Saturday, February 26, 2011

Third World Green Daddy Part 14: the Circle of Life

Having a kid makes you think a lot about life from a bird's-eye perspective. I've always been a rather morose, contemplative person, but now with Sam in the picture, I find myself thinking even more about life's beginning, its end, how small and finite one life is, but at the same time how immense and ongoing is life in general. At night I marvel placidly at my luck to be sleeping next to the woman I love, with our wonderful child nearby, and I realize that I'd better savor every moment in the scant time allotted me on this earth.

In spite of my upbringing in the world's epicenter of soulless commercial consumerism, I'm seeing ever more clearly that living a good life does not consist in trying all the new flavors of Fruit Roll-Up, collecting the entire set of Marvel action figures, screwing as many women as you can, dying with the most toys. No, basically a life well-lived is finding good people to be around and fulfilling things to do, and then enjoying them for the few decades we're allowed if we're lucky. Not more, not less. This finite understanding of life may seem depressingly simple to some people, but to me it's liberating to escape from the neurotic idea of acquiring ever more, striving for immortality through our purchases. Either way, liberating or not, this understanding of one's life as brief and limited is how it is, so it's best to accept it and work within its bounds.

Sometimes my son and I stare at each other in sort of a melding of minds. Of course he can't talk yet, but these sessions are like conversations. In moments like these I can't conceive how I could possibly love another child as much as I love my Samuel. But it seems that parents have been loving multiple children for all of history, and I see how my wife loves both our son and my stepdaughter, so apparently it is possible. This speaks of the boundless, infinite aspect of life.

It's part of the circle of life, to quote Elton John. I remember my dad's songs, his counsel, his voice, but in my mind these are rendered no longer in my father's voice, but in my own, which has become his. In turn my son is almost a carbon-copy of how I looked in my baby photos. I'm sometimes amazed to think that I'm a father now, feeling as I do not very different from when I was a fifteen-year-old punk kid. But again, I guess this is another part of the circle of life. I may not feel so sure of my standing as an adult, but life makes you an adult de facto, regardless of your own perceptions. The death of a parent, the birth of a child, these rites remind us that we are moving through a cycle, leaving old things and becoming new.

Life is mysterious, boundless, surprising. I am often reminded of this here in Colombia. A young man who was working on my house rehab project is expecting a baby from his even younger girlfriend. But instead of worry, tension, thoughts of abortion or giving the baby up for adoption, as he might experience were he in the US, Jairo is happy to be having a son, or at least accepting of it. He goes along with the flow, continuing his studies, trying to find work when he can. The other day, when I warned him to watch out for a pointy iron bar he was straddling, as it might castrate him, he joked that it didn't matter anymore; his balls had done their work!

Another amazing story comes from a recent issue of the Tiempo newspaper of Colombia. One year ago, a 20-year-old girl was accosted by two girls of 14 and 16, who tied her up, took her to a warehouse, and performed a DIY Caesarean on her, ripping her 7-month-old fetus from her womb. Apparently the 16-year-old had recently miscarried, and wanted to replace the child that was the only thing holding her together with her 21-year-old boyfriend. Anyway, both the assaulted girl and her daughter survived the ordeal, though the two perpetrators have never been tried for their crime. The 16-year-old left the country, and the fourteen-year-old is now a mother and the single head of a household. Anyway, aside from the fantastic, grotesque nature of the story, I'm amazed at the tenacity of life. Both this woman that had her belly slit open, and her baby who was taken prematurely from the womb, are alive and well today, though not without some psychological scars. Life is an unstoppable force.

Having my child, and having him here in Colombia, has thus taught me many lessons about what really matters. Recently I've been sort of depressed because things haven't been working out for me on the job front. This has had me feeling like I can't do anything right, like I'm not doing anything meaningful in professional terms. One day I was at the worksite of my house rehab project, and I kept working, excavating earth, even as a heavy rain set in. One of the people I've hired to replace the roof on another part of the house told me I should get under cover, out of the rain, but I told her I wanted to advance some on the digging, and leave some mark that I actually exist in the world. She replied, wisely, "But Don Greg, of course you've left a mark on the world. You have your son, and no one can ever erase that!" My job-driven, short-sighted mentality, ingrained in me by my US upbringing, was blinding me to what really matters.

I receive National Geographic in English, delivered to my house here in Colombia. Of course there's some lag time for the delivery, so I just received the January issue, which talks about world population trends. Prominently featured is the so-called demographic transition, whereby countries with high infant mortality and low levels of education (especially for women) place a major value on having lots of kids. Thus we have countries like Niger or Afghanistan, where each woman has upwards of five kids. As women gain in education, and people realize that infant mortality isn't as high as it used to be, families start having fewer kids, because they are confident most of their kids will survive to adulthood. These are countries like South Africa or my home, Colombia. The endpoint of the demographic transition is when people are so caught up in their own consumption and prosperity (like in Japan) or in their economic malaise and depression (think Russia) that they practically stop having kids.

