Sunday, April 29, 2007

A green Sunday

The first half of our day has followed our usual Sunday routine: gymnastics for Scooter (Trillian and I take a walk and get coffee while he's in class) and a trip to Whole Foods afterwards. While at Whole Foods, we did some impulse vegetable shopping--an interesting-looking graffiti eggplant and organic zucchini, ooh what about some sort of veggie sautee?--and then indulged in a couple of the marinated seafoods. Dinner plans were forming.

For the afternoon, we decided to take advantage of the gorgeous weather and headed off to the Green Living Show. We oohed and aahed over some organic cotton and bamboo clothing, picked up lots of literature, and looked over a bunch of hybrid vehicles. Scooter was especially interested in the vehicles, though more the bright red ones; he didn't have a lot of patience for his mommies' desire to look at the Toyota Highlander (verdict: we'll stick with our Corolla for a while later; two child seats will turn it into a 4-person vehicle, but that wouldn't be any different with the Highlander). Veggie dog for the boy, mini-empanadas for the wife, samples of granola and yogurt for me (not together, but that suddenly sounds yummy!). We didn't spend a very long time, as the crowd was packed together and pretty noisy. Scooter had enough and Trillian and I weren't too far behind him. And that's OK, because given more time, I just would have bought some things--which defeats that whole goal of decreased consumerism when I don't need things, even if the goods are responsibly made (and totally gorgeous).

Dinner continued the green and healthy theme of the day. We had a veggie sautee of the eggplant and zucchini we bought in the morning, plus carrots and celery. I also cooked up a batch of confetti lentils and couscous, again courtesy of Whole Foods, although it didn't maintain its color once simmered. And then some Cajun-spiced shrimp. Yummy and healthy, with leftovers for tomorrow's lunch and/or dinner.

Now to get the boy to bed and then to use my healthy high to help me pound out several more pages on my (last) paper.

Thursday, April 26, 2007


This evening Scooter was asking for us to play with him and his cars. He wanted Trillian to play first, but it was still early enough that she was dealing with a couple work-related emails. So he came over to me. I was playing with one of his firetrucks when he leaned in for a snuggle, put his hand on my belly, and said, "There's a baby in your tummy." Trillian and I both froze for a minute, and then I gently replied, "No, sweetie, there isn't right now. It will be a while before you have a baby brother or sister." And as he went on to play with something else, I let a few tears fall and Trillian asked if I was OK.

Here's the thing: Yes, we had used that phrase with him before. Around the time I was six weeks along and he was wanting to rough-house with me, as an explanation for why I couldn't. But we didn't say it a lot and we had made a concerted effort not to talk about the pregnancy in front of him much after that. And here it is, almost two months later, more than a month after the miscarriage, and he remembers us saying that.

And the other thing: This morning, as I went to park the car after dropping Scooter off at daycare, I found myself pondering the fact that part of how I have dealt with the miscarriage is to deny that I was fully pregnant. And I had a moment where I realized that, in a technical and truthful sense, I have been pregnant twice. But because I was still in the first trimester, because I never got to see the fetus move on the ultrasound, because I never heard the heartbeat, because I didn't even meet my midwife until it was time to do bloodwork to make sure my hormone levels were returning to normal, I somehow could get away with denying that it was a real pregnancy.

Not that I denied the baby's existence or the grief and loss, but that is a separate thing for me. I grieved, still grieve, for the baby girl in my dream. For my daughter-who-could-have-been. For that bit of me, the same part that believed the dream, that knows I will have a son next. A son whom I will love very much and who will be the perfect fit for our family. And I can't wait to meet him. But that doesn't stop me from thinking about her.

I suspect it's a good thing that I had my realization this morning. Little pieces falling into place, bringing me closer to whole, as much as is possible. But it still hurts.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Global Warming Wednesday: Putting plastic on notice

A week or so ago, Trillian sent me a link to a Globe and Mail article entitled "'Inherently Toxic' chemical faces its future" (I'd link to it, but it has unfortunately been long enough that it requires paying to read now). The gist of the article: bisphenol A, a chemical found in polycarbonate and other plastics and the lining of tin cans, is an estrogen disruptor at even small levels. My reaction: minor freak out over all of the plastic in our house.

Plastic has been on my shit-list for a while anyways. I recognize that so many things in our lives are plastic or packaged in plastic that will never break down. And so, in the back of my head, there has been a little voice that urges me to have less plastic around. This goes for food storage too. I had even heard about bisphenol A leaking into the things it comes in contact with, so I'd mostly stopped using my Nalgene bottle. But I hadn't known it's used in the lining of tin cans and hadn't thought about just how pervasive it might be.

So I poked around a bit. Again, not exactly high level research (yes, a lot of it is Wikipedia, so I know there's a chance of faulty information), but enough to get somewhere between total freak out and action plan. Here's some of what I found:
  • Bisphenol A is primarily in plastics labelled #7.
  • #7 stands for "other," so the number is not entirely helpful.
  • Melamine is also a #7. Yes, the stuff that has caused the pet food recall.
  • More accurately, this is melamine resin, which is made of melamine and formaldehyde. (Just gets better and better, huh?)
  • No idea if there's any bisphenol A in these products (e.g., my son's many character plates). But then again, I'm not sure it's absence would make things any better.
  • As far as I can tell from brief searches on the various types of plastic, #2 and #5 are the least harmful, from a human health perspective.
So I went through our cupboards and looked at the plastics we have. Among the things I discovered, our old Avent bottles are not labelled, yet the fact that they are clear, rigid plastic almost certainly points towards polycarbonate and bisphenol A. Many other items are not labelled either. On the other hand, most of his sippy cups and all of the Ikea plastic plates are #5. So still evil plastic, but maybe not poisoning my son. The food storage we have (generic version of GladWare)? No number, not entirely sure what type of resin, probably not great to have food sitting in it, especially concerned about heating things up in it.

