Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott

My wife and baby have been away for a month now in Utah. I did go visit them for one week, but that was nearly three weeks ago. I missed some big moments – being with them on my first Father’s Day, BabyG's six-month birthday, BabyG winning the cutest baby prize at a festival, MaG and BabyG riding on a float in a parade, and BabyG's first tooth poking out to name a few.

I tried to compensate by pulling out all our baby manuals and reading about six-month-old babies. We have William and Martha Sears’s big book and the American Academy of Pediatrics Caring for Your Baby and Young Child. But the book I read cover to cover is called Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year by Anne Lamott. I guess Lamott’s book does not really go with the first two I mentioned. It really is a journal not a manual. The chapter titles are dates and most everything she tells you about just happened on the particular day of the entry.

I read the book hungrily in three or four sittings although I’m not sure what I was looking for. Lamott is a dread-lock wearing, black-church attending, single-mothering white woman in her thirties living near San Francisco. She was also a recovering alcohol and coke addict. There’s this picture of her on the back with an open, white umbrella propped on her shoulder. It’s the right picture. She’s that hopeful. White umbrella hopeful. And yet, as every review has noted, she is "brutally honest," which tethers the book, keeps it out of the clouds.

For example, she wrote on October 6 at 3:45 am, “My vagina ached terribly. I kept trying to push his pacifier in, but his jaw was sort of gritted, the way you are when you’re coming down off cocaine. I just couldn’t get the pacifier in. I kept feeling like I was trying to push a bit into the mouth of a wild horse.” But then the next entry is about his first smile. Later she admits to having thoughts of violence. She even makes reference to saying out loud to her baby that she’d fetch a stick with nails poking out when he wouldn’t stop crying. I told MaG about that part over the telephone and she said, “Honey, I want you to know I never have those kinds of thoughts.” I never think about getting a stick either, but when BabyG won’t be consoled I do occasionally have disturbing flashes of anger. And it’s helpful to read a book that bears witness to those kinds of thoughts. You’re less alone if you know someone else has felt the same way and, probably, more able to cope with those kinds of thoughts.

One big thing that I realized when reading Operating Instructions is that the 1980s are definitely over. The entries were written between 1989 and 1990. The language, the mentality, and the liberal politics are characteristic of the 80s. For example, she makes reference to Leona Helmsley. I haven’t heard that name for years. And I don’t think a writer today could get away with the rather innocent way she writes about attending a Black church. She rants about George Bush, meaning the father, who, in retrospect, was a moderate in comparison to his son. No mention of the big alternative parenting methods that have since become more or less mainstream, like attachment parenting. And no internet. There were no parenting blogs, discussion boards, and listservs back then. Why buy a journal of someone’s son’s first year in this day and age? Granted Lamott is a brilliant writer. But if she were writing the same book today, she would have to try much harder to differentiate her diary from the thousands of parenting blogs available on the web, many of which are insightful and provocative.

But then why did I read the book cover to cover? Why did my computer remain shut all that time? I think I was drawn to her struggle as a single parent. MaG’s in Utah taking care of our baby without my help. I’m here alone. Lamott’s story of creating surrogate family helped me think about trying to do the same. Two-parent families may not be forced to use that strategy like a single-parent has to, but I think we should anyway. MaG went to Utah because her step-mother is very sick. She went to tend to her family, but I think the month she spent there gave her family and friends a chance to tend to her and our baby too. I didn’t quite identify with Lamott's perspective. (Her relationship with the Black church really bothered me, the way she'd let older, much poorer women slip money into her pocket. It was like she was preying on a support network when she had access to other wealth as a famous writer.) But her deliberate way of parenting with family and friends – I’m into that.

