Monday, April 28, 2008

Our Most-Loved Children's Books

When they first enter Liko’s playroom, new friends always remark upon how many books he has. Indeed, his playroom looks like the children’s nook in a small-town public library.

But here’s the thing: Properly speaking, most of those books don’t belong to him—more than half belong to my wife. She’s been building a collection of children’s books since college, just because she loves them.

As a result of her combination of passion and discernment, the books on our shelves range across broad swathes of time and culture, and each has some quality that sets it apart. It’s hard to describe, what that quality is, but you know it when you see it.

And after years of reading books like these, I can now really spot the absence of this quality in other children’s books; too many of them these days treat kids like dumb adults or passive consumers. In fact, preschoolers are learning at a rate that far exceeds grown-up learning, and I think the best of these books capture the sense of wonderment that comes with that.

I don't have my wife's refined taste, but, for me, the first test of a book’s quality is, of course, Liko’s enjoyment of it. The next test is how often I can stand reading the thing—the very best books are a genuine pleasure for adults to read and can even reward repeat readings. You begin to appreciate the poetry and interplay of the words and pictures, and, if you’re lucky, you can even start to see the story through your child’s eyes. (Of course, everything has a limit...sometimes I even hide Curious George just before bedtime...don't tell Liko, please...)

I asked my wife to write up a list of her “most loved” (as she says) children’s books. After much debate and pencil-chewing, she narrowed it down to twenty eight:

1. On Christmas Eve, by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Beni Montresor (1938)

2. The Dead Bird, by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Remy Charlip (1938)

3. Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clement Hurd (1947)

4. The Snowman, by Raymond Briggs (1978)

5. Madeline series, by Ludwig Bemelmans

6. Summertime Waltz, by Nina Payne, illustrated by Gabi Swiatkowska (2005)

7. Sunday Morning, by Judith Viorst, illustrated by Hilary Knight (1968)

8. I am a Bunny, by Ole Rison, illustrated by Richard Scarry (1963)

9. Egon, by Larry Bograd, illustrated by Dirk Zimmer (1980)

10. Mole and the Baby Bird, by Marjorie Newman, illustrated by Patrick Benson (2002)

11. Goodnight Gorilla, by Peggy Rathermann (1994)

12. Frog and Toad series, by Arnold Lobel

13. Little Bear series, by Else Holmelund Minark, illustrated by Maurice Sendak

14. The Tomten and the Fox, adapted by Astrid Lindgren from a poem by Karl-Erik Forsslund, illustrated by Harold Wiberg (1966)

15. Little Old Big Beard and Big Young Little Beard, by Remy Charlip, illustrated by Remy Charlip and Tamara Rettenmund (2003)

16. Curious George series, by H.A. Rey

17. Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present, by Charlotte Zolotow, illustrated by Maurice Sendak (1962)

18. Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak (1963)

19. More, More, More Said the Baby: Three Love Stories, by Vera B. Williams (1990)

20. What’s the Most Beautiful Thing You Know About Horses? By Richard van Camp, illustrated by George Littlechild (1998)

21. Charlie Parker Played Be Bop, by Chris Raschka (1992)

22. Art, by Karen Salmansohn, illustrated by Brian Stauffer (2003)

23. The Nativity, illustrated by Julie Vivas (1986)

24. Grandfather’s Journey, by Allen Say (1993)

25. Play, Mozart, Play! by Peter Sis (2006)

26. The Year I Didn’t Go to School, by Giselle Potter (2002)

27. Three Cheers for Catherine the Great, by Cari Best, illustrated by Giselle Potter (1999)

28. Flotsam, by David Wiesner (2005)

And here’s a composite of her favorite and Liko’s favorite authors:

1. Margaret Wise Brown (pictured at left)
2. Maurice Sendak
3. Vera B. Williams
4. Chris Raschka
5. Patricia Palocco
6. Allen Say
7. Peter Sis
8. Giselle Potter
9. David Wiesner

I would also like to humbly put in a good word for Robert McCloskey. He’s famed for Make Way for Ducklings, but I prefer many of his other books, especially Blueberries for Sal and One Morning in Maine.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

On The Business of Being Born

What interest do at home dads -- or dads in general -- have in a film that makes a strong case for the virtues of home-birthing?

A lot.

Because I would bet that no matter what your personal preferences regarding birthing methods, watching Ricki Lake's new documentary, The Business of Being Born, is more of an education than most parents are likely to receive about giving birth. And anything that brings the father into the process, rather than encouraging him to defer to experts, is a step in the erosion of gendered parenting roles and the more respectful treatment of expectant mothers.