As a result of this panic, our action this month falls somewhere between personal health action and environmental action. We have quit using the plastic containers for storing our food; our bit of consumerism towards this end was to purchase a few glass food containers from Ikea.* The seals are silicone and, from what I can tell, silicone is chemically inert and does not impart anything to the food it touches. This makes sense, given that it is made from the same base as glass--and glass is used to contain solutions in scientific experiments precisely because it does not react with the chemicals inside. The containers have been really great, and we will buy a few more.

We have also gathered up all of our polycarbonate bottles and will not be using them anymore. Scooter never did like a bottle, so he didn't use them much, but we won't be keeping them for the next child (who, fingers crossed, will readily take a bottle to make up for the hellish feeding schedule we had when I went back to work when Scooter was 5 months old). For that one, we will be getting a hold of several glass bottles.

In terms of canned foods, we are now making an effort to get more things frozen or fresh--trips to farmers' markets are planned! We are also taking some other steps that will be my action for May (just getting a head start). And one thing that will be on our minds when we move and settle into a house for the long term will be garden space and a freezer (energy efficient and no bigger than we truly need, of course).

Not that all of this is figured out yet. Given what I've read about even small amounts of bisphenol A, I worry about whether or not handling items with it is a concern--or if it's just a problem to ingest the chemical. Also, I stare at this bunch of stuff we have and no longer plan on using and don't know what to do with it. I could put it on Craig's List or Freecycle, but is it fair just to pass the problem onto someone else. Similarly, most of these plastics are on the non-recyclable list, so they'd just need to go into the garbage. Where they will not biodegrade beyond releasing some of these chemicals into the surrounding area and groundwater, thus exposing more people.

See, this is why plastic is on notice!

*I have been resistant to glass in the past because I am somewhat clumsy, sharing some of the balance and movement traits with my son, the same ones that are sending him to occupational therapy. But, I've convinced myself just to be a little more careful--and to accept that things will break on occasion.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Age is a relative thing

There are many things I want to write, but my mind is so consumed by details of my paper that I don't have the attention span to write a sustained post... plus I feel guilty when I take more than 15 minutes or so from my studies. So you get another anecdote.

Walking with Scooter back to the car after daycare today. We had stopped by my department to hang out for a while (Trillian had an important work-related phone call, so I wanted to keep him out for a bit). He wanted to go to the room where we usually have departmental parties and was disappointed that nobody was there.

Scooter: I want a party.
Mouse: Well, we can go home now and have a little party there.
S: Maybe it's my birthday.
M: No, you already had your birthday this year. But it will be [Trillian]'s birthday soon.
S: Oh! She'll be five-years-old. (Looks at fingers and checks before holding up all five fingers.)
M: OK, you think she's five?
S: Yes. I'm four and she's five. And then it's your birthday and [Mouse] is 10-years-old.
M: Well, yes it will be my birthday soon after [Trillian]'s. You think I'm twice as old as [Trillian]?
S: Yes. I'm four. [Trillian]'s five. And [Mouse] is ten.

For the record, I'm a couple years younger than Trillian. I prefer to think that his estimate of age is based not on looks, but because I'm almost 6 inches taller than Trillian.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Why Should I Recycle?

I mentioned Why Should I Recycle? in my last Global Warming Wednesday post, so I decided to say a little bit more about the book on Earth Day-proper.

In the past three weeks, Scooter's bedtime reading has consisted of two books: Little Engines Can do BIG Things (with everyone's favorite, Thomas) and Why Should I Recycle? I'm used to Thomas being the usual bedtime reading, the same book for several nights in a row. So it was a bit of a treat that Scooter has started pulling out the recycling book frequently. And while I did buy it with the hopes of pushing environmental interests, the recent desire to read it has been entirely of his own motivation.

The book is fairly short and does not overwhelm with text. Nor is it particularly preachy, but instead uses the tagline "Why waste waste?" The pictures are cartoonish: when the narrator says her family never used to recycle, the picture is of a garbage can piled outrageously high. That's part of what holds his interest. Every time we get to the page that suggests we should take clothes, toys, and other things we no longer want to second-hand shop, I emphasize the "toys" part, hoping that some day Scooter will suggest we donate some of his excess. Hasn't worked yet.

But he is definitely more interested in recycling now. He announced to us as we came home from the zoo yesterday that a truck we saw was "a 'cycling truck, not a garbage truck." And when we got off the streetcar on Friday, he recycled the transfer (at my suggestion) in a nearby bin. I like that it's something he sees as a matter-of-fact part of life, and as he starts to notice more and more of the world around him, this book has helped to get some conversation going.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Marking time

I am in the midst of papers and exams (2 each, unless I count the one exam I will not be studying for--it's based on unseen material--and the one I'll be grading soon). I have not budgeted my time well. What's new? I'm slightly panicked about getting everything done by their various deadlines. What's new? I fully recognize that it all will get done, one way or another, for better or worse. What's new?

