My Inner Grandma

Yesterday Kish and I were talking about health, and before I knew it I used the phrase “fit as a fiddle.”  As soon as I said it, I realized that it’s a phrase that no American has probably used for the last 20 years,

That’s what happens when my Inner Grandma surges to the fore.

grandma-21“Inner Grandma” refers to the vast repository of sayings that immediately come to mind about the small realities of everyday life, like weather, and eating, and getting up in the morning, and how you’re feeling today.  All of the sayings were chiseled deeply into the synapses of my cerebral cortex as a result of spending huge chunks of my formative years with my mother and my two grandmothers, all of whom used some of the same core sayings.  I probably heard them hundreds of times as a callow youth, and was proud of myself the first time I used them correctly and participated in a conversation with Mom or Grandma Webner or Grandma Neal.  Now those sayings bubble up, involuntarily, whenever those everyday moments arise, even though the sayings themselves have long since lost their currency — and don’t even particularly make sense, come to think of it.

“Your eyes are bigger than your stomach.”

“It’s raining cats and dogs.”

“I’m in the pink.”

“You’ve got an appetite like a truck driver.”

“Good morning, Merry Sunshine!”

“He’s happy as a clam.”

And that’s just scratching the surface.  I guess it shows how much of our thinking is shaped by our childhoods, and how we remain the product of our upbringing long decades after our childhoods have ended.  Mom and my grandmothers will always be with me.


Creepy Playgrounds

The London Daily Mail has an interesting article about creepy sculptures that appear to haunt some of the playgrounds built during the Soviet era in Russia.  There’s no doubt that there is a profoundly disturbing, nightmarish quality about some of the figures that could haunt little kids and cause them to avoid the playgrounds altogether.

7055939An evil, grinning chimp with fangs?  A crying woman in a blue dress?  A goateed, wide-eyed doctor in a lab coat ready to plunge some unknown instrument into your skull?  A hollow-eyed, distraught boy kneeling on the ground?  A bizarre fight between an emaciated bull and a reptilian creature?  Who came with this stuff, the psychological warfare section of the KGB?

But maybe we’re being too hard on the Soviets.  Let’s face it, American playgrounds aren’t exactly free from disturbing stuff, either.  Any playground that has a jungle gym, an old-fashioned merry-go-ground, and “monkey bars” is bound to present its share of childhood horror.  And the decorations at some playgrounds are unsettling, too.  We used to live a block away from a park we called “Yogi Bear Park” because it had a teeter-totter where the fulcrum was a covered by a cheap plastic depiction of the head of Yogi Bear.  The adults recognized the figure as Smarter than the Average Bear, but to little kids it was an unknown, apparently grimacing figure wearing a bad hat and a tie.  What the parents saw as Yogi, the kids perceived as a weird, lurking presence.  Not surprisingly, the tykes tended to steer clear of old Yogi.

For that matter, childhood is filled with intentionally scary stuff that suggests that adults get a kick out of frightening youngsters.  “Fairy tales” aren’t happy stories about fairies, but horror shows of child-eating witches, child-eating wolves, and other evil creatures ready to devour any wayward kid.  Hey, kids!  How about a bedtime story?

We apparently delight in terrifying children.  The Russian playgrounds just bring it out into the open.

Squelching Summer Fun

When we were kids and lived on The Circle in semi-rural Bath, Ohio, a typical summer day went like this:  we got up early, ate cereal, and ran from the house to play outside with the gang of other kids in the neighborhood.  We’d ride our bikes and climb trees, play “army” and baseball and kickball, build dams and catch tadpoles in the creek that ran through the woods, and make up stupid games.  Except for stopping to eat a lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches served by one of the moms in the neighborhood — usually selected at random — we were outside and on our own all day long, and after we’d eaten dinner at home, often at the picnic table outside, we’d find our friends again and catch lightning bugs and play freeze tag until it was time for bed.  And if we were lucky enough to go somewhere for a beach vacation (in our case, to Ocean City, New Jersey), we’d dig in the sand, bury each other, and build sand castles.

fun-ways-to-celebrate-the-summer-solstice-sqI remember those long, hot summer days fondly — but if you read the expert advice given to parents these days, you’d think that our entire group of friends was unbelievably lucky to survive them without experiencing serious injury or lifelong trauma.

Consider the “10 Rules for Summer Safety” published by  It cautions against overexposure to the sun, heat exhaustion, doing anything around water, wearing clothing with floral patterns that might attract stinging bees, poisonous plants, and bug bites, among other things to worry about.  Some experts (including, apparently, the U.S. EPA) are very concerned about sand, whether a child is digging in it, being buried in it, or even walking on it.  And don’t even think about letting your child walk around outside barefoot!

