Outrage Baiting

Earlier today, I pushed a link in twitter to this article in which a woman goes into Trader Joe’s, is offended by the song Under My Thumb on the overheads and tries to complain.

Instantly a friend, and someone I trust, labeled what I had done outrage-baiting. The woman in the article had discussed the music with someone working on the floor, gotten him to uncomfortably acknowledge that the music might bother someone and got him to provide her with the manager’s phone number.

She tried to get the manage of the store on the phone and never did. She did not, as my friend pointed out, go to corporate, who *obviously* runs the canned music contracts. It’s true. She didn’t use all of the handles at her disposal. So, according to my friend, she must not have meant it and I should probably not have boosted her signal.

So…. why did I value the post? Why did I link to it? This person didn’t yell. She wasn’t (near as I could tell) nasty to the clerk she talked to. She just pushed him outside his comfort zone to see why she might be bothered. She pressed him. Ok, he’s powerless. But you know what? He’s going to remember that people care. Maybe next time he does have a choice about a small thing that’s misogynist, he’ll remember the woman who tried to make her point that this is rude and wrong.

Could she have done more about Trader Joes? Sure she could. But in that moment, she did one single very thing right: she calmly stated that something wasn’t right and engaged someone who didn’t want to think about it to move just a little.

Trader Joes…. ok she didn’t change them. And honestly, I don’t care if she failed to make full use of her options and declare jihad on them for their offensive music. It’s true, that corporations can be bullied into better behavior and some of that bullying is going to have to happen. The war to change people’s attitudes doesn’t come out of bullying though. It comes out of patient dialog with thoughtless and uncomfortable strangers. Which is what I got out of that article.

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DevHouseDC

So this Saturday I went to Dev House DC at Sunlight Labs. There were folks fiddling with Arduino in one corner and teaching themselves Processing in another and I’ve no idea what anyone in the main ball pit was doing because you come late, you find a slot where you can! But it was crowded and happy and my only real problem was that instead of working I was dying to chatter and see whatever else was going on. I finally got this blog set up and that was my chore for the afternoon.

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McMansions and Italian Villas

I read a lot. Usually in the realm of very light science fiction or fantasy written since 1900, or indiscriminately in the less morbid of the world’s Great Literature written prior to about 1970 or foreign authors — again weeding out the depressing. Much to my shame, I have very little interest in my countrymen’s literary interpretations of the modern era — I live in the modern era already, thanks. And not to put too fine a point on it — you probably suck. (I invite all of my modern novel consuming friends to un-bore me. I’ll gladly take a reading list, but I won’t mine this genre unassisted. It’s too big and theres too much crap.)

So, when I read things to do with the modern America, then, they’re usually either essays or straight instruction. I am one of those freaks who actually buys (and more bizarrely — actually reads) the collected essays of great gardeners, language mavens, management theorists and other tempests in teapots. Which leads me the long way round to how I came to today’s blog entry.

It’s spring, and I am as always at this time of year, the ecstatic mad gardener watching the garden explode, perched on the edge of my seat, plotting runs on the local nursury, and reading everything to do with making things grow that I can get my hands on. Among this season’s readings has been a fellow named John Hanson Mitchell. (No home page I could find, sorry.)

So, lack of bio aside, he’s a nature writer and eclectic freak of the first order whose book The Wildest Place On Earth is nominally subtitled ” — Italian Gardens and the Invention of Wilderness” but is really just as much a discussion of his personal reaction to the suburbanization of America as it is about 17th century Italians creating the concept of wilderness — the fine line between controlled nature and uncontrolled nature, edging outwards slowly towards chaos.

Reading his decisions about how to live with his own ecosystem’s erosion, his control of chaos and his search for mystery, I find myself realizing that when I look at beauty of other eras, of gardens gone by, and architecture from other ages, I am looking at the expression of the McMansion impulse of other eras. Connecting 17th century Italian control freaks who want to flaunt their wealth and dominance over nature with the modern American upper middle class buyers of tiny tracts of land covered by giant houses that are all inward looking space is hard for me. And yet, it’s a fair connection.

The difference is that in the 17th century labor was cheaper, science was less mature and comfort depended upon living at least *somewhat* in connection with the exterior world. If the great Italian villa builders had had good climate control and the ability to deify the mysteries of electronics instead of being limited to their ability to spend endless pains in the manipulation of their environment via growing things, would they have turned inward and built houses that had no structured exterior views? Maybe.

Fundamentally, the great old gardens of other eras were built on a purchased combination of horticultural wisdom, taste, cleverness and the taking of pains. The McMansion has always seemed to me a largely purchased phenomenon lacking wisdom, cleverness, taste or pains, but thats unfair. Those things, should they exist, would all be invested in the interior — where no one but the initiated, those invited inside, would ever see it.

