Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Compact

I joined the Sierra Club last year so that I could vote against the board take-over attempt by anti-immigration forces. To my delight, I received a backpack, which we use as our diaper bag, and several publications, both in print and online. A couple of day ago I was reading a Sierra Club publication called The Green Life. It had an article about a little movement out of San Francisco called The Compact. People who agree to the Compact promise not to buy anything new for a full year. They can buy fresh food and medicine, but not new clothes, bike seats, vacuum cleaners, cell phones, or couches. The idea is to consume less and leave less of an ecological footprint.

That idea has been circulating in my head. I think I have probably unintentionally lived by the Compact in the recent past. When I was living on a teaching assistant salary, I may well have not bought anything new for a year, except for books. I have never enjoyed shopping. When my mom took me to the shoe store once, I remember sitting down to try some sneakers on. There was a scraggly haired guy – an Eastern Kentucky mountain man type – at the other end of the bench. He looked at me and said, "These are the first new shoes I'll have bought in five years."

"I have to get new shoes every year," I said. My feet were growing after all.

"I would keep wearing my old ones, but they've got big holes in them now," he said. The tattered shoes he held up were completely beyond repair. I had never seen anything like them. At that moment, to my mom's dismay, I decided that when my feet stopped growing I would wear my shoes out just like him.

So not only do I not enjoy shopping – every minute spent in a store I could be picking at my guitar or napping or talking with my grandma instead – I enjoy the familiarity of heavily used objects, the concavities worn in by one thousand footfalls. As my good friend Hosam pointed out to MaGreen last Tuesday, I only have three pairs of pants. For me, not buying stuff is a preference not a virtue. That said, I don't think it would be possible for new parents to live by the Compact. Newborns equal stuff. And if your children are older, living by the Compact would surely be a shortcut to what I call the Gandhi effect. That is, you might become famous for your lifestyle, but at least one of your children will deeply resent you and try to do everything to oppose your ideals.

All childless people should try the Compact, especially college students in San Francisco. For parents, maybe it is a worthwhile thought experiment. A mental exercise, but not an ideal. Some baby gear has to be bought new, right? Like carseats.

Monday, September 25, 2006

A Male Primary Caregiver Tells All

A few months back, I heard from my old friend Darragh. He had seen our blog and found my email address. During the time we hadn't been in touch, he had become a dad too. His wife, who I went to medical school with before I quit, is training as a surgeon. She is half Chinese, half white. Darragh, who is from Ireland, is staying home as the primary caregiver, or PCG as he likes to put it. I'd like to share a mini-interview we did by email.

What's it like being a male PCG?
We are in a small town in Ohio called Gallipolis. Jocelyn is two weeks into an eight week rotation in a rural hospital. We love it here, the town is on the Ohio River and so is the small house we stay in. There are great hiking trails in the area. I use a Baby-Bjorn when hiking; both Meilyn (the baby) and Deckard (the dog) love it.

Being a male PCG, I obviously have a strong bond with Meilyn due to the time we spend together. We have exclusively breastfed her since birth, with the help of an electric breast pump. When Jocelyn feeds her directly from her breast it keeps the physical and emotional bond strong between them.

Another observation I have is that I will dress Meilyn with comfort being the primary concern and the child will stay in these clothes until they are dirty or no longer comfortable. Women in general tend to inflict their habit of constantly changing what they wear onto the child. She is not a doll. Men rule O.K.
What are your thoughts on childcare as an Irishman living in the States?
My biggest fear of raising a child in America is the quality of the public education system here. Ireland, although not flawless by any means, has an excellent public education system. All social and economic classes educate themselves together as private schools are virtually non-existent. Ireland also offers free third level education across the board (not means tested). This system not only reduces the poverty cycle but helps cement a singular sense of community that has a greater social conscience. A far less abrasive class and social system exists in Ireland than in America, in part because of this. I believe high quality education exclusively for the wealthy is immoral.
What do Americans take for granted that they should question?
As a guest in this country I am always uneasy criticizing America, especially in these overly patriotic times. The blind patriotism is diminishing slowly but surely and giving way to a more subtle blend of undiplomatic international arrogance. Despite my preceding statement please note that I do not want to convey the notion of a sinking hell that is America and Ireland or anywhere else for that matter as a shining beacon of social moral virtue. We are not concentrating on the imperfections of Ireland (of which there are many) or elsewhere, at this moment in time.

