Braving the Wilds

Field Notes from the Suburban Jungle

Tag: Christine Adams Beckett

Junk Yard Dog

The shrill telephone startled her from

An unconscious afternoon of laundry folding.

“Your dog is down on Berkeley,

Headed for Valley Road,”

The frantic woman said.

“We can’t stop him.”

She found him lumbering

Crookedly like the stray dogs

She had seen on the islands.

From a distance, one could imagine

The mange, the dirt,

The fleas and conjunctivitis

As he violently choked down

A piece of tin foil, malleable and discolored

Like a dog who had not been fed

$35 a bag kibble with warmed chicken stock

Just that morning.

His sideways stride, even and experienced,

His evasive agility suggested

He never lost his freedom.

It was always there, a feral nature

Residing just under the fur,

Exposed with a mere scratch of the skin

Where the screen that used to plug the hole in the fence

Exposed some bloodied flesh.

Why be dragged back to a

Suffocating life of down-filled, fleece-lined dog beds,

Warm peanut butter on a toddler’s inviting fingers,

And crackling fires that warmed his haunches

Where the fur grew too thin for

New Jersey winters?

She may look like a suburban mother

Who warms chicken stock to

Moisten his kibble.

She is also a captor, a jailor

Who pursues him with a terrified need,

A disconsolate feeling of loss

Much like that of experiencing

A child shuffle off her lap, refusing the breast,

Or the preschooler’s shrug of the shoulders

Upon her departure to the classroom

WIth no hint of separation anxiety.

It suggests the same rejection, isolation

As the teenager who finally realizes

He prefers an evening amongst his peers,

A lover who has been unable to

Break through the wall of a solitary existence.

The suggestion of death, the dog’s,

Her own,

Startles her to look to love.

She kneels and purrs, holds out a treat

To lure him back with kindness.

A stare down ensues

Followed by

A last dash to the upturned garbage can.

She sits on the frozen ground, her knees to her eye sockets

And considers:

Not having to rise at 6 AM for that first

Pit stop in the front yard.

Conjures the freedom of having a morning uninterrupted by

The prerequisite walk around the park.

A weekend away without a dog sitter,

A bittersweet thought on her angry mind.

Angrier still, until a familiar wet nose

Jars her from her fantasy

Of days without others to care for

With a warm lick to the cheek.

She clicks the leash to the collar

Not knowing

If the tongue sought to comfort

Or to find sadistic pleasure in

The saltiness of her tears.

Herod’s Impotent Hands

Frantic, chaotic existence

For one interminable instant:

A pseudo-Egyptian woman

Brave, effusive and artistic

Stowed a score of unquestioning clean slates

Into her Coptic kiln room.

Shots rang out as an Elizabeth,

With a close-grown copse of Johns

Found a split mountain,

A bathroom with tiny toilets

Barricaded from the outside

With feathery volumes of

Pat the Bunny,

Tom Sawyer and

The Diary of Anne Frank.

Waiting for silence,

Peace ever-elusive,

Rows of innocents in an

Evacuation conga line,

Eyes squeezed shut, still shedding tears,

Found their Egypt in a New England fire house,

And Love everlasting in far-reaching arms

Without creed: a mourning, heart-strong

World on the verge of a great shift.

King Herrod lay dead

While the martyrs remain perfectly preserved

In a spiritual idea.

Unchanging from year to year,

Their steadfast awe and heavenly connection

Will live forever in the inverted refraction

On our retinas that perceive Perfection.

Sculpted Memory

My two year-old has taken to gazing at a photo of me that was taken four hours prior to her birth: every inch of my person was swollen, as I stood in pink profile, a seemingly impossible feat of physics. I am supporting a freakishly bulging belly with my cradled arms, as if that section of me would spontaneously separate from my body if I didn’t. I don’t remember posing for the photo, which was apparently taken as I dressed to leave for the hospital, but I have reconstructed the memory to include great discomfort (obviously!) and anticipation.

My daugher is fascinated that she lies, living and breathing, under that stretched-thin sheath of abdominal skin. After asking to see the photo dozens of times we’ve finally, embarrassingly, printed a copy so that she can refer to it whenever the desire arises.

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, my husband joked with her: “Hannah, do you remember when you lived in there?”