Colombia is a funny case, because we have very educated women, but still pretty high fertility. Many of our friends had an unplanned child in their late teens, subsequently finished college and became professionals, and are only now having their second child, in their late 20s or 30s. Who knows if they'll have more, but many of them would like a large family with lots of kids. So people have their first kid young, like in Africa, but then they delay or don't have a second kid. And later on they want more kids. We want to offer each child lots of attention and resources, like a low-fertility Chinese or Spanish parent, but we also value a big family, where each child gets a bit less attention. We defy the rigid demographic curve.

And now I'm a part of this transition. I'd always thought I wanted a big family, with lots of kids running around. I guess this goes with my agrarian tendencies, whereby children are seen as prosperity, extra workers, extra security. But now with Sam, I want to give him my undivided attention. It's not that I'm concerned with the economics of child-raising; Sam has been cheap thus far, and our do-it-yourself, artisanal ways of eating, parenting, and living tend not to cost much money. I'll never worry about how many kids I can afford to send to private school, or to expensive summer camps. But in our way of living, time and presence are what count, and these are finite. So I vacillate as to whether I'd prefer for Sam to have more of my attention, or more siblings to play with and learn with. Of course Sam already has a sister (my stepdaughter), but she's fifteen, so I don't feel like there's a real conflict for time or attention between the two, as they're in totally different moments in their lives. Perhaps this points to a solution for my impasse--we could have more kids, but spaced a few years between each one.

Either way, despite how much I love having a child of my own flesh and blood, I can't ethically justify having lots of kids biologically. As a member of the portion of the human race that consumes an undue share of our planet's limited resources, I can't justify adding a whole lot more people to our beleaguered globe. Better to adopt kids that are already here and need a loving home. And hopefully I and my children can learn not to consume so damn many resources!

This conflict between the greater good and my selfish interest in my child also manifested itself recently as we vaccinated young Samuel. This week Sam completed two months of life on this earth, so he was due for his first major round of vaccines. One day we took him to the old site of our town's hospital, which now serves as the university's medical school, but it turned out that they no longer administer child vaccinations there. We had given Sammy some baby Tylenol in drops before heading to the vaccination place, which left him knocked-out, vomiting, and cranky for the rest of the day. The next day we went to the city's social services agency, which does give out vaccinations, and Sam got oral vaccines for polio and pneumococcus, plus shots for rotavirus and diptheria, tetanus, and whooping cough. I felt proud of my adopted country for assuring that all children are vaccinated against the major childhood diseases. It speaks of a level of organization and infrastructure, as well as a well-guided political will, that this is possible in a poor country like ours.

In Colombia, as in many other countries of the world (save the US and the Netherlands), children are administered a one-time vaccine against tuberculosis when they're born. My wife and stepdaughter have a circular scar on their arms attesting to the vaccine, though I haven't seen it yet on Samuel. In the US we don't administer this vaccine, because public health authorities have concluded that it's less effective than frequent monitoring for the disease. Indeed, in many countries it seems that the TB vaccine isn't very effective against pulmonary tuberculosis, but it is effective against brain tuberculosis, a deadly childhood affliction.

Sam had a mild adverse reaction over the next day and a half after this latest round of vaccines. He had low fevers, which we treated with more liquid Tylenol and frequent baths, and he was generally irritable. Between his fevers, the Tylenol, and his fatigue, he was at times sort of limp and vulnerable, totally unlike his typical strong, alert character. Despite the robust medical evidence against the supposed links between vaccines and autism, I found myself worrying about him, reading online about the issue, and trying to engage eye contact with my son to make sure he hadn't gone to the other side. I somewhat understood those San Diego parents who don't want to vaccinate their kids, though this type of self-indulgent, destructive license so typical in the US is totally unthinkable here in Colombia, where our management of really lethal epidemic diseases is tenuous enough that people are aware of the dangers of not vaccinating, for themselves and their entire community.

In the case of vaccine-refusing parents as in many other cases, it's useful to keep in mind that life is a great circle, and each one of us is just a tiny element within it. One person's life is pretty small change, but life as a planetary force is tenacious, unlimited, even infinite. We'd do well to remember this whenever our personal interests go against those of other people or against the planet as a whole. Let's not allow one or a few lowercase lives to interfere with the uppercase, capital force of LIFE!


  1. I tend to look at life as a process of creation/destruction/recombination of information/energy (in the form of DNA, energy resources, art, thoughts, words, etc.). I think a standard American mindset of 'you' = 'your job' is at best a gross under-representation. I hope you don't get too down about your 'work' situation; you're having an impact on the world not only through your son but through your interactions with the people, land, energy, etc. around you. And it sounds like you're doing a good job with all of those aspects of living. :-)
    - Alan

  2. Jessica McLean jlumclean@gmail.comMarch 14, 2011 at 12:37 PM

    Hi Greg,
    I just wanted to let you know what a fan I am of these posts! It's so interesting to read your thoughtful musings and reflect on our shared experiences, though we are so far away. Dexter is due for his 2 month round of vaccinations on Monday . . .
    Also, I can't wait for your promised diapering post! David and I spent so much time researching and contemplating this issue, and I can't wait to hear your conclusions.