On Giants' Shoulders

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Beetles, larvae, and babies

By now most everyone on the web has heard about the Similac recall. There has been a lot of gloating among breastfeeding moms (or maybe it's just big sighs of relief) while formula feeding parents have one more reason to feel guilty. Some formula feeding parents have been giving Abbot Labs kudos for the recall, others have been looking at a class action suit against them.

So what's a lactavist to think about it all. Well first of all, I don't blame the parents. Some of them made uninformed choices about formula feeding based on the marketing schemes of formula companies, the experience of their own parents, and the lack of information from their doctors. Should they have made better choices? Given the education system in our country, and the degree to which mass media influences consumer choice, I don't put a whole lot of blame on their shoulders. Some mothers attempted to breastfeed, but got poor information, lousy support, and/or were faced with a fast turn around back to work. Their babies had to eat, I don't blame them either. A few moms fell into the category of women who simply can't produce a full milk supply. Some of them have been limping along, but they needed formula supplement. I certainly don't want them feeling guilty about not being able to produce all the milk their babies needed.

So, should any parents feel guilty about this. Well, perhaps. There are well educated parents who chose to formula feed because they thought it was less demanding, allowed the father to have an equal role, gave opportunities for nannies or other family members to care for the baby on weekends so they could go away for lovely baby free jaunts. Those parents were placing their own wishes ahead of their baby's (and even the mom's) health. So maybe they should feel guilty, and powerfully annoyed that the company didn't have better quality control. Of course most of them can now afford to switch to liquid formula that is doubtless beetle-free.

Formula manufacturers are dealing with the same problem that happens in kitchens around the country. However, they need to be operating on a level that is a higher standard than other food processors. Their product is the only food that an infant will consume for 4-6 months of its life. It needs to be produced in as sterile an environment as possible. They need quality control that is exceedingly high, not just ordinary quality control. If they focused as much effort on producing the best quality product possible as they do on marketing that product they might not have these sorts of problems. If my family wouldn't want me feeding them rice that had been contaminated by meal moths (I just had to throw a container out recently), how much more so should we expect to not be feeding pests to our babies.

Unfortunately, the reality is that formula manufacturers like other manufacturers are more responsible to their shareholders than they are to the consumer. They have to practice risk management, and figure out what an acceptable level of error is. No consumer should be deluded into thinking that these are anything other than hard-nosed businessmen for whom the bottom line is the most important consideration. Don't be duped by their P.R. people, this is business.

Here's where government can have a role. The government can put inspectors in plants and essentially hold the feet of the manufacturers to the fire. Instead of creating more bureaucratic positions in Washington, how about some food safety inspectors in formula plants?

If formula were available as a drug rather than simply as a food the manufacturing code might be more stringent. In addition, parents would realize that it's not the "normal" way to feed a baby. It may be in some cases the necessary way to feed a baby, but it isn't the normal one.

I truly hope that this particular recall will actually alert some parents to the dangers inherent in formula feeding. It isn't that breast is best, it's that breast is normal and formula feeding entails risks. If one mom tries a little harder in the first weeks with her baby and succeeds at lactation, well it will be the silver lining to this particular cloud.

The other thing I hope this recall does is to alert parents to the fact that formula powder is not sterile. So often parents simply mix it up with tap water thinking that all the sterilizing their grandmothers did was overkill. The World Health Organization has an excellent publication on formula preparation that I truly hope formula feeding parents read. Beetles (as gross as they sound) are actually the least of the things parents should be afraid of in the formula. Check out the publication and find out what else you should be concerned about and how to prepare formula to minimize the risks involved in using it www.who.int/foodsafety/publications/micro/PIF_Care_en.pdf

Babies can't take care of themselves, we have to do it for them. Optimally as far as feeding is concerned that means milk from their own mother for at least the first year of life. When that isn't possible the substitute needs to be as safely made both by the manufacturer and the parent as it can be.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Still Me?

I had an epiphany this week about why some people may be refusing my requests to be Facebook friends. These aren't people who have a history of problems with me, some of them are cousins with whom I haven't had a lot of contact in the past decade or so, but who have always been cordial to me or they are friends from my high school and college years with whom I simply lost touch. I put in a friend request to another one recently and after a few days got a message that they didn't know who I was, so would I identify myself. I did and have since had a nice communication back. The person said essentially, "oh I thought it might be you, but I wasn't sure."

Now my Facebook profile has a picture of me as well as a few relevant facts about me. The picture that was posted was from my daughter's wedding reception and my hair was down differently than I generally wear it, but otherwise I looked pretty much the same (older obviously, but nearly as slender as when she saw me last - unlike at the present moment). So why didn't she recognize me? Obviously, not everyone recalls women's married names, but I don't think that was the difficulty. I honestly think what happened was she saw my first name, looked at the picture, and then read down the profile. I highly suspect that when she got to the religious preference line she figured this wasn't someone she knew. I also suspect the same thing has happened with some of my cousins. The cousins who've been closest to me know that I converted to the Catholic Church, the ones who haven't been close (and I have a whole slew of cousins scattered all over the country), don't.

