Thursday, April 28, 2005

Following up on my post from before my kid's birth on natural childbirth, I want to talk a wee bit about our experience with the Austin Area Birthing Center (henceforth known as AABC).

The AABC solicited a birth story from us for their website and birth book (which sits out in the lobby for mothers-to-be to read). However, they felt that the story, which will follow this brief diatribe, was too negative and refuse to print the story without editing it. We won't allow that. As you'll see in the story, our experience was mostly positive, but there were some dangerous moments, and we believe that those moments, as terrifying as they are now for me to remember, should remain. If we had been in a hospital, I'm positive that they would have insisted on an emergency Caesarian for the simple reason that a C-section has known, somewhat controllable risks. At AABC, C-section was not an option, and we're happy that we had the natural, drug-free childbirth we wanted and that everything worked out well, with no small thanks to the AABC staff. I think that the risks associated with our natural childbirth and the risks if we had been pushed into a C-section (especially considering the point at which the staff identified the problem) would have been roughly the same for our son: potential brain damage, potential death (just writing this takes my breath away). With a C-section, my wife would have had to undergo major abdominal surgery as well.

However, as in the birth story, the AABC staff handled the situation admirably, and we have a healthy and flat-out stunning little boy. My wife has healed over time at a quicker rate than she would have if recovering from a C-section. We couldn't have asked for a sweeter experience.

But apparently the threat to our child is not something AABC wants to share with people. Perhaps this makes sense from a business standpoint, but not from the standpoint of being upfront and truthful with mothers-to-be. They should know that there are risks associated with natural childbirth, just as there are risks associated with medicated and/or Caesarian childbirth.

I have two other quibbles with AABC: first, they screwed up their estimate for the cost of the birth by not including our deductible and failing to submit two expensive lab tests to our insurance provider. This isn't that big of a deal (I mean, yes, it's a big deal in terms of how it's affected our budget, but they're just human, after all), but it is frustrating that they are unwilling to figure out how they messed up and apparently haven't put much work into the intricacies of dealing with our insurance company (BCBS of TX, by the way, not just a fly-by-night) so that there would be no problem here on the back end. I mean, their explanation is that the insurance company has hidden allowable costs. Well, actually, providers can learn about the allowable costs by calling in advance and that's not the problem here. Second quibble: AABC needs to learn how to recommend working with pre- and postpartum doulas, rather than discouraging it, as they did with us. We would have greatly benefited from bringing in a postpartum doula immediately, rather than 3-4 weeks later. AABC provides a postpartum nurse, but, bless her heart, she ran through the information about how to take care of our new critter quickly, and it's safe to say that we were a bit dazed anyway. An on-hand lactation consultant would be a smart move for AABC, too.

But those are relatively minor quibbles. We are happy with our choice to go with them for Li'l Sphere's birth, and very sorry to learn that they choose to view our birth experience in our own words as undeserving to be associated with them. With no further ado, here is that birth story, as written by the lovely, amazing, and brilliant Mrs. Obscurity. Besides us, the remaining cast is Jean, the owner of AABC, Kristen and Michele, our wonderful birth team, Rosewitha, our postpartum nurse, and Joan, another very helpful nurse midwife at AABC.

The Story of Li'l Sphere's Precipitous Birth
By his mother

Not long before I delivered, I read Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth by Ina May Gaskin, who has been a nurse midwife for 30 years. It inspired me to see natural childbirth as doable, that despite differing circumstances and experiences women can and do deliver healthy children naturally in an environment that is empowering to both the woman and her family. It was just the thing I needed to get “pumped up” for the birth. In the spirit of that book I am going to tell you all of the details of the birth so that you will see that you too can do it, and if you have given birth yourself, that others have shared in some of your experiences.

