Mary Douglas

The subject was dirt, or perhaps I should say “Dirt.” It was spring 1996, and I was a newly minted comp-lit Ph.D. candidate thrilled to be taking part in my first academic conference. Okay, it was a conference of grad students organized by my friends in the Harvard English department, but somehow that just made it feel more authentic, like college football compared to professional. I still have the flyer, which reproduces an artsy photo of a dump truck about to discharge its load into a giant quarry.

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When, armed with an infant, you descend into the nether world of urban playgrounds and playdates and long, searching conversations about upper-middle-class parental obsessions (gluten allergies, Mandarin classes), you’re likely to find yourself wondering whether you’ve joined a genial but nutty sect. Rumor runs rampant; information is so copious and conflicting there might as well be none at all; skepticism and standards of scientific evidence shimmer and vanish at the hint of something to worry about.

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