Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Amalia's Snow Day in the Jungle

While, back home in Manhattan and Massachusetts, everyone stayed inside and watched the snow pile up during the Blizzard of 2015, Amalia, stuck in Miami because all flights back home were cancelled, spent Tuesday going with Mommy and Yiayia Joanie to Jungle Island where she got close up and personal with

many parrots

a baby alligator

a yellow python.

Feeding goats with a bottle was the part she liked best

Lunch was burgers beside a lake with a lot of flamingos, while white Ibises fought for leftovers.

 Tomorrow (Weds.) Amalia and Mommy and Yiayia Joanie hope to fly back to the snow drifts of Manhattan.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Kids’ Gender Stereotypes —Let’s All Relax

I'm reposting here an essay I did  four years ago.  The photo of my father in 1908 dressed like a girl (in my previous post) reminded me of this essay on a subject which seems to be more in the news than ever, with all the discussion of transgender kids and how early they should be recognised as such.  It also includes a link to an article that daughter Eleni Gage wrote for "Travel & Leisure" some 11 years ago about the Zapotec Indians of Mexico who encourage their sons to identify as gay at an early age. 


Back in the seventies, when I was giving birth to my three children, we young Manhattan mothers were determined that we would not impose gender stereotypes on our kids. (Some of the moms in my upper West Side playgroup were equally determined to protect their little ones from encountering sugar, television, candy or, god forbid, birthday cake.)

We were inspired by the (1972) record album “Free to Be You and Me” produced by the Ms. Foundation to fight gender stereotypes.  It included such instant classics as “William’s Doll” and “It’s All Right to Cry.”

When our son was approaching his third birthday, I got him a baby doll to prepare the way for his expected sibling. (Back in those days there was no way to know the sex of the baby before birth.)

Despite my determination not to propagate stereotypes, when we traveled to visit  my parents, who were surrounding by construction sites, Chris became fascinated by the bulldozers and excavators and would happily sit in his stroller all day watching them roar around and dig.  He loved my parents’ automatic garage door opener and  instantly learned the names of every kind of truck.  Dinosaurs became his obsession.  He collected hundreds, learned all about each kind to the point that he was assigned to teach the segment on dinosaurs to his kindergarten class. 

Do what you will, many little boys will be fascinated with powerful things: dinosaurs, trucks, guns--and most girls will not. (I would never allow anything resembling a gun in the house.  Now my son makes a living writing, among other things, scripts for video games, which feature a dazzling variety of weapons.  Go figure.)

My point is that, despite our best efforts to be perfectly even-handed in rearing our children, many babies get born with certain gender tendencies written in their DNA. And as they grow up, they will experiment, traveling all over the gender spectrum.  So it’s not wise to classify them in any category too early.

But today it has become the fashion to eliminate any reference to gender – like the “Egalia” pre-school in Stockholm, Sweden, that has eliminated the words “him” and “her”, calling all children “friends” rather than girls or boys. Then there are the parents of the infant “Storm” who became viral celebrities because they refuse to reveal the sex of their third child, so as to avoid gender stereotyping.  Their two older children--both boys—are being home-schooled and encouraged to wear dresses if the spirit moves them and to grow their hair long.  It’s interesting, I thought, that when they went on an excursion to a natural history museum or some such, the older boy asked his parents to tell the docents that he was a boy.

I think these children are being cheated because, having them home-schooled to avoid gender stereotypes, they are going to emerge into the real world at the age of 18 with no skills at interacting with other people their age. (And I’ll bet they will not still be wearing dresses and long hair.)

The New York Times recently featured an article called “Toddling Past Gender Lines’ which approvingly gave examples of parents who encourage their children’s unconventional behavior, such as painting boys’ toenails pink and buying boys Barbie princess dolls.  Certainly the woman who wrote the best-selling  “My Princess Boy” has hit a public nerve.

But the article also referred to parents who take their pre-school children to therapists, change their schools or move to a more “diverse and understanding” community, so that their gender- bending children are not bullied as they grow up.

In my opinion this is going way too far in anticipating the future sexuality of their toddlers.   I think we all should step back, take a deep breath, and consider how our great-grandparents’ handled sexual orientation in small children.

They didn’t.  In collecting antique photographs, I’ve learned that gender differences in small children were not even recognized or fussed over until children were about five or six, when little boys started wearing pants.  Up till then, boys and girls alike wore dresses or gowns .

See that child up above with the long sausage curls and the white dress and matching hair bow?  That was my father, Robert Odegard Paulson, in about 1908.  Nobody ever thought it weird that my grandmother spent time setting his long blonde hair on rags to make those sausage curls.  

