Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Finding water

On Christmas Eve, one of my relatives had a re-commitment ceremony. She and her boyfriend had gotten legally married last year, but none of their family was present, and they wanted to have a ceremony with us.

We all gathered in the living room, sat silently for a while, and then the couple exchanged vows. (A Quaker wedding has no clergy; the couple give their pledge to each other without a third person mediating.) The two of them stumbled through the old-fashioned vows, but afterwards they began to speak freely about why they were together.

The bride has always been a black sheep in the family. Since childhood, she's had some serious psychiatric and behavioral problems. She spoke about meeting her husband when they were both in a PTSD treatment center. At the time she met him, she had been wearing pajamas for a month and wasn't brushing her teeth. They both had insomnia and would meet at 3 am to drink coffee and talk for hours. She knew that if he loved her when she was at her worst, he was a keeper.

Her husband spoke simply about meeting and loving someone else who understood pain.

It moved me more than some of the carefully-orchestrated weddings I've been to. These are two people who have suffered greatly. I work with many more people like them, people with trauma histories, people to whom life has not been kind. I thought about all the broken people out there, and I was so glad that two of them found each other.

Tonight, I asked the bride's father for some cuttings from his plant collection. He showed me his cacti and succulents, desert plants that grow thorns and tough hides to protect themselves. Inside, they trap precious moisture.

“I took a cutting of this one and left it in an empty pot for a few months,” he told me, holding up a plump green stem. “No water. After three months it was hardly shriveled at all. It was starting to put out roots, getting ready to grab on as soon as it touched soil.” It seemed miraculous that a plant could survive that long on only the moisture from the air.

And I thought of his daughter, thought of my clients at the jail and all the other people who live in a harsh and deadly environment. About the thorns and tough skins they grow to save themselves from the desert.

Recently a client told me his mind was “like a tape recorder,” remembering every kind word he heard from me and other staff so he could play them back to himself. In the scorching environment of jail, he was saving up those droplets of kindness to stay sane.

Even the toughest, the most scarred, the most bitter of people are hiding a thirsty heart. Sometimes their tendrils are reaching out for it, searching for a hospitable place where they can latch on and get some of what they need so much.

Here's to the couple whose improvised wedding moved me so much yesterday. It's hard to form a healthy relationship when you hurt a lot, and I don't know how successful they'll be. But they've found some sweetness and nourishment in each other, and I hope together they can drink their fill.

Sunday, December 23, 2012


In the car on the way to the family Christmas gathering, Jeff read to us about a series of studies on placebos. For some conditions, placebos can give significant relief. There's still an effect even when subjects are told "You are taking an inert pill" and given a bottle marked "Placebo." Placebos given by providers who spend more time schmoozing with patients create more relief. (Note that I haven't found the actual studies concerned, so I don't know the effect sizes, etc.)

The three healthcare workers in the car were interested in this. Jeff's mother, the midwife, said that projecting the right comforting image is a large part of her practice. (The innovation I find most interesting in childbirth is encouraging women to believe "this is something my body is capable of" rather than "this is a scary and painful medical emergency." Stress has real physiological effects, and reducing stress can make birth physically easier.) Jeff's father confirmed that making an optimistic forecast is a big part of his psychotherapy practice, too.

Then when we arrived, my mother reported that she is not losing her mind, as she feared. She realized that for an unknown period of time she had loaded her pillbox with calcium tablets instead of her actual medication.

Apparently the day's lesson is that placebos can help you with some things, but sometimes you really should just take your medication.

Saturday, December 08, 2012


My sister shared this video of one of her second-grade students reuniting with her mother, who's been stationed in Afghanistan for the last year. It's a lovely moment: the moment of realization, then the silence, the rightness of being near each other after too long apart.

It makes me think of the mothers I work with in the jail. A World Apart, Christina Rathbone's excellent book about women in a Massachusetts prison, describes another reunion after two years of separation between mother and son:

“...she ran over and grabbed Patrick, sobbing, almost unable to breathe. Pat burst into tears too, and clung to her. Across the room, her father started to cry, the officer in charge of the visiting room that night started to cry, and one by one the inmates and even their visitors started to cry along with them.”
The male inmates sometimes talk about their children, but not with the same longing the women do.  Many of the mothers describe a physical craving to be near their children, a hunger for the sound of their voices and the smell of their hair.

They worry endlessly about their children's well-being. Have they eaten enough today? Is he doing all right in school?  Will she be mad at me when I come home? How can a toddler understand I didn't leave her on purpose?

They talk about how much they want to keep their children safe from all the terrors of their own childhoods: the sexual abuse, the neglect, the beatings. For some of these women, their relationship with their children is the only non-abusive relationship they've ever had.

The mothers' pain is one side of the coin.  The other side is the children's pain, which I can only imagine.

The United States has the highest imprisonment rate in the world.  That affects not only the people who are locked up, but their families.  Every time we imprison a person, we take away a part of a family.  We should think carefully about whether it's worth it.

Friday, December 07, 2012


My aunt has lived in Brooklyn for decades and never been mugged. She attributes it to her attitude. I'm not sure exactly what her method is, but for years I've tried to copy it. When I transitioned from the suburbs to the city, I decided that this meant not interacting with strange men.

At first, I applied the same method to walking around at the jail. Passing men in the yard or in hallways, I stared resolutely ahead, ignoring them. I hoped this would make me look like I knew what I was doing. I did the same in the neighborhood outside.

I soon realized it method just made me look scared. And it must feel insulting for a man on a street in South Boston, or in a jail for that matter, to see a white woman in business clothes refusing to meet his eyes. Trying to pretend he's not there, regarding his very presence as a threat.

If someone on the street wants to mug me, they'll do it. Ignoring them is not going to stop them. And all those other people who have no interest in mugging me – we might as say hello when we pass. We might as well say, “Good morning.” We might as well smile.

As if we are not afraid of each other. As if we are just people, walking.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Introducing: Advent calendar

I've been an agnostic for most of my life now, but I still love Advent.

I usually make paper Advent calendars for my family, but this year I'm making an online one for you, too.

Friday, November 23, 2012

For safety's sake?

After Chinatown buses had several highly publicized accidents, Jeff wrote an argument on why we shouldn't make buses safer. In short, buses are much safer than cars. Anything that raises the price of riding the bus will mean more cars on the roads and more accidents.

Last year, we rode a sketchy Chinatown bus to and from Thanksgiving. This year, that company and all the other sketchy companies have been shut down. Fares are triple what they were. So we drove.

Car crashes don't make the news, but mass transit accidents do. And yet they're far safer than cars. Better to allow sketchy services to run cheaply than have more cars on the road.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Pain management, social work style

Since high school I've gotten menstrual cramps bad enough to occasionally send my body into shock: nausea, cold sweat, feeling like I'm going to pass out.  This week it happened at work (and let me tell you, it's awkward to tell your boss in the middle of a staff meeting that you need to go lie down on her office floor before you fall out of your chair).  But I was pleased that my body gave out long before my mind did - I used to be terrified of the pain, but now I can handle it a lot better.

As a social worker, I spend a lot of my workday coaching people on how to cope with stress.  I think I deal with physical pain better now because I know more methods for handling it.

