Monthly Archives: January 2014

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.   

How Many Christophers Does It Take?

How many Christophers does it take to fix a website?

I don’t know yet but I’ve been through three of them already, for a total of 6 hours so far, trying to mend problems with my Word Press website. (Are they all in Mumbai with the same Anglo name so that no one can complain about them individually?)

The first two seemed competent. Christopher 1 managed to clear the blank dash board page so that I could post blogs again. Big Phew. Christopher 2 seemed to be on the right track in getting pictures to embed again when he messaged, “My shift is ending now. Sorry I can’t stay with you longer.” Not half as sorry as I was, Chris 2, because Christopher 3 was a disaster. Redundant, unclear and inept, he simply disappeared without so much as a Fare Thee Well when he realized he couldn’t understand the problem, let alone solve it.

Aside from tearing my hair out, this leaves me with two options: Call (vs. Live Chat) Blue Host and hope that if another Christopher answers he knows what he’s doing, or find a web developer who can save me for a price.

In the meantime, apologies for anyone visiting and finding no visuals. Like airlines and Amtrak who have a mess on their hands getting things moving again, I’m working on it.

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.