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Saturday, July 30, 2005

back from caracas

I just got in last night after spending an amazing week in Venezuela, reporting on Hugo Chavez's "Bolivarian Revolution" for Smithsonian Magazine, which ought to publish it this fall.
This will be short, as the kids could wake up any minute, but I wanted to let anyone who's interested know I'll be speaking at Book Passage in Corte Madera tonight at 7 p.m. and that a rather odd story I wrote about mom rats will be in the San Francisco Chronicle Sunday magazine this weekend.
I hope in the next couple of weeks to produce a coherent impression of Venezuela for people who are just getting up to speed on what has become to my mind the most compelling story in Latin America. Reporting the story turned out to be much harder than I'd expected, as the city is in utter chaos, the institutions breaking down, traffic so appalling it can take an hour to travel a couple miles (I saw a jeep in flames in the road one day, and when I tried to take the subway once a train had stalled). Government officials have pretty much stopped talking to U.S. journalists, and I heard that U.S. diplomats likewise have no access. Still, I was lucky to find informed and patient sources who helped me tremendously, and managed to spend a day in a shantytown, exploring the root of Chavez's continuing popularity. For now: the story is much more complex than it might seem from many press accounts here and especially from the polarized U.S. debate between "hands off Venezuela" leftists and Cold War conservatives. One perspective of special relevance for moms is that traveling to that country, where the dependence on fossil fuels is so extreme (oil is Venezuela's main, almost only, export) and the poverty so severe and the social crisis so intense brings home what an uncertain future we face even in rich countries. Packed in my bag was James Kunstler's very disturbing new book, "The Long Emergency," arguing that the great boom of the age of oil is near its end, and that no one is prepared for it, lending a fairly powerful perspective to my interviews. More soon on that.
On a somewhat lighter note, on the way home yesterday I was on a Continental flight where I was surrounded by fidgeting young kids. The toddler in the seat in back of me kicked my seat for, I'm not kidding, three hours straight before I did what I'd sworn to myself, in my days of traveling with my own babies, I would never do, and turned around and glared at the mom. She glared back. I told her -- and this, I admit, may or may not be precisely true -- that while I used to travel with babies, I would never have ever let them kick someone's seat for that long. (Hey, but what I do know is I'd never have changed a poopy diaper in the seat -- because when I tried once, the flight attendant insisted I do it in the restroom. This lady, however, changed THREE of them.) "Well, then we're different!" the mom said to me. I tried, Buddha-like, to summon compassion, and turned back around and fumed for the next hour. But the experience brought home -- again -- just how crazed we can be when we're in the Short Emergency of coping with babies, and how soon we can forget and stop forgiving thereafter. I remembered tottering through SFO once, overloaded with an infant, luggage and a diaper bag, and noticing a poo stain on my dress, when a middle-aged man caught my eye, and, as if reading my thoughts, said, "And your shoelace is untied...!"

Friday, July 15, 2005

on second thought

Of course there's "material," even in this priviledged tale of woe. A saner workplace, allowing both parents to participate more in raising their children and sharing the inevitable drudgery, would be a much better solution than cheaper takeout meals. It's just that there are so many much more urgent needs for families these days -- starting with the absolute no-brainer of paid family and medical leave. The FMLA act, signed by Bill Clinton in 1993, gives up to 12 weeks off work for employees with new babies or serious illnesses of an immediate family member. But as it is, the benefits are out of reach for possibly the majority of working parents, who can't afford to miss the paycheck. Only California so far allows any compensation for such time off. To read more about the pressing agenda for families -- and why it's not getting done -- sign on to www.sjmercurynews.com this Sunday, and look for my article in the Perspective section on the emerging "motherhood movement."

Thursday, July 14, 2005

moose turd pie

I've made a deal with my husband that we've never formally negotiated. Since he has the fulltime job with benefits, I, writing part-time, am the go-to gal for almost all of the domestic support. That's house-cleaning, laundry, childcare, room-organizing, shopping, bill-paying and cooking, although he washes dishes, is an awesome dad, and rakes the yard. I don't blame him -- most of the time -- because as we both know, I don't want to trade places. We're both grateful that he has a good job, and that mine is now flexible enough to accomodate being at home, most of the time, for the kids. After working fulltime for more than 20 years, I appreciate my relative freedom. There's not much Betty Friedan material here, when you really think it over.
However. Last night I caught myself making my spouse the most execrable dinner yet: a kind of onion-y, peppery tofu concoction that had way too much tumeric. And it suddenly reminded me of that story (told wonderfully by Bay Area story-teller Joel Ben Izzy) about the aspiring logger who arrives at his camp only to be handed an apron and told that he has to cook, instead of do the manly work out in the woods, until someone complains. And no one ever complains. His ploy, ultimately, is to hunt down a huge, steaming moose turd and cook it into a pie. But even that is consumed with apparent relish, because no one else wants the apron.
I really hate the apron. Domestic drudgery is domestic drudgery, mommy-brain or not. I've never mastered cooking, and it only makes it worse that I had all these visions, starting out, of preparing wholesome and delicious dinners in my kitchen for my grateful family. So instead I'm doing more and more takeout complemented by occasional subversive tofu. Does this mean it's time to renegotiate the deal?

