Friday, May 20, 2011


"No one has complained before" is perhaps one of the most sinister things that can be said in casual conversation.
(Ing in a discussion of Damon Fowler of Bastrop, Louisiana on Pharyngula, responding to the comment They respected the majority of their classmates and didn’t say anything,” Quinn said. “We’ve never had this come up before. Never.”)
I don't know  about sinister, but reading this took me back to a day 34 or so years ago, when I heard this from my obstetrician. I had asked him not to call me "honey", "sweetie" or the other endearments he used instead of my name. I didn't expect a positive reaction, but I at least expected a professional one. He appeared to take offense at my request, although to be fair, he did honor it. "Nobody else has ever complained before," is pretty much what he said, with a scowl on his face and his shoulders hunched.

The reason I was in Dr. A's office at all, 70 miles from home, is that the only private hospital that delivered babies in Baton Rouge back then did not allow husbands in the delivery room. Lakeside Hospital in Metairie did. A friend who was a childbirth educator gave me the name of a friend who had used Dr. A for several pregnancies and raved about him. If I had listened more carefully, I would have realized that his partner Dr. M, who she described as "very nice, but more like a brother" would have suited me much better. Dr. M, as I found out during one of my prenatal visits when Dr. A was out birthin' babies, addressed patients by their names and didn't exude the paternalism that made me want to slap Dr. A.

And the reason I was willing to travel to another city to have my then husband with me during the birth and the reason I was willing to confront  Dr. A and not back down was that I was about to have a baby. I  figured if I did not learn to fight for what I wanted before the kid was born, s/he was going to run right over me. Did I turn out to be right. I love my son, and he is a wonderful human being, but there were days in his childhood when I felt like I could go from motherhood to running a maximum security prison without turning a hair. Unlike me, my son has an un-bought and un-bossed attitude that I admired while trying hard to convince him he must never use his powers for evil, only for good.

So was Woman's Hospital going to tell me that I couldn't have my husband with me in the delivery room? No. Was Dr. A going to call me "honey" for nine whole months when I have a perfectly good name that he should know because it was right there on the chart he was reading? No. Did I stand up, look him in the eye, and explain to him in a calm and self-possessed voice that his behavior was demeaning and unprofessional? No. Actually I sat there and cried. But I made my point.

And to be fair, Dr. A was a good doctor. I never doubted his concern for me and my child, his support for my desire to have an unmedicated delivery (which I did) and his enthusiasm for what he did. His use of "honey" and "dearie" was meant to be reassuring, not flirtatious. But no one had complained before, and back in the 1970's, men his age weren't going to figure out all on their own that maybe no one had ever complained before because they were afraid to. Afraid of hurting his feelings. Afraid to be seen as hormonal and irrational. Afraid of complaining when no one else had complained before.
Now of course Woman's Hospital lets husbands, grandmas, best friends and the meter maid in the delivery room, in large part because they had potential patients who had their babies in nearby cities rather than accept Woman's rules. Dr. A served on the BOS of our state university and has a sports museum named after him, so I am reminded of him every time hubby and I go to a basketball game or gymnastics meet. My son is grown and gainfully employed. 

And when it came time for my son to make his appearance, right on his due date, which was a Sunday and so Dr. A's day off, Dr. M delivered him. And called me by my name.

Monday, May 16, 2011

What Has Happened Down Here

What has happened down here is the wind has changed.
Clouds rolled in from the north, and it started to rain.

What has happened down here actually happened up north months ago. The north and east suffered higher than usual snowfalls and then later rainstorms. Anyone who lives along the Mississippi River should know to pay attention to the winter weather forecasts further north. When those heavy snows melt, the water drains into the Mississippi, and then on a beautiful spring day with not a cloud in the sky, drains back out onto the roads and homes of those who live in the port cities along its banks.
Those red things are the tops of letters that spell out "Baton Rouge" along the levee wall

