Not What We May Be

The mornings have been progressively difficult in getting my teen daughter out the door to school. She can barely get out of bed. If we can get her out of bed she can’t get her uniform on. Once the uniform is on, I can be optimistic, though she still has to get down the stairs. Once downstairs I am even more optimistic because from there, it’s just shoes, phone, metrocard. She rarely eats breakfast and never combs her wild, waist-length hair; she resembles a yeti more than a girl. And like a yeti she roars at us, calls us ignorant, insensitive, psychopathic, abusive. I can only pray once my husband deposits her at school she’ll act sane enough for them to refrain from calling authorities. So far, no authorities have been called, but remember Catholic schools are desperate for those seats to stay filled. She’s going to have to do something really crazy to be kicked out. Pacing the halls and talking to herself won’t cut it.

As it turns out the threat of academic probation was hot air. She’s been on academic probation for 5 quarters now, all formally expressed with letters full of warnings that she will be banned from extracurriculars (hasn’t happened yet), will risk dismissal from school. Yet the school appears to have methods to accommodate horrible academic performance through a combination of soft grading, brainless summer school, and/or using regents in lieu of class grades (that’s how she passed Algebra and French last year).

Her sleep is erratic and she paces incessantly in, out and around her room, chattering to invisible people in what actually sounds like very interesting conversations- only I hear just one side of it. I’ve asked several times if she hears voices and she always gives an emphatic no!

“And my eyes don’t dart either,” she’ll add quickly.

“Your eyes dart all the time.”

“No they don’t!”

And she’s always sick, exhausted, mottled all over in strange rashes, limping through swollen joints and downing a cocktail of meds just to feel something close to normal. Even my husband- who is bizarrely optimistic and upbeat- admitted this morning he never thought we’d produce a child with so many problems.

So I’ve decided to give up. If she can’t get out of bed, she can’t get out of bed. If begging, pleading and yelling don’t work, I surrender. Checkmate. It’s too bad our society demands teens fit into cookie cutters without giving them time to grow into themselves. Of course, her problems could be a whole lot worse than not fitting a cookie cutter but as I’ve repeatedly said to my husband: time will tell. One day we’ll get that call from the school, or Bellevue. She’ll either be able to function and take care of herself, or she won’t, and we’ll be here to pick up the pieces till the grave. Since my grandmother lived to 103 that gives me a potential 62 more years to protect her as best I can.

Life With Eight Kids

Life with 8 kids isn’t too different from life with 7 kids. So if anyone out there is considering the leap from 7 to 8, know it isn’t difficult. In fact, living without heat the past 11 days during a nasty cold snap has been infinitely more stressful than dealing with a sweet, sleepy newborn. (For the record, only 3 of the 8 have been sweet and sleepy. The rest screamed like pterodactyls through their infancy. I know no one knows how- or if- pterodactyls screeched, but they screeched on Land of the Lost.) Going down to 50F was tolerable, but once we got to the 40s, 30s– eek– 20s, it was painful to get up in the middle of the night to pee, only to have your bee-you-tee-tee hit an icy toilet seat. I kept the baby either bundled or directly against me the entire duration. I wonder how eskimos manage their newborns?

Perhaps because I was spared the last 24 days of the pregnancy, I don’t feel that bad. Usually after I give birth I feel like my midriff and private parts have been through a wood chipper. As of this moment, besides somewhat sore boobs, the only pain is from the six inch bruise the IV hookup left down my inner forearm. Because I’ve been pregnant so many times, and because I was bleeding so much, they left that horrible thing taped into my arm for 48 hours. But otherwise (ahem) I seem back to normal, albeit I haven’t tested the waters.

I put off bringing the baby in for a checkup for fear they’d stick him back under the lights. Head to toe his skin is a mottled reddish-orange. I forced myself to go in today, and was relieved when the pleasant pediatrician assured me he was jaundiced only on his face, and that any other discoloration was due to his slight prematurity.

with aleric

My mother often tells me I was jaundiced as a baby and was kept under lights for weeks, and this inhibited her bonding with me. My mother was never an emotive type but she always sounded terribly sad when she related this story, similar to when she talked about mother cats mewling for kittens once they are given away to new homes.

The non-verbal three year old has taken surprisingly well to her new baby brother. This evening she carefully placed her finger by his fist to allow him to grab onto it while she gazed at him thoughtfully. Who knows what she was thinking, but it seemed like good thoughts. I probably shouldn’t call her non-verbal, strictly speaking, because after watching me nurse the new baby a few dozen times she started saying “boobs.” (Or, “boo;” she has difficulty with final consonants.)

Chillin’, Literally, Again

Being the responsible people we are, we decided to make the cost efficient switch to gas heat from oil. Gas is currently half the cost of oil and doesn’t require deliveries, thus eliminating the problem of running out of fuel, having to call the oil company begging the bitchy receptionist for a delivery and a technician to restart the furnace. The only problem is that earlier this year the oil company claimed we were contractually bound to accept one more delivery of oil, so the tank was filled up late spring.

My husband was determined to burn through every damn shekel of that oil before we converted, which obliged us to project how far into autumn the oil would last. I estimated mid-November and encouraged him to schedule the conversion for that point, which would give us a narrow but reasonable 2-3 week window before the baby was due.

We ran out of oil while I was in the hospital, so my projection was off by a week and I got to bring a 5 lb 13 oz newborn home to a house without heat. The plumbers told us they could convert that very week but it dragged into next week, so we’ll have been 10 days without heat by the time the new furnace is installed (tomorrow, if the furnace gods are kind). Which wouldn’t be that being a deal if I didn’t have this tiny baby who can’t regulate his body temperature; his fingernails were perpetually blue while in the hospital.

Times have changed over the 17 years I’ve had children. Back in the dark ages when my oldest son was born, the nurses were barely tolerant of breastfeeding and hollered if they caught you in a supine position with baby in arms. They had a “sitting only” rule for fear you might do something so perilous as fall asleep holding a baby. But this time around, a haitian nursing assistant kept chastising me for not holding the baby against me constantly to keep him warm, and breastfeeding was heavily pushed by the nursing staff.

I don’t know if it was because he arrived early, but I could tell over the first 24 hours of nursing he was not getting anything out of me. I didn’t even have colostrum (early milk). I finally broke down and asked that same nursing assistant for some formula. “Oh good!” she sighed with relief. “We’re not allowed to say anything- but he needs it.” I’d never bottle fed before, and felt like a child playing with a doll as my son guzzled down the bottle. His stomach was so empty I could hear the liquid sloshing into his tummy. Then one of the nurses came in, and I explained I was temporarily giving formula but still intended to breastfeed. She snatched the bottle out of the baby’s mouth. “Don’t give him too much!” she scolded. “The more formula you give, the less milk you’ll produce!” Good grief. Like I don’t know this? I’ve cumulatively breastfed 10 years and produced approximately 400,000 calories in breastmilk over the duration- and that only accounts for weight the babies gained, not energy expended. It ended up being a moot point, because once he was under lights I couldn’t breastfeed him anyway. But despite all that formula he’s nursing beautifully, and I’m pretty sure he’s back in the 6 lb range.

During the day we have space heaters running and I find excuses to cook things at 400F. This raises the second floor temp to a tolerable level (the main kitchen is on the 2nd floor, which until hurricane sandy afforded me a beautiful year-round view of the upper part of a plum tree). I wouldn’t necessarily recommend space heaters to anyone in a similar predicament because they’re a massive fire hazard, particularly if left on at night. By day I keep the baby swaddled and at night I keep him close against me under the covers. Between both our body heat it’s quite toasty- I guess out ancient ancestors knew what they were doing, before the invention of cribs.

Call of the Cockroach

While in the hospital last week, I noticed a cockroach scurry over the feet of Jesus. The Jesus statue stands guard over the lobby of the formerly Catholic hospital, and being an irrational pregnant woman I wondered if this was a good sign or a bad sign? It was a cockroach (bad sign) but cockroaches are fertility symbols, albeit a negative one, but it was a healthy and energetic cockroach (good sign) and he was scampering over the feet of Jesus (good sign?). Of course, I was sent home packing, so the prescience status remained inconclusive.

Exactly 48 hours after I started leaking fluid- I still believe it was amniotic fluid; I caught a sample and it was clear with white flecks, probably vernix- and at exactly 36 weeks 3 days gestation, I began having painful contractions as I lay in bed late Thursday night. Since I’d already been sent home twice I decided to give it some time to determine how bad they would get. They got pretty bad, and I continued to have small gushes of fluid whenever I moved. I ventured to the bathroom to clean myself up and abruptly delivered a huge blood clot onto the floor. It looked like a hunk of raw meat. Bright red blood chased the clot down my legs.

I stared at this gore in disbelief. What the hell was going on? I then realized with horror I hadn’t felt the baby move through any of this (about two hours). I poked my stomach, quickly ate some ice, lay flat on my back. Absolutely nothing. This is when me, who never cries, became hysterical. I woke my husband and got on the phone with the AWOL dr’s answering service and wailed I’d just passed a blood clot and the baby wasn’t moving. My husband got me to the ER where, in panic, I told the guard I needed to go to L&D.

