Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A Visit from JoAnn Deak

I attended a Parent Information Series at Eve's school last night and the speaker was
Dr. JoAnn Deak
. She is a psychologist who has done some amazing studies on the brains of adolescent girls and has written extensively on her findings. I discovered one of them a few years ago on my own, but was turned on to her most recent book by the headmaster at Eve's school, never knowing that JoAnn is actually on the advisory board at the school.

Monday, she spent the entire day with the teachers at the school, talking to them about how to recognize, validate, and work with the unique structure of the adolescent female brain. She then spent two and a half hours in the evening presenting her findings to parents and fielding questions of all types.

Some of the highlights:

The lubrication of nerve cells and brain cells is largely made up of water. When children are not drinking water or other fluids throughout the day on a regular basis, they are literally not thinking as well as they could be. It has been shown that even with 1-2 oz. of water every hour, children's brains perform far better than if they only drink during lunch breaks.

Between the ages of 10 and 20, the emotion center (the amygdala) of a child's brain is literally swollen. The information they receive through their senses travels first to the amygdala and then through the logic/thought processing portion of their brains.

The brains of girls are designed to choose flight over fight, theoretically because of their role in caretaking of the young of the species. It is our job to help build their self-esteem by encouraging them to take risks despite their fears in order to prove to themselves that they are capable. They no longer need to run from saber-toothed tigers to protect their young. They can choose to take on difficult tasks without risk of dying.

While testosterone is the prevalent hormone in male adolescent brains, oxytocin (the tend and befriend hormone) is most prevalent in girls. Want to spur them to action? Threaten something they care about. They are more likely to protect a pet or a loved one than stand up for themselves.

Self-esteem is affected by actions. The more girls do, the more capable they feel, and the better they feel about themselves. Girls tend to do more with their fathers and talk more with their mothers. Fathers have the single biggest affect on an adolescent girl's self esteem when compared to anyone else in her life. Make one snarky comment about her weight and you're setting her up for an eating disorder. ONLY ONE REMARK. Spend more time with her just hanging out or building something and she will feel capable and loved.

Girls have two language centers in their brains and boys only have one.

If a girl is not making eye contact with you, she is not processing what you are saying.

If a boy is making eye contact with you, he is not processing what you are saying. He is probably obsessing about that mole on the side of your nose.

Information intake and information processing cannot take place simultaneously in the brain. Talk for a bit and then ask your child a question about the content (even if you have to pretend to lose your train of thought and say, "where was I?"). This switches the activity from the intake to the processing portion and they are more likely to retain and assimilate the information.

For more, check out Dr. Deak's books. She is a lively speaker and a brilliant researcher.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


"People who are serious about pursuing their vocation look for purchase, not for a map of the future or a guided way up the cliff. They try not to cling too closely to what seems to bar their way, but look for where the present point of contact actually resides. No matter what it looks like."
David Whyte in Three Marriages

It's the end of my class with Lisa Romeo. It is fitting that outside all is frigid temperatures and solid white landscape. I feel bound by the walls of my house and my mind.

The more I read the more I wish I could write in the way that books light me up, stoke the pilot light inside me and blow that steady breeze that ignites the roaring flame. Today I laid on the couch under my new red blanket, scraping my bottom lip between my teeth, flaring my nostrils, consumed by Emma Rathbone's lighter-fluid prose:

"Mrs. Dandridge is a pile of a person who smells like someone's weird house....She makes a big deal out of getting up and sitting down....She is also in the business of making me want to punch things. The way she says my name, all smug and unwinding, as if she has me summed up and pinned down like a display beetle, makes me want to punch the sky. And then punch the sun for crowding the sky. And then punch a door and maybe a stepmom."

Lisa has taught me much this past four weeks and I have absolutely devoured her knowledge. Every time my inbox alerts me that she has returned some of my work with her notes, I first breathe and remind myself that I need this feedback and it serves to make me a better writer. Generally, then, I concoct some reason to be busy checking my Facebook status or asking my children if they need a snack or transferring laundry from the washer to the dryer before I can come back and actually read her critiques. Because I know that I don't live up to my own standards. I am not yet the writer I want to be.

And now that the class is over and I feel stuck, not able to busy myself with my regular routine of taking the girls to school and making lunches and walking the dog, I have found the David Whyte quote I squirreled away months ago. And I am reminded to just find the spot where I am right now and use that.

Monday, November 22, 2010

And So It Begins...

Holiday shopping. Knowing that if I am to purchase, wrap and ship gifts to England before December 25th, I had better get a move on. And I am one of those people that doesn't have to be in the "holiday mood" to shop for Christmas gifts, but I hate having a deadline. I actually wish that Christmas was celebrated in a totally different way in the United States so that I could get gifts for people I love whenever I dang well please.

