Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Amari Christmas to All

When Carrie and I met, she was a huge Christmas fan and I was a bitter, cynical Grinch. She got excited in mid-November while I inversely pouted, grumped, and mumbled about stupid obligatory gift exchange, capitalistic, consumer bullshit, etc, etc. Initially, her enthusiasm for the holiday was so much stronger and so much sweeter than my contempt that Christmas became tolerable. When her father died, however, both of our extremes were tempered by her sadness, and in the following years Christmas kind of disappeared. We still made a tree from green poster board with pasted paper ornaments, but more often than not the day drifted by in subtle melancholy and indifference. 
This Christmas with Amari we had the opportunity to redefine the holiday. We're role models now, and we get to create new traditions and a new atmosphere - not only for her but for our family. For the first time in my life I bought Santa hats - for all three of us  - and I wore mine all day. We had a small tree with real decorations, a few presents for Amari scattered beneath it, and lights, lots and lots of lights all over the house. They've always been my favorite part of Christmas. We had coffee with Granny C, opened presents, took silly photos, and put Amari in a stocking for our best Anne Geddes imitation. In the evening we continued one of Carrie's family traditions by watching "Emmett Otter's Jug Band Christmas," and Carrie sang every song aloud to little Amari as she drifted in and out of sleep. It was perfect. 

And just like that - the holiday changed. A time of year that I dreaded and endured, closed my eyes and wished away, became a warm, nostalgic, family memory. 

Amari Christmas to all...

Friday, December 25, 2009

Let's Give Them Something to Talk About

A loving member of my family recently told me, "Isaac - you're a really good writer, but you write too much." She prefaced this by telling me about her historically short attention span, and I could relate. To be honest, if this blog weren't about me, I probably wouldn't read the whole thing either. Even while I'm writing I drift in and out. That's why James Patterson has become one of my favorite authors. While I used to have the time and patience for "A Hundred Years of Solitude," now I'm better suited to five short pages of riveting drama.

The feedback was a relief. I've been excited to hear people are enjoying my blog, but I've also felt a new pressure to perform, to come up with novel parenting adventures every week (when there probably aren't any left), and to tie a lesson-shaped bow around each experience. Although it was suggested I write this blog, I ultimately chose to do it because of a journal I found after my mom died. It was eleven small pages long, and towards the end my mom wrote briefly about us kids. She wrote it after after my parents break-up and just before she returned to India leaving us behind for the first time. She said she would be gone for six weeks, but didn't return for six months. I remember it feeling like a very long time. 

July 28, 1978 (written by Mary Oberne)

The children will survive, but not without scars of our battles. It's not fair to extend our pain to them. Your daughter loves you unconditionally. Can't you do the same for her? Or must her mother stay in line in order for you to love and be kind to her? Have you looked at Isaac's body - not his round little face, but his body? He is strong. He is built like a Mac Truck. He has the body of a physical person and must be encouraged to use it. And Jacob, little Jacob, he loves so much.

That was it - a paragraph - but it meant a lot to me. It healed an old wound just a little, just enough to close that chapter of my childhood. It was not the content but rather the consideration that mended my misconceptions of that time. Sometimes writing this blog feels like a conversation with a friend or a love letter to my wife, a literary smoke signal to other novice parents and an on-going gift for Amari. 

This is my latest observation in the world of parenting. Notice the brevity.

Babies, I'm learning, are like a projective truth serum, a Rorschach Test of sorts. I'm a counselor at the local grammar and middle schools while Carrie is a high school English teacher. Unfortunately, that means Amari will have to deal with at least one parent lurking around for most of her academic career. So much for our perfectly well-adjusted kid fantasy. As we brought Amari around to our respective jobs and to the homes of our friends and family, people began to expose themselves through seemingly innocuous comments. Fortunately, I own a Simultaneous World View Translator.

1. Grammar school staff: "Enjoy them now while you can."
Translation: The teenage years are just around the corner.

2. High School staff: "Don't worry - it gets easier."
Translation: The teenage years are just around the corner.

3. Middle School staff: "Oh...a baby...wow...that's um...how's um...is that the bell?"
Translation: I'm conflicted between job security and having to deal with another unpredictable preteen.

4. Anonymous, psychic, animal-communicating relative: "I think Amari would like it to be cooler in your house, and I'm also sensing that she really likes the outdoors."
Translation: It's really hot in here and I like outdoorsie stuff.

