Friday, July 31, 2009

The Decline of Cooking

Day 5: Baking breadImage by lorda via Flickr

Michael Pollan has a wonderful article in this week's New York Times Magazine about the coincidental decline of cooking and rise of cooking shows. I have written about the pleasures of cooking a few times before. I really enjoy doing it and I love the results as well. Although I take Pollan's point that most people don't learn how to cook from shows like Paula Dean's, I think people who have rudimentary cooking skills do learn something. I have learned things about ingredients, about what flavors might go well together, new preparation techniques, and more. I also take Pollan's point that there's a lot of focus on consumption rather than production of food, but I have also seen a strong relationship between those who cook and those who appreciate good food even in the consumption of food. And that seems to be a bidirectional relationship. People who consume a good meal are often inspired to create similar kinds of meals at home and those who create good food at home expect good food when they eat out. Although I've been known to eat at a fast food place on the road (almost only when traveling), when we eat out, we tend to choose restaurants that serve good food, often food I won't prepare at home (Thai and Indian are common choices as is sushi). When my kids were younger, we would eat at places like Applebee's and Chili's, but I really don't like these places now. People I know that don't cook have no problem with places like these and consider them treats next to the canned and frozen products they prepare at home.

I credit some of my food snobbery, of course, to my parents. My mother had learned how to cook Southern food from her mother and added more sophisticated food to her repetoire as she began entertaining law partners and clients. She could cook butter beans, lady peas and fried chicken one day and oysters bienville and rock cornish game hens the next. The one restaurant in town was owned and operated by a couple who spent every other weekend in New York. They insisted on prime beef, fresh ingredients and were always trying new dishes. We frequented the place as it was good for my father's career and because both he and my mother enjoyed a good meal. At the age of 13, my parents took me to the Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia for a full 7-course meal. And though I've never had one since, I've never forgotten the elegance of it. Each dish was small and elegant, from the Vichyssoise to the nuts. I sometimes gave my mother a hard time for her fussiness over appearances, but I was always appreciative of her fussiness over food as I learned so much from it.

Although Pollan complains that many of the shows that are highlighted in the afternoon (when sahm's are around to "learn" from them) focus on premade ingredients and shortcuts, many of the other shows, some of which are hugely popular, spend a lot of time talking about fresh ingredients. I watched a Good Eats episode the other day where Alton Brown insisted that we use fresh grated coconut in coconut cake rather than the stuff you could buy in plastic at the store. So maybe some of that will, or is, rubbing off on people. Maybe they will see the meals that the chefs prepare on Top Chef and want to make something close to that on their own. Those shows do provide many of the recipes on their web sites and the web more generally has a ton of available recipe sites. There's no need to rifle through cookbooks (though I have many) to find the perfect chicken recipe. Some of my favorites are Cooking Light's site and

I hope it is rubbing off, because Pollan's last point about the connection between not cooking and obesity is one that makes sense to me. Americans aren't cooking as much as they used to, in large part because the food industry has given us foods that don't need to be cooked and are laden with fat, sugar, and salt, which we are naturally disposed to crave. And not cooking is a key predictor of obesity rates:
The more time a nation devotes to food preparation at home, the lower its rate of obesity. In fact, the amount of time spent cooking predicts obesity rates more reliably than female participation in the labor force or income. Other research supports the idea that cooking is a better predictor of a healthful diet than social class: a 1992 study in The Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that poor women who routinely cooked were more likely to eat a more healthful diet than well-to-do women who did not.
There are a lot of reasons for the decline in cooking--from a food industry pushing convience food on us to an increase in work hours and commute time. But I hope that one thing that the cooking shows can convey besides the food itself, but the real joy that cooking can be.
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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Snarky Education

I really like Mark Bullen's Net Gen Skeptic blog, because I, too, maintain a healthy skepticism about they hype surrounding the so-called Net Generation.  I don't think they're all disengaged, tech-savvy people.  When I teach and use something as simple as a blog, I have to teach about 80% of the class how to use it.  And often, I have to teach 100% of the class how to use it effectively.  Most of the students I've run into who have a blog use it as a diary or as a way to communicate only with friends.  So learning to blog in public is a difficult thing to do.  If you read the likes of Don Tapscott in Grown Up Digital, these students started a blog at birth and by the time they reach college, have gained a huge audience and are earning their college tuition through selling ad space.