“Who’s the patient?” he asked. I guess I really didn’t look that pregnant.

“ME!”

I was even more hysterical in L&D and didn’t want to be put on the monitor for fear of confirming the baby was gone. The nurse coaxed me to the stretcher and hooked me onto the monitor- and a perfect, rhythmic heartbeat rang through the room like a chorus of angels.

I started sobbing, but as soon as I could adjust to the seemingly miraculous turn of events I was hit with brutal contraction after brutal contraction. I’ve given birth four times without an epidural, and these contractions were as bad as they get around 8 cm, but I was 5 cm when they checked me. The pain was paralyzing and blinding. I begged for an epidural. I was shaking, keening, and two very sweet nurses worked as fast as they could to whisk me out of triage.

The anesthesiologist arrived like a beacon of light: a sunburned (had he been on vacation?) curly haired angel. In retrospect I only had to endure those brutal contractions for about an hour before settling into the blissful numbness of the epidural. I began having flashes of Born at Home in my head, where rural Indian women labor on dirt floors without pain relief of any kind, in primitive huts without water or electric. Wow- I was lucky.

When they next checked me I was fully dilated as the baby fast made descent to the world. It happened so quickly the AWOL dr nearly remained AWOL. I was, in fact, disappointed when he did appear, because I’d grown attached to the clever, young, female resident who’d attended me up to that point. She made cracks about her “big bootie” which somehow lifted my otherwise terrified spirits. The AWOL dr entered stage left 10 seconds before I pushed; by this point they moved me to the larger surgical room because the baby was, technically, premature. The obstetrician acted like a rock star, barking orders to the nurses and asking, do I like Bruce Springsteen? Because apparently, this was the soundtrack he wanted while he performed his magic.

There was no time to reply because before I knew it my legs were in the air and my son emerged with half a push, Bruce Springsteen crooning in the background. The baby was scrawny, pale, bawling; the pediatric team grabbed him and doused him with oxygen while the OB grinded away at my abdomen. I was bleeding too much, he explained, but he would save me.

I kept peeking over at the baby trying to see what he looked like. He was tiny, skinny legs and a fat face, red feet and hands flailing.

And then it was over. They showed me the baby- he was small but looked perfectly healthy. He didn’t need NICU and could go straight to the regular nursery. The OB had shot me up with a bunch of stuff but I was still bleeding like crazy. When they brought me to the recovery floor, my gown was drenched in blood and I left trails of blood everywhere I walked despite a triple layered fortress of sanitary pads between my crotch and the floor. But we were both alive, and ok.

I am home, but he is not, because of high bilirubin levels. Which means I get to torture myself with a hospital grade breast pump that would have come in handy during the Spanish Inquisition.

Mom That’s Gross

This post contains so much female stuff I don’t even want to write it.

Tuesday night I was going about my business, tossing side to side in bed, waking up every two hours despite a unisom-induced haze, when I felt a gush of fluid spurt out of me. It wasn’t pee. I’d already peed. I lumbered into the bathroom again, turned on the light, and blinkingly looked at undies soaking wet from some kind of clear fluid.

Amniotic fluid? No, it couldn’t be. That had never happened before. Historically, my water has broken only during active labor. So I went back to bed. But it happened again, and again, and again. By that last “again” I was in tears (remember, I don’t cry easily. I cry about as much as your average man). With tremendous reluctance I called the OB’s answering service. When I got the nurse on call, I told her through those tears I had been leaking gushes of fluid since midnight. She told me to go to the hospital.

I got what I could in order; my husband was staying home that day anyway to take my son to a neurology appointment. I set up the non-verbal three year old with TV, cornflakes, water, and journeyed to the hospital, feeling nothing but dread. It wasn’t supposed to be happening this way.

In the L&D unit I was surprised to find a normal married couple waiting for attention. Over the course of this pregnancy I have encountered an inordinate number of teen moms in the company of unenthusiastic babydaddies. But there were wedding rings between these two! And a schedule! They were waiting for a c-section. The mom was astonishingly ginormous. Three of me could have fit into her.

The receptionist summoned me to the desk and the first question asked was: have you recently traveled to West Africa? I was sorely tempted to say “yes!” just to freak her out. But I didn’t. She took all my information and eventually I was called to triage. Behind the curtain to my right was an enormous mexican lady in preterm later. She needed an interpreter, and I was on the cusp on volunteering before deciding to shut up and stay put. To my left was another ginormous mom-to-be (seriously, these women were barely shy of 300 pounds). The women were so rotund I felt self-consciously slight by comparison. Had I been starving my baby by not packing on pounds like a Venus of Willendorf?

“I’ve been leaking fluid since midnight,” I told the nurse, feeling utterly helpless. Later a male midwife (a male midwife! Just like Lilyhammer!) appeared and said he would do a sono and a fern test.

The sono showed low fluid and I started crying- again. The male midwife was comforting and said 98% of the time, babies born at this gestation were fine. Then he did the fern test- which came back negative.  So according to science I wasn’t leaking amniotic fluid but something else. I can tell you now, it definitely was not pee. I know the difference. The male midwife said he would send me for a more sophisticated sono, which showed adequate fluid and a robust baby squirming around. By this point I was a confused wreck from not knowing what was going on. If it wasn’t amniotic fluid, what was gushing out of my netherparts at regular intervals? I never got an answer, and they sent me home.

I kept leaking fluid. When I went to bed, every time I tossed from my right side to left a gush of warm liquid poured out. By the next morning I was in near panic feeling I’d been misdiagnosed and that my amniotic fluid was leaking like a sinking ship. I called the answering service again and got the overworked nurse who manages the prenatals for the AWOL obstetrician. She told me to come into the office and she would check me out.

I went to the office, and in the waiting room started to feel contractions. Again I was in disbelief. This shouldn’t be happening, not like this. After her exam she decided I wasn’t leaking amniotic fluid, and that it was either a very watery mucous plug or I was just crazy. Of course, as soon as I got home I felt more gushes of this mystery fluid. It was so bad I had to ask my oldest daughter- the only menstruating female in the household- for some sanitary napkins.

“I think I’m leaking amniotic fluid,” I explained to her apologetically.

“Mom, that’s gross!” she said,

“But it’s saline water.”

“It’s gross!” and she brought me a few sanitary pads which I carefully stashed in my bathroom.

Later that evening the contractions started up again; I wondered what the Indian dais would have to say about my condition. They’d probably give stern instructions to eat lentils, drink milk, and stop whining.

By this point I’d prefer a dai to my AWOL obstetrician and the fern test. The contractions picked up while I prepared dinner for the kids, but died back down an hour later. I guess time will only tell. What is 20ish days, in the course of human history?

Curiouser and Curiouser

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’ve been watching a lot of birth videos on youtube in an effort to get myself in the mindset of pushing this critter out of me. I usually watch homemade videos or a reality TV series like BBC’s The Midwives, which is actually pretty good (not to be confused with Call the Midwife which I’m not crazy about).

But I sensed right away something was weird about most of the birth videos on youtube. The descriptions would emphasize the youth of the mother, or the pain she is in, or how graphic the video was. In short it was obvious these were being put up by and for people with some kind of sexual motivation. Now I know there is pregnancy porn out there, and that some men are aroused by pregnant woman, but it never occurred to me there are people with actual childbirth fetishes- you know, of the actual event, with all the slime, poop, screaming, and squalling alien-looking newborns. Oh how wrong I was!

It took me weeks to gather the courage, but I finally googled: do some men have a fetish for birth videos. I kind of wish I hadn’t, because the answer is much stranger than I imagined. Not only are there men aroused by women in labor- but there are women, too, with this interest, or at least there are plenty of women willing to talk about it on the internet. Almost unanimously they identify themselves as straight, have no interest in ever really being pregnant or having an actual child of their own, but for whatever reason they get tremendously turned on by the sight of women pushing out babies while screaming in agony.

I didn’t think at my ancient age of 41 I could find something that surprised me, but here you go. I guess I could say this is really weird, but in theory all sexual behavior is weird. I once watched a documentary about gay orthodox jews, and a gay jewish man recounted a discussion he had with a rabbi about gay sex. The rabbi asked him, “Why one earth would a man want to put another man’s penis in his mouth?!” to which the gay man replied, “Why on earth would any man want to put his penis in a woman’s vagina?!” The rabbi thought for a second and conceded he had a point: all sexual behavior is, on some level, irrational.

In my youtube adventures I did discover a gem of a documentary: the Indian-produced Born at Home. Despite what the title conveys this is not a homebirth advocacy film, but rather a docu about uneducated, low caste midwives (dais or dhais) who attend up to 90% of births in rural India and 50% in urban areas. Despite delivering so many of its citizens, the dais have no formal recognition from the Indian government or medical establishment. Dais treat their “patients” with a variety of folk medicine and superstition surrounding the placenta. Folklorically, it is considered a sin to cut the umbilical cord- even long after baby is breathing and the placenta has been delivered. This is why only women of low caste can practice midwifery. More than one midwife describes how an unresponsive newborn can be resuscitated by heating the placenta still attached by umbilical cord. The “life” travels to the baby and revives him. In theory I suppose this might work, since a still attached umbilical cord could function as a conduit delivering heat and a sort of rudimentary blood transfusion.