“Yes,” she responded without hesitation.

“What was it like?” he egged her on.

“It was dark, but Mama turned the light on for me,” she declared with assurance.

I ponder the world of play and imagination of a two year-old, wether or not she actually believes her statement with a Dickensian, Pip-like cognition or perhaps has an advanced grasp of metaphor. The photo itself seems to be inventing the memory. She has been told that she was there and now she has incorporated the image, with her own delightful insertions, into her creative memory bank.

It amuses us, but in reality we all do the same exact thing: construct our own memories to suit ourselves. My older two children swear they have memories of their early years, which were spent in Paris; but when asked to describe them in greater detail I realize that what they are spitting back to me is a blow-by-blow description of a home movie I filmed myself.

My husband is convinced that people don’t actually go to Disney Land for a good time, since all that’s involved is long lines, painfully squeaky sneakers, a homogenized version of the real world. They go for the photograph, the reconstruction of an event that was sheer annoyance in reality. Couples spend thousands on a wedding photographer, but forget what they ate at their reception. The Christmas card photos open up and entire can of memory worms, mostly all of them glossed over images of a perfectly coiffed gaggle of children with faces scrubbed clean, straight As on their report cards and absolutely no sibling rivalry whatsoever.

Refreshingly, my sister-in-law in Wisconsin kept a series of shots from one holiday doing exactly what everyone’s kids do on such occasions: fight, sometimes pull hair, make bunny ears behind one’s head, cry a little, perhaps project a little snot from the nose. I had wished she had sent the entire series in her holiday card. It would have been comic relief, the real moment, similar to that Christmas letter we got from an acquaintance one year about how absolutely terrible his year had been: “Little Suzie got kicked out of college, my mother died a slow agonizing death and my wife left me.”

As much as we try to forget the painful stuff, gloss over it like a shiny perfect Christmas card photo, the memories remain, often times reinvented and molded over the years, to suit a new perception, based on experience. In a recent article in Wired Magazine, Jonah Lehrer outlined recent scientific research that proves that “our memories are not inert packets of data and they don’t remain constant. Even though every memory feels like an honest representation, that sense of authenticity is the biggest lie of all.” Instead, we inadvertently embellish them, change them, sculpt them to suit our ever-changing personas. And the most astonishing: those memories that we recall most often, the most haunting ones and the most pleasant, are the ones most artfully arranged, losing most of their accuracy.

The most accurate memory is the one that is recalled years later, the one we haven’t revisited. That untouched nugget of the past has been left to remain in its more virgin state, untouched by our sculpting neuro-pathways. The literal reasonings lie in a network of neurons, electro-chemical fabric which involves the all-important proteins – what Lehrer calls “cellular bricks and mortar” – of recollection. On a more emotional level we can call it what it really is: the unique, overwhelmingly personal, us.

Hannah will learn in years to come, sadly, that the memory she had of lights being turned on while she swam about en utero was an invention, or at least learn that the social norms of saying what we believe or wish to be true is not acceptable. Most childhood development specialists argue that long term memory happens when fluent language skills are established. Unfortunately, memory of life in me is impossible for her.

My mother likes to talk about an article she read in a magazine years ago about a child who begged her parents to be left alone with his newborn sister. Her parents, fearing natural rivalry issues, feelings of displacement, were concerned but reluctantly agreed. With the help of a baby monitor, they kept close tabs on the child who simply wanted to ask the baby, in hopes she could answer: “Baby, what does God look like? I’m forgetting…”

Similarly, Hannah is creating a new protein-rich neuro-pathway that she likes to revisit over and over again based on a comforting curiosity. Maybe she simply believes that she – as a tiny being – had cognition while floating about completely protected, without experience, without connection to the world. There is power in that thought: I could perceive even before birth.

Or perhaps the sun peeked through to those tiny, registering, fetal eyes the days that I wore a bikini on the beaches of St John while 8 months pregnant. Perhaps it is I who forgot what it was like to be totally enveloped and protected by another human being. Perhaps I have lost that electro-chemical pathway in a jumble of others, firing away at the best way to envelop my own children, now that the world has its grasp on them, throwing them every imaginable curve ball of perception to every sense organ of their small bodies.

