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This has been my kids second-favorite toy this summer, topped only by the decrepit typewriter they unearthed while we were in Berlin.


It’s the box from our beloved front-porch furniture. The kids have turned it into a house, of course. Two months later, the porch furniture is still wonderful, but the box has achieved a state of transcendent ugliness. Plus it blocks access to the back porch when we store it there to save it from the rain that’s been a daily feature lately.

My husband would like to send this box-house to recycling. I’m hoping it will die a natural death from the kids’ enthusiasm. Fat chance; my boys have a way with packing tape. We can be glad that neither has packed his brother inside and shipped him off to the South Pole.

BoxBarksPack kitteh from I Can Has Cheezburger?

We can be even gladder that they’re entertained … and mostly in a non-malevolent key.


Scary kitteh from I Can Has Cheezburger?

There’s actually solid scientific evidence that a box is the perfect educational toy for cats and kids. Witness Maru:

So I think we’re going to live with the eyesore a little longer. As long as the kids are happy, I can almost call that box beautiful.

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I know I swore off Palinology, so can we book this post as Shatner blogging?

posted with vodpod

(via Alas and Mudflats)

Or, as Jerry used to sing: “The sky was yellow and the sun was blue.”

Also, I don’t think I’m too naive, but if you happen to know what Cheechakos are, would you please let me know?

Here’s the transcript as provided by Mudflats:

And getting up here I say it is the best road trip in America soaring through nature’s finest show.  Denali, the great one, soaring under the midnight sun.  And then the extremes.  In the winter time it’s the frozen road that is competing with the view of ice fogged frigid beauty, the cold though, doesn’t it split the Cheechakos from the Sourdoughs?  And then in the summertime such extreme summertime about a hundred and fifty degrees hotter than just some months ago, than just some months from now, with fireweed blooming along the frost heaves and merciless rivers that are rushing and carving  and reminding us that here, Mother Nature wins.  It is as throughout all Alaska that big wild good life teeming along the road that is north to the future.  That is what we get to see every day.  Now what the rest of America gets to see along with us is in this last frontier there is hope and opportunity and there is country pride.

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Regular commenter Mark Faulkner pointed me to Judith Warner’s latest piece at the New York Times, Dangerous Resentments. Warner argues that

our country’s resentment, and even hatred, of well-educated, apparently affluent women, is spiraling out of control.

But her evidence for this is mighty thin: one case of a professor-mother, Bridget Kevane, who was charged with child endangerment and had the book thrown at her:

The prosecutor pursued her child endangerment case ultra-zealously because she “said she believed professors are incapable of seeing the real world around them because their ‘heads are always in a book,’” Kevane writes. “I just think that even individuals with major educations can commit this offense, and they should not be treated differently because they have more money or education,” the prosecutor wrote to Kevane’s lawyer.

Now, I find the prosecutor’s remarks offensive, myself. My head is frequently in a book (or turned toward my computer) but if I’m with my kids, my ears are still tuned to them (right now they’re making happy playing noises) and my antennae are quivering. While I’ve known a couple of professors who really did inhabit a different universe, none of them spawned offspring. On the whole, intellectuals are not dry, detached, heartless creatures.

Americans do harbor an anti-intellectual streak. Perhaps women bear the brunt of this more than men. I’m not quite convinced of that, though. George W. Bush’s victories over Al Gore and John Kerry demonstrate our collective ambivalence toward intelligent men. Obama might represent a swing of the pendulum back toward valuing intellectuals – or he might be a fluke. After all, suspicion of “eggheads” goes back at least to Adlai Stevenson.

Besides, while female intellectuals face occasional overt prejudice, it’s much less pervasive and damaging than the biases against poor women and women of color. I for one would rather be seen as an absent-minded professor than as a welfare queen. Life in general and motherhood in particular are easier for women with my educational advantages than for most poor women of color. While I’ve had long spells of underemployment, I have a job and health insurance, my kids live in a safe neighborhood, and a very good public school is just a couple hundred feet from our front door. That doesn’t mean it’s illegitimate to point out sexism against privileged women, only that it needs to be contextualized and relativized, which Warner really doesn’t do.

At any rate, Warner can’t make her case with a single example: one prosecutor in Bozeman, Montana, who had a bad case of town-gown resentment. Kevane highlights the town-gown issue in her original essay at Brain, Child, and some of the commenters there also confirm that the university has tense relations with the town.

What’s really at stake here is a set of issues that all parents face: how much freedom and responsibility to give kids, how much we should restrict their lives in the name of “keeping them safe,” and how parents will be judged for their decisions. I say “parents,” but in reality it’s often mothers whose feet are held to the fire, as Kevane’s case shows.

