Monday, August 25, 2008

Bringing Up Baby

The office is in a minor uproar. There is going to be construction. File cabinets are going to be relocated. Cubicles are going to be rearranged. This means I and several others have to pack up the contents of our cubes in anticipation of the workmen who arrive tomorrow. I don't really ask questions, I just show up and do what I am told.

So, I obediently emptied the contents of my little desk, even though I still don't know what half this stuff is for. A butterfly net? Really?
Under the Healthy Start pamphlets and random files, however, I found a primary document gem.
How to Take Care of the Baby, published by Sears, Roebuck and Co in 1914, and now stored by Ziploc in 2008. The mother on the cover wears her hair in a large twist/bun thing, and appears to be very young and sweet. The advice inside is surprisingly similar to what our nurses tell clients today. Of course, some parts are funny and quaint, like the obsession with the proper ratio of swaddling and exposure to fresh air. And then there was this section:

"If kept within reasonable limits the child will direct its own exercise. Before the child is able to go out of doors he will creep about the house, play with the chairs, sewing machine, table legs, spools, hassocks, and anything it can reach, and will roll about on the floor. Even before this it will lie on its back and kick and wave its arms in a perfectly and entirely healthy manner.

No mother need fear that her little girl will be a "tomboy" in its earliest youth. The more tomboyish the girl is the better, until she reaches the age of fourteen or fifteen years. Of course, every woman will know how to direct her daughter in lines of womanly modesty."

The booklet apparently aided the upbringing of one Monro Kathleen Wylie, born in Sumner, IL at 6am July 19, 1915, weighing 7lbs. Her parents were Samuel and Cynthia. Cynthia was likely the one who noted that her daughter had 2 teeth at 10 months and 4 at 13 months. These back cover inscriptions make me wonder about Monro Kathleen and her family. Were there other babies after her? Were the Edna and Max Wylie who printed their names on the inside cover her children? If she lived past infancy, she would be 93 today.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

We are community! I got all my housemates and me!

Yes, I live with 8 other girls. Yes, our home is a former convent. Yes, we each make only a few hundred dollars a month from our stipend. And yes, it is pretty fun so far.

When we explain our living situation to people, we get a variety of reactions.
"A convent??! Do they let you go out at night?"
"Well, good thing they make food stamps."
"You know you are all going to be on the same cycle in a few months, right?"
Haha. Yes, no, and yes. Joking aside, it has been interesting how different we all are and how each oeac of us handles having 8 roomates. Apparently my habit of always applying the parking break is not universal practice. Some people line their baking pans with parchment paper. Some people need more alone time than others. Sometimes personalities clash and there is confluct over things that are really not a huge deal. As usual, I haven't gone looking for conflict, but it has managed to find me and gotten me stuck in the middle. Not as usual, though, everyone here doesn't want factions to develop, and so is willing to make an effort to resolve issues.

Not unlike with my large family back home, I enjoy being part of a crowd. We have been exploring the city en masse, never hanging out in the same place twice. Last weekend we invaded the Arch and Anheuser-Busch Brewery (free samples!) This week's itinerary was even longer: Galleria Mall, patio dining and margaritas at a little mexican restaurant, Festival of Nations, Union Station shopping, and then Dave and Buster's for Jessica's birthday.

Oh yeah, and the church tour continues. We also never attend mass in the same place twice. This weekend alone, we have visited the SLU church, Wash U's campus ministry chapel, All Saints the neo-colonial wonder, and the St Louis cathedral. That last place absolutely knocked my socks off. If you have ever admired the moasics at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, you haven't seen anything yet. This place is a renaissance/byzantine marvel that positively drips with gold tiles and biblical imagery. Its truly a monument to the Catholic church in this city - which makes me realize why some Chicagoans refer to their stripped-down Holy Name cathedral as "Holy Shame." Jessica and I agreed - We need to go back for a formal tour.

I'm going close with two humorous pieces that pertain to my low-budget community lifestyle.

First, XKCD remarks on the difficulties of internet reception. He's right, we really should have a holiday for those kind souls with unsecured networks entitled "Linksys." (Ours can't reach past the plaster upstairs walls, so I am updating from the dining room table.)

Second, the Onion offers tips for cutting your grocery costs. (We may have splurged a little and gotten the $6 strawberry-flavored vodka.)

