We Choose Our Own Role Models

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There’s no predicting who we choose as our role models. Teachers, coaches, and religious leaders are held out as exemplary choices and for good reason, since mentors are linked to greater success in adulthood. Despite adults’ well-meaning efforts to foster or even assign mentors, each one of us is drawn to people we find inspiring. It’s only in looking back that we can see more clearly how our childhood role models play a part in shaping who we become.

This is obvious looking at my husband’s growing up years. He wanted to understand how the world around him worked, and like most children, he wanted to find out by getting right in the midst of what fascinated him rather than play with plastic hammers and screwdrivers. So he sought out neighbors who let him fix cars alongside them and who welcomed his help running their small businesses. What he gained from these experiences still benefit him.

It’s not as obvious in my life so I have to strain to make those connections. I had plenty of freedom to ride my bike and play without too much parental supervision, but seeking out other grown-ups never occurred to me. In fact I can only think of a single adult outside my family who made a lasting impression. Her name was Mrs. Dosey.

I met her during a criminal investigation. Well, sort of.

When I was around eight, my older sister developed a brief infatuation with espionage. She deemed herself a private investigator and permitted me to be her sidekick. We practiced sidling around without being seen, took notes on people’s behavior, and looked for a mystery to solve. My sister hit the jackpot when she discovered bones in a field across the street. Bones! This could be dangerous. My sister identified the house in closest proximity to the bones. It seemed like a strange place. The yard had almost no grass. Instead the front was crowded with strangely cropped trees and the back sported a clothesline (unheard of in our suburban neighborhood) and a jumble of fenced-in areas—sinister indeed. We practically trembled with fearful anticipation.  My sister instructed me to remain completely silent, she’d question the suspect.

When she rang the doorbell it was promptly opened by a sturdy middle-aged woman wearing an apron and orthopedic shoes, her hair mashed down by a hairnet. When she invited us in I noticed she had a trace of an accent. Against all parental advice about strangers, we walked meekly inside.

Mrs. Dosey was busy in the kitchen but gladly welcomed two girl detectives. She didn’t raise an eyebrow when questioned about bones. She explained that she raised ducks, which she slaughtered for meals on special occasions. Although it wasn’t the murder we anticipated, it was death nonetheless. My sister and I shivered.

Mrs. Dosey talked to us as she went back to her culinary project. We learned that the cropped trees in her front yard were an apple orchard and the back yard was crowded with vegetable gardens, berry bushes, and poultry pens. She served us milk and homemade cookies. We stayed quite a while, curiously watching her work.

Mrs. Dosey was assembling a wedding cake she’d made from scratch. She showed us how she was separating the layers using tiny soda bottles between them, to be covered by flowers from her yard. Finally she said we could come back another time, she had a few more things to finish before her daughter’s wedding that was taking place the next day. My sister and I weren’t even disappointed that our murder case had collapsed. We’d met someone who seemed like a different creature than the frosted hair moms of our generation.

It didn’t occur to me till years later that Mrs. Dosey was completely matter-of-fact about two little girls sitting at her kitchen table, inches from this towering confection. She was entirely unruffled on a day most mothers of the bride are harried, even though she’d made the dress, the cake, and if memory serves, was making the reception food as well.

I never knocked on Mrs. Dosey’s door again. My sister and I dropped the private eye business to become girl scientists. We waded into the pond in sight of Mrs. Dosey’s house observing duck behavior and slogged home covered with what we optimistically called “duck muck.” My mother, who began buying apples from Mrs. Dosey every fall, seemed to regard the woman as an oppressed version of her gender. She pointed out Mrs. Dosey’s heavy labor around the house and yard, noting that this woman rode a bike with a basket to the store every few days for groceries. The emphasis seemed to rest on evidence that Mr. Dosey didn’t share those burdens. To me, Mrs. Dosey seemed remarkably happy. And savvy as well. She waved when my sister and I were out but was wise enough to spare us that social indignity if we were waiting with friends at the school crossing near her house. I saw her on that bike for years after I left home. She never looked any older or any less cheerful.

I credit my husband’s role models for helping him grow up to be capable, positive, and wonderfully open-hearted. But not for a single moment have I ever linked my own life choices to Mrs. Dosey’s example. After all, I planned to change the world by elevating peace, ecological harmony, and justice. If I had time I hoped to fit in writing novels. And parenting. Okay, I also wanted thick hair and thin thighs.