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Suffering in Paradise

Today while I was talking with my 9-year-old son Joey at a swim meet, a sudden wind blew back a door propped with a folding chair, which fell and whacked him on the head. As he lurched into my arms, it struck me how absurd it was that had I not been distracted by our conversation -- a small argument over his longterm health, concerning whether or not "Cheetos" have transfats -- I might have been sufficiently alert to grab the chair and spare him that pain.
At the same time, I do believe that to be a mom is to be generally extra conscious of the utter randomness of life, the illness that might strike without warning, the accident waiting to happen, to the point where the most nervous wrecks among us are walking illustrations of Carl Jung's notion that people can't stand too much reality. Most moms just can't seem to relax and enjoy all the usual defense mechanisms we have to ward off our ultimate lack of control over events. An illustration of this was a poll I cited in my book showing that when a group of voters were asked if they feared a member of their family would be victimized in a terrorist attack, just 17 percent of the men but 43 percent of women and 53 percent of mothers with children under 18 said yes. This potent mixture of attachment and dread is what Brazilians mean when they say: ser mae e sofrer no paraiso -- to be a mother is to suffer in paradise. For anyone suffering and dreading too intensely in these sad days after the London attacks, I recommend the great dose of rationality offered in John Tierney's column in today's New York Times. He reminds us, still, and I hope his statistics are up to date, that it's more likely you (or your children) will be hit by lightning than struck by a terrorist. Of course, now we can start worrying about lightning.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

2 worthwhile websites

Just a few quick thoughts today.

For one thing, I have another couple days (yet another deadline stretched to the max!) to finish the motherhood movement story, so still welcome input.
After you do that, take time to check out the new Motherhood Study sponsored by The Motherhood Project (www.motherhoodproject.org). Its findings are not of the knock-your-socks-off variety but do merit a good look if only because this apparently is the first broad-based survey of mothers, which is significant in itself! A team led by University of Minnesota researcher and grandmother Martha Farrell Erickson talked to 2,000 moms, randomly selected, by phone and followed up with extensive in-person interviews of a smaller sample. If you were to reduce the key findings to a very simplistic statement, it's that mothers almost universally said they feel great about being mothers, but do have some serious problems with their working arrangements. Most (surprise, surprise) do want to work but have serious problems finding time for their families, while also providing financially for them. One of the most interesting things about this study is how little notice it has gotten from major media. One possible reason is that the sponsoring Motherhood Project is housed by the Institute for American Values, a decidedly conservative thinktank. However, Erickson herself is a former family issues adviser to Clinton and Gore, and her methods certainly seem beyond rebuke. So check it out.

Another site definitely worth visiting these days is the reconfigured, much more lovely than last I looked home of Mothers Acting Up (www.mothersactingup.org) Moms really need an institution of their own, and I'm not talking about the kind I was worrying about yesterday when my kids were driving me out of my mind. Both the Motherhood Project and MAU may come off as a bit too partisan, but both are making some great contributions these days.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

question for the day

It really is just for the day, since I have a 5 p.m. deadline, but I'm writing a piece today for the San Jose Mercury News on why the on why the motherhood movement, as such, hasn't gone anywhere. Why are there so many mothers' movements and so little progress on issues like affordable childcare? I welcome any thoughts -- please include your name, if you can, and whether you have kids and/or work outside the home...

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

dread, guilt and glee

In ten days I'm going to be leaving my kids for two weeks, longer than I've ever stayed away since they were born. I'm going to Mexico with my mom, as I've done every year for the past several years (giving a mommy-brain talk at a spa called Rancho la Puerta, and then spending a week in Caracas on a reporting assignment for Smithsonian Magazine.
My very responsible husband is staying home for the first week, and I've spent hours refining the camp/carpool/sitter logistics for the week after that. My kids are at an age where they can understand about trips with one's mother and reporting assignments; I'm pretty sure they won't be emotionally scarred. And yet thinking about leaving hits me with a wave of the startling anguish I felt the first time I handed Joey to a sitter, as if it would never really be right to leave him, ever. This is balanced, though not quite, with mounting joy as I envision two weeks pursuing a variety of goals without being constantly yanked off my path by the small emergencies of parenting young kids. I suspect that after writing and working in the midst of coping with poison oak, laundry, playdates, lunches, bee stings, and unrelenting conflict, reporting in Venezuela is going to be a cinch. But I'll let you know......