Thursday, July 28, 2011

Hostile lullabies

Jeff and I share an apartment with another couple and their two-month-old baby. I'm getting lots of babysitting practice, and with that comes lots of singing. After a day with a person who can't speak or understand your language, what you really want is to be verbal. Reading is difficult because babies have a way of occupying your hands. The kid likes hearing a human voice, but you quickly run out of things to say to someone who can't talk back. Thus, singing.

I'm realizing lots of the standard lullabies are strangely slow in tempo and sappy in lyric. At least at this age, the baby seems to want a lot of upbeat jiggling, not slow rocking. And since the baby only hears sounds, you can say anything. Which explains all the less-than-kind older lullabies. Think "When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall."

From Scotland, with too many children:
Hee O, wee O, what wou'd I do wi' you?
Black's the life that I lead wi' you;
Many o' you, little for to gie you.

A sleep aid from Appalachia:
What'll we do with the baby-o?
If he don't go to sleepy-o?
Dance him north, dance him south,
Pour a little moonshine in his mouth.

From the Blackfoot:
Come wolf, bite this baby:
He won't sleep.

Then there are the homemade kind, made up on the spot. Our housemate Hassan's go something like this:
Baby baby, you're the one
You make bathtime . . . you actually hate bathtime.

Bottom line: If you don't keep your sense of humor, you're done for.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Reason vs. religion

I've been reading a lot of Less Wrong (a site that tries to educate people on rationalism) lately. They love to hate on religion there.

Today in church I was thinking about why I was there. There are many decisions, like what to do with money and how to teach science in schools, that I think people should make rationally. But there are other decisions, like what to with your Sunday morning, that I think people should make without too much tizzy about what would maximize utility.

I think anti-theism people ignore some useful functions of religion. I like church for one of the same reasons I like social work: it gives people space to think and talk about important things. There are very few spaces where we are invited to do that. It's good to ask ourselves periodically, "Am I treating my loved ones well?" "Is the way I live my life consistent with my values?" "Am I focusing on what's really important?"

I don't think religiosity has much of an effect on most people's daily lives. Most people seem to act like they want to act, and then pick and choose from their religious traditions to explain it. But I think religion sometimes gives us tools to become better people. In social work school we're certainly taught to ask about people's spiritual life and play up any strengths that offers them.

When we pause for silent grace before dinner, many times I've refrained from a bitter comment by remembering the Christian meal blessing: Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest. Not because I actually believe in Jesus as the incarnation of love, but because I can imagine what it would be like to believe that. For me, it's less effective to think "I should be kind" than to imagine the god of love actually sitting at my table. And if that kind of imagination helps me be a kinder person, what's wrong with it? The need to take everything absolutely literally, and to rail against any thought that is not literally true, seems strangely inflexible to me.

I also think church broadens my view of who "us" is. I like that the liturgy includes praying for people with mental illness, homeless people, people getting divorces, people who are sick, people who lost their jobs. Society's usual method is to power on and pretend these problems don't exist. I like that in church we can acknowledge these as things that happen to people we know, people who are us. My defense mechanism is to pretend that I can somehow avoid any of these problems by living my life properly. The prayers remind me of reality: bad things happen to good people. Our response should not be to ignore it, but to stick together and help get each other through those bad things.

Lastly, group singing. And potlucks. Rationalists, how good are your potlucks? (There was a meetup in Cambridge this evening at a restaurant, but I didn't go because I don't consider most restaurants a rational use of money. Also, I thought you might be jerks.)

Skirt guard

The Dutch have it all figured out when it comes to bicycles. One bike accessory commonly seen there (though not here) is the skirt guard, designed for keeping coat tails and skirts out of your back wheel.

This week I made my own. I wear skirts most of the time, and while I've never had a skirt-in-spokes disaster they do sometimes get stuck in the back brake. Now that won't happen!

I cut two semicircles of fabric, stapled them together along part of the curve, and sewed the corners to the bike. For some reason I cut off a part at the front, but don't do that.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

More on covering up . . .

...but on a different theme from yesterday's.

Today I learned that a small number of Jewish women in Israel have started wearing the burka. A conservative Jewish dress code normally encompasses long sleeves, skirts, and hair coverings for women, and this sect is taking it farther by adding a face covering. Faced with Jewish women who dress like Muslim women, other Israelis are freaking out. People harass them on the streets and call them "Taliban women." One news story breathlessly reports that even little girls can be seen "walking around outdoors in full body coverage." A member of Israel's legislative body proposed banning the burka for both Jews and Muslims.

Isn't it interesting that when women draw attention to themselves, so many people can't handle it?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Making shade

One of the challenges of car-free life is avoiding the summer sun. After reading about the dubious chemicals in sunscreen, I was looking for some new solutions. My usual method is a straw hat, but although it's good for the face and shoulders I still got a burnt back last week.

The winning combination for today's 92-in-the-shade walk to the library:
damp cloth around the neck

The umbrella only works if you have a hand free, though. All weeding will now be done after sunset.

Saturday, July 09, 2011


I just returned from a week at folk dance camp. The surprise pleasure of the week was how intergenerational it was.

Americans may work, but rarely play in mixed-age groups. The folk world is a welcome change in that regard. Most of the best Scottish and all of the best English dancers I know are over age 40. (By "best", I'm judging not only for grace and skill but also enthusiasm and enjoyment.) Physical vigor is useful, but knowledge and spirit are more important, so people can continue to develop as dancers for decades. If your knees or ankles go completely, you can take up an instrument or sit on the sidelines and gossip. I like knowing I can continue in this community until I'm old, and that friendships with other dancers formed may well last the rest of our lives.

Our culture holds up young women, maybe 15 to 25, as the most beautiful. But the teenagers I saw at camp looked undeveloped compared to people their parents' and grandparents' age. The girls, still with children's streamlined torsos, looked unformed in their formal dresses shaped for older bodies.

I was there as a kind of understudy to the session's main organizer, a doyenne of the folk world who's in her fifties. With her upswept gray hair, sheer stole, peacock-blue gown, and orthopedic sneakers, I thought she was the most elegant woman at the ball.