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Archive for February, 2012

Questions I Can’t Answer. Chickens I Won’t Eat.

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

You can’t blink or you will miss it.  It’s in the first line of this article called ”Farming the Unconscious” posted on We Make Money Not Art.” You don’t even know to be looking for it.

The “it” I refer to is the fact that the project discussed in the article comes from the Royal College of Art.  Not agriculture.  Not livestock.  Art.  This is relevant because it throws into question whether or not the entire project was created as an earnest attempt to solve a problem, or as a commentary on modern animal husbandry practices.

I encourage you to read the article.  The images alone are quite impactful.  The jist of it is this: Most people understand that the factory farming methods applied to chickens are largely believed to be inhumane.  The birds have been bred over time to reach physical maturity in about six weeks.  This rapid growth cycle is often too much for the cardio-pulmonary systems of the birds to withstand and many of them die before they can be slaughtered.  On top of the questionable breeding they are housed in huge, windowless, poorly ventilated barns with little-to-no room for movement, standing on a bed of their own feces, and reduced to cannibalizing each other out of boredom.  Seriously, it’s pretty disturbing.

But more disturbing still is student André Ford’s proposed solution.

He suggests that if the demand for poultry is such that we must be able to produce it on a mass scale, then why continue to raise chickens when we could just grow them?  Yes.  Grow.  Like a crop.  It is (apparently…) the logical extension of Purdue University professor Paul Thompson’s belief that raising more tolerant blind chickens we could circumvent many of the animal welfare problems plaguing the egg and poultry industry today.  If they are blind they won’t object as much to the conditions in which they live.  So why not take it a step further, render them fully unconscious, and house them in the most economic conditions possible?  While the chicken isn’t technically headless, it is effectively brainless.  To quote Ford explanation of the project:

As long as their brain stem is intact, the homeostatic functions of the chicken will continue to operate. By removing the cerebral cortex of the chicken, its sensory perceptions are removed. It can be produced in a denser condition while remaining alive, and oblivious. The feet will also be removed so the body of the chicken can be packed together in a dense volume. Food, water and air are delivered via an arterial network and excreta is removed in the same manner.  Around 1000 chickens will be packed into each ‘leaf’, which forms part of a moving, productive system.
I won’t even try to pretend that the very thought of this doesn’t disgust me.  But if it is worth anyone’s time to explore this topic in the first place then it is also worth it for me to withhold my gut reaction at least long enough to earnestly consider the merits of such an approach.
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There are two major objections to factory farming: its negative effect on human nutrition, and concerns for animal welfare.  The nutrition concerns stem from issues like drug resistent bacteria that have evolved from use of antibiotics in animal feed, the effects of growth hormones from animal byproducts on children, and the compromised nutritional profile of many factory farmed animals.  The animal welfare concerns stem from the often-filthy and sardine-like conditions in which factory farmed animals are raised.  These conditions are a far cry from the idyllic pastoral scenes we like to envision when we think about where our food comes from.  But due to a flurry of media attention to this issue over the past five-ish years, we all know better now.
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In thinking about this collection of concerns I have to admit that it would be intellectually dishonest not to concede that Ford’s suggested solution could mitigate, if not altogether eliminate, most of them.  Growing chickens in plexiglass containers would keep them in a clean (perhaps even sterile?) environment, removing the need for the excessive antibiotics used today.  Removing their brains would prevent them from objecting to such conditions.  And such intensive growing practices could allow more animals to be produced at a time, potentially limiting the need for the growth hormones that are used to increase production rates.  I suppose the entire approach could be more efficient than current practices.
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None of this, however, changes the fact that if forced to choose between meat raised in these conditions and vegetarianism I would choose the latter every time.  And what frustrates me most about this is that I can’t really articulate why.  It’s a gut reaction.  It just feels wrong to me.  I am comfortable with my place on the food chain.  But I am not comfortable hideously subjugating an entire species of animals just because there is a market demand for cheap and abundant poultry.  Ford, however, would argue that we’re already there.  In his interview he candidly comments, “ Unfortunately, there is very little that is natural about the way the our food is currently produced.”
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But as for cheap and abundant poultry… A follow-up argument here is that if the poultry industry were to follow Ford’s lead, chicken could become incredibly inexpensive.  Think of all the malnourished people living in poverty who might be able to afford a package of drumsticks for the first time.  Meat is calorie-dense and (obviously) high in protein.  Would I rather grow a chicken in a plastic box or watch a child go hungry?  It’s a conundrum that throws my moral high ground into question.
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Here I am, more than 900 words into this post (if you’ve made it this far, bully for you!) and I don’t have an answer.  I won’t apologize for that because this is a topic that deserves some serious wrestling and I think it’s okay that I don’t yet have my views packaged up with a bow on top.  As I’ve said in previous posts on previous topics, asking these questions is the first step in answering them.
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But back to where I started: The Royal College of Art.  Does André Ford really want us to grow our chickens in plexiglass containers?  Or did he just assert that we should in order to set us to thinking about whether the ends they produce justify such extreme means?  Either way, it worked.
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This issue of our food supply is something I’ve explored in multiple prior posts.  If you’re interested, you can read further via the following links:
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Posts on eating meat
Posts on feeding the poor