Here’s what happened, in Bridget Kevane’s words:

Bozeman is a small town known for its quality of life, striking physical beauty, easy access to the outdoors, and great public schools. It is also known as a safe community. The mall is considered a family place where kids trick-or-treat in October to escape the cold, and groups of children meet friends, shop, eat and see movies. It is a popular activity both during the long Montana winters as well as the summer months.

The mall is a safe place. There are no signs posted at the mall saying that children cannot be left unattended. No child has ever been kidnapped or molested at the mall. And yet, I was charged as a criminal for dropping children there without my direct supervision.

My oldest daughter, Natalie, and her friend, were both twelve at the time, going into seventh grade. The girls, who had known each other since they were three years old, had attended a babysitting class sponsored by the local hospital for girls eleven and older. The class teaches CPR, infant care, responsible behavior and more. They both also had enough experience babysitting other people’s children that I trusted having them supervise the other kids at the mall—Ellie, eight, Matthew, seven, and my younger daughter, Olivia, who was three.

An outsider, or someone used to a bigger, more crowded way of living, might be shocked to know that I left children that young in the care of two twelve-year-olds. But these kids were a pack. They grew up together in a neighborhood full of children. They walk to and from their local schools together, play together, and frequently spend time at each other’s homes.

My husband and I are particularly good friends with two families that live near our home. We parents depend on each other for support and mutual child care as much as our children depend on each other for friendship. As our kids have grown older, an implicit agreement has formed among us: Our children will wander to each other’s homes, and it is our job to informally supervise them and keep each other aware of their whereabouts. As we all live within less than half a mile from each other, much time is spent going from one house to the other, to the park, or walking around the nearby university, where I am a professor of Latin American and Latino Studies.

So when the older girls asked if they could go to the mall that Saturday, I said yes, if they took the younger kids with them. On that particular day, I was exhausted. The children wanted an activity, and I wanted a couple of hours of quiet and rest. …

The plan was for the kids to have lunch and walk around a bit. I told the older girls the rules. They could not leave the younger kids unsupervised. They could not make a ruckus. They had to behave. Olivia, the three-year-old, had to stay in her stroller. When I called my husband and the other mother to let them know the plan, there was no hesitation on their part. My husband was at his office down the street from the mall, less than five minutes away. I would be at home with my cell phone, and my daughter had her cell phone in case they wanted to be picked up early.

I dropped the group off at roughly one forty-five p.m. and said that I would pick them up at four for the barbeque we were going to that night. It was to be an afternoon activity, as simple as that.

About an hour later, my husband, who was home by then, received a call from the police telling me that we had to come down to the mall immediately. My first thought was that the kids had made a scene, that they had knocked something over, that they had run about recklessly. We jumped into the car.

When I walked into the mall, the children were all in an enclosed security office behind a glass wall, smiling, eating candy, and talking to a security guard and some Macy’s employees. I smiled and waved to them, relieved that everything appeared fine.

That feeling was quickly about to change.

As soon as we entered the office, I was confronted by two Bozeman city police officers. One told me that what I had done was completely unacceptable in his opinion and that he was going to arrest me for endangering the welfare of my children. I asked him if there was a mall age limit that I was not aware of. He told me to be quiet. I tried to explain to him that I had faith in my daughter’s skills and in the safety of the mall, and that I was not an endangering parent. As I tried to keep talking, desperate to clear up what was obviously nothing more than a huge misunderstanding, he warned me that if I “went crazy” on him, he would handcuff me right in front of the children and take me away to jail for the night. He said he had called child services already. They would either arrive at the mall shortly or get his report and be visiting my home this week to check in.

My husband tried to reason with the officer, emphasizing that this was a first-time mistake and asking if we could be set free with a warning, some lesser charge. But the officer simply kept repeating that what I had done was a crime.

I’ve quoted at length because Warner’s column left me feeling pretty judgmental, but after I read Kevane’s essay, I felt much more sympathetic toward her. My own reaction mirrors the disparate tone of the comments at Brain, Child and at the New York Times. Most Brain, Child readers were basically sympathetic. Ditto at the Free Range Kids blog, which reprinted Kevane’s essay. At the New York Times, readers have roundly criticized Kevane’s mothering (and mostly dismissed the point Warner was purportedly trying to make about prejudice toward educated women), as did Jesse at Pandagon.