Here is a photo of Ernest Hemingway at about the same age looking like a girl.  People are always blaming any issues Hemingway had with masculinity on this photo.  But I’m telling you—it was normal for the period.

And take a look at the twins in this photo in their ruffled dresses and high-button shoes.  On the back of this cabinet photo is written the following: ”Left - Louise Bertha Inez Forte, right, Louis Bertrand Forte, born June 13th, 1893 at two p.m. in West Newton. Louis was born five minute after Louise.”

(Because so very many boys in antique photos are assumed to be girls, let me give you a vintage photo expert’s hint:  when the babies had enough hair to part, the girls’ hair was always parted in the center and the boys on the side.  Other clues that the tot in your daguerreotype is a boy: if he’s wearing a plaid sash and/or holding a riding crop.)

As you can see from the photos above, parents in the olden days did not get worked up about  “non-stereotypical gender behavior” and they did not decide that a boy in hair bows and ruffles was fated to grow up gay.  (The most shocking example of anticipating gender choices given in the New York Times' piece is the following paragraph: “Diane Ehrensaft, a therapist in Oakland, Calif., said that a parent  might say to her, "I know my child is transgender and I’m ready to go with hormone blockers.’ Her sensible response: “Whoa, not so fast!”')

Some children will grow up to be gay and some will decide they are transgender, and parents are to be applauded for accepting and supporting those statements, but no decisions should be made by anyone about behavior of children younger than puberty.  Everyone experiments with gender roles and changes often.  I smile when I see tabloid headlines like,  “Angelina is raising Shiloh to be a Boy!”

Angelina Jolie is just wisely allowing Shiloh to dress the way she likes. She’s five.  I can’t help thinking of a friend whose granddaughter, at the age of three, went through a “Goth” phase.  She would wear no dresses and no colors—only black.    Nobody gave her any grief about it, and now she’s decided to wear frilly dresses as well as black overalls.  I understand perfectly why Shiloh wants to look and act like a boy:  her two oldest siblings are boys and to her they’re cool and she wants to be like them.

While I don’t encourage anyone to decide their child’s gender orientation when they’re still children, let me tell you about the  Zapotec Indians on the Isthmus of Tehuantopec in Mexico.  Theirs is a matriarchal society where the women handle the money and pretty much call the shots, while the men busy themselves hunting prey like iguanas.

Most Zapotec families hope to have a gay son who can provide help and support  the parents.  These boys are selected (or identified) when they’re young and trained in “female” arts like embroidery, music, hair-dressing, cooking—you get the idea.  Many of these “Muxes” as they are called, dress as women throughout their lives, others dress as men, and they all are honored by the church with a special mass and fiesta (with dancing and parades) in November on the feast day of San Vincente Ferrer.  If you want to read an article about them written for Travel and Leisure by daughter Eleni Gage, click here.

As I said, I’m against making gender-decisions about one’s children at an early age, but it seems to work for the Muxes.  But for young parents in the United States, determined to protect their children from ostracism and bullying before they enter kindergarten, I think we should all step back and relax and wait to see what gender decisions the children make for themselves when they are old enough to decide their future.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Interpreting Our Ancestors’ Early Photos—I. The Scandinavians


I’m a passionate collector of antique photographs—especially daguerreotypes, the earliest form of photography, which were introduced to the world by Louis Daguerre in France in August of 1839. 

In this day of “selfies” and smart-phone videos that share images of just about everything via the internet as soon as it happens, it’s hard to imagine the sensation caused by the first photographs—scientifically accurate portraits “written by the sun”.  A daguerreotype is an image produced on a silver-coated copper plate, which uses iodine and mercury to develop it.  For early daguerreotypes, you had to sit very still for many minutes, not smile or blink (your head often in a brace) and the fumes produced in the developing often made the photographer ill.  Even the touch of a feather on the sensitized silver plate would scar the image, so daguerreotypes had to be protected under glass and housed in a case that opens and closes like a book.

My favorite thing to do is to research the story behind an antique image—who (or what) is the subject?  When was the image taken?  What is the photographer trying to tell us?   While daguerreotype photography spread quickly around the world, (and nowhere was it more popular than in the United States), most people in the 1840’s and 1850’s, except for the famous or wealthy, would have only one image taken of themselves in their lifetime.  Often this would be a photo of a serious couple, seated side by side, soon after their wedding.  The photo was a sort of solemn, official record that they were married.  And if a child died, as so often happened, or an old grandfather who had fought in the Revolutionary War passed away, the daguerreotype photographer was quickly called to “save the shadow ere the substance fade”, as the photographers’ ads often put it. 