After the flood of 1927, the Army Corps of Engineers was charged with building a system of levees to control the flow of the Mississippi River. In the early part of the 20th century, in the battle between man and nature, confidence was high that man would win. The Mississippi River, lazy beast that it is, frequently changes course to follow the path of least resistance to the Gulf of Mexico. The Atchafalaya River, further west in Louisiana, is such a path, and left to its own devices, the Mississippi by now would have cut to the west at Morganza and followed the Atchfalaya to the Gulf, leaving Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and the Port of South Louisiana between, the world's fourth largest port by volume of goods transported, stranded on a backwater. Besides the cities and ports, there are refineries along the river that need the river to transport raw materials and finished products. The economic consequences of the fickle Mississippi packing up and leaving would be dire.  
USS Kidd. See how far it looks from shore? Compare to the picture below. The  Kidd has not moved.

July 4, 2009

So there is something worse to contemplate than flooding, and that is that the source of flooding will take itself off elsewhere. There are those who believe that eventually it will, try as hard as we may to stop it.

The steps where we watch the fireworks each July 4. Last summer, children were playing in a grassy space between the bottom of the steps and the river.

In the meantime, the Corps of Engineers has built a system of levees along the river to keep it in its current course and keep floodwaters from destroying the ports along its route. Built into the levee systems are spillways to divert excess water into low lying areas. The Bonne Carre Spillway diverts water into Lake Pontchartrain, making its use relatively unproblematic. The Morganza Spillway is another matter. The Morganza Spillway releases water into the Atchafalaya Basin, not just into the river but into thousands of acres of forest and farmland, some of it occupied by camps and homes. 

When the spillway was first built, the Corps of Engineers acquired the right to flood the land by paying landowners 90 cents on the dollar. In exchange, the landowners kept title to the land and all mineral rights. In some cases, the Corps leased land to use for levees. The owners are not able to use the land in any way that can damage the levees, but can use the land for grazing and regain title if the levees are  no longer needed (which has happened with smaller ones).  If land is sold, the Corps still retains the right to flood the land. One hopes the land would be sold for less than comparable property that no one is planning to cover with water, but somehow I doubt it's been going for ten cents on the dollar.  Owners are sent a letter every year from the ACOE reminding them of the possibility of the land being flooded if the Spillway needs to be opened.

If human beings were rational actors, this would be straightforward enough. They could make a rational decision to use the land for grazing, farming, hunting, secondary residences ("camps" in local parlance), or oil drilling, and make contingency plans for those times when they need to leave.  This is only the second time the Morganza Spillway has been opened, the last time being 38 years ago. It is quite possible to make profitable use of it in the dry times and prepare for what to do when it floods. Human beings have been taking advantage of the fertile land in flood plains since back in the days of the Egyptians, who counted on the Nile floods each year for irrigation. 

Human beings are not rational actors, however, so natural disasters always come as a surprise, even the ones (like hurricanes and tornadoes) that surprise you once a year rather than once every several decades. I know I for one don't mark June 1 on my calendar every year as the day to check the canned food and battery supplies. It's only when the first hurricane of the season starts making its way to the Gulf of Mexico that I find myself in line with everyone else at Target or Lowe's, thinking that I really should plan ahead next time. It's human nature to think of the good times as default mode and the bad ones as some kind of surreal exception. Yet the Earth is actually a pretty hostile environment for human life. Where can you live that isn't too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry, exposed to storms or in the path of earthquakes and volcanoes? You don't even need to be near an earthquake to be hit by a tsunami, or the recipient of 64 inches of snow to find the resulting melt to be at your front door. We are all one wet, shaken, sooty, wind-swept global community, wondering what hit us before we are beguiled by sunshine and rainbows into thinking life is back to normal again, or before wrestling big rivers back into what we think of as their course.

The river rose all day
The river rose all night
Some people got lost in the flood
Some people got away alright
The river have busted through clear down to Plaquemines
Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline

(Lyrics are of course from Randy Newman's Louisiana 1927.)  Aaron Neville's version can be heard here.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

My Real African Adventure

The team in front of one of the health clinics. I'm somewhere in the back row.
It's hard now to think back to day to day life in 1986 and remember the internet was in its infancy and ordinary people did not have access to it. Now if you want to learn about something called Earthwatch you get on line and Google it, but I really had to think long and hard about how I actually discovered Earthwatch and learned about the Maternal and Infant Nutrition Study that Prisca Nemempare was conducting in Zimbabwe. As best I remember, I saw an ad for Earthwatch in Ms magazine, and a phone call to the 800 number got me a list of expeditions and a year's worth of their magazine. 