Reconstruction

The chest compressions inflated your navel

Grotesquely, reminding me that the absurd scar

Marked an intimate, ancestral connection

To the life of another, your mother.

She made Thanksgiving dinner on the day you were born,

Your stump of an umbilical cord

Still bloody from where it was violently severed.

I imagine they said Grace around a crowded table,

The woman at its head still sore from labor

Desperately erasing the memory of a painful delivery.

This Rockwellian cerebral painting is merely my manufacture,

For I know nothing.

I marked the other end of your existence, navel gazing without the boredom

And contemplated seventy-four years of secrets

You hid from those closest to you.

Seventy-four enigmatic years have left me with snippets

Of information, details I have embellished

To make the complete whole, to fill the holes.

I masked your pain with cowboy boots

And Johnny Cash and a confident demeanor

That hid nothing of consequence.

Music you whistled under inhaled breath

Sucked in more than air. You swallowed ignorance whole

To a cheery tune while you tinkered away on a project

To form a helpful, but incomplete identity.

“There’s beer in the fridge,” you said,

While I constructed an I Love You from the amber, carbonized liquid.

Charles Dickens wrote that every human creature is a profound secret.

Yours is safe now, released to the depths of unfathomable waters.

We will construct the slide show and the eulogy

And create a complete understanding

That we never found

While your navel naturally expanded

And your lungs took purposeful, private breath.

Both Angel and Tomboy

There has been a recent influx of media attention on the societal position of women and girls in America, most notably by an enormous editorial reaction from Hanna Rosin’s book The End of Men. Hanna Rosin outlines the America where men might have actually fallen behind women in education and in the professional world. As well, Greg Hampikian, a biology professor at Boise State University in Idaho even wrote an article for the New York Times entitled Men, Who Needs Them? explaining that biologically, with advancements in fertility medicine, men are essentially irrelevant.

If a woman wants to have a baby without a man, she just needs to secure sperm (fresh or frozen) from a donor (living or dead). The only technology the self-impregnating woman needs is a straw or turkey baster, and the basic technique hasn’t changed much since Talmudic scholars debated the religious implications of insemination without sex in the fifth century. If all the men on earth died tonight, the species could continue on frozen sperm. If the women disappear, it’s extinction.

Rosin and Hampikian’s America seems light years away from Malala Yousufzai’s Pakistan, a country where her outspoken views on equal educational opportunity for girls earned her a trip to the United Kingdom, seeking asylum and a recovery from her Taliban-inflicted bullet wound to the head. Malala’s former world was one where ignorant, brutal men ruled and attempted murder on any one Angel who disrupted the status quo.

The Half The Sky Movement, which is “turning oppression into opportunity for women worldwide,” was featured this month on PBS in a documentary of the same name. Half The Sky hangs over countries where women are still objectified, oppressed and literally struggling for their lives. Again, Half the Sky is a far cry from the reality of our American girls who are starting to pull away from boys in all areas of achievement, and it extends far beyond Pakistan.

In our own little corner of Suburbia, the Angels and Tomboys exhibit at the Newark Museum features nineteenth century paintings of girls, mostly immersed in passive and domestic situations. Oppressed in a drastically less dangerous way than our poor Malala, the exhibit still presents a bygone female America with decidedly less opportunity than Rosin and Hampikian’s.

Winslow Homer, A Temperance Meeting (Noon Time), 1874. Oil on Canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Art; purchased with the John Howard McFadden Jr Fund, 1956.

A subtle shift in our two dimensional girls seems to come after the Civil War, when the Tomboy makes an appearance in art, shaking up widely ensconced gender roles of girls. As is typical of artists of every age, our Gilded Age heros with paintbrushes began to depict the female in less glorified and submissive light. We see more mischief making, more physical activity, more realism, more provocation. But rather than portray these images as what the Oxford English dictionary would have called “having been connected with connotations of rudeness and impropriety”, the American Gilded Age tomboy began to emerge as an admired characteristic.

The post script to the exhibition for our girls is one that should outline the simple truth: that although once American women were supposed to hide behind masks of physical beauty, to adhere to strict gender rolls, to not seek opportunity where a boy was considered more suitable, the possibilities for them now are limitless. But regardless of the opportunity that exists for them, one must not forget the plight of women and girls who live under half the sky, which remains oppressive. When those skies begin to clear, as they absolutely must, let Malala be portrayed in an altogether new portrait of an angelic tomboy: one who pushed the limits of her societal gender roll and who will have saved future generations of girls from the same heavy plight that she lifted so ably with her impressively strong arms.