Bullen's latest post about the Snark effect, an effect where policy or strategy is based on assertions rather than on a full evaluation of the situation, i.e. empirical research.  Bullen asserts that the call for technology in education is all snark and no bite:
The Snark Syndrome is clearly at play in the discussions around the Net
Generation and education. I have lost track of the number of times I
have heard educators repeat the stereotypes about the Net Generation:
short attention span, expert mutitaskers, technologically savvy etc
etc. Countless Michael Wesch-like You Tube videos are circulating
urging us to wake up and change our ways or else risk losing an entire
generation of learners who we are failing to engage. The answer, we are
told, is more digital technology
I think many people who encourage the effective use of technology in teaching and learning are not just saying it because we need to engage a crew of digital natives who would rather be Facebooking than sitting in class.  Instead, we see a future that's digital, where we know our students need to understand and be critical of the information that is flowing past them every day at a very rapid pace.  They will be expected to use many of the Web 2.0 technologies in their jobs and will need to be able to learn how to use new ones and determine whether they are effective tools or not.  And many of us do look at the research.  Many of us are looking at research that is 40 years old and that still holds, that says that active learning is better, and we see that technology is one of many ways to achieve best practices in learning that are supported by decades of research.  My own dissertation investigated through empirical study whether blogs were an effective tool for teaching writing.  They are.

If people are blindly jumping into using technology for technology's sake, then Bullen has a point.  As a consultant (one of the people he says educators are blindly following, though I do know a lot about education), I would never suggest that educators simply follow my advice without thinking about whether it would work for them.  It's likely they'll want to make small adjustments based on their own needs and experience.  I merely make suggestions, show things that have worked for me or for others, and talk about the research that backs up those suggestions.  In fact, the whole point for me of using technology in the classroom is so that we don't create a generation of blind followers, that we have students who will be able to tackle the huge problems they will face: global warming, dwindling fossil fuels, global strife.  Blind following in any of those cases is a bad idea, and I believe that technology can be part (not all) of the solution to helping them become better informed and make better decisions.

Cross-posted at Emerging Technologies Consulting.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Personal Branding

I had the great pleasure today of leading a session on Personal Branding for Drexel University co-op students.  I'm not what one might call a "guru" on the topic, but I've essentially been creating a personal brand since 1998.  I also worked as a salesperson for a few years and have been through several job searches, so I have a good understanding of what it means to sell yourself.  Of course, now that everything is online, creating an image for yourself is easier than ever, but still takes a lot of work in terms of building relationships and showcasing your work.  A few years ago, when the fear hype about the web was at its peak (and it's still pretty high!), I led a session for Bryn Mawr students about creating a positive profile online and this presentation was an extension of that.  There has been so much focus on people who put the wrong things online and on the extraordinarily rare occurrances of kidnapping and other similar crimes that few people stop to look at the positive side of putting yourself out there.  Yes, there are risks and yes, there's sometimes a little filtering that needs to happen, but generally, good things accrue to those who take a risk and share information about themselves.  Potential employers can get a clearer picture of who they're hiring and potentially someone might hire someone simply because they stand out from the crowd in some way.  Below are some of the points I covered in the presentation.  Feel free to add your own ideas--what's worked for you?

Cross-posted at Emerging Technologies Consulting.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

RBOC: Incomplete thoughts edition

  • Yesterday, I started a long post about race that I just couldn't finish. Suffice it to say, my relationship to race is complex, influenced by being raised in the South, by my own desire to figure out how the South got to where it is, and by people I've known and other places I've lived. I have been in contexts where I've had what can only be called racist thoughts. And my response is to fight those thoughts, to understand where they come from. And I think I'm not unusual in having those thoughts, though I may be unusual in recognizing them and trying to do something about them.
  • Laura at 11D continues the conversation about parents and work schedules and also talks about managing her own time. Although I've made progress on some projects this summer, I've given up having a super productive summer. For one thing, I've realized that physically, I can't handle all work all the time. Seriously. I end up with major migraines. So, I'm basically working about 4 hours a day. Yesterday, I worked in the morning, then took the kids to the pool. I usually read while I'm there, sometimes things I need to, sometimes not. But that's been the typical schedule. Housework happens when I'm inspired, which isn't that often. I recruit the kids for lots of things, and they've been good about that.
  • Still trying to balance eating healthy and local and the cost. Still difficult. Yesterday organic chicken was running at $5/lb. for a while chicken. Regular chicken, $1/lb. Sigh.
  • BlogHer was on last week. I went in 2006. I like the idea behind BlogHer. It's certainly great to see a bunch of women bloggers all in one place, but the corporate nature of it rubs me the wrong way. Maybe I'm just squeamish that way. Maybe it's because my blog doesn't get enough traffic to attract coroporate sponsors. :)
  • Update to my Naked Teaching post, another good commentary on teaching with technology.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Relying on the childless

