Valentine exchange

When’s the last time you got nice mail? It’s time for the valentine exchange!

  • If you want to participate, email me at at gmail by Sunday, Feb 3. Include your mailing address.
  • On Feb 4, I will send you a list of about 4 other people. Please send each of them a valentine by Wednesday, Feb 7. They can be storebought, homemade, whatever.
  • Enjoy checking the mail!

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Today I heard another example of  “I would never have guessed in a million years that this person experienced mental illness” (because the person was affable and successful in business). When I heard it about myself, I used to take it as a compliment. It meant I was passing, that if I was depressed I was at least hiding it well.

Now I feel this kind of statement conveys less about the person being talked about and more about the speaker. Not being aware that people with mental illness can run Silicon Valley businesses, or manage their symptoms, or hide their symptoms, or be authentically happy some of the time and wretched at other times, strikes me as kind of ignorant.

(Meanwhile, people usually understand that “I don’t think of you as black” or “You don’t look Jewish” are not actually compliments.)

21% of Americans between 18 and 49 meet criteria for a mental illness each year. And it fluctuates over time – someone who met criteria for an illness last year might have fewer systems this year, so the percentage of people who have had a mental illness at some point is higher than that. You probably also know people like me whose combination of symptoms never technically met the definition of a disorder, but who sure weren’t doing well. We’re everywhere. And yet most of these people don’t have significant impairment – they’re still working, raising families, being members of Congress, etc.

Years ago I was shocked when my coworker, an older woman I revered, mentioned that she was in recovery from addiction. It didn’t square with my image of her, so I tried to hide my surprise and said nothing. I wish now I had said, “Congratulations,” that I had done something to honor her hard work and her ongoing success.

There’s nothing wrong with being surprised when you learn something that updates your sense of a person. But use it to better understand the world (now I know some blue-eyed people are Jewish! Now I know successful entrepreneurs can still develop life-threatening depression!) and not to convey your surprise directly to the person in question. It’s not fun to hear something that sounds like, “Wow, I didn’t know people like you could seem so normal!”

What parenting taught me about risk

(Content note: talk about danger to children)

I remember wondering how parenthood would change me. One change I notice is that I pay more attention to how wonderful and fragile the world’s systems are.

One of the first things most people notice about a baby is how easy it would be to damage them. Their skulls don’t even cover their brains all the way. When we first lived with new parents, on day seven the mother announced with awe, “We kept him alive for a whole week!” I know that child mortality is only .7% in the US, but if I didn’t know that I’d assume I had something like a 60% chance of keeping each child alive. The more you think about their tiny organs, all the moving parts, the more miraculous it seems that it all more or less works.

Then as they get older you have to decide how much to communicate with them about risk. Mostly we don’t tell them about dangers, except those that are so accessible to children  streets, stairs, poking their eyes — that we need the child’s help to avoid them. Lily gets very concerned about some of these, so I try to only tell her what she needs to know.

And yet she picks up on it. Recently I asked Lily to keep an eye on her younger sister while I got something from the basement. When I got back after a two-minute absence, Lily updated me: “I kept an eye on Anna, and she did not die.” Which is exactly what I wonder about every time I come up the stairs in this situation: is silence good or bad? How long would it take for a child to asphyxiate if she swallowed something?

When we told her about how sticking metal into outlets can burn you, Lily taped hers shut.

But I notice the flip side too. Part of educating children about the world is teaching them about how things work and how complex and wonderful the world is.

All these things that just felt like background suddenly stand out to me now that I’m explaining them to the kids. We loves books that describe systems, like how the postal system works.

(This is just page one of something like three about all the steps a letter goes through.) The postal system is amazingly cheap and reliable! We put a letter in a box on the corner and trust that it will reach its destination unread and untampered with. You can go a long time taking this for granted, unless you’ve spent time in a place where the mail system doesn’t work like this.

Stores are amazing! These vast supply chains bring us stuff we want to buy! Roads! We go places in really fast vehicles propelled by explosions and don’t crash that often! Clothes! Making clothes by hand used to take a really large portion of women’s time, and now we can just buy them for a few dollars! Heating! Basically everyone has been cold all winter forever, but now we can just tell our thermostat how warm we want our house to be!

As a parent, you’re both presenting the functionality of the world to your child (“There goes the firetruck to help someone! Woo, wooo, hear the siren!”) while scanning the world for danger and disfunction (Holy shit, it wouldn’t take much for our house to burn down). And I still think about the brokenness of the systems — what kind of life did the garment workers have? What invisible things happened to bring us these things from these stores?

Steven Pinker’s essay on the Second Law of Thermodynamics summed this up for me. Brokenness and chaos is the natural state of the world. It’s only by the collective effort of billions of people over many thousands of years that things are this good. Civilization is imperfect and fragile. Growing up in nice neighborhoods in a nice country, you can miss this. But even here, anywhere we are, one of our chief tasks is to protect against chaos and destruction. To make the world as safe as we want our children to believe it is. Another task is to enjoy the beauty of the world while we have it, but that kind of rests on doing a reasonable job at the first task.

Maria, gratia plena

I went to a carol service last night expecting to have a warm Christmassy experience, and to some extent I did. I’ve read enough feminist theology to have plenty of woman-centric Advent and Christmas messages floating around my mind. There’s a lot about Mary, Mary’s yes, Mary pondering things in her heart.