5. Stranger outside of Safeway: "Awww. I love infants."
Translation: I'm a creepy weirdo. Specifying a generalization changes the whole feel of the comment. "I love kids." No problem - who doesn't? "I love eight year olds." Creepy. Too specific. "I love infants." Very creepy. Who uses the word infants when describing their love of babies? 

That's it for today. Tomorrow - our first family Christmas. 

Happy holidays, everyone.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Sad Songs Say So Much

When Carrie and I began dating, her number one complaint - besides the fact that I chew gum and eat too loudly - was that our relationship wasn't providing enough drama to inspire her songwriting. A year later, we broke up, twice. She dated other men, I drank heavily, but eventually we gave those things up and got back together. A few original hits, a proposal, and a wedding later, and she's back to singing cover songs. Now I'm no rock star, but this is the longest I've gone without writing since Amari was born, and I think it's because things have gotten a lot easier.

Writing has always been a form of escape for me - a way to organize the chaos of my thoughts and feelings. It allows me to infuse my world view into my memories, like touching up old photographs or retelling childhood  stories - they look and sound better with time, and eventually they become indiscernible from the way they were. There's really no avoiding it. The average history book has 30,000 mistakes in it. Reality is ultimately perception, and if we write it down - guess what - it happened.

What about when my life doesn't feel chaotic? Does anyone really want to read about how I stared at my cute, serene, well-fed daughter for hours at a time? There is a story there - a bridge between regretting that we hadn't gone with our Lets Get a Third Cat Instead of Having a Kid idea, and the sweet, blissful moments of today. If you'd like to hear it, it goes a little something like this...

Once upon a time, there were two naive parents who lived in a small, coastal hamlet north of San Francisco. They had been together for nearly eight years when they decided they were finally ready to have a child, and they were convinced that the endurance of their relationship would make parenting as easy as taking geometry after years of algebra.

They were older than average first-time parents who were also convinced that their age, experience, and infallible planning would make for an easy pregnancy, a smooth birth, and intuitive parenting. They nailed the first one, but two plus days of labor and five excruciating weeks of parenting quickly erased the memory of nine relatively easy months. While they thought they were prepared, it turned out nothing could prepare them for this

which turned out to be the way their daughter was for several hours a day. When  she wasn't nursing, she was fussing, rooting, worrying, or crying. Meanwhile her parents were fussing, worrying, and crying, too. On occasion, they were treated to blissful moments of peace that kept them going.

Actual Footage

Unfortunately, these moments were increasingly rare and unnervingly brief. The parents began to think that when people said, "I slept like a baby," they meant restlessly and in a pool of their own feces. Even that kind of sleep began to sound appealing. "This was not what we signed up for," they thought, and they began to wonder if they were doing something wrong. They worried that their daughter might not be getting enough food and contemplated supplementing her diet with formula in the evenings. They fretted that the hard-core La Leche Leaguers might catch wind of their decision and send in reinforcements.

They did it anyway. At their appointment the next week, their midwife was concerned their baby had only put on two ounces in almost five weeks. The parents confessed that they'd been using formula for the past three nights, and waited to be scolded for lack of effort. Instead, their midwife lauded their intuitiveness, told them not all women lactate equally, and suggested they offer their daughter formula after nursing during the day, as well. "If she takes it, she's hungry," she said. They offered and their daughter was very hungry. During the next week, she put on fourteen ounces, and more importantly she was happy. She no longer looked worried, she rarely fussed, and the circles beneath her eyes disappeared as she slept more regularly and her face filled out. Suddenly the parents went from suffering through

to enjoying

Not only that, but they went from "It's your turn to hold her," to "Can I hold her now?" from "Shit she's waking up," to "Aww, she's waking up," and most importantly from "I can't believe we decided to do this," to "This is so unbelievable." And you know what - they lived happily ever after...for the past six days.

The End...and a new beginning. 

Just this evening Carrie was marveling at Amari, saying how amazing she is, how she just wants to stay at home and hold her. This was a far cry from two weeks ago when we were both making bitter, inappropriate jokes about how Sophie's choice wasn't all that hard. Who knew that something as simple as starvation could interfere with a perfectly good parent-child relationship?

