Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Crib Decision

Aside from our baby's name, the bed she'll be sleeping is probably one of the biggest decisions we'll have to make.

I know people agonize over lots of stuff, like whether to breast feed and how long and what kind of birth plan to have, but those decisions were easy for me because I am so dead set on what I want already. But the name? We're still working on that and the crib, too. But I am really close to finally pulling the trigger and buying one. It's exciting. It means I'll soon have something to measure to make the baby bedding and the room will take shape. I want to have it done in time for my parents to see when they come to visit. I don't know if that's possible but it's my hope.

One of the easiest things about the crib to decide was getting a convertible crib that will grow and expand with our child's age and needs. Convertible cribs start out as cribs then become toddler beds and finally full size adult beds. Ideally, this is something she'll be able to take off to college.

I looked at a lot of cribs in the $200-300 range at places like Overstock.com, Walmart and Amazon and after reading the reviews have decided I'm going to go for a higher end crib in the neighborhood of $800.

The ones I found in the lower price range invariably received complaints that the wood dented, chipped, scratched and showed tooth marks easily. Apparently they are all made of pine, a soft wood. What's the sense of buying a convertible crib if by the time she's old enough to use the bed it looks like crap?

So I decided to look for convertible cribs that are made entirely of hardwood and I even found a company that makes cribs out of discarded rubber trees that are no longer useful for their sap. Now, rubber plantations are a bad, bad thing for places like Indonesia where plantations are being put up in orangutan habitat so it would not be my first choice of hardwoods from an environmental standpoint. It's hard to make the argument that the business doesn't in some way support the economy of rubber plantations.

I would definitely prefer some other kind of wood like oak or maple but I haven't been able to find any convertible cribs made out of domestic hardwood. I am still looking. If you know of any, let me know.

I just refuse to get one of the pine ones if there's a chance it will just end up at the goodwill then the garbage and leave us buying another bed later and result in spending just as much money if not more in the long run. However, if you think that's more environmentally sustainable, I'm all ears. Seriously.

Friday, March 27, 2009

High time for high speed trains to take off here

Why is it that in America high speed 'bullet' trains evoke Jetson's style futuristic transport? Japan has had the trains operational for 40 years. They are hardly new, nor are they exactly nouveau in places like France either. It's high time the U.S. had a system of bullet trains connecting major cities up and down both coasts. Boston - NYC - Wash. DC would be a good first place followed by San Francisco - LA and maybe on to San Diego and then Seattle - Portland.

My attitude about bullet trains definitely comes from having traveled on them in both France and Japan. They are safe, clean, comfortable and smooth and way better than driving or riding in a car.

For one, you get there at least twice as fast which means you have more time to enjoy the place you're going or conduct whatever business you're going to conduct there. And, your attention is not focused on driving. You can have real conversations face to face, read the newspaper, get work done on your laptop, play games, eat and no doubt many, many other things not the least of which is being able to use the bathroom without having to stop somewhere. It is also less expensive than flying and reduces the amount of gasoline used. In some cases, it may even cost less than driving. And, depending on where you're going and why, it can turn an overnight trip (with the added cost of a hotel room) into a day trip. High speed trains are what enabled me to make a day trip from London to Paris and from Tokyo to the Japanese Alps to hang out with snow monkeys.

So, I think it is about damned time that high speed trains be built in America and that is just what Obama wants to do. Last week, he made a last-minute allocation of $8 billion for high-speed rail in his mammoth stimulus plan. Unfortunately, some think he has not allocated enough 'stimulus money' to build even one system and others think it's stupid anyway and all that will happen is the money will be wasted on projects to make some Amtrak trains arrive 20 mins sooner and for double the price. I wish they weren't right.

Nevertheless, the proposed routes include parts of Texas, Florida, the Chicago region, and southeast routes through North Carolina and Louisiana.

I don't think those are necessarily the best places to start out with, but whatever. I'm not the country's new transportation secretary. He, Ray LaHood, by the way, says that developing high-speed rail is the country’s No. 1 transportation priority. Hmmm. Yeah, right. If that was the case, the millions dumped into the failing auto industry would have been invested in bullet trains instead.

