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Archive for December, 2008

Is Blue’s Clues Going Black?

Via image.fishpond, used under fair use provisions of copyright law for educational and critical purposes. Welcome message to Viacom spiders: We love Blue’s Clues, so please consider this a free promo and don’t make me take the pic down. :-)

I live very happily without MTV and VH1. I get most of my Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert online anyway. No one in my house is a big Spongebob fan. But losing Nick Jr. and Noggin? Blue’s Clues and Dora the Explorer? That is a crisis.

The crisis is scheduled for midnight tonight. When the ball drops for the new year, my #%*&$ cable provider, Time Warner, will also drop all Viacom channels. A last-minute settlement is still possible but unlikely, since Viacom claims Time Warner is refusing to negotiate.

Why – instead of hearing this directly from Time Warner – did I get word of it instead from Skippy the Bush Kangaroo? (Thanks, Skippy and Jill!)

These are the fruits of media consolidation, folks. Time Warner and Viacom are mired in a spitting match to determine who’s the more powerful player in their little oligopolous world. They don’t give a damn about notifying their customers. Why, Time Warner isn’t even reachable via their customer service number today! All I get is a recorded message claiming “technical difficulties.”

These big media meanies don’t even mind if they make my little Tiger cry. He loves Blue’s Clues and Max and Ruby. He used to be passionate about Dora, though that has faded slightly. Gosh, the whole family likes the Wonder Pets. If Blue goes black, even for a few days, tears are sure to ensue.

Those tears might just be mine if I have to do without what a friend of mine calls “the bad parent machine.” She means that in the most affectionate way possible, because she too relies on TV at strategic moments. Not constantly, not indiscriminately. In my house, the kids are allowed to watch TV mostly in the early mornings, and then mainly on weekend and vacation days.

Yes, I’m a slacker. I like to sleep in when I can. Blue lets me do that. So for the sake of us dedicated slacker parents, let’s hope Viacom and Time Warner catch a clue.

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Anyone who follows reproductive politics is likely aware that the doctors who provide abortion services have been rapidly aging. Now, a new survey of abortion clinics helps us quantify the situation. It reports that nearly two-thirds of providers (63 percent) are aged 50 or older.

The survey has some limitations. It looks only at clinics and not at doctors who provide occasional abortion services as part of a broader ob/gyn practice. The survey was circulated in 2002 and I have no clue why results are only now being published.

Still, the statistic on the aging of abortion providers seems solid enough that I decided to do the math and try to project what it means for the future availability of abortion services.

Let’s say we have 100 doctors. Assuming an average retirement age of 65, over the next 15 years 63 will retire, leaving 37 still in practice. This assumption is subject to error because while some providers may stay on past age 65 for lack of a successor, others may retire earlier due to burnout or fears for their personal safety.

Now let’s assume that the rate of entry into practice has been linear over the past 25 years – in other words, that the 37 younger doctors began practicing over the past 25 years and trickled into the field at a steady pace. This is probably optimistic. Training in abortion techniques has become less common in medical schools, and it’s more likely that the number of entrants per year has declined steadily over time.

Over the course of the next 15 years, the retirees will be replaced by (37 divided by 25 for the number of entrants per year) x (15 years) = 22 new doctors. Instead of the original 100 doctors, we’ll have only 59.

In other words, we can expect the number of abortion providers to decrease by about 40 percent over the next 15 years.

However you do the math: The current shortage of abortion providers is on course to become an all-out crisis.

Let’s make one further assumption: A safe abortion, performed by a qualified, trained doctor, is preferable to an unsafe one. So I won’t respond to comments that demonize abortion in general; that’s not what this post is about. While I recognize that some opponents of legal abortion may see the provider shortage as an another route toward reducing the number of abortions, that idea belongs in fantasyland. There are much more effective strategies for reducing abortions that don’t put women’s health at risk.

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Before it goes stale along with my Christmas cookies, I just have to vent about this expose of Santa and his head reindeer, Donner, via Christy Hardin Smith at Firedoglake (caution: not suitable for kids):


It’s about time! Even as a kid, I hated Donner’s overbearing, unsympathetic attitude. Until now, though, I didn’t notice how relentlessly Santa had his back.

Didn’t you have a coach or gym teacher just like Donner, too? For me, the worst was Mr. Rosen in junior high. His favorite trick was to make his classes run “gut drills.” I think they’re called by different names in different parts of the country, but the upshot was that – starting at one end of the basketball court – you had to sprint to the first freethrow line, touch it, pivot and sprint back to the starting line, then do the same with the center line, the other freethrow line, and the out-of-bounds line at the court’s far end.

