• About Farm School

    "There are obviously two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live."
    James Adams, from his essay "To 'Be' or to 'Do': A Note on American Education", 1929

    We're a Canadian family of five, farming, home schooling, and building our own house. I'm nowhere near as regular a blogger as I used to be.

    The kids are 18/Grade 12, 16/Grade 11, and 14/Grade 10.

    Contact me at becky(dot)farmschool(at)gmail(dot)com

  • Notable Quotables

    "If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."
    William Morris, from his lecture "The Beauty of Life"

    "‘Never look at an ugly thing twice. It is fatally easy to get accustomed to corrupting influences."
    English architect CFA Voysey (1857-1941)

    "The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that he builds ever lasts. Monuments fall, nations perish, civilizations grow old and die out; and, after an era of darkness, new races build others. But in the world of books are volumes that have seen this happen again and again, and yet live on, still young, still as fresh as the day they were written, still telling men’s hearts of the hearts of men centuries dead."
    Clarence Day

    "Anyone who has a library and a garden wants for nothing."
    Cicero

    "Histories make men wise; poets, witty; the mathematics, subtile; natural philosophy, deep; moral, grave; logic and rhetoric, able to contend."
    Sir Francis Bacon, "Essays"

    "The chief aim of education is to show you, after you make a livelihood, how to enjoy living; and you can live longest and best and most rewardingly by attaining and preserving the happiness of learning."
    Gilbert Highet, "The Immortal Profession: The Joys of Teaching and Learning"

    "Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment."
    Walter Wriston

    "I'd like to give you a piece of my mind."
    "Oh, I couldn't take the last piece."
    Ginger Rogers to Frances Mercer in "Vivacious Lady" (1938)

    "No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem."
    Booker T. Washington

    "Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member."
    Attributed to Groucho Marx in "The Groucho Letters" by Arthur Sheekman

    "If you can't say something good about someone, sit right here by me."
    Alice Roosevelt Longworth

    "If we bring a little joy into your humdrum lives, we feel all our hard work ain't been in vain for nothin'."
    Jean Hagen as "Lina Lamont" in "Singin' in the Rain" (1952)
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Poetry Friday: A bit of Browning and a huge delight

A poem for back-to-school season for all parents who teach, guide, educate, explain, discuss, and develop.

Most of the great English poet Robert Browning’s education took place at home, centering around his father’s library of some 6,000 volumes in English, as well as French, ancient Greek, and Latin. He began composing rhymes even before he learned to read and write by the age of five. Browning wrote the following poem, toward the end of his life, a loving thank you to his first and best teacher. I can easily picture father and young son, gallumphing around the library floor, sofa cushions stacked nearby, surrounded by books and surprised family pets.

Development
by Robert Browning (1812-1889)

My Father was a scholar and knew Greek.
When I was five years old, I asked him once
“What do you read about?”
“The siege of Troy.”
“What is a siege and what is Troy?”
Whereat
He piled up chairs and tables for a town,
Set me a-top for Priam, called our cat
— Helen, enticed away from home (he said)
By wicked Paris, who couched somewhere close
Under the footstool, being cowardly,
But whom — since she was worth the pains, poor puss —
Towzer and Tray, — our dogs, the Atreidai, — sought
By taking Troy to get possession of
— Always when great Achilles ceased to sulk,
(My pony in the stable) — forth would prance
And put to flight Hector — our page-boy’s self.
This taught me who was who and what was what:
So far I rightly understood the case
At five years old: a huge delight it proved
And still proves — thanks to that instructor sage
My Father, who knew better than turn straight
Learning’s full flare on weak-eyed ignorance,
Or, worse yet, leave weak eyes to grow sand-blind,
Content with darkness and vacuity.

* * *

Make your way to Semicolon for today’s Poetry Friday round-up. Thanks, Sherry!

Retro-progressives of the world, unite

A call to arms in today’s Globe & Mail, from Kate Tennier (who by the way is founder of Advocates for Childcare Choice and a former primary school teacher):

On Being a Retro-Progressive
by Kate Tennier

I’ve recently discovered the joy of baking cookies. Although Hillary Clinton famously does not want to make them, I do.

Producing homemade snacks may not bring world peace but it has brought an unexpected degree of empowerment to my domestic life: Knowing the ingredients that go into them, smelling the home-baked aromas wafting through the house and hearing the appreciation expressed by my family are all reason enough for me to put in the extra time it takes to make them.

So, if the most famous feminist in the world doesn’t want to bake cookies and I do, does that relegate me to the status of fifties housewife? No. I’m just being “retro-progressive.”

The term is most often used to define a category of music, but it can just as easily apply to any behaviour that draws from past “best practices” to create a better life in the world we inhabit now: a retrieving of the baby from the proverbial bathwater, if you will.