“Anybody who has ever traveled in Europe or Japan knows that high-speed rail works and that it’s very effective,” LaHood said in an interview with The Associated Press. Yeah, but unfortunately if that's what it takes to get people to back spending on high speed trains instead of the auto industry, it'll never take off. Not everyone is fortunate (or has made international travel a priority) enough to go there and actually ride them.

So, what exactly is “high-speed” anyway? It depends on the location. The U.S. Federal Railroad Administration says the term applies to trains traveling more than 90 mph, a laughable speed given those in other countries. In France, for example, the Train à Grande Vitesse (aka: train of great speed), or TGV, travels an average speed of about 133 mph. And a train in development whips along at 357 mph! I would much rather ride and get where I'm going 6 times as fast as driving my car. And the trains are much, much safer. The Shinkansen trains in Japan have never had even a single death from an accident in their 40 year history. They travel an average of about 180 mph and Japan’s magnetically levitated train holds the overall world speed record at 361 mph. So, clearly, super high speed trains are definitely in the works. Why should the US let the efficiency and convenience pass us by?

Part of the problem, critics say, is that populated areas here are more densely packed than in other countries so building such systems here face major hurdles because people don't want them whizzing by their neighborhoods. And the Amtrak clunking along is better? A train that travels as fast as the bullet trains do is here and gone faster than you can blink an eye. Well, not literally, but pretty damned close. There's also the problem of losing your home or land to eminent domain when the tracks need to be laid down. Perhaps then, what is also needed, is an expansion of rights and compensations to owners.

I think our insistence on clinging to the automobile for transport is akin to continuing to buy lunches at McDonald's because it's cheap and tastes good even though you know damned well you are far better off for the long term going home to make turkey sandwiches and salads. But that takes time and effort, and alas, more money up front.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Why Expectant Dads Gain Weight Too

When it happens to humans, it's called 'couvade syndrome' as if it was some sort of illness. But the bit of extra weight an expectant dad puts on during his mate's pregnancy may not be a sick psychosomatic reaction at all.

A group of primate researchers who study two very unique species — common marmosets and cotton-top tamarins — noticed that males mated to pregnant females gained between 2-20% extra weight during her pregnancy.

The only other primates species reported to gain weight during their mate's pregnancy are humans.

In one study of couvade, derived from the French ‘to incubate or hatch,' 47% of the 81 expectant fathers in the study experienced significant weight gain during their partner's pregnancy. They also reported nausea, headaches backaches, restlessness, and anxiety. The medical and psychological community believe these to be sympathetic reactions to a mate's pregnancy without a biological cause, but perhaps there is one.

According to primatologist Toni Ziegler and co-authors, expectant fathers might be preparing for the energetic cost of fatherhood by gaining weight during their mate's pregnancy. But why?

Tamarins and marmosets are unique among primates for their high degree of male parental care.

Females give birth to twins that can weigh as much as 20% of their body weight, which for me, would be like giving birth to not one, but TWO babies that weigh 12 pounds! That's a lot of weight to haul around. Primates carry their babies with them either on their bellies or their backs wherever they go. Sure, a few oddballs (bushbabies) stash them in tree holes, but the vast majority of primates carry the babes more or less constantly. Baby-wearing is not some new trend among celebrity people, it is an old, old custom.

What makes tamarins and marmosets especially unique is that the dads carry the babies — not the moms. Moms just nurse them. It's the dads who do the heavy lifting. Thus, it makes good evolutionary sense for them to bulk up. They'll be burning a lot of extra calories packing around twins wherever they go so having a good supply of fat laid down in advance helps. Moms gain weight too, of course. Nursing is also energetically costly.

Pregnancy weight gain: marmoset and tamarin dads show it too. (2006) Ziegler et al.