If you didn’t finish the gut drill in 30 seconds, you had to run another. Then another. And another. You were done if you made it in under 30, or when Mr. Rosen could see you were about ready to puke. Woe to you if his basketball team had lost the night before.

I almost never finished in less than 30 seconds. All through those long North Dakotan basketball winters, I’d make myself sick with nauseated worry on days when I had gym. Since P.E. was always late in the afternoon, I lost entire days of my life to that dread.

Mr. Rosen was a sadist. I suspect my sons’ gym teacher has a similar, though much milder, streak. As a parent recently said on an email list I lurk on: “P.E. is institutionalized bullying.” I’m think it’s changed somewhat since 1975, but I don’t see it as wholly transformed.

The truly appalling thing about the Donner character, though, isn’t that he’s a coach. It’s that his parenting reflects the same sadistic approach. Even more sadly, I don’t think he’s wholly fictionalized.

This fall, watching the Tiger’s kindergarten soccer team, I overheard a dad yell at his child: “Come on, pull yourself together out there!” He then stalked away in disgust. Dude! These are five year olds!! Ironically (but irrelevantly) this man’s daughter was actually paying attention to the ball. My Tiger, meanwhile, was running in the wrong direction and chatting with a little girl who’d befriended him.

Sometimes I think my boys need to be a little tougher – not because they’re boys but because they can both be cloyingly thin-skinned. They tend to cry over every little bump. They tattle on each other at each opportunity. I’ll readily admit that my understanding and frustration spring from the same source: I was just like them as a kid.

But you know, the world is full of Donners, and my sons will encounter plenty of them. They’re leading P.E. classes. They’re on the playground. They’re clawing their way up the corporate ladder. (Who hasn’t had a Donner as a boss?)

What my kids need from their mama is not a Donnerette. They need love and understanding. They need sympathetic encouragement to distinguish the minor scrapes of life from the big bruises. They do need me to discourage the tattling, too – but that’d be another post for another day.

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Control freak kitteh from I Can Has Cheezburger?

Historiann raises an interesting question of where professors experience the most control: research or teaching. In response to an MLA survey that contends professors, and especially women, may overinvest in teaching because it offers them a sense of control, she writes:

At least in my experience, research is the only area in which I have near complete control–not in the classroom, where someone else designed the rooms, and someone else determines the number of students and the number of courses we teach.

I agree completely. If I’m researching and writing, it’s just me, the sources, and my ideas. Sure, someone else will eventually judge my work, but the process feels like it’s within my own control. If I produce good work, it redounds to my credit. If it’s crap … well, there’s no one else to blame. (Hmmm … academic writing is a whole lot like blogging, that way.)

But teaching? There, the lack of control goes far beyond the conditions that Historiann mentions. Most importantly, the process of teaching escapes our control. We can steer, nudge, cajole. We can’t totally direct it, however. In fact, I’d suggest that relinquishing control is sometimes necessary for effective teaching.

Teaching women’s studies has forced me to wrestle with my inner control freak. (So has parenting, but that would be a whole ‘nother post.) Let’s just say my control freakery is not vanquished, but most days it’s, well, under control. When I was interviewing last spring for my current job, the hiring committee posed this question, which I’ve been mulling over ever since:

How has your teaching changed now that you’re in women’s studies instead of history?

The big difference, for me personally at least, is that I’ve put more emphasis on discussion. In my lectures, I’ve increasingly taken an interactive, Socratic approach. I’m actually not convinced that such an approach is at all specific to feminist pedagogy. I think it’s often just part of good teaching, period. But feminism definitely demands that the instructor repeatedly question the basis of her authority and how she expresses that authority in the classroom. This doesn’t imply the professor has no special authority, a point that the occasional student – willfully? – misunderstands, only that she’s obligated to draw on her education and experience to make that authority transparent and legitimate.

Teaching in the humanities often feels risky and humbling, anyway, because what you know is always dwarfed by what you don’t. This is exacerbated when you throw touchy subjects such as sexual violence and abortion into the mix. I’m not saying that German history (my other areas of expertise) is uncontroversial, but at least there’s a basic consensus that the Holocaust was a Bad Thing. There’s no such consensus in women’s studies.

It’s often those out-of-control moments, though, that allow everyone to learn – me included. This past quarter in one of my intro classes, when one of my male freshmen boys insisted that being gay is a “lifestyle choice,” other students had to articulate why they disagreed. My role was to make sure no one got hurt – including the guy who sparked the discussion – and otherwise to keep out of the way. This, by the way, is something I learned years ago as a T.A. in grad school, the first time I had to deal with a homophobic comment: other students can be far more effective teachers than me if I stay off my soapbox. That original incident actually occurred in a history course, which underscores the point that voluntarily and mindfully “losing” control can be useful in lots of different settings.