On the day of his birth, I was taking a class at work. During a bathroom break at about 9:45am, I noticed that my mucous plug came out, but I continued taking the class, despite having very mild contractions. I called my husband around noon to update him and told him that I’d let him know when the contractions got closer together. I finally had him come to get me at 3:00. We went home, took a walk around the neighborhood, and then decided it was time to go to the birthing center. We got to the birthing center at 5:30. Michele Fitzgerald, a midwife, and Kristin Elliott, a doula and midwife trainee, told me that I was 3 cm dilated (for you uninitiated, your cervix opens gradually and you are able to push the baby out when you are 10 cm dilated), but Michele pushed on the cervix a bit and it went to 4 cm, meaning that the baby was definitely on his way.

Although Jean was originally supposed to work that evening, she was just leaving after a birth that morning when we arrived. The staff decided that Kristin could monitor me while Michele got dinner, and Michele could attend my labor when she returned. They ran a bath for me to labor in, but it was not for me. I could not get comfortable. I preferred being able to walk and to hang onto something during the contractions, which, by the way, really didn’t hurt. They were all-consuming feelings, and I had to pay attention to them, but they weren’t painful. It is hard to explain, but the pain was minor.

At one point, I felt nauseous and told Kristin that I was going to throw up, which I promptly did. I remember thinking, “oh well, there goes those yummy chile rellenos I had for lunch!” (Yes, that is gross, sorry!) My water broke as I was throwing up.

Things took a turn afterwards. Kristin asked me to lie down on my left side because “the baby would like it better.” I really appreciate how Kristin handled that because I knew enough to know that the baby’s heart rate must have gone down if she was asking me to lay on my left side. She gave me oxygen and I thought, “oh crap, this isn’t good,” but Kristin was calm, saying, “this will give the baby a boost.” I am grateful for Kristin’s calm demeanor. The contractions were really uncomfortable on the bed because I could not move much and perhaps because my water had broken.

About that time Michele came in and checked my cervix. I was at 9 cm dilated, but because the baby’s heart rate was dropping so low (I think I remember hearing that it went to ½ what it should be) she pushed the cervix out to 10 cm and told me that it was time to “get that baby out.” I pushed a couple of times, during which I guess the baby’s heart rate went even lower because she pulled me around and gave me an episiotomy (which is a cut to enlarge the vaginal opening). She apologized but I could tell that her concern was to get the baby delivered sooner than later so that she could be sure it was healthy and OK.

I was in a “whatever it takes” mode as well because I could tell from her intensity that she was concerned/scared. I was too, but didn’t have time to focus on that emotion.

I think I tried to push again on the bed, but that was not working. Michele got me to squat wide, put breast pumps on my breasts to increase the contractions, and told my husband to simulate the breast pumps with his mouth (heh). I pushed really hard probably three times and she told me not to “tea pot it” because I was letting my air out as I pushed. Then she said “this is it. Get that baby out now. Hold your breath and push.” I heard her tell Kristin to get some “pit” shots ready, which I knew was pitocin, a drug that increases contractions and is reportedly very unpleasant. So, darn it, I was going to get that baby out. I hugged Michele as I squatted wide and I heard her say, “this is it! I can see brown hair!” and she and Kristin said “push past the hurt!” I could hear my husband holding his breath as I held mine. All of a sudden I felt the baby come out and my husband pulled me back onto the bed as Michele had instructed him to. He was on his back, and I was on my back on his stomach. Then all of a sudden I had a really warm blob on my lower abdomen. My eyes were still closed from pushing so hard. I remember saying, “help me I’m going to drop it.” Then I could hear Michele say, “look what you have” as she held the baby up closer to my face. I opened my crusty eyes and said “it’s a baby!” then she kind of pointed to his genitals and I said “it’s a boy!” (OK folks, birthing is tiring!) I had Li'l Sphere at 7 PM.

Michele and Kristin were so sweet and got my husband and me focused on the baby as the placenta was delivered and as she sewed me up. They were so positive and congratulatory and told me what a good job I did.

