Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Aaaaye! Robot



Register columnist

This year marks the 85th anniversary of the robot, which begs the question: Why do I have a cold?

Robots were supposed to be our faithful servants. They were supposed to scrub our toilets wearing French maid outfits with nary a whisper about minimum wage or wedgies. At least that's what Karel Capek had in mind when he wrote his 1921 play "R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots)." He used robots as a metaphor for humanity's capacity to torture and our natural leanings toward depravity.

Or whatever. The point is, I'm sick, and if the robot has been around for 85 years, why hasn't it figured out a way to make me better?

Better yet, why didn't a robot - Secret Service-style - intercept the nasty germs that made me sick in the first place?

Where are those magic wands of "Star Trek" fame to shoot nano-love bits into me to eat up my virus? Where is my "Jetsons" machine to conveyor-belt me from my bed through the shower, closet and breakfast table without me having to lift a single, aching digit? I'm too sick to move, so where's the robot nanny who can comfort my crying child, feed him, dress him and teach him to be fluent in over 6 million forms of communication?

Nowhere. That's where.

You're going to tell me that the chick in your dashboard tells you when to turn right to get to the supermarket, and I'm going to tell you that she should do your shopping for you. Especially when you've got the chills and the very thought of the refrigerator section makes you weep.

Let's face it, my human brethren, robots have largely been a disappointment.

In fact, the Cambridge Robot Project, which launched this month in England to celebrate the bloody bloodless creatures' birth, is so at a loss to find cool robots to extol, they've had to define "robot" as any machine that'll do your work for you. Less "Terminator," more calculator.

This should offer some comfort to people who fear robots will one day take over the world. They needn't worry. My dishwasher has been making funny noises, but I doubt it's telling my coffee maker and microwave to rise up in revolt. Instead, it's probably telling me that it's sick and that I'm going to have to call a humanto come make it better.

That's how it is with these robots, isn't it? Whine, whine, whine.

To my dishwasher I say, "Shut up and make my throat not hurt.

"Can't, can you? Stupid, useless robot."

My animus toward robots might just be displaced frustration with my physical exhaustion and the fact that my cold forced me to give up my ticket to Madonna. But who cares? I feel lousy, and if I want to beat up on robots, I will.

After all, they haven't become, despite Capek's prediction, thinking, feeling circuits of artificial intelligence. They don't know that I'm casting aspersions on the whole of their miserable, mechanical race.

Or do they?

Come to think of it, no one else in my household is sick, and I'm the only one who has recently cursed my water heater. What else but sinister robots could explain the fact that Hoobastank is still releasing albums? And, really, how can I prove that my dryer didn't infect my duvet with typhoid?

Maybe robot-fearers are right. Maybe it's not bird flu we should dread but human-hopping computer viruses. Nano death rays shooting out of our laptops. Mucus-smearing hands-free car washes. Maybe the robots are staging their revolution one feverish, delirious human at a time.

It's too late for me. Save yourself.

If your throat starts to tingle or your nose starts to drip, hug your vacuum cleaner, look deep into its nozzle and say, "Happy 85th birthday, robot."

I pray it takes pity on you.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Lace 'em Up



Register columnist

Zev turns 1 next month. Which means he'll taste his first bite of cake, drink his first sip of cow's milk, and surrender his All-Access Pass to my breasts.

Nursing my son has been an amazing bonding experience, and I ache at the thought of weaning him. But I also just plain ache. Zev's become quite the sharp-toothed suction fish, and I'm so used to being a dairy cow I can't remember what it was like to be a woman.

So it's with a little more delight than I'd anticipated that I am preparing to end this phase of motherhood. And I know exactly how I'm going to celebrate this milestone: I'm going to buy a big-girl bra.

I'm going to buy a bra that's pretty and frilly with underwire and actual support. One whose cups can't be unsnapped by the ever-refining motor skills of an 11-month-old. One that doesn't smell like milk.

I'm going to buy a bra that makes me feel like the women in those bra ads are paid to look like they feel.

I've never been a big underthingy person - unlike some people I know, I will actually leave the house in a brassiere that doesn't match my panties. But something about spending a year switching between two racer-back nursing bras has me pining for La Perla.

