Wednesday, March 28, 2007

A Bad Case of the ________.

It's allergy season again. (Isn't that the beginning of one of those "Ask your doctor about Zertinase" -type ads?) But aah, yes, the marketers know how to launch their volleys just at the time temperatures in the half-tundra part of Wisconsin hit springlike mid-sixties. (Heck, mid-fifties would even do it). The same way stores can alternate their stocks with rubber boots up front or snowshovels, depending on mother nature's current whim.

Aside from advertising, I could tell you that it's allergy season because my poor (and until now, unaffected) toddler had watery eyes and a runny nose in addition to his spring fever which kept him cumulatively at the park for four hours the other day.

Somehow, allergies seem to be a particularly American problem. It seems like almost every suburban child I know is allergic to something (ranging from the annoying to the life-threatening). It seems to go along with Americans' ever-present stomach and heartburn issues (the year-round target of those drug ads, along with E.D., which will not be discussed here).

I remember my husband telling me that when he came to this country, he kept seeing all these ads for heartburn relief. He didn't know what heartburn was (I think he's also probably never had it in his life, which also means that it ranked lower on the list of vocabulary to know). He thought to himself, "What is this terrible plague of heartburn that Americans have?" Until he realized what the translation of heartburn was, that is, and thought we were all cuckoo.

Aaah, the American epidemics. In the interest of self-disclosure, I must admit that I am a frequent sufferer of heartburn (that was, until I started on Protonix, which I love, though not as much as I love my Zoloft) and I have many known allergies (like to dust, mold and mollusks-- don't ask) as well as mere sensitivities-- like to green peppers and cooked onions.

So my question is: are we all just whacked? I mean, I know I'm somewhat whacked, but come on... I can't be just making this shit up in my spare time. And, while I'd like to blame it on the ancestral inbreeding of my tribe, I come up short given the fact that it seems like all Americans-- whether Jew, Gentile or Athiest-- seem to have similar issues, albeit perhaps not all at once. (I consider myself abundantly gifted in this and so many ways!)

I've heard people explain that the rise in allergies is partially due to people over-cleaning, having super-fastidious homes, using antibacterial agents to do everything from sanitize their hands to their toilet bowls. Let me debunk this at least in my particular case: Love my mom as I do, she was never, I repeat never a good housekeeper when I was a child. Doting, interesting, funny, creative? Yes. Clean and organized? Not so much. I mean, everything looked OK, but I'm not sure I would have eaten off her floor (though, wait a minute-- I guess I did eat off her floor). Well, you know what I mean.

And I certainly won't win any awards for housecleaning, either.

Which leaves us with a few other options: other environmental factors, and genetics. Well, I've got the genetics one down pat. And I don't think in environment we're winning anything, either. Despite the fact that midwesterners seem to feel immune to big bad urban pollution, we've got lots of other pollution (sometimes worse pollution!) of our own in the form of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, fertilizers and god-knows-what-else floating around in our air and water. (I wish I could find the study I'm thinking of, which I saw a while ago, but apparently men in the midwest have lower sperm counts than those in big cities precisely because they have higher exposure to these environmental toxins).

All else aside, I wish that I could say that aside from medicating ourselves to the next side of kingdom come and hermetically sealing ourselves in bubbles, I'm not sure what there is to be done about all of this. I was intrigued, though, and somewhat horrified by this article that I saw in the NYT about a chain of hotels offering purified, anti-allergenic, ozone-blasted rooms.

On one hand, what total overkill! How absurd! On the other hand, a small dream fulfilled! I always suffer when I have to stay in hotels. My suffering is twofold: The curtains, carpets, linens, the mattresses and pillows (especially bad) harbor dust mites which make me stuff up, have a dry itchy throat and not be able to sleep; I also suffer from extreme cootie-sensitivity. You don't have to show me some infrared light to convince me of all the small particles of human skin, fluids (oh my lord let's not go there) that are flying around in your typical hotel room. I am a human infrared light. I know it's everywhere.

