Saturday, February 28, 2009

On Love and Learning

It's amazing how babies grow constantly in an almost invisible way. Day to day their changes are very subtle. Then someone sees them after week or month and says "Wow, you've gotten so big!" As a child, I hated when adults told me how much I had grown. Now I say it to NFNF clients and my co-workers children all the time! (I must be getting old.) Just yesterday I was holding a Community Outreach Mom's two-month old, and was excited to see that the little girl could now practice lifting her head off my shoulder.

I've been noticing gradual changes in myself, too. Sometimes it's things I had hoped would happen this year - living on a limited budget and interacting with the poor daily no longer intimidate me. Other times I've changed in ways I never expected.

Just this week I discovered that I no longer revere Evelyn Waugh's novels as I once did. (Nerd alert!) I was introduced to his masterpiece Brideshead Revisited when I was 18 and I've re-read it every year since then.

That same senior year of high school I also dove into Waugh's shorter novella The Loved One. It's a satire of the Hollywood funeral industry, revolving around the love triangle of cosmetician Aimee Thanatougenous, mortician Dr. Joyboy, and British poet Dennis Barlow. Parts are very funny and others are horrifying. Being a romantic high schooler, I was most upset by the fact that there was not a "true love" relationship I could root for. I ended the volume confused, but certain there was some deeper meaning I just couldn't figure out. I never read the book again, testing Waugh's other, more famous works instead.

I finally had the idea to give The Loved One another try after watching this year's Oscars. It's much funnier when you aren't 18. I've realized since high school that satire usually involves death or some such calamity, so you really shouldn't get attatched to the characters or project yourself onto them. And the The Loved One is excellent satire, colorful and clever and dreadful.

Were I still an idealistic 18 year-old, I would write a paper for English class about Waugh uses his literary skill to criticize the American Culture of Death. Ta da! Instant Catholic literary hero. Today, though, I would say that Waugh takes his skill too far, mocking pretty much everyone who isn't an old-fashioned curmudgeon like himself. The novella could really be shorter, and it's dismal conclusion strikes me as one big "Screw You!" to humanity, especially the American part.
There's no love for anyone in the writing, which makes Waugh's cranky voice sound like a clanging cymbal.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

I was born on an Ash Wednesday

Maybe that's why I like it so much. I might dread Lent as it approaches, but when the first day of penance arrives it never fails to be meaningful and not as difficult as I had imagined.

A little black cross streaked on foreheads is such a wonderful symbol. It's as ephemeral as the human life it symbolizes, lasting only a few hours. Just a few days into Lent you've forgotten you wore it. I think this keeps the image from becoming cliche and meaningless. After all, you don't see ash smudges printed on greeting cards or draped across store displays or stamped on seasonal candies. These simple dark marks remain safe from obnoxious popular culture.
Instead, ashes appear briefly to remind us of our weakness and frailty. Once a year we put our dare to plaster across our faces the fact that we need God's redemption.

Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.
That was evident in my office today as two co-workers anticipated surgeries. These women are both vivacious, outgoing, and hardworking, but their cardiac system and spine aren't invincible. No matter how much we want to do everything, we cannot. We're only fragile creatures molded from dust.

As I walked home thinking these things, the breeze was unseasonably warm. Contemplating mortality, I ironically caught a whiff of damp soil and budding plants. My stomach grumbled from fasting and my cute shoes made my feet hurt, but I also reveled in the sunshine and exercise. Paradoxes like this are why I love Lent and Easter. Pain and beauty, fear and life, sin and love blend for one magnificent experience. These 40+ days help us understand the humanity we were born into.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Train of Thought

Ever since watching the Oscars on Sunday night I've been getting walloped by some kind of cold/congestion thing. It's clouding my brain and slowing my efficiency, except when it comes to random useless thoughts. Observe this morning's train of thought. (*Warning to any male readers - girl talk ensues*)

It all started when I read about fistula injuries in Africa.Reading about teenagers whose childbirth complications make them incontinent social outcasts reminded me of how lucky I am to be a woman in a country and century where giving birth no longer means risking your life. American women today are unlikely to join the historical record of stories that end "died in childbirth."

Then I started thinking about the c-sections and inducements and incubators that mean mom and baby can now both survive when not everything goes as it should. Of course, this doesn't mean birth is a piece of cake. Babies are still born too early, too small, too fragile. Just yesterday I heard about a woman at the shelter where another VSC girl works. This mom went in to be induced, and 36 hours later she's not even in labor! Another shelter resident is diabetic and recently was delivered of an 11 pound baby girl. With all our medical prowess and understanding of how to create life, we still can't control how children grow and choose to enter the world.

