Archive for June, 2011

Not About Me

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

When I was pregnant with IEP I quite specifically did not want to know if he was a boy or a girl.  Not typically prone to sixth senses about things, I had the strong sensation throughout that pregnancy that I was not supposed to know.  I felt that my job was to focus on keeping myself and my baby healthy – getting rest and exercise and maintaining a balanced diet – and that knowing the sex would just be a distraction.  GAP (who probably would have opted to find out the sex) graciously indulged my desire to remain in the dark.  And so it was that it was in my delivery room that we first heard the words, “It’s a boy” (in a decidedly uncelebratory tone…).

Because my first pregnancy was routine throughout, textbook even, I was able to make the decision not to find out my baby’s sex very much about me and my desires.  This time around, it all went down differently.

In mid-May I went in for my 16-week prenatal appointment during which blood was drawn for my Quad Screen.  Four days later I got a phone call informing me that my test results indicated the baby had an elevated risk for Downs Syndrome.  Three days after that GAP and I met with a genetic counselor.  I had a detailed ultrasound looking for physical markers of Downs, the results of which were encouraging, but inconclusive.  We ultimately decided to have an amniocentesis done to determine with certainty whether or not our baby was healthy.  The whole ordeal was overwhelming, and stressful, and frightening.

The great thing about an amnio is that it is extraordinarily accurate.  The bad thing about an amnio is that the results take days to determine.  Our initial results (which looked specifically for Downs) took five days.  The full panel of results took more than a week.  In the five days between the time the amnio was performed and the time the initial results were given to us we: drove three hours to spend Memorial Day weekend with GAPs family, smiled extensively for professional pictures of the entire family (19 of us including six kids aged three and under), cried as we left IEP with his grandparents and drove three hours back home to leave for vacation, caught a delayed flight to Chicago, missed our connection to Dublin, spent 24 unplanned hours in Chicago waiting for the next Aer Lingus flight to Dublin, flew to Dublin, and drove to Belfast.  It was not exactly an easy few days.  And that is how it came to pass that we were standing on a street corner in Belfast when we got the genetic counselor’s phone call telling us that our baby is healthy.

We ducked into a mostly-empty bar to call our parents with the news.  GAP drank a pint of Smithwick’s and I drank a Coke.  We breathed a great sigh of relief, and continued our sightseeing knowing our baby was fine.

At this point we still didn’t know the sex.

Until my Quad Screen results came back, I had assumed that we would take the same approach to finding out the baby’s sex as we had the first time around.  I contemplated finding out for IEP’s sake, thinking that something as abstract as a pregnancy would be easier for a two-year-old to grasp if he knew whether he was getting a brother or a sister.  But since IEP is only beginning to understand that he himself is a boy I eventually settled back into my original philosophy – focus on having a healthy pregnancy.  The Downs Syndrome fears, however, changed my whole paradigm.

The decision which was once all about me and my idiosyncracies (again, because GAP had always left it up to me) was no longer about me, and all about the baby.  I decided that if the amnio results came back positive for Downs we would find out the sex; that in that situation I wouldn’t comfortable leaving any unknown hanging in the balance.  As I waited to have the amnio done and then waited again for the results this approach – this “I should find out everything I can about this baby” approach – seeped deep into every thought I had about the pregnancy.

Later that evening in Belfast we sat in a pub waiting to order dinner.  It was only 1:00pm at home.  A single phone call back to our genetic counselor was all it would take to find out the sex if we wanted to.  After days of hoping for the best but bracing for the worst most of my convictions about waiting to find out the baby’s sex had crumbled.  So when GAP said, “Oh let’s find out,” that was all it took for me to pick up the phone and call.

We are having another boy, and I couldn’t be happier.

As for my thoughts on finding out the sex, well, they are quite varied at this point.  Most of all, it feels weird knowing.  When you don’t find out the sex you’re always explaining yourself.  “Is it a boy or a girl?” people would ask.  “Oh, we didn’t find out.”  Then there was always an awkward pause where I was presumably supposed to justify that decision.  There is something about knowing the sex that makes conversations with people (especially strangers) much easier.

But beyond that bit of prenatal culture shock my dominant thought is that my opinions on the matter carry no weight outside of my own family.  I did what was right for me both times, and made a different decision each time.  If my own circumstances can sway my decision from one pregnancy to the next, who am I to weigh the merits of finding out for somebody else?  It is a highly personal decision, and unless it’s my own pregnancy it has nothing to do with me.  Thankfully, most of the time it is a fun decision that is not riddled with health concerns.  But rarely do we know the full story of another person’s pregnancy.  We don’t know what factors influenced her decision.  And frankly it’s none of our business.

