Category Archives: Health and Fitness

Renewal

by Susan Thomas

renewal1

Snowdrops and crocuses heralding spring.

As spring struggles to take hold and overcome the last vestiges of our stubborn winter, the budding leaves and emerging flowers hold the promise of renewal for the natural world around us. The lighthearted feeling that warm sunshine and chirping birds induces within us reflects how these changes can bring us out of the doldrums, lift our sagging spirits, and sometimes inspire us to smile despite our problems.

But renewal from without can be limited and ephemeral, especially in today’s world where the frenetic pace and our overloaded schedules loom like a cloud over us daily. We worry constantly that we’ve forgotten something. And when we remember, we worry that there is not enough time to accomplish whatever we’ve finally recalled. We need renewal from within.

Finding sources of personal renewal can be challenging. Hardly anyone goes anywhere these days without some technological device tethered to them, and new wearable devices will exacerbate the problem being connected presents for us. Overuse of cell phones can be dangerous, of course, and we’ve all seen people of all ages misusing their devices, motorists texting while driving, swerving in their lanes, pedestrians stepping out in front of oncoming cars. A few years ago, someone talking on their phone while driving sideswiped my car.

Family time?

Family time?

Even when we share meals with one another, we are constantly checking in to see what we may have missed, sometimes to the extent of ignoring the person across the table. But it isn’t so much the rudeness or the lack of safety that such use represents, it is how it limits our opportunities to engage, learn, and grow from each other and from tech-free activities. It prevents us from living in the moment.

Admittedly, it is not always possible to cut ourselves free of the daily grind. Reports still have to be submitted, email still has to be answered, phone calls still have to be made, evaluations still have to be conducted, and the list goes on. Both personally and professionally, our time is seldom our own. But even a few moments can make a difference. The key is to consciously think about small ways to free your mind. I’m not advocating that everyone should take up meditation or practice yoga. Just find something that works for you. It could be a beautiful image or meaningful music, or even deep breathing. Life is too short to neglect what’s most important.

renewal3

Claude Monet, Water Lilies, 1916.

Baby’s Hungry: A Daddy’s Perspective on Nursing (and Nursing in Public)

by Jay Parr

A quiet moment in the country.

That special bond between a mother and her child.

I was about twelve, riding the DC Metrobus home from school, when a woman started complaining loudly about another woman breastfeeding her baby on the bus. I didn’t see anything, so I don’t know if the nursing mother was covered up or not, but that’s irrelevant here. The complaining woman made her way up to the driver, a taciturn and tough-looking man who looked like he would as soon cut your throat as say hello (I remember him because he drove that route often). He focused on the afternoon traffic as the woman complained, until he came to a light and she demanded, “Well? Aren’t you going to do something?”

The driver looked out at the cross traffic for a moment, absently drumming his fingers on the fare box, then turned to the woman and shrugged.

“Baby’s hungry.”

BLS 348: Representing Women

BLS 348: Representing Women

I can’t say for certain that the woman immediately stopped complaining, either to the driver or to the other passengers around her, but I do remember that as far as the driver was concerned, the conversation was over.

Baby’s hungry. So feed the baby. ‘Cuz if baby ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

Until thirty years later when I became a father, I never thought much about breastfeeding. I knew some people did it and some people didn’t. I knew medical opinion was evolving back in the pro-breastfeeding direction—the implicit concession being that millennia of natural selection just might trump a few decades of medical inquiry. I knew I was more likely to see women breastfeeding their children when the acoustic band I worked sound for played at places like hippie music festivals and communal farms, and I found it vaguely amusing that the medical establishment and the crunchy-living community seemed to be on the same page about something for once. That was about as far as it went.

Then we had a baby, and everything changed.

Selfie with week-old Baby Girl.

Selfie with week-old Baby Girl.

Common words like “latch” and “letdown” suddenly took on new and highly-specialized meanings. The entire household became centered around the mother-baby nursing nest. I learned that breastfeeding, while clearly the most natural process, was not without its setbacks and complications (and blood and tears). I learned about the important contributions of lactation consultants. I learned that some people who aren’t breastfeeding would much rather be breastfeeding, but can’t for some reason or other. I learned about breast-milk-sharing networks, and the amazingly selfless mothers who contribute to them. And much to my dismay I learned that breastfeeding—especially breastfeeding in public—is an absurdly controversial topic in this country.

WPA poster, circa 1937.

WPA poster, circa 1937.

But let’s back up a little. The benefits of breastfeeding are numerous and well-documented. For example, the nursing mother’s immune system works in tandem with her child’s, detecting pathogens to which the child has been exposed and producing antibodies that are passed through breast milk (if you’ve ever wondered why mothers have a strange compulsion to kiss their newborns’ hands, one theory is that it’s related to this immune support). Nursing produces hormones that encourage bonding, relaxation and a sense of well-being for both mother and child. Night milk contains tryptophan, that legendary compound that makes you so sleepy after feasting on your Thanksgiving turkey. The composition of a mother’s milk changes over time as the baby matures, to meet the baby’s changing nutritional needs. The mother’s diet affects the flavor of her milk from day to day, and children who have been exposed to that variety of flavors  at the breast tend to be much less finicky about new foods than children who have been raised on a single flavor of formula. Even among toddlers who are eating mostly solids, mothers’ milk provides a high-quality nutritional supplement, and continues to bolster the child’s still-maturing immune system—all the way up to school age. The list goes on, but I think I’ve made my point. And where the medical establishment swayed toward formula in the mid-20th century, that opinion has swung strongly back in favor of nursing in recent decades, despite the best efforts of a well-funded formula industry to keep its foot in the door.