Earthwatch works on the same principal that Tom Sawyer used to con his friends into whitewashing the fence. They recruit volunteers who will pay our own way to go and work on scientific projects in countries all over the world. If you are a volunteer, you don't just pay your own way, you pay a fee that covers part of the expedition costs as well. In exchange you got a tax deduction (the rules have changed since) and an interesting experience, and free time off evenings and weekends to do your own exploring.  

The Maternal and Infant study appealed to me for several reasons. As one may have deduced from the fact that I read Ms, I was interested in women's issues. The study was going on in an exotic place, one I'd likely never visit otherwise. More importantly, the timing worked out well for me. The place where I worked had an interesting vacation schedule: it closed for two weeks at Christmas, two weeks at Easter, and two weeks in August. That was a lot of vacation time, but it meant having to plan your vacation for those specific times. One of the team segments for the nutrition study coincided roughly with my August vacation.

I also really did charge the trip to my Visa card with no clear idea how I would pay for it. This wasn't as reckless as it sounds. I did have the financial resources to pay for it, just not in liquid assets, but in the form of equity in a whole life insurance policy, an IRA, and the equity in my on-the-market house. The Visa card was the simplest way to pay for the trip, but I wasn't putting myself into danger of bankruptcy, and I actually paid off the card in about 8 months. And we did have to take malaria pills once a week. It was very important to take them on the same day each week.

When I first heard about the trip, the teams were supposed to stay in a hut without electricity out in a rural area. That was the first year of the study. In 1986, the study shifted to Harare itself, and we stayed in a house in Chisipite, about two blocks or so away from the vice-prime minister's compound. Our house was nowhere near as grand, but it had electricity and running water, not to mention a laundry room and a groundskeeper who swept the driveway every day. It didn't have enough beds for the whole team, and since I had brought an air mattress and sleeping bag, I decided to sleep out on the covered back porch.

What we did there was simple. Each morning we went to an antenatal clinic, where we helped the nursing staff do antenatal exams in exchange for being able to ask the patients to participate in an interview. Those of us with no medical background did weigh-ins and collected urine samples. In the course of interviewing, we would ask for volunteers to let us do more extensive interviews in their homes that afternoon. 

Inside a clinic

Typical health poster

The interviews not only contained questions about nutrition, but also about the patient's family, work life, pregnancy history, and job status. The answers could be amusing. A woman who answered no to whether she had a job often turned out to have a farm out of town she worked every summer, or would sit there crocheting clothing to sell as she talked. It was rare for any of our interviewees to be Western-style SAHM's.

We would also ask how many children they wanted and a typical answer was, "Not many. Only four." (or five or six. Eight was the upper limit of ideal family size among the woman I spoke to, and 4-6 the average.). Almost all of the women I spoke to used birth control to space their children. Prisca said in the rural areas where they had been the year before, it was not unusual to see pregnant women bring their infants to the clinics, but in the big city, women appeared to have access to and a favorable attitude toward family planning.

A question that amused me was "Does your husband have any other wives?" I don't remember hearing yes, but plural marriages were  apparently legal.  

We had interpreters to help us with the interviews, but most of the women we saw spoke some English, and if they didn't understand us they would grab the list of questions and read it themselves. English is the official language of Zimbabwe, since to pick one tribal language would have caused war to break out among the tribes, something that back in 1986 the country had avoided. Sometimes one patient would translate for another. 

Of course, the questions about nutrition were quite revealing. When asked how much they ate, the women would reply "A lot! I'm hungry all the time." Then when I asked what they ate the day before, they would report modest meals. Most of these women were quite lean. The nurses in our group, who listened for the baby's heart beats, reported it was very easy to find them with so little fat in the way. One of Prisca's concerns was that in adopting Western ways of eating, people in her country had come to reject traditional sources of protein like rodents and termites. I actually wanted to try eating field mouse, but did not think it would be safe to buy from open pots in the markets.
The two littlest girls with caps on are triplets. The third one died.