Back to schoolImage by lorda via Flickr

Dr. Crazy had an interesting post the other day on how she's finally decided to put her foot down and not take the crappy time slots just because she doesn't have kids. I've been sitting on that post since I read it and then Wendy at Outside Providence responded and that prompted me to open it up again. My initial thoughts on reading Dr. Crazy's post were about all the times that I never said anything about needing to make accommodations for my kids even when a meeting was scheduled inconveniently. Like someone in the comments said, I felt it was inappropriate to even mention my kids. I needed to fit the "ideal worker" mold, suck it up and just figure things out. Of course, I was in a 9-5 job where I was expected to be present during all regular work hours, unlike a faculty member. So when the kids were little, we put them in full-time daycare, and when they got to school, we signed them up for after-school programs. I eventually quit sucking it up so much and asked for a flexible schedule where a couple of days a week, I came home at 3:00. Of course that meant I showed up at 7 a.m. So, a different kind of sacrifice.

Daycare, full time or otherwise, is expensive. Faculty salaries are not so great. And I'm sure that what goes through a faculty member's mind is somewhat about trying to save some money by doing part-time daycare or handling after school on their own. I've seen a lot of faculty do this, in fact, though I don't know if the reasons are financial. So, one solution might be to help faculty financially or logistically with the daycare situation. Have a drop-off service or have a list of students available for babysitting.

In general, I like the idea that Wendy raises of creating a culture that's more cooperative. One of the commenters at Dr. Crazy's mentions the whole "you chose to have kids, so suck it up argument" which always bothers me. Yes, I chose to have kids, but no, I had no clue how much time and money would be required to deal with raising them. And many parents didn't choose to have kids with disabilities or health problems or mental problems. And shit happens. Your kids get sick, get depressed, have accidents, etc. I agree that people who seem to be clueless about the fact that taking a kid to gymnastics is not really a good reason to be accommodated should be reined in. But shit's going to happen to childless folks too. A friend or parent will get ill, will want you to help them move, will get depressed, will have an accident, etc. Or you might be the one that gets depressed or ill or has an accident. And you might need to adjust your schedule. Or, on the more positive side, you might choose to volunteer somewhere or take up a hobby that means you can't make a 7 p.m. or 8 a.m. meeting. And, in my opinion, that should be accommodated just as much as needed to drop off a child somewhere.

Largely, I think it's up to a department chair or dean to create a situation where accommodations are equal. Faculty parents can start by assuming their jobs are 9-5 and making arrangements for their kids during those times. Yes, I know one of the greatest benefits of a faculty job is the flexible schedule, but if your colleague is having to teach the 7 p.m. - 10 p.m. class every semester because you refuse to find a babysitter, you're probably creating some resentment. If you don't want to invest in full-time daycare, then at least make arrangements for scheduled meetings. And, to help out, chairs, deans and colleagues should provide plenty of notice for those meetings. Course schedules could generally be done through a combination of requests and random assignments. In many departments, these kinds of things are the norms.