Role Model Redux

Monday, February 27th, 2012

I wrote this post two years ago, right after my family all got together to celebrate my grandfather’s 90th birthday.  It was early in the life of this blog, and back then I was still a little unsure about posting publicly and had only shared the blog with a few people.  I wanted limit my exposure at the beginning until I got my legs under me.  My grandfather is a tough critic and I wasn’t quite ready for his feedback.  Unfortunately that meant that he didn’t see this post when it was originally published.

Now my grandfather is a regular reader of this blog.  And, for the record, he has been nothing but supportive.  Today marks his 92nd birthday and I thought it an apt time to republish this post so that he might have an opportunity to read it.  Granddaddy, I hope you have a wonderful birthday.  I love you.

There are many people in the world whom we identify as role models.  Many of them are athletes.  Some are government leaders.  Others are astronauts and soldiers.  Others still are people who have overcome incredible hardship.  And all of these people certainly deserve our admiration.  But there is a different breed of role model that this collection excludes.

For all of the attention we pay to people whose stories are worthy of glossy magazine pages, the honest truth of the matter is that they probably influence our lives very little.  We may be inspired as we read about them, or watch their stories play out in front of us in the form of a collection of slow-motion clips, narrated by Bob Costas and accompanied by touching background music.  We may tear up in these moments and stand in awe of these impressive people.  But when we close the magazine or turn off the television, very few of us carry these people around with us afterward.

Most often the people we carry with us are those whose faces we can see when we close our eyes; whose voices we can hear when we find a quiet moment.  They are people who have taught us things big and small.  They have watched us succeed and fail.  They have shown us what maturity and integrity look like at every turn.  They are the people whose lives have left an indelible impression on our own.

Because I have led a blessed and lucky life so far, I have a number of people in my life who fit this description.  But only one of them celebrated his 90th birthday last weekend.

Steady.  If I had to pick one word that describes my grandfather more than any other, it would be steady.  In today’s world where we flit about, jumping frenetically from one thing to the next, steadiness is a trait that has become increasingly rare.  Today we value speed, multi-tasking, and efficiency.  We do not always appreciate the value that is brought by doing something well or with consistency.  But such quality and consistency are hallmarks of my grandfather’s life.

For forty-odd years Granddaddy was a physician; an internist.  He was an army doctor during World War II.  And when the war ended he started his own private practice which he ran until he retired in his sixties.  Throughout his practice he saw patients in his office, made his own hospital rounds, and made house calls.  He was home in time for supper.  He has gone to church nearly every Sunday of his life.  He played tennis with my father every weekend of his teen years – rain, shine, snow, or sleet.  He took a two-week vacation with his family every summer.  He made double mortgage payments every month until his house was paid off.

When I was a little girl I did not always appreciate these qualities.  To a child some of this steadiness can seem a little stuffy, even rigid.  He has playful moments, to be sure.  And he is always full of affection for my sister and me.  But the same steadiness he exhibits each day he also expects of those around him.  As kids we knew exactly what the rules were, and what consequences might be handed down if we broke them.  Those consequences were never more than a stern expression accompanied by a few castigating words, but they always did the job.

In my life today I notice the ways in which we embrace and endorse many aspects of our lives that don’t quite measure up.  We have starter careers and starter marriages.  We eat fast food and watch reality television.  We carry credit card debt and spend more than we save.  In light of all this I am especially thankful for Granddaddy and the example he has set for me.  Because of him I have come to value reliability and consistency, and I can see what a life looks like that has been built on decisions that were made, one after another, with stalwart integrity.

Granddaddy has always been a little bit formal.  But this past weekend at his birthday party I watched him soften a bit.  I worked collectively with my family to create a memory book from years’ worth of photos and stories for his birthday gift.  He unwrapped the book to find a front-cover photograph of himself and my grandmother taken in their front yard in 1960.  She wore a pale blue dress with a belt cinched around her impossibly tiny waist.  He stood in shirt sleeves and a tie with his arm draped over her shoulders.  They were so obviously happy.  As he flipped through the pages he smiled and sighed.  Stories spilled from his mouth as the photos cast fresh light on memories that had grown dusty with age.

