Tuesday, August 30, 2005


I remember visiting New Orleans about 10 years ago with Greg. There was a big meeting of the Geological Society of America there and thousands and thousands of geologist would converge on the city to give talks. He had an airplane ticket and a hotel room and I was at loose ends, so I decided to go with him and check it out. I wasn’t at all sure what I would think of the city.

I had been studying environmental history and had recently read John McPhee’s The Control of Nature. From the point of view of environmental history, New Orleans should not exist. It is located on the Mississippi Delta, a rapidly changing environment. The Mississippi River has been trying to change its course for some time and the Army Corps of Engineers, like King Canute, has been trying to hold it back from doing this. New Orleans is below sea level, and maintained only by levees and giant turbines. It is not a natural phenomena, but a technological marvel, maintained by enormous government subsidies, barely hanging in there in environmental terms. What a waste.

And I thought not just about the environmental history of this area, but also what I had heard about the culture of the city. It seemed to be famous for many things that I was not especially fond of: unhealthy food (notably deep fried seafood), heavy drinking, wild partying, corruption, racism, and prostitution to name a few. I wasn’t sure how much of an attraction the history and music would hold for me in the face of these other traits. But why not find out? I searched the web for listings of vegetarian restaurants in New Orleans and away we went.

Greg was busy most of the day, so I was on my own, and, despite my skepticism (and despite the vegetarian restaurants that were heavy on the mayonnaise) I had a fantastic time. It was easy to dismiss New Orleans from afar, but seeing it firsthand was amazing. It existed and existed in a big way. I loved the vibrant culture and energy I found there, the diversity, the depth of history. It was beautiful, poetic, unique, unorganized, and third world. I found a real living, breathing, thriving place, a cultural treasure. Despite its very real flaws, I saw it was a force that was not going to go away anytime soon. You really had to see it to believe it. By the end of my brief visit, I had concluded that, despite the fact that it shouldn’t exist, the world would be a sadder place without New Orleans. It was worth preserving.

I have thought about this conclusion a lot these past two days. These two facts, that on the one hand New Orleans should not exist, and that on the other it is a vibrant national treasure, have been brought into stark relief by hurricane Katrina. It is unthinkable that people and their houses are underwater, that the city is not functioning, and that New Orleans was not even the hardest hit area. The fear, the distress, the inhumane conditions are hard to imagine. But yes, it was predictable. New Orleans, that beautiful jewel, was a sitting duck, a disaster waiting to happen. It is true that New Orleans should not exist, but I for one am glad that it does. I have confidence and hope that its unique energy and culture will endure for some time to come, but I am sorry for the suffering.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

"Ow in my arm"

Last time Kadin hurt his arm, about a year-and-a-half ago, it was Saturday night. We didn't have a car and had just signed up for our insurance the day before. I called various numbers, was told by some endless voice in the voice-mail cue that urgent care was in a town about 15 miles away. Visions of spending a fortune not only on the emergency room but also on a taxi floated through my head. Finally, I got a real insurance person on the phone who told me what insurance number to use and that I could go to the hospital about a mile down the road. That seemed sensible and do-able.

About six hours after the accident I called a taxi and Kadin sat calmly in the back with me saying, "I am sad, I have an ow in my arm. I went down the yellow slide and now I have an ow." He was like this all through the check-in procedure, but when we got back to a room to see a doctor, he saw the table full of toys and started playing. By the time the doctor arrived, he was a normal, happy, playing three-year-old. The doctor said we could get x-rays, but there was probably not much point as the treatment would be much the same. He was using his arm and seemed to be recovering. We took the bus home.

I was glad he was better, but when the bill arrived, I vowed to be more careful in the future. Next time, I said to myself, the bone would have to be sticking out or dramtically misaligned before I would go to the emergency room again. I went though, I knew, because I would be forever haunted if I found I could have done something, but didn't. As it was, it was all fine, just a bit of a shock to the pocketbook after our free healthcare in England.