P.S. Dear Mr. Field Notes, if you're reading this it's okay to hog the peanut butter cookies, just save some for me and expect to pitch in with baby carrying =D

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Today's Best Laugh

'This stupid bird's about to get a snot bath.'
Courtesy of an email forward from my ultra-hip grandma. This is not one of our newfs, but the sentiment is all the same.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Tunisia: An amazing place to go on vacation

At this time of year about five years ago (holy crap! has it really been that long?) I was cruising around Tunisia with Mr. Field Notes. If I wasn't pregnant and if the economy weren't so horrible that we both face the real possibility of unemployment, I would have sprung for 2 tickets back there next month.

Tunisia is an amazing place to go on vacation. The small, Mediterranean country in North Africa offers a lot: quaint seaside towns (like Sidi Bou Said), ancient and very well preserved Roman ruins, deserted beaches, bird watching, cultural experiences (like meeting and staying overnight with a Bedouin family), delicious and cheap food (a perfect mix of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food), and varied landscape ranging from beaches to mountains and fertile valleys to the Sahara Desert. It's awesome — and I totally want to go back.

Sidi Bou Said, a town that looks straight out of an advertisement for visiting one of the Greek isles, is the place I'd start. For starters, I love the white washed buildings and accent paint in a turquoise blue — a particular color that I still refer to as 'Sidi Bou Said blue.' The streets are narrow, windy and coblestone. Pull up a chair in a cafe and have mint tea or dark, rich espresso. Watch the sunset over the beach to the sound of the call to prayer. It's seriously laid back. We were warned there's nothing to do there — 'Go to Hammamet' — by the cabbie we hired to take us there. I think he just wanted the extra dinars to take us 45 miles instead of four.

We did eventually spend time in Hammamet at the end of the trip when we still had four free days and needed to drop off the rental car. I wouldn't go back. It was utterly boring.

So boring, in fact, that we resorted to making little beach creatures out of trash and god-knows-what. The round balls were not, in fact, camel turds but that's what we jokingly called them at the time. That, and 'Tunisian Turd Birds' after the 'Montana Turd Birds' I saw all the time in tourist traps growing up there.

The next time I'm in Tunisia, we'll take the train to Mahdia instead. Mahdia is the center of weaving wedding wraps in Tunisia. We never ventured in to find them because we only had one overnight stop planned there on our way to somewhere else. Mahdia had the best beach we saw in Tunisia — clean, white, and mostly devoid of people. And the luxury 5 star hotel was a steal at $80 a night. Of course, so was the super cute room we had for $8 a night in Sidi Bou Said.

Right down the road from our Sidi Bou Said hotel was a sweet garden where we sat and shared pocket sandwiches. We called them the 'Everything But the Kitchen Sink Sandwich' seeing how they were always full of all kinds of unidentifiable but delicious vegetables, plus hard boiled eggs, tuna, humus and french fries on top. We ate a lot of those sandwiches in Tunisia!

We also drank a lot of mint tea and espresso. In Tunisia they put pine nuts in the tea. I think that adds a little something special. They soak up the flavor of the tea really well but retain their nutty flavor.

Negotiating the cafes as a woman is a little unsettling though. Cafes are an almost universally male affair. I never got harassed at a cafe, but didn't feel completely comfortable amidst a bunch of men who looked a lot like the same guys who would offer 10,000 camels to Mr. Field Notes for me. That was actually funny all of the times it happened. Apparently, based on the report of a friend who recently visited Jordan, offering camels for foreign women is pretty typical and part of the shtick in the Arab world.

The cafe with the white washed dome was uniquely 'family friendly' in the sense that it may have been the only cafe we patrionized our entire three weeks in Tunisia that actually had women and children at it.

In spite of the overtly male-dominated culture, I felt very comfortable traveling around Tunisia and the people were the most warm, inviting people I have ever met in a foreign country. They bent over backwards to welcome us, even after and especially after, finding out we were Americans. I thought that was pretty damn cool seeing how at the time it was a year into the Iraq War.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Thoughts on marketing, advertising and PR

One of the things social psychologists can end up doing with their degrees is marketing research, but I get the feeling not many do. I've seen an awful lot of terrible market research and I'm not the only one. Yesterday I had an amusing time reading an article on the focus group as a method of ferreting out what people like.