Without quick access to doctors the midwives are laid back about things like breech births, which most obstetricians would not attempt to deliver vaginally. “The chin gets stuck,” these midwives say shruggingly, “And you stick you finger in the mouth to tilt down the chin.” The only births that cause them trouble, they claim, are transverse births (when the baby is positioned side to side).

Here is the documentary in full; there aren’t any graphic birth scenes, and in fact only one full labor/ childbirth is shown where a dai presses her grimy bare feet against the delivering mother’s inner thighs while the baby is coaxed out.

 

Gotham

After much nagging, my son finally joined two school extracurriculars: chess and newspaper. Up until now he felt such activities were beneath him.

His first published article is a review of Gotham. I think he writes quite well, especially when you consider he had no formal schooling until last year. He’s a bit too colloquial, and ends sentences in prepositions, but is otherwise (in this maternal opinion) proficient at the keyboard. I guess all those years of posting on message boards taught him a thing or two about sentence construction. Here is his article, for your enjoyment:

***

When Gotham was first announced so many months ago, no one could be blamed for being disinterested or hesitant. The Batman mythos has seventy years backing it, and in those seventy years countless variations on the Caped Crusader have been made. From the camp to the gritty, countless writers, actors, artists, directors, game designers, and other creative minds have left their imprint on the public’s perception of the character and the cast surrounding him. So the idea for a prequel to the whole thing is going to have some very high and varied expectations to meet.

Starring Ben Mackenzie as a young James Gordon, the show features his first few years as a detective in the city of Gotham, an obvious fictional stand-in for New York City (some parts of the show, such as the Arkham Asylum, were even filmed on Staten Island). The show sets a vague date which appears to be a hodgepodge of modern-day technology with the crime rate of the ’70s, with some of the ’30s mixed in. Along with his partner Harvey Bullock, he will try his best to struggle against a broken system that has led to a city government controlled by organized crime. Along the way, he will meet various characters from the Batman franchise.

On a technical level, with the exception of one really awkward scene, most of the show is pretty well done: scenes are wonderfully detailed with many extras, and the atmosphere of a crime-ridden metropolis is maintained throughout. Fights are as well done as you can expect from TV. As of the first three episodes there has been relatively little need for special effects, so, except for some incredible silly sequences from the third episode, it manages to avoid having any blatantly bad effects.

On a writing level it’s a mixed bag. On the characterization side, the show is a bit over-indulgent in constantly testing the future destiny of characters to a far too obvious degree. However, most characters, both new creations for the show, like the gangster, Fish Mooney, and the old ones from the franchise, are well characterized, with proper motivations for their actions. Only some side characters fall into the role of two-dimensional caricatures. The cop characters are particularly bad in this regard, one gleefully chatting in the open about beating confessions out of people with his trophies.

In terms of tone, the show sets an odd balance. On the one hand it is gritty and tries to place a realistic spin on most of the franchise’s weirdness. Jim Gordon leads a desperate one-man crusade against a completely broken system- with almost everyone if not directly against him, certainly not supporting him. On the other hand you have villains who murder people by strapping weather balloons to them. It is still a comic book show. In regards to actual plots of episodes, it’s pretty messy. A good chunk of the show’s plot relies on contrived events with little explanation, like the character not knowing how balloons work, or the rich family forbidding any psychiatric care for their son.

While I wish I could go into detail about the pros and cons of the show, such an article would be ridiculously long and this article is already stretching it, so I’ll have to summarize with this: Gotham is an interesting idea that is holding a lot of promise thus far. It could do a lot of things right, but it could also do a lot of things wrong.

***

Nerdiest Costume Ever

My 12 year old has a knack for simple but clever costumes. Last year she wore a bathrobe and a shower cap trick-or-treating, and it delighted everyone. This year she went to the nerd side and is…

nerdy costume

… math homework! She was uncertain about the costume before the halloween party last night, so at her behest I took her to Party City where she hated everything. Too girly, too dumb, no humor. It does seem that commercial costumes are lame, and strangely sexualized even for young children. Among other offerings, I noticed black sequin boy shorts, and lots of feather boas. My daughter was glum on the way home, but I pointed out no one will remember the princesses, vampires, or storm troopers, but they will remember the girl who was math homework.

My husband was a good sport and brought four girls to the school Halloween party. He confirmed my experience so far with this school: everyone knows everyone and-or is related to everyone, and while they’re very nice to you (the outsider) you definitely feel like the foreign explorer visiting a distant land. Many of the parents at this school attended the school themselves during their elementary years; the cliques are deeply entrenched and are more clan than social circle.

Then, this afternoon, I brought my second and third youngest girls to the open house at my oldest daughter’s high school. This was no easy task being 8+ months pregnant and ancient. My right leg was throbbing, my back hurt, and I felt like the baby was about to fall out at any moment. When I sat out a flight of stairs during one part of the tour, one mother actually asked with great concern if I was ok. I explained my leg hurt, but I wasn’t in labor- yet. “Well you look GREAT!” she said. I’ve been getting this a lot. “You look great!”

What does this mean? Are they being polite? I sure don’t look great: pale, languid, weak, literally limping. I think “you look great” is code for “you’re not fat.” I once watched a documentary about the right to die, and one of the featured assisted suicide patients mentioned that people kept telling her she looked great (despite the fact that she was dying horribly, and slowly, of liver cancer). She eventually realized it was because the cancer had made her lose so much weight that she was now lithe. And looked “great.”

I endured, and came home alive with baby still intact.

Having had a daughter at this school for two years I could now see through the BS of the tour. For instance, they end the tour with a long presentation from the computer science teachers who push the idea of IT being the career field of the future (without mentioning competition from H-1B visas) and how their school is the only school on the island that offers AP computer science. But I know, from my daughter, that their “computer science” courses are glorified typing classes. I don’t know if this is typical of high school, or if it’s because it’s an all girls school. But they do have a nice art program, and my 11 year old is quite the budding artist. The overachiever listened to the presentations with intense interest but reiterated her concern that it wouldn’t be challenging enough nor would it fast track her to ivy league. Who cares about ivy league? Not me, but apparently she does. Truth be told I don’t know what kind of high school would help her get into a “big three.” It might actually be better for her to attend the lousy local public high school and try to pass herself off as an underprivileged overachiever, than to attend a private school. There has to be some way to game the system. At least she’s not asian, in which case she’d be subjected to harsh quotas from the top schools.

More on Hippie Christians

While I’ve never been much of a Christian, and in fact spent a good number of years being definitively not Christian, I have been a closeted Christian rock fan for a long time. It started when I encountered the local Christian rock station on the radio. I didn’t even realize, initially, that I was listening to religious music. But it was a nice, melodic, folksy break from the typical rigmarole of pop music.

I also, despite not being much of a Christian, have had a long standing fascination with the Jesus movement, i.e. the “hippie Christians” of the 1960s and 70s. I’m not sure why it ignites my interest; perhaps it’s the anomaly a group choosing to live a life without boundaries- free sex, free drugs, free everything- suddenly finding themselves in a position of adopting traditionalism. It’s like that scene in The Believer where the neo nazi’s girlfriend announces she wants to be an Orthodox Jew (“let’s f–k through a hole in the sheet!“).

Or perhaps it’s because my childhood best friend’s parents were converts to Christianity from Judaism during the Jesus movement, via a now infamous cult. Either way, it didn’t take me long to discover that the counter-cultural movement is a cornucopia of beautiful, and for the most part forgotten, Christian rock.

Take the group below, “All Saved Freak Band.” You can’t get more counter-cultural than that name! Nor can you get more 70s than this song, which was released the year I was born.

 

 

The Hippie Preacher

I recently came across a fascinating documentary about Lonnie Frisbee, a pentecostal preacher who is, arguably, single-handedly responsible for the inception of the Vineyard movement that grew into a huge “franchise” of churches worldwide. There are more than a few twists to this story: for one, Frisbee started out as a barely literate, drug-addled hippie whose first encounters with Jesus transpired courtesy of LSD. For second, he was openly gay until renouncing homosexuality once born-again. However he had difficulty giving up his sexual inklings and to some degree- how much isn’t known- he slipped back into gay relationships and gay sex during his ministry, “partying on Saturday night and preaching Sunday morning.” Once his predilections became known to the higher ups in the community he was summarily fired and written out of the history of the Jesus Movement despite being one of its most pivotal figures.

To be fair, Frisbee himself believed homosexuality to be a sin according to his own interpretation of scriptures. Despite his deep religiosity and “anointed” abilities to heal and proselytize, he continued to struggle with sexuality even at the height of his career. One can view this two ways, I suppose. Either he was a deliberate fraud, or he was a well-meaning- but tormented- man of deep faith. The documentary gives the impression of the latter, and I can only imagine how fierce Frisbee’s inner demons must have been while living a double life.