None of that happened. I’m not a UN peace negotiator, my activism is local and my writing is gentle. I’m not blocking whaling ships with my fellow Greenpeace buddies, instead I tend to vegetable gardens and haul buckets of kitchen scraps to our livestock. My choices look more like Mrs. Dosey’s, although I can’t pretend for a moment that I’ll ever have her patience. I was raised to believe I could be accomplish anything if I worked hard enough but I’m learning that we can save the world right where we are. In part, that means opening the door on our busiest day ever to welcome the questions of little girls.

Who in your growing years made an impression on you and how do you see their impact in your life today?

Global Village Construction Set

It’s possible to plant 50 trees in one afternoon.

To press 5,000 bricks from the dirt beneath your feet in one day.

To build an affordable tractor in six days.

It’s possible thanks to the members of Open Source Ecology (OSE). They aren’t armchair visionaries. These engineers, farmers, and developers are dedicated to making communities sustainable and self-reliant. They’re taking on scarcity and inequality with open source enthusiasm

OSE got its start when Marcin Jakubowski’s tractor broke.  Well, lets back up a little. After Jakubowski earned a PhD in the physics of fusion energy, he bought a farm in Missouri where he grew fruit trees and raised goats. One day his tractor broke. He didn’t have the hands-on experience to fix it himself. But he hauled out some can-do attitude along with his welder and torch. He realized a tractor is simply a box with wheels, each powered by hydraulic motors.  So he bolted together square steel tubing to make one from scratch. It worked.

This inspired him to look beyond pricey, commercially made machines. He began to come up with versions that were hardy, low cost, and constructed out of locally sourced or repurposed materials. His posted designs generated lots of enthusiasm and input. Participants began showing up to help build prototyles on project days, becoming OSE collaborators.

The idea evolved. They considered what it takes to build independent, sustainable communities that support farming, construction, small manufacturing,  and power generation. They came up with a list of the 50 machines most important for modern life including a hay baler, bakery oven, laser cutter, drill press, solar concentrator, and truck.  Low cost, industrial strength, DIY versions of these machines became known as the Global Village Construction Set.  The motors, parts, and other fittings of these machines are designed to be interchangeable. All the 3D designs, schematics, and instructional videos are posted on the OSE Wiki.

On average, constructing these machines costs about eight times less than comparable machines made by industrial manufacturers. As Jakubowski explained in his recent TED talk, “Our goal is a repository of published design so clear, so complete, that a single burned DVD is effectively a civilization starter kit. ..The implications are significant: a greater distribution of the means of production, environmentally sound supply chains, and a newly relevant DIY Maker culture can hope to transcend artificial scarcity.”

So often hope seems abstract.  This is tangible hope, made of steel. It puts independence and equality in reach for people in both the developed and developing world.  Welding never seemed so inspiring.

Eat Your Dandelions

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“You EAT them?” a little boy new to the neighborhood asks. He leans forward for the answer, his face ready to constrict in doubt.

Children already well acquainted with our family’s springtime ritual stop picking.

“Yeah!” they eagerly assure him, “They’re really good.”

They aren’t referring to a new vegetable in our garden. They’re talking about dandelions.

Herbalists tell us exactly what we need grows nearby. Those plants we call “weeds” may in fact remedy what ails us. They are so common that their properties are easily overlooked in a culture searching for packaged wellness. Plantain, mullein, comfrey,mint, mugwort,St. John’s wort, chicory and purslane spring up wild in my untreated lawn and garden. Weeds, but also powerful healers.

Today we’re picking dandelions in full flower. It isn’t about finding a remedy. For me the harvest is has to do with celebrating spring and affirming the beauty around us. For my children and our neighbors it’s about fun. I wait until the blooms are at their peak. Then I call friends and neighbors to announce, “Today is the day!”

Children spread out across the yard holding little baskets. A girl squats in front of each plant, pausing a long moment before she reaches out to pluck a flower from its stem. The  oldest boy in the group walks by many dandelion plants to pick only those growing in clusters. And the newest little boy falls silent, as the rest of the children do, taking delight in the seriousness of the harvest.