It goes without saying, that I will almost certainly never own an Italian villa. (Never say never.) And that I don’t want a McMansion. How can one find the wilderness or the mystery — or the temple to the ego if you must put the quest for beauty squarely into the language of pretention — without the luxury of either loads of interior or loads of exterior space?

Mystery and wilderness were never, in my mind, actually predicated on space — or even expense. They live where they always did, in the striking beauty of execution, of form and function balanced to an exact degree. They live in places where there is a sense of wonder and of retreat.

As I sat this afternoon on my front porch in a porch swing, smelling the daphne a single shrub of which perfumes my entire front yard, listening to the rain pour and feeling the mist on my face, I had retreat, comfort, luxury and a multisensory assault of fine mysteries to contemplate. Nature reached out and my perceived control of it surrounded me. The balance was fine. My wilderness, small though it be, is here.

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Parenthood Part 4: The fine art of self sabotage

I got AIM from a friend after my last round of posts, someone who doesn’t know if she wants kids or not. She liked the series and I wanted to write one for her. It started to be a post about how to decide (if there’s such a thing as a way to decide) if you want kids or not. I ended up writing a piece of tripe about why I had kids that’s all swooshie and metaphysical and only really tells anyone that I personally think having kids was the right decision for me. That’s some unhelpful crap. I haven’t posted it. There’s no way for me to tell anyone how to systematically decide what will and won’t make them happy.

So, instead here I offer a list of the stuff that will sabotage otherwise potentially happy parenting. People have to make their own lists of the good and bad things they think parenting will bring to their lives when they decide if they want kids. You’ll have your own list. Just add these considerations to the mix.

Marrying Up
While it’s not so pronounced among my particular circle of acquaintance, it is an american cultural kneejerk that women should probably “marry up”. They marry men more successful than they and sometimes older as well. Girls, if you married some guy who could “take care of you” and you ever thought about it that way, I hope you meant to be a stay at home mom because that’s what your marriage probably implied. Not to the man. To you, back in your little guilty-feeling hind brain. And your sense of what you’re supposed to do.

Sure anyone can marry a guy/girl who makes more than you. Nothing wrong with it. But one of the things that happens when you marry someone who makes notably more than you do is that the person who makes more money often has to keep working and the other person becomes the keeper of all the quality of life decisions. Daycare/stay-at-home-parenthood, this becomes the potentially guilty decision of the less economicaly empowered parent. Statistically this keeper of the household quality-of-life is the woman. I have smart and unconventional friends so I know a few exceptions. Just sayin, it’s usually a girl.

If the person who’s the financially weaker party is not a damn good communicator and/or crystal clear on what they really want, there’s going to be trouble in paradise. Oh, and the main breadwinner really needs to not expect anything with regard to their spouse’s work/non-work. It only adds more guilt to an already volatile situation as the person with the “choice” struggles to be happy doing whatever they’re doing.

Chores
Again, I have the unconventional friends. I probably know more men who cook and clean than women. That said, in middle America, even in generations X and Y, “studies show” men do WAY less of the daily necessary chores than women. Fixing dinner, laundry and other cleaning – women do most of it. Men tend to do chores that can be timed for convenience – car washing, household repairs, etc.

Assume the chore-doer is the woman. Add a kid to that mix. God help you. Add breastfeeding that only the woman can do. Guess what you get if you’re dumb? A guy who’s sitting in a messy house wondering where his dinner is and a woman who is exhausted and depressed trying to be everywhere at once.

This is unnecessary. The work is all manageable — IF it’s dragged out in the open and talked about and shared. It’s not manageable if you add my next (and personal favorite problem)…

Gatekeeping
Studies from as far back as the 80s have 85% of men and even more women believing that parents should share equally in childcare duties. They also show, even more recently, that this DOES NOT HAPPEN IN PRACTICE. Wanna know why? Perfectionist women, of whom I am one, insist on their children being fed, burped, diapered and put to sleep using their one true way of getting things done.

I was the first one home with Betsy, I had three months of total concentration on her every whim, so of course I knew how to read my daughter better than my husband did at first. But be a nitpicker…. try to “help” too much. And a partner gets to where you, being the expert, now “own” the problem. Childcare. Forever and ever, amen. Once a pattern is set, trying to change it is hard. They’ll still love and play with the kid, but most decisions and all work will be yours.

Now add to that housework and other things that the gatekeeping partner might have a hard time doing all at once. If you are a control freak who usually does all the cooking and housework AND you’re owning all the work of childcare – mon ami, you’re screwed.