My baby is healthy.  And truly, that is the only thing that matters.

Putting the Honor Back in “Honor”

Monday, June 27th, 2011

The logic goes like this: Women go carousing around committing adultery or having sex out of wedlock.  This brings shame on their families.  So they are murdered by their families in order to restore honor to the group.

That, friends, is the premise of a so-called “honor killing.”

“Honor killings” are most often carried out in the Middle East.  Although (per Wikipedia) they’ve been reported throughout the world including locations in Southeast Asia, and within immigrant communities in France, Germany, and the UK.  Apparently they were first conceived and encourage in ancient Rome because male family members of adulterous women would be persecuted based on the women’s behavior.  Today the United Nations Population Fund estimates that as many as 5,000 women and girls are murdered this way each year, although many women’s rights groups in the Middle East and Southeast Asia estimate that it could be as many as 20,000.

It’s the kind of thing that makes your stomach sink.  You feel like you’ve died just a little inside by merely knowing that such a practice exists, even if it is being carried out continents away by no one you actually know.  It’s horrendous and there is no excuse for it under any circumstance.  And, while it seems like it should be impossible, there are situations when this cruel practice is even worse.

Rape victims are also subject to ”honor killings.”

Yes, women who’ve been subjugated, molested, violated, and abused, are then murdered by the very people who are supposed to love them most due to the “shame” they have brought upon their families.  Truly, it boggles the mind.  But I’m not just trying to bum you out on a Monday, so stick with me.

Equally mind boggling was this article from Salon, which an old high school classmate of mine posted on Facebook.  Apparently, in a small but growing trend, in Syria men are marrying rape victims (whom they don’t necessarily even know) to spare them from “honor killings.”  This all started when four teenage sisters from a Syrian-Turkish border town were raped.  As they healed in the hospital news of their tragic story spread and a small group of men from a neighboring town vowed to marry them.

One of these men said, “I know that these girls suffered. They were taken against their will. I don’t care what they look like, the point is to stand by them, and I do with all of my heart.”

So often all we hear about gender relations in the Middle East is negative.  Men dress in comfortable Western attire, while women must don headscarves and burkas.  Men can drive cars, run for political office, and socialize with whomever they choose at any time, while women’s freedoms are often severely limited.  Rarely do we hear about men stepping up for women who’ve been victimized by the system.  Given all this, I can think of nothing more honorable for these Syrian men to have done.

The Salon article asserts that if this trend continues it may nullify the stigma attached to rape over time, perhaps eventually sparing future victims from further abuse beyond whatever they’ve already survived.  What an incredible transformation that would be!

Carte Blanche

Friday, June 24th, 2011

I remember the first time I heard the phrase “retail therapy.”  I was working at my first job out of college and a colleague – a few years older, very pretty, and very sophisticated (I had a bit of a girl crush on her) – mentioned that she was going shopping after work because it had been a long week and she needed some retail therapy.  “Ohhhhhh,” I thought, recognizing the sentiment, ”It has a name!”

Ever since then I’ve considered retail therapy a privileged person’s excuse for placating her materialism.  (Which certainly isn’t to say that I haven’t indulged in it myself.)  So I was surprised to learn this week that a study has proven that retail therapy is psychologically legit.  I made my way through the article waiting for the other shoe to drop.  As I neared the end I expected to read that the temporary mood boost afforded by shopping is short lived, and gives way to buyer’s remorse and feelings of guilt.  Conversely, while the article conceded that the negative moods that lead to retail therapy can spike impulsive behavior, the net effect is that ”…retail therapy has lasting positive impacts on mood. Feelings of regret and guilt are not associated with the unplanned purchases made to repair a bad mood.”

My mixed response to this news surprised me.  On one hand, I though, ”Hooray!  Affirmation!”  On the other hand I thought, “Really?  Is this how we want to encourage people to work through bum moods?”

I think my second response stems back to a particular moment of my adolescence when I experienced exactly the same feelings of guilt and remorse that the article said don’t correspond to retail therapy.  As a kid I was a huge penny pincher.  I collected my allowance for weeks and weeks in a hinged wooden piggy bank.  I remember that at one point in second grade I had accumulated $80 thanks to my miserly ways.  And while, for the most part, I enjoyed counting my pennies and congratulating my incredible fiscal restraint (yes, GAP, this is all true…), there were moments when I felt like a prisoner of my own piggy bank.  Eventually I snapped.  When I was 15 I decided to let my hair down for once and go on a bit of a shopping spree.  Wielding my Loony Toons checkbook with conviction I spent about $350 in the course of a few hours.  I experienced an incredible high in the process, but that happiness quickly gave way to the sense that I’d made a huge mistake.  Sitting in my bedroom surrounded by shopping bags I felt deflated (much like my checking account balance…).