All of these cautions about potential death-dealing problems lurking outside on that sunny summer’s day are bad enough, but what’s really troubling about these “rules” for child safety is that they presuppose that the parents are right there, at all times, making sure that the kids don’t take off their shoes or touch creek water or walk on sand or risk brushing up against what might be a poisonous plant.  We seem to have totally lost the notion that kids might actually be able to fend for themselves, and that whatever problems might occur — skinned knees, bug bites, sun burns, and the like — were a small price to pay for letting kids get lots of fresh air, have fun, engage in creative, self-directed play, and establish a little independence with their neighborhood friends.

If you took these warnings seriously, you’d decide that the best course is to just keep your kids inside, where there are fewer dangers around every corner and they can be in your line of sight at all times, as they sit watching TV, or playing video games, or tapping away on a computer.  Could it be that the worries about outdoor play that the experts have raised, and the parental response to them, have contributed to the rise in asthma, obesity, and diabetes in children who never go outside and get any exercise, sunshine, or fresh air without being lathered with sunscreen and scrutinized by helicopter parents?

Who knows more about what kids are capable of — the skittish experts of our modern world, or those Moms of the ’60s who were perfectly willing to let their kids go out and play, unattended by adults, confident that the kids could take care of themselves.  I’ll trust the practical experience of the ’60s Moms over the experts any day.


We learned some things so long ago that we have no recollection of the process.  The words “Mom” and “Dad” and the names of our siblings.  That you don’t stick your hand into an open flame or onto a glowing red burner.  Simple temporal concepts, like “today” and “yesterday” and “tomorrow” and “later.”

And basic words.  Anybody who has children knows that kids typically learn the words “yes” and “no” some time before the age of two and then stubbornly and infuriatingly speak, shout, or scream the word “no” exclusively for the next 12 months.

countingBut counting comes later, along with learning your ABCs.  Counting is a building block for math, just like learning the alphabet is a building block for reading and spelling.  When you think about it, counting is a fairly sophisticated concept.  First you grasp the difference between none, one, and many — and then you learn that specific words and symbols represent precise numbers of, say, the little meatballs in the Chef Boyardee spaghetti that your Mom served for lunch.

One of the challenges of counting, of course, is that the words that represent the numbers, and their progression, aren’t intuitive.  I thought of counting and its challenges when I stumbled across this article about the words “eleven” and “twelve” and their history.  For many kids, the numbers between 10 and 20 are the big challenge because they’re weird and not consistent with the concepts that come before (between 1 and 10) or after (for 20 and up).  To this day, I think the only reason I know the world “delve” is because of the rhyme I learned about counting as a kid.  (“Eleven, twelve, dig and delve.”)

So where did eleven and twelve come from?  According to etymologists, both come from the root word “lif,” which apparently meant “to leave” — the concept being that 11 would mean one left after 10, and 12 would mean two left after 10.  It’s weird, and something that would forever after cause kids learning to count to stumble and hesitate after then got to 10, but it’s not unique to English — when you learn how to count in French, at least, you encounter the same issue and strange words just after “dix”.

That suggests that, in the early days among the common folk, most people didn’t need to routinely count up to 573, or for that matter much past ten.  That makes sense, because we’ve got ten fingers and kids learning to count often do so using their fingers.  Our ancestors created special words for the numbers just past ten, but at a certain point they probably just shrugged and settled for “many” rather than going for precision.

Lots of kids learning to count would like to have taken the same approach.

Garbage In

What are the costs of eating fast food?  Of course, one cost is the simple consumption of an unsatisfying, typically over-salted meal in either a car seat or a sticky and garish fast-food environment, rather than sitting down to a leisurely meal with family or friends.  That’s a given.  Then there’s the weight gain that tends to result from slamming down high-calorie processed foods.  But now research is indicating there’s even more to it.

chemicals-in-fast-food-wrappers-show-up-in-human-bloodThe Washington Post recently published an article about the curious association between fast-food consumption and phthalates.  (Yes, “phthalate” is a real word, and no, I have no idea how it is pronounced.)  The study tracked fast-food intake by 9,000 research subjects — fast-food was defined as any food served at a restaurant without waiters or waitresses — and took urine samples from them.  Analysis of the urine samples showed that people who had eaten any fast food in the last 24 hours had higher phthalate levels than people who had not eaten any fast food during that same period, and the larger your fast food intake, the higher your phthalate levels tended to be.

The results are troubling because phthalates are industrial chemicals used to soften plastic and vinyl and make it more flexible, and the Post reports that they have been associated with a number of adverse health effects.  Male infertility is one of them, and another is diabetes.  Why do people who consume fast food have higher phthalate levels?  Researchers don’t know for sure, but they suspect it is because the processed nature of fast food means that the food tends to touch a lot more machines, conveyor belts, plastic wrapping, other packaging materials, and other potential sources of phthalates before it gets onto your plate — I mean, your cheap cardboard box, paper bag or foam container.

