Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Essentials

Before my daughter gave birth in March to Mabel, I accompanied her to Buy Buy Baby. Out of the newborn business since 1994, it was like stepping off the plane into a foreign country where the language, customs, and terrain were something hinted at in a book I once read but which now only vaguely resembled what I recalled.

I wandered the aisles of that baby megastore in amazement.  A humidifier in the shape of an elephant that blew a cool mist from its trunk, strollers in every shape and size (with a price point equal to the down payment we put on our last car), a warmer for baby wipes, diaper bags with a built-in changing pad, a motorized hammock that played music to lull bambino to sleep, a breathing monitor to clip on to the baby's diaper, a camera that mounts to the crib to watch the baby sleep.

I found myself saying, "I don't think you need that" over and over.  Me, the expert on baby essentials - a product of the 50s before even the most basic car seat had been invented.  While this seems ludicrous and dangerous now (because it was), most homes only had one car that Dad drove to work.  When Mom was home with the kids, Mom was home with the kids.  On those rare occasions when she did finally get to go out she made sure to leave her offspring at home with their father, and while he stood at his workbench in the garage organizing screws and washers into baby food jars, his kids kept busy by shoving things into outlets until they shocked themselves.

Things had changed drastically by the time my firstborn came along which, like me, amazed my mother.  Disposable diapers?  A box of wipes just for cleaning the baby after a diaper change?  A listening device to put in the baby's room so you can hear her while in another room?  What was this? The Jetsons?

In the work of bringing up baby things change fast, and I bet my daughter will feel whip-sawed by the available new breed of baby products in a few short years.  Despite the pressure and heavy marketing, most of the extras - used for a few months over a few years - will be sold for pennies on the dollar at the neighborhood garage sale.  Just as thrilling as it was to unpack the newest gadget to try out on baby, it is just as thrilling to unload it from the basement or garage.

And while all of those things make raising a baby easier the essentials are -

  • A wildly optimistic sense of adventure and humor
  • The ability to roll with the unpredictable
  • A standing agreement with your spouse that being on time for anything ever again is a ridiculous endeavor
  • The steadfast belief that you and your baby (even on your most challenging days) will grow alongside of each other in every way

Everything else ~ like wisdom ~ will get passed on.


Me:  You need to take a long nap this afternoon because Grandma was up too late last night watching videos on YouTube.


Me:  We'll nap together, bambino!


Me:  Mabel, are you listening?


Me:  Listen, kiddo, I promise you that your activity chair will still be there when we wake up from our, you know, nap.

Mabel:  *big smile*

Me:  Oh geez, Mae, let's skip the nap.  That thing does look pretty fun so I'll just keep staring at you until your mom gets home and thank all the baby stars in the sky that I get to watch you grow.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Hot Zone

Two years ago Mark and I took a road trip to Montana.  He was attending a meeting in Hamilton, where nestled in a small town in the Bitterroot Valley is the Rocky Mountain Laboratories.  Highly secure from the general public, it is where diseases, like salmonella, anti-resistant bacterial infections, MRSA, and Lyme are studied. Included in the research done at that facility is bio-terror threats.

Every night there were social events with the conference attendees and their significant others and we met scientists from all over the world.  On the patio of a French restaurant we ate dinner with a Canadian researcher whose team regularly travels back and forth to small African villages to collect samples when there is an outbreak of the Ebola virus.

After the conference was over we began to make our way north to Glacier National Park.  Our first stop was Missoula.  Maybe it was our inner cowboy/cowgirl bubbling to the surface, but it didn't take us long to start imagining ourselves living there one day.  With a farmer's market and summer fair in full swing that Saturday morning, we were smitten.  We parked the car and started hunting for a place to eat breakfast. When we stopped to look at the menu posted in the window of a coffee shop, a guy sitting at a table on the patio said, "If you're looking for the best breakfast in town you've arrived at the right place."  We stayed and he was right.

When we finished eating we wandered into the shops and art galleries and bookstores.  We wanted to stay longer but we had many miles to cover to make it to Glacier by dinnertime and so we headed back to where our car was parked.