A society that cannot constantly examine its flaws, re-think, re-position, renew itself militarily, socially, and economically is a country that is not evolving, a country that is doomed. I am glad to say that America will always be a country that has a disgruntled public voicing their opinions. I say to all these people whether they are the minute men (with whom I disagree) or they be the anti-war protesters (with whom I do agree), "Shout louder, keep kicking the elephant or the donkey whomever it may be."

To live in a time that quells these voices, such as the firing of Peter Arnett by NBC, uncontrolled wire-tapping, and every other violation of civil liberties that hides under the disguise of the Patriot Act or the “war on terror,” has lead this country down a blind path. This leads me to Abu-Grab, one of the greatest single unanswered injustices in the Iraq war. I have heard celebrities on late-night talk shows make light of these horrors, to the cheering of the live audience. It is at times like these that I can understand how some German citizens took the path they did in WW2 (blind, ignorant patriotism). Am I over-reacting? Can I see the woods for the trees? Please tell me.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Sunday in the Park with Daddy

BabyG and I attended a rally in support of women's right to choose. Even though I like to talk about politics with friends and family, I generally do not bring up abortion. People have such deeply entrenched positions that discussions never lead anywhere. The vocabularies of each "side" are so overdefined and embattled that even if two people want to have a meaningful conversation about abortion, it can be difficult. The terms are set. The arguments have been rehearsed. When I taught writing at the University of Houston, I told my students not to write about abortion because I have never seen a college paper that manages to present the issue from a fresh perspective, or that showed the writer had listened to those who disagreed with them. I won't pretend to make a unique contribution to the debate.

That said, I won't be silent either. I firmly believe that my daughter and all other women ought to have the right to choose what happens inside their bodies. I believe that if abortion is thought of as an abstraction, it is easy to condemn. But the particular stories behind each decision are far more difficult to judge. And I believe that criminalizing abortion creates a public health catastrophe.

The rally itself was very calm. It was at Bell Park off Montrose. The temperature has finally cooled here in Houston. BabyG had been grumpy, but when I put her on the ground next to her friend Cos she relaxed and enjoyed herself. There were some speeches, but none of them were shrill. There was a wonderful vibe of love and community.

Friday, September 22, 2006

On Chanting

I have chanted my whole life. It has taken me too long to admit that to myself. That I have always chanted. That I can't escape it. It has taken becoming a father.

My family is from India and I was taught to chant Om. I think that when most Americans think of chanting Om, it is something bizarre. Laughable. Woodstock hippies chant Om. Even for those who are into yoga, I think chanting Om must feel exotic. But my exposure to chanting was from a very early age. First my dad gave my brother and me instruction in Prana Yama, or breathing techniques. Then when the Hindus in Mobile, Alabama, where I grew up, got a group meeting going every month, I learned more about chanting from Dr. Virupaksha Kothandapani. We called him Dr. Pani for short.

Dr. Pani taught us that there are four parts to expressing Om. The first is an aa sound. Then the oh sound. Then mmm. And finally silence. He explained the cosmological significance of each segment. He explained that the four parts blend together. He discussed the way your lips should move. How the sound comes from the depths of your body. How your chin might vibrate. How there are really two parts to the silence. The first part where there is no breadth and the second part when you take in breadth. We discussed whether you should keep your eyes open or closed or half opened. I took him so seriously. The way only a child can. If Dr. Pani knew how seriously I took him, I think he would have had second thoughts about those lessons.