One commenter said that the key is to simply say what you want. I think honesty is a great thing here. Wouldn't it be great if everyone understood where everyone is coming from?
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Naked Teaching

Alex Reid and Tim Burke have both commented on this Chronicle article about SMU's proposal to remove computers from the classroom.  Both Reid and Burke have pointed out that removing computers does not guarantee that teaching will automatically improve.  Burke notes that teachers who use PowerPoint as a crutch used to use notes or transparencies and will likely simply revert back to those pre-computer methods.  Burke outlines some suggestions for what makes lectures better.  But Reid raises the issue of what to do with a hundred or several hundred students when you're not lecturing.  The article itself notes that "Lively interactions are what teaching is all about."  I can tell you that in my spring class with 40 students, managing those lively interactions was quite challenging.  How, then, do you do that with hundreds?  There are no answers in the article itself, though it gives examples of interactive discussion occuring in several classes.  There is no mention of how large those classes are.  Reid suggests that the delivery of college courses will need to change.  The article mentions the pressure on colleges to do more within the classroom since lectures are now either freely available or available at a lower cost (for college credit) online.  Why would someone want to pay thousands of dollars for something they can get for free?  Lectures, then, and especially bad ones, are no longer always a cost-effective and certainly not a learning-effective way to deliver instruction.  Could a place like UC-Davis, where my colleague Leslie Madsen-Brooks works and where there are classes as large as 700 students, afford to break those large classes up?  Would it make sense to have such a large class watch the professor deliver her lecture via a video podcast and then be broken up into smaller chunks to meet with TAs to discuss the material, work on problem sets, or do some other activity?  There are costs involved in the production of the video and then there are the costs of the labor to handle the smaller sections.  Are there ways that this method saves money?  Lower facilities costs?  Better retention rates?  Justification for higher tuition?

This issue makes me think, too, of Dean Dad's occasional suggestion that we should decouple class time from class credit.  What if a student can breeze through a first year biology class in half the time? What if another student needs a year to cover the same material?  Can colleges accommodate that and if they do, what are the costs?  While the technology that allows this kind of time compression creeps me out a little bit when applied to younger students, it seems perfectly logical at the college level, especially in courses where there's already a huge distance between faculty and student.  Being able to check in with a tutor or a TA from time-to-time while working through the material on your own strikes me as better than the current lecture system.  There are actually many possibilities, facilitated in some cases by technology.  The problem is at least two-fold.  One, none of the options are likely to both improve instruction and reduce costs (many seem more expensive).  Two, change within the ivory tower is extraordinarily slow.  There are so many competing interests and in places where large lectures are the norm, the students' best interests are often last on the list.  But I do think that students and parents are starting to ask, "What am I paying for?" when they see that they're getting material that is easily accessible for free or at a much lower cost.  Hopefully that pressure for change will reach the podium of the lecture halls.

Cross-posted at Emerging Technologies Consulting.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Innovation or Nightmare

This New York Times article describes a summer program for middle schoolers where lesson plans are generated by computer algorithm. On the one hand, it sounds like many of the kids are enjoying the computer games that teach math.  On the other hand, this seems like a scary prospect of kids sitting in front of a computer all day.  Yes, the lessons are tailored to each student, which I think is a good thing and a good use of technology, but there seems to be little real interaction with the teachers or with other students.  Though the article mentions small group activity and lessons with the teacher, it's unclear how much of that actually occurs.  There's the suggestion, in fact, that fewer teachers are needed.

For now, the curriculum is focused on math, because there are materials--quizzes and games and whatnot--already available. There's no mention of how they'd do language arts or social studies.  Would they just have online quizzes?  What about discussing a book? Blogging about it? I'm not opposed to using computer quizzes to test skills and basic facts, but those don't necessarily indicate a full understanding of the material.  That's one of the problems with state tests now; they test things that can be memorized not the understanding of the concepts behind those facts.  It may be that this curriculum is being supported through discussions and writing and other kinds of engagement, but that's not the impression I got, and frankly, this scares even my technophile self.

Cross posted at Emerging Technologies Consulting

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Gaining or Losing Balance

There's been a lot of talk around the blogosphere about Jack Welch's recent comment saying that there is no work-life balance. As Laura at 11D points out, evidence certainly suggests that the government and businesses are not interested in providing policies that help people achieve balance. She directs us to a great quote from Conor Friedersdorf, blogging at The Daily Dish. He suggests that maybe we should stop aiming for the top of the corporate ladder and count our blessings.

Amen! I've come to feel that this work-life balance thing could be about making good policies, but it's more about cultural expectations. While I think it's unlikely that people at the top of the corporate ladder are going to spend significant time with family, I don't think that means the rest of us need to work like CEO's, putting in 60-80 hours (or more!) a week. But that's what the culture dictates. In the tech industry, this culture is pervasive. Programming, system administration, etc. can all take place any time of the day and the work is never finished. The people who have the time and want to take the time often put in ungodly amounts of work, creating a culture where everyone else feels the need to do so as well. This has been especially hard on women, as they are often primary caregivers, and can't put in those hours.

