Friday, December 21, 2007

don't be negative

That's B-, my blood type.

When I first visited the doctor at about week seven of my pregnancy, he told me that since my Rh type is negative I'd receive a Rhogam shot after 24 weeks, and then another one after I gave birth. I filed this information on a growing mental list of fascinating and unknowable pregnancy mysteries. I hadn't, at that point, even begun to consider all the ways I might disagree with the medical establishment about what is and is not necessary during pregnancy... but given my disposition in general I should've known I'd have to butt heads at some point.

My doctor in Japan said the same thing about the Rhogam shot, but since I wouldn't be seeing him beyong my 23rd week, it wasn't on my mind at all while I was in Kyoto.

So I looked into it a little more with my best friend (who happens to be in medical school and could look it up in her pharmacology database) before I went for my routine prenatal earlier this week. I was prepared to ask a few questions about it, but still didn't have much by way of analysis. Doc said the risk of my blood mixing with the baby's blood is higher during the third trimester, so they advocate the Rhogam shot to prevent my body from developing antibodies in case the baby turns out to have Rh-positive blood. Like a reverse vaccination.

What are the risks that necessitate the shot in the third trimester? Doc didn't elucidate. In the clean efficiency of the examination room, in the strange hypnotic power dynamic between doctor and patient, I lost what resolve and reservation I'd had. I figured he knew what he was talking about and scheduled a shot for the following week. He also recommended that I get a flu shot, which I accepted on the spot with little thought or hesitation.

Then my mother-in-law, who is a nurse, sent me an article about how Rhogam shots contain mercury and do, in fact, warrant some reservation. Since she is usually one to do things by the book, I took it with that much more weight. The article offered information not only about the mercury, but about the controversy of the shot and whether its benefits are significant enough to offset its potential risks. I looked at some more articles about Rhogam, and found myself suddenly mired in a glut of conflicting opinions and fretting about the statistical hall of mirrors I had so casually entered into.

I also read that the flu shot has the highest mercury content of all vaccinations.

I felt like I'd been duped. Some sources will tell you to ABSOLUTELY get a flu shot during pregnancy, and others will tell you not to bother. But mercury-based preservatives? Isn't this about health?

Apparently there are mercury-free versions of Rhogam (under different brand names) that I could insist upon, but by that point I felt disillusioned and disempowered. I skimmed more online articles, drilled recently pregnant friends and relatives about their choices, scoured my midwifery books, but eventually I saw that none of that could assuage the uncertainty. I would have to make up my mind and choose for myself. I would have to assert myself, based on scant research and copious intuition, and enter into this bright confusing world of mother and nuturer and choice-maker.

I cancelled the Rhogam shot.


Sunday, December 16, 2007

the circumcision descision

I found myself at the periodical rack at a book store the other day, guiltily thumbing through a pregnancy magazine. Just to remind me what I'm not missing, I told myself. An article about a father deciding whether to circumcise his son caught my eye, and I glanced through it, first with dismay, and then outright disgust. Basically, he read a lot of stuff about how circumcision isn't medically necessary, is really painful for the baby, and doesn't represent significant health benefits -- and then decided to go ahead and circumcise his kid anyway because "chicks dig a cut guy," and "hey, it worked for me."

Then came across a blog on the New York Times homepage recently about circumcision. I read through the piece with curiosity and proceeded to also read all 167 comments. What a hot-button issue!

Cut men, uncut men, gay men, Jewish men, Muslim men, atheists, straight women, righteous parents, resentful children all weighed in on the topic, and their opinions varied accordingly:

"It's tradition!"
"It's barbaric!"
"It looks better!"
"It looks painful!"
"Cut him now and spare him later!"
"Leave him be and let him decide when he's older!"

And on and on. My, how we get worked up about what others should do with their bodies.

I knew that having a baby would catapult me into a new dimension of decision-making, even well before the baby made its appearance into the world, but I'm still astounded at the fervor on all sides. One of the major dilemmas where circumcision is concerned seems to be how on earth a circumcised father is going to explain to his uncircumcised son why their penises look different. Fellas, is this really an issue?

Fortunately J and I agreed, with little debate and little soul-searching, on keeping our boy intact. I don't want to stray into righteousness here, but I feel a certain pride that J won't need his boy to "look like him" and won't be shy in talking to him about it.

I won't tell you what to do with your boy, but I think we owe it to them to think carefully about these kinds of decisions and what influences them: culture? caution? cognitive dissonance?

I liked best the comment that said, about the religious tradition of circumcision, "If we were made in God's image, why would we need to cut anything off?"


Thursday, December 6, 2007

liquid lunch

I've had my fair share of airports for the season.

On Monday I bid farwell to Kyoto, trying to soak it in last minute from a cab to the station, and then from the long bus-ride to Kansai International. We travelled for more than 24 hours, all told, and we still arrived in San Francisco before we left Osaka.

I spent a few days in the Bay Area, catching up with friends and eating tons of beautiful kale and collards and other things you can't find in Japan.

By Thursday morning, I was back at the airport, prepared for a long "frequent flyer" day -- you know, the kind of flight combination where they route you through Dallas no matter where you're going, and it takes you 12 hours to get where it should normally only take 4. I brought an ample lunch of leftover greens & rice, fruit, yogurt, crackers, and hummus to sustain me through terrible airline snacks and even more terrible airport food.


The sleepy TSA lady (and I do mean sleepy, she was yawning the whole time) stopped my bag through security check, and called over another officer to examine it. He took my lunch bag out, and told me I couldn't take the yogurt or the hummus with me.

"But it's food!" I protested.

"The rules say we can't allow anything liquid."

"But it's packaged and sealed... it's food!" I repeated.