It Ain't Easy Being Queen

Every year my hometown, Myton, Utah, has a celebration that used to be called Myton Homecoming, in order to entice people who couldn't afford to live in a place with no jobs to come home and visit. Now it's called Myton Daze, I suppose because most of the people who attend live in Myton and most people who have moved away don't happen to be home on the weekend of the year the town (officially) parties. Except this year, BabyG and I did just happen to be in Utah for Myton Daze...fortutious, especially, since my mother Kathleen is the mayor and had a big hand in organizing the event. We got to go be proud of her.

As a little girl I dreamed of winning the annual Little Miss Myton contest, mostly because I believed a world without the sparkling crown adorning my own head would be a terribly cruel one. My Aunt Sallie won one year, and her own jeweled tiarra sat on top of the piano in my grandparents' family room, torturing me. I wasn't allowed to play with it and the top of my head pounded viciously with the desire to put it on.

I never got it together enough to actually participate. My dad owned the bar next door to the park where the celebration was held, and Myton Daze/Homecoming always just crept up without my having prepared some talent or other to wow the world with. The one year I got to almost participate in Myton Daze at all, in a square dance performed by the entire third grade class of Myton elementary, I showed up at the dress rehersal but by the time the actual dance began I had run across town and was busily watching my Aunt Fern's cat having kittens with my cousin Darren. Poor old Rowdy didn't have a partner and had to dance with Mrs. Jones.

Just today, however, my father lied to me and told me that I did win the Miss Myton contest. He said it was the same year he won the ugliest shirt contest and our dog, Sidney, won the best looking dog event. Neither event actually ever existed, but my dad has a wonderfully fictive memory that is almost always becoming to me.

All this is coming up becuase this year I was unable to resist putting BG in the baby contest...even though I feel like I'm supposed to hate baby contests. My own mom told me she never entered me in one because she would have ripped the eyes out of all the judges if I didn't win. Not to mention Myton Daze/Homecoming didn't start until I was seven...I don't think they ever had a retro baby contest.

Baby contests are not in the realm of green parenting, they are more like orange parenting, or neon parenting, or Fire Engine Red Parenting. People say the contests are all about the parents' needs, not the childrens'. I think people are right, because I pretty much NEEDED BG to become Queen Baby of Myton. Every six months old drop of her knew this as she sat on my lap on the stage in the little elementary school and giggled winningly at the judges, one of whom was my former Kindergarten teacher. She fluffed back her incredible head of hair and pretended to be a mix between Miss Breck and the Gerber baby. Of course, BG won out against the one other baby in her age division (six to nine months), who was her first attendant. So BG's cousins Cole & Haydon won several races; her cousin Alexia won a watermelon eating contest, and BG won Queen Baby.

She won a fabulous crown that I sat on just about right afterwards. I had to bend it and glue it back together so that she could wear it during the big parade the Queen and her mother rode in on a float. The parade's path follows the mile of strip that is Myton's main street. I looked forward to the event the entire day before it began, and bathed BG and made sure she had the right amount of sleep to really enjoy her first ride on a float.

But the Karmic gods got me for entering her into the contest in the first place, in the end: it was HOT, first of all. Notice her tongue sticking out in the picture to the left. I almost dehydrated my baby who was too mad to eat because the fire department was riding behind us. That meant we were followed by honking, siren rearing folks. Giant Red Monsters, so far as BG was concerned, and Queen BG was NOT impressed. In fact, Queen Baby howled at the top of her lungs for about the entire fifteen minute duration of the parade. I wanted to jump off the float and save my baby and my own concience, but it was too tall for me to jump off of without dropping the queen.

And so it begins, BabyG paying for the sins of her mother.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

More Britney Smears – Pretty in Stink

In my last post, I defended Britney Spears. Maybe I didn’t defend her so much as express my ambivalent feelings about her. My argument was that the whole Britney is a bad mother thing has more to do with America’s schizophrenia about gender than her actual ability to parent. But today, I’m more in a smear Britney mood.

