Hot Reads: Cell Phones, Arctic Drilling, Organic but Made in China and More

Can you hear me now?

Cell phones. Every toddler now wants one given our clear emotional dependence on them, but doesn’t it seem a little worrisome that each time we make a call, we’re holding a radiation emitting device to our head? Even more worrisome is that the last time the FCC updated its rules was 1996.  Yes, 1996.  The Macarana was being danced at all the coolest clubs, and people were logging on to AOL with blazing-fast dial-up modems. It’s been 17 years and things have changed. Most notably, the World Health Organization listed cell phone radiation as a possible carcinogen, and studies have shown that cell phone radiation can lower men’s sperm count.

Moreover, as landlines fall to the wayside, children have become more frequent users of cell phones. Whether or not this is a postive cultural development is a whole ‘nother story, but kids are especially vulnerable to the effects of radiation, and the current standards are considered too weak to protect them.

This past March, the FCC announced that it was going to reexamine the rule. It’s currently accepting comments from the public and the Environmental Working Group has set up a form that allows you to add your voice to the call for safer phones. Do it now, because this is apparently as infrequent an event as the arrival of the 17-year cicadas. While they contemplate the issue, you can also check out EWG’s tips for what you can do to limit your exposure to cell phone radiation.

Chilling out Greenpeace

The Arctic has an abundant supply of oil and natural gas, and countries with northern latitudes are staking their claims. It’s a bonanza for companies looking to cash out big, and already a number have launched exploratory missions. To monitor the free-for-all, environmental groups have dispatched their own icebreaking vessels, but not without difficulty. Recently, Greenpeace was denied access to the area by the Russian government, who cited a number of bogus concerns about their ship’s seaworthiness.

The Arctic presents a number of concerns for offshore drilling that don’t exist in other regions. The potential for an environmental disaster is heightened due to the inaccessibility of the area and challenges that the ice poses for a clean-up. This is magnified by lax Russian regulations and the fact that one of the places Russia is exploring is a national park. It’s not surprising that the Russian government doesn’t want Greenpeace looking over their shoulder, but its decision to block access is nonetheless an affront to environmental safety as well as international law.

Heavy metal, China-style

China’s industrial boom has supercharged its economy but reaped havoc on the country’s natural resources. Now, with a huge population and ravaged agricultural land, food production has become a concern. China is looking overseas for meat production, most notably in the United States, where a Chinese company bought the Virginia-based pork producer Smithfield Foods. But there’s more to the story.

A shocking one-fifth of China’s land is polluted. Elevated levels of a carcinogenic metal were found in 60 percent of rice samples in southern China. China’s agricultural system is facing a crisis, and the details, as outlined in this story in Mother Jones, are shocking.

Back here at home, environmental regulations are often described as anti-business interests, but China provides a frightening picture of what happens when fast development isn’t tempered by common sense regulations to protect health and the planet. Rena Steinzor, a long-time heroine of mine for her tireless advocacy who earlier this month delivered impassioned testimony about the human costs of delayed regulations in the Senate, also pointed out this week in an op-ed that despite claims of a regulation-crazed expansion of government, the Obama administration is timid in promulgating rules. In fact, fewer rules were issued this past year than at any point during Bush’s eight years in office. There’s a lot of work to be done, with many important rules backlogged at agencies. It’s time to get moving.

For a more personal angle on the China findings, you may want to consider these findings next time you pay more for frozen or other organic foods that are “made in China.” Even if the third party certifiers for places like Whole Foods aren’t fudging the process on the organic standards, as Whole Foods claims, the rules on organics speak to growing methods only, and are simply not set up to apply in highly contaminated places like China, where background levels of pollution are through the roof. The “organic” label does not require any testing, for example, for lead, mercury or other heavy metal contaminants. Organic and local, whenever possible, is safest.