How did we kick that out of me? Well, first we hired a house cleaning service. Then when I went back to work, Reed exercised his FMLA rights and spent a month at home alone with Betsy. The balance of “knowledge based power” evened right out. His first day with our daughter – and her first day taking breastmilk out of a bottle for every meal – was not a happy one. But it was the single smartest thing we did. I could tell him what I thought I knew about how to handle a situation and he had 8 hours where I could not stand over his shoulder to see what worked for him.

As for chores, since Reed already does almost all of the cooking, we evened out on the amount of household responsibility we each possessed. (He cooked while I nursed. Now he cooks while I try to make sure Betsy doesn’t trip him with toys in the kitchen.) I do tuck-in and bath. Usually.

Leisure
Another fine American stereo-type, which I share because I suffer from it. Women tend to feel guilty taking time for themselves. Men, for whatever reason, do not. I suspect this particular problem is really just another expression of the Gatekeeping and Chore problems. If you have a partner who doesn’t think daily housework is their job and you don’t let them share parenting duties, of course that person (again, statistically a guy) is going to have more free time. And the person who does all the work is going to be, say it with me, people, SCREWED.

In a partnership where people actually talk to each other, are honest and fair, there are answers for all of the above. In a partnership where people don’t… post partum depression is just the tip of the iceberg for the woman, for the marriage. Yuck. Just yuck.

I am extremely happy right now with my life. I want a little more time with both my husband and my kid than I get – but I like my kid’s daycare, see it benefitting my daughter as well as myself, and am weirdly confident we can make it all work.

It’s worth it to me, but I have to admit, parenting is a brave choice. I hope I never come to consider it a crazy one. If it’s not worth the risks in the eyes of my friends on the fence, I do NOT require that you validate my choices.

Be happy.

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Parenthood Part 3: How can I ever be ready? Surviving the first days.

So I’ve established that I think parenting’s worst aspects are all logistical and that the medical establishment and our own desires for immediate control of our bodies work together to contribute to our putting way more emphasis on being pregnant than on preparing for the actual baby — when preparing for the actual baby is something we can do successfully and thoroughly much more than controlling gestation.

I started to make a list of all the worst logistical problems, what month or quarter they apply to and what options I saw for heading them off at the pass (if indeed that could be done at all). And I stopped. That’s a list of future posts, not a single post in and of itself. Hell, books have been written on less than my short list.

So instead, I think this post is going to be about figuring out who can help you at the very beginning. And what you really need first whether it’s done by you or someone else. Some of us are lucky. We know we have parents or child-having friends and those people know what we need. Er. Do they? They might. Let me crack a myth right straight way. Your mother/mother-in-law MAY be completely useless. You love her. You trust her. Heck, she raised YOU, didn’t she? Yeah. She raised you 20 or 30 years ago. If you’re lucky, she’s available and excited about holding a grandchild, but just because she can give a bottle and knows how to burp a child, that’s no guarantee she really remembers what YOU need. Her need to hold a grandchild is, in this case, nice, but pales next to your need for her help.

Now the other mythical helpers: Your friends with small children. If you’re not going first in your circle, your friends are more likely to really know what you need. But are they available to provide it? If they don’t live in the neighborhood – like less than 10 minutes away – you are still going to have needs for companionship and support they will have trouble meeting. I don’t discount the power of a telephone call. It’s just that doing things for you in the immediate vicinity of your own home is most of your need for support in that first week or two.

Am I saying that everyone you’ve been taught to count on is useless? No. Far from it. What I *am* saying is that you cannot depend on ANYONE doing stuff for you when and how you need it without you asking for it specifically and being able to tell them what you need. Your friends have lives and your mother, though she may be under your nose, is not a dependable mind reader because it’s been too long since she was there. What that leaves you with is the conundrum of figuring out what you need and pocketing your pride about asking for it.

For me, the thing happened like this. After my daughter was born, my mother came to stay with us for a couple of weeks. And she sat on the couch and held the baby. For about a week. That’s lovely. I was glad she was enjoying her grandchild. And without knowing quite why I found myself seething with frustration. I had a c section. I could not get up easily and the housework was piling up. My husband was coming home from work and making meals. And my mother’s visit was not constituting “help”. Then my friend, Ann, who was a mother of a 10 month old drove 2 hours each way in a single day and spent about 4 hours doing the following:

She made me lunch.
She changed the sheets on my bed.
She put me in the bed for a nap.
She cleaned my kitchen and my bathroom while I slept.
She dropped a snack by the bed, kissed me and left.

I cried. I was so tired and so amazed and it was WHAT I NEEDED MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE IN THE WORLD. Clean sheets. I didn’t know they were better than sex. Trust me. In the days after you have a child, they are. The next day, my mother and I talked, and mom — who also realized after Ann’s visit what needed doing — started filling up the fridge with food that required zero prep time, leaving me to nurse and sleep as I could. She just hadn’t realized what she was doing — or more importantly NOT doing. She was more than willing to help.

