Category Archives: Lifestyles & Trends

Telling Birth Stories: New online workshop starts Nov. 1!

Telling Birth Stories: An Online Writing Workshop

with Award-winning author & journalist, Elayne Clift

This baby is shown just after a water birth. - Photo (c) E. Vest

How do you write a good birth story? What makes any story compelling? How can we tell our own birth stories, as remembrance and as a gift to other women?

In Birth Ambassadors: Doulas and the Re-emergence of Woman-supported Birth in America (Praeclarus Press, 2014), Christine Morton and Elayne Clift include stories by women for whom a doula was present at their birth. These beautifully crafted first-persons narratives give voice to the extraordinary experience of giving birth. Join the growing chorus of women whose voices, and birth stories, are being heard!

This 4-week online workshop guides participants – moms, dads, midwives, nurses, doulas, docs – through the elements of good storytelling as they relate their personal experience while giving or assisting birth. Weekly prompts will serve as a guide to setting the scene, involving characters, using dialogue, making wise word choices, and more. Work will be shared each week among participants who will respond to each other. Elayne will offer in-depth feedback and suggestions for each piece and facilitate dialogue among participants.

If you’re interested in painting a word portrait that carries your audience with you as you tell your birth tale, please register by Oct. 15. Register by Oct. 5 for one of two chances to receive a signed first edition of Birth Ambassadors! Space is limited to 8 participants!
WHEN: The online workshop will begin November 1 and conclude Nov. 22.

COST: $80/pp (sorry, no pro-rations)

QUESTIONS: 802-869-2686

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Elayne Clift (M.A.), a specialist in gender issues and women’s health, has been an international educator and advocate on maternal and child health issues for more than 25 years. She is Sr. correspondent for the India-based syndicate Women’s Feature Service, a columnist for the Keene (NH) Sentinel and the Brattleboro Commons, and a reviewer for the New York Journal of Books. Her articles, prose and poetry appear in numerous anthologies and publications internationally and her novel, Hester’s Daughters, a contemporary, feminist re-telling of The Scarlet Letter, was published in 2012. She lives in Saxtons River, Vt. (

MacArthur Grant Sheds Light on Reproductive Technologies

A couple has had miscarriages, considered in vitro fertilization (IVF), discussed adoption and finally opted for a surrogate to bear their baby in India. They visit her before signing on and feel that the agency’s “gestational mothers” are well cared for and decently compensated. But how much do they really know about the practice of cross-border surrogacy?

Thanks to a recent MacArthur Foundation grant to the Center for Genetics and Society (CGS) and Our Bodies Ourselves (OBOS), the information gap surrounding surrogacy and other assisted reproductive technologies (ART) will be addressed, with an emphasis on human rights and social justice. Light will also be cast on the rapidly growing industry ARTs have spawned.

“Cross-border surrogacy raises thorny questions,” says Marcy Darnovsky, Executive Director of CGS. “Some people look at women selling their eggs or reproductive capacity as an individual right within the context of wage labor. Others see these practices as deepening gender and class inequalities in a not-so-free market.”

“Most information available in the mainstream fails to paint a complete picture,” adds OBOS’s Ayesha Chatterjee. “With faceless images of pregnant bellies, the narratives of gestational mothers remain untold. Convenience, concierge-like services and various packages geared to attract intended parents in a competitive market are what get emphasized.”

Both CSG and OBOS support ART as a reproductive choice but they are deeply concerned by gaps in evidence-based knowledge to aid in comprehensive and well-informed decision-making within a rapidly growing, mostly unregulated market that positions surrogacy as women helping women, a win-win for all.

But what is the reality for gestational mothers?

“Often gestational mothers live in communities where cultural beliefs and systemic institutional oppression/marginalization makes it hard for them to achieve financial independence and security,” say Chatterjee, co-author with Sally Whelan of an OBOS paper on cross-border surrogacy. “In India, for example, many gestational mothers are poor with little social mobility. These factors create a power imbalance that makes it impossible for them to negotiate fair ‘work’ conditions within surrogacy arrangements. It allows those in positions of power like recruiting agents and fertility clinics to get away with a range of exploitive practices.”

These practices include the lack of “informed” consent since many women can’t read documents they are made to sign, minimal compensation and unfair payment schedules, isolation from family and restricted movement outside of surrogacy “residences,” constant monitoring, high risk medical procedures, and unnecessary C-sections to accommodate traveling parents. Post-partum medical care may be poor or lacking altogether and should problems occur there is no life or disability insurance.

Add to this the risks taken by egg providers when an intended parent’s egg is not used. “Egg providers must undergo an intensive and risky process using hormones that have multiple short and long term effects,” OBOS points out. “Similar to gestational mothers, many egg providers receive minimal and sub-standard information about the health risks and they are often provided with little to no follow up care.”

