Tag Archives: parenting

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.

Behind the Wheel in Norway

by Carrie Levesque

When I imagined moving to a small European city, with my romantic notions and my best green intentions, I imagined riding a bike to get where I needed to go.  With a basket and a bell and a cute helmet.  I looked forward to biking to the local coffeehouse for a pleasant day of responding to discussion board posts and grading papers, and biking home with a load of fresh baguettes (or more likely in Norway, whole fish) sticking out of the basket.

Something like this.

The dream: Something like this.

Those dreams evaporated when I actually arrived here and realized I would be living outside the city, with an enormous mountain standing between our neighborhood and downtown Bergen.  And then there would be the route to the new construction where my daughters would go to preschool every day–up and over a steep and winding road much too far for us to walk and too difficult to bike.  It was clear: I was going to have to drive in Norway.

The reality: Something more like this.

The reality: Something more like this.

I am generally not a timid driver.  I’ve driven many times in cities up and down the East Coast without any problem, but driving in Norway is rather a different animal.

The first major difference to adjust to: the speed limits.  30 km/hour on our street.  That’s 18 miles per hour.  On the highways you might get to crank it up to 80 km/hour, but honey, you’re still only going 50 miles per hour.  My father-in-law told me that when they built the new highway to Voss years ago, it was very popular for families to go out for a Sunday drive, just for the liberating and novel experience of using fifth gear.

But on the city streets, there’s good reason to slow down, as Norway has some different traffic laws that require your constant attention.  The state invests very little in stop signs and traffic lights.  Though you will find traffic lights downtown and anywhere the light rail train intersects car traffic, traffic outside the city center is guided by roundabouts (rotaries) and through a crazy law whereby, on all but the largest thoroughfares, one always yields to traffic coming in from the right.

An in-town street in Norway.

An in-town street in Norway.

So as you’re driving, you have to slow down as you approach every intersection and right-hand side street to make sure there isn’t a car approaching that you must yield to.  This process is, of course, facilitated nicely by the fact that Norwegian roads are incredibly narrow and congested, and invariably lined with tall, visibility-cutting hedges and rock walls.

And even when you theoretically have the right of way (if traffic on your left is supposed to be yielding to you because you are entering on their right), it’s still wise to slow down at every intersection because Norwegians actually remember to observe this law only about 50% of the time.

Why, yes, it is as fun as it sounds!

Ideally, one would just go with the flow and hope for the best, but unfortunately, there’s this matter of having to pass a practical driving test to get a Norwegian license.  A few years ago, Americans could just make an even swap, but now getting a Norwegian license is a rather stressful and pricy endeavor.

The Scarlet Letter: L is for laerling (trainee).

The Scarlet Letter: L is for laerling (trainee).

Because of the different driving laws here, no foreigner in his right mind would take the test without first taking a few lessons with a driving school, at a rate of $100 for each 45 minute lesson.  Then the test itself costs $200.  But this is chump change compared to what it will cost you to try again, should you fail the one shot you have at the practical test: 30,000 Norwegian kroner, or $5,000 USD.

No pressure.

If you fail your test, you have to take a comprehensive set of classes (night driving, ice driving, city driving, country driving…) to be allowed to try again.  Norwegians say, “In America, you save up to send your kids to college.  In Norway, we save for our kids’ drivers license exam.”

Norwegian driver's license. Ola Nordmann is the John Doe of Norway.

Norwegian driver’s license. Ola Nordmann is the John Doe of Norway.

So my test is Tuesday.  Say a prayer.  Among the things you can fail for: shifting too quickly, shifting too slowly, entering a roundabout too quickly, entering a roundabout too slowly, passing by a right-hand side street too quickly, and yes, passing by a right-hand side street too slowly.  It’s basically a game of chance.  A $5,000 game of chance.

But if I fail, I’m thinking I might just put the money toward a Vespa.  I will rebound with style, with a helmet, a horn and, maybe, a basket of fish.

Something like this.

Something like this.

The First Day of School

by Matt McKinnon

Well, it ain’t what it used to be.  The first day of school, I mean.

Image

And I don’t just mean the back-to-school shopping, though that has changed a lot, to be sure.

We did most of ours online this year, since navigating Walmart.com is a LOT more appealing than navigating an actual Walmart.

And since many public schools have gone to uniforms, there’s not really much fun in back-to-school clothing shopping with the kids:

“How about the khaki pants and red polo shirt?”

“No, I won’t be caught dead in those.”

“Okay, then there’s always the red polo shirt and khaki pants.”

McKinnon Boys on First Day of School

Gone are the days, at least for those of us in uniform schools, where back-to-school shopping was a creative endeavor to get the coolest outfits possible, actually enjoying the prospect of new clothes.