Which reminds me of my friend Elyse, who is also a big cootie-phobe. She told me that she went with her boyfriend to a hotel and she was having a big cootie-freak and was standing, paralyzed. He asked her what was wrong and she told him she was freaking out about cooties. This being early on in their relationship, he didn't know about her cootie issues, and being German, he didn't understand the word cooties. She explained, "cooties are invisible, non-existant germs that give you the skeeves." (She then explained the skeeves).

He knew just what to do. He took out an imaginary can of anti-cootie spray and sprayed down the bed. "Does that help?" he asked. "Actually, sort of," she said. "Now can you do the couch?"

Monday, March 19, 2007


You might think I've been sitting on mine for a while now. Or perhaps you understand me more than I think, and you know that I haven't been doing the let-mommy-eat-bonbons routine. (Who invented that one, anyway? Where are all these supposed bonbon-eating mommies, FOX reality-show programming aside?)

Partially I have been keeping busy. Partially I have just not been feeling artful. Partially I have been feeling awful. Cycling through all of that on a daily basis exhausts me enough that I'm back at the crossword puzzles again in the evening, much to the dismay of my husband (I sometimes call him my "Hals-band", which is German for collar).

Somehow the beginning of spring is often like this for me. It's like you feel as if you have all these things to do (spring cleaning, change your life, do something meaningful, be everything to everyone, garden) and yet it's still too early to do most or many of them. And when the time comes to do them, you're too overwhelmed to do any of them.

Apparently, despite the popular notion that people go off the deep end at the holidays, more people go off their rockers in the springtime, or so my German psychiatrist once told me. We mused about why that would be: is it simply an evolutionary attunement to the seasons gone haywire? I.E., our bodies are gearing up for a period of increased activity for survival (establishing new crops or searching for fresh food after a long, sparse winter)? Could it be the sudden surge of color into the world and into the veins? (Our appointments were often spent talking about things like this, or politics or art. Much better than "How crazy do you feel today? Crazier than last week?")

This morning as I turned out of our street I saw a telltale sign: The first horsefly of the season holding on behind the side mirror as I accelerated. Last year, after moving in in August, our house was full of the suckers. We postulated that they proliferated in the presence of the actual horses that live at the nearby actual farm. Their entrance was facilitated by the open doors for the movers who stowed our lives up to the rafters.

Now outside it is variably warm, apparently warm enough for the first resurgence or spawn. I guess with flies you speak of generations. Still, it's hard to see spring quite yet. We're still overlooking a few grayish piles of snowy slush that my son likes to trample through on his way back from the park. The snowdrifts left glacial deposits of sand, glass, wrappers and glass, which rim the sidewalks and lawns that are trying, trying to think about a start.

Monday, March 05, 2007


This morning it felt as though I had passed through some invisible wall and glimpsed a parallel universe. Parallel truly-- I was watching and listening to other moms who I know casually from mom'n'tot music class and the like. We were sitting there at the open gym on the fake turf as our kids swooped around us like seagulls-- snapping up organic cheddar bunnies and stealing lacrosse baskets from one another.

One of the women has twin boys who are 21 months, but developmentally a bit behind because they were preemies. Last week she started to notice that one of them was crossing his eyes. I told her that I'd call the doctor if I were her. She seemed to shrug it off then-- denial? This week she says that she called the ophthalmologist and they got her in right away. Good thing she had listened to us. (I am thinking to myself: OK, your son suddenly shows signs of what could be a severe neurological disorder, and you are wondering whether to take him to the doctor?). Oh, I forgot to add that she is married to a doctor-- a resident, actually, as are all these women.

Another woman comes up. I know from one of the other moms that she just had a miscarriage at 13 weeks. Ouch. I sat down next to her. Although I don't know her very well, I tried to engage her. I told her that I, too, had a miscarriage, and tried to give her the opportunity to talk about it if she wanted to. On the edge of sobbing the entire time, she told me that she was upset because she felt like she wasn't going to have another child (her boy is 2 1/2) and she didn't want to come to terms with that.

