25 June 2007

Not Gearheads Pictures

I meant to post these with my earlier "
Not Gearheads" item, but the image controls in Blogger were giving me fits. So be it.

What you see here are the Peg Perego "Venezia" model stroller, with a full-stretch interior, a reversible handle, stowage underneath, and more.

Also here are our re-purposed tote bag / diaper bag, with a shot of the notes list we made for the inside, to remind us what we need before we venture out.

Not Gearheads

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

We live not too far from one of the better baby stores in Manhattan, Albee’s, which is an old standard-bearer in the field of outfitting parents for life with their kids. We also live in a heavily-concentrated nexus, up and down Manhattan, of competitive stroller-buying, of which brands like the Bugaboo, the Stokke, and the Quinny seem to be the pack leaders. Albee’s, like many other such stores, seems to have done a good job of cashing in on all this, selling these Rolls Royce strollers alongside such formerly-esteemed names as Maclaren and Peg Perego.

Not formerly-esteemed to us, however. When we embarked on this project (if I can refer to having a baby as such), my wife and I agreed that the super-pricey world of baby-tastic gear is really over the top here in New York, and we wanted to limit our obeisance to the Gods of Baby Mammon. I don’t begrudge anyone who can spend close to $900 on a stroller their right to do so. Still, in my world $900 remains a large chunk of cash. Could the $900 stroller really do that much more than the $250 stroller?

Mostly, the answer is no.

We have looked. Much credit goes to the same store, Albee’s, for not trying to up-sell: they were perfectly comfortable telling us what the differences were and explaining why, generally, the extra cash isn’t worth it. (No doubt if you walk in wanting the expensive one, they’ll make you feel good about your purchase, too!) It’s certainly true if one is a runner / jogger, that a jogging stroller is a great accessory and probably worth the investment. And yes, some of the high-end strollers come with detachable bassinets that can serve more than one purpose, like for use around the home. Maybe if I felt like these fancy strollers did so much more, I’d reconsider; instead it just seems faddish, one of those “I have got to have a _____” accessories that has a very limited connection to the parenting that goes with it.

So here’s where we wound up on a few things. For a stroller, we bought the Peg Perego “Venezia” model, which has a seat back that goes nearly flat and a wrap-around cover for the front, forming an enclosed, bassinet-like space. With a reversible handle, you can flip things around, to push the baby while keeping her in view, or (longer-term) have a forward facing stroller for an older baby or toddler. Based on how much she’s slept in there on some recent trips, she seems quite comfortable. The stroller also has pop-up clasps onto which almost any modern car seat can attach securely, and plenty of storage underneath for a diaper bag and groceries. Moreover, at $219 plus tax, we saved a lot over the fancier brands. The one area we thought might be a particular concern – the tires and suspension – seem fine; we have wheeled around and through some parts of Central Park, and so far, so good.

Diaper bags are another area of fashionable baby accessorizing. I won’t plug the brand names, I’ll just tell you that there can’t be much they offer that we don’t already have – at prices that start around $60, but seem to go as high as $600 for certain designer names. We re-purposed a relatively-unused WNYC messenger tote bag as a diaper bag. It’s plenty big, waterproof, with some good inside pockets, has both a velcro and click-tab closures, and it generally feels indestructible.

As with a stroller – where something basic will work in most situations – so too with a diaper bag: the bag itself is a lot less important than figuring out what should go in it. We made ourselves a list, but for now, our baby is less than two weeks old – so we tweaked the bag and added a see-through pocket with a list of what we need. That way, we can re-check the bag’s contents before a trip, with confidence about what we’ll need – and easily update the list in the future, as our needs (and the baby’s) change. Moreover, in my limited experiences already, it seems like diaper bags go through a lot, so should anything happen to this one, I won’t suddenly feel like I’m out a few hundred bucks.

Lastly, we have gratefully accepted hand-me-downs of certain things – like an infant car seat – from friends with older kids. At this stage of life, kids move through things rapidly; an infant car seat is used for only a few months, until the baby is big enough for the next size up. So to share these items among friends makes a lot of sense, economically but also psychologically. Together all of us can, in a sense, build a better baby.

