Friday, December 31, 2010

Twelve months of blogging

Well, at the end of the year, I hear it's traditional to recap the best posts of the year. Since I don't have any kind of stat counter, I couldn't tell you what the most popular posts were. Instead I just picked one favorite for each month of 2010.

In January, I was working on cutting bills, and was rather offended by the "food stamp challenge" asking people to live on $7 a day: How to be a snob on $7 a day.



After a lot of complaining (gosh, pregnancy was not my favorite!) I finally posted Things look up.

I had read the opinion that married women shouldn't work, and disagreed -- while still strongly holding that parents should stay with their kids: Should wives work?

What I could post for April but Mark's birth story? In other April posts, though, there are some sweet pictures.


I got really personal in May and shared my hardships in my spiritual life: Struggling with prayer.



In June, A spiritual take on breastfeeding got me some praise from my (nurse and lactation consultant) aunt, plus I really liked it.



My choice for July, Why my son is intact, may just be my most controversial post, with lots of comments. In it I explain why I oppose circumcision, and why (in my opinion) it doesn't jive with Catholic teaching.



In August, I went on the elimination diet that finally turned my fussy nurser into a happy guy. A side effect was a newfound appreciation for fat, and this post: In praise of fat.



In September, a package from my mom raised reflections on my own education, and the education I would like to give my children: My old homeschooling folder.



Germs are not so bad for you after all, I said in October -- and I don't sterilize pacifiers either.



In November, as the cold weather set in, cosleeping suddenly became a much more attractive option, and I wrote What cosleeping is like.



For this month, the winner was The feminist dilemma. It's a question that has bothered me for years, and my personal solution -- bringing the baby to work -- has been very rewarding for me.



Comments are still open on all of these, and I'll be back to check -- so feel free to comment after you read, if you want to restart the discussion!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

On gossip

Gossip is bad, right? We can all agree on that. But what is gossip? Most people say "I'll know it when I see it." But I'm not sure. There are some real differences in opinion on that topic.

Here's my definition: Gossip is saying negative things about someone else with the attempt to hurt them (by damaging their reputation before others). It can be true or untrue, but even if it is true, it is still wrong.

These things are not gossip:

Venting to a good friend about something someone else did to hurt us, because it helps us deal without our own pain.

Mentioning that we are frustrated with others' faults.

Telling about a negative experience with a person or organization in order to warn others away.

I hang around a lot of good Catholics who are definitely opposed to gossip. And I can tell when they think something is gossip: they say "I can't stay and hear these things" or "Let's be positive now" or they fade out of the conversation. And I think that's a fine reaction when you hear someone making cutting remarks about a mutual friend, trying to take someone down, sharing stuff that is no one else's business. Sure. Just walk away.

But, to take an extreme (and completely made-up) example, say there was a close-knit, religious community. One well-respected man in the community was secretly a rapist. One of his victims mentions to her friends, "You won't believe this, but I was raped by X."

Wouldn't it be a little unfair if everyone stood up and said, "You're trying to damage X's reputation, I can't stay and hear this"? Or, "Let's talk about X's wonderful virtues!"

Not all speech has to be positive. Yes, we have to watch what we say that's negative. We shouldn't be a fountain of negativity, that's just depressing. And you know what happens to girls who complain all the time about their boyfriends -- everyone tells them to break up. And if they don't, they may find they can never reconcile their boyfriends with the girls they dished about him to. And I whole-heartedly agree that it's very wrong to share your spouse's secret faults publicly (though with a trusted person, such as a priest or counselor, you sometimes should).

Yet sometimes we kind of need to be negative. When we're feeling bad, when there's stuff troubling us, when we want advice, sometimes it helps to talk about it. When I was a teenager, I obviously had some complaints about my parents. I had a close friend I could talk to, and I'd say, "My parents are very demanding; it's frustrating me!"

Luckily my friend didn't say, "Oh, let's not be negative about your parents" and change the subject. She knew that I was stating a (neutral) fact and my own (admittedly negative) reaction. Her opinion of my parents wasn't harmed. And she'd respond, "Gosh, I know just how you feel." Or sometimes, "Have you tried X, Y, or Z?" Either way, I always felt better. She and I are still great friends, and I know I can trust her with what bothers me.

You have to be careful though. In college I was very frustrated with John, how he seemed to like me but wasn't making a move. I vented to an acquaintance about it. Her reply was, "He's a total jerk. You deserve a thousand times better." She and I never became friends. I had made a mistake in trusting my problems to her, because she had a private grievance with John and wasn't willing to listen objectively. (Mind you, a good friend sometimes does have to be in the position of saying, "You should break up with him." But this is something to be done very carefully...)

My usual rule for venting about friends and family is to make sure I never do it in such a way as to damage that person's reputation or esteem among their friends. In other words, if someone's really bothering me, I either talk to someone who doesn't know that person at all, or I talk to someone who loves them a lot and will understand. I have a few dear friends whom I can trust not to take me too seriously, but to weigh what I say against what they already know of a person. This kind of friend will say, "Yes, I know you're mad at her now, but remember when she did that one thing for you?" Or, "Gosh, that must have been frustrating, but I know it was probably because of this reason." A friend who can do this for you -- treasure them like gold!

Here's another example. Mrs. A sent her daughter to Happy Days Preschool. And it was really, really awful. A year later, long after Mrs. A had pulled her daughter out, Mrs. B happens to mention that she wants to send her son to that preschool. Mrs. A jumps right in and says, "Not a good idea -- we had a horrible experience with that place!" And she tells her entire story.

Would you say, "Mrs. A can't get past her experience, she needs to forgive and move on"? Well, no. Chances are, she's moved on fine. But she's trying to help someone else. I don't even think there's something wrong with publicizing her opinion, publishing a review, deliberately damaging others' good opinion of Happy Days Preschool. Because she's not doing it to hurt, she's doing it to warn others.

In Catholic circles, there's a real problem over criticizing priests and bishops. Some do it so freely it's practically a hobby. Some will shut down if you even mention a word. I think balance is called for. Obviously the priest or bishop is only human and is bound to have faults -- the fact that he's in authority doesn't mean all respect, charity, or consideration go out the window. On the other hand, I don't think his authority makes him beyond criticism either. Personally, I try to treat those in authority with the same respect I do everyone else, by asking, "What harm could come to the person if I speak? What good is there in speaking?" So, if someone comes to me asking if Fr. Q is a good marriage counselor, and I know he's not, no harm in saying so. But if I'm in a parish where the priest isn't very bright, and we all know it, there's no point in my ridiculing him every time he comes up in conversation. If someone says, "Hey, this document from Bishop R says abortion could be okay sometimes," it's totally fair to say, "Ah, but did you know he's been disciplined by the CDF?" It helps people make decisions about who to trust and believe. But I don't go around constantly complaining about bad bishops either. Generally speaking, they all mean well; they are just misguided.

In conclusion, I know gossip is bad, I know it's best to focus on the positive, I know you have to be really careful with negative speech, but sometimes you really do have to say something bad. Bad things happen, and if we can't talk about them, it feels like there's a gag rule around. I have experienced firsthand the evil that gag rules have done. If people had been willing to listen to the "disaffected," the "detractors," the "complainers," maybe a lot of evils would have been stopped a lot sooner.