In retrospect I think it was the extreme swing in my behavior that left me feeling like I’d gotten in over my head.  The article mentions that most people spend about $59 to perk up a bad mood, and $115 to celebrate an achievement.  And those figures are for adults, who, presumably, earn more than $15 per week doing household chores.  This context allows me to see that my $350 spending spree as a 15-year-old was far more impulsive than I realized.

As an adult I have settled into more moderate spending patterns.  Part of me is happy to learn that whatever emotional boost I get from a new blouse or trip to the cosmetics counter is psychological fact.  But I also worry that this study may lure people into the belief that they have carte blanche to solve their problems with spending.  I hear stories on the news about how many Americans have no savings accumulated, how much credit card debt we carry, and how our proclivity to spend money we don’t have has gotten us into trouble time and again.  Nevertheless, whether your splurge is a $500 handbag or a $5 cappucino, it’s still nice knowing that with some regard for our relative means, we can indulge ourselves without major regret.

Epilogue – My ill-advised shopping spree did help me stumble into my favorite retail therapy trick.  When I’m in the mood to shop, but don’t actually need anything, I go about it as I usually would, perusing clothing racks, trying things on etc.  Once I’ve settled on the collection of things I want to buy I take them to the counter and ask the salesperson to put them on hold for me.  If I really want them, I’ll continue thinking about them for a couple of days and be willing to go back for a planned purchase.  But nine times out of 10 I don’t.  I’ve sated my impulse desire to shop without actually spending anything.

How the Supreme Court Broke My Heart

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

The Supreme Court hates women.

I realize that’s not exactly true.  But that’s what it felt like I was reading when I learned on Monday that the Supreme Court had thrown out the class-action lawsuit against Wal-Mart filed by 1.6 million women claiming gender discrimination.  It broke my heart.

My understanding of the case is that it came down to single-store hiring discretion.  (Actually, with a 5-4 decision it came down to ideological lines, but that’s another discussion.)  Apparently store managers were given a great deal of latitude in their hiring decisions, which prompted the majority justices to rule that the 1.6 million plaintiffs weren’t eligible to be grouped together in a single class-action suit.  This riles me.

A giant, multi-national corporation somehow – either systematically or inadvertently (and for the record I don’t believe anything at Wal-Mart happens by chance) – managed to let hundreds of thousands of women earn less pay and exploit less opportunity for advancement and somehow emerged blameless?  I just don’t understand it.  Even if each individual store manager discriminated of his own accord, how is the corporation not liable for the behavior of its store managers?  What if each of the store managers engaged in racial discrimination?  What say you to that, Justice Thomas?  What if the store managers sexually harrassed teen employees?  What then, Justice Scalia (father of nine children)?

In a scathing editorial on The Huffington Post author Peter S. Goodman suggests that it’s easy for U.S. Supreme Court justices to disregard the concerns of 1.6 million underpaid women because they are not among them.  He writes, “In its appalling decision in the Walmart gender discrimination case handed down Monday, the justices supplied future historians with a brilliant symbol of how the United States has essentially become a giant gated community enjoyed by the powerful, with most of the citizenry living outside and struggling to nourish themselves.”  Justice Scalia’s kids aren’t working overtime at Wal-Mart, so why worry about the kids who are?

Beyond his cultural commentary Goodman points out that Wal-Mart’s power as the largest retailer in the world lies in its ability to negotiate with factories, suppliers, distributors, and transporters as a single giant entity.  Wal-Mart store managers do not negotiate for the product on their shelves.  The corporation negotiates on behalf of all its stores.  But yet, when employment policies come under scrutiny the corporation is absolved of any culpability.  Goodman comments,

“[E]ach Walmart is its own separate unit, for the purposes of the lawsuit. Walmart gets to be a behemoth when it is setting the prices for the patio furniture and volleyball sets that it purchases from factories in Mexico and China, but when its employees want to band together to address alleged abuses in the court system, suddenly the Walmart corporation might just as well be a collection of little mom-and-pop shops that happen to have the same name.”

As I said, it breaks my heart.

