A review of Far from the Tree

I'm still reading Andrew Solomon's Far from the Tree.  I haven't finished it yet--indeed, I'm only on page 95 out of 962 pages (!!)--but I'm finding it quite thought-provoking.  For instance, here's a great quote about parenthood:

Loving our own children is an exercise for the imagination.
And this one:

It is always both essential and impossible to tease apart the difference between the parents' wanting to spare the child suffering and the parents' wanting to spare themselves suffering.
I'll blog here in a substantive way when I've finished the book.  I can already tell that Andrew Solomon is going to be quoted at least once or twice in my book.

But here's why I'm blogging:  three or four people have sent me a link to this review in the last 24 hours.  It's a really good piece, and it makes me strongly suspect that I'm going to be gritting my teeth painfully while reading Solomon's chapter on Down syndrome.

"Loving a Child on the Fringe."  Check out the adorable pictures of Eurydice.


Temple Grandin at CofC

Last night Temple Grandin spoke at the College of Charleston, a free public lecture sponsored by the REACH Program.  And the night before, I got to have dinner with her!

Dr. Grandin is a person who's so famous now that I don't feel the need to introduce her at all.  In fact, one of the really interesting things we learned at dinner was how she responds to that fame.  She said she feels it as a tremendous responsibility.  She said that she didn't want to let it get to her head, and she made reference to Greg Mortenson and General Patraeus as people who'd made that mistake.

"The thing with those two," I said, "is that everybody didn't respond by saying, 'Oh, white men.  We knew it.  We knew that they weren't capable of achieving anything, and they've proved it.'"

She agreed.  As a person with autism, people are looking to her as an example.  She said that she has to be careful how she behaves.  "I can't ever get angry in public," she told us.  She's a huge advocate for appropriate, polite behavior from all kids and people, and she was especially emphatic about how important this is for kids with intellectual disabilities.  "Teach them to say please and thank you," she said.  "Teach them to shake hands and say 'Nice to meet you.'  Teach them to take turns."

Biffle and I have been talking about this with Maybelle.  I'm really quite comfortable with her being a naked, syrup-covered person who stands on the dining room table turning the light on and off, but we recognize that she's got to learn what the outside world's expectations are for behavior (and, in fact, she's doing pretty well with this).  While our household can be a place where she's experimental and boundary-testing, appropriate behavior is going to make things easier for her in the rest of the world.  People are already going to have low expectations for her.  She'll already have challenges.  If she is incredibly polite, she'll immediately challenge people's assumptions.

I have mixed feelings about this, though.  This is due in part to my upbringing, which was replicated in our visit to my parents over Thanksgiving.  Pretty much the only rule for Maybelle in my parents' house was that if my parents' feet were cold, Maybelle had to wear slippers.  That's it.  My parents taught me that "rules" and "appropriate behavior" were quite pliable, not to mention socially constructed.  I remember my dad joking at the dinner table that probably my brothers and I would consistently be eating with silverware by the time we went to college.

Okay, but back to Temple Grandin.  She characterized herself as a "bottom up" thinker, and she was skeptical of all labels.  "I don't care about the label," she told some of the parents who came up to ask questions after her talk.  "Just tell me about your child.  I need to know more details before I can give you my opinion."  And in general her advice was that they should try different things.  If their child is improving--doing better with reading, or communicating, or math, or art--then they're doing great, and keep doing it. 

She was also a huge advocate of supporting each child's strengths.  If a kid is terrible at reading but great at math, then let that kid keep doing better and better with math.  "But don't push it on them," she said.  "Learning is supposed to be fun."

I also appreciated how she characterized herself.  She's a person who does a lot of talks about autism (she told us at dinner that about 90% of her time is spent on the road), but first and foremost she describes herself as a professor at Colorado State University, someone who specializes in livestock management.  And she's also a person with autism.  "Autism doesn't define me," she said.

I really enjoyed her talk, and I was honored to meet her.  I didn't necessarily agree with everything she said, though.  Even though Women's and Gender Studies was one of the cosponsors of her talk, she expressed intense skepticism about WGS to the WGS students who took her to breakfast yesterday.  "You've got to be able to do things and get a job," she told them.  I didn't get to give her my "what you can do with a degree in WGS" spiel, but if I meet her again, I will.