I used to adhere to the maxim, "Believe all the good you hear, and only the evil you see." Now I hold more to, "Weigh the evidence and make an objective decision." Not as simple, but it's the only logical way to judge things. Evil people exist, they do evil things, and they flourish in silence. On the other hand, liars exist as well, and they try to bring down good people with falsehoods. We have to use our brains to sort through the evidence and make the best judgments we can.

The priest scandals are a great example of this. Some people hear of an accusation against a priest and crow, "He's guilty!" simply on the rumor that they were accused. Others, trying to be charitable (as well as realizing that many accusations are later found to be fabricated), immediately deny the faintest possibility of guilt. I don't think either of these reactions are justified. Instead, we have to wait for more information, and do our best to suspend judgment till we get it. It might well be wise to keep our kids away from these priests until we hear more. It's sad that an innocent priest might be kept from ministering to kids for awhile, but it would be terrible if we let something happen to our kids simply to avoid making the priest feel bad. If we really think the priest is innocent, we can offer our comfort and support in other ways.

In any event, what we never should do is shut up someone who's bringing a real criticism or even accusation against another. Ask more questions, verify, sure, but not silence. 90% of the time, truth is better than silence.

So, those are my opinions on gossip. Do you think I'm drawing the line in the right place? Anything you'd like to add? (Want to criticize me? Go ahead!)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Christmas with in-laws

I know, sounds like a horror story, doesn't it? In-laws are so stereotypically awful. Luckily, I happen to love mine. Sure, my mother-in-law had her doubts about me when I was just a rumor of some girl John was taking to dances. But ever since I stayed with her for about two weeks before our wedding, we've gotten along swimmingly. Plus, her family is a ton of fun. Like John times eleven.

She LOVED her grandson. I do believe she was better at getting him to sleep than I am.


So, I was every bit as eager to take this Christmas trip as John was. He actually took unpaid time so we could go, which, if you know how little money we have and how eager we are to save what we've got, is a big deal.

Our itinerary:

Tuesday -- From an undisclosed location in the DC area to John's grandparents' house in Chicago: 14 hours.
Wednesday -- I stayed home with John's grandpa while he went out and interviewed family members for a family history he is compiling. (This is a very exciting project to me, and he's getting all kinds of neat information!)
Thursday -- From Chicago to an undisclosed location in central Wisconsin: 5 hours. Then fun with John's siblings. He has nine; one is in a convent in Italy but the other eight were there. I love them all. Lots.
Friday -- More fun with John's family. Midnight Mass for everyone but the three of us -- poor baby's schedule was disrupted enough without trying to figure that out.
Saturday (Christmas) -- Morning mass, presents, stockings, and Christmas dinner with John's family.
Sunday -- Mass, then down again to Chicago to see the grandparents.
Monday -- Chicago to DC again: about 14 hours.
Tuesday -- cranky baby, and catching up on sleep.
Wednesday -- woke up at 4:30 and had the baby barf all over me. Which brings us to today.


I guess it all sounds pretty stressful. And there were parts that were. Driving such a long way with a baby is a bit of a challenge. We planned to be stopping a lot along the way, and we did. Luckily the interstates in the Midwest are well-supplied with rest stops. To minimize stops, we left at 3 a.m. for the biggest trips, putting the baby into his carseat half-asleep, so that he would spend as much of the trip as possible asleep -- and avoid spending the witching hour in the car, which you really don't want to do.

The rest of the way, we mostly kept one of us in the back with him (usually me) to keep him occupied. I'd hand him a toy, he'd play with it for two minutes, he'd fling it off the other side of his carseat, and I'd give him another. Repeat. Then he'd decide he was hungry out of sheer boredom and start saying "na na na" or "mum mum mum." Na-nas being rather difficult to provide in a carseat (though not technically impossible ... probably inadvisable) we relied heavily on the mum-mums, i.e. solid food. He liked being handed piece after piece of turkey or cooked carrot. On the way back, we had no food, so we ended up buying a roast beef sandwich at Panera and giving him most of the roast beef. He liked that fine.


While visiting John's grandparents, we stayed in a hotel. Hotels will provide cribs, but we found that unnecessary -- besides, when they say "crib" they usually mean "Pack 'n' Play" and I can't figure out for the life of me how you're supposed to put a sleeping baby into one of those without waking him. So we put the baby between us in the king-size bed, no trouble at all. Except for how high those beds are. I hate beds you have to climb into; I guess I've been spoiled with my low-to-the-ground IKEA bed. But how are you supposed to climb into a tall bed while holding a sleeping baby? Other than that challenge, we had no trouble sleeping with the baby on the trip. I've been sleeping better and better, and I haven't had much use for his crib since we've gotten back either. It's nice to start him out in, but other than that, why put him someplace else when he's so much more comfy in my arms? It helps that we've pretty much mastered lying-down nursing. Not to mention, he actually needs nursing less if he's in bed with me, because often a "shh" or a back pat does the job just as well, if he doesn't get too wide awake first.

John's grandparents are so sweet and kind. His grandma kept heaping praises on me, about what a great mother I am, and how clearly our baby is so advanced and friendly and independent because we are such loving parents. Personally, I think it's mostly in his temperament, but I don't really mind being appreciated all the same.

John's great-grandfather's fire helmet

Arriving at John's mother's house was an even bigger thrill. The baby was so glad to be out of the carseat, he went straight to playing and entertaining everyone. The whole time, he had no objections to being passed around like a hot potato, provided I stayed close and he could have "ma ma ma" and her "na na na" whenever he wanted. (John's mom would always laugh when he started in on the "na na na" and say, "Sorry, I haven't got that anymore! You'll have to go to Mama!")

And oh, man, the FOOD ... there was lots of it. And it was good. They have cows, chickens, and pigs, as well as a large vegetable garden, so that even though it was winter, there was still plenty of "real" food. Also there was tons of candy ... and I'm not going to lie, I ate that too. But now I feel ready to give it all up for awhile and just eat healthy food.

Again I got a lot of praise for being such a good mother. They seem to think I'm some kind of supermom, just because I'm educated I guess? Also, I seemed pretty mellow and relaxed ... which is no wonder when you realize how much they helped with the baby, and how I took all of his naps with him too. If they could have seen me today, I doubt they would have thought me very relaxed.

There were also a ton of presents. I guess that makes sense with so many people to give and receive them. Marko got so many toys! Though I think he might have liked the wrapping paper best. I got an ice cream maker -- and you better believe I'll be blogging about that once I've tried it out!


The way back seemed even longer than the way out. On the bright side, it counts as "quality time" for John and me. We get so little time even to talk these days.

Then today, baby had a stomach bug. There was some upchucking and some nastiness out the back end too. Not my ideal day when we're all tired from traveling and I had lots of laundry to do already. I still haven't had a chance to restock the groceries. But I guess I shouldn't be surprised. The whole trip is very tiring, and I know he was exposed to lots of bugs. There's no saying where he could have picked this one up.

I sure hope tomorrow is a restful day. I mean, aside from the mega shopping trip I need to do. The good Lord knows we need it.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Making the transition to real food

Anyone making the new year's resolution to eat more real food in 2011? The other day Maman a Droit posted that she was reading the labels on oatmeal and decided to start making more things from scratch. Others get fed up with feeling bad, with eating chemicals they don't recognize, with trying to eat low-fat and finding it isn't working for them. Some people see Food, Inc., and want to change the way they eat.

