nerd validation and monkey love

Mr S. Lee of San Francisco, California writes:

“I’d just like to point out that distance running is pretty nerdy. It’s what band kids do in spring.”

The Yatima Organization greatly esteems its readers.

Reading Deborah Blum’s Love at Goon Park, the biography of Harry Harlow who did the experiments on baby monkeys with cloth and wire mothers. Don’t follow that link if you don’t want to be upset. Like the book, it’s every bit as harrowing as you’d think it would be.

Blum’s a bit florid with her scene-setting, to put it mildly.

“There are obvious physical differences between Stanford and the University of Wisconson, starting with water. The Madison campus overlooks a tree-rimmed lake rather than the sharp edge of the Pacific, a vista pretty rather than breathtaking…”

Um. What? While I’ve been to a bunch of Larry Lessig talks and suchlike at The Farm and toured SLAC and kept Noah, the Swedish Warmblood of my soul, at Glenoaks Equestrian Center which is actually on leased university land, I cannot definitively say that it is impossible to see the Pacific Ocean from Stanford. There might be sea glimpses from the Dish or something. But I’m pretty sure there aren’t because there’s a small mountain range in the way.

Anyway what Blum is doing really well is establishing a connection between, on the one hand, the early 20th century’s growing understanding of the mechanisms and vectors of communicable disease; and on the other, a truly diabolical movement in psychology which discouraged kissing and cuddling kids on the grounds that “overmothering” would make them weak and whiny. Chief among its proponents was the pioneering behaviorist John Watson, and Blum makes the very interesting point that when he was a kid his mother dragged him along to revivalist meetings, which he loathed. The Wikipedia entry adds that Watson wasn’t as extreme as he’s been painted and that he retracted or qualified some of his more outrageous claims, but the damage had been done. My mother, in hospital for an appendectomy some time in the 1940s, was only allowed to see her parents for an hour once a week, a deprivation that still makes tears start in my eyes.

I wouldn’t have wanted to have children then, with well-meaning and implacable patriarchs having ill-founded and ungainsayable opinions about how I ought to treat them. One of my mental images of myself as a mother is a memory from some wildlife documentary or other of a lioness with her cubs. The cubs clamber over her and chew her ears. She catches one at a time and licks them. If they get too boisterous she swats them with her paw; undismayed they gambol away. Every morning the girls climb in bed with me and we reenact this idyllic savannah scene, then hunt and kill a gazelle. When they’re ill and especially when they’re feverish, my instinct is to hold them as if I could regulate their body temperature with my own. We read books and watch TV in affectionate heaps.

It’s attachment parenting in its simplest form; and attachment parenting as a socially accepted trope traces its lineage directly to Harlow. He did the appalling monkey experiments in order to demonstrate the importance to young mammals of unstinting physical love. So I owe him a deep debt of gratitude, even if those pinched, anxious baby monkey faces will haunt me always. And now, because I have suggested that cruel experiments on animals may sometimes have redemptive social effects, Salome is going to put me in a cage, clamp my head in place and hacksaw into my brain.

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