Monday, December 29, 2008

Bad Santa


This past summer, my husband won a raffle at a work event, and the prize was a Nintendo DS Lite game console. Currently retailing at Amazon.com for $130, this was a gift to us, as it would be a perfect present for the kids for Christmas (in my house, free=perfect) AND, we knew they would love it. Put out the word to relatives for a couple of E-rated games, and we'd be in business. No muss, no fuss. I wrapped it, labeled it and put it away.

Fast forward to the week before Christmas. Put out-of-town guests into the room where all gifts have been hidden, wrapped, shipped, donated from and stored.

Christmas Eve: host party for 18 people. Stir in egg nog, screaming, over-sugared, over-tired nieces, nephews and offspring, and very confused dog. Let simmer until midnight. Quietly attempt to retrieve all gifts from gift room while house guest is sleeping in said room. Notice through nog- and fatigue-induced haze that there seem to be fewer gifts than remembered. Re-rifle closet, flashlight in hand. Check under bed. Check own closets twice. Re-check guest closet, now with wakened guest's help. Fail to find Nintendo console or game cartridges.

1:15 a.m.: Admit defeat and go to bed.

2:00 a.m. continue to go over and over every inch of house inside head to figure out what happened to gifts. Were they inadvertently shipped to relatives in Florida? Donated? Thrown away? Given to neighbors?

Toss and turn for the rest of the night, and NOT in anticipation of Christmas morning.

Christmas Day arrived with lots of gifts and fun and family gatherings. I continued to vacillate between happy and troubled, mad at myself for losing the gifts, afraid I might be losing my mind as well, and hoping beyond hope that they would turn up before the end of Hanukkah so they could still be presented to the kids.

The day after Christmas, my nine-year-old turned to me and sincerely asked, "Mom, why didn't Santa bring me a Nintendo DS?" and I had to fight back an apology and the urge to blurt, "He DID sweetie, but Mommy's a loser and can't find it!" Instead I mentioned all the nice things he did get, and reminded him that he never wrote to Santa, so Santa had to do his best at guessing what to bring. If I can't be truthful, I can at least get points for creativity and putting the blame elsewhere.

Two days after Christmas, my despondency and my husband's frustration got the better of him and he took matters into his own hands. Going through the gift closet with a fine-toothed comb, he discovered the gifts right where I'd safely hidden them: between the snack tables. It was then I remembered putting them there and thinking, 'the kids will never find them here!' (Note to self: after two days, neither will Mom).

So tonight, days after all holidays have ended and before the new year begins, we will unveil the 'big gift' to the children late, lame and without explanation. At least I have some egg nog left. Maybe Mommy's senior moment is a sign that it's time for a Rockwellian moment* in our house.

*The Discovery, by Norman Rockwell

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Little Gifts



Ah, the holidays, that joyful time of year when I start brooding over all the things I have to do in preparation.

How often do you wish that, no matter how much you accomplish, there was time to do more? This is the happiest and most stressful time of year for many of us, and it's easy to understand how the whole point of the season can get lost in the far-too-many tasks that come with it.

As if that weren't enough, parenting brings the added responsibility of trying to help our kids grow up with an appreciation of what they have and a sense of responsibility toward those who have less. This is the perfect season for reiterating this message.

Ironically, this is also the season when my kids are completely focused on all the gifts they are hoping to receive. Jacob, especially, looks at it this way: he hasn't received anything new since his birthday SIX WHOLE WEEKS AGO. So while I'm looking at the big picture, and of everything we have, Jacob is thinking about all the things he wants. He calls me to the t.v. to show me commercials of the latest cool toy, and he flips through toy store fliers, circling every other item.

Rather than lecture about materialism, I decided to take a different tack to give him a new perspective. I had looked around my house, and realized that whenever a really touching piece of children's artwork comes home, I hang it up. In my office there is a small paper handprint, of a hand that will never again be that small, which says, "I'm thankful for bananas." And in my dining room is my particular favorite, a stick figure portrait of me with a mohawk, wearing a purple triangle dress and a big smile, with the caption: "Once upon a time, there was a mom... who gave me pudding."

These small reminders of this brief and wondrous time in my sons' lives are keepsakes of the things I treasure most. This exercise worked well for me, so I decided to try it on my kids to get across the message about what's really important.

I casually mentioned upcoming plans we have with friends. I pointed out the beauty of the sparkling snow when the sun shines on it. I talked about the family members who had hand made each of the ornaments we used to decorate the tree. Getting grunts and shrugs in response, though, did not leave me optimistic.

Then one day I found Jacob sitting at the dining room table going through yet another toy catalog. Suddenly he piped up and said, "Hey Mom. 'If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.'"

"You're right, Jacob," I answered, wondering where he'd heard the quote by John Quincy Adams. "Do you know anyone like that?" I asked him, slyly searching for evidence of someone or something in his life he valued beyond the material.

"Yeah, you," he said.

I froze. "Me? Really?" I asked, baffled. All my days of shouting and lecturing filled my head. I wracked my brain in vain for a memory of some way, in the midst of all my fumblings, that I might have inspired him.

"You help me come up with ideas for my art, and you help me study until I understand my homework," he said.