Would I have figured out what I needed if Ann hadn’t dropped out of the sky? Or how to ask for it? Would my mother have gotten the message without such a serious object lesson? I don’t know. But I do know this: When you bring a newborn home from the hospital, your house needs to be organized and clean and you need a full fridge — not just a freezer — of healthy things you can eat standing up in front of the fridge if necessary. Ideally you would like to have someone to bring them to you in bed. Heated. But take what you can get. What you do not need is company who want to hold the baby and sit around and talk. Or anyone who requires any waiting on.

Note, too, when I say an organized house, I mean something you had better have done months before the baby showed up. If your house is a clutter-fest before the baby, don’t just clean the bathroom and scour the kitchen floor. ORGANIZE IT. And I don’t mean stack 8000 perfectly folded T shirts on a shelf in a closet so that the first time you need one, you burrow into the pile and they all fall over again. That does not help.

I mean get a system or systems you can maintain together and if you have to throw out every possession you own in order to do it, do it. If things don’t have places before the baby shows up, sweetie, they aren’t going to find homes later on their own. Later it gets harder. This to my mind is the important stuff that all those Lamaze and Bradley classes are sucking your attention away from. Kids breed clutter and suck attention away from any clutter fighting activities you ever had. If you need to clean out your file drawers or closests or balance your check book, you need to get it done and stay on top of it. Take care of as many outlying stressors as you can before the baby shows up. You can be prepared for the first days by automating and keeping maintained as many other pieces of your life as possible.

So, you get to day 1 — and whatever organizing you’ve done is what you’re going to do. You gotta go with what you have. What you need now is food, sleep and maid service. If you don’t have good friends or family to back you up, what can you do? Well, if you get caught with an early labor, for the heavy stuff I recommend sucking it up and hiring a maid service/yard service/any service for at least one cleaning. I’m also a big fan of take-out and calling Pea Pod or some other grocery delivery service. That’s if you have a partner who can’t do any of it or no partner at all. Of course that also suggests you have money to pay for these things.

I am shamefully middle class about these things. I don’t know what women with no friends, no partner AND no money do. I shudder to think. It will be very very hard for them.

How much help you get from your friends and family, as opposed to your wallet, depends on how much you or someone else close to you is capable of organizing them as well as how intuitive they are. Ask friends to each make something for your freezer or to bring snacky food when they come to visit after the baby is born. Some will know already. Some won’t. Anyone who’s child savvy will likely do a surprising amount more for you than you ever anticipate. They’ve been there. They know.

Be braver than that, though. Ask friends to clean your house. You’re tired. You need help. If you’re feeling physically strong or you’re just a sissy about asking for help, ask for company. Maybe you ask them to hold the baby while you clean. Moral support and a second set of hands with the baby are worth something. They just don’t take the place of having the work done when you’re tired and weak.

In the first week or two of your child being at home you need food with no effort, all the sleep you can get, and no worries about your house, laundry or other responsibilities. The rest is gravy.

Needing people happens in small doses if at all that first week. Bigger doses the next week. And grows all the weeks thereafter. I’ll probably talk about needing people socially next time.

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Parenthood Part 2: Preparation for Birth is Not Preparation for Parenting

When a woman becomes pregnant, if she’s an educated, thinking woman, whatever she thought about before, suddenly, everything in her life becomes about Doing Pregnancy Right — mostly out of fear of Doing Pregnancy Wrong. This is understandable if you believe that the next nine months worth of actions strongly impact someone else’s life in ways you’ll see and feel the consequences of more than any other nine months you’ve ever been through. Fetal alcohol syndrome, spina bifeda and 1000 other dire monsters all lurk in your subconscious as things you might do to harm your baby. Fat, stretch marks, and the tearing of some pretty important private bits are all the considerations we have for ourselves if we “do it wrong”. Our vanity. Our child’s health. Those are some pretty powerful demons to beat a person with.

The problem is, both the risks and how much you control them are highly exaggerated. For your vanity, there’s just not much you can do. Stretch marks are mostly genetic. Genital tearing at birth may have more to do with circumstances beyond your control in the birth (fetal position, skill of the midwife) than anything else and unless you are hella obese you HAVE to gain SOME fat weight. I’m not saying you shouldn’t care about these things, or try to mitigate them, but beyond eating nutritious food and getting exercise, there’s not much for your vanity you can do.