Only real food isn't something you can just up and start doing, like working out. You don't go from TV dinners or canned food casseroles to sprouted tortillas and lacto-fermented sauerkraut overnight. It's too complicated to do, your taste buds would rebel, and your family might stage an intervention to get their junk food back!

Luckily, real food isn't an all-or-nothing deal. If you even make one change in your diet, you might begin to see improvement in your family's health. I've been slowly changing my diet to include more real food and less processed food over the past three years: first by cutting out sugar, then by making stock, then reducing white flour, until what I'm eating now is probably 75% real food. The other 25% will come in time, I hope! And as I nourish my body more than stressing it with toxic byproducts, my health does seem better. I've been sick much less often and feel less dragged down.

Thinking about it, I realized there's no one way to ease into eating real food. Instead, where you should start depends on what holds you back from real food. So I made a list of challenges to overcome, and gave a few steps you should take to master each challenge.

Challenge: Real food is complicated. I don't know how to cook it. I don't even know how to find it. Where do people get pastured meat? Or coconut oil? Or fermented cod liver oil?

Step one: Start small, with things you do know how to cook. If you're currently eating a lot of pre-prepared food, start cooking dinner every night. A menu plan is really helpful for that; many websites will show you how to make one. I do mine in my head, but a simple list on the fridge (Monday = chicken, broccoli, rice; Tuesday = spaghetti, green salad) will keep things more clear with very little trouble. Remember to plan for all courses of the meal, not just the entree. You can make it easier on yourself by making casseroles that include everything you need (these are as easy as mixing chicken, rice, and frozen vegetables, and putting cheese on top) or having very plain sides (frozen vegetables, bagged salads, brown rice or potatoes with butter). Whatever you do, stop buying boxed, frozen, or canned pre-prepared meals. The ingredients label of these products should be enough to convince you! If you're accustomed to eating dessert every night, but no one's really attached to it, cut it out. You can add it back in when you know how to make healthy desserts of your own.

Step two: Read about real food techniques and recipes, and add one to your repertoire every week or so. Nourishing Traditions is the book to start with, but another simple one is Real Food Basics from Modern Alternative Mama. My advice is to start with making stock, which is the easiest. After you've perfected your stock and learned to make many different soups with it, you might move on to lacto-fermentation. That's the stage where I am right now ... it's taken me about a year, but I think I'm about ready to move on to (maybe) soaking my grains. Baby steps!

Step three: Find sources for real food. This is a step I haven't taken yet, or I'd have more help for you! One good resource, though, is realmilk.com. Not only will they tell you how to find real milk at your location, those same sources for milk often sell produce and pastured meat. For online purchases, browse real food blogs. They have giveaways all the time, and that's a good way to get a free try at things like sprouted flour, coconut oil, and cod liver oil. Or just buy what they recommend -- they always try before they recommend these, so you know you're getting good quality.

Challenge: Real food is so expensive! How can I afford it when the food I get coupons on and the food I get from the discount store is all pre-prepared?

Step one: Work out what you spend on food in a month. If possible, save receipts so you know where the money is going. That amount is your budget -- the goal is to improve what you're eating without changing that amount. Of course, adding a bit to that budget would be helpful, if you can. We've cut out eating out, which we used to do occasionally, and that $20 a month or so is useful in the grocery budget. After all, even at Wendy's you're probably going to spend $10 for one meal for two people. At home, I could make a better meal for $3!

Step two: Cut out everything unhealthy or unnecessary. Stop buying prepackaged meals; they are rarely economical, even at a discount. Sure, they seem cheap, but they don't go very far. A can of soup serves one or maybe two, whereas a pot of soup can cost the same and serve the whole family. See how you could make the same from scratch. Start making stock -- it is SO frugal, because it uses bones that would otherwise be thrown out. Buying whole chickens is a smart move, because you can stretch a chicken for several meals, and then make stock from the carcass. Other things to cut out include anything with soy, sugary desserts (like cookies or candy), and anything that has MSG on the label. In short, if the ingredients list has more than one or two things, don't buy it. It's neither "real" nor frugal.

Step three: Learn how to cook frugal real food. This blog has a few suggestions -- some of my favorite recipes are chicken soup, shepherds' pie, and chili. In order to stretch food the most, serve a small portion of meat, a medium portion of vegetables, and a large portion of starches (potatoes, rice, beans, etc.). Have people eat the meat and veggies first, and then have the starches available if people are still hungry. Nutritionally, they are not as healthy, but they are a good source of calories for hungry husbands and teenagers. On a budget, you're not likely to have room for pastured meat at first (though if you can buy it in large portions, you may be able to afford it), but buy the best quality meat you can afford. This generally involves buying cheaper cuts. Organ meats are both frugal and nutrient-dense. If you can't stomach liver (I can't) try chicken gizzards and hearts, diced up small in soup. Or beef heart added to stew or chili along with other meat.

Here is another good source. There's a lot on the same blog which is very helpful.

Challenge: My family is not used to the taste of real food.

Step one: Replace tasteless substitutes for the real thing. There won't be any rebellion from the masses when you switch out margarine for butter, vegetable oil for olive oil, Crisco for lard or coconut oil (for frying -- never fry with unsaturated, liquid oils), artificial sweeteners for real sugar (or better yet, rapadura, honey, or maple syrup), storebought cookies for real cookies. Switch conventional meat out for pastured meat, caged eggs for pastured eggs, UHT-pasturized milk for low-temp pasturized or raw milk, conventional veggies for organic veggies. Whatever changes you can afford to make, make them -- the nutrition in your food will be greatly increased and the taste unaltered or improved.

Step two: Check out your spice cabinet. Is it packed full of different flavors like onion, garlic, sage, rosemary, thyme, allspice, basil, and oregano? Or does it have two or three "spice mixes" and nothing else? Make sure it's well equipped, and then set about weaning your family off the flavor of processed food. Almost all processed foods contain MSG, which is that savory taste everyone misses when they eat homecooked food after getting used to processed food. You can't replace that taste, but you can make better tastes with skillful use of spices -- and fat. Fat carries flavor, so make sure you're using at least a little in your cooking. Older cookbooks will be more helpful than new ones. Once your tastebuds get used to real food, you'll find the taste of processed food is bland and predictable. Good chefs know to stay away from MSG and other processed ingredients, because real ingredients have much more depth of flavor.

Step three: Increase the nutrition in the food you make. Swap out a regular muffin recipe for a whole-wheat, soaked version. Slowly reduce the sugar in your desserts, a tiny bit at a time so everyone's tastebuds can adjust. Once you're used to real food, the old cookies and cakes will seem way too sweet. Real-food desserts that are sure to be a hit include homemade ice cream and custard.

There are many other possible challenges to real food. For instance, many say they don't have time. For sure, real food is easier for a stay-at-home mom to do, but it's possible for working people as well. When I was pregnant and working full time, I made a lot of crockpot meals and soups. Though lunches and breakfasts varied, dinners were almost always real food. There are some websites that can help with that.

Note: I do not do reviews or sponsored posts. I recommend many things in this post, but I am not compensated for my recommendation in any way. Most I have not personally tried, but have had recommendations from people I trust, so I think they're the best option. There are many other sources I did not mention as well.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Marko's stats


It's been awhile since I've given an update on the ol' babykins. So here's how he's doing, as of Christmas Eve 2010.