The high costs of cheap fashion

Sometimes the prices seem too good to be true. Twelve dollars for a sweatshirt. Five dollars for a T-shirt. Many big-brand clothing companies now offer low-cost, essentially disposable, fashion. But achieving these low, low prices relies on chasing exploitation around the world, and running their businesses using underpaid workers toiling in vicious, and sometimes deadly, conditions.

This past April, a stunning and tragic 1,129 people died when a factory collapsed in Bangladesh. Following the tragedy, a number of companies signed on to a legally binding agreement that would increase factory safety. Other companies, like Organic by John Patrick, have carved a niche for themselves by selling ethically produced clothes. This recent piece from The Nation details the problems of a system addicted to cheap labor, and the hope that the future will tell a different story.

Optioned

The “opt-out generation” is a term once used to describe successful, career-oriented women who, after childbirth, choose to stay home and raise their kids. The New York Times ran a feature about it ten years ago, and the term then caught on. Fast forward ten years, after a punishing recession has put the salad days behind for much of the middle and working class, and an “option” doesn’t look so optional any more. A look-back this month shows, instead, that the “opt-outs” of 2003, despite ample education and qualifications, struggle to find suitable jobs now their kids are older and they’re want to go back to work.

“Opting out” is presented as a cultural shift, maybe a voluntary throwback to a domestic ideal of eras past. But as is discussed in this accurate but angry, starkly framed op-ed, for many women, opting-out is a necessity rather than an option. The financial burden of having a child begins with your first prenatal trip to the doctor and grows from there. Many women are tens of thousands of dollars in debt before they bring their newborn home from the hospital. Child care costs are rising and are simply unaffordable for many families, the relevant tax breaks are a tragic joke on working families, and many women (and some men) have little real choice but to put their careers on hold to raise their kids.

As a great piece in The Atlantic pointed out in June, the struggle is no longer (if it ever was) just a problem for women:

The Pew Research Center released a study called “Modern Parenthood” in March…. When it comes to work-life conflict, the study found, about half of all working parents say it is difficult to balance career and family responsibilities, with “no significant gap in attitudes between mothers and fathers.”

Yet both women and men temporarily side-lined to raise a family have a lot to give to make our economy go. We simply cannot and should not stand by while they are written off. As I have argued before, we also need far better supports for families, so that fewer parents face these stark and punishing choices.

Getting the lead out

Lead-based paint was banned over three decades ago, but as much as we’d like to think that the problem is over and done with, the regulatory failings of the past still haunt us today. Nicks and scratches can expose old coats of paint on your wall, and unless you use a wet rag when you dust, any lead-tainted particles that are floating around your home will remain there. Lead was also used in water pipes, and some homes still pump water through these toxin-laden tubes.

The effects of lead are especially damaging to children under six, so its critical for parents to ensure that their young ones aren’t unwittingly facing exposure. Take a look at this very clear and helpful list of tips put together by the folks at Healthy Child Healthy World. It’ll help you minimize the chances that lead is endangering your kids. Tests for lead exposure are also a good idea, and the CDC recommends it for all children aged one or two, as well as at-risk children until they turn seven.

Have a great weekend! Coming soon: how to make Dragonbreath Pickles. I bet you can hardly wait.

Other Hot Reads you may like:

Beyond Work-Life Balance, In Search Of a More Balanced Life

When I read Tim Kreiter’s essay criticizing how so many people (including me) are caught in “The Busy Trap” a few weeks back, it struck me as true that the pace of our lives has generally sped up until it out-paces any consideration of the quality of our time.

And this has implications for the heated debate over motherhood occasioned by Anne-Marie Slaughter, and, far less insightfully, Elisabeth Badinter. Though the two approach the problem of work-life balance from diametrically opposed positions — Slaughter believes the world should better adapt to the needs of women and parents, while Badinter believes women should abandon, more or less, a nurturing role in favor of work and marital obligations — both implicitly buy into the notion that super-heroics might still be necessary in order to prove … well, what is it exactly? That women can stand next to men in the workplace? That we think as deeply and meaningfully as men do about the problems of the world?