I feel as though this concept of success=number of hours worked per week is pervasive, not limited to certain fields. Neighbors tout about how many hours they work no matter what their field. Now, does more work actually get accomplished? I'm sure in some cases, that's true. But in some cases, I suspect there's a law of diminishing returns, that after a certain number of hours in a day, productivity levels off or declines. So I wish, as a society, we could quit judging people for whether they work, how much they work, etc., and think of them as whole people.

The other day in the car, I had a moment where I realized that my past self would be very unhappy with my current self. I used to judge and criticize women who stepped off the career track. In my mind, success was about working full time, with or without family obligations. And maybe it's true that from a purely financial standpoint, women who step out of careers are giving up a bit of success. But there's more to life than financial and career success. That's what I'm coming to now. That moment in the car made me first, have some doubts about what I'm currently doing, and then second, laugh at my past self. Perfect balance may indeed be elusive, but I think no one should dismiss those that are trying to find it.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Frustrated by food

Let's talk about food. For the last couple of years, I've been doing my best to buy food responsibly, meaning buying plenty of local food, organic food, basically food that is good for me and good for the environment. That goal has been supported by the opening of a farmer's market near me. And the food there is reasonably priced as well as locally and organically grown. But the market is only open on Wednesday afternoons and I'm a meat eater. Those two things are making my life difficult. I can get meat at the market. One farmer provides chicken and pork. Another has buffalo. But, it is pricey. Though less pricey than the grocery store. On my last trip to the grocery store, I wandered through the meat section looking for farm-raised, free-range, organically fed meat products. No beef or pork fit this category. Only chicken and duck. Purdue chicken and the store brand both cost between 1 and 2 dollars a pound, depending on the cut. The organic poultry? 3-4 dollars a pound. Now, I could potentially swallow that cost, but people on a serious budget? No way. And I see people in the store all the time with coupons and with the weekly circular only buying stuff that's on sale. Smart financially, but not necessarily healthier.

Organic fruits and vegetables have a similar markup. Luckily, I can get most of them at the market. But I had a debate with myself about buying avocados. I love them, but they are in no way local. I overheard someone at the store complaining about how she couldn't tell where the vegetables had come from or how they were grown. You don't hear that much around here.

One of the proposed items in the health care reform bill is a tax on soda, which even Democrats oppose. The problem is soda is not that cheap already. And healthier options such as juice are even pricier. I don't think the government can figure out a way to force people to eat better. I think most people shop based on what they like and what they can afford. And healthy options (not to mention sustainable ones) are usually out of their price range. Not everyone has access to a farmer's market and not all grocery stores even carry organically grown products. The time it takes to prepare a healthy meal is fodder for another post, but for many people, time constraints really drive their food purchases.

I'm going to keep trying to be mindful of my food purchases, but I'm frustrated by how difficult it is to make good choices.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Worthwhile blog reading

  • ianqui writes about her mother's problem with boundaries
  • Cathy Davidson on this article quantifying the costs of humanities and social science publishing. I need to think about this more. One key figure for me: 47% of the cost is in the editorial process. In light of some things I've read, mainly Shirky, it seems the filter first-publish second method is not only slow, but not cost effective.
  • Historiann asks "How do you define good teaching?" Thoughtful questions. Of course, there's tons of research out there on what creates an effective learning environment (good teaching is usually mostly about having students who learn the material). Sadly, most faculty aren't given the time to read this research, although at many institutions, there are teaching resource centers or teaching and learning centers where faculty can learn more. There's more to her post than that, so go read.
  • Leslie Madsen-Brooks on the UC situation and the call by faculty at the "more prestigious" UC schools for the regeants to abandon the schools that serve a more diverse population of students (diverse in many ways).
  • Speaking of white privilege, Eric Stoller links to a Colbert Report clip on the topic.

