Buying Barbie

My oldest granddaughter turns four at the end of this month.

I have always tried to pick out presents for children, even before my life was blessed with grandchildren, that are not gender-specific. Or that cross gender lines. Girls should have fun with toy trucks and train sets. And boys should be comfortable with stuffed animals and toy tea sets.

Very often I settled on books as gifts. Or toys, like Legos, that can lead to adventure and creativity.

Her mom told me she wants a Barbie. She also told me they already bought a Barbie for her, but it would be fine if we also bought one so she would have two dolls to play with.

I have given her a doll before, a cloth doll with yarn for hair that probably fits the definition of a rag doll. It was part of a project to help her figure out how to use snaps, zippers, velcro, frogs, and buttons. I made clothes for the doll and included all those closures on the dresses and coats. So it’s not like I gave her a doll then. I gave her an educational opportunity.

Am I ready to give my granddaughter a real doll?

I was born too early for Barbie to be part of my childhood, although my younger sister had one, and I enjoyed making clothes for her doll. So the idea of making clothes for my granddaughter’s Barbie is appealing.

In the end, I decided to choose a present I know my granddaughter wants–Barbie–instead of something educational.

Who knew what a chore it would be to pick out an appropriate Barbie!

Barbie is no longer only fair skinned with choice of blonde, brown, or red hair color being the only option. There’s a brown-skinned, brunette Barbie in her quinceanera dress right alongside the fair-skinned, blonde Christmas edition Barbie.

Barbie also is no longer only a vehicle for displaying fashion items. I definitely do not want a Barbie that displays no ambition. I want a Barbie who works, not one who just sits around on a lounge chair outside her Barbie RV or around the pool outside her Barbie mansion. Fortunately, there are plenty of career-oriented Barbies available so I didn’t think it would be difficult to choose one.

The one I really wanted was the Barbie physician, which comes with two baby dolls, appropriately sized for a Barbie-sized doctor. But that Barbie looked more like nurse than a doctor. (Or am I allowing my own gender-biased upbringing to impose that judgment on the doll?) She was wearing scrubs, as both doctors and nurses do, but she didn’t have the white coat that I expect doctors to wear.

My granddaughter’s mom is a nurse, so I nearly picked up that Barbie anyway, but I have to admit that a second reason dissuaded me from buying it. That Barbie has very dark skin. My granddaughter is light skinned, blue eyed, and blonde. So this Barbie doesn’t look like my granddaughter. I consider it progress that dolls now come in all shades of skin color and all types of hair color, but I realized that picking out a doll that my granddaughter could identify with is still important to me, just as it is to most moms and grandmoms and aunts and great-aunts everywhere. But I cringed at the feeling in my gut that my choice evidenced values regarding skin color that I don’t believe–at least with my words.

I kept looking and finally found a pair of Barbies, a chef and a waiter. One is fair skinned and blonde. The other is dark skinned and brunette. The blonde Barbie is the waiter, a word-choice I was pleased to see on the box since it ignores the silly -ess ending used in the past when referring to occupations when women fill the positions. The brunette Barbie is the chef. If there is a hierarchy between these two, the chef’s status is higher. That feels good.

Last Christmas my granddaughter received a play kitchen, complete with pots and pans, an oven, a sink, and a stove-top with dials that turn the circles representing burners red, but without the heat. We gave her a plastic assortment of fruits and vegetables that can be “cut” apart at their velcro seams to prepare them for cooking on her stove. So the chef and waiter Barbie option is an extension of that theme. That feels good.

The only lingering, niggling thought left is this: I wasn’t sure I was ready to buy her a Barbie. Now, we’re giving her TWO.




One Hundred Years of Solitude

Two things I love, the book, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and the educational outreach arm of Technology, Education, and Design (TED-ed), have combined to make the audiobook version of the novel available for free. (Well, there’s a catch–the free offer comes with a 30-day trial of  Check out the YouTube video even if you don’t want the attached offer:

The Baghdad Clock

I used to review books here. I don’t anymore.

But when I came across The Baghdad Clock by Shahad Al Rawi, I decided I couldn’t let the opportunity to share a few of the author’s words with others. So, this isn’t a review; it’s just random thoughts about an amazing book written by a woman who still isn’t old enough to capture so much wisdom in a thin novel.

I love this book. Maybe it’s because she refers to another book I love, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Márquez. Or maybe it’s because she writes poetic thoughts in prose format that is easier for me to appreciate. Or maybe it’s the neighborhood the narrator and her friends inhabit, though different in many ways from the one I grew up in, where communities are made up of not just those who are related by blood, but by those who are connected–related in that sense–by common experiences. Just like the neighborhood I grew up in.