The problem, though, with reclaiming anything from the past is that it takes a lot of work to persuade others that it really is “back to the future” — emphasis on future — and not just a nostalgic trip down memory lane.

Take laundry and the return of the humble clothesline. You know there’s a trend afoot when a movement has sprung up to promote it. The Right to Dry campaign — also known as Project Laundry — emerged after dust-ups between homeowners trying to conserve energy and municipalities that enforce bylaws protecting citizens from the sight of their neighbours’ skivvies.

I recently bumped into an acquaintance reading a book in front of a local laundromat. When her dryer broke down several months ago, she simply decided not to replace it; although cost was not an issue, she opted instead to put her family’s clothes “on the line.”

Her visit to the laundromat that day was because truckloads of sheets needed a wash after a recent family vacation.

While she gets points for being a clothesline user, points for reading a book (how retro-progressive is that?) and even more points for using a laundromat powered by — of all things — solar energy, it was another, different retro-progressive action that pushed her into the vanguard of this movement.

After I asked where her kids were — standard greeting for anyone with children under 12 — she told me they were playing at the nearby park on their own.

This was followed by the “parent glance” — that little look one parent gives another when the first parent feels she may have gone too far out on a parenting limb and is seeking affirmation from the other. Not only did she not go too far, I envied her confidence in knowing that her kids would, in all likelihood, return unscathed and happier for the experience.

It was nice to see a bit of activity from The Dangerous Book for Boys in my own corner of the woods, and equally appealing and retro-progressive to see that when her kids returned — in high spirits from their adventures at the park — they pitched in to help fold the laundry.

There’s a lot more than homemade cookies, air-dried clothes and free-range children that are making comebacks. Farmers’ markets, car-free days, 100-mile diets and counter-consumer movements have all grown in popularity.

Perhaps no trend illustrates the retro-progressive ethos of going to the source more than Britain’s fastest-growing hobby, that of keeping laying hens. Yes, hens — for eggs!

Weekend hen-keeping courses are all the rage in England and even Madonna is rumoured to be in on the act. Cholesterol concerns and fox frustrations aside, it is an illustration of just how far (or in this case just how close, considering the hens live in people’s backyards) city dwellers will go to reclaim a practice from the past that gives them some control over their lives in the present.

Like all complex and nuanced labels, there is an element of subjectivity that prevails when deciding if something is retro-progressive. What is considered progressive by one person may be reactionary to another, and what is retro to some may never have been discarded by others. It is a thinking person’s term, one that compels people to reflect on the value and validity of actions in their own lives.

As with Jews for Jesus, Catholics for a Free Choice, Feminists for Life, Crunchy Cons and the Libertarian Left, retro-progressive, with its counterintuitive paired words qualifying each other, creates a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. These terms also serve as powerful examples of the maxim that quite often, “the truth lies somewhere in between.”

Getting back to my cookies: I was recently shown up by a friend of the family less than half my age (less than a third if truth be told), who, although I’m reluctant to admit it, makes better chocolate chip cookies than I do.

Can it get any more retro-progressive than a teenaged boy making homemade cookies? I wonder how he is at building root cellars.

Hey Susan, you and Junior the chicken whisperer are in good company!

All roads lead to home and hard work

“Too many parents make life hard for their children by trying, too zealously, to make it easy for them.”
German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), quoted in “The Case Against Adolescence” by Robert Epstein

I started Farm School two years ago in part because I blathered on for much too long on the subject of children and independence at L’s blog Schola. Independence, self-reliance, and responsibility are among the values Tom and I talked about teaching children when we thought about getting married. And these values are a good part of the reason I decided that it would probably be better to raise children on the Canadian prairie than Manhattan’s Upper West Side; I’m not saying it’s impossible (I think my parents did a fabulous job), but 40 years on it seems rather easier in this neck of the woods.

While we didn’t start homeschooling with the idea that it would be a good way of further inculcating those values, it didn’t take Tom and me long to realize that this educational experiment is as ideal for our child-rearing purposes as it is for our academic ones. And I’m always keen to read anything that supports our rather old-fashioned notions when it comes to raising kids.

So I was more than interested to learn a couple of months ago, at Susan’s blog Corn & Oil, about the new book, The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen (Quill Driver Books, 2007) by Robert Epstein, a psychologist and former editor-in-chief of Pyschology Today magazine. The idea behind the book is that (from the front flap)

teen turmoil is caused by outmoded systems put in place a century ago which destroyed the continuum between childhood and adulthood.

Where this continuum still exists in other countries, there is no adolescence. Isolated from adults, American teens learn everything they know from their media-dominated peers — “the last people on earth they should be learning from,” says Epstein.