Jury Duty

I had jury duty this morning, which turned out to be just Blah. They sent us home at 12:30, which I should be happy about, but my brain tends to be on vacation from about 2 on. So, after eating lunch, I pretty much feel like doing nothing. I was actually hoping to serve on a real trial for once. Oh well.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Letting the kids roam

After writing my own post about free-ranging kids, I've been trying to pay attention to what I'm seeing in my own neighborhood. Laura also posts about this and the comments are a great sharing of different experiences, both the ones that the adults had as children and the ones that their kids are currently having. I've noticed that around here, lots of kids roam pretty freely at all ages, beginning around 8. When we went to the park, a group of kids around 9 or 10 rolled through on their bikes. I see kids on foot, bikes and scooters headed to the nearby shopping center or the closer ice cream shop. Older kids walk to the middle school, around 1 mile for many students. The public library is a block from the middle school and I regularly see unsupervised kids there. Our neighborhood has plenty of sidewalks. There are other divisions nearby that don't, but you still see kids on bikes there. Today, my kids walked to the park--a whole 3 blocks away!--by themselves. I tried, to no avail, to get them to walk to the library, a bit over a mile.

In other words, I think a culture persists here of kids playing in the street, roaming the neighborhood. In part, it's because, like one commenter at Laura's says, backyards are tiny, so basketball, football and frisbee games move to the street. We have no less than 3 basketball goals on our street, with regular pickup games happening mostly after dinner. One is right under a streetlight, so the games happen well into the fall. When we've contemplated relocating, it's this culture that I couldn't be sure would be replicated in another neighborhood. And, in fact, in more upper class neighborhoods, what I've seen is no sidewalks, no kids on bikes or on foot. In those places, there are only structured activities and playdates in fenced-in back yards.

I do long for a creek or some woods, but we get that through visits to various places, so I think that's okay. And I've also seen the kids do some pretty creative things on the computer. Geeky Boy constructed a very complex map today, which he posted to a Runescape forum. When he plays, I swear he spends 1/2 hour playing and another 3 hours writing, drawing, etc. So imagination can come from other places besides the outdoors.

What about me?

As someone who stepped off the full-time career track recently, I'm naturally drawn to articles about women who choose to stay home or who want part-time options or who are struggling to manage a full-time career. Via a comment to this Motherlode post about a women who recently quit her job (after attempting to create a part-time one) to raise her daughter, I found this post about Jack Welch's recent speech where he suggests that women can't have a family and an upper level management position. Maybe they can't, but it has nothing to do with women and everything to do with societal and workplace norms.

Anyway, what has struck me about the rhetoric of many women who choose to leave is that they often say they don't want to miss out on the milestones of their children's lives. It's not really about the kids, per se, but about the mothers' experience of the kids. Occasionally, usually in situations where the kids do need extra attention for health or other reasons, the mothers will mention how their kids need them. The other rhetoric surrounding these decisions is that the mothers feel their families are suffering, as the latter post quotes from Womenomics "the costs to family of a high-octane career are just too great."

I'm going to ignore for now that one rarely sees the conversation about men revolve around these issues. Even if fathers do want to witness their childrens' milestones or feel their families are suffering because of their long work hours, there isn't a lot of ink, digital or otherwise, spilled over it.

What intrigues me is the sliding that occurs between the mothers' personal desires to be present and the families' needs for said presence. It seems that when weighing whether to work or stay at home, the personal (and potentially selfish, but not in a negative sense) desire to be with one's child must be refigured as the family's (not the mother's) need for a maternal presence. Even the original post by the mother referenced in the Motherlode post makes this slide. On returning to work, Anna feels like she's missing out--a personal desire. Then, she says she wants to do what's right for her daughter.

I find this interesting not because I think mothers are bad for wanting to spend time with their children, but that after an initial expression of this desire, they feel the need to frame their argument as something that's better for their children or for their family as a whole. They seem to find it difficult to say, I want this for myself. I can see why they would have trouble saying this. It reframes the whole working vs. sahm debate very differently and plays into all the worst stereotypes of sahms. I don't really quite consider myself a full-blown sahm. I'd say I'm working very part-time at the moment, but I can say that I made this move mostly for me and secondarily for my kids. Hindsight is 20/20 of course, but I can definitely say that I experienced a lot of personal stress and unpleasantness as a result of trying to juggle a career (not just a job) and a family. I had very little support from either the workplace or the home front. I was also watching my son suffer in school. Whether I played a role in that or not, I knew or felt that if I could be more present, I might alleviate that suffering. I might have suffered through the personal stress to get to my career goals if my family was cruising along fine (as it did for years), but because things seemed to be falling apart (and I was suffering as a result of this as well), I needed to change something. It was a complicated decision to make and I think reducing it to my own desire to be with my kids or my kids/family's need for me is too easy.