At the beginning of each meeting, the whole group – about one hundred people – would chant Om together ten times. People said that chanting Om together relaxed them. That it made them momentarily forget their problems. It got them ready to discuss scriptures. One month, at the beginning of the meeting, during the chanting, on about the fifth or sixth Om, a tremendous and indescribably feeling washed over my entire body. My whole sense of self and being got subsumed in this totally overwhelming joyousness. I started crying. Part of me wanted to jump up and explain what had happened. But I thought that people would think I was a fool or seeking attention. It was 1986. Eight-year-old Indian-American boys didn't declare they had experienced satchitananda in 1986.


For a long time, when I chanted I tried to recover the intensity that I felt when I was eight. And without success. I had to portage around what was going on in my mind too often. By the time I was sixteen, when I closed my eyes the image of some girl I was infatuated with was likely to fill my mind. When I was taught Hinduism, the central lesson was a verse from the Gita that goes like this, Karmanye Vadhikaraste Ma Phaleshu Kadachana, Ma Karma Phala Hetur Bhurmatey Sangostva Akarmani. It roughly means that you should act according to your duties, but you should not be attached to the fruit of your actions. Attachments spiral into animal like behavior and suffering. So any attachment – as in lust for the red-headed goth who I saw in the hallway everyday between first and second periods – was not an appropriate beginning to start chanting from. So I stopped chanting.

A few years later, when I was a sophomore in college, I was a volunteer DJ for the college radio station. So I had access to the station's library of recordings. I would pick out five albums a week and listen to them in my room. I was desperately trying to figure out my taste in music. I came across a CD in a hardcover booklet. It was called Deep in the Heart of Tuva: Cowboy Music from the Wild East. The recordings were of Tuvan chanting, which is a kind of multi-tonal throat singing. One person sings in such a way that they produce at least two clear notes – a really high top note modulated into a melody above a guttural base note. It sounds kind of like an air-conditioning unit or a jet engine or a vacuum cleaner. I didn't come up with those comparisons actually. They were in the liner notes. I think the whole packaging – the title of the album, the booklet, the liner notes – tried to help Americans appreciate something very bizarre. I'm not criticizing the album or the packaging. But I think the album meant something else to me because it brought me back to chanting, back to what I had done before.

The thing about Tuvan chanting is that the singers aren't monks. They are mostly nomadic people. Shepherds. They don't chant to rid themselves of lust. They chant with the passion of men and women who live in the world. They chant for their animals, their yaks and their sheep. They chant for their lovers and their children. They chant to evoke spirits, demons, and ancestors. That wordly, celebratory, bodily aspect to the Tuvan chanting blew open a big door for me. It was one way back into the spirituality I grew up with, not the scriptural discourse of being unattached, but something else.

My dorm room was next to Michael Kraskin's. He was encouraging me to collaborate with him as a cellist and as a composer. We were sound designing a performance that David Terry was putting together, which has subsequently become the subject of episode 44 of their podcast, Catalogue of Ships. I spent so much time on music that I nearly failed a really important organic chemistry exam. If I wasn't working out a new section of the score with Mike or at one of David's insane rehearsals, I was in my room by myself practicing the cello, listening to the Tuvan chants, or chanting myself. I had a little tape recorder and I would record my chants. I kept trying to hear the multiple tones that I knew were already there. If I could hear the different tones, I thought I could tease them out. It felt crazy. But Dr. Pani had already taught me the basics when I was eight. I mean I wasn't Tuvan chanting back then, but the shaping of the lips, the contouring of the mouth, and the diaphragmatic breathing he taught me were exactly the right preparations for Tuvan chant.

I count those performances with Michael for David's play as a major accomplishment in my life. I played the cello as I had never done before. I even brought some chanting in. I was studying to be a physician, but I thought maybe I should be an artist.