I realized then that, just as it is the small, special moments in my ever-hectic life as a mom for which I am truly appreciative, it is the seemingly little things I do for my kids that really matter most to them.

Right now my kids may be most thankful for toys and food. But it's nice to know that every now and then, they really do recognize — and appreciate — the bigger picture, in their own little ways.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Brotherly Love: The Best Medicine



There's an old saying about motherhood: "The days are long, but the years are short." As the mother of (seemingly overnight) a nine-year-old and a six-year-old, I can fully attest to the statement. But one of the things that can make those looooong, long days a bit shorter, I've found, is laughter.

This is a problem for me. I have known for years that I take myself far too seriously, and often worry that it is rubbing off on my kids. A University of Maryland Medical Center study suggested that a good sense of humor and the ability to laugh at stressful situations helps reduce the damaging physical effects of distressing emotions. And we've often heard that laughter can boost immunity. But doesn't that kind of thing have to come naturally? Sure, we all laugh at jokes and silliness, but for some of us, when we are *in* a stressful situation, laughing is the last thing on our minds. What's a mom in need of tantrum-diffusing tools to do?

Outsource. This is one of the best benefits of siblings, in my humble opinion. Take, for example, the other night. Ben had a great day at school, finished his homework and we'd even had fun looking at some train crossing videos together on YouTube. But about 15 minutes before dinner was ready, he melted*. I gave him veggies to nibble on, thinking it was hunger-induced. No good. I asked the boys to wash their hands and pointed out we were having their favorite dinner. More tears. I was extremely proud of myself as I continued to talk in a soothing and low voice, offering suggestions, help and hugs while I waited for this episode to pass, but 45 minutes later, I was nearing the end of my rope and resources. Time to send in a pinch hitter.

Actually, Jacob took it upon himself to step in. An incredibly empathic child, he is the one who knows best how to annoy his brother, because he knows all of his triggers. But for the same reasons, he knows how to help him as well. I turned to the stove to take a deep breath, and behind me I heard a typical, 9-year-old boy (read: disgusting) sound come from the table. Then silence. I held my tongue for a minute, just long enough for the laughter to erupt.

Next Jacob sang a silly song, accompanied by bizarre, goofy dance moves. More laughing--excellent. But as the grossness level rose and the noises got louder, I thought it was time to step in and calm things down. I walked over to the table and said, "OK, guys, let's relax and finish dinner, please." Looking at me, Jacob crossed his eyes and gave off one of the largest belches I've ever heard come out of a human. Benjamin all but fell off his chair, howling. Realizing that, not only was I outnumbered, but about to shoot myself in the foot, I bit my tongue against the impending reprimand, and instead gave Jacob a hug and a kiss.

Parenting is hard. There's no doubt about it. But my kids have taught me so much about how to do the job, and have made it rewarding on so many levels, that I can't imagine a life without them. Yes, there is always sibling rivalry, and of course, we are not always at our best--and are often at our worst when our kids need us to be at our best. But holding on to that regret, and the feeling that we're always doing something wrong is unhealthy. Better to laugh at ourselves and let it go. After all, when they're grown and gone, all I'll remember are the good times anyway. Wouldn't it be great if that's all they remember too?


*melted: had a complete, emotional breakdown for no apparent reason and became inconsolable.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Yes, Virginia, Santa Has a Drinking Problem



I have a hard time remembering the world before the Internet, but every now and then I miss my insular little bubble of ignorance. Remember when kids were only influenced by their school friends, family, scout groups and neighbors? When they could only venture as far as their bicycles and legs would take them? When there were only seven channels on the t.v.?

Jacob loves computers. He has a few sites he likes to visit where he plays online games, and I've checked them out to make sure they're not offensive or showing too many (or inappropriate) ads. Whether he ventures beyond these sites, I do not know, but we have talked about the rules and I trust him, so I don't believe he does.

While I understand that computer games are a growing business, and that they are pretty much everywhere, I have forgotten that what I consider to be a kids' game is likely to be different from what someone else (who is not a family member or fellow mom) might consider to be a kids' game. Especially if the someone else includes the people who write the games.

Today I was searching around for some imagination-building games for kids online. I stumbled onto sharewareconnection.com, a software-sharing website, and clicked on "games" and then on the category labeled "kids." And it was here that I found a cartoony little game called Sober Santa 2. More disturbing than the fact that this is a sequel to an already-existing game was the description:

"It is unbelievably funny to play this great free game. You are the Santa and you want to pick up as many glasses of booze as possible. Each glass of booze you take will make this Santa shakier. His feet will be dragging, his balance will worsen and after a couple of drinks this Santa won't even be able to stand without stumbling. This game is incredibly realistic in showing the effects of alcohol abuse. You have no idea how fun it is to play the Shaky Santa on Booze free kids game."

This leads me to presume that the first game was called Shaky Santa on Booze. Can someone please explain to me why this is considered a children's game? And what's funny about alcohol abuse? And where the children are who are playing it?

Call me old-fashioned, but this is not my idea of fun. And, while I'm no child psychologist, it also does not seem like an effective way to teach children about alcohol abuse, especially if it is considered "fun and funny" (since this would not really portray alcohol abuse as negative).