But mostly I think it is because I am in awe of her ability to share profound thoughts from the point of view of such a young woman.

The Baghdad Clock, not surprisingly, is set in Baghdad where the protagonist, a young Iraqi girl, meets Nadia, her best friend, when their families take shelter together during the 1991 Gulf War. But it isn’t a story about the war. It isn’t even about the shelter where they met. It’s the story of childhood friendships and first loves, of becoming adults and of loss: the loss of childhood innocence on one level and the loss of memories through the obliteration of neighborhoods on another.

The author was born in 1986. She wasn’t even as old as her protagonist when the 1991 Gulf War broke out. The book was published in 2016 when she was only 30. How could she have become so wise in fewer than 30 years? Let me share why I think she is wise.

At one point the narrator meets a soothsayer who answers her questions about friendship, an especially important topic at a time when both girls know it is likely one of their families will leave Baghdad, leaving the other behind. The soothsayer says,

You and Nadia do not love each other just for the sake of the deep friendship between you. You love your memories, too.

Both of you, but especially you, are afraid for these memories, because their passing means ripping up the solid ground under your feet. For those who fear the future, the past is a merciful cave in which people seek shelter when they turn away from the cruelty of the present.

How could someone so young have learned so much in so little time?

The soothsayer answers more of the narrator’s questions, “What if there had never been a war? What if the sanctions had not been put in place? What would our lives have been like, and what would Baghdad have become?”

Listen, my dear. I know you want to say, ‘Were it not for the war and the sanctions, things would have been better for us.’ That might be true, if we were to ignore geography and history. For you are a victim of geography in the first place. Your country isn’t on the Mediterranean where it might breathe the sea air, nor is it in the desert, where it might live on the luxury brought by oil. You live between them, where the bright light of the sun shines down on you all year round . . . Geography is a fate that cannot be escaped, but history is made. Adapt to your geography and change your history . . . [w]eave from its cloth a new garment. Gather the good islands together and leave out the painful ones. There, make a fresh memory, a good space for joy. In short, change the entire culture. Or at least some of it.

When I read this section, I couldn’t help but think of how it describes the incivility that continues to creep into our lives, especially in social media. The soothsayer explains that those who fear the future turn to the past and see efforts to recreate it as desirable. Yet the soothsayer’s advice is that we need to adapt and change. What brings fear to some is the solution to others. The result–conflict.

In one of the more contemplative passages, the author says,

In our neighbourhood, we would describe the best people as being ‘good and shamefaced,’ and whenever I came across someone who did not feel a sense of shame, I would secretly think he was dangerous and wicked. Shame is not a religious or pedagogic quality, nor is it moral principle. It is rather one of the gifts of existence that prevents us from committing travesties against the rights of other people.

I love this passage because it reminds me of one of the differences between the center of the moral compasses carried in life by Westerners compared to Easterners. As an oversimplification, I repeat what I heard when I first moved to Iran more then 40 years ago: behavior in the West is guilt-based; in the East it is shame-based. We, in the West, think of guilt as something to be avoided, something we don’t ever want to feel. Elsewhere in the world, shame is to be avoided, something others don’t want to feel.

If I substitute the word “guilt” for “shame” in the above passage, most of us might object to the thought that the best people are “good and guilty.” But if we thought of feeling guilty as a gift, as the narrator describes shame to be, we might all be a bit more compassionate towards one another. It would still be better not to be guilty, just as it is better not to be shameful, but feeling the weight of either guilt or shame should lead us to better behavior.

Every time I open the book to a random page, I find something I want to share. Instead, I encourage others to read the book.

I love this book.

Happy Independence Day

I didn’t know what a privilege it is to live in the United States until I left to work in other countries. The first one was Iran, governed at that time by the Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, and his loyalists in the Iranian parliament. The second was Romania, governed then by Nicolae Ceasescu and the Romanian Communist Party.

My observations of how people lived in fear at least part of the time in those two countries under those leaders made it clear that I had more than an opportunity to get involved with my government, starting at the local level–it was my duty–because I could when so many others cannot. Living overseas opened my eyes. Our system of government makes it possible for any citizen to get involved and voice opinions, with passion, in order to change society for the better.

Well, we have plenty of voicing opinion–with passion–these days. But that fact still fills me with optimism. So long as no one voice, or set of voices, is totally gagged, even one with which I do not agree, we are living up to the challenges outlined by those who signed the Declaration of Independence and framed our Constitution.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.1

“That to ensure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

That’s what was missing in Iran and Romania. That’s what I wanted to be part of–discussion leading to consent of the governed. That’s why I took part in Minnesota’s caucus system, where neighbors meet and declare which candidates they support or admit that they don’t yet know which candidate is preferred. To begin dialog, to meet together, and in the end to vote.