So when Kadin fell two nights ago and hurt his arm just after we had changed insurance plans and doctors again, we gave him some ibuprofen and an ice pack and bundled him off to bed to see how it would be in the morning. It seemed a little better, but he still wasn't using his arm. The next day was the same. It was tedious as he was in a foul mood and needed a lot of attention, but nothing seemed especially swollen or out of place. Lately he's been making a big deal out of the smallest of cuts and bruises, so we offer sympathy, but reserve judgement as it is hard to tell what is up.

By this afternoon, when there still wasn't much improvement, we had to make the decision about whether to go the emergency room. I called his new doctor and they suggested that it was time to get it seen at the hospital. We had made plans to meet Greg's sister for dinner at the Boulder Farmer's Market, so I thought we'd make the decision over dinner and then go in to the hospital if necessary.

Before dinner, Kadin was running around on an outdoor stage with Rees and using his good arm to balance on pillars. Is this the behavior of a kid with a broken arm? Not clear. He was pretty miserable throughout dinner, but maybe that was the wind? Greg and I agreed that, while we would hate to pay a lot of money for nothing, it was probably best just to be sure. Again, I would hate myself if I could have and should have done something for him and didn't just because I was a cheapskate. And then there was the thought that I hoped he would be fine and that we would discover we really needn't have gone to the emergency room. I realized that either way, there was a good chance that I would feel guilty and/or regret my decision.

After dinner, as I was disposing of my napkin at the typically Boulder "Zero Waste Site," I was trying to decide which of the two containers of Zero Waste my napkin belonged in. Nearby, a woman with a stroller chided, "Which is it? Don't get it wrong!" We joked about that all-too-familiar compost guilt you have in Boulder. "Yeah, I've just messed up the compost AND I'm not even the perfect mother." We walked Greg's sister to her car, invited her to hang out at the emergency room with us (she politely declined), and just as we were getting back to our car we saw a woman with a sling on her left arm. "It's a sign." I said to Greg.

About forty-five minutes and three x-rays later, with Kadin recounting the story of "falling off of James, a horse" (often failing to mention that James is a ROCKING horse), it was confirmed that Kadin had in fact broken his arm. Poor guy. And it was confirmed that we didn't waste a trip to the emergency room. But, alas, it was also confirmed that we made him suffer a full 48 hours before taking him in to the hospital. As predicted, there was no escaping the guilt. Next time, I'm thinking a compromise, maybe 24 hours, will suffice. You just can't win.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

A small step

My parents drive an electric hybrid car and so does my brother and many of my parent’s friends do as well. I saw lots and lots of hybrids in California. The gas prices in California were the highest of the trip and so it makes sense that people would consciously want to economize, with prices nearing $3 a gallon. California also offers special incentives and rebates to people who own hybrids.

Driving home from the grocery store with my mom one day, she mentioned that I should go right instead of left. I thought it didn't matter, that each way was about the same distance. I asked her why and she said it was because it took less gas to go that way. She could tell in her car that going home this way, though perhaps not shorter, consumed less gas. It was a novel way to map the area and make navigation decisions, made possible by the readout in the hybrid car that details how much fuel is being consumed. People with hybrids form this whole new culture. When they get together they talk about what kind of mileage they are getting and my brother is having a competition with himself to see how well he can do. My mom says it has really changed the way he drives and he is now much less aggressive on the road.

So it seems to me that one small step to dealing with the fuel crisis in this country, while still acknowledging people's love of their cars and technology, would be to require that all cars, not only hybrids, have a readout that shows how much fuel is being used. It could even remember the most fuel efficient routes. With most new cars having computer screens these days and offering GPS, it seems a simple feature to add. People would learn how to conserve, perhaps have competitions with each other to conserve, and as an added bonus, tend to drive much less aggressively. They could see with their own eyes what really works. I, for one, am curious about how things like air conditioning and idling affect fuel economy. Education is the first step.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Animal list

Obviously, there have been many changes in California since I lived there 20 years ago, but I am not sure how many of these changes are actual changes and how many are my perception. I am older, I notice different things, and my perspective has changed so that, for one thing, things seem smaller than I remember.