What this discovery taught me was that as parents, we must be vigilant. While the games we buy in stores for our children are required to have ratings on them, free games online are completely unrestricted.

We don't need to know everything that's out there, nor do we need to block our children from everything available on the computer. That would be like never letting them leave the house. Rather, we need to teach our kids how to make good decisions, we need to remain open to dialogue, and we must stay on the lookout. Not to prevent our kids from finding inappropriate games, but for the teachable moments they present.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Living History



Every one of us has been a part of history in some way or another. Through individual memories of where we were during historical moments, we share their passing with others and these moments bind us together.

My own such memories have been few and tragic. 9/11. The crash of TWA flight 800. Princess Diana's death. The explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. Mine are the kind of memories spoken of in hushed tones, with eyes lowered in respect for those who died. Until now.

Yes, the election of Barack Obama is meaningful in terms of the image the world holds of our country, the statement it makes about where we want America to head in this new century, and how far we've come as a nation in so short a time. But it is more than that. It is proof to my children that anything is possible, that greatness can come from anywhere and that they are on the cusp of something wonderful.

In February just last year, my son was reading about civil rights, slavery and the Underground Railroad. He's learned about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, and the impact they made on American history. He has seen how things used to be and has been taught why racism is wrong. He knows that a few decades ago, unfair laws and practices were being fought so that everyone's civil rights could be established. But until now he has not seen more.

Today, he learned more than just that it is unfair for society to keep people down because of the color of their skin. Today, he learned that our society is strong enough and open-minded enough to raise people up and follow them when they possess all those traits we hold in high regard: intelligence, strength, integrity and courage.

After 9/11, everyone said we will never be the same. Now we can say it again, but this time, say it with pride.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Notes From the Other Side


From the time my oldest son started going to preschool, I have been adjusting to the fact that he has a life away from me, in a world I cannot control, and faces things that he doesn't always know how to handle. I say 'have been adjusting' because even though he's nine years old, I'm still not totally there. Often, I'll put it out of my mind, and when I ask him about the highs and lows of his days and listen intently to his answers, I take them at face value and tell myself all is fine.

But recently, I have seen or learned of this other life he lives, this life among his peers, and I'm fighting hard not to get too worried about him. The last thing I want is for him to be a mama's boy, although I can't guarantee he's not kind of close right now. That said, and admitting that I have conveniently forgotten (blocked out?) most of my elementary and junior high school social experiences, today I watched my son in a social situation and suffered a flood of emotion and memories. It was all I could do to stay in my seat.

Helping out at an after school activity that involved my son and seven other boys, I was on the sidelines when the boys were told to pick a partner for the next activity. My son chose a boy with whom he shares a lot of interests and who he considers to be a good friend. The boy immediately said no, that he wanted to be someone else's partner, and chose another boy in the room. After the rest of the boys had paired up, a verbal tug-of-war ensued over this friend, and the other boy was paired with him. My son was told to wait for the remaining child, who was not in the room, to return and be his partner.

Flashbacks of being the last picked for dodge ball invaded my mind. Feelings of anguish over being rejected by a thought-to-be good friend welled up inside me. Watching my son become the default partner of the only boy who didn't have a choice--because he was not present--made me want to cry. I anxiously watched as the last boy entered the room, was told to pair off with my son, and the activity began.

It was a short activity, and all the boys were acting up, tired and antsy after a long day. And although my son didn't seem fazed by the situation that had transpired, and I didn't want to make more of it than it really may have been, I did want to give him the chance to talk about it if it had in fact bothered him. My gut told me that if he had really been disappointed, he wouldn't have let it show in front of his peers anyway.

Later this evening, I broached the subject. "Say, remember this afternoon when you picked John as a partner, and he wanted to be with someone else? How did it feel?" I asked. I sat on my hands to keep from biting my nails over the conversation, and watched his face for a sign of his own anguish at the memory. "It was fine. A good scout always has to be ready for whatever happens, so I just worked with Bob instead."

I don't know if this is evidence of my being a mushy, too-sensitive girl and my son being a typical, take-things-at-face-value boy, or if I'm just jaded by history and experience. Regardless, I exhaled, told him he did a good job of being flexible, and said a little, silent prayer that he would always be so optimistic and easy-going.

Like most parents, I understand that one day my children will leave me, and that my job is to do my best to prepare them for that day. They need to be able to handle themselves socially, professionally and financially in order to feel good and do well in the world. I remind myself of this daily as I force myself to sit back and watch them struggle, fighting the urge to step in and help them. For how else can they learn to be independent if they don't practice now? Of course, the answer is they can't.

So I tell myself that the struggling is good for them, that they are learning from it and growing up, and that each successful negotiation of a situation will make their lives little easier in the future. But a tiny piece of me still wonders if my own struggling will ever get any easier, and hopes I won't have to wait 20 years to find out the answer.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Life's Routines


We love them or we hate them, but they offer the stability that shapes our days and our lives. I'm talking about routines. Every day with leashed dog in tow, I walk my oldest boy to the school bus stop on the corner. And every day, as we wait and chat, our friend and neighbor joins us with his dog. Once the bus rolls out, my friend and I walk through the neighborhood discussing world events, daily happenings and everything in between.