By all accounts, Frisbee was an extraordinarily charismatic individual who could bring droves to Jesus. He also believed that the miracles described in the New Testament should still be extant today, and the documentary relates two incidents of miraculous healings he performed, as well as moments where he converted vast crowds to Christ in one fell swoop. I sometimes wonder if these pentecostal preachers have some kind of hypnotic ability over their audience. Secularly speaking, how do they get people to fall to the ground, speak in tongues, to have life-altering encounters with Jesus/ God/ the holy spirit? I’ve been to evangelical churches, and while I enjoyed the music, I never felt anything close to dropping to the ground and praising Jesus. I guess Satan has a force field around me.

I once read the theory that sexual and religious passion are similar to one another, despite residing on polar sides of the morality spectrum. The Jewish reasoning for this is that the passages of the Sotah (adulteress) and Nazirite “touch” each other in the Torah (Numbers 5-6). It would seem that in certain individuals, like Frisbee, the wires of sexual and religious fervor get crossed. Maybe this is true for other men of the cloth; I had a friend married to a sex addict and once she finally made her way to a support group for spouses of sex addicts, she was surprised to find most of the women were married to preachers.

The documentary is well done and balanced, remaining respectful of Frisbee’s beliefs while not hammering the gay rights issue too hard. It was not executed by a Christian production company, but a secular one. It also offers a spellbinding peek into the early Jesus Movement within the 1960s counter-cultural era. Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher is available in full on youtube.

More Stupid Common Core

My poor 9 year old, who is already a grade behind in 3rd grade due to a variety of developmental delays, came home with this ridiculous workbook page:

dumb-common-core

I’m sure there are parents whose infinitely clever 8 year olds could solve this in a cinch, but not my daughter, and not, I daresay, the majority of 3rd graders out there. Keep in mind these third graders haven’t yet memorized their multiplication tables, nor is such memorization part of the common core curriculum. They’re developing “critical thinking skills” instead of something so mundane as rote memorization.

I can see what they’re trying to do here: introduce algebraic concepts early on in the hope that such exposure will make algebra easier come middle and high school. They’re also clumsily ripping off Singapore Math which does indeed introduce algebraic concepts as early as first grade, but it’s done in a far simpler and more elegant manner. For example, a child will be asked “5+_=7″ when learning addition facts, but it stays that simple for many years, and the child is repeatedly taught that to find the answer you have to subtract the given addend from the sum.

There are too many concepts in this exercise for a little kid. First, you have the “missing number” issue, which alone is going to be tough for a lot of kids this age. There is the concept of both sides of the equation being equal. All the arrows and parentheses are confusing. And of course, you need those multiplication facts in order to solve any of this. When my daughter brought this to my room begging for help, her eyes were glassed over, totally lost. So I pretty much did it for her, and told her to tell her teacher as much.

Her teacher would probably agree with me. Most of the teachers at her school have been teaching as long as I’ve been alive, and with her 3rd grade teacher on an indefinite leave of absence (she took a bad fall at home) the third graders have been under the watchful eye of an even older, already retired teacher. I’m sure “drill and kill” math was alive and well in her younger days of teaching and she likely saw no problem with it. It just shows you how out of touch the designers of these curricula are while they get paid a gazillion dollars in taxpayer money to churn it out.

So here is my long standing prediction for the common core experiment: the smart kids will be fine because they’ll figure out how to adapt to the confusing methodologies and approaches. The not so smart kids with resourceful parents will be ok because they will be coached and prodded through the fog of war. But the already disenfranchised will end up even further disenfranchised, and this is exactly what we saw in the last round of NYS test scores. The much despised achievement gap between blacks/hispanics and whites/asians actually grew wider even though common core “higher standards” (which increasingly strikes me as Orwellian doublespeak) were supposed to have the opposite effect.

Camelot

Back when I was trying to force myself to be Christian, I attended a megachurch here on Staten Island in an effort to find salvation. It didn’t work, but I did get to hear a lot of sermons from the fire and brimstone pastor, and as a closeted fan of Christian rock I enjoyed the surprisingly good members-only band that churned out any number of favorites.

This pastor always told antisemitic jokes around Christmas. I’m not sure he even realized they were antisemitic, but usually they had to do with Jews profiting monetarily from the holiday. He also liked to tell heartstring-yanking tales of lives gone wrong on the path to rebirth in Christ. These stories were all supposedly true, and featured members of his very own mega-congregation. A few stuck with me. One was about a guy who preferred to jerk off to porn instead of having sex with his “gorgeous” wife (he didn’t use the term “jerk off” though). That guy eventually found Jesus, quit the porn habit, and reconciled with his hot wife.

Another was about a mother who watched her children, one after another, destroy their lives through various means despite the fact they’d been raised in a wholesome megachurch-attending household. “When I got married,” he quoted this mother as saying, “I thought it would be Camelot.” Instead: she had a child dead from heroin, another in jail, and another multiply divorced and chronically unemployed.

I think we all go into marriage and parenthood with an idealized view of how life will transpire, only to be faced with the stark visage of actuality. So far I’ve been lucky- no drugs, no jail, no teen pregnancies (though I sure would love grandchildren… think about it, my about-to-be-born child would automatically be an uncle) but life certainly is not how I imagined it eighteen years ago when I tied the knot with my husband.

Personally, I didn’t imagine Camelot. If I had to label it I envisioned something on par with Little House on the Prairie- the book series, not the TV series (which I never watched). Lacking TV for a good chunk of my childhood, we were forced to resort to books for entertainment. I had a bad habit of reading the same books over and over again. There are some books I probably read a hundred times over, and even memorized. Once, when I was sick with the flu, my mother decided to read to me in a rare gesture of maternalism. But I kept finishing the chapters for her because it was all in my head.

One such series was Little House on the Prairie. To this day I can “play” the books mentally, the dugout house with its whitewashed walls, Ma consistently by the stove fretting over the next meal, the new log cabin built on an ill-fated loan; the ferocious blizzard that left Pa stranded for days; the time Laura nearly drowned. This all is what I envisioned: a cozy family against a brutal world, a quiet home inside a sphere of chaos. It didn’t matter that we were as far removed from the Wisconsin wilderness as humanly possible. I saw it in my head, and it seemed real.

As you can imagine, my children haven’t stayed on script. They’re a constant fount of surprise, joy, and disappointment, but some years ago I came across one of the most beautiful sayings I’ve ever encountered: we have to love our children for who they are, not in spite of who they are.

How many parents can say with utter sincerity that they adhere to this precept? Not all, to be sure. Perhaps not even most. But if there’s one phrase I’d like chiseled into my gravestone, it would be this.

It Only Takes One Microbe

I’ve officially entered the realm of crazy pregnant woman mode, where I’m in a constant and acute state of anxiety, superstition, and worry. I’ve been reading meaning into everyday occurrences. My daughter saw a mouse in the kitchen this morning. A good sign! There’s a dead cricket on the basement floor. Bad sign! And it would be even worse luck to touch that dead cricket, so it’s been there for weeks.

This morning I had to go to Willowbrook for yet another blood draw. My phlebotomist was an older Russian lady who suited up in a face mask before sticking me, ranting the whole time about Ebola and how neither the government nor the lab manager were taking adequate precautions to protect healthcare workers. “If it becomes an epidemic…” she said morosely, and put her hands in the air in a hopeless gesture. Then she jabbed me way too hard, and I still can’t fully extend my arm which is swollen and bruised opposite my elbow.

By that point I’d fasted for 14 hours, so I sat in the car and wolfed down a sandwich with juice. I was supposed to eat a high carb meal before returning two hours later for the second draw. I haven’t eaten bread in months, and while it was yummy it didn’t seem to re-awaken my bread addiction, especially since I knew it would make my levels shoot up (it did, I tested later at home out of curiosity).

During the second draw I overheard a group of phlebotomists in the hallway discussing Ebola. One intoned ominously there are a lot of Liberians on Staten Island. Yeah, but they live in West Brighton said another. No, they live in Park Hill said yet another. Well as long as they don’t come here, said a fourth. Errr… don’t they realize Staten Island is a mere 60 square miles? And microbes don’t care about neighborhood demarcations. As my aunt the pathologist always said when I left the cap off the toothpaste: It only takes one microbe.

I don’t know why but I’m just not worried abut Ebola, even in my crazy pregnant woman state of mind. I guess it could become as airborne as the common cold, then we’d all be in trouble. I’m a lot more worried about nasty flu viruses, or the enterovirus circulating the country, as two of my children have life threatening asthma and a third has moderately bad asthma. Even with suitcases of medication in the house they’ve been hospitalized for it, one in the ICU for a week (the overachiever). Anyway, if there were a clear and present Ebola threat I’m sure my aunt, who works for the CDC, would have contacted me. But so far she’s only sent me scary information about DV-68.