I also find myself marking time. Today I would be one week into my second trimester. I would have told the rest of my family, people in my department, strangers on the street. But that's an alternate history that ceased to be not quite 5 weeks ago.

Instead, I am bleeding. Again. My body, apparently still a fertility machine, is back on track. I was able to pinpoint ovulation a couple weeks ago and am back to a regular cycle.

A part of me is impatient, unable to wait until August, wanting to jump back on the TTC wagon next week. Another part knows that I should take the next few months to get my body back in shape, focus on my work and teaching this summer, time the pregnancy so it won't conflict with next year's class. The first part responds, "How fucking practical of you!"

But I will let the second part rule for a while and head back to paper #1.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Global Warming Wednesday: Happy Earth Day!

(Another short post, as I am drowning in school work--likely silence afterwards until I get one of these papers done.)

This Sunday, April 22nd, is Earth Day. The first one was back in 1970, conceived of as an opportunity to educate the public on environmental issues.

I wasn't around for the first one, but I do remember its 20th anniversary and the national (and apparently global) attention given to it. The focus of Earth Day 1990 was to encourage increased recycling efforts. For me, it was significant because I was on a biology field trip at that time, one that was paid for in large part by the proceeds of our recycling project. I felt very in tune with the environmental movement!

I'm not feeling that same love this year. Here in Toronto, the city is being encouraged to take part in the "20-Minute Toronto Makeover" and "Mayor David Miller's Community Clean-Up," basically opportunities for cleaning up litter. I understand the (superficial) logic behind this: beautifying the city = beautifying the earth. But, I think these activities miss the broader point. Various businesses are acting as pick up locations for the plastic bags and plastic gloves people can get for free. All of the litter is being collected in these bags and will still go to the landfill (although people are encouraged to recycle what they can, if they can). While the streets and parks may be a little cleaner as a result--and I am all for that--the events don't appear to make any effort to educate participants on how to lessen their impact. Recycling gets a slight mention, but there is nothing on reducing or reusing. Picking up litter, something I have been known to do, is something I see as more an issue of public courtesy than environmentalism.

I do not mark Earth Day with quite the same enthusiasm these days as in 1990, but that is due to some extent to the fact that I try to keep the enviroment in mind all year long. Nonetheless, we've had frequent readings of our book on "Why Should I Recycle" in the past week or so and are quite happy that Scooter is enjoying the book so much. Passing on the torch...

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Flocking flockers

I am supposed to be working on a paper right now--and I have completed several paragraphs already this evening. Posts for the next couple weeks will probably be sporadic as a result. Nonetheless, I can't help but share this little anecdote.

Scooter likes to pretend that he is a character from one of the shows he watches. He will announce who he is and then assign other roles to each of us. The most common version of this game is that he is Max, I am Ruby, and Trillian is Louise. He has also told us before that Trillian is Toupie, he is Binoo, and I am Patchy-Patch. But today's version really takes the cake.

Scene: Car ride home from school. Almost home. Mouse in front seat, Scooter in back.

Scooter: I'm Bong and you're Bing.*
Mouse: OK. And who's [Trillian]?
S: He's a Flocker.
(Now gender and pronouns is one of the things we're working on, so a gentle correction is in order.)
[Trillian]'s a girl, so we say "She."
S: a Flocker.
M: Yes. But I need you to say "She."
S: a Flocker.
M: OK. Say "She."
S: She. Is a Flocker.

I relate this to Trillian when we get home. She gives me a hard look, convinced I put our son up to it. So a little bit later:

Scooter: I'm Bong.
Trillian: And I'm Bing, so who's [Mouse]?
S: No, [Mouse] is Bing. You're a Flocker.

I am smiling still.

* Brief tutorial. Bing is the larger white alien, Bong is the dog-like, six-legged alien. A Flocker is one of those bird-like animals on the right (slightly different versions on each planet). We do wonder about the creators of Tiny Planets and if the names are really a big joke.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Staring at the train wreck

I can't tear myself away from the news. Write a paragraph, check NY Times. File some more papers, check MSNBC. Another chore, another news source. I've read permutations of the same news story with little details added here and there.

8 years ago this week, I watched the news coverage in between activities on a business trip. As I prepared to become a teacher.

I don't know where to begin. My mind can't wrap itself around this. Just can't.

I know that I have much to say on the issue of gun control, but not now.

Coherence later...

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Still smug after all these years

Much to write about, but I’ve decided that I don’t have the energy to tease any of it out into the form I would like. So instead, I’ll fill in the details from the gifted education story I referenced in my last post.

In my elementary school, students who had been identified as “gifted” were pulled out of class once or twice a week for enrichment activities with the “gifted” consultant. (I put the word “gifted’ into scare-quotes here to indicate that I have some issues with the terminology, but I shall drop them from this point on.) Being in the gifted class required a yearly Individual Education Plan (IEP), something required for any student who wasn’t “normal” (OK, can’t resist those scare-quotes). My parents and I would meet with the gifted consultant to lay out my goals for the school year. Since we didn’t need to make any plans for remediation, this usually entailed listing subjects I wanted to study. But since gifted class involved all the identified students from a class or grade level, the resulting curriculum for the year somehow had to involve all of us.