After they left and the postpartum nurse, Rosewitha, came and helped me to the bathroom I noticed that I pushed so hard I had broken blood vessels on my face, chest, and back, which looked like a rash and didn’t hurt at all. It was still surprising to see though, and totally unexpected. Rosewitha even pointed out that I had broken a blood vessel in the corner of my eye. I really did push hard!!!

The birthing center has a nice postpartum atmosphere. There were candles lit in the fireplace and the surroundings were soothing. As we were laying in the bed together as a new family my husband remembered to put on an Etta James song that I had been fixating on for the past few weeks, and only discovered the name of it the night before. Luckily he had burned it on the “birthing CD” just that day. I hugged my baby and listened to the lyrics and just cried. It is a beautiful song, and I could certainly feel the “at last” part. Intense labor and postpartum are certainly dreamlike and surreal in many ways, and the song captured that perfectly.

“At Last” by Etta James.

At last

My love has come along
My lonely days over
And life is like a song

Ooh, at last
The skies above are blue
Well my heart was wrapped up in clover
The night I looked at you

I found a dream
That I could speak to
A dream that I could call my own
I found a thrill
To press my cheek to
A thrill that I have never known


You smile
you smile
Oh and then the spell was cast
And here we are in heaven
For you are mine at last

I am full of gratitude that Michele was concerned enough about Li'l Sphere to help me to get him out quickly. She was thoroughly professional the whole way, and empathetic enough not to let a stressful birth be stressful afterwards. It turns out that his cord was wrapped around his neck twice, and because he descended so quickly it was squeezing him. Luckily, his Apgar scores were 8 at one minute and 9 at five minutes. (Apgar scores quickly evaluate a newborn's physical condition after delivery and to determine any immediate need for extra medical or emergency care. Scores of 8 and 9 are good.) I pushed him out so fast that he had a colorless bruise on his head from my pubic bone.

I want to leave you mothers-to-be with a few words of advice. I was sorer than I thought I’d be. Eleven days after the birth I finally was feeling back to normal, so expect that as a possibility. I would advise having a lactation consultant come to your home within 2-3 days after birth. It will help a lot! Also, I can tell you that a postpartum doula would have made our early days with our son more joyful and less stressful, even though my mother was here to help.

The birthing center staff was excellent after we went home too. We called a few times and talked with Kristen, Michele, and Joan, who was very helpful with advice and perspective from her own births and children. All were generous with assistance and advice, something I had not expected postpartum, but I very much appreciate.

Thanks, Austin Area Birthing Center! We are glad we chose your facility and staff to help bring our son into the world.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Thanks to Scott, I have finally seen the first six episodes of Deadwood Season Two, catching me up to the week before last. Deadwood is a heady show, despite the fact that it uses more profanity per word than your average Bushwick Bill album, focusing on the formation of civilization from a more-or-less classic state of nature. Despite the massive cast, each character has well-rounded humanity and compelling storylines. Although Al Swearingen (easily the most compelling villain on a TV show who is not named "Stringer Bell;" heck, they could go hand in hand) and Seth Bullock (the very model of 'tightly wound') are presented as polar opposites, they have twice fallen into an uneasy alliance built on a need for honest law-and-order (Swearingen, who deals in all sorts of vices, would rather have honest law-and-order because it simplifies his thieving and murderous ways).

I sort of want to write about the plot points, but I want to see the rest of the season first. The first season's out on DVD now, and if you can deal with salty language spoken with the beauty of poetry (one of the best things about this show is the language; characters vacillate between Victorian loftiness and blunt profanities to convey or obscure their thoughts), rent or buy it.

Also, if you're a fan of character actors, this show the best use of Hey! It's That Guy actors since Sam Peckinpah quit making Westerns. I hate that Ricky Jay didn't return for the second season, but it's a testament to the greatness of the other actors (and let me single out Brad Dourif, aka Grima Wormtongue aka Hazel Motes aka Billy in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, as perhaps the best of all of them) that I haven't missed him at all. Between this show, The Wire, and The Sopranos, HBO has shown itself capable of producing the best that tv has to offer (and what's even close in quality besides maybe Freaks and Geeks and The Office?), although it's certainly shown its share of utter crap, too (Arli$$, anyone? Real Sex? Mind of the Married Man?).