It gave me real joy to watch him in that moment.  And it inspired me to more fully incorporate into my life the values that he embodies.  Granddaddy can sit happily today knowing that he has lived his life well.  I hope that I too reach my 90th birthday someday, and that I too will be able to look back over my life with a similar sense of satisfaction.

A Dying Man’s Wish

Friday, February 24th, 2012

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about my crush on Downton Abbey, and how watching it had started my wheels spinning on the topics of honor and pride in one’s work.  Well, I’m continuing to plug my way through the series (I’m now deep into Season 2) and my wheels are spinning again.  You know, for a show that is basically a beautifully costumed soap opera, Downtown Abbey really does provide a lot of food for thought.

With that, I will offer this warning before I continue my post.  If you watch Downton Abbey and are current through Season 2, then read ahead because you know what happens anyway.  If you don’t watch Downton Abbey and have no intention of doing so, then read ahead because I’ll explain everything you need to know to follow my moral conundrum.  But, if you do watch Downton Abbey but haven’t yet made it through at least the first four episodes of Season 2, STOP, because there are major spoilers ahead.

[For those lacking context, here's the play-by-play.  Daisy is the kitchen maid.  William is a footman.  William has a massive crush on Daisy, and while she is fond of William she doesn't share his romantic affections.  But William misinterprets a friendly and innocent peck of a kiss from Daisy as an indication of greater feelings.  William enlists in the British army during World War I and is about to head to France.  William proposes.  Daisy wants to correct the misunderstanding before he leaves but the cook intervenes and says that she can't send him off to war with a broken heart.  The cook persuades Daisy to accept William's proposal so that he can go into battle believing that his true love is waiting for him back home.]

So what’s a girl to do when the boy in love with her is headed off to war but she doesn’t love him back?  What’s a girl to do when that boy proposes?  Does her requital bolster him for the unthinkable horrors he’s about to face?  Or does it patronize him and belittle his integrity?  These are questions that Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes asks with a pretty heavy hand.

Sending someone off to war is brutal for everyone involved.  The soldier who is departing must believe in the cause and must be brave.  He must draw upon anything he can to face the grim scenarios that await him.  The people staying behind must do what they can to support the soldier.  They must fill him up with enough love and comfort to last him weeks or even months.  Everyone in the equation has a role to play.  But do those respective roles change the morality paradigm?

Under normal circumstances a young girl wouldn’t accept a man’s proposal just to make him feel good.  But in this situation Daisy is encouraged to do just that.  And those of us watching are left to decide for ourselves whether she’s right or wrong.

Quite plainly, Daisy is uncomfortable with the path that is chosen for her by the others.  She finds her dishonesty to William to be disrespectful and unfair.  She doesn’t want to lead him on.  Older members of the household staff see it differently.  They see a young girl making a personal sacrifice of sorts in order ease the emotional burden of a young man who very well may be killed.  And they see a young boy – one far too young to face the atrocities of war – who may hold his head a bit higher, may feel a bit warmer, and may fight a bit longer for the belief that his girl is waiting for him back home.

As William heads to war the stakes of Daisy’s lie are comparatively low.  When he returns she can (and presumably will) break it off with him.  He will be heartbroken, but alive.  And they will go their separate ways.  Little harm, little foul.

Alas, that’s not how it panned out.

William returns home alive, but dying.  Massive lung injuries have issued him a death sentence.  He knows his days are numbered and all he wants is to marry Daisy before he dies.  He wants her to be taken care of.  He wants her to get a war widow’s pension.  And he wants to die knowing he married the girl he loved.

Again, Daisy can’t bear it.  She doesn’t want to lie to a dying man.  She doesn’t want to take a war widow’s money when she knows the marriage isn’t where her heart is.  Nevertheless, she is pushed ahead by older members of the staff who see her opportunity to grant a dying man’s wish.  They marry, and William passes mere hours later.  Daisy is filled with regret.

“Marrying him was a great kindness,” says the head housekeeper.  But was it?

If no real damage is done by the lie – if it helps a wounded man die with peace and love in his heart – then what is the harm?  Conversely, aren’t moments of life and death the precise moments when truth and honesty matter most?  Daisy does care for and respect William, even if she doesn’t love him.  And it is out of that care and respect that she is so reluctant to lie to him.

There is an honorable path here.  Is it the truth?  Or is it to grant a man’s dying wish?  Or better yet, is Daisy’s willingness to marry William, but heartbreak at doing so the most honorable path she could have chosen?

In some strange way, I think it is.

