Coming to Terms With The Aesthetic Brain

The Aesthetic Brain by Anjan Chatterjee. Photo credit: Oxford University Press.
The Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art by Anjan Chatterjee. Photo credit: Oxford University Press.

The first time that I tried to read Anjan Chatterjee’s book The Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art, I made it about halfway through before angrily putting it aside—which surprised me. Chatterjee, the Chair of the Department of Neurology at Pennsylvania Hospital and also a professor of Neurology at University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, has published extensively on topics like neuro-ethics and neuro-aesthetics. He seems thoroughly vetted and respectable. So, why the vitriol?

The Aesthetic Brain examines monolithic concepts—beauty, pleasure, and art—all through a lens of evolutionary psychology, a theory that ascribes much of human behavior not to personal choice but instead to the choices of our ancestors. Because certain choices lead to a greater chance of survival, they became adaptive, became the preferences and behaviors that were then encoded into successive generations.

In this perspective, feminine beauty and desirability are shackled to fertility. Symmetrical features imply health, which can be passed onto babies, giving them a better chance at surviving into adulthood. An ample bosom and a 0.7 hip-to-waist ratio are also shorthand for physical health, as is youth. By this logic, it is not fat- or age-shaming when women are judged as less-than rather than beautiful when they fall outside of these proscribed criteria. It is simply evolutionary wisdom applying meager odds to their ability to successfully gestate, deliver, and raise a child.

Fortunately, there are also evolutionary limits to how far these preferences can be taken. On the topic of youth, for instance, research actually claims a caveat: While men across cultures prefer women with “some baby-like features,” they also look for high cheekbones and narrow jaws in their partners, because, while youth equates with health, too much youth could indicate that a mother lacks the necessary maturity to adequately care for a child. Hold this conceit to your ear and you can almost hear the gentle murmur of Cercei Lannister asking Sansa Stark if she has flowered yet with her first moonblood

Women get to do a little judging of their own, of course: Pear-shaped bodies seem to be a no thank you for both genders. In an ideal world, all male chins and jaws would be chiseled, all brows commanding—all a result of optimal testosterone levels. That being said, men also seem to get off a little easier in the appearance department. First of all, too much testosterone actually lowers overall health and ability to fight infection. Second, the hyper-masculine features resulting from high testosterone levels are equated with aggression, an undesirable trait in a co-parenting life-mate, though apparently highly desirable in a recreational-sex partner.

“The story of what heterosexual women find attractive in men is complicated,” Chatterjee says. “Across culture after culture, women rank physical attractiveness less highly than men do. Status, power, wealth, the ability to protect and provide are all more important to women than men.”

To validate this idea that appearance is more important to men while power is what women find desirable, Chatterjee references the internet search study completed by Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam and reported in their book A Billion Wicked Thoughts:

“Ogas and Gaddam analyzed Internet searches to find out what men and women chose to search for on the Web. When it comes to desires in the virtual world, gender differences are strikingly clear: Men overwhelmingly search for pornography. The videos are visually graphic without much in the way of plot or emotional engagement. By contrast, women overwhelmingly search for e-Rom Web sites. These sites tell romantic stories often built around a heroic man.”

Personally, I read this and wonder: Is it that women aren’t actually interested in pornography? Or is it that women have received cultural messages telling them they shouldn’t enjoy pornography? Or that most available pornography defines female sexuality by what is actually pleasurable for men? Or as Violet Blue posits in a piece for O, The Oprah Magazine, does it come down to women’s (apparently-legitimate) concerns surrounding body image:

In my research and experience, the biggest roadblock for women (and men) to enjoying explicit imagery is the fear that they don’t “stack up” to the bodies and abilities of the people onscreen. Erotic models and actresses bring up a whole range of adequacy issues, from breast size to weight, from what you look like “down there” to the adult acne we all periodically fight.

This video contains NSFW language and a brief discussion of sexual violence. It is also quite funny.

In short, so much of what was deemed beautiful in the first third of The Aesthetic Brain reflected back on fertility, on youth, or on a particular body type that I grew progressively more concerned that Chatterjee was providing a research-shrouded rationale for the many ways our culture objectifies women and devalues the intelligence and experience that come with age—what comedian Sarah Silverman recently described when she said:

“As soon as you’re at an age where you have opinions and you’re outspoken and you know who you are, you’re very much encouraged to crawl under a rock, and be embarrassed by any wrinkle. Or by still being alive.”

And so, I put the book aside.


The second time that I picked up The Aesthetic Brain, having pushed past research I’d previously found oppressively reductive, I found that the book began to feel…more like science that I could embrace. Midway through, between discussions of food and money, there was an “Orgasm For Dummies” segment on the neuroscience of why sex feels good that detailed the neurological underpinnings of sexual pleasure:

As you can imagine, it is hard to study what happens in the brain during orgasm. From the little information we have, the ventral striatum is active in men and in women. That activity is to be expected, since so many studies link the nucleus accumbens, a major subcomponent of the ventral striatum, to pleasure. Interestingly, activity in many parts of the brain decreases during orgasm. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the anterior cingulate, the parahippocampal gyrus, and the poles of the temporal lobes decrease their  activity. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex is engaged when we think  about ourselves and about our fears. The anterior cingulate is engaged when we monitor mistakes. The ends of the temporal lobes organize our knowledge of the world, and…the parahippocampus represents our external environment. What could a drop in neural activity in these areas mean? Perhaps it means that the person is in a state without fear and without thought of themselves or their future plans. They are not thinking about anything in particular and are in a state in which the very boundaries that separate them from their environment have disappeared. This pattern of deactivation could be the brain state of a purely transcendent experience enveloping a core experience of pleasure.

For me, the takeaway of this particular segment was more pragmatic than titillating, though: If all of the above is true and we are designed in our deepest neural wiring to engage in and enjoy sex, shouldn’t our attitudes toward birth control and sex education accurately reflect this, rather than relying so heavily upon shame, fear, and abstinence?

The final third of The Aesthetic Brain was full of big questions: What is art? What is it’s purpose? Can art exist outside of of its place and time or can it only be understood through context and analysis? Are we hardwired to enjoy and create art—is there an art module in the brain? An art instinct?

It is in this final section that Chatterjee introduces the concept of “drift,” the idea that the freedom to explore new forms of art and new ideas within art is a direct result of the level of social cohesion (control) exerted on the individual. During eras of oppression (high cohesion), art tends to stay within expected, narrow confines where it runs the risk of repeating upon itself, becoming stylized and exaggerated. Meanwhile, during times of revolution, the opposite holds true:

As the constraints on individual social behaviors diminish, acts that rose to be socially cohesive can drift. Art as an expression of social cohesion can change as pressure for art to do the work of social cohesion matters less. This new openness and variety in art can persist as long as countervailing forces do not weed it out.

Could this idea of drift also apply back to our understanding of human desire? In times of oppression when goods are scarce and punishment severe, almost as a safety measure, does our definition of beauty contract, hew closer to evolutionary dictates? Could the inverse also hold true? Chatterjee seems to imply, yes. This drift, then, becomes the space within evolutionary psychology where our species is allowed, when optimal circumstances exist, to experiment with the ground rules—not all of human experience is designed to be proscribed or preordained.

Ultimately, I was brought to a realization with regard to Chatterjee’s work: Just because I found much of the research in the first third of The Aesthetic Brain reductive does not mean that it lacks legitimacy. Among the challenges contemporary life has thrown at us perhaps we need to acknowledge one more. Social progress and the expanded roles women have taken on in recent generations have quite possibly outpaced our neural hard-wiring. To me, this makes a great deal more sense than the idea that we are living in a post-feminist world where sexism no longer exists or that those women who claim to be excluded in the workplace or judged more for their looks or submissiveness than for the quality of their minds are lying or exaggerating.

Disclaimer: A copy of The Aesthetic Brain was provided to me for review purposes.




Lottie Dolls Is Running a Super(hero) Costume Contest!

Girls can be superheroes, too! Photo credit: @Lottie_Dolls

Here at GeekMom we’ve had some spirited behind-the-scenes debates on whether or not Barbie’s unrealistic dimensions affect a little girl’s self-image. Some, like me, wonder if women’s tendency toward perfectionism isn’t perhaps the result of the barrage of idealized feminine images children receive through their toys and the media. Others at the blog take a softer approach, claiming, “I played with Barbies as a kid and I turned out happy and confident.”

What we have agreed upon, though, is that Arklu’s Lottie Dolls are wonderful toys—many of us have bought them for our children or for friends. Whether you appreciate the fact that Lottie has a “childlike” body (she doesn’t wear makeup, jewelry, or high heels either), or just enjoy her for her hobbies (including robotics, ballet, karate) and accessories (puppies, picnic baskets, pirate queen ensembles), there is no getting around the fact that this is a fun, well-constructed, charmingly-conceived toy. Also: affordable.

And now, as it turns out, your family could win the entire Lottie collection—dolls, accessories, clothing, and animal friends. Lottie Dolls is teaming up with the non-profit organization “Brave Girls Want” to launch a global competition to get kids aged 10 and under to design a superhero outfit—the first “crowdsourced doll outfit design by a child” for the Lottie™  doll.

With the release of a whole slew of superhero movies on the way, we know that there is an acknowledged lack of strong female superheroes out there, so this is why we thought a competition and campaign with the message that girls can be superheroes too is very much needed.

Want to enter the contest? Here are the details…

The prize:

  • One lucky child will see their superhero outfit design manufactured and made commercially available in Autumn 2014.
  • The winning child will see their original artwork design, first name, age, city, and country on the back of the outfit packaging.
  • The winning child will also win the entire range of Lottie dolls, accessories, and outfits.

How to enter:

  • Parents: Go to the Superhero Contest app on the Lottie Facebook page; like the page and download and print out the Superhero Outfit Design template.
  • Kids: Start coloring and create a superhero outfit design for Lottie.
  • Parents: Take a photo of your child’s design and upload it on the Lottie Facebook app, and fill in a form to allow your child to enter.

Terms and Conditions:

  • Competition open to kids aged 10 and under only.
  • Parental permission required to enter the competition.
  • Competition closing date 7th May 2014.
  • A winner will be selected by jury and confidentially notified in May 2014.
  • Multiple entries permitted.

Full terms and conditions available here.

PS: A selection of entries is shown on Pinterest—and if you have ever enjoyed the company of a little person with a vivid imagination you will need to immediately head over there and check out some of the superpowers that the contestants have imagined for Lottie:

  • “She can touch animals wounds and they go away. She shoots bandages over their wounds.”
  • “She can fly into whirlwinds in air and water. She can make rainbows.”
  • “She shoots love hearts from her hands to make sick children better.”
  • “Her cape shoots out [watermelon] seeds to grow for all the children [so that they] never go hungry again. No one will ever die from hunger or thirst again!”
  • “She can fly with her jet pack and protect dinosaurs.”
  • “She shoots rainbow colored hearts from her hands. When she hits a villain it makes them turn nice/good instantly. If she was real there would be no wars.”

This is good stuff; you won’t want to miss it!

Sample Excerpt: It’s Complicated, The Social Lives of Networked Teens

It's Complicated by danah boyd. Photo credit: Yale University Press
It’s Complicated by danah boyd. Photo credit: Yale University Press

danah boyd is a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society who recently completed eight years of field work interviews with over 160 youth in order to write her new book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. The book winds up being a nuanced treatise on teen social media consumption that moves beyond accepted assumptions and digs into the research to answer questions like:

  • Is teen use of social media addictive in nature or a new extension of typical human engagement?
  • Is it true that teens are uninterested in privacy and prone to over-sharing, or instead, are adults limiting teen privacy and then taking teen social media content out of context?
  • Is social media use amplifying bullying and increasing the risk of sexual predation, or are the causes of these issues more complex and less ubiquitous than we’ve been lead to believe?

Yale University Press has kindly allowed GeekMom to carry an excerpt of boyd’s new book. I found this section on social steganography particularly interesting—it would seem that while parents are trying to protect their children from danger, teens are also trying to protect their parents as they carve out their emerging social identities.

Social Steganography
By danah boyd,
Author of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens

Children love to experiment with encoding messages. From Pig Latin to invisible ink pens, children explore hidden messages when they’re imagining themselves as spies and messengers. As children grow up, they look for more sophisticated means of passing messages that elude the watchful eyes of adults. In watching teens navigate networked publics, I became enamored of how they were regularly encoding hidden meaning in publicly available messages. They were engaged in a practice that Alice Marwick and I called “social steganography,” or hiding messages in plain sight by leveraging shared knowledge and cues embedded in particular social contexts.

The practice of hiding in plain sight is not new. When ancient Greeks wanted to send a message over great distances, they couldn’t rely on privacy. Messengers could easily be captured and even encoded messages deciphered. The most secure way to send a private message was to make sure that no one knew that the message existed in the first place. Historical sources describe the extraordinary lengths to which Greeks went, hiding messages within wax tablets or tattooing them on a slave’s head and allowing the slave’s hair to grow out before sending him or her out to meet the message’s recipient. Although these messages could be easily read by anyone who bothered to look, they became visible only if the viewer knew to look for them in the first place. Cryptographers describe this practice of hiding messages in plain sight as steganography.

Social steganography uses countless linguistic and cultural tools, including lyrics, in-jokes, and culturally specific references to encode messages that are functionally accessible but simultaneously meaningless. Some teens use pronouns while others refer to events, use nicknames, and employ predetermined code words to share gossip that lurking adults can’t interpret. Many teens write in ways that will blend in and be invisible to or misinterpreted by adults. Whole conversations about school gossip, crushes, and annoying teachers go unnoticed as teens host conversations that are rendered meaningless to outside observers.

These practices are not new. Teens have long used whatever tools are around them to try to share information under the noses of their teachers and parents. At school, passing notes and putting notes in lockers are classic examples of how teens use paper, pen, and ingenuity to share information. Graffiti on bathroom walls may appear simply to be an act of vandalism, but these scrawled markings also convey messages. As new technologies have entered into teen life, it’s not surprising that teens also use them in similarly cryptic ways to communicate with one another. Texting gossip during class serves much of the same purpose as passing a note, yet it doesn’t require having to move a physical object, which reduces the likelihood of getting caught. But encoding messages guarantees only that if all else fails, the meaning will not become accessible, even if control over the information itself is unsuccessful.

When Carmen, a Latina seventeen-year-old living in Boston, broke up with her boyfriend, she “wasn’t in the happiest state.” She wanted her friends to know how she was feeling. Like many of her peers, Carmen shared her emotions by using song lyrics. Thus, her first instinct was to post song lyrics from an “emo” or depressing song, but she was worried that her mother might interpret the lyric in the wrong way. This had happened before. Unfortunately, Carmen’s mom regularly “overreacted” when Carmen posted something with significant emotional overtones. Thus, she wanted to find a song lyric that conveyed what she felt but didn’t trigger her mom to think she was suicidal.