But here’s the most troubling part of the Post story from my standpoint: the research revealed, and other government studies confirm, that one-third of the participants eat some form of fast food every day.  That includes one-third of kids and adolescents.

A diet that includes fast food every day.  Just the thought of it makes my mouth feel dry and briny from anticipation of the salt intake.  It’s no wonder that we’ve got some serious health and obesity problems in the U.S. of A.  We’ve got to start taking better care of ourselves, and it starts with eating better food.

Is Porn A Public Health Crisis?

Utah’s state legislature has passed a resolution declaring pornography a public health crisis, and yesterday Utah’s governor signed it.

ip01091The resolution doesn’t ban pornography in Utah — with the volume of porn available on the internet and through various media outlets, it’s hard to see how that could be accomplished, anyway — but it does seek to highlight what it calls an epidemic.  The resolution says that porn “perpetuates a sexually toxic environment” and “is contributing to the hypersexualisation of teens, and even prepubescent children, in our society,” and speakers at yesterday’s signing ceremony argued that porn also undermines marriages and contributes to sexual aggression.

Utah, which is a majority Mormon state, has always long been one of the most socially conservative states in America, and an “adult entertainment” trade group called The Free Speech Coalition said that Utah’s declaration is an “old-fashioned” morals bill that ignores that porn watchers tend to have more progressive views on sexuality and women’s rights and that ready access to porn correlates with a decline in sex crimes.

It’s hard to see how anyone could plausibly argue that pornography is a public health crisis in the same way that, say, the Zika virus or Ebola are.  Porn isn’t randomly striking people down or causing microcephaly or other serious health conditions through mosquito bites, and if there is such a thing as “porn addiction” it sure isn’t as widespread or destructive as alcoholism or drug addiction.  Clearly, there are more serious targets of our public health spending than porn.  And there obviously are free speech concerns at issue, too, that the law has wrestled with since one Justice of the Supreme Court famously declared that he might not be able to craft a legal definition of pornography, but he knew it when he saw it.

Still, I think anyone who pooh-poohs the fact or significance of the increasing prevalence of porn — soft, hard, and even violent — in our society might be missing the point.  “Dirty books” and “dirty movies” have always been around, but they sure are a lot more accessible these days, available with a few clicks of a mouse or TV remote control unit.  Anybody who watched HBO, as we do, can’t help but notice how graphic the depiction of sexual activity and sexual situations has become, and broadcast TV isn’t far behind.

There’s a reason pornography is euphemistically called “adult entertainment.”  Parents have a legitimate interest in protecting their children from exposure to porn until the kids have a chance to learn about sex in a more neutral, less charged, less graphic way.   No one wants their kids to think that the scenarios presented in porn are a normal representation of sexual activity in a loving relationship.  That’s not old-fashioned, it’s common sense.

Parental Eavesdropping

Like many states, New York has a law that bars recording communications unless at least one of the parties to the communication gives consent.  Earlier this week, the highest court in New York considered whether parents can legally eavesdrop when one of the parties to the communication is their child — and held that parents can do so under certain circumstances.

The ruling came in a case where the divorced father of a five-year-old boy, over an open phone line, heard his son having a “violent conversation” with his ex-wife’s bodybuilder boyfriend.  The father recorded the conversation.  (Disturbingly, though, the father apparently didn’t contact authorities to give them the recording until months later, when the ex-wife and boyfriend were arrested after neighbors heard screaming and crying coming from the house.)  The boyfriend argued that the recorded conversation shouldn’t be allowed into evidence at his trial because neither party to the conversation consented.

eavesdropping-1stepmother-helpThe New York Court of Appeals disagreed, and concluded that the father had “a good faith, objectively reasonable belief that it was necessary for the welfare of his son to record the violent conversation he found himself listening to.”  Three of the judges on that court dissented, concluding that the ruling raised policy concerns that should be left up to the legislature and could raise issues in divorce situations, with the parties to the break-up planting bugs to record conversations between their children and the other party to the divorce.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone would argue that a parent who heard their little boy being threatened with violence couldn’t making a recording to try to help their child — but then again, it’s hard to imagine that a father who made such a recording wouldn’t immediately take the recording to the police to try to get his son out of a dangerous situation.  The father’s inaction in the case makes the ugly divorce scenarios that apparently motivated the dissenting judges seem more plausible.

But one person’s bad judgment shouldn’t mask a key reality:  parents should be permitted to eavesdrop and intervene when they honestly believe their child is at risk.  Whether it’s bullying on a school bus, or a situation where a child is falling under the sway of a sexual predator, there are many instances where parents could legitimately decide that making a recording of a conversation involving their child was the right thing to do.  It’s not snooping, it’s trying to protect your kid — and we shouldn’t let speculative worries about what might happen in other worst-case scenarios prevent parents from following their basic parenting instincts when it comes to trying to do right by their children.