Which means that mothers have potentially one more advocate as they enter into the medical-bureaucratic complex of modern obstetrics.

I buy Lake's argument that at-home birthing is far more marginalized in the United States than it should be. That doesn't mean that we've had or are planning an at-home birth ourselves. We anticipate having a second child in a hospital. But we plan to have at least one midwife in attendance, an obstetrician who is comfortable with this, and a doula for the postpartum recovery period.

All of which is to say that, despite the moderately polemical nature of the film and response to it, the issue is not black and white. It's not either the hospital or a bathtub in the living room. What is most significant about this film, as I see it, is simply its success in raising awareness of the way birthing methods have been shaped by various competing interests, and not always in favor of women and their children.

Birthing, and modern obstetrics, is an industry -- like agribusiness, transportation, or energy. It makes sense to understand how this fact might impinge on the ways women's bodies are manipulated during the birthing process.

The whole story is backgrounded by the fact that the rate of cesarean sections has skyrocketed in recent decades, and is higher in the US than in any other economically advanced nation. At the same time, infant mortality rates are also higher in the US than in peer nations, where at home birthing is much more widely practiced.

So what does this have to do with dads?

Science has for centuries been a male activity, medicine included. That has changed only in recent decades. Men have made science (with notable and often unacknowledged female contributions), and men have typically deferred to science.

It's the deferral part that causes the problems for the mother. It's easy when medical experts say that things are under control for dad to go sit in the waiting room and live out the old stereotype of the nervous father waiting to pass out cigars. This deferral has helped to legitimate the substitution of a series of medically-managed manipulations for the extremely complex and self-regulating process of human birth.

The increasing medicalization of the birthing process has been accompanied by a rise in the rate of cesarean sections in this country to just over 30% (15-20% higher than the rate in peer countries), with all the increases in risk that accompany a major surgical intervention of this sort. Lake's film makes the argument that many of the most common practices of hospital-based obstetrics themselves contribute to the chances of a delivery going cesarean, from the reclining position of the mother, the use of pitosin, epidurals, or whether a mother begins labor at the end of a shift when staff are eager to go home for the day.

These self-aggravating circumstances are avoided in a home-birth environment, or in a hospital situation in which the mother has sober and well-informed advocates at her side. A midwife is one such advocate. A dad should be another.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

I Am A Porn Star

It's true. I just found out yesterday. Spot was with me, and I didn't even have to take my clothes off. All I had to do was pick up this lovely little book that I'd like to share with other at-home dads, who may already be porn stars without even knowing it.

(All you Bay Area folks may already have checked this out, as it's published by Chronicle Press in San Francisco. Those may even be your kids in the pictures. Curiously, lists it under "parenting" rather than pornography.)

So I was being pornographic, in public, without quite knowing it, lugging the Spot around in his backpack, when I decided to duck into a local independent bookstore to pick up some short stories by a guy who is supposed to be the next F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Of course I quickly forgot all about that -- as I sometimes also forget that I am but a palace eunuch whose current task is to transport the Emperor along his morning rounds -- when I notice this title at the cashier's desk and start flipping through it.

"This is hilarious," I tell the 20-something blond behind the cash register.

"You're the embodiment of that," she said.

"Whoa," I thought. She just called me the embodiment of mommy porn. This is a good day.

Her comment reminds me that Spot is still dangling there. I turn my head around. "Spot, did you hear that? She just said daddy's a porn star!"


I didn't really say that, but thought that since he is part of the whole effect, he might want to bask in some of the glory.

I could get into all sorts of semiotic and cultural analyses about what's going on in this witty piece of cultural candy, but I'll spare you my nonsense and just wrap up with a pic that didn't make it into the original collection, but should probably go into the second volume.

The great thing about porn for moms is that you can keep your clothes on. This pic is from February, and Spot looks like whatever was in his shorts just froze, but you get the idea. I'm sure at home dads across the country have loads of pics just like this. You're all porn stars, each and every one.

Speaking of which, Spot's starting to wake up from his afternoon nap. Gotta go be the hottness.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Field Notes From a Jungle Gym

So I was up in the tower of the multi-plex jungle gym, if that's what they're still called, surrounded by six little monkeys who had climbed up out of nowhere just a moment ago and now formed this adventurer's society of largely illiterate creatures who surrounded us. In one direction was the drawbridge over the Infinite Abyss; in another, the Tunnel to the Edge of the Universe; over there, two adjacent steering wheels that could be used to conduct our ramshackle bus-train-spaceship in two directions simultaneously. Among the two children who could talk there was disagreement as to which type of vehicle we were inhabiting. The rest of us were along for the ride.

