Sunday, October 25, 2009

Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin

While at a cabin away for the weekend two weeks ago, the Mister and I drank a bottle of Veuve Clicqout Ponsardin champagne. My parents had given it to us at Christmas to be drunk when Mervivian Alloicious arrived. It was super tasty. I don't have the taste memory to rank it with other good champagnes we've had, but know that it was certainly up there. Sitting on the porch of a stone cabin watching the leaves fall and chipmunks frolic in the rain, discussing everything from fantasy novels to family-friendly employment practices with the man I love certainly didn't hurt the taste either.

I'm trying to write a conclusion to my earlier post about being proud of playing tennis to explain why the pride is new for me. The advice, obviously, is nothing new: "live life to the fullest 'cause you never know when you'll die" would be trite if it weren't such good advice and if tragedy didn't regularly remind us that we need to follow it. I suppose part of my typical difficulty comes from the fact that it is easier to write about personal misfortune than personal good fortune. I want to write that the cabin had mice and lots of insects, the chimney flue didn't completely work and that it rained all weekend, all of which is true, but those issues didn't make the company or the champagne any less wonderful. Coming across as boastful about my life really concerns me, but, as I've mentioned before, while boasting of good fortune may be annoying, experiencing good fortune while claiming it is bad is insufferable. My life is not perfect and I never intend to portray it that way, but I hope that I am wise enough to show some gratitude for how very good it is.

While I was in graduate school, my mother annually wrote about the parties I threw in the family Christmas letter. This disturbed me because I worked hard as a graduate student, and I didn't want family friends to think that I partied all the time. The year she listened to me and wrote about my graduate work instead of my parties, the letter ended up devoid of any me-ness. What makes me different is not that I worked hard and had ample set-backs as a graduate student (and as a professor and as a mother), but that I threw fantastic theme parties while in graduate school. While in Colorado last week, I watched my father fight with computer programs until the wee hours as he tried to assemble data to his client's changing specs. He was frustrated, achy and having trouble focusing, yet he dropped his work to take me to multiple specialty grocery stores to make sure we had serrano ham and cabrales blue cheese for his grandson's Colorado debut tapas party. It's the good humored food enthusiast refilling wine glasses that people know, not the workaholic scientist, and I think that's a good thing.

When I spoke with my mother about this, she commented that everyone knows we work hard. I'm not so sure. I still remember the sting of one high school friend telling another, who was truly appalled that I had been selected for a prestigious scholarship, "Yeah, she may act like a blond ditz but she's actually really smart" and then repeating the conversation to me as if it were a compliment. My own (very pro-education) grandfather suggested, upon completion of my doctorate, that it was time I settled down and financially supported myself. At the time I was 34, married, living in a house I had purchased while single, and over ten years into the working world.* Friends here fail to understand that Dianthus does not sleep all the time. Many times when they see him asleep in his stroller, it is because he in inconsolable any other way, and while it is great that the stroller nearly always consoles him, I cannot accomplish anything else while taking him for walks**. I'm as guilty as other friends of thinking that when my father, who often works from home, answers the phone, he is available to talk. Despite my mother's suggestion, people don't know that we work hard.

I'm just beginning to convince myself, however, that it is not the hard work that is worth talking about. My uncle died suddenly nine years ago. I'm sure he was a fine geologist, but I'll always remember him as the guy who sent my father a rock for a Christmas ornament, a man would swing me round long after I was too big too swing, and someone who would take a day of his limited vacation to take his niece and nephew to an amusement park. When he died, a great family friend commented that it further supported my father's philosophy (which stunned me, as I had no idea my father espoused any philosophy enough for others to be able to repeat it). That friend visited my parents in China, somehow convincing my father to sing karaoke (much Jack Daniels was apparently involved), danced at his daughter's wedding and helped pick champagne for my wedding before he died much too young four years after my uncle.

I wrote a really good dissertation. Most semesters I teach too much and most of the time I do it well. Dianthus cries and I deal with it. Yet, if I am remembered, it will be for balls and groundhog parties and wine tastings as a graduate student, taking off on vacation the moment that grades are in as a professor, and taking a two month old to the tennis courts and to a rodent-infested cabin for a champagne-drinking, pizza-eating weekend. And I'm okay with that. No, I'm more than okay. I'm proud of that.

*For accuracy sake, I should clarify that my parents had set aside money for my college education. When I received the prestigious scholarship, I was able to keep the money invested and later use it to buy my house. Thanks Mom and Dad!

**I am well aware that I have an easier than average child; but that still doesn't mean that spending long days with him is easy.
Image is from Dianthus's uncle, who could be known for authoring articles in high impact journals in genetics and geophysics in the same year, but will be better remembered for decorating images of his adorable nephew.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Who's not a feminist?