Which, in my case at least, means the good doctor is preaching to the converted. While I tend to think that part of the problem with the way kids are being raised is that they are being raised by advice from books rather than from parents’ hearts or instincts or the way they themselves were raised by their own parents (somehow that all seems too easy…), at least there seem to be some better parenting books to choose from nowadays, including Dr. Epstein’s. And as you can see from the bit above, The Case Against Adolescence contains echoes of Hold On to Your Kids by Dr. Gordon Neufeld and Dr. Gabor Mate, another book I like, though I don’t find mention of the title or authors in the index.

But I’ve already found, just partway through chapter three, mention of the two home education gurus, former New York public school teacher John Taylor Gatto and the late John Holt; a peek at the index shows three mentions of “Home Schooling” toward the end of the book. Dr. Epstein notes that Gatto addresses “quite explicitly, … the artificial extension of childhood” in his latest book, The Underground History of American Education (an excerpt of which was published in Harper’s Magazine in September 2003, and which I saw the very week I hit upon the alternative of home schooling for Laura. Yes, I took it as a good omen).

The Case Against Adolescence owes a considerable debt to Jean Liedloff’s 1977 classic, The Continuum Concept: In Search of Lost Happiness, which I read while pregnant with Laura, after coming across a secondhand copy at a library book sale. Indeed, the CC website’s main page features glowing quotes about the book from both Dr. Epstein (“This book is the work of a genius” in Psychology Today) and John Holt (“I don’t know whether the world can be saved by a book, but if it could be, this might just be the book.”)

Just last night, I read Dr. Epstein’s handy summary of Liedloff’s two years with the Yequana Indians of Venezuela:

There is no distinct separation between childhood and adulthood in the tribe; instead, there is a continuum of activities, behaviors, and expectations. Expectations are modest when children are young and increase gradually and smoothly over the years, but the goals are always clear: the development of self-reliance and the full integration of the child into the world of responsible adulthood. Responsibility and authority are never forced on anyone, but they’re given freely as soon as a child shows an interest in taking them on. Independent decision making is encouraged, because “leaving the choice to the child from the earliest age keeps his judgment at peak efficiency,” and the child’s “self protecting ability” is trusted to keep him or her from serious harm.

In contrast, she says, we weaken and damage our children by overprotecting them; we even impair their ability to make reasonable decisions and to protect themselves.

And then, still mulling over the development of this “self-protecting ability” this morning, I happened upon today’s New York Times article on claims of possible child abuse in connection with Kid Nation, a new show to air in September:

The ads promoting “Kid Nation,” a new reality show coming to CBS next month, extol the incredible experience of a group of 40 children, ages 8 to 15, who built a sort of idealistic society in a New Mexico ghost town, free of adults. For 40 days the children cooked their own meals, cleaned their own outhouses, formed a government and ran their own businesses, all without adult intervention or participation.

To at least one parent of a participant, who wrote a letter of complaint to New Mexico state officials after the show had completed production, the experience bordered on abuse and neglect. Several children required medical attention after drinking bleach that had been left in an unmarked soda bottle, according to both the parent and CBS. One 11-year-old girl burned her face with splattered grease while cooking.

The children were made to haul wagons loaded with supplies for more than a mile through the New Mexico countryside, and they worked long hours — “from the crack of dawn when the rooster started crowing” until at least 9:30 p.m., according to Taylor, a 10-year-old from Sylvester, Ga., who was made available by CBS to respond to questions about conditions on the set.

I also came across a Los Angeles Times article from last week, “Kid Nation” parents: What were they thinking?, where three women were interviewed to “respond to the critics condemning them for allowing their children to participate in the CBS show”. Said one mother, about her 10-year-old, an only child,

He does live in what I call a sheltered environment. He goes to a small school. Most of the schoolmates and friends that he knows he’s known almost his entire life. I thought that this was a good opportunity for Zachary to experience some independence and learn some self-reliance. And if he was able to do this, I thought that was a very good way for him to build confidence in himself.

I worry that in today’s world kids don’t realize things they might have to face in life that might be difficult because, I think, as baby boomers we tend to be very protective of them. And I want him to know that he has the capability to be out in the world and be independent and self-reliant.

All this of course after I’ve spent the past few weeks on and off delightedly wallowing in Mildred Armstrong Kalish’s charming memoir, Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression. Unvarnished and homespun, these are the stories, words, and advice of a real grandmother eager to share her own part of a disappearing world, and to let later generations know the lasting value of pulling up your socks and putting your nose to the grindstone. As I read through each of the chapters, from her earliest reminiscences to the recipes to her later life as detailed in Epilogue, I realized that Mrs. Kalish has written about a happiness and freedom in childhood, and a contentment in adulthood, that today are sadly rare. From Little Heathens,

The summer after I graduated from eighth grade I … was delighted to go to work as a hired girl on a large farm south of [the town of] Garrison. The family consisted of Cecil, Anna, and their two girls and four boys, ranging in age from one and a half to eleven. Cecil hired one or two extra men in the summer. That meant that Ann and I cooked, set the table, and did the dishes for at least ten people, three times a day.