There are also issues for the babies “commissioned” by intended parents. These children have a genetic link to egg providers, are birthed by gestational mothers, and handed over to intended parents. As policy struggles to catch up with technology myriad legal issues remain unresolved regarding the child’s legal parent, immigration status, and best interests should custody disputes occur.
Another problem occurs when intended parents are scammed. Recent reports exposed a California-based medical tourism company. One couple reported sending Planet Hospital thousands of dollars but the company failed to deliver on its promises, or to return more than $20,000 the couple had spent in the process. This year Planet Hospital removed surrogacy from their list of medical tourism procedures and then claimed bankruptcy, continuing to deny any wrongdoing.

SAMA: Resource Group for Women and Health New Delhi, cites “an explosion of fertility services,” noting that the Indian fertility industry, worth more than 400 million U.S. dollars annually, is proliferating despite the absence of regulatory or monitoring mechanisms. “Commercial surrogacy is often portrayed as a win-win situation,” SAMA reports. “It is positioned as giving ‘desperate, infertile’ parents a child while providing poor surrogate women with income. But given growing globalization of capital and shrinking local jobs, women from marginalized communities find themselves more impoverished, powerless and vulnerable.”

Feminists offer diverse voices on surrogacy and egg retrieval. Some raise questions about women’s health while others focus on the implications for gender analysis and the effects of surrogacy on women’s lives and marriages. Others claim that “patriarchal ideology” focuses excessively on biology. But despite differences of opinion there is consensus that more needs to be known about ARTs and their impact on the personal, social, political and economic lives of those that use reproductive services.

Thankfully CGS and OBOS will bring much needed information about surrogacy and egg retrieval into the mainstream, helping to pave the way for “a real win-win for everyone.”

# # #

This column is based on a blog posted to Our Bodies Ourselves Blog in August 2014.


A Long Cold Summer When Civilization Seemed to Retreat

It’s been a summer of troubling drama, a time of “Sturm and Drang” (storm and stress) as one German writer put it, a season of disasters of Biblical proportion. Even those of us lucky enough to be a continent or an ocean away from various epicenters have not been left untouched by the seeming scourge of disease and human despair that seemed to jump borders with alarming speed.

Surely I’m not the only one who thought of Masada when the Yazidis and other religious minorities fled to the top of Iraq’s Sinjar Mountains to escape death at the hands of ISIS. Masada, the flat mesa on top of a mountain that rises in Israel near the Dead Sea, was the site of a mass suicide in 73 C.E. More than 1,000 Jews died there rather than fall into Roman hands. (One woman and five children hid and survived to tell the tale.)


Nor could I have been alone in thinking about the exodus of the Jews out of Egypt when I watched the refugees who came down from the mountain as they crossed that rickety bridge over a river on their way to find refuge.

And then there was the Israeli/Gazan situation, a conflict as old as the Bible itself.

Did anyone else think of Tiananmen Square when they saw the horrific pictures of tanks lined up against the people of Ferguson, Missouri as they protested peacefully after an unarmed Michael Brown was shot to death by a policeman?

An unidentified man attempts to block tanks entering the square

Wasn’t the outbreak of Ebola reminiscent of medieval plagues, when borders were closed and bodies were carried away in carts, their homes marked as houses of death?

Didn’t the deaths of hundreds in a disappeared jumbo jet and other airline disasters, as well as the deaths of so many notable figures, bear the overtones of Greek tragedy?

And yet, among all the events that seemed to suggest a leap into a frighteningly dystopian future, is there some hope to be found? Might we be at some kind of turning point, a profoundly learnable moment that will ultimately render us capable of finding what writer Mary Gordon has called “the simple beauty of the good”?

Could it be that we stand on the fragile threshold of a time in human history when instead of “circling the drain,” we might, in an attempt to survive, find our universal souls, returning to truth and justice as guideposts, to ethical governance and sensible, compassionate leaders who would replace the oligarchs leading us into anarchy?

These questions were no doubt raised after the colossal tragedy of World War I (and many wars before that). Surely they were asked after World War II and the Holocaust. I remember them being raised in the 1960s when assassinations seemed endless and military might on the streets of America made us wonder if we had reached the apocalypse. So, too, did we ask ourselves if we could return to our better selves after the genocides of Rwanda and the Balkans. It seemed then and it seems now a Sisyphean question that we are doomed to ask in perpetuity.

But, without wanting to sound delusional, I think it may be possible that we are about to enter a moral epoch marked by a collective, rejuvenated spirit of good over evil, right over wrong, moral choices over inhumane acts.