Still, even with all that backup from the scientific and medical communities, and even with prevailing attitudes renormalizing breastfeeding—even with laws from both liberal and conservative state governments protecting a mother’s right to nurse wherever she and her child are both allowed to be—we as a culture just can’t help but be a little squeamish about the whole topic.

There seem to be two main points of debate about breastfeeding in this country: 1) How public is “too public,” and 2) how old is “too old.”

How public is too public? According to the North Carolina statute addressing indecent exposure, there is no such thing: “Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a woman may breast feed in any public or private location where she is otherwise authorized to be, irrespective of whether the nipple of the mother’s breast is uncovered during or incidental to the breast feeding” (§14-190.9).

INFACT Canada transit poster, World Breastfeeding Week 2000.

INFACT Canada transit poster, World Breastfeeding Week 2000.

Does that mean a business owner or manager can’t ask a nursing mother to leave the establishment under the state’s trespassing laws? As far as I know, that part remains unclear. And of course, the laws vary widely from state to state.

Just last week a woman in Austin asked to use a fitting room at a Victoria’s Secret to nurse her child (you know, so she could nurse discreetly without flashing her breast all over, of all places, Victoria’s Secret), and was told no, thanks for your purchase and all, but go use the alley instead. She went to the news, and the story went viral, and Victoria’s Secret issued a statement distancing itself from the actions of its employee, but the fact remains that the business may have the legal right to deny anyone (even a customer who just made a $150 purchase) the use of a fitting room for any purpose other than to try on merchandise. She may have been more legally within her rights to sit down right out in front of the store and oh-so-shamelessly whip out some boob right there under the Texas sun, like a good in-your-face lactivist. Because we all know every nursing mother is really just looking for some public humiliation and controversy, right?

David Horsey / LA Times, 12 July 2012

David Horsey / Los Angeles Times, July 12, 2012.

To look at the comments in the media, especially social media, public opinion seems to be that anything a nursing mother does (short of, perhaps, staying at home) is wrong. The mother who asked to use a dressing room was asking a private business to risk losing sales (you know, if all the other dressing rooms filled up and someone got really impatient). The mother sitting outside the store should have sought a more private space, like maybe a dressing room. The mother with her baby under a nursing blanket should have gone out to her car. The mother nursing in her car should have gone inside to a bathroom (would you eat your lunch in a public bathroom?). The mother in the restaurant should have—oh I don’t know, something. Just gone home, maybe? And we haven’t even gotten to the mother whose baby won’t tolerate being covered up, or the one who’s struggling with latch issues or has some other reason she needs to constantly watch and adjust the nursing baby.

The public’s uninhibited judgment of parents in general is pretty harsh, but the public’s judgment of nursing mothers is amazing. Check out any article about someone encountering trouble for nursing in public, and you’ll find all kinds of enlightened comments from the hoi-polloi. Anyone who’s not going about it exactly as the commenter would do it is some kind of radical or attention-monger (to use a polite euphemism), trying to cram her breast down the public’s throats. You’ll see breastfeeding equated to public masturbation, public fellatio, and even public defecation. Excuse me? Feeding the baby is a sex act? Sodomy, even? Nursing a hungry baby is equivalent to dropping a deuce in public? Now you just sound like someone who has never actually had to change a crappy diaper in a public place. It’s a hoot, let me tell you.

This commercial takes on the issue with just the right touch of humor:

Baby Mama has referred to herself as an “accidental lactivist.” Baby Girl would never tolerate nursing under a cover. Her latch was horrible early on (and has always been tentative), needing a lot of revision and pop-off re-latching. Oh, and we’re in no rush to wean, so she’s still nursing at eighteen months. Which brings us to the second major point of debate.

Kayapó mother and child in Brazil.

Kayapó mother and child in Brazil.

How old is too old? We in the United States are in an awfully big hurry to wean, and despite the fact that most of the developing world (and much of the developed world) recognizes the benefits of extended breastfeeding, we seem to view anyone who nurses beyond a year as some kind of radical. Baby Girl’s favorite toddler-class teacher recently asked Baby Mama not to nurse her in the classroom at pick-up time anymore. She justified the request with an insinuation that new dads coming in to pick up their children might be somehow “offended,” but we can’t help but wonder if it’s really driven by an opinion that at eighteen months, she shouldn’t be nursing any longer. Especially among our parents’ generation, there seems to be an opinion that if the child is still nursing at her first birthday, it’s time to cut her off (which is one lousy birthday present, if you ask me). Others will say that if she’s old enough to ask for it, she’s old enough to wean. We’re more of the opinion (as is much of the world, I think) that if it’s not working for both mother and child, well then it’s just not working, but as long as it’s still working for both, why mess with it? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, you know?