Friday, August 15, 2008

Too much love for brick boxes

One of the most unexpected parts of my move to St Louis is how homesick I have been for Williamsburg. Maybe not the sleepy retiree/tourist aspect of the town, but the colonial fantasyland aspect. It doesnt help that I spent the weeks before my departure at history camp, where life revolves around plantation homes and historic churches. Now I am going through Georgian architecture withdrawal. Don't get me wrong, St. Louis abounds with interesting buildings. This city has a remarkable affintity for Romanesque arches, stone accents, and Gothic Revival churches. My own neighborhood is full of adorable brick cottages. Still, it feels foreign.

Today, perhaps through the grace of God, I got a taste of what I had been missing so much. First there was a detour past the Missouri History Museum on my way to the Metrolink station. Built in 1913 with World's Fair proceeds, it's a dramatic neo-classical difice located in Forest Park. Between the pedimented facade and Lee/Grant exhibition poster, I was getting weak in the knees. I wanted to hug their stately columns and place my fingers in their Corinthian grooves.

My second taste of the Burg came at the end of the day. Today was the feast of the Assumption, and we VSC girls were happy to find a 7pm mass at nearby All Saints parish. We were glad we didn't have to drag ourselves to the 6:30am at the parish next door. As we drove up to All Saints, we noted the charming cupola and very confusing parking space alignment.

Inside, All Saints was like a time capsule, a cornucopia of 1930's Colonial Revival styling nearly untouched by 1970's "renovations." The octagonal nave's decor surely had been influenced by the 'Burg, as it overflowed with walnut paneling and neo-classical elements. On the side altars and main reredos, the columns, scroll work, and broken pediments could have been ripped from any of WM's Sunken Garden buildings. The elaborate wallpaper (yes, wallpaper in a church) would easily be at home in the George Wythe house. Clearly, someone was trying to bring the style of Colonial Williamsburg to University City.

While the woodwork was a taste of Tidewater Virginia, the stained glass was a creative take on the usual iconography. Round windows depicted scenes from the life of Mary (Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity, Assumption). The taller ones each displayed one of the Beatitudes, and appropriate theme for a church dedicated to the communion of saints.

Overall, I liked the church, although I got distracted by the feeling that I was worshipping in a museum. As we drove away, I resolved to return and photograph the building. Maybe I could even start a study of St Louis church architecture.

Too bad a fellow blogger beat me to the punch. The guy who writes "Rome of the West" has already documented All Saints for his own extensive church collection. Oh well, I didn't have my tripod here anyway. Dang, he must have a lot of free time and new-convert fervor.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Getting Started at NFNF

Work finally started this Monday, and every day has been different. My assignment is to Nurses for Newborns (NFNF), a non-profit that sponsors free in-home nurse visits for preemies, teen moms, disabled moms, and poor families. It's easy for me to get fired up about something so clearly pro-life and common sense as reducing infant mortality rates. Actually helping with that 9-5 has been tougher. I could go on forever with stories, but instead I'll make a list of the high points.
In the office I have:
  • followed my boss, the Nicest Man in the World (tm), around like a lost puppy as he dashed across the office
  • attended a mind-numbing meeting led by a man I named public health Wesley Snipes
  • been assigned my own cubicle and a Mac G4 laptop, Lucy 9she's linked to my boss' desktop, Samantha)
  • shaken hands with and then memorized the jobs of the entire office staff (not unlike APO brother interviews)
  • discussed the Titanic with the IT guy's 8 year old son
  • read grant proposals and public health stats for nearly 8 hours straight
  • been thankful that my gluten intolerance has prevented me from pigging out on the cake, donuts, and ravioli thrust at me in the first four hours
  • become familiar with the three metro stops near my house
  • heard a man's life story while he waited for the bus - he just got out of jail for fighting with his woman
I spent Tuesday out of the office, riding around north city with a nurse while she did home visits. We saw three teenage mothers and their kids, ranging from a one year old to a newborn to about to deliver. These girls were lucky to live with their mothers and younger siblings, so at least they have some people to help them out. The files I read today about abusive situations and post-partum depression nearly made me cry. Other nurses have told me stories about infants with terminal diagnoses and the grieving process they go through over their clients.

Getting to see moms and babies was cool, but otherwise it has been hard to see the face of Christ while staring at my cubicle walls. Most of my other housemates come home with stories about organizing food pantries, helping poor kids write their resumes, or leading activities for disabled people. I looked up statistics on the internet. Maybe its good to utilize my research skills for funding worthwhile efforts, but I kindof feel like I am copping out. Vincent De Paul and Louise de Marillac's words about loving the poor seem pointless to me when I am parked at a desk.

I have to keep telling myself that the two past VSC volunteers at NFNF have enjoyed their time there. My boss, the Nicest Man in the World (tm), is heavily involved with the St Vincent de Paul Society, so he understands the special "charism" of direct service. But in the meantime, I can't help wondering what on earth I have signed up for.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Was Life More Simple Back Then?