While people wouldn't necessarily be surprised if my hair color were different, my weight were different, or even if I had a new last name (after all our generation has been peculiarly unsuccessful at staying married to the spouse of our youth) they really didn't expect this particular change. I was militantly Protestant when these people last talked with me. I was an enthusiastic homeschooling evangelical Protestant. I wasn't the sort of person who became Roman Catholic. For most of my contemporaries becoming Roman Catholic was something you did if you married a Catholic, it wasn't something that you chose to do for religious reasons. You certainly didn't go from being a serious evangelical Protestant to being Roman Catholic. So obviously, even if the picture looked vaguely like their old friend, or their long lost cousin, it obviously was a fluke. Couldn't be me, not possibly.

Yet, it is. My hair color is still roughly the same (just peppered with some gray), my weight seems to go up and down like a yo-yo, but I'm the same shape now as I was when I converted. I'm still married to the same guy as I was 35 years ago. We still live in the same town on the same plot of land. The one big change is that I'm no longer an evangelical Protestant I am a thoroughly convinced Roman Catholic.

My genetic code is still the same, but in many ways I am not the same. I could walk back comfortably into houses I used to live in (even dreamed the other night about purchasing one of them and moving there). What I could not do is to return to being Protestant. I've gone to Protestant funerals, and even a couple of other Protestant church services with family. There is no nostalgic call there for me. While the hymnody sometimes speaks to me when I'm driving by myself in the car, the reality of a Protestant service for me now speaks only of emptiness. I think Catholic, I dream Catholic, I live Catholic (not perfectly by any stretch of the imagination).

So the me that they encounter truly is a bit of a stranger. Some, like my friend Sandy, will say things like, "but why Catholic?" Others will be too polite to ask. They will shake their heads at the peculiar notion and doubtless chalk it up to religious mania (being Pentecostal wasn't weird enough for her). However, I'd rather that they did ask, and that they'd really listen to the answer. It's just that the Church I entered is under a lot of fire lately and the idea of voluntarily becoming part of her becomes an even stranger notion to a lot of people. At the point I became Catholic the abuse scandal had only begun to get press. I was aware of it and aware as well that it reflected badly on some priests and bishops, but that the Church remained the Church, no matter the failings of some of it's leaders. If the Borgia popes couldn't destroy it neither could some bad men now.
I must say I felt real admiration for the people who were received into the Church this Easter when controversy was all over the news or even for my son-in-law who came into the Church much more recently than my children and I did. However, the truth of the Catholic faith is not changed by the failure of some of her children. We didn't become Catholic because it was popular, or successful, or entertaining. We became Catholic for the sole reason that we became convinced that here was where the truth was found. Here were the sacraments that would change us and give us the grace to become more holy. Here was the place where sins could be forgiven. Most of all here was Jesus, body and blood, soul and divinity. All those Protestant churches with all of their lively music, their friendly congregations, their opportunities for involvement, their lively Sunday Schools and youth programs were void of the presence of Jesus Himself.

So, still me, yes indeed. Yet in many ways a very different me. I hope that some of these people will do what my old friend Susan did and ask the question, "is that really you?" However, I hope they'll go beyond it to ask what the me that I still am is now a Catholic me. I'd love to show them the treasures I found in an unexpected place.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Irrevocable Choices

I've been lately re-reading Rumer Godden's incomparable book In This House of Brede. I read it many years ago before becoming Catholic and frequently recommended it to my daughter after she loved China Court. Abby very deliberately chose not to read it until after she got married. She was certain she had a vocation towards marriage and was afraid that a book about nuns might confuse her. She's recently read it and discovered, as I had before her that a book about nuns actually does have relevance for those of us who are called to the vocation of marriage and motherhood.

One of the things that has struck me in this re-reading is the idea that some choices are irrevocable. There are points where nuns can decide not to take the next step in the process, but once the final choice is made it is an irrevocable one. That seems odd in light of the number of vowed religious and priests who left their vocation in the 1970's, but there is a sense in which running away from an irrevocable choice does not change it's character. Those former nuns, those laicized priests (since once ordained a man is a priest forever) have something unsettled about them. The ones I've met have a grudge against the Church, wanting Her to somehow be as changeable as they themselves.

We live in a time when nothing seems terribly certain. Large numbers of children grow up in fractured homes, large numbers of spouses find themselves abandoned by those who promised to be faithful til death. People hop from church to church, from job to job, from community to community, from hobby to hobby. Restlessness seems to plague us, we need constant diversion, new thrills, new forms of entertainment.

The life of a Benedictine is one of vowed stability. Once a Benedictine enters they stay in that community for life, unless a special mission has them temporarily assigned elsewhere (a pretty unusual occurrence it would appear). In marriage we are supposed to be vowed to stability as well. My parents, my in-laws, nearly all of my aunts, uncles, cousins seemed to understand that concept. My uncle married a woman later diagnosed as a schizophrenic, yet he stayed married to her until the day he died. Her trials were his trials, and sometimes a bigger trial to him than to her.