Toughskins jeans.  Converse Chuck Taylor hightops (later surpassed by real leather offerings from Addidas and Nike).  Cool football jerseys.  A new jean jacket.

Toughskins

Man, those were the days.

And it didn’t cost $250.00 to fully outfit two kids for the entire school year.  (Or at least until they get stains all over their shirts and wear holes in the knees of their pants.  Do kids not wear patches on pants anymore?)

And picking out your clothes for the first day of school was just as exciting, and became even more important the older you got.  After all, I had to make a nice impression on those 10-year old girls I was not going to talk to.  Or even look at.

But now the shopping carts are virtual and the clothing is all the same: red polo shirts and khaki pants.  Maybe shorts.  If you’re feeling crazy…navy blue.

Of course, school supply shopping is still best done at an actual store, especially since the local Walmart and OfficeMax and Staples all have lists sent to them by the school district and even the local schools.  And then there’s the additional list that the teacher sends out.

Back to School SuppliesThe cumulative effect of all this is that there are three lists for each of our two elementary-age kids that my wife and I have to carry around with a real shopping cart (the one with the wheel that won’t swivel right), juggling from one list to the other, trying to mark off what we have while we search for what we still need, all the while trying unsuccessfully to keep items not on the list out of the basket.  (How we ended up with a “Duck Dynasty” pillow in the cart I will never know.)

Not to mention that our high school junior is too cool even to shop with everybody else, so we had to make a special late-night black-ops trip, just he and I, outfitted in dark clothing and sunglasses, so no one he knows will see him…with his dad…shopping at Walmart of all places.

And not to mention that the entire school supply deal set us back about $150.00.  A hundred and fifty dollars?!  For notebooks and paper and pencils?

Yes.  And pens, and erasers, and binders in every size and color imaginable.  And glue and glue sticks.  And highlighters, and rulers, and note cards, and composition books.  And more binders.  And pencil boxes, no wait, they have to be bags with three holes to fit in the binder.  And lunch boxes.  And Clorox Wipes and Kleenex (are those really our responsibility?  Whatever happened to that green stuff the janitor would just spread around on the floor when some kid threw up?)  And we still can’t find any graph paper.  Does Walmart have something against graph paper?  Are American kids just not expected to plot graphs anymore?  No wonder we’re falling behind the rest of the developed world.  I bet they have graph paper in Sweden.

But I digress.

I’m not talking about any of that.

No, what I mean when I say that the first day of school ain’t what it used to be is that, as someone who taught mainly face-to-face classes for years but who now teaches entirely online, the first day of school just isn’t quite the same.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I am NOT complaining.

Just observing.  (I tell my wife this all the time.)

First Day of Class

There used to be a nervous energy about the first day of class—when that meant standing in front of a theatre-size room of 100 students or so.  There was electricity in seeing the fresh faces of students experiencing their very first day of college, or even in the nonchalant smoothness of seniors who had waited until the very last moment to complete their GEC credit.

There was magic in the anticipation of how hard the course might be, or how boring the professor was, or how anything I was saying would have any bearing on anyone’s intended career.

I used to enjoy coming up with new ways to start the first day: by proclaiming to the class, for example, that the only thing I hated more than the first day of class was…the next day of class.  Or by moving everybody outside to enjoy the weather.  Or even sitting at a desk like everybody else: just sitting, waiting, and watching as the time for class to start came and went, and still no teacher.  And then getting up abruptly, as if annoyed, audibly mumbling something to the effect that if nobody else is going to teach the damn course, then I might as well.

Yes, those were the days.

But those days are gone.

And again, don’t get me wrong: I am not complaining.  Only observing.

I love teaching online, and have come to see what we do in the BLS program as not just a service to the University, but more importantly, as a service to students—some of whom may not be able to take classes or finish their degree any other way.

And my students, overall, tend to be older, more mature, more driven, and actually interested in what is being taught.

And there is certainly energy and magic in the first day, though clicking on a link to make the course available doesn’t quite compare to bounding around a lecture hall like Phil Donahue in his prime.

No; it’s just not quite the same.

Even though this year I tried.

Fresh Shave and a Haircut

I got a haircut.  I took a shower.  Heck, I even shaved, and thought about adding some color to my graying beard before deciding against it.

And then I sat down, clicked on “Make Course Available,” and…

Well, nothing happened.  At least nothing spectacular.

For that, I’ll have to wait for the next 48 days—or however many are in this first session.

But of course, it’s not that bad…

After all, other than strippers, “escorts,” and the occasional politician, who else do you know can go to work not wearing pants?

Comforts of Home

Yes, there’s something to be said for the comforts of home.

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.

Observations on Norwegian Geography

by Carrie Levesque

Hilsen fra Norge! Greetings from Norway!

