Thursday, January 26, 2006

More on Newsweek & trend stories....

Thanks to the Mothers & More POWER loop for pointing me to this excellent analysis of the weaknesses in media trend reporting:

Women's pages: Next time you read about 'what women want,' check the research -- it's likely to be flimsy

I do my best as a writer to make sure I don't fall into these traps of sloppy reporting. It's an ongoing challenge. Humans love stories, anecdotes, and what appear to be trends based on our own experiences--it's how our brains make sense of the world. My background is in neuroscience rather than journalism, but I am proud of the fact that the training I received to write my doctoral thesis at Stanford taught me a lot about interpreting, writing about, and referencing scientific data.

More thoughts about the Newsweek cover story The Trouble With Boys:

Conservative commentators also have reason to be upset about the reporting that gave scholar Christina Hoff Sommers only one paragraph of coverage. I agree that this was sloppy, perfunctory reporting. If Newsweek is going mention the idea that some people believe that "misguided feminism is what's been hurting boys," then they need to back it up with more information than one paragraph. It doesn't serve anyone to assert this idea as an unexplored factoid. I would be interested in hearing more about WHY people might believe this. Hoff Sommers is the author of two books on this topic, including The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism is Harming Our Young Men. As much as I am repelled by the "misguided feminism" hypothesis, I should check out her work. Actaully reading the work of people you disagree with is an important exercise that all of us should take on. These days our media landscape provides us the unfortunate luxury of being able to seek out only the opinions that confirm our world views without challening them, cutting off the possibility for nuanced discussions.

"Alice laughed: "There's no use trying," she said; "one can't believe impossible things."

"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

--Alice in Wonderland.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

What to make of Newsweek's "Boy Crisis?"

Mojo Mom Podcast co-host Sheryl Grant eagerly referred me to read Newsweek's January 30th cover story, The Boy Crisis. I've just read the article, and I'm still digesting my response, but I wanted to share my initial impressions of the issue and the anatomy of a trend story.

*I definitely resonate with the idea that normal boy behavior is often red-flagged as indicating a possible problem or developmental delay. Teachers' concern is one thing, but our society's insistence on Lake Wobegon kids who are all above average has really gotten out of hand. I believe we all need to get more patient with the range of development that truly is normal at various age ranges, and also provide a variety of classroom activities and settings.

*At the same time, I don't think the article did an adequate job of establishing the most important elements of the boy "problem," or definitively linking the problem to underlying causes. It is honestly a bit hard for me to regard males as a persecuted underclass. Fourth grade reading scores are one thing, but in the workplace, politics, just about every station of American power, men still rule. Colleges may be almost 60% female at the undergraduate level but this doesn't hold at the faculty level by any means. What about the persistent wage gap between men's and women's salaries or the tenous unpaid status of stay-at-home parents (98% stay-at-home Moms vs. 2% stay-at-home Dads), or the financial squeeze on working mothers? Motherhood is the single largest risk factor for poverty in old age. Hearing that boys are being systematically neglected is a bit like hearing white American Christians complain that they are an oppressed minority.

*The Newsweek article throws around statistics fast and loose without explaining the significance of the numbers. What exactly does it mean if "eighth-grade girls score an average of 11 points higher than eighth-grade boys on standardized reading tests?" I have no idea how to interpret whether that is a meaningful difference. What about the fact that there is a gender gap in test scores, but both boys and girls have improved over the past few years? Which of these measurements, if any, are meaningful, accurate, or important?

*Newsweek throws in the inevitable criticism that asserts that feminism may be somehow responsible for this, because "some scholars, notably Christina Hoff Sommers...charge that miguided feminism is what's been hurting boys." Nice to know that one conservative think tank member can throw the f-bomb criticism and get it printed in Newsweek, bestowing upon it an air of truthiness.

*Feminism does get a chance to defend itself, in the form of a solid essay by Carol Gilligan. She suggests that "an effective strategy for preventing boys' psychological difficulties and educational problems would involve recognizing thier sensitivities, building honest relationships, and strengthening a healthy capacity for resistance." Sounds like a good start to me.

*Absent male role models are mentioned 17 paragraphs in. "In every kind of neighborhood....a startling 40 percent (of boys) are being raised without their biological dads." This point deserved more prominence in this story. Single Moms are left holding the bag and the blame when men are absent.

*In my view, the most disturbing statistics mentioned by Newsweek are the higher incidences of violence, drug use, and risk taking. These seem to be issues we really aren't ready to deal with as a society.

*One of the most disturbing parts of this and so many other dilemmas is is the serious disconnect we have between social problems and our avenues for potential reform. We constantly turn to one of a few "levers" in society that we can push to enact reform--usually the educational system. Teachers end up bearing the brunt of pressure for all kinds of reform. I was a teacher for three years, and while I loved my job, I am absolutely frightened to think that with the little time we spend with our kids (50 minutes a day per teacher in high school), teachers are expected to cure all of the ills of society in addition to teaching our subject. What if boys aren't succeeding because they coming to school under the influence of drugs, malnourished, sleep deprived, or depressed? What if the problem is that boys are immersed in a culture of violence or online porn addiction? What if the absence of 40% of biological dads is the primary cause? What if the problems with boys are due to the fact that we have few authentic outlets for honest male expression, a narrow definition of masculinity, and an undercurrent of homophobia in our socialization that affects all boys (if you doubt this exists, go into a middle-grade classroom at 9 am and ask to see a show of hands of how many kids have heard someone called "fag" that morning)? How can we as a society make sure we are addressing the true causes of our problem, and act to make things better? We need to look beyond test scores to measure our problems, and beyond teachers to deliver the solutions.