Age: 8.5 months

Weight: 18 lbs.

Height: 26 inches, give or take a bit

Teeth: two bottom ones

Recent skills: Pulling to a stand on the edge of the tub, walking all over the place (or rather, staggering drunkenly) if we hold his hands, eating LOTS, saying a few words. Still only army crawling, but he does it like lightning.

Words: Ma ma ma ma (mama), da da da da da (daddy), mummummum (eat (he's trying to say "more," but he says it when he wants to start eating too), na na na (nurse). Also lots of babbles that don't seem to mean anything.

Sleep: Pretty bad by the usual standards. He sleeps in long chunks, but when he wakes up, he's impossible to put back down. So I've tended to cosleep after that point, and he goes back to sleep pretty easily. While traveling, we cosleep all the time ... which sometimes works great, and sometimes we seem to keep him awake, because he gets restless. Looking forward to getting back to his crib, at least for a backup. Last night he woke up with me and reached out toward Daddy's spot. Daddy was gone (the bed had gotten too crowded, so he was on the couch) and Marko called out "Da da da da!" Really sweet.

Favorite games: Peekaboo, dancing with Daddy, upside-down

Favorite toys: His picture book (he likes to point at all the pictures and have me say what they are), a straw (he likes to stick it sideways into his mouth and grin at people). Also, food.

Favorite foods: meat. And more meat. Particularly beef and turkey. Also hummus, hash browns, and most vegetables. He eats most of what we eat these days, but we're still holding off on grains, dairy, and eggs.

Nursing: still as frequent as ever, though sometimes I can tell he's not taking as much as he used to. On busy days, when there's not time for much solid food, he nurses more.

Overall: Happy as a clam, busy as a bee, talkative as ... his mother. ;) Marko's doing great and really enjoying learning new things and meeting new people. As for me ... I'm managing. Most of the time I love seeing him grow. And then suddenly I remember how little he used to be and I just want to cry. He's never going to be that tiny again! These days are passing so fast.
Merry Christmas to all of you, dear friends!

Monday, December 20, 2010

A weekend of parties

I was invited to five different parties this weekend. Yikes!

1. A Mary Kay party Friday night
2. A Christmas party with close friends Saturday afternoon
3. A dinner with old boarding-school friends Saturday evening
4. Our faculty dinner Saturday evening
5. A craft party with a new friend Sunday afternoon

I attended parties 1, 2, and 3 and skipped the rest. For the Mary Kay party, I left the baby with John for two hours. He was fine but I missed him awfully. And when I got out of the car to go to the party, he called out "Ma Ma Ma." I came very close to just getting back in and missing the party! And when I finally got to gather my baby in my arms again, I decided he was much better company than any party could be. You see why I bring him with me wherever I go?

Party #2 was probably the most fun. Unfortunately most people were late, so it was really just getting going when I had to leave John there and head off to party #3.

I was very intimidated about this party. There was no one there that I had seen in the past eight years. The last time these people saw me, I was an awkward teenager with ISSUES. And I never got to say goodbye when I was kicked out (LONG story), so they presumably had no idea what had happened to me. All they know is what they got off Facebook, those who even are friends with me on Facebook. I also didn't know who was coming except for two people. So it was with some regret and trepidation that I loaded up the baby and set out.

The fear increased as I saw the darkness and icy conditions. John had advised I get gas right away, but I didn't (note to self: John's advice is ALWAYS good. ALWAYS) because I wanted to warm up the car before leaving the baby in it while I pumped the gas. The fuel light was on, though, which it generally is nowadays. I know it's not good for the car, but it's a big gas guzzler and hard to keep fueled up. So I figured I had a little while before it ran dry ... unfortunately, I haven't the foggiest idea how long "a little while" is. (Tip: a car's owner's manual will usually tell you how much gas is left when the fuel light first comes on. This is good information to find outbefore you need it.)

Okay, so the car is warming up, the baby is dropping off, I'm humming Christmas carols and thinking about Grandpa. I'm thinking of how he always used to sharpen our knives at Thanksgiving time and wondering if our knives will just get duller and duller without him. He'd sharpen every knife in the block before carving the turkey. Whereas the rest of us only think to sharpen the least amount possible. We should all be more like Grandpa. But we aren't and there's a Grandpa-shaped hole in our lives.

There are no gas stations as far as the freeway, but I'm not concerned. I'm only going to be on the freeway for two exits, and I figure there is sure to be a gas station near my exit. It's around this time -- about twenty minutes into my 45-minute (according to Google maps) trip that I remember the amount of money in my bank account: about nine dollars or so. I can't remember the exact number, but I know what I used to have and what I spent on Christmas presents. I also remember that John had been going to give me his card, and I forgot to get it from him. I decide it's too late to turn around, so I keep going. (This is, by the bye, an excellent argument for joint checking accounts -- something that we believe in, on principle, but have never gotten around to doing because we both like our banks. (I have USAA, which is the best. I have never had a single complaint since I got this account at 17.))

So, truckin' along, in my gigantic van, at night. I am not a big fan of driving at night. It's pretty, but when I'm alone it's a little scary, especially if I'm going somewhere unfamiliar. When I was pregnant I had virtually no night vision, too, so even though that's better now, I still carry a bit of nervousness. I find my exit and spin off the cloverleaf. An arrow tells me there's a Sheetz to the left. Only, my directions say to go right. I'm afraid of getting lost, and also of that big left turn (there's no light). I figure I'll be waiting forever if I try to go left. And besides, what exit ever didn't have gas stations in all possible directions? It's a state highway I'm taking, so I decide there will surely be a gas station soon.

Are you laughing at me yet? Well, don't, because about five miles down the (very lonely) road, there's a 7-11. I stop and face the automated pump. I have a gift card in my wallet -- a gift from my last job -- and I try it. Whether I pick credit or debit, it says "Transaction Cancelled -- See Inside." Only, the baby's sound asleep and I don't want to drag him into a 7-11 and have him cry the rest of the way. So I just put $5 in from my account, and head on my way. It's enough to turn off the fuel light, so I figure it will be enough to get me there and back -- since I'm nearly there already, right? I've been on the road for about 35 minutes by this point.

So, about four more miles to a traffic circle, seven more miles to my turn. That gas station was the last vestige of civilization -- there's NOTHING out here. I mean NOTHING. In some places there are houses that show dim glimmers of lights at the ends of long driveways. Other places there are just empty, snowy fields. I begin to get the creeps.

My turn is well-marked, with a light and everything, so no trouble there. I don't remember my next turn, though, so I slow way down (there's no one behind me), hit the dome light, and glance down at my directions. I see a street name and the number "12" before glancing back up (don't EVER read and drive, people) to see a DEER in the middle of the road! I slow down further and the deer goes bounding off. I'm terrified. On the one hand, I shouldn't have been reading and driving -- I definitely know better! On the other, if I'd been going 55 mph, which was the speed limit, I might have hit it.

In any event, I'm not going to try to look at my directions again. There is no shoulder here at all, nothing but occasional "private roads" with big looming shapes of houses at the ends of them, so I keep going. Twelve miles? I ask myself. That is a long way; I had thought I'd be nearly there by now! To be sure, I check every street sign, but none of them are the one I'm looking for.