Kevane’s original essay makes clear that she’s still working through the deep shaming she experienced. However unwittingly, Warner just compounded it by presenting a much-condensed version of Kevane’s story and exposing her to a new round of shaming in the national spotlight (259 comments at the NTY and counting).

I do think Kevane made a couple of errors in judgment. One is that two twelve-year-olds don’t add up to double the babysitters; they add up to double the distraction. The other was to not realize that the mall would quadruple the distraction. At the mall, twelve-year-olds who are otherwise devoted big sisters quickly turn into flighty adolescents. Myself, I wouldn’t entrust a three-year-old with such a young sitter in public, because when the Tiger was three, he had this alarming tendency to run away. He wouldn’t have stayed in that stroller. Maybe Kevane’s little one is more docile, but there’s still a world of difference between a kid who’s still in a stroller and one who goes to grade school.

But here’s my confession: I’ve left my kids in the care of an eleven-year-old! I had a late Friday afternoon work commitment, and my husband got roped into an event that overlapped with mine. After trying a couple of older sitters, who were busy, I asked the sixth-grader two doors down to pick up my boys at school, bring them home, give them a snack, and play with them for an hour until my husband could come home. I was a little apprehensive but it worked fine. Our families are good friends, she’d done some prior “mother’s helper” work for me, she’s taken the Red Cross babysitting course, and my kids adore her. Our kids often form a little posse, much as Kevane describes. My town is a “safe” town, much like Kevane’s. Neither I nor my neighbors lock our back doors during the day, and some folks might think that’s pretty chancey, too.

Would I have sent our young neighbor to the mall with my kids? Heck no. Our mall is like a ghost town; more than half the stores are empty because the owners insist on charging crazy-high rents. Would I have asked her to mind my kids while she had a friend over? No, the conflict of interest would’ve been obvious. But I have sent them all to the playground together. Also, unlike Kevane, I wasn’t reachable by phone when I left our neighbor girl in charge. In an emergency, she could have reached her own mom by phone, but all four of us parents were at the university, a minimum of ten minutes away.

So I can’t totally condemn Kevane. I think everyone involved made some errors: the older girls, the other parents, the police, and the prosecutor. That doesn’t add up to a criminal offense.

Also, I’m just old enough to be a former eleven-year-old babysitter, myself. When my family spent time at our farm (we normally lived in town), I watched my sister, who’s eight years younger, while my parents and brother worked in fields. And by “watch,” I mean I tried to read a book while she played. (See, this nose-in-a-book thing runs deep.) There were no cell phones in 1975. I also babysat for pay at age eleven. It was just blocks from my house and I knew I could call my mom in a pinch, but I was in charge of two preschoolers, sometimes until well after midnight.

I think it’s perfectly okay to let a parent know when she (or he!) has overestimated her kids’ responsibility level. Kevane basically let the Macy’s staff fill the gaps, and that’s uncool and presumptuous. She could have sent the kids outside, or to the playground, which wouldn’t have been such a treat for the kids, but surely would have been the much smarter choice.

But criminal prosecution? Again, you really need to read her essay to get the full flavor of her experience. Also, where’s the outrage about her husband and the other mom agreeing to the situation? Why was only Kevane arrested, and not her husband, who after all picked up the phone when the cops called?

I tend to be overprotective of my kids. But what happens if parents’ decisions that depart from the most restrictive standards in the community become criminalized? We could keep our kids in a bubble, we could encase our kids in amber, and they’d be perfectly preserved. But keeping kids safe isn’t just a moment-to-moment concern. We also have to prepare them, slowly and systematically for life outside that shell. Navigating that tension is tricky. What happens if we haul every parent who makes a misstep into court?

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Hilzoy is absolutely correct: Assuming that there are strong parallels between Eastern Europe in 1989 and Iran’s ferment today would be stupid and risky. Eastern Europeans welcomed our support. Iranians, by contrast, have had reason to suspect American motives ever since we brought down Mossadegh and installed the Shah’s harsh dictatorship. Throwing strong American support behind the protesters might poison their cause for many ordinary Iranians and sharpen the government’s reaction.

But there’s one interesting parallel between 1989 and 2009 when it comes to the roots of discontent: a shortage of housing, though for different reasons and with different consequences. Eastern Europeans lacked apartments because government planners failed to build enough decent units. Iranians are priced out of the market, especially in Tehran, where Time magazine reports prices have risen “as much as 150%” since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office.

Shortages of decent, affordable housing tend to be particularly hard on young people trying to strike out on their own, as both examples show. This has an impact on whether and when people choose to marry. In Eastern Europe, couples tended to marry very young, often as soon as they finished their schooling, because married couples had priority over singles in being granted an apartment. I knew a number of East Germans who’d married at 18 or 20 for precisely this reason. Even so, many young couples had to camp out at their parents’ homes while waiting for their own digs.