Take a look at these pictures of Britney:

These pictures haven’t garnered nearly as much controversy as the picture of Britney nearly dropping her baby or the one where she’s driving with the baby in her lap. But I think these pictures are more upsetting. Why? It’s not because they're tacky like a 1985 glamour shot. My problem is that she clearly has make-up on. I’m guessing she’s wearing perfume as well. Those cosmetics and fragrances contain unregulated petrochemicals that mimic estrogen and testosterone, hormones that affect the development of the body in a myriad of ways we don’t fully understand yet. Here is a diagram of dibutyl phthalate, a chemical commonly found in cosmetics, and a diagram of estrogen.

Are you having trouble figuring out which is one is which? Your body has a hard time too. Sadly, women of child-bearing age are expected to wear cosmetics and fragrances. Those products are marketed aggressively to the one demographic that has the most reason to avoid them. Endocrine disruption could harm our children’s mental, sexual, and general development. Decreased penis size, hypospadia, breast cancer…scientists who do not have a vested interest in the commercial success of the cosmetic and fragrance industry are gathering more and more evidence on very disturbing effects of endocrine disruptors.

Here’s another picture that ought to be as controversial as the one where Britney is driving with her baby in her lap. In this one Britney is marketing her own brand of petro-stink right around the time of her first pregnancy.

An excellent resource on this issue is the Not Too Pretty website. You can download their report at this link.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

The Mother We Love to Hate

I’ve been thinking a lot about Britney Spears. I have loved to hate her since she became famous. People often say that the Madonna of the 80s was far more impressive than Britney. Madonna always controlled her media image and challenged norms. She shaped, refined, and constantly reinvented her persona. She still does. There’s always another religious culture for Madonna to appropriate. Britney, on the other hand, is thoroughly made by others. Madonna turned the music industry into her vehicle, but it’s clear that the industry made a vehicle out of Britney. That’s why I don’t exactly hate Britney. Yes she is vapid, but she’s more a victim than an agent. Victim isn’t the right word. She is a reflection of the dominant, American notion of femininity. The wholesome girl in an impossibly short skirt. The paradoxically virginal temptress. Safely ensconced behind the television screen, she asks to be “hit one more time.” I remember a period of about three years when her songs were as unavoidable as air. Gross anatomy lab, restaurants, a Peruvian village in the Andes mountains – I couldn’t go anywhere without hearing her. She was more ubiquitous than McDonald’s.

Then she got pregnant. A national crisis. An international crisis.

What do we do when our virginal temptress becomes a mother? We heap scorn on her. We gorge on photographs of her looking…different. As in tired and overwhelmed, not in schoolgirl-stripper condition. How dare she? She doesn’t put her baby in the car seat when the paparazzi chase her. Her baby falls out of a highchair. For a few days, it seems possible the government could take her baby away. Then maybe she could go back to creating perfectly borderline pornographic consumables and we could happy again. But she kept her baby through it all and got pregnant again. It seems she didn’t quite plan this second baby and she denied being pregnant. Then she was proud about the pregnancy on Letterman and still planning to return as diva.

Britney is not my hero by any means. As an individual human being, she’s stumbling through conflicting gender roles. Like my daughter will have to. But she is also a national allegory and this allegorical hasn’t reached its denouement. I’m sympathetic, curious, and horrified.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

non sequitoria, utah, blather

for the record, i have always been a big fan of the lesser germs, even before the article greendaddy mentioned was published. my old friend julie c. and i used to go so far as to say we didn't believe in them. since that time a number of germs have made themselves terribly apparent to me and i have decided not to be so much in their favor as to disbelieve their existence entirely.

i should clarify that by germs i mean anything smaller than a pore and endowed with the ability to make me throw up, sneeze, get hives, cancer, die, what have you. um. sorry, doctors and lexographers.

anyway, more recently than the article about the healthy sewer lab rats, i think i read somewhere about kids growing up on farms having less alergies or something than city kids?

on another note, every day i am growing more annoyed by bottled water. why do people buy it? i acknowledge that in youth getting water in cone shaped cups, from the culligan man was neat. but what's neat about a plastic bottle? that isn't rhetorical. answer: NOTHING! people! go get filters! they're cheaper and you're more likely to get clean water if you get one! gosh, water is FREE. ish. take it free!

utah is a desert state. lotta water bottles.