So, when you're waiting for the painkillers to kick in, the doctors to splint your leg, or whatever:

Self talk
Pay attention to whether your inner monologue is "This is horrible. I can't do this!" vs. "I can get through the next half hour, and then I'll go lie down."  Coach yourself through it like you would coach a child. 

Sing songs to yourself, do multiplication facts, count ceiling tiles.  Pick an object and describe it in all the detail you can: "That cinderblock has eight dents near the bottom and a grey smudge near the top left corner."   Focus on your breathing.  Repeat a phrase to yourself: "This is going to be okay."

In some article which I now can't find, I read that the brain can only process so much nerve input at a time. So additional sensory input can theoretically reduce the amount of pain your brain is processing.  I found that drumming my fingers lightly on my palms seemed to help.

Placebo effect
Even when the tylenol you just swallowed can't possibly be in your bloodstream yet, try thinking about how very effective and quick-acting it is.  You may get a small placebo effect just from believing in it.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Another hat

 Today I heard we are going to a 1920s themed cocktail party.  I made a hat.

Unfortunately, like all my hats, it turned out very 1950s.  I don't think they were actually wearing hats at cocktail parties in the 1920s.  I'm not sure how to pull off an actual 20s look without bobbed hair or those weird side-buns.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Project: story stones

There are lots of kids' things I realize I won't have time to make when I'm actually a parent. So I'm making them now. The latest project: story stones. They're a starting point for kids to make up stories about the items pictured.

I chose a mix of fanciful items (hot air balloon) and ones that I expect my kids will see often (tree, Red Line train). Once I have actual kids I'll probably make more to suit their interests.

I made the pictures from cut-out bits of magazine paper attached with watered-down Elmer's glue. They're pleasant in the hand.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

What are prisoners like?

Last week I started a new job as a mental health clinician at a jail. I hadn't really thought about working in that setting, but I decided to give it a try.

In the job interview, my boss asked what I thought inmates would be like. I said "varied," which apparently was a good answer, because she hired me. I was very curious to find out what the people would actually be like.

Some initial impressions:

- The male inmates are mostly very polite to me. I've never been called ma'am so regularly, nor had so many doors opened for me. I was expecting constant sexual harassment, but it hasn't happened so far.

- I'm allowed to bring library books to the people who can't leave their units. They all want horror novels. The women also read a lot of Nora Roberts romances.

- Most of them were physically or sexually abused as children.

- Exercise is one of the few goal-directed activities that's possible in prison. There are a lot of seriously buff people.

- I was expecting people to claim that they had been framed, but so far I haven't heard that. I've heard a couple of people say they confessed to crimes a relative of theirs committed, because the relative already had a worse criminal record and would serve a longer sentence for the crime. I've also heard people say they didn't commit the particular crime they were convicted of, but that they had done the same thing in the past and not gotten caught. They seemed to feel it all came out even in the end.

- Lots of tattoos.

- Everyone has insomnia.

- They miss their families.

- They're not allowed to have regular pens or pencils, and they all hate the flexible pens the prison provides because they're so annoying to grip. They get excited if you let them write with your real pen.

- When I ask what helps them get through difficult times, many of them say "reading the Bible." Judging from their spelling, some of them are barely literate, so I'm surprised that they get much out of a book as dense and convoluted as the Bible. From a humanitarian perspective, I wonder if the church could advise reading an easier book for comfort and advice? Maybe something in the vein of Pilgrim's Progress? Could we ask Thich Nhat Hanh to draft something?

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Gifts for people who have everything

People my parents' age are hard to get presents for. They've had lots of time to obtain the cheap things they want, and if they can't afford something they want, I probably can't afford it either. Some ideas:

- Record an audiobook. Free programs like Audacity let you record and edit. Full-length books take a really long time, so I've done some short stories.

- Jeff wrote me a waltz once. That was awesome.

- Find a project that needs to be done. Jeff and I revarnished his parents' kitchen floor while they were on vacation.

- Go on an adventure. Jeff's father is especially hard to shop for, so for his birthday people take him on a surprise outing. Yesterday we packed a picnic and piled in the car for such a birthday adventure, and Jeff took us on a deliberately roundabout route to prolong the suspense. Rick's guess as to the destination changed at every turn:

"We're going to the restaurant that looks like a cafeteria...except it's not lunch time."
"We're going to Walden Pond! Except you just drove past it."
"Are we going to Abby's house to walk in the cranberry bog?"
"We're going to the Bolton fair!"

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Open letter to mental health professionals

A couple of years I came across a book on "parenting with depression" in the library. I opened it eagerly, hoping for assurance that I wouldn't necessarily be a terrible parent.

...and then I realized that none of the co-authors had depression. They had just worked with depressed people. The book contained no material by actual parents with depression.

If you work in mental health or social services, you should be reading first-person accounts of your clients' experiences.

I first wanted to be a therapist when I was fourteen, after discovering a message board for self-injurers. I didn't self-injure, but I spent a year reading and responding to what they wrote. I doubt I was very helpful, but it gave me a sense of the day-in, day-out desperation they lived with.

Later, when I was considering adopting a child from foster care, I read message boards for adoptive parents. I read the things they love and hate about their social workers. I heard the things they don't tell social workers for fear of losing the kids. I'm better at working with adoptive families than I would have been if I hadn't read these things.

Every week I read Post Secret. It's an engrossing read, but it's also a good education. People come out with the pains and pleasures they know aren't socially acceptable.

Norah Vincent's Voluntary Madness, an account of her psychiatric hospitalizations, helped me understand how confusing the legal status of psych patients is. I haven't read Andy Behrman's Electroboy: A Memoir of Mania, but I've wanted to ever since reading "When I'm manic, I'm so awake and alert, that my eyelashes fluttering on the pillow sound like thunder." You don't get that in the DSM.

If you limit yourself to material by observers, you're missing out.

Read something you haven't read before. Read a pro-ana site. Read a pro-suicide site. Your clients do.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

What not to say

In the social justice scene, you're supposed to recognize patterns of oppression. You're supposed to know that women earn less than men, and that black men are disproportionately likely to be imprisoned.

But you're not supposed to apply that knowledge to individuals. It's not okay to openly assume that a woman earns less than her husband, or that the black man you just met is an ex-con, even though you know the statistics. This can land you in tricky situations.

This week I was at a Less Wrong meetup. A man turned to a young woman near him and asked, "Do you actually read the site, or did somebody drag you here?"

I asked him, "Did you say that because she's wearing heels and lipstick?"

He said, "No, no, it's not because of how she's dressed! It's because most of the woman who come here are dragged by somebody else."

I was furious.

The thing is, I understand where his assumption was coming from. It is more common for uninterested women to be towed to the meetup by their boyfriends than vice versa. I knew from talking with her that this woman is an avid reader of the site, but if I hadn't known that, I might have made the same assumption he did. We all judge new people based on people who seem to be like them. It's unrealistic to expect anyone not to do this.

But this is an inside thought. Unflattering generalizations fall into the same category as "Wow, your acne is really bad": it may be true, but you don't say it out loud.