Lady S, the main character in Vita Sackville-West's All Passion Spent was no feminist. The narrator, summarizing the thoughts of Lady S, says so right there on page x*. Lady S had no use for politics or economics. Beyond boring her, she openly admits that she has no mind for the topics.
Lady S's "simple mind" wouldn't matter much if All Passion Spent (1931) were not considered a great early feminist treatise. As APS is often touted as the fictional companion to Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own**, many readers (myself included) expect Lady S to embrace feminism and excel at "masculine" pursuits. The introduction to my copy lists Lady S's denouncement of feminism and politics as the big disappointments of the book, and I was surprised to find I agreed (I found the introduction problematic, as I opine neither plot twists nor flaws should be discussed before a book is read. I should learn to skip introductions, although they fascinate me.) Lady S suddenly embracing economics, however, would not have worked with the story at all, so I think Vita Sackville-West knew what she was doing. The book, the last of the thoughtful fun books about women and their gardens given to me by my sister-in-law, (here, here and here) forwards feminist themes (that women are thinking creatures with desires of their own), without making any characters feminists. It's a good novel and much more readable than I remember A Room of One's Own being (probably because I prefer novels to essays as a general rule).
My reading of the book brought up questions I've toyed with many times in my life; "What is a feminist?" and "Why are people afraid of feminists?"
Just as I was surprised by Lady S's proclamation that she was no feminist, years ago I was shocked when I learned from my brother how much he disliked feminists. In both cases, it's clear that the others were not using the term the same way that I do. I don't know what "feminist" meant to upper-class Englishwomen in 1931, but to me it means one who is for equal rights and equal opportunity for women. My brother, who surreptitiously gave me advice about negotiating more liberal rules from my parents as a teenager, encouraged me in pursuit of a PhD in the sciences, and is proud that my niece is top of her class in math, falls under my definition of a feminist. He would be more of an activist than I would be if he learned that I was being payed less or not advancing in my career because of my gender. Yet he dislikes "feminists". The word must mean something different to him, and to Lady S., and to my fellow female biology professor who won't ever let a man park her horse trailer, but can't stand feminists and was shocked that I considered myself one.
So, what does feminist mean to you? and are you one?

*I'm writing this on someone else's computer in Colorado. I neither have access to my copy of the book nor willingness to learn how to open multiple windows and flip among them on this computer. Links and details may be added when I return home.

**Woolf and Sackville-West were friends and lovers.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Another Season Down

I almost didn't cut my basil yesterday because I wasn't ready for either the baseball or the gardening season to be over, and they are inextricably linked in my mind. However, low nighttime temperatures, while not actually freezing, have kept the basil from growing, and it was time to make the last pesto, which I did, and then the Rockies lost.

Altogether, it wasn't a bad season. The Mister presided over a vegetable garden that yielded lots of heirloom French tomatoes, okra, and pole beans with reasonable quantities of peppers, spring greens and tomatillos. We harvested some peas, kale and kohlrabi. Herbs were abundant, whether or not we harvested them at the proper time. Flowers everywhere, including the porches, have started to make the place feel more like my home*. Of course there were set-backs. Deer demolished the strawberries and the peas and jumped the fence into the vegetables more than once. Something (groundhog?) dug up and ate every smidgen of the beets. Some of the tomatoes became diseased.

Similarly, after a promising first week, the Royals were awful. The Cubs made it interesting until August and the Rockies had a horrid May. But then they turned it around, started winning, and made the play-offs. And yes, they lost. And yes, the garden is done for.
But there's always next year.
And in the meantime, the spinach in the earth boxes is up and looking lovely. The Mister is talking about making frames to extend the greens season. I ate the last tomato/pepper/cucumber salad. I'm moving on to apples and butternut squash. The Broncos and the Jayhawks are both 5-0. It's football season.

*My house in Kansas was known for its fantastic cottage garden and flowering vines that completely enshrouded the front porch.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

I've been playing tennis

The Mister and I have played tennis nine times in the last month. He leads the series 5-4.

By the time you read this, we will have gone away to a cabin for two nights. Hopefully we'll have done some leaf peeping, hiking, and maybe even champagne drinking. We may have taken Dianthus to his first Mexican restaurant and to see native mammals at the State Game Preserve. I've been swimming twice a week and baked the Mister a great birthday cake.

I'm living my life. Enjoying my life. And I'm proud of it.