A sacramental marriage is irrevocable. It intrinsically changes both partners. While people can choose to walk away from the relationship, it does not mean that they can go on to make another sacramental marriage. Any relationship they have from then on until their partner dies is in fact an adulterous one.

Having children is irrevocable. A baby can be given away for adoption, yet there will always be a tie to the biological parents. I saw this with my friend who spent many years yearning to know the parents who gave birth to her. The baby you have may not be the baby you dreamed of. The child you give birth to may turn out to be a personality you don't particularly enjoy, but they are irrevocably, unalterably your child.

When I stood at the altar and signed my name in the book, I knew that becoming Catholic was one of those irrevocable choices. I will be Catholic forever. I could be a Catholic who ends up in Hell because of other choices, but if that were the case I'd still be a Catholic because of the sacraments I've received.

Lately there's been a lot of grousing about how the Catholic Church should change, should follow in the wake of the Episcopalians and allow homosexual marriages, abortion, divorce and remarriage, the ordination of women. The thing that people currently have against the Church is that She won't change. Yet the thing that they have against the world much of the time is that it does change so rapidly that as Yeats said, "the center cannot hold." Change can be for the good, or it can simply be an unending restlessness and dissatisfaction.

Those Benedictines knew something. They knew that stability is the thing that causes the change in us that is necessary to bring us to maturity, to sanctity, to charity. Only when we can't run away from a problem can we truly face it. Only when we recognize that some choices are truly irrevocable and are God's way of refining us will we settle down enough to allow ourselves to be refined.

There have been very few decisions in my life that were irrevocable. Getting married, having children, choosing to baptize those children, becoming Catholic. Those all were irrevocable. Each of them altered who I am in a fundamental way (yes, even choosing to have our children baptized as infants changed me as well). I can't go back to who I was before any of them. There are decisions we make that can be altered. We can decide to change majors, change jobs, change houses, change cars. There are choices we make that fundamentally change who we are. Those choices are like indelible ink on our souls. That stability is an invaluable gift in a restless world, if we'll only embrace it.

Thursday, September 02, 2010


Years and years and years ago I switched things around in my kitchen to make it easier for my kids (who were short at the time) to get their own bowls and plates (and set the table as well). The bowls and plates got put in a lower level cabinet and there they've stayed. Of course in the meantime no one in the house is all that short anymore and now having those things in a lower cabinet meant bending for everyone, even those of us for whom bending and squatting is increasingly less easy. So a month or so ago I finally bit the bullet. I evicted a bunch of stuff from an upper cabinet and installed plates and bowls there instead. The lower cabinet still needs a major overhaul (it also had serving bowls, casserole dishes, tupperware and plastic storage containers in it), but I've made a start.

What since I rearranged is how much the long time arrangement had been a. annoying me and b. making it harder to do some jobs. The lower cabinet made it harder to keep the plates neatly stacked because they were at the very back. The cabinet was so over full that it was difficult to get things back into it without spillage. Like the problem I had a few years ago with the pots and pans cupboard I was putting up with an arrangement that worked at one time one one level, but that clearly wasn't working anymore.

What I really need now is a fairly substantial kitchen overhaul. We have a lot of big or heavy pots and pans, that get used on a frequent enough basis that storing them in a poorly accessible location doesn't work, but the current arrangement is starting to bug me as well. I'm campaigning for either an island in the center of the kitchen with deep shelves or else some deep shelves just around the corner in the laundry area. For the moment, I'm wondering whether that bottom cabinet can be cleared out enough that some of those big items can get stored in there. It would still require bending (which is why deep shelves just outside the kitchen sounds like such a great idea), but at least it would get them actually put away without having them either too high for me to reach or creating an avalanche every time I need to get a frying pan out of the pots and pans cupboard.

I'm realizing that the inefficient set up I've had has grated on me so much that it's impacted on how easily or cheerfully I can even do a clean up in the kitchen. I'd claim that we simply had too much unnecessary stuff were it not for the fact that the stuff actually gets used on a regular basis. What I've come to realize is that I've been trying to cook like my mother and my grandmother, but that both of them had far more storage space for their kitchen equipment. We're not talking about multiple food processors, but things like stock pots, dutch ovens, cast iron fry pans, water bath canners (one that serves as a dye pot), to say nothing of mixing bowls, casserole dishes, baking pans, etc. It's a 35 year collection of kitchen equipment, most of which gets used at least several times a month. However, my kitchen cabinets are not the old fashioned type. They're the type that fit the needs of people who rarely do big time cooking. I did try to talk my husband into deeper cabinets (and more of them) when we were building the house in the first place. However, that would have meant custom built cabinets which would have cost probably 3 times what ours did. So for 25 years I've scrambled to try to find space for everything and have spent a lot of time complaining about where I've ended up putting things.

Efficiency and organization have never exactly been a strong suit around here, but I'm beginning to realize that a bit more efficient arrangement might lead to a more cheerful accomplishment of certain quotidian tasks. It might even make the process of making daily tasks into meditative ones less of a pipe dream. There's a long road ahead, but at the very least when I empty the dishwasher now it's really nice to simply reach up to put the plates and bowls away. Meditative housework, well I'm still working on that.