Then there’s the fears of birth defects. Fear and avoidance behaviors need to be tempered by how much you can rationally expect to do about them. Are you willing to abort in mid pregnancy? If not, why scare yourself with a bunch of tests? And if you’re under 40, the risks are pretty damn low. No. I’m NOT saying you shouldn’t do an amnio or anything else you need to do to sleep at night. But listen to me. A pregnant woman between 35 and 40 has something like a 1 in 400 or, listed another way, .0025% risk of having a child with developmental problems. And as hard as I’ve looked, they don’t break those numbers out in terms of life style. This means, if you are watching nutrition, not smoking, drinking or doing drugs, you have to be at somewhat lower risk than that because mothers of crack babies, alcoholics and the seriously medically impaired are lumped into the numbers they give you. They don’t say “the AVERAGE WOMAN WHO DOESNT DRINK OR SMOKE”. Age bracket is the only measure anyone really gives. Upshot: you do whatever reduces your fear and gather whatever information you’ve got the willingness to act on. Tests for tests sake are not useful.

In summation of the earlier part of this post: so much information is given to a pregnant woman about ways of increasing her chances of having a healthy child. And that advice is good, but apart from a few major points about maternity nutritional needs and specific exercises to do and not to do, most of it is straight up common sense and a few good tips on how to be comfortable. Not useless at all, and well designed to promote your sense of understanding of what’s going on with your body since your control is limited. Understanding does, after all, combat fear.

But all of this is actually preamble to my major point for this post. What’s completely missing, and this is my big beef with the system is that no one talks except in the vaguest most wishy washy terms about all the things you CAN control that will hugely affect your quality of life with one of the biggest fear factors of all; namely, how well you’re set up to handle life immediately after the baby’s arrival. Everyone says as sort of a foot note to their completely huge and inundating chunks of information about prenatal woman care “Gee, you should get some friends to help out when the baby comes” and “Fill up your fridge with food.”

Where, I ask you, are the classes in the range of normal developmental behaviour for infants? Where are the specific, organized pre-birth discussions of the range of potential female outcomes and what post partum experiences can be like?

I know that part of the problem is that what is normative in a post partum experience is an incredibly wide range of experience. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need to talk about the most effective coping strategies. Something freaky happens to you, it’s probably normal, but you probably don’t care if it’s normal or not half so much as you care what you can do about it. We spend so much energy talking about people’s fears of birth and birth defects. Fear of life once the baby shows up is not addressed in any class I’ve ever seen and it’s at least as important.

A list of the things I think pregant women should be told is not going to happen this post, but by the time I’m done, you’ll have heard it all. Next up on the hit parade, one of the following, either: When the baby comes home what are you afraid of? What SHOULD you be afraid of? or maybe What hurts most each month of the first 2 years?

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Parenthood Part 1: Parenthood != Maturity

I have found myself in the last year or two having the great “to-have-or-have-not” debate about children with many many friends and doing a lousy job of listening instead of talking. Most of my acquaintances are on the cusp, choosing if and when. Few have taken the plunge. I’m not the first pioneering example for most of my friends. But I’m happy, I’m chatty. And I used to despise children more than you. Trust me.

I suspect this is about to be one of a series of posts about the decision to procreate, preparing for it, the asinine assumptions (positive and negative) connected with it. It’s just possible if I post about it here when I see you all in person I will listen instead of talk. You may drink if you choose from the firehose of my opionions here — and ignore them otherwise. And on the rare ocassions I sneak out to drink beer when the kids are in bed, we can talk about something else. Honest.

For most of my life before the age of about 28, I swore I didn’t want children. In a rageful way I thought that having children would be the end of my life. Of course, on many levels I was completely correct. If, instead of “life” you interject the word “lifestyle” it’s a completely true statement. I had assessed the dangers of poor spousal communication, inadequate funds and identity confusion and they was all too much for me. I didn’t know what I would have left that I could understand. The number of places I saw the possibility for the ecology of my life to break down were too many to count. The rage was provoked (and still is) by those who acted as though I were somehow immature for my very valid concerns.

So, I am now two years into mostly-blissed-out parenthood. And something like six years out from the day my dead set terror on the subject began to thaw. What changed? Well, for the dismissive who will still to this day be ripped limb from limb, the dangers did not change. They are still real and to make light of them still makes me angry. My life and my circumstances are what altered. I married a man I’ve got more than 10 years of trust and great communications with. My finances grew more steady. I started to be able to think more about the future than making a barely functional present happen. Each of the most individual problems of parenthood became something I could break down, internalize and restructure in a solvable way.

Does that mean I grew up? I don’t think so. I was a rational, considered adult before. I am still a rational considered adult only with more settled circumstances and a dramatically different life style. More settled circumstances do not, I’m sorry, signify to me that I am an adult. And for christ sake, if anyone else ever tells me that becoming a parent made me an adult I will punch them in the face. There are so many people with children out there who are irresponsible idiots that it should be obvious that procreation is an unspeakably LOW standard for adulthood.