The home visits were enough to make you go home and kiss the floor you walk on. Most of the homes we visited had dirt floors, and running water consisted of a tap outside the building. Despite these limitations, those homes were clean. There were radios, but no TV's. A lot of the children's toys were homemade by the children themselves. They learned to make them in school. I did see one boy riding a bicycle, but most bicycles belonged to adults. I remember pricing toys in a store one day. You could buy a rump roast for the cost of a box of crayons and a coloring book.

I did visit one house with a TV, wood floors, indoor plumbing, and some children's toys. It was the home of our driver, Simon, who drove us to our clinic and home visits. I have no idea which homes were more typical of the general population there.

The children we saw were happy looking and extremely polite, and looked on our visits as a great chance to practice their English. Living in the south of the U.S., I'm used to hearing children say "ma'am", but I was charmed by hearing "Good evening, madam" in greeting. 

My favorite picture

All the houses had gardens (not the farms the women would work in summer) where the family would raise some vegetables for the table. When they weren't gardening, the women and girls would crochet. One weekend, on our way to Masvingo (pronounced Mashingo), we stopped to see what some roadside peddlers had for sale. I bought a crocheted, tea-length dress for the equivalent of $10-12 U.S. After spending four times as much for suitable underwear to wear with it and wearing it four times as a party dress, I got married in it.

What did I learn from my trip? Probably not enough.  I saw that even at a point in my life when I felt the poorest I had since childhood, I still owned more of the Earth's resources than women who were working far harder. I learned that despite my intent to be culturally sensitive, our culturally determined ways of looking at life are so ingrained that it is hard to step outside them even with the best will in the world. I learned that drinking from a water fountain at the Victoria Falls Hotel is not a good idea if you have a sensitive stomach.  I learned to love Zimbabwe, and to feel heartbroken over what happened to it in later years. And I learned that sometimes it pays off to leap before you look.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Trouble Cat

Should have been named "Trouble"

I am going to blog about my trip to Africa, but I have to wait until next Wednesday or Thursday, so I can post some of my better pictures. The negatives and slides of the pictures that I took while I was there are being scanned to disk by the expensive camera shop at a cost that would pay for a new wardrobe for my next trip. Okay, not a new wardrobe but a pair of jeans and several T-shirts. I have a seriously cute picture of a bunch of children on the street and an arty shot of sundown on the Zambezi, and I can't just scan the prints at home because they are in a multi-picture frame. 

So in the meantime, I can blog about my cat. Lately, it has been horribly unlucky to be one of my cats. Truffle, our only cat at the moment, broke his little toe. The first I realized anything was wrong was when he jumped up on my dresser and I saw his rear paw had an open sore on it. An hour later, the vet looked at it and said he had an abscess that had ruptured, and that he seemed to have broken the bone in his outer toe, probably by catching his claw in something. She gave him a shot of a long-acting antibiotic and told me to bring him back at the end of the week. In the meantime, keep him inside.

By the end of the week, Truffle had managed to escape and get out only twice. The abscess, while looking better, was still draining. X-rays showed the infection was in the bone, and that surgery would be necessary. I had to give Truffle antibiotics by mouth over the weekend, and bring him in Monday for the surgery. He could go home Tuesday, and would need to continue on the antibiotic, and stay inside. 

Truffle is not an easy cat to give medicine to. None of them are, but Truffle is 13 some odd pounds of pure muscle and mean, and has a finely honed instinct for self defense. So far, I've been able to corral him in the sink area of the divided bath morning and night for over a week to give him his drops, and most of them seem to be going inside. None of the scratches he's inflicted on me have been very deep. Despite the fact that Truffle has managed to remove almost all his stitches, he is recovering well, and has only escaped the house once. He should be finished with the antibiotics and make his last vet visit Tuesday, and by then he should be able to resume normal life. I hope.