The idea of the focus group is to get a group of people sitting around talking about the product with the help of a facilitator to ask questions and guide discussions. The article concluded the focus group is dead as a technique because of a few prominent cases of focus group research gone bad. The one that stands out is the focus group that missed how badly loyal viewers of the SciFi channel would react to its name being changed to SyFy. The article went on to hint around that the team didn't think to ask loyal viewers and instead asked people who were not regular viewers. Their big mistake was not that they used a focus group methodology, but that they failed to get an appropriate sample.

Sampling is king in human behavioral research. If you don't start with wise sampling, your research is gonna be bunk no matter how adeptly you adhere to proven methodology.

The article also failed to grasp the distinction between qualitative and quantitative research. The focus group is a great way to get qualitative research. It doesn't pair down attitudes, desires, and preferences into abstract numbers with questionable meaning. What do you think of the packaging of this product? "6" is hardly informative, but an answer like "The cacophony of bright colors is distracting and I can't really make out what that lettering says" at least gives
the company a specific direction to go during future research — and that is exactly the point of qualitative research methodologies like focus groups. Conduct them first to hone specific questions for further, qualitative, research.

When it comes to advertising and PR, newspapers could take a lesson from psychologists. Don't go around blasting all over the airwaves, pages, blogs, etc that your industry is ... well ... completely fucked. I cannot tell you how many stories I've seen that scream: ad revenue is down, circulation is down and our website isn't generating enough revenue. Then the whisper: Page views on our website are up and we get millions of hits. People are going to remember the negative information more readily. Newspapers are literally publishing their own worst PR right now.

This morning I browsed through our local entertainment weekly and saw an advertisement that said: Newspaper advertising is a destination, not a distraction. WHAT?! Why tell your readers *and* your current and future advertising clients that people think the ads are a distraction? Sell the positive without mentioning the negative.

Another ad, a PSA in the same publication, had the words: That Mexican is pretty smart. Mexican was crossed out, with the idea being that we should focus on the fact that he's smart. I know race relations are a huge problem in this country and that illegal immigration specifically is a hot button issue, but who really thinks those kinds of PSAs are gonna make anyone less racist? I'd much rather see a bunch of PSAs that read: That guy is pretty smart. Or that girl is pretty smart. At least then it would signal that being smart is valued in this country — a message that I think is sorely needed.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Big Katy's Big 3 Birthday

Celebrated by a visit to the store
to buy 2 forty pound sacks of food,
some toys and then a trip to the dog park.

Watch it there buster!

Ready for kisses!Who wants the first one?

Monday, March 16, 2009

We hit the fabric store today!

Over the weekend I found some awesome jungle theme fabric at esty.com for the baby room and today we bought the coordinating fabric to go with it. I'll be making curtains with horizontal bands in dark kiwi green, a vivid blueberry denim and pretty chocolate. At either the top or the bottom I'm sewing in a band of this fun print by Michael Miller Fabrics called "Jungle Jam."

I also loaded up on tons of coordinating fabric so I can make a diaper stacker (to conceal stacks of clean diapers ready to deploy at a moment's notice), a dust ruffle for the crib, a bumper, a hanging basket or two for stuffed animals, rattles and other toys, and three or four pillows.

For the pillows I'm planning on doing some applique animals out of felt to match the lion, owl and dragonfly in the curtain border print. I should have lots of left over fabric to make all sorts of other things too. As if that wasn't enough sewing, I also got enough fabric to make two quilts. Overboard, I know! They'll be big ones - about 4 x 6 feet.

One will be the funky Alexander Henry 2D Zoo print (top) with a light blue 'minky' fabric on the reverse and the other is the cheerful monkey print (bottom) with a pale lime green minky for the other side.