This week, my friend's wife passed away. It was sudden and unexpected, and we are all still reeling from the shock of it. The day after her passing, I did not know what to expect while waiting at the bus stop, but my friend and his dog were there, ready to walk and talk. The walk went pretty well, and I was glad that he felt able to join me rather than withdrawing, as we can be apt to do in such instances.

As word of Mary's passing made its way through our neighborhood, the disbelief spread. Many did not know she had been sick; some had not seen my friend for some time, just because of the hubbub of life and their own routines. On the second day, we walked again and a strange thing happened. Our block, normally empty and quiet at 8:30am, was suddenly quite busy. Many neighbors who are usually off to work at this hour instead just happened to be out in their yards blowing leaves.

I didn't put two and two together at first, as we have had a lot of leaves fall in the last week or so. But by the time we reached the third person on their lawn, leaf blower blaring so loud that my friend and I could not hear each other, I realized what was going on. As my friend and I came within sight of these neighbors, the leaf blowers were turned off and my friend was approached. It was as if everyone had been trying to find some reason to be outside that day, doing 'necessary' tasks, but with one eye on the road for my friend so that they could offer condolences.

It could just be a coincidence. And before this, I would never have considered leaf blowers to be effective communication tools. But this week, they eased the way for those so concerned for my friend, and gave them a way to reach out to him without overwhelming him. They didn't have to come knock on his door, or call at what might not be a very good time. Instead, our neighbors used their wits and their lawn tools to bridge the uncomfortable sadness, turning these morning meetings into something resembling fortuitous timing.

Transparent? Perhaps. But it allowed people to console my friend, respect his privacy and let him continue in his morning routine. It's true that routines can often feel like drudgery. Yet at times like these, their existence can help maintain a type of normalcy, becoming the little things that fuel us and help keep us going.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Healing



Although there is no sun in my kitchen, I have a shadow today. A big, furry shadow. I've spent quite a bit of time in the kitchen this morning making pancakes, chicken noodle soup, sandwiches and coffee. My dog has learned that when I am there--especially if I'm chopping vegetables--that I tend to be generous. He lingers. Not annoyingly, but just close enough to make his presence known and difficult to ignore. We have connected this way, through food.

When I was younger and I was stressed out, I would write. As I got into my 30s, cleaning would do the trick to relieve my angst. Now, though, anxiety drives me into the kitchen. Banana bread, vegetable risotto, chili, carrot soup, meatloaf, biscuits... nothing is off limits. If it's cool, I'll bake (the kids love my winter stress because it always means more cookies for them). If it's warmer, I'll do something different for dinner. And if we already have plenty of food for dinner, I'll cook for the freezer.

This week, I lost an uncle to cancer. It came as a surprise, as the updates we were getting from Tennessee seemed to indicate that he was improving. I immediately began looking up flights, talking to my parents about hotels and arranging for the children's schedules while I'd be gone for the funeral.

But it didn't work out that way. As any mother knows, you can be very organized and tend to all of the details, but sometimes that is not enough. My husband, who would have had to care for the children for the days I'd be gone, had a schedule that could not allow it to happen. I changed my research to flowers and food baskets, and sent them in lieu of myself in a feeble hope that my sentiments would be felt despite my absence.

I was resigned to the situation and kept in touch with family during the week as they travelled and condoled. But something in me remained unsettled. I needed to be there for someone, and I couldn't. I needed to hug my aunt and my father, to tell them how sorry I am, but it was impossible. The result was a burst of cooking fervor.

Out came the cookbooks, pots and ingredients. I began baking breads for my children. On the stove simmered a pot of chili for a neighbor whose wife is in the hospital. Next to it bubbled several quarts of chicken noodle soup. For whom, I do not know. But I had to make it. I had to be ready to offer it, to nurture someone with it, to give. It was my way of reaching out and connecting, of resolving the gap between the grief I couldn't share and the comfort I couldn't offer.

For decades, physicists have studied general relativity and quantum mechanics, all the while searching for the mathematical language, or common syntax, that will unify them. It is an ongoing quest to explain how big things, like planets and stars, and tiny things, like particles, are all connected. They continue to seek the link to this day.

This week, cooking became the common syntax for me, the bridge by which I sought to cross from emptiness to fulfillment. My aim was to ease my aching heart, and the hearts of those whom I could not reach, by caring for those I could. I will probably never know if the positive energy I put into my little dishes somehow wafted into the great space that surrounds us all, if it somehow reached and embraced my loved ones. All I can do is carry on, continue to cook, and hope that for some--and eventually for me--it will be enough.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Seasons of Renewal


I once dated a man who was very nice, very smart and very kind. But I knew it would never work out between us as soon as he told me his favorite season was spring. Actually, that's not true. That wasn't a deal breaker. But when I said my favorite season was autumn and he declared that he hated autumn--the season of mildew and everything dying--I crossed him off my list.

Perhaps he was too literal, a soul who reveled in the promise of new life each year, of blooming beauty and a fresh start. Who of us doesn't enjoy spring? Even as an allergy sufferer, at the end of a long, cold, dark winter, I would rather see pollen pushers poking their heads up through the soil than more swirling snow. As I thought about it further--the coming summer, sunny days and warm weather, beach visits and bike rides--I realized that spring really did signal the beginning of my favorite type of events.