Or take the “cunt” discussion that erupted on the last day of my other intro class this fall. I’d previously talked with my theory class about reclaiming it and other pejorative terms, such as “bitch” or “queer,” and we’d had the kind of reflective that made that group a huge pleasure to teach; they were advanced students with a basic commitment to feminist politics. But the intro class is a different beast, full of freshmen and business majors with little previous exposure to feminism. And so I was totally taken by surprise when one of my students – an outspoken Evangelical Christian feminist, and no that’s not an oxymoron – wanted to end the quarter by discussing what’s so offensive about “cunt” and why women might be able to use the word proudly.

I’m not sure I nudged that particular discussion in a fruitful direction. The other students weren’t quite ready for it, and I really was ambushed by it, myself. A few of them were visibly embarrassed. And yet … I’m willing to bet that at least one of them, sometimes in the hazy future, will think back on that discussion and feel just a bit less shame about her body.

Of course, none of this means you can just walk into a classroom unprepared. Quite the opposite. You need experience, confidence, and a pretty solid knowledge base.

And of course, I’m probably bloviating about the control issue precisely because I’m not prepared for winter quarter, which starts a week from today. :-)

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A Tail of Two Tigers

What to do when the kids are burbling with post-Christmas energy and turning the house into a zoo? My little Tiger, in particular, has been bouncing off the walls, acting silly and obviously craving the company of his own kind. Frustratingly, nearly all of his friends are still out of town for the holiday.

And so yesterday we packed these bouncy, giggly kids into the car and drove to Columbus. If you’re running a zoo, you might as well take it literally. If my Tiger couldn’t be with his friends, at least he could visit his namesakes.


Here’s the tiger’s best pussycat imitation …


… and proof he was just faking it.


“I can has cheezburger?” (Or is that a childburger? He was looking straight at us!)


Thanks to weirdly warm temperatures of almost 70 degrees, the flamingos made a rare winter appearance.


I’d never seen the koala awake before yesterday (they sleep 22 hours a day), but apparently he too warmed up enough to scootch slowly, slowly toward his eucalyptus leaves.


The tree kangaroo was nearly as sleepy and slothful as the koala, and just as furry.


This gorilla was looking after a baby who made me very grateful for my own kids’ comparatively good behavior. Her little charge was smearing something on the window that looked suspiciously like poop.


The Columbus Zoo does a holiday light show, Wildlights, which drew so many visitors yesterday that traffic was backed up for miles in both directions when we headed home. A photo can only hint at how many lights there were (millions, I think) and how beautiful they are when you see them “by real,” as the Tiger would say.


On the drive home, the Tiger fell asleep, all his silliness and wildness now just a shimmer of a dream.

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Merry Christmas Redux


The Brits have Boxing Day. The Germans have their Zweiter Weihnachtstag (second Christmas Day).

Here? The dang markets are open and so my poor little sister, who works for a major mutual fund company, has to go to work. That just seems wrong! I love the idea of a second Christmas Day and I think no one should have to go to work unless they provide a life-sustaining service. Heck, I’m in favor of all twelve days, even if that song really gnaws on my nerves.

So here’s wishing you a very merry Second Christmas Day. In its honor, I give you two of my favorite holiday things: music (at least those songs that don’t make me want to shoot someone) and cut-out cookies.

Thanks to my computer’s built-in mike, the sound is pretty reminiscent of a music box. And the beginning sounds pretty wooden, since I was watching to see if the technology was cooperating, which only enhances the music-box effect. Otherwise it’s a flawless performance (ha!) of Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song,” arranged for piano by Philip Keveren. Listen at your own peril.

I can’t claim the cookies are in any better taste. Still, the frosting does taste good (thanks to a generous splash of almond flavoring). There’s probably enough dyes in them to preserve us for the next 80 years.

The Tiger, who made this one, hearts Christmas almost as much as he hearts sugar.


What’s Christmas without a festive cat?


Or two?


And then there’s the traditional Christmas rooster.


This guy might slide through as the Ghost of Christmas Past.


Apparently the Blue Man show has gone to the North Pole.


Here’s our homage to Charlie Brown’s tree.

I’d close by quoting Mel Torme’s last line – “May all your Christmases be white” – but darn it, a thunderstorm just rolled into town. So instead, I’ll just wish you love, kindness, joy, peace, compassion – and a glimpse of the holiday spirit where you might not expect it, whether in a torrential rainfall or a purple tree.

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The Tragedy of the Elves

Today I have a horrible elf hangover. No, I didn’t fall too deep into the egg nog last night. I was up until the wee hours doing the work of the elves.

As always, this wasn’t how I’d planned it.