About eight miles later, I reach the end of the road. It makes a T-stop at another highway. I pull into a closed bank's parking lot and pull out my directions. Turns out there was one more turn before the one I was looking for. Also, it was 1.2 miles later, not 12.

So I turn around, go back 7.8 miles of dark, scary, winding, deer-studded road, and find the turn. Then the next turn, then the house. Relief!

I was half an hour late to the party. There were lots of people there I remembered, almost no one I didn't, and the baby was a huge hit. Somehow, though, I spent half the party talking with my friend's mother. Someday I should write a post about how all mothers gravitate toward each other and immediately start talking about babies. It definitely happens to me a lot.

It was a relatively fun party. Mostly the conversation focused on where we are in our lives now. Some people told funny stories about our boarding-school days, but I didn't really participate in that because I don't remember any good times from when I was there. Not that there weren't any, but most of the time I was too preoccupied with the bad stuff that was going on. The general agreement seemed to be, "Yeah, it was a little weird/it was kind of crazy/there was some funky stuff going on." Mostly we didn't go into it. Kind of like I don't go into it much on here. It was such a strange and confusing time for all of us that it's hard to explain, even to each other, and sometimes it can be hard to talk about.

Anyway, it was nice to see all those people again, especially the hostess -- I had no idea she lived so close to me! But before long, it was time to go, and I said goodbye to everyone. A baby means early leaving times, and it was already nine p.m., so I was pushing it. He was getting a bit cranky and I knew it was time.

As I pulled out of the driveway, I remembered my gas situation. The gas light had come on during my eight miles into the dark middle of nowhere, and I was beginning to realize I wasn't going to make it home on what I had. At the same time, the baby started to cry. He'd nursed at the party, but had been distracted, so he was probably hungry again. Only I didn't want to pull over, here in the middle of nowhere, especially since it was about 20 degrees out, and I didn't want to waste gas running the heat if we weren't moving.

At the intersection with the "main road" (the long, lonely state highway) I saw a gas station I hadn't noticed coming in. Hurray! I pulled into the parking lot, and saw each pump labeled CASH ONLY. I thought, very wistfully, of the $25 sitting on the table at home. Sometimes I am not very bright. What good did I think it was going to do me sitting on the table?

So, it was back on the highway with me. I wasn't positive if there was another gas station before the 7-11 I had gone to, and I also quickly lost track of the miles and didn't know how much further it was. Everything looked the same; no landmarks of any kind, and no intersections. I thought about calling back to my hostess, and wondered if she would be able to find me. I thought about calling John, or Triple A. My mind positively churned with backup plans as the needle scootched lower and lower beneath the orange line, and the baby screamed pitifully in the back. I sang Christmas carols to cheer him, to no avail, and felt quite near tears myself.

Of course, I knew that even if I found the gas station, I wasn't in the clear. I only had, by my estimation, four dollars or less in my account. And I wasn't sure of the exact amount -- what if I overdrew? But, on the other hand, how would $4 worth of gas get me the 20 or so miles home?

After about 20 minutes of agonizing and praying, I finally saw a gas station. I pulled into the parking lot with a grateful heart .... only to find that this was the only gas station I had ever seen without payment buttons on the pumps. I looked everywhere! Yes, this city girl did not know there are some places where you have to pay inside. (I had never, before this night, paid for gas inside. Really.) No worries -- I scooped the baby out of his carseat (poor sad baby) and marched up to the door.

A new discovery for the city girl! Some gas stations actually close for the night. I had no idea. I thought they were all 24 hours; that would be the practical thing. Turns out I was wrong.

So I sat in the quickly cooling car and nursed the baby. It was dark and spooky and I really didn't want to be stopped there. Luckily there was a fire station just within sight; my backup plan if the car didn't start was to walk over there. Surely fire stations are manned 24 hours?

Fortunately I did not have to find out. The car did start. The baby cried as I buckled him in -- he didn't really want to stop nursing at all, but I was scared enough to cut him off -- though he calmed once we began moving.

About 500 feet later was the 7-11, lights blazing. Boy did I feel sheepish. I pulled up to the pump and pondered my options. At this point I remembered that gift card that wouldn't work. Maybe if I went inside, the cashier would be able to make it work? I pulled the baby back out of his carseat and we went in. After some stammering and awkwardness (I have no idea how to buy gas from an actual person, remember) I bought $50 worth of gas, and the card was accepted without a problem. Then I sat in the car and nursed the baby while the tank filled up. I was close to tears from relief.

About a half hour later, I picked up John and we headed home to put the baby to bed (way past his bedtime -- it was almost 10:30 when we got home). Somehow, I had made it through my many mishaps, mainly by luck (and grace) rather than smarts, but they do say the Lord looks after fools. Next time, though, I'm starting with a full tank!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Vaccinations

I've had at least one request to write this post. Unfortunately, that was ages ago and I still haven't written it. But here goes: my opinions on vaccinations, and what we've decided to do.

My overall rule of thumb for vaccinations is that I won't let the baby have a vaccination unless the risks of not getting it are worse than the risks of getting it. That should be obvious, I guess, but it was very important for me to do this risk-benefit analysis with every shot offered to my baby, instead of just getting all of them because they are "recommended."

There's a lot you can read on the internet about vaccinations in general, so I'll just direct you to a few links:

This one is really great, well-reasoned and providing plenty of citations. I found her statistics to be extremely convincing.
Similar statistics with less commentary. Though correlation does not necessitate causation, I think I would demand some correlation between vaccines and disease reduction in order to accept that there is any causation. In other words, I would expect vaccines to hasten the decline in disease -- not leave it the same or, in cases, slow it.
This is a blog post a lot like mine, with some good points:
And this one's a pretty good summation, with helpful links:

Before I was finished with this post, the baby got sick. It was a little scary to hold my burning-hot baby in my arms while reading Wikipedia articles about diphtheria and tetanus (complete with pictures). Luckily, he only had roseola, a very minor virus, and was quickly better. And I'm realizing how fraught with emotion the vaccine debate is. However, we can't make these decisions out of fear. YES, I am scared of serious diseases, and YES, I would do whatever I could to keep my son from getting them. But I need to think of the actual risk of the disease, the actual risk of the vaccine, and the actual efficacy of the vaccine against the virus. I mean, my emotional fear of disease doesn't lead me to give him a bottle of hand sanitizer to swig ... I need to use only things that are safe and effective.

What doctors usually say to convince parents are things like, "Back in the day, we had kids in iron lungs from polio and dying of diphtheria -- and that's exactly what you'll get if you don't vaccinate!"

The fact, however (as shown in some of the links above) is that serious diseases like polio and diphtheria were declining long before the vaccine was introduced. The introduction of the vaccine makes barely a blip on the graph! The same is true for measles, and pertussis is actually rising nowadays, after declining in the early 70's, before the vaccine was introduced. Sanitation, better nutrition, and medical treatment for those infected have drastically reduced mortality from these diseases, even apart from vaccination.