Behind us, the spiral slide that was the only part that Dad could really fit on.

It occurred to me briefly that other folks in the play park might suspect me of being a pervert, a local Michael Jackson up in this fantasy tower where only kids should be, hunkered down crossed-legged so no one could see me. Some nerdish dad in fact came over and poked his head into our pirate's nest, a mid-to-late-twenty-something grad student dad, clutching some ridiculous journal article he had naively hoped to read, a soon-to-be-obsolete prescription for how to keep China in line, or perhaps a discussion of the hidden concordances in the late work of Ezra Pound and Walter Benjamin.

All rubbish, of course, both his reading and his suspicions, for I had my identity card, my backstage pass, my carte d'entrée. It was a 23.5 lb bean bag, sitting at somewhat of a list here in the conning tower of this jungle gym, watching the other more mobile bean bags circulate through the various tunnels and spirals and spouts to return to the center once again where Spot gaped at them all and uttered "Bah!"

"Bah" indeed! What an appropriate retort to the universe, at all stages of earthly existence. A word that marks the beginning of language and, perhaps, the end of philosophy. What do you make of the world crisis today, Spot? "Bah!" I agree. Much wisdom up there in the lookout tower of the jungle gym.

But this wisdom is not always apparent to the older monkeys, freshly absorbed in the folly of youth that comes with the first trappings of power -- the power to move, the power to communicate, to manipulate, to dream. To a charming 4 year old girl who quickly became the dream-leader of our band of pirates, who laid out careful instructions about what we were going to pretend to be doing, I said, "Hi, this is Spot," highlighting my wide-eyed and swaying bean bag.

"I'm a big girl!" came the ageist and disdaining response.

"That's OK, we'll still hang out with you," I replied on Spot's behalf. Being small is about as cool as it gets, but being bigger is cool, too.

But what I think is really cool, if I haven't already tipped my hand, is being where the action is, up on the jungle gym, and not on the sidelines with the other parents. At least on this nice spring day, eager as I was to take my relatively young charge and introduce him to the world of Hobbits, Elves and Monkeys.

It's not that I'm not averse to schmoosing with Big People down below; in fact, I had done that for about half an hour before Spot and I scaled the jungle gym. But it was going nowhere and our time was limited. There were the two Jackie Onassis moms in big sunglasses and wool coats deep in conversation while Johnny buried his head in a sand box; there was the solo mom on the cell phone who took off as soon as we entered her quadrant; there was the Korean couple who had carved out a modest but exclusive Sphere of Influence for themselves, their son, and various earth-moving devices; and there was the friendly, slobbish dad with two kids that we couldn't keep up with.

That left the jungle gym. Unoccupied. Terra nullus. So up we went to take in the view. And the beauty of it all was that, within minutes, a small crowd had followed us, and suddenly we were at the center of it all. I made a few introductions, then stood back to guard the precipices. The small crowd of small people ebbed and surged, but always fell back to the center, and recognized itself. And Spot was a part of it.

"Bah!" he said, and I agreed.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Loner Dad and the Playgroup

It was about one o'clock in the afternoon, and Spot and I were on the second floor of the Unitarian Church, in a sunny room full of toys. On the other side of the room was Libby, about six months older than Spot. It was Spot's first visit to the community play room.

Before Spot could get too involved in a bout of solipsistic chewing, I decided it was time to force matters. I picked him up, took him across the room, and put him down about a foot away from Libby. Spot needs friends. He needs socialization. It had been a very long winter in our house. He is a fine boy, and I do what I can, but we have only one child, the dogs can only do so much, and his father is a loner.

It should have happened a lot sooner, actually, but here we were, on the first really nice day of spring, when I couldn't use the weather as an excuse not to get out. It was the first day, really, of my open-enrollment, adult education classes in primatology and remedial fathering.

Libby had a small, rigid plastic doll, and held it out. Spot gazed at Libby with wonder, and reached out to touch the doll. "No!" said Libby, and took the doll away.

Spot had no visible reaction, just made eye contact with dad, then Libby, then scanned the room. From the distant horizon, Libby's mom, a wonderful woman I had met only an hour before, suddenly materialized above the three of us like the referee of some magical game, and reminded Libby that she ought to share her toys with the new baby. At the same time, she managed to find a doll just like the one Libby had, and gave it to Spot.

I realized Spot was not the only one who was learning things that afternoon.