This is a reflection, I imagine, of my lack of long-term vision. Yes, autumn is the prelude to winter, with its shorter days, colder nights, driveway shoveling and high heating bills. But I choose instead to make the most of my short-sightedness in this case. Cooler weather means a new school year and all the promise that it brings. It's the intro to a season of soups and stews, pies and cookies, all the baking that its too hot to do in the summer. Fuzzy sweaters and soft corduroy pants come out of storage, and comforters are thrown across the beds. Cuddling under blankets with popcorn and hot chocolate with mini marshmallows is a favorite pastime with the kids, especially with all the school holidays that come in autumn. The fireplace can get a good cleaning, and the woodpile gets re-stacked with pine cones and cinnamon sticks. Let the hunkering down begin.

I suppose autumn is, for me, a sort of nesting period. In spring and summer, we open windows and increase our outings, enroll in camps and tasks that keep us out, away from each other and always on the move. So in autumn, when the cool air and school responsibilities bring us back together, back to home, it's a bit like preparing for the birth of a new baby. The house is made ready, the pantry is stocked and the windows pulled closed.

To me, autumn is the preparation for family togetherness. Soon Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons will call the rest of our extended family together. When they do, we will renew ourselves in each others' company, with all of the comforts and warmth of good food and the richness of each season's meaning. And by the middle of winter, we will be refreshed, ready to face the coldest months again.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

You Can Do It. I Can't Help.


One of the many lessons I am learning as a parent is how to give up control. Of course, it starts as soon as the baby is born, when you relinquish every measurable, intentional movement you routinely make in life and give yourself over to this new and mysterious being. Had a tough day and need a good night's sleep? That's nice, but I'm hungry. Get up and feed me. Need to run to the grocery store and pick up something for dinner? Oh well, it's going to have to wait until after my nap. Feel like getting away for a romantic weekend at a B&B? Wait a few years until you're comfortable leaving me with a babysitter overnight. Want to kick back, read the paper and have a "veg out" day? Sorry, I'm in constant need of intellectual and emotional stimulation. It took me a couple of months, but I finally realized that once you have kids, your activity meter must forever stay in the "on" position, like it or not.

Maybe that's just me, but I feel like my kids are little sponges that I must forever be feeding, in some form or other, to keep them alive and thriving. Not that I want to become one of those parents who completely over schedules their children just so they can get into the "right" college. But when I see an opening, I grab it.

For example, Benjamin, who is soon to be six, has recently shown us that musical taste knows no minimum age, and is apparently genetic. Whereas Jacob and I enjoy the tunes of Mozart and the score from The Sound of Music, Ben can frequently be seen playing air guitar and tapping his feet to the music of The Who, or running to turn up Welcome To The Machine by Pink Floyd when it comes on the radio. The kid clearly has rock 'n' roll in his blood, and he didn't get it from me. But such a distinct interest! And at such a young age! How can I let this go untouched?

At my suggestion, my parents have bought Ben a guitar for his birthday. (Fortunately, he's too young to read my blog just yet, so I'm not spoiling the surprise). And while Jacob recently started piano lessons, and I have been helping him with finger placement, hand positioning and rhythm, it is because I can. Nine years of piano lessons left me with a residue of musical knowledge and appreciation, if no lasting skill. But the guitar? A complete mystery to me. A bunch of little grids and dots on the page, even the music looks strange. So Ben has the interest, and now the instrument. In the immortal words of Bloat from Finding Nemo, "Now what?"

I'm trying not to fret about it, pun completely intended, but I want to maximize the novelty of his new instrument. I want to give him some skills and knowledge so that he can start to take advantage of his interest and explore his musical abilities. Part of me feels that lessons are not really the way to go. He's so young, and hasn't said outright, "I want to learn how to play the guitar." But at the same time, I can't help him. I don't know how to show him basic chords or melodies. Heck, I don't even know if he's a lefty yet (good thing we didn't go for the electric guitar). So seeing the interest and acting on it is all I can do right now.

Perhaps this is a good thing. Too much structure and guidance might have just the opposite effect. Maybe if I just give him the tuned guitar and let him explore it on his own, his interest and curiosity will grow. Maybe it will raise questions and desires in him that hovering and instruction would not. Ben is a hands-on kind of learner, and this is a perfect opportunity to let him do just that.

Maybe, just maybe, my not helping him will be the best help I can give him.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Filling In the Blanks

I am not much of a picture taker which, sadly, will mean that there will be no play-by-play sequence of photos or videos of my sons' young lives when they are grown. To compound things, I am like most parents in my inability to mentally retain details long after they have become irrelevant to my life (how many ounces of formula per bottle? What should the bath temperature be? At what weight and age do we adjust the car seats?).

Somehow, though, this acceptance of letting little details slip away has expanded to the rest of my brain. So when people ask me how old my children were when they got their first teeth or took their first steps, and what their first words were, I have to excuse myself and head for the ladies' room. To say I don't remember would be the same as admitting these things are too unimportant for their mother--their mother!--to remember. What kind of mother does that make me?