*Of course I truly care about the challenges that boys face. I also hope that we can engage in a national conversation that lasts longer than one trendy news cycle. But I can't help but think pessimisticaly that in a society that does so little to support families, unless more of us speak up, we'll just keep blaming feminists and adding one more mandate onto teachers' overburdened loads.

Po Bronson's Factbook on the American Family

Author Po Bronson has a new book out called "Why Do I Love These People?" that tackles the intriguing and lofty goal of "decoding the mystery of family life." I haven't read the book yet, but I became engrossed in his website. Bronson interviewed 700 people and amassed a great deal of factual research in the process of writing his family profiles. I LOVE the fact that he took the trouble to post his research as on online Factbook. He's really given back to the community by making this information available. It can actually be quite difficult to find the answers to seemingly simple research questions like "How many stay-at-home Moms and Dads are there in the U. S.?" (A: 5.4 million SAHMoms and 98,000 SAHDads). Bronson not only connects to relevant primary resources such as Census Bureau summaries, he also provides his own provocative analyses of family trends as identified in the mass media and "how they get it wrong." Bronson has created a treasure-trove of information that will captivate both nonfiction writers and interested readers.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Firefighter leaves maternity ward to take exam

Yesterday I came across an eye-opening report called 10 Things that Cold Happen to You if You didn't Have Paid Sick Days, written by 9 to 5, the National Association of Working Women.

This morning that report came to life as I read the headline "Texas Firefighter Gives Birth, Takes Exam" about Houston firefighter Beda Kent, who was forced to choose between taking her promotion test or remaining in the hospital with her daughteer after giving birth. A Texas state law mandates that everyone must take the test at the same time. Attempts by her firefighter's association to negotate an alternative test setting were unsuccessful. The captain's exam is only given about once every 2 or 3 years, so the incentive to take it was high. So Ms. Kent checked herself out of the hospital only 12 hours after giving birth in order to take the test, which she aced, by the way. Her health insurance wouldn't let her be readmitted to the hospital, so she and her husband returned every four to five hours so she could nurse her baby.

In Texas, we can only hope that Beda Kent's case provides motivation to modify the law to allow reasonable medical test postponements. The law already allows for active military personnel to make alternative arrangements. It's ludicrous to lose out on the talents of other qualified firefighters because they are on medical leave during the moment that the test is given. In fact, the failure to accommodate her situation may constitute illegal discrimination, so keep an eye on this story as it develops.

I am resisting the temptation to join the voices who call Ms. Kent a hero. Her situation is akin to asking a firefighter to risk her life to respond to a false alarm. No woman should not be asked to risk her health, or her right to recuperate after having a baby, for arbitrary work demands. Houson Fire Chief Phil Boriskie had an ambulance on standby at the test site in case she needed it. Common sense says that it would have been much more humane to allow her to take the test another time.

What can you do to support working parents and other caretakers? Please sign 9 to 5's petition to Congress to support the Healty Families Act, proposed legislation that would require employers to provide a minimum of seven paid sick days a year.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

On notice:

To borrow a phrase from fake news pundit Stephen Colbert (because we know how testy he gets if you borrow a phrase and don't credit him), I am putting "on notice." In fact, I am calling a time-out on them. In addition to the newspaper and NPR, I rely on online news as a way to pick and choose among the headlines that matter to me without having to sit through what passes for TV news these days.

Lately, I've noticed that the video clips offered by are increasingly sensationalistic, and today their "news" reached a new low in my book. Let's see, which would I want to watch first...."Mechanic sucked into jet engine," or "Cannibal says victim asked to 'be eaten alive.'" If either of these incidents qualifies as news, which I am not willing to grant without further discussion, what does it mean that people want to watch video associated with either of them? It really turns my stomach.

I getting very cranky as I watch news providers race to see who can sink to the lowest realms of taste to win the ratings race. It's time that we as media consumers demand better than this.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Perfect Antidote to James Frey....

Author Haven Kimmel grew up in a town so small it didn't have a traffic light. Hardly a hotbed of hard-hitting action. I havenen't read her new book, She Got Up Off the Couch: And other Herioc Acts from Mooreland, Indiana but I am ready to run out and buy it after hearing her lovely and thoughtful interview today on WUNC--North Carolina Public Radio's program "The State of Things." Through the magic of podcasting, you can listen to the show, too. Give them a day to get today's show archived, then visit WUNC's website, or access the file through the iTunes Podcast Directory.