Latest article in the City Paper

Starting on November 18, our local paper has been running articles about rape on the College of Charleston campus.  The Nov. 18 article focused on an alleged gang rape of a female athlete by a group of male athletes.  She dropped out of school in the aftermath.  They did not.  Here's my response in the City Paper.

And in case you want some of the other stories, here are the ones from the Post & Courier:


Things we have eaten:

Trey and I:

  • Three separate meals of turkey, gravy, sweet potato souffle, and cranberry salad
  • Ralph's butter twists
  • Japanese food at Taiko
  • Fish tacos
  • Several bowls of homemade granola
  • Pecan and cherry pies
  • Whipped cream on pie and coffee
  • Cheerios and soymilk
  • Bananas
  • Sweet potatoes, and most importantly--and most often--
  • Yogurt


Sarah Josepha Hale

Sarah Josepha Hale should be on a t-shirt.  If she's already on a t-shirt, someone should get that for me for a present.  Of course she's got some problems--everybody does, and when you're a feminist scholar studying folks, those problems become apparent.  But she was an incredibly influential woman in the 19th century, and it's because of her that Thanksgiving is a national holiday.

For 25 years, she wrote letters to the Presidents.  She was like, "Listen, y'all, July 4 is a great holiday, but it's the only one we've got.  You know that it would help our national unity if we had one more, at a different time of year, that has symbolic connection to the founding of our country and all that."  She said, "You know that everybody loves turkey, and people need an excuse to eat a ridiculous amount of pie.  So come on."

Because she was the editor of Godey's Ladies Book, a magazine that was so famous that it makes famous things today look puny by comparison, people paid some attention to her.  And in 1863, Abraham Lincoln was like, "Dude, that SJH has a good idea.  This Civil War's got everybody down, and pumpkin consumption is on the decline.  The sweet potato lobby has been pushing for more support.  So what the hell:  let's make Thanksgiving a national holiday, on the fourth Thursday of November every year."

And here we are:  celebrating Thanksgiving, but most of us not offering the tiniest thought to the woman who made it happen, Sarah Josepha Hale.  Just about every year I draw people's attention to her, and yet I haven't generated the kind of viral attention that SJH needs.  So tell your dining companions about her.  She got us all a day off and a patriotic opportunity to eat pecan pie (and celebrate the eugenic efforts to rid the country of its indigenous population, but we'll put that aside for the moment).

Hurray, Sarah Josepha Hale!


Thanksgiving post #1

This morning Uncle Trey, Maybelle, and I are heading to Tennessee to spend the holiday with Nonni, Poppi, Uncle Aaron, and Aunt Mary.  Biffle is staying here.  He needs a break, some true down time.  I might have been suspicious of this, but two weeks ago I was at the National Women's Studies Association Conference for five days--five days alone in a big, luxurious hotel room.  Alone.  It felt like an amazing retreat.  So I endorse Biffle having a retreat of his own.  Plus, holidays are often a weird combination of excitement and dread, connection and tension, happiness and serious depression (as was the case for me last Christmas). If Biffle wants to sit this one out, right on.


More about NWSA

Books I have with me.Yesterday I bought nine books.

I came to Oakland with six books.  I read two on the plane, and wanted to be sure I had options for what to read here, and on the way home.  Plus, I needed books to help me complete my presentation, which is this afternoon.

That means that when I pack tomorrow to leave, I'll have to somehow fit fifteen books into my suitcase.

I'm not allowed to buy any books today.



(I wrote the title that way to show that I'm in the know.  I just recently learned about all the hashtag business.)

I'm at the National Women's Studies Association's 35th conference this weekend, in Oakland, CA.  I feel a bit like an extravert at this conference, because I get to hang out with my cool, funky, super-smart feminist friends from around the continent, and I just get in the habit of talking and talking and talking.

Because of the time zone shift, though, I get tired really early.  Last night Patricia Hill Collins gave what I'm sure was an excellent keynote address, but she started at 7:45pm.  Which to my body meant 10:45.  And you all know that I tend to go to bed by 10, so I couldn't really process what she was saying.  I'll get her new book, though, and then maybe I'll have things to say about her.