I suggest this possibility because it seems to me that we all feel dangerously close to the precipice of madness. I say it because of all the people in all the cities who rallied in support of an end to police brutality after Michael Brown was killed. I say it because of a community that stood up to an unethical businessman when he demonstrated corporate greed. I say it because of organizations like MomsRising and I say it because of the outpouring of help that occurs when humanitarian crises perpetrated by political insanity and potentially fatal diseases happen. I say it because, as Bishop Desmond Tutu wrote in a moving commentary in Haaretz, “you add together all the people who gathered to demand justice in Israel and Palestine – in Cape Town, Washington, D.C., New York, New Delhi, London, Dublin and Sydney, and all the other cities [and] this was arguably the largest active outcry by citizens around a single cause ever in the history of the world.”

I say it because I see no alternative.

And yes, I say it knowing that history has proved me wrong again and again and that bad people flourish while “good guys finish last.” But just imagine a world in which we find within us the ability, the strength, the intelligence and compassion to move our communal heritage forward instead of falling back to the Dark Ages!

Surely the majority of us maintain a moral vigor, a life force that can enable us to recapture the soul of our communities and countries, to find again our better natures, and thus emerge with new hope and dignity in a sustainable world.

Dare one hope that in the face of so much sadness and threat we might yet be on the threshold of our greatest hour? At the very least, could the winter to come bring with it at least some renewed and reassuring warmth?

Micro-aggression: Subtle but Searing

When I was in the sixth grade a classmate called me a “stupid Jew Bitch.” I slinked away from the playground and never told a soul what she’d said or how it made me feel. Bullying was not a word we used then and adults seldom dealt with unnamed and often invisible blows even when they were reported.

Today we have begun to recognize the horrific impact bullying can have on children. But we have yet to understand “micro-aggression” and its effect on adults.

Micro-aggression has been defined as common verbal or behavioral insults, whether intentional or not, that communicate hostile or negative slights to marginalized groups. Researchers have also identified micro-assaults, micro-insults and micro-invalidations as disturbing behaviors that pack a punch.

Micro-assaults are conscious and intentional actions or slurs, such as racial epithets. Micro-insults are verbal or nonverbal communications that convey insensitivity or demean someone’s heritage or identity, while micro-invalidation communicates subtle messages of exclusion that nullify the thoughts or feelings of others, particularly people of color.

The Microaggressions Project website has a slew of real examples: “Are you sure you have the right room number? This is the ‘honors’ section.” “How much money would you put on the Boston bombers being Muslim?” How about this one? “My chemistry teacher was in shock when I got 100 percent on an exam. However, she wasn’t shocked when two white kids did well. That was kind of hurtful.”

Then there was the black doctor waiting his turn to check into a hotel. He’d been flown into town for an appearance on a TV station and delivered to his hotel in a chauffeur-driven limo. But when he moved to speak with the hotel clerk, a white man marched in front of him. “Do you think I’m waiting for a bus?” the outraged doctor asked. The man claimed he hadn’t noticed him.

I could relate. Traveling abroad some years ago I had a layover at the Emirates Airlines hotel in Dubai. There were three check-in lines; mine was the middle one. I soon noticed that whenever it was my turn to approach the counter a man on my left, then my right jumped ahead of me. Finally, I pushed one of them out of the way, pulled myself up to my full height, and declared, “I’m next!” I was marginalized by gender frequently on that trip, in hotels, airplanes, shops and restaurants. I can say firsthand it’s not a pleasant experience.

The American Psychological Association blog reveals a piece by writer Tori DeAngelis called “Unmasking ‘Racial Micro-aggressions.” It cites a group of Columbia University psychologists who began studying and classifying the phenomenon some years ago to help people of color understand what was happening and to educate white people about their biased words and actions, intentional or not.

“It was a monumental task to get white people to realize that they were delivering micro-aggressions,” one of the psychologists said. “It’s scary to them. It assails their self-image of being good, moral, decent human beings to realize that maybe at an unconscious level they have biased thoughts, attitudes and feelings that harm [other people].”

The effects of micro-aggression are now well-documented. They include negatively impacting people’s mental health, job performance and social experiences, often leaving deep scars. One study found that African-Americans and women performed worse on academic tests when subjected to stereotypes about race or gender. This was especially noticeable with respect to women’s math performance. Intelligence scores for blacks also plunged after subjects were exposed to stereotypes about blacks’ inferior intelligence.

Dr. Gerald Wing Sue, an Asian-American psychologist, focuses his work on micro-insults and micro-invalidations because of their less obvious nature. “While a person may feel insulted, they are not sure exactly why,” he explains. “This puts them in a psychological bind while the perpetrator doesn’t acknowledge that anything happened because he is not aware he has been offensive. The person of color is caught in a Catch-22 because if they confront the perpetrator, he will deny it. That leaves the person of color questioning what actually happened, resulting in confusion, anger, and ultimately, sapped energy.”