She was also attentive to the way in which her mother’s presence on Facebook tended to disrupt the social dynamics among her friends. Carmen and her mom are close and, for the most part, Carmen loves having her mom as one of her friends on Facebook, but her mom’s incessant desire to comment on Facebook tends to discourage responses from her friends. As Carmen told me, when her mother comments, “it scares everyone away. Everyone kind of disappears after the mom post.” She wanted to make sure to post something that her friends would respond to, even if her mom jumped in to comment.

Carmen settled on posting lyrics from “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” This song sounds happy but is sung during a scene in the Monty Python movie Life of Brian in which the main character is being crucified. Carmen knew that her immigrant Argentinean mother would not understand the British cultural reference, but she also knew her close friends would. Only a few weeks earlier, she and her geeky girlfriends had watched the film together at a sleepover and laughed at the peculiar juxtaposition of song lyric and scene. Her strategy was effective; her mother took the words at face value, immediately commenting on Facebook that it was great to see her so happy. Her friends didn’t attempt to correct her mother’s misinterpretation. Instead, they picked up their phones and texted Carmen to see if she was OK.

Part of what makes Carmen’s message especially effective is that she regularly posts song lyrics to express all sorts of feelings. As a result, this song lyric blended into a collection of other song lyrics, quotes, and comments. She did not try to draw attention to the message itself but knew that her close friends would know how to interpret what they saw. And they did. Her friends had the cultural knowledge about what references were being made to interpret and contextualize the message underneath the song lyric. Thus, she conveyed meaning to some while sharing only a song lyric with many more.

The above is an excerpt from the book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens by danah boyd. It is a digitally-scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.

Copyright © 2014 danah boyd, author of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens.

The reviewer received a copy of this book for review purposes.

Review: Muppets Most Wanted

Still from Muppets: Most Wanted. Photo credit: Walt Disney Pictures.
Still from Muppets Most Wanted. Photo credit: Walt Disney Pictures.

You’ve seen all of the pre-movie build-up—some of it quite charming—but your wallet has been burned by kids’ movies in the past. So before you shell out 10 bucks a head, you’re asking yourself that perennial question of 21st century parenthood:

See it? Stream it? Or forget about it? Is Muppets Most Wanted actually worth seeing in the theater?

The short answer, of course, is see it. In a theater. Now. I mean, what kind of a heartless bastard are you, anyway? This is the Muppets we’re talking about. It’s the only show your parents ever allowed you to watch at the dinner table in the entire 873 years of your misbegotten childhood—not some anodyne, anthropomorphized travesty devised by Madison Avenue Mad Men in order to fill in the space alongside the fries in a Happy Meal box.

Now, once you get to the theater, you’ll need to spring for a treat, because this is a cause for celebration. Skip the $4 bottled water, however: This baby moves at a decent clip and a mid-movie trip to the bathroom is going to mean missing one, maybe two of Bret McKenzie’s brilliant songs. If that means missing Constantine and Ricky Gervais’ toe-tapping, soft-shoe laden “I’m Number One” duet, well…I’m here to tell you, you don’t want to do that (#ruetheday).

While we’re on the subject, you will also not want to miss the Russian Gulag gang’s Tina Fey-led “The Big House” or Ty Burrell and Sam Eagle’s Sondheim-ish “Interrogation Song.” Really. All people with walnut-sized bladders should be told that they have the rest of their long, happy, productive lives to hydrate and that children who want to live to see tomorrow should quietly rot their teeth with Jujubes or Rolos and allow their mother to enjoy a brilliant piece of musical theater uninterrupted for once in their lives.

As to the plot of Muppets: Most Wanted, frankly, we’re not exactly treading on unexplored plot-device territory here. Turns out, the number one most-wanted criminal in the world, Constantine, is a dead ringer for our favorite amphibious hero, Kermit—and with the help of his henchman, Dominic Badguy (a brilliantly-cast Ricky Gervais), Constantine plans on stealing the royal crown jewels and framing Kermit for the crime.

Meanwhile, the freshly-reunited Muppet gang is putting on shows all over Spain, Germany, and Ireland with the booking guidance of their new assistant manager, Dominic Badg–heyyyy, wait a minute—all the while, wondering if there’s something just a little different about Kermit these days. The gang is onto something because the real Kermit is actually imprisoned in Siberia, forced to produce Broadway-caliber shows with the inmates, all while Constantine breaks into some of the world’s most famous museums, woos Piggy, and plots the theft of the century.

  • Will Constantine succeed in his dastardly plot?
  • Will Ty Burrell’s Jean Pierre Napoleon solve the caper in time to take six weeks of vacation with his family?
  • Will Tina Fey’s prison matron, Nadya, single-handedly bring back the ushanka and long coat?

For now, I leave the answers to these and other questions to your frenzied imaginations…

"MUPPETS MOST WANTED" (Pictured) KERMIT. Photo by: Jay Maidment ©2013 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Photo from Muppets Most Wanted by: Jay Maidment ©2013 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

But Andrea (I can already hear you saying), I was hoping for more from the cameos. Where was the surly, tyrolean brilliance of Steve Martin’s sommelier in this new Muppet movie? Or Madeline Kahn’s mythic lush? And surely you thought Christoph Waltz and Salma Hayek were grossly under-utilized? Yes, absolutely. I hear you. At the same time, I see your Steve Martin and raise you a Tom Hiddleston… and a Zach Galifianakis…

Listen, I didn’t say that this movie was perfect (did I mention the Celine Dion/Miss Piggy duet? That is your chance to run to the bathroom if you need to; like her heart, that particular song goes on. (Forfreakinever!) With those small caveats I am here to tell you, though, that Muppets Most Wanted is very good, charming, sincere, clean fun. You will feel as if you are holding hands with your younger self as you hum and laugh along with the film—or maybe that was just me. Actually, I make no promises there.

Just know that in an entertainment landscape where dystopia and sexuality (both of which have their place and time) seem to be encroaching on movies for younger and younger demographics, Muppets Most Wanted winds up being an all-ages-appropriate, song and dance-filled romp—and if you ask me, that is worth endorsing with your hard-earned cash.

(This is promotional material from Disney Australia. Hence, the April 10 release date. Don’t be fooled, the movie opens Friday, March 21, in the United States.)

World Science U. Announces Launch on The Colbert Report

Earlier this week, Science benefited from the infamous “Colbert bump” when string theorist and Columbia University physics professor Brian Greene came onto The Colbert Report to announce World Science U., a new digital initiative that “aims to become the internet’s best source of courses focused exclusively on science.”

And did I mention: These courses will be free? And that the first two will be taught by Greene?

According to the interview, the first two classes are scheduled to be released online next week. Both will focus on the concept of relativity but one version of the class will provide a more conceptual perspective while the second class will include equations and math so that, in Greene’s words, “you can dig in deep.”

Interested in immersing yourself in the world of science? Sign up at World Science U.‘s website for more information.

Photo Gallery: Booker Dewitt and Wolverine at Comic Con New York

Booker montage. Photo credit-Jonathan Calderon.
Booker montage. Photo credit: Jonathan Calderon.

This year, as something of a rite-of-passage, the high school senior and his best friend attended Comic Con New York, sans parentals.

“Congratulations,” I told my son semi-seriously when his ticket arrived in the mail. “Now you’re a man.”

It did feel like a milestone, though, when I dropped the two of them off at the train station Friday morning, my son dressed as Booker Dewitt from Bioshock Infinite, his best friend a very-convincing Wolverine. They looked so grown up. I don’t think I’ve taken that many pictures of my son at one time since his first day of high school.

“You’re acting like this is my prom or something,” my son laughed at one point, mid-picture.

“Be quiet and lower your skyhook, it’s blocking your face,” I replied.

They had a great time, took a million pictures, and got home before I even thought about panicking. (“Erm. We ran out of money and got hungry.”) Another geek-parenting achievement unlocked.


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Ziplining, a video by Andrea Schwalm on Flickr.

As it turns out, once it picks up speed, a zipline will emit this surprising, Galloping-Gertie-about-to-collapse twang-ang-ang that you can almost pluck straight from the air with your open hands. All of those heist movies where mastermind criminals avoid detection by zipping across rooftops to steal diamonds and sapphires the size of baseballs? Lies! Zipping is about as stealthy as riding a motorcycle.

“We can actually tell if you’re going to make it all the way to the platform or if we’re going to have to slide out, hook up, and drag you back in,” the youngest of three zipline guides explains to me, chuckling, when I comment on the sound a couple of weeks ago. “If the pitch isn’t high enough, we know you’re not going to make it in.”

As the afternoon progresses, I observe first-hand how attuned our guides are to the line. In our group of a dozen, there’s one guy in his 20s from the city tricked out with a techy watch and a helmet-mounted Go-Pro camera, who despite holding the aerodynamic crouch we all have been taught beforehand, can’t seem to make it to any of the platforms under his own steam. Each run, the guide manning his line watches Techy Guy take off, a gloved hand casually cradling the zipline above our heads, and while Techy Guy is still just a speeding speck far off in the distance, monkeys out to within 12 inches of where he’ll inevitably grind to a halt. For all I know, the precise mental geometry involved in graphing out how far each person will get on the line is a parlor trick, but from the outside looking in, this looks like artistry—and it’s kind of gorgeous.

So here we are: my husband, our two sons aged 14 and 17, and I, all starting our summer vacation by zipping through the Skyrider Tour at Hunter Mountain, and the thing that surprises me most is how much I’m actually enjoying it—though I’m clearly not the only one surprised by this. When our guides early-on intone to our group:

“If you are at all nervous about doing this, we suggest you move toward the front of the group—you would be amazed at how effective peer pressure can be in getting you to launch yourself off the side of a mountain,”

they are, all three, staring at me. This holds doubly true during the canned reminder that all sales are final, and that, while there is no shame in bowing out from an afternoon of whizzing at speeds of up to 50 miles-per-hour at heights of up to 600 feet in the air, nor is financial recompense to be found down that route, either. The $119 per person we’ve paid in advance is gone, whether we zip or walk down the side of the mountain. I understand. Woodsy is not the first thought that springs to mind when you meet me. I scan more “let me help you fill out that portion of your insurance form” than “hand me that crossbow.”

What our guides can’t possibly know, though, is that the 14-year-old boy standing next to me, the one that looks like my thinner, younger carbon copy, has spent a good portion of last winter in the hospital on a constant, intravenous cocktail of hard-hitting antibiotics, has undergone a series of surgeries to first get-ahead of a strep infection, then to close the resulting 9-inch surgical wound in his leg up near his groin. In medical-ese, my son was fighting necrotizing fasciitis, though this infection also goes by the name “flesh eating bacteria.” Whatever the nomenclature, this is an infection with a 26% mortality rate and an equally sobering limb-amputation rate. That my son walks today, legs intact, is a gift.

Back when my son was first diagnosed with the infection, we spent three weeks in the hospital. In addition to the five surgeries, he received daily hyperbaric treatments that, first time out, lead directly to a grand mal seizure and twin eardrum collapse. Later that same night, worried about possible renal failure, he was catheterized. Four days after that, released from ICU and back on the hospital floor, my husband and I hold his hands hard as a physician’s assistant inserts a tubed medical sponge into his leg meat, tapes an airtight seal around the wound, and attaches the other end of the tube to a wound vac that will promote a sterile growing environment for the developing epithelial cells instrumental to his healing.

In comparison, zipping across the valleys of Hunter Mountain, New York, on a perfect August day becomes do-able, even for me.

The 14-year-old in question actually dreams of going skydiving—a thrill-seeking trait he gets from the other side of his family tree, the church-going side that excels at math and is not a genetic carrier for a rare autoimmune disorder. My people tend to derive more than sufficient thrills from finding the occasional, forgotten twenty in an old pair of jeans. Something like skydiving just seems egregious. “More wine, less plummeting to your certain demise!” could be our creed.

Skydiving means hard landings, though, maybe harder than my son’s bones can handle. There are 250 people in the world diagnosed with his disorder. Some of them have problems with scoliosis, arthritis, and long bone fractures. We haven’t broken any bones yet but I know what his primary caregiver would say if we brought up the idea of skydiving:

“I would avoid that if I could.”

Ziplining—at least at Hunter Mountain, New York, home of the “longest zipline course in North America”—has a cushioned landing.  In the longer runs, if you come into the platform too hot, the guide managing your line will hang hard on a rope attached to a block of wood sitting on the zip. Banging into the restrained block of wood absorbs your speed and slows your trolley—the wheeled chassis that you are hooked to that rides the top of the zipline. On shorter runs, your guide grabs your feet to slow your progress and allows you to pendulum swing to a halt. Is this safe? the worrying part of my brain starts to fret, mid-ride. It is safe enough. We survive. More than that, we laugh from our bellies as we skim treetops and race between swaths of sunlight and cloud shadow.


Checking email.
Checking email. Photo Andrea Schwalm

The morning after my younger son is born, after I’ve nursed him and laid him down for a nap, I shower, put on day clothes, and am paging through the “Arts and Leisure” section of a complimentary copy of the New York Times when the staff come in on morning rounds to visit us.

“Look at you, with everything already completely under control! ” my nurse midwife exclaims, then sighs: “The second baby is so much easier, isn’t it?”

That moment exists in a soap bubble, also framed in sunshine. Here, the gold light streams through a hospital window, crisscrossing a coffee cup, an outsized newspaper, a gorgeous, wrinkled loaf of sleeping baby almost 10 lbs. at birth. It is the last purely-confident moment I have had as a parent. A week later we are already starting to see the first signs of autoimmune disruption: white fungal patches growing in the folds of my son’s skin, mysterious rashes on his face and groin. The ear infections that will bubble up continually for the next 18 months are already beginning to thrum away inside his head. We are six months away from his first life-threatening hospitalization, two years away from the infections that will lead to a diagnosis, three years from a day in a mall where a woman will see my son’s head covered in scabs, a product of one of his half-dozen skin disorders, and yell into my face, “How dare you bring your sick kid here where he can hurt my baby!” She will call me a liar when I try to explain that my son’s scabs are not contagious, spit the word at me as I stand dumbly between a Starbucks and an H&M.

And at that point, back in his first hospital room, we are nine years away from the elementary school principal who, only having ever seen my child relatively healthy on daily antibiotics, doesn’t understand why I am so upset that he’s been pushed off of a slide by a classmate, accuses me of exaggerating my son’s condition—the collapsed lung at 30 months, the concerns about bone density that haunt every hard fall he has ever taken—and demands in front of a half-dozen staff members that I allow her to speak to his doctors immediately so that she can get to the bottom of my “unrealistic expectations” for his safety at school.