Anna paid me four dollars a week for my work on the farm, and I was especially proud of that for my closest girlfriends and all of my other friends were being paid only three and a half dollars. Of course, we all received room and board, too.

Here I should report that we were also accepted as full-fledged members of the family, for hired girls were not treated as maids. In fact, I was the only one in this family who had a private room. Located at the top of the crooked stairs, it was about five feet wide by ten feet long, and it had a window overlooking the huge vegetable garden. To me it was a palace.

During those summer months we rose at five-thirty A.M., unless it was haying or threshing time on the farm; then we got up at four-thirty. Anna and I timed it so that we got up just after the men, who immediately disappeared to the barns to do the morning chores. Anna built a fire in the iron kitchen range, while I put the copper teakettle on along with the gray, graniteware coffee boiler and got the bacon started. As the kitchen filled with the delicious fragrance of the bacon crisping and browning, I carried jam, a whole pound of butter, sliced bread, a large pitcher of milk, and a smaller pitcher of heavy cream to the table, which was already set for ten people. Then I carefully broke twenty eggs into a mixing bowl and waited for one of the boys to report that the men were ready for breakfast. At that point I poured the blow of eggs into the gigantic iron skillet and fried them to perfection in bacon fat, sunny-side up.

If there was a delay, or if the men had an especially busy day before them, I might make an applesauce cake — the very one I described in an earlier chapter. Here again, the family training in thinking ahead and always doing more than was required stood me in good stead. I could whip up that cake in just a few minutes since I kept a ready supply of homemade applesauce in the pantry; it would bake while we were eating breakfast and would be ready to eat with our second cups of coffee.

I could handle almost every task in Anna’s household; I could even make gravy without lumps, for heaven’s sake. There was always something to do on that farm: cakes, cookies, and pies to bake; potatoes, radishes, beets, carrots, peas, lettuce, tomatoes, and beans to pick, wash, clean, and peel; chickens to kill, scald, pluck, singe, draw, and disjoint; dishes to wash and dry; clothing to wash; laundry to be hung on the line, then taken down from the line, folded, and ironed. And every day, we made beds for ten people. Everything I had learned in my early years [up until eighth grade] I put to use as a hired girl for this family.

The children all helped in as many ways as they could. They would make their own beds, wash vegetables, carry wood and water, set the table, dry dishes, and gather eggs and apples. Like the children I grew up with, they understood that hey played a part in making the family work.

We had fun with one another. There was a lot of joking, laughing, and good-natured teasing. And often in the evening, on those occasions when we had somehow managed to finish our chores as well as our supper before dark, the kids would hep me with the dishes if I would agree to come outside afterward and play with them. We played hide-and-go-seek, touched-you-last, and may-I. Some evenings we would have water fights, tossing pails of water on one another. Or we might just sit out on the front porch and sing.

Or, as The New York Times article on alleged child abuse concluded,

“Everyone usually had a job,” said Mike, an 11-year-old from Bellevue, Wash., who participated in the show. Among them were cooking, cleaning, hauling water and running the stores, where, he said: “It was hard work, but it was really good. It taught us all that life is not all play and no work.”

Taylor, from Georgia, agreed. “I learned I have to work for what I want,” she said.

I’m sure both Mrs. Kalish and Dr. Epstein would approve. Pass the applesauce cake, please.

(Very likely more thoughts to come on The Case Against Adolescence, and Little Heathens, in upcoming posts.)

Poetry Friday: Go and play till the light fades away

We are all of us, especially the kids, aware of the shortening days (dark comes around nine now, instead of eleven), and that the first day of school is just about one month away. I’m trying to make the most of what’s left of the summer, which is why I haven’t been online much, except to order some school supplies and things for Laura’s birthday later this month.

The country fair is always a natural marker for folks around here. It means the end of summer and also, usually, the warm weather. But this year, though autumn is fast approaching, the heat remains. We’ve had an unusual four weeks now in the high eighties/low nineties and no rain, and the gardens and especially crops are beginning to burn and shrivel. The barley is turning white, and many farmers are considering swathing and baling it for cattle feed instead of combining it, since the grain heads won’t amount to much. Though I have to admit that all the extra watering I have to do in the garden gives me that much more time to spend in it. The peas are ready and the beans are coming, and I’m about to pull up all the spinach, which has bolted, and seed some Swiss chard in its place.