Sue’s research with African-Americans revealed them feeling they did not belong or were untrustworthy in certain situations. Respondents reported feeling “watched” in stores or being overly cautious about their body language when they were near white women “so not to frighten them.” Others said they were “vigilant at work” so that mistakes wouldn’t reflect badly on their race. Asian-American described different ways in which they have been made to feel “alien,” like being told they speak good English. Women in this group revealed that white men often expected them to be subservient.

“These incidents may appear small or trivial but they assail the mental health of recipients,” Dr. Sue says.

I didn’t need an expert to tell me that. My time in Dubai nearly drove me crazy and I’m white. I can’t imagine what it feels like to be subjected to invisible aggression in your own country because of your skin color or the slant of your eyes.

It’s Time to End the Epidemic of Sexual Assault

What do city subways, college dorms, and military service have in common? They are all venues for the vulnerable when it comes to sex assaults.

The latest horror stories come from women in New York who’ve been ogled, groped, flashed, harassed, splashed with ejaculate and attacked on subways or in subway stations. One recent account involved a woman who was forced off a train and only managed to escape when she was able to push an alarm button as her assailant dragged her along the platform.

The city, trying to deal with the situation, has proposed a law to upgrade unwanted sexual contact from a misdemeanor to a felony and to turn “sexually motivated touching” into a sex crime with possible jail time.

But one woman blogger says she isn’t convinced it will help much. “The most lamentable aspect of taking public transportation as a woman is enduring the unsavory boys and men who exploit the shared space and put our safety in jeopardy. Women understand that most men don’t engage in this brand of sexual violence. But the number of guys who are doing these things is sizable enough to make most women uneasy during our commutes.”

The seriousness of the sexual assault epidemic on university and college campuses is garnering much needed attention thanks to recently released guidelines promulgated by the White House. Aimed at forcing academic institutions to aggressively combat sexual assaults the recommendations call for anonymous surveys, anti-assault policies, and greater confidentiality for those reporting crimes. The administration wants Congress to pass further measures to enforce the recommendations and levy penalties for failure to comply. It has also proposed a website – – to track enforcement and provide victims with information.

“No more turning a blind eye or pretending it doesn’t exist,” Vice President Joe Biden said when the steps were announced. “We need to give victims the support they need and we need to bring the perpetrators to justice.”

For Emma Sulkowicz and Dana Bolger that’s good news, but it’s money-where-mouth-is-time. Raped by a fellow student while at Columbia University, a university official interrogated Sulkowicz about the sex act that occurred, suggesting that it was physically impossible as described. The panel dismissed her accusation, even though there had been other sexual assault complaints against the same man. “Has anything every happened to you that was just so bad you felt like you became a shell of a human being?” Sulkowicz asked a New York Times reporter when sharing her story.

Dana Bolger’s rape occurred when she was at Amherst, where a dean “encouraged me to forgive my assailant and move on,” she recalls. “He advised me to take time off and wait for my rapist to graduate.” Another Amherst student survivor was forced into a psychiatric ward and forbidden to study abroad or write a senior thesis. She ultimately withdrew.

One in five women is sexually assaulted in college according to one survey and 55 prestigious colleges and universities are currently under investigation by the Department of Education for their handling of sexual violence. The White House initiative is “a meaningful first step,” says Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), but more needs to be done. “There is a sense this isn’t really a crime, that there is no harm. Well, it’s a felony and it is harmful.”

Meanwhile, sexual assault in the military continues apace. A new Pentagon report reveals that between June 2012 and June 2013 there were more than 3500 reports of sexual assault – a 43 percent increase in one year. During that year soldiers were fifteen times more likely to be raped by a comrade than killed by an enemy, a statistic that even the Pentagon calls “startling.”

The military seems baffled about how to handle the growing epidemic, despite new oversight and assistance programs. And it is clearly embarrassed by ongoing high level disasters, like the fact that more than thirty Air Force instructors are being investigated for assaults on trainees at a Texas base. New legislation has been proposed that would standardize guidelines for punishment for sexual assault convictions, but it may be too little too late. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has said “the military may be nearing a stage where the frequency of this crime and the perception that there is tolerance of it could undermine our ability to effectively carry out [our] mission.”

It’s hard for victims in the military to take things into their own hands but college students and subway riders are fighting back. Emma Sulkowicz and Dana Bolger helped launch a national network of students who have established an educational and advocacy website called Know Your IX – referring to Title IX, the federal law mandating gender equity on campus and the right to an education unimpeded by violence and harassment. And in New York advocates for subway safety formed an organization, New Yorkers for Safe Transit, which support a bill requiring police to collect data on sexual harassment in subways.

What do these groups have in common? The belief that no one should have to “forgive and forget” when sexual violence occurs – anywhere, to anyone.