I have officially been a parent for all of 11 days today (counting my daughter’s birthday) so if you’re taking advice from me ... perhaps you shouldn’t! I do think, though, that it isn’t the gear that makes the baby or the parent, it’s the parenting itself. The values you establish for yourself and your child early strike me as critical. This isn’t a question of not wanting the best for my child – of course I do! “The best,” however, is not necessarily the most expensive or the most top-of-the-line; it might be the best that a parent can afford, or the best that is really demanded by a particular situation, or the best in the long-term context of the baby’s life. If we can bank the money we didn’t spend on a super-stroller, there are all sorts of other ways we can improve our child’s life more meaningfully than just by buying more gear. And when the need is there, we’re happy to spend the money, and we’ll have it to spend.

20 June 2007

Catching Up (on the other side)

Looking for something to read?

It's over here this week:

11 June 2007

Just This Once

Just this once, in more than six years in office, President Bush was right: the Senate's attempted (and failed) non-binding resolution of a vote of no confidence in Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was stupid.

Stupid because it was doomed to fail.

Stupid because it would have had only the slimmest symbolic value, even if it had passed.

Stupid because while the Senate was screwing around with this, they could instead have been serving subpoenas to Karl Rove, Harriet Miers, and others -- and actually held hearings to get to the bottom of what's rotten in the Department of Justice.

Make no mistake: Gonzales should resign or be fired. But the best way to put pressure on both Gonzales and Bush is to reveal to the world how corrupt their actions have been, and how much they consistently put party before country.

And so, dear Senators, please quit wasting time - to say nothing of money, and the slimmest margin of political capital - on meaningless non-binding resolutions. Bring Rove, Miers, et al before Congress and force this issue into the open at long last.

10 June 2007

Pollution-Free Cars

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

The latest trend in the American Nanny State focuses on banning adults from smoking in cars if children are present. According to a recent Associated Press article, pending legislation in California and New Jersey “dovetails with a national movement to limit children’s exposure to smoke. New Jersey, Maine, Vermont, Texas, Oregon and Washington have banned smoking in cars containing foster children, said Regina Carlson, executive director of NJ GASP, or Group Against Smoking Pollution. Louisiana, Arkansas and Puerto Rico have banned smoking in cars with any child inside.” The San Francisco Chronicle says that at least 16 states are consider similar kinds of laws, while the same AP article quotes New Jersey State Senator Raymond Lesniak as saying “‘It’s child endangerment,’ ... ‘We need to set an example with this law.’”

This is a classic instance of America’s legal and health-and-welfare systems failing to reach the true moral high ground; it is, in fact, of an utter failure of the American imagination. After all, if New Jersey’s Lesniak or California’s Oropeza (sample quote: “‘This measure goes a long way toward ensuring the health of our children and includes an education campaign to raise public awareness,’ the bill’s author, Sen. Jenny Oropeza, D-Long Beach, said in a statement.”) or any of the other politicians around the country really cared about America’s children – and truly found second-hand smoke such a danger to child welfare – they would take entirely different legal action and establish a wholly-other set of protections.

They would jail any parent who smokes. Period.

Children would be put into foster care – and fortunately, given the absurdities of our great nation, in New Jersey, Maine, Vermont, Texas, Oregon and Washington, those foster children would already be protected against second-hand smoke in cars by law. One wonders how it is that foster children have already received such protections in states that have not yet seen fit to pass such a bill affecting parents’ own biological or legally-adopted children. Perhaps the existence of those laws merely point to foresight on the part of the various state legislators, who must have recognized subconsciously that removing children from dangerous, smoking parents simply must be a long-term national goal.

Jerry Falwell may be dead, but Pat Robertson (he of the 2,000 pound leg press) and the Reverend Dobson should be speaking out on this issue, arguing for the protection of children against immoral parenting. Gentlemen, consider it a wedge issue: once you have established the precedent of removing children from smokers’ homes, you can expand such processes to cover getting children safely out of the homes of the flag burners, liberals, and others endangering their moral well-being! The moralists among our 2008 Presidential candidates – from Romney and Brownback to Clinton and Edwards – should be on this bandwagon too, pushing the edge of rhetorical campaign flourishes in demanding that America protect its most important resource for the future. Surely Hillary would agree that it only takes a village to stop cars and forcibly remove parents who are smoking with their kids inside. If Iraq can have roadblocks in every village, surely Indiana can, too! Americans are lucky: distinguishing smoking parents from non-smoking parents is likely to be a lot easier than differentiating between Sunni drivers and Shia drivers over in Iraq.