I am currently reading a book that involves an older teen who is shot while volunteering for a homeless shelter where his aunt is employed. The teen is an all-around star: soft spoken but bright, compassionate and sincere, helpful and kind. Essentially, he embodies all those things we dream our children will one day be. This enhances the tragedy of the story when he is lying comatose in a hospital bed, family and friends drifting in and out endlessly to sit with him amidst the beeps and whirrs of machines keeping him alive.

As his mother, and later his aunt, sit with him, they whisper stories in his ear. "Remember when we went skiing and you beat me in a race down the bunny hill, even though it was only your second time on skis ever?" "Remember that time when your dog was a puppy and we fed him so many Oreos that he puked all over the new rug your mom had just bought, and we cleaned it up so fast and well that she never found out?" That kind of stuff. It's a great method for providing some otherwise unrelated backstory of the lives of the characters, and I couldn't help smiling at the level of details in each reminiscence, and the pictures that the words created.

How many of those stories do have in my head from my sons' lives? I began to ask myself. Granted, it was 11:30 at night and my sons have had merely a fraction of the years and experiences of the boy in the story. But still. As I lay there trying to remember funny, silly, strange, sad stories in my boys' lives, I was all but brought to tears when I realized how few I could come up with. What is a Teflon brained mother to do?

I write. My saving grace has been that since the children were born, I have been writing about them on some sort of blog. It is where I make sense of and revel in their experiences and growth, and record what each of these experiences has done to me. More than just helping me remember as I read through the hundreds of posts and pages, the words help me relive all of the moments--both magical and mundane--that have made up my children's short lives. Moved to laughter, cringes and tears, I see them growing up again and again on these pages.

I tell myself this is better than snapshots: those albums with scattered pictures of this celebration or that holiday show us who was there, but not what they were feeling. What happened to make Jacob look so solemn at his first birthday party? Why does Benjamin have that big bump on his head in this Halloween picture? These are things neither my memory nor a moment-in-time photograph can answer.

Recording history is important. We are all shaped by our experiences, and being able to refer back to them is both necessary (lest we repeat our mistakes) and enlightening. Someday, maybe even my sons will be interested in reading their mother's version of their life stories.

So no, I may not be able to tell you Benjamin's first word or where we were when he said it. I might not recall exactly how old Jacob was when he began using sign language, or the first book he read by himself. But when the party is over and everyone has gone home, I can go look these things up if I really want to. And chances are, even after I find the answer I'm looking for, I will "live" out the rest of the year that it happened, enjoying the ride of early parenthood again and again through words. And though the details of their little faces and limbs may be fuzzy in my mind, the shapes of their growing spirits and personalities are illuminated.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Feel the Rhythm


There was a part of me that worried about taking a vacation right before school was to start. Two weeks of ultimate relaxation, sleeping late, lazy days and sunny beach visits are sure to wind the kids down instead of up. Won't it be impossible to get them into some sort of routine for school, music and extracurricular activities after such idleness?

The answer remains to be seen, but after two days at the beach with Ben, I'm not very worried. Some people are drawn to the coast, to oceans and waves, warmth and sand. Ben, who never stops moving--even in his sleep--did not strike me as one of those people. Even at almost six years old, he cannot sit still for long. His mind is always moving, his body not far behind. In the airport, he ran and spun and did pull-ups on dad's arm. On the airplane, he wiggled, squiggled and squirmed, standing and sitting beneath his loosened seat belt. How could such a child relax enough to enjoy the tranquility of a beach?

Ben's circadian rhythm has him up at the same time every morning and ready for sleep at the same time every night, regardless of what the day brings. He seems to physically anticipate the time changes in spring and fall; his schedule shifts before the clocks do, and he is antsy until his time and his world's are aligned again. But it wasn't until the moment when Ben met the ocean that I realized what I had been missing.

As we looked out to the school of dolphins swimming beyond the shore, and watched the waves roll in one after the other, it clicked: Ben's body is as constant and reliable as the tide. The waves are always moving; their rhythm pulled by the moon, something bigger and more powerful than they. It is a part of their beauty and what we find so calming about them. So it was no wonder that Ben was drawn to the waves. He spent hours running alongside them, jumping over them splashing back at them. He wants to go right to the beach when he wakes up, and is reluctant to leave them for lunch. And he sleeps for 12 hours straight at night.

For the adults, a trip to the ocean is a vacation, a way to escape the humdrum details and daily stresses of life. But for Ben, it seems, the beach is more than just a fun new place to go, and a way to spend time with his grandparents. I have a feeling that when he is older and looks back on these trips, he will think of them not as vacations, but as times of coming home. He seems to feel secure, even in this strange house with new smells and sights, different foods and routines. Perhaps it's because he is in a house full of the people he loves. But more than that, I think it's because he knows that, right across the street, he can stand at the ocean and connect with something so much bigger than himself, yet so very much the same.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Variations

Today I realized that, though I am a non-fiction writer, I am a creative reader and thinker. By creative I mean, well, fiction. The what-if; the could-have-beens; the change-a-factor-and-see-what-happens kind of thinker. I can probably pinpoint the beginning of such thinking to when I first read Ray Bradbury's short story, "A Sound of Thunder." In the story, a trip back in time to the dinosaur era, and the accidental killing of a single butterfly, causes a time paradox: this tiny alteration ultimately causes a domino effect of changes that carry into the future, all the way up to the year to which the travelers return.