Adulthood is an approach to living that considers long term objectives as well as the short term. Adulthood is dealing decently with your partners. Your friends. Your self. Adulthood is something I don’t think we all acheive every day. Maybe not even most days. Adulthood is judicious, kind, and calm.

So what is parenthood? Parenthood is a complete and utter lifestyle and priority shift. Possibly more, but certainly nothing less. From the female point of view, if you’ve born the kid yourself, the moment you become a parent you can’t even use your own body without reference to how it impacts someone else’s future. I think of parenthood almost on par in life experiences with becoming suddenly disabled – blind or deaf or legless. Not because I consider it a bad thing like the disability, but our main societal interfaces are really not child friendly. Or blind person friendly. Or deaf person friendly. All of these things can strongly impact your income, your social and transportation options. The very hours you can wake and sleep. Your experience of the grocery store, the mall and the restaurant. How you dress yourself, the food you have time and energy to eat. It’s all of these things.

If the disability metaphor pains you, let me put it another way. Parenthood changes — or more specifically complicates — the logistics of every daily act in the first few years of the child’s life. Of course, some of those logistics get easier with time. Much easier. And pretty quickly. I get a full night’s sleep now. I no longer have to plot, as I did in my daughter’s first months, how and when I might achieve a shower. But a trip to the grocery store requires consideration of the time of day, when Betsy ate or slept last, how much stuff I need and so on. When ALL the stars align, I will do something other than a commando run for a few ingredients. I sincerely dislike going without my husband. A toddler can only be fed grapes and amused by helping mommy find things for so long before she begs to get out of the cart. And the answer NO yields public and annoying meltdowns that have to be born stoically if they’re ever going to end.

Anyhow, there will be more on the subject of the logistics. Planning for it. Breaking it down. The fear the most well meaning friends will try to instill in you of doing The Wrong Thing. How Preparation for Birth Is Not Preparation for Parenting. But that’s later. I’ve gone on too long as is.

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Some Facts About Sanitation

As you might imagine, I wouldn’t be bringing it up, if Thailand didn’t lack something in this department. Cleanliness is a big issue in Thailand and it has an impact on the perceived status of footwear and feet, the ground in general, and of course the comfort of the Westerner who visits there.

Let’s start with the ground. It’s dirty. And I’m not making just a sort of facile joke. The pavement in the cities is unsanitary with sewage. The ground in country villages might have pig or ox manure on it, but mostly it’s just dirty and unpaved. You would no more sit on the ground in Thailand than you would sit down in the middle of a pig pen on a farm in the States. People look at you as though you had willingly picked up dogshit with your bare hands. In lieu of sitting on the ground, the Thai people have developed a balanced, resting squat that I personally cannot duplicate, but I’ve been told is genuinely as comfortable as sitting if you can get the knack.

If the ground is dirty, so by extension are your shoes. In the villages, you take your shoes off before you climb a ladder to enter a hut. Again, think of farming and working in the earth. Remember people work in the fields all day and it seems automatic and sensible to remove your shoes before you enter a house. It’s not something to worry about. It’s something you will automatically and obviously do.

So, if the ground is dirty and your shoes are dirty, a shoe which covers the foot more completely is a higher status shoe since your feet stay cleaner. Everywhere in Thailand thongs are common. The Thai do everything from heavy construction with power tools to street sweeping in thongs, but these are the lower classes and there are no cheaper shoes to be had. One of the reasons foreigners are considered wealthy (and we are wealthy compared to these people, although I often think they live better) is the quality of our shoes. Of course the other reason is the way we throw money around on things they don’t value. But I digress.

So that’s street dirt. What about bathing and toilets? Erg. Bathing and toilets. Street dirt is pretty easy to understand and you won’t behave in a shocking manner in Thailand with regard to it. You will be just as disgusted (at least in the city) by the prospect of sitting on the ground as any Thai. Your feet will automatically be the dirtiest part of your body in your mind — because they ARE. Nothing will reinforce this in your brain faster than a trip to a Thai toilet. In nicer hotels and restaurants, Western style toilets are available. These toilets will not surprise you. You will take them for granted. Don’t.

One baby step away from central high-end tourist centers, the Western toilets vanish. What replaces them you ask? A hole in the ground with ceramic foot pads on either side. For a man this is ok most of the time, but women wearing pants will learn the hard way that the Thai resting squat is something they HAVE to master. In pants. Or piss all over your pants. Or hold yourself up in an awkward way using the disgusting walls. Take your pick. Now, try that trick on a swaying train car. Now add travelers’ trots. MMmmm… Thailand.