A few weeks back, the Bear mentioned that the one toy that caught his imagination in the Christmas catalogs was a puppet theater. I whispered to his dad that we could maybe build our own; the one in the catalog looked small and flimsy. By “we,” I of course meant “he.” The Bear didn’t bring it up again – until a few days ago, with hope gleaming in his eyes. By then, his dad was under the weather and nothing was going to be built of wood and hardware.

But I started to fret that the Bear might be disappointed to not get the one and only toy he’d requested. So yesterday, I got the brilliant idea (and by “brilliant,” I of course mean “harebrained”) that I could sew a puppet theater. These Martha Stewart-ish fits strike me only about once a year. They always end in me feeling grateful that home ec was a required course during my long-ago North Dakotan girlhood – and foolish at not having learned my lesson during my last fit of craftiness.

4 p.m.: I’m in Wal-Mart, scouring the fabric department for supplies. (Please don’t chide me for patronizing the evil empire; it’s the only source for fabric within 40 miles.) Finally I find the only bolt of velvet in stock. Technically it’s velveteen, but it’ll do. It’s lush and black. As for trimmings, I settle on sequined braid, ribbon, and tassels, all in a festive gold.

9:30 p.m.: I sneak the sewing machine out of the upstairs closet and past the kids as their dad gets them ready for bed. I discover that the prongs on the plug are badly warped. I unwarp them just enough to render them pluggable. Mercifully, the machine runs smoothly; I hadn’t used it since I’d driven all the way to Zanesville for repairs after I’d broken the entire needle unit while sewing a Halloween costume. It dawns on me how stupid it is to engage in Christmas brinksmanship.

9:35 p.m.: The Bear appears downstairs. I bark at him – rather unmerrily – to get back to bed. I thank my stars that it wasn’t the Tiger, who still believes.

11 p.m.: My husband slinks out to his woodshop in the garage, after all, to sand down a dowel to support the bottom of the stage’s opening.

12 midnight: We cross the Christmas dateline without any kids appearing again. Ribbon loops grace the top edge of the curtain, an arched opening has taken shape, and I’m about to hem the edges. I realize that the edges are really long – six foot along the floor and nearly five feet vertically. This theater is big enough to accommodate three or four puppeteers.

1 a.m.: Everything is finished except the trim. I reconsider my original plan of using the hot glue gun to attach it. What if it makes the curtain too stiff? What if it melts the sequins? If I wreck the theater, I’ve got no Plan B. How about if I sew the sequins on with the machine? No, no, no – that’s how I broke the damn thing last time. (My machine is no match for the glue on sequined fabric and trims.) I google variations on “attaching sequins” and come up remarkably empty. Oh Martha, Martha, why hast thou forsaken me?

1:15 a.m.: I sigh and start sewing on the sequined braid by hand. It is two yards in length. I learn that black is a truly fiendish color in dim artificial light when your eyes are tired and you’ve refused to get bifocals despite advancing presbyopia. I take off my glasses and bring the fabric within a few inches of my face.

2:30 a.m.: I go through another round of dithering about how to attach the tassel trim. This time, I use the machine. The metallic gold thread breaks again and again.

3:00 a.m.: I hang the theater on the suspension rod. I can’t believe it’s finally done. I can’t believe it actually worked and – as the Tiger loves to say – “it looks awesome.” I’m so tickled, I have to take a picture.


I lay out a trail of animal puppets to lead the kids from the stairs to the theater. Santa’s work is done, and not once did I use the seam ripper.

3:30 a.m.: I crawl into bed.

4:00 a.m.: The Bear crawls out of his bed.

6:15 a.m.: The Bear wakes me up to inform me that the motor for one of his toys just overheated.

I promised you a tragedy, so I’ll tell you right now that nothing burned down from this incident. But as I groggily assured the Bear we’d figure it out later, I realized that yet again, the kids proved it’s impossible to witness their pleasure when they discover Santa’s goodies. Unless, of course, you stay up all night. Hey, I nearly did pull an all-nighter, and I still missed that mythical magical moment.

That’s the tragedy of the elves, isn’t it? Every year, they do Santa’s bidding. And then, every year, Santa gets the credit and the elves – unless they’re uncommonly early risers – miss the show.

I’m reminded of a story my mom still tells of how my dad once built a kid-sized tool bench for my brother. Santa got the glory. I’d always vowed that I wouldn’t do the same; that I would refuse to let Santa be a free rider.

Except for this: The Bear is in on the secret. A few years ago, he dissected all the logical flaws in Santa’s cover story. And so after I finally dragged my bones out of bed later this morning, he and I exchanged a few knowing, smiling glances. He knows. I know he knows. That’s good enough. That, plus the excited gleam in his eye as he said, “I really love the puppet theater, Mama.”

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