European settlers brought the dandelion plant to this continent for food and medicinal purposes. The perennial spread easily across most states. It’s a testament to the power of herbicide marketers that such a useful plant became so thoroughly despised. Standing under today’s blue sky, I look at exuberant yellow rosettes growing in bright green grass and feel sheer aesthetic pleasure.

After the children tire of picking we sit together on the porch and snip off the dandelion stems right up to the flower. We mothers look over their busy heads—blonde, brown, black—and smile as we watch them stay at this task with the kind of close attention children give to real work. One girl remarks that the flowers look like the sun. Another child says her grandmother told her that in the Old Country they call the plant by the same name as milk because of its white sap. The newest boy chooses to line the stems neatly along the wide porch planking, arranging and rearranging them by length.

Every aspect of a ritual holds significance so I pay attention to the warm breeze, the comfortable pulse of friendship, and flowers so soft against my fingers they remind me of a newborn’s hair.

When we’re done the flowers are rinsed in a colander, then it’s time to cook them. I’m not a fan of frying. There are better ways to preserve the flavor and nutrients in food. Consequently I’m not very skilled. But this is easy. The children, their mothers and I drop the flowers in a thin batter, scoop them out with slotted spoons and fry them a dozen at a time in shallow pans.

After the blossoms cool slightly on paper towels they’re put on two platters. One is tossed with powdered sugar and cinnamon, the other sprinkled with salt and pepper. Handfuls are eaten in the kitchen while we cook. Then we carry the platters outside. Children run off to play in grass polka dotted with bright yellow flowers. We adults sit on the porch laughing and talking.

It’s suggested that we should be eating healthfully prepared dandelion greens and roots rather than indulging in delectable fried blossoms. That sentence fades into a quiet moment as a breeze stirs new leaves on the trees and lifts our children’s hair. I feel enlivened. Everywhere, around me and inside me, it is spring.

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Gather dandelion flowers from areas free of chemical treatments or fertilizer. Pick in a sunny part of the day so the flowers are fully open, then prepare right away so flowers don’t close.
Cut away stem, as this is bitter, leaving only the green part holding the flower together.
Douse briefly in salt water (to flush out any lurking bugs). Dry flowers on dish towels while you prepare batter.
3 to 4 cups dandelion flowers, prepared as above
1 cup milk (dairy, soy, almond, coconut, any variety)
1 egg (or equivalent egg replacer product)
1 cup flour (slightly smaller amount of any whole grain alternative)
½ teaspoon salt
oil (frying is best with healthful oils which don’t break down at high temperatures, try safflower oil, coconut oil or olive oil)
1. Combine milk, egg, flour and salt in wide bowl. Mix well. Heat an inch or two of oil in skillet (350-375 degrees).
2.  Drop a dozen or so blossoms into the batter, stir gently to coat. Lift out with slotted spoon or fork. It’s best to hold the bowl over the skillet as you drop each blossom into the hot oil.
3. Turn flowers over to brown on both sides. Remove with slotted spatula to drain briefly on paper towels. Continue to fry remaining flowers using same steps. Toss cooked dandelions with sugar and cinnamon. Or salt and your choice of savory flavoring such as garlic, pepper or chili powder.
4. Making flower fritters is a speedier method than frying individual flowers. Simply drop flowers and batter into the oil by the spoonful, then turn like a pancake. Serve with jam, maple syrup or honey. Or try savory toppings like mustard, ketchup or barbeque sauce. These fritters are endlessly adaptable. Try adding sunflower or sesame seeds to the batter and serve with either the sweet or savory toppings.
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What You May Not Know About Dandelions

The common dandelion, Taraxacum officinal, has been used in traditional medical systems around the world to boost nutrition as well as treat conditions of the liver, kidney and spleen; slow abnormal growths; improve digestion and more. Recently science has taken a closer look at this often scorned plant. No surprise, traditional wisdom holds up under scrutiny.