Of course, I know retailers and economists everywhere are cursing me right now. What would we do without the holiday season to bolster our earnings/spending? What would we do without this naked consumerism to spur us to spend?

Don't get me started...

There was a time in my life when I would collect gifts throughout the year. If I was traveling and saw something that stopped me cold, yelled at me to GET THIS FOR _________, I would. And then I would bring it home, slap a sticky note on it with the recipient's name (lest I forget that moment of clarity I had when I bought it) and tuck it in a closet. Unfortunately, this often led to some people getting mountains of gifts and others woefully short on items under the tree. Some people are just too dang hard to buy for.

I stopped doing this for several reasons, not the least of which was the economic prosperity of the 1990s when people began spending money like it was raining from the sky and I ended up with things to give them that they had already purchased for themselves. I also married Bubba. He is one of those people that believes in absolute equality in gift-giving and he also has to be "in the mood" to shop. Unfortunately, for him, getting in the mood requires that Christmas be no more than 72 hours away and we find ourselves in an enormous mall with six thousand other frantic shoppers. Not my idea of holiday cheer. He didn't exactly agree with my tendency to overspend by purchasing gifts all throughout the year, either. A few years after we got married, we began drawing names for gift-giving at Christmas and that put the final nail in the coffin of my yearlong gift buying.

I encourage both our families to draw names before Halloween so that I can get a bit of a jump on my gift buying, even if Bubba prefers to wait until the last minute. The honeymoon has been over long enough that I don't even feel badly about not accompanying him to the mall, so he's on his own when it comes to getting stuff for the people whose names he drew.

I will admit that while I hate shopping, I love buying gifts. Enter, the internet and catalog shopping. I can shop from the comfort of my very own couch and have items shipped directly to my door. No parking lots. No lines. No frantic shoppers.

I still wish that we could get rid of the massive holiday gift-giving tradition and just get things for people when we want to for no special reason at all. Ironically, I feel like that would make those gifts all the more special. But far be it from me to buck the system that much. I've got to take baby steps...

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Work of Art or Work in Progress?

I love a good philosophical discussion. Especially when it is a pure exchange of ideas versus an attempt to come to some conclusion. Add in tea, smart-as-a-whip women, and some chocolate, and I'm in Heaven.

The other day we happened to be discussing a book we were all reading, despite the fact that this gathering of women is in no way, shape, or form a book club. One of the ladies wondered aloud how the writer could possibly reconcile the idea of free will with his notion that there is some predetermination of outcomes.

Back in my college days, before I truly discovered philosophy and was strictly a Science/Math/No Such Thing As Woo Woo Spirituality kind of person, I would have laughed in the face of predestination. I would have taken the definitions of both free will and destiny to their most concrete meaning and decided in favor of free will, assuming that the two could never co-exist. Never. Ah, ah - don't even try to take the conversation any further. Lalalala I'm not listening!

Predestiny scared the crap out of me. The idea that I couldn't be in control of each and every moment of my own life frankly sucked. The notion that some of the nasty things I had lived through were actually supposed to happen to me was unfathomable. Even considering the possibility that I couldn't make my own decisions and effect change gave me hives. As I have grown and lived, suffered and triumphed, read about and experienced things that I can't explain using laws of matter and physics, I'm not so sure anymore.

Kristine entered the discussion by talking about her parents' 50th wedding anniversary and went off on a tangent about not booking a photographer to take any family pictures, despite having a conversation with her brother about it months before the event. Of course, it turned out that as the entire family was assembled in one place celebrating, a stranger came by, engaged them all in conversation and offered to take their picture. Of course he was a professional photographer who proceeded to take hundreds of shots of them all, burn the images to a CD on his computer on the spot and present them with the finished product before the party ended.

So it occurred to me to wonder whether this was an example of precisely what we were dancing around. If Kristine is one thread in this tapestry, running through at some angle she can't comprehend, one part of this work of art she doesn't have the perspective to appreciate, does she have free will even as she is bound by the borders and edges and the threads that surround her? She can dive down beneath an adjacent thread and come up an inch or so farther down the line.

Before I risk becoming too nebulous, let me put it this way: Say Kristine and her brother had booked a photographer for their event. If it turns out that this other photographer was "destined" to be the one taking the family photos, it is possible that despite the first booking, the original photographer gets sick or cancels for some reason. In that way, it was through no action of Kristine's that the events occurred, but the eventual outcome happened because it was supposed to. Is it just the stuff of fairy tales and horror movies that we can't escape our destiny or is it possible that even as we exercise our decision-making skills according to our beliefs and knowledge, there is some larger framework that exists that will, in some subtle way, exert itself to effect the outcome that needs to happen?