Slaughter has since partially recanted this aspect of her article, instead saying that “time macho” hurts us all. The truth is, most of the men who have left any lasting impression on the history books were idle men of means or paupers who wrote stuff down, like Marx — who famously imagined a world of working in the morning and “fishing in the afternoon”– with plenty of time for contemplative pursuits.

Sure, to be more fulfilled, women and parents could really use a workplace that honors and celebrates family obligations as central to worker productivity and happiness. But we could all — parents or no — also benefit from a set of expectations for work that are more limited, and fewer activities, obligations, and extra commitments overall.

I’m with Kreiter in thinking that there is real value in apparent idleness — for both adults and young children. Kids, in particular, need time to process new information, pursue wild and pigheaded ideas, and direct their own explorations of the world.

Yet, as this wonderful article sadly describes, even in environmental education, which should be the ultimate opportunity for a child’s confrontation with the unmediated vagaries of nature, we have formalized the lessons and sanitized the experience, urging children to “stay on the path.”

As if these limitations were not enough, there is also, on the other hand, overload. IMHO, too many think that even young infants and toddlers should be regularly shuttled between multiple enriching experiences. On Monday, it’s music class, and Tuesday, kiddie gym, and so on. Here’s what Resources in Educare expert Janet Lansbury gently explains about the impacts on children of this well-meaning impulse:

What parents don’t realize is that each of these learning opportunities requires children to conform to a set of rules (attire, etc.), and be directed, taught, sometimes even tested.  In even the loosest, most playful of these classes, children sense that some sort of performance is expected of them.

So activities that might sound interesting and enriching to us create at least some level of pressure for our toddlers and preschoolers.  The more of these situations children have to endure each week, the more pressured they feel.  Instead of learning through the play they choose — tinkering, exploring, creating, daydreaming — they must spend most of their time being quiet, listening obediently, imitating, trying to “get it right.”

I initially also dutifully signed Maya up for music classes, but, truth be told, I quickly learned that she was too overwhelmed and intimidated by the environment to relax. Once a week was simply not enough to build the familiarity needed for her to enjoy it, even though at home she is keenly interested in music and singing at all levels of silliness.

So, what are the ways we can all take a deep breath and inject some idleness into our too-busy lives? I’ve written before about the need for structural and economic changes that would dramatically improve the lives of women and families, and I’m certainly not the only one to make those points.

But while we’re (not) holding our breath waiting for Congress to come to the overwhelming realization that they are failing American families, here are my three simple thoughts on some antidotes to busyness that could also pay dividends for health:

1) Stop eating processed food and cook a little every day.

I was once someone who would always have the frozen stuff on hand, just in case. But I recently discovered that if I just stopped buying those pizzas and perogies to fill up the freezer, I would have to make something myself using real food, almost every day. Now, I often cook in the morning for the day, and because Maya’s up at 7 a.m., even a long-cooking recipe is done by 9 or 10 when we’re likely headed out the door.

The act of chopping vegetables is, to me, meditative and tactile, a nicely concrete task that allows me to accomplish something small before the day even really begins. Maya loves to play nearby, and often insists on whisking eggs or supervising the chopping herself. We eat fewer foods with chemicals or packed in plastics, and far more vegetables and fruits, and it’s (mostly) cheaper as well.

Living this way slows you down, just a little a bit, and makes you think about what you want to eat and what is seasonal and fresh, instead of merely discovering what you have pre-decided in frozen form. It’s in the moment, experimental, and requires your participation. Whether or not it’s what we usually mean by work-life balance, it would be hard to imagine a life in balance that lacked the time to ensure that the food we eat is nourishing and contains a bit of our intention.

2) Put away the devices, and find the time to read a book.

In our screen-driven world, fewer steps are more radical than sitting down to read a book. One with pages, and paper, and words in ink. All the way through to the final page.