I hadn't recognized how obsessed I'd become with trading in my worn-out undergarments; but when I started to notice the amount of arm hair on individual underwear models, I realized I'd been staring at the ads too long.

In fact, I've become something like a pervert, pawing at padded pushups in department stores, caressing elastic bits of spandex-blend lace, tossing expectant glances at little spaghetti straps.

"Can I help you?" a Nordstrom saleswoman recently inquired.

"Not likely," I stammered. "I'm pretty much beyond help right now."

Maybe it's ridiculous, the way we allow what we wear to influence how we feel about ourselves. But tell me you wouldn't feel frisky if you were dressed like a rabbit, or invincible in a superhero outfit. Now imagine a superhero outfit with bunny ears and a tail, and you get an idea of what I'm shopping for.

A big-girl bra would also serve a very practical purpose: interference. Weaning is going to be somewhat difficult. I've already started the process, and Zev doesn't much care for it. He likes me. In fact, if he so much as catches a glimpse of my bare breasts, he screams and lunges at me. Think Victoria's Secret would give away their security guard free with purchase?

I've considered the possibility that my increased meditations on all things underwire is a coping mechanism, something to take my mind off the fact that my little baby is growing up and entering a new, more independent stage of his life.

I've considered that possibility. And I've dismissed it.

It's not that I've grown wary of nursing. I still love that sweet, milk-drunk smile that spreads over Zev's face after a feeding. I love the way his hand curls around my thumb and his giant eyes look up at me while he's gulping down his breakfast.

It's just that it's been nearly a year of this maternal bliss, and I'm ready to reclaim my body. Reclaim it, and stuff it into lace. This is going to be a difficult and delicate process, I realize. There will likely be tears - mine and his, and some frazzled nerves.

I might need a miracle to get through it, but for now I'll settle for a Miracle Bra.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Devotion Bought In Bulk



Register columnist

We long ago let our membership to Costco lapse. Hubby and I did the math and figured that $50 was too much to spend every year for the privilege of buying toilet paper. But lately I realized that choosing not to be Costco members was possibly the most un-American act we've ever committed.

Costco is like the United States itself: vast, overwhelming and seemingly teeming with options that are just this side of necessary.

One toothbrush might be good enough for a Chinese peasant with bleak prospects for the future. In this country we buy 'em by the fistful.

And how about those glorious packages of paper towels? Oh, man. Those golf-cart-size mounds that you just want to throw your arms around and squeeze? Is it me, or do they scream, "This is America! And we have a lot of sopping to do!"?

Pardon my jingoism but I recently set foot in Costco for something other than a flu shot for the first time in several years, and I'm feeling a bit awe-struck. I had this idea to accompany my mom to Costco in Huntington Beach for a column about how she visits the warehouse superstore as often as some people visit their refrigerators.

The store is set up for, at best, monthly trips, so I don't understand what she does there every few days. But my writerly conceit vanished as soon as I walked upon the hallowed grounds of this Grand Canyon of savings. From the mountains of cereals to the prairie-style dinette sets to the ocean of children's toys made of foam - I knew I was someplace blessed.

Standing in the home entertainment section, with the sounds of "Ice Age" mixing in the air with the hum of the floor-cleaning Zamboni and the scent of free chicken tender samples filling my nostrils, it was all I could do to keep from placing my right hand over my heart and pledging my allegiance.

NSA, forget cell phones: Target households that don't buy their kiwis in bulk. Because if you haven't bought into Costco, you haven't bought into America.

One of the beauties of Costco is that it plans your life for you while tricking you into thinking you have options. Like an immigrant who believes the streets of America are paved with gold, a naïve Costco member will walk into the store, thinking they're going to buy cleaning products and produce, but leaving with a $1,600 children's treehouse.

The gorgeous treehouse display will make you believe that you've been in the market for a treehouse for quite some time, and, well, golly, aren't you just glad you came across this treehouse in the nick of time? You know, before you bought that other treehouse you'd been eyeing somewhere else.

This is how my mother came to own an outdoor patio set that is slightly too big for her back yard, a digital camera she barely knows how to use and a grandfather clock.

