Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Reinventing the Wheel

There's nothing like raising a child-- watching it progress from a squirmy little bundle of nerve endings and crying to a thinking, talking, plotting human being-- to recharge your wonder and frustration in the world.

One of the most bizarre realizations I remember having was when my son was about 10 months old and started showing a clear preference for anything with wheels. Why wheels?, I thought. (Is this mystery, perhaps, etched on the Y chromosome?)

Since then, we've gone through love affairs with every be-wheeled thing that touches the earth with its magical orbs. Each has been named, counted, described. Routes have been altered to see the absolute most of them we can see in a given drive.

Yet their magic is difficult for me to feel vicariously, the same way, for instance, I revel in every new word and word combination expressed. (This weekend he woke up insisting "Book store. Book store." Boy are we in trouble!)

Yet the image above, taken from this wonderful article from the NYTimes (where else), captures for me the amazement of wheels. This article talks about a design show in NY which is focused on low-cost design solutions to some of the world's most pressing problems. It features this water containter, in the shape of a wheel, which can be pulled even by a young child.


What a beautiful form! What a beautiful function!

I would like to start a practice where I take maybe one hour a week to generate new ideas. I invite you to join me. They could be ideas from your own realm of work, or they can be far afield. Take one hour a week (doesn't friday seem the best day for this?) to actively daydream and see what you come up with.

More to come...

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Open Wide

I normally feel the weight of the world on my shoulders just as a regular precaution. This week, it's enough to keep me even busier.

You see, just before my husband left for a conference in Alaska (of all places!), he found out in a casual conversation with our neighbor over lawnmowing that apparently our teensy little neighborhood is home to not one, but two houses of ill-repute (of the red-light variety) and one suspected drug dealer.

Now, I cannot attest to the veracity of the claims. However, I certainly know that people had their panties in a gather a while ago because someone got a laptop stolen from their car. (For the record, the car was unlocked and parked on the street at the time. Doh!)

At any rate, apparently there has also been a car stolen, multiple car break-ins, and an as yet uncorroborated account of a neighbor hearing someone in her house.

Still, true or not, it can scare the living daylights out of you.

My husband is known to all of our friends as a safety fiend. I think if my son would suffer no ill feelings from other children because of it, my husband might have him walk around in full protective headgear.

Yet we are both of the conviction that oftentimes even talking about "security" (as in, say, the "homeland" variety) makes people feel, ironically, unsafe. We scoffed at the folks who felt unsafe without a security system out here.

AND, we are now installing a security system. It can be hooked up to the fire alarms so that the fire station is called instantly. There are panic buttons and all sorts of things that can keep you safe (though thinking about them makes you feel unsafe).

Still, I wonder. Safety itself is one thing. Feeling safe, parodoxically, is a state of mind that is not always related to actual safety (and in fact, is sometimes diametrically opposed to safety. Why else would women stay with their abusers, etc.?)

Perhaps we need to study the idea of a fair amount of preparedness with a large dose of denial. How does that sound?


In the meantime, there's all sorts of change going on. The semester has ended and our dear babysitter has graduated and been let out into the wild to change the world as she sees it. In her stead, her roommate, sorority sister and elementary ed. major has taken her place.

With such singing credentials, I should be on the moon. Yet I was still nervous today when I left her here. Even though last week when she visited I saw my son through the window give her a big hug. (And where does he get off hugging women he hardly knows and saying no to me?)

Of course, everything went fine. When I came home, everything was in order and my son barely noticed I was back. He hugged the new babysitter three or four times with verve.

I was thinking about my nervousness as I was doing my errands. I guess change is just like that. Sometimes with things that have to do with my son (like his first swimming lessons alone, and in this case) I am nervous for him. He ends up doing fine. I'm the one who is having the problem with change, because I am anticipating it. I am rehearsing what I have to do to intercede on his behalf. My motherly nature causes me to pace the floors in my mind. And the babe sleeps quieter than ever, tired and satisfied by his conquests.


And in our final installment, I bring you the latest in food news.

Apparently (though I didn't hear the gruesome details firsthand and I am glad I didn't), a baby died recently because its parents kept it on a vegan diet. Their idea of "vegan" meant giving the baby regular soy milk and applesauce. It goes without saying that this is an absolute perversion of thought. Why wouldn't mother's milk (the most natural thing in the world) be acceptable as baby food? Just thinking about this bizarre case makes me want to get up and punch someone.

I mean, I'm all for animal rights and humane treatment of animals. During college I was even a vegetarian for a while. Partially because of conviction, partially because I was always a veggie and carb lover. But veganism itself is an absolute extreme position to take (and, in my eyes, an unhealthful one.) My only calming thought is that perhaps the baby's parents were themselves so self-imposed malnourished that they couldn't think straight. This Op-Ed from the NYTimes expresses sentiments about this case much more eloquently than I can.

And, just in case you were looking for toothpaste with that "extra special something," look no further than China. Under the brand name "Mr. Cool", a chinese company was producing and exporting toothpaste that contained diethylene glycol, known to most of us as a poisonous component of antifreeze.