850px-Bergen_from_MtFløyen

Bergen, Norway as seen from Mount Fløyen

I’m going to swallow my pride and admit that the first time I met someone studying for an advanced degree in Geography, my first thought was, “Seriously?  How much schoolin’ do you need to know the world capitals, or what a taiga is?”  They didn’t offer courses in ‘Geography’ at my small undergraduate college (and even today, Geography courses there are tucked away under “Environmental Science”).  I knew Geography as simply a Trivial Pursuit category, a Carolina-blue piece of the pie.

In truth, Geography is a broad field of study examining how humans shape their environments and how environments shape the people who live in them, to put it very simply.  These days, I find myself thinking a little Geography background would be very useful as I process my observations on the relationship between the culture and the unique terrain of my new home: Bergen, Norway.

Bergen lies near the southern end of Norway’s west coast.  It is Norway’s busiest port, “a city of seven mountains.”  If you’re up for the climb, or have a ticket on the funicular or cable cars, spectacular views are everywhere to be had.

Orographic Lift

Unless, of course, it is one of the 219 days a year it is raining.  Thanks to the warm Gulf Stream, Bergen has some of the mildest temperatures in Norway.  But the mountains create a meteorological effect called ‘orographic lift,’ where an air mass quickly moving from a low elevation (sea level) to a high elevation (up a mountain range) cools quickly and creates conditions for A LOT of precipitation (16 inches our first month here).

We had four sunny days the entire month of September.  On those days, even if we’d worn ourselves out with the previous day’s hike, I’ll tell you, the urge to get outside every minute that sun shone was overwhelming.  Which leads me to a couple of geography-related observations about Norwegians.  First, they are impressively accepting about how much it rains here, and second, they are a people who LOVE to be outside.

Norwegians have a saying, “There is no bad weather, only bad clothing.”  They take their outdoor gear very seriously.  You wouldn’t believe how many layers of specialized clothing you are expected to outfit your children in if you hope to avoid looks of pity and scorn from their teachers.  But this specialized clothing enables Norwegians to do what they love best in any weather: to be outdoors.

220px-Stoltzekleiven

The Stoltzekleiven

Bergen provides an overwhelming variety of opportunities to recreate.  There are seven mountains to climb, and people climb them, daily.  Bergensers even run up the mountains; one of the city’s most popular races took place at the end of September — the Stoltzekleiven, where runners climb over 1000 feet up 800 wooden steps, the fastest of them in around 10 minutes.  Cycling is also huge here, along with skiing in the winter months, and on any given day as you look out your window on the light rail train, you’re quite likely to see someone hang gliding from Ulriken, the city’s highest peak.

Bergen’s terrain presents fantastic outdoor opportunities, but also unique challenges.  Bergen is a growing city — currently with a population comparable to Greensboro’s — with little place to grow.   Boxed in by mountains, Bergen struggles to use a fixed land area ever more efficiently.  Traffic is especially an issue, despite the government’s best efforts to make owning a car difficult (i.e., high tolls on roads into the city center and exorbitant taxes.  Norwegians pay 100% sales tax on vehicles.  A Toyota Corolla goes for about $40,000 here.  That’s some painful math, and a topic for another time).

Geography has always presented great transportation challenges to Norwegians, as building new roads over, around or through mountainous terrain is expensive.  Only as recently as 1990 was a modern highway built connecting Bergen to Voss, a major tourist center roughly 60 miles away.  For much of the history of this area, the gateway to the famous fjords, ferries were the main means of transportation.

A Norwegian Fjord

A Norwegian Fjord

It was on a recent 10-hour road trip through Voss to the mountains beyond and back again that the last hazard of Norwegian geography I will discuss was brought to my attention: aesthetic overload.  On the drive home, I felt completely wiped out, though I’d only sat in a car all day.  It sounds crazy, but it literally hurt my eyes to look at the fjords we drove along (I know, waah waah).  But it made me think that perhaps the brain can only process so much beauty at one time, and I think this is why Norwegians are drawn to the outdoors with such urgency.  It takes a lifetime to take in so much gorgeousness.  As for me, I’ll do what I can with the 6 years I have here.

Enrichment Online: The Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies at UNCG

By Tyler Steelman (BLS Class of 2012)

Facing the completion of my Associates in Arts in English, I was quite undecided on how I would continue my college career after leaving the community college I entered after high school.  Thanks to her wisdom and insight into my interests and character, my college adviser there introduced me to the BLS program at UNCG.

I have always had a deep interest in the fields described as humanities: literature, art, history, philosophy, and religion.  Thus, the BLS program was a great way to formally study subjects I have always loved.  The online learning environment was also a major factor in my choosing the BLS program.  Having completed my associate’s degree online, I had grown comfortable with the freedom and flexibility of online courses, so I knew I would be successful in the BLS program.  Furthermore, UNCG’s low tuition rates make it quite an affordable way to further your education.