A few weeks later, on a weeknight, sometime after midnight, I sat down on the floor in my dorm room to chant softly. Then I stopped and focused on my breathing. Then I started to feel an energy work its way up my spine. When it reached my head, I lost sense of time. Unlike when I was eight, there wasn't a whole room of people to worry about. By the time my ecstatic experience ended, I could barely walk. I was frightened. It seemed like I had experienced what the Hindu scriptures described as an endpoint, but I did not want to go back to that place and lose myself there, or deceive myself into thinking I was all of a sudden enlightened.

I gave up Tuvan chanting. I gave up meditating. I stopped collaborating with Michael and David. And I got the highest score on the next organic chemistry exam. I completely annihilated the curve.


Over the following years, the Tuvan chanting would creep back. I went to medical school. I quit medical school. I lived in Chicago. I lived in New York. I moved to Houston. I would chant for my friends. Then I would try to stop again. When I first met MaGreen, there was this party we were both at. It was poolside at a fancy apartment complex. We went swimming and there was a waterfall you could sit underneath. I just had the urge there to chant in accompaniment to the water with MaGreen and some other new friends there listening. It felt right. But then people asked me to do it again and again like it was a party trick. And that saddened me. So I swore off chanting again.

MaGreen understood that the chanting was sacred to me, which I appreciated. She understands the quivering line between the sacred and the silly. However, she's a bit tone deaf. She really values the lyrics in music and the overall effect of music. But she doesn't sing or play an instrument. We can't make music together. That's something I have had to silently forgive her for.

So when MaGreen went into labor and started to moan in a chant-like way, I was really surprised. That was about a year ago. On my birthday. Our daugher BabyG was born on my twenty-eight birthday. We had gotten to the hospital at midnight. We thought MaGreen was in full-blown labor, but when the midwife drove in she told us to try to sleep because active labor hadn't started yet. I slept until six am. I woke up to MaGreen's moaning. It was a high-pitched moan with an even higher tone ringing above the main note like a lone fire truck hurdling through the night sounding its sirens. Not to clear traffic but to align all the elements in the universe to focus all the forces from above and below calling them to the cause. Outside the hospital, the city was waking up. Jets howled, the buried pipes and cables whirred, lawnmowers, compressors, and heaters groaned, whined, and growled. The highway was one long wail. But MaGreen outmoaned it all, the whole city. Her moan was beyond any of my chanting. It was beyond any of the recordings of Tuvans I had heard. Her moan emanated from the walls and floor as if her moan never wasn’t there. It was not accidental like a leafblower’s whistle, like an air-conditioning unit's dueling drones. It was a sound beyond profit, beyond time-use and opportunity costs and comparative advantage, beyond concrete spilling over steel. She moaned with singular purpose. She started crying for air because she moaned it all out of her. Then she moaned some more.

I used to think chanting was something I would pass on to my child. But when I remember Lila's and my birthday, how MaGreen moaned, I think that maybe sound is not arbitrary. When I listen to BabyG chant herself to sleep in the car seat, I think maybe sound isn't just an artifact of particles or waves or wavicles. Maybe the phenomenological experience of sound isn't just an accident of evolution, a footnote of survival and selection, of frontal lobe development. And maybe chanting isn't just a culture or a tradition, or even a higher order physiology. Maybe to think I should pass chanting on to BabyG is like thinking I should write the moon and the stars into my will.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

How many more milestones till grown up?

Here to report that our daughter is already an energy conservationist. Which is my fancy way of saying: she prefers not to crawl.

I suppose the guy at littlegeneva would suggest it's because the whitish half of her wants to go one way and the brownish half wants to go the other. Or maybe it’s not about race. Maybe it’s a Hindu/generic-American-spiritualism thing.

In any event we have already caught ourselves saying, "BabyG, Cos crawled a couple months ago, don’t you want crawl, too?”

I have caught GreenDaddy tipping BabyG over so that she might accidentally crawl.

And tonight, our friend Nicole came over, and suggested I set BabyG on her knees to inspire her. BabyG fell flat on her face and screamed.