And though we all roasted at the fair, it was a wonderful three days, a mini holiday for the five of us, as well as a chance for the kids to shine — all three did exceptionally well in the exhibit hall, with lots of prizes (including firsts for Lego [a fire engine and fire, Monet’s garden, and army fort], art work, handwriting, handmade greeting cards, wooden bird houses and tool boxes, grain and sheaves; and also at the chicken show (what’s a country fair without chickens?); and, for Laura, in the show ring again with her heifer. On the midway, the boys were excited to discover they had grown tall enough for some of the previously off-limits rides with dangerous-sounding names — the Zipper and the Scrambler. Friends — other mothers — and I camped out in the shade, with folding chairs and iced coffee, while our kids raced from the Tilt-a-Whirl to the bumper cars with ride-all-day bracelets on each slim wrist. And of course, the once-a-year binge of cotton candy, candy apples, homemade pie from the church booth,

The hot weather had an unexpected bonus; tidying up around the beef barn, the kids started gathering up recyclable cans and bottles. And there were lots of cans and bottles, especially water bottles. By the time the kids were done, after three days of the fair and the two clean-up days following, they had collected 12 garbage bags full — worth much too much, it turns out, at the recycling station. It’s all gone into our empty glass Mr. Peanut jar, pooled with the exhibit hall winnings, as part of the new collective horse fund. And the kids have been busy with living math, sharpening pencils and totting up the numbers to see just how much of a horse they might be able to afford at the moment. A surprisingly large percentage, it turns out.

And so, for Laura, Daniel, and David, in the waning days of summer — leap and shout and laugh in the warm sunshine while you can:

Nurse’s Song
by William Blake (1757-1827)

When the voices of children are heard on the green
And laughing is heard on the hill,
My heart is at rest within my breast,
And everything else is still.

“Then come home, my children, the sun is gone down,
And the dews of the night arise;
Come, come, leave off play, and let us away
Till the morning appears in the skies.”

“No, no, let us play, for it is yet day,
And we cannot go to sleep;
Besides in the sky the little birds fly,
And the hills are all covered with sheep.”

“Well, well, go and play till the light fades away,
And then go home to bed.”
The little ones leaped and shouted and laughed;
And all the hills echoéd.

* * *

More William Blake, from the Tate Online.

And more Poetry Friday, with lovely lupines and the round-up at The Miss Rumphius Effect today. Thank you, Tricia!

Food, Family, Fellowship: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

Barbara Kingsolver is as good a farmer as she is a writer. Or maybe that should be the other way around. And her nonfiction is a delight.

I finished Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life over the long weekend, and enjoyed it very much. It’s warm, funny, and includes recipes, including one for mozzarella cheese in 30 minutes that seems ridiculously simple and inordinately tempting. What remains with me is not so much Ms. Kingsolver’s passionate argument in favor of local and especially seasonal food — she is, of course, preaching to the converted over here — but her thoughtful discussions of food and family, and even food and homemaking. For more on the local food aspect, see JoVE‘s post on the book, with good links to places such as Liz’s blog, Pocket Farm (and its new offshoot blog, One Local Summer); and also Mother Crone‘s review. My only quibble with the book — the lists and references at the end are helpful, but even better would have been an index.

What makes this book different from some of the other current titles on the subject, especially those published on the heels of inconvenient truths, is that it’s written by someone who obviously delights in and attaches importance to her roles as wife and mother. No coincidence that her co-authors are her husband Steven Hopp, who wrote the investigative, informative sidebars, and her 19-year-old daughter Camille, who wrote a nutrition and recipe sections at the end of each chapter. No doubt their year of food life was so successful simply because it was a family project. Ms. Kingsolver begins with an observation not overly common in North America:

Pushing a refrigerated green vegetable from one end of the earth to another is, let’s face it, a bizarre use of fuel. But there’s a simpler reason to pass up off-season asparagus: it’s inferior. Respecting the dignity of a spectacular food means enjoying it at its best. Europeans celebrate the short season of abundant asparagus as a form of holiday. …The main barrier standing between ourselves and a local-food culture is not price, but attitude. The most difficult requirements are patience and a pinch of restraint — virtues that are hardly the property of the wealthy. These virtues seem to find precious little shelter, in fact, in any modern quarter of this nation founded by Puritans. Furthermore, we apply them selectively: browbeating our teenagers with the message that they should wait for sex, for example. Only if they wait to experience intercourse under the ideal circumstances (the story goes), will they know its true value. “Blah blah blah,” hears the teenager: words issuing from a mouth that can’t even wait for the right time to eat tomatoes, but instead consumes tasteless ones all winter to satisfy a craving for everything now. We’re raising our children on the definition of promiscuity if we feed them a casual, indiscriminate mingling of foods from every season plucked from the supermarket, ignoring how our sustenance is cheapened by wholesale desires.

