Sunday, September 30, 2007

Greenery and Music

While New Jersey doesn’t have the major parks, trails, hiking and camping opportunities that many Western states have, the foliage that grows throughout the state is really quite impressive. Garden State seems like a misnomer for a small, industrial area known for elevated rates of cancer. But as I walk through town, and along the canal pathways, I note the rich variety of trees, plants and flowers. Unfortunately, I barely know the names of any of these growths, but I enjoy watching them change with the seasons.

Amidst the greenery, the local canoe and kayak rental place was doing a brisk business yesterday, with many families out enjoying the warm fall weather. A small collection of dry yellow leaves is collecting on our porch and occasionally, I’ll even see a little burst of red. However, it’s still warm enough to wear a tank-top during the day.

Mark’s been working a lot this week, and I’ve been spending a lot of time within the walls of home. One month into it, I’m already starting to tire of the routine. So yesterday I looked for something new to do. I reluctantly settled upon going to a symphony orchestra concert. Not the ideal thing to do alone, but I didn’t see any better options nearby.

I ended up being very glad I went. The orchestra was conducted by Shi-Yeon Sung, a 32-year-old Korean woman. Though she dressed in a long tuxedo with a ruffled white blouse, she wore her hair in a ponytail and was full of movement and expression. She moved like a marionette, as though her body was driven by the music.

It was refreshing to see youth and femininity in a conductor, when one so frequently sees age and masculinity. One book I read recently, I believe by Malcolm Gladwell, wrote about the gender discrimination so frequent in top-level orchestras. Only when women audition behind screens, so that they are not seen, are they chosen by talent alone. This orchestra had a majority of females among the strings, males among the brass.

The audience was largely Caucasian and mostly over 60, especially those who sat in the most expensive orchestra seats.

I enjoyed the beautiful colors of the instruments – the mahogany bassoon, black oboes, golden trombones, silver trumpets and flutes, honey violas and reddish violins. And of course, the music was top quality.

The second part of the concert, Brahm’s Violin Concerto, Op. 77 In D Major, featured Dan Zhu, a guest violinist. From China,he debuted at Carnegie Hall at age 18. He played the entire 45 minute piece from memory and put in so much effort that he broke strings on his bow. He moved powerfully, together with the instrument, as though he was attached to it. At the end, the conductor hugged him and both received enthusiastic applause from the audience. They both looked like they were having fun, an attitude that they transmitted to the audience, who couldn’t help but enjoy themselves either.

Friday, September 28, 2007

The Prudent Land of Exhibitionism

One thing I’m having some trouble adjusting to in readapting to the U.S. is the hypocrisy between the commercialization of the body and the lack of acceptance of the body in its natural functions. It’s no surprise that images of barely dressed people fill the media, and sometimes the streets. Recently in Washington, DC I saw a woman walking in a public area with nothing more on than a bikini and a mesh cover-up. As long as the couple of strategic points are covered, it’s OK to bare a lot of skin.

Yet the sensitivity about those strategic points – the nipples and the genitals – is so extreme as to make me wonder what happened to make Americans so ashamed of their bodies. Is it the Puritan tradition, the influence of religion, or just never reaching the point of accepting the body as something other than a sexual symbol?

I recall a European friend in Kyrgyzstan telling me how different it was to get a bikini wax in the U.S., versus in Europe or Muslim Kyrgyzstan.

“In Kyrgyzstan I go in with no underwear on at all. The woman who does the waxing looks at me and talks to me normally, as though there is nothing out of the usual. She looks right at my pubic area and does her work, without making me feel there is anything wrong with me.

“In the US, I asked if I should take my underwear off. The woman said no, and just moved it to the side as she was working. It made me feel so dirty.”

Yesterday I got a prenatal massage. It was a nice, clean, professional place, very careful in making the conditions safe during pregnancy. However, I was so covered up in sheets and pillows I wondered if I was in another country. The masseuse removed only the part of the sheet she was working on while she massaged the back and legs. When she massaged my hips, she did so through the sheet. It made me think of my friend in Kyrgyzstan. Was I too dirty to be touched there?

I’m also concerned about breastfeeding in the U.S. It seems to still be considered something dirty to do in public, with books advising working women to go into bathrooms, to lock the lunchroom, or otherwise hide out in uncomfortable places. I see ads for slings advertising their ability to help with “discreet breastfeeding” and showing pictures of mothers on park benches, their baby completely covered by the fabric so as not to offend anyone.

Is the sight of a partial breast so offensive, or so disturbing that a baby should either be denied sustenance, or be kept in a hot and dark environment? Or is it only offensive to the idea that a woman’s breast is a sexual tool? Seeing it used for practical purposes could break some of the mystique.