On that ugly note, I'm just going to post this thing.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Book #13: On Bullshit - Harry G. Frankfurt

Frankfurt writes:

"One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, nor attracted much sustained inquiry.

In consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, and what functions it serves. And we lack a conscientiously developed appreciation of what it means to us. In short, we have no theory."

On Bullshit is a funny book, but it is no joke. In 67 tiny pages (literally: the above quote is almost the entirety of the first page), Frankfurt, Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Princeton, parses the meaning of bullshit, distinguishing bullshitting from both lying and truth-telling, and posing one of the greatest unanswered questions of any recent philosophy book: why does our culture value bullshitting more than lying?

Working as I do in state government, I wish I'd been issued this book on my first day. Not that it seeks to reduce bullshit, but by identifying the relationship of bullshit with the truth, it provides clarity on the function of bullshit in communication (with special, albeit unmentioned in the book, relevance to government communications). Highly recommended. This is philosophy that everyone could appreciate and understand, and its brevity lends itself to those with a short attention span.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Book #12: Bee Season by Myla Goldberg

Bee Season
Eh. This book started with a promising premise, but led to a casual betrayal of all the characters by the end. Goldberg is a talented writer with a great eye for detail, but her grasp on her story seems shaky at best. Bee Season is a story about a dysfunctional family thrown into turmoil when the daughter, assumed to be a bit dim-witted, starts winning spelling bees. Each member of the family is obsessed with something, the father with Jewish mysticism, the mother with perfection, the son with his relationship with his father, and the daughter, eventually, with spelling and letters.

(I'm going to have to spoil the book to talk about my problem with it, so don't read further if you intend to read it and desire to be surprised by the ending.)

However, Goldberg allows all but one - the father - to become unlikable tragic figures. She seems to think that the father, who is consistently shown to be a caring, striving, sympathetic, although flawed, person, is the villain of the story, and heaps undue loss on him. Huh? Why? It feels like a cop-out: Goldberg has spent the first 90% of the novel leading each character to their undoing by their obsessions and has given the father the key to help most of them. Why does she suddenly allow herself to turn into a Neil LaBute-style misanthrope? How is Eliza's final action anything but the final loss for poor Saul? Is the ultimate meaning of this book that introverts shouldn't have children? I can understand the need for a realism and misanthropy in books (and I love some books that end in tragedy), but Goldberg's sudden descent into this ending is unfair and unfortunate. I can imagine a glib response of "that's what life is like, man," but the previous chapters have made it clear that life is not only NOT like this, but that the family lives in unique circumstances. Goldberg owed her characters better.

While looking for an image of the book, I saw that it's going to be a major motion picture in the fall of this year, as directed by two guys I've never heard of and starring Richard Gere and Juliette Binoche. Heaven knows that anything with Richard Gere in it is going to be brilliant. Especially if by "brilliant," we mean "schlock."

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Something Awful vs. Ultimate Warrior. From our good friend Soren.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Book #11: Men and Cartoons: Stories by Jonathan Lethem

I probably shouldn't include this one because a) it's only 176 pages long and b) I'd read fully half of the stories included in anthologies and literary magazines. However, I read 'em again and, considering how short my reading time is these days, I'll take whatever I have time to finish.

Like Lethem's other story collection, The Wall of The Sky, The Wall of The Eye, this one mixes great stories with a few that seem half-baked. The best two stories are "Super Goat Man" and "The Vision," both of which I'd read in other collections, and, I suspect, Harper's. The former is about a young man's relationship with an unlikely superhero. Super Goat Man is essentially a hippie who drinks with the narrator's father and possibly has an affair with his mother, then teaches at the small college where the narrator ends up. Although he flubs the only display of superheroics that the narrator ever witnesses, he is still teaching at the college years later when the narrator comes for a faculty interview. In "The Vision," a young writer goes to a dinner party at the house of a remote childhood playmate who used to dress up as a red-faced android. As with Lethem's major works, the characters are well-observed and capable of genuine empathy and cruelty.