Now here’s a question that always puzzled me: shouldn’t a gifted consultant be gifted? OK, that’s the 6th grade, prepubescent, smart-ass me. But it does get to the heart of my problem with the program. If you’re going to be dealing with students of higher-than-average intelligence on a regular basis, shouldn’t you be equipped to handle them? I was generally a compliant child, quite concerned about getting into trouble, so I tended to follow authority as long as said authority seemed reasonable.

So here’s where the gifted consultant I had for several years in elementary school went wrong. I figured out that the IEP was a crock. I could list any number of things I wanted to study and usually came up with a handful of things related to science and dance, probably creative writing too. And every year, without fail, we did... Spanish. And some other stuff—usually there’d be one unit that was at least tangentially related to one of my goals. Just to reiterate: not a dumb kid! I came to understand that the IEP was, technically and legally, not a wish list, but intended to be a blueprint for the educational enrichment I should receive. So now I had real ammunition; not only did I not like my gifted consultant, but I was also indignant that my education was receiving short-shrift.

I rebelled. Twice. Once in third grade, once in fourth grade. Nothing outright, nothing that could get me into too much trouble.

In third grade, she announced we would be doing a unit on fairytales. In retrospect, I think it could have been enjoyable, if framed in literary/writing terms or with a comparative approach. I might have been won over with that, but it wasn’t couched in those terms. So I announced that I wasn’t going to do it. Not on my IEP, can’t make me. My parents eventually talked me down from that, citing the approaches I mentioned above and steering me towards the stories they thought I would enjoy more. (Does it say anything that those were particularly dark ones?)

In fourth grade, it was Spanish. For the fourth year in a row. And as soon as she announced that, I knew exactly what it would be, because it had been the same every other year. We would learn the usual small talk (My name is x. I am fine. I am y-years-old. My favorite color is z.) and then move onto the days of the week and months of the year. And that would be it. I didn’t have anything specific against Spanish, but I still had it all memorized from our previous units. I went a little bigger with that fit—wouldn’t sit at the table, flopped down on the floor instead. And there was some crying too, but really that’s just me. In that case, the gifted consultant had to do an independent unit with me, carving time out of her schedule to do something that actually was on my IEP. Even though I didn’t particularly want to spend time alone with her, I was smug that I had made my point.

The smugness increased when I discovered in fifth grade that we would be directly addressing a couple things from my IEP, the first time ever. Which brings me back to one of the quotes I used on Thursday: “I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.” If I hadn’t decided to push against authority, if I hadn’t held firm the year before, we might not have had a unit on science fiction and I might not have had that first, formative experience with Vonnegut.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Gone is not gone forever

Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you've got about a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies—‘God damn it, you've got to be kind.’*

Kurt Vonnegut has died. He was 84, a long-time smoker, had attempted suicide many years ago.

And yet it was still a shock when I read the headlines this morning. Every news site I regularly check had a picture of him, the man who was his own caricature. Many of the articles focused on his cynicism, his conviction that human beings have really fucked up.

But a few of the professional tributes I read captured the whisper that runs through so much of his work: we should be, must be, kind.

The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal.*

The first Vonnegut I ever read, though I didn’t comprehend the significance, was “Harrison Bergeron.” I was in 5th grade and we were doing a unit on science fiction in my “gifted” class. I was a bit smug, because I knew we were doing the unit precisely because it was something I was interested in and had put it in my IEP; after the fit I threw in 4th grade about the teacher ignoring my IEP, she had decided it was in her best interest to pay me some attention. (But that’s a different story for another time.)

Most of my reading to this point, outside of what one might expect for a kid my age, would more accurately be classified as fantasy and included such classics at Lewis’ Narnia series, a good chunk of Tolkien, and Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles. If I had read any true science fiction at this point, it might have been Asimov’s I, Robot, but not much else.

“Harrison Bergeron” turned me on my head. It challenged my ideas of what I meant by ‘equal.’ It introduced me to the idea of futuristic dystopias and the idea that by examining just how bad things could get might help us avoid them. I learned that science fiction is so much more than space and robots and time travel—and not a genre to dismiss as inconsequential.

I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.*

The first time I consciously read Vonnegut came about five years later. My 10th grade English teacher had us choose a book to read independently each quarter. She supplied a list of suggested texts, which I took home to my father. I didn’t want to read a standard classic and asked for his recommendation. He looked the list over closely, commented on several, and then paused at God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. “This is the one you should read. I think you’ll like Vonnegut.” And so I did.

Within the next few months, I don’t remember exactly which novels I picked up, but they included The Sirens of Titan and Player Piano at the least. When my birthday came around in the spring, I was dating my first boyfriend, who presented me with a copy of Welcome to the Monkey House (and a cassette, I think, but I don’t remember which one). As I made my way into one of the early stories in that collection, dejà vu! “Harrison Bergeron.” The author I had been enjoying so much of late was the same one who had shaken my world years before.

The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.*

I admire Vonnegut’s style of writing. And I know that I will never be brave enough to match it. I simply could not manage his balance of the absurd and the ordinary, the grand observations in small moments. But that is not to say that I do not find his writing creeping into my own, sometimes quite purposefully, sometimes creeping in from nowhere.