Then I told Grant Intern #4 about the doctors offering free fistula correction surgery in Africa, and that made her tell me about suburban moms who donate extra breast milk to African orphans. It sounds crazy, but they pack baggies of it in dry ice and ship it off. (Reminds me of those old threats of "There are starving children in China who would love to eat those peas!!") It's a little inefficent, but it's also a profound expression of giving of yourself and solidarity with the poor.

Then Intern #4 made a comment about wetnurses, and my head snapped back as nerdy analysis shot through my brain. "Omigosh!! That's, like, a reversal of the wetnurse ethnic roles that defined previous eras!" I exclaimed, picturing 19th century women outsourcing their maternal roles to slaves or house servants. Or even Pharoah's daughter fetching a Hebrew slave to suckle baby Moses. ("It's like you just had a seizure," observed intern #4.)

Then I started thinking about Eve, the "mother of all the living" whose departure from the approved produce section brought painful childbirth upon us all. I really love the sound of her name, and I would love to give it to my future daughter. I worry that Future Daughter would hate me for it, though. Can you imagine sitting through religion class saddled with a name associated with nudity, disobedience, and generally ruining the world for everyone else? I have a hard enough time being named for the matriarch who mistreated her slave and generally laughed in God's face.

Then I thought about how Eve can also represent Everywoman. Sure she made mistakes, but girlfriend was a pioneer too. She had to figure out marriage, childbirth, fashion design, and cooking without any mom or aunts or girlfriends or women's magazines.

Then I remembered the imaginary/composite/Lifetime movie client description I need to write for an upcoming grant application. I suddenly knew how I could begin describing the typical poverty-stricken single mother. I named her Eve.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Happy Black History Month!

Meet Annie Minerva Turnbo Malone, a notable St. Louis resident. Most people know about her because of the children's home that still bears her name. They might have heard that she, like Madame CJ Walker, was a pioneer in designing and marketing African-American hair care products. What they probably don't know is that she may have been the first African-American woman to become a millionaire, and that she lavished that fortune on her employees and on African-American schools and orphanages.
In it's 1920's and 30's heyday, Malone's Poro Company operated from an enormous St. Louis building that served as something of a community center, with an ice-cream parlor, barbershop, classrooms, and meeting space. Sadly, that building no longer exists, and Malone lost her fortune in a divorce and tax problems. She's faded from national memory since her death in 1957, but a street in north city bears her name.

I gave a little presentation about Annie Malone for one of NFNF's urban parenting classes this week. To be honest, I was terrified. Our clients can be a daunting audience. What do I, who am neither a nurse nor a parent nor a Black American, have to say that they will find helpful or interesting? After my "History of Christmas" presentation for a rural class, I have realized that the white heat of standing before a room of busy impoverished mothers forces you to melt hours of bookish research into a few nuggets of meaning. They aren't going to care about the accuracy of my footnotes or the nuances of segregation law. They aren't going to take detailed notes with an infant wiggling on their lap. I have to find the "So What?" of studying history, and find it fast.

So, I put as much human interest into the presentation as I could. I told them their stories were as much a part of history as those of the past. I encouraged telling family history to their kids, to give them a sense of heritage. I passed around pics of Annie Malone and Poro products. I held Malone up as someone who helped women become self-sufficient and who gave back to her community.
As always, our clients surprised me. A few were distracted, but two were especially interested a quick to volunteer comments about how they view Black History Month. Everyone liked my comments about Madame Walker's fabulous hats and my Dad's stories of his childhood misbehavior. Overall it was an exhilarating and humbling 10 minutes that passed in the blink of an eye.

And it was a look at faces of the future like these siblings:

Monday, February 16, 2009

Baby, you oughta be in pictures

Meet Sam'ayah. Isn't she precious?

I met Sam'ayah and her mom last Thursday when their nurse and I stopped by for a little photoshoot. Even though a wiggly, teething infant in low light makes a challenging subject, I got a good dozen or so shots in.

Sam'ayah has a proud, caring Mama. She also gets a lot of love from her young aunt and uncle, who came home from school while we were there.

I am continually amazed at how seeing our nurses in their element makes me learn so much about them as people. My partner on this excursion is a smaller, wiry woman who sweeps in and out of the office almost daily to solve computer problems and stock up on donated items. She always seems frazzled when I see her. When she's on the road, however, she is upbeat with sense of focus that is the NFNF trademark. We hopped into her new Ford Focus, which she is determined to keep immaculate, and with Frank Sinatra blaring on XM radio we were zipping off to Vandeventer Ave. This nurse didn't seem the sentimental type, but she really has a huge heart. She lavishes compassion and a listening ear on the immigrants and African-American families on the south side. She was especially excited about the joy our little photoshoot would bring Sam'ayah and her mom. "I wouldn't be in this business if I didn't get to bring people things like this."