Will Our Gilded Age Lead to Another Progressive Era?

Humorist Mark Twain was among the first to call the years bookmarking the turn of the 19th century the “Gilded Age.” Struck by the results of rapid industrialization, rampant greed, political corruption and the growing divide between the Haves and Have-Nots, Twain drew attention to America’s growing social issues by writing revealing satires about a society whose problems spelled trouble for most people.  Novelists Henry James and Edith Wharton painted literary pictures of what it was like to be of, or outside, the wealthy class, much as Dickens had, or Downton Abbey does visually today.

 During that Gilded Age, “robber barons” with deep pockets dined on delectables, accompanied by women with feathers and fans complimenting their fabulous gowns.  They wintered in Manhattan mansions and fled to Newport “cottages” during the hot summer months while the one percent of their day subsisted in shared flats, scraping by, often on leftovers and hand-me-downs from those they served.

 In today’s Gilded Age, Wall Street bankers dress down for dinner, their women in Gucci, Pucci and Louis Vuitton casual-wear. They live on Fifth Avenue as the barons did, or in rehabbed Brooklyn brownstones perhaps, and keep beachside condos in Boca Raton and Belize.

 To paraphrase a popular Thai expression, “Same same but [not all that] different.”

 Harvard professor Robert Putnam, in his book Bowling Alone, draws important comparisons between the first Gilded Age and ours. “Americans at the end of the nineteenth century were divided by class, ethnicity, and race, much as we are today,” he writes, and “social observers … were concerned with how to intertwine new technology with face-to-face ties.”  Morality was eroding, communities were fracturing, and social Darwinism – economic survival of the fittest – was part of the dominant ideology, he explains. 

 Enter the Progressive Era launched by left-leaning journalists like Jacob Riis, social activists like Ida Tarbell and Jane Addams, and authors like Upton Sinclair, who exposed urban squalor, government corruption, exploitation of immigrants, and the evils of big business and “banks too big to fail.” Ida Tarbell

 As the 20th century moved into its second decade, progressives increasingly yearned for a return to small town values, Putnam suggests, including connection and caring for neighbors in need.  They remembered the Mom and Pop shops that had been displaced by Sears Roebuck and the A&P. They also decried “cheap entertainment” because it added to the decline of civic engagement.

 Other great progressive thinkers had weighed in on the problems of a Gilded Age long before Putnam drew parallels to our own time.  Victorian reformer Benjamin Disraeli, for example, wrote this in 1845:  “In great cities men are brought together by the desire of gain. They are not in a state of co-operation, but of isolation, as to the making of fortunes and for all the rest they are careless neighbors.”

 The point is that the first Gilded Age seems to have foreshadowed our own time, in which wealth shrugs off poverty, one percent pleads while 99 percent play, and the promises of technology and innovation are overshadowed by what increasingly appears to be “fool’s gold.” 

 Then as now, as Putnam put it, “optimism…battled pessimism grounded in the hard realities of seemingly intractable social ills,” and “new concentrations of wealth and corporate power raised questions about the real meaning of democracy.”  Product Details

 As we have entered a new century, we too have witnessed “impoverished ethnic minorities struggle with social injustice.” We have seen changes in workplace practices, priorities and ethics that create new challenges for economists and employees alike.   Immigration is altering the face of America as it did the last time a new century was born. And once again, “older strands of social connection are being…destroyed by technological, economic and social change.”

 The lessons of the Progressive movement that followed the 20th century’s Gilded Age are mixed.  Much of what we know from that period is enlightening and informs how we should go forward in compelling ways. At the same time, we know from that experience that racism, classism, and an overwrought labor movement, as well as other inhibitors proved to be major roadblocks in the struggle for beneficial, sustainable social change.

 So the truth is that while we cannot go backwards, what the future might hold continues to be unclear, and often frightening.  We can only hope that if a new progressive era takes hold – and there is every indication that it might – we need to be mindful of past lessons learned and realistic and inclusive in developing a roadmap to a new and better place.

 Perhaps we would do well to start by reading the works of Mark Twain, Ida Tarbell, Edith Wharton, Jacob Riis and other social critics of that period.  Having “been there [and] done that,” they clearly have a thing or two to teach us, if only we can remain open to the lessons of another dubious golden age.


Why the Millennial Generation Gives Me Hope

Not long ago I participated in an event that attracted a good number of young women who are of the generation known as the Millennials.  Demographers use this term (or Gen-Y) when referring to the children of baby boomers, adults in their late thirties and early forties.  There are about 80 million of them in the U.S. and they represent the last generation born in the 20th century.  Life for them has never existed without the Internet; they are totally tech-savvy.