My desire to tell you this stems from several sources. At first, "I've been playing tennis" was part of an unsaid sarcastic retort to a colleague asking me, "So, what have you been doing?" when I stopped by the office.
She asked this during the time I was still bleeding, still crying every day and feeding Dianthus was an all consuming endeavor.* To me, the question (from a mother of two who should have known better) sounded as if there were an expectation of productivity, as if washing a load of clothes and dreaming about a nap sometime in the future was not "doing" enough. At that moment, "I've been playing tennis" would have sounded to me as fanciful as "I've been sitting on the beach sipping mai tais while my minions massage my toes and accept all the requests for publications and major grants I've been receiving."

The long and eloquent explanation as to why I am so proud of playing tennis, which includes the tragic recent death of my boss's husband in a farm accident, my father doing karaoke in China, a prosective lab mate in grad school asking me how often I actually stayed in bed reading novels**, phyics tests and obligation to those who aren't as lucky, will have to wait. I've twice fed and changed Dianthus and done the laundry and tried to pack since I started this post, and now the Mister is home and I need to go enjoy living my life rather than telling you about it.

But the punch line remains the same: The future is always uncertain. I'm proud to be enjoying and living my life now. I highly recommend that you do the same.

*Now we're down to feeding and changing Dianthus being the time equivalent of a full time job with incredibly split shifts.

**Thank you Erin for transforming my life.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Baby Products at 2 Months: Diapers

We've tried all sorts of diapers with Dianthus. Here's what we've tried.
Bummis: Bummis are traditional cloth diapers except the diaper covers are breathable and quiet (no plastic pants) with velcro tabs (no diaper pins), the diapers are thick unbleached organic cotton, and one can use a flushable liner with them. We wash them on hot with an extra rinse with special soap (e.g. very plain; brighteners and stain fighters apparently can leave residues on diapers. We use Charlie's Soap* which is cheap and really, quite astounding in its cleaning power) and I line dry them. The starter set, 6 pairs or pants (3 patterned, 3 white) and 36 diapers cost $150 at the Blue Dandelion.
gDiapers: gDiapers are stretch cotton orange or vanilla bean pants, a snap in water-proof liner and a disposable insert. The plastic-free inserts are flushable, but we've been composting the wet ones and throwing away those with poop (being plastic free, they break down much faster than regular disposables). We started with a starter kit (2 pants and 10 inserts) and a case of inserts (160) from Amazon*, but the much better buy is directly from gDiapers and includes 6 pants and a case of inserts for $100. We would like to try gCloth, but they have been out since August.
Disposables: We've used Pampers Swaddlers, Swaddler Sensitive, Huggies, Huggies Pure and Natural and Baby Basics (the store brand at our grocery store). Retail prices in my town run about $12/36, $12/34, $12/36, $12 for unnamed quantity and $8/40. At Sam's Club, we bought the next size of Pampers at a much lower per diaper cost.
What we're doing now: cloth diapers while at home during the day (about 30/week), disposables overnight and in the diaper bag, gDiapers for outings and times when the cloth is being washed. Since we went from all disposables (see small child below) to this system, we have reduced our weekly diaper trash to about a third of what it was.

Our experience: Small child: We had decided to not use our cloth diapers until after Dianthus fully stopped with tar poop (about 8 days) and lost his umbilical chord (13 days). At two weeks we tried on the specialty diapers and they leaked straight out. A child under eight pounds with skinny legs will not fill out the gDiapers or the Bummis wraps. We had to continue to use the newborn size of disposables almost exclusively for the first six weeks. As most kids aren't in the newborn size very long, they are not available in very big packages, not at Sam's Club, and not in many alternative forms (i.e. Pampers makes two lines in other sizes, but for the newborns you can only buy the premium line, at least in our town).
Ease of putting on: Disposables are usually easiest, but when Dianthus was particularly wiggly and I wasn't good at changing yet, I found the gDiapers easier to put on. Now I will do any without thinking much of it. The Mister, meanwhile, is somehow intimidated by the gDiapers but has no problem with the cloth. Little note that, because gDiapers velcro in the back, they are more prone to sticking to fuzzy changing table surfaces.
Quantity: We're still talking ten plus diapers a day. We seem to go through more when we are using the cloth.
Cost vs. Environment: The more we use them, the more cost effective and more environmentally beneficial the Bummis are. Because I am doing laundry pretty much every day these days (another post), I don't mind washing them. I also hope to pass them on or use them for another child, which will further decrease the cost per use and increase the environmental benefits. Yet they were not cheap and the environmental costs of cotton production are not immaterial. At $150 for the set, I would need to use the cloth diapers at least 450 times before they start being cost effective if that were the only criterion. I've decided to consider them a gift from my ecologist friends to the environment (which they were) and thus of no cost to me. Every time I use them, therefore, I'm saving money by not buying disposables. I also think of them as something that allows me to use the more expensive gDiapers instead of regular disposables.
If the gCloth liners are any good, I would go with them along with the regular gs, so I wouldn't have the financial and environmental costs of two different sets of "permanent" pants.