If you made it this far and you are still confused, you have clearly missed the point.

According to a variety of sources, the number one cause of death for American children is “unintentional injury” from a car, in accidents either where the child was killed while in the car, or where the child was hit by a car. The second largest cause of death (and first among diseases) is cancer. Safekids.org parses the numbers this way: “In 2001, 5,526 children ages 14 and under died from unintentional injuries. In addition, each year more than 92,000 children are permanently disabled. Each year, one out of every four children (a total of more than 14 million children ages 14 and under) sustains an injury serious enough to require medical attention.” Compare those facts to smoking-related risks, where even the American Cancer Society – no friend of smoking – is forced to categorize the 35,000 second-hand smoke-related deaths each year as an estimated number. After all, there are plenty of pollutants in our air beyond those that come from second-hand smoke, making it a little more difficult to be precise about the cause of death from respiratory ailments, as opposed to the blunt-force trauma caused by a car.

Still, and despite those numbers, no state or federal legislative body has yet proposed banning children under 16 from riding in cars at all – let alone trying to reduce the overall number of cars on the road, or increasing the scope of driving test requirements. No state has passed one of those laws-named-after-a-child-who-suffered to make the penalty for killing a child with a car as harsh as life in prison. No one has introduced incentive programs to get kids (and their parents) to use mass transit, even though this would be better for child safety and national air quality. And no one has proposed a law that would, over a period of (say) five years, remove from the road (and prohibit the sale of) every car that does not have front and side-curtain air bags, to offer the best (child) defense in case of a crash.

There are untold problems in American society, from healthcare and social security challenges, to the shocking degree of violence that pervades our culture. The U.S. Senate has just failed to pass any kind of meaningful immigration reform, and Congress as a whole has spent the last six years bowing unyieldingly to the (absurdist, morally-off-course) will of President George W. Bush, of which the fiasco of the Iraq war is only one small example of their combined malfeasance. Oh, and despite the nearly six years since President Bush invaded Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden remains a free man, conveniently allowing one and all to use Al Qaeda as a persistent bogeyman to threaten the nation, even as our port and border security remains little improved.

In other words: we Americans have a lot of work to do. I do not condone parents who smoke near their kids, and no doubt smoking in enclosed spaces like a car is worse for everyone involved. Of course! But that’s hardly the point – because the point is that such “feel good” laws are a waste of time and resources, human or otherwise. The legislators who should be working to fix the more serious problems facing our communities are, instead, grandstanding about this brilliantly-obvious ban. The police, who might be out there tracking down serious dangers to society are, instead, adding another nuisance to their already-long list of ticket-able violations.

Moreover, there are all sorts of other things parents do that are potentially damaging to their kids, about which we as a society to little-to-nothing. We still permit corporal punishment, sometimes even in schools, and divorce continues despite the emotional and psychological damage it has been known to cause. There are no national child food standards, to punish parents who take kids under 16 to eat the fat-laden junk of McDonald’s, Burger King, and the like, nor are there penalties for buying and serving kids foods that are filled with chemicals and fats, from mac-and-cheese to soda.

Maybe all of these things should be prohibited, but more laws really are not the answer. People should be able to make choices, for better and for worse – because they will anyway, regardless of the law, and one only has to look at the statistics for violent crimes in states with capital punishment to see how little such laws matter. Never mind that our sense of risk, and tolerance for it, is badly skewed. Instead, what we need is more common sense, as a society and as individuals, and more thoughtful, systematic education to encourage the right choices (and discourage the wrong ones), without trying to legislate against every behavior we don’t like.