Because Less Wrong is so heavily male, I know people who meet me will judge me as part of a population of women. I feel embarrassed every time a woman says something foolish, because people will judge me as being part of her group. I know that stereotypes have some basis in reality. I know all this, and I hate being reminded of it.

Even if you have a 90% prior that some unpleasant generalization is true of an individual, don't say it to their face. I'm not going to say you should just mind your own business and not ask them questions, because we make community by getting to know each other. But insulting someone is not a good way to get to know her.

If you're really curious to know if your guess is right, ask some more generic question - "So, what got you interested in coming here?" Nobody gets hurt, and you might actually learn something about her.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

On eugenics

I was interested to read ethicist Julian Savulescu saying that parents should have the option of screening their embryos for potential problems like alcoholism and psychopathy, then selecting embryos with lower chances of those problems.

The comments on the article are predictably negative. "Start the process to revoke this clown's tenure." "Sounds like Nazi propaganda to me." "Hopefully, Christ raptures His church before all this genetics crap really gets put into play."

The practical implications of Savulescu's idea are sketchy. In a different article, he suggests that the testing would be for people who were already having in vitro fertilization for some other reason. Also, I trust he's aware that we don't have a medical test for propensity for alcoholism or any of the other problems he mentions. But we're more likely to develop tests if parents would be allowed to use them.

Here are the two reasons I consider eugenics a personal issue.

First, last year Jeff and I found out that there was a genetic disease in the family that might dispose our kids to cancer. While we were waiting to find out more, I thought a lot about whether I would use in vitro fertilization to select for a child without the disorder. Would we abort a child rather than watch her die of breast cancer in her forties like several of her relatives did? Would we gamble that cancer treatment would be better by then? Would we rather keep the money and hope for the best?

It turned out not to be an issue, because neither Jeff nor I have the gene. But if I had needed to choose, I think I would have done almost anything to have a healthy child.

Second, a couple recently asked me if I would consider being an egg donor for them. We talked a lot about the process and about my medical history. In the end, their fertility clinic screened me out because of my family history of depression. Part of me was devastated — who wants to be told your genes aren't good enough? But I agree with the decision: the child will probably be happier and healthier with a different egg donor. If that couple's child is going to have someone else's genes, they should get the best genes they can.

Some objections to my viewpoint:

It's eugenics. Yes, it is. I understand the history of horrible things that have been done in the name of eugenics. But if this particular idea has merit, we shouldn't reject it because some similar ideas have been abused in the past. It is possible to be in favor of healthier children and not to be in favor of sterilizing people against their will, etc.

It's discrimination. The disability rights platform on this is that gene selection is tantamount to saying people with disabilities shouldn't exist. But honestly, depression sucks. If I could choose to have been born without that tendency (even if it meant being a different person), I would.

It will lead to abortion. Yes. Personally, I consider that a small harm to prevent a greater harm.

It will be used to make "designer babies." Let's consider how IVF works: you pay a fertility clinic about $12,000. For two weeks, you inject your own body with fertility drugs that make your ovaries hyperfertile, creating a sensation I've heard described as "like live goldfish." Then they knock you out and use a needle to withdraw the eggs, fertilize them, analyze them, and put the selected ones back in her uterus. 30% chance of medical complications. Oh, and it probably won't result in a live birth. You will probably need to shell out another $12,000 and try again. And again.

Now, how many parents do you know who would go through that to get a baby with their favorite eye color? And if they did, why would that even be so bad? A hundred years ago, IQs were lower and people were generally less healthy, probably because of poor nutrition. Nobody worries that we have "designer children" who are taller, smarter, and healthier than their grandparents.

If we allow the selection of personality traits, governments will want to breed a docile population. No, I would not want governments to control this process. (Despite allegations of fascism, Savulescu also said nothing about governments controlling how people's babies come out.) The only political rumblings I have heard about this is politicians who don't support screening because parents might choose abortion.

In the end, I think very few parents will screen for most disorders because it's so financially and emotionally costly. But I think the tests should be legal, and if parents decide they want to take extra steps to create healthy children, they should be free to do so.

Friday, August 31, 2012

"Radiant Things"?

Yesterday I redid the header for this blog. I considered scrapping the title entirely. It seemed kind of pretentious to call your blog after a quote, especially the kind of 19th-century quote that capitalizes important nouns.

But I couldn't let it go. First, because Emma Goldman is one of my favorite people. When she gave lectures about birth control (which was illegal at the time under "obscene speech" laws) she always carried a book so when she got arrested she would have something to read in jail. How could you not love her?

The full quote from Goldman's autobiography:

At the dances I was one of the most untiring and gayest. One evening a cousin of Sasha, a young boy, took me aside. With a grave face, as if he were about to announce the death of a dear comrade, he whispered to me that it did not behoove an agitator to dance. Certainly not with such reckless abandon, anyway. It was undignified for one who was on the way to become a force in the anarchist movement. My frivolity would only hurt the Cause.

I grew furious at the impudent interference of the boy. I told him to mind his own business. I was tired of having the Cause constantly thrown into my face.

I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from convention and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy. I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to become a nun and that the movement would not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it. "I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody's right to beautiful, radiant things." Anarchism meant that to me, and I would live it in spite of the whole world — prisons, persecution, everything. Yes, even in spite of the condemnation of my own closest comrades I would live my beautiful ideal.

I love the passage (often misquoted as "If I can't dance, it's not my revolution"). To me, it's an echo of the "Bread and Roses" motto popularized by striking millworkers.

The phrase came from James Oppenheim's poem, now better known as a song:

As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient cry for bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes, it is bread we fight for — but we fight for roses, too!

We need bread to survive, but without love and beauty, there's not much to live for.

A couple of years ago, I remember thinking how stupid it was for a depressed person to have a blog with such a happy title. I was too sad to go out dancing, and here I was preaching "life and joy" to others? And yet I wanted to have that effervescence again. I held onto the title in hopes that something would budge. And it did: my brain chemistry has been kind this year, and I'm a pretty happy person these days.

For Goldman, joy was apparently just waiting to burst forth. That's not how I experience life. Anarchy is not my Cause. Global inequality is. But I agree with Goldman that we've got to fight the tendency to view all such causes as joyless. The day I heard a friend dismiss Toby Ord's plan to give away a million pounds during his lifetime as "dreary", I knew I needed to write about the joy that can be found in this life. Thus my second blog, Giving Gladly.

Find your cause, or even your Cause. Make it dance. Make it shine.


Jeff and I recently watched the Beatles movie Help!, which was way better than I remembered. It doesn't make much attempt at a plot: the band tries to evade a band of deranged foreigners who want to make Ringo a human sacrifice, with lots of breaks for music and horseplay.