I ended up getting the rest of the bolt of dark kiwi green cloth at the fabric store today so they gave us the cardboard it was wrapped around.
It became the newest dog toy.

Yuki paraded it around, including from on top of the furniture, until Katy managed to tear half of it off along a perforation. Then Yuki dropped her piece to chase Katy's piece. They ended up shredding their cardboard in separate rooms until Mr. Field Notes eighty-sixed it before it became 386 dime-sized pieces all over the floor.

It ought to be fun to see how the sewing goes with not one, but two, Newfoundlands. Previously, it was just me and Max, and he was oh soooooo helpful, as you can see!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Birth of a baby orangutan

I was going to post on an orangutan who has figured out how to whistle, but the video commentary was inane, and this video of an orangutan giving birth is really neat. I imagine some might find it kind of gross though. After all, she eats the placenta and sucks her baby's head to clean him.

I can't help but to wonder when during human evolution we stopped licking our newborn babies. I've heard some cultures still do this. This sort of grooming also reminds me of some really cool research on mice that found that this initial licking and grooming postpartum is essential for normal physiological development. It kick starts digestion and lays the foundation for how the baby's HPA-axis functions later in life.

The HPA-axis, or hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, refers to the nervous and endocrine system that regulates the physiological response to stress. Rodents that don't receive early grooming grow up to have abnormal reponses to stressors; namely they release too much cortisol under duress.

Chronically high levels of the hormone cortisol have been shown (including among humans) to be associated with a weakened immune system, depression, and brain atrophy. That's really putting into a nutshell what I learned in what may be the most freakishly awesome seminar I took during grad school: Psychoneuroimmunology, or PNI.

If you would like to learn more about how behavior, mood, hormones and the nervous system interact to affect your health I highly, HIGHLY recommend the book Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky. Although he is as mega-scientist who professes at Stanford, the book is as readable as it is fascinating and entertaining. I freaking loved this book! Of course, he's also a primatologist and he has a wicked sense of humor. His other books are fantastic too, by the way. You cannot go wrong.

I still remember the day back in grad school when I was in the mail room and a fellow (newbie) grad student (who came to study PNI specifically) saw the book sitting on the counter and made some snide remark about how he hated it when laypeople jumped on the stress/immune system bandwagon and didn't know what they were talking about. It was then that I decided that he was an arrogant, ignoramus little snot. He had no clue who Robert Sapolsky was. Maybe Mr. Sapolsky shoulda put his big PHD behind his name on the book cover. In any case, I got the last laugh that day. I don't even know why I even still remember that, honestly, but it evidently made an impression.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Birthing a hyena — OUCH!

Sit down for this one!

I never knew much about hyenas until I discovered them in a book I highly recommend to anyone who wants to learn more about evolutionary psychology, primatology and motherhood from a female's perspective. It's called Mother Nature, by researcher-primatologist extraordinaire Sarah Hrdy. In the book she describes how hyena moms give birth. It was a real eye-opener to say the least.

From birth hyenas — a female dominant species — get super doses of male hormones. This primes them for the aggressive lifestyle they lead but also has some bizarre side effects. Namely, their genitalia are masculinized: the clitoris grows to male proportions of around 7 inches long, making them literally look like males. Researchers have great difficulty telling them apart from actual males. But what's more — I hope you're sitting down — they give birth through it.

Yep, that's right. They give birth through what amounts to a penis! The opening is only about an inch wide and babies weigh roughly two pounds — large enough to cause problems. Moms' tissues frequently tear during delivery and maternal and infant death is common, especially among first-timers. Some babies suffocate to death during delivery.

Females also mate through through the organ — giving the guys a difficult task as they try to position themselves just right. Apparently it takes male years to perfect the positioning to be successful.

If you'd like to learn more about sex role reversal and social dominance among hyenas, this article is a good, brief introduction: Establishing dominance.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Angry chimp shows humans not the only planners

An irritated chimpanzee at a zoo in Sweden calmly collected a stash of rocks early in the morning before the zoo opened and then hurled them at visitors when they arrived, confirming that chimps — like humans — can plan ahead.