I used to really like that, as a teenager with a deep interest in women’s independence and zero interest in sex. I made lots of nativity scenes but had trouble making the Joseph figure because my idea of the perfect family was mother and child, no men around. I usually put him in the back taking care of the donkey.

I loved being pregnant at Christmas time, loved the whole season echoing the expectancy of pregnancy. I loved the story of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth and the description of the baby leaping in her womb, that feeling so familiar. The lessons and carols I went to yesterday used the word “womb” five times (in Latin or English). How many religious occasions get that gynecological?

But there’s nothing to douse these feelings like hearing the actual Bible interspersed with medieval Marian texts. Mary didn’t say yes, for one thing — Gabriel has already informed her that she will get pregnant when she says that’s all right with her. And the medieval texts are very clear that it’s her purity from the sin of Eve and her virginity that are so wonderful.

As a mother, some of these texts now feel like a slap in the face. “Mary’s so great because she produced a baby while a virgin, not like all those OTHER pregnancies which were caused by SEX,” is basically what I hear. I cried during the carol service for all the people that message has hurt over the centuries.

Another part of the Christmas repertoire that doesn’t quite add up for me is the emphasis on the infant Jesus’s divine humility. I see how it makes sense in a context of an all-powerful being choosing to come to earth in a powerless and vulnerable form, but it somehow never clicks with me because all babies are so vulnerable. When Lily was born I was so enchanted by seeing her tiny blood vessels, like threads, under her skin. A newborn’s windpipe is the size of a drinking straw, a fact which terrified me. All infants are “so tender and mild” while also relentless in their needs. A divine ruler can be a king of kings, more powerful than all others, but a baby can hardly be more fragile than babies already are.

In the spirit of taking joy in the merely real, here are some things I’d like to celebrate at Christmas:

  • Families.
  • The tenderness and generosity of parents despite exhaustion and frustration.
  • Adoption. There are some nice modern tributes to Joseph as Jesus’ adoptive father.
  • Long-wanted pregnancies, IVF, and surrogacy, in honor of Elizabeth conceiving after menopause.
  • Filling the hungry with good things.
  • The courage of women giving birth.
  • The curl of newborn fingers, and the incredible fineness of newborn hair.
  • Making do with mangers and whatever else is at hand.
  • A church packed with people coming in from the winter night to sing together.
  • The miracle of DNA that unfolds a baby from a tadpole, to someone who stares at a bright new world with eyes that can’t yet focus, to a child who can joke and jump, to an adult who can teach and invent and care for others.
  • The valiance of refugee parents, like Joseph and Mary fleeing to Egypt to save their son.
  • Every stranger on the subway who’s smiled at my babies and tried to make them laugh, like so many shepherds and angels paying their dues.

Grocery delivery in old kids’ books

I think of grocery delivery services as kind of a posh Silicon Valley thing, but old kids’ books and housekeeping manuals have made me think differently about it. Here’s a scene from Curious George Rides a Bike, 1952.

People are delivering mail, newspapers, groceries, and baked goods. The milkman has presumably already been by. In an era when 78% of households had one or no cars, compared to 42% now, this made perfect sense.

Given that our house has nine people and no cars, I think we can feel fine and even historically accurate about using Peapod.

Children’s lit as source for intuitions about animals?

People have wildly different intuitions about what kind of lives wild animals have and whether their lives contain more enjoyment or suffering.

I suspect that opinions about this vary a lot by how you view nature. Before the Romantic era, nature/wilderness was not seen as a charming place. Nature was what made you die of exposure or starvation.

I don’t know what people in a pre-industrial society would say if you ask what kind of life a mouse has. Maybe they’d think the question too silly to answer. But I suspect they wouldn’t have the intuition I had for most of my life, that being an animal would be kind of charming and fun.

Some of this is being raised in the era of the environmentalist movement, with its emphasis on the beauty and wonder of nature and the importance of preserving habitats so that wild animals can do their thing.

But In raising kids, I keep noticing another influence: almost all the depictions of animals they see are cute anthropomorphized ones.  There are old Aesop-type animal stories with anthropomorphized animals that talk to each other, but the genre really expanded in the 20th century, starting with Beatrix Potter’s 1902 The Tale of Peter Rabbit. The illustrations make the depictions especially salient.

(There’s a whole other topic of how farms and farm animals are depicted  which is only on old-fashioned non-industrial farms run by the like of Old MacDonald — but I’ll stick to wild animals here.)

In many books the animals are just stand-ins for humans: think Goodnight Moon or The Berenstain Bears where the characters live in houses and go to school. But even the ones where animals do animal activities leave out most of the things that might be unpleasant for actual animals, like starvation or being eaten. The Very Hungry Caterpillar‘s only problem is a stomachache after eating too many pickles and cupcakes.

Another factor is that children’s books are designed to be read at bedtime, so a large portion of them end with the characters going happily to sleep. My favorite cozification of animals is Ashley Wolf’s illustration of the Raffi song “Baby Beluga”, where the (fish-eating) whales snuggle fish as we read

When it’s dark, you’re home and fed
Curl up snug in your water bed.

So naturally kids conclude that wild animals have charming, pleasant lives.

These animals aren’t living in a dirty hole getting rained on without enough to eat; they’re nice middle-class animals. And we definitely don’t talk about r-selection.

Beatrix Potter, The Tale of Two Bad Mice