Saturday, July 24, 2010

New York missive no 74 - The American way of birth

A few days after JNH was born, M and C suggested I go for a walk around the block to have a bit of time out. I walked along to the corner, went half-way down the next street, then had to turn back again. I was amazed how, emotionally, the umbilical cord was still attached and I couldn’t leave JNH alone. Even to walk round the block! Of course since then that cord has loosened, or at least extended.

C and I left him recently with his aunt Z for a few hours while we went to see Oliver Stone’s new documentary “South of the Border” at the Angelica. (An entertaining and personal take on Latin America’s leftist leaders, Chávez, Correa, Lula, Kirchner and Lugo, but too much of a whistle-stop tour to provide much new insight. It was a stark reminder though of how right-wing the US is. Due to its misplaced continued sense of its own dominance perhaps, and the fact that it is mired in political point-scoring and inward-looking attitudes, any political progressiveness is stunted despite the election of Obama. But I digress…).

My feeling as we worked our way through the shopping throngs on West Broadway was, “wow, I have this little miracle waiting for me at home, none of you can imagine…”. Which is rather illogical given there would have been plenty of people among those crowds who have also experienced parenthood.

Then last week I ventured out for a while on my own, to teach a class on business and human rights at NYU. Again I had a strong feeling that my identity has changed. It had been bizarre enough riding the subway the first few times in November with a wedding ring on my finger. Now there I was thinking “I’m a mother.” There was a pregnant woman in the crowded N train (standing up, as most pregnant subway-riders in NYC have to do). I couldn’t resist asking her if it was her first child. She looked young and in great shape and somehow I presumed it was. “No, my third,” she replied. “Oh, I said. It’s just that I had a baby a couple of months ago...I wanted to say that you’re in for the time of your life. But I guess you are an old hand now.” “I don’t know about old hand...” she laughed, but did add that she happily left her kids all the time.

After the class one of the students, a Polish woman who has two sons of her own, walked out with me. We exchanged rants about the American Way of Birth (aha, should write something about that sometime...but have now just realized a day after posting this that Jessica Mitford already did, after her American Way of Death). She gave birth to her first son in Texas. She said that there even more than in New York, where there is something of a move back towards a natural approach to childbirth and rearing if you look hard enough, she was considered a freak for breastfeeding. In both places the rate of cesarean section is incredibly high – I think it's over 30% in the US as a whole. It is wonderful that women have the opportunity for a cesarean section when it’s medically necessary, but it is extraordinary that so many now choose to have their babies brought out of them that way. More to the point, are guided into that choice by doctors and insurance companies. And choose to feed them a manufactured product derived from what cows feed their calves. More to the point, are influenced into that choice by the formula firms. Can it be a coincidence, too, that women who have had cesareans have a harder time breastfeeding at the beginning so are more likely to go with formula? But how easy to be judgmental about how other mothers bring their children into the world and help them navigate it. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned over the past couple of months is that when it comes to parenting, judgment should be left aside.

Monday, July 5, 2010

New York missive no 73 - Funes el memorioso

How humbling that a tiny seven-week old creature can rule two “adults” lives.


The pear tree outside our living room had been reminding me of Borges’ short story “Funes el Memoriso” (Funes the Memorious). That’s because I remembered, or thought I remembered, that Funes’ overwhelmingly acute memory meant that he could recall the formation of the leaves on all the trees he had seen. Something about the shapes of the dense pear-tree leaves tremoring in the wind, with little white dots where the sunlight made it through, brought that story to mind. I ran through what I thought I remembered about the story.

Funes, I thought, was an old man, sitting on a bench outside in a dirt courtyard, recounting to the narrator the ways in which his perfect memory manifests itself. He can take a day to re-live a past day in his mind. Then I re-read the story to see whether my memory was true. Only partly. Funes is young, not old, though when the lights come up at the end of the story the narrator sees that despite his nineteen years his features are “more ancient than Egypt”. And he’s sitting in a darkened black room, not in a courtyard. But there was the reference to the trees. "En efecto, Funes no sólo recordaba cada hoja de cada árbol de cada monte, sino cada una de las veces que la había percibido o imaginado" (Funes didn’t only remember every leaf on every tree on every mountain, but also every time that he had seen or imagined it). Funny though, that I had remembered that detail and not some of the even more unusual ones. Like the difficulty Funes had in conceiving of a concept like "dog", given that he had trouble understanding that a dog seen in profile at 3.14pm is the same thing as a dog seen face-on at 3.15.

How selective our memories are. Yet there are so many ways that they come to participate in our present. Perhaps their imperfection is a blessing. For Funes his "perfect" memory was a constraint, crowding out any sense of abstraction, filling space with detail to leave no room for meaning. Long live forgetfulness.