Notes and a few scenes lurk in a couple of my notebooks that play with a concept of time much like Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians, spliced with some odd experiences I had during a period of many dizzy spells and odd movements in my peripheral vision. Not something likely to get any further development—or to deserve it.

And that’s only one of the many concepts that have stuck with me.

All persons, living and dead, are purely coincidental.*

What a wonderful coincidence that he was born in Indianapolis in 1922, that he survived the firebombing of Dresden in 1945, that he published his first story in 1950, that he continued from there.

Thank you, Kurt Vonnegut. Thank you.

So it goes.*

*Quotes come, in order, from: God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, “Harrison Bergeron” from Welcome to the Monkey House, The Sirens of Titan, Slaughterhouse-Five, Timequake (and elsewhere), Slaughterhouse-Five.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Global Warming Wednesday: “Natural” vs. “synthetic”

This post isn’t quite what I’d hoped, because:
  1. I haven’t been able to devote the amount of time I’d like to the research aspect.
  2. Most of the information I’ve been able to find is provided by the industry in question—not exactly unbiased.

Nonetheless, I will give you an idea of what I have found and what I find myself thinking.

First off, let me expose my incredible ignorance. This is very embarrassing, but, hey, at least I learned something from my research! For whatever reason, I had always pictured cotton being picked off of trees. Not incredibly tall trees or anything, but definitely trees. When I found out the Modal is made from beech trees that have been cut down, I told myself that was one advantage for cotton; if the cotton trees were left standing, that would mean they would continue to put oxygen into the air outside of the growing season and the earth around them would be less likely to suffer from erosion and nutrient exhaustion. Except...

Cotton is grown on shrub-like plants. The cotton is picked each year and then the stalks are completely cut down. Turns out that there are cotton trees, but they’re totally different.

Now there is still the issue with Modal in that it requires trees to be cut down for its manufacturing. So I was all ready to get down on that. But Lenzing swears that they use sustainable-growth trees and, moreover, many of their trees are the ones that are cut down to thin out stands (to help the other trees grow) and are not acceptable for most other purposes. They also say that all of the by-products of the process are made useful—the wood sugar is made into sweetener (xylitol, I’m guessing, not the worst of the artificial sweeteners, but not something I’m crazy about). General unhappiness with cutting down trees—my gut reaction—but it is true that some trees need to be cut down for the greater health of the forest. So not quite ready to dismiss Modal.

Then I decided to check out the EU’s Eco-Label so that I could evaluate Lenzing’s pride about earning it for Modal and Tencel. A company’s right to the Eco-Label is determined by an external, and seemingly unbiased, commission. And though it takes a little digging (and reading through some technical specifications) to determine if it’s anything more than an empty show, they do appear to have rigorous environmental standards. I did not read closely enough or do further searches to see if those particular standards are enough (see #1 above), but it is something.

Going back to cotton, the facts I quoted last week about pesticides and water remain. But there is an increasing amount of organic cotton being grown, which takes care of complaints about pesticides and chlorine bleach. It also addresses the problem of cotton’s high water-demand since many of the practices encouraged help decrease the amount of water required by the crop. A number of cotton-based products in the EU have received the Eco-Label, and there’s an organization based in California that encourages cotton growers to adopt sustainable methods. So it is possible to make cotton a greener product—and there are people working towards that.

Finally I decided to take a look at how much transportation is required to get these materials moved around. I was pretty sure Modal would lose out here. Lenzing is an Austrian company, but much of their thread finds its way into fabric in Asia. Turns out that they’ve considered this, however, and have multiple factories around the world, situated to maximize local resources and minimize transportation costs. Cotton too does pretty well as it is grown in a number of places around the world. Hmm...

So in the end, I don’t have a real answer here. I don’t think this is a clear-cut case of “natural” vs. “synthetic” since so much cotton uses a ton of chemicals in its production and Modal has a natural basis and doesn’t appear to use or produce chemicals and other pollutants that get released back into the environment. I will continue to buy Modal, though I’ll be checking labels and trying to avoid the stuff that is made in China. And I will continue to buy cotton, in part because it’s almost impossible not to—but I will definitely be on the lookout for products that are organic or sustainable-growth. It’s a lot of label-reading, but I try to tell myself it does make a difference.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The ivory tower's back door

I find that I rarely address my academic work directly here, beyond remarks about its plenitude or the stress it causes me. It is true that school, despite the intensity of my program, is not my highest priority and that I view the PhD I hope to earn more as a means to an end than as an end in itself. But that doesn’t mean that I give no—or even just a small amount of—thought to my field and its expectations.

I am on the literature side of the Humanities and work in different languages, though I will not be any more specific than that. And I have studied towards a PhD before. Managed to get my MA along the way, but found personal reasons not to stick around. Several years ago I carefully weighed the choice of returning for my PhD or becoming a teacher at the junior high/high school level. I explored the student option first, spending a day at a nearby campus with a program that was quite well respected in general and in my field. I called Trillian on the drive back home and informed her I’d be getting my resume together for the teaching job search.