Ever since then, I have loved the idea of the possible. What if I had taken that job in the bank instead of at the art college, where I began my journey toward becoming a writer? What if my parents had bought that apartment in co-op city instead of the house in Westchester in which to raise me? What if I had decided not to go to the restaurant with co-workers the night I met the man who would become my husband? The variations these choices could have made on my life are mind-boggling.

The interest in the topic has led me to read a series of variations on my favorite book, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (good) and also causes me to contrive horrible potential scenarios anytime my children undertake any kind of adventure, such as a class trip (bad). But overall, I have decided that such musings on what could be are just the kind of thinking I want to pass on to my children.

Giving the next generation the ability to see the best in people, to imagine the rosiest outcome and to see the great things they can achieve with the right attitude is giving them a gift. I'm not talking about being unrealistic or overly optimistic: I'm talking about teaching them how to imagine all the different ways an encounter, an opportunity or a situation could unfold, and the power that they hold to affect those possibilities. How will this person react if I smile at them instead of frowning? What emotions will fill the child who receives this toy I am donating? How much better will my street look if I pick up all of the litter I see on it, and how will it better the Earth? And best of all, how will it make me feel to do these things?

The one thing children crave, from the time they are infants right through their teenage years and even into adulthood (don't deny it--you crave it too), is control over their world. Making a difference is something we all want to do, beginning on a small scale when we are young and expanding to the world at large when we are older. Seeing the impact we make--and feeling good about it--is what makes life worth living. The earlier we can teach our children how to make positive impressions in the world, by showing them their options and illustrating the potential outcomes, the better their worlds--and ours--will be. Just imagine the possibilities!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

First Times

There's something magical about firsts. Your first kiss. Your first apartment. Your first plane trip. Your first child. I'm still convinced that the anticipation and fear of doing something for the first time is as important as actually doing it. There is a wonder, an excitement and an air of mystery that precedes those turning points in our lives. But more than that, it is a state of being--of naiveté--that is ultimately lost through those very experiences; a stage that we later look back on with feelings of nostalgia, those sweet days of youth and the process of 'becoming.' For, of all of the experiences that will shape us into who we will become, aren't these the most memorable?

This weekend, we had our first overnight camping trip as a family. Laugh if you like, but it was surprisingly moving for me, for a few reasons. First of all, I am not an outdoor person by any means, and truly believe I was a house cat in a former life. A book, a bed, a cup of coffee and some music are all I need to make me happy, none of which is found in the wild. I despise bugs, am always cold (even indoors) and humidity makes my hair frizz. Truly, in the raising of children, nature is my husband's department. Secondly, I know my son Ben well and was convinced that he would not sleep all night. He moves around constantly in bed at home, is a very light sleeper and, when overtired, has to cry himself to sleep. For these reasons alone, a four-person tent in the woods overnight did not sound like my idea of a good time.

So I spent the day emotionally preparing myself. I asked my neighbors to walk the dog for us while we were gone, and I did minimal work to wean myself from my computer, so I wouldn't stress over being away from it for 18 hours. I packed a book and a reading light. I brought my iced coffee. The cub scout pack was going to provide food and games, and the boys were excited, so I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.

One scavenger hunt, one barbecue, one snapping turtle sighting, two caught fish, one Indian ceremony, three latrine visits and one campfire later, it was 10:15pm. After Jacob conked out and Ben cried himself to sleep next to me, I laid on the hard ground looking up at the full moon wondering how *I* was going to sleep. But the next thing I knew, it was 6:15am, and Ben was saying to my face, "Mom, did you know that dying is worse than throwing up?" and then launching into a well-thought out explanation of why.

Sugared cereal for breakfast--that we never get at home--and all the other cub scouts ready to play 'hunters and horses' and climb on the rocks made the morning even more memorable. The car was packed and ready to go by 8:00, but no one wanted to leave.

Years ago, I would have worried over whether we should take the boys camping at this age, or whether it would be too hard on them to be up so late, too much work, too cold, too scary, too something. But I have learned that, like every other first experience, it's going to happen sometime. First times are part of the growing process. As long as we know we are ready for them, and have planned well, the memories they create will be greater than any misgivings that may precede them. And that nervous anticipation? Embrace it--it's all part of the journey.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Let It Flow

Five-year-old Ben is becoming quite an entertaining fellow. His sense of humor is coming through more and more often, and his talent for making his father and me laugh out loud is growing daily. Comments like, "Dad, this isn't a Butterfinger ice cream, because I haven't dropped it" shows me that his brain is in constant motion.

One of my favorite things to do is give my kids a riddle, math problem or pun and then sit back and watch them. I can almost see the wheels working inside, and the best part is always the light in their eyes and the smiles on their faces when they figure out the answer or get the joke.

In this world where kids are spending more than 20 hours a week watching television or playing video games, and the cases of obesity, diabetes and high cholesterol levels in children are rising, one thing all of the experts are saying is, "let them be kids." This new generation--offspring of overworked parents--is under-rested, over-stimulated and over-scheduled. I'd be interested in seeing a study of how many kids lie in the grass on a regular basis and figure out what shapes the clouds are making in the blue summer sky above their heads.