But the photographer could only do his job on a sunny day.  Usually the studio would be on a top floor of a walk-up under a skylight to capture the best light—because there were no electric lights.

While I have often researched and written essays about antique and historic photographs—(see the list of titles at right)—I have rarely written about my own family’s vintage photos, although I have them hanging on several walls of my house and look at them every day. I’m going to tell the stories behind some of my  antique photographs, so that you can get clues as to what to look for in your family photos from the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries.  And I’m going to do it in two parts—first the stories of my father’s family; all of them Swedes and Norwegians, and then my mother’s family who were Swiss-French on the maternal side and Scotch-Irish on the other.

Here is a photograph of the family and house and possessions of Jorgen J. Odegaard, the man with the furry hat and bushy beard on the right.  He was born in 1856 in Norway and immigrated to the United States where he married another Norwegian immigrant, Oline Kaurstad in 1870. They first settled in Iowa, but with no money and no work, they headed for Minnesota (as did many Scandinavians) in search of free land in Santiago Township.  They settled near a swamp.

My father told me that Jorgen had the first pair of matched horses in the county.  You can see them tied up on the left.  In photographs of this era (1880’s) an itinerant photographer would come by, with his camera mounted on a tripod, knock on your door, and if you wanted a photograph, the family would be arranged in front of the house, with the most valued possessions in view.  This photo with the rare pair of horses is like a photo of a man leaning on his brand new sports car.  From the same period is a photo I have of the farmhouse I now live in.  The whole family and farm hands are standing in front of the barn and house with the prize bull tethered front and center and the ladies in their frilly hats and long dresses standing in front of the horse-drawn buggy.

The little girl in the white pinafore or apron above was Jorgen’s oldest child and my grandmother—Ida Odegard (the second “a” in Odegaard fell out somewhere). The baby in his mother’s arms is John who, I discovered on Google, “married in 1905 and then operated the first Ford agency in the area in 1912.  He offered free driving lessons with every sale, as no one knew how to operate motor vehicles.  He often accepted livestock, buggies and other items in lieu of cash.”

This photo of Jorgen’s family is not an original— it’s a simple photocopy which has no value as a photograph, but to me it’s priceless.

Compare it to this photo of the same family around 20 years later. This photo is an original and printed at the bottom is “Residence of J. O. Odegard, Santiago, Sherburne Co. Minnesota, June 7 1902”.  The little girl in the white pinafore in the previous photo is now the married lady sitting in a chair in a white dress, her hand touching her first of four sons—my uncle John Paulson.  She had married my grandfather, Par Paulson, who is seated at the far right. Her parents, Jorgen and Oline, who’s 45 in this photo, had nine children in all and the little girl toddler between her parents is a sibling to her married sister Ida. So the toddler on the left is the aunt to the toddler on the right—and she is the same age as her nephew. I’ve been told that the house in this photo is the same as the small shack in the first photo, but it has now been expanded to house the growing family (nine children!), adding a second floor and two chimneys and lots of space.

The wonderful names of Jorgen’s children are:  Ida, John, Mathilda, Edwin, Julius, Oscar, Olga, Alma, and Odin.

At the top of this post is a wedding photograph of my grandmother Ida Odegard, marrying my grandfather, Par Paulson, around 1899.  I have always thought that large floral bush on her head looked fairly ridiculous but I showed it to a friend from Norway and she told me that it is a traditional “Blomster Krans”.

The wedding photograph is a cabinet card –a photograph mounted on heavy cardboard-- which has been embossed in ornate silver script  “E. S. Hill, St. Cloud, Minn”. Cabinet cards, 4 inches by 5 ½ inches, were very popular from 1870 to about 1900. Photos of actors, politicians, freaks and famous people in this format were sold and collected in albums.

I knew my grandmother Ida well—she let me gather the eggs from her hen house and, after she beheaded a chicken every Sunday for dinner, we would de-feather it together.  I didn’t know until I was older that Ida was a very strong-minded and independent woman who shocked her family by marrying Par Paulson, a Swede instead of a Norwegian!, and then divorcing him after they had four sons. She moved with her college-age sons to Minneapolis where she opened a boarding house and became known for her apple pie. Then she married another Swede, John Erickson, who, like her first husband, was a mail carrier.  I adored John Erickson, my step-grandfather,  who taught me to shoot his rifle across the Mississippi River.  I only met my real grandfather, Par Paulson, once.  He was totally deaf.  To "talk" to him you had to write on a blackboard with chalk.