I used to need to know the answers. All of them. I used to think it was possible to find them - that they existed out there somewhere and I simply needed to discover them. Now I accept that, as one thread in this vast tapestry, it is my connections to others and the ultimate picture that we all make together that are more important. I don't have to know all of the answers and I can still exercise my free will to make decisions for myself and my family and know that if I dip when I should have flown, it will all work out in the end and the end result will not suffer.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Finding the "here" here

Bubba and I spent the weekend in San Francisco. Alone. Together. Sans children. I'm pretty sure the Universe was smiling down on us, with its fog-free mornings and 70+ degree weather in November. I'm not sure why, but I'll take it.

We arrived Friday afternoon and checked in to our hotel down by the ferry terminal. We could hardly wait to toss our suitcase into the room before setting off for a walk. Bubba gets to the Bay Area a lot, but generally his trips are confined to the airport, taxis, and office buildings of clients, so he was eager to explore, too. We found excellent coffee, quirky shops (Bubba's favorite is one whose slogan is "tasty salted pig parts"), and some pretty impressive people-watching opportunities. I love the flavor of San Francisco: thin twenty-something men in their skin-tight yellow or red jeans, aging hippies in their Birkenstocks and dreadlocks and tye-dye, joggers in outfits carefully chosen to showcase their body ink.

It wasn't until we got to Fisherman's Wharf that I found disappointment. Fifteen years ago, it looked like a wharf. Planked walkways, the scent of sourdough bread as much a part of the air as the barking of sea lions, and local artisans hawking their handmade goods against the backdrop of masts and sails and Alcatraz in the distance. Today, it could be anywhere. The shops are those of Anymall, USA; Dreyer's, Hard Rock Cafe, Crazy Shirts and GNC. As we walked, the buildings rose around us on both sides so that we couldn't even see the water beyond the stores.

This is where globalization is too much for me. I want to visit a place as a tourist and find the meat of that place. I want it to stand out and be different. I want to be able to think of that place and have its trademarks spring instantly to my mind. I don't want to find Starbucks and Build-A-Bear in every town I land in. I want to know where the best local stuff is. Who are the individuals that make up this place and why do they make it special? What have they taken from their history here that speaks to the evolution of this place?

We got out of there as quickly as we could. Back to the grittier, dirtier, less homogenized part of town. We saw homeless, street performers, tasted cheese from a local artisan dairy, and found a little authenticity. I don't want to pretend I'm not a tourist, I just want to know why I ought to come back and visit this place. What can I get here that I can't get from my own space on the planet? Thanks to globalization, I can find San Francisco sourdough in my local grocery store. I could order a t-shirt for the National Champion Giants online. But to walk the sun-warmed planks of the piers and listen to the sea lions bark and watch a feather-boa clad drag queen rollerblade by on a Saturday morning - that is a trip worth taking!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

One More Word About Bullying

Bullying is in the news everywhere these days. I see friends on Facebook posting notifications about meetings at schools. Last week at Eve's school, they held a Community Meeting to talk about the rash of recent suicides by teens who suffered at the hands of their peers. Do an Internet search of blog posts on bullying and the results will overwhelm you.

The thing is, bullying is not a new phenomenon. It has evolved with our culture and stretched its skinny fingers into cyberspace where it is easier to hide, but it isn't new. Nor does it stop when we leave school.

Driving home from dropping Eve and Lola at school this morning, I was listening to NPR. Steve Inskeep was talking to Tina Brown of "The Daily Beast" and she was recommending her favorite stories to listeners. One that struck me was this article in the NY Times about women in Afghanistan setting themselves on fire to escape abusive marriages. Such instances are not isolated. Women all over the world resort to desperate acts with the tools they have available when they are faced with a lack of options. This is not any different from a gay teen committing suicide in order to escape ridicule by his or her peers.

When I began to see bullying in this light, I noticed it everywhere. Any time a situation exists where one person has power over another, bullying can happen. When there is a group of people who exploit that power for their own personal gain, even if it is for entertainment, and isolate their victim from others, desperation occurs. While our survival instincts are strong, it is often more tempting to end our own suffering and, when we have few avenues to achieve that, suicide becomes an attractive option.

Before we can begin to address the issue of bullying in schools, I believe that we need to identify all of the ways in which we as adults engage in similar behaviors. We need to come to terms with the fact that there are so many times when we are guilty of the same kinds of acts that abhor in our children's lives and fundamentally change the way we view and use power in our lives.

Can you think of some other examples of adult bullying behaviors in the world?

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Dream, Part Five

Part four is here.

My final wish for women and girls everywhere is that they have choices. That they be presented with options and given the freedom to exercise their will. Certainly this doesn't mean that young girls ought to be able to make difficult or momentous decisions beyond their developmental capabilities, but it does mean that we need to assess their abilities closely, listen to them when they talk to us about their desires and beliefs, and take those into consideration when we help them choose their path.