They’re also, it can be argued, socially conscious. They care about equity, social justice, poverty, peace, the environment and other issues of our time.  They seem more likely than the generation that precedes them to invest in social capital – a term Robert Putnam wrote about in his bestseller Bowling Alone, which analyzes the importance of – and decline in – valuable networks that help create beneficial changes in society. Whether its job networking, neighborhood watches or programs to feed the hungry, social capital and collective action matters, and increasingly, it matters to Millennials.  So does having meaningful work, a sense of community, and an openness to new ideas and experiences.

 The women I met at the event I attended were beginning their fourth decade. Each of them had a senior, lucrative position within their organizations and in their chosen fields, from medicine to marketing. Yet each of them was poised to forfeit the financial security and comfort zone of their respective workplaces in order to do something more meaningful professionally.

 Shortly after meeting those wonderful, risk-taking young women I read a piece in The New York Times that also gave me hope for the future because of our collective progeny.  It was about Jewish students at Swarthmore College who decided that their Hillel – the Jewish student group on many college campuses – would be the first “Open Hillel” in the country.  This decision meant that they would no longer abide by national Hillel guidelines that prohibit chapters from certain actions they deem to be not fully supportive of Israel.  Such actions might include inviting certain speakers, showing a film about Palestinians, or having a discussion with a Palestinian student group, or a left-leaning Jewish group for that matter. “All are welcome to walk through our doors,” Swarthmore students proclaimed. If I were a parent of one of those kids I’d be mighty proud.

 Millennials are social activists and social entrepreneurs.  Take the work of actress and filmmaker Kamala Lopez and her colleague Gini Sikes.  They are producing a film called “Equal Means Equal,” a documentary about women’s equality, as part of the ERA Education Project Lopez founded.  “Equal Means Equal provides a forum for the voices of American women to be heard on a national stage,” Lopez says.  The film, using archival footage and visual arts, highlights women from across the country as they talk about their lives and how they want them to change, with topics such as the gender pay gap, pregnancy discrimination, immigration, religion and violence among the subjects discussed.

  Kamala Lopez

Kiva co-founders Matt Flannery and Jessica Jackley exemplify Millennial social entrepreneurs. A non-profit organization with a mission to connect people through lending to alleviate poverty, Kiva leverages the internet and a worldwide network of microfinance institutions so that individuals can lend as little as $25 to help create opportunity around the world.   Since it was founded in 2005, over a million people have become Kiva lenders and over $500 million in loans to small-scale businesses in the world’s poorest countries have been made. More than 99 percent of those loans are paid back, encouraging donors to reinvest. “We envision a world where all people – even in the most remote areas of the globe – hold the power to create opportunity for themselves and others,” Kiva leaders say. 


Millennials were among the leaders of the Occupy Movement, which regardless of its flaws, is aimed at social and economic equality.  And unlike their Boomer parents Millennials want a healthy balance between work and family life.  They are more likely to achieve gender equality on the home front and to comfortably reach across the divides of race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation.

 Don’t get me wrong:  Millennials are viewed in some quarters as self-centered, lazy, job-hopping, neurotic narcissists with a huge sense of entitlement and a diminished ability to make commitments.  I’ve actually met a few who might qualify for some of those descriptors. But I know of or have engaged with enough people in this age group to believe that they offer a good deal of hope for the future of the planet, and that gives my slightly pre-Boomer heart a great deal of comfort.


Announcing “Birth Ambassadors” – the “definitive” book on Doulas!

Drum Roll, Please!  I am thrilled to announce that my book with lead author Christine Morton, Birth Ambassadors: Doulas and the Re-emergence of Woman-supported Birth in America, has just been published by Praeclarus Press!  Here’s an endorsement written by the noted midwife Dr. Robbie Davis-Floyd:

This book is THE definitive work on doulas in the United States. It is clearly and compellingly written, immediately drawing readers in to the story of the development of doulas in the U.S. and of the social movement that arose to support their incorporation into American hospital birth. Want to know what a doula actually does for laboring mothers? Read this book! Want to know what a doula can do for you personally, if you are expecting? READ THIS BOOK! Want to know if you yourself should become a doula? READ THIS BOOK! If you are an obstetrician, professional midwife, or obstetric nurse, read this book to find out how doulas can augment your care in ways that support you as well as the mother, the baby, and the family. You will find all your answers within its beautifully written pages.


The many individual stories written by mothers and by doulas themselves bring life and light to their experiences, and the many photos illuminate the stories even further. The authors do not avoid what is widely known as “the doula dilemma”—do doulas really make a difference in the birthing experience, or do they just make women feel better about traumatic births? Their strong affirmation of the multiple benefits of doula care should be read by all expectant parents, by all birth professionals who attend them, and by those thinking of becoming doulas as well as those who already are. This comprehensive, evidenced-based, and fascinating book will compel its readers to work hard to make birth better—more humanistic, more compassionate, more physiological, and more successful in terms of healthy babies and empowered mothers and families. 