That feeling on a visceral level of what it means to be an American also led me to pursue joining the US Department of State as a Foreign Service Officer. It’s why I encourage family and friends to travel to other countries, to get to know what it is like to live under different circumstances, in order to come home to understand what a blessing it is to live here.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.2

“. . . to form a more perfect Union, . . . .”

The fact that the framers of the Constitution included a comparative–more perfect–instead of an absolute–perfect–shows both their humanity and their foresight.

These are among the thoughts I will keep in mind on Independence Day as our son and his family join us on Wednesday for grilled hotdogs, hamburgers, salads, and probably way too much to eat and drink. Because we can.

Happy Fourth of July, Independence Day.



Image credit: Shireah Ragnar

Afterthoughts About the 2018 A to Z Challenge

I thoroughly enjoyed putting together my 26 posts on Norse Mythology during this year’s A to Z Blogging Challenge. So much, in fact, that I feel I need to take additional steps in my research.

For example, one resource I didn’t run across that I would like to find is a timeline for the tales. I know, for example, that any tale involving Hoenir traveling with Odin around the cosmos must have taken place before the Aesir-Vanir war since Hoenir was one of the two Aesir turned over to the Vanir as a hostage when the two god clans declared they no longer wanted war. I’d like to find–or create myself–a timeline for the stories.

I found many sources, some scholarly and some more accessible to the mainstream audience, with far more detailed and credible information than the superficial thoughts I collected for my blog posts. If you are interested in learning more about Norse mythology, I recommend the following books and other resources. I’ve read two of the books below and plan to read the third as well as dip often into the website listed at the end of the list.

Then go out and see a few Marvel movies to see how Norse mythology has been woven into popular culture, movies such as Thor; Thor: Ragnarok; Thor: Tales of Asgard; and Thor: The Dark World.

If you are in an area where a Viking or Scandinavian festival is held, check it out. There are many held each year in Norway and at least one big one in York, England. Here are a few I could find around the country.

I hope you enjoyed learning about Norse mythology as much as I enjoyed digging deeper to uncover the basis for the many folktales and folk characters I recalled hearing about in my childhood. I feel well prepared to begin conversations, or at least small talk, during my upcoming trip to Norway about the origins of place names, for instance. As a native introvert, I need all the conversation-opening gambits I can find to engage with strangers.

Þ is for Þórr

Thor (Old Norse Þórr, Old English Đunor, Old High German Donar, Proto-Germanic *Þunraz, “Thunder”[1]) is one of the most prominent figures in Norse mythology. He was a major god of all branches of the Germanic peoples before their conversion to Christianity, although he reached the height of his popularity among the Scandinavians of the late Viking Age.

–from Norse Mythology for Smart People by Daniel McCoy

Everybody tells me they love Thor. But these days, it is more likely Chris Hemsworth, star of the Marvel Thor movie franchise, that they mean.

Thor is one of Odin’s sons. Odin is known by many names, including Allfather, which suggests he is the father–or at least the eldest and wisest–of all the gods. For both reasons, it would seem Odin is the more powerful of the two. But that isn’t necessarily so.

Odin appeals to those seeking the power to rule, to divine the future, to use magic to change what is. He travels around the cosmos, often in disguise or at least using names to hide who he is, in search of knowledge and wisdom. He demonstrates his power through wit and ability to out-think and out-maneuver those he encounters.

Though one tale exists where Thor dresses as a woman in order to regain his hammer, in general Thor travels without disguises. He is easily identified by the two goats who draw his chariot and his hammer ever at the ready. Thor appeals to those who wish to rain down might on their foes in order to defeat them.

Those in power may wish to appeal to both gods. Those not in power look to Thor for protection.

Old Norse society was generally divided into three classes: those who ruled, those who battled, and all the rest including those who farmed, fished, built, or served others. Odin appealed to the first group–those who ruled (or wished to rule). Thor appealed to the other two classes. Over time, the number in the first class grew smaller while the other two grew larger.

Perhaps for that reason, by Viking time, Thor’s popularity exceeded Odin’s. As the Viking timeframe overlapped with the spread of Christianity across northern Europe, it appears Thor’s hammer, Mjöllnir, became a symbol of resistance against Christianity. While converts to the new religion wore crosses around their necks to announce which religion they followed, people of the Viking era wore amulets in the shape of Mjöllnir around their necks.

Another explanation for why people of the Viking age might have equated the wearing of Thor’s hammer with Christians wearing crosses is that Thor used his hammer not simply in battle to defeat enemies. His hammer also was important for hallowing the ground to ensure bountiful harvests.