Lenten Love Letters*

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

I’ll go ahead and say it:  I’m religious.

Now don’t go painting me with your Pat Robertson brush.  I’m not that kind of religious.  Just because I’m religious doesn’t mean I think you should be too.

But my faith is something that matters a great deal to me.  It always has.  I have attended church weekly (for the most part) during every stage of my life – childhood, college, 20-something singleton, newlywed, and today.  (Also, in case you were wondering, no, I don’t believe that regular church attendance is the only way to have an active faith life.  But that’s a topic for another day.)  I frequently fail at my faith.  I sin every day.  I drift from God periodically.  There are times when my faith is more at the periphery than the center of my life.  But it is always there.

I say all this because today is Ash Wednesday.  Today begins the 40-day journey of Lent that marks Jesus’ period of wandering in the wilderness and leading up to His crucifixion.  Within some Christian denominations (Catholic, particularly) it is common practice to give up something for Lent.  As a nod to Christ’s suffering, we forego something that provides us pleasure or comfort so that we may be reminded of said suffering on a daily basis.

As a child I was Presbyterian (to some extent I still am) and Lenten sacrifice was not a part of my upbringing.  When I began attending Catholic prep school in junior high I became more familiar with the practice.  And having had many Catholic friends over the years I’ve become well acquainted with the tradition of Lenten sacrifice.

Here’s my problem with it.  At least as I have seen it practiced, it tends to be more about the technicalities and not so much about Christ.  People give up chocolate candy but still eat chocolate chip cookies because when hidden inside the cookie the chips “don’t count” as candy.  Or they give up cheese except on Sundays because technically Sundays are God’s day and aren’t part of Lent.  Or they give up meat on Fridays (a tradition derived from Middle Eastern fishing cultures where meat was considered a luxury) and instead (ironically) go out for lobster tail or Alaskan halibut topped with a port wine demi glace.  Or, they stick with their chosen sacrifice for a few days, fall off the wagon, and then blow off the rest of the season altogether.

And I’m not quite sure what any of that accomplishes.  For me to go 40 days without sweets would make me cranky, unpleasant, and more focused on planning an Easter menu geared toward saying “stick it!” to Lent than on really observing Christ.  This prospect leaves me cold.  Today, as an Episcopalian (the halfway point between my Presbyterian upbringing and my husband’s Catholic one), I am inclined to bring the observance of Lent into my daily life, but uninspired by the mere eradication of vices.

[Sidebar: If you are an observer of Lenten sacrifice and feel that 40 days without alcohol or red meat really does bring you closer to God, then more power to you.  I certainly don’t mean to insult.  And I’ll be the first to admit that what doesn’t work for one person may be quite successful for someone else.]

There is an alternative, though.  That alternative is to do the opposite.  Rather than take something out of your life to mimic suffering, you add something to your life.  Perhaps you might carve out more prayer time.  Or volunteer at a homeless shelter.  Or become involved with a charity.  It is this path which I will travel for Lent this year.

I will write letters.  Real letters.  I will write and mail one each day of Lent.  This means that 40 people will hear from me in the next 40 days.  They will open their mailboxes to find something unexpected, and hopefully something which will make them happy.  I have been quite blessed with a life filled with wonderful people – family, friends, and colleagues – and far too rarely do I reach out to many of these people to fan the flames that keep a relationship burning.  There is a lot of love in my life, and I would do well to acknowledge it and to express my own love in return.

To be sure, like so many aspects of my faith, I will fail at this too.  There will be days when I forget to write.  Or days when I run out of stamps.  But one thing I will commit to is bouncing back from those failures, rather than allowing them to sabotage my Lenten observance altogether.  Because if there’s one thing that the Christian faith offers, it’s forgiveness.  And if there’s a second thing, it’s redemption.

*Large portions of this post were originally published in February 2010.  Those paragraphs which are reproduced here are as true today as they were two years ago.  My actual Lenten observance plans have been updated to reflect my intentions for 2012.

Gleefully Gay

Monday, February 20th, 2012

It  all started here: an article on Huffington Post about a seven-year-old boy who proclaimed to his parents that he is gay.  A friend posted a link on Facebook.  I read the article, loved it, and reposted it on my own Facebook page with a comment that the boy’s parents were to be commended for their supportive response.  However, that is not all there was to the story.

As it was told by his mother, a significant part of the boy’s coming out had to do with his crush on the character Blaine from Glee.*  He apparently also has frequent exposure to gay and lesbian couples through his parents’ friends.  So as far as he is concerned liking boys is no bigger a deal than liking girls.  I was thrilled to learn that this kid is blessed to grow up in a family and community where such a confession at the age of seven was met with complete acceptance, but there is the question of how he came to consider his sexuality at such a young age in the first place.