What's more, this toothpaste has shown up in at least three countries under some other names and toothpastes marketed specifically for children.


Perhaps the question is... is the old adage true: "The second you become comfortable on a ladder is the one right before you fall." Or does fear beget mostly only fear?

We'll see you in the next round of "Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Pimp!"

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The weather with you

I've always felt particularly attuned to the weather. Today it's absolutely pouring gobs and gobs from the sky, and I feel relieved. Somehow, I've always felt that crappy weather gives you the excuse to let down your guard and just BE for a while. When I lived in particularly sunny places (Arizona, Colorado) I always felt like I was living in some sort of strange suspended animation. Perhaps like butterflies feel-- their wings reach an optimum temperature and then they start flying-- are compelled to fly-- by their appetites, not necessarily their desires.

The past two weekends I've been furiously busy feting (missing the carat above the 'e' but don't know how to make it) two toddlers and a cousin. Not that I get to feel some Oh woe is me. Love moves us to action when we perhaps otherwise would be the slug. Still, as much as I love people, love creating the environment where people get together and laugh and trade barbs, I also need the shut-down. Anyone who tries to have a conversation with me on the telephone while my son is napping can attest to my need to slip into that trance-like state. I can range from snippy to sleepy to disinterested to ornery. I bristle at any mention of being productive or accomplishing specific tasks.

I've alternately never quite understood my Dr. Jekyll/Mrs. Hyde personality and yet celebrated it. I can be no other. Just like a playful juxtaposition of motifs, it's how I keep my edge.

Mostly I am discomforted by my huge range of personal quirks when they are embodied in other people-- specifically, friends. My friends range from the very earthy to the very intellectual to the sharp dressers and professional shoppers. I can find myself at home with people in multiple combinations of these qualities. I more fear what happens when physically I get them all together.

This past weekend, spurred on by Toddler Birthday Number 2 (my own toddler this time), I dropped the perverbial mechitzah and allowed the species to intermingle. And doing so told me more about myself than it did about them, oddly enough.

Primarily, it made me think about the expectations I have about myself and what my comfort zone is.

I love new, beautiful, highly-designed things. Yet I also love and crave things that are deals, that are old and used, that have a history.

I feel most comfortable when I look "put together", yet I always want to have at least one thing that jars just a little bit, be it a little strange match or a pop of color. I never want to look trendy or overdone.

I want to be taken seriously and seen as an intellectual, yet I love potty humor and People magazine. I want to be simultaneously earthy and above it all.

All of which means some sort of a balance. Unfortunately (or fortunately, not sure which) life and feelings don't work just "in the middle". Life is all across the spectrum, and we're along for the ride. Sort of like the weather, I suppose. When there's too much sun, you need a dose of rain. So much external, you need the internal pulling you back in.

That balance also isn't always elegant. It makes me think of all those wonderful two-word film titles...: "Bread and Tulips" (wonderful film!), "Strawberry and Chocolate". Perhaps for my life, a more appropriate title would be the contents of my plastic bag this morning as I emerged from the Bavaria Sausage Company store on one of my frequent Teutonic binges: Chocolate and Sausages. Forecast: more of the same.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

DIY (Destroy It Yourself)

I was bitching on the phone yesterday to a friend of mine about a certain husband who shall remain nameless. This certain husband (Let's call him Dr. X) is pretty handy about the house. Have a picture that needs to be hung? He's your man. Sink spigot leaking? Look no further.

So when I was out surveying our gardening progress (and the progress of a certain wascally tenant of the rabbit persuasion who has taken to digging holes in interesting places), I noticed that in the corner of the house's eave a little piece of siding was bent askew. This image recalled in an instant images from my childhood living in a big ole house that was frequented by bats and, famously, a family of quarrelling raccoons who got particularly frisky in the middle of the night the week of my senior AP exams.

Needless to say, it was the first thing out of my mouth to Dr. X when he walked in the door from work. This, however, he informed me, would require a ladder. Not just any old ladder-- a big honkin' outdoor ladder. Leading the busy lives that we do, it took a couple of days for said ladder to be purchased. Fine. No problem.

After an afternoon at the playground with my son, I called home to find Dr. X already there. I asked him to put on a pot of water and boil some pasta for our voracious toddler-- it was, after all, already 6pm and I had just worked for over a half an hour to drag him from the playground.

But I was going to get up and fix that siding, said Dr. X. No problem on a normal day, but with an already disgruntled, now hungry and dirty toddler, I asked him to delay until the boy was fed and taken care of.

By the time the boy was in bed, it was just shy of 8:30pm. The sun was going down. And Dr. X was going up. The ladder, that is. Granted, he had all the right intentions. He is a conscientious homeowner and father, and didn't want to leave that hole up there for inquiring minds who want to know the inside of our attic.

Still, two minutes before total sundown is not particularly the greatest time to go up a 20-foot ladder. I pointed this out to him and (perhaps not politely enough, I've realized in retrospect) told him in no uncertain terms that he should not go up that ladder. Not a good idea. Period. No.