"A grandfather clock?" I remember asking her.

"Yes, I always wanted one," she said.

"You did?"

The other bit of Costco genius, the one that squares nicely with the American way of life, is that nothing sold there is meant to be used in its entirety. We, the people, do not take kindly to running out of things - be they Listerine or crude oil.

So we don't look at a 36-muffin flat and think, "There's no way I'm going to eat all of those." We look at it and think, "I'm going to have kids someday. And one day, one of those kids is going to want a muffin. If I buy these now, I'll be prepared."

During our trip, Mom filled her cart with a shirt for her brother, baby clothes for my cousins' kids, a package of three large bottles of hand cream, vitamins, blackberries, flats of water, a henhouse's worth of eggs, toilet paper (for me! I was so excited), paper towels and a few other items. Grand total: $174.

I've spent that much on groceries. But there's a difference - and I guess that difference explains why I didn't march over to customer service and renew my Costco nation citizenship right there and then; why, even in these post-9/11 times of heightened patriotism, I'm destined to roam the wide streets of suburbia as a downtrodden, one-toothbrushed expat: When I buy food, I buy food.

As we were leaving, my mom wanted to brainstorm a plan for the rest of the day.

"Let's drop this stuff off and get something to eat," she said.

"Didn't you just buy $174 worth of groceries?" I asked.

"Yes," she said, examining her cart. "But there's nothing to eat."

Tuesday, May 9, 2006

Reunion Becomes a Blessing



Register columnist

I scanned the crowd, looking for the sweet woman who was always by her baby's bedside, day and night. I looked for Dr. Dar. And for the three nurses I loved best, all named Jennifer. I looked for the sleepless but incredibly competent residents. And the Spanish-speaking grandfather who was once accidentally left behind by the rest of his family - with no way to tell anyone he'd been abandoned.

I looked for all the people who had touched us during the month that Zev spent at Children's Hospital of Orange County's neonatal intensive care unit. I didn't see any of them.

Oh well, I told myself. The reunion ended at noon, and we showed up at 11 a.m. What did I expect? At a quarter to noon, we found one of the nurses we knew, said hello, schmoozed with parents we hadn't met before and then prepared to take off. Kind of a bust, really.

Then I saw him. He was walking briskly to his truck, a purposeful stride that made him instantly recognizable, even without his police officer's uniform.

The day Zev left CHOC, attached to an oxygen tank and still so frail, Officer Dad was the last person I said goodbye to. I hadn't made a point of doing so, it's just that he was standing in the hallway, and we'd seen each other in passing every day for a month, and I was so gushingly happy to be taking Zev home that I just extended my hand, introduced myself and said goodbye.

By way of introduction, he told me about his son.

Officer Dad's baby was born so extremely premature that he weighed less than 1 pound and could fit in the palm of your hand. He may have been the smallest baby the NICU had ever seen - no one knew for sure. But he wasn't going to make it, that much everyone did know. His lungs were underdeveloped, his brain was underdeveloped, his heart, his digestive organs, his everything.

After a few weeks of trying to keep him alive, the doctors and nurses told the family nothing more could be done. The tiny baby was taken off his ventilators in a solemn ceremony at his bedside. As a priest gathered with the family to give the last rites to this unlived life, the baby's mom asked to pick him up. Because he'd been in an incubator for so long, this would be the first time she would hold him in her arms.

"And something happened," Officer Dad said.

Pressed against his mother, the baby's vitals signs started to return.

He normalized. He came back.

From that day forward he kept fighting - just like Zev, just like all the kids who have "graduated" from the NICU - to stay alive.

The day Zev was born, a doctor told me, "He has one foot in this world, one foot in the next." I'm just glad he extended so much as a foot, so we could all grab it and pull him here.

Officer Dad's story reminded me of that. I've thought of it countless times as Zev has defied odds and gotten better. So when I saw him at the reunion a few weeks ago, I practically chased him down.

"Hey," I said, breaking away from my family and running. "Hey ."

He turned around, and I flooded him with questions. How is your son?

When did you come home from the hospital? How much does he weigh now?

Officer Dad answered all my questions evenly and then asked me one of his own: "Wanna hold him?"