If you can get past the outrageous 60s-era xenophobia, it's really enjoyable. The Beatles wear silly costumes, flub their lines, and spend most of the film goofing around. Locations (the Alps, the Bahamas) were chosen based on where the Beatles wanted to vacation. Paul and Ringo were stoned for much of the production. It's an excuse to watch the antics of four guys who were so famous they didn't have to try to impress people anymore.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Why kids come out that way

I just read something that cast new light on my previous question of whether stigma against single parenting would be good for kids. Scott's summary of a point from Judith Rich Harris's The Nurture Assumption:

"Studies do show that parents who adhere very meticulously to the standard parenting advice have children who, let's say, do better at school. But Harris points out - what personality trait is necessary to adhere meticulously to the latest parenting fads? Conscientiousness. What personality trait is necessary to do well at school? Conscientiousness. And what personality trait is about 50% heritable (recall that most things are about 50% heritable)? Conscientiousness. So the discovery that parents who adhere to parenting advice have children who adhere to school rules is absolutely worthless until you control for conscientiousness - after which the finding should disappear. . . .

Harris thinks that these sorts of problem explain the much-trumpeted findings that kids from single-parent homes and children of divorce tend to turn out worse. After all, what kind of fathers abandon their partners and young children? Low conscientiousness fathers who probably have a lot of personal issues. So what kind of children would we expect them to have, just by genetics alone? Low conscientiousness children who probably have a lot of personal issues. And surprise! Children of single parent homes are low conscientiousness and have lots of personal issues! But - and here's something I had never read before - this is true only of homes that are single parent because the father left. If the father died - in a car accident, of cancer, whatever - those children turn out exactly as well as children of double-parent homes! Exactly what one would expect if the problem were caused by what the split implied about genetics and social situation rather than by the parenting itself."

I'm always pleased to find evidence that I don't have to be a frantic parent.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

We know better now . . . right?

The early twentieth century was an interesting time in birth and childcare.

Twilight Sleep
In 1899, German doctors began treating wealthy women with scopolamine and morphine to create labor in a state of delirium. The drugs created an amnesia that made women unable to remember the birth process. The practice was common in the US for decades afterwards. After my grandmother delivered her son in the 1940s, the nurse asked her if she wanted to see her baby. She asked, "What baby?"

"Twilight sleep" was discontinued after people realized that drugging mom (and thus baby) with morphine meant the baby came out weaker and with more breathing problems. In 1958, Ladies' Home Journal published nurses' stories of what the mothers themselves couldn't remember: women giving birth in a drug-induced psychosis, women clawing to get out of the wrist straps that were used to restrain them, women's cries stifled with masks. Husbands didn't know, because they weren't present for any part of the birth.

While mothers spent days in a drugged state waiting for birth, someone had to care for their other children. It wasn't normal for fathers to take time off work to care for the kids while the mother was in the hospital, so if no grandmother was available, rich kids were farmed out to residential nurseries. It was assumed that children would be fine as long as someone was taking care of them, even if that person was a stranger. Because staff rotated shifts, no one person consistently cared for the same child. (Of course, we now put our children in daycares with strangers, but not 24/7.)

Psychologist John Bowlby documented the reaction of young children to a stay in such nurseries: first a distressed searching for a familiar adult, then despair, then an emotional withdrawal. Social worker James Robertson documented similar effects of long hospital stays on young children in a time when parents were discouraged from visiting. As a result, hospitals and nurseries changed the policies that kept children away from their parents for weeks or months.

But not all institutions recognized the importance of any human contact at all. The invention of incubators resulted in babies who got food and heat but virtually no affection. They created a new diagnosis for the resulting failure to thrive: "hospitalism." Infants in poorer hospitals weren't susceptible to this new ailment because they were still held by staff rather than in incubators.

In the 1940s René Spitz and Catherine Wolf studied 91 babies in orphanages where they basically lay in cribs all day. Despite getting good food, 1/3 of the children died in their first year of life. They compared this group to babies who were with their mothers in prison - all the imprisoned children survived to age 5, despite worse food and sanitation. The orphanages were acting on scientific principles of the day - it was reasoned that isolating children would keep them safe from communicable diseases. Turns out that isolation is much worse than disease: babies can literally die from a lack of affection.

Starting in the 20th century, baby formula began to be marketed as the most "scientific" way to feed your baby. (To be fair, it was better than the cow's milk and sugar concoctions people had been using for formula before!) Hospitals used to proudly report their high rates of bottle-feeding.

Now every health authority is backpedaling and trying to get moms to return to breastfeeding. Now we know about the immune-system benefits of the first milk, even for moms who don't plan to breastfeed more than a day or two. And the evidence is clear that breastfed babies have less risk of ear infections, diarrhea, and pneumonia. For mom, the benefits include less cancer and less heart disease.

Birth interventions
Today, we've learned from much of the evidence. We don't handcuff birthing women. We place children in foster homes rather than orphanages (though, sadly, not everywhere). Currently, "kangaroo care" or skin-to-skin contact for premature infants is gaining popularity. Skin time with an adult gives the baby the heat it needs while also helping parent and child bond.

And yet our birth practices could stand to return to some of the methods of past centuries, before birth was medicalized. Medical interventions like c-sections and fetal heart monitoring can save lives when they are really needed, but in most cases a low-intervention birth is safest. The US has a rate of Cesarean section of over 30%, double what the World Health Organization used to recommend when it still gave recommendations. Maternal mortality is on the rise in the US, and some of that is probably due to an increase in unnecessary c-sections.

Evidence-based practices for birth include moving around (rather than lying on your back, which means gravity works against you) and having a doula or birth coach for support. One medical professor describes the evidence that a low-intervention birth is safest: "Our midwife could be trusted to be scientific, whereas our obstetrician could not."

As I approach parenthood, I don't want to be enslaved to the current attachment-parenting style that implies, as my housemate put it, "if you break eye contact with your baby, it will explode." But I do want to know what the evidence is when I make my choices. Hopefully we won't look back in 50 years and wonder why we made such terrible choices in the name of modernity.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Review: Falling Apart

I decided to read more books I think I'll disagree with. In that spirit, I just finished Charles Murray's Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.

Murray lays out the evidence that while upper-class white Americans haven't changed much in terms of work, religiosity, and marriage, lower-class whites have. By upper-class he means college-educated people in the top 20% of earners, and by lower-class he means the bottom 30% of earners, which encompasses some working class and some non-working people. (He limits his discussion to whites to demonstrate that he's talking about class and not race differences. He states that the same patterns hold true among other races.)

While my sociology and social work background have emphasized economic and structural disparities in explaining why some groups have it worse than others, Murray points to cultural changes. For example, while the rate of physical accidents is much lower than it was in the 60s, the percentage of people on disability is much higher. To be fair, I'm not sure how much of this is due to the increase in laziness that Murray alleges, and how much is due to changes in definitions of disability such as the inclusion of mental illness.

Murray looks at four of what he considers cardinal values: marriage, industriousness, religiosity, and honesty (in the sense of not committing crimes). While some of these raised my ideology red flags, he does back them up with data about actual quality of life. Declining religiosity, he argues, is correlated with weaker social ties and lower self-reported happiness. Nations without a hardworking population will fail, he argues (taking some cheap shots at Europe along the way). And the decline of marriage, both in terms of higher divorce rates and more never-married adults, is bad for kids. He lays out the evidence that children not raised by their married, biological parents (controlled for income) do worse in terms of delinquency, childhood illness, school dropout rates, crime, early death, and emotional health.