Waiting for the quality experience seems to be the constitutional article that has slipped from American food custom. If we mean to reclaim it, asparagus seems like a place to start. And if the object of our delayed gratification is a suspected aphrodisiac? That’s the sublime paradox of a food culture: restraint equals indulgence.

And there’s more, much more:

I haven’t mastered the serene mindset on all household chores … but I might be getting there with cooking. … Cooking is definitely one of the things we do for fun around here. When I’m in a blue mood I head for the kitchen. I turn the pages of my favorite cookbooks, summoning the prospective joyful noise of a shared meal. I stand over a bubbling soup, close my eyes, and inhale. From the ground up, everything about nourishment steadies my soul.Yes, I have other things to do. For nineteen years I’ve been nothing but a working mother, one of the legions who could justify a lot of packaged, precooked foods if I wanted to feed those to my family. I have no argument with convenience, on principle. I’m inordinately fond of my dishwasher, and I like the shiny tools that lie in my kitchen drawers, ready to make me a menace to any vegetable living or dead. …

But if I were to define my style of feeding my family, on a permanent basis, by the dictum, ‘Get it over with, quick,” something cherished in our family life would collapse. And I’m not talking waistlines, though we’d miss those. I’m discussing dinnertime, the cornerstone of our family’s mental health. If I had to quantify it, I’d say 75 percent of my crucial parenting effort has taken place during or surrounding the time our family convenes for our evening meal. I’m sure I’m not the only parent to think so. A survey of National Merit scholars — exceptionally successful eighteen-year-olds crossing all lines of ethnicity, gender, geography, and class — turned up a common thread in their lives: the habit of sitting down to a family dinner table. It’s not just the food making them brilliant. It’s probably the parents — their care, priorities, and culture of support. The words: “I’ll expect you home for dinner.”

I understand that most U.S. citizens don’t have room in their lives to grow food or even see it growing. But I have trouble accepting the next step in our journey toward obligate symbiosis with the packaged meal and takeout. Cooking is a dying art in our culture. Why is a good question, and an uneasy one, because I find myself politically and socioeconomically entangled in the answer. I belong to the generation of women who took as our youthful rallying cry: Allow us a good education so we won’t have to slave in the kitchen. We recoiled from the proposition that keeping a husband presentable and fed should be our highest intellectual aspiration. We fought for entry as equal partners into every quarter of the labor force. We went to school, sweated those exams, earned our professional stripes, and we beg therefore to be excused from manual labor. Or else our full-time job is manual labor, we are carpenters or steelworkers, or we stand at a cash register all day. At the end of a shift we deserve to go home and put our feet up. Somehow, though, history came around and bit us in the backside: now most women have jobs and still find themselves largely in charge of the housework. Cooking at the end of a long day is a burden we could live without.

It’s a reasonable position. But it got twisted into a pathological food culture. When my generation of women walked away from the kitchen we were escorted down that path by a profiteering industry that knew a tired, vulnerable marketing target when they saw it. “Hey ladies,” it said to us, “go ahead, get liberated. We’ll take care of dinner.” They threw open the door and we walked into a nutritional crisis and genuinely toxic food supply. If you think toxic is an exaggeration, read the package directions for handling raw chicken from a CAFO [Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or feedlots/factory farms]. We came a long way, baby, into bad eating habits and collaterally impaired family dynamics. No matter what else we do or believe, food remains at the center of ever culture. Ours now runs on empty calories.

When we traded homemaking for careers, we were implicitly promised economic independence and worldly influence. But a devil of a bargain it has turned out to be in terms of daily life. We gave up the aroma of warm bread rising, the measured pace of nurturing routines, the creative task of molding our families’ tastes and zest for life; we received in exchange the minivan and the Lunchable. (Or worse, convenience-mart hot dogs and latchkey kids.) I consider it the great hoodwink of my generation. …

Eating preprocessed or fast foods can look like salvation in the short run, until we start losing what real mealtimes give to a family: civility, economy, and health. A lot of us are wishing for a way back home, to the place where care-and-feeding isn’t zookeeper’s duty but something happier and more creative.

“Cooking without remuneration” and “slaving over a hot stove” are activities separated mostly by a frame of mind. The distinction is crucial. Career women in many countries still routinely apply passion to their cooking, heading straight from work to the market to search out the freshest ingredients, feeding their loved ones with aplomb. …

Full-time homemaking may not be an option for those of us delivered without trust funds into the modern era. But approaching mealtimes as a creative opportunity, rather than a chore, is an option. Required participation from spouse and kids is an element of the equation. An obsession with spotless collars, ironing, and kitchen floors you can eat off of — not so much. We’ve earned the right to forget about stupefying household busywork. But kitchens where food is cooked and eaten, those were really a good idea. We threw that baby out with the bathwater. It may be advisable to grab her by the slippery foot and haul her back in here before it’s too late.