That visit reminded me of many of the reasons I had disliked graduate school previously. The seminars I sat through were utterly boring, even though both were examining authors I had previously studied and enjoyed. One involved deconstructing a poem to the point that its original content was no longer recognizable. Every student said something, if only to have said something. Little of substance was uttered, and I am not convinced that the time in that classroom furthered anyone’s knowledge or understanding of that poet and his poetry. The other seminar was given by a recognized expert on that author—and consisted of an hour and a half of his lecture on the poem assigned. No student input, no guided discussion, a lot of repetition of the notes on the poem that were part of the text assigned. The point of both classes seemed to be a formal exercise: make your appearance, jump through this hoop over here, dot your i’s.*

But that’s not even the moment that sealed my decision. No, that came in the graduate student lounge. I was chatting with the students who were around when the resident career student—you know the one, into the eighth year of studies, working on the dissertation for four or so, the de facto head student—pulled her little power play. Turning to me, she asked, “So what do you want to do with the PhD? Become a professor?” The correct answer, as I well knew, was a resounding “Yes! I can’t imagine anything I would like more than that!” But I had left a PhD program a couple years before precisely because I didn’t like that answer, I could imagine doing other things with my life. So I responded honestly, “That or teaching in a high school.” She drew her breath in sharply, (mock) horror on her face, and drew in close to advise me: “Oh no, you should never say that. Even if that’s what you think. But you just won’t be taken seriously if you say that.”

And I was reminded of what I have seen as a great hypocrisy in my field. Show any significant talent, and you are immediately counseled into a doctoral program and groomed to become a researcher and professor. Teaching at a small liberal arts college would be a compromise, a step down, since you’d lose out on the big name of a tier-one research university. High school—that was for those who just couldn’t handle rigorous academics. Never mind that these same high-minded individuals could, in the same breath, deplore the quality of students’ high school preparation: “They’re never ready to produce work at the level of our expectations.” Amazing how such intelligent people could ignore the connection between high school teachers who are especially knowledgeable in and enthusiastic about their subject area and well prepared and eager students.

In the decade between my first foray into a doctoral program and the beginning of my studies here, at least a little has changed in my field. While the primary push still tends to be research-oriented, there is finally recognition that teaching ability is important too. Even in my department, filled with scholars who are important in their various areas, teaching experience is considered to be a crucial component of our training. The time that I spent in the wilds of junior high and high school is seen as a distinct advantage. There still is an assumption that the best and brightest will head off to be leading researchers at other big universities, but it is not presented as the one goal with all other achievements classed as some form of failure. There’s still a tightrope to walk, however. A friend a couple years ahead of me and I both seem to be on the department’s list of “those to be groomed,” but both of us are aiming for a small liberal arts school where teaching is emphasized over research. We both like the idea of working closely with students, helping them develop a broad and solid foundation; we both want to have time outside of work to make family a priority. This is a discussion we have had with each other, but it’s not something we have specified to our supervisors—time for that when we hit the job market, right?

*While I still do not thoroughly enjoy my classes, a couple things are different now. It helps that seminars here are not generally run as at the other university. I also have gotten to a point where I can look past the moment to the ultimate goal, something to be chalked up to increasing maturity.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Train cake

Because I have many more pages to read before I sleep, I present for your viewing pleasure the train cake.*

Since we went with chocolate, per the boy’s request, and since I wasn’t willing to whip up a real icing,** the decoration is not particularly visible. But there was enough blue on the engine to elicit a joyful cry of “a Thomas cake.” And he happily devoured an entire car that night and had a couple more over the next few days.***

Turns out that he is also particularly fond of gummy Life-Savers. That’s my boy!

*And a shot of my Spamalot T-shirt.

**It’s milk and confectioner’s sugar with food coloring. I had already relented and allowed the cake to be made from a non-organic mix, so I wasn’t willing to add chemical-filled icing.

***Special bonus, Trillian picked up an ice cream cake for the actual day of his birthday. Between his two birthday celebrations and Easter treats, he has been sugared up non-stop!

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Happy Easter, atheist-style

We decided to mark the holiday as a family, worshipping at the altar of Science. That is to say, with no gymnastics this weekend and wanting the boy to run off some energy, we headed off to the Ontario Science Centre. As did a good number of the area’s other atheists, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists. But we got there nice and early, found a close up parking space, and got our tickets (membership plus IMAX tickets) just before the exhibits opened.

Scooter loved, loved, loved the Centre! Our first stop was just outside the KidSpark area. There they have a “kinetic sculpture." It looks like a giant Rube Goldberg contraption and is interactive. Kids can set balls into motion; they roll along tracks, bouncing on trampolines, swirling around a brass bowl, clinking down a xylophone, brushing against chimes. Scooter took part with the greatest zeal and would have stayed there all morning, had we not enticed him away with the promise of “more stuff.”

The “more stuff” we looked at next was KidSpark (in French, ActivIdée). Scooter started with the water play area, particularly the boats, but also some bubbles. A quick peak at the fish and then another long stop at the ball rollercoasters. After that, he worked on the “construction site,” putting shingles on the house and moving building materials up to the second floor. We spent some time in the Weston Family Innovation Centre. It’s meant mostly for older kids and adults, but we discovered the air tunnels where you could make a paper airplane (or other aerodynamic paper object) and see how well it flew up the tube. I made a glider per the suggestions there and then a twirlybird from the scrap. Scooter loved shooting them up the tube and then watching us try to catch them.