We’re not alone in that opinion. The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding alongside appropriate solid foods “up to two years of age or beyond” (WHO). Here in the States, there’s something of a movement afoot toward extended breastfeeding, going hand-in-hand with the movement toward what has been dubbed “attachment parenting.” In a nutshell, attachment parenting is built around the notion that humans are naturally an offspring-carrying species (à la higher primates), not a nesting species like dogs or cats or birds. As such, the argument goes, we are more within our natural element carrying our babies, or wearing them, or co-sleeping with them at night, than we are to plop them in a stroller or a bouncy seat or a playpen or a crib (as were most of us as children). Far from spoiling the child (as the old-schoolers would say we were doing), the theory is that keeping our children physically close to us—carrying them on our chests or backs when we’re out and about, engaging them with direct attention, allowing them to sleep close to us or even with us—helps the child grow into a secure, empathetic, and nurturing adult.

Attachment parenting has something of a guru in a fellow named Dr. Sears (actually the elder of several Dr. Searses), who may in fact have even coined the term. I’m not much of a joiner, and Baby Mama will attest that I’m horrible about doing my parenting homework, so I’m not really an expert on the Doctors Sears or the current theory and research around attachment parenting. I only know that the general precepts make sense to me. Children are hardwired to bond with their core caregivers (parents, et al.), and to be more secure around them than around relative strangers such as rotating day-care providers. To get all Darwinian, it’s reproductively advantageous for children to hew toward the adults who are most driven to look out for their safety and welfare. It just makes sense.

Cover article on Dr. Sears and Attachment Parenting, Time, May 31, 2013

Cover article on Dr. Sears and Attachment Parenting, Time, May 31, 2013

To judge by the subtitle on this Time cover, attachment parenting is not without its detractors. Nor is extended breastfeeding. And of course, there are going to be extremists on both sides of any argument, because the world is full of nutjobs. We could talk about how part of the problem is our culture’s hypersexualization of the breast—our hypersexualization of any kind of nudity or intimate physical contact, really—and how that creates a cycle of shame and repression. We could talk about the role of patriarchal traditions and systemic misogyny (‘cuz let’s face it, fellas; those yummies aren’t there for us). We could talk about how all this is compounded by our country’s pitiful maternity leave policies, and the ways in which we make work and parenting mutually incompatible. But I’m running way too long already, and I’m bucking my deadline, so all that will just have to wait for another time.

So how public is too public? If you ask me, there is no such thing. Riding a bus, sitting in a restaurant, in uniform, in Parliament, in front of the Pope—you name it. A nursing baby is so much more pleasant than a cranky, hungry baby. Don’t want to see it? That’s simple: Don’t look.

And how old is too old? As far as I’m concerned, as long as breastfeeding is still working for both mother and child, no one else really has much right to chime in. If you’re not the mother, it’s not your body and it’s not your child, so it’s not your business.

BLS 385: American Motherhood

BLS 385: American Motherhood

In short, as the partner of a nursing mother and the father of a happy and healthy breastfed toddler, I believe that no mother should ever be made to feel that she has somehow transgressed public decency simply by feeding her infant or soothing her child. It’s not an act of rebellion. It’s not an attention-seeking spectacle. In fact, it’s not about you at all. It’s an act of love between a mother and her child. Baby’s hungry.

Views From the Middle

by Wade Maki

Kearney-NEThis fall I had the privilege of speaking at a multi-day symposium on free market health care at the University of Nebraska Kearney. Kearney is a small college town in the middle of the Great Plains. Being from a small town in the upper Midwest there was a lot of familiarity such as the friendly people and predominance of pickup trucks. However, the experience of the Great Plains with its big sky and near lack of trees was a new experience. As my host joked, if you ever find yourself in a zombie apocalypse head to Kearney where you can see them coming for miles!

One of the most striking things flying into Kearney was just how much of the land is farmland. Corn is the crop, and with prices holding up the region didn’t experience the recession the way most of the country did. Everywhere I went there were brand new trucks reflective of how well things were doing. True to form, the humble Midwest farmers I met would only say “we’re doing O.K.” when they were clearly in good times.

corn-horizon

I met a great many students in my days at Kearney. Some attended the symposium, others were in classes that I visited, and a few I met when we had leftover food to share. For all my difficulty as an instructor keeping students attention I only needed to say “anyone want some free food” and suddenly I was the center of attention.

The symposium consisted of speakers and panels from diverse areas as hospital directors, lawyers, and a philosopher (yours truly). The audience consisted mostly of students many of whom were very concerned with the Affordable Care Act which is also known as “Obamacare” (which is true in that he does care).

One of the most powerful ideas expressed by the students was a sincere concern that they were being forced into paying for the health care of others. This of course isn’t new as it is the basis of social security, welfare, and medicare. However, I found their attitudes very familiar as I was a college student in 1993 when President Clinton was pushing his version of health care often called “Hillarycare” (which was true too since she did care). Hearing students complain about having to pay for others care was a mirror of my own feelings back in 1993.