And don’t check your email. Or answer your cellphone. Though it’s not in Slaughter’s piece, one major factor that must be driving the heightened tensions between family life and work is the implicit assumption by most employers that the mobile phone and email are never truly off. Not on vacation, and certainly not on a regular evening. The slow but unmistakeable creep of a shadow of work into every moment of our lives is perhaps the most suffocating — and quietly unreasonable — aspect of contemporary working life.

And working aside, we now all have Facebook, and Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest. Even just putting away the identity management tasks related to life on the Interwebs for a few hours at a stretch is a revolutionary notion. As someone’s signature line on my parents’ listserv admirably says:

“I’m not available on email from 10 am to 8 pm. It’s not “avoiding work,” it’s “developing a reservoir of cognitive capacity through strategic non-application of processing resources.” M.G. Saldivar

Modeling reading for kids is, of course, even more important in the Age of Screens. When I was a (nerdy) kid of 7 or 8, my mom says, she would often come up to check on the sudden silence in the playroom and “catch” my best friend and I quietly reading to ourselves. I wonder how often that would happen today, when even 7-year-olds have Iphones.

Given this happy memory, I was tickled pink when Maya imperiously commanded me to sit next to her yesterday and read my own book while she perused hers. It went on for 20 minutes or so, the two of us just sitting and reading together on the floor. It was a wrinkled brow moment for her, and pure joy for me.

3) Dance. In your living room if need be.

Turns out, both Maya and I dig us some classic Lauryn Hill. With her unique approach to rhythm, this evening Maya stomped and twirled her way through most of the Miseducation album, utterly and blissfully ignorant of the criminal sentence for tax evasion Lauryn now faces.

While this one requires little pre-planning, and is a bit of a no-brainer, I’m struck by the absence of public dancing as a form of exercise and expression for Americans. All around the world, and even in more rural parts of America, celebrations include dance, with multi-age groups and traditional forms from salsa to two-step.

Yet for many Americans, any real attempt at dancing is now reserved for the club, and is basically an activity confined to prom-goers and over-makeup-ed twenty-somethings. Like many, I don’t relish the idea of being the oldest and least stylish person in a club, so my friends and I have basically ceased our dancing outings. As with the bygone days of communal singing pointed out in a poignant article by my good friend Karen, the days of the “Saturday night date” for married couples at a supper club with a live band are, sadly, no more, and much to our detriment.

Personally, I can’t think of a more spontaneous and fun way to be in the moment (if only to ensure you are not about to twist an ankle!). As Maya’s clear delight tells me, dancing forms an imaginative connection between music and our bodies. It’s deliciously pointless, at least for those of us clearly not vying for a spot on Dancing with the Stars.

And it’s something we can do with nothing but a song and our willingness to embarrass ourselves. When we dance, it’s nowhere but here, and no moment but now.

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What are some things you do to take back your time and slow down? Hiking? Hanging out with friends? Knitting?

Do share, and feel free to post pictures and comments on my new blog Facebook page as well!

The Impossibility of Modern Motherhood (and What To Do About It)

Washington hikers (LOC)

(Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

This post could just as easily be called: “Why Women Will Never Have it All, But Still Should Fight For More.”

Today’s Atlantic Monthly contains a blockbuster piece from Anne-Marie Slaughter on modern feminism, motherhood, and the demands of work, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” Overall, Slaughter gives us a thoughtful discussion of the real agony working women experience in choosing between the demands of their careers and the joys and trials of parenting. The article also contains enough personal reflections to be refreshingly candid, which is a particularly welcome turn from someone with such a robust career in high-profile politics.

Like my own prior admissions of ambivalence about my choices with Maya, and my impulse to pointedly complain about the structurally unreasonable demands on women in a response to the absurd attacks earlier this spring by Elisabeth Badinter, Slaughter has decided to put down the “we-can-do-it-all” cheerleader pom-poms that sometimes obscures what should be the real goals of the women’s movement, and to keep it real instead.