We also stopped by the IMAX theatre for a showing of Bugs! Scooter reclines on me or Trillian for the entire viewing—I don’t think he was quite as entranced by the lush rain forest that surrounded us, but he made it through the entire show with only a little encouragement.

A fun and exciting adventure for the whole family. And we came home to the treats Trillian’s mother had sent us for Easter. A little egg salad, made from a couple of our beautifully decorated hard-boiled eggs. And Scooter has already fallen asleep. All in all, a wonderful holiday!

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Mama Bear speaks

On Tuesday, I wrote a bit about where we are in terms of getting Scooter evaluated. And then I made a reference, almost in passing, to the private clinic we have begun to consult. I wrote from the perspective of a mother who has struggled to get any recognition from medical professionals that her son needs extra help.

I guess I’d gotten used to thinking of myself as a very small, out-of-the-way blogger with an audience made up primarily of some local women I have met in the flesh along with a handful of others, mostly other readers of Bub and Pie and a few other bloggers who I found through comments. So far, the only “anonymous” comments I’ve received have been of the spam variety. So I was a bit surprised to find this remark from Anonymous* on Wednesday morning:

Why was it a shock that dishing out dough for something that should cost nothing will get you in there as fast as you want? I understand wanting to do everything you can for your son, trust me, I do, but I worry that trusting private clinics to do the job simply means that some other kid will fall through the cracks.

But then again, you are American. Paying for something that Canada offers for free must feel natural.

My initial instinct was to reply in the comments. The first comment would have been less than courteous; that was never written. I started on another one, but decided it was too long. I figured Trillian would pop in with something—or maybe ‘pop off’ would be the correct term. But she decided that she wouldn’t be able to stay within the bounds of common decency, so she and I just talked about it.

Luckily some of my usual readers, women who have followed my blog long enough to understand my intent, stopped by and said a bit of what I wanted to. So my first point has pretty much been made. This is what I call the Mama Bear response—instinctive protectiveness, you could get your face chewed off, etc. OK, so there are really two points here.

  1. I will go out of my way to do what I think is best for my son. It is my job. I don’t even see this as giving my son an unfair advantage, as I expect that’s what most mothers are doing.
  2. Back the fuck off. Seriously. Mama Bear has calmed down for now. But it is wise not to poke the bear.

That said, let me say a few more things. I doubt I’ll get to absolutely everything I have intended to say, but I will make a valiant effort. I generally avoid criticizing Canada. Part of this is out of respect for my online friends and readers from Canada; I have met some of you in real life and have conversed enough with others to feel I know you pretty well, and I see no reason to go out of my way to criticize your country. I also recognize that many of my little complaints—and they mostly are little—are Toronto- or Ontario-specific. Or, as I’ve become increasingly aware, city-specific; the two areas Trillian and I have our sights set on are basically towns, not densely populated at all. Even my main complaint is Ontario-specific. And that would be health care.

I have not made it a secret that I detest the university health plan. Technically, it is equivalent to OHIP. Technically. They cover all the same things. But they place a dollar limit on how much they will cover for each procedure. And not every office will accept UHIP or requires payment up front; none of them are supposed to turn someone with UHIP away, but they can make it nearly impossible for a person to fulfill their up-front requirements. I was set to have a midwife and deliver at Mt. Sinai only because I was willing to push through the bureaucracy from the beginning. And yes, because Trillian and I have enough saved that we could afford the difference between UHIP’s coverage and actual costs at Mt. Sinai.

I also found out while doing my research a couple months ago that UHIP is entirely funded by members’ premiums. And so every service I seek through my insurance is charged against that amount and, ultimately, determines how much my out-of-pocket cost will increase. And then we pay extra for some sort of supplemental insurance to cover dental, vision, and prescriptions (reimbursement only with strict yearly limits). That is why our premiums increased about 90% between my first and second year; we are now paying two to three times what we did in the US for insurance premiums. And this is despite the fact that Trillian is paying taxes on her income in Canada—several thousand dollars. Similarly, international students who work are paying taxes that go in part towards OHIP but receive no benefit from that. It also means that I am well aware that every cost I incur means higher costs not just for me (since we can afford it), but also for all of those cash-strapped students who have come from around the world for this opportunity.

Then there is also the issue that the particular combination of services and philosophy of treatment we will be getting at the private clinic is not available through provincial services, at least not as far as we can tell. Speech therapy (which is a provincial service outside of health care) and occupational therapy (through a non-UHIP provider) are a piece of the whole puzzle—and we will be getting those through official channels. The developmental pediatrician might suggest some additional therapy and coordinate the treatment. But the sensory processing piece, what we think is the biggest piece, is not generally addressed by any of those. And no, Scooter is not so bad off that he simply cannot function. He is not in the same position as some of the kids we saw at the clinic this week. My heart goes out to them—and to their Canadian parents who have also decided to work outside Ontario’s system. Because these are not services available for free through that system.

Mad Hatter’s comment addresses the other topic I could say quite a bit on, but I will restrain myself to some quick remarks only since I’ve gone on so long already. The system is broken. This certainly seems to be the case in Ontario. And the health care system is a big part of why we’re thinking of leaving Canada before my program is complete. Trillian and I are both at risk for certain types of cancer, and as we move along in our 30s, we can’t help but be concerned about what would happen if we needed treatment. Both of the cancers we’re staring at have been profiled in recent articles. Chemotherapy is not covered by OHIP or UHIP. It’s considered a prescription, so we would get 80% reimbursement up to our yearly limit, which is a few thousand dollars—not much in cancer terms. In addition, wait times for treatment are horrendous. And the province’s goal for reduced wait times—their goal, not what they actually are or are likely to be anytime soon—is considered medically unacceptable. My goal is to avoid the cancer altogether, but I’ve decided it’s best to be someplace where I can get the care I need when I need it.