–Robbie Davis-Floyd PhD, Senior Research Fellow, Dept. of Anthropology, University of Texas Austin, author of Birth as an American Rite of Passage, and co-editor of Mainstreaming Midwives.

Available from Praeclarus Press,, or order at your local bookstore.

Please share with anyone in the birth and parenting community, as well as with relevant practitioners. Thanks!ba mini pc 10-11

Counting Cats in Zanzibar: Reflections on Travel from a Seasoned Perspective

All my life I have disagreed with David Henry Thoreau: Unlike him, I definitely think it is “worthwhile to go around the world to count the cats in Zanzibar.”

The joy of travel has been in my blood since I was a young child when the high point of summer was the family trip to Toronto to visit my father’s relatives.  On the eve of the journey my sister and I would lay out our new shorts, halter tops, and primary color sandals in order to be ready when the alarm sounded at 6:00 a.m. Teeth brushed and hair combed, we ran to our big, black Buick and did not argue with our brother for the window seat.  We were too busy savoring breakfast at Howard Johnson’s, part of the annual ritual that would begin our trip to another country!

Every year we took a different route in order to “enjoy the scenery.” Pre-interstate highway days, we drove through Pennsylvania Dutch country, New England or New York State, where we visited Ithaca’s gorges, the 1,000 islands, and of course, Niagara Falls. Every night we looked for AAA-approved motels in which to sleep, with their worn linoleum floors, chenille bedspreads, and inevitable spiders.  We thought it was great fun (except for the spiders.)

Once in Toronto we checked into the Royal York Hotel where a little man who looked just like the Phillip Morris icon roamed the lobby calling out, “Call for Mr. Smith!” or “Call for Mr. Jones!”  The next morning, before heading to my grandfather’s house, we ate breakfast in The Honeydew Restaurant and stopped at Simpson’s or Eaton’s so that my mother could add another bone china tea cup and saucer to her collection.  Only then were we ready for the obligatory visits where our cheeks would be pinched as this aunt or that said, “Look how you’ve grown!”

In 1964 I traveled solo to Europe for the first time.  I thought I’d died and gone to Heaven as I experienced Amsterdam, London, Paris, Rome, and the Swiss Alps.  Relishing every moment of my Eurorail Pass train rides, every conversation with fellow travelers from different cultures, every museum and cathedral, I thought I’d go mad with the excitement of it all.  I stopped breathing at the sight of Michelangelo’s David, wept in San Marco Square, thrilled at the sound of Big Ben and the pageantry of the Changing of the Guard, ate prix fixe three-course meals on the Left Bank, and smiled back at Mona Lisa.  I even fell in love, but that is a story for another time.  In short, I knew that my life had changed and that as part of my metamorphosis, I would never stop traveling.

And I haven’t.  I returned two more times to Europe on my own, married a Brit who loves traveling as much as I do and with whom I was able to circle the globe because of his work, then found work myself that took me to countries in Africa, Asia, and Central America.  Together we have been to more than 90 countries (and all 50 states) for work and/or pleasure.  I even managed a teaching gig in Thailand for a year.

While in Thailand and then after retirement we traveled like mad cockroaches, scurrying from Southeast Asia to South America with a few European and Middle Eastern countries thrown in. 

Then we had a hiatus and something very strange started to happen.  We began to realize that we no longer wished to be in big, busy cities.  We didn’t want to “do” cathedrals and museums and ruins.  The thought of double-digit hours in flight grew increasingly off-putting. Renting apartments and eating dinner “at home” became more appealing than staying in hotels. Three weeks away seemed like an awfully long time.

I knew I was in trouble when I penned an essay called “Paris Blues” in which I wrote:

There is something ludicrous about standing on the Pont Neuf asking yourself why you’re there. Most people would give anything to stand on that iconic bridge overlooking the Seine.  But on a recent trip I felt like a jilted lover. I asked myself terrible questions: Why did I come back? What am I supposed to do here, now, this time?  I asked myself an even more ominous question:  Is it possible for an inveterate traveler to lose the thrill of reprise? Is there such a thing as traveler’s ennui?  Do I need larger fixes and only new places to feel again the thrill of people and place? I would feel utterly deprived not to see Paris again. But the fact is I stood on a bridge in Paris and wondered what I was doing there. 

Shortly after writing that, I found myself telling friends that I seem to be more into “purposeful” travel these days, wanting to go places where I can better understand the culture.  (Not long ago I spent two weeks volunteering at a hospital in Somaliland.) And that I’d like to revisit some of my favorite places, like England’s Lake District, or places that have changed a lot since I was there, like the Balkans.  Sometimes I can’t believe how much my travel tastes have changed. 