I kept waiting to hear what practical policy changes Murray suggested, but his recommendations were vague. He accuses the upper class of being out of touch with mainstream America (there's a quiz including questions like: have you watched a full episode of Oprah? Have you eaten at a Waffle House this year?) I agree that there's a cultural divide, but it's not clear why exactly this is bad, or how improving my knowledge of NASCAR will help the country.

The piece of Murray's advice I found most interesting was that the upper class "preach what they practice." He says upper-class families still have a grip on industriousness, marriage, and honesty, and that these values are good for them and their families. Keeping these values to themselves and allowing the poor to destroy themselves, he says, will ultimately destroy the nation. And he argues that staying politely silent when you watch people choose foolishly is not actually an act of kindness.

I'm not too interested in Murray's project of preserving the America envisioned by its founders. I'm not interested in blaming the poor for being poor. I'm not interested in blaming single parents for the demise of their relationships. And it goes against every bit of my training to say that some family styles work better than others. But I found the facts on marriage and children especially hard to look away from: both rich and poor used to have kids largely within marriage. The rich still do, but poor people now do it less. Which indicates culture, not just economic forces. And the kids whose parents aren't married to each other suffer for it.

Murray doesn't directly say that he wants more stigma against bearing children outside of marriage. And stigma seems terribly unfair, because it also targets the children who didn't choose their parents' actions. But I wonder - would it actually be better for children overall if there were more stigma? If having married parents is so important, would it be better to exert a bit more social pressure on parents to make that happen?

Followup post: Why kids come out that way

Friday, August 17, 2012


One of my favorite things in Boston is the produce market at Haymarket, where vendors resell what was left at the grocery warehouses that week.  Buy it quick and cheap before it rots.

This is not a farmer's market, and there are few yuppies here.  

 Produce is not merely labeled, but lovingly described: SWEET AS CANDY.  GOLDEN-RIPE.  TENDER FRESH.

And it's not described only in writing, but as loud as the vendors can shout.

 Vendors and customers hail from every corner of the earth.  If there's one thing everybody loves, it's cheap food.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Something's wrong with this picture

Yesterday I heard a friend explain why she wants to get out of the business she's in and work for a non-profit:

"I would actually earn more at a non-profit.  These for-profit companies, they put money first.  It's profit before people."

Of course, I would like a non-profit to put people first, but which people?  Surely the point is to help the beneficiaries rather than offer employees nice salaries and benefits?  If a charity is treating its employees better than they would be treated at a for-profit, doesn't that mean they could treat them a little less well and have more money for actual services?

Of course, there are cases where maximizing profits is bad for both clients and employees.  I'm thinking of a  local for-profit mental health provider that treats its employees so badly they all quit after a year, which means clients have a constant turnover of providers.  This is bad.

But in general, I think the existence of nonprofits that are cushier than their for-profit counterparts points to the brokenness of a system where donors don't ever see good measurements of a charity's outcomes. If donors don't ask for demonstrated impact, charities don't have as much incentive to do the best work they can.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Cooperators and defectors

Today in Harvard Square I watched a pretty young woman run the usual gauntlet of charity fundraisers with clipboards lining the sidewalk. One engaged her, but she made her way down the sidewalk apologizing.

Moments later, a second fundraiser veered toward her, pen in hand. "Hi! Do you have a minute to be a superhero today?"
She smiled nervously. "Sorry, I've got to catch a bus!"
I thought he would give up, but he followed her, asking, "Wait, how old are you?"
"I'm 24," she said, striding faster. "Sorry, I've really got to go."

I wanted to shout after her, You don't owe that guy anything. Sharing a sidewalk with him does not mean you have to engage in his sales pitch, and it certainly doesn't mean you have to tell him your age.

The thing is, I love the idea of friendlier cities. Boston is not a warm and welcoming place, and I try to change that. I ask lost-looking people if they need directions. I hold doors for people. A few days ago when a woman on the street told me, "That's a great hat!" it made my day.

But there are interactions that take instead of giving. The men who follow you when you're not inviting further contact, who ask you personal questions - I have to remind myself that I don't have to talk to them. I don't owe them conversation or smiles or spare change. Sometimes they get angry at my silence, but that's further reason to not interact with them.

In game theory, the classic prisoner's dilemma sets up incentives so that both participants are better off if they cooperate, but if one person cooperates and the other defects, the defector wins big and the cooperator loses big.

In Ecuador, I was walking down a street in a small town. As I approached an auto shop I saw the mechanic leaning against the garage, and at first I decided to do the distant-stare method of not interacting with strange men. Then I reproached myself: after all, it was a small and friendly town where I'd seen neighbors greet each other cordially. When I reached critical proximity, I gave him a nod and a "Buenos tardes" at exactly the same moment as he wolf-whistled. I had just cooperated with a defector.

I hope he was as embarrassed as I was, but I doubt it.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Parent rights at what cost?

Recently, I've read two memoirs by adults who wished they had been taken away from their parents. One was Jeanette Wall's The Glass Castle, and I'm currently reading Daphne Scholinski's The Last Time I Wore a Dress.

Walls describes a childhood with two charming intellectual parents who just didn't prioritize things like groceries or heating fuel. At one point the child welfare people came to investigate, but Walls was able to head them off, terrified that she will be separated not from from her parents, but from her siblings.

Scholinski spent much of her adolescence in psychiatric hospitals for oppositional defiant disorder, which both she and the hospitals chalked up to her chaotic and affectionless family life. She describes her feelings upon being hospitalized:

"I didn't let on but part of me kind of wanted to go. Any place had to feel safer than home. Over the summer my father had sat on me, his knees on my shoulders, and poked me in the chest while I tried furiously to kick him, to get him off so I could breathe . . . I guess if I felt anything riding up the elevator to the third floor if Michael Reese, it was a stab of hope."

I realize these are extreme cases, but I wonder how many such cases are out there.

The social workers and judges who make these decision have two responsibilities. First, they must protect the health and safety of the child. Second, they must try to keep families intact. Those things don't always combine well.

I've heard parents say their children were taken away for no good reason. (Of course, they're free to say they weren't abusing or neglecting their kids, and if the Department of Children and Families has evidence to the contrary, they're not allowed to release it to the public.) And yes, I know there have been abuses of the system, especially against Native American families. Probably there still are incompetent or biased social workers taking kids away from families who could have cared for them if they had been properly referred for housing assistance, food stamps, etc. And yes, there is a shortage of those resources that may make the difference between being able to care for your kids and not.

But I've also heard social workers say they think the system is too permissive, that birth families are sometimes given too many chances, that children are moved from foster care back to the home too many times before parental rights are terminated. By the time the kids have spent a few years bouncing between homes, they're too old to be easily adoptable and have endured too many disrupted attachments.

Parents have a legal right to their children, unless they really screw up. Children need families, and in most cases their original parents are the best people to raise them. But in the cases where that's not true, I'm not so keen on protecting parental rights at the expense of the children.

I wonder what an outcome-based rather than rights-based approach to this would look like.