Little Notes: The Mister liked the newborn Pampers better than the Huggies and both are far preferable to the Baby Basics, which we just quit using for a while because they seemed so useless. The color change strip on the regular swaddlers is much more pronounced than on the swaddlers sensitive. We don't yet use the flushable liners in the Bummis because currently the poop is basically liquid, against which the liners really are useless.
All little pants (gs or Bummis) require thought when washing to make sure that the velcro tabs are down so they don't stick to everything.

*Next to the new dishwasher, Amazon prime is about the best baby product around for those of us who live nowhere near shopping. Shipping on BOB alone almost paid for the year of "free" two day shipping.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Books with strange senses

I recently re-read two books by authors with twisted senses of humor: The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More by Roald Dahl and Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut. As it happens, both books fit my size requirements and were on the shelf next to where I feed Dianthus at night. I've long thought that both men bring out humor in very odd ways. I see the series of unfortunate events as a natural descendant of Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, except that, unlike Lemony Snicket (whose creator went to college with my sister-in-law or something like that), Roald Dahl isn't smug about the pathetic (and darkly humorous)predicaments his characters are in and most of the time the "good" child prevails in the end. And until recently, I thought that Vonnegut wrote Roald Dahl books for adults.
With this reading, however, I realized a very big difference. I'm unconvinced that most Vonnegut it funny or is supposed to be funny. Yes, the author emphasizes the absurd and yes, there are lots of penis jokes. But, as with my reading of Hocus Pocus late last year, I found reading Breakfast this time to be downright depressing. No matter how silly the drawings or absurd the context, unmitigated rampant racism, sexism, pollution and greed just aren't that funny. I imagine that both men took their writing very seriously and put effort into making it appear effortlessly thrown together, but the stories in Henry suggest Dahl had fun creating his stories and Breakfast implies that his stories depressed and only moderately amused Vonnegut.
As for the books themselves, I have always enjoyed Dahl's eclectic Henry Sugar collection, particularly the title story, The Hitchhiker and his autobiographical piece about British boarding school life which helped explain Harry Potter to me. Danny the Champion of the World is by far my favorite Dahl work, but Henry Sugar falls second (perhaps because they are the only Dahl books I've ever owned, perhaps because I prefer realism to fantasy sometimes).
The Mister and I agree that Vonnegut wrote some great books, some good books and some pieces of trash, but disagree exactly what falls on each list. The Mister rates Breakfast as one of the greats. I categorized it as merely good prior to this reading, and there it stays. This reading also made me wonder if I'd find those I consider great and funny to be either anymore, but I'm not going to read them soon to find out.
Anthony Bourdain reveals his strange sense of right and wrong more in the collected essays of Nasty Bits than he does in his other works I've read or seen (chef right, demanding customer wrong, unless the chef is a celebrity or into silly fusion or foams and the customer is a real person requesting real food served promptly and simply, in which case the customer is right). Bourdain is a man clinging to a bad boy image while finding himself a respectful and overall respectable grown-up. The essay collection has a bit too many repeated themes: restaurant work is hard work; trends are bad unless they are bringing more good food to more people; simple food can be great; good chefs are hard to find, but overall they work. I particularly like that he included follow up comments at the back of the book in which, more often than not, he admits he was wrong and arrogant when he wrote the original essay.
Finally, I should report upon A Valley in Italy by Lisa St. Aubin de Teran, who just has strange sense. Written before A Year in Provence or Under the Tuscan Sun, A Valley in Italy is about an Englishwoman moving to a small village in Umbria and trying to fix up the local dilapidated castle enough to be inhabited. Fortunately, unlike the other books named, Aubin de Treran doesn't ooze wealth, doesn't marvel about the slow pace of life and then bitch about work never getting done, and understands that, overall, her family, rather than the villagers, are the freaks of this scene. While I revel in authors who don't take themselves too seriously, I was surprised by how much Aubin de Teran's bohemian sensibilties bothered me. In my opinion, a woman in her thirties, living in her third country and in her third child-producing relationship, should not be encouraging her teenage daughter to go and model in Paris and then plan a giant wedding for a pair of seventeen year-olds. Then again, nobody is selling books about people with my life: (went to school, worked hard, went to college, worked, went to graduate school, met single smart man, married him, found jobs, had child with husband).