Now that Amari is healthy and happy, I feel sane again. My feelings of helplessness and hopelessness feel validated, and the residue of those early weeks now serve to contrast the joy I feel today. Would I change the way it unfolded? In a heartbeat. But now that I'm here, I'm grateful for the experience and the tools I picked up along the way. I have no doubt that they will come in handy in the future.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Amare B Fishman vs Amare Stoudemire

After my latest entry about naming our daughter Amari, I received a huge influx of e-mails from the Amare Stoudemire Fan Club boasting that their basketball hero is undoubtedly the greatest Amar(i)(e) ever born. And by "a huge influx" I mean two e-mails, and by "boasting" I mean "having nothing to do with." I got one e-mail about debt consolidation and another one from Netflix telling me that "Ugly Betty" is on its way. Nevertheless, I feel compelled by my paternal instincts to respond to these imaginary comparisons by providing a completely objective, unbiased breakdown in:

The Battle of the Amar(i)(e)s



Birth Sign

Stoudemire: November 16, 1982

Fishman: November 5, 2009

Advantage: None. They're Scorpios, which by reputation is a disadvantage for both of them. I don't want to alienate my Scorpio readers, but it has been my personal experience that Scorpios are the type of people who, when the center of the universe is eventually discovered, will be disappointed that it's not them. If you're a Scorpio and you're reading this, please feel free to comment and prove me wrong. If you're not and you agree, check out the cute t-shirts available for expectant parents that say, "I don't care if I have a boy or a girl as long as I don't have a Scorpio."


Stoudemire: Amare was conceived in Lake Wales, Florida by Carrie and Hazell Stoudemire. He grew up strong, fast, and athletic, learning to play both football and basketball very well. He was smart, but struggled academically and eventually went straight from high school into professional basketball - drafted ninth overall by the Phoenix Suns.

Fishman: Amari was conceived in a conversation by Carrie and I long before her birth. Neither one of us wanted kids or marriage when we met, but time, turbulence, and tragedy - the death of her father and my mother - changed the way we felt. We wanted our own family, and years later we were finally ready. Amari is also smart and strong and more impressively managed to go straight from the womb into our living room - drafted first all over by a breeze coming through the front door.

Advantage: Amari B Fishman. While the mothers' names are a wash, Isaac narrowly beats out Hazell because he spells it with two L's. Plus it's a girl's name. In additon, home birth trumps everything - especially skipping college to play a game for money.


Stoudemire: 6 feet 10 inches
Fishman: 6 pounds 10 ounces

Advantage: None. It's clearly a tie.

Injury Report

Stoudemire: Suffered a knee injury in 2005 and underwent microfracture surgery that caused him to miss nearly the entire 2006 season. Last year, he had to miss another eight weeks after getting poked in the eye.

Fishman: Suffered a (slightly) severed thumb in November '09 when her dad tried to clip her fingernails without sufficient lighting. She recovered and returned to scratching herself in the face the very next day, often coming dangerously close to her eyes.

Advantage: No brainer.

Raw Athletic Talent /all-important Vowel Ending category

Well, this live action photo taken only weeks after Amari's birth really says it all. Even though she's not much of a talker yet, she knows her spelling rules.

Winner and Undisputed Champion: Amari B Fishman

I hope this puts to rest the fiery (tepid at best) debate that has been raging on (inside my head) for ages (several days). I imagine there will be no more talk of our daughter, Amari B Fishman, being named after basketball legend, Amare Stoudemire. In fact, I suspect that this lopsided competition will actually inspire many to question whether he in fact was named after her by his time traveling father, Hazell (the way they spell it in the future), whom I expect to meet any day now.


Thursday, December 10, 2009

Nothing Rhymes with Carrot

"What's in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

Or it would smell like that other thing it was named.

I understand what Shakespeare was trying to say, that names do not define our reality, that a rose would still have its olfactory appeal even if it were called a crapadenia or a poopanthemum. But would the poets muse and would we still feel compelled to stop and smell them when life begins to move too fast? What if the carrot had been discovered before the orange? Would their fates have changed? Did the naming committee say, "This is undoubtedly an orange," and then stumble upon a carrot and say, "Oh shit." Certainly the world existed long before language, and prior to verbal communication I imagine there was just an understanding between prehistoric people about the way things were. A nod, a smile, or a look of shear terror was probably enough. Then along came language, and while perception was once a straight line to reality, there was suddenly a detour - words, lots and lots of words. Like some Aboriginal tribes, people began to sing their world into existence, and although Shakespeare claims it changes nothing at all, I believe it changes everything.