I'm always hesitant about barging into a stranger's home with my camera and snapping away, but Sam'ayah's mom was welcoming. She's rather shy, but the smile on her face and excitement in her voice when we talked about getting prints of the pictures said it all.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Pop-top champagne and other fine dining adventures.

Everyone else was on a date or out of town tonight, so Jessica and I teamed up in search of dinner out. We finally chose Sasha's on Shaw, a cozy new wine bar in the neighborhood where her Covenant House kids clean streets. (They apparently call it "bar in the 'hood")

I loved the decor - green armchairs around granite-topped tables, blond wood floors, and light bulbs dangling inside old wine bottles. Our waiter was cute but distracted, though, and the portions were far too small. Trout salad with pine nuts, lemon zest, balsamic vinegar, and olive oil sounds delicious, doesn't it? Too bad it only covered a smallish plate. Jessica's two crabcakes were simply that, with a few onion bits sprinkled on. We were so hungry afterwards, we drove through Jack-In-The-Box for some greasy carb sustenance.

BUT our meal also included one of the coolest food discoveries in ages - sparkling wine in a can! Francis Ford Coppola produces the stuff, which is named for his daughter Sofia. It's bubbly, sparkling, and tasty, whether poured into a glass or sipped through the bendy straw (yes, bendy straw) that comes with it. Brilliant.

my kind of research

I recently got access to the vast client database on my computer. The oceans of personal information now at my fingertips give me a feeling of power - and then I realize still don't understand the complex search functions and my head deflates to normal size.

One very cool aspect of this new tool is that I can investigate and share details of our client success stories. I find great satisfaction in pulling human stories from the cold data of an historical record, especially one so well organized as this. The papers on my desk might just look like printout of home visit notes, but really they are timelines tracking the ups and downs of months of nurse/mother mentoring. As in everything, the nurses' comments are practical, efficient, honest, and a little ADD in the way they jump from one important topic to another. There's not much room for sentiment in medical records, but every now and then one sentence shines through with images of deeply personal encounters. "Infant vomited all over nurse after feeding." "Infant lungs clear, no heart murmur, playful, happy baby." "Told client she was making the right choices in life."

Pulling gems from pages of clinical notes reminds me of all those afternoons I spent in the Swem Library archives this spring, sifting through WM Board of Visitors minutes and the personal correspondence of 1930's college pres JAC Chandler. If I listen properly, the voices of people living and dead sing out from the printed letters. And I want to tell their stories that I find.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Unexpected Gifts

File this one under the "coincidence or God-incidence?" heading. Last week my boss, The Nicest Man in the World (TM) and I were discussing how to spend the remaining "emergency funds" from a grant we were about to report on. We threw ideas around with a couple people in the office, considering more bus passes (already bought this month's), space heaters (not enough storage room, were they even for sale anymore?) and canned food (too complicated) before deciding upon Wal-Mart gift cards, since they would keep the most funds available to clients in any area. Space heaters have been a popular emergency item this winter, but they didn't seem like a practical purpose at the moment.

The very next day, before the money was spent, a request came in to help keep a client from getting evicted. I've met this girl, and she is determined to make it. Confusion about Section-8 housing had made her behind on her rent, but she had saved up a lot and just needed a little help. With her nurse's blessing, of course we would help!

Later that same day, a woman came by the office with several boxes. She and her husband had won money at a trivia contest, and they decided to donate their prize. (I'm touched already!) So they had gone to Sam's Club and purchased - wait for it - six space heaters! They even got the nice Vornado kind that don't get hot to the touch and so are super safe for kids. They were exactly the kind someone had mentioned not even 24 hours before.

God works in mysterious ways, indeed.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

We Didn't Start the Fire

It's been a rather humble day. I woke up late, there was stress at the office, dinner was not ready on time, and I burned my attempt at honey-glazed carrots. Our VSC retreat this coming weekend sounds long overdue.

It's been a humble day for the Catholic Church too, what with two clerical scandals blooming. Lately I have been addicted to the updates on AmericanPapist, reading that blog's insightful coverage of the bishop who turned out to be a Holocaust denier after his excommunication was lifted and the founder of the Legionaries of Christ/Regnum Christi apostolate who turned out to have a history of sexual *ahem* indiscretions. Ugh. Just typing that makes me ill. It's bad enought that these things happen, but now of course the secular media can use this as fuel for existing dislike of Pope Benedict or priestly celibacy.