There was some passing back and forth of toys, some more attempts at sharing, and my own only partially effective attempts at mediation. Libby said a few words. She and Spot blatantly and most impolitely stared at each other. Spot made a few babbling grunts. Two more kids showed up, we rolled some trucks around, and then we left.

I don't know if it was the spring weather, the very nice mom I had just met, or contemplation of these first, basic steps towards language that were responsible for my euphoria afterwards. But out on the street, pushing the stroller along, I felt a sense of happiness that had eluded me for months. I needed to take Spot back, often, as much as our schedules allowed. And I needed to go back myself. A lot.

I called Spot's mom at work. "We checked out the playroom today. Spot is learning how to share. I felt like Jane Goodall. It's great."

The truth was, I was just as proud of myself. It's not in my nature, necessarily, to be a joiner. As a bachelor or husband, it was something I had never worried about. As an adult, I have the psychological calorie reserves that a social animal needs to survive the periodic famine of isolation. Spot doesn't have those reserves. He needs a rich and full diet of experience with humanity. Even if that begins with only one little girl.

My wife didn't say much on the phone then. I think she sensed a milestone quality of the event, and even more the prospect of an accelerated series of such events opening up in Spot's future. And a lot of them, she knows, will be communicated by me over the phone, while she is at work, on nice spring and summer days like this one. Our little feat that morning -- and my little challenge -- would have been effortless for her, she would have done it months ago no matter what other obligations she may have had.

But she couldn't. Which means I have to, though I hadn't necessarily wanted to. But that last part seems to be changing, which is the great thing about being a parent, and partly why I think I was so happy that afternoon.

One Dad's View on the Benefits of Staying Home

I liked this list, from the blog "Here Goes Everything," which I just added to our blog roll. This sounds like a guy who has taken some hits in his life, but is making the best of it and using his experiences to continue growing.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

It's April 15: Do You Know Where Your Income Tax Dollars Are Going?

From the redoubtable Stephanie Coontz and the Council on Contemporary Families:

Americans tend to think we are better off than families in most other industrial countries because we pay lower income taxes. But when we factor in the higher amount Americans pay for health care, child care, and education, the comparison is not always in our favor. Where do American families' tax dollars go and what family "value" they get in return?

For every $100 in income tax:

* $32 goes to national defense

* $19 goes to interest on the national debt

* $15 goes to supplemental programs such as TANF, child tax credits, and farm subsidies

* $14 goes to health

* $6 goes to education, employment, and social services

* $4 goes to transportation

* $2 goes to administration of justice

* $2 goes to environment and natural resources

* $2 goes to international affairs

* $1 goes to community and regional development

* $1 goes to agriculture

* $1 goes to science, space, and technology

* $1 goes to the commerce and housing fund


* U.S. parents can reduce their tax burdens by claiming dependents, which results in a $3,100 reduction in taxable income. For a married couple filing jointly with a $50,000 income, this is worth a maximum of $510 per child per year, or $1020 for a family with two children. The child tax credit also gives families a maximum of $1,000 tax credit for each child, bringing the benefit up to $1,510 for a one-child family in that tax bracket. On the other hand, the average household pays more than $2300 a year for health insurance and medical care -- and risks being liable for much more should a family member face a catastrophic illness.

* The child and dependent care tax credit allows families to credit a percentage of their childcare expenses. The credit is a percentage of child care costs, up to a maximum of $3,000 for one child or $6,000 for two or more children. Taxpayers with earned incomes over $43,000 will receive 20% of that amount, and the percentage increases as earned income decreases. The maximum credit a couple making $50,000 can receive is $1,200. But for families who purchase child care, this makes only a small dent in the $7,300 average day care bill for one child each year.

* Tax credits are also available for higher education expenses. The Hope Credit is worth up to $1650 per tax year for up to two years per student. The Lifetime Learning Credit allows up to $2000 credit per return.

* In 2007, legislators voted to increase individual Pell Grant amounts to a new maximum is $4,310. This will be increased to $5,400 in 2012-13. This may sound like an impressive increase. But in 1980, the Pell Grant covered 99% of the average cost of tuition, fees, AND room and board at a four-year public college. Today, the Pell Grant does not even cover the full cost of tuition and fees at such a college.

* Thus, even at their height, the financial benefits of the last decade's tax cuts for middle-class families never equaled the financial benefits that citizens of many other countries receive in the form of monthly child allowances, universal health care, subsidized parental leaves and child care, and college assistance:

* Poor families get some extra help. The Earned Income Tax Credit is a refundable tax credit. If the family does not have enough income to benefit from the credit, they get the same amount as a cash return. The EITC maximum for a worker with one child is $2,853, and the maximum for more than one child is $4,176. The credit is probably the most effective anti-poverty program in America, lifting many poor working families above the poverty line.