She points out something about her talks with students that I’ve also found: women in their twenties who happen to be in my orbit generally observe the frantic pace of my efforts to juggle a baby, work and, lately, a blog, with a bemused and tragic smile, as if to say — how is this all supposed to work again? So we’re not fooling anyone, least of all the women coming up next who will grapple themselves with all these questions.

The truth is — if we’ll only admit it to each other — it doesn’t work very well. Like many women, but certainly not all, I’m far too invested in my professional identity to choose to “stay home,” as we all awkwardly say (as if moms “stay” anywhere for very long). But that doesn’t mean I’m not beset with regret most days, or that when the nanny and her son joined us at the pool the other night, and Maya obviously felt more drawn to play with them than me, I didn’t quietly, invisibly, seethe about it. After all, she spends five days every week with her, and only two with me, I thought, with more than a twinge of envy.

The challenge for mothers to our sense of priorities is profound, particularly when we acknowledge, as Slaughter tries to, that despite our efforts to achieve 50-50 parenting, the bonds that women have with their children are irreplaceably, undeniably deep. Whoever else they may have in their lives, she notes, for children a mother’s role is “indispensable,” and she makes a point of citing half a dozen powerful Washington moms (and dads) who agree with her or have left careers for at least some time to attend to the needs of their families.

I particularly enjoyed the criticism she has for female exec flavor-of-the-month Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook, whose work habits have now morphed into a kind of reproachful working moms’ urban legend. She dismantles the half-truths women like Sandberg promote: that “it’s possible if you just are committed enough,” or “it’s possible if you marry the right person,” pointing to serious but no-duh propositions like the fact that the school and work day are not aligned to make working easier, and that even the ideal marital arrangements can run up against a mom’s ambivalence about leaving her child.

Notably, Slaughter fails to consider what happens to women who unluckily choose a less angelically supportive partner, women who have no partner at all (single moms are raising fully one-quarter of America’s kids, and are a much higher percentage of minority and low-income households), or parents who might imagine a life with far more balance than the work schedules she describes, which are downright punishing. Despite her critique, even she can’t quite let go of the boosterism and elitism embedded in these expectations. In fact, at one point Slaughter unwittingly, and almost comically, reveals just how much she’s lived inside the privilege bubble by ridiculously claiming, with what appears to be a straight face, that “[j]ust about every woman who could plausibly be tapped [for a high-level Washington job] is already in government.”

She also projects a bit too much from her own experiences with her child’s troubled teen years and thus understates the problem. She notes that a woman would want to be free to stay home, or to put family first, when her children “are 8 to 18,” a period of absence from the workforce which she calculates as ten years.

But the developmental stages from birth to 3 years old are at least as significant, if not more so, to a child’s growth, and any family with multiple children who are not twins would require this window of time to expand to account for siblings. And what about aging parents, or non-traditional families, or widely spread out births? Slaughter’s too-neat math fails, once again, to account for the variety and complexity of family obligations and women’s lives, and thus, the changes we need will be more far-reaching and fundamental than she suggests.

She does include a discussion of the problems that women, and career women in particular, now face with fertility at our more advanced maternal age. But even here her advice can be a bit tone-deaf, to say the least.

Given her own difficulties conceiving, Slaughter blithely recommends that women under 35 freeze their eggs. But she ignores the high costs of this advice. It seems utterly unrealistic to think that most women, or even most “career women” in their late 20s and early 30s, will have $7,000 to $15,000-odd just lying around (or double that amount if they need a second go at it). And even with all that expense and medical hassle, there is only a 40 to 50 percent chance of success, which makes it a pretty expensive gamble for most people.

As this has been an area in which people I love have experienced completely crushing kinds of disappointment, I think it’s critical that we not gloss over how hard this question of timing is for women, or, even worse, attempt to erase the problem by suggesting that an expensive scientific half-miracle is in the cards for all of us.