As far as the risks of vaccines go, the studies done so far have been insufficient. I'm not going to say there is any link proved between autism and vaccines. What I will say is that those studies that have been done, as well as quite a bit of anecdotal evidence, suggests that there is a link, and there has been no satisfactory study proving otherwise. I think the burden of proof is on the medical community to prove there is no such link before recommending these vaccines. Autism is just one example. Other diseases that may be linked to vaccines include allergies, sudden infant death syndrome, auto-immune diseases such as Guillan-Barre syndrome, and cancer. And this is no surprise, seeing as vaccines contain not only mercury, but other harmful substances like aluminum and formaldehyde. When vaccines are tested, they are usually tested against a "placebo" which includes all the other ingredients of the vaccine with the virus omitted. This means that reactions against these additives are often left completely out of the studies.

Another important fact about vaccines is that many more are recommended than ever before. Around when I was born, the official vaccination schedule contained 10 doses of various vaccines: diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (whooping cough); polio; and measles, mumps, and rubella; with boosters of these. Today, the schedule recommends 36 doses of vaccines, including vaccines for the chicken pox and flu. This is the highest of any country -- most recommend 10-15 shots, and are not noticeably less healthy than Americans. Vaccines are tested individually, but given in large combinations. A child who misses vaccinations might be given 10 shots in a single office visit! That's a lot for a 10 or 15 pound baby.

Despite all of the above, I decided to consider each vaccine individually, to see if there would be any I chose to get for my son. To even be considered, a vaccine had to have these four qualities:

1. The disease it prevented must be very serious, i.e. life-threatening or having serious complications.

2. There must be some chance of actually contracting the disease.

3. There must not be a high occurrence of complications from the vaccine. Some vaccines are riskier than others, and the very riskiest would be skipped.

4. The vaccine must actually prevent the disease.

Further, every vaccine that would be given should be given as late as possible, giving the baby's immune system time to develop. I have heard that the blood-brain barrier is not completely formed till the age of two. And all of the systems of the body, particularly the brain, are growing so much in infancy that I want to disturb them as little as possible.

Ruled out under #1 are all the most recent vaccines, like the chicken pox. I have no objection to my kid getting the chicken pox, the flu, and so forth. Complications from these illnesses are quite rare.

The first vaccine offered to us was Hepatitis B. Hep B is offered in the hospital after delivery. However, I never heard of newborns engaging in risky sex or shooting up on illegal drugs. The only way they can get Hep B is from their mothers. I was tested for Hep B prior to delivery, and unsurprisingly came up clean, so there was absolutely no need to get it. If Marko grows up to enter a high-risk profession, such as medicine, he'd probably end up getting the shot, but there's absolutely no need for it in childhood.

Polio is offered at two months, but it was an obvious pass. There have been no cases of polio in the US in years -- and the most recent ones (all since 1979) were caused by the polio vaccine. (This is no longer a risk, since the live polio vaccine is no longer used.) Of course the CDC claims the vaccine is responsible for eliminating polio; however, cases of polio started declining in 1952, three years before the vaccine was even introduced, and long before it became universal. It may have a part in eliminating polio, but in any event, Marko is at virtually no risk of polio here in the US.

Next is DTaP, diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis. Diphtheria is now quite rare; since 1980 only 55 cases have been reported in the US. 55 cases in 30 years, in a country of hundreds of millions ... the risk is just not high. Not only that, but treatment with diphtheria antitoxin is quite effective.

Pertussis is one disease that actually is in circulation. Periodically there are outbreaks, such as one in California this year. However, 80% of pertussis cases are in vaccinated individuals. Even after 3-6 doses of the vaccine and multiple boosters later in life, the shot does not give complete immunity. One likely reason is that the pertussis bacterium has mutated to the point that it is not recognized by the body. There are many strains, and the one we are vaccinating for isn't the one that keeps breaking out. The vaccine has too many side effects for me to want to give it just to prevent an obsolete strain of the disease. Fortunately, Marko is past the 6-month mark, before which pertussis is the most dangerous. In older children and adults, it varies from a severe cold to a minor nuisance.

Tetanus is one I will have to research further. I do not know how effective the vaccine is. I do know it can be given after a puncture wound and still be effective. The one thing I do know is that the baby is not at much risk for puncture wounds when he is indoors all the time and can't walk. So I have some time to do further research before making my decision on that one.

The measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine was another easy choice. It's made with fetal cells -- that is, cells from aborted babies. I believe it would be unethical to use these vaccines. Unfortunately, ethical versions are not available (source).

Those are the most commonly accepted vaccines. The newer ones, such as rotavirus, pneumococcal pneumonia, and haemophilius influenza B can surely be omitted -- I never had them, nor did anyone in my generation, and infant mortality wasn't significantly higher back then.

Of course I intend to keep an eye on changing trends, such as outbreaks, and changing situations, like moving to a third world country. My decision is based on current conditions in our current situation.

What I wish most of all is that people would understand that the decision we have made for our son is based on reason, not fear. Yes, John knows more than one child who developed autism immediately after receiving vaccines. But even though this anecdotal evidence is strong (and the more moms you know, the more you hear about this happening, as I have through the blogosphere), it's not the only reason we are delaying vaccines at this time. There is lots of scientific evidence -- not new studies, just carefully looking at old data -- which suggests vaccines are neither as safe or as effective as we have been led to believe. Of course I want to protect my son from illness, but it looks like right now we will have to use other means to keep him well.

Any questions or comments?

P.S. Unfortunately we were just told by our doctor that he will not provide well-baby care to our unvaccinated child. Sadly, this happens all the time. If you don't believe people who choose to decline or delay vaccines are bullied by their doctors, check out this page!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Letter to my grandpa

Dear friends, please pray for my family. My beloved grandpa has gone to his reward. I sure wish I could have seen him again.

I haven't the heart to write much now, though I will later. Meanwhile I leave you with a letter my mom wrote, which she never got a chance to send to him before he lost consciousness the last time. I thought it was beautiful, and it tells a lot about the kind of person he was.

To explain what she says about his hands: my grandfather lost two and a half fingers in a carpentry accident years ago. Their shape is the ASL sign for "I love you" as well as "airplane."



Dear Dad,
I love you so much. There's probably nothing in this letter I haven't shared with you before, but no one wants to leave the love unspoken. I hope it will give you some consolation now.

Father. To others you are war hero, tender spouse, loyal patriot, pillar of the community, master craftsman, the quintessential pilot. To me, you are Dad! You are my Father on Earth. You are such a beautiful picture God has painted of His own fatherhood. The Bible says we are made in the Image and Likeness of God. Well, I have no doubts, you are! Although Mom taught me in words who God the Father is, you taught me by just being you.

And Who is God the Father? And how do I know from you? He is a generous provider. Always I felt that anything was possible. No dream was burst, no wish impossible. I was treated royally. I won't say like a princess, because somehow that word conveys prissiness: no, you wanted your daughters to be strong. (I remember you giving Sheila the high compliment of being strong, like Mom.) When I had a dream--like to be a famous poet--you made me feel that it was truly attainable. We had big dreams and big adventures. We went to far-off places. Sometimes you forced me to do scary but adventurous things--like ski, skate, and water-ski. You didn't want me to be shy and timid, but hopeful and brave. I remember once my aunt said, "You're spoiling them," and you said, "I think they turn out better that way!" Kevin liked to say you didn't spoil me, you enriched me.