~Dandelion root stimulates the growth of 14 strains of bifidobacteria.1 This is good news, because bifidobacteria aid in digestion. Their presence in the gut is correlated with a lower incidence of allergies.2

~Dandelions appear to fight cancer. Researchers testing for biologically active components to combat cancer proliferation and invasion note that dandelion extracts have value as “novel anti-cancer agent[s].” Their studies show dandelion leaf extract decreases growth of certain breast cancer cells and blocks invasion of prostate cancer. The root extract blocks invasion of other specific breast cancer cells3  and also shows promise inhibiting skin cancer. 4

~Dandelions work as an anti-inflammatory and pain relieving agent.5

~Dandelion extract lowers cholesterol. This, plus its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant qualities leads some researchers to believe that the plant may reduce the risk of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries).6

~The plant’s leaves are an effective diuretic.7

~Dandelion shows promise in diabetic treatment. It slows the glycemic response to carbohydrates, thereby helping to control blood sugar.8

~Dandelion extract increases the action of estrogen and progesterone receptors. It may prove to be a useful treatment for reproductive hormone-related problems including PMS.9

~ Leaves, roots and flowers of the humble dandelion are fully edible. USDA National Nutrient Database analysis proves that a festive array of nutrition awaits any lawn harvester. One cup of chopped fresh dandelion greens are extremely rich in vitamins K, A and C as well as good source of vitamin E, thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin B6,  calcium, iron, ,magnesium, manganese, fiber and omega-3 fatty acids.10

The flavonoids found in dandelions are valuable antioxidants and free radical scavengers.11

1 I. Trojanova, V. Rada, L. Kokoska, E. Vikova, “The Bifidogenic Effect of Taraxacum Officinale Root,”  Fitoterapia vol 75 issue 7/8 (December 2004), 760-763.  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15567259  (accessed 8-29-09)
2  Bengt Bjorksten, Epp Sepp, Kaja Julge, Tiia Voor, Marika Mikelsaar, “Allergy Development and the Intestinal Microflora During the First Year of Life,” The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology vol 108 issue 4 (October 2001), 516-520. http://www.jacionline.org/article/S0091-6749(01)96140-8/abstract  (accessed 8-29-09)
3 S.C.Sigstedt, C.J. Hooten, M.C. Callewaert, A.R. Jenkins, A.E. Romera, M.J. Pullin, A. Korneinko, T.K. Lowrey, S.V. Slambrouck, W.F. Steelant, “Evaluation of Aqueous Extracts of Taraxacum Officinale on Growth and Invasion of Breast and Prostate Cancer Cells,” International Journal of Oncologyvol 32, num 5 (May 2008), 1085-1090.  http://www.spandidos-publications.com/ijo/article.jsp?article_id=ijo_32_5_1085  (accessed 8-30-09).
4 M. Takasaki, T. Konoshima, H. Tokuda, K. Masuda, Y. Arai, K. Shiojima, H. Ageta,  “Anti-carcinogenic Activity of Taraxacum Plant,” Biological & Pharmaceutical Bulletin vol 22, 6 (June 1999), 602-605.  http://web.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.cpl.org/ehost/detail?vid=1&hid=108&sid=b7ce94b0-1484-4aef-a5a8-73e1efddb194%40sessionmgr104&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=cmedm&AN=10408234  (accessed 9-1-09).
5 H.J. Jeon, H.J. Kang, H.J. Jung, Y.S. Kang, C.J. Lim, Y.M Kim, E.H. Park, Anti-inflammatory Activity of Taraxacum Officinale,”  Journal of Ethnopharmacology vol. 115, 1 (January 2008), 82-88.  http://web.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.cpl.org/ehost/detail?vid=1&hid=108&sid=4b56dd3a-f9b3-4444-b85d-80d79eb1f3ce%40replicon103&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=cmedm&AN=17949929  (accessed 9-1-09).
6 Jinju Kim, Kyunghee Noh, Mikyung Cho, Jihyun Jang, Youngsun Song, “Anti-oxidative, Anti-inflammatory and Anti-Atherogenic Effects of Dandelion (Taraxacum Officinale) Extracts in c57BL/6 Mice Fed Atherogenic Diet,”  FASEB Journal vol 21, issue 6 (April 2007), 1122.  http://wf2dnvr17.webfeat.org/aNuiM141/url=http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail?vid=1&hid=5&sid=a168be9f-0a5c-41c6-b86d-2a9c3677c6f4%40sessionmgr4&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=aph&AN=25598840   (accessed 9-1-09).
7 Bevin A. Clare, Richard S. Conroy, Kevin Spelman, “The Diuretic Effect in Human Subjects of an Extract of Taraxacum Officinale Rolium Over a Single Day,” Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine vol 15, issue 8 (August 2009), 929-934.  http://wf2dnvr17.webfeat.org/aNuiM14/url=http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail?vid=1&hid=9&sid=a26346e7-f010-44fc-88ea-891214f7539a%40sessionmgr10&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=aph&AN=43671001     (accessed 9-1-09).
8 Secil Onal, Suna Timur, Burcu Okutucu, Figen Zihnioglu, “Inhibition of a-Glucosidase by Aqueous Extracts of Some Potent Antidiabetic Medicinal Herbs,” Preparative Biochemistry & Biotechnology vol 35, issue 1 (February 2005), 29-36.  http://wf2dnvr17.webfeat.org/aNuiM141/url=http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail?vid=8&hid=104&sid=982fd009-501c-4a90-9ce3-7d5475b2ed05%40sessionmgr4&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=aph&AN=16133864    (accessed 9-1-09).
9 Zhi Xu, Ken-Ichi Honda, Koji Ozaki, Takuya Misugi, Toshiyuki Sumi, Osamu Ishiko, “Dandelioin T-1 Extract Up-regulates Reproductive Hormone Receptor Expression in Mice,” International Journal of Molecular Medicine volume 20, 3 (2007) 287-292.  http://cat.inist.fr/?aModele=afficheN&cpsidt=19007317   (accessed 8-27-09).
10 USDA Agricultural Research Service, USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 21, (2008) NDB # 11207  http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/foodcomp/cgi-bin/list_nut_edit.pl  (accessed 9-1-09).
 11 Hu C. Kitts, “Dandelion (Taraxacum Officinale) Flower Extract Suppresses Both Reactive Oxygen Species and Nitric Oxide and Prevents Lipid Oxidation in Vitro,” Phytomedicine 12, 8 (August 2005), 588-597. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16121519?ordinalpos=1&itool=EntrezSystem2.PEntrez.Pubmed.Pubmed_ResultsPanel.Pubmed_DiscoveryPanel.Pubmed_Discovery_RA&linkpos=2&log$=relatedarticles&logdbfrom=pubmed  (accessed 9-1-09).