To which he responded, Well thank you. You have been extremely helpful at every step of the way here.

I will spare you the details of the just plain dumb back-and-forth we had (involving empty threats about someone sleeping on the couch). The next morning, as promised, we put the toddler into his playpen to further disassemble his favorite pop-up book and Dr. X scaled the ladder to snap the offending piece of siding back into place.

Then, with much satisfaction, I read this article from the NYTimes today about the various and sundry ways that (I'm just guessing here) male DIY-ers find of disassembling their bodies (primarily hands) in the name of home improvement.

That's not to say that you can't do many things yourself, it's just that you shouldn't do them in a hurry and, (gloating here) perhaps not in the dark.


And, while we're on the subject of DIY disasters, there's the Iraq war. So I come to read this blog over at Salon.com where they're talking about a hearing of the US Armed Services Committee of the Senate on "Defense Department language technology and training and cultural awareness". There I found this little jewel from Retired Major General Robert Sales, Jr.:
'I think we can all agree that most of our shortcomings in the recent wars have been human and not technological, Scales told the committee. "And the list is long; cultural awareness, the ability to influence and shape opinions, soldier conduct, information operations -- the list goes on.'

Changing this state of affairs, said Scales, is 'going to require a real transformation in how the Department of Defense views war, that we move from a technocentric view of warfare to a cultural-centric view of warfare, and that the human, behavioral, cognitive, and cultural aspects of warfare become as much a part of our lexicon, our research and development, our training and education, as learning how to operate machines is today.'

Scales finished by noting that the U.S. fumbled its early successes in Iraq, 'because of our penchant to find technological solutions, as I said, to human problems ... I suggest that the lesson from Iraq is, we should have started earlier to apply human sciences to solve the human problem ... We Americans view war as a science project, and we tend to find technological solutions.'

Yes. The problem "over there" is that for all the little handheld translation devices and strategies for "winning hearts", we never knew who we were talking to. Hand me that hammer, will you?

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Who is like You?

This morning, I was thrown into the water... or rather, my son was. I was on the other side of a glass wall, watching. This morning my son took his first swim lesson without me similiarly suited up, cheering wildly at every purposeful gurgle of bubbles or kick of legs.

I normally pride myself on my mommy-restraint. I don't have existential fits about leaving him with a babysitter. I want him to go forth and experience the world. Still, this qualifies as his first foray into the world where mom isn't in charge and must sit on the sidelines.

I think my girlfriend must have thought I was nuts. Every time he started to wander away from the ledge where he was to wait while his friend practiced with the teacher, I fidgeted, called his name. It became embarrassing that I was unable to stymie this knee-jerk response. My son would look over to me, sometimes eliciting a wave. He obviously understood that I was separated. Apparently, I didn't.


Cognitive dissonance. Simply said, it's when something that rubs you the wrong way. Makes you experience psychological discomfort.

Apparently, not only do we feel this on an individual basis, but on a collective one as well. On a psycho-social level, like attracts like. Like moves to the suburb. Likes follow. I blog, and I like your blog because we think alike, so I link to you. You link to others that think like we do. We are all hard-wired, apparently, to avoid situations where we are the clear minority.

This new NYTimes blog called "Our Lives as Atoms: On the Physical Patterns that Govern Our World", Mark Buchanan (a theoretical physicist) talks in his first post about how both racial segregation, and the whole red state/blue state dynamic of the blogosphere come into being and perpetuate themselves. As he says:
This spontaneous segregation of opinions on the Web is one example of a social outcome that really has very little to do with individual human intentions, and more to do with patterns that arise automatically through natural feedbacks. We often don’t see these feedbacks, but they can strongly influence our lives
Yes, I think. Are such preferences hard-wired? You betcha. Can we do something about them when they become so divisive as to make us want to throw the other (political) half into the ocean? Perhaps. Knowing what hand you've got is the first step to doing something about it. Perhaps we're all not so different after all, we're just not talking to anyone else.


An X by any other name would smell as sweet...

And with mother's day just around the bend, perhaps it's time to shed some light on the almighty X chromosome and what she does for us. That's just what Natalie Angier does in her ode to the X called "For Motherly X Chromosome, Gender Is Only the Beginning". She starts with a job description:
Must be exceptionally stable yet ridiculously responsive to the needs of those around you; must be willing to trail after your loved ones, cleaning up their messes and compensating for their deficiencies and selfishness; must work twice as hard as everybody else; must accept blame for a long list of the world’s illnesses; must have a knack for shaping young minds while in no way neglecting the less glamorous tissues below; must have a high tolerance for babble and repetition; and must agree, when asked, to shut up, fade into the background and pretend you don’t exist.

It turns out, this is not only a damned good description of what moms do, but also what the X chromosome does. Since the Y chromosome is primarily responsible for sex differentiation, the X has to pick up the slack in most all ways.

Therein lies the struggle of the mother and the X: We must be all things to all people, and all things to ourselves. It's an onus that is the cause for myriad and sundry bitching. It is also something we wouldn't (and couldn't) trade for the world.