You built a rowboat and a ping-pong table for Tiger, a kitchen in each home for Mom, the treehouse for your grandchildren; you helped Andriette through nursing school; you taught me to save money for college; you let me go to boarding school in Italy. You recently helped Andriette fulfill a dream of climbing Mt. Rainier.

Our Father is Someone you can trust. I don't exactly know why I trusted you so completely, but I did. (I still wish I trusted God as much as I trusted you as a child.) I knew you'd be back from Viet Nam. The other possibility never crossed my mind. I knew if you survived all that, you would survive everything else. I trusted you when we moved, when we got caught on the road in blizzards, when the propeller of our plane iced up, when you were stuck in Iran. I think the reason why is that you trusted God. You even wrote me once that you weren't worried about dying in Viet Nam even though you felt it distinctly probable, because you knew God would look after us. Grandma told me you were fearless. I think you were born with great courage, and great courage is faith and trust.

Our Father is someone who forgives. I think Andriette gives a good example of this. She wasn't doing so well in her studies at the University of Washington. As she confessed to you, you just said, "I guess you won't do that again." I certainly felt strongly your high ideals for us, and the idea of disappointing you filled me with great filial fear. I know exactly what the Bible means about fear of the Lord, that it isn't craven and that it is completely compatible with love and trust. Along with that though, I feel you have a great sense of how uniquely fallible each person is, and you find it easy to forgive.

I remember you commenting humorously about people--people-watching in Iran or New York, or at Kevin's ceremony to become an officer. You would chuckle at people, maybe catch them in a fallible act (like the mullah picking his nose), but it was never unkind. There was a warmth to it.

Dad, you taught a lot of people to fly--including two of us kids--and a few people to drive--including all of us kids. (Or I should say attempted to teach us to drive, as even you didn't succeed in teaching me to drive!) Many of your students wrecked your planes. You always used that as a teachable moment, rather than a time to display anger. In one case, I remember there was some penalty to pay--because disobedience was involved--but even that, I'm sure, was just to teach a lesson. Then, if it was your plane, you would patiently begin the repair process. Now isn't that like our heavenly Father? We damage; He repairs.

Our Father is alive, energetic, creative, and joyful. Our God, the Bible, says, dances with joy over us. I've seen you dance a jig while singing to Mom, "Happy Anniversary," and live a very happy, virtuous, wholesome, healthy life. You are what God delights in: "the human being fully alive." He sees that you have used well the gifts He's given, and earned another thousand talents. You have borne much fruit. You have taken what He gave, and invested it well. I hope you are soon in His Kingdom, hearing Him say, "Well done my good and faithful servant." And then He will surel y give you wings to fly as the Eagle, with your son, with your mom and dad. I hope that when you do, you will also get to look down at us, and pray for us to be able to come up higher, too.

Love,
Alison

P.S. I did want to say something about your hands. Like Christ's hands, they are wounded. I remember long ago a fortune teller being able to read your hands so accurately--the elk puncture here, the calluses there--your hands told a story. And now they tell even more of a story. Your one hand says both "I love you" and "airplane" permanently. Christ did not lose His wounds in heaven--they are how we recognized Him when He rose from the dead. So even though I hope that there is no actual disability for you in heaven, your resurrection hands will still say love and fly!


Here is a good link about him:

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

No, Virginia, there is not a Santa Claus



Welcome to the December Carnival of Natural Parenting: Let's Talk Traditions



This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama.

Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.


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Okay, silly title. Especially coming from someone who still believes in Santa Claus. Not only do I know, as a Catholic and someone who studied history, that there was a bishop named Nicholas of Myra who threw presents down someone's chimney (and also supposedly punched the heretic Arius in the face at the council of Nicea), but I also happen to like the jolly old elf of art and poetry. I have "A Visit From St. Nick" ("Twas the night before Christmas") almost memorized. As a child, I believed so fervently in Santa that when my mom said he wasn't real, I refused to believe her and told her that, no matter what she said, I would always believe in Santa.

Then I got married. And my husband told me that there was not a snowball's chance in a cup of hot chocolate that we would be doing Santa, ever, at all. He says Santa is a symbol of the commercialization and secularization of Christmas, a substitute for Jesus. And when half the streets in the center of town were closed Friday night for everyone to see Santa arriving in town on the commuter train -- blocking our way home from the train station -- he was heard to describe the "jolly old elf" in a few choice words I wouldn't repeat.

At first I argued. I tried to come up with compromises. I agreed that there was no way I was fighting my way through a mall crowd to force a crying child to sit on the lap of a white-bearded stranger, but couldn't we at least do stockings? A couple Santa presents? That poem I like so much?

But this year, the first year it actually matters, I find I agree with him. I'm not quite sure when that happened. All I know is, when I told my students we weren't doing Santa, they were in an uproar. They said I was cheating the baby of his chance to enjoy Christmas. And one kid shouted out, "Baby, Santa is as real as GOD!"

I suddenly realized this is not what I want for my child. I don't want him thinking Santa is as real as God, so if I lied to him about one, I might lie about the other. For his own good/so he could have the experience/for pretend ... it doesn't really matter, does it? If I lie, I can't be trusted. Kids aren't so good with the distinctions there.

Also, Santa's for kids. If Santa is 90% of what Christmas is (and he does become that, somehow), then Christmas is for kids. Not grown-ups. Santa doesn't bring us presents. So does that mean we should just stress out and go nuts over getting all the presents for the kids, and then sit back and enjoy Christmas vicariously? If that's the point, are we just telling the kids about Santa so that we can have the kind of Christmas we remember?

I have always found Christmas to be magical. The lighted tree, the surprises, the look on a family member's face when they open my gift for them, Midnight Mass, the nativity scene ... it's all real. Since Santa was only ever a small part of Christmas to me, nothing has been "spoiled" about Christmas as I've grown up, even though "Santa" presents no longer appear under my tree.

Another problem with Santa is that he's about getting, not giving. Santa's the guy who gives you presents that you don't have to write a thank-you note for. (That actually bothered me when I was a kid -- I wondered why my mom didn't make me write a note to him, too!) And you don't have to give a present to him in return. I think it's much better for kids to focus, as much as possible, on giving. So everyone who gives my son a present, he will someday be able to give presents to as well. I loved giving presents as a child; it was really exciting to see if they would like my gift!

The one thing I was worried about missing was the idea of mystery presents. Things that just sort of appeared, that seemed magic. These can happen at any age, by the way. One year, when we were VERY short on money (sometime I should blog about my family's adventures with almost running out of money), we got a card in the mail with a grocery store gift card in it, signed "Santa." I love that. The person who sent it didn't want to be recognized or thanked; they wanted us to understand that God was providing for us.

Years later, my mom sent out her own "Santa" gift card to a friend in need, at least once. She didn't want to make her friend feel awkward or indebted -- just to receive what she needed. And I've done similar things myself. When we got snowed in a couple of Christmases ago and couldn't go out to get a tree, I waited till everyone had gone to bed, snuck outside, and gathered pine branches to set up and decorate like a tree. I told the little kids that Santa had done it. My mom has told them all that Santa is pretend, but they got really into it all the same: "Did he carry it on his sleigh? Did he know we were snowed in? Look, he even put our ornaments on it!" Or, a Christmas when my mom was really tired and went to bed without doing the dishes on Christmas Eve, she woke up to find the kitchen all clean. "Thank you, Sheila," she said to me fervently, but my answer was, "Who, me? Elves did this!"