Since I’m not too eager to hang out on toilet seats in order to feed my child, I went online to check what the laws are. La Leche League publishes a helpful list of current legislation by state. In most places, including where I live, breastfeeding in public is perfectly legal, and is not an obscene act or indecent exposure, even if the breast is exposed. In most areas, a woman has the right to breastfeed in any public place that she herself has the right to be in. I printed out the law for my state and plan to carry it with me. But I find the fact that such a right needs to be legislated rather sad. And I don’t look forward to having to defend my child’s right to be fed.

Having grown up in the U.S., I went overseas with this same prudery I’m now having trouble understanding. I never went to the public baths in Siberia, ashamed to be naked among my neighbors and co-workers. I was shocked the first time I got a massage and had to lie bare-chested on my back as the masseuse worked. I was mortified when I went to the doctor’s for a chest x-ray and I had to walk across the entire room naked, with no gown or other covering. But with time, as I saw them react to the human form as nothing special, I could accept it that way myself. What’s the big deal? We are over six billion people, with three billion or so of each gender. No individual really has anything that someone hasn’t seen before.

I can understand the countries that take a position on either side. Either they hide the body fully, in public and private. Or they accept and embrace it. Here I find a strange middle ground – where many seem to take pride in showing the maximum permissible outline of their shape and form. But once you pull back the little cover, what’s underneath is something lurid and shameful.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Mining with the Devil

I saw a great documentary about Bolivia this week. Called The Devil’s Miner, it’s about two brothers, ages 12 and 14, who work in one of the mines in Bolivia’s mining center, Cerro Rico. After their father died, their mother moved them from the countryside to a mountaintop, where she got a job guarding mining equipment for $25 a month. Since that wasn’t enough to both live on and allow the children to study, the boys worked in the mine during the afternoon, and studied in the morning.

In addition to the story of two boys, the movie portrays well the life and culture. It explains some of the history of the mines, of the forced labor the Spanish employed, in which every indigenous male had to spend six months working in the mines without pay. One aspect new to me was the concept of “tios,” devil figures located in every mine that must be worshipped and given offerings in order to not kill the miners. These tios receive more worship and respect by the locals than God does. But they go to church anyway, looking for double protection, hoping someone will help and protect them. It also displayed well the carnival, the happiness generated once a year among even the most destitute – the festivities, dancing and mayhem. Watching the dancing troupes reminded me of what I saw at the Festival de Urcupina outside of Cochabamba. And like what I saw in Bolivia, the celebrations in Potosi aren’t complete with random explosives going off all around.

These mines are located above Potosi, which at 4300 meters, is the highest city in the world. The children were living and working in very harsh conditions, at a very high altitude. Nevertheless, the movie inspires hope. It portrays the beauty of the harsh rocky landscape. And despite the incredible difficulties they face, these boys are determined to study and to find a career for themselves outside of the mines.

I’m currently reading Regreso del Idiota, (Return of the Idiot), a recently released book that seems to be getting some attention in Latin America. My colleague Maria’s brother was discussing it when I lunch with her family in Cochabamba. And I saw it prominently placed on the bookshelves in the Miami airport.

It’s written by three Latin American authors and is a diatribe against the far left socialist leaders in Latin America – mainly Chavez (Venezuela), Castro (Cuba), and Morales (Bolivia). They write that these “idiots”, with a purportedly social agenda, are actually harming the poor in their countries by prohibiting social advancement and the operation of free markets.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007


This afternoon I attended a presentation at my local library given by an employee of the US Census bureau. It was held in the technology center, a comfortable and modern room with 12 flat-screen computers, and a screen that showed what was on the instructor’s computer. The instructor was able to control our screens, so that we could see what she was doing as she navigated through the website. Then she released the control in order to allow us to try things ourself.

It was a presentation on the US Census webpage, intending to teach people what kind of information is available and how to access it. In just over an hour, it ended up being just an overview, but as a person who loves figures and statistics, I found it interesting.

Every month the library puts on a presentation about how to use different databases or research tools. I never took advantage of such things while still in school. But now that I no longer have the easy university access to endless data sources, it’s helpful to understand better what I can find online and in the library.