The icing on the beleagured cake was another calamity - Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago caught fire in the early morning. Holy Name was one of the case studies in my church architecture project; I feel lucky that I made it there before the restoration work and fire damages. This morning I reviewed all my pictures from my visit, remembering the afternoon I spent scurrying around with my tripod and Theodora the camera. Smoke billowing from the cathedral roof was a heartbreaking sight, but from what I read online, damages are mostly water-related. I heaved a sigh of relief reading that a sprinkler system protected the ceiling panels like these:
The cathedral already sustained enough damage in the 1960's. Overzealous Cardinal Cody ripped out stained glass windows, the gothic reredos, and anything else he deemed too out-of-step with the post-Vatican II times. In return the cathedral got wrought-iron fixtures that have not borne the decades well. I couldn't help hoping today's events might mean the end of the "Weber Kettle Grill tabernacle."

Holy Name has been around for over a century; it will rebound. So can the Church. The foundation and framework are still there. We just need to put out the flames, dry everything off, and repair what was rotted.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009


Last month when I called home to get recipes for the office chili cook-off, my Dad asked "Do you ever do work at your office? Or do you just have parties all the time?"

Yes, we work. We just eat lots of food in the process. Between flotsam-and-jetsam baked goods and the monthly nurse meetings, there is a lot of food in the NFNF offices. For instance, today the Healthy Start staff sponsored soul food lunch. Of course, fried chicken and cornbread are off-limits to me, but greens mixed with ham are a thing of beauty. Nurse Jan is GF, and she has gotten into the habit of letting me sample her latest baking project. There are also tostitos and sweet tea in the kitchen.

I can't wait for Cinco de Mayo lunch in May.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Monday Morning news with my coffee

First, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch just printed an opinion piece listing NFNF as the number one agency to pledge to help. This is great publicity! (So long as Ashton Kutcher doesn't show up on our doorstep ready to be a "servant" to President Obama.)
Then I heard — and really listened to — President Obama's call to remake and rebuild our country together. It reignited that spark: What needs to be done and how can we help?

I decided it might be easier to partner with an established local charity or nonprofit and make a commitment to help out for a set amount of time each month with my children. There are dozens of worthy organizations in town, but it helps to call a few that match your interests and ask what sort of work their volunteers do...Think about the activities that appeal to young children, such as arts and crafts, playing with other children and visiting new places.

The list
I've narrowed my list to these 10 organizations and plan to choose one, with my children, that we can commit our time and resources to this year. It's another chance for my own children to believe we can change our small piece of the world.
1. Nurses for Newborns, 7259 Lansdowne Avenue, No. 100, Shrewsbury • 314-544-3433 •

Second, the NYT today analyzes statistics on food stamps and TANF (welfare assistance) in every state. Unemployment and food assistance seem to outpace monetary relief. This could mean many things: the system is inadequate or too strict, people think of TANF as a last resort, or people successfully move from TANF to jobs quickly. What you think seems to depend on whether you work for the liberal Brookings Institute or the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Here are Missouri's stats. From 2007-2008: unemployment increased 1.1%, food stamps recipients increased a whopping 11.1%, but welfare enrollment decreased 8.8%. Go figure. My first impression is that even employed people can get food stamps, so of course more would be enrolled there.

Lastly, here's some analysis of the all-important Super Bowl commercials. Most were pretty disappointing, but Pepsi has been getting my attention with their catchy new campaign. They've always marketed themselves as the soda of the hip, young generation. The soda of change and innovation vs. stodgy Coca-Cola Classic. So this year they have shrewdly adopted an Obama-esque circular logo and the slogan "Every generation refreshes the world." TV spots travel through stereotypes of the decades, showing flappers, greasers, hippies, and punk rockers clutching their rebellious soft drink. There' s just one problem with this "master narrative" of progress and protest.
A commercial by TBWA/Chiat/Day, featuring Mr. Dylan and, rewrites history by presenting Pepsi-Cola as the choice of peaceniks, hippies and other youthful rebels. In reality, the Pepsi-Cola parent, PepsiCo, was led at the time by Donald Kendall, a friend of Richard M. Nixon’s, and the soft drink was considered the Republican soda. (Ads That Pushed Our Usual (Well Worn) Buttons.)
Oh shoot, Pepsi execs. Maybe you should have done some research first. That's what you get for perceiving history as a chain of inevitable progress.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Splish Splash

What a darling redhead!

Little Braylin gets chubbier every time I see him.

Toddler Camille was my pool buddy. She's probably getting ready to jump off the stairs again.

Camille's twin sisters and mom.

Last Friday I helped out with a parents' networking event for the Stay at Home Parent program - swimming at the O'Fallon YMCA! Nurse Chari has gotten to know me well enough that now she calls me for help with her projects. The little ones had fun in the water, and by the end moms were doing the kind of networking we hope to facilitate. Hearing that one girl there has an emotionally abusive boyfriend, several other moms chimed in that she should demand respect and not stay in a bad situation. "Do you want your daughter to grow up in an envoronment like that?"

That's the kind of networking these women need. It's a joy to see out clients come together.As St. Vincent once said, "No one is too rich to receive or too poor to give."