* Impoverished families also receive modest monthly payments out of the TANF program, are eligible for Medicaid and food stamps, and may be able to participate in Head Start pre-school programs, which are funded under education.

* And wealthy families also get some extra help. All homeowner families benefit from the mortgage deduction for interest payments on home loans, but this disproportionately benefits upper-income families. Half of all tax subsidies for homeownership go to the wealthiest 3.2 percent of households.


* In most of Western Europe, citizens enjoy the right to near-universal health care. They do not have to forego routine care for financial reasons, and are not financially wiped out by catastrophic health emergencies. In America, this occurs frequently enough that one-quarter of financial bankruptcies originate in medical problems not covered by insurance.

* Families in Europe generally pay far less in college expenses than do most American families. In Sweden, students are not charged for tuition. In the United Kingdom, tuition is £3145 ($6234). Thanks to subsidies, it is free for those households making less than £32,690 ($64,798). Meanwhile, students in households making between £32,690 ($64,798) and £60,004 ($118, 940) receive a stipend worth up to £1574 ($3120), based on income.

* Every other industrial nation in Western Europe, and most of the rest of the world as well, provides paid maternity leave, and in some cases paid paternity leave as well.

Canada offers Employment Insurance for both maternity and paternity leave, allowing a couple to take up to 50 weeks leave, which can be divided between mother and father, at 55 percent of pay, up to a maximum of $435 per week. In addition, Canada's Universal Child Care Benefit pays families $100 per month for each child under age six.

In Germany women get 6 weeks paid leave before the birth of a child and 8 weeks afterward. Either the mother or father is guaranteed up to three years unpaid but job-protected leave for child care.

In Norway, parental leave allowance is 54 weeks at 80% pay or 44 weeks at 100%. The mother must take three weeks before birth and six weeks immediately after if she intends to use any leave. The father must take five weeks off if he wants to participate in the share. Other than that, the parents can share the time off any way they wish. Adoptive parents are eligible for 51 weeks off at 80% pay or 41 weeks at 100%.

In Greece, either parent can use up to 17 months of leave time, and receive an additional hour off per day until the child is 30 months old, or two hours per day for 12 months and one hour per day for the next six months.

In Belgium, free early childhood education is available to all children starting at the age of 2 ½.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Several Self-Aggrandizing Notes

1) Today marks Daddy Dialectic's 200th post. What does that mean? We still have much to write.

2) My essay on Christian Right parenting, originally published in Public Eye, was recently reprinted on AlterNet. It is now one of AlterNet's most read and emailed pieces, and hands-down the one that has received the most comments since it appeared Friday--about 300, at this writing, 100 more than the next-most-commented-upon piece. I don't mean to appear ungracious, but, unfortunately, many of the comments are stupid. I don't mean that they are stupid because the commentators disagree with me. They are stupid because some commentators chose to read the essay as anti-religious, which it is not. Some of them, both pro and con, don't appear to have to read it at all. What's the point of commenting on something if you haven't actually read the thing?

3) At some point in early May, Mothering magazine will launch a new blog by me entitled "Fathering." Stay tuned for details.

4) On May 6th, 6:00-7:30 pm, I'll host a discussion with Harvard Medical School researcher Lawrence Kutner on new research into the effects of violent video games on teenagers. This free event will be held at the Journalism School Library at North Gate Hall on the northern edge of the UC Berkeley campus. For map, additional directions, and information on parking, click here. This event celebrates the release of Greater Good magazine's new issue on play. It's not yet available online, but soon.

5) Greater Good is a finalist for this year's prestigious Maggie Award, "Best Quarterly." If you know what a Maggie is, you probably work for a magazine.

6) Late last year, I hosted a panel discussion on "The 21st Century Family" with family historian Stephanie Coontz, UC Berkeley psychologists Philip and Carolyn Cowan, and author and therapist Joshua Coleman. You can now watch the panel here, if you have absolutely nothing else to do.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Queen's Consort

I occasionally get to dress up in drag once in a while. It involves putting on a tie and a dinner jacket, sometimes even a suit, and going downtown for a night at the opera with my wife. She usually drives.

It seems only appropriate that the Civic Opera House, a gloriously enclosed Art Deco box where fantasies are staged and worlds are invented, becomes a theater for the enactment of my occasional performances as a Man. Or what I imagine might look like a Man to the crowds milling about, beneath the luxurious salmon and rose-colored ceilings by Jules Guerin, the kind of Man that I so often associate with Gregory Peck, doing the things a Man does, the way he does in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.