Last, although she casts her story as a cautionary tale for professional over-achievers, even Slaughter appears at times to need to prove to us, the reader, that despite her recent, renewed dedication to mommyhood, she’s really very smart and all. When her acquaintances cuckoo over the loss of such a brilliant mind to policymaking circles in Washington, it’s hard not to consider that for all but a handful of moms, whatever choices — and deep personal sacrifices in terms of ambition and foregone possibility — they make usually go unnoticed, remaining unremarkable except to them, or if they are one of the “lucky” ones, to their partners as well. Unless you’re Slaughter, or Mary Matalin, or that ilk, rarely in women’s lives are the costs of these sorts of decisions even added up.

Still, on the whole, the article is a timely and important account — the beginning of a picture of what really needs to change to make women’s lives more manageable, meaningful and free. While some internal agonizing about working and raising children is probably written into the script, steps to achieve wider agreement on what a “work-life balance” really means would help greatly to transform the sharp corners of our ambivalence into a cushier, more shapely set of supports.

Slaughter proposes a few, all of which I liked, including aligning school days better with work, allowing more flexible workplace arrangements, and shifting understandings in the workplace to lessen or eliminate penalties for women (and I assume, men) who would like to take a few years away from their careers to focus on family. And she closes the piece with a straight-up appeal to businesses to see new value in the many older women discarded as workers today.

I also deeply appreciated her call to all of us to stop making up fake, more “serious-sounding” excuses when we really have something to do that takes time out of work for family. If we all stopped lying and were honest about our obligations, this would give all of us, in turn, permission to have a life and work as well. And the perception of employers and co-workers that attempting this balance openly makes us “unserious” is in itself toxic to getting what we want, or even, achieving any kind of accurate picture of how hard this all really is.

To her ideas I would add more radical structural ones that still seem blindingly obvious to me, and that would lend a hand to many more women: mandatory paid parental leave of up to one year as they have in Canada and Europe; better pay for low-wage workers so that they can better balance the needs of work and family; far more accurate (read: adequate) child-care tax credits and robust funding for programs that work like Healthy Start; pay for low-income moms at a fair wage for caring for their own children (what better work program in a recession?); and paycheck fairness — the crazy idea that equal work deserves equal pay. Moreover, we must also extend every protection we have — and those we may win — on behalf of women, families and married couples to include same-sex couples and nontraditional families.

The truth is, the job of feminists in making society better for families is, at most, half-done. We don’t acknowledge often enough how partial our sense of completeness is in our own lives, and how tenuous is the wish-and-a-prayer is that it’s all constructed on. Instead, we suit up, kiss the baby goodbye, and push on with our many dutiful roles: pay the bills, send a tweet, call our own mom, plan a playdate, cook dinner, kiss our partner, work late, and somehow try to get some sleep.

A friend said to me on the playground the other day, “I never thought my life would be this hard.” I nodded. I grew up in the 1970s, a time of exploding opportunities and shape-shifting for women, and was told that anything I wanted was possible.

That turns out to be true in some ways only, and not even, perhaps, what I want anymore. In fact, it now seems like we’ve asked for so much responsibility, so much opportunity, that it’s exhausting — even superhuman — just to be us. Slaughter says that’s true of the overachievers — she misses the point that this is part of the fabric of all of our expectations, and that even “ordinary” women are now edging, however reluctantly, towards superhero status.

The next generation of women, looking up at the utter craziness that is our lives, must force governments and corporations to create the structural supports and understandings women need. What feminism will really mean is not that women can do it all — we certainly can, as we’ve all run ourselves into the ground to show everyone — but really, why should we?

Women of my generation — and older, like Slaughter’s — can help them. First, by being honest about what it’s really like to be us, as she has been and I have tried to be. And second, by raising these issues again and again, and joining the fight when the day comes — and it will come, my friends — that there is something big worth winning.