My grandmother would say, “I never saw a baby who didn’t know how to walk into Kindergarten.” Meaning, of course, these first five years are full of babies moving at their own speeds, and worrying about these things is useless. I know she's right.

Cos’s mom, Kayte, has pointed out that BabyG was an early clapper. She also poos most all the time on the potty. And she has all that hair. Why should a kid who won so big in the hair game care about crawling?

The desire to see her put her proverbial pedals to the metal is less about wanting her do do what other babies do just for the sake of it. It's more specific. I love watching Cos cruise, being surprised by what sorts of things he loves to find...and I really want to see where BabyG would go if she crawls. Even though I know most of my life will be full of me doing just that.

Probably the Zen thing for me to do is to look at where she goes as she’s sitting. That’s not so hard, and actually, BabyG’s a pretty far-out sitter. She sings and makes raspberries and has long word-less conversations with herself, her toys, and her friends. She lectures the broken cell phone for long periods of time. She’s an entertaining, fabulous sitter.

But where will she WANT to crawl!!!! That's all I'm asking! I am terrible with suspense.

Sigh. I almost wish I didn't know anything about the stages of development so that one day she'd just crawl and I'd say, "I'll be damned, look at what the little tyke is doing GreenDaddy!"

And by the way, BabyG's not even actually behind on crawling. She's just fine. Lot's of babies aren't crawling at nine months. I'm just impatient. And excited. All flurried.

I’m sure all this is normal: freaking out over some dumb milestone slash learning how not to freak out. Anybody have their own stories about this sort of thing, from which I might glean whatever it is I need to glean?

Sunday, September 17, 2006

On Redemption and Race-Mixing

The company that hosts our website provides us with information about who visits our website. When we began blogging, we had about 100 "unique visitors" per month and now, a year later, we have over 3,500 per month. I don't know how this statistic is calculated, but I assume that around 3,500 individuals take a look at the Green Parenting blog and some portion of this number regularly reads our posts. Our host also lists the sites that link to ours. This week I noticed 200 visits from I went to see what wonderful people decided to promote our blog. A tiny little confederate flag – the flag of the slave-holding states during the American Civil War – popped up next to the url. I knew I was about to see something interesting.

The basic argument propounded on is that the Bible tells Christians to marry within their race and that America's greatness depends on racial purity. The post with the link to Green Parenting was called "Reject Race, Reject America" and the title of the link was "Race-Mixers and Pagans," which went to my post about how MaGreen and I have different religious backgrounds. The post included a picture of Amba Ma, a Hindu goddess, with the face of Jesus spliced on it. I am pleased that my post seems to have really hit the mark for littlegeneva. Not only are we "race-mixers," but we are also pagans. We seem to epitomize exactly what he loathes.

I've shared this discovery with some of my friends and co-workers. They ask, "Aren't you worried?" As a matter of fact, I'm not worried by the link to our blog. I grew up in Mobile, Alabama. Racial insults and threats were not quite a daily occurrence, but they were common. At the nearly all-white school I attended, St. Paul's Episcopal, my classmates refused to touch me my first year there. I was an untouchable. The substitute nigger. They often called me by names including mix-breed. I always wanted to say, "I'm not a mix-breed. My family can trace back its Nagar Brahmin ancestors for fourteen generations. You're the mix-breeds. You don't even know where your families come from." I never actually said that. What I did do was trounce the rest of the students every year and in every single class including Bible Study. When I made a perfect score and they barely passed, I would clench my fist and relish my academic superiority, which did not help matters.

And yet, I never got beat up. I knew what lines not to cross and when I was in real danger. I spent time with all kinds of white people in Alabama. My Boy Scout friends and I had this game whenever we were out in the country where we would rate pick-up trucks for the number of Confederate flags displayed, the number of guns in the rack, and other such features. I remember one afternoon at Camp Maubila, the regional Boy Scout campgrounds, spent trying to teach some very poor white boys from Bayou La Batre how to spell words like "socks" and "shoes." The same day at dinner, the boy behind me in the cafeteria line grumbled, "hurry up sand nigger." So I grew up very much in my skin. I often wished I was white. Up until we left Alabama, I felt that I was ugly and undesirable. My pen and my intellect were my refuge.