"If you want, you can take it outside and eat it right now," he offered, trying to be helpful.

By that point, I had 20 minutes to get on my plane.

"I'm pregnant," I blurted, "They won't feed me on the plane, and I have to eat!"

He appeared to be sympathetic. He took me and my lunch over to a more official-looking TSA Agent wearing a sweater-vest, and said, "She's pregnant."

Sweater-vest looked at me over his glasses, looked at my belly, and said, "Oh."

He reiterated the rules about not allowing liquids through security, but perhaps he sensed the coming storm of panic by the look on my face, and miraculously waved me through.

I thanked them both and hustled to my gate, feeling somewhat guilty for pulling the pregnancy card AND for being really whiny about it. But I admit I have been particularly vexed by the "no liquid" rule, and the whole principle behind this kind of reactive airport security. For a while I was sure it was a ploy by the Artisan Water people, who charge $3 for bottled water from the liquid-less legions after we get through security check. Then articles abounded about women who weren't allowed to bring on board their own breast-milk that they'd been pumping while they were away from their babies during travel (now I think the rules have been changed). Compared to that, I got through easy! I'm surprised they didn't have a female officer pat me down to make sure my belly wasn't really a bomb belt! At this point, I think you might have an easier time trying to get actual bomb parts on an airplane than food.


But I swear, that's the first time I've used being pregnant to address an otherwise unrelated grievance.

Welcome back to The United States!


Saturday, December 1, 2007

giving thanks

The omamori are piling up around here:

The pink one was a gift from J when we went to Jingoji Temple last weekend, the red ones are from friends; all charms to bless my pregnancy and wish me a healthy baby and safe delivery.

They've been hanging on a peg above my futon, bright little satchels of prayers I don't understand but nevertheless feel compelled to honor.

When I first came to Kyoto in 2005, Japanese Buddhism struck me as terribly superstitious: Students line up at Kitano Tenmangu, a Shrine dedicated to a deified (and once-exiled) scholar, to pray before their entrance exams; at Yasui Konpira-gu Shrine in Gion, lovers climb through a tunnel in a strange stone sculpture, plastered by years of omikuji, in order to initiate or terminate a relationship (depending on which way you go through); once a year at Sanjusangendo Temple you can get hit -- okay, touched -- on the head by a sacred willow branch to prevent and cure headaches. Then there are all the charms, the fortunes, the rubbing of bronze statues that will alleviate physical pains... Do people really believe all this stuff? I wondered.

But then, Christians do some pretty wacky stuff in the name of healing, too.

Is superstition just faith in charlatan's clothing? Believing in anything you can't see or prove is bound to strike someone as superstitious, right?

Still, I have faith. I have my patchwork religion, culled from childhood Bible stories, Annie Dillard, and long walks in the woods. I'm keen on coincidence, sure that god makes god-self known through fortuitous glimpses.

The Tuesday before Thanksgiving, J and I went to visit with a woman he'd interviewed for his research on spirituality and aging last year. She's a smart, lovely woman of 84, with lots of stories and a thick Kyoto dialect. I can barely understand her, but I wanted to go along anyway, be a good wife. She hosted us in the middle room of her home, a beautiful old machiya in Nishijin, the textile center of the city, where she still helps run a silk tie-making factory. After a while, as we started making motions to leave, she suddenly suggested we walk over to a nearby altar to Jizo, the Buddha who looks after children and travelers, to do a blessing for the baby. We obliged, and walked with her a short distance from her house, to an odd little clothing shop with the entrance to a house at the back. We followed her inside, and she greeted the elderly couple who lived there.

I have often walked into situations in Japan where I knew nothing of what was going to happen, and have learned to just open up to it. This is what happened:

Our friend took us to the open garden in the middle of the house, where there was a small altar around two ancient-looking stone Jizo -- actually, they looked like worn and faded rocks, not sculpted figures, distinguished only by the red bib that Jizo sometimes wears. They looked as though they'd been there far longer than the house itself, which sort of awkwardly accomodated them in a corner of the courtyard.

The elderly man followed us, and gave us candles and incense to light. Not quite knowing what to do, I followed J's lead and knelt at the altar, saying a silent thank-you. The man then had us sit behind him as he stood at the altar. We bowed heads and pressed palms together as he lit incense and began to chant the heart sutra: maka han ya ha ra mi ta...

I started to cry. Huge, urgent tears spilled out on to my hands before I knew what they were for, my body was shaking, my breath coming in short gasps. I couldn't stop it -- it was too big, too fast. When he was done, we got up and I tried to compose myself but couldn't. I was so moved, so amazed by the strength of the feeling. I fumbled with some syllables to articulate how grateful I was, but it came out all blurry through the tears. We went back to the front of the house, and I tried to say thank you some more.

The man decided to give us the prayer book he'd used for the chanting, and at first J tried to refuse, but the man explained that Jizo-sama wanted us to have it as a gift. He told me to rub my belly with it, and to put it under my pillow when I go into labor. It wasn't superstition, it was god, it was grace, it was the generosity of human spirit manifest inside a prayer book.

I cried on my bicycle all the way home. I felt as though I'd been lifted and struck like a bell, and was reverberating with the intensity of it. I hadn't understood anything that had been said, and I don't really understand that much about Buddhism; but despite that, and despite the fact that it all happened in less than five minutes, the power of the ceremony cleaved directly to the heart of me.

Since then, I am more grateful for the sentiment in the omamori; I stop and pray whenever I see an altar or a Temple for Jizo. I don't think I fully understood before what motivated people to have faith -- to pray before something and really believe. How often are we called like this?

I'm still trying to figure out how to say thank you.