I am a big fan of public libraries in general – of the free access to knowledge and information, of the promotion of literary and learning, and of the ability to congregate and share in a non-religious setting. While I’ve been a happy user of many U.S. libraries, my current local library is the best public library I think I’ve ever come across. It was built just a few years ago and is new and comfortable. In addition to modern technology centers and meeting rooms, it has a gift shop, a coffee shop, lots of events and speakers, and a full-range of multi-media. One driving reason in choosing our current residence was the ability to live a few blocks from this library. Now that I’m here, I very much appreciate the access. I think someday, when I retire, I’d like to work in a library or a bookstore – if they still exist then.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Transition to Fall

This week was the official transition from summer to fall. Though practically, it’s still warm and beautiful, like summer. But the hints of change are in the air – the slight yellowing of some leaves, the drying of the forest, the temperature that changes from warm, hot and sunny, to cool within a day.

I’m enjoying living here. We’ve finally gotten unpacked and organized and feel as though we have our first home together. Our street is quiet, with a view of a cemetery and the sounds of church bells and squealing children in the daytime, crickets at night. People seem calm and comfortable. I see a population of immigrants that concentrate in a certain area, and I imagine life is more challenging for them. But even they benefit from the calm and quiet here, the good public services, and the good, neighborly spirit that’s easy to generate when people are living comfortably.

I’m readjusting to having frequent internet access and to the experience of online shopping. I’m impressed by how many of our purchases we can do online. Every few days, a package shows up on the doorstep – anything from a pillow to a swim cap to peanut butter. As long as it’s not needed urgently, I can easily do research on quality online, find a cheap price, and then have it head toward my house – all without taking a step outside. I suppose many Americans have long been accustomed to this. I’ve certainly been using the internet to buy things while away. But in the years of living overseas, I’ve missed out on the transition from using the internet for certain objects (like books, electronics and clothing) to a far wider spectrum that can include toilet paper, milk and furniture.

Yesterday Mark and I had the unique experience of interviewing a doula – a birth attendant. Neither of us had any idea what a doula was as of a couple of weeks ago, but now we are considering hiring one. We felt the need for some personal care even more after visiting the doctor today. The doctor was nice enough, and if we could keep him as our permanent doctor, it would be fine. However, we found out there are six doctors in the practice, not five like I thought. So somehow, by early December, I need to have appointments with the four I haven’t met yet. That will give me about 15-30 minutes of contact with each one before the due date. And then it’s a random lottery as to which of the six will be my attending physician. I have a 16.7% chance of getting any particular one – the one I like the most as well as the one I like least.

A doula would be a person we’d select in advance, who would take the time to get to know us and our wishes. In the course of a couple of meetings, our time spent with her would be a vast multiple of the time spent with any one doctor. She’d then be with us from the very start of labor until the end, and visit us once more post-partum. Her job would be to help make the process more calming, relaxing, comfortable, and safe. She’d also be our advocate with the doctors and nurses, helping to ensure our wishes are carried out as much as possible, at a time in which we might not be a good position to argue. According to doula advocates, by reducing stress and making the experience more personal and comfortable, it can speed up labor and reduce the chance of complications. If nothing else, it seems likely to make the process less impersonal, bureaucratic and uncertain.

We’re entering the phase of active preparation. We bought our first big-ticket item today – a used carseat. Slowly, we’re collecting a pile of stuff for this future being. I don’t want it to enter a world of materialism, and we’re trying to stick to the essentials. But I do want it to be comfortable and well taken care of. And we want to be as comfortable as possible ourselves while adjusting to the changes in our lives.

Speaking of materialism, I thought it was amazing to see orange and black aisles full of Halloween candy over a week ago – a good month and a half before Halloween. But even more amazing was that today I received several holiday catalogs in the mail. Holiday meaning Christmas. They were selling things like hot chocolate in red and green tins a full three-months before the holiday! An entire quarter of a year is spent marketing this holiday to people, during which they spend an average of $800.
Mark and I have decided we will not celebrate Christmas as a family holiday. Instead, we’ll follow the example of the Russians and others in making New Years our big annual event. I’m sure we’ll still get drawn into Christmas to a certain extent from the celebrations going on around us. No matter what, we’ll be subject to the ads and the pressures to spend more and do more. But we’ll have the benefit of celebrating once everyone else is already tired out. But really, no need to think about that three months ahead of schedule.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Good Movie and US Impressions

The other day I saw the 1986 movie, The Mission. It won the Cannes prize for Best Picture and seven Academy Award nominations. In my opinion, all the prizes were deserved. Starring Robert DeNiro and Jeremy Irons, it portrayed the Jesuits who worked with and tried to defend the Guarani Indians against Spanish and Portuguese settlers. The nature portrayed was so lush (it was filmed in Colombia) and the acting so good that I was able to get a sense of what the situation must have been like for the Jesuits, the Indians, and the colonists at the time of the Missions in the 1700s. This was especially useful to me, having visited many of the Bolivian missions. I saw what they are today, but enjoyed imagining what they must have been like 300 years ago.