Children seldom say they want to be separated from their parents at the time, because children cling to the only supports they know. But once they're grown? I'd love to see a study that asks adults:

Did your parents lose custody of you?
1) No, and it was the right decision
2) No, but I wish they had
3) Yes, and it was the right decision
4) Yes, but I wish they hadn't

I don't know what results we would get, but it would be a good tool for knowing if our policy is tipping too much in one direction or another.

Saturday, August 04, 2012


Yesterday I was at the art museum and heard the strident voice of an old woman as she teetered up to a guard. "Now, you have some kind of chapel, don't you? Where is that?" she asked. She didn't add "young man," but she might have. He directed her to the chapel.

There's a certain air I notice in older women from privileged backgrounds. They command others without any seeming doubt in their minds about whether they will be obeyed. Of course, you see this attitude in men too, but I expect to see it in men. I think about all the people who didn't grow up with that sense of entitlement - the poor, the poorly educated, the disenfranchised. The people who have usually been bossed, not bossy. It makes me sad for the people who couldn't assume anyone would listen to them.

But I also love these old women. I love that they're not worried about charming anybody or asking permission. They simply expect to get their way. I love that they grew up in a pre-Second-Wave world and came out with dignity intact. A lot of them probably went to women's colleges, which I think are excellent for fostering that kind of confidence.

I was reminded of my great-grandmother, who informed her minister that the church would not be cutting down that oak in front, no matter how many limbs it had lost, because she had always taken her children under that tree to spank them when they were bad in church, just as her mother had spanked her under that tree. And the minister was wise enough to wait until after her death to have the oak removed.

Fortunately, I don't think it's a zero-sum game. You can be assertive without stepping on other people. I hope all our girls will grow into self-assured old women.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

The three graces

Today I went to the Lowell Folk Festival.  At many of the performances, people got up to dance. A lot of little kids did the jumping-around thing that kids do, which was fun to watch. But in front at the stage with the Irish band, there were three girls who had something special.

None of them looked trained, but they were exceptionally graceful. They had that freedom of movement that comes when you have an impression of what trained dancers look like, but you've never had actual steps drilled into you.

My first instinct was to go over to their parents and say, "They've got talent!  Maybe they'll want to study Irish dance or ballet!"

But part of me quailed at the idea of formalizing their leaps and twirls.  I thought of long hours at the studio, auditions, stage fright, eating disorders, bleeding feet.

I watched, in love with their beauty.  They were so free, so confident in their own bodies.  Their grace was uninhibited by any fear of looking foolish.  How can we, as adults, recapture that?

I got up and joined them.  Some other women with bad tans and obvious Irish dance training appeared.  Soon there were lots of us, skidding on the dance floor that was slippery from rain.  We sprang and twirled, slipping, laughing, falling down.

As the band was packing up, I approached two of the girls.  "I had so much fun watching you dance," I told them. "Keep having fun."

Video of these dancers and more from the festival.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Two perfect summer foods

Fresh Pea Soup
Summer soups should not be too cooked. This one isn't.

Chop up an onion and sauté it in butter. Add some broth and some frozen peas. When the peas are thawed, purée it all. You can let it simmer a bit, but it really just needs to be heated through, not cooked. Salt and pepper.

I like it with sour cream, but it doesn't really need it.

Light and airy, named for the ballet dancer. This is the summer birthday dessert of choice in my family.

Make meringue (I used this recipe). Shape it into nests and bake it. You can make one big Pavlova that looks more like a cake, but they kind of shatter when you cut them, so a big one is harder to serve.

Fill the nests with whipped cream and fruit.

These have no flour, so you can feed them to gluten-free people. They would also be a more interesting Passover dessert than plain meringues.

Thanks to Moira Flanagan for feeding me my first Pavlova.

Friday, July 06, 2012

People like us

Today a relative told us about the double jogging stroller another mom had given her. It has built-in iPod speakers. We laughed at the extravagance. But in her wealthy exurb neighborhood, this is the kind of thing lots of people own.

It made me think about who we know. I thought about B. Morrison's memoir Innocent, which describes her years as a welfare mother in a poorer neighborhood of Massachusetts. She writes of how disheartening it was to know only other people without resources, people struggling to improve their lives, people who had given up the struggle.

We tend to know people like ourselves. People with double jogging strollers with iPod speakers know other such people, and welfare mothers know other welfare mothers. When we help only our peers, rich people stay rich and poor ones stay poor.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Favorite Ecuadoran graffiti

For a fairly conservative culture, Ecuador has some awesome graffiti.

Traditional Inti Raymi mask.

"We don't want development. We want to be free."

No love

"Don't see whores where there are just women."

Someone painted a portrait of this tree.

Insane in the brain.  I love the creature there.

"Transsexuals fight"

"519 years of scars" (since 1492).  South America bleeding.

Monday, June 25, 2012


Thomas Hardy has a great description of what distinguishes unbroken folk traditions from revivals:

A traditional pastime is to be distinguished from a mere revival in no more striking feature than in this, that while in the revival all is excitement and fervour, the survival is carried on with a stolidity and absence of stir which sets one wondering why a thing that is done so perfunctorily should be kept up at all. Like Balaam and other unwilling prophets, the agents seem moved by an inner compulsion to say and do their allotted parts whether they will or no. This unweeting manner of performance is the true ring by which, in this refurbishing age, a fossilized survival may be known from a spurious reproduction.

Personally, I draw a different distinction. I find that revivals have some kind of logic to them. My old Morris team used to tell the audience, “The sticks represent the spirits of the earth, the handkerchiefs represent the spirits of the air, and the bells represent the spirits of the other world.” It made a good spiel, but it's way too tidy to be true. We have no idea why Morris dancers started using those particular things. People add stuff they like, and eventually you get a hodgepodge of things that no one remembers the origins of.

Today I saw the summer solstice festivities in Otavalo, Ecuador, also known as San Juan or Inti Raymi. The solstice doesn't mean a lot at the equator – the day and night are each 12 hours every day of the year – but they surely do celebrate it anyway. It began this morning when a bunch of folks in rainbow masks carried a figure of John the Baptist into church, and it's still going strong. In between there have been parades, a bouncy castle, and a lot of corn products. Currently folks are having a city-wide street party playing music and dancing in circles. A gang of teenagers playing melodicas, flutes, and guitars just jogged by my window. Sorry, Mr. Hardy, but these people appear to be having a blast.

Watching a folk tradition that was totally new to me, my mind was full of questions:
Why are those guys dressed in drag?
Why are conch shells a traditional instrument so far from the sea?
How come there aren't any female musicians?
Why are there tentacles on your hat?

If Ecuadoran folk tradition is anything like the ones I know, the answer is probably, “Um, I'm not sure.” Which makes perfect sense.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


Who counts as Native American in the US is very different from who counts as indigenous in Ecuador. In the US, it's something kind of rare, kind of special. Americans love to tell you about how their grandmother was part Cherokee.

Here 7% of the population is straight-up indigenous, and 72% has mixed indigenous and European ancestry. People here with glossy black hair, sharp cheekbones, and russet skin mostly identify as mestizo. Whether you're read as indigenous or mestizo seems to depend mostly on your dress, hairstyle, and language rather than your physical appearance.