In Iran, the housing problem is having an opposite effect on young people. Because the issue is high prices rather than an absolute shortage, people are deferring marriage to later and later ages. Time’s reporter, Azedeh Moaveni, presents this conundrum as typical:

Amir Hekmati is a determined 31-year-old civil servant from Tehran’s Narmak neighborhood. He earns the equivalent of $500 a month and has saved assiduously. He’s also managed to secure a loan from the ministry where he works and a small sum from his parents, but even with that he can’t muster enough to buy a studio apartment in an outlying district of the city. Two women he admired turned down his marriage proposals on the grounds that he did not already have his own place. “If women would just agree to be girlfriends and date, we wouldn’t be forced to pursue marriage in the first place,” he complained.

Hekmati can dream on, because even though Iranian women are outstripping men in higher education and are increasingly pursuing careers, social norms haven’t changed enough to embrace premarital sex. Which points out another issue: For at least some young Iranians, deferred marriage doesn’t mean freedom so much as involuntary celibacy.

I don’t want to overstate the similarities between 1989 and 2009. There are immense cultural differences between Iran and the former East Bloc countries. And yet, in both cases supposedly “private” desires for a home, marriage, and family fed into public protests and a desire for political change. Understanding the dynamics of revolution requires breaking down this artificial distinction between private and public.

I don’t think it’s likely that the Iranians can achieve a bloodless revolution through peaceful protests. Against the odds, I’m wholeheartedly hoping they can.

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This sort of crap should never, ever happen anymore. And yet, a Columbus judge is still on the bench after behaving cruelly toward victims of sexual assault:

Rape cases are often settled without a trial so that the victim can avoid testifying and reliving the ordeal.

But Common Pleas Judge Tim Horton recently ordered two victims to appear in court, in front of their attackers, because he said he wanted to make sure that everyone understood the plea deals that had been worked out by attorneys.

One of the victims, a 13-year-old boy, eventually was allowed to give a written statement through his mother.

But in the other case, a young woman began to break down on the witness stand, and Horton, who has been a judge for three years, scolded her.

“About two minutes here, if you don’t gather yourself, I’m about to rip up this guilty plea, and this man in front of you is about to walk. So I would do your very best to gather yourself,” Horton said, according to court transcripts.

A victims’ advocate is outraged.

And Horton now acknowledges that he wasn’t at his best during those moments.

“I don’t intend to make this a trend,” he said. “I’m still evolving as a judge. (The woman’s case) was a plea I learned a lot from. It was not my finest plea.”

The 19-year-old woman was raped on a pool table with a knife to her throat at a party in Grove City in 2007. She said she thought the arrest of her assailant and a negotiated plea deal would end her trauma.

(Source: Columbus Dispatch)

Look, Judge Horton, you don’t get to “evolve” at the victim’s expense.

Since the 1970s, judges have had every opportunity to know that their job is not to put the victim on trial! Horton’s picture in the Dispatch article looks as though he might well have been born in the 1970s. He’s been a judge since 2006, so he’s neither a newbie nor a judicial dinosaurs. He represents a fresh, new generation of judges – and he seems to have a heart like a cherry pit.

Horton evidently wanted to push for a higher penalty and wondered if the victim knew that a longer sentence could be imposed. You can’t fault him for that. But why not talk to the victim and prosecutors privately, in his chambers? Why force her to testify in public?

And most of all: How could he threaten to tear up the deal and let a rapist walk away free, simply because the victim broke down on the stand? Not even the pursuit of justice can ever justify the threat of injustice.

Empathy. It’s not just for wise Latina judges anymore.

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I just finished my grading in record time. So why do I feel so blue?

Maybe because I’m still tired, and sick, and sick and tired of feeling lousy.

Maybe because I’m now nose-to-nose with all the flotsam of my life, and I have no idea where to begin reorganizing. Do I continue the barely-begun mulching of my garden? How about transplanting my stunted, homegrown impatiens into some window boxes? Attacking the hated floral wallpaper in the dining room? Tackling the boxes in the basement?

And then there are non-bloggy writing projects that are not so much percolating as decomposing, I’ve neglected them so badly.

In what galaxy will I find the energy for any of that? Uff da. If we’re hit by a random sub-nano black hole, please let it be a surgical strike on my basement.