Hope you brought your own toilet paper.

Showers are not bad, though. I think I mentioned that on the trek in the villages, washing was done with a clean trashcan full of cold water and a dipper. You have to get used to the cold and you REALLY don’t want to touch the wet ground in the bathing hut since it’s also the toilet, but if you can stand the cold, cleanliness is possible. In the city, Reed and I never failed to have a shower when we wanted it, even in our cheap 12 dollar a night hotel.

This is probably worth a slight digression onto the topic of hotels. Hotels are available at Western major metropolitan city prices (e.g. 100 – 300 bucks a night) very easily. These hotels will be world class. For 300 a night you can stay at the Oriental Hotel, which Conde Naste rates as one of the top 5 hotels in the world every year. You won’t get a suite, but you will get a room. For most travelers, though, this is a stupid way to spend your money. A fairly nice hotel with AC, a mini bar, reasonable hot water, comfortable beds and a pool we didn’t use is available for about 40 bucks a night with breakfast included. Your average Americano could stay there and while it’s not the Holiday Inn, you really have nothing to complain about.

Reed and I, however, still thought we could do better. Reading the Lonely Planet Thailand book, we discovered that the backpacker hotels, which do not take reservations, offer AC and an in-room bathroom for 10-15 bucks a night. The trick is all in getting a room. So when Reed and I got back to Bangkok, we paid for the nicer hotel one night and then got up early the next morning to see what we could scrounge. Sure enough, just down the street from the Vieng Tai (our nice hotel) we found the Orchid House with a charming veranda restaurant and rooms to let up above. The stairs are narrow. There is no elevator. You lock your room with a keyed padlock and if you’re smart you lash your backpack to the bed when you leave. The AC is a wall unit that should only be on when you’re there, and the hot water is sporadic. But let’s face it, you only want to sleep there and it’s TWELVE DOLLARS A NIGHT. No bugs were in evidence. We were happy. And that’s the story on logistics and sanitation.

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Some Facts About Transportation

By this point, the linear nature of my narative sort of breaks down. We came back to Bangkok, the organized portion of our vacation ended. Reed and I then had a week to ourselves to do with as we chose.

Our first choice was a hotel and some sleep. We said goodbye to everyone and exchanged contact info for the week with the one or two people who were staying in Bangkok. Then we crashed.

Our next day or so involved finding some way to do laundry in Bangkok and figuring out where we wanted to be based for the rest of our week. The logistics of this are, worth relating, I think.

First of all, there’s transportation. When we first touched down in Bangkok, we had to catch a cab to the trekkers’ hotel and all the rest of our trip involved transportation that had been arranged for us. We learned a lot by observation, but now we had to put it into practice.

There are four ways for the average tourist to get around Bangkok. Two are pleasant, and reasonably priced but slow. The other two are varying shades of fast but unpleasant having elements of life risk, temperature, odor and price control that add a special something to the trip.

In no particular order, I give them to you here:

The Metered Cab
In Thailand, there are cabs with meters. The fact that I stress the ” Metered ” part should leave you with the suspicion that there are also cabs without meters. This is true. They’re called tuk tuks. Metered cabs are:

  • clean
  • air conditioned !!!
  • price controlled by the government

These cabbies don’t make a lot of money, and they don’t usually speak much English, but you can be sure that if you can ask a concierge to write an address in Thai, you’ll get there with a minimum of fuss on your part.

The Tuk Tuk
The only really viable alternative to the cab is the tuk tuk. These little three wheeled covered scooters account for 90% of the polution in Bangkok. The drivers all speak great English because their favorite pasttime is fleecing tourists. The tuk tuk is fast, but you have to be willing to

  • breathe the air in traffic
  • put your life in the hands of a madman to whom time is money
  • bargain for the price of the trip.
  • firmly decline your driver’s earnest offers to help you see the city

Fact is, tuk tuks are kind of fun. They’re also kind of necessary if you’re in a hurry. It helps if you’re going someplace you’ve been before in a taxi since then you know what the regular taxi ride costs. The air is unbreathable, but if you need speed, you just have to put up with it.

The River Ferry
Bangkok is on the banks of a river. The ferry is cheap. The ferry is moderately paced. The problem is, it only goes up and down the river. There are lots of places you can’t get to using the ferry. There are canals, but the ferry does not use them.