Angels and Tomboys will run until January 6 at The Newark Museum. For more information about the Half the Sky movement as well as future airings on PBS, please see their their website.

Authors note: Hampikian writes in his article, “When I explained this to a female colleague and asked her if she thought that there was yet anything irreplaceable about men, she answered, “They’re entertaining.”

Gentlemen, let’s hope that’s enough.”

As the mother of a 12 year-old son I must include that they are certainly far more than just entertaining. As well, education for boys is in need of an overhaul, and as we begin to live in a post feminist world, as an Adams (and with apologies to the singular Abigail), I must include… “Please, do not forget the gentlemen…”

Hand Pulled Chicken Casserole

There is an old English proverb that reads, “The eyes are the windows to the soul,” but I always have thought that hands are the introduction to the personality, the intricate weave of experiences and genetically bequeathed traits we receive from our parents. As a child, I was mesmerized by my father’s strong, hairy grease-streaked fingers that would tremble as he’d screw the cap off the oil tank in his Triumph, but would also very gingerly use his pinkies to transform our organized tangle of string from a witch’s broom back to a cat’s cradle. They always rested on the steering wheel at 10 and 2 o’clock as he drove, just as my mother’s would, never seemed to fumble. His mind’s eye was careful to make a sound judgement and he’d never slip when pushing a button: a strong, sure, able finger would push the right knob without hesitation after careful contemplation.

I heard speak of his own father’s mechanical capabilities, his trucking company, his service as the town of New Milford’s respected democratic first selectman, the genetic precursor to his own career in engineering.

My mother’s hands were strong and able, but gentle and pretty. On her left hand she wore her mother-in-law’s diamond wedding band, a ring now bestowed to my own daughter and tucked safely away. A symbol of elegance and welcome, that ring was a material example for the many ways my Grandmother enveloped my mother. I longed to know her as I looked at that ring, alas, she passed five years before my birth. She also wore a dainty Timex watch with an elasticized band that rested just below her prominent wrist bone. As the mother of five children, she had to keep careful track of what that watch read as she maneuvered her Pontiac station wagon around the town of Bristol Connecticut, steering it’s hulk from piano lessons, track practice, perhaps her afternoon of volunteering at the Bargain Box downtown, a second hand shop formed to benefit the Episcopal Church we attended every Sunday without fail.

I would stare at her sparsely decorated hands as they performed various tasks, her knuckles prominent, that of her pinky slightly extended while bent: bringing up the hem of one of my sister’s skirts that had grown too small for her but too long for me; pulling chicken off the bone to add to a casserole, removing one of the dozens of splinters that embedded itself in my feet, a painful byproduct of our summers spent on a wooden removable dock on Lake Waramaug.

If asked, I could pick her hands from hundreds of others, so it comes as a bit of a surprise to me that my own hands look like hers. The bones that connect my fingers to my wrist dance about under the thinning layers of skin just like hers did, and although my fingernails are nothing like hers, strong and long and feminine, my pinky knuckle also juts out when performing certain tasks. They are not entirely rough but smoothed out thanks to regular application of cream, and my children often remark “mom, your hands are warm and soft…”

I remember that warmth. My mom seemed to exude it from her body, inviting to a toddler who longed for the reconnection to that maternal love after performing a new stunt, dangerously inviting independence into our new lives.

Recently I noticed my mother’s ring finger being pinched by arthritis, a malady she pointed out to me as she sat opposite me in my own family car, she in the passenger seat and me with my hands on the wheel at precisely ten and two o’clock. It induced a pang low in my stomach, a twinge I have felt many times in my life: a psychosomatic pain that is introduced to my person when affected by another’s suffering. I have felt it as I saw an elderly woman struggling to get onto the bus unaided, my young nephew with his tongue stitched after cleft palate surgery, my own daughter having blood drawn from her tiny newborn vein, just south of her ring finger, a tiny capillary vessel of her life’s liquid tapped to measure her bilirubin. The sight of that sharp needle in her tiny, inexperienced hand and the sudden recognition that the world now had its own grip on my daughter, that she was no longer carefully and perfectly enveloped in my womb, had induced my first loss of consciousness. I fell to my knees as I attempted to comfort her, my own hands surgically taped into its own IV tube after a Caesarian, grasping for the gurney for support before my faded peripheral vision took over the whole of my eye.