Is there a chance that this boy decided that he is/wants to be gay based on a very likable character in a television show?

I thought about it and I think the Glee crush probably gave this boy the platform – context and vocabulary – to express himself, but wouldn’t have put the idea in his head. I’m sure there are lots of kids who watch Glee at impressionable ages and don’t walk away believing they’re gay.  But what if they did?  What if kids watched Blaine, with his bowties, crooning voice, and wisdom beyond his years and said, “I’m going to be like him.  I’m going to be gay.”?  What then?  Would it be the worst thing in the world?  And why do we hang the weight of the world on it?  We chalk most of what kids say at this age (“I want to be a ninja turtle.” “I want to marry you, Mommy.” “Girls are yucky.”) up to their being children and not up to permanent beliefs.  So why is this topic so different?

Unfortunately, the answer is easy: fear for our kids.  Not all kids live in environments as tolerant as that of the boy from the article.  To run around the grade school playground pronouncing your homosexuality carries risks, right?  It would have for us, certainly.  But what about for today’s kids?  They are growing up in a world with Glee on the air.  They are growing up in a world where gay marriage is legal in more than half a dozen states.  Is it really the taboo ordeal today that it would have been 25 years ago?  Or are we just projecting our own fears onto our kids?

I don’t know the answer to this question.  I’m sure it varies by region of the country, religious and political persuasions, and various other criteria.  But any way you slice it, I don’t see how this kid coming out as a seven-year-old should be a problem.

If he identifies as gay now, it’s great that he’s being supported, just the same as it’s great to be supportive of a kid when he says he wants to be a secret detective. If he decides later that he’d rather kiss girls that’s fine too. What matters most is not how he came to this identification, but the fact that he’s being given the space and support to decide for himself.

*For the purposes of this post I am entirely setting aside the issue of whether or not a seven-year-old has any business watching Glee in the first place.

A Long Time Coming

Friday, February 17th, 2012

About a year before I launched this blog I started a private, family blog to keep out-of-town relatives abreast of what the Family P was up to.  Nearly all of the posts on that blog are about the boys.  But prior to having another venue to explore other topics I would sometimes post about subjects other than the mind-boggling genius and adorability of IEP.  The post below was one such entry.

As I was killing time on Pinterest yesterday I created a board of my favorite books. The Grapes of Wrath is one of them, and I was reminded of this post and thought it might be worth posting here.  Note that it was originally written in August 2009, when IEP was about nine months old.

It is with great relief that I’m here to tell you that over the weekend I finally finished The Grapes of Wrath. For those who have been keeping track, I started it about a year ago. Now don’t judge. In my own defense I’d like the record to reflect that in that time I’ve also read all ofWhat to Expect When You’re ExpectingYour Pregnancy Week by Week, and the first nine months of What to Expect the First Year (sense a theme here?). I’ve also had a baby and started a new job. So it’s not like I’ve just been on the couch since last August. Well, not the whole time. Wouldn’t that be nice, though?

Anyway, this has been a long time coming (Gone with the Wind didn’t take half this long). I thought I would finish it before “the baby” was born (this was back before IEP was IEP). I even took it to the hospital with me in November. (In retrospect, that’s hilarious.) Then I thought I’d finish it by the end of the year. (In my first six weeks of motherhood? Even more hilarious!) I thought I’d finish it before I went back to work. Before vacation. Before IEP goes to college. … That last one, as it turns out, was realistic.

For much of the book I wasn’t really all that into it. Poverty, hunger, sickness, death, oppression – not the kind of things that add up to a real page-turner. Many evenings I’d get in bed, give a big “ho hum” as I picked it up off the nightstand and GAP would say, “Why don’t you just put it down?” But I couldn’t do it. I think I figured that I have it much better than the poor Joads and the least I could do was show them the respect of not ditching them altogether. And now my perseverance has paid off. I’ve finished it, and I’m very satisfied. And, partly to justify to myself that the endeavor was worthwhile, here’s what I learned from this book:

  1. Even preachers have their sins. One doesn’t actually have to read The Grapes of Wrath to learn that (thank you Jim Bakker, Ted Haggard, etc.), but Jim Casy is thoughtful and penitent about his in a way that makes you respect him.
  2. Unions may be a huge hassle for business owners, but it’s a darn good thing we have them.
  3. Eating too many peaches will give your kids “the skitters.”
  4. I should be more charitable. The hardest sentence of the book to read was when Ma Joad was asking a store clerk to give her 10 cents worth of sugar on credit. He grudgingly obliged and she commented that in their travels she’d learned was that when you need charity, ask poor people, because rich people won’t ever help you. Ouch! I almost never give to panhandlers, and I think that ought to change.
  5. Ma Joad could get anyone through anything.
  6. Don’t write off the silver lining. For 617 pages I was utterly convinced that Rose of Sharon (“Rosasharn” in Joad vernacular) was as worthless a character as I’d ever read. And then, on page 618 (of 619) she did the most touching, selfless thing. (I won’t say what it was, in case you haven’t read it.) It was her gesture at the end of the book that made the whole book worthwhile and really hit home the most important “lesson learned,” which is…
  7. No matter how bad things get – ever – there is always someone with less, and we always have something left to give.

On Failing and Forgetting

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

For two people with three graduate degrees between us, GAP and I have made a somewhat unlikely habit of questioning the actual value of the educational pedigrees we worked so hard to attain.

The basic premise of our debate is this: Does a college or graduate degree hold value because of the knowledge imparted by the coursework itself, or because of the signal it sends to the marketplace about the kind of person you are and the kind of employee you will be?

In this vein, we once spent the better part of a weekend intermittently debating whether we would fill a hypothetical entry level position with a candidate who had a four-year undergraduate degree, or one who had spent his post-high school years in the Peace Corps.  Assuming all other things were equal – raw intelligence, social skills, work ethic, etc. – which candidate did we think was more likely to do a better job.  Weighing the merits of each, we both ultimately (if reluctantly, for some reason*) admitted that we’d hire the college grad over the Peace Corps alum.  While we both liked the idea of the Peace Corps alum, we felt that the college grad was better positioned to succeed in an office job for a variety of reasons.

As it turns out, we’re not the only ones.  On Monday GAP sent me a link to this article on the Library of Economics and Liberty’s blog which discusses the difference between failing academic classes and merely forgetting the information taught in them.  In it author Bryan Caplan (George Mason Economics Professor) points out that he doesn’t remember any of his high school Spanish, which has no bearing on his current professional life.  However, if he’d failed high school Spanish it would have negatively impacted his college prospects, which in turn likely would have affected his current professional life.

Caplan’s point speaks directly to the conversation that GAP and I have had so many times.  It doesn’t seem to be about the knowledge. Patently, I remember precious little of what I studied in college – even of many courses within my business major.  (Ironically, I probably retained the most of my Spanish degree – my second major – even though I rarely use it.  Unlike other coursework, it seems to reside in the same portion of my brain as bike riding and skiing – rusty, but ready to be used whenever needed.)  Yet the fact that I earned my bachelor’s degree, and then my MBA, indicates that I am worthy of my job.  Perhaps there have been moments when my job required knowledge learned in school.  But by and large my jobs – all of them – have required knowledge I learned by experience much more frequently than that learned in classrooms.

As GAP and I think about our children’s education it is something we value incredibly, but not for the reasons you might expect.  We value it for the process skills that our kids will learn – how to apply yourself; how to seek help from classmates and teachers; how to juggle a demanding course load; and how to achieve those ever-elusive time management skills.  Whether or not they can calculate an integral when they finish high school (I think I still could, if really pressed – thank you Ms. Clements!) is ultimately irrelevant.  Whether or not they can rise to a challenge, however, matters a great deal.

*We really liked the idea of the Peace Corps candidate.  We thought he was probably a more interesting person and likely had more street smarts than his college grad counterpart.  But we felt that the guy with the bachelor’s degree would be better positioned to succeed at a desk job than someone who’d been out traveling the world for four years. … And we both sort of felt like jerks because of it.

Not for Everyone

Monday, February 13th, 2012

This past weekend IEP was sick.  Triple-digit fever Friday night.  Phlegmy cough.  Runny nose.  A walking, talking (and yet still adorable) germ.  Lovely.  Needless to say, we operated on an abridged schedule.  To that end, we skipped church yesterday morning so that IEP wouldn’t infect the other kids at Sunday School and while the boys hung out at home I was able to squeeze in an extra trip to the gym.

As I pedaled away on the Helix machine I flipped the pages on a back issue of People and came across a story about a young girl, just a couple of years out of high school, who had entered a convent.  She spent one year at a large state university, trying it on for size, but ultimately decided that she was called to serve God in a more direct way.  It was a decision that she’d been weighing for some time.  According to the article she first felt called to become a nun at the age of five.  She spent most of her childhood and adolescent life enjoying life as a normal kid – playing sports, having sleepovers with friends, and attending her junior prom – while quietly keeping the convent at the back of her mind.