“Finally,” Ms. Kingsolver writes,

cooking is about good citizenship. It’s the only way to get serious about putting locally raised foods into your diet, which keeps farmlands healthy and grocery money in the neighborhood. Cooking and eating with children teaches them civility and practical skills they can use later on to save money and stay healthy, whatever may happen in their lifetimes to the gas-fueled food industry.

She’s sensible, practical, passionate, and I’d trust her to feed or look after my kids any day of the week. For our family, how we eat, and how the kids learn, not to mention how we make our family decisions, are all of a piece. We don’t often defer to the corporate choices for society’s status quo, and, from the time the kids were in (cloth) diapers, that has pegged us around here variously as nonconformists, free thinkers, and weirdos. On the subject of home educating our children, it’s not uncommon to be quizzed about the reasons behind the choice: “Why bother,” some folks ask, “when the local public/private/parochial school is good enough?” Much as many people now ask about those seeking more local, seasonal, home-grown, or organic foods, “Why bother when the supermarket is good enough?” The answer, of course, is that for many of us, “good enough” isn’t good enough.

Reading Barbara Kingsolver, I was reminded of the late Laurie Colwin, another writer in the kitchen. From the introduction to her second and last volume of essays and recipes, More Home Cooking (1990):

These days family life (or private life) is a challenge, and we must all fight for it. We must turn off the television and the telephone, hunker down in front of our hearths, and leave our briefcases at the office, if for only one night. We must march into the kitchen, en famille or with a friend, and find some easy, heartwarming things to make from scratch, and even if it is but once a week, we must gather at the table, alone or with friends or with lots of friends or with one friend, and eat a meal together. We know that without food we would die. Without fellowship life is not worth living. …The table is a meeting place, a gathering ground, the source of sustenance and nourishment, festivity, safety, and satisfaction. A person cooking is a person giving: Even the simplest food is a gift.

Go ahead. Give a little.

Updated to add: My other, early thoughts on Animal, Vegetable, Miracle posted here.

Worth reading

o Stephanie at Throwing Marshmallows has a terrific post about Feminism and Homeschooling.

o David Harsanyi of The Denver Post writes that Adults, not boys, have changed. Just a sampling:

What makes The Dangerous Book for Boys somewhat contentious, though, is its implicit assertion that boys and girls are very different. That boys and girls are interested in different things and, gulp, excel at different things as well.

And according to Jim Hamilton, a program coordinator with Colorado 4-H, it’s the adults who need help, not the boys.

Hamilton contends that in his 20 years of involvement with Colorado youth development, boys haven’t changed very much at all. What’s changed, he claims, is the reaction adults have to the activities boys tend to engage in.

“What boys do isn’t necessarily what I’d call dangerous, anyway,” explains the father of four. “But they have a need to push their own limitation. And it hurts them when we won’t allow that to happen. Sometimes it forces them to learn and deal with those limitations on a bigger stage – where it’s much more difficult. Then people overreact. Boys are often on the edge. And that’s basically what adults react to in a poor way.”

o The BBC’s correspondent in America, Justin Webb, this past Saturday, on America’s great faith divide and his visit to the creation museum:

There is nothing remotely convincing about the Creation Museum and frankly if it poses the threat to American science that some American critics claim it does, that seems to me to be as much a commentary on the failings of the scientific establishment as it is on the creationists.

There is a reason, I think, why theocracy will never fly in the United States and it has been touched on, inadvertently, by George Bush himself.

Mr Bush often makes the point that the philosophy of the Islamic radicals, full of hate and oppression, would not be attractive to people who truly had the freedom to choose.

Similarly the philosophy of the Old Testament, so much celebrated by some evangelicals here, has a limited power to enthral free people.

At the Creation Museum, goggle-eyed children watch depictions of the Great Flood in which children and their mums and dads are consumed, because God is cross.

In a nation of kindly moderate people I am not sure this is the future.

I put my faith – in America.