ObamavilleThen as now students find themselves confronted with a conflict between two very Midwestern ideals: The “live and let live” independence and the “we’re all in it together” belief in community. These ideas are not unique to the Midwest but have particular attraction there because when your neighbor may be a mile or more away everyone gets used to having more freedom and responsibility for themselves which doesn’t lend itself to being forced into anything including a health insurance plan. At the same time there is a recognition of being in it together that we need to work together (be it to survive harsh weather, wild animals, drought, or the lack of anyone else to help when we need it).

While there are other factors in play and perhaps better ways to explain it, there is a real tension between two things most of us value in the health care law. The students do see themselves as part of a community that takes care of its members while also as a free individual that shouldn’t be forced to help anyone. We might boil this down to, “well if something bad happens to a neighbor I will choose to help out but don’t tell me I have to help!”

View of a park in Kearney with the town surrounded by cornfields nearby.

View of a park in Kearney with the town surrounded by cornfields nearby.

Perhaps the best way to see the health care issue is a conflict not of values but of methods. Students want access to affordable quality care but they are skeptical of legal requirements. There was recognition of the problems in the health care market (limited suppliers, no price information until after purchase, no quality comparison information, and no ability to say no when you need care). Each of these factors makes health care a different market than for example a smartphone (where you know the price, features, can compare phones, have different providers to choose from, and can go without a phone). Just as students saw the problems of the market they also saw perils of government (political decisions, dominance of special interests, collusion with big companies, the entrenchment of ineffective programs, and no ability for the individual to opt out).

All in all I learned a lot in my days interacting with students in Kearney. Perhaps most of all how much hasn’t changed. Students don’t like being told what to do, they do want to help others, and  most of all free food is awesome.

Why Venus Can’t Find a Modeling Gig

by Jay Parr

We have a print of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus hanging on our wall at home, and lately it occurs to me that if Botticelli’s Venus were looking for work as a model today, she would never find a job.

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, c. 1486

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, c. 1486

I should clarify my credentials here by saying that I am neither a gender-studies scholar nor an art historian. On the gender-studies front, I’m basically just an all-around egalitarian … just feminist enough to recognize my own male-gaze tendencies. On the art-studies front, I did minor in visual art as an undergrad, but my concentration was in photography. I do also have a Master of Fine Arts, but the “art” in question there is putting lies on paper … um … fiction.

Oh, and I have no credentials in the fashion world, either. Beyond, that is, being subjected to its daily assaults along with the rest of us.

Rihanna looks like this?

Rihanna’s everyday look. No, really.

But compare that canonical painting to the images of women that bombard us from all directions today, and you will plainly see that this goddess–the very quintessence of feminine beauty in 1486 when she was painted–need only go through a supermarket checkout to learn just how desperately lacking she is in “feminine allure” today. The cover of any Vogue, Allure, Vanity Fair, or any of the other myriad fashion/celebrity-gossip/consumerist-culture magazines will inform her, without a single word and without a hint of a doubt, that she stands no chance of competing with the professionally made-up, professionally lit, professionally photographed, and professionally photoshopped images of feminine beauty that set the standard today.

Look familiar?

Look familiar?

Just go do an image search on the word “beauty,” and guess what you’ll find. Screen after screen after screen of women’s faces, all obviously (and heavily) coated in cosmetics, professionally coiffed, professionally photographed, and then photoshopped to the point that they bear little if any resemblance to what was actually in front of the camera lens. When I did that search while working on this post, one relatively natural-looking face jumped out at me. So I followed the link to discover that no, she was actually pretty heavily made up, with perfectly plucked eyebrows and perfectly mascaraed lashes and perfectly subtle “natural” makeup, and the hair that was out of place was, in fact, that way by design. Even better, the image was an ad for a full-service spa-salon offering such treatments as laser hair removal, microdermabrasion, skin peels, spray tanning, eyelash perming, and lash extensions. No, really. Eyelash perming. Lash Extensions.

Because that’s what women look like, right? They have thin eyebrows and thick eyelashes and translucent, perfectly-toned skin and plump, moist lips and delicate little noses and big, round eyes and tiny waists and full bosoms that utterly defy gravity.

What I look like when I wake up.

What I look like when I wake up.

Even the hippie-living magazine that somehow found its way into our house is guilty. What’s the biggest headline? SEXY SKIN! What’s the standard set by the cover? A healthy and unusually attractive young woman peering over her naked, smooth-skinned shoulder, with straight white teeth peeking through her smile, subtle “natural” lip color, “natural” makeup on her sun-kissed and lightly freckled cheeks, perfectly threaded eyebrows, and what would not be too much of a stretch to describe as something of a come-hither look in her eyes. Oh, and what was that about the out-of-place hair being that way by design? Yeah.

Birth of Venus detail

Detail of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus

And that is why Botticelli’s Venus cannot find a job. I mean, just look at her. Her brows are okay, I suppose, but her eyelashes are too anemic, and her skin is too motley, and her nose is too crude and lumpy, and her mouth is too small and her lips are too blurry, and her chin is too big, and her jaw is too heavy, and her hair is all split ends and tangles (but not wild enough to be interesting), and with her brownish auburn hair and medium-brown eyes and dun skin-tone, she’s all one washed-out color. No punch. No pizazz. No waifish, delicate, might-be-dead-tomorrow magnetism here. No sir.