In the past two weeks in the US, one of the things that strikes me most is the absence of wrinkles on middle-aged women on television. Geena Davis, Christie Brinkley and Oprah Winfrey are only a few examples of women in their 50s and 60s with unrealistically smooth skin. Some look good, others look scary, with their skin plastered against their skulls. I wonder how the numbers are growing among the general population and sense we are reaching a point at which it’s getting more difficult to age gracefully (aka naturally), that wrinkles will stand out even more among age-mates that attempt to maintain their young adult visage.

I’ve also noticed what seems to be fewer SUVS than before, and that makes me happy. On previous visits, I sometimes felt trapped by giant vehicles surrounding me on the freeway. Now, when I take the time to notice, I usually see at least several other small or mid-size cars. The giants are there, but no longer predominant. I guess it’s the cost of gas that may have driven people away. But whatever it is, I appreciate it. For the environment, for the safety of all drivers, and for lessening congestion on the roadway, I think the European model of mini-cars makes society a more pleasant place.

I’ve noticed the opposite trend in baby strollers. Maybe it’s just where I live, but almost no one walks around with a simple umbrella stroller. Despite good sidewalks and a flat, paved landscape, everyone has what one of my friends calls “a beast” – the stroller version of an all-terrain vehicle. I’ve seen them in magazines for $200-$1000 and it’s hard for me to understand what they can offer to make them worth so much money. A good shade, a convertible seat, a smooth ride, a statement of fashion or income, plenty of storage space for mom and dad’s accessories? Maybe after having a child I’ll coming to appreciate those things as being worth hundreds of dollars. But for now, I appreciate the used beast that my friend gave us. It’s down in the basement awaiting its first use. I didn’t even look at its features or test its roll. At the moment, it doesn’t seem important at all.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Searching for quality maternity care

My husband and I had another pre-natal doctor’s appointment today and again, the quality of the visit was disappointing compared to Bolivia. At my last appointment in Bolivia I received quite a bit of information. In addition to 3-D pictures, the doctor spent a good 45 minutes examining the fetus, he provided detailed and helpful responses to my questions and I learned a lot. I was told the fetus was almost one kilo, and was in the top 3% for height-weight at its point in development. He showed me a chart indicated that if that rate of growth continues, I could expect the baby to be between 3.5 and 4 kilos at birth.

The American doctor listened to the heartbeat and measured my abdomen, saying “OK.” That was it. The answers to our questions were extremely terse and I had the feeling we were taking his valuable time. We asked if there were any doulas he’d recommend. He gave us a single first name.

“Any ideas on how we could locate Gloria?” Mark asked.

I asked why he recommended this particular person. “Because she knows my name,” he said. “The other don’t.”

Is that really a reason why we’d hire someone? Because she knows the doctor’s name?

Mark’s impression is that the doctor is flakey and he isn’t impressed with the knowledge levels displayed by the staff we’ve had contact with. Now, when we still don’t have full confidence in our primary doctor, we have to begin to rotate through the other four doctors in the practice, so that we’ll have had at least five minutes of contact with the random person who will deliver our child.

It’s understandable, with such a low level of personalization, with no single individual really paying attention to the needs of the couple throughout the pregnancy process, that demand is growing for non-medical staff like doulas. I almost look back nostalgically to the local country doctor – the person who knew his client well, who was available to come in the middle of the night if necessary. Since doctors have moved so far from this model, people have to look elsewhere to find a person who will listen, provide personalized advice and promise to be available over a period of several months.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

American Date Night

My husband and I had a date this evening. Typical American style, we went to a Mexican restaurant off the highway, followed by a movie (Superbad – which is super stupid, not recommended), followed by ice cream at a local parlor.

It feels weird to me to frequent large restaurants where I have no idea who the owner is. And it’s a bit of a sticker shock to spend $65 on an evening’s date. But we had a good time, and I’m slowly moving back into the American way of life – chain restaurants, highways, $5 movie sodas, and all.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

A Hospital Tour

This afternoon Mark and I went to visit the hospital where we’ll most likely give birth. We went as part of a regularly scheduled maternity tour and joined a group of couples and young families. It was a varied group –including Africans, Hispanics, Indians and Caucasians – with the women’s stomachs in various stages of protrusion. All however were couples and it seemed a single woman would probably stick out in such a group.

With three months to go, we’re in the stage of starting to have to plan and prepare more actively. We’re slowly collecting a few baby possessions, we have to decide what kind of classes, books and other education we need, and we need to make decisions as to who will be involved in the process and how.