Regardless of very personal associations, hands are universally symbolic in nature, but also practical. Horses are measured by them, but in Asian art, hands folded together are often a symbol of our dual natures, yin on one hand and yang on other other, joining together in harmony. The hands tenderly holding the heart on an Irish Claddagh ring symbolize friendship as well, as it does in a simple wave. Often attributed to the native American gesture in the woods – to show a hand without weapon and therefore a peaceful gesture. To offer one’s own hand could be construed as an offer to help, or more colossally, in marriage. A simple aid or an entire life is offered by the hand.

So it is in harmony that I offer my hand to my family and friends, but most symbolically to my own children. My son who will be 13 this fall no longer takes mine in public, but in the private confines of our own suburban home will compare the size of our hands with amusement: my hand is the same size as yours now, Mom! His hands tremble with sensory motor overload, much like my father’s, much like mine. He can construct a Lego creation with no effort at all if it weren’t for that pesky tremble that has seemed to travel the Adams rail line of congenital nuisances.

My nine year-old will still take my hand in all classes of company. Hers are topped by nail beds that have been chewed to the quick, evidence of a stressful school year during which she dug through social messes much too mature for her nine years of life experience. I am grateful she often slips her hand into mine, but the gesture is seldom enough for me to immediately recognize the difference in size and significance. I also observe with great amazement that that tiny dimpled grasp that once sent me swooning during a routine blood test can now knit and purl better than I ever could, cartoons like a developing expert, and crafts gorgeous pieces of art out of anything from driftwood to tin cans.

My two year-old often demands to be entirely ensconced in my hands, not yet sure of her own while she tests the temperature of the waters of a new world. Her developing awareness of those waters have in turn encouraged her to try out these tools at the end of her arms with greater refinement: as she clutches a crayon in a fist to scribble, as she struggles with a cereal spoon with a seeming palsy, spilling the milk en route to her pouting lips, but with surprising heartbreaking tenderness as she strokes my cheeks.

The hands of my children are revealing what’s to come, their strengths and weaknesses, their steps closer to the goal of independence, turning to the world with their own contributions rather than asking their mothers’ hands for help. My own aging hands, rough from more than 40 years of mud pies, spiking volleyballs, diaper changes, or more accurately the soap and water that now responsibly follow such tasks, starkly contrast my two year-old’s hands that still feature chubby dimples instead of knuckles, but with motherly love stroke the satin trim of Mine, her aptly named security blanket. I cradle her tonight as I watch my 9 year-old daughter slowly peel the carrots for hand pulled chicken casserole she is making with my mother at her lakeside cottage. She probably doesn’t realize that the knuckle of her pinky finger juts out just like the two previous digital generations have before her.

I look through the window, where my son takes a large mouth bass off the hook with perfection, regardless of the tremble that arrives with the gingerly task, capitalized by a gentle stroke of water he washes over its gills upon release. The tremble of his grasp is evident from a distance, but diminishes nothing of his ability.

These hands belong to my children who have found the tasks they like best, and whose heritage lay embedded in them. I feel a familiar catch in my throat of both pride and longing as I massage my own hands with the jar of Ponds cream that is perched on my mothers kitchen sink after having washed the dirt of the potato peels off of them and return to my toddler for a reassuring caress, hers and mine.

The Friendly Phantom

I read in a medical journal at the pediatrician’s office today that Science has recently debunked a once widely agreed upon theory concerning the root of phantom limb syndrome, an amputee’s sensation of pain, itches or other stimuli from a missing limb. More recent studies suggest that causation is likely not due to damaged nerves of that limb. Instead, researchers have come up with new, more complex theories that include the entire jumbled system of neurology and it’s electro-chemical responses, a “neuromatrix” theory. The somatosensory cortex of the brain, after losing a significant amount of input after the loss of a limb, goes through a long process of reorganization, often resulting in false stimuli. Hence, the amputee may feel pain where there is nothing.