While my focus in the program was on literature, to my delight I have been able to delve into the other branches of the humanities as well.  One of my favorite courses during my time in the program was Magic, Media, and Popular Imagination with Dr. Emily Edwards.  In this course we examined the effect the supernatural has had on popular media.  We watched several films with supernatural themes which we discussed in discussion forums.  For the final project we created a visual narrative blog, where we used photographs and narration to create a documentary or creative piece.  It was interesting to learn how profound an influence the occult has had on popular media, and the visual narrative project was an enjoyable experience.  To view my visual narrative project, click here.

In my time in the BLS program, I have been fortunate to also take three courses with Dr. Carrie Levesque.  In American Motherhood, I studied how the role of motherhood is perceived by our society and the different ethnicities and sub-cultures that it contains.  For that course I created a blog examining how motherhood is represented in popular media.  I also took Religious Resistance to Political Power, where I examined how various religions responded to oppressive measures by governments.  In Women, War, and Terror, we read three memoirs written by women during times of war, violence, and social upheaval.  Dr. Levesque is a very insightful instructor who provides a warm and informal atmosphere to discuss these often challenging and distressing issues.

Finally, I have also been able to explore the world of drama and theater with Professor Marc Williams.  In Big Plays, Big Ideas, I read numerous plays, analyzing how they portrayed various issues pertaining to society and the human condition.  In Eye Appeal, I learned how spectacle (costuming, lighting, set design, music, etc.) adds to or affects dramatic productions.  I wrote a review of a theatrical performance I attended, detailing how spectacle was utilized.  Professor Williams offers wonderful critiques on assignments that not only advise you on how to be a better student in that course, but also on how to be a better writer.

I am not the typical BLS student, as the program is geared to working adults and I am a full-time student who just graduated high school four years ago.  Thus, I do not have as much life experience as most students in the program.  However, the BLS program has in a sense opened up the world for me.  I have learned more about the various cultures, beliefs, conflicts, and arts that characterize humanity in the two years I have been in the BLS program than I believe most people my age or perhaps any age have.  I am confident that the insights about the human condition I have acquired in the BLS program will be invaluable in whatever direction life takes me.  I will be graduating with honors in May, and I am hoping to continue my liberal arts education at UNCG next fall with the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program.  If you want a quality liberal arts education that not only gives you freedom and flexibility but also enriches the way you see humanity and the world, I highly recommend looking into the BLS program at UNCG.

An Empty Nest

By Claude Tate

Life is full of milestones. And for parents, the most important milestones are those that involve our children. A friend of ours recently sent us a video that brought back memories of one of those parental milestones for my wife and me. Our son had graduated from high school and gone off to college. After graduation he moved to a nearby town and found a job. Yet, it never felt like he had left home. His room was still there, we saw him often, and when he had a problem, we were close enough to help. But then he announced both he and his girlfriend were quitting their jobs and moving to Nashville, TN. He had visited Nashville a few years before with a friend, but neither of them knew anyone there or had any job prospects. They had found a house to rent, but that was it. He had sensed the same thing that we had. He was not really “living” at home, but had not left home either. He needed to truly be on his own. Even if he wanted to, in Nashville he would not be able to call on me to solve his every problem. My wife and I were worried, but we told ourselves we must trust his judgment. So we and his girlfriend’s parents helped them move. After helping them move in, we ate lunch at a nearby restaurant and said our good-byes. It was then that it hit my wife and me.  A major chapter in our lives was closing.  Our son was leaving home. We were happy for him as his excitement was obvious, but we were also sad to see him go. We had prepared him for this moment all his life. He was ready. But we had not prepared ourselves.

If you’ve never had a child leave home, you may see something entirely different in the video clip I’ve included in this post. And even if you had, you may still see something different. But my wife and I loved it and I hope you will at least find it enjoyable.

Robins: 4 Eggs, 4 Weeks from Fred Margulies on Vimeo.

Postscript. Things were not easy at first, but he eventually found a job and his girlfriend found part-time work. After several months in Nashville, they moved to Murfreesboro where his girlfriend went to graduate school. He continued to work in Nashville for a short period, then found a job with Middle Tennessee State.  The Nashville area really is a great place for young people and they loved it.  But my wife and I continued to remind my son that Asheville rhymed with Nashville and was a pretty cool place too. They were married, she finished school, and the “Tennessee Tates” (their name for themselves at the time) moved back to NC. They settled first in Asheville and now live in Hendersonville. Much like the little robins in the video, our son and his wife proved they were ready to fly. And also much like the mother and father robins, it took a little time for us to fully accept that we had done our job and our nest was empty.