These are all of the things that run through my mind as, speeding through the blue wide open, I watch my son spread out his arms, slow his entry onto the platform, and joke with the guide who unhooks his trolley from the line.

Saying “Neigh” to Equestria Girls

Previously, I’ve written about obstacles for women in the STEM pipeline, noting that despite the fact that STEM jobs are more stable and better paying, women only make up 24% of the STEM work force, and wondering whether we are gifting our little girls with the same kinds of opportunities and dreamscapes that we lavish upon our sons.

When discussing the GoldieBlox Kickstarter last fall I asked:

Is part of the problem with keeping women in the “STEM pipeline” that young women don’t ever consider STEM careers an option in the first place? If so, is it possible that the toys kids play with impact who they become?

In a 2012 New York Times piece entitled “Girls Lead in Science Exam, but Not in the United States,” Christianne Corbett, co-author of a 2010 report “Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math” reinforces this idea, stating:

“We see that very early in childhood — around age 4 — gender roles in occupations appear to be formed…[and that] women are less likely to go into science careers, although they are clearly capable of succeeding.”

Researchers say these cultural forces are strong in the United States, Britain and Canada but far less pervasive in Russia, Asia and the Middle East, which have a much higher proportion of women in science and engineering.

Something in our culture seems to be steering girls away from STEM careers. Is it personal preference, the rigid STEM stereotype, or women’s predisposition toward perfectionism, I’ve wondered–and why do young women develop this ubiquitous predisposition toward perfectionism that author, educator, and founder of the Girl’s Leadership Institutue, Rachel Simmons, has documented in her TED talk and books, anyway?

In my own research, when I asked girls What is a good girl to you? I was told: It’s a girl who has to do everything perfect, never disappoint anyone, be liked by everyone.

My gut has said that somehow this has to go back to the sexualized dolls that little girls play with–dolls like the Bratz and Monster High lines–that haughtily populate the pink aisles of big-box retail. In fact, research that Lego completed in order to develop their girls’ line, Lego Friends, highlights just how closely girls actually do identify with their dolls:

“The girls needed a figure they could identify with, that looks like them,” says Rosario Costa, a Lego design director. Girls projected themselves onto the ladyfig—she became an avatar [in a way that boys at play did not]. Boys tend to play with minifigs in the third person.

Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, would also seem to agree with my premise. In a recent Huffington Post piece, “From Pony to Person: The Disturbing Evolution of My Little Pony,” Orenstein is quoted as saying:

You want a sexualized, self-objectifying girl? Give her sexualized, objectified dolls. You don’t? Have some conversations with the other parents in your community about the potential impact of self-sexualization and self-objectification on girls’ development–including negative body image, eating disorders, depression, low self-esteem, poor sexual choices, etc.

Which is all to say that, despite GeekMom Kelly’s charming review of the recent release My Little Pony: Equestria Girls, my suggestion would be that parents steer clear of this franchise. The point of the movie is to sell dolls, after all, and the Equestria dolls are simply Hasbro’s entry into the “Goth Barbie” market–a niche that alleges to reduce bullying and encourage diversity and compassion for differences but follows through by offering an array of nearly identical, long-haired, slim-waisted, mascara’d figures in miniskirts and jackboots.

In a country where women are increasingly the sole or primary breadwinners for their children, I say: Give girls the skills and emotional wherewithal they need to develop confidence and gain stable, lucrative jobs. America, put that Equestria Girl back on its pink shelf! Instead, I offer this short selection of fun, empowering, alternative gifts for little girls:

GoldieBlox toy at Maker Faire 2012. Photo credit: Andrea Schwalm.

1. GoldieBlox

Girls read Goldie’s story, are introduced to Goldie and her friends, then construct and play with the accompanying pulley-system toy, wedding the characters together with basic principles of engineering as they play. According to GoldieBlox creator Debbie Sterling’s research, girls love reading, stories, and characters. That is why the first GoldieBlox toy comes with a book. The solidly-constructed figurines are also designed for stand-alone creative play that girls crave.

2. Mission Math: Sabotage at the Space Station

In describing this recently-released iTunes app designed by two parents looking to engage and support a middle-school daughter struggling with math, says:

Players, ideally girls 9 and up, create an avatar out of 24 million combinations of characteristics, and work in teams to save a space station. They need to use their budding math and computer science skills to repair the science lab. Little boys can play, too — but they need to adopt a girl avatar and operate in a world filled with strong women leaders.

“The chief medical officer is female, her mentor is female, the head of the secret agency is female,” said David, who runs business and operations for the Washington D.C.-based company. “We were highly conscious about developing a narrative where women have scientific or organizational leadership roles.”

3. Nick and Tesla’s High Voltage Danger Lab: A Mystery with Electromagnets, Burglar Alarms, and Other Gadgets You Can Build Yourself

The Nick and Tesla series does what toy manufacturers claim can’t be done: it creates something fun and educational for both boys and girls.

In this first book in a projected series, our twin, tween protagonists, brother Nick and sister Tesla, are thrust into a neighborhood kidnapping heist after unexpectedly coming to live with their mad-scientist uncle, Newt. Left to their own devices as Uncle Newt bathes away an experiment gone awry, the twins use the the tools in their uncle’s basement lab to build the bottle rocket that opens the narrative (instructions included).

Complete instructions for four additional projects (including a “do it yourself electromagnet picker upper” and a “mints and soda fueled robocat dog distractor”) are sprinkled throughout the rest of this absolutely engaging mystery-adventure read, simultaneously providing kids with a great story and an excellent entry-level activity book.

Note: I nabbed my copy at Book Expo but you’ll probably have to wait until November to get your hands on this new series from Quirk Publishers. That’s okay, it’ll be a perfect gift for the holidays! The second installment, Nick and Tesla’s Robot Army Rampage, is slated for release just in time for Valentine’s Day.

4. Lottie Doll

When they created their very-adorable Lottie doll line, Britain’s Arklu doll-making company used research about what young girls actually look like and what activities they enjoy engaging in to design their fully-posable dolls. As a result, the Lottie doll’s dimensions are those of a typical 9-year-old, while her ballet tutu, concert togs, picnic romper, ballgown, or jodhpurs all manage to be fun (often pink), yet age-appropriate. As the website explains:

Our philosophy is simple: everything we do is inspired by the memory of all things girlish and lovely. We want to create dolls and products that are super-cute, fun, and educational, that give childhood back to children and offer great value too.

I had a chance to speak with reps from Arklu last winter during Toy Fair ’13 and was told that if this first line was successful, the company would look to expand Lottie’s interests to include, among other hobbies, sports and science.

5. ElectriCute

At this point, I’m sure you’re tired of hearing about research. This last suggestion isn’t a toy so much as a resource–it’s the first video from SparkFun’s new ElectriCute video series about e-textiles. This project explains the ins and outs of working with fiber optic fabric and is a fun, gorgeous, imminently do-able entry-level electronics project for girls!

Have any additions to my list? Leave links in the comments!

Coney Island Mermaid Parade 2013

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Back in May, there was some brief concern that the 2013 Coney Island Mermaid Parade, the largest art parade in the United States, would have to be cancelled. Hurricane Sandy had destroyed the performance space that funds the parade’s incidentals—its security, port-a-potties, permits, etc. With the immediate neighborhood cash-strapped in the wake of the disaster, the parade organizers started a Kickstarter campaign in order to raise funds to cover a $100,000 budget shortfall.

Well, the Kickstarter campaign was a resounding success, raising more than $117,000, and the 31st Mermaid Parade took place as scheduled last weekend under gorgeous, blue skies. If you were there, leave a link to your pics in the comments section!

(Please note: Mermaid Parade pics live at the cross-section of bodypaint and burlesque and may be considered by unenlightened, seashell-pastie-hating employers as NSFW.)

Book Expo Highlights

Photo credit Andrea Schwalm/Big Huge Labs.


I came home from Book Expo, the publishing industry’s annual trade show, with a suitcase full of books–including a raft of personally-inscribed future bestsellers from Anne Burrell, Kate DiCamillo, Neil Gaiman, and Jon Scieszka

Each afternoon as the event wound down for the day, the Javitz Center would disgorge another serpentine bolus of bowed, tottering bibliophiles from each exit. The lucky ones got to drop their wheeled-suitcases off at area hotels before heading out to author receptions around Manhattan each evening. I, on the other hand, feared I would stroke out right there on the corner of 11th Avenue and 47th Street, mere steps away from my rooftop cocktails and drawing session with Mo Willems.

Mo Willems. Photo credit: Andrea Schwalm.


It was great!

Pigeon tattoo at Mo Willems/Disney event. Photo: Andrea Schwalm.


Overheard while waiting in a book signing line after glimpsing The Oatmeal’s distinctive cover art:

First woman: “I had him personalize it for Gracie–what a nice man! We’ll read it together tonight when I get home!”

Long pause. Sound of pages turning rapidly…

Second woman: “I paid a man to take his balls away yet he still tries to screw animals four times his size…Hmmm. Well, Gracie is a very mature eight…”

Dr. Ruth at Book Expo. Photo: Andrea Schwalm.

The day’s highlight was receipt of a personalized copy of Sexually Speaking: What Every Woman Needs to Know About Sexual Health signed by Dr. Ruth Westheimer. As a child of the 80’s, prior to the ubiquity of earbuds, I spent many a deliciously illicit Sunday evening with my clock-radio volume turned low, listening to Dr. Ruth discuss reciprocity and condoms on WYNY. And now here she was, looking and sounding the same as I remembered, sharing her memories as a cub scout leader to her sons back in Switzerland.

Inscription. Photo credit: Andrea Schwalm.

She wishes me well!

Anne Burrell at Book Expo. Photo credit: Andrea Schwalm.

Food Network “personality” Anne Burrell was  a “let’s keep it moving, enough with the chit-chat” kind of author during her book signing but her love for people comes through in her writing. Every single recipe in Cook Like a Rock Star, from “orecchiette with broccoli rabe pesto and sausage” to “tarallucci with salty caramel” reads like a personal embrace. I have a soft spot for recipes titles that take up half the page, listing every ingredient–or that use bacon in a surprising way…

Tori Nighthawk at Book Expo. Photo credit: Andrea Schwalm.

This is a 15-year-old young woman named Tori Nighthawk who was at Book Expo in order to promote her gorgeously self-illustrated picture book Don’t Judge a Bird by it’s Feathers. She wrote the book because she wanted to tell kids “Even if you are not the most beautiful, well dressed kid at school, if you are positive, happy and passionate about your interests and your goals, people will gravitate to you.”

Interesting… Photo credit: Andrea Schwalm.
Things I covet. From Photo credit Andrea Schwalm.

In the bookend moments of recent days I’ve dipped into Billy Collins’ newest collection of poetry, Aimless Love,  finished Kate DiCamillo’s luminous Flora and Ulysses, and devoured the delightful Nick and Tesla’s High Voltage Science Lab by  Science Bob Pflugfelder’s and Steve Hockensmith. Next up on my nightstand is John Carter Cash’s debut middle-grade novel, Lupus Rex. Then, perhaps, A Beautiful Truth. This to-be-read pile has emerged from my suitcase, slowly taking over my living room, spilling over the edges of every flat, empty surface like a clutch of fat, solemn cats.

Game of Tropes

Photo credit: Andrea Schwalm.

This past weekend, my 14-year-old woke up deciding to create a new Dungeons & Dragons-inspired board game. Over cereal he printed out an image of a map, divided the map’s islands and waterways into territories with a black pencil, and populated each region with indigenous people and creatures. After this, he scripted out a list of quests and adventures based on what he’d laid out. By lunch he was meticulously rendering on paper the dozens of wyverns, warriors, royals, and adventurers that would inhabit this game.

By midnight, as I was getting into bed, he was ready to show me his work.

“This is the alpha-female Flame Breather,” he began somewhat breathlessly. “She’s a little like a kappa: She has a flat trench on the top of her head that’s filled with magma–that’s where she gets her power. No magma, no power. This is a Botanical Dragon. Its wings are made of leaves and its body will be brown and will look like it’s made from tree branches. This is a Sand Colossus. It’s made of stone and has faces on all four sides of its head so that you can’t ever sneak up on him. He has 250 health points and is inhabited by the spirit of an ancient warrior king who wanted to live forever. He’s the most brutal enemy in the game but appears impassive as he’s attacking you because, you know, his soul is dead.”

Continue reading Game of Tropes

Merm-Aid Kickstarter Aims to Save Mermaid Parade

For years now, Coney Island’s Mermaid Parade has functioned as my own personal Rumspringa. For the rest of each year I might have seemed like nothing more than a mom, a homeschooler, a cub scout leader, a Sunday school teacher, an advocate–let’s face it, not the stuff of myth and legend. But one day each June, miles from the “Mom…Mom…Mom…” of home, I got to revel along with 750,000 like-minded, beach-bound souls at the largest, friendliest art parade in the country. Heaven.

Just the other day we were talking behind the scenes at GeekMom about cosplay. A couple of the other writers said that criticism was par for the course once you put on a costume–particularly if your body type didn’t match exactly the character you were playing. “Don’t cosplay if you don’t have a thick skin (and, to be safe, a slim waistline),” seemed to be the consensus. Some GeekMoms admitted that this unspoken rule stopped them from even trying to play certain characters…

Continue reading Merm-Aid Kickstarter Aims to Save Mermaid Parade

Gravity is Gripping!

Me to Firstborn Son: Um. You need to sit next to me. Immediately.

Him (sitting next to me immediately): I sense this is important.

Me: I need to show you the trailer for the new Cuaron movie: Gravity.

Him: Cuaron? The director of Children of Men as well as Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban? Two of my top-ten favorite movies of all time? You have my attention.

90. Seconds. Later.

Him: How does he do it? That is the stuff of my nightmares!

Me: I know! The only thing that could possibly make that scene more disturbing was if Sandra Bullock ricocheted off the space craft into an underwater space!

Him: How are we possibly going to wait until October for this?

Me: This right here is karma, rewarding me for sitting patiently in the theater during Prometheus

Getting Closer to Samsung’s Galaxy S4



Even as an Apple fan, I thought last year’s Galaxy S3 ad mocking iPhone hipsters was surgically clever. The spot opened on a queue of urbanistas discussing the rumors they were most excited about as they waited to buy what was clearly meant to be their next iPhone.

“This year, we’re going to get everything we didn’t get last year!”

“True 4G!”

“Heard you have to get an adapter to use the dock on the new one…”

“Yeah, yeah: but they make the coolest adapters!”