As I read the article I got to thinking about how I might react if one of my children made a similar choice.  Granted, we are not Catholic, so unless there were a conversion to Catholicism a life in the ministry would not mean the same sacrifices that it did for the girl I read about.  But let’s say for a moment that we were Catholic.  What then?  Life as a priest would entail some incredible sacrifices for my sons.  No wife.  No children.  No conventional career.  No means to travel the world.  Having attended Catholic school for many years as a teen I have some sense of what this life is like, but I still struggle to imagine it for one of my own children.

The girl in the article (I couldn’t find it online to provide a link – sorry!) talked about how she weighed the loss of a family into her decision, but still felt a stronger pull to the ministry than to anything else.  She felt that a family life wasn’t for her.  After all, it’s not for everyone.  She now sees her family eight times a year during four-hour Sunday afternoon visitation sessions on Sunday afternoons.  There is a quote on the number of letters she can write and phone calls she can make.  And she is okay with this.

I, on the other hand, wasn’t so okay with it.  Not as it related to this girl.  It’s fine for her, of course.  But I kept thinking about my own kids.  I see the joy that I find in my family and I want that for them.  I want for them the feeling of waking up next to your spouse in the morning.  I want them to see their babies smile for the first time.  I want them to know the feeling of fullness when a tiny child wants only you.  I want them to know the gut-busting laughter that is brought by living with a three-year-old.  But anyone who enters the Catholic ministry will never know these things.

The truth is, I should be okay with this.  All these things about family life that I just listed?  They bring me joy because they are what was right for me.  I would feel imprisoned in a convent.  But perhaps for someone who feels called to life in the ministry the daily life of a working mom would feel like torture.  I was given the freedom to make my own decisions and I’ve ended up in a life that makes me exceedingly happy.  And that is what I should want for my children – the ability to choose the path that will bring them joy – not that the same things that brought my joy will bring theirs.

IEP and SSP are their own people.  They will develop their own interests and passions.  Perhaps those interests will overlap with mine and perhaps they will not.  But so long as their life choices are safe, healthy, and bring them joy, it should be irrelevant to me exactly what those choices are.

As best I could tell, this young girl’s parents are supportive of the path she’s chosen.  I applaud them for that.  And I thank them for setting such a worthwhile example for the rest of us.  It can be a challenge to embrace someone’s choices when they would not personally suit us.  Nevertheless, that is just what we should do.

A Point of Honor

Friday, February 10th, 2012

About nine months ago my mother and sister started yammering on about some British series that I absolutely had to watch called “Downton Abbey.”  I blew them off.  While I can certainly appreciate a good British production my tastes are typically more mainstream than theirs.  These two can devour episode after episode of the most obscure film or series.  I assumed this was more of the same.  Then the Emmys rolled around and “Downton Abbey” cleaned up.  Over the holidays when we all gathered here for Christmas their well-intentioned suggestions started afresh.  Finally, a couple of weeks ago I gave in.  And…

They were right.  It’s wonderful.  The scenery and costumes are stunning.  The characters are fresh.  The dialog is clever.  The plot is intriguing.  In short, I am hooked.

Imagining a life of evening gowns and ladies’ maids is mind candy enough.  But when I stop daydreaming there are other aspects of this show that pique my interest even further.  The biggest “for instance” in this category is the sense of honor and pride exemplified by many of the characters, most notably the staff.

These are people who are, by all practical means, condemned to a life of service.  There was no way out of the class you were born into in England at that time.  Cooking and cleaning.  Being always present but still invisible.  Tending to the needs – however superficial – of other people all the time.  Zipping dresses they’ll never get to wear and fluffing beds they’ll never get to sleep in.  This is largely thankless work, but these characters take a surprising amount of pride in doing it well and bringing honor to the family they serve in the process.

Watching “Downton Abbey” I can’t help but wonder how many people today put so much of themselves into their work.  I’m not just talking about long hours in corporate cubicles.  Many people put that much of their time into their work.  But how many people derive such a sense of honor from their work?  How many of us avoid foolish behavior because of the shadow it might cast on our employer?  How many of us would tender our resignations because an embarrassing incident from our past came to light and might be seen as shameful to our boss?  I can’t get over the extent to which these characters’ identities are inextricable from their work in the household.

Of course they are fictional characters.  They are largely painted in shades of black and white in the way that many imagined characters are.  So this phenomenon I write of here is likely exaggerated for the screen.  Nevertheless, in shows and films that take place in present day we see characters compartmentalize their personal and professional lives.  (Granted most of us don’t live in our bosses’ homes.  That presents an additional dynamic.)  We see characters try to explain away their mistakes and bad behavior.  We see them fight for their personal gain.  We rarely see such devotion to any person or cause outside the character’s own self.