One major change that struck me this time was the traffic. It seemed that there was an almost constant traffic jam from Reno all the way to the Bay Area. Places that used to be long stretches without development, are now gone. It is almost like one big mall. The population growth is real and dramatic.

However, to balance out the population growth, I also noticed more wildlife. We were greeted in the mornings by the loud, grating, primal call of white-tailed kites. I don't remember that from my childhood. There have been mountain lion sightings in the area in the past few years. And, when the kids and I went the beach, in one day, in just a couple of hours, we saw the following animals all in their natural habitat:

Sea lion
Sea anemone
Hermit crab
(and, not in its natural habitat, but also on the beach: Horse)

I don't remember that from my childhood at all. I saw all these animals, but not all at once (except maybe at the aquarium) and they weren't so prolific. We would see a pelican or two, or maybe a group of four, but this time there were long lines of pelicans, a dozen or so at a time.

Maybe I just notice more now, but it seems the wildlife is adapting, and/or the water is being cleaned up and the protections on these animals are working. I was glad to see that the trend towards greater human population and more traffic does not also require a decline in animal numbers.

08/15/05–On our drive back home we saw a Bald Eagle at Donner Pass, CA, lots of pronghorn in Wyoming and Utah, and flocks of large white pelicans with black tipped wings in Nevada.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Around the world in 80 days

Well, actually more like across four states on I-80. We had a great time on our trip to California. My strategy of trying to go 150 miles between stops worked well. A restaurant with a play area for lunch was ideal. Other activities we found along the way included a local library for a bathroom stop that had a children's book sale. A find-the-hidden-cartoon character book for 50 cents helped us get through the next 150 miles and intermittently beyond that. Another rest stop had the added bonus of bison and elk and a playground. The boys played and played and when we went to the restaurant for dinner just after, the kids ate and ate (luckily it was a soup and salad bar). For our last stop, in overheated Sacramento (107 degrees Fahrenheit at 5 in the afternoon), a romp at a playground seemed dubious, so I parked on a shady street some blocks from a shopping center and we got a nice walk in, then we found an air conditioned toy store next to another soup and salad bar. The kids played at the toy store, and we picked up some (free) toy catalogs for them to peruse on the next leg. Even with these long stops and activities, we made 1300 miles in two days.

We have had good luck with books on CD in the past, so I picked up Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne for this trip. (Read by Jim Dale for those of you who have discovered this great audio book reader.) I'm not sure the kids were so into it, too may big words, but they let me listen to it, and I really enjoyed it. I especially benefited from the fact that the main character, Phineas Fogg, is an unflappable man. He arranges his travels calmly and deliberately, stays focused and gets where he wants to go. His lack of emotion is amusing and super human, but successful. The people around him, his servant and other traveling companions, are full of worry and concern. Their roller coaster emotions provide a foil for his poise and take them on all sorts of exciting, but unnecessary journeys. It helped me feel calm and in control in the front seat while all sorts of dramas unfolded in the back. Yes, it would all work out. And it did. I am glad that I have yet to succumb to a portable DVD player (but I am not ruling it out for the future!).

I thought about Phineas Fogg again on Sunday when I went to church with my parents. The lessons of the day included Elijah looking for a sign from god and Peter walking on water. Elijah looked for god in the earthquake, the windstorm, and the fire, but didn't find him in any of these dramatic, turbulent places. Then he heard "a small still voice" and it was god. Peter sees Jesus walking on water through a storm out to his boat. Impulsive Peter wants to join him, and is able to walk on the water too as long as he is focused on Jesus, but sinks in when he gets distracted or self-reflective.

Phineas Fogg, Elijah, and Peter, are all reminding me of the value of keeping a calm center amidst the daily hurricanes of parenthood.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

The Rise of the Alpha Mom?

Nina sent me an article from New York magazine called “Empire of the Alpha Mom” by Randall Patterson. It was a good article because it clearly outlined some of the difficulties new mothers in America today have with the transition to motherhood. It was also a horrifying article in how it profiled one mother's response to this difficulty.