The story is bouncing all over the wires today after it broke at the academic journal, Current Biology, this morning.

Apparently the 31-year-old alpha male even made his own makeshift projectiles — pieces of concrete he'd managed to dislodge from boulders in his enclosure. Sneaky, sneaky.

Anecdotal observations have been reported off and on from laboratory studies that have created situations that elicit evidence of planning in nonhuman primates, but so far, this is the only report I know of a chimp spontaneously, and unambiguously, planning an activity. Chimps in the wild have been known to hurl objects — mostly branches — during dominance displays but they've never been observed piling up weapons before such displays. Perhaps the materials are so plentiful they don't have to.

In any case, this observation "implies that they [chimps] have a highly developed consciousness, including lifelike mental simulations of potential events," says the lead author of the study, Mathias Osvath of Sweden's Lund University.

Another primatologist, Josep Call, co-author of the best reference book on primate cognition, cautions against over-generalizing the observation. "It could be that he is a genius, only more research will tell," Call said. Not all chimpanzees plan ahead.

The AP version of the story** says that no visitors were actually harmed — no surprise there given that chimps actually have horrible aim.

** And darn it if they didn't mispell Josep Call's name when they quoted him! Grrrr. They think he's Joseph.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Open Mouth Newfy Grin

Katy enjoyed the best hour ever this afternoon — a solo walk followed by a game of fetch and a ride to McDonald's where she got a plain hamburger. The only thing that would have made the hour even better? A swim! The temperature today is just right for that activity, seeing how it's a blustery 40 degrees. Yuki stayed home locked up inside her kennel where she napped peacefully the entire time. Swimming will have to wait for another day..

Thursday, March 05, 2009

The Price of Walking Upright

Oh to be a monkey in about 4 months instead of human... things would be so much easier, specifically giving birth.

Labor and delivery is not something I used to think a lot about, outside of the day I spend with my primate behavior classes talking about it.
We discuss the impact of skeletal and pelvic bone arrangement on labor and delivery in my unit on bipedalism. They are often amazed when I tell them other primates give birth in about 30 minutes.

Walking upright is a major adaptation on the part of humankind so it's only fitting to devote a good amount of discussion to it. I think it's a really fascinating
subject, not just because the transition from 'knuckle walking' to walking on two feet required major changes to the arrangement of bones that made human childbirth incredibly dangerous — and painful — but also because no one yet has any convincing and widely accepted explanation for what drove the shift to bipedalism in the first place.

Was it that our hands we free to carry food, tool
s, a baby? Who knows. Some think we stood up because it kept our bodies cooler while walking long distances in the African savanna to find food. There are at least 6 other unique theories out there and whatever the explanation — the cost is significant.

The human pelvis became shorter and broader and the opening in the bones, the birth canal through which a baby passes during delivery, took on a more oval shape. The fossil, Lucy, one of the first skeletons to show signs of upright walking, resembles a modern human pelvis more than a chimpanzee's. The shift meant that babies, including ancestral humans, had to turn sideways during delivery rather than coming straight out like other primates.

When other primates give birth, the babies come out face up, more or less looking right at mom. Mom can see the baby the whole time and guide the little guy out all on her own. Not so for humans. If a human mom were to try to pull her baby out on her own, the angle of the head and neck would be off enough to potentially break. The shape of the human pelvis is great for walking, but very bad for solo delivery. It's believed that humans have always had to have a helper during delivery.

Another unique development that made birth difficult for humans is our large brain. Psychologists and evolutionary anthropologists call this 'encephalization.' Based on fossilized skull remains, our craniums and brains appeared to get significantly larger right around the same time we started walking on two feet.

In most cases, the baby's head is larger than the birth canal and without flexibility, the baby couldn't be delivered successfully, and either baby or mom — or both — would die. Even now with modern medical approaches to childbirth, a significant proportion of babies are delivered surgically through C-sections because the baby's head is too large.