Here is the current state of the bump. It continues to look much smaller in pictures for some reason. It looks, and certainly feels, at least three times bigger in real life.

bump

Zero to Three

The “Zero to Three” theory is the idea, quite popular in educational circles, that the first three years of life are when the human brain is the most active, malleable, impressionable, and that this “window” can serve as a springboard for intellectual prowess later in life. While the Birth to Three, or Zero to Three notion has become well known in popular culture over the past two decades (inspiring products like Baby Genius) it has been around for a while. My mother, whose degrees are in education and early childhood development, took these theories to heart and I have a clear memory of her denying me a hug in the 1970s- because I was already past my third birthday. Bonding experiences, she explained, were crucial primarily in the first three years of life, and here I was past three! I don’t think I ever asked her for a hug again.

Current policy on publically funded pre-kindergarten programs is entirely founded on this idea of early brain malleability: if you can get to a child young enough, you can “stimulate his brain” sufficiently to put him on an even playing field with the rest of humanity. Indeed, the dismal impact of headstart and pre-k on disenfranchised populations are typically blamed on the fact that they don’t start early enough, i.e. they’ve missed that magic window of birth to three when the rich kids hear Beethoven in the womb and solve Miquon puzzles with their nannies. I guarantee there will be government efforts to expand pre-k to ages three, and younger, in upcoming years.

The problem is, there is no evidence that an enriching, stimulating environment alone is what makes a child smart. Nor is there any consensus on what such an enriching environment ought to consist of. The only real evidence is that severe deprivation and neglect- say, tying an infant to a potty chair all day, or leaving him alone in a crib for the first years of life with little human interaction- does in fact cause cognitive and developmental delays. But this level of deprivation is typically found only in institutional settings in the developing world (a very sad documentary about Chinese orphanages, The Dying Rooms, illustrates this level of neglect). But there is no evidence that the opposite of a Communist orphanage produces a beaming genius. Nor is there any evidence, to quote John Bruer, that an hour of educational television is any better or worse for neurological priming than an hour of Rugrats. Or no TV at all.

Why am I blogging about Zero to Three? Because my adorable youngest daughter just turned three, and I have yet to take official action on her non-verbal state. “Non-verbal” isn’t quite accurate; she does have about 50 unique, meaningful squeaks and chirps. She has a few meaningful growls and a bunch of improvised hand gestures that somehow get her point across. I’ve wondered if this is what human proto-language sounded like? She sounds a bit like a bird, mixed with some monkey, mixed with a little sign language.

bday3
happy birthday

I’ll admit denial has played a part on our inaction. When you live with someone every day, especially a young child whom you’ve been with since birth (technically, even before birth) you kind of get used to how they are and stop seeing it as anything unusual. All of my kids were somewhat late talkers, with three of them profoundly late talkers. To us this is just normal (my teenage daughter was shocked to learn most babies are saying words by 10-12 months- my nephew even said “light!” at 8 months). The closest we’ve come to a normal talker is the overachiever, who babbled incessantly as a baby and said real words before her second birthday.

Or perhaps I’m jaded, having been through years of early intervention with my now 9 year old. While she too was non-verbal she was also mute- no squeaks, chirps, or even gestures- and she was globally delayed in other ways. I relented and called in the experts, and she had around the clock therapy from a veritable coterie of attendants for years. Even with all that intervention, she still didn’t talk until a year after we withdrew her from the program. And of course my son, who never received therapy of any kind, is today too articulate for his own good.

Come to think of it, only two of my kids attended any kind of pre-kindergarten program. My now 11 year old was in a full day pre-k; this is when the 9 year old was in all those therapy sessions, and I felt like I didn’t have enough time or attention for her. In retrospect I regret putting her in school at such a young age. 6+ plus hours is a long day for a four year old. The other one I put in pre-k was my hellion 6 year old. I needed a break from her during the day. I don’t feel too guilty about that one, though again, four is a very young age to be out of the house unnecessarily. It’s not like I was working or anything. None of my other kids, including the overachiever (who continues to leave her classmates in the dust) ever went to pre-k. So in theory they should all be at an academic deficit, but they’re not. If anything I wonder if it might have helped them to be in the relaxed environment of home, before entering school a little older than the current norm.

This is a possibility that is overlooked: systematically coaxing and prodding a small child to say or do things before he’s naturally inclined to do so might in fact be detrimental. And without solid evidence to support intervention of children deemed neurologically at-risk, is it really worth the expense and potential anxiety to “fix” the child? But social policy these days seems to be the most intervention at the earliest point possible. I guess where the government can spend more money, and take more control, it will always be eager to do so. It’s the nature of the beast. In the meantime my three year old is staying home, and yes, I’m still giving her hugs!

The Spanish Downton Abbey

I never caught on to the Downton Abbey craze. Any number of people recommended it to me, and I kept seeing rave reviews of it online, but somehow I couldn’t bring myself to watch a PBS gothic romance series. When I finally did relent, I was pleasantly surprised- for the first season- but as with so many good TV shows it went rapidly downhill after reaching its zenith of popularity, and by the end of season two I found it nauseatingly unwatchable and abandoned ship.

Last week my husband told me he discovered a “Spanish Downton Abbey” on netflix. Ughhhh. Not again! It was spectacular, he said, and he was quickly lost in marathon viewing sessions with our older daughters who were likewise instantly obsessed. Wanting to kill some time this weekend I decided to give it a try, and I have to admit it’s really good, even better than those lovely initial episodes of Downton Abbey.

gran hotel
Downton Abbey en español

Gran Hotel (“Grand Hotel”) is a Spanish (as in Spain) production set in the same era as Downton Abbey, but instead of a lofty estate, the backdrop is a posh hotel run by a drama-prone family that rules over the staff with an iron fist. While there is plenty of scheming, money lust, romance, love triangles, and love pentagons, the main difference between Gran Hotel and Downton Abbey is that the former maintains more than one compelling murder mystery throughout its plot lines; there’s even a charming and beautifully acted big-city inspector shipped in to investigate the murders. And its not just the inspector; the character development of the show is, overall, quite superb, much better than its PBS inspiration.

If you plan to watch Gran Hotel with kids, the raunchiness meter is about the same as Downton Abbey. There’s no gay snogging but there are a few semi-graphic sex scenes sprinkled in, plus brief topless female nudity during an autopsy. So I’d give it a PG or weak PG-13 rating. (My 11 year old has been watching it and doesn’t seem traumatized.) As far as language, it’s subtitled, but I noticed some of the Spanish isn’t accurately translated or is skipped over altogether, but it’s done well enough to get the main points of the plot across.

So until netflix snatches it away, enjoy! Just don’t lose track of your real life in the meantime.

My Kids Love Pop-Tarts

poptarts

In a recent post I mentioned the remarkable self-regulation my kids have when it comes to pacing food intake. It dawned on me then, that I couldn’t recall a single argument they’ve had over food, despite being a large family with a sometimes limited dessert supply. It’s not that my kids don’t argue. They’ve had endless arguments, shouting matches, even years-long feuds over stuff like:

  • plagiarism and character theft. God forbid one kid writes a story or draws a comic that remotely resembles someone else’s story line in any way, shape, or manner.
  • access to books. One kid gets a book for their birthday and all the kids want to read it. Horrible fights ensue.
  • who gets to hold the remote.
  • what to watch on netflix.
  • chairs (“I was sitting there!!”)
  • space on the sofa
  • pillows- some kids hoard 5 or 6 pillows for themselves while expecting the other kids to sleep with just one.
  • access to the computer. This is probably the greatest source of conflict between the girls (my son has his own computer). I have to admit, ever since my 12 yr old got her iPad for school, the tension has lessened on this front.
  • lack of participation in chores compared to the complainer’s valiant efforts.

But there was never arguing- or even tension- about food. Until pop-tarts entered our household.

The first pop-tart came into our lives many years ago when my son’s friend gave him a piece. After a lot of begging from him, I bought a few boxes here and there but they were too expensive, and not even really food, so I stopped. Fast forward to last year and my oldest daughter began buying them individually during her debate team away trips. Upon her return she talked about those pop-tarts to her sisters as though describing an exotic vacation to faraway islands, and occasionally saved slivers for them to taste. When I finally got a membership to Costco, that same daughter immediately noticed they sell pop-tarts, and cheap. A huge box is $8, that box contains four smaller boxes, and each smaller box contains 12 “pastries.” She offered to buy them with her own money. I agreed as long as she shared with the rest of the kids (I imagined her eating through all four boxes in one day.) She readily agreed and the pop-tarts came home.

There was pandemonium when those pop-tarts crossed the threshold. We may as well have been holding the holy grail; they tore open the boxes, determined who wanted which flavor and did the math, based on that, to see who got how many. Despite their joy I felt guilty feeding them something so distinctly unhealthy. At least with their horrible lunches, I have the excuse of needing it to pack efficiently and be appetizing during the rushed lunch period. So I steered clear of pop-tarts for a while until their begging reached such a fever pitch that I gave in. I bought what I thought was an ample pop-tart supply and laid it out on the table like Agamemnon offering up Iphigenia. They descended like wolves.