Cue: one lone hipster holdout announcing that he’s not there to buy a phone, he’s just saving a place in line for someone else. He has a Galaxy S3  and isn’t interested in all of this manufactured drama. As it turns out (and to the horror of everyone else in line), he’s saving a place for… his parents.

“The joke’s on you, hipsters,” the ad chuckles. You could be out enjoying the day, sharing playlists or pictures via near field communication with just a back-tap of your S3 to your buddy’s phone. Instead you’re waiting on line next to someone’s mom!  Continue reading Getting Closer to Samsung’s Galaxy S4

IEPs, CSEs, and My Twice-Exceptional Kid

Moderation is overrated. Photo by Andrea Schwalm.
Moderation is overrated. Photo by Andrea Schwalm.

I realized when I got off the phone with the school psychologist recently that we’re heading into my older son’s last CSE (committee on special education) meeting. Yes, sure: there will be some sort of transition meeting next year where we set up the IEP (individualized education plan) that he will bring to community college after he graduates. Additionally, mid-year, we will speak with someone from ACCES about New York State’s vocational program to see what supports he might be eligible for after he graduates. But this will be the last CSE that I sit in on where I advocate for supports and services from my school district. I’m closing in on the end of a ten-year battle I’ve faced trying to advocate with my district for my twice-exceptional child…

Continue reading IEPs, CSEs, and My Twice-Exceptional Kid

Bully, the Movie

My son, getting interviewed by our local news network after we saw the movie Bully. Photo credit: Andrea Schwalm.

Not long after my children returned to public school after two-and-a-half years of homeschooling, it started.

At this point, my older son was in 8th grade and so gym meant changing in a locker room with the other kids in his class. A couple of his peers developed a habit of coming up behind my son while he was changing, cupping his chest, and informing him that he had breasts. On the gym floor and in the hallways between classes, these boys would leer moon-faced at my child and call him “Scoops.” At the time, my son shared none of this with his father or me or his inclusion teacher or the school psychologist that he was seeing once a week.

Part of the reason that we’d decided to homeschool in the first place was because my younger son had been physically bullied in elementary school–finally, after a third call in as many days from the school nurse telling me that my 2nd grader had been injured again by a peer at recess, and a third day of ignored calls to discuss the matter with the principal, I picked both children up from school and left a message with the principal saying, “I will allow these children back on school grounds when I have a guarantee that they will be safe.”

One day passed. No phone call. Two days passed. I called the district superintendant’s office. A message was taken.

On the third day, the principal finally called. She opened our conversation by saying that she was very disappointed in me for keeping my children out of school for three days. The second point she tried to make was her last: “Mrs. Schwalm, you cannot possibly expect me to guarantee your children’s safety at all times in this building–I am only one person.”

“This conversation has ended,” I immediately replied. “You’ll have the paperwork for homeschooling on your desk tomorrow morning.”

And so, we homeschooled for two-plus years–and it was great. We read together and went to parks together and visited museums and wrote plays together…and then I felt it was time to send my children back into the fray. Ironically, I was worried that by homeschooling, I was making things too easy for my sons and blocking them from experiencing necessary social challenges or developing important coping skills.

The way we found out that my older son was being bullied was through a call from the middle school principal informing me that my son was being placed on three days of ISS (in-school suspension). Having suffered through months of taunting, he’d finally had enough, and when the boy who had been teasing him the most reached out to cup him in the chest for the hundredth time as he was passing my son’s locker, my son had thrown himself at the boy and knocked him against a wall. No one had been hurt but a half-dozen teachers standing at their doorways monitoring the hallway had witnessed the entire inelegant encounter.

The principal’s voice was heavy on the phone as she spoke with me. “I know what happened–all of it now–but we have a zero-tolerance policy for violence in the school. The other child is being suspended out of school–at home with a parent–for a week, and other measures will be taken, as well. I have to protect the privacy of the other student but I am telling you: we will put tools and consequences in place so that this will not happen again.”

Outside of a lecture on the importance of talking to trusted adults when you need help, we didn’t punish our son at home. On the night of the incident we actually went out for pizza and ice cream. He did his three days of ISS and when he came back to class, two boys in his gym class told him that they thought he was cool for standing up to the other kid and not taking it anymore; a trio of girls nearby agreed.

A week later, my son joined a running club for children with disabilities. Within six months he’d lost 40 lbs. and was requesting that we buy healthier snacks when we went food shopping. He has never felt like a victim at school again. At his most recent annual review meeting as we discussed moving my son out of inclusion and into a more-rigorous curriculum, his teacher told me, “Whenever I pass him in the halls, he is chatting and surrounded by friends.”

Closer. Photo credit: Andrea Schwalm

So, after all of this, I thought it would be a good idea to go as a family last Friday to see the documentary Bully. My older son is a member of his high school’s Anti-bullying Club and was planning shortly on participating in its Gay-Straight Alliance’s Day of Silence to support gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered students. I wanted my children to see that they were not alone in experiencing either bullying or inept school personnel. I thought that the movie would give their experiences a broader context and soften some of the residual sting in all our memories.

The boys brought a friend and all three agreed afterwards that the movie was worthwhile. “That was a lot better than I thought it was going to be, actually,” my younger son confided. “I thought it was going to be boring but it really wasn’t–and I can understand why you wanted us to see it.” As my older son walked off then to be interviewed by the local television station, I excused myself to the bathroom for one last, brief, shuddering crying jag before we all drove off to an afternoon of cheese fries and amusement park rides at Coney Island.

It may sound melodramatic, but I cried through this entire film. The opening scenes intersperse home movies of a toddler giggling up at a camera with scenes of his somber father recounting the life events that ultimately lead up to Tyler Long committing suicide at 17, and that was it: 90 minutes of continuous crying and a headache that followed me all day until bed.

I saw aspects of my children in almost all of the children followed in this film: like my older son, Alex has some developmental issues and refuses to tell the adults in his life how badly he is being abused. Like my younger son, Alex had a frail, perilous babyhood. Like the principal at Alex’s school who tells his parents, “These children are just as good as gold,” the principal at our elementary school was clearly not trained in creating a school culture that rooted out bullying and abuse. Like my older son, Ja’Meya also finally decided that she needed to fight back against her bullies–but she didn’t just push a child against a wall, she brought her mother’s handgun onto her school bus and brandished it in front of her peers in an effort to get them to leave her alone (and wound up incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital for six months).

“Geeky” Tyler Long suffered through years of being abused in his school’s locker room and being called “a fag” before he hung himself in his bedroom closet. Ty Smalley was a beautiful little boy with freckles and wide eyes similar to my younger son’s features. He killed himself after he was suspended from school for standing up to a bully…

I can’t help but believe that if conditions were only a little different, I could be one of the devastated, shell-shocked parents in this movie. Don’t mistake me: I empathized with the other parents in Bully but I was crying for me and my children. The policeman in the film who suggests that 14-year-old Ja’Meya be charged with 44 counts of kidnapping and receive hundreds of years of imprisonment because she hadn’t “really been hurt” simply doesn’t know what he is talking about.

Bully is playing in a still-expanding number of theaters nationwide. The movie was initially given an R rating by the MPAA but after a great deal of media attention and public outcry, this was changed to PG-13. Go with a group of people you care about. Get ice cream afterwards. Or cheese fries.

Health and Fitness Week at GeekMom


Better Each Day: Jessica Cassity’s 365 Expert Tips for a Healthier, Happier You

It is ironic that I am the one writing the introduction to GeekMom’s “Health and Fitness Week,” because with all of the things that I can claim legitimate geek cred for, “health geek” is not one of them. I regularly indulge my salt and chocolate cravings, often drink half a carafe of coffee before heading off to one of my two sedentary part-time jobs, and like GeekMom Ellen, I like to stay up late and sleep odd hours. What’s more, I definitely don’t exercise enough: I always feel so serene and refreshed immediately after a yoga class at my local Y–and yet, that doesn’t translate into anything more than sporadic attendance. In the interim, my clothing shrinks and buckles.

Beyond a bit of clutziness, I have no excuse. I do not live with physical handicap like our bionic GeekMom, Judy. Nor do I have preschool children requiring constant attention like GeekMom Sophie. I just haven’t made health and fitness a priority. And yet: I want to fit into my “skinny clothes” in two months for the “Geek Family’s Guide to the Movies” panel at South by Southwest

I know that lasting change happens slowly, one modification at a time. I’m currently making my way through former Prevention magazine fitness editor Jessica Cassity’s new “tip a day” book Better Each Day, and while I think it is fascinating to understand the science behind effective health and fitness regimens–while it is, for instance, really cool to know that studies have shown that “working out in a group may actually make exercise feel easier” or that “250 milliliters of beetroot juice is as effective at lowering blood pressure as one commonly prescribed medication,” I have trouble, personally, in practically applying that knowledge in such a way that I get off of my couch and out moving.

It is a (frickinfrackinbrickinbrackin) journey. In the meanwhile, as I work to amp up my activity level, I’m also trying to appreciate the way that I look today and take to heart the words of Jennifer Siebel Newsom. Newsom is the director of the documentary Miss Representation, a film that “exposes how American youth are being sold the concept that women and girls’ value lies in their youth, beauty and sexuality,” and in her most recent weekly action alert she says:

Often, when we think about health, we fall into conversations around weight and physical appearance (just browse the covers of so called “health” magazines). By focusing so heavily on our looks – especially in a media climate that celebrates such dangerous ideals of beauty – we risk neglecting our own true inner health and safety.

One of the first steps to addressing this is actually looking at the language we use to describe “being healthy.” Not just in our heads, but when talking with others. Something as innocent as a compliment – “you look skinny” or “you look great” – can contribute to this obsession with weight and looks.

This week’s action is simple: try avoiding complimenting anyone on their physical appearance for an entire week, including yourself. No conversations about losing weight or being pretty. Instead, tell the loved ones in your life how smart they are, how you admire their confidence or even just how happy they seem! Celebrate the talents and abilities of those around you without mentioning appearance.

By shifting the way we talk about this subject we can begin to shift the entire mindset around what it means to be healthy. This is the year we stop judging ourselves and others by what is in the mirror, and instead see in everyone the same potential for greatness.

I suspect, somewhere between complacency and cardio, self-acceptance and self-pity, I can learn to inhabit my personal health and fitness “sweet spot.” How about you, GeekMom readers? What healthy changes are you hoping to make in the new year? What do you feel you are doing right to keep yourself healthy, both physically and emotionally? Are there any health and fitness topics you’d like to see more of here at GeekMom? We’d love for you to leave your thoughts in the comments!

Holding Kate Bush in my Arms Again

Fact: Relationships are challenging. Particularly when one of you is made of snow.

Before Florence Welch and Tori Amos, before Bjork and Madonna, there was Kate Bush.

Not that this is a contest.

But Bush, a 2002 Ivor Novello Award recipient who has landed an album on the United Kingdom’s “Top 5” charts  in each of the last five decades, did help to open the door on a type of uniquely-feminine music; one capable of birthing dream-like, dance-filled parallel worlds in tandem with its songs.

For me, that was the gift of Bush’s earliest albums and videos (and yes, they were albums, then). Each song was its own melodic, full-blown story: “Experiment IV” described a military lab’s disastrous search for “a sound that could kill someone from a distance,” while “Cloudbusting” (and its accompanying Terry-Gilliam-conceived video) detailed the arrest of a scientist who has successfully created a machine to control the weather. Meanwhile, the bagpipes-and-bouzouki-tinged “Night of the Swallow” and peripatetic “There Goes a Tenner” both revolved, it seemed, around the getaway plans for heists. This was a lush, morally-muddled, dystopic palette Bush worked from–and as a morally-muddled, dystopic young woman, myself, I remember becoming hooked immediately.

Equally appealing for me was the fact that Bush’s songs were often populated by women on epic emotional quests: for gothic, idealized love in “Wuthering Heights,” for self-revelation in “Under Ice” (“There’s something moving under/Under the ice/Trying to get out of the cold water/It’s me”), for deeper connections with lovers in “Babooshka” and “Under the Ivy.” That search for identity, as well as the uncanny ability to don and discard personas, resonated with me tremendously in my late teens and early twenties, for obvious reasons…

Fact: The creators of the Alien costume designed the cloudbusting machine in this video.

Back in the early-to-mid-80’s when I first fell in love with her, Bush was relatively unknown in America–despite tremendous success in her home, England. At that point, she was best recognized for her duet with Peter Gabriel, “Don’t Give Up,” and for her biggest U.S. hit, “Running Up that Hill (A Deal with God).” Later, perhaps, alert listeners remarked on her elegiac “This Woman’s Work” in the otherwise-frothy Kevin Bacon/Elizabeth McGovern movie She’s Having a Baby. But mostly, she was not noticed here, either on radio or MTV.

Worse than invisibility, though, were the haters. Bush’s rarefied style has never been to everyone’s tastes. Back when we were dating, my husband’s initial reaction to her was certainly less-than-receptive: on hearing “Wuthering Heights” for the first time, he scowled, then sputtered, “Oh, that needs to stop!” My mom’s reaction was even more withering: “Turn that cr*p off. No wonder you have nightmares all of the time!”

But I stood by Kate–even though my friends and family stated repeatedly that they could never accept her in their homes. By the late 80’s, this was becoming less of an issue, as Bush’s albums were beginning to arrive further and further apart. 1989 saw the release of The Sensual World and in 1993 she came out with her “biggest” album to date, The Red Shoes. From a commercial standpoint, these albums were some of her most successful work, though I didn’t find myself enmeshed in them in quite the same way her earlier work had captured my imagination. They seemed…less special, more overtly fey. Perhaps it was time to put away childish things and acknowledge that Kate and I were growing apart.

Before I could do that, though, she disappeared.

Fact: Kate seems so happy and engaged here. But then she disappears.

From 1993 to 2005, Bush seemed to drop entirely off the radar. She married, had a son, Bertie, and committed herself (it seemed) entirely to marriage, motherhood and the unique brand of normality that can only come from owning dual English mansions in West Berkshire and East Portlemouth. In 2005 she surfaced briefly, releasing a golden, summery double-CD: Aerial. In 2007, she piped up again with the song “Lyra,” possibly the most noteworthy element of the otherwise-execrable The Golden Compass film–certainly the only moment worthy of association with the His Dark Materials trilogy. In early 2011, she released Director’s Cut, a reworking of much of the material on The Red Shoes and The Sensual World, with a completely re-recorded version of “This Woman’s Work.”

And now, in late 2011, Bush has released 50 Words for Snow, a stark, wintry-beautiful reply to fair-haired Aerial, populated with ribbons of repeating piano, swirling swathes of silence, and more of her signature relational roadbumps.