Instead of doing anything constructive, I’m sinking into our new porch furniture, which my clever husband both discovered (at Wal-Mart, of all places) and assembled. It’s surprisingly sturdy for the price, and it matches our peachy house handsomely. (Yes, I know, I shouldn’t shop at the Mart of Wals, but our local shopping options are very limited, and I’m loathe to buy furniture without first putting it through the sitz test.)


It’s pretty, isn’t it? I’m feeling less blue and more peachy by the moment.

I do love my husband just a little bit extra for this.

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This news isn’t brand new any more (it came out about a month ago) but since mother-blaming never goes out of season, here you go.

You know how there’s a massive body of science indicating that caffeine is harmful in pregnancy? It’s been implicated in low birthweight, prematurity, miscarriage, stillbirth, and being born with Vulcan features such as pointy eyebrows and green blood. Okay, so I made the last one up, but the rest are all conclusions from real studies. Less well known is that many studies have failed to find any associations at all between caffeine and these major poor outcomes of pregnancy. A few have even found possible benefits (in preventing gestational diabetes, for example).

Now a Cochrane review has sifted through all of these studies and found one – just one! – study that met its criteria for inclusion in the review. The problem? There’s a terrible dearth of randomized, controlled trials (RCT). Virtually all research on caffeine in pregnancy has relied on observational studies, which are beset by all kinds of confounders – nutrition, smoking, alcohol, stress, education, etc. This isn’t merely a matter of medical neglect. In the full-length version of their paper which is behind the usual firewall, the Cochrane authors, Shayesteh Jahanfar and Halimah Sharifah, note that randomization poses ethical issues if investigators assume caffeine could have harmful effects.

The single study that actually meets the RCT is very reassuring, however. Here’s Jahanfar and Sharifah’s plain-language summary:

Effects of restricted caffeine intake by mother on fetal, neonatal and pregnancy outcome
Caffeine is a stimulant found in tea, coffee, cola, chocolate and some over-the-counter medicines. Conflicting results found in the literature make it difficult for health professionals to advise pregnant women about avoiding caffeine during pregnancy. Clearance of caffeine from the mother’s blood slows down during pregnancy. Some authors of observational studies have concluded that caffeine intake is harmful to the fetus, causing growth restriction, reduced birthweight, preterm birth or stillbirth. The newborn could also have withdrawal symptoms if the mother has a high intake of caffeine (more than eight cups of coffee per day).

Only one controlled study was identified. The study was based in Denmark. Women less than 20 weeks pregnant were randomly assigned to drinking caffeinated instant coffee (568 women after exclusions) or decaffeinated instant coffee (629 women). Drinking three cups of coffee a day in early pregnancy had no effect on birthweight, preterm births or growth restriction.

Sufficient evidence is not available from randomised controlled trials to support any benefits from avoiding caffeine during pregnancy.

This suggests that expectant mothers need not stress about consuming modest amounts of caffeine. (The women in the Danish trial drank up to three cups a day.) The preponderance of evidence suggests that a couple of servings of coffee or pop per day is harmless.

My own experience was that I really didn’t want coffee in early pregnancy. It was one of my aversions. But that didn’t make me caffeine-free. My best trick for taming nausea was to eat a few saltines and drink a small glass of regular Coke before I tottered out of bed.

I know someone who got guilt-tripped for drinking a single Pepsi when she was about four months pregnant. She’d been proud of herself for cutting down from several a day. “Don’t you know what that’s doing to the baby?” her friend asked. I guess I was lucky that my Coke habit was hidden behind the bedroom door.

Her experience was in the early 1990s, when What to Expect When You’re Expecting was still edited by an unreconstructed team of food fascists. The “What to Expect” party line has moderated some since then. Currently, their advice is to cut out caffeine entirely, but they don’t totally shame women who manage to drop down to two doses per day.

I happen to think there’s a good case to be made for moderation, though that goes for all habits and all stages of life – not just pregnancy. The Cochrane authors mention that consumption of eight or more (!) cups of coffee per day can lead to withdrawal symptoms in newborns. That’s sounds like avoidable worry and misery. If I’d had more than one miscarriage, I’d cut out caffeine because I’d be totally paranoid.

But ordinary, healthy pregnancies ought not to be training for extreme self-renunciation. You’re preparing to be a mother, not a Desert Father.

So if a cup or two of coffee helps lift the fatigue of pregnancy or clear your muddled mind, Dr. Caffeine says: Go for it!

DrCaffeine2It should be noted that Dr. Caffeine (pictured above) is a fuzzy stuffed toy bird with even less medical training than I have, and no credentials whatsoever. The authors of the Cochrane review are, however, the real deal.

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