Moments like this one do not inspire my confidence in my country.  The plaintiffs in the Wal-Mart case are not being treated fairly by their employer.  And when they rose up to try to represent themselves their government failed them.  I doubt that this is what the founding fathers had in mind when they decided that King George was a tyrant and wanted a life free from the oppression of a ruler who didn’t represent or consider their interests.  In that vein, whose interests does our government represent these days?  Corporations?  Lobbyists?  Shareholders?  I wonder how today’s Supreme Court would rule on slavery.  Perhaps more realistically, I wonder how they would rule on the sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church.  Actually, I’m not sure I want to know the answer to that one.

Perhaps my disappointment at this ruling is making me a bit melodramatic.  I realize that one bad decision by the court doesn’t mean that the whole country is falling apart at the seams.  The Dred Scott case was eventually overruled by the Fourteenth Amendment 11 years later.  Perhaps in 10 years another 1.6 million women will try again with better results.  Our nation has recovered from mistakes bigger than this one.  I can only hope we’ll come to our senses yet again.

Where You Least Expect It

Monday, June 20th, 2011

I would wager that at some level we each like to fancy ourselves the curator.  That is, we believe that we know a good thing when we see it.  Especially those of us in the blog-reading/writing set like to believe that we are tuned in, aware of our surroundings, observent, and (dare I say it) present.  We notice and appreciate the little things around us that only gain meaning when thoughtfully absorbed.  But really, would we notice beauty – true beauty – if we walked past it out of context?

A 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning piece from The Washington Post says no.

I came across this piece by way of my mother, who had tickets to see Joshua Bell in concert this past weekend.  She mentioned the Washington Post’s experiment to me, and naturally I had to go find the whole story.  It went down like this:

At 7:51am on a Friday morning in January of 2007 (yes, I’m a little late to the party here) acclaimed virtuoso violinist Josh Bell put on jeans and a t-shirt, carried his $3.5 million Stradivarius violin into D.C. subway station, threw some seed money into his case, and started playing.  He played six pieces over the course of about 45 minutes with the objective of discovering which busy commuters would recognize talent and beauty when they heard it.

The results, as you might expect, were rather disappointing.  It turns out that we Americans are an uncultured lot who can’t appreciate musical brilliance when it’s standing in front of us.  Actually, that overstates it as there are various theories explained the article as to why people overlook such beauty when they aren’t expecting to see it (or in this case, hear it).  Nevertheless, the fact remains that in the 43 minutes Bell played 1,097 people walked past him.  Of those 1,097 people 27 gave money, most without stopping, and a mere seven stopped to listen with more focus.

The original article goes into much more detail about the entire event.  It is both fascinating and a bit heartbreaking and I highly encourage you to read it because I am leaving further description of it to the Post, as A) it’s already a Pulitzer quality article, so really what more could I add? and B) my thoughts on the subject are in a slightly different vein.

Going back to my original comments on our abilities to play the curator, what is it we’re looking for when we identify something as beautiful?  Is there some objective yardstick against which all objects are measured?  Or is it all merely a function of our own perception?  The Post article cites Gottfried Leibniz who claims that beauty is a measurable fact, David Hume who believes it is merely an opinion, and Immanuel Kant who claims that it is, “a little of each, colored by the immediate state of mind of the observer.”   This hybrid definition then raises the question, are heralded classics played by a master more beautiful in Carnegie Hall than they are in the D.C. metro?  Or are they just as lovely, but we are predisposed not to realize it because we don’t expect it?  I am inclined to say No.  I suspect that Bell’s performance was every bit as stunning on that January morning in the metro as it was the week before in the Library of Congress, and that it was the mindset of the commuter that blinded most of them to the actuality of their surroundings in that moment.

Further still, does one kind of beauty trump another?  Is one of Monet’s lily pads – considered to be masterpieces – more beautiful than a sunset off view from your balcony at the end of a perfect day on vacation?  (I mention the lily pads on purpose, because I’ve always found them a bit dull.)  If seeing something created by an artistic genius and arbitrarily hanging on a museum wall does less for me (I’m just talking about the lily pads here) than the sunset that is laced with context and subtext, does this mean that I’m an ignorant boor?  Surely not.  Nevertheless, if there is any objective component then shouldn’t the Monet masterpiece carry more, or at least equal, weight in my estimation?

Setting all these abstract questions aside, there was one aspect of the article on the Joshua Bell experiment that has stuck with me the most since I first read it more than a week ago.  Of the 1,097 people who passed Bell, every single one of the children either stopped or tried to stop, only to be rushed along by their parents.  This tells me that at some level, we are innately wired to recognize beauty in any context, but that over time that ability atrophies and perhaps eventually dies altogether if left unused.  There are a number of times in life when the mindset of a child behooves us.  Joshua Bell in a subway station, it turns out, is one of those times.