Costco offers but two flavors: strawberry and brown sugar and they have to be purchased together. Strawberry is a solid favorite with the girls while my son prefers brown sugar. This leads to a surplus for him and a deficit for the girls. This morning Amadea, who never eats breakfast no matter how much I plead, pulled a chair to an upper kitchen cabinet and began scrounging.

“What are you doing?” I asked, genuinely puzzled. I’ve never seen her scrounge in any cabinet, ever. She barely eats.

Oh,” she said nonchalantly. “Just looking for something I might want for breakfast.”

She skulked away empty handed only to return a few minutes later, climbed back on the chair, and began digging anew.

“Did you find something to eat?” I asked.

“Ah!” she said with clearly feigned surprise. “What is this glint of tinfoil I see?” Lo and behold she extracted a sealed strawberry pop-tart packet from the back recesses of the cabinet.

“Wow,” I said. “Someone must have squirreled that away.” Ever slow on the uptake, it didn’t occur to me until later that “someone” was her.

When my six year old caught wind of Amadea eating a strawberry pop-tart she grew hysterical. “It’s a strawberry one!” she howled piteously. I told her she could have one when she got home from school, but there was no time for more breakfast now. Unassuaged by this she kept howling, and I later found her slumped in the back staircase, head buried in her uniform skirt while she wept. Her speech was garbled but I could make out “… strawberry… strawberry… strawberry.” Well this had reached emotional heights I hadn’t anticipated. I unwrapped one of the few remaining strawberry pop-tarts and handed it to her, advising her almost apologetically she could eat in the last few minutes before they needed to leave for school.

Gestational Diabetes

One reason I gave up bread and all grains is because I’m at risk for gestational diabetes, given my age. I don’t have any other risk factors, but apparently age is enough because I failed the first glucose tolerance test miserably (with my last pregnancy, I barely passed). This despite barely gaining pregnancy weight, and despite already eating a moderately low carb diet (about 70-100 grams of carbs a day, compared to the typical American intake of 300g+ a day). My only carbs come from non-starchy veggies (broccoli, lettuce, eggplant, cauliflower etc.) which are low carb to begin with, and a few servings of fresh fruit. I avoid fruit in the morning knowing blood sugar tends to spike earlier in the day.

After failing the glucose test I bought a glucose monitor and tested my fasting and post meal levels eating how I’ve been eating the past few months. I was happy to see my levels were in the very normal range of 60s-90s. Then one morning, as an experiment, I ate a banana for a breakfast, and my blood sugar went up to 130, which is the cut off point for normal. And that was just one lousy banana! What if I’d eaten a typical breakfast of banana, cereal, and OJ?

I’ve been eating a lot of chicken soup, some lamb, occasionally eggs or nuts, and lots and lots of low starch vegetables. Knowing that I may indeed have gestational diabetes, I’m afraid to eat much fruit at this point. The baby is already measuring rather huge (a symptom of GD) which isn’t necessarily a good thing. I guess it’s possible my dates are off by as much as a week, but he’s looking more and more like a behemoth in spite of my spartan diet.

I tried explaining to the midwife who works for the new OB that I already don’t eat grains, and that my current diet is far more restrictive than any GD diet a nutritionist would have me follow. She looked confused. “You don’t even eat pasta?” No, I said, and I pointed out if I give up fruit, I’ll be so low carb I’ll go into ketosis. She shrugged and said she didn’t know anything about carb counting, that they instead counsel women in terms of “servings” of grains and fruit.

The glucose test strips cost a fortune so it’s a good thing my insurance was reinstated. And if things go awry I may need to be induced early and/or have a c-section, neither of which I’ve experienced before. I have to say I’m surprised by all this, because I really thought if I kept my weight gain to a minimum, and restricted carbs, I’d be fine.

The Machine

[spoiler free]

The Machine is a 2013 British sci-fi thriller set in a dystopic world struggling with never-ending warfare. With this backdrop two computer scientists attempt to create a self-aware android under the auspices of a military research facility.

the machine
let’s make an android

The result is a surprisingly engrossing tale examining questions of consciousness, existence, and the right to life. Like the best science fiction, The Machine is as much philosophical treatise as action flick, and in that respect reminds me of Gattica or Ghost in the Shell.

Despite being a low budget film with a small cast, the acting is by and large excellent and the pacing very good. As I’ve mentioned before, it takes lot for a feature film to catch and hold my attention. In fact the last non-documentary I managed to sit through was All is Lost with Robert Redford. So it’s always a surprise for me to find myself pulled into an actual movie, which The Machine did with aplomb. Not only that, but The Machine offers a genuinely fascinating and non-annoying female protagonist, a rare thing indeed in Hollywood. We can probably all name any number of movies or TV shows with nuanced and riveting male leads (Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad comes to mind) but how many can do the same for female leads (Captain Janeway is the best I can come up with, and she was as much annoying as interesting)? If you do watch The Machine it’s probably not who you think- you’ll have to wait about a third through the film to meet her.

I’ve intentionally not read any background on the film, but The Machine seems to make deliberate references to autism throughout. Indeed, the opening scene shows a theory of mind test which is repeated throughout the story arc. For those who don’t know, theory of mind is the ability to accurately perceive or predict other people’s thoughts or emotional reactions, an ability autistics, even high functioning autistics, often lack. And the fact that the proto-androids (brain damaged humans with implants) turn non-verbal is also a nod to autism.

My only complaints about the film are that some of the scenes are choppily placed- you get the feeling much of the footage ended up on the editing floor; the main villain doesn’t come across as all that evil, and the supposed geniuses don’t come across as all that smart. I have the same problem when I try watching episodes of Eureka (which my kids love). All those supposed geniuses come across as average at best. In fact, they kind of seem like dumb actors.

So if you’re bored tonight and looking for something to watch, I heartily recommend The Machine to wile away the evening. It’s available, as of this post, on netflix streaming.

 

Nothing Strenuous is Strenuous

After 15 years of home ownership in NYC, I finally crossed a line I’d never crossed before: I hired a lawn service to deal with my lawn. In early summer I was forbidden to do “anything strenuous” because I appeared to be on the verge of miscarrying. And “strenuous” includes mowing the lawn, hacking weeds, and hauling watering cans to remote areas the hose won’t reach.

So the grass grew, and grew and grew. The weeds grew, twisting vines and thistles. The ornamental flowers I planted before knowing I was pregnant shriveled and died. A large oak dropped two massive limbs in the yard. They rotted while grass and weeds overtook them. By August, parts of our sidewalk were barely visible through the spreading bramble.

My husband promised to pick up the slack but he was too busy on weekends, and I long ago accepted nagging doesn’t work. My son, unenthusiastic about yard work to begin with, developed a nasty staph infection on his arm putting him out of manual-labor-commission for a month. I began collecting the numbers of landscapers from trucks I saw while out driving, but to our surprise no one called back. I thought the economy was souring and people were desperate for work? Apparently not, or, landscapers are extremely unorganized businessmen.

Finally we caught one, and the estimate was surprisingly cheap. I hired him on the spot. The next day three men spent three hours hacking and hauling debris from our lawn, and by the time they left it looked like a different house. I ventured outside with my almost three year old today- a few months too late- to enjoy the sun and grass while she ran back and forth in a joyous frenzy.

yard

In living paleolithic cultures, such as the Amazon rain forest or Papua New Guinea, pregnant women remain active through their pregnancies, hauling older children, puppies, food, and everything else no matter how rotund their bellies grow.

indigenous

Lolling around and letting other people do the work is unheard of. So I’m not sure taking it easy, physically, really does much to reduce the risk of miscarriage, but here I am still pregnant after months of idleness. The most strenuous activity I’ve done is haul bags of laundry to and from the basement once or twice a day, and technically I shouldn’t have done that.

Of course, women in stone age cultures aren’t going to worry about grass growing too tall. I’m not sure they could even grasp such a concept. But it caused me an awful lot of angst and lost sleep over the summer, wishing I could get out there with the rickety lawn mower. All’s well that ends well, or at least it will hopefully end well, soon enough.

Assembly Line Lunches

lots of lunches

I’m trying a new lunch technique this year; instead of packaging lunches each morning, I assembly-line produce large quantities at once, neatly stapled in brown paper bags and set aside for use over the week. Of course, this means I have to use shelf-stable foods that my picky kids will eat, i.e. junk food, but I surrendered that lunch battle a long time ago.

For half of the last school year I lovingly packaged healthy meals each morning. Homemade whole wheat muffins, fresh cut fruit, bottled water, even salads! It all came home uneaten and the kids starving. Since hunger impairs a child’s concentration in school, I felt like a cruel mother for these health food antics. (The overachiever claims hunger sharpens her concentration; is that like Hitler keeping the heat off?)

Goodbye healthy lunches, hello Ritz crackers, potato chips, and cookies. The change was met with delight and the kids stopped coming home clutching their stomachs. But I felt like an even worse mother now, just for different reasons.