It is at times like this, when corralling a terrified cat determined to fight to the end to avoid the medicine that is going to save him from a horrible, possibly life-threatening infection, and getting scratched for my pains, that my thoughts turn theological. Maybe this is what our relationship with God is like, I think. We don't understand when he is doing things that will ultimately benefit us. We fight and scratch and yowl and rip at our stitches. Maybe there is some beneficial plan behind events that only seem bad from our limited perspective.

But then I go on to think about the situation from my perspective. I know my cat is a cat. I don't expect him to like or understand surgery, stitches, medicine, confinement. I know that from his perspective, these are horrible events with no redeeming features. If I had the power to make antibiotics taste yummy and wounds zip themselves closed without uncomfortable stitches, I would exercise it in a second and not worry about whether I was interfering with his little kitty-cat sized free will in the process. Whatever Truffle was doing at the moment he got injured (my husband thinks climbing on the fence), he probably did have another choice he could have made. But whatever Truffle was doing at the moment he got injured, he didn't do it with the intention of exposing himself to an injury and horrible infection. He probably did it with the intention of exposing a bird or a squirrel to an injury and possible death, because he's a cat, which means he's a carnivore.

And I certainly don't judge him for not seeing the injury and medical treatment from my perspective. How could he? He's a cat. Oh, sure, I have fussed at him a few times when he's scratched me, and I have called him a bad cat for removing his stitches, but that's just frustration on my part. I know he's not bad. I love the little demon. I love the courage he exhibits in the presence of a being who is many times his size and who seems determined to poison him. I love the ingenuity he shows in removing his stitches and sneaking outdoors. I don't love the results, because they are bad for him, but I love the traits. And I knew when I took on the responsibility of living with a cat that it would mean moments like these, and I did it anyway.

So theology isn't my thing. Obviously I am not qualified to be God. 

Update, May 10, 2011: Truffle has his remaining stitches out, has healed up well, no longer needs his antibiotic, and can go outside when he wants to. He still looks funny with his paw shaved, but that will mend in time, too.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Alien Landscapes, Part 2

The house where our team stayed in on Shortheath Road in Harare, Zimbabwe

I suppose some conflicts are rooted in childhood memories, or triggered by pheromones, or perhaps Andi or I or both were being overly sensitive to small slights we would have overlooked at another time. Certainly her hostility toward me did not seem to spring from a hostile nature, and while I resented what I saw as her know-it-all attitude, I also realized several of my best friends at home behaved the same way without provoking anything but amusement on my part. No matter how irrational, however, our mutual dislike hung over the group like clouds that couldn’t make up their minds to rain. Nobody else commented on it directly, although Andi’s favorites in the group, Marsha and Elaine, seemed to make a point of disagreeing with my views on everything but the weather, although always in the politest of tones, whereas my two closest companions, Emma and Karen, made it clear they were not there to get involved in other people’s squabbles. Not being there to get involved in other people’s squabbles myself, I could hardly blame them, and counted Emma’s and Karen’s automatic inclusion of me in their plans as enough of a declaration of loyalty.

At the same time, I was enjoying myself wholeheartedly. Having made up my mind that I was taking  a vacation from everything else in my life: motherhood, job, ex-husband, housecleaning, and the whole Northern hemisphere, I was able to add “being liked by everybody” to the list and view Andi’s hostility to me as I did my malaria pill: something to be swallowed at regular intervals and then forgotten.

And that's where I got stuck.  Reading the story over, I think it was just as well. My story wasn't going to win any prizes. My intent when I posted the fragment I have was "to post the part of the story I had written as two blogposts, and then finish with an account of the rest". The problem I am having, however, is the same as the problem I had when I started the story. What is "the rest"? There were so many facets of my life that merge in my mind when I remember  the trip to Africa: the breakup of my marriage, the depression I fell into after my marriage broke up, even though I initiated the divorce, my precarious job situation, the trip itself, including the study we were helping with, and my conflict with one of the other team members. What I think will be most interesting to readers is the study itself and the country we visited, but if the other events sneak into my account, well, you've been warned.