(strained transition:)

also lots of alcoholics i know live in utah. and i am more annoyed by cihrossis and alcoholic induced hepatitis, or really, hepatitis in general (my other mom has hep c), than i am at bottled water and its drinkers.

but i'm not really annoyed by germs in general. even when i got the stomach flu last week, i didn't mind. gave me an excuse to rest (that's how fabulous utah has been.) babyg didn't get sick, which seems miraculous. her immune system fired up in response to my flu germs and her white cells kicked my flu cells' asses.

i think this post ended awhile back and i ignored it, which is why i can't think of how to end.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Your Baby and the Sewer

The Associated Press published a great story about sewer rats today. It seems a recent study has shown that rats living in sewers have better immune systems than rats raised in clean laboratories. The findings are in line with what has been called the Hygiene Hypothesis. My sister-in-law, who is an allergist at Duke University, told MaGreen and me about this hypothesis a few months back and we keep thinking about it. The basic observation is that children who live in the countryside generally have less allergy problems than kids who live in the city. It’s thought that country kids’ immune systems are challenged by living close to animals -- think hair, poop, germs. City kids’ immune systems don’t have anything to do but overreact to regular things. So the country kids build strong immune systems that attack harmful viruses and bacteria whereas spoiled, squeaky-clean city kids have bored, alienated immune systems that listen to punk rock and freak out over hair balls, wheat, and peanuts.

Dr. William Parker, a Duke doctor who co-authored the study, is quoted as saying, “Your immune system is like the person who lives in the perfect house and has all the food they want, you're going to start worrying about the little things like someone stepping on your flowers.”

When I read that, I started thinking about kids who live in filthy houses with peeling lead paint worrying about where the next meal will come from. Or kids who actually live with rats in sewers. Before I quit the medical track, I went to Ayacucho, Peru and studied an intestinal parasite that children often get from pigs. I remember this mother who brought her little boy who suffered frequent seizures to us. The mother knew that the parasite we were studying could have caused her son’s illness. But as a student researcher I didn’t have the means to get her son treatment, which was one of the experiences that opened my eyes to disease as a primarily political problem not a purely medical one.

I’m straying from my topic, but I guess my point is that we have to find someway to maintain hygiene without alienating our bodies from the world. Eat cheese with mold on it. Don’t wash the pacifier every single time it touches the ground. Camp. Hang out at farms. Take the cellophane off your baby.

[I stole the above picture from http://buy-garbage-pail-kids.com where Garbage Pail Kids merchandise can be bought.]

Saturday, June 10, 2006

A Poem for the Alcoholic Grandmother

Thunder can ricochet off the mountains
irrigation ditches may run over the banks
dogs will bark back at the heavens
and she will still be sick.
Rehabilitation is on our lips
but are we not meaning to say accommodation
or reconciliation
or even retribution?
Oxygen tubes, catheters, PIC lines –
we secretly think of all this as penance.
This is nothing to how you torment us.

But there, under the hospital's halogen lights
casting off a soft glow
is a baby girl,
a babbling granddaughter.
Her name is the refrain of our better thoughts.
What is an alcoholic grandmother's life good for?
To love L.
To teach L. to demand leftovers at midnight
To pass Christmas ornaments on to L.
To help L. seek an end in objects and sensations:
porcelain turtles, furniture, a dog's breadth.

Remember that there were two Krishna's.
That war-mongering, duty-peddling
awe-striking, Karma-pushing Krishna,
he who drove Arjun's chariot chanting,
Karmanye vaadikarashye mafaleshu kadachana.
This is the Krishna of our studies, not our songs.
Who is our partner when we dance the Raas-Lila?
It is a shepherd cavorting with village girls
the flautist of Vrindavan gardens
a teenage boy drunk on butter.