No wonder people love Thor.

[1] Orel, Vladimir. 2003. A Handbook of Germanic Etymology. p. 429.

Image credit: By Emil Doepler – Doepler, Emil. ca. 1905. Walhall, die Götterwelt der Germanen. Martin Oldenbourg, Berlin. Page 56. Photographed and cropped by User:Haukurth., Public Domain, Link

Y is for Yggdrasill

At the center of the Norse spiritual cosmos is an ash tree, Yggdrasil (pronounced “IG-druh-sill”; Old Norse Askr Yggdrasils), which grows out of the Well of Urd (Old Norse Urðarbrunnr). The Nine Worlds are held in the branches and roots of the tree. The name Askr Yggdrasils probably strikes most modern people as being awkwardly complex. It means “the ash tree of the horse of Yggr.”[1] Yggr means “The Terrible One,” and is a byname of Odin. The horse of Odin is Sleipnir. This may seem like a puzzling name for a tree, but it makes sense when one considers that the tree as a means of transportation between worlds is a common theme in Eurasian shamanism.[2] Odin rides Sleipnir up and down Yggdrasil’s trunk and through its branches on his frequent journeys throughout the Nine Worlds. “Urd” (pronounced “URD”; Old Norse Urðr, Old English Wyrd) means “destiny.” The Well of Urd could therefore just as aptly be called the Well of Destiny.

–from Norse Mythology for Smart People by Daniel McCoy

The tree of life. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The tree of Odin’s horse. All images of trees at the center of the world. Many ancient cultures include a central tree with fruit conveying immortality or wisdom or other desirable qualities.

In Persian and Zoroastrian traditions, there is Gaokerena, threatened by a frog and guarded by kar fish. The juice made from its fruit conveys immortality.

In the Kingdom of Ararat, carvings of the tree of life appear on the walls of fortresses.

The first book of the Bible, Genesis, refers to both the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The serpent tricked Eve into tasting the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and then Eve convinced Adam he too should eat the fruit. Their punishment was to be expelled from the Garden of Eden where the tree of life remained, guarded by angels with flaming swords.

Buddha sat under a sacred fig tree, also known as the Bo or Bodhi tree, when he attained enlightenment.

In Chinese mythology, the tree of life is depicted with a dragon and a phoenix. Every three thousand years, the tree produces a fruit which when eaten gives the eater immortality.

In Islam, the Garden of Eden contains the tree of immortality, and it is this tree that God forbade Adam and Eve from eating the fruit. In this version as well, the serpent seduced Adam and Eve to eat from the tree, disobeying God.

World trees were associated with pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cosmologies where the trees connect the four directions as well as the underworld and sky with the physical world

Native American Indian tribes often include tales involving trees, such as the Grandmother Cedar tales of the Sammish and Ojibwa tribes.

With all those other societies including stories of sacred trees to explain creation, the desire for immortality, the consequences of disobeying God, and other important life lessons, there should be no surprise to learn that a tree–perhaps an ash, perhaps a yew–holds together the mythological cosmos of the Norse and Germanic ancient culture.

Yggdrasil connects the nine levels of Norse cosmology:

  • Niflheim, the primordial frozen land;
  • Asgard, the land of the Aesir;
  • Midgard, the land of humans;
  • Jotunheim, the land of the giants;
  • Vanaheim, the land of the Vanir;
  • Alfheim, the land of the elves;
  • Svartalfheim, the land of the dwarves;
  • Helheim, the underworld;
  • Muspelheim, the primordial flaming land

Odin travels to all levels of the cosmos on his horse, Sleipnir. Not all creatures of the cosmology can travel beyond their home levels, which explains why so many of the tales involve the Aesir and Vanir traveling to the homes of the elves, the dwarves, and the giants, but not often the other way around.

The well of Urd, guarded by the three Norns, rests at the base of Yggdrasil. Other creatures live among its branches and roots, including an eagle that lives in the top branches, snakes and dragons that gnaw on its roots, a squirrel named Ratatosk who carries messages between the snakes and the eagle, and four deer named Dain, Dvalin, Duneyr, and Dyrathror who nibble at the highest levels. [3]

[1] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 375.

[2] Eliade, Mircea. 1964. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Translated by Willard Trask. p. 37.

[3] The Poetic Edda. Grímnismál, stanzas 32-34.

Image credit: By Friedrich Wilhelm Heine (1845-1921). – Wägner, Wilhelm (1886). Asgard and the gods. London: Swan Sonnenschein, Le Bas & Lowrey. Page 27., Public Domain, Link