Thursday, December 4, 2014

Stop, Look, and Listen

Sometimes I am asked to review or write blurbs for books about parents, caretakers, and kids.

I have to admit that I haven't read many parenting books, except for two skinny ones on teenagers and how to cope with messy rooms, safety issues and such. My 17 year old recently told me she had read them as well, perhaps before I did, so she knew what was coming. There they sat on the shelf, so why not get a jump on Mom? The books forgot to add a section on wily teenagers and how to get a jump on them.

Today I am looking through Susan Newman's Little Things Long Remembered, which is essentailly a list of  hints on how busy working parents can remember that they have kids. Apparently, the kids are "little things" long forgotten.

Open this slim book and hit on concise tidbits to put into action. The action is basically to turn off your cell phone and do something with or for your child.

Yes, there are lots of specific ideas about trips and treats, or making some craft together, but overall this is a book for adults who are too busy, self-absorbed, and frazzled to even remember they have children.

Many parents will find it useful, but I found it to be a depressing statement about parenting in Western culture.

Do we really need to be reminded, for example, to "act silly" (p. 31), talk to kids while we ride in the car together (57),  or "come home early to be with a sick kid"(p.92)?  

I chose these three examples randomly but imagine 135 pages of such sadly obvious hints.

I'd like to believe that this is an unnecessary book, that all parents and caretakers routinely take time out of their days and nights to be with their kids, to interact with them, because that comes naturally, because that's what it means to be a parent or caretaker. If not that, then what? 

In my worst moments, like when reading this book, I also wonder if we are, as a culture, at risk of inflating the self-esteem of our kids with the inane phrase "good job" for some tiny achievement while ignoring everything else about them, the good as well as the bad.  

It seems to me that parenting can best be summed up not in a list of cloying advice but in the very words we use to teach children how to cross the street: Stop. Look. And Listen. 

 Stop. Look. And listen to the best days of your life. That's all you and they need.

Sure, we all get busy and preoccupied sometimes and if you need a book to get back on track as an engaged parent, try this one. Skim a few pages and then drop it and get back to being a parent.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014


Last summer I spent a month in Venice and one night, as a rain storm approached (la tempesta), I had to go out on the tiny balcony and retrieve my laundry. Yes, that's my laundry in the foto below, the line with the long sheet and blue towel.

The wind was blowing and howling, but over the sound of nature I also realized that someone was speaking to me. Looking across the courtyard I saw a man in an apartment at the same level as mine. He was at his window offering me his opinion about the storm. So we chatted.

This was one of my best moments in Venice, something I will always remember because I live in a culture where a stranger wouldn't dare converse with someone across the courtyard, or street, especially at night, in a storm, and especially if you were a woman and he was a man. It would seem creepy instead of normal and friendly.

Why is it like that in Venice? Sure, this tiny city is more tightly packed than my town, and everyone knows every else because they walk everywhere and stop and talk. But Venice is also special because it has a very long history of community spirit.

From the time Venice was established in the lagoon in the 800s to the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797, its citizens have banded together for the greater good of La Serenissima, The Republic of Venice.

Although there were social classes from patricians to servants, everyone operated within an interwoven network of neighborhoods, classes, churches, and service clubs. And they did so, made a cohesive dedicated social whole, because this was a vulnerable nation surrounded by water.

But more important, Venice was a city based on commerce and everyone worked hard, even the aristocracy, to make money.

That history of banding together to make money informs everything in Venice today, from the gondolieri hawking rides to the cost of public toilets for non-Veneitians. It also informs the friendliness of Venetians if you make an effort to see the city and be part of the life.

For one quick moment as I took in my laundry, I felt just a little bit Venetian. It was so cool.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

It Takes A Binder

I've started another book. I know this because I've taken a binder (one of those old old clothes covered faded blue ones) and put in separators with color tags which represent chapters.

(OK so this isn't actually my binder but a foto of someone else's binder. You can tell because it would never occur to me to put  a plant on my binder. Chocolate, yes, but leaves?)

This binder thing is both ritual and practical. Ritual because this is always how I've started a book. Practical because even in the age of writing and taking notes on a computer, there are always odd bits of stuff that have to go somewhere.
That step can't be done until the whole book makes sense to me, somewhere deep in my brain. Oh, it will change before it's done, but the basic format is there.

And then I have to organize it in that binder before I go further.

So "Venetians Invented Everything" has its binder now, and there are pages in there with notes, and some articles, and some jotted ideas. Even a few pages of real live writing.

I am off and running. It feels good, but the organization also brings me to the knowledge of how much work there is when you write a nonfictions book, especially by jumping into the history of another place, another culture, and another language. But that's what makes it captivating.

Next post: the joy of  index cards. Or for some of you younger folks, an explanation of what an index card might be.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Why Am I Not Living In Melbourne, Australia?

First to all, it's the rock and roll. No American believes me, but the good rock now comes from Down Under. Give me three of Diesel's albums (and one more song here) on a desert island and I'll live forever, dance forever, and sing along badly forever.

Then there are the people—everyone seems to be really funny. Self-deprecating humor at it's best. I should live there just because they "get" my jokes. And the accent. Can I get that accent too?

Of course there are the cool and weird animals, the Great Barrier Reef, The Daintree Forest and all that.