A few blocks from the main drag we stood at an intersection waiting for the light to change and I noticed a guy (not much older than high school) standing on the other side of the street waiting to cross.  It looked like he was wearing a uniform and I assumed he was a security guard on his way to work.  When the light changed and we got closer we saw much more - a gun holstered on each hip and the brown uniform of a neo-Nazi.  Mark and I said nothing and walked quickly to the car where we locked the doors and looked at each other with a holy-shit-was-that-what-I-think-it-was-and-where-was-he-going look.

Amid the memories of that trip with its breathtaking landscape and the dozens of scientists committed to eradicating or preventing deadly infectious diseases, was the lone figure of that kid we passed who was no older than my own son.  In beauty and dedication the former should far outweigh the latter and most of the time it does. Sometimes, though, I go back to that crosswalk in Missoula and wonder how somebody gets up in the morning, puts on a uniform associated with Hitler, straps a gun onto each hip and heads towards the Saturday morning farmer's market.

How hard the good and the holy in this world have to work day after day to atone for the destructive.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Old Guard

About this time last year we got a save-the-date card for a wedding the following May.  I had no idea who these people were.  There was no return address and only the first names of the couple were on the postcard.  I showed it to Mark and together we studied it for a good long while.  "I got nothing on this one," he said.  It took some digging and with the help of one of Mark's coworkers (who got the same card and was equally perplexed) we found it was the grandson of someone Mark has worked with for years.

The grandson Have we ever met this kid?

This spring the wedding invite came and I balked.  To be present to celebrate the nuptials of two people we didn't know seemed crazy to me.  Mark disagreed.  "This is important to Allen and his family and we should be there." I balked some more.  "You do know we have to get a gift, right?  We have to buy a wedding gift." Mark dug his heels in and since he rarely does that I mailed back the response card saying we would be more than happy to attend.

There we found ourselves with a table full of strangers in one of the loveliest event spaces in Kansas City.  We mingled and said our hellos to Allen and his wife.  Mark's previous boss and his wife, now retired, were there and when he saw his former roofer turned assistant professor hire from 24 years ago he said to me  "Shouldn't your old man be out fixing somebody's roof this summer?"

The food was fabulous, the bride and groom young, gorgeous, happy, and clearly crazy in love.  "What's your connection to the bride and groom?" was the round robin question around our table.  "Actually we don't know either of them but Mark works with his grandfather," I said, and then added, "but they sure seem adorable." If nothing else you can plop Mark and I in with a table of strangers and we can yak our way through the awkwardness.  We got up and danced when Stevie Wonder started playing, ate too many M & Ms off the candy table and had a great time.  Allen thanked us twice for coming and his kind eyes have always conveyed far more than he says.  Before he left, Mark's old boss stopped by our table and asked where Mark had gone off to.  "The bathroom I think."

"And he left you here alone?  That shithead."

These two are but a host of many key players in the early years of Mark's career and our first resources in navigating a new life in Kansas City.  They are brilliant, funny (oh so funny), still crazy about their spouses and their kids, proud of a career that has spanned decades, and proud of their contributions to science.

A few weeks later Allen retired and there was a party in his honor.  We have been to a few of these and often they have a funeral feel to them.  Mark put an end to that when he did a power point presentation that was hilarious and the highlight of the night.  I got a glimpse of the energy he brings to his workplace on a daily basis.

We were one of the last ones to leave the party which gave us a chance to talk to the grandson whose wedding we had just been to a few weeks earlier.  It was apparent how much he admires his grandfather and how much he resembles him in mannerisms and quiet strength.

With Allen retiring the old guard that has shepherded my husband through the trials, tribulations, and politics of a career in academia are mostly gone now.  Though it hardly seems possible Mark is now the old guard and I see in him some of the same traits as his mentors - brilliant, funny, crazy about his spouse and kids, proud of a career that has spanned decades and proud of his own contributions to science.

It has taken me this long to recognize that Mark believes that showing up on a Saturday night is part of his job, and that being present for the personal celebrations of the people who put their faith in him is dotted with fondness, gratitude and respect.  I will pick out a party dress, buy a gift for the young and darling who are madly in love, splash on some perfume, and stop complaining.

And I will remember to glance over my shoulder now and then to take note that his career has been paved with the gold of friendship.