The Water Taxi
I saved the one that’s the most fun for last. The water taxi is by turns, cheap, fast, amusing and completely disgusting. Like the tuk tuk you risk your life, but only if you’re the last person into the taxi as it’s about to take off. (This happened to me.) If your feet are not firmly in the taxi you WILL be dumped into the canals. (This did not happen to me because Reed hauled me in.) This would at the very least make you want to take a bath and at the worst could give you parasites or some horrible thing. The water is toxic. No two ways about it. The fun doesn’t stop with the mad taxi drivers, though. Water taxi riding is a participatory sport. You see, the canals all have bridges over them. These bridges vary dramatically in height. Water taxis have awnings on lowerable pulley systems overhead. At times, everyone has to duck. I think I also forgot to mention the boat’s low sides. Remember that toxic water? You have a canvas awning at your side you have to hold up in order not to be splashed. All in all, this is fun, but the water is frightening and of course the canal system is pretty limited. The water taxi was the fastest way we got anywhere in Thailand.

There are other transport options, but none of them are much use to a tourist. Bicycles might be rentable, but then you’d be responsible for them. The train is great, but only for getting out if the city. Next time, we’ll talk about Sanitation.

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The Trek, Day Three: Ow, Ow, Ow

On the morning of the third day, we left our hut at dawn to be greeted by a silent, solemn craft fair. The villagers receive seeds and blankets as gifts from the visiting tourists. These things are important and useful, but they are not cash. Seeds and blankets do not buy metal farm tools or dye for yarn or medical care. The cash had to come in somewhere. And it did.

Most of the village women earned cash by weaving and making handicrafts. Oii, knowing the tourists don’t want to be harrassed and asked to buy things had set up a system whereby the village women laid out their handiwork at dawn and went to go sit quietly by the fire. The potential buyers would see everyone’s work at once, make their choices and then the woman would come forward and take the money.

If all this sounds a little disciplined for a Thai village market (and it is, make no mistake) it’s probably because Oii insisted on it. Our Thai guide had tremendous power in the villages we visited, and if she had been a different kind of woman it could have been a bad thing. We knew nothing of her arrangements with the villagers really. We asked her what families hadn’t had blankets and seeds recently, so she could tell us to whom they should go. We bought weavings only from the women that Oii allowed to display their work for us. If the villagers wanted the things we brought, they would only have them on her terms. I really believe, though, that this was a good thing. Oii cared about those villages and the people liked her. If the whole thing was a sham for the tourists, it was very convincing.

So anyway, we got up in the morning and the school room we were sleeping in had been surrounded by weavings. Tunics, sarongs, bags and headdresses in all the colors of the rainbow were hung on bamboo fences all around us. A few of us bought things. We ate breakfast, the shamans blessed us, and we were off.

Saying the shamans blessed us is literally to say they tied strings around our wrists, and laid rice and string on our shoulders. I think I’ve said that the Karen people are animists who believe in the spirits (I am unclear on whether they are sentient spirits) of all living things. I cannot tell you whether the shaman asked the spirits of his place to watch over us, or whether he asked spirits with less of a sense of place to do the guarding. It was all very warm and kind and confusing. We sensed their good fellowship as I hope they sensed ours. And then we left.

Hiking on day three was a problem for me. I had developed blisters wandering around the village in really old really decrepit Tivas after the hiking day was over and half way through day three they began to fester. Further, my feet clenched up from walking on them strangely trying to avoid the blisters. By the last hour of the hike I was limping along swearing savagely under my breath and no longer putting a very good face on it. Fortunately, it was soon over. And then we all piled into the truck to head back to Chang Mai. And along the way, to ride some elephants.

Now a word about Thai elephants. Elephants were used in Thailand for logging in the teak forests until pretty recently when the Thai government put a ban on logging. This means we have tons (quite literally) of asian elephants with nothing to do. The people can’t really afford to feed them if they’re not logging. The lucky onese end up as tourist transporters. I don’t like to think about the unlucky ones.

So what’s it like to ride an elephant you ask? It’s sort of like riding on a swaying bristle covered rock. The elephant’s skin does not give to the touch. It will not acknowledge that you are on its back (unless you’re its trainer and then you can tell it what to do) and you’re apt to be dragged slowly through the brush when your mount decides its snack time — which is often. Elephants are hungry beings and will take any opportunity to grab an extra mouthful. All that girth, you know. Petting an elephant is far less charming than you might suppose. They just don’t feel pleasant no matter how cute they are and it’s never clear that your scratching makes any difference to them. While petting is sort of pointless, feeding them is actually a lot of fun. Our guides brought a ton of banannas and watermelon rinds for us to give the elephants and the elephants were very clear on just exactly what we had with us. They’re really pushy with those trunks of theirs and if you don’t mean to give one a whole bunch of bananas at once you have to be really careful just how close you stand. All in all, the elephant experience was great, even if I did manage to step in elephant poop on the way out. This was to have interesting (not disgusting, I swear) consequences later.

After elephant riding, we returned to Chang Mai and saw the night markets, but I’ll tell you about that in the next journal where I talk about seeing Chang Mai.

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