And that’s just her face. Look at her figure through the eyes of the porn fashion industry and you’ll see that her belly’s too soft and her waist is too thick and her breasts are both too small and too low, and her shoulders are too sloped, and her arms are too thick, and her hips are too square, and she could use a manicure.

Keira Knightley warming up in her sequined shrug.

Keira Knightley warming up in her sequined shrug.

I mean, she doesn’t look at all like Keira Knightley on this cover of Allure, so heavily made up and post-processed that the closer you look the more she looks like a video-game avatar. Ms. Knightley doesn’t even look plastic here. Because she doesn’t even look that realistic. She looks like pure CGI. Oh, and what’s with the open fly and the sequined bolero jacket with nothing in between? Correction, nothing but body makeup and post-processing. Is this the new fashion? ‘Cuz I work on a campus with a lot of young women on it, and I ain’t seen no one walking around dressed quite like that.

I’m reminded of the first viral video of that Dove “real beauty” campaign, which, despite getting some harsh criticism from pretty much every direction, actually did a little bit to maybe get people thinking about just how realistic the images in that supermarket checkout (or on that billboard) really aren’t. At least for a moment.

Is it any wonder we have a distorted standard of feminine beauty in our culture? When the high-fashion publications and high-fashion advertising bombard us with images that are more fiction than fact? When even the “real” images are so idealized? When Venus herself looks frumpy and plain?

Abraham Lincoln, 1858

Abraham Lincoln, 1858

Not that men in the public eye are entirely exempt from unrealistic standards of (and undue emphasis on) physical beauty. It’s certainly to a lesser extent, and less all-consuming, but I have a feeling that no one who looks like Abraham Lincoln would stand  much of a chance of being elected president these days. The fashion industry does have its unrealistic images of masculine beauty, of course. Open any high-fashion magazine and you’re going to see the images of the guys with their waxed chests and shaped eyebrows and flawless skin, because the ideal for either gender is a post-pubescent physique, minus the hormone-ravaged skin, with prepubescent hair growth (i.e., none to speak of). And the cosmetics industry does keep making attempts to get its toe in the door of the male market, with some success (skin care, shaving accoutrements, deodorants, gray-hair color and the like), but not nearly to the extent that it dominates the female market. A guy who’s out on the weekend unshaven in rumpled clothes and bed head is still just being a guy on the weekend. A girl who does the same thing is being unkempt and needs to clean up her act. No double standard there at all.

Thinking about this issue makes me miss that little Quaker college six miles west of here where I finished my bachelor’s degree. The traditional college years are an age when a lot of people experiment with nonconformity anyway, so combine that with an institution that was founded by nonconformists and actively encourages individuality and nonconformity in its students? It’s a thing of beauty, let me tell you. You’re more likely to find a copy of Adbusters lying around than a copy of Vogue. Attractive young women eschewed cosmetics, cut their hair into wake-and-go hairstyles, grew out their armpits, unibrows, mustaches, and leg hair, dressed in comfortable clothes and comfortable shoes, and headed out to class. Or to question authority. Or both.

I dug around for a while trying to find a picture from those days, but the closest I could come was this image of English-German author Charlotte Roche looking like she could have been one of my classmates there.

Charlotte Roche

Charlotte Roche

Around that time there was a billboard in town for a laser hair-removal “clinic” with a heavily-retouched photo of a hairless young woman in a postage stamp of a bikini, smooth pits open to the camera, with the legend, “You didn’t shave. You didn’t have to.” I wanted to make a spoof of that ad, same image same pose, same bikini, same legend, only with one of my classmates who was just as fit as the model in the original, except, and this is the important part, spectacularly furry.

But we’re all brainwashed. We’re so saturated with the industry’s definitions of beauty that our capacity for critical thinking just doesn’t even bother to kick in, because we see no reason to question it. I don’t think I realized quite how bad it was until just now, when I was doing the search that led to the Charlotte Roche image. Almost everything I found on the internet was ridiculing those women. Because clearly any woman would have to be a bit crazy to admit she had hair in her armpits. Or on her legs. Or in her pants. Or that she had a little bit of fat protecting her abdomen. Or that her breasts were lower than her pectoral muscles.

And that, my friends, is why Botticelli’s Venus can’t find a modeling gig.

Alexandre Cabanel, The Birth of Venus,

Alexandre Cabanel, The Birth of Venus, 1863

Cabanel’s Venus, on the other hand, might manage to find work, at least as a plus-size model. I mean, she does kinda look a little like Christina Hendricks.

Re-Membering

by Ann Millett-Gallant

Re-Membering coverI began teaching for the BLS Program in Spring 2007.  I taught my “Photography: Contexts and Illusions” class and was developing another BLS course, “The Art of Life,” as well as an Introduction to Art class.  I was supposed to begin teaching full time the next Fall, but life interfered.  While traveling with a friend in San Francisco in May, I had an accident and suffered from traumatic brain injury.  I did teach Photography again Fall of 2007, but it would be another year before I could resume all my teaching.