Haven thinks like a writer and talks like a writer, in the best possible sense of the word. I loved hearing her talk about how she looked at her family differently as an author, as writing forces you to empathize with each character's point of view, even if you disagree in real life. If anything good will come out of the farce surrounding A Million Little Pieces it will be that readers start to appreciate quality memoirists.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Would you like a Whopper with that Frey?

I have to weigh in on the James Frey controversy. I'm sure you've heard by now that The Smoking Gun's thorough investigation suggests that James Frey's "memoir" A Million Little Pieces was seriously embellished. The funny thing is that Frey exaggerated his criminal record to establish his Bad-Ass Criminal persona. "Bratty privileged suburban frat-boy addict" just didn't carry enough literary cachet.

As someone who has written two books, one fiction, one nonfiction, I can tell you that I embrace the idea that fiction is the easiest way to tell the essence of a story. My young adult novel High Water tried to capture the essence of what it was like to grow up dorky and insecure, always wanting to be popular and fitting in. But I knew that my real life was far too boring to sustain a narrative, and besides, I would inevitably get the details wrong. So I made up a story about two seventh-grade girls getting separated from the group on a class rafting trip and left to fend for themselves in the Sierra wilderness.

But, if you do go the memoir route, you have to be prepared to stand by the facts. Frey's book has always sounded totally unappealing to me, and now I am relieved that there's no reason to read it.

The most interesting article I've read about Frey's work, written pre-scandal, is a scathing book review written by an American expat for "The Exile," a Moscow-based alternative newspaper (you've gotta love the web!). In his review, John Dolan makes the case that "Rehab stories provide a way for pampered trust-fund brats like Frey to claim victim status. These swine already have money, security and position and now want to corner the market in suffering and scars, the consolation prizes of the truly lost. It's a fitting literary metonymy for the Bush era: the rich have decided to steal it all, even the tears of the losers."

As a mother I will add that the most disturbing allegation is that Frey inserted himself into the story of a real girl who lived in his town who was killed when her date's car was struck by a train. Frey claimed that she was his only friend and that he was involved in the scenario that led to her death. There is a real family involved, and if he appropriated that tragedy for literary devices, passed off as fact, that is truly sick.

I know this is off topic from my usual musings, but as a writer I've been watching in absolute morbid fascination as Frey's story has come unraveled, and wondered what it means that the American public was so mesmerized by it in the first place.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Reclaiming Your Mind Space...and your Family's

One of my life mottoes is "use everything," meaning take the knowledge and skills you develop at each stage of life and apply those experiences to new situations as your path evolves. I was a neuroscientist for many years before becoming a teacher, then a mother and writer. This has all come together as I have thought a lot lately about the media we consume and other aspects of our "mental diets." I first wrote about these ideas in Mojo Mom in the chapter about Reclaiming Your Mind Space.

Why is our culture obsessed with what we eat, and the drugs that we consumer to artificially stimulate our brains, while we pay relatively little attention to the actual sensory stimuli we take in?

As a neuroscientist one of the things I studied was activity-dependent plasticity, meaning that the things we see, hear, do, or touch can literally reshape our brains.

Yesterday I came across a new study that makes a causal link between violent video games and aggressive behavior. This goes further than previous correlative studies that might just show that violent people gravitate toward violent games. While this research is evolving and still controversial, it seems that we are heading toward a consensus that at the very least, viewing violence desensitizes our response to seeing real-life violent images. Is this what we want?

I've started investigating statistics on children's exposure to internet porn as well. According to the Top Ten Reviews site, the largest group of internet porn consumers is 12-17 year olds, and the average age of first exposure to porn is age 11. What is that doing to our chilren's sexual self-images, ideas about what is a normal relationship and behavior, framework about what it means to be a man or a woman, and sex as an abstract experience versus a real relationship? I am horrified to think of my daughter having her first date someday with a boy whose ideas about relationships have been shaped by years of porn exposure, and I hate to think of her being exposed to these images and storylines as well.

I hope you will make your media diet a topic of conversation with your family. The American Psychiatric Association has posted guidelines and food for thought that is a good place to start. This feels like an unpopular stance to take right now amid our popular culture, but that can't stop concerned parents from acting. I know too much as a mother and as a neuroscientist not to care.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Resolve to read the MMO website in 2006

I spent New Year's Weekend with an amazing group of friends and my mind is abuzz with thoughts about what I'd like to get accomplished in 2006. My ideas have not completely coalesced yet but I will say that in addition to getting the ideas in Mojo Mom out there, I am focusing on ways that I can help advance the cause of motherhood and feminism as a Gen X Mom who is ready to act.

One goal is to host at least one Mojo Mom reteat in the coming year. I am currently working out how much the focus will be on the personal rather than the political.

In the meantime I want to highly recommend the articles that can be found on the Mothers Movement Online (MMO) site, especially pieces written by the founder Judith Stadtman Tucker. My favorite piece is the May 2005 feature on The New Future of Motherhood. Stadtman Tucker gives voice to the reasons that saying that "motherhood is the most important job in the world" is limiting rather uplifiting as she makes a clear and inspiring argument for looking at parenthod as a relationship rather than a job.