I had never actually seen him before, sequestered as he was in a private room. So holding him felt something like a miracle. He held me in his gaze, and I told him that I'm proud of him for being well enough to go home and that I know he'll keep growing bigger and stronger. Then he rested his head on my shoulder, reached up his tiny hand and stroked my cheek. I felt like I was receiving a blessing.

I handed back this amazing baby; and just like I had 10 months earlier, I said goodbye to Officer Dad, gathered my own son and headed home, truly touched.

Tuesday, May 2, 2006

The $800 Exploding Dog Butt



Register columnist

I know there are probably fetishists out there who would consider $800 for a house full of dog feces a veritable bargain. I, as it turns out, am not one of them.

It all started when my dog bit my kid. This should be the end of the story, considering that when we were children, a bitten baby spelled doggy deportation. ("We sent her to a nice farm," is what parents usually told their kids. I was 27 before I learned what this meant.) But since I love Sketch, and since Zev's first word was "Etch," Hubby decided to send Old MacDonald a rain check and give the girl another chance. This meant hiring a canine behaviorist. Yep. My dog's seeing a shrink.

For $800, the behaviorist promises to turn Sketch from the skittish ball of fur she is into a confident, calm and less toothy canine. So far, though, all we've seen is poop. Lots of it. Everywhere.

It's a wholly new neurosis, and it's got me thinking, "Does she really need to learn not to bite? Zev's pretty resilient."

In truth, the poop is an involuntary reaction to the change in diet that the doggy doctor recommended. Sometimes diet can cause behavioral issues, he said. Improve her diet, and these issues will go away.

Um, sure they will. Along with her pancreas.

Hubby is blaming himself for listening to Dr. Doggy and changing Sketch's food cold turkey. Nobody but Dr. Doggy thinks this is a good idea. Sketch certainly doesn't. Neither do my rugs, floors, rags or washing machine. We've tried switching back to her old food, but that hasn't solved the problem. The new problem, I might add. The old problems - excessive barking, snippiness, anxiousness, those haven't gone away either.

Eight hundred dollars later, Sketch is now a threat to Zev from both ends.

"What should we do?" Hubby asks.

A logical reaction would be to quit. What's weirder: being a dog shrink or hiring one? Let's get out now while we still have a few corners of unstained carpet left.

"Stay the course," I say.

"Seriously?" he asks.

"Yes," I say, on a roll. "I am the decider, and I decide what's best."

I like Dr. Doggy, I explain. Sketch instantly took to him, and he seemed to calm her down. The diet fiasco notwithstanding, I think there's a lot we can learn from him.

Plus, when Sketch rushed over to give him a voracious sniffing he didn't say, "Oh, she probably smells my dog."

Why do people say that? She doesn't smell your dog. She smells you.

My dog's nose can be buried way up someone's rear, and he'll invariably say, "She probably smells my dog." Why? Did you eat your dog? I wish people wouldn't say that - and Dr. Doggy didn't.

The main reason I don't want to give up on Dr. Doggy, is that I can't bear the thought of giving up on Sketch. Sure she barks so much that I sometimes flee my house just to escape the incessant noise. And, yes, she hates children, strangers, other dogs, bipeds, quadrupeds, arachnids and doorbells. And, OK, she doesn't even like to snuggle and is really more trouble than she's worth.

But Zev's eyes light up when he sees her. He flaps his arms wildly at her (which, let me tell you, anxiety-ridden dogs just love). She has fascinated him since he first took notice of her; some of his hardiest laughter has been inspired by her antics. Wanting to chase Sketch helped motivate Zev to learn to crawl.

For Sketch's part, she may be skittish, but she clearly feels an affinity for Zev, too. When she's relaxed, Sketch can withstand Zev pulling fistfuls of fur from her back without so much as a growl. She lies outside his door when he's napping, keeping guard over his crib.

It's often her well-tuned nose pressed firmly into his bum that first alerts me to Zev's need for a diaper change.

So I can't just send Sketch to go live on a farm. I can't not give the girl a chance for rehabilitation. Maybe I'm off my rocker, but I've got to give this touchy-feely dog doctor stuff a try.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I have a lot of cleaning to do.