This is never more evident than the way we sing our children into existence. What's in a name? Well, I would wager that at least twenty-five percent of our self-esteem, forty percent of our success in life, and about ninety percent of the premeditated trauma known as junior high school. Take it from a hippie child who was named by his parents' Tibetan guru, which wouldn't have been so bad if we'd stayed in the remote hill station of Darjeeling, but in America the name Kunsang Dorje did not win me a lot of popularity contests. Even in an alternative community like Bolinas with kids named Ivory and Shelter or Strawberry and Cream, I was the one they ridiculed. "Koon Hound - you dirty, Indian hippie," they would chant, and although I was too young and too devastated to quip about Shelter's giant ears or Cream's lactose intolerance, I was not too young to start looking for a new name, because by this one I did not smell as sweet.

When I was six years old I attended camp at The City of Ten Thousand Buddhas sangha in Ukiah. I remember three things from that summer. I remember waking up at six and dragging my sleeping bag into a dark room where we were told to meditate. Ridiculous! I remember a girl named Ariana who threatened to say, "I love Kunsang" in a game of telephone to which I responded with, "If you do, I'll kill you." And I remember an eight year-old boy named Isaac who was unequivocally the coolest, funniest, nicest kid I'd ever met. I decided then and there if I were to ever change my name, which I was already considering, it would be Isaac. Isaac means "laughter," and in my six year-old brain it meant "popularity" while Kunsang means "all good" or "weirdo loser." It was a no-brainer. Two years later I was back in India with my mom, and when I woke up on my eighth birthday I said, "Mom, I'm tired of being Kunsang. I'm going to be Isaac now." It's impossible to know how my life would have turned out, but I'm guessing it wouldn't have smelled this sweet.

Carrie's name, on the other hand, emerged from a less remarkable tale of her parents combining their names (Carol and Barry), so she was equally invested in finding a name for our daughter that was unique but not weird, easy to say but not bland and meaningless. Initially, she was convinced by a dream that we were going to have a boy - a boy named Julian. Long before she was pregnant, we had started short lists of names, names for boys and girls, and names that ultimately had to pass the Noah Litmus Test. In a previous life, before he became my friend, Noah was one of the kids who would have, without discrimination, teased every single kid in Bolinas and Darjeeling. When we came up with names, he would help me project it into the future to see how it would pan out during middle school. When we came up with Sebastian, Dorian, and Ezra, he quickly rattled off, "Sebastard," "Whore-ian" and "Gayzra." Not bad for a five second reaction time.

Fortunately, two things happened - we had a girl and we eventually ignored Noah's opinion, realizing there wasn't a name out there that would survive his residual adolescence. After the twenty week sonogram, we turned our attention exclusively to girls' names. In the past we'd contemplated Dahlia, Karuna, and Shanti, and more recently names like Naomi and Ari made the list, but Carrie and I weren't mutually sold on any of them. One morning Carrie said, "What do you think of the name Amari?" to which I responed, "You mean like the center for the Phoenix Suns? I think it's a great name - for a giant, black man." Slightly annoyed she said, "Nobody knows who that is," and although I knew that the entire state of Arizona and any committed fantasy basketball player would disagree with her, I also knew that she was six months pregnant and didn't need to hear about pesky, little things like facts. I told her I would think about it, hoping that the first few games of the upcoming basketball season would tell me if there were any lingering effects of Amare Stoudemire's knee surgery and if our daughter would forever live in the name shadow of this future Hall of Famer.

Carrie persisted, sharing the Hindi, African, and Hebrew roots, telling me that Amari could be shortened to Ari, Ama, or Mari, the last of which was similar to my mother's name, which felt like a thoughtful tribute to her passing. I was sold on the sentiment, and although my last resistance was an offered compromise of Amira, Carrie said, "That doesn't sound as open." I had no idea what she meant, which is a great way to win an argument with me, and I folded. The truth was I'd grown to love the name Amari. In Hindi it means "eternal" or "immortal;" in a Japanese dialect it means "truth;" and in African it is a unisex name that means "strong" or "builder." When I shared the name with my sister, she told me that she had once explored African names and was stunned by how specific the meanings could be. One name she found meant "my father's in prison." That's a conversation starter...or stopper. Later on we learned that Amari is also a resort in Thailand, a region in Greece, and an Italian restaurant in Massachusetts. This lady is going to be international.