When people love what they do and/or can achieve a good balance between their work life and their family life, they tend to continue to work. I found that I'd quite loving my particular position, though I loved the field in general and I found I'd lost any sense of balance. When I think about my previous work life, I see many signs that I was personally suffering. My mental and physical health declined. I felt pretty despondent about going to work. It's pretty clear I needed to take a break for myself. As parents go through the process of raising kids, of dealing with their particular kids and their particular employment circumstances, they make different decisions at different points. Our careers peaked at about the same time, leaving us both with little time to focus on family issues. Ideally, we each could have picked up the slack for the other, but it didn't work that way. I often advise new mothers, especially, that parenting actually gets more challenging as the kids get older, and to consider cutting back at that point rather than when the kids are infants and toddlers. But some people have challenging infants and toddlers. They get sick or they have special needs of some kind or they just take more energy.

I guess this is a long and rambly way of saying, sometimes it is about you and your ability to manage, physically and mentally, the challenges that life throws at you. And I think we, as a society, need to quit judging each other for decisions we might make as a result. It would be even better if we could go to employers and say, "you know what, here's what's going on in my personal/family life and I need you to accommodate me in this way" and know that we won't get fired. I have that now, as my own employer, and any future employer is going to have a hard time competing with the flexibility I provide myself.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Gaming with your kids

I thought this post about playing WoW with a 3-year-old, was pretty awesome. I love playing games with my kids and have been doing so since Geeky Boy was 3. We played Lara Croft on PlayStation 2 together. At that time, we switched off managing the controls. Geeky Boy would often hide for the gory parts (which weren't all that gory given the quality of the graphics). And he often needed help with the more complex moves. I remember when I finally needed him to help with some complicated moves when he was about 10 or 11.

I've tried to get my kids to play WoW with me and they do on occasion, but they're hooked on other things. Geeky Girl likes The Sims and Geeky Boy is still into Runescape. I play Sims too, so Geeky Girl can't talk to me about it, and although I don't play Runescape, it's similar enough to WoW that Geeky Boy can share his adventures. I like that it's not a separate world that I don't understand and blow off. With games that involve real people, we talk about how to behave and how to respond to situations. Geeky Boy actually communes with many of his real-life friends via Runescape just as I commune with friends via WoW. We don't look at each other like we're crazy when we talk about having conversations with people via a virtual world.

The kids have also recently rediscovered Nintendo 64. Geeky Boy bought the console a few years ago. He thought he'd given it away until he unearthed it from somewhere in his room (I know, scary). So, they've been playing Mario Kart on it even though they have Mario Kart for the Wii. N64 was past my prime, but I remember playing with my stepbrother when he was their age and I was in college, so it's a fun trip down memory lane for me as well.

To some extent, I think game playing for kids can be about escaping the adult world, but my experience has been that my kids want me to be there with them, to share that experience with them. It's really a nice way to hang with your kids and have fun yourself.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Happy Bastille Day!

Very large Pain au ChocolatImage by lorda via Flickr

CroissantsIn honor of Bastille Day, I made croissants and pain au chocolat. The croissants turned out quite well. The pain au chocolat, while quite tasty, was too big (see right). I should have divided each square in half, as I did for the croissants, but I underestimated how much they would rise. Oh well. Lesson learned. I've also challenged my kids to find out what Bastille Day is. They're currently ignoring that challenge and playing Risk. They have until the end of the day, so hopefully, they'll meet the challenge eventually. It's another gorgeous day, so we have plans to play tennis and visit the pool again. I did a bit of writing this morning, have a couple more emails to send out, and maybe a bit of web work. I think it's hard to keep the kids occupied and get your work done. I could simply send them out (as my mom did), but I'm in that high maintenance parenting mode, where I don't want my kids to "waste" their summer. And there is summer reading to do and instrument practice, etc. So I feel the need to keep them on their toes a bit--and that takes effort. And yes, I know I've written two blog posts today already.