Years later, when I visited India, my identity as a victimized person of color was turned inside out. I really was the pure-bred Brahmin. I was the light-skinned person benefiting from the privileges that my family there took for granted. I identified with the people my family and my ancestors looked down on and, arguably, exploited. Simultaneously occupying a privileged, high-caste position and the subaltern position of the substitute nigger has given me double vision. That doubleness feeds my empathy for the exploiter and the exploited; my questioning of gender norms; my passion for ecological balance; my impatience for economic injustice; and my deep connection with MaGreen, who grew up in very different circumstances from me but came out with the same basic perspective on the world.

I thought about writing a comment on the littlegeneva blog. But how am I to engage with someone who bases his beliefs on obscure quotes from the Old Testament? It saddens me that bloggers can create amazing communities, but the worldviews of these communities can be so dramatically different there is no potential for fruitful exchange. Littlegeneva sees the browning of America. He so energetically documents the sea change taking place here. It makes him deeply angry, as if he is being attacked. He thinks the British, European, White, Christian customs that were planted in America's fresh soil will be vanquished. I wish he could see what I have seen. Then he would know that if those customs can be redeemed from their awful pasts, it will be by the mix-breeds like my daughter.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Argumentative Indian: An Interview with Amartya Sen

Last February, I had the honor of interviewing Amartya Sen, the recipient of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics. We talked about his recent book, The Argumentative Indian, a history of rational thought, skepticism, scientific inquiry, and secularism in India.

The interview was recorded for a radio show in Houston called Border Crossings, which has a South Asian focus. Although parenting wasn't the topic of the interview I did manage to squeeze in one question about raising children. However, I believe the whole interview is relevant to parenting. In all of Sen's writings, there is an amazing integration of different kinds of analytic tools, knowledge, and values. I think parenting requires the same kind of flexibility. And Sen always keeps in mind the goal of creating a more just world where every individual can choose the life she or he finds most meaningful. He is a father. When his second wife died, he raised their two children as a single parent. I believe that experience informs his thinking. For all these reasons, I think of Amartya Sen as a patron saint of Green Parenting.

Click on the following link for the interview -- Amartya_Sen_Interview.mp3. I hope you enjoy it.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Let My Daughter See the Stars

I lived on the edge of a salt desert in a city called Dhrangadhra. The house had two rooms and a kitchen. All my roommates were social workers and engineers. They worked from ten in the morning until nine at night. I wrote reports about their work. Summaries of how many homes they helped rebuild after an earthquake. I told them I was a poet and they treated me that way. When my stomach could not hold food, they brought me yoghurt. They showed me the way along the shepherds’ paths to the temple of Sitala Ma. I was invited to dinner on a concrete rooftop.

I was told the name Dhrangadhra comes from the Sanskrit for stoney ground. When I say the name – Dhrangadhra – it feels like I’m rolling stones in my mouth. The local industry was the carving of statues. I saw women heaving rock out of the ground with pick axes. I saw men hammering out goddesses in the middle of the street.

In this city, on the edge of the salt desert, water flowed through the pipes once a day for half an hour. I was told we were lucky to have that much water. The year before water was driven in by truck. Every evening at about eight, the power went out. The whole city blacked out. At first, I had the generator outside the office fired up so I could keep typing up reports. Ultimately, I planned on the darkness. I left the office and walked to the house with two rooms. Though night had fallen, the social workers and engineers were still in the field. I waited alone for the black outs to come. And when they came, the earth disappeared beneath me and the stars emerged.

I had seen the stars – as in all of them – only once before. In rural Alabama, a field in the woods, just where you wouldn’t expect a brown boy to be. In Dhrangadhra, on the edge of a salt dessert, where the water flows through the pipes once per day for half an hour, where the lights black out at eight in the evening, I saw all the stars every night. That’s when I realized the gravity of the theft of the night sky.