The phenomenon reminds me of the sensation a new mother still feels after birth: abdominal flutters, perceived fetal movements as she cares for her living, breathing newborn. The lingering sensation a child feels long after a pet hamster had skittered across the palm and returned to its screen-covered glass aquarium. The sound of that same baby crying out in her sleep, who is in fact restful and unconscious to the world around her: all tricks our brain’s sensory cortex plays on our receptors, a faux response to false stimuli.

I have “seen” movements out of the corner of my eye, convinced that a turn of the head would lead me to the position of greeting a visitor to no avail. I have heard voices, most often belonging to the radiator. I have felt the touch of a hand that was simply the cramp of a small muscle.

So it is when our “vie quotidien” is disrupted, our habits of daily life are thrown a curve ball and the change does not quite register. In the 1980s, when a family friend shaved his mustache, it took me months to recognize what was different about him. Returning from college, the garden in front of my parents’ house seemed different, but it took three days to compute: the crab apple tree was gone. I am often left to wonder, “what is different…?”

My dog left us abruptly last Friday, a victim of the instinctual tragic flaw of being unequivocally attracted to squirrels. She died in my arms at the vet an hour after the accident. I watched her leave me as I thanked her for the love, joy and comfort she afforded our family for the five too-short years she graced us with her company. Every sense of my person registered that loss: I saw her pupils dilate away from me, I heard her breath stop, I felt the shudder under her fur, I smelled the medicinal atmosphere of the veterinarian’s office and tasted the tears that ran down my cheeks. Every neurological sign sent painful signals to my stunned sensory cortex: she is gone. My nerves responded in kind: my digestive tract told me never to eat, my respiratory system took painful breaths, my eyes felt exhaustion deep in my head. I grieved.

That her presence still registers with me is likely due to faux sensory input, details of my day severed from my life too abruptly. I see her in the periphery waiting at the back door when the rain kicks up. I hear her now, breathing in her deep dainty snores as I write about her. I smell the faint hint of her corn chip fur that shed on my pajamas long after our TV watching embrace had unlocked and we headed to our separate beds. I ignore gold fish crackers on the floor, as I know our canine vacuum cleaner should hoover them anon. I reach for the leash when I am at the door and I am still saving the plastic bags from The New York Times to clean up after her at the park.

Faux sensory stimuli are creating a false response in my sensory cortex. That is the scientific explanation. Or maybe the Goodness of her being is still here, a phantom of love that sneaks through the walls and under the rugs and can’t be taken away from us. It is Real. My heart still – and will forever – register it.

Tough Going, Rabble Risers and a Feverish Pitch

Having previously chased two crawling babies in two different city apartments, I never knew the fear of the staircase as acutely as I did with my third child, born in suburban New Jersey to two house dwellers. The realization hit me as I was hauling 25 pounds of extra me up the stairs, a few weeks away from Delivery Day, when my feet swelled and my normally athletic self took more effort to drag up the stairs than it usually did. I actually held the hand rail and took one step at a time instead of two. Mid-flight I stopped and stared at the landing, just six more risers before me when it struck me like a wet diaper to the face: I have never had a baby in the suburbs before.

I glanced backward through the windows on either side of the front door, the focal point of this center hall colonial, and took in the brilliantly blooming cherry tree and a half a dozen cars parked along the opposite side of the street, most likely belonging to the patients of the orthopedist who lives and practices there. One solitary jogger zipped by the Pennsylvania bluestone walk that connected the street to my door, her long brown ponytail swinging behind her. As I sat down to contemplate the lack of urban diversion with a newborn, I was surprised to find that my center of gravity wasn’t what it was seven months earlier, and slid three steps down on my now ample derriere. Jostled by the jolt of the third step, I somehow forgot why I was headed to the second floor in the first place, and instead headed straight to the computer to surf for baby gates that would rival The Brandenburg in impenetrability.

I have tumbled down the steps two other times, once severely enough to create a raspberry on my right buttock that Mia Hamm would be proud to call her own. On that particular trip, I startled my sister-in-law from her toilette, who was visiting at the time, and she rushed to my aid in an amusing state of undress. I was carrying my baby at the time, and am proud and relieved that she made it through unscathed; but I was sore for days. The second was simple stupidity realized in a death defying tumble. Suburban house dwellers, be forewarned: you cannot bring three baskets of laundry to the basement all at once; and when you try to grab onto the handrail, just let go of the baskets, for the love of God!