Friday, June 09, 2006

The Green Virgin and the Toxic Whore

I have spent the last week driving around Salt Lake City. The streets are wide. Every other yard boasts a half dozen rose bushes in full bloom. Even the most mundane of strip malls is set off against the backdrop of the snow-capped Rockies. Little streams – clear and frigid water just melted off the peaks – course through the gridded streets. I look. I admire. But I'm not here as a tourist. I'm here to support my wife and help her take care of our baby during a crisis. As I wrote in my last post, M's stepmother is in the hospital for a failing liver. This morning she had a TIPS shunt placed in her liver to lower the pressure in her veins and seems to be stabilizing, but she is still very sick.

Most of the day goes by in the ICU waiting rooms. We spread out a little blanket on the floor and L. plays there as if she were at home. She kicks and wiggles. She takes naps and wets her diapers. (Sometimes we practice elimination communication, but usually don't.) L. smiles at strangers who gratefully smile back even though their son is hanging onto his life after a motorcycle accident or their mother is struggling for every breadth. The man in the room next to M's stepmother (at the last hospital) had collapsed during a marathon and survived because a bystander performed CPR. His wife had been crying for a day and a half, but when she found out her husband fully recovered she took a liking to L. "Look at all that hair," she said.

Between the hospital visits, I look out at this beautiful city and I think about the Mormons who built it, and the Mormons who live here now. Frankly, I look down on the rigidity of their puritanical beliefs and I'm repulsed by their evangelism. I especially dislike their patriarchal hierarchies and their notions of gender roles. And there is so much silliness to Mormonism, just as there is with other religions, but with Mormons it is fresh and new, not shrouded with centuries of apologetics, so it is easier to laugh at them. For example, a healthy person who drinks an occasional glass of wine with an organic, vegetarian dinner would be violating Mormon standards by drinking alcohol, but a dangerously overweight person eating two pounds of prime rib and washing it down sugar-laden, syrupy sodas is not. They're a bunch of dupes!

Still, there was a principal behind the ban on alcohol, which is that people should not desecrate the body temple by consuming drinks that stimulate and intoxicate. With M's stepmother in the hospital for alcoholism-induced hepatitis, I've been wondering if we're not the dupes and the Mormons have it right. My own family hasn't had any alcoholism issues (as far as I know), which I attribute to the prohibition on alcohol sales in Gujarat and the general taboo on alcohol consumption among Bunyas, Brahmins, and Muslims. So who should be looking down on who? Something is terribly wrong with secular, American culture or else M, L, and I wouldn't be spending all this time in the ICU waiting room.

I have also noticed the strong presence of punks, slackers, hippies, hipsters, and other social groups who, like M's family, have defined themselves in opposition to Mormons. People who are not Mormon really aren't Mormon and they wear that difference boldly. They dye their hair strange colors with a vengeance. They bare their tattoos with great flare. And they drink with gusto. I would not be surprised if the rate of alcoholism among non-Mormons is much higher here than rates in other regions. In other words, is it possible that one group's valorization of purity can, in part, drive the rest of the population to excess?

I suppose I'm just restating the old feminist critique of the virgin/whore binary, but this time I'm doing so with tired-of-the-ICU-waiting-room feeling. At times, I've caught myself mentally composing a big list of everything that is toxic (alcohol, Windex, plastic water bottles, aromatic petrochemicals) and another list of everything that is anti-toxic (composting, gardening, cleaning with vinegar). I just want to look at these lists and know that I've figured the world out, that everything can be divided up, made sense of, and managed so as to maximize my family's and the world's happiness. But I stop myself.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006