I do not speak of stars metaphorically. When I speak of the stars, I do not mean an archaic worldview. I do not mean to evoke magic (although I am partial to the possibility of mysteries). I do not mean to bash science. My ancestors were skeptics and rationalists. When I speak of stars, I mean the stars themselves. Fusion. Plasma. Heat. Light. That throbbing area of methodical inquiry. I mean the spectacle of the universe, seeing it from our little corner. Considering. To put your self in perspective is the beginning of wisdom, well-being, poetry, ecological awareness, and the will to struggle. Seeing the stars is neither necessary nor sufficient for achieving this kind of perspective. But it sure helps. The most elegant poetry about stars I have read was written by our most eloquent voices for justice. Pablo Neruda, Ernesto Cardinal, Nazim Hikmet. Is this an accident?

Now I live under the perpetual glow of street lights. The sky in Houston is a giant emblem of our own opacity. Development as blindness. Dhrangadhra is so strange to me now. I’m afraid I might have made it up or read about it in a book. I have started this essay many times. I should have finished it years ago. But now I am a father. There is a new sense of urgency in me when I look up at the grand blankness of our nights.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Something Svan-durful

GreenDaddy opened the box to the Healthy Choice High Chair as I observed him from behind my copy of Charles Chesnutt's The Marrow of Tradition. I thought he might vomit inside the box because of the look of horror on his face after his first peek inside...Had he discovered a rotting rat? A dismembered thumb? Or worse, a nondismembered thumb?

What's wrong, I asked him.

He tossed a dramatic hand into the box and procured the high chair's food tray. He swung it in front of him like an infested flag. He didn't have to say anything at all to me, once I saw it: it was large, white, and... plastic.

BabyG only has a few plastic toys, most are wooden or stuffed. I sent away for special metal spoons to feed her with. I don't buy organic Gerber baby food, when I buy food, because its in plastic containers. We have written extensively about the dangers of plastic, especially of putting it in your mouth. If BabyG picks up a plastic rattle, of course, I don't wrench it away from her; I am not yet a total nutcase. But when I'm thinking about what rattle to give her, I usually pick out her wood & gourd maracca; when people ask me what sort of toy she'd like, I tell them wood or metal or soft.

So here was this perfectly fabulous high chair, one we'd researched and picked out purposely, just a year before. And it had a big plastic tray. It wasn't quite a dilemma, because we just knew we couldn't keep it. It wasn't like having a rattle or a little plastic music maker she plays with sometimes; I mean, how could we make BabyG, the whole impetus of our Green Parenting website, spend her first three years eating every meal off a plastic plate?

We felt jammed up. We felt silly. If I saw somebody else's baby with a plastic high chair, I wouldn't think, "Whoa, that's child abuse." I wouldn't even think, "They really oughtn't do that." I would tell them what I know about plastic sometime, and let them decide what to do. People make the best decisions they can for their babies, in the context of their particular lives. Some people won't let their babies get in chlorine filled swimming pools, but BabyG goes all the time. You choose your battles.

Plastic is one of our battles. We couldn't let BabyG eat on that high chair. So I sold that high chair on Craig's List, and we looked for used wooden high chairs. Most were rickety. One was an antique that had a hole in the seat for the baby to potty in while she ate...and we're into EC and all, but there are limits.

After researching around on the web awhile, we fell in love with the Svan High Chair, which costs about twice the amount of the Fisher Price Healthy Choice.

But it is made of wood. And it IT IS SO COOL LOOKING.

And it converts into other forms as BabyG grows so it remains useful fifteen times as long. When she's a toddler the seat will boost her up to the table, and we can lower it as she gets taller. And when she's officially tall and wants to sit in the same chair as the rest of us, she can use it as her desk chair, heh heh. She can take it to college with her, by then it'll be retro.