Although no statistics exist that illustrate how dangerous stairs are, there is a a book (maybe only one) out there on the matter: The Staircase: Studies of Hazards, Falls, and Safer Design, by John A. Templer of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They are likely the second most common cause of accidental death, mostly older people (or I dare say, idiotic people who try to carry three loads of laundry to their basement on one 5’7″ frame.) But according to Templer, and Bill Bryson who writes about Templer in his At Home: A Short History of Place, most accidents are caused by poor design, bad lighting, the lack of handrails, confusing patterns on the treads, risers that are unusually high or low, treads that are too wide or narrow, or landings that are poorly placed, as to interrupt the rhythm of ascent or descent.

I was amused that Bryson’s whimsical book was interrupted by a chapter on stairs. Even Frederick Law Olmstead, the landscape architect responsible for designing Central Park, obsessed over stairs and used a mathematician, Ernst Irving Freese, to construct a pair of equations making for an optimal riser and going, the step itself. The third part of essential geometry is the pitch of the staircase, which Bryson reports to be too slow going if less than 27 degrees, and far too tedious at anything more than 45.

Stairway at Monticello

Treacherously narrow stairs at Jefferson's Monticello

Thomas Jefferson paid no mind to such matters, as he thought the staircase a waste of real estate for his beloved Monticello. Instead, he tucked a windy, narrow, treacherous stairwell in an unused corner to preserve precious living space in a deceptively small house. In a recent NPR story about Monticello, there was an aside given by the tour guide to the interviewer regarding the narrow stairs, Jefferson’s view of economy of space and how he wasn’t willing to use it on stairs, but most interestingly: Mick Jagger was her only visitor who didn’t use the handrail. He’s as agile as we all assumed him to be.

My suburban baby turns out to be pretty light on her feet as well. She realized all my greatest fears by scaling the gate installed at the bottom of the stairs one afternoon as I dared to excuse myself to use the bathroom. The loud crash was not followed by a howling cry however, so when I came rushing out in a similar version of my sister-in-law’s undress, I found her unscathed. She was also at the top of the landing giggling with pride at all she had accomplished. I only wish I had seen how she pulled down the contraption without injury.

After countless trial runs, she has gotten adept at crawling up, and at shimmying down the goings on her diapered back side. She has recently graduated to using the railing with her hand as she uses her feet to ascend, all the while with a protective hand at her back. The lack of urban diversions with a newborn was not the issue I suspected it to be, either, with many a villager stopping by with home cooked suppers, a load of kids to entertain my older children and offers to help. Sometimes I got gallons of milk without even asking for them. One neighbor just sat with me while I held a sleeping baby for hours, reminding me that staring at the perfection of a newborn is sometimes much more fun with company. I didn’t need the diversions of store windows, a sea of strangers and decaf lattés. I tackled the stairs, and sometimes fell; but I had my sister-in-law, half naked and as exposed as me, there to help me back up again.

An Ethical and Nutritional Fail: It’s What’s For Dinner

My husband often jokes that virtue is for sale at Whole Foods, and it’s a big ticket item. Another acquaintance made an enlightening observation: that the parking lot there is not filled with Chevy Volts, but Hummers and Mercedes Benzes. I bumped into my dentist in the Whole Foods parking lot, the enormous one in West Orange, and he simply asked me, “What brings you to Whole Paycheck?” Only special occasions bring me to Whole Foods, frankly, as my food budget isn’t limitless. But I am not sure the virtue of Whole Foods is, either.

There has been a public discourse between Michael Pollan, author of many books on food and its many ethical implications, and the CEO of Whole Foods, John Mackey. Mackey’s outfit has been criticized as being a museum of contradictions, the most conspicuous of them penned by Mr Mackey himself: his essay on Conscious Capitalism. I am intrigued by Mr Mackey’s ideas, but the fact remains that he still pedals expensive food stuffs which the average American cannot afford.