Given the impersonal nature of medical care in the U.S. (we have a 20% chance of getting our own doctor during delivery, and the nurses rotate according to their shifts), we are seriously considering using a doula, something I’d never even heard of a year ago, much less ever imagined using. But we think it could be helpful to both of us to have someone with us the entire time who knows us and our preferences and can be a continual, supportive presence.

Touring the maternity ward made the process seem more real to both of us – both in an exciting and a scary way. It was helpful to be able to familiarize ourselves with the environment, so we won’t be surprised on the day we show up. The hospital offers the helpful service of pre-registering up to two months in advance, so we can check right in on the day of delivery and not be held up by paperwork.

I suppose it’s a nice place by most standards. I haven’t spent much time on maternity wards anywhere in the U.S. It’s certainly nicer than most of the places I’ve visited overseas. Every patient has a private room with a phone and TV and a pull-out bed for the spouse or partner. A menu is available next to the bedside with a full selection of Indian entrees, as well as other special foods. They hold an ice cream social every afternoon to celebrate the new births. There is a single room available with a Jacuzzi and birthing balls, though I don’t know how patients are supposed to get back from there to their rooms to give birth.

Despite these amenities, it still had an institutional feel. The furniture was rigid. We were told that women who give normal, vaginal births usually stay two nights. Those with c-sections stay 3-4 nights. But this depends, “on you, on your doctor, and of course, on your insurance,” she said. The hospital’s c-section rate is 30%, at the national average, but a number I find quite scary.

Maybe it was a slow day, but things seemed pretty quiet. There were only two babies in the nursery (they seem to push mothers pretty hard to keep the baby in her room at all times) and most of the staff congregated at the desk, eating leftover ice cream from the day’s social in their blue and green uniforms.

I’ve been lucky to live several decades without ever spending a night in a hospital. I suppose it’s quite a privilege to be allowed to take a tour of the facilities before I enter for the first time.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

A Visit to DC

Here I am, back in the U.S. After several years, I feel like a tourist in my own country. I appreciate that, as it offers me more opportunities to explore, learn and travel.

This weekend I went to DC to visit some friends. The growth of the immigrant population since I lived there a decade ago is very visible. In Annandale, we passed a very large house for sale, but instead of For Sale, it said Se Vende. I thought they were trying to attract a wealthy Hispanic family. “No,” my friend Larisa said. “They are going to get about 7-10 families together to buy the place and they will stuff everyone inside, breaking all housing laws.”

Since the northern Virginia area has the largest concentration of Bolivians in the U.S., as well as lots of other Hispanic immigrants, I asked if we could eat at a central American restaurant. It seemed we’d have a good chance of getting authentic food.

Larisa told us she’d take us to an area with a couple of places and we could choose one. We followed her and pulled up at a ratty El Salvadorian-Mexican place. Across the street was a much nicer looking place. However, this place had a couple of customers at the late hour of 3 p.m. Maybe the food was good.

We went in and the crowd of Hispanic men at the bar winked and smirked. There were two other pairs there, both Hispanic, seated at the plain tables. I didn’t get a good feeling, but at that point was too lazy to drive across the street. So we decided to stay, as long as we could sit far back, out of sight of the men at the bar.

Brightly colored El Salvadorian paintings lined the walls and the jukebox blared music in Spanish. We weren’t there five minutes before I started to notice regular traffic headed to the men’s room. Within a period of minutes, at least one male from every group had gone to the bathroom. There was something going on in there – we later theorized it was a drug drop site. Looking out the window, trying to ignore the men coming past us into the bathroom, I saw several stocky men loitering in front of the check cashing joint/Latino Laundromat across the street. We seemed to have showed up for lunch in gang central.

“This is the kind of place I can’t come and eat alone,” Larisa said.

I wondered why she brought us. Poor Mark was very uncomfortable. He’d just succeeded in getting me from South America to his own country. And within days, he was brought into a micro-El Salvador, right within the DC metropolitan area.

We paid a visit to a pleasant local park, took a riverboat cruise past the monuments, from one vibrant, café-filled area (Georgetown) to another (Old Town Alexandria), where the streets were filled with a variety of performances. And we paid a short visit to the Manassas National Battlefield, where we learned about the battle of July 21, 1862. Early in the war, it still attracted picnickers that came from Washington, DC to watch the fighting. However, over 6,000 soldiers died in what would eventually result as a Confederate victory. It was impressive to look out over the green hills, lined with trees, and imagine the people there on a hot summer day, dressed in woolen pants and long-sleeved jackets, marching miles upon miles, and fighting a battle for their lives.