So we had a name, and time would tell how it influenced her life. We began telling people, which we'd considered not doing after people's responses to Naomi and Ari. Almost everyone liked it saying things like, "Wow. That's beautiful," or "Nice. I like it," or "You mean like the basketball player?" That last one was Noah - and my friend Bodhi - but they, with their children named Reya Gold, Hero Freedom, and Poet knew that they best not throw stones in their glass houses.

And that, my friends, is how Amari came to be. She may not always smell great, but in those moments I imagine Shakespeare was right - that by any other name she would smell just as un-sweet.

Monday, December 7, 2009

When the Five S's Become the Giant Redundant F

Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!

I forgot to mention in my December 1st book review that The Five S's don't work in the face of the One Ginormous Insatiable H (hunger), so when Carrie's in the shower or trying to get a little extra sleep, I get to experience a whole new level of helplessness when the pumped milk and my bag of tricks both run dry.

Yesterday I began writing a passionate entry all about Amari - the origins of her name, her astrological reading, other people's forecasts and projections, and so on. It was loving, light-hearted, and fun, and I was feeling both well-rested and inspired. Two consecutive nights had been relatively peaceful, and more importantly - predictable. "We have a system," I thought, "We've got this parenting thing wired," which in retrospect sounds as delusional as when I used to watch sad movies over and over again expecting them to end differently. The unfortunate truth is that Titanic sinks every time and so, I am learning, do the spirits of the over-confident parent.

After a lot of discussion this week, Carrie and I decided to buy some organic formula and mix an ounce or two with pumped milk just before bedtime. We did this for two reasons: to try to begin storing pumped milk for Carrie's return to work next month, and to see if Amari needed more than Carrie was producing. Our hope was that if she got enough nutrition she would be sated longer, and we might steal some extra sleep. Selfish? Perhaps, but it was a thoughtful, conscious decision. And by conscious decision I mean I Googled "famous formula fed babies that turned out to be geniuses," and I was immediately comforted by the results. And by immediately comforted by the results, I mean I quickly realized I was being ridiculous.

Carrie was reluctant to supplement with formula because it made her feel like a failure, like she wasn't producing enough milk to satisfy our daughter. I was reluctant because I wanted to be supportive, and because Carrie said that some people attribute obesity in America to the popularity of formula in previous generations. Initially, I somehow heard her say "formula leads to eating disorders," which then elicited some mild anxiety when Amari spit up after her first feeding. Guess I have to cancel her infant fashion magazines.

The results of the formula were great. Amari ate voraciously, but didn't slip into one of those zombie-like food comas I was worried about. Instead she looked satisfied. She stared at me wide-eyed and we got some good "face time" without her rooting for mom or a bottle. I'd read that babies can already mirror facial expressions after a few days, so I started to purse my lips, stick out my tongue, and smile. She mirrored the first two almost immediately, and the next day she smiled, too. I was ecstatic, in love, certain that we'd made the right decision. Eventually Amari finished the bottle and drifted off to sleep.

Interestingly, the formula also appeared to end two days of constipation which, after changing a dozen diapers daily, had me a little worried. Carrie assured me it was normal, that she'd read about a baby who was backed up for 22 days. Twenty-two days? I was freaking out after twenty-two hours. During another stretch of constipation, my brother's wife, Olga, gave Amari a gentle massage around the front and back of her knees, and she took four gigantic dumps in the next few hours. Olga also told me that when she was a colicky baby her father used to soothe her by placing a tortilla on her stomach. I was impressed and inspired, deciding then that I would find the time to research other cross-cultural home remedies.

Saturday night, as we prepared for our first family outing, Carrie and I made our own cultural discovery - not as unique as an ethnic cuisine stomach salve, but effective nonetheless. Since day one we've been experimenting with bathing, trying to find a relatively tear-free solution to cleanliness. We'd refined our technique from a very unsuccessful, far too exposed, little plastic tub to a much more pleasant holding Amari in the shower and then passing her into a warm towel. Nonetheless, the waterworks would start as soon as the cool air hit her skin and they continued until she was dressed and warm. This time we employed the sound and warmth of Carrie's hair dryer, which had already calmed a crying bout the night before. When Carrie opened the warm towel, I had the air blowing lightly on her skin. Silence. Carrie rubbed her with oil, put a diaper on, dressed her. Not a peep. She stared at the gun-shaped source of her bliss and rooted at the hot air as if to say, "Hook a sister up with a non-stop supply of that." And we have - the hair dryer now sits downstairs where we change most of her diapers.