At lunchtime I was wide awake.  Just before lunch I'd been up in my room, pondering a chapter in my book project, and thinking about eugenics.  Disability studies scholars use the term "eugenics" quite often, particularly when talking about prenatal testing and termination of pregnancies, but I find it troubling given the conversations I've had with women who've terminated their pregnancies.  Their stories aren't stories of "we need a better baby."  Their stories are about feeling that they can't bring a person into the world when that person will suffer and not have the life they want their child to have.

So I sat down at the lunch table next to a person, and asked her what she studies.  "The history of science," she said.  "Particularly eugenics."

Hark!  What a perfect coincidence.  So I asked her questions and wrote down her answers.  I'm going to be quoting her in my talk on Saturday.  She agreed with me that this whole line of questioning is incredibly complicated (the thesis statement for my book), but she made a compelling argument that decisions people are making today about which children to have do seem quite similar to the Progressive Era eugenics she studies.  She said that eugenics becomes a kind of cultural context, so people are voluntarily making decisions that fit within a eugenic context.  It's not that the individuals are eugenicist--they aren't Nazis--but they are part of a context that's shaping the choices available to them.

Her name is Susan Rensing, and she knows who I am because she teaches my stuff in her classes.  She doesn't teach Girl Zines--that would be too obvious.  Instead, she teaches my Motherlode essay and one of my favorite blog posts, "Reasons why feminism is a good prerequisite for having a child with Down syndrome."  I think it's awesome that her students are discussing these pieces!  I would love to be part of the conversations.  Susan, you should Skype me in.

Also, I learned from Susan's colleague Christie Launius that Susan's students think we look alike.  So let me say to any of Susan's students who are reading the blog:  she has a much funkier haircut than I have now.



Mary Poppins at the CisternWe had an excellent Halloween this year. Maybelle still didn't accept any candy while trick or treating, which was a bummer for her chocolate-loving parents, but she enthusiastically enjoyed just about every aspect of the holiday.

She was Mary Poppins this year.  It's a movie she adores (in fact, she's watching it right now, as I type this blog post), and one of the benefits is that it's a good enough movie that it's only now becoming horribly irritating to Biffle and me.

Biffle found all the different parts of her costume at thrift stores around town, and altered them in various ways so that they worked to create a really solid Mary Poppins look.  You can't see it in the picture here, but he went so far as to do some elaborate painting on the handle of her umbrella so that it looked like Mary Poppins' parrot handle.  Maybelle loved, loved, loved her costume (in fact, she's wearing the Mary Poppins hat right now, as she watches the movie).

Her school did a parade on campus as they do every Halloween.  It's such a neat tradition--folks come out of their offices and wave at the kids as they walk down the street from their school to the center of campus.  Then at the center of campus--the Cistern--the kids run around, leap into the air as if they're Mary Poppins, and get pictures taken.

Family photo
Here we are, getting our picture taken together.

Batman and Mary Poppins
And here are Maybelle and Megan, who's dressed as Batman. BatMAN, not Batgirl or Batwoman. She felt that she should be allowed to be the main hero regardless of gender, and of course I support her in that.

Larry, Claire, and Treydinal
Trey was dressed as a terrifying cardinal. When we gathered with friends in our neighborhood for the Halloween party we've attended since Maybelle was two months old, Trey and I were both in truly disturbing rubber heads he bought for us. I was a squirrel. Claire and Larry didn't know that Trey (or Treydinal) was behind them in this picture. I think they were both quite creeped out when they saw it.
Taking off Uncle Trey's cardinal head
Maybelle wasn't all that creeped out. She learned quite quickly that the cardinal was Uncle Trey and the squirrel was Mama.  Here she's taking the cardinal head off to reveal Trey.  For what it's worth, she's now sitting beside me, watching me type, and she looked at this picture and said, "Uncle Trey."

It was a Happy Halloween!

Embracing Human Diversity

Check it out--a podcast!  This is the talk I gave at the Unitarian Church in August.  I just listened to it--it's pretty good.