When we are given options, we are given trust and responsibility. Inherently, we are being told that we are valued as independent or semi-independent entities who can be relied upon to weigh variables and decide accordingly.

When Bubba and I began giving our daughters an allowance it was initially very difficult for me to let them spend it. Their weekly spending money actually only comes out to one third of their allowance, given that we put one third into a savings account and the other third into a charity account which they are free to donate at their own discretion. Lola uses her money every Thanksgiving to "buy" turkey dinners from the Union Gospel Mission for homeless people in our area and Eve generally sends her money to a local animal shelter. Their savings accounts are to be used for big-ticket items that are strictly "wants" versus "needs" and must be pre-approved by Bubba and me, but their spend money is fairly unfettered.

I don't know whether it is because Lola is the younger child and used to hand-me-downs, or if it is just her personality, but she tends to forget about her allowance within 40 seconds of getting it. Eve, on the other hand, mentally spends hers half a million times before the cash ever hits her hot little hand. I'm not sure "burning a hole in her pocket" is accurate because I don't think the money ever makes it that far.

Over the years I have had to learn to bite my tongue when Eve tells me about the new song she's going to download or the cheap notebook she wants to buy. When she used to get the Scholastic Book Order form from her classroom, she would tuck it under her arm, head up to her room, and sit in the beanbag circling items and counting on her fingers for an hour. More than once she has blown her stash on books that take her less than 15 minutes to read and come sobbing to me that she wasted her money.

But therein lies the rub, doesn't it? Along with choices come consequences and unless we have choices, we can't learn how to make more difficult ones. Without suffering the sometimes negative outcomes of our rash decisions we would continue to make poor choices over and over again. Learning can't happen without mistakes. Mistakes can't happen without action. If we aren't trusted to take action, we can't learn or grow.

My wish for women and girls everywhere is that they be given the chance to test themselves. I want them to be nurtured and cared for and have a safe place in which to make mistakes, but that won't mean anything unless they are given choices to make. Too often, as people in power, whether benevolent and loving or dictatorial and fearful, we trick ourselves into believing that we know best. All too often, I've discovered that I can be surprised when I stop and take the time to listen to others' perspectives. There are things which I couldn't possibly have known or circumstances I was unaware of or deeply held beliefs I wouldn't haven taken into account that may drastically change my point of view. From time to time we all make choices we wish we wouldn't have, but being given the freedom to choose is worth the possibility of screwing up. Just ask someone who doesn't have that freedom.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Dream, Part Four

Part Three is here

One of the most insidious by-products of being valued less than others is the feeling that you have nothing to offer. There is nothing so disheartening as the notion that you are either completely disposable or that your efforts are in vain and the fruits of your labor unnecessary.

In the early twentieth century, as the economy in America began turning from a subsistence model to a production model, women became increasingly disenfranchised. In the subsistence model, everything they contributed to the household, from farming to childrearing to producing clothing and food for the family was seen as vitally important to the family unit as a whole - not more or less valuable than any other member of the family. As men began to leave the household to seek paid work in factories and towns, women were left with more of the household chores but were valued less simply because it was money that made the world revolve and they were not paid for their efforts.

As my children grew from toddlerhood into true childhood they began to ask for ways to contribute. Even before then, they loved to play with toy versions of my vacuum cleaner and run the dustcloth over the coffee table and bookshelves. Today, they take pride (and, yes, sometimes complain mightily) in taking out the garbage, feeding the dog, and setting the table for dinner. Last Saturday night they shooed Bubba and I out of the kitchen, prepared a menu with beverage choices, cooked a pot of pasta and made a fruit salad and a green salad and served us dinner at a table lit with candles. The idea that they were grown up enough to produce an entire meal for us tickled them for days and Lola still presses me to tell friends and family about their endeavor.

Today seems a particularly salient day to be making the point about how important everyone's contributions are, given that tomorrow is Election Day in the US. There are thousands of individuals who will choose not to throw their ballot into the mix simply because they don't have any faith that it will make a difference one way or the other. The simple idea that one's opinion doesn't count removes most of the motive for sharing it. Why the heck should I vote if the outcome is already decided? Why should I raise my voice and articulate my thoughts if nobody is listening?

It is up to us to create a space where everyone can add their talents to the pot. Everyone must feel as though they have something to offer in order to feel empowered and valued. We need to create an 'economy' where we honor contributions of thought, emotion, and action that don't necessarily result in monetary compensation. It is useless to be part of a community if your voice doesn't count as much as everyone else's. The feeling of pride and self-worth that comes from knowing you have added some value - even if it was to offer food for thought - goes a long way toward encouraging individuals to continue contributing. Enough practice with this and the sky is the limit.

Continue to Part Five
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