The CD opens with a duet between Bush and her 13-year-old son, Bertie: two snowflakes falling to earth, reeling at the beauty of Christmas at midnight, calling to each other, “The world is so loud/Keep falling. I’ll find you.” In a subsequent duet, “Snowed in at Wheeler Street,” (this time with Elton John), two lovers miss each other repeatedly as they travel asynchronously back and forth through time, repeating “I don’t want to lose you again.” Finally, in “Misty,” a song that turns Raymond Briggs’ wordless children’s masterpiece on its snowy head, Bush’s snowman doesn’t simply come to life and enter her home, he enters her bed, kissing her with his “ice-cream lips” before melting next to her, leaving behind only “dead leaves, bits of twisted branches and frozen garden.”

In between these jewels other equally-stark gems are nestled: a ghost searches for her pet, Snowflake, in “Lake Tahoe.” An observer tries to hide evidence of the Yeti’s existence in “Wild Man,” and Stephen Fry quietly reads through the title track’s “50 Words for Snow” while Bush cheers him on at each chorus. The CD ends with the most gorgeous of all the tracks, “Among Angels.”

If you need, just call.

Rest your weary world in their hands.

Lay your broken laugh at their feet.

I can see angels around you.

They shimmer like mirrors in Summer.

There’s someone who’s loved you forever but you don’t know it.

You might feel it and just not show it.

There are only seven songs on 50 Words for Snow–each one clocking in at between 6 and 14 minutes. At first glance, hardly enough music to wrap my arms around after such a long separation from this friend it turns out I’ve missed terribly. And yet, it is enough. Perfect. I am so glad that she is back.

My suggestion is: use those recently-bequeathed iTunes gift cards you’ve received, tucked into stockings and envelopes, to buy yourself this companion for the cold months that are coming. And hope that it is not 5, 10, 13 years before the next Kate Bush release.

Disclosure: I received a copy of 50 Words for Snow for review purposes. If I hadn’t, I would most-certainly have bought it, anyway.

Fed Up With Food: The Case of the BIG COOKIE

A couple of years ago our local elementary school principal invited a nutritionist from a nearby university to come speak at our monthly PTA meeting. The speaker showed the video embedded above, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention map that graphed obesity rates in the United States from 1985 to the present. It is a sobering 30 seconds. Throughout the US, obesity rates currently hover at between 20-30% of the population–with approximately 33% of adults and 17% of children ages 2-19 identified–and the numbers just continue to rise.

The CDC isn’t studying obesity because it is concerned with personal aesthetics. Wherever higher rates of obesity occur, higher rates of diabetes also exist. In 2007, medical costs for diabetes in the US were 116 BILLION DOLLARS. One way to rein in rocketing health-care costs, then, would be to keep kids’ body mass indexes down so that type 2 diabetes had less of an opportunity to develop. 

Knowing this, our school principal had a goal: he wanted to improve the nutritional value of our school’s lunch menu–particularly for children who rely on school lunches as their primary source of nutrition–and he wanted the support of the district parents in order to make it happen. He referenced studies linking nutrition to academic performance as he explained that target number one on his school-lunch hit-list was going to be THE BIG COOKIE (a dessert-plate-sized chocolate chip cookie that was our cafeteria’s number one best-selling item).

“I want to get rid of THE BIG COOKIE and I need your help,” he intoned. “I walk into this cafeteria and on any day I will see kids eating THE BIG COOKIE for lunch. I want to see fewer BIG COOKIES and more fresh fruit on our kids’ lunch trays.”

The meeting immediately exploded into conversation: “My kid loves THE BIG COOKIE!” was heard throughout the room. “He can’t take away THE BIG COOKIE. It’s not fair! First they take away birthday cupcakes, now this!”

As it turned out, the food service that the district had contracted with also loved THE BIG COOKIE–because it offset losses the food service had to take on elsewhere in the menu in order to adhere to federal guidelines. The BIG COOKIE disappeared from the menu for a couple of months but ultimately returned.

Personally, I was filled with moral outrage: Cookies for lunch! Imagine!

Prior to this meeting, nutrition was already a hot topic in our house. Both of my sons  had been diagnosed with  sensory processing disorder by this time–so writing with a pencil was arduous, sounds were too loud, tastes were too sharp, and focused reading resulted in headaches. For us, an unforeseen bonus of the diagnosis was that after hours spent arguing over homework, we could immediately transition into a full-court battle over food, as well…the phrase “picky eaters” does not begin to capture the gagging, the tears, and plea-bargaining that went on nightly as we tried to move the boys beyond the six foods that they were comfortable eating…

Things have steadily improved, but to this day, fruits and vegetables are still a challenge for the 12-year-old (the one with health issues–so: no pressure there). In an attempt to broaden his palate, we’ve tried:

  • Hiding vegetables (per the suggestions of Jessica Seinfeld)
  • Growing our own vegetables (Google “Biblical plagues” for images of our garden),
  • Joining a CSA (so that we could scrape organic, sustainably grown vegetables into the garbage),
  • Getting the kids involved in cooking (preparing food does not automatically lead to eating it yourself, as it turns out. It can, however, lend itself to experimenting with dish soap as a condiment), and
  • Preparing bento lunches.

My son loved the way those bento lunches looked, showed them off to his friends at the cafeteria table, and then regularly threw them out and bought himself A BIG COOKIE for lunch, instead.

Out of everything we’ve tried, though, we’ve gotten the best results from watching Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution together as a family. For some reason, when I talk about food, I am “nagging.” The same idea coming out of Jamie Oliver’s puckish pie-hole? Is imminently reasonable. After the first season of the show, the child who’d been eating BIG COOKIES for lunch started lecturing his table-mates on the evils of flavored milk–which, frankly, I am willing to call progress.

Fed Up With Lunch by “Mrs. Q.” Image credit: Chronicle Books.

The BIG COOKIE melodrama made me realize how difficult it is to effect lasting, meaningful change in our school lunch programs. In my elementary school, the issue split parents into two opposing factions: those advocating for an edible schoolyard-styled (garden to table) nutrition curriculum were on one side of the debate, and those who felt menu changes would either be too expensive (or a form of Big-Brother-y government-control) sat on the other. Meanwhile, at the same time that everyone else was picking sides, a rogue “bring back the birthday cupcakes” task force was quickly coalescing in the back of the room. PS: I live in a school district where 31% of the students are eligible for free or reduced lunch plans, and as we’ve all heard by now, Congress has just made pizza a vegetable.

How do you even begin to create consensus in a situation like that?

If it had existed then, I would have suggested that the PTA sponsor a community book read of  Sarah Wu’s new book Fed Up with Lunch. Wu is a speech therapist in a high-poverty, inner-city Chicago elementary school, and after eating and photographing the lunches at her elementary school for a year and immersing herself in the minutia of school lunch programs, she came up with this wish-list for change at her school:

  1. There should be a salad bar in every school.
  2. Ingredient transparency needs to be a priority.
  3. Processed meats should be removed from school menus.
  4. “Meatless Mondays” should be incorporated into school menus.
  5. Chocolate milk should be removed from schools.
  6. Children should be given 30 minutes of recess every day.
  7. A wellness committee (with the student voice represented) should be started in every school.

This seems like a good set of goals to begin with. Wu’s book is a quick, uncomplicated read but chock-full of statistics and resources. I recommend it unreservedly.

As for our district, we haven’t done too much to change the menus since that first meeting a couple of years ago. One change that I do find helpful (albeit a bit Big Brother-y) is that, this year, kids are being asked to scan their IDs when they buy food from the cafeteria. Parents can then go online and monitor what their children are buying and ideally a dialog about healthy food choices ensues.

We still have a long way to go to get to healthy, balanced, sustainable, menus at the school…but at least now I know when anyone’s eaten a big cookie for lunch.

Spending Time With Walter Wick

“Inside Walter Wick’s Studio-Golden Robot” by Andrea Schwalm

Back in our preschool years of parenting, my family spent a great deal of time with Walter Wick’s books. To be truthful, we spent a great deal of time with a great many books–almost universally those that created anthropomorphized-machine worlds filled with earnest steam engines, recalcitrant backhoes, or steam shovels of derring-do.  Mr. Wick’s I Spy School Days picture-find book was a particular favorite, though. My older son would climb into my lap, dragging the oversized book behind him, sherpa-style, and open always to one glorious track-and-block-filled photo-homage to potential energy: an intricate, Rube-Goldberg-styled “balloon popper.” With w-flavored ‘l’s’ and a slight lisp, he’d start at the top of the page working a chubby finger through a sinuous path of levers, ramps, and pulleys, describing each action, each result, until whole minutes later he would shriek delightedly: “AND THEN, POP!”

Immediately serious, he’d twist around to look me in the eye, and say, “Okay, you do it, mom!” Entire afternoons could be spent in this manner. And were.

That little sherpa towers over me now and articulates with theatric, basso-profundo clarity. There are times when I miss the inseparable-intimacy of those preschool days…but then I am able drink a second cup of coffee uninterrupted or take a shower long enough that I run out of hot water…and I recall that that idyllic sweetness came at a price. Ultimately, I am thankful for the immersive richness of that time and thankful, too, to have moved on…

A set for Walter Wick’s next book. Photo credit: Andrea Schwalm

College is actually fast-approaching for sherpa-lad–which is probably why I jumped at the opportunity to visit Walter Wick’s studio in Hartford, Connecticut, earlier this month, along with a half-dozen other bloggers, at the behest of Scholastic Publishers. Though my sons seem more than willing, I sense that I am the one not quite prepared to put away our childish things–as long as there are blocks and trains and Lego and picture books lying underfoot, they are still here with me where I can keep them safe–everyone tranquil, nobody aging or changing…

Close-up of castle set, Walter Wick’s studio. Photo credit: Andrea Schwalm

The day of my visit, the first thing that I learn about Walter Wick is that his work studio was once a firehouse. I can’t help wishing (not for the last time) that I’d figured out a way to bring my boys with me as I tour the space–a decade ago when our family was house-hunting, the two items on the boys’ mutual “must-have” list were an artist’s studio and a bedroom fire pole. They’re still waiting on both…

The main workspace on the second floor of the firehouse is open and sunny, with near-floor-to-ceiling windows on both sides of the room. As the visiting bloggers traverse the periphery, snapping photos of the sets for the next book in the Can You See What I See? series (a fairy tale romance between a time-traveling robot and a princess with moxie), Walter explains that from idea to inception, each book takes about a year to complete–so that production for one title overlaps with promotion for the book most-recently completed.

During lunch and throughout the rest of our day, Walter patiently answers questions from our group as he leads us around the building. Yes, he tends to work with archetypes children find accessible: trains and pirates, robots and princesses. The books are specifically designed to work on a number of levels, however, from simple reader to picture-find adventure that reinforces vocabulary and listening skills to (in the case of Toyland Express) sweet story of old toys that find a second life among new children–all depending on the needs of the reader.

Walter’s tiny friend Seymour is thrilled about the new book. Photo credit: Andrea Schwalm

When I come home that night, I show the boys my copy of Can You See What I see? Toyland Express.

“Look!” I gush, “The author signed it! And that little yellow bead boy is hidden somewhere on every page. His name is Seymour. And the publisher even sent me home with ‘Toyland Express’ train cookies for the family…”

“Wow!” my older son laughs, leafing through Toyland Express. “This almost makes me wish I was ten years younger again. When I was going through my train-obsession thing I would have loved this book!”

When he gets to the final spread in the book, a scene full of block towers, tinker toy bridges, and rambling train-filled track reminiscent of our old friend, the “balloon popper” page, his eyes widen. Tapping the book with tapered fingers, he tells me, rapid-fire: “You know, Mom: this guy really understands what gets little kids excited!”

“I may have to quote you on that,” I agree.

Want to win a free copy of Can You See What I See? Toyland Express? Dig out your blocks, Lego, trains, and trucks and create your own “toyland” world (click around on Walter Wick’s site for inspiration). Take a picture and upload it to GeekMom’s flickr group anytime before Monday, December 5. One lucky winner will be chosen by a guest judging panel of teens and tweens to receive a copy of the book!

Note: This blogger received a signed copy of Can You See What I See? Toyland Express free for review.

Lori Dorn, The TSA, and the Five Stages of Grief

I don’t fly very often–in fact, I think that I’ve been on three flights in the past 10 years. The last flight was a family trip to Orlando out of JFK in New York–and I can still recall how humorless our airport experience was.

“This doesn’t feel like the start of a family vacation,” I muttered to my husband as we waited in a stalled, somber security line surrounded by four marines holding guns and a half dozen TSA agents barking commands to the crowd. “This feels like we’re crossing through a military checkpoint–it’s kind of creepy.”

Worse than creepy, however, was Lori Dorn’s recent TSA experience. As Dorn (wife of Laughing Squid’s Scott Beale) recounts in a recent blog post:

Yesterday I went through the imaging scanner at JFK Terminal 4 for my Virgin America flight to San Francisco. Evidently they found something, because after the scan, I was asked to step aside to have my breast area examined.  I explained to the agent that I was a breast cancer patient and had a bilateral mastectomy in April and had tissue expanders put in to make way for reconstruction at a later date.

I told her that I was not comfortable with having my breasts touched and that I had a card in my wallet that explains the type of expanders, serial numbers and my doctor’s information (pictured) and asked to retrieve it. This request was denied.  Instead, she called over a female supervisor who told me the exam had to take place.  I was again told that I could not retrieve the card and needed to submit to a physical exam in order to be cleared. She then said, “And if we don’t clear you, you don’t fly” loud enough for other passengers to hear.  And they did. And they stared at the bald woman being yelled at by a TSA Supervisor.

I’ve been through long hospitalizations with my son and I know how it feels to come out the other side–you’re grieving, shock-y, ping-ponging emotionally. Dorn isn’t even fully out the other side yet: she is still recovering from chemo, coping with the loss of her breasts, hair, and vitality, and waiting to undergo reconstructive breast surgery. The prosthetics that set off the sensors at the airport are “tissue expanders,” devices that will enlarge over time to create pockets in Dorn’s chest where her breast implants will be inserted. The process–which I’m going to assume causes tenderness in the post-surgical site–is described this way on the product’s website:

[The expander is] a silicone shell that is filled slowly over time with saltwater to stretch the skin and make room for your implant. The expander is placed under [the] chest skin at the site of [the] planned reconstructed breast. A small needle is used to fill the expander with sterile saline. The needle is inserted through the skin to a “fill port” located inside the expander. Gradually over time, the overlying tissues expand.

To be clear: Dorn was not refusing to be examined by the TSA agent, she was simply asking for a private examination (which according to the TSA’s website, she was entitled to) and most likely wanted to explain to the agent how easily she could be hurt prior to being examined. Instead of being treated with compassion and dignity, she was loudly threatened.