Oh well. Here is this week’s menu: mandarin fruit cup (in syrup), juice box, cheez-its, cookies:

bag lunch

None of this would be first lady approved under new USDA guidelines for public schools (part of the juice box might be allowed for breakfast). Too much sodium, grain, and I don’t believe fruit cups with syrup are allowed. In my defense, as I assembled these lunches I was simultaneously cooking homemade chicken soup:

chicken soup

Ironically this probably wouldn’t be allowed either under the new guidelines. Too much fat (I never skim fat from broths), too much meat. The carrots, tomato and celery might be allowed if carefully rinsed and degreased. Let me tell you, this soup was delicious! I can’t believe I went so many years not eating meat.

In a Darwin Award moment I stapled both of my thumbs when trying to fix the stupid cheap Staples stapler that kept popping open. The more I moved my thumbs, clasped to the stapler via the staple, the deeper it went. After the initial gush of blood things calmed down and I was left with what looks like a pin prick, but oh, did it hurt!

blood

I last received a tetanus shot in college when I was bitten by a feral kitten (the med student treating me had to look up “animal bite” in the index of his textbook before deciding what to do) and that was a long time ago. Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure these staples are older than my marriage. My husband had what seemed like an eternal supply of staples when we met, and he brought them into the marriage as a strange sort of dowry. I don’t think we’ve ever bought new staples over 17, soon to be 18, years of marital bliss.

1 in 14

I knuckled down today and forced myself to get the Rhogam shot, a requirement for all pregnant women with Rh negative blood. At least where I live, and going through my doctor’s practice, this is a drawn out process where I have to register at the hospital as an outpatient, navigate the byzantine inner corridors to the blood lab, wait to have my blood drawn, wait to have the Rh factor verified, then take the serum to the L&D unit where a nurse delivers it to my upper arm (ouch).

7% of people worldwide (about 1 in 14) have Rh negative blood but you’d think it was one in a million from the way clinicians react when a pregnant woman says she’s Rh-. I get something of the royal treatment every time I go through this ordeal, and the blood lab keeps a careful handwritten ledger of every pregnant Rh- woman coming through its doors. There are only a few of us each week, judging from the dates in the left margin, which surprised me too. How many women are pregnant on Staten Island at any one time?

Strangely, most of my kids are Rh- even though my husband is Rh+, which means he must have a negative allele, and the same for my parents: my mother is Rh- and my father Rh+, but both my sister and I are Rh-. So both my mother (whom I consider myself to be very different from, but maybe not) and I unknowingly elected to marry men with negative alleles. They say women instinctively prefer men with DNA similar to their own, so maybe this explains it, or maybe it’s just one of those weird things. Either way my son is in high demand on blood donor day at his high school and gets moved to the front of the line.

Being the obedient patient I’ve been so far this pregnancy, I registered at the front office then made my way to the blood lab.

bloodlab

It looks okay in this picture but this hospital always reminds me of Jacob’s Ladder; consecutive additions were built on top of old buildings and the result is a hopelessly confusing maze of wings, hallways, elevators, and disorienting stairways. It used to be a Catholic institution but was recently bought by a secular developer, though there’s still a big ol’ statue of Jesus in the lobby.

They took my blood and two hours later sent me to L&D with the serum and an awful lot of paperwork in hand. In the L&D waiting room I encountered a painfully young, very pregnant, mother and father to be, and a really pissed off mom (the mom to be’s mom) glaring at the two of them. I was ushered to the main nurses’ station and realized I was staring at the room where my almost three year old was born.

LD
the room behind the gurney

An extremely friendly nurse took charge of me. “Is this your first baby?” she asked brightly. “Uhh… no. It’s my eighth.” It took her a few moments to recover from that one, then she brought me to the very room where I’d given birth nearly three years previous. If you’ve never seen the interior of a delivery room before, this is what it looks like:

delivery room
check out those stirrups

She gave me the shot and I was finally free to leave. On the way back to my car, a flock of birds followed me, swooping down three feet in front of me, taking flight when I got too close, only to alight back down another three feet in front. They did this all the way to my car.

Here’s one of the prettier houses on Bard Avenue near the hospital. I bet most people wouldn’t guess this is located in New York City if shown the picture randomly; this is typical of many older homes on the island that have retained large yards and thickets of trees.

bardave
gravel driveway!

In many ways time has stood still on Staten Island, not what you’d expect for a borough of a major metropolis.

iPad Depression

Over the summer we got a letter from the school advising us with great enthusiasm that all 7th and 8th graders will be required to have iPads for the upcoming school year, bringing classrooms “into the future” with enhanced education through technology. My heart sank, because I’ve gone to great effort over the span of my parenting life to keep my younger children off social media, gadgets, and phones. You don’t need technology to acquire a solid K-8 education (or even K-12, quite frankly) and more often than not laptops and ipads in the classroom are a distraction rather than a tool. Trust me, those moguls in Silicon Valley who spend a fortune sending their children to low-technology private schools know exactly what they’re doing.

Remember the smart board craze? When schools bragged about smart boards and parents demanded them as though they were the panacea for every education problem? Well the last school my kids attended had smart boards in every classroom and heavily advertised them, but many of the kids in those classrooms had standardized test (ITBS) scores in the single digit percentiles. The smart boards made no difference over wipe off boards, chalkboards, or writing with a stick in the mud. But as a society we continue to blame the faults of our feet on our shoes.

So this morning the overachiever showed me her shiny new ipad. “What are you going to do with it?” I asked.

“Students can have conversations with each other,” she replied. “And it has a dictionary.”

I stopped myself from pointing out we have a dictionary at home.

“And you can create notebooks.”

She showed me a few other features, none of which left me impressed, at least not in terms of her education. Honestly I think this is a ploy so the school can advertise “iPads in every 7th and 8th grade classroom!” because parents gobble up that sort of thing.

To be sure, we’ve always been a computer rich household, even when we barely had the money to spend on computers. My husband’s work is heavily computer dependent so he’s always had the latest iBook, and the kids are fanatical PC gamers so we maintain at least two desktop computers for the younger kids to share. So while they might be on the computer a lot, at least on non-school nights, it’s always in a public space and they take turns with each other which forcibly limits their screen time, which means they also do a lot of reading (of physical, paper books), goofing off, and imaginative play.

Once the kids are around 14 or 15 I give up and let them do what they want. My son has managed to save money for 2 computers and pretty much lives online, but he’s practically an adult and I trust him to use discretion when needed (though strangely, it doesn’t seem to be needed. what 17 year old doesn’t look at porn?). But it’s a whole different story for my younger kids, and seeing my 12 year old glued with head bowed to the iPad is depressing.

Staten Island School News

The most exciting school news on Staten Island, as of late, is the huge sex scandal brewing at Moore Catholic High School. So huge it made national networks like CNN and FOX, which is impressive given Staten Island may as well not exist when it comes to media attention. If only the tiles of the Moore locker rooms could talk! Not one but two female basketball coaches are accused of sexual liaisons with students. One was a lesbian tryst while the other lady is accused of involvement with a 16 year old guy. I really wonder what goes through adult women’s heads when they get involved in relationships like this. Is it some weird attempt to feel young? Because I can assure you if I had to have sex with a 16 year old, I’d feel nothing but old, old, old.

When I was in college a classmate confided in me (why, I don’t know; we were barely friendly acquaintances) that she was concerned about being an education major because she was “intensely attracted” to teenage boys. Oookay. That’s something partial strangers don’t confess to you every day. So every time one of these stories pops up in the news, I check to see if it was her. But so far, she hasn’t been caught, or at least it hasn’t made national headlines. I remember being puzzled by her predilection, because I spent my spare time lusting after my friends’ dads.

What’s even stranger about this story is that the coach herself is quite young, only 25, so it’s not like she’s having to deal with the erectile dysfunction crowd. Maybe what happens is that when you work with teenagers day in and day out, you forget you’re not one yourself. But I don’t know. The female biology teacher at my son’s all-boys high school told me her students were so obnoxious they drove her to drink. If I had to work in a building full of teenage boys I’d probably have a bottle of tequila under the desk too.

And in other school news, Mayor DeBlasio stepped foot on our humble shores for a preK photo-op this afternoon. Imagine my surprise, when trying to pick up my girls, to see the parking lot packed with news vans and NYPD posted at every entrance.

van

What was going on? Nothing happens on Staten Island. But there was the mayor himself, looking very tall indeed with a select few four year olds playing with colorful blocks at his feet. Since I’m an important blogger I should have approached him with pressing questions on fiscal policy and immigration reform, but because I had four whiny girls in tow I hightailed it out of there.

In yet further education news, my oldest daughter is now a free agent on the MTA system. She has a bus pass and she’s using it, and made it home alive this afternoon on her first solo trip. Hopefully she won’t be scooped up by some concerned passenger and carted off to Bellvue. A lot of crazy people ride public transportation so she shouldn’t stand out. I’ve wondered about those bus passes: in theory she could blow off school and ride all over the city. That might be a better education than she’s getting now.

Today was the first day of school for all my kids. It went off smoothly, a little too smoothly. I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. I’ve realized I need to be more cognizant of basic mom issues, like helping the younger ones get dressed, packing lunches, and otherwise assisting them in the morning rush. What else am I going to do? It’s not like I have a job. Being a housewife is an odd hybrid existence of retiree and babysitter.