I suppose what I’m angling at here is that in looking at our culture today I see a lack of service.*  Yes, when earthquakes and tsunamis hit we line up to donate blood and money.  But on a regular basis I don’t typically find that service – to the greater good in any of its forms – is a driving force in the lives of many people around me.  To clarify, I don’t think that being a footman or a ladies’ maid in an aristocratic British house really did that much for the greater good either.  But these characters (most of them, anyway – there are a few weasels in the bunch…) exhibit a true spirit of service, and pride in doing so.  And that is a quality I don’t see much of.  And it’s a quality that I think, if more prevalent, could be an incredible agent for change and improvement in today’s world.

*And I’m not the only one.  Earlier this week I read this article that looks at the career choices of Prince William’s classmates at Eton, sadly noting that most of them have chosen careers that afford them great opportunities to make vast sums of money, but little opportunity to do much real good.

What I Have to Give

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

First off, I come to you with an interesting follow-up to Monday’s post.  As it turns out, I was (at least in one person’s opinion) way off base in my criticism of Madonna as the Super Bowl halftime act.  After reading this article I have a new appreciation for the relevance of her performance, and why it carried more weight given by a 53-year-old than it would have if given by a much younger performer.  It’s definitely worth a read.

If you hang out around here very much you’ve probably picked up on the fact that I’m a regular reader of The Huffington Post.  It is my first source for headlines (though I tend to then go to more substantive sites such as the NYT when I want a deeper dive on any particular topic), and I also enjoy its topical entries on subjects ranging from politics to health and wellness to celebrity fashions.  By and large I think the content is pretty solid.  So I was really disappointed when I came across this article about parenting boys.

I am one of two sisters.  My dad was the only guy in our family, and after 36 years of going it alone (happy anniversary, Mom and Dad!) we’ve pretty well indoctrinated him too.  So when IEP was born and the doctor said those three little words (“It’s a boy”) I had to start learning everything from scratch.  Thankfully, it came quite naturally – the trucks and trains and tiny football jerseys.  All these things that once were foreign became instantly familiar.

Nevertheless, as a woman who has never been a little boy and did not grow up around little boys I am always interested to learn more about the trade to which I have become the most eager apprentice – raising boys.  So I was excited when Monday’s headline article in the parenting section of HuffPo was one about the author’s experience parenting boys.  …  And then I read it.  And disappointment ensued.

My first and most immediate frustration was that author Devon Corneal went straight for the stereotypes – penis comparisons, peeing on the floor, broken windows, flatulence jokes, and roughhousing.  Yes, these are real aspects of raising boys (luckily I still haven’t been faced with a couple of them), but we all know that.  There’s nothing new in the acknowledgement of some of these down-and-dirty elements of having sons.  But there is so much more to raising boys.

This is important because my second, and more significant problem with Corneal’s position was that because of all of these male-centric traits she believes that she is effectively neutered as a parent to her boys.  She writes:

I’m slowly learning to stop myself before interfering with my husband’s parenting, because, even though the way he does things are different, sometimes they’re better. As much as I’d like to think I know it all, and as much as parenting magazines, websites and bloggers (this one included) focus on mommies, when it comes to boys, daddies might be the experts.

IEP loves it when his dad body slams him into our big bed.  He frequently runs around saying, “Daddy, knock me over!”  And GAP is a more effective partner for playing imaginary games of football and baseball.  But IEP needs more than that.  All boys need more than that.  All boys ARE more than that.

When IEP isn’t playing with his imaginary friend Ray Rice he’s giving his baby brother kisses and snuggles.  Or he’s making a grocery list and carrying it around in an old purse of mine that he pulled out of a Goodwill donation pile.  Or he’s pulling the tiny butter warming pot off of the baker’s rack, requesting a wooden spoon and whisk, and pretending to make his umpteenth batch of carrot stew.  These are aspects of his more feminine side, and they need every bit as much cultivation as his traditionally masculine traits.

It’s true, I can’t roughhouse with him as well as GAP can.  But I’m more of a conversationalist.  And sometimes GAP just can’t go the full nine rounds of talking about every street sign we pass as well as I can.  (And I’m not a half-bad infielder or tickle monster myself, and Daddy’s kisses give just as much love as Mommy’s.)  We each bring different strengths to the table, and each set is valuable.  This is what I have to give, and I don’t discount it; not ever.  I may not be a boy, but I know my boys.  And I know that they need me, my perspective, and my touch just as much as they need their father’s.  They need us both in equal measure.  And I’m sorry for Devon Corneal that she seems to have forgotten that.