It’s no big secret that they aren’t giving away the organic, grass fed beef; the organic ground local variety is $9 a pound at Whole Foods currently. It’s not classified information that to eat well, is to pay well. With the publication of Michael Pollan’s books, most notably The Omnivore’s Dilemma, we’re all in a tizzy over what to eat. Even the charming Mark Bittman has gotten on the soap box next to Pollan to preach about the ethics of what we put into our mouths: the inhumane treatment of the animals, the use of fossil fuels to transport produce hundreds or even thousands of miles. We’re eating too much beef, which requires too many cows, which requires too much cow feed. We’ve been educated and now we have responded by demanding the best quality food that money can buy.

In Mark Kurlansky’s book, Cod: The Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, we have learned that cod is essentially all but commercially extinct. We have overfished dozens of varieties of fish, mainly by trolling the bottoms of the ocean floor with sea nets, leaving no chance for our gilled suppers to repopulate. So scratch that off your list. As a matter of fact, according to Seafoodwatch at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, you should also avoid Chilean seabass, cobia, imported king crab, flounder, halibut, sole, grouper, Brazilian spiny lobster, mahi mahi, blue and striped marlin, monkfish, orange roughy, farmed Atlantic salmon (stick to the wild Alaskan kind instead, offered at Whole Foods for anywhere from an astronomical $22 – $27 per pound), shark, skate, imported shrimp, red snapper, imported swordfish, Asia farmed tilapia, and tunas of all kinds: albacore, bigeye, skipjack, tongol, yellowfin (except troll/pole), bluefin, and canned (exept troll/pole).

It’s an entrepreneur’s dream, but the soap box derby boys have a point. The beef under plastic wrap at the A&P is likely to come from a cow that has been fed corn,and treated with antibiotics and growth hormones that will make your children hit puberty years earlier. The chicken is about 50% likely to be tinged with e-coli, having been dragged through feces. The eggs are now a whole lot less tasty, too, after Nicholas Kristof’s exposée of Shop Rite’s major egg provider, Kreider Farms. Kristof writes that as many as a dozen Kreider hens are crammed into a cage the size of an oven and the barns are fetid and unsanitary. Rodents abound and automatic feeding carts often decapitate the chickens. Others have found their demise in the wires of a coop and left to rot for days. Makes that goat cheese and asparagus frittata a whole lot less appetizing to say the least.

Most markets have begun to offer organic alternatives to the distributor giants. Seasonal farmers markets have sprung up in many a suburban town. Community supported agriculture, three of which exist in Montclair, are overwhelmingly popular, and less expensive than Whole Foods and the Farmer’s Market. Yet, you may be stuck eating pounds and pounds of kale for weeks. You get what you get and you don’t get upset, to borrow a line from my children’s 3rd grade teacher.

Heck, if you’re REALLY ambitious you can live off the grid entirely, cultivating your own food, rejecting the processed world we live in. Hook up your lava lamp to a solar panel (unless like our house, there isn’t enough direct sunlight to make a dent in your PSE&G bill). With our limited open space in Montclair, feeding a family of five might be a hard lot on such little acreage. If both parents are working, finding the time to reap what you sow might be a bit of a task to boot. The rodents and birds might have a differing idea about what to do with those luscious zucchini, too. So much for your mom’s ratatouille.

To complicate matters: I have learned through one of my exercise buddies, who is a nutritionist, that in order to maintain a healthy weight, it’s best to cut out processed carbohydrates entirely, sticking instead to whole grain rices and breads — and only then in moderation. Sweet potatoes and potatoes are better, but only every so often. Pasta is a no-no. Forget about those tortillas, flour or corn: too many carbs. Hand fruit can be loaded with sugar so you should try to stick to berries, and although a high protein diet is essential, you should limit your intake of meat. A recent seminar she attended actually recommended that you keep track of your own stool. One should actually inspect their own feces to make sure that any undigested food does not remain and adjust it accordingly, as those are the things in your diet to avoid: those that are not easily broken down. So long corn, take a hike salad, hasta la vista seeds and nuts.

We’ve got 21 meals a week and snacks to worry about. A handful of berries and one pound of $27 salmon will only take me through 4% of that toil. A suburban mom with lots of car pools, play dates and homework coaching sessions is left to wonder: what the hell is for dinner?

Please see Mackey’s essay on Conscious Capitalism here for further details on why post Industrial economics isn’t cutting the mustard anymore.