Bob Hansen was kind enough to cover my “Art of Life” course for me until the Fall of 2008.  When I first began teaching it, it was all new to me, because my accident had caused significant memory loss.  I did not recall how the class was conceived or why I chose the specific examples and readings for it.  However, I felt an eerie sense of fate or destiny teaching a course based on the idea that art emerges from everyday life, and that specifically art may be considered, ultimately, as an accident.  Much of the subject matter of the course surrounds how accidents can lead to insight and inspiration, and I began teaching it while I was still struggling with the physical and psychological effects of my accident.  One of the writing assignments my students had to complete was an essay on the theme of loss and discovery, which resonated with a lot of what I was going through – dealing with my own losses (of identity, memory, time, etc.), as well as discovering new aspects of myself.  I felt inspired to write a response to my own assignment about my accident and its effects on my life, both its consequential losses as well as its discoveries.  This is the essay I now post each semester that I teach the course:

For most of 2007, my existence may best be characterized as lost.  I had lost weight, lost hair, lost part of my skull, lost much muscular movement and fluidity, and lost my mobility.  I had lost my memory, my history, my sense of security, and my identity.  I had lost my mind.

Backing up…In May of 2007, I was vacationing in San Francisco with my friend, Anna.  We were exiting a café and for some unknown reason, I shot ahead on my travel scooter and fell off the high curb of the sidewalk into the street.  According to Anna, I was not drunk, sick, excessively tired, or otherwise impaired before this.  It was unexplainable.  I hit my head, began to bleed, and an ambulance was called.

This was all told to me later, as I have no recollection of the accident, any of the trip, or even planning it.  I have blocked the whole experience out.  I have blocked a lot of experiences out.  Even as my memory congeals, much of my life takes place in stories and photographs, but not in the sensations of being there.  I don’t have any flashes of being in the San Francisco hospital for 6 weeks, much of the time in a coma, and I recall very little of my time spent in a rehab hospital in Columbus, OH (where I grew up and my family lives).  I only remember grueling therapy sessions there and one kind nurse, who let me have the whole container of chocolate pudding that was used to help me swallow medications.  I moved in with my mother at the end of the summer, in a place she had rented, but that I thought was her home I didn’t remember.  Slowly, my strength and endurance came back.  I exercised, read, wrote in a journal, and began to re-member – to put mind and body back together.  Yet, I was content to rarely leave my sanctuary.

"Self-Portrait with Hemicraniectomy," 2011

“Self-Portrait with Hemicraniectomy,” 2011

In a couple months, I had surgery on my skull to reconstruct the amputation, after which, I had been told, I would improve drastically.  Unfortunately, I had to endure a week in the hospital before I had the surgery, after an anesthesiologist punctured my lungs trying to put an IV in my chest.  But I digress.  I did feel better after my skull was intact, and in just a few weeks, I began teaching an online class, one of which I was supposed to be teaching full time that Fall.  My knowledge of art history, the humanities, and how to teach came right back and, likely, got stronger.  I was able to concentrate and exert authority, more and more over time.  I soon moved back to my home in North Carolina and to my boyfriend, whose name I could now remember.  As 2008 progressed, so did I, and I was determined to no longer put anything off.  I proposed to the man I love and got married, taught full time, and began to write scholarly articles and to paint again.  But I was still lost.

Backing up further…I have been physically disabled since birth, and I have incorporated disability studies as a discipline, as well as my identity as a disabled woman, into my teaching and writing.  I know how to teach myself to do things and how to adapt to do anything I want to do.  I am (was?) independent.  I have traveled internationally, lived in 3 cities, and gotten my PhD.  I was, for better or worse, fearless.  Now I feel anxious taking my scooter to the grocery store.  But the anxiety about injury lessens over time.  The anxiety over being lost is still, and may always be, unbearable.  I can’t sleep through the night, my moods oscillate from high to low without warning, and I can’t remember people, places, and personal things.  I sometimes have to laugh, as, for example, I realize that not everyone looks oddly familiar because I have forgotten them, but that people just look alike.  I can laugh at my loss, at times, while at other times I am consumed by feelings of emptiness and the desire to know what happened, and why.

I have learned many, countless things from my accident, about myself and the world I live in.  But the main thing I have learned is that “lost” and “found” are not absolutes.  They are states of being, always in flux.  They collide, overlap, and intertwine.  Sometimes, they make it a chore to get up in the morning.  And sometimes, they produce accidental masterpieces.

Art Therapy Collage, 2010

Art Therapy Collage, 2010

The responses of the students to my essay were ones of admiration, respect, and identification.  Many shared with me similar experiences of their own or of others they knew.  I believe students also felt more open with me and shared more of themselves with me and with fellow students in their writing.  They also encouraged me to write more.  I did.  Over the next few years, I drafted four more essays or chapters about my experiences in hospitals and with multiple channels of recovery, including physical, craniosacral, and art therapies.  Eventually, I had a book – a memoir that incorporated research as well as personal narrative.  The structure and range of subjects in the book, I felt, echoed how my brain works; in it, I switch between various subjects of interest to me and forms of writing, I go off on tangents, and often I compose text from fragments of information and memory.