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The Freedom of Childhood (or not)

Two posts on "Free-Range Childhoods" caught my eye yesterday. Both were comments on Michael Chabon's article on childhood adventure books and the general idea that our childhoods and our parents' childhoods were much more adventurous than our children's are turning out to be. To some extent that's true. I can remember venturing all over our neighborhood, basically spending entire days outside roaming around rather aimlessly. It seems like I did this every day in the summer, but I don't think that's necessarily true. I suspect I remember the days I did spend outside and not the ones I spent in front of the tv.

We've been lucky in that most of the neighborhoods we've lived in have been conducive to wandering. My son, now 14, has ventured pretty far from home on foot, mostly once he reached the age of 11 or 12, a little later than I remember wandering myself. Of course, my mother sent me to the corner store when I was about 4 or 5, with a quarter to buy a cheap toy and some bubblegum. Like Tim said, I think there was a definite separation between the adult world and the kid world. I was sent to the store in large part because my mom wanted a break, to reclaim her adult space. Likewise, I suspect we were encouraged to roam the neighborhood so she could have her space.

Tim suggests that there's a definite loss for the kids in that those adventures teach great lessons of independence and confidence, but there's also the gaining of a shared experience as a family or as parent and child. I have vague memories of wishing my parents would join in with us and I remember family vacations as being times when they had no choice, when we did things together because we were in unfamilar territory and we explored it together. Although my kids have spent some time hanging out with friends, running around the neighborhood, they've also spent a lot of time with me. We've gone to the park together, to the pool together, etc. And I think that's been a positive thing. I've often lamented the separation of generations. Perhaps what's happening now will mean our kids won't see such a gap between generations.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Time for reflection

One of the lovely things about being in the locations I was in on my vacation was that I was pretty much off the grid. I could use my iPhone a bit while still in the country, but once we got to France, we had little contact with the outside world. Although we could have purchased an English language newspaper, we didn't and we watched a bit of French news which was mostly about the Tour de France. We did manage to find out about Michael Jackson, but mostly we had no idea what was going on. And we didn't really miss it. At least I didn't.

I spent time just appreciating my surroundings, but also thinking about where I am and where I'm going. And this extended to Mr. Geeky and together, we reflected on our lifestyle--what was good, what we didn't like, etc. Overall, I'd say, we like where we are and how our life has turned out, but there are things that we'd like to be better. Just before we'd left, I'd commented on how I felt our lives here were sort of rushed, that it was fast-paced and it seemed difficult to slow down. In essence, I feel like this is part of the culture here. This would probably be true of any major metropolitan area where commute times (both to work and to shopping, schools, etc.) eat into time to spend alone with a book or with family. I also think there's an element of our own rushed tempo with our careers in technology that move at the speed of light. I think we have been influenced both by the locale and our careers to feel the need to do everything quickly.

Another element that feels problematic to me is the lack of connection I feel to my neighbors. I have plenty of friends, but they are far flung, living in the city or in other suburbs. I've made a real effort, though, in the last few months, to make those connections. It takes time and effort. I think improving these connections might help slow things down a bit, and make us feel like we have ties that support us.

On the material side, with my leaving regular work, the plans we had for improving our house to gain space and make it more our own have been put on hold. Moving out a ways might gain us some space, but it adds to the commute, uproots the kids from their schools and disconnects us from the few connections we do have. But there are small things we can do--painting, smaller improvements--that might make a big difference. And really, we don't care that much about our physical accoutrements.

One thing I've been thinking about is trying to not be so hard on myself. I've spent much of my life comparing myself negatively to others, and although I've mostly stopped doing that, I find it sneaking in occasionally, making me feel that who I am and what I have is not good enough. But it is. I really have few complaints. Those I have can be fairly easily remedied. So I came away from my vacation much more appreciative of what I have and the life I've built, but with an eye to continue working on the things I want to be better. And I hope to slow down and appreciate it even more.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Il y a bien longtemps . . .

Me at Indian restaurant, originally uploaded by lorda.

It's been a long time. I've been in North Carolina, and then Paris, Indianapolis and now finally home again. The weather is beautiful here, making the transition back to real life a bit easier. I'm sitting now on my back deck with a beer, trying to recreate the Paris cafe atmosphere. It's close, but not quite.

I had an absolutely fabulous time, but I am glad to be back home, not living out of suitcases. So, what's everyone been up to?