Of course, Gregory Peck didn't go to the Opera in the movie, and in fact such an extravagance would have been out of place in that stark tale of post-war moral compromise, as much as a gray flannel suit would be out of place at the Lyric Opera. But if he ever did set foot, I'm sure he would look more a Man than anyone there.

So it's always interesting when, as I'm indulging in this play-acting in a suit at the opera, being Gregory Peck and being swept away by musical tales of heroes and heroines, we meet someone and the reality comes out that I change diapers for a living.

"You mean you're not a high-power lawyer?" "Nah," I reply. "It's the suit." Not quite as jarring as a stage light falling onto the set during the closing aria, but something similar.

Unless we meet another queen-and-consort combo, which is what happened one snowy Saturday night about a month ago. Then it all starts to feel kind of natural. Up to a point.

A couple approached us, and it was clear that my wife knew the other woman. They worked together. I recognized her but had no idea who she was, and smiled at her husband, who did not look like Gregory Peck, and in fact looked kind of freaky in his heavy brown sweater.

In a sideways whisper I ask my wife, "So who is this person?" after a minute or two of chit-chat.

"She is my boss's boss's boss."

At that moment my play-acting took on an entirely new dimension. It was a Rorschach moment, when the hourglass stops looking like an hourglass and starts looking like two human heads. I went from Gregory Peck being a Man to Gregory Peck's wife charming her husband's boss.

"Cynthia's husband here is also a stay-at-home-dad," my wife resumes at conversational volume. We shake hands. He's affable, and looks like he has just returned from a cross-country ski expedition to the North Pole.

"How long have you been at it?" I ask him.

"About 10 years."

Three individual trains of thought then lurch forward in my mind. The first was that this fellow was not enjoying the same fantasy I was. The second was that Cynthia, I now realized, was the person who had just fired one of my wife's respected colleagues the week before.

The third was that I could learn a lot from this other at-home dad, who had been going at it for so much longer than I had. But that probably wouldn't happen, because as interesting and nice as everyone was, this dad's wife could fire my son's mom tomorrow.

It was a lot to process between the second and third acts of Eugene Onegin. I had spent the last hour or so transported to the birch forests north of Moscow. Now I realized that this consort might lose his crown, just as suddenly as things had changed in St. Petersburg on a certain day in October a long time ago.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Health Care Horror

From Paul Krugman's column in today's New York Times:

Not long ago, a young Ohio woman named Trina Bachtel, who was having health problems while pregnant, tried to get help at a local clinic.

Unfortunately, she had previously sought care at the same clinic while uninsured and had a large unpaid balance. The clinic wouldn’t see her again unless she paid $100 per visit — which she didn’t have.

Eventually, she sought care at a hospital 30 miles away. By then, however, it was too late. Both she and the baby died.

You may think that this was an extreme case, but stories like this are common in America...

If being a progressive means anything, it means believing that we need universal health care, so that terrible stories like those of Monique White, Trina Bachtel and the thousands of other Americans who die each year from lack of insurance become a thing of the past.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

More Sick of It!

Last week, a bill requiring paid sick leave for California workers was approved by a state Assembly committee, and is now going to the Assembly Judiciary Committee.

Assemblywoman Fiona Ma's bill would enable workers to qualify for up to nine days of paid sick leave a year. If you want to comment in support of the bill, AB2716, visit this page on the state Assembly's website.

This bill is not dissimilar to the federal Healthy Families Act, which stalled in committee in 2005. Recently, however, the National Partnership for Women & Families and the Healthy Families Act Coalition have tried to revive it.

Victims of Technology

Given our recent brush with ambiguous breast-cancer test results, I thought I'd share this piece from today's New York Times on the transition "from traditional X-ray film to digital mammograms":

Problems can arise during the transition period, while doctors learn to interpret digital mammograms and compare them to patients’ previous X-ray films. Comparing past and present to look for changes is an essential part of reading mammograms. But the digital and film versions can sometimes be hard to reconcile, and radiologists who are retraining their eyes and minds may be more likely to play it safe by requesting additional X-rays — and sometimes ultrasound exams and even biopsies — in women who turn out not to have breast cancer...

Of 10 radiologists interviewed for this article, eight said that during the transition from film to digital, recall rates went up in women who were ultimately found to have nothing wrong...