Many of the other stories are attempts to write in certain styles - a Borgesian goof, a sci-fi Dashiell Hammett (complete with poor punctuation), an exploration of racial tension in short, unresolved Carver prose - or to explore little ideas, but most of the stories don't compare well with Lethem's novels. Lethem brings a razor-sharp intellect, a heartripping poignancy, and wicked sense of humor to his best novels. Most of the short stories in this collection reveal a bit of each, but overall the effect is unsatisfying. I'm looking forward to reading Lethem's collection of essays The Disappointment Artist, though.

Update: John Leonard, who is out for the snottiest critic award, has rude things to say about Jonathan Lethem's writing in the NY Review of Books. I want to be clear that my disappointment with Men and Cartoons had nothing to do with Lethem's pop culture-obsessed subject matter. Unlike Leonard, who apparently knows geek culture but rejects that part of himself, I don't think that geeky obsessions are a terrible starting point for fiction. Lots of crap writers love Proust. It takes a small-minded man like Leonard to judge a better writer for the things he loves.

Anyway, I also wrote about Lethem's oeuvre back in 2003 for the first issue of The High Hat. Despite the embarrassing chumminess which which I frame my reviews (believe me when I say that I didn't expect anyone to read it, let alone Lethem), I think the rest of the reviews are a damn sight better than Leonard's, if I do say so myself.

Book #10: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

In an odd coincidence, I started this book shortly after writing my last post. Gilead is written as a letter from an elderly preacher in rural Iowa, John Ames, to his 7-year-old son. Ames is not long for the world (he's 77) and wants to write down all of the things he thinks he would have told his son if he could have lived long enough to do so. Among these things are stories about his grandfather, who ran with John Brown (the novel takes place in 1956) and grew eccentric in his old age, his older brother, who studied philosophy in Germany and broke his father's heart by rejecting religion, and his best friend Boughton, who, like Ames, stayed in Gilead all of his life and became a preacher.

Robinson has written Ames beautifully; he's a well-worn character with remarkably subtle independent life. In fact, "subtle" is the best word for this book in general. The conflict of the plot, if there truly is one, revolves around the return to town of Ames' namesake, Boughton's wayward son Jack. Jack was involved in a town scandal when younger and has apparently lived a drifter's life. Ames is unclear why Jack is there, but the reader can quickly ascertain that he's having a sort of mid-life crisis and looking for forgiveness from both his father and Ames, who he calls "Papa." Jack also clearly has a past with Ames' much younger wife (in fact, she may also have been involved in Jack's scandal), although Ames just as clearly doesn't suspect a thing.

The possibility of redemption is the overriding theme of the book. Ames struggles to find it within himself to forgive Jack. In one of the best sections of the book, Ames, Jack, and Ames' wife are sitting on a porch together just after dusk. Ames is reflective, and both Jack and Ames' wife (Jack calls her Lulu, which is the only time she's named in the book, I think) believe that he's fallen asleep. Jack offers her a cigarette, and she refuses, saying that she'd like one but it wouldn't be seemly. She laughs at herself for embracing the seemly life, but points out (again, very subtly) that she's grown to love it. The message is clear: Ames has redeemed her with his simple love. Jack longs for this sort of redemption.

Ames opens the book by discussing a letter he received from his father (also a preacher) which he burned. As the book unfolds, it turns out that his father moved to the Gulf Coast at his brother's invitation. Apparently, both the brother and father attempted many times through his life to get Ames to move, to explore the world, to use his obvious intellect to expand his horizons, but Ames has loved his simple life too much to leave. He writes that he feared leaving because he feared that he wouldn't return. He has instead embraced Gilead and the periphery of society in his monkish life, which some wise men have been doing since the dawn of man. This isn't a rejection of the world so much as a Taoist embrace of the small simple things within his reach. Ames knows that experience is seductive; he simply has no interest in the world outside of Gilead.