I think all this was interesting because as parents, we're learning about what lines we draw. Chlorine, yes. Plastic high chair tops, no. I wonder what choices other parents make, choices that might make them feel (or make others feel) they've gone over some edge. Or can people think of things their parents did...what rules or what beliefs they had that were inflexible?

Probably this is too big a question for this post. But here it is.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

How Green is Your Driving?

I am madly studying for two PhD exams, and have less time to devote to Green Parenting for the next month and a half. So I'll be posting shorter, and taking shortcuts when I can.

And the first shortcut, I found via our friend Laura's blog, which she found from the Guardian Online. It's a quiz to find out how "green" your driving is. Laura got six out of eight, but I scored a measley three of eight on the test.

Click here to see if you can out-green me.

I'm fairly certain most people will. Probably will follow this post up with Green Driving tips, as it seems I'm in need of learning them.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Raising Kids Who Will Make a Difference

The author of Raising Kids Who Will Make a Difference, Susan Vogt, is deeply Catholic. If there was only one thing I could tell you about the book, that would be it. Nearly every aspect of Vogt’s parenting approach is informed by Catholicism. The title might lead you to expect that the author holds the beliefs commonly attributed to the so-called “Left” in the United States. However, if you try to make sense of politics as a spectrum from right to left, Catholic folks can be downright infuriating and this book will be infuriating too. I remember when I first started working with Catholic people in social justice movements I often felt disoriented. They oppose abortion. Homosexuality may be something to be tolerated or channeled, but definitely not celebrated. The church hierarchy is like a living museum of classical patriarchy. And yet, you’re likely to find Catholics at the forefront of peace movements, anti-death penalty movements, and economic justice movements working in coalitions alongside liberals, anarchists, and socialists.

Once I reconciled myself with Vogt’s avowedly Catholic approach, I was able to open myself up to the wisdom she had to share. For example, when she suggests listing the qualities you might hope for from your child and she includes “sexually chaste until marriage” in her suggestions, I took away the basic idea of making such a list. And I tried to make up my own language like “sexually responsible” or “takes joy in all things corporeal without getting hurt” or “respects her body.” (By the way, I’ve been singing a folk song to BabyG with the refrain “My body’s nobody’s body but mine, you take care of your body and I’ll take care of mine.” It’s a fantastically hokey song.)

The names of the twelve chapters – Identity, Time, Materialism, Ecology, Media, Health, Peacemaking, Spirituality, Global Awareness, Diversity, Service, and Motivation – should give an idea of how encompassing and wholistic Vogt’s conception of parenting is. The book doesn’t really present step-by-step guides. It mostly features the generalizing reflections of a lifelong activist, marriage counselor, and mother of four grown children. She speaks of what worked initially but that had to be let go of or adapted as her children became adolescents. She advises patience. In the Epilogue, she writes, “Some might call these stories of failure…” Indeed, what really sets the book apart are the responses she includes from her children and other parents. Her sons and her daughter expose the gaps in her accounts of family life. Her friends recount having daughters who get pregnant in high schools, sons who are in jail, and children who grow up to be Republican investment bankers. Vogt goes on in the Epilogue, “[R]emember that a parent’s willingness to go beyond embarrassment to vulnerability is a gift to all the self-flagellating parents that inhabit our planet—many of them mothers.”

Vogt’s vulnerability is a gift. Even though the book is definitively in the self-help genre, by the end I felt the degree of intimacy I expect from a well-written memoir. Her best advice is often about what she seems to have struggled with most. “We must take care to not over-control our children,” she writes, “or become too proud of how little we own and consume. Our children and friends will resent our self-righteousness. And our souls will suffer from arrogance.” After all the advice on written contracts with children and morality lessons at the dinner table, I got the sense that the Vogt home was saturated with self-righteousness. Or worse, a humorless and ruthlessly ambitious drive for righteousness. The Vogt children’s responses are worth studying. They resisted. They fought. They played their way out, and back to, their parents’ vision of living with integrity, valuing simplicity, and caring for others.