After this story started to gain media traction, the TSA sent Dorn a letter of apology where it acknowledged that it had “missed the mark” in training agents to be culturally competent in engaging with prosthetics-wearers, and said:

TSA has just rolled out an in-service technical training course focused on screening prosthetics. This curriculum focuses on all types of prosthetics and the requirements of the standard operating procedures related to the screening of Persons with Disabilities and Medical Conditions. It is a four part curriculum with one of the modules focusing on different scenarios and the decision making (critical thinking) process and the outcomes of the decision made by the officer. The training should be complete nationwide in a little over a year.

To my mind, the fact that the TSA is only getting around to this sort of training now, 10 years after the 9/11 attacks, is not the only “missed mark.” Dorn’s experience is part of a larger problem: security theater in a post 9/11 world. The tragedy isn’t just that Dorn was treated with such cavalier insensitivity, it is that the cruelty was patently unnecessary–who really believes that a TSA agent requires critical thinking training in order to treat a cancer survivor compassionately? Perhaps it is not the agents’ training that is flawed. Perhaps it is a society that is itself still shock-y and ping-ponging over the 9/11 attacks, stuck in Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ bargaining phase of grief. Collectively we have been saying, “Yes, we’ll give up our human right to dignity and compassion, we will not question creepy, intrusive government behavior…just bring back the safety we used to believe existed.” And yet:

When people are bargaining, you should not offer them any false hope. Although there may be practical things they can do which you can offer them, never offer them something that cannot be fulfilled.

Sometimes the best you can do at this stage is point even more at the inevitable, even though this may well tip them into depression (which may well be a necessary move).

How do you engineer an intervention for an entire country gone neurotic with grief? How do we find a balance between airline safety and humane compassion? Before anything else, people who have gone through trauma need their experiences heard. From her blog, Dorn recognized that when she encouraged people this week to share their “horror stories” on Twitter, cc’ing the TSA Blog Team:

Many people shared their TSA horror stories on Twitter cc’ing the TSA Blog Team, inundating them with @ replies. This was the feedback that caused a government bureaucracy to acknowledge something went wrong. Not me.  And I thank everyone for it.

I’m not sure if I can say “Mission Accomplished” quite yet, but I can say that the mission has begun.  And that’s a helluva start when you’re dealing with the TSA.

Sharing our stories cannot be the endgame, however. Where do we go from here?

10 Takeaway Lessons From Maker Faire New York

Last weekend the kids, husband, and I attended the 2nd annual Maker Faire New York at the New York Hall of Science in Corona, Queens. We were all blown away by the experience–I spent the weekend happily geeking out: touching stuff, pushing buttons, exclaiming repeatedly to anyone who would listen This is what our SCHOOLS should look like! (Well..I said that in between meeting tons of fabulous people at the GeekDad/GeekMom booth where Dave Giancaspro, Amy Kraft and I chatted up visitors and ran a photo scavenger hunt, with prizes provided by ThinkGeek.)

It’s hard to put into words what Maker Faire is, so I’ve resorted to trying to tell my story through pictures and sound bites. Understand: back in the day, I was one of those kids who kind of compulsively enjoyed taking things apart to see what was inside (but could never get everything to go back together again afterwards). If you or your kids are that kind of a person? Maker Faire will make you happy…

1. 3D printers are the new “it” gadget. There are a couple of different kinds–and keeping with the “maker” ethos, most are kits that the user first builds themselves–but the concept is exactly what the name implies: 3D printers produce a 3-dimensional model of whatever you’d like to create, including intricate pieces for that board game you’re designing, space age jewelry, or components for the robot your team is designing to compete in their next FIRST challenge. Enthusiasts even have their own online community, Thingiverse, where they can upload and share their open source digital designs.

CdTe “thin film” solar panels powered GE’s Carousolar as well as the free phone-charging stations surrounding the ride.

2. Makers like sustainable energy. From GE’s Carousolar to Bootstrap Solar’s kickstarter promotion to The BioBus (a mobile science laboratory fueled by vegetable oil and powered by wind and solar energy), renewable energy sources were a hot area of pursuit at the Faire. (On a related note: GE’s EcoMagination is my new go-to resource to find out about what’s happening in the energy world–they’ve got a zippy, thought-provoking page on Facebook, as well.)

3. If you can figure out how to use Arduino microcontrollers, you can make ANYTHING interactive. Not sure what the significance of the Arduino is? Check out Judy Culkin’s comic to get started.

4. College is so much cooler now than when I was going. Gabriela Guttierez, a graduate student at NYU’s ITP program, promises to put up open source plans of this award-winning mechanical display on her blog soon. I want one.

5. My son is awesome (something I’d already suspected). Just this week, Wired’s blog ran a great interview on the unappreciated benefits of dyslexia, arguing that dyslexia is not so much a disability but a difference in wiring “that maximizes strength in making big picture connections at the expense of weaknesses in processing fine details” and that results in individuals with excellent spatial reasoning, heightened ability to see multiple perspectives, an interdisciplinary approach to problem solving, and an ability to “reason well in dynamic settings” (ie: roll with the punches when somebody moves their cheese).

One line resonated with me particularly: “These individuals excel in fields where telling and understanding stories are important, like sales, counseling, trial law or even teaching.” Sales and teaching? Yup!

As you can see from the hat my younger son is wearing in this picture, he is something of an Angry Birds fan–he hasn’t taken that hat off since we bought it and he assures me that it is a huge hit with gamers (as well as a very special subset of the ladies…).

So, when he came upon an exhibit at Maker Faire that attempted to bring the video game “to life” he was immediately drawn to it. With a charm and initiative that apparently skips multiple generations, he convinced the owners of the exhibit to allow him to run the space (keeping the kids in line excited, keeping the line moving) as if he were doing “an internship.” Outside of his meals, I didn’t see him for the entire weekend. “Free range kids” advocate Lenore Skenazy would have been proud…

6. There are a lot of cool “maker” books out there, including:

7. You no longer need to know Morse code in order to join a ham radio club (yeah, this picture has nothing to do with ham radio–I just like it). Nor do you need to build your own radio before you can be admitted to a club. And, yes: the clubs are open to teenagers as well as adults–so you can bring along the recalcitrant teenager who now requests that you publicly walk half a block behind him, if you’d like.

Finally: if the NY Hall of Science’s amateur radio club (HoSARC) is any indication, even if there are no other women in the group, you will be enthusiastically welcomed to join…

8. Hackerspaces and Makespaces are the village halls of the maker community and they are mushrooming up everywhere. What’s a hackerspace? It’s a communal, passion-led, workshop space where members can gather together to make things with tools they might not be able to afford individually. Members usually pay a monthly fee, just as they would for a gym membership, but instead of workout machines, members access power tools, 3D printers, and the knowledge and support of a like-minded community.

9. Soldering is THE gateway activity into hacking. This year, my son and I received some personalized instruction from the nice people at Radio Shack’s “Make a Squeeze Light” station and I am feeling a lot more confident about my own soldering skills (hint: it is all about letting the solder run down the channel on the side of the soldering iron INTO the space you need filled with solder.) Maybe this week we’ll make the Simon kit the equally nice people at Sparkfun gave me!

10. Play is important. One of the aspects of Maker Faire that I like best is its willingness to delight, its acknowledgement that playfulness is an integral component of an inventive mind. I recently described Maker Faire to a friend as Hogwarts meets wood shop: everywhere we turned last weekend there were people riding something they’d built themselves–a scooter, a custom bicycle, a Segway, a motorized skateboard…actually, the only things missing were the broomsticks.

At one point, on my way to a lock-picking class, I walked past a giant, fire-breathing dragon (that doubled as a playground) and into the happy chaos of a mobile sword fight. I realized that no one in this Maker crowd seemed overwhelmed or bored–everyone just seemed to be IN THE ZONE, inhabiting that cognitive sweet spot where concentration and engagement happily collide–and I was struck by how profoundly happy we humans become in the face of meaningful work and experiences.

Maker Faires and Mini Maker Faires occur annually throughout the United States. If you’re interested in attending one, check out the Maker Faire site to find out if one is taking place anywhere near you.

Book Review: Nerd Do Well

NerdDoWell-196x300Recently, in the back seat of my car, my older son and his best friend were thinking seriously about their futures:

Friend: So when we grow up, which bar in town will be our hang out?

Son: That Irish pub on Main Street–it’s the most like The Winchester. That way we’ll be set in case we have a zombie apocalypse.

[Ruminative moment of silent head-bobbing-while-gazing-out-into-the-distance ensues.]

Both [thoughtfully]: Yeahhhhhh.


Son [brightly]: Because you’ve got to have a plan!

(Scene: “The Plan” from Shaun of the Dead, Universal Pictures)

Five years ago, when this same son was battling chronic insomnia brought on by “scary thoughts” of aliens and dying, I could never have predicted that our family movie nights would one day revolve around spaceships and the walking dead–and yet, here we are, celebrating birthdays with an opening-night viewing of Paul and using zombie-homage-flick Shaun of the Dead as a future-happiness benchmark. The common touchstone to these family favorites is Simon Pegg–screenplay-writer and star of Paul, Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and Run, Fat Boy, Run (and ensemble-member in the latest Star Trek film-franchise, to boot).

And now, our friend Simon has come out with a book.

Pegg’s frothy, fun autobiography Nerd Do Well is hitting the shelves just in time for a sunscreen-slathered, poncho-wearing day at the beach, or (for those lucky thousands), perusal whilst shuttle bus-ing to San Diego Comic Con–and my sons and I have had a blast dipping into it together:

  • “He met the scarf-y Dr. Who!”
  • “Oh, man! Coldplay played at his pub all the time! At the Winchester!”
  • “He sucked at had a hard time with those standardized tests in school, too!”
  • “Cool! He met Rick from the Young Ones!”

In fact, there are few geek icons Pegg hasn’t had the pleasure of meeting. His list (just off the top of my head) includes: Carrie Fischer, Lou Ferrigno, Gillian Anderson, Peter Jackson, George Lucas, Steven Speilberg, and George Romero, among others.

The devolution into name-dropping lists is one of the book’s flaws–but not a deal-breaker, particularly when the name-dropping is followed by a paragraph, page, or chapter of film criticism. Pegg’s analysis of bromo-eroticism in Starsky and Hutch, the merits and flaws of the Star Wars prequels, and the socio-political underpinnings of the original Star Wars films are all spot-on, as are his existential ruminations on the heresy that is fast-moving zombies:

[We used] the zombies as reflections of various social concerns: collectivism, conformity and the peculiar condition of modern city living. I believe it is this metaphorical richness that forms the cornerstone of their continued appeal. It’s why I get miffed at all the dashing around in recent zombie films. It completely misses the point; transform the threat to a straightforward physical danger from the zombies themselves, rather than our own inability to avoid them, and these films are about us, not them. There’s far more meat on the bones of the latter. The fast zombie is by comparison thin and one-dimensional…

My older son, the aspiring writer, ate these discussions up…

In reading this together, we skipped around the book (with me editing out the mildly-salacious bits–the boys can discover those on their own when they’re 40 or so): we’d look at a chapter title, vote on  its appeal, and dive into another self-effacing, humorous tale from our favorite anti-hero, agreeing all the while (as Pegg says, himself) that, “Geeking out is always more enjoyable in groups of two or more.”

(Note: I received a free copy of Nerd Do Well for review.)

Does Legislation Guarantee our Children Online Safety?

SB242 is currently making its way through the California legislature and according to

“Under the proposal, social networking sites would have to allow users to establish their privacy settings–like who could view their profile and what information would be public to everyone on the Internet–when they register to join the site, instead of after they join. Sites would also have to set defaults to private so that users would choose which information is public.”

For those of us who are long-time Facebook users…that might sound vaguely like a return to the terms of use we initially agreed to when we created our accounts, before Mark Zuckerberg redefined privacy. I, for one, would prefer greater control over my personal information than I currently have using Facebook. At the moment, it feels as if I am buying my monthly social-networking access by giving away small pieces of my self in the form of soul-shaped personal anecdotes, childhood photos, and “likes.”  As time goes on, I am wondering if this degree of access into my personal landscape is equitable or advisable…

According to NBC Bay Area, there is a second component to this bill that has even further-reaching implications, in that it would essentially give parents editorial power over their children’s Facebook accounts:

The bill’s language also states that social-networking sites would have to comply with parental requests to remove information or photos from their children’s pages or accounts. The new bill “would require removal of that information regarding a user under 18 years of age upon request by the user’s parent, within 48 hours upon his or her request.”

Ironically, I had a problem with that portion of the legislation. It took me a little while to suss out exactly why I felt it was misguided, though. Sure:

  • It puts the greatest responsibility for a child’s online safety with the entity least-invested in the interests of the child: that is, the social networking site; and
  • It creates a false sense of online safety in which parents may feel that they don’t have to discuss the sometimes scary or uncomfortable pitfalls of social media (and can opt to simply protect their children) because they are “in control” of their child’s accounts; and
  • It has nothing to do with lowering gas prices, controlling health care costs, or creating jobs–which, as far as I’m concerned, are the only things elected officials should be working on right now–all of them (I don’t care WHAT committee they sit on…)

But those points weren’t my issue.

The big question I came away with after reading through this legislation is: In the world where this bill passes, what happens on the day after a child’s 18th birthday? Will he automatically emerge into adulthood hard-wired with the skills necessary to negotiate the online world safely and effectively? How?

In a possibly-related news story, a recent Pew Research Center survey found that:

“A majority of college presidents (58%) say public high school students arrive at college less well prepared than their counterparts of a decade ago; just 6% say they are better prepared.”

What (I immediately wondered) has changed in the last decade? Is it possible that in the wake of the financial crisis and the World Trade Center attacks we have responded culturally to a justifiable feeling of physical and economic vulnerability by becoming more protective of our children? If so, is the resultant protective response actually serving us or our children well?

Do not believe for a second that I am instead advocating to allow children unfettered, unguided access to social networking sites–the news is too full of tales of social media use gone awry. Children need to be taught appropriate online behavior just as they need to be taught the etiquette of “please” and “thank you.” The people best equipped to accomplish this, though, are their parents, teachers, librarians and all of the other trusted adults personally-invested in their well-being–not someone trying to sell them something.

I realized as I thought on this that I subscribe to the type of solution that Dr. John Duffy proposes in his new book The Available Parent: Radical Optimism for Raising Teens and Tweens. Like Dr. Duffy, I believe that my primary job as parent is to provide a safe environment for my child to learn, explore and make mistakes.