03 June 2007

Lost Art of Tinkering

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

When I was child, my grandfather used to regale me with stories about his life in Germany in the early part of the last century, and one of my small and often-overlooked favorites was about the challenge of getting his driver’s license. The story brought up the kind of historical, cultural, and personal incongruities that help make life interesting since, in essence, the demands of the occasion contrasted sharply with the man I knew: to get one’s license in the Germany of that period, it was necessary to know, in great detail, about the inner-workings of your car, the better to maintain and repair it. Although my grandfather, in the late age at which I knew him, loved to tinker with little things, he was in my experience rather rupophobic – making the mental image of him greasing up his hands with car parts still rather shocking. He loved cars, and he passed the test, and whether he was less fussy as a young man or simply realistic about the challenge is something about which I can only guess.

Lately, I have been thinking about this story because I have been struck by how our society seems to be drifting further and further from having any real connectivity to the tools and technologies we use every day. In 1920s Berlin, when my grandfather was toying with cars, they may still have been slightly exotic machines – nowhere near as omnipresent in society as they are now – but they were also more straightforward in construction: internal combustion engines with visible, mechanical parts performing specific, easy-to-understand functions. Nothing like today’s cars, where everything from the timing of the fuel injection, to the force of braking, to the deployment of airbags, is controlled by computer chips. The under-hood experience now couldn’t be more different, and most of us simply could not pass a driver’s test that involved car repair even if we had no fear of getting dirty.

Those in-engine computers are just one element of the dramatic changes of the last 60 years, all in the name of better living through science. And, generally, we do have better lives; the “machines” with which we surround ourselves, now more often digitally-driven rather than mechanical in the old-fashioned sense, help our society manage information, communicate, grow food, cook, develop and deliver new products, shop, and more. I am no Luddite; I definitely see the value of improving technology. However, as the complexity of these technologies increase, so does our general powerlessness. Most of us are helpless in the face of a recalcitrant computer or obstreperous cellphone, to the degree that such helplessness is the butt of many jokes. We may have a standard routine of quasi-fixes – many with startling degrees of success – like rebooting the computer or removing and reinserting the cellphone battery, but we are fundamentally screwed if the problem is more serious; in most cases, we cannot even diagnose the problem, let alone fix it.

Well, that’s what specialists are for. Just as we go to the doctor for an internal pain we cannot diagnose or fix, we rely on the equivalent professional opinion to resolve the problems of our cars, our computers, and more. (Or, sadly, we simply throw them out, given that the cost of such specialized treatment often outweighs that of replacement. It’s likely only a short bit of time before we adopt the same attitude about our bodies, too.) And as with doctors, the more we rely on specialists, the more complicated everything becomes – and the more we remove ourselves from having any ability to make fixes for ourselves.

Maybe this reliance on others is both wholly human and essentially irrelevant. In one way or another, we have always been bound to specialists, from the shaman who claimed exclusive access to the spirits that controlled human health and destiny, to “wet nurses” who breast-fed babies for the mothers who could not, to the butcher, baker, and candle-stick maker (all specialists in their own right), this farming-out of knowledge can encourage innovation and development and increase productivity. If the lawyer bakes her own bread, she might make simple white; buying from the baker means a range of choices that may suit both her tastes and her dietary needs; and when the baker needs a lawyer, he too will probably be better off with his customer’s specialized services than attempting to strike out on his own. What fails the test here is the implicit “could” in each situation: the baker could serve as his own lawyer, the lawyer could be her own baker; it might not be ideal, but it is certainly do-able.

In all likelihood, however, neither the lawyer nor the baker could fix their own microwave oven or television. Again, I am no Luddite and this is no jeremiad against technology. Rather, it is a call for greater dilettantism, a hope that as new technologies come along, all of us who use them will make more of an effort to understand their inner workings, and not take the passive route to greater specialization. To be sure, some of this is (and has been) happening, with “extensions” for web browsers like Firefox, add-ons to search engines like Google, and extra components for software and operating systems like OpenOffice.org and Linux, all being created by committed individuals who use these tools and have found ways to make them work better. Web sites like Lifehacker provide assistance, too, providing tips for novices and experts alike on a variety of topics.

Technology is powerful – but knowledge is power; the more we know, the more control we have. Sometimes we will be able to fix things ourselves, and sometimes we will simply be better prepared to call in that specialist. But without any knowledge whatsoever, in sustaining a learned helplessness about the world, we are not much better than newborn babies, dependent utterly and always.