And today I am happy because an article I wrote for Child Magazine Australia just came out and there' a video of the editor, Karen Miles, introducing the issue and saying our how Our Babies, Ourselves changed her life.

It's doesn't get any better than this, unless I were in Melbourne, eating a sausage roll, living in one of those great Melbourne terrace houses, with friends making fun of me or themselves...

with tickets to a Diesel concert in my hand.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Rhythm of Life

The leaves are not yet turning here in Central New York, but the temperature has fallen and the the humidity is gone (thank goodness).

And school is in session.

Although I am in the middle of retiring from Cornell University (one more class to go), I still feel the rhythm of the academic year. I also have a teenager in High School which underlines the schedule of our days. I no longer have to wake her up, make a lunch, or hand her a backpack and take her to school, but the house still vibrates each morning with her shower and hairdryer and the slam of the door as she rushes out to AP Biology.

Many who write a blog take a break, or have nothing to say, for a while and that's the case here too. What's my excuse?

Oh, the rhythm of life, I guess.

I was in Venice, Italy, for a month this summer and then home working on this and that. Then I got Lyme's Disease and that sort of took over my energy.

In the next few posts I am going to write about the book I've started: Venetians Invented Everything or I Veneziani Inventarono Tutto.

And they did.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Culture of Narcissism

A recent opinion article in the NY Times claims that the personality disorder called narcissism might not be a prevalent in the current American generation because these kids have grown up during tough economic times and so they are less self-serving.

I published a response that comes from my view as an anthropologist, and from a life that has been markedly harmed by narcissists.

So it's a subject that greatly interest me. 

And others close to me. 

Here what I said in the comment: 

"These articles and studies [some studies suggesting times are a changing on the narcissist front] are addressing narcissism as a plastic cultural phenomenon, not as a personality rooted in deep psychological damage in childhood primarily brought about through shaming and a lack of healthy attachment. That kind of destructive narcissism  the one that makes for people who are empty and need to be constantly filled up and propped up by others has nothing to do with economics or culture. Our American self-absorbed culture just makes it harder to identify these people because they can "get by" in a culture that not only honors self-absorption but also allows people like this to reinvent themselves when they don't get what they need. Narcissist are real and they cause irreparable damage others."

Because of how they were brought up, narcissist are empty vessels and they have to be filed up by attention from others. They have no real personality, have no idea who they are, and so they rely on others to fill them up and make them whole.

They can be ID's by needing to have the "light" shined on them, and negative attention is as good as positive attention. They go into rages easily, and they do so usually because too much is asked of them, or the spotlight is on someone else, or because someone holds up a metaphorical mirror that conflicts with the exaggerated and false picture they are trying to maintain for themselves. 

And they lie a lot, and do it well.

We would think them very sad if they weren't so self-serving, destructive, and unkind. And we are often pulled back into their service because narcissists are very good at what they do—getting others to attend to them. Oh the charm, a charm that disappears once you not longer agree to shine that light on them. All the resentment they have built up from relying on you and needing your attention then comes out as anger. You become a target of a different sort.

Don't be fooled for a minute that narcissism is a cultural phenomena. It's a psychological one. And it's one that is at home, in the workplace, or with so-called friends. 

Once you spot one, run, run away really fast, because you cannot change them, cannot reason with them, and they will suck a functional person dry. 

And because of their personality disorder, they will take very very good care of themselves, get all their needs met, and you will suffer and suffer. 

Monday, May 12, 2014

Venetians Invented the Paperback

In the 15th century a Venetian printer named Aldus Manutius began cranking out small inexpensive books that anyone could carry around, and thus the paperback book was invented.

Here's our friend Manutius with his pal Jean Grolier, a French book collector, having a chat. Maybe they were talking about how an interest in books and reading makes one ignore what must have been a glorious view of the Grand Canal right behind them.

We all are dedicated and sentimental about our paperbacks because they are the perfect portable distraction. And we don't have to share them like a text message or an email and no one will respond, than God. Reading is a solo pursuit; by reading we travel lightly to other worlds.

And they are versatile. We can take them to the beach (and ignore that view too. I am sure Manutius would be proud),

Or drop them into the tub (in Manutius's time and place that would have been "drop them in a canal"),

Or do other things and read.

Which means, of course, that if you are reading and doing some other activity, you won't abide this warning sign because you simply won't see it. Will the book police come and rip that paperback out of your hand? Not likely. So just keep reading.

p.s. Same rule applies to eReaders and if you want to read Fall Creek and don't have one, look here, although it might be hard to stuff your desktop computer into your pocket, let alone take it on a bike.

Friday, May 9, 2014

We Are Live But Someone is Dead

Fall Creek is now live on and if you've enjoyed my writing in the past, this one is fiction and something entirely different. And easy read and I bet you don't guess who did it until the end.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Telling a Book by Its Cover

The cover for Fall Creek is done, and my book designer, Charles Small, did an amazing job capturing the essence of the story.

Even though Chuck hasn't worn stilettos lately, he knew how to design a great pair. Manolo Blahnik eat your heart out.

The Anthropology of Alzheimers

Anthropologists are not often in the news, and they are even more rarely in the spotlight for discovering what might be a connection between...