In the chapter entitled “What Never Works,” Duffy had some logical suggestions regarding social networking and teen development:

[Regarding] updates on social networking sites like Facebook…there is an element of public domain here. Inappropriate or overly revealing messages can absolutely present a safety issue, especially for younger children…Trust your instincts to know when your child is ready, and keep an eye on your child’s Facebook page. For the first couple of years, you should share her password so that you have access anytime.

The challenge, of course, is to be involved in your child’s online life while simultaneously keeping the following in mind:

If we choose to rescue our teen from every potential pitfall, we unwittingly disrupt her process and take some critical opportunities away from her. First, we take away any opportunity for learning from the experience. We also take away the satisfaction and pride that come with a problem well-solved. While we’re at it, we take away her ability to prove her competence, both to herself and to you, the parent. In doing so, we give her the false impression that we will always be there to pick her up when she falls. We create a wholly unnecessary dependency. Now, this may provide us as parents with a role to play, parent-as-hero, but it robs your child of the opportunity to ever feel like a hero herself.

What Dr. Duffy seems to be saying is that the best strategies to guiding children into the online world involve “scaffolded support” where the child is only helped in the areas where he cannot flourish independently; as the child gains proficiency, adult support is “faded out.”

When I think about it, I can see the allure of SB242–it sounds so simple and definitive in comparison.


(I received a copy of The Available Parent for review purposes.)

The Post Title I’ve Always Dreamed of Writing: I Was Interviewed by NPR!


Friday morning my Greg-Mortenson-Controversy post went live on GeekMom. As per usual, I tweeted and Facebooked this news to my potential readership–which, in my mind, consists of eight friends from college, one amazingly hip and precocious sixteen-year-old, and a bunch of people who would actually prefer to hear how Kari Byron is doing.

My marketing responsibilities behind me for the day, I then moved on to checking my email.  I scan my inbox and immediately open an email from a familiar-sounding Larry Abramson–an email that references a developing National Public Radio story about Greg Mortenson and ends with the beautiful, beautiful words “Can you let me know how to reach you by phone?” printed above a tiny, tasteful NPR logo.

(Is there such thing as an NPR geek? Clearly, the answer to that question is YES.)

Understand: during the first ten years of my marriage, while my husband was in the Navy, I lived in five states and on two coasts. This was all well before email, social media, or affordable long-distance phone plans. NPR became the well-read friend with elegant diction that came with me to every new assignment, regaling me with beautifully-crafted, topical stories, always making me feel less alone. That email from Mr. Abramson rocketed me straight into “bucket-list” territory…

So how did my actual conversation with Mr. Abramson go? Well, you can hear the completed “Weekend Edition” segment here. I come in a little before the three-minute mark and am quoted with just one sentence. (The sentence that really nailed the story, according to many of my closest friends.) Alternatively, you can scroll down the transcript and read my response–it appears right after the words “Mr. Andrea Schwalm.”

What you cannot hear in my (nuanced) response, fortunately, are the two cats who ran into the bedroom to argue on my lap, mid-interview. Nor can you hear my oldest son, a room away, complaining loudly about being forced to give up technology for Good Friday while his mother, THE HYPOCRITE, talks on the phone, an open laptop resting on her legs…


Geek Ethics: Is it Important That Greg Mortenson Lied?

Watch the 60 Minutes coverage here.

Image: Penguin

Last Saturday, over a meal of chapati, daal, korma, and basmati rice that we’d come together to prepare, the youth group that I mentor sat down to discuss Greg Mortenson’s “Young Reader’s Edition” of Three Cups of Tea.  The book chronicles the events that ultimately lead Mortenson to create the Central Asia Institute, a 501C3 not-for-profit that raises money through penny drives at schools and churches to build schools  (particularly for girls) throughout Afghanistan and Pakistan. This meal and community-read were the kick-off activities for our group’s second annual “Pennies for Peace” fundraiser.

The story in  Three Cups of Tea (One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace … One School at a Time) that is continued in Stones into Schools (Promoting Peace With Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan) is absolutely inspirational: In 1993, after losing his guide during an unsuccessful bid to climb the mountain K2, Mortenson stumbled into the village of Korphe in Afghanistan, weak from exposure. The people of the village gave him food and shelter, and in return, after watching the teacher-less children of the village practice their lessons by scraping at the mud with sticks, he promised to find a way to build Korphe a brick-and-mortar school.

Mortenson returned home to California, sold everything that he had, and lived in his car while working to try and save the $12,000 that he estimated he would need to fulfill his promise. He also sent out hundreds of letters asking for contributions for his project. However, during this time, his most successful fundraiser occurred after students at the elementary school where his mother was principal organized a penny drive and raised $623.  Ultimately, this event became an important platform in his work: school children had the power to raise money and change lives in Afghanistan and Pakistan simply by collecting pennies.

In December of 1996 an angel donor appeared and the Korphe School was completed. In the wake of this first success, the angel donor told Mortenson that he seemed to be good at building schools and gave him seed money to continue building them throughout Afghanistan and Pakistan. As of 2011, according to the CAI’s impact statement on Guidestar (a not-for-profit agency that promotes philanthropy by encouraging nonprofit financial transparency):

The CAI has established 178 schools, and also runs an additional two dozen more temporary schools in refugee camps, areas of conflict, war, natural disasters, or where extremists have not allowed girls to attend schools. Approximately 68,000 students, including 54,000 females attend CAI schools, which are taught by a total of about 1,240 teachers.

For a hippie-ish geek like myself, Mortenson’s messages for a post-9/11 world–“books not bombs,” “war and violence are not the answer,” “one person’s ideas and hard work can make a difference”–synced with my own most deeply-held beliefs and hopes. After reading an Op-Ed piece by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof in 2008 stating that the $500,000 price tag of one Tomahawk missile could fund 20 schools in Afghanistan or Pakistan, I began to ask myself, “Is a military presence in this region really the most effective, most humane way to make sure that a tragedy like 9/11 does not occur again? Could this Mortenson guy be onto a better strategy?”

I’m not the only GeekMom to admire Mortenson’s work, either. GeekMom and Air Force reservist Patricia Vollmer had this to say:

Not only have I read both of [Mortenson’s] books with enthusiasm, but I have sent school supplies to my USAF colleagues in Bagram who have distributed the supplies to schools that were funded by the Central Asia Institute.  The Department of Defense even has supported “getting through” to the Afghan people by laying a foundation in education for children, a foundation laid in part by their relationship with the CAI.  Three Cups of Tea is on the Joint Forces Staff College’s professional reading list (as well as other military professional reading lists).

Many world leaders have also supported Mortenson’s work:  President Obama donated $100,000 of his Nobel Peace Prize award to the Central Asia Institute and in 2009 the country of Pakistan presented Mortenson with one of its highest civil awards, the “Sitara-e-Pakistan” or Star of Pakistan.

Unfortunately, a day after the dishes from my youth group’s meal were cleaned and put away,  Mortenson’s work came under intense scrutiny after CBS’s 60 Minutes aired a highly-critical segment largely influenced by the research of an early CAI supporter–author and fellow-mountaineer Jon Krakauer. Coincidentally, Krakauer has also just this week released a 90-page “long-form journalism” piece called Three Cups of Deceit on the brand-new online-publishing site

When I first began reading about this story in the media, the main focus as presented in the New York Times and elsewhere was that this was a publishing-ethics issue. Mortenson’s books profess to be biographical. If real-life events transpired differently from his books, how much discrepancy was acceptable?

Early response to the 60 Minutes story, then, focused on two questions:

  • Did Mortenson lie about the events that lead up to his decision to build his first school in Korphe?
  • Was Mortenson ever kidnapped by the Taliban and held hostage for eight days?

In response, Mortenson now says that in order to create a more “readable” story, he and his co-author compressed the time line surrounding his first visits to Korphe. Additionally, to this day, he does not know whether the people who detained him in Pakistan’s Waziristan region were Taliban or not, all he can say for sure is that his personal possessions and passport were taken and he was detained against his will for eight days in a small room.

These questions alone would not dissuade me from the legitimacy of using Mortenson’s books as teaching tools for children–they seemed forgivable “white lies.” 60 Minutes did make additional criticisms of Mortenson, however:

  • While CAI says on its’ website that 85% of monies raised are put towards “contributions on our programs,” 60 Minutes pointed out that more than half of that 85% is put toward promoting Mortenson’s public speaking tours and book promotions here in the United States. The CAI thinks of this activity as cultural-awareness education and claims that it is a vital part of their mission.
  • What is more, while CAI has financially supported Mortenson’s speaking engagements by paying for security, charter flights, and some marketing for his books, Mortenson keeps all book-profits and speaker honoraria. In response, the CAI says that Mortenson’s book talks are their single best form of marketing and fund raising. Additionally, the CAI says that an independent legal review completed this winter indicated that Mortenson did not accrue “excess benefit” from this arrangement.
  • 60 Minutes claimed that many of the buildings that Mortenson built were standing empty, never completed, or were now not being used per their original purpose. Mortenson claims that, depending on when the buildings were visited, school might not have been in session, as the Afghani school year begins in late March.

These questions give me pause–particularly when I hear that Mortenson gave more than 150 talks last year and can receive as much as $30,000 per speaking engagement.

In my own church, the decision was made to immediately pull the plug on our “Pennies for Peace” program.  Essentially, the thought was: there are many programs in existence that accomplish important work, why should we affiliate ourselves with someone who seems financially suspect? I cannot help but feel disappointed by this, however. This was a program that I really believed in and for which I still hold out hope. I also wonder: our little youth group’s donation was not going to be earth-shattering either way but how many other groups will make the same decision we have?

My concerns mirror GeekMom Patricia Vollmer’s:

I’m shaken up about how this report–and the subsequent media attention–might ultimately impact the end product: less support = less funding = slowing down of the building of the schools = slowing the education of those kids.

Clearly, the CAI needs to strive for greater financial transparency as well as significant  separation between “Greg Mortenson, author” and “Central Asia Institute, not-for-profit” in the near future. Mortenson is due shortly to under-go heart surgery–this might be an opportune time to bring on additional leadership. However, if this news story destroys the Central Asia Institute, will this exercise have been worthwhile?

The Times reporter Nicholas Kristof, for one, does not think so, and finds this story “heartbreaking.” On CNN, Kristof recently said that he’s visited some of the “truly impressive” schools in Afghanistan, himself, and that the public “should reserve judgment to some degree.”

Personally, I’m left thinking: was this simply the best business and book launch at the expense of a world-changing cause, ever? Is there a Webby category for that?


Against the Odds: Inspiring Books to Share with Geek Kids

From the “only-slightly-crazed-years” archives. Photographer unknown.

By the time my older son was four months old, he would sit on my lap, point at images he enjoyed, and help turn the pages of  the board books we’d read together. At this age he was a stormy, intensely-observant little person already passionately opposed to doctor’s offices, food stores, malls, elevators, escalators, cribs, playpens, sitting still, quiet, music, bright lights, nail clippers, solitude, crowds, darkness, clothing tags, naps, and loud-noises-that-were-not-trains. Book time was just about the only peaceable time we had each day that did not involve either somebody lactating or Johnson’s Baby Shampoo.

Through the seemingly endless parade of meltdowns that framed a period that most children just SLEEP THROUGH,  I discovered that we could usually reconnect and calm down with a book. The increasingly ill-named diaper bag rarely contained actual diapers, wipes, or changes of clothing…but as God is my witness: I knew better than to leave home without the entire Thomas the Tank Engine oeuvre in board-book form by the time this child was on rice cereal.

Sometimes now I think there was a Darwinian purpose to my son’s behavior. Because today that baby is 15 years old, almost six feet tall, perfectly capable of reading to himself, and actually working on his own novel–and yet I still read to him and his brother most evenings. It is, after all this time, still the point in the day when I know we can all calm down and reconnect. The cats know it, too. They pad upstairs most nights and curl up into contented loaf-shapes on one bed or the other to listen along, eyes closed, purring intermittently.

I have read all seven of the Harry Potter books aloud to my children, with different voices for each character (it is a point of no small pride in our home that each of us can do reasonably proficient Cockney, Irish, London, Cornish, and Scottish accents, on demand), as well as a great many favorites from my own childhood: fairy tales, nonsense poetry, stories of magic and fantasy…

Initially, my goal was to entertain and intrigue: Aren’t books wonderful? Don’t you want more? Do you hear that delicious no-one-screaming sound? But somewhere along the way, as my sons got older, I wanted something else from the books we read. I wanted inspiration.

As it turns out, a precocious appreciation for a ripping tale well-told does not guarantee a life of academic ease.  The occupational therapist that ultimately worked with my older son once told me, “I’ve never met a child with such profound sensory integration dysfunction before.”  Three years later, she amended her statement upon meeting the younger son: “…until now.”

The sensory gates that we all possess, that allow some environmental stimuli through while blocking out extraneous information so that we do not become overwhelmed by the world around us, didn’t work quite right for either of my children–by which I mean: at all. This resulted in attention deficits, impulsiveness, phobias, sleep dysfunction and some oppositional defiance (as well as profound irritability on everyone’s part)–all of which did nothing to help the underlying language-processing disorders both children also had.

My sons have had to work harder than other kids. Very little of what we consider “normal” has come naturally to them: holding a pencil, tying their shoes, reading a book, kicking a ball, adding two numbers, sitting in a chair, buttoning a coat, writing a sentence, making a friend…despite possessing “normal” IQs, they have required therapies and specialists to master each of these milestones.

I recognized early on that I would need all of the help that I could get in supporting these two and ever since the fateful day on which I came upon Captain Underpants creator Dav Pilkey’s website and read about his experiences with AD/HD, I’ve expanded my support network to include fictional characters, as well–a strategy sometimes referred to as bibliotherapy.

Bibliotherapy is the use of books and relationships with characters to help children cope with challenges. In the context in which I use the word, this does not mean self-help books for children. Instead, it means well-crafted stories where compelling characters prevail against seemingly-insurmountable odds through a mix of grit, optimism, and moxie. As GeekMom Laura explained in an earlier post: Childhood books make us who we are. I want kids who are independent, creative, problem solvers who adore their mother but do not plan on living in her basement in their 30’s. I choose our titles accordingly.

What follows here is a list of some of the best “against the odds” books I’ve read to my sons in the last two years. Some of the titles border on dystopian-lit but I try to temper the despair of dystopia by alternating with choices that are uplifting and lighter.

  • Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand – Not a book for the faint of heart, this is the biography of Lou Zamperini, a one-time Olympic track star who survived 46 days on a near-provisionless raft in shark-infested waters after his plane crashed into the Pacific only to become a Japanese  prisoner-of-war for four years during World War II. Caveat: the book is never profane but the sheer level of trial and degradation Lou suffers is probably too intense for elementary-aged children or more-sensitive older children.
  • Science Fair Season by Judy Dutton – Each chapter in this book introduces you to the rich back-story of another child participating in Intel’s high-stakes science and engineering fair in 2009. The students come from all walks of life, from the relative privilege of a Connecticut film geek who almost-accidentally falls into studying colony collapse disorder (see her C-Span “Student Cam” winning film on CCD here) to the quiet poverty of a young Navajo man living in a trailer on a reservation who invents a solar water heater for his family out of soda cans, black paint, and an abandoned Pontiac radiator. At the end of each chapter my sons and I would agree, “Oh, now this kid should win!” Each child had to overcome their own unique set of challenges to make it to the competition floor with their awe-inspiring projects–as October Sky’sHomer Hickham says in his review of the book on Amazon, “Within the[se] pages are tales of true heroism, that of courageous students who are willing to struggle and persevere and finally succeed.” This is just a great, uplifting family read-aloud.
  • Shackleton’s Stowaway by Victoria McKernan – The explorer Ernest Shackelton really did lose his ship Endurance to the ice of Antarctica in 1914. Ultimately, he was forced to leave most of his crew on Elephant Island for four months and navigate a small lifeboat across 800 miles of open ocean to  South Georgia in order to get help for his men. The book Shackelton’s Stowaway adds a fictional overlay to this tale in the form of Perce Blackborow, a young man so enthralled by Shackelton’s reputation that he stows away on board Endurance in order to take part in the explorer’s adventures. The experiences of the men that are left behind (amazingly, all survived), their struggles to eat, stay warm, and remain hopeful, are all told through the lens of Perce’s observations. Caveat: Tender-hearted readers may struggle with the fact that the men resort to eating penguin and dog to stay alive. Erm…we had no such struggles…
  • Hatchet by Gary Paulsen – 13 year old Brian is on his way to visit his father in the Canadian wilderness when the pilot transporting him on the last leg of his journey has a heart attack and dies. The plane crashes into a lake and Brian manages to survive two months alone, in the wild, with little more than the clothes on his back and the birthday gift his mother gave him before he left home: a hatchet.  Teaser: You will NEVER look at moose the same way again!
  • The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier – Jerry Renault is tired of school fundraisers and decides he isn’t going to sell chocolate this year for his high school. Displeased, the school’s assistant headmaster, Brother Leon, colludes with the school’s secret society “The Vigils” and it’s sociopathic leader, Archie Costello, in order to force Renault to change his mind before other students at the school follow his lead. Caveat: According to Wikipedia, “Because of the novel’s language, the concept of a high school’s secret society using intimidation to enforce the cultural norms of the school, and the protagonist’s sexual ponderings, [The Chocolate War] has been the frequent target of censors and appears at number three on the American Library Association’s list of the “Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books in 2000-2009.” All I can say in response to that is banned books make for really rich discussion…
  • Honorable mentions go to: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Holes by Louis Sachar, and Hoot by Carl Hiaasen.

If you’ve got additional titles to suggest, by the way, I’m all ears.

Citizen Science Projects

“Don’t worry ma’am, we’ve got it under control: we’re scientists.” Tagging horseshoe crabs for Project Limulus. Photo by Andrea Schwalm

It’s a dark and blurry but if you look closely you can see that this is a picture of my younger son holding a flashlight while my older son tags a horseshoe crab. The boys were participants two years ago in Sacred Heart University’s Project Limulus, an annual horseshoe-crab census that has used volunteer-generated numbers to try and solve an emerging environmental mystery: “Where are all the horseshoe crabs going?”

It turns out that horseshoe crabs are pretty amazing creatures. At over 350 million years on the planet, they are one of our oldest-surviving species. Their shells have been used to make sutures and their blue, copper-based blood is used by pharmaceutical companies to test the safety and purity of drugs, vaccines and medical devices–no other medium works as reliably.

It also turns out that, in recent decades, horseshoe crabs have been disappearing from our estuaries in alarming numbers and scientists want to figure out why.  The first step in solving this puzzle was to establish hard data on horseshoe crab populations. Researchers turned to “citizen scientists” to help them establish these baseline numbers–without a dedicated volunteer corps, it would have been prohibitively expensive to complete the initial phase of this study.

Now, in our region, horseshoe crabs are easiest to observe (and tag) at night during the full or new moons of May, June and July. This lead to a series of late-night beach runs for our family, all in the name of science. The end result was that the boys had a blast at the time and today we all still feel very protective of our friend limulus polyphemus.

I was reminded today of Project Limulus when I opened up this fantastic link: The Top Citizen Science Projects of 2010. I love how these “citizen science” projects empower kids and show them that science isn’t something that only happens in a classroom or lab. Additionally, as a big fan of project based learning, I admire how these projects get families outside and build on activities kids already do for fun–like counting fireflies, squirells or bees.

Many of the projects listed here are on-going, so if you missed out last year, don’t worry! Now might actually be a good time to do some research of your own (before the weather warms up again) to see if any of these projects appeal to your resident citizen-scientists…

And, hey: if your family has participated in other “citizen science” projects in the past, feel free to share your experiences in the “comments” section or upload photos to our GeekMom Flickr group!

Ladies, Can We Talk (About Wikipedia)?

I had two stories about gender and social media cross my computer recently.

The first was The New York Times article “Define Gender Gap? Look Up Wikipedia’s Contributor List” which explained that while Wikipedia–the  free, online encyclopedia “that anyone can edit”–is a top-ten internet destination with more than 3.5 million articles in English alone…less than 15% of the people volunteering to create and edit Wikipedia are women. Potentially,  our culture is being defined online by a homogenous community of “wikipedians” who are almost universally white, Christian, technically-inclined, formally-educated males from the northern hemisphere between the ages of 15 and 49. At very least (ramifications to culture aside), this skews Wikipedia’s content:

With so many subjects represented — most everything has an article on Wikipedia — the gender disparity often shows up in terms of emphasis. A topic generally restricted to teenage girls, like friendship bracelets, can seem short at four paragraphs when compared with lengthy articles on something boys might favor, like, toy soldiers or baseball cards, whose voluminous entry includes a detailed chronological history of the subject.

Almost immediately after I finished reading the NYT piece, this TED Talk by Johanna Blakley on social media and “the end of gender and age  demographics in marketing” popped up in my feed. According to Blakley, marketers have traditionally used “old school demographics” to set advertising rates and have presumed that if you fall within  certain age and gender demographics  that you will have easily-determined (and in the case of women over 54, unimportant) preferences. However, in this age of social media that we now live in where “people aggregate around things they love, shared interests and values become a far better indicator [of decision-making] than demographics.”  According to Blakley, women’s use of social media outnumbers men’s use (making their tastes and preferences trackable), a fact that will rid us of many of the demeaning, “lame stereotypes” now visible in our culture. I question whether this is a victory for women or marketers, however.

So are women the new rulers of the internet? Alternatively, are they potential victims of systemic cultural bias? Or is there no real conflict between these two stories–is  it that women are more likely to be social-media consumers than online-content creators? Is it perhaps that they flock to Facebook walls while eschewing Wikipedia user pages? Both roles, consumer and creator, require base-levels of education and financial well-being: you must have the money to buy a computer and the time, infrastructure and know-how to surf the web…but the former role is relatively passive while the latter is creative, active and empowering…

Now, here’s the thing: I’ve lived in five states and two coasts of  the United States. My experience has been (and sure, this is anecdotal evidence, but bear with me) that women tend to know stuff. And have ideas. Generally? They’re also pretty damn happy to communicate what they know–often in elaborate detail. This discrepancy is not an issue of ability.

So why aren’t we bringing  our collective voices and knowledge to Wikipedia in greater numbers? As it turns out, this isn’t a phenomenon unique to Wikipedia. According to The OpEd Project, an initiative to expand the range of voices in public discourse, “a participation rate of roughly 85-to-15 percent, men to women, is common–whether in members of Congress, or writers on The New York Times and Washington Post Op-Ed pages.”

Wikipedia wants to get to the bottom of this mystery, as well, and in tandem with United Nations University, performed a survey of Wikipedia contributors and readers that concluded:

  • Only 14% had a child.
  • The average age of a Wikipedia contributor or reader was 25.
  • Those that contributed, primarily contributed to fix errors or share knowledge.

Those that did not contribute most often claimed:

  • “I don’t have enough information.” (45%)
  • “I’m afraid I’ll make a mistake.” (25%)
  • “I’m happy to just read it.” (46%)
  • “I don’t have time.” (31%)
  • “Others are already doing it, there’s no need for me.” (19%)
  • “I’m not comfortable with the technology.” (16%)

Respondents were more likely to edit if:

  • “A specific topic needed my help.” (40%)
  • “It was clear that others would benefit.” (35%)
  • “I was confident that my contributions would be kept.” (25%)

So, looking to the future, what can women do to become active, creative participants on Wikipedia? Are there GeekMom readers  ready to write an entry? Or maybe you’re more interested in easing into the Wikipedia community. There are lots of bite-sized jobs that need doing:

This begs the greater question: Why am I so gung-ho on bringing the female voice to Wikipeda?

I suspect that if women continue to opt out of public discourse, important needs and issues will continue to go  unaddressed. As I read the NYT Wikipedia gender-gap article, I began thinking about another gender gap–the gender wage gap–and how, as a teenager,  I expected that issue to be resolved by benevolent feminists long before I reached adulthood. I also thought on how,  just recently, House Republicans tried to remove the voices of women from their experience of rape when they attempted in the “No Taxpayer Funding to Pay for Abortion” Bill to redefine rape in terms of a man’s active force, rather than a woman’s denied consent.

Even in the midst of raising families, working jobs in and out of the home and taking care of daily minutiae, women need to find the time to exercise their voices and remain active participants in civic discourse. Wikipedia is an increasingly-popular cultural cornerstone and women’s voices need to be there helping to shape its content and tone.

Special thanks to Dina M, who emailed asking me to write about the Wikipedia gender gap. Your email convinced me that this was an idea worth developing.

Johanna Blakley’s TED Talk: Social Media and the End of Gender

Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life

Photo: Andrea Schwalm

I cannot think of Karen Armstrong without then mentally reciting the opening to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

And then, on Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, a girl sitting on her own in a small café in Rickmansworth suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would get nailed to anything.

Armstrong really does just want us to be nice to each other, though.

A failed Roman Catholic nun and English Professor, she is best known as an author, comparative religious historian, and recipient of the 2008 TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Prize for innovative ideas. The TED Prize came with a $100,000 monetary award and Armstrong used those funds to create the Charter for Compassion, an online document calling for people of all faiths (or no faith) to “restore compassion to the heart of religious and moral life” by reaffirming the golden rule, Do not treat others as you would not like them to treat you.

“Not simply a statement of principle, the Charter is above all a summons to creative, practical and sustained action to meet the political, moral, religious, social and cultural problems of our time.”

Intimate yet awe-inspiring: The Celeste Bartos Forum in the Stephen Schwarzman Building of the New York Public Library. Photo credit: Andrea Schwalm

In short, the Charter is a crowd-sourced, online  think tank aimed at reframing any ideological extremism that ignores “the divine in each of us.”

Through its’ “Learn,” “Share,” and “Act” subheadings, we are all invited to affirm the Charter, share our thoughts and success stories around compassion, and support others as we work to develop our own personal senses of empathy “all day, every day.”

In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the worst financial crisis since The Great Depression, and the continued social fragmentation of both family and community, Armstrong believes that our  best hope for world peace–and individual happiness– lies in “dethroning ourselves from the center of our world” and taking care of each other…something that sounds logical though simplistic to say aloud and that is borne out by emerging science on happiness, but actually requires the intentional, life-long effort of the entire human community to achieve.

On Tuesday, January 11, I saw Karen Armstrong speak about her new book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, at the New York Public Library’s Celeste Bartos Forum on 40th Street and Fifth Avenue. (PS: Her talk was part of a larger series of discussions, lectures, and classes on the three major world faiths continuing at the library through February, and coincides with a free, online and real-world exhibition entitled Three Faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam showcasing holy relics and codices from all three traditions.)

For those who have seen Armstrong’s 2008 TED Talk, this most-recent talk did not cover a great deal of new ground. Once again, she discussed how the idea of compassion, integral to all humanity, evolved separately in all of the worlds cultures, from Confucius’ concept of shu (consideration) and the Buddha’s call for maitri (loving kindness) and karuna (“the resolve to lift all creatures from their pain”), through to Jewish scholar Rabbi Hillel’s summation of the Torah, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor…the rest is commentary.”

Question and Answer Session With Guy on Right Coming Out of Nowhere. Photo credit: Andrea Schwalm

However, Armstrong wants to do more than simply rehash history or discuss lofty ideals, she wants to continue to provide a concrete action plan for change. Her new book, The Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, is her action plan for “being the change we want to see in the world,” and like all effective “12-Step” programs, it is set up so that the individual does not have to work alone.

“After all, we come together when we work together,” she explained.

After purchasing and reading the book, individuals are encouraged to further process and internalize its ideas by starting a reading group, joining monthly, hosted discussions on Facebook, and sharing their commitment to “activating the golden rule” (as well as any stories that result) on the Charter for Compassion’s website. Additionally, because Armstrong (who personally ascribes to no faith tradition) believes that religion can be both a source of close-minded, violent fundamentalism and a wellspring for transcendent hope, the book also includes a lengthy “Suggestions for Further Reading” appendix designed to provide historical background and address issues of scriptural interpretation.

Armstrong closed her talk with these words:

“Let us care for all creatures as a mother does her only child.”

That one sentence provided me with a perfect perspective from which to begin my own work.

My children are in their teen/pre-teen years and even on a quiet day, there is still a good amount of spirited debate that takes place in this house over chores, homework, TV rights and family obligations. Additionally, despite my intention to adopt a patient, wise, guitar-slinging Maria-Von-Trapp parenting style, it turns out that I can lose my patience more quickly than I’d like–particularly now that I am working again after 14 years as a stay-at-home parent…

At least once a week, my children and I will have to sit down, apologize to each other for becoming loud, and try to figure out how to handle whatever the conflict du jour might be. However, even before the post-mortem begins, while the stomping and ranting (and emphatic counter-wiping) is in full fury, I know that I do not want any harm to come to my children. I love them. What I want desperately at those moments is a bridge: I want us to listen to each other, respect each other, support each other. I am bonded to my children so that even as they jump on my last nerve, I am looking for that teachable moment, that mutual understanding–for all involved parties.

I want to continue to hone that evolving emotional mechanism and bring it to all of my relationships. That is why I am reading Karen Armstrong’s book and planning on participating in the online discussions…and it is why I believe that you should, too.