The article is about Isabel Kallman who wants to become the "Martha Stewart of parenting." Isabel is a highly educated career woman who has very high expectations for herself and her family. As her husband says, "we want to make sure we do whatever we do very well." In lots of ways this is very typical of today and there is nothing wrong with wanting everything to be perfect. But people who have this kind of attitude and are used to being in control often get broadsided when they encounter the unpredictable world of children.

Here is a composite of quotations from the article that I think sum up the dilemma of modern motherhood very well:

“As her due date approached, though, she began to feel the creature pressing against her vital organs and became aware that she was losing control....All that she had ever become was the result of study, and now she realized she had not studied to become a mother. Knowing this, she quickly lost faith in whatever instincts she may have had. 'Everyone said, "Follow your instincts, follow your instincts, your instincts will take over." And it just didn't make any sense to me,' she says." And so little Ryland was born, a baby who was, according to his high-achieving, hard-working parents, "very needy, very demanding...nonstop motion, a complete tour de force, the Energizer Bunny 24/7, unbelievable!" Isabel, “felt an isolation, a loss of independence, a helplessness...her one true instinct was to run."

Today’s well-educated, hard-working women likely have no idea of what parenting is like until they experience it first hand. (I am speaking from experience here.) Their models of success are all about control and hard work and study. And this approach just doesn't naturally mesh with having a child. Parenting has become a THING, something to approach not with instincts and benign neglect, but a BIG PROJECT that needs to be done RIGHT. The result is that mothers today take a very professional, involved approach to their children that is well meaning, but, well, just not natural.

The horrifying part of the article comes with Isabel's response to this common dilemma. Instead of getting in touch with her instincts, really experiencing the experience, having a transformation, she intesifies her drive, goes cerebral, does her homework, and studies up on motherhood. "No expert told her not to worry about it, just to do as she pleased. They talked instead about the right way of parenting: that you don't these days, just prop your child in a playpen with a bottle or put him out in the yard like a pet. You breastfeed him. You play with him. You wear him on your body so that he gets used to your voice, develops language skills more quickly." But, like many of us, Isabel couldn't pull it off. She couldn't be the perfect mother. "The more Isabel's' child demanded of her, the more she went out to learn. And the more she learned, the more she was told to stay close—and the more people she hired who could do that for her." Instead of rejecting these so-called “experts,” and the impossible messages they send, she embraces them and discovers what she calls her most valuable lesson: "it takes a village." In other words, if you just hire enough people, you can have it all again, you CAN be the perfect mother AND the manager, the LEADER of the pack.

And so her salvation comes in starting her own cable company, "Alpha Mom TV." The article shows how this TV channel will offer everything. To the mom awake at three in the morning with her fussy baby it will provide the information, "they'll be told what to do and what not to do and how to do it better, “ the guilt, “Isabel ratchets up the tension; more mothers go nuts,” and the solace, “some calm high-priestess of motherhood…coming on to absolve them for failing to be perfect today and bolstering their resolve to be more perfect tomorrow.” It’s brilliant, it's its own perfect, self-perpetuating system! As the author of the article succinctly puts it, “The work of Alpha Mom TV, like that of the church, will be to allay the fear it creates."

And maybe that is just how we have gotten where we are today with parenthood. The people in this world who are calm and content are not the ones out there promoting their worldview. It is the strivers, the over-achievers who are getting the publicity, creating the images, the brands, telling the tales, raising the bar. There is a basic dilemma today with the place children have in our lives. I agree with that 100 percent. But I think Isabel's response, creative as it is, is just about 180 degrees wrong from where it should be. It is exacerbating the problem not coming to terms with it. But then those of us who are not hiring a village but instead diving into our children’s needs, not running from the closeness but seeking a more natural, instinctual balance, basically trying to be REAL and CONNECTED, aren't out there writing how-to books or creating TV channels to promote our views. For one thing, there’s no market for it, but the real truth is, we don't have the time!