My WM roomate introduced me to Avenue Q, a musical for adults that features Sesame Street style puppets. One song from the show is entitled "I Wish I Could Go Back to College."

In college you know who you are.

You sit in the quad, and think, "Oh my God!
I am totally gonna go far!".

That kind of undergrad nostalgia hasn't happened to me yet, even though I live near two large universities. We've driven past them on our endless site visits, but I want to take time and explore SLU and Wash U on foot. Wash U's striking brick-and-stone edifices beckon me from the Forest Park parkway. What kind of architectural delights wait inside?

An article in the Post-Dispatch today hinted at what I could see - a brand spanking new student center. The Danforth University Center (DUC) follows many trends I observed as a University Centers employee at WM. Video games, centralized space for student activities, and study areas combine with newer ideas like LEED certification and actual street addresses.

Still, Wash U exhibits the qualtiy of life differences between public and private institutions. Osso buco in a bistro? Herb gardens around campus? A possible tandoor oven? Those of us with state funding could on ly dream.

My housemates and I have toyed with the idea of venturing onto the campus incognito, pretending we belong in this mysterious oasis of gourmet food and boys our age. I, of course, over-analyzed and wondered what we would do if asked about our course schedules. (We could create some elaborate alibi, but that sounds like the plot of a Fresh Prince episode.)

Avenue Q provides a more realistic picture of what would happen.
But if I were to go back to college,
Think what a loser I'd be-
I'd walk through the quad,
And think "Oh my God..."

"These kids are so much younger than me."

Monday, August 4, 2008

Feels Like Freshman Year

36 hours after flying across the Mississippi, I still feel like I am in a whirlwind. I've been so many places in the past few days that I am thinking and feeling many different things. The lack of sleep hasn't helped either - I have cried at least 5 times over random stuff.

Part of me is still at WM living history camp 24/7. Dr. Mrs. W's voice still rings in my ear, telling me to drive the kids on some field trip. Suddenly I feel homesick for the land of flemish bond bricks and dead white colonists. It's ironic that the minute I leave academia, I find myself interested in things I would dismiss as boring before - like reading that copy of Paradise Lost out in the hall.

Getting integrated into the VSC also feels like history camp, but reversed so I am not in control. There are rooms to assign and set up, paperwork and rules to manage, and a new geography to learm. It's not unlike freshman year of college, learning to live in a new place. My 8 housemates and I are getting to know each other quickly, but to a large part we are still a housefull of strangers. The fact that this is an arrangement for an entire year, not just a weekend retreat or three week camp, makes the transition a little more nerveracking.

Luckily, this is not entirely like college. We've all been away from home before, and we all genuinely want to be here. It seems like everyone is coming in with the same emotions and anticipation, which is encouraging. Sr. T and the rest of the staff have been very welcoming. They cultivate a strong sense of connection to past volunteer teams. The ghosts of the 2007-2008 team are all around the house, especially in the notes they left us.

The girls and I are bonding as we explore the area and our new house. We make a speedy team in the kitchen, and feel a little less like we are raiding someone else's cupboards. Throughout the week we are visiting every service site, so we get a feel for what the others will be doing.

Today we started with a bang at Covenant House, a shelter and educational center for homeless or troubled teens. We were all really impressed with the colorful, upbeat facility. Just this year they moved into an old school that they gutted and redesigned. Now, there are classrooms, offices, and housing for both short and long term stays. Once you get past the gates and metal detectors, you are greeted by bold floor tiles and accent walls in orange, buttercream, and lime green. My favorite part was the artsy black-and-white photos of local kids all over the walls. A local photographer donated her time to do shoots of the kids in locations they chose. The images speak volumes about the agency and their kids, profound without being cheesy.

Jessica's boss matched the bright decor. From the minute Eileen greeted us we fell in love with her energetic personality. Her boisterious New Yawk accent, knobby pigtail hairstyle, and flowing kimono top all made her the kind of unique character a chick flick writer would envy. This self-described "devout Christian" overflowed with enthusiam for Covenant House's work and for her new VSC volunteer. We got to see the entire facilty, including the "real live cook." We also learned about Eileen's obsession with inspirational quotes and her son, who is joining the peace corps with his new Jamaican wife. Jessica is never going to have a dull moment there.

Eileen assured the rest of us our time wouldn't be dull. She peppered her conversation with affirmations, saying "I'm so proud of you all! This is such a great thing you are doing. It'll change the direction of your life. There are no coincidences - God has put you here for a reason!"

I'm excited for us all to learn what those reasons will be.