Here there is no Tribal ID number, no process of enrolling in a tribe, no affirmative action, no casino profits. If you marked “indigenous” on the census with only 1/32 Quichua ancestry, people here would laugh at you.

Family in Otavalo

In Massachusetts, 90% of the indigenous population died of smallpox in the first two years of contact with the English, and more were killed in clashes. (Ecuadorans are shocked when I tell them this. Here, the Spanish valued indigenous people as slave labor rather than trying to exterminate them.) The fact is that being Native American means something very different in a country where those people were almost wiped out than where they now constitute most of the gene pool.

At the daycare where I volunteer, another American brought in some coloring sheets for the kids. They had pictures of Disney characters, including an Indian from Peter Pan, half-naked and grimacing as he aims his bow. “Look,” she told the kid who received it. “Un indio.”

I didn't want to cause a scene in front of the kids or the teacher, but I wanted to ask her, “Did you think about the fact that every one of these children is descended from indigenous people? Did you think about the fact that “indio” is an insult tossed around on the street here? Did you notice that the teacher in the next room wears her hair in a long tress? Have you observed that growling and shooting stuff are not common pastimes here? Have you observed that four-year-olds absorb every scrap of information we give them? Do you realize you're teaching them more than fine motor skills?"

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Babywearing in Ecuador

In much of Asia and Africa, people carry heavy things on their heads. In Latin America women use a rebozo instead. It's a rectangle of cloth that can serve as a garment, sunshade, or carrier:

And of course, it's the classic method for carrying kids. You see a lot of kids with their parents in Quito. A lot of people can't afford daycare or stay-at-home parents, so they take their kids to work with them. You see people, especially indigenous women, selling things in the street with kids tied on their backs.

While the rebozo is traditionally hand-woven wool, modern Ecuadorian mothers favor other materials. The one above has Strawberry Shortcake characters printed on it. A lot of women just use polarfleece blankets.

Unlike US parents, who have heard about SIDS a million times and are always checking that their child is still breathing, Ecuadorian parents often cover their children entirely with a polarfleece blanket. You'll see a woman walking along with a large bundle in her rebozo, with perhaps a little foot dangling out the bottom. Ultraviolet radiation is very strong at this altitude, so the blanket is probably keeping the kid from getting burnt.

I'm pretty sure there's a kid in there

While Americans tend to buy special baby carriers, even if they're going with a simple rectangle, Ecuadoran women seem to use any convenient piece of cloth. The babies are all very chill about it.

One does see the occasional child in a stroller or a storebought baby carrier. Most young children are carried in arms, which seems inconvenient but maybe doesn't have the negative connotation of being an "indio". And while I see plenty of men carrying children, I've never seen one use a rebozo.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Adult life, seen from age 5

My five-year-old Ecuadoran host sister has some new paper dolls. She has just heard that Jeff and I met through dancing, and she wants to reenact this. Her interpretation of how people meet and shack up is fascinating.

She dresses her paper doll and commands me: "You be a boy who wants to dance with her."

I hold up some paper clothes to be a boy. They dance with her paper girl. After several dances: "Now she wants to go home, but you ask her to wait."

"Don't go home. Wait!"

"Okay. Now you have to say, 'I want to live in your house.'"

"I want to live in your house."

"Okay, let's go to my house. But there's a crocodile."

"Ahh! A crocodile! We have to jump over it."

"Okay." (The dolls jump over the crocodile.)

"Now we go home." (They go to a sofa cushion.) "Now you say, 'I want to sleep with you.'"


"You have to say, 'I want to sleep with you.'"

"....I want to sleep with you."

"Okay. They sleep in the bed." She lays the dolls side by side and covers them with her hand. She waits silently a few seconds, then crows: "Kukuriku! It's morning."

"Good morning."

"Now you make me breakfast while I put on new clothes."

"Okay. Do you want eggs? Toast?"

"Eggs. I'm going to wear this short dress so you can see my pretty legs."

This repeated for a few sleep-and-breakfast cycles, then she staged a wedding. I don't remember it happening quite like that, especially not the crocodile.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

What's not working here

In college I spent a semester in Denmark partly because I wanted to see what a really well-run society looks like. And it was extremely civilized: people had good free health care, good free education, pleasant public spaces. Studies consistently rank Danes the happiest people in the world. There were few rich people and few poor people. Other than the xenophobia, it was almost an ideal nation.

And Ecaudor, too, has a lot going for it. People here are mostly polite, friendly, and involved with their families. The weather and natural environment are beautiful - it possibly has the most biodiversity per square mile of any nation. It has the potential to be a really delightful tourist destination.

And yet things aren't going so well here. 10% of the country lives on less than $2 a day (adjusted - that's what $2 would buy in the US, not what it would buy here). There are thousands of street children whose parents are dead, imprisoned, deported, or who abandoned their kids. Picketing, purse-cutting, and muggings are rampant in the cities, making them unattractive to tourists. Every house has a wall around it with barbed wire or broken glass cemented at the top to stop housebreakers. Even the grocery stores have security guards. People don't trust the police much anymore since they went on strike and held the president hostage in 2010. People were looting stores and the police did nothing. Freedom of speech is not a right here - people have gone to prison for criticizing the president. Bus accidents are more common here partly because mechanics will rent functioning parts to bus companies so they can pass inspection - then they take them back and reinstall the faulty parts. Firefighters don't always have functioning equipment, and recently there was a case when firefighters refused to show up to a fire. If you go to a lawyer, many will ask "how much help" you want - i.e. if you just want their legal services, or if you will also pay them enough to pay off the judge. Bribing the police is also common.

It makes me realize what difference a well-functioning government makes. It makes me think charter cities are a pretty good idea. Not that Ecuador is a failed state - it does have a decent level of functioning, just not as good as I was hoping for.

The other night we walked in a charming colonial street where families stroll, eating pastries and listening to traditional musicians. A girl with a dirty face, about seven years old, walked up and down begging for money to buy bread. (To be fair, at one point she was doing this with her mouth full of chicken kebab, which made it less convincing.) Eventually she tired of the routine and began playing with pieces of a broken bottle.

I left the street sobbing, furious with the adults and the systems that had abandoned her. The US foster care system is flawed, but at least we have an option other than the street. At 10 pm that girl should be in bed. She should be going to school in the morning. She should have parents who don't let her play with broken glass.

I kind of knew this is what I would see. I wanted to see a developing country to know how most of the world lives. And a lot of it is horrible. Which is why I want to change it.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

One more reason

Today our Spanish teacher told us that one problem in Ecuador is that people steal babies from hospitals.

"Steal?" we repeated.

"It happened to my uncle," she said. "His wife gave birth in the hospital, and she fed the baby for the first time. Then a nurse took the baby away and it disappeared. They looked for it, but it was a newborn and she didn't remember if it had a birthmark or something. They never found it."

"Why do people steal babies?"

"There are women who can't have their own babies who steal other people's. Also, there are North Americans who will pay a lot of money for a baby. So people steal babies for them."

"I knew that happened in Guatemala, but..."

"It happens more in Guatemala, but it happens here too."