All the way to birthday party I talked about cornering the pocket hairdryer market. I was practically manic, and Carrie was kind enough to humor me, probably just mentally adding it to my growing list of brilliant baby ideas along with the stomach-shaped co-sleeper and the manne-cuddle - a life-like mannequin that holds your baby while you take a break. By the end of the evening, I was ready to learn about mechanics and build my own prototype. It turns out they already exist, but they cost a pretty penny. The party went really well. Apparently Amari is going to be one of those Eddie Haskel types that all parents adore. She was quiet, alert, and entirely lovable. When we got home, Carrie went to sleep, and I curled up on the couch with Amari, an extension cord, and my trusty hair dryer.

Kidding. I should mention, however, that another white noise solution we've had success with during meltdowns in the car is turning the radio on to static and matching the volume of her tears. It calms me down, too.

Long story still pretty long - and I know all of this sounds fine so far - Sunday night was awful. I had made the mistake of getting attached to what was working, expecting it to continue indefinitely. I recalled someone telling me that expectations are premeditated resentments, but in the moment that didn't help. Amari had kept me up until half past one and I was grumpy. She had slept through most of my brother's visit - something she loves to do when we have company - so it shouldn't have surprised me that she didn't want to sleep when night came. It wouldn't have been so bad if I could have put her down for a few minutes, if she hadn't spit up all over me, if she didn't cry every time I pulled the bottle (which she wasn't even drinking from) away from her. As two o'clock approached, I grabbed Amari, woke Carrie up, and said, "Can you take her? I'm done." It was the strongest reaction I'd had so far and I felt immediately guilty - for about two minutes - and then I fell asleep. Today my mood continued, fueled by restless sleep and residual guilt. I felt disappointed by my inability to separate my reaction from the reality of the situation - that Amari has her own schedule and I need to adjust mine or suffer.

If I were more emotionally capable, I would have cried. I tend to internalize - I'm a work in progress - but I certainly felt close to tears when Carrie was showering and Amari was hungry. I refused to break my only-in-the-evening formula rule, so I tried the S's, a walk to mailbox, a song, an honest plea with Amari for patience, and a silent prayer, but none of those things had any nutritional value so they were only brief respites from the cries of my hungry baby. Once again I felt done, frustrated to the point of hopelessness. I briskly handed Amari off, but later apologized to both her and Carrie for being such a grump. Today's lesson is not to beat myself up too much when I feel like a failure, like I've missed the mark. I remembered another friend saying, "You miss one hundred percent of the shots you don't take," and although he was talking about basketball, in this moment it did help.

Forgiveness, I have learned, is the act of giving up on a better past. Today is coming to a peaceful end, and all I can change is how I react in the future. Amari is asleep already, which forecasts a restful night. Tomorrow - a passionate, loving, light-hearted entry all about her.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Things We Lost in the Fire

Tomorrow you will be one month old, Amari. You are teaching me something new every day - about myself, about parenting, and about the world.

Parenting feels very Zen, with experience being more important than knowledge, and flexibility more useful than structure. No amount of reading or listening to others could have prepared me as well as the last thirty days of hands-on fathering. The following are some observations I've made along the way which, much like the family photo albums I would rescue first from a house fire, may not mean a thing to anyone else.

1. The Secret Formula: Sorry - there isn't one. When I asked one of the teachers from my counseling program how I could tell what qualified as an intervention in therapy, he said, "If it works, it's intervention. If it doesn't it's information." The same has been true for parenting, and while I've discovered some very useful interventions that work with Amari, I've also collected a boatload of information along the way. Who knew that the theme song to "Greatest American Hero" would be so comforting in the face of intestinal distress? The sad truth is that what is an intervention today may just be a piece of information tomorrow.

Something I've noticed about myself is that when something does work, I then have a tendency to sell it as fact. The truth is, I've read one whole and a few half books on parenting and I've been lucky - their techniques have worked like a charm, sparing Carrie and I of countless hours of screaming and crying - mostly by us. Had I read a book on trephining in early infancy, I'd probably be preaching about that, too. That's ancient medical talk for drilling holes in the skull for those of you who didn't do a junior high report on neolithic cures for epilepsy.