I said, "Well, you don't know that. But that's not to decide right now. You have to take care of yourself and your son right now and heal physically and mentally. Could it be that you won't be able to have another kid? Possibly. But as much as you want it and feel like you have to have another kid, you were a person before you had a child. You need to get back in touch with that person and see that there's a lot of life worth living, no matter what happens. And you have a beautiful boy right now."

She looked at me like I had ten heads. I think I lost her around where I said that she was a person before she had a child. You know, like a person with interests. With things she's good at. With a pupose and with humor and knowledge. It pierced me that she absolutely did not feel that way. Not at all.

She had to follow her child, who was a bit too forcefully trying to impose a frisbee as headgear on another child. She walked away.


After she walked away another mom who was sitting there said, "OK, how about a thank you for the flowers I sent? All I can say is that I'm the bigger person. I'm the bigger person. She may have problems with me, but she could at least say thank you for the flowers I sent." She continued, addressing me: "Don't listen to anything she says. She's just looking for attention. For people to feel bad for her. She doesn't have many friends, so she wants people to feel bad for her. Well I don't. I've done what I should have done, and now I'm over it."

I didn't get it. I obviously didn't realize that I was in the "other" universe. I tried to reason, "Well, maybe she felt uncomfortable here because you're pregnant, so many other women here are pregnant. Maybe that makes her feel weird. I can understand that."

The woman replied, "Well you know what, if she has a problem with me being pregnant, she should just get over it. Me being pregnant has nothing to do with her miscarriage. And I've tried to be nice to her. I'm the bigger person, you know."

Yeah, I know, I thought. You're the bigger person, I get it.


As with most things, the events described above are not as simple as they seem. Yet there must be some strong protective, almost animalistic reason that all three women (the mom of twins included) acts so self-involved.

I saw the patterns before, but today sort of solidified it when at moments I tried to connect their stories, to empathize with one or another. To show interest for their concerns. To inspire them to some sort of solidarity. We're in this together, I thought.

But we're not in it together.

Of course there's the element of reproduction that, by definition, means furthering our own genetics and our own interests in the world. No one sits at home and glances down at their pregnant belly hoping that the child resulting will turn out to be of the opposite political party. Pacifists don't wish for war-mongering children. Stiff-upper-lip types don't wish for pansies just in order to add a dash of diversity into the world.

Yet, beyond that, I think there are two very prevalent, and very basic drives behind having progeny: having something of one's own that one can shape, control, and care for. And, perhaps even stronger: insurance that one will never be alone.

I would argue that, no matter how cultured, how aware, how intellegent one is, these basic elements are somehow present in the drive to have children. Kept in check and dealt with consciously and purposefully, I think these things are simply part of a natural instinct. However, when someone is not conscious of these elements, in denial or acting out of pain or fear, these drives can be dangerous.

Children, as we all know, are not necessarily a healing salve for a broken relationship. They are not a replacement for having thoughts, feelings, ideas, skills and plans of our own. They are not us. They are not, nor should they be treated as, a stand-in or a replacement for our own feelings or ambitions. The more we project on them, the more disservice we do to ourselves, to our relationships, and to them.


My son, like most of his contemporaries, loves Thomas the train. Last week when he was feeling like doo-doo I took him to Target and got him the Ginormous Book of Thomas Stickers. He picks out a few a day and puts them on his chest, upside down, so that when he looks down at his chest he can see them right-side-up.

Of the over 700 stickers, there are only two of his favorite character. (Ironically, his favorite Thomas character is Harold, the helicopter). I must admit, even though it irks me that Thomas stuff is so prevalent (and highway-robbery expensive), I always like to see Harold. Partly because when I see him, I always think "Don't be a helicopter mom". Don't try to solve all your son's problems. Don't expect him to solve yours. Be present, but don't hover. Helicopters are alone-goers. Because of their blades, they can't get too close to anyone.