Hot to trot tots and their pole-dancing mamas

A couple of months ago, after seeing the Macleans magazine cover story about “dressing our daughters like skanks”, I wrote,

What continues to surprise me is how many mothers around here, and remember, I’m far away from liberal east coast urban types, so your experience may be wide of my mark, are the ones who choose to pimp put their daughters in (often matching) stripper chic not because it’s the path of least resistance but because it’s the path to popularity, to approval, and — hey, a bonus — makes the mothers themselves look or at least seem hip and trendy and young. Well, younger at least. When Laura was in kindergarten and first grade at the local public school, one of her classmates was often dressed by her mother (who in the past few years decided to return to the classroom and now teaches first grade) in fashion-conscious “mini me” style — feather boa trim on sweaters and matching short skirts and dressy suede boots. Not good for the playground at recess or those messy arts and crafts projects, but certainly eye-catching. And this classmate was in good company.

So I was interested to discover, lurking behind today’s Times Select firewall, the latest blog installment from Judith Warner,“Hot Tots, and Moms Hot to Trot”; here’s a Select selection:

Bling-Bling Barbies and pouty-lipped Bratz. Thongs for tweens, and makeover parties for 5-year-olds. The past couple of shopping seasons have brought a constant stream of media stories — and books and school lectures and anguished mom conversations — all decrying the increasingly tarted-up world of young girls and preteens. Now the American Psychological Association has weighed in as well, with a 67-page report on the dangers of the “sexualization” of girls.

The report takes aim at the music lyrics, Internet content, video games and clothing that are now being marketed to younger and younger kids, and correlates their smutty content with a number of risks to girls’ well-being. It finds that sexualization — turning someone into “eye candy” — is linked to eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression in girls and women. Adopting an early identity as a “Hot Tot” also has, the researchers wrote, “negative consequences on girls’ ability to develop healthy sexuality.”

This isn’t surprising, or even new. But what did surprise me, reading through the A.P.A.’s many pages of recommendations for fighting back (like beefed-up athletics, extracurriculars, religion, spirituality, “media literacy” and meditation), was the degree to which the experts — who in an earlier section of the report acknowledge the toxicity of mother-daughter “fat talk” — let moms themselves off the hook as agents of destruction requiring change.

I know that sounds pretty nasty. We’re not supposed to be judgmental these days. We’re not supposed to blame parents — especially mothers. I also know that what mothers do or don’t do (short of out-and-out abuse) doesn’t, single-handedly, “cause” much of anything. But I think it’s fair, even necessary, to wonder: how can we expect our daughters to navigate the cultural rapids of becoming sexual beings when we ourselves are flying blind? How can we teach them to inhabit their bodies with grace and pleasure if we spend our own lives locked in hateful battles of control, mastery and self-improvement?

We all tend to talk a good game now on things like body image and sexual empowerment. We buy the American Girl body book, “The Care and Keeping of You,” promote a “healthy” diet and exercise, and wax rhapsodic about team sports. But do we practice what we preach?

Not when we walk around the house sucking in our stomachs in front of the mirrors. Not when we obsessively regulate the contents of our refrigerators in the name of “purity.” (Did you know that there’s a clinical word for the “fixation on righteous eating”? It’s called “orthorexia.”) Our girls see right through all our righteousness. And they hear the hypocrisy, too, when we dish out all kinds of pabulum about a “positive body image,” then go on to trash our own thighs. …

Maybe it’s time to take a break from bashing the media and start to take a long, hard look instead at the issue of mothers’ sexuality, which is, apparently, after a long and well-documented dormancy, enjoying a kind of rebirth — thanks, it is said, to things like pole dancing classes and sports club stripteases. These new evening antics of the erstwhile book club set are supposed to be fabulous because they give sexless moms a new kind of erotic identity. But what a disaster they really are: an admission that we’ve failed utterly, as adult women, to figure out what it means to look and feel sexy with dignity. We’ve created an aesthetic void. Should we be surprised that stores like Limited Too are rushing in to fill it? (Now on sale: a T-shirt with two luscious cherries and the slogan “Double trouble.”)…

“Smart Is Sexy” likely wouldn’t sell as many t-shirts, though I suppose you could try a “Double trouble” version with Ben Franklin and Tom Jefferson, or Plato and Aristotle, especially if you decide to trade in that pole dancing class for a Great Books discussion group. I don’t always agree with Warner, or with Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wannabees, whom Warner quotes at length in her post, but there are some good thoughts in Warner’s post today.

As an aside, last summer I read both Queen Bees and Reviving Ophelia by Mary Pipher and much preferred the latter. I read them on the recommendation of a good friend, who happens to be the mother of three daughters, ages six to almost 15; as she put it succinctly in a letter about a year ago,

it’s Mary Pipher’s “Fence at the Top of the Hill” metaphor that differentiates the aim of the books. QB&W is the ambulance at the bottom of the precipice. RO is the fence on the hilltop. QB&W’s focus on cliques is just one manifestation of a much larger problem, instructing parents how to deal with the situation at hand, not how to avoid it.

Good fences make good families as well as good neighbors. And you can start building that fence with the pole that used to be in the living room.