Regarding the higher callback rates, Dr. [Mary] Mahoney said: “I know it’s not a small thing, the anxiety. Patients are practically in tears because they’re so worried. But I think in the long run it’s going to be to everybody’s benefit.”...

Dr. Leonard M. Glassman, who practices at Washington Radiology Associates, said that his practice in the Washington, D.C., area, which performs 85,000 mammograms a year, converted to digital about two years ago...

“At the end I tell patients, ‘You were a victim of technology,’ ” he said. “They give me a blank stare. I say: ‘Your last one was film; this one was digital. They look different, and we just didn’t know that.’ ”

Incidentally, for husbands whose wives have breast cancer, this book comes highly recommended: Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) during Diagnosis, Treatment and Beyond, by Marc Silver.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Harvey Milk for President!

Harvey Milk was the first openly gay politician "in the history of the planet," to quote Time magazine. He represented my neighborhood on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and was killed in 1978 (along with Mayor George Moscone) by city supervisor Dan White, a seemingly nice guy, by some accounts, who turned out to be a raving lunatic.

But when White was sentenced to a mere seven years for the crime, there were riots at City Hall and in the Castro. Here's some (murky) footage:

Now director Gus Van Sant (Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, Good Will Hunting, Paranoid Park, etc.) is making a film of those events, staring Sean Penn as Milk, and much of the shoot occurred during the past several months on Castro Street, where I live on the border between the Castro and Noe Valley neighborhoods.

It's fascinating to watch a film put together: the facades of many Castro businesses were torn down and rebuilt to appear as they were in the 1970s; we saw famous people loitering around coffee shops; we watched staggering amounts of preparation for scenes that appeared to last for two minutes; and we residents were herded like cattle to avoid stumbling into scenes where our clothing would have made us anachronisms. Here's a little video someone did on the transformation:

But it was also interesting to hear gray-haired gay men reminisce about those days--and to hear the Castro's children ask about this Harvey Milk person. Liko wanted to know what all the fuss was about, of course, and I explained as best I could.

He gets that some of his friends have two mommies or two daddies, and it doesn't seem weird to him. I don't need to explain "gay" to him, though he doesn't know that word. He just knows that kids have different mixes of parents, and that boys can be affectionate with boys and girls with girls, just like his mom and I are affectionate. That's not so complicated, is it?

But it was painfully difficult to explain that there was once a time when the parents of his friends could not be parents--they couldn't be anything. They were invisible. And people like Harvey Milk helped create a place for them in playgrounds, schools, neighborhoods, and every area of life.

Love is easy to explain; hate is hard. It's not really suitable for children. One early morning I walked with Liko down Castro, and they had apparently just finished filming scenes of the "White Night Riots." The Castro was once again transformed, now with smashed windows, burned-out cars, and graffiti.

"What's going on, daddy?" Liko asked. I didn't say anything and I was just thankful that this was the reenactment of the riot, not the real thing. It was genuinely chilling to see the neighborhood in a state of ruin, however temporary and imaginary.

This history is often news to children of both queer and straight parents--both are learning about Harvey Milk and what he meant for the neighborhood. One afternoon during the shoot I heard this conversation between my friend Lisa (a lesbian mom) and her oldest son, about 9:

"Why was Harvey Milk so important?"

"He helped stand up for the rights of gay people."

"But what does that mean?"

"It means that we can take care of you and not be afraid of anyone taking you away."

Which is really cool, in every single way. I'm glad Van Sant is making this film, and I'm looking forward to seeing it, and I'm proud to live in a place with such great history.

By coincidence, the video of an updated version of Wyclef Jean's "If I Was President" was shot in the neighborhood at the same time as Milk. Liko and my wife Olli got roped into it one afternoon and they cheerfully participated, and now the video is out and they're in it, with many amusing San Francisco street scenes. They appear (for about a second in front of the Castro Theater) at the three minutes, eleven seconds point, near the end:

It's an accidental, personal juxtaposition, but it seems to me that "If I Was President" has a lot to say to Milk:

If I was president,
I'd get elected on Friday, assassinated on Saturday,
and buried on Sunday.

If I was president...
If I was president

An old man told me, instead of spending billions on the war,
we can use some of that money, in the ghetto.
I know some so poor, they use the spring as the shower,
when screaming "fight the power."
That's when the vulture devoured

If I was president,
I'd get elected on Friday, assassinated on Saturday,
and buried on Sunday.