I will stop there. Not because I’m done, but because I’ve calmed down a bit. And would really like to settle in for at least a few hours of hibernation.

* I should point out that I can easily match ISP addresses to comments via StatCounter. Maybe I don’t have your name—though I could probably figure that out if I really wanted to. But it is important to remember that there is no true anonymity on the internet.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Global Warming Wednesday: Is it (im)material?

A short post today, but I want to throw out a question I’ve been pondering: is natural always better than man-made? My gut reaction, my natural instinct is to go with the natural option every time, but a recent experience has me questioning that.

Recently, I wrote about a new purchase, a nightie to replace my favorite pajamas. After writing that post, I went to look at the tags and discovered that it was not cotton, as I would have expected, but something called modal. (Plus, it was made in China, which—darn it!—I was really trying to avoid, but then again so many of my cotton shirts are too.) Not being all that big on clothing, I had never heard of it. So, per my usual process, I decided to look it up.

Turns out modal is a textile created from the cellulose of beech trees. It has a lot of the same qualities as cotton, in terms of dyeing and washing, but is more resistant to shrinking, fading, and pilling. Lenzing, the company that makes it, also makes Tencel (which, I did not know, is made from wood pulp cellulose and is closely related to rayon). So it’s not entirely man-made, as in test tubes and chemicals, but they’re not entirely natural either.

In the little bit of research I’ve squeezed in so far, I discovered that Lenzing has been certified by the EU as environmentally friendly. Their press release makes the claim that the production of both Modal and Tencel is carbon neutral. Cotton on the other hand, at least the non-organic type, uses a huge number of truly horrific chemicals and chlorine bleach—so even if the fiber is natural, is the process?

More research to be done and issues to be weighed—I hope to dive a little deeper and make sense of the tangle of information. Or totally confuse myself in the process; we’ll see which it is.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Lost in normal

Before other concerns dwarfed the everyday a couple weeks ago, we had our second meeting with the speech pathologist. She wanted to finish up a few tests and to listen to Scooter’s voice again. She had another pathologist and a student observe the beginning and videotape the first part of the session as she played with Scooter. After his part was done, she ran us through the report she had drafted at that point. As far as his language is concerned, everything falls within the bounds of normal.

Now ‘normal’ is actually quite a broad range on the bell curve, covering something like the 17th percentile through the 83rd.

Scooter’s grammar receives the lowest score, right at that lowest point. Interestingly, he missed several questions that required him to differentiate various forms of ‘he’ and ‘she.’ I had noticed this at our first appointment and have since observed that he does not seem to understand the difference at the most basic level; that is, he doesn’t seem to make a distinction between boys and girls.

His receptive language is the next weakest, at around the 37th percentile. He does fine with simple commands, but loses content once you add more than one adjective or subordinating clauses. That, and he got bored with the test and started pointing at every picture on every page.

His expressive language is dead average. 50th percentile.

Our speech pathologist will start speech therapy proper sometime soon. Her primary focus will be his pitch and prosody; he has a tendency to get high and squeaky, which she feels is impairing his intelligibility. She pointed out that without the pitch problem, it’s unlikely he would qualify for therapy.

To be honest, I wouldn’t mind his voice coming down an octave or so, but I don’t know what greater impact it might have. For all of my son’s apparent ‘normality,’ the tests don’t measure the way that he thinks or the fact that the way he tends to express himself does not match the conversations of his peers. They don’t capture the fact that, in my opinion, his language comes nowhere near to matching his obvious intelligence. But at least we will still have him in therapy. Our foot is in the door.

And we have been wedging our way in further.

Via the speech pathologist, we now have a referral for an occupational therapy evaluation and a developmental pediatrician. Both are given “per parental observation,” since she didn’t get to witness a meltdown or his off-balance run. We will get in for the OT evaluation in May, but it is likely that we won’t have a chance to see the pediatrician before leaving the area; not only is there at least a year-long wait, Scooter also doesn’t raise enough red flags.

Frustrated that our near-enough normal son might fall through the cracks, we have turned to a private clinic in addition. After coming to expect to wait for months on end (so that the May evaluation sounded amazingly soon), it was a shock when they told us they could schedule us for the next week. And so we will be headed there this week.

I have great hopes that they might be able to help us put together the rest of the puzzle. Although they do much of what we’re slowly getting to through official channels, they also deal with issues of sensory integration. Trillian and I both think this is the missing piece, as all of our reading in the area has really struck a chord.

Now, if you’ve had a chance to read my interview of Bub and Pie, you may notice that my final question suggests a bit of what I’ve been thinking about in regards to all of this therapy and such that we’re hoping to get lined up. And while I don’t have the energy at this moment to wax poetic about how much I love my son’s quirks and feel at least some trepidation that I might lose something I hold very dear (or the tangent, how much I see of myself in him and the fear that we will lose that or that I will realize just how messed up I am). But rest assured, those words will come.