The British author Penelope Lively, now eighty, writes about her diminished desire for travel in her new memoir, Dancing Fish and Amonites.  “There are things I no longer want, things I no longer do,” she notes, travel being among them. She also surprises herself. “What? No further desire? You who crossed the Atlantic twice a year or so? Who was happy to hop off pretty well anywhere….who went on holidays?” Lively never wants to see another airport, she says, never wants to “brave Terminal Four” or “sit squashed in a metal canister with hundreds of others for hours on end. … I don’t want to do it anymore.”

Attempting to explain the change in her attitude toward travel the much-loved writer ponders whether “there is some benign mechanism that aligns diminished capacity with diminished desire.”  I’m not ready to go there yet – thankfully my capacity is not yet diminished and I still look forward to traveling – but her interpretation does begin to make a certain sense in the matter.

For now, my somewhat altered travel tastes notwithstanding, I continue to agree with Mark Twain: Travel is still enticing, not least because it is “fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.”   Like Mr. Twain, whose account of one trip gave us Innocents Abroad, I think “it would be well if such an excursion could be got up every year and the system regularly inaugurated.”

Extended annual trips may not be the thing anymore. And I may find myself changing priorities, venues, schedules, and accommodations a bit – more café crawls, less cathedral gaping, for example; fewer sightseeing excursions, more chatting with the local shopkeepers. But I am definitely not ready to let my passport expire. After all, I never know when I might have a fierce urge to weep once more in Venice, to visit Mongolia, or to count cats in Zanzibar.   

Are We Headed for a Robotic World?

If you’re like me, movies with battle robots and alien creatures boasting artificial intelligence – an oxymoron if ever there was one – leave you cold. But maybe we should think again. We might learn something about our future by watching Star Trek and Terminator re-runs, not to mention newer films that focus on robotic warfare.

With Google’s recent purchase of Boston Dynamics, the firm that makes battle robots that look like galloping headless horses, people are starting to take note of what our future may look like. Amazon drones that drop our purchases at the door are one thing, but military drones and their progeny are quite another.

The U.S. military is already conducting studies that focus on robots that would be able to replace humans to perform many combat functions on the battlefield. Known as “tactical autonomous combatants,” or TACs, the robots could work in all kinds of environments including air, space and under water, according to military sources. Such devices would be capable of operating largely autonomously. As one DOD official put it on, “We’re talking about having the capability of replacing humans.” By 2025 “robotic warfare may be a reality.”

I don’t know about you, but I find that prospect pretty terrifying. Already, devices are being used by Korea and Israel at border posts that have the ability to detect human faces from two miles away. They can fire machine guns or grenade launchers devoid of human operation. As a recent report in The Week noted, “The need for humans to participate in armed conflicts could soon be over. Military hardware will soon consist of ‘autonomous robots that know neither pity nor fear’”.

Wouldn’t that make war a horrific game in which the guys with the biggest, best, smartest robots win, no matter who the players and what the stakes?

War aside, what kind of a world would it be if robots become superior to humans? What will the economic impact be when companies like Caterpillar, which already plans to operate robotic machinery by 2021, reduce their workforce? Some scientists are predicting that robots will be working in agriculture, domestic care and medicine by mid-century.

In fact, they already are. Since the 1980s robots have been used medically, first for prostate surgery. The technology has progressed to the point where it is now used for hysterectomies, joint replacements, open-heart surgery and kidney surgery. The doctor doesn’t even need to be in the room or at the hospital since she controls the robot through a computer. (God forbid the electricity fails.) This may be cost saving and mean that people who can’t travel have the benefit of the best surgeons, but it’s still expensive, and what happens if the doctor incorrectly programs the computer, which can’t be adjusted once surgery begins?

“Both scientific research and science fiction begin with the same two words: ‘What if?’” University of Minnesota physics professor James Kakalios noted in a CNN interview. Jules Verne, who wrote “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” must have asked himself that question when he imagined submarines. Leonardo da Vinci wondered the same thing no doubt when in 1495 he sketched his “mechanical knight,” resulting in a suit of armor automated by a system of pulleys and levers displayed at the Court of Milan. The suit could stand, sit, raise its visor and move its arm. In the 1950s scientists discovered his notes and recreated the “robot,” which they thought would really have worked.

Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 epic film “2001: A Space Odyssey” starred a robot called Hal 9000. Hal was able to mechanically control the spaceship Discovery, but he represented the public’s fear of technology gone awry. Another movie that looks at robotic domination in the domestic sphere is “I, Robot.” Seems to me these might be the first films we naysayers of movie robots should watch first.

At the very least it will help to keep our minds off Google’s new headless horse or Samsung’s SGR-1 as it patrols the borders of Korea and Israel. As far as I can see, there’s nothing artificial about that kind of intelligence.