Once I felt the book was nearly completed, I submitted proposals to publishers and got many respectful and complimentary rejections, as I was repeatedly told that they simply did not publish memoirs.  I wanted to see my work assembled and distributed, to complete the project so that I could share my story with others, and to perhaps provide them with hope.  I chose to self-publish with CreateSpace through Amazon.com.

Here is a link to its listing.

I did all the formatting of the manuscript myself, which was, admittedly, a pain; I hired my sister who was a journalist to edit; and I paid a professional to design a cover.  I am proud of the project and hope readers of this blog will be interested in it.  It really epitomizes the intersections between art and life, as well as the various intersections between life and online education.

Ann Millett-Gallant at her computer

Dr. Millett-Gallant at her computer

Adventures at Camp Dad

by Matt McKinnon

Image 1Against the advice of my wife (a licensed educator), I am attempting to keep my three sons—ages four, six, and fifteen—home with me this summer.  (I use the present progressive tense along with the verb “to attempt” because, while the action is ongoing, it may not be ongoing for long, as my wife keeps threatening to close “Camp Dad” for the season.)

This really shouldn’t be a problem, or so my thinking goes.  After all, I work from home and, owing to my wife’s hectic work schedule, do much of the kid-watching during the school year, taking them to and from school and shuttling them to various soccer practices and games throughout central Illinois.

“Why should we spend the money,” I argued, “When I can take care of them here at home for free?”

Why indeed?

Why oh why?!

Image 2We are only three weeks in to the official “Camp Dad: Summer 2013” season and already I have lost two of the kids, though for only a brief period of time.  The first, my four-year-old, I feared had chased after the dog who had escaped into the woods behind our house.  Once I had corralled the mutt (the dog, not my son) with the help of a neighbor, I noticed that the littlest was missing.

As I ran through the neighborhood frantically calling his name, gathering neighbors for an impromptu search party, I heard the car alarm going off and knew immediately where he was: locked in the SUV and trying to open the door with the alarm set.

Image 3

And there he was, safe and sound, and had been—playing a stupid video game, oblivious to the cries of his father—sitting peacefully and calmly while I was screaming my head off, calling his name, and making a spectacle of myself to the neighbors.

And casting real suspicion over this whole “Camp Dad” idea.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, I lost the middle son the next week.  Though again, only for a brief period of time.

Image 4

 We were all going to the local “Safety Town,” inappropriately named it would seem, where kids can ride their bikes and parents can sit in the shade and watch.  Since my two oldest are proficient at bike-riding and my youngest is not, my fifteen-year-old rode ahead along the trail with my six-year-old.  They would go on to the park while my four-year-old and I walked.

The oldest had his phone.  He is marginally reliable.  What could go wrong?

What could go wrong indeed.

They arrived at the park and my oldest son called: all was well.

Image 5My youngest and I arrived by foot some ten minutes later, and I took my place under the shade of a tree, eyes peeled for my six-year-old in his new bike helmet, conspicuous enough with a red plastic Mohawk down the center.

There were a lot of kids, so the first five minutes of not being able to locate him seemed normal.  But five became ten and so I asked my oldest where he was.

Ten became fifteen as my oldest son rode around the park looking for him and I, once again, resorted to the parenting tool I know best and use most often: screaming his name at the top of my lungs.

Image 6

But to no avail.  No relieving sounds of a car alarm to signal where he was.  Nothing.  Just a park full of kids on bikes, but none of them my now-missing six-year-old.

As my eldest continued his futile search of the park on bike, I grabbed by youngest and bolted out the back towards the trail—the Rock Island trail to be exact, a 26-mile rail-to-trail project that runs from Peoria to Only-God-Knows-Where, Illinois.  If he was on that trail, he could be half way to Rock Island for all I knew.

And then my cell phone rang.  There was a lady on the other end.  “We have Lucas” she said calmly and sweetly.

“Oh thank you!” I exclaimed, not even contemplating that she could have meant something more sinister by her words, something out of Liam Neeson’s “Taken” perhaps.  A rather sweet ransom call.

Image 7Luckily, she was no Albanian gangster, but rather a mother out for a walk with her own mother and her seven-year-old son, who was now comforting my lost child.

Evidently, not seeing his older brother, my son decided to ride back to find us, going out the back of the park as we were coming in.  Needless to say, this was not in the itinerary for Camp Dad.

We soon reunited and all was well again.

BUT THIS WAS ONLY WEEK TWO!

I shudder to think what can, or rather will happen next at Camp Dad, where our official motto has become: “Has Anyone Seen My Kids?”

And yet I am steadfast in my resolve, determined that Camp Dad will go on.

My wife, on the other hand, threatens that Camp Dad is about to close, pending legal action.

Parenthood in Norway

by Carrie Levesque

Norwegian Dads

Norwegian Dads

An American-in-Norway I know was coming back into Norway after traveling abroad and was nervous because her residency visa had expired.  She had not yet received her new visa in the mail and was traveling with only a paper from her local police station attesting to her permanent residence.  At customs, an official started questioning her about her paperwork.  He appeared distracted and it worried her that he seemed to not really be listening to her answers.   She was traveling with a small baby and feared what kind of hassle and delay might await her.