2. Single Parenting Rock Stars: I am completely in awe of those who do this by themselves. I know it's rarely a choice, and they deserve all the praise and admiration in the world. In our most difficult moments, Carrie and I find comfort in each other, in our ability to do this as a team. We've had several conversations where we said, "I don't know how the hell single parents do this." The baby carriers alone feel like a freakin' IQ test, and it takes a village just to assemble some of them. I know for a fact that any sanity I have left is thanks to our ability to take turns and give each other a break.

In a wonderful article she wrote for an on-line mamazine (http://www.mamazine.com/Pages/columns_6.html), my friend Renee shared, "My first reaction when I see new moms is to take that baby gently from them so they can go lie down and take a nap. It's selfish because I crave a baby in my arms again, but it's also because I know how hard being a new mom can be. My greatest hope for any mother is that she has people to take care of her. We all deserve it." As a dad, that goes for us, too. If you have any friends who are new parents - especially single ones - take a moment to make them a meal, do their dishes, clean their house, do their taxes, or just let them breathe without thinking of someone else first.

3. Death and Birth: When my mom died three years ago I remember thinking, "Man, this is the most unique thing that happens to everyone." It was surreal. My mom was gone forever, and although the world had changed completely in my eyes, it just kept on spinning like it always had. People felt uncomfortable, they didn't really know what to say, so they offered apologies, condolences, and other social platitudes. I received cards and phone calls, and for a while I was the center of a nervous, uncomfortable attention. I'm not sure how else to describe it, but it passed, time passed, people forgot - but I was still left with the reality that my mom had died. Initially, not a day passed that I didn't miss her, but eventually those days did come, one at a time, then a few in a row, and eventually I began to heal, to live with the reality that this was my new life.

Having a child is another unique experience that happens to almost everyone. Don't get me wrong, it's way better - nobody has death showers with adorable gifts - but it's also surreal and comes with a feeling that the world has changed completely but nobody else has really notices. Not really. This time people feel more comfortable, the attention is more celebratory and the phone calls and cards are infinitely cuter. The world just keeps on spinning, only this time the Universe has left someone with us forever rather than taking someone away. Time is passing, and the reality settles in a little more each day. Initially, there were moments during the day that I would forget that I was a dad, then I'd look over at Amari, quickly remember, and be filled with a deep joy and fear. Now I rarely forget I'm a father, but I do notice moments where I have grumpy, childish thoughts like, "God dammit, I need a break. I just want some time to myself" as though I could wish this away for the length of a workout or a basketball game or a cup of coffee. These thoughts are honest and they pass quickly, which also feels like I'm healing and learning to live with this reality that is my new life.

I intended this to be a list of ten, but the reality I'm living with right now is that Amari needs a shower so we can go to a birthday party this evening. Any other observations I have have may actually be lost in the fire I call my short term memory.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

November Book Review

*************************************************************Book: "The Happiest Baby on the Block"

Author: Dr. Harvey Karp.

Why I Chose It: Sure, we live on a rural block with relatively few babies, but the title of this book still appeals to my inherent and cultural competitiveness. Any chance Amari becomes a superlative of any adjective is sure to find its way onto my bookshelf. I first heard about Dr. Karp during our birthing classes in October. One of the DVDs we were sent home with was a hands on "How To" version of his recommended techniques. I didn't get a chance to see it, but when Carrie related the premise, I was intrigued enough to buy the book. I found a copy for less than three dollars at Half.com, and I got my money's worth the first time Amari had a meltdown.

The main idea: Babies are born too soon. That's right, even the ones that are born late are born too early according to Dr. Karp's theory of the missing Fourth Trimester. I've always loved stuff about missing things or unaddressed phenomena, so this was right up my alley. "The Sixth Sense," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Remo Williams in the Eight Dimension" - all awesome, too. Although the book focuses on describing, explaining, and offering solutions for colicky babies, the techniques for triggering the "calming reflex" are useful for all newborns.

Synopsis: Dr. Karp begins by normalizing an infant's tears. He describes them as having a three word vocabulary - whimpering, crying, and shrieking - then offers some visual cues that can help us determine which means what. Personally, I've found that the visual cues along with diaper checking help a lot more than trying to guess what the noises mean. I also recall a research study finding that less than fifty percent of mothers could identify their child's needs based on the sound of their cries alone. That sounds a lot like flipping a coin to me.