The novel unfolds with slow deliberation, as Ames ruminates about religion and how it connects people with each other and with God. I couldn't put it down.

Update: Ann Hulbert on Slate has a similar, albeit better written, take.

Friday, April 01, 2005

I was going to simply delete this out of existence, but several good friends have encouraged me to keep it around.

I was thinking about my problem with religion this morning, mainly because I think I'd like to feel hope for the human race in a spiritual, personal way. I'd like to be able to say that I belong to some group of people who think like I do and have it mean something. But I don't know that it does. I feel that leaving the Southern Baptist Church was one of the most profound things I've done in my life short of being a father. However, I've retained a sharp moral compass that may be at odds with the positions of the church, but that I learned from the church and that guides me to be the man I am. If my son has no similar religious instruction, will he never learn to develop that compass?

But so much of the Christianity I've been exposed to is about negation of life. The Southern Baptists I'm most familiar with say no to science, no to a just welfare state, no to mercy, no to sexual desire, no to valuing healthy lives when those who live those lives are criminals or of different religions, no to allowing people the privacy to make difficult decisions about fetuses and mentally damaged love ones, and no to minds that question any of the above. This, surely, isn't what religion should mean to people. What sort of good God would have people prioritize their lives in such a way?

And these people -- I know I'm talking about strawpeople to some extent, but almost all of my cousins would tell you that they believe all of the above with all of their hearts, as well as the following --these people would tell you in a heartbeat that a) they are happy and b) they are 100% confident that their positions are right.

I should mention that I treasure my doubt. To my thinking, the ability to doubt and critique, by which I mean the ability to reason, is the most profound and important skill that human beings have developed since we became the only monkeys to have pleasurable, non-procreative sex. I think that the greatest, most profound people in recent history, such as Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Buber, Soren Kierkegaard, are those who have doubted their faith, and I believe that most theologians and even marginally self-aware men of God would concede that point to me.
But so many Christian churches, even the ones where I think people agree with me politically, have this prevailing belief that God is the answer. What if God is the question? Is there a church for that? From my understanding of modern Judaism, questioning what Judaism means and what it means to be a Jew is an important aspect of being a rabbi, if not being a Jew. Is there a similar group for goys?

I also suffer from a somewhat paradoxical unwillingness to belong, a lack of fellowship, if you will. For instance, I find the local Unitarian church saccharine to the point of uncomfortability. I've felt the same in liberal Christian churches and in Westernized Buddhist temples. I want to feel kinship with my fellow man, but I'm terrified and a little nauseated by false connections. This may be overly psychological, but my time in the Southern Baptist church has left me convinced that those people are faking their happiness and couldn't give less of a shit if I feel welcome in their congregation. I'm not a person, I'm a warm tithing body.

So, I want religion with doubt, fellowship without fellowship rites, a great big yes to life and my personal ethics without sickening cheerleaderish fake emotion, and to tell you the truth, I like to sleep in on Sundays. Anyone have a clue?

My friends have been very encouraging, discussing options such as the Society of Friends or pointing out that they grew finely tuned moral compasses without the unwelcome touch of the church. Some have mentioned how certain churches have touched their lives and how they've found the best way to deal with complicated issues in religion is to be open and honest with their kids. I have to say that I'm a lucky man to run with a crowd of such intensely thoughtful people.

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From Here To Obscurity, founded ca. 2003, population 1. The management wishes to emphasize that no promises vis-a-vis your entertainment have been guaranteed and for all intents and purposes, intimations of enlightenment fall under the legal definition of entertainment. No refunds shall be given nor will requests be honored. Although some may ask, we have no intention of beginning again.

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