But her anxiety turned to relief when the customs official began, with more urgency, another line of questioning:

“Is that a Manduca baby carrier you’re using?”

When she replied that it was, he began to barrage her with questions about how she liked it, about the different ways of wearing it, and so on.  He had just ordered one for himself and was glad to compare notes with someone who was already using one.  With that, he welcomed a relieved, and slightly amused, mother and child back to Norway.

A Manduca Promotional Image Featuring A Babywearing Dad

Manduca Promotional Image Featuring A Baby-Wearing Dad

As anyone who’s taken BLS 385: American Motherhood knows, Scandinavian men are known for being more hands-on fathers than men are anywhere else in the world.  Not to knock the participation of American dads (see own our Jay Parr’s baby-wearing profile picture), but thanks to the world’s most generous paternity and maternity benefits, Scandinavian men have a considerable advantage when it comes to being able to take time to bond with and care for their children in those critical early months of parenthood.  According to studies discussed in Ann Crittenden’s The Price of Motherhood, this bonding often means that Scandinavian fathers are more likely to be more actively involved throughout their children’s lives, even if the parents separate.

After leading discussions on the Crittenden readings every term, I was anxious to see how parenting in Scandinavia looked on the ground, firsthand.  The first thing one notices is that the number of men pushing strollers on the city streets—alone or in pairs—is far greater than what you will see anywhere in the US.  But less immediately visible is the difference greater paternal participation makes for Norwegian mothers.  Does more equality necessarily mean radically better conditions for Norwegian mothers compared to their American counterparts, as we often assume in BLS 385?

A Group of Baby-Wearing Dads

A Group of Baby-Wearing Dads

There’s no question Norway’s generous leave benefits help families with small children, particularly in the first year of parenthood.  One parent can receive either 100% of his/her salary for 47 weeks or 80% for 57 weeks after the birth of a child.  Twelve of these weeks must be used by the father, but parents cannot use their leave at the same time (see more here).  This system provides both parents the opportunity to bond with the child and develop parenting skills without the added stress of having to balance the demands of the workplace at the same time.

Yet, it’s also apparent to me that after this first year, the decision whether to become a stay-at-home parent or to put one’s child in daycare and return to work is no less controversial in Norway than it is in the US.  Perhaps the only difference is how many men involve themselves in the debate.

A Typical Barnehage.

A Typical Barnehage.

Most childcare in Norway takes place in “barnehage” (which translates to kindergarten, but they are structured more like US daycare centers).  It is not as common here, at least in the cities, for children to be cared for by family members or in a home daycare setup.  Due in part to a push from the government to get more taxpaying Norwegians working, and working more hours, more Norwegian children are spending more time in barnehage at a younger age.  60,000 new barnehage slots have been added across the country in the last 8 years.  While 44% of children under the age of two went to barnehage ten years ago, columnist Susanne Kaluza writes that now that number is 80%.

Because quality childcare is so widely available (and all parents are eligible to receive government stipends to help pay for it, regardless of income), there is considerable social pressure on mothers who would choose to stay home with their young children.  Once your baby is over a year old, he or she belongs in barnehage, one argument goes, where he or she will learn the collective values of Norwegian society.  In her most recent editorial, responding to criticism of stay-at-home mothers from the newly-elected leader of Norway’s largest labor organization, Kaluza writes that only 4% of Norwegian women between the ages of 20 and 66 stay at home.  As she exposes the absurdity of the claim that mothers leaving the workforce to ‘bake and decorate’ is a worrying ‘trend’ in the Norwegian labor force, Kaluza insists that, in Norway, “the housewife is dead.”  Compulsory working parenthood is clearly the recent dominant trend in Norway.

Children and Caregivers at a Barnehage

Children and Caregivers at a Barnehage

In the steady debate in the local newspaper since late February, editorials from both mothers and fathers argue that children start barnehage too young and are deprived of critical time at home as the state seeks to increase its income tax base, potentially at children’s expense.  The barnehage, meanwhile, defensively argue that babies enjoy barnehage and proper methods are in place to help them adjust to the change from their parents’ care to public daycare.

Often the debate is framed as a matter of barnehage quality or child-caregiver ratios, but from where I sit, it is clearly a problem of choice.  It seems the problem is the same here as it is in the American “Mommy Wars”: the need to push a ‘one solution fits all’ answer rather than giving parents the freedom to choose what’s best for their family.

Lastly, it bears asking: is Scandinavian culture really so different from our own when these debates are still framed around mothers’ participation in the workforce?  As Kaluza points out, many of these Norwegian women are rushing back to jobs where they face the same gender gap in earnings that American women struggle to overcome.  An abundance of stroller-pushing dads and a sweet maternity leave check are all well and good, but they can also distract from larger, persistent issues of gender equality and family choice.

Dr. Levesque With Her Daughters in Bergen, Norway

Dr. Levesque With Her Daughters in Bergen, Norway