If I was president...
If I was president...
If I was president...
If I was president

Tell the children the truth, the truth.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Throwing the Diaper Genie

When my wife walked into the bedroom, she told me later, she knew right away that it smelled like shit. The only question was whose fault it was. There were three usual suspects, but only one of them still in the room. Spot was lying in gastrointestinal misery in his crib at the back of the house, and the dog had escaped as soon as his owner had decided, for some reason, to attack him with the Diaper Genie.

So it looked incriminating for me, I suppose, and smelled even more so. I was crouched in the corner, shirtless, unshaven, feverish and woozy when Spot's mom walked up behind me. It would make sense if I had lost it before reaching the bathroom, the way Spot had been blowing through his diapers for the last two days. She saw me working the pump spray and scrubbing a brown smear off the wall about six inches above the floor. "It was the dog," I told her. "I don't do vertical surfaces."

Gunther, the younger of our two family dogs, and unlike Spot or myself, was in perfect health. But in this tale of the sick caring for the sick, brought on by a gastrointestinal upheaval that nearly incapacitated our household for two weeks, he too was swept into the vortex. With barely enough energy to take care of my son, I had begun to neglect the dogs, and hadn't walked Gunther in a little over 24 hours. So when I pitched the Diaper Genie, Gunther was fully loaded, and probably a little edgy. The results were, as they say, like writing on the wall.

I called my gastroenterologist a few days into Spot's illness and at the beginning of my own. He painted me a picture of what was going on. "There's a gastrointestinal variant of last season's flu, and it's now epidemic in North America, but is hitting the Midwest especially hard." Words from the mouth of Science itself, both soothing and surreal, like watching Doppler radar tracking a line of tornadoes on TV, and then looking out my kitchen window to see a few cows and a Volkswagon blow by.

The odd thing about sickness is that it's difficult to describe first-hand. We have powerful scientific abstractions, but very little in the way of first-person narratives of epidemic illness. It's so unpleasant, most people try to block out details of the pain, the odor, and the sourness that comes to coat the senses. Which is why I resort to numbers in order to convey something of the day that led up to my dog's attempt at graffiti.

Spot barfed 3 times. That's just one day. Not a little spittle on the T-shirt barf, but river of white chunky lava, there went everything I spoon-fed my feverish and dehydrated child two hours ago barf, followed by a 4-alarm yowl. With each of these barfs came a full load of laundry, and in order to clean up, I had to heft Spot up what seemed to be an ever-steepening flight of stairs. Each of these loads of laundry was preceded by bathing and a full change of clothes for both parties, all conducted at the slow tempo to which the rotavirus or any of its henchmen reduces all human activities.

In addition to these 3 loads of laundry were 3 further loads generated by Spot's violent diarrhea, which soiled 6 successive outfits, including accompanying sheets, blankets, towels, and some of dad's clothes. Simply keeping clean clothes on Spot's back took all the strength I had, after 4 days of my own increasing nausea and a thin diet of rice porridge and bagels.

Add all these numbers up and they amount to an extreme situation. Spot was very sick, and I couldn't seem to do a damn thing about it. He wouldn't drink, and what I fed him he tossed back up. Meanwhile, my ability to take care of myself was flagging. Our home had become a neighborhood biohazard, with millions of rotaviruses wafting onto every surface, waiting to jump from a pen, a postage stamp, a doorknob, onto my hand and then to the UPS guy, starting a fresh new cycle in another neighborhood or another city.

So when Spot kept screaming as I peeled back his damp and vomit-soaked shirt, the sludge falling off his clothing and on to my forearm, I lost it. Things had, at that precise moment, come to the point of being more than I could handle. The reptile part of my brain took over. Spot screamed, and then I screamed, and so he screamed, and I screamed back. It was like a cartoon.

That's when I stood up, grabbed the Diaper Genie, raised it overhead in some pathetic invocation of Conan the Barbarian, and hurled it with a yell into the bedroom. Like some morbidly ripe tropical fruit, it's white plastic casing split open in the middle as it collided with the bed frame, rupturing its transparent blue bowel, full of neatly-folded packages of nastiness, allowing them to scatter like so many seeds across the floor.

Right about then, I think, is when Gunther decided to shit and run.

My wife has a way of arriving at scenes like this in the nick of time, like a superhero. She looked at the mess, asked where the dog went, and then left to tend to Spot.

I gathered the fecal material I had managed to scatter across most of our bedroom, disposed of it, and, in what seems to be the only fitting way to end most days of caregiving as Spot's father, took a shower.

"Throwing the Diaper Genie is not the kind of behavior we want to model for Spot," my wife wrote in an email the next morning, one that I vaguely recall reading through a blur of dehydration, dizziness, and stomach pain.

I agree completely.