I think adoption can be a very good thing in some situations. But this is one more reason why we need reforms.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Ecuador vs. Europe

I keep thinking that it was a bit silly for me to have traveled in Europe in college when Quito has so many of the things I enjoyed there, and for much lower prices. For example, in Copenhagen I ate Danish pastries maybe once a month because I couldn't bear to cough up $4 for a snack. Here I buy fresh pastries every day because they cost 60 cents.

Here's a comparison of my experience of Quito with the European cities I spent time in (Copenhagen, London, Paris, Barcelona, Amsterdam). I understand Buenos Aires is the most "European" city in Latin America, but I've never been there.

Advantage Europe:
less crime
better food for a larger budget
less air pollution
probably better for obviously gay people
no altitude sickness
more and better art

Advantage Quito:
better food for a smaller budget
hiking / birdwatching / rafting / ziplining
landscape (misty Andes, cloud forest nearby)
lower prices on everything
cheaper to fly to (our tickets cost $600 round trip)
I'm practicing a language that's useful in the US (unlike Danish)
plants and animals (ideal climate for orchids, roses, hummingbirds)

Streets with charming old architecture
Sexual harassment (I get shouted at here about as much as in France and Spain, less than in London or Copenhagen)
Lots of old churches
Cute children (somehow foreign children are always cuter)

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Failed night out

Last night, after over a week in Ecuador, Jeff and I ventured out at night for the first time. Destination: an Irish pub we had seen posters for, located in the hip neighborhood a few blocks from our homestay. This was exciting because:

-It was our first time out without sunscreen and hats. With not much air between you and outer space, sunburn is a big deal in the Andes.

-We don't usually live within walking distance of a hip neighborhood.

However, we forgot some key facts:

-Walking distance does not mean walkable: everyone we knew told us to take a cab if we didn't want to get robbed on the way there.

-Said Irish pub was actually a bar, complete with deafening music (and not of the variety played by old men in flat caps.)

- Jeff doesn't drink, and I only like drinking with people I trust. A bar full of strangers speaking a foreign language in a city where two people had already tried to rob us was pretty much the worst place for me to enjoy a beer.

- We're terrible at small talk and meeting people.

- We're cheapskates.

We ended up walking to the bar, pausing at every corner to debate which street was least likely to get us mugged. We spent about two minutes in the bar before agreeing to leave. We got hot chocolate instead at a shop where the waitress locked us out on the patio. Then we walked home, hearts pounding.

Maybe we just need to acknowledge we're not nocturnal creatures. At least not here.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

What's big in Quito

- Polarfleece. Wool used to be big here (this is the land of the alpaca, after all) but now blankets, jackets, pullovers, and hats are almost all polarfleece.

- Theft. This week two different people tried and failed to rob us. Normally wearing your backpack on your front makes you look like a tourist, but here even locals do it to avoid cutpurses and pickpockets.

- Meat. I was expecting more bean-based dishes, but people eat chicken or beef at almost every meal.

- Pantyhose. Most women wear pants, since it's always in the 50s and 60s, but older indigenous women usually wear knee-length skirts with knee socks or pantyhose.

- Stretch velour. Younger indigenous women favor white blouses and ankle-length stretch velour skirts.

- Soup. Every lunch and dinner starts with soup.

- Shoeshines stands. I don't think this is because so many people want their shoes shined, but because it's a low-cost business to operate for people who don't have better options. Likewise people selling candy or oranges on the street.

- Disney Princesses. Vendors who sell reading material on the street invariably have a couple of princess-themed coloring books. Disney On Ice is coming to Quito next month, and my five-year-old host sister is very psyched.

- Blackberries. Blackberry is the favorite flavor for juice and ice cream here, though it tastes different than blackberry at home.

- Nuns. Way more nuns here than in Boston. Or maybe Boston nuns are just less likely to wear habits.

- Breastfeeding in public.

What's not big here:

- Bicycles. For a city with bad traffic and a ton of pedestrians, I was surprised to see so few cyclists.

- Obesity.

- Traffic laws. Buses do at least honk their horns to indicate they're about to run a red light.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

First days in Quito

Jeff and I have arrived in Quito, Ecuador for several weeks of studying Spanish.

There are police visible here, more heavily armed than in the US, but they seem to take a more casual role. The first day we saw a police officer in serious body armor patrolling a playground, crouching at the bottom of a big slide and urging children to slide down it. Yesterday at the botanical garden we saw a gaggle of smiling cops gathered around a booth at the plant sale, buying cacti. (I assume the cacti were purchased out of horticultural interest, not for some interrogation technique.)

Abortion is illegal here. Luckily, this sign lets you know you can procure "safe abortions" by calling the number! Great to know the black market has folks covered when it comes to medical procedures!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Something to do

Having finished grad school, I suddenly went from a lot of goal-focused behavior to hardly any. Drifting around the house, I thought about the ways each of us in the household focus our behavior. Rick is the founder of two small businesses and spends probably 80 hours a week working at them. He does do things for fun, but they are deliberately subtracted from work time, not the other way around. Alice is in a long-distance relationship, which I remember as a state of killing time: everything you do has a feeling of “until”, waiting for those weekends that light up the rest of your life. Suzie works part-time as a midwife, and in the rest of her time she does the small things she enjoys: watching costume dramas, maintaining the house, knitting a pair of Christmas socks for everyone in the extended family.

I'm reading Yann Martel's The Life of Pi, in which a zookeeper's son reflects that captive animals are not unhappy like people think:

Being denied “freedom” too long, the animal becomes a shadow of itself, its spirit broken. So some people imagine.

This is not the way it is.

Animals in the wild live lives of compulsion and necessity within an unforgiving social hierarchy in an environment where the supply of fear is high and the supply of food low.... One might even argue that if an animal could choose with intelligence, it would opt for living in a zoo, since the major difference between a zoo and the wild is the absence of parasites and enemies and the abundance of food in the first, and their respective abundance and scarcity in the second. Think about it for yourself. Would you rather be put up at the Ritz with free room service and unlimited access to a doctor or be homeless without a soul to take care of you?

This doesn't jibe with my understanding of animal psychology. I have relatives who have reached a kind of peace with their golden retriever by realizing that dogs, especially urban dogs kept indoors most of the time, want purposeful activity. They're born to be in relationship with other pack members (whether other dogs or humans) but also to hunt or herd or fetch. It's why collies herd basketballs, why well-fed terriers go crazy over squirrels. It's why this family's golden retriever doesn't destroy things so often now that they hide objects for him to find. Given a challenge, he's a more satisfied creature.

And what are we born to do?

It's clear that desperate goal-driven activity is not fun. Feeling you must work every moment to keep your business afloat, or to put food on the table, or to avoid predators is not a good feeling. And yet a life with no goals makes us bored and frustrated. I've greatly enjoyed my last two weeks of unemployment, but when I first moved to Boston and had been job-hunting for months, I ran out of puttering that I wanted to do. I asked Rick and Suzie to stop cooking dinner so much so that I could have some task to look forward to.

Grad school was too much activity. I'm looking forward to having a job, along with other things to do, that strike the right balance of purpose and relaxation.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Project: vest

Sea-green velveteen: check.
Free afternoon: check.

Temporary unemployment is pretty great.