Here is my grandmother Ida holding a blonde cherub with sausage curls, a white dress and a bow in its hair.  That child is my father, Robert Odegard Paulson, born April 3, 1905.  It may seem shocking that he’s been dressed and groomed like a little girl, but back in the day, little boys and girls were dressed alike until about five or six years old. If you want some clues as to how to tell the boys and girls apart in vintage photographs check out the post I did called "Tots with Antique Toys--Boy or Girl?"

This photograph is printed on a nine-inch round tin plate embellished with beautiful flowers.  I’ve seen other, similar photos on tin, dating around the turn of the century, but I don’t know what they’re called.  (They’re not proper tintypes or ferrotypes—that’s another thing entirely.)  In tiny letters under the left corner of the photo is written “copyrighted 1908 by Crover MFG.”  My father would have been three years old in 1908.

In my next blog post I’ll share the stories and photos of my mother’s French-speaking ancestors, some pre-dating the civil war.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Nursemaid’s Elbow—A Risk to Toddlers

Amalia feeling much better the day after her visit to the ER

Despite rearing three children, I had never heard the term “Nursemaid’s Elbow” until the day after Christmas last week, when I accompanied 3-year-old granddaughter Amalia to the Emergency Room.  It had been a special day for Amalia, who was visiting us in Massachusetts with her parents for the holidays—a day that included a ride on the “Polar Express” train from Hopedale, MA to the “North Pole” where Santa got on board and gave each child a silver bell.  Then we met for a family dinner at a restaurant, where Amalia ate pizza.  When we all got home, she was shrieking with joy as she danced in the family room with her grandfather—it was the “Amalia Dance” which involved “Papou” holding both her hands and twirling her.

Suddenly Amalia burst into tears, clutching her left arm to her chest, slightly bent at the elbow.  Despite our pleas, she insisted she couldn’t move the arm or straighten it.  I was certain that it was broken—because that’s what happened to me when I was six years old and I pulled on my mother’s apron strings so hard that she sat down on me.  I wore a cast on that arm for a long time.

We called a niece who is a doctor and she said that she thought the arm was dislocated rather than broken, but that we should take Amalia to the Emergency Room at the UMass Memorial Medical Center nearby.

As soon as we walked in the door with Amalia and described her symptoms, the receptionist nodded and said “Nursemaid’s Elbow—we’ll fix her right up.”  She directed us to the pediatric waiting room which, despite being crowded with ailing children and their parents, was much more pleasant than the waiting room for adults.  Amalia and her daddy passed the time playing video games on one of the screens in the room.  A nurse called the name of a family who had been waiting a long time and then gestured to us, saying “You come along too.”

All of the examining rooms were occupied, so we sat on a gurney in the hall until a white-haired gentleman came up and introduced himself as Dr. Murphy.  He felt up and down Amalia’s forearm and asked her where it hurt—near the elbow and near the wrist, she said.  He rotated her hand slightly and then said, “There, it’s fixed. I popped it back into place.”

I was startled, because Amalia hadn’t so much as said “Ouch!”  I was expecting something like those dramatic movie scenes where the doctor gives the patient a cloth to bite on, to muffle his screams, and then yanks the broken bones back into place.

“Here’s the test,” said Dr. Murphy, “to see if she can hold a popsicle in her left hand.”  He went over to a nearby freezer case. She dropped the first (orange) one, but held on to the second (green) one and demonstrated that she had perfect mobility in her fingers, hand and arm.  The whole procedure had taken only a few minutes.

“Nursemaid’s elbow, we see this all the time in toddlers four years and under,” the doctor said, and described a typical scenario.  “The babysitter takes the kid to Toys R Us and then, when she says it’s time to leave, the toddler drops to the floor and refuses to budge. So the babysitter tries to pull her up by her arm and the elbow gets dislocated.  In young children the ligaments are looser and more flexible and easily dislocated.  That’s why you should never pick up a small child by the hands or arms, but only by holding her under the arms.”

He said that this could happen again to Amalia, especially in the next 24 hours, so we should be very careful. Then he took Amalia’s daddy aside and showed him how to manipulate the ligament back into place if it happens again—by twisting the left hand until the elbow’s ligament pops back.  (Later I learned that for some reason, Nursemaid’s Elbow happens more often to girls than boys and usually to the left arm—just as in Amalia’s case.)

Amalia herself was delighted with the whole ER experience—especially the fact that Dr. Murphy had fixed her just as swiftly and efficiently as her favorite TV character—Doc McStuffins—a six-year-old girl who plays doctor to broken toys.

We all left the Emergency Room saying that it had been a Christmas miracle.  We also agreed that we would avoid the “Amalia Dance” and any other games that involve pulling on arms, until she was much older.