Next, Dr. Karp introduces the dreaded "C" word - colic, "a CRYsis for the whole family." I always thought colic was something like infant plague or a canine disease that babies could get. Turns out it's pretty common, but there's still little understanding as to the exact cause. Dr. Karp offers a rundown of the top colic theories - tummy troubles, maternal anxiety, immature brains, and challenging temperaments - and then systematically demonstrates why none of them can be the sole cause. Karp compares colic theories to the story of the four blind wise men who are asked to describe the true nature of an elephant. As each man touches a different part of the animal, they offer different descriptions, but none of them completely captures the beast.

Putting all the pieces of the different theories together, Dr. Karp proposes a missing Fourth Trimester as the eclectic cause of colic. The missing Fourth trimester is a product of millions of years of evolution. Prior to us becoming bipeds, our prehistoric ancestors were knuckle walkers much like our primate relatives. In addition, we had smaller brains back then so babies did not have to be evicted early and could come to term in the womb. As time passed, however, and we began to walk on our feet, use tools, and learn new talents, our little brains began to grow. Evolutionary mutations had to occur to ensure that big brained babies could still exit the birth canal, and ultimately one of those biological adjustments was an early birth. While Dr. Karp did an excellent job of explaining the development of this missing trimester, I thought he did a less adequate job of justifying why it is the best explanation for colic. Nonetheless, it has been the techniques rather than the theory that have already helped me through many challenging moments with Amari.

So what does this missing Fourth Trimester mean? It means that when babies are born they are bombarded with too much stimulation - external and internal - lights, noises, gas pains, hunger, etc. Our job as parents becomes easing their transition for the first 3-4 months by offering them what Karp calls a "Womb with a view." Karp describe examples of other cultures where women hold their babies almost constantly for the first three months, offering them milk and comfort whenever they signal for it. He says that infants in these cultures almost never cry which, in the face of recent personal experience, sounds both unrealistic and awesome.

Dr. Karp then gets to the heart of the book - the reflexes our babies are born with and how we can activate their "calming reflex" to help them through their very naked feeling Fourth Trimester. The rest of the book offers a detailed description of what Dr. Karp has coined as "The Five S's" to calm a crying baby. They are as follows: Swadling, Side-Stomach, Shhh-ing, Swaying, and Sucking. The first two prepare the baby for the final three, which biologically activate the calming reflex. Included throughout the book are first-hand successes and frequently asked questions regarding these techniques, and Dr. Karp does an excellent job of integrating the stories and addressing the concerns, including how to ween your baby off the Five S's once the Fourth Trimester is over.

Practical Application: The Five S's are a lifesaver. Swaddling seems to be common knowledge, but there are excellent descriptions of how to wrap an infant to minimize movement and reduce over-stimulation. This begins the process. Although she sometimes resists initially, when I swaddle Amari correctly and turn her on her side, I effectively disengaged the Moro reflex, which is triggered when she's on her back and makes her feel like she is falling. Once I've done those two things, she is ready for the other S's. When Carrie watched the DVD, she learned that the volume of the blood rushing around the uterus is comparable to a vacuum cleaner (Karp demonstrates this), so when we Shhhh our babies, we don't need to be quiet ourselves. It may feel counter-intuitive to be loudly Shhh-ing, but Dr. Karp recommends that we lean in 2-4 inches from our baby's ear and match the volume of their cries until they stop. He cautions that although this may happen instantly, it may also take a minute or two for the baby's overstimulated nervous system to respond. More often than not, my Shhh-ing has been instantly gratified by Amari's whole body relaxing, her tears shutting off like a faucet, and some internal movement and pain relief. After that, swaying her back and forth, offering a pacifier or a finger for her to suck on, and she slips into a complete feeling of safety - a warm, cozy, womb with a view.

Overall reaction/recommendation: I highly recommend this book. It's an easy read with a personal touch. It offers simple, practical, easy-to-follow techniques that I've used every single day so far. The Five S's are easy to remember, easy to do, and highly effective. Sure, I've had friends look at me like I'm crazy when loudly Shhhh my crying daughter, sometimes they even make fun of me later, but I know from experience that ridicule is only the second stage that truth passes through - right after it is violently opposed and just before it is accepted as fact. If you feel as though you're running low on effective tools to calm your baby's crying or you want to know more about why babies are so sensitive in their vulnerable youth, grab a copy of this book. I know you won't regret it.