Today MaGreen and I found ourselves intently studying this diagram of the liver, the kidney, spleen, stomach, and esophagus. The diagram highlights how the veins filter the blood flow through the liver. If a person's liver becomes severely scarred – say, after a lifetime of alcoholism – pressure builds and blood backs up through to the little ones lining the organs. The veins around the esophagus, stomach, and other organs expand, leak, and even explode, causing terminal or nearly terminal bleeds. Look closely at the liver in the diagram and you will see a white tube that represents an artificial "shunt." This tube bypasses the liver and the blood in the veins shoots directly to the heart. Radiologists can place this by going through the jugular. So it's a relatively simple, non-invasive procedure. The name for the procedure, TIPS, has an optimistic hint to it, as if the doctors are letting you in on a wonderful secret. But it in no way saves the liver. Just buys time. Unfortunately, our interest in all this isn't academic. MaGreen's stepmother, the woman who helped raise her from the age of four on, was just transferred by ambulance from one hospital to a bigger one so this procedure can be done to her.

I'll let MaGreen write about her family. But I have been wanting to post a new entry to our blog and since our blog started off as a chronicle detoxifying our lives for our baby girl, how can we not write about what has happened? How can we leave out that our baby's grandmother voluntarily poisoned her own liver, slowly, over the course of three and a half decades? If you are the praying kind, pray for MaGreen's family. If you are the agnostic kind, hope.

Friday, June 02, 2006

We Don't Have a TV

That’s right. We’re one of those people. Because we are pure. No, that’s not why we don’t have a tube. It’s because we can’t help but watch for hours when we do have one. It sucks us away. And the content is mostly terrible. Actually, we do have a tube. I’m looking at it right now and it’s hooked up to my computer. For all our TV chastity, we are enthralled to the computer. I think it would be easier for me to count how many hours I’m not looking at a computer screen than the other way around. Between work, using the web for plane reservations and such, DVD watching on the computer, etc. – it’s an all day thing for my wife and me. In terms of parenting, though, our daughter is only five months old so we really haven't had to deal with this issue head on yet, but I've been thinking about it. The Kaiser Foundation released a report on media and parenting that’s finally got me to the point where I have to express my thoughts on the subject.

But first, enjoy this picture of our cat watching TV (which predates our renunciation of the medium):

The Kaiser report documents in great detail just how much time children are watching TV, listening to music, or sitting at the computer. Here’s a pretty illustrative quote, “Kids who watch television and those who watch videos or DVDs spend an average of about one and a quarter hours on each (1:19 for TV and 1:18 for videos/DVDs), while those who play video games and use computers spend an average of just under an hour on each (0:55 for video games and 0:50 for computers). On the whole, the 83% of children who use screen media in a typical day spend an average of just under 2 hours (1:57) doing so.” The basic thrust of the document is that parents use media to help distract their kids so they can get chores done, cook, and have "me" time.

Yes, I am disturbed. Two hours of screen time per day…on average. When I was a kid, I played basketball, rode my bike, and did my homework. Well, I guess I did play video games too. But not that much. I am righteously appalled by today’s kids and their lazy parents who “can’t imagine how they’d get through the day without television, video, and DVDs” because they’re too busy to just sit with their kids. Actually, I’m just not surprised enough to be that upset. My main reaction to the study is that it didn’t ask the right the kind of questions for me to form a solid conclusion.

I'd like to suggest a distinction between different types of media. There's advertisement-saturated media that you passively receive. And there's media that you engage with or even create. For example, if I help my daughter (when she is older) to write a news report for the Houston Independent Media Center website, I hardly think that's equivalent to watching American Idol even though both activities would be counted as screen time. Even watching American Idol is different than just watching MTV. People talk about American Idol at work and school. It's a major, public event. It becomes social. It creates an imagined national community. I'd like my daughter to participate in that kind of thing occasionally.

I think it would be more interesting to ask questions like, “How much time do you spend creating media verses time spent consuming it?” “How much time do you spend discussing the meaning, rhetoric, and agenda of media?” “Do you spend so much time creating media like pictures and video that you can only experience your family through the hyper-reality of those images?” Basically, the Kaiser Foundation should hire me to set up their next study.