Here’s my son looking down on humanity.

firstday

My oldest daughter looking sane and stable. That’s the goal, right?

firstday2

And the youngest (though not for long) drawing circles. At least she knows what a circle is, even if she can’t say it, or anything else. She’s still totally non-verbal.

circles

HBO: The Weight of the Nation

The Weight of the Nation is a 4-part 2012 documentary, free to watch on HBO and youtube, detailing the health and policy implications of skyrocketing obesity in American adults and children. Part 1 looks in graphic detail at the health consequences of obesity, complete with an examination of post-mortem hearts from normal and overweight individuals, and close-ups of diabetic foot lesions. Part 2 looks at weight loss methods and profiles weight loss success stories. Part 3 looks at the obesity crisis in children, and Part 4 examines the general psychological and physiological triggers for overeating: our hunter gatherer stomachs have not caught up with the first world environment of food excess, and we sit around staring at screens while our ancient ancestors were scrambling up trees and fleeing from wolves. This last segment also pushes fruits and vegetables as a weight loss boon (even though neither makes you lose weight) going so far as to suggest corn and soy stop being subsidized “so broccoli can be on an even playing field.” One farmer “guarantees” people will buy broccoli by the boatload if it were cheaper (for the record, broccoli is already cheap- I can buy a a huge bag of florets for $5 at Costco, frozen florets are even cheaper).

While interesting to watch, this is a “just okay” documentary. Often the most engrossing parts of the films are the quirky obesity experts who deliberate the issue. It’s also very long- it took me days to get through all four parts- and different experts in different sections contradict one another. For example, in Part 1 we’re told that a calorie is a calorie, but in part 3, childhood obesity is blamed on “unhealthy food” including the ever-evil corn and soy (predictably we see a “teaching breakfast” where junk food saturated children are exposed to fruits and vegetables). In part 2 we are told that exercise is ineffective for weight loss, yet in Part 3 the lack of a federal gym requirement is faulted for children’s expanding waistlines. There are also a few assertions I’m not sure are true, or at least have not been definitively proven. One claim is that two people of identical weight and height will have different caloric maintenance levels if one person started out at a heavier weight. This doesn’t make sense to me and I’d like to know how the studies concluding this were conducted, because self-reporting of food intake is notoriously inaccurate, particularly in people who have a tendency to overeat. In fact there’s a TV series based on this phenomena, the BBC Secret Eaters (which is available on youtube if you’re interested).

The Weight of the Nation delves into one facet of obesity I’d never considered: there is a lot of profit made off the obese, and not much financial incentive to solve obesity. The care for obesity related diabetes alone reaps billions for the healthcare industry; the diet industry rakes in billions, and the food industry would lose billions if people ate less. That’s a lot of billions resting on the status quo! So while we may give lip service to solving the crisis, who, beyond the individual, would actually benefit from doing so?

Even more sobering, many of the obesity experts and policy makers featured in the film are overweight themselves. For example, the eminently intelligent and thoughtful Kelly Brownell appears to be morbidly obese. You have to ask yourself: if the best educated and most aware of the risks can’t manage to stay within a normal weight range, what hope is there for the rest of us? This dovetails with my theory that your average person simply cannot not be overweight in an environment of food excess. We’re biologically programmed to eat, eat some more, and maybe more on top of that!

By the conventional wisdom presented in this documentary, my own children should be overweight. Except for the occasional bite of lettuce they don’t eat vegetables (yes, I’ve tried, a lot!); only a few like fruit. They eat much maligned kid foods like chicken nuggets, french fries, pizza, potato chips, and fruit juice. They’re not athletic in the least and spend too much time on video games and TV. But not only are they not overweight, they’re slightly underweight or on the low end of normal. Even my oldest daughter, who gained weight when she started corticosteroids, is on the low end of normal BMI.

I have no food rules and never limit how much of what they can take. They don’t even have to eat meals if they don’t feel like it, or can opt for something different from what I’ve cooked. The only real rule is “no wasting.” There are a few foods I never buy- like soda or heavily processed foods- but there is plenty of junk and borderline junk in the house. And after packing healthy lunches for much of last school year only to have it returned home uneaten and the kids starving, I gave up and began packing foods that fly in the face of new USDA school lunch guidelines.

One thing I’ve noticed with my children is that, for whatever reason, they are amazingly good at self regulating food intake. For instance they love the huge, decadent muffins from Costco but will only eat a fourth at a time.

costco muffins
two fourths to go

I normally don’t buy candy but we have a box of Hershey bars in the house. After a month, and between 7 children, it’s only half gone. When I do try to get them to sit down for dinner they take a few bites, announce they’re full and leap up from the table. This is maddening when I have fantasies of a pleasant sit down meal with my kids, but I guess it’s good for their health and future weight. As for why they are like this, I wish I knew; then I could share my secret with all the parents out there. Perhaps they are genetically predisposed to have small appetites because as much as I love food, I can only eat a little bit at a time unless I make a conscious effort to stuff myself. Maybe my complete lack of food rules allows them to be “in touch” with their true hunger signals. But I really don’t know.

As far as the documentary, if you have five hours to spare I definitely recommend it though it’s not the best food documentary I’ve seen. It does come with some fascinating scenes (like when cardiologists illustrate heart disease with actual human hearts) and people, both those struggling with their weight and the clinicians trying to help them.

Al Sharpton Cometh

Al Sharpton and 15,000 of his friends are due to arrive on the shores of Staten Island tomorrow, so I decided to do all my grocery shopping today. There will be a number of road closures and networks of diverted traffic due to the “We Will Not Go Back” rally (what exactly does that mean? Is it like “Never Again?”). I have trouble believing 15,000 people will journey to Staten Island for any reason, and it’s a shame those visitors who do show up will be marching through one of the more miserable sections of the island. Despite its supposed renaissance as the next Greenpoint, St. George for the most part is not a pretty sight. Yes, there are lovely historic landmarks here and there (like St. Peter’s Church) and some well kept Victorians. But for the most part it’s blight, ugly storefronts, and lots of down and out folks hanging around. Perhaps the borough president should have organized hospitality squads to shepherd protesters on diversionary tours of our sparkling beaches and vast greenbelt. They could even take a golf break in Todt Hill.

The timing of Mr. Sharpton’s visit to the island is serendipitous because the one year anniversary of my breach from sugar is approaching, and as some of you may be old enough to remember, Al once cut a portly figure.

chubby al

My husband often waxes poetic about Sharpton’s jumpsuits and bling that are now relics of a bygone era. Despite being chubby in years past, Sharpton is now emaciated thanks to a prison fast and vegan diet.

skinny al

I don’t know, I think he looked better fat! It’s people like Al who give veganism a bad name. They look sick, gray, and withered. But I’m going to assume that like me he has also sworn off desserts, even vegan cupcakes. It was almost one year ago tomorrow that I decided to quit all desserts, and I only fell off the bandwagon once through that period when under the influence of too much wine. I wolfed down a chocolate chip cookie before I remembered it was verboten.

What is life like without dessert? Honestly, not much different. The only physical change is that I have a somewhat less tortuous time trying to sleep. My entire life I’ve had difficulty staying asleep more than two hours, and without the sugar and accompanying chocolate (my weaknesses were chocolate croissants, chocolate chip cookies, chocolate cake, brownies, and chocolate) I can occasionally stay asleep for three hours. But other than that I feel no different. No extra energy. No greater immunity to the common cold. So if you’re considering giving up desserts, too, you may not want to bother.

Not only that but two months ago I finally managed to quit bread! This means I’ve been gluten free for some time. Other than some possible withdrawal symptoms, like a severe headache and bad mood, I can report that I feel no different without gluten either. So again, you may want to avoid this current health food craze. In fact, a recent study surmises that the gluten free fad is completely fake.

The only reason I gave up desserts and bread was because I realized they were wasted calories, and I would rather my carbohydrates derive from fruits as they, at least, contain antioxidants and fiber. The only perceptible difference is that so far I’m gaining less weight with this pregnancy than I gained in previous pregnancies, but that’s only because I’m not devouring bagels, rye bread, pizza, and homemade pretzels like I once did.

Yet another radical change in my dietary life is that I’m now eating meat. After being a devout vegan for years I began eating the very occasional egg, piece of chicken, or dairy item. But once I noticed Costco sold lamb at $5.50 per lb the die was cast. If there is one meat in the world I actually enjoy eating, it’s lamb. I cook it on “low” in the crockpot for 10 hours with wine, garlic, and tomatoes. It’s utterly divine and the final nail in my vegan coffin.

However, eating red meat for the first time in nearly 20 years has not made me feel any different. As I’ve noted before, I think humans are more like rats than we want to admit: we can survive nicely on just about any calorie source, as long as it’s not outright carcinogenic or poisonous.

If I weren’t very pregnant I might venture into the fray tomorrow to take pictures for my readers, but as it is, I can barely make the rounds of Costco without bordering on collapse. I don’t know why that is, because I haven’t gained much weight, though I guess it’s the nature of babies to suck the life out of their mothers.