Without some modification through evolutionary processes the human species, with it's unique gait, would have gone extinct. Two adaptations worked against this:
  • relaxation of ligaments that hold together bones of the pelvis, hips and back
  • gaps in the baby's skull
Both ultimately helped make birthing big brains possible. The 16-30 hours of labor are just one cost. In contrast, other monkeys (with a few notable exceptions) and apes give birth in about 30 minutes!

Although that may sound idyllic, it's not something I or any other pregnant woman is ever going to experience. But we can be very thankful that human birth and labor is not nearly, not even remotely as awful as what female hyenas endure. More on them next time... It will blow your mind!

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Newfoundlands really know how to share..

A person already occupying a chair is no deterrent for Katy. She'll happily climb up and wedge herself into any available space, no matter the size. This morning she detected that I might like to sleep in a little and took matters into her own paws. When I sat up to get my glasses, she climbed into bed and wedged herself onto the pillows at the head of the bed in such a way that I could not lie back down, comfortably anyway. Normally when she jumps up on the bed, to sleep, she does so at the foot of the bed, arranging herself conveniently nestled behind my knees. So, I know today was all about getting the show on the road: breakfast and the rawhide chew stick she gets before Mr. Field Notes and I leave for the day.

We pay her back though:

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Ema - Japanese Prayer Plaques

One of things we love to do when we go to Japan is collect 'ema' from Shinto shrines we visit. Ema are small wooden plaques upon which people write prayers or wishes they want the gods, or kami, to grant: getting good exam scores, having a safe and easy delivery, finding love, winning a sporting event, etc.

People hang them up at the shrine in a dedicated place, and each shrine has its own unique ema imagery — sometimes more than one.

Animal themes are common: cows and oxen, horses, fox, pigs and boars, rabbits, and birds (often crows and cranes) are easy to find on ema as are the 12 animals associated with the Chinese zodiac. Much to my great disappointment, however, monkey-themed ema are incredibly hard to come by, unless I would guess, you happen to be in Japan during the Year of the Monkey, then I would imagine they are all over the place. Next time I go to Japan, I would really love for it to be in the year of the monkey!

Most ema are painted, some by hand, while others appear to be silk screened. Some shrines sell ema that are blank on both sides so you can paint your own. And some ema, like the fox-faced ema pictured above, seem to be made so that people can embellish them. Ema range in price from 300-1500 yen or about $4-20. The one above is one of the more expensive ones. I think it cost 1200 yen ($15).

Ema tend to be fairly uniform in size and shape, typically about 3 x 5 inches in the shape of well, a house. But every once in a while we came across ones that were pentagonal, square, round, covered in fabric/paper, burned, 3-dimensional and faces with jaws that clack.

Some shrines have larger than life ema — 18 feet across and 10 feet tall. While others have ema of various sizes tucked into unusual places like eaves and at the writing desks.

I love looking at the inscriptions people leave on them, as well as the variety of ema hanging at each individual shrine. They range from brand spanking new to well-weathered and apparently old ones. These Navy-themed ones were unusual. There were no other ema like them at the shrine where we saw them and looked entirely handpainted in the DIY tradition, which is pretty uncommon itself, so these modernish, yet obviously weathered military-themed ones really stood out.

When you buy an ema that you aren't going to write on and hang up, the proprietor, who is I think some sort of religious functionary-in-training, carefully places it in a white paper bag and hands it to you with both hands and a bow of the head. Very, very rarely — the priestly guy blesses it. And also very rarely, they assume you are actually going to write on it and hang it up even though you are obviously a really big strange white person who isn't there to worship.

I'm not sure exactly how many ema Mr. Field Notes and I have collectively acquired during our trips to Japan, but they could easily fill a wall of our house. One of the 'home improvements' on our agenda this spring is to hang them all. Finding the right place is a bit of a challenge because they have to be kept out of dog reach, being that they are wood and one little vandal, Yuki, still has a penchant for gnawing on wood. The other challenge is how to hang them in such a way that we don't end up putting 200 holes in the wall.