and parts of speech":

Coined on, and chiefly associated with, the television show Battlestar Galactica. In the Original Series (1978), used exclusively as an interjection; in the Reimagined Series (2003-2009), used more broadly as a euphemism for many forms of FUCK, both figurative and literal. Spelled frack in Original Series scripts, frak in the Reimagined Series, apparently because the producers wanted it to literally be a four-letter word (Sheidlower 2009:55).

A more complete explanation on the uses of frak in the Twelve Colonies is available at the Battlestar Wiki on the topic, which explains also that the reason for the invention of the term had been to get around FCC regulations concerning language.

Which demonstrates, again, the cultural and social process that is language. The focus on the FCC is on policing particular words, which is based on (and promotes) esp. narrow understanding of language. The funny thing is that we absolutely know what Starbuck and the rest of the crew mean when they utter such phrases as "frak me."

BTW, StraightMan and I just started watching Season 2, but I am not sure that I have heard "frak you" - or possibly that crosses a kind of line? "Frak me," like "fuck me," is what one says to acknowledge one's own predicament - somewhat self-deprecating, it can be played to comic effect (esp. when the word is "frak"...) In contrast, "frak you" is hostile and possibly not funny at all.


Frack has been on my mind, too, because we live in an area where hydraulic fracturing, aka hydro fracking or fracking, are esp. live wire issues. Drive around, and you will spot "No Drill, No Spill" signs cropping up on lawns aplenty.

It might seem "obvious" that fracking comes from fracturing, but it seems also to me that there might have been a bit of deliberate wordplay involved in coining the term. Ground penetration, drilling, the pumping of fracturing fluids: We hardly need Dr. Freud to interpret for us the kinds of metaphors and images that frequently become used to describe human interactions with their environments, esp. when those interactions are intended to extract resources from the environments.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Terrestrial life

From Bertrand Russell's The Conquest of Happiness:

I do not like mystical language, and yet I hardly know how to express what I mean without employing phrases that sound poetic rather than scientific. Whatever we may wish to think, we are creatures of Earth; our life is part of the life of the Earth, and we draw our nourishment from it just as the plants and animals do. The rhythm of Earth life is slow; autumn and winter are as essential to it as spring and summer, and rest is as essential as motion.

This just about says all there is to say about the worth of our week at Wellfleet.

It was a time for moving slowly, resting, and taking note: Walking and sitting in the sand, feeling its grit and its fineness, and its weight. Feeling the effects of sun and water on your skin. Feeling the surprise of losing your footing in the waves. Experiencing all of this with Beanie and Bubbie's hands gripped in mine - and occasionally, feeling their hands slip free to take hold of stones and shells.

I have a wish right now to take this holiday and try to make it live on somehow...

Wishes I make tend to be granted through books.

This morning, Beanie and I stopped at our excellent local bookstore and I found this book - The Nature Connection: An Outdoor Workbook for Kids, Families, and Classrooms by Clare Walker Leslie.

"I came to my study of nature knowing nothing," Leslie writes. "I spent my days indoors, not roaming about outside."

As a parent, this is a book that makes me feel like I can tell my kids to play outside - then follow them out the door.

The book is a guide to keeping a nature journal - drawing pictures, noting dates and times and writing short entries on "What I Saw" or "Enjoying Nature Surprises," and composing stories and poems. In short, it is about the kinds of things my kids already enjoy doing.

The first part of the book is called "How to Be a Naturalist" and suggests activities on keeping a nature journal. The second part is called "Learning the Sky," and moves from weather and the sun and the moon to the tides to constellations. I esp. like the "Moon Journal," tracking the phases, and the "Naming the Moons," explaining Algonquin traditions surrounding the cycles.

The bulk of the book is devoted to a month-by-month guide to "Exploring Nature," with activities particular to each season - like a "Snowflake Study" featured in January and a "Search for Water" in August.

Free worksheets for a number of the chapters are available, here, at the publisher's Web site.

The book seems to be part of a larger movement to inspire us all to see nature wherever it is.

As a cultural anthropologist, I could add "whatever it is," but I will restrain myself. For now...