However, you don't need Santa to do this. You can always give mystery presents. I think I'll encourage that -- giving a few presents and saying, "The person wanted to give you a present in secret, so they wouldn't be thanked." And then, a few years later, encouraging him to do the same to others: "What's something we can do for someone in secret, because it's Christmas?" I'll tell him, of course, about the wise men and the shepherds, how they gave things to baby Jesus, and how when we give things to others, we're doing it for Jesus.

All the same, I'm hoping we can make Christmas about more than presents for him. Going to church on Christmas morning (or Christmas Eve), perhaps doing something extra for the poor, singing carols, setting out the nativity scene, all of these mean so much more than Santa ever will. That's the gift I'd like to give him for his Christmases growing up.






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Monday, December 6, 2010

I'm sorry, your dog is not your baby

I was in the airport two months ago, picking John up after his trip to Italy. Or rather, waiting to pick him up -- his flight was tied up in customs for quite awhile. While I was waiting and watching the monitors, I struck up a conversation with a stranger. He mentioned -- as everyone eventually must -- that I have a baby, and asked how old and all that. "My baby is 18 months old," he shared. "She's a terrier."

Ugh. Not this comment again. I hate it when people say that. Of course I was polite and asked about his dog, but I was not happy. I mean, there are so many things wrong with the statement "My dog is my baby."

The first, and most obvious one, is this. Your dog has parents. His parents are other dogs. If your dog could talk, he might mention that his mom and dad are other dogs, not you. He could also say that he is an adult dog, not a baby. He is housebroken, weaned, and capable of basic self-care. For all I know, he might point out that he doesn't like dressing up in adorable clothes and going by Fluffles Scruffles. You never know.

The second is that your dog is a dog. He is not a human. He doesn't want what humans want or think what humans think. He flourishes best on dog food and not on people food. He would probably rather play than snuggle a lot of the time. From what I've heard from people who have trained dogs, they generally see their owners as pack leaders rather than parents. After all, dogs do not usually keep up close relationships with their parents once they're grown up.

Third, if you think taking care of a dog is like having a kid, it's no wonder you have no respect for parents. Think of all those people who disdain babies, who react to a baby's cry with "Why don't they keep him quiet?" Do they think it's as easy to keep a baby happy as to keep a dog happy? When I introduce my son and people say, "Oh, I know just what it's like. I have a dog baby," I feel insulted. You just said my son is the equivalent of a pet. Thanks so much.

Fourth, if you think taking care of a dog is like having a kid, you're not going to be prepared if you ever do have children. Dogs need to be fed a couple of times a day, let out to go to the bathroom (and sometimes trained to go at the right time and place), walked, brushed from time to time, and played with. Babies need to be fed at least every couple of hours. They need to be changed very frequently. They don't sleep through the night for a long time. They sometimes cry inconsolably and need to be rocked, even for hours. Their needs are constantly changing and all-encompassing. I keep hearing from parents who are shocked at how hard it is. Sure, it's demanding, but I wasn't surprised by that. If I'd thought it was like having a dog? Yeah, I'd definitely have been unprepared.

Fifth, call me an animal hater, but I think our responsibility is first to our own species. I do love animals very much. I believe that it is wrong to cause suffering to an animal, and that you should never kill an animal -- or even cut down a tree -- without reason. I believe that we were given the earth to be stewards, not owners. We should care for it like a trusted property manager would, not like a bunch of college students trashing a rented beach house. If you're going to take on the responsibility of a pet, you should give that pet what it needs to live a happy, fulfilled life.

However, if you aren't able to do this for your pet, it doesn't make you a horrible person to find a new home for him. It's called being responsible. I read on a pregnancy forum some time ago the complaint of a pregnant cat owner. She said she wasn't able to give the cat the attention she used to, and the cat was getting very anxious and licking all the fur off her paws. She was considering finding the cat a new home. People commented on her post angrily, "When your baby is born, if he's too much trouble, will you just give him away to a stranger?" I'm sorry, that's different. Your child is your own flesh and blood. Your cat is not.

If you believe in evolution, you understand that, for the survival of our species, we are hardwired to produce offspring and to protect them. Taking care of a dog or other pet and saying it's like having a baby is "faking out" your instincts, convincing them that you are reproducing when you're not.

For what it's worth, I have a cat. She is a member of our family and I am very fond of her. I make sure to spend some time with her every day, and John keeps her food and water topped up and her litter box clean. She gets her snuggles, and she has a warm spot to nap in. But she isn't on the same level as my son. I don't let the baby pull her fur out (though he'd like to!), but if she's meowing around my feet while the baby is crying, I take care of the baby first. She is an adult; she can wait. Baby can't.

It's just a pet peeve of mine; I know many people who call their dogs their babies don't really mean it's the same. It's just an expression of affection and a tease about how needy their dogs are. But some people really do think it's the same, and that bugs me.


Friday, December 3, 2010

On sickness

Nobody likes being sick. And for those of us who are healthy, it can be a point of pride: "He was never sick a day in his life." It's nice to know your body is working well.

Most of us who live to old age, though, will die of sickness. Nowadays, it's probably cancer, though it could be heart disease or Alzheimer's. Though my dream is to die peacefully in my sleep at the age of about a hundred, after a long day of baking cookies and telling stories to children, I will probably end up dying of some sickness like most people do.

Terminal illness can do a lot of things. It can warn the person that death is near, help them get their affairs in order and ready their minds. Or it can terrify them, as they know their time is running out.

It can give some people a chance to show their courage, as they look death, sickness, and pain in the face without quailing. Or, especially in the case of a long illness, it can break the people we thought were strongest and bring them near to despair.

It can give the person's spouse a chance to show their love in a final time of service, where they care tenderly for the sick person's needs. Or it can burn out the healthy spouse until they're too stressed to make the love in their actions apparent.

Sickness can make you or break you.

It's hard to visit the sick. You want to bring comfort, yet you're afraid to see the person. Afraid they will be something different from what you've always known. You don't want to be left with the memory of a weak person, in bed, surrounded with tubes and wires; you want to remember the strong, healthy, happy person you knew. You don't want to ruin the image you have of someone you've always looked up to.

I've been thinking about this a lot, as my Grandma J- fought a brave battle with her illness, and my Grandpa C- is fighting his. It's just hard on everyone to know a family member is suffering so much. Suffering can ennoble the soul, but it can also push the soul past its limits. And for those of us who are not suffering, there is nothing we can do to lift the pain for the sufferer.

I haven't got any real conclusions about this, because there isn't anything I know that can make this any better. All I can think right now is that I got the news today that my grandpa can sit up in bed and ate breakfast this morning, and though I am very happy to hear it, I still feel sad. A couple years ago, good news from Grandpa was that he was climbing Mt. Rainier or taking aerial photos of the Columbia River or had picked a bushel of cherries ... I wish I could hear he was doing those things again.

I think heaven for my grandpa will involve a lot of flying. The wind will be full in his face -- no plane needed -- and he will be able to see to the horizon and beyond. God made an eagle when he made my grandpa, and He'll give him an eagle's reward.

Right now his body is in bed, but he still has the soul of an eagle. I love him so much.

(Grandpa is second from left, in the back.)
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