This post is reprinted from an article that first appeared in Natural Life Magazine

Natural Antidote To Bullying

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Children are drawn to challenge themselves. They need to take risks of all kinds—physical, social, emotional, intellectual—in order to grow into mature self-reliance.

Where do such challenges most naturally occur? Outdoors. As detailed in Last Child in the Woods, when children spend time in natural areas their play is more creative and they self-manage risk more appropriately. They’re more likely to incorporate each other’s ideas into expressive make-believe scenarios using their dynamic surroundings—tall grasses become a savannah, tree roots become elf houses, boulders become a fort. Their games are more likely to incorporate peers of differing ages and abilities. Regular outdoor experiences not only boost emotional health, memory, and problem solving, they also help children learn how to get along with each other in ever-changing circumstances. Free outdoor play with others, especially when it’s not hampered by adult interference, teaches kids to interact with others while also maintaining self-control. Otherwise, no one wants to play with them. It’s the best sort of learning because it’s fun. Sounds like the perfect way to raise bully-proof kids doesn’t it?

But the opportunity for free play and risk is funneled into very narrow options for today’s children. They are shuttled from one adult-run activity to another. Time between these obligations is often spent indoors. And children’s outdoor play is restricted by excessive rules designed to keep them safe from dangers out of proportion to any real safety issue.

So kids don’t get natural challenges like climbing trees, exploring fields, building forts. They are deprived of the rich lessons of cooperation and self-control found in free play. And they don’t develop biophilia, that essential sense of connection with nature. Then we expect them to get along and recognize real risk. Any wonder that bullying is a growing problem?

Here are examples of playground designs that, in institutions like schools and daycare programs, foster free play using natural materials. Sensory play, places for solitude, and opportunities for physical risk are built in and, no surprise, children get along better.

It’s a step in the right direction. A few steps farther and we’ll let kids back in nature herself, playing in woods and fields and beaches. Too bad all the money thrown at anti-bullying programs aren’t used to fling open the doors to the natural world. “Go out and play,” may very well be the best anti-bullying advice yet.