As time-pressed parents become pulled in more and more directions, of course we are going to seek out entertaining ways for our kids to spend time and enjoy themselves. But maybe instead of cutting corners on the type of activities we offer them, we should be cutting out some of the things that demand so much of our time be spent away from them.

The other day, as we were riding in the car, it got quiet in the back seat. I figured both boys were reading, until I looked in the rear view mirror and saw Ben just sort of staring off into space.

"Mom? I have a question."

"Yes, Ben?"

"How come, when we're just relaxing, our brain keeps thinking about all different kinds of things?"

I was blown away, and told him what an excellent question that was. I explained that our brains are always working, whether we're reading, working in school, playing a game or even sleeping (that's where dreams come from). And that got me thinking about how very important it is to make sure our kids HAVE the time to 'just relax', to let their minds wander off to unknown places and follow a thought to another thought and another. This unstructured freedom is the spring from which our imagination flows, and how children make sense of their world. It's the kind of thing they won't learn in a textbook, and I'm pretty sure they haven't invented a video game of it either.

Ben's recent jokes, comments and games show me that he is letting his thoughts flow freely, just as I did during the summers when I was a kid. As far as I'm concerned, my most important job as a parent is not to make sure I have enough money to buy my kids everything they want. It is to keep the pace of our lives slow enough that they can have these moments of relaxation, and the satisfaction that imagination and reflection brings, without ever running out of time.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Artist in All of Us


I learned today that there are certain portions of my brain that are just plain mush. I never use them, so trying to get them up and running is like spending 40 years lying non-stop in bed, and then trying to jump up and go jogging. Ouch.

One would think that I have the capacity to do what was asked of me: my 8-year-old asked me to play LEGOs with him. One would be wrong. Jacob has about 9,000 of these bricks, and is forever playing with them, building ships, planes, guns, forts, you name it. The other day he built a LEGO version of the robot Wall-E that we had just seen in the movie, and it was a really good representation. My son explained to me how he does it. He gets an idea for something, pictures it in his head, and then sets out to recreate it in a drawing or painting or, more often, with these little blocks. He's 8. How hard could it be for me to do some similar creating?

Pretty hard, as it turned out. What's funny is, it sounded remarkably like what I do with words. I am a builder, I figured, I just use words as my bricks. I'll take an idea, play with it, write it out, mold it, shape it and usually end up with a pretty fine piece of writing when I'm done. I can even hear a song in my head and recreate the melody on the piano. But words and music require a different lobe than paints or bricks. LEGOs are all about visual relationships and spacial coordination; indeed, there is an art to it.

What I learned is that, if I envision a place or an object, building it out of little plastic pieces is just not going to happen in a way of which I'll be proud. I gave it a go today, building something small in a very rough and clumsy manner, and I was happy that no one was watching but my son (who offered tips on how to make it better).

But what I also realized is that, regardless of the process or medium, I love these moments of learning from my children. It's not just about seeing their strengths shine through though; it's about their willingness to bring me into their world and teach me what they know, with love and patience. I may not be very good at building things out of LEGO bricks, but hopefully I'm doing an OK job of building some fine young men.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

It's Always Something

Remember being five? I remember loving being five. I had soft leather Mary Janes that were a deep maroon and I wore them everywhere. I taught myself how to read and tie my shoes (and surprised mom). Kindergarten rocked and I was friends with everyone.

The biggest thing I remember about being five is NOT being at all conscious of my body. It was all about experience, learning and socializing, as it should be.

This is key because I am trying to help my five-year-old this week as he has lost this magical ability to have out-of-body experiences. Two weeks ago, Ben had allergies and was congested. The congestion was followed by an ear infection (as it so often is with him). This led to a course of yucky tasting antibiotics which, after a week, was thankfully gone with the ear infection. But two days later, he started getting itchy and upon closer inspection I found him to be covered with hives. When I say covered, I mean they were just all over his little body.

Lo and behold, a Sunday morning doctor visit (because don't these things always show up in the middle of the night on Saturday?) revealed that he is not only allergic to penicillin (which we knew) but now allergic to cefdinir as well. Oatmeal baths; Benadryl; cool cloths; give it a week. Right.

Clearly the doctor has forgotten what it is to be five. This week, Ben has been the most physically challenged as he has ever been in his short life. He can't sleep. He's constantly itching. His eyes are swollen. He hates the medicine. He hates the baths. And through it all, his parents, big brother, grandparents and counselors keep telling him, "don't scratch." Are you freaking kidding me?

I am not lying when I say Ben has been a model and truly inspirational example of self-control. He isn't whining, he's really trying not to scratch, and is grudgingly taking his medicine every four hours. And I'm repeatedly telling him what a great job he's doing.

But as amazing as he is, I am still sad, because this week I have been missing his smile. When I picked him up from camp yesterday, he sat in the back seat wide-eyed, brow slightly furrowed, mouth set in a straight line and just looked at me. He wasn't scratching, he wasn't talking. He looked a bit sleepy, but said nothing. For Ben to be saying nothing, especially after the first day of camp, speaks volumes. He may be dealing with his lot in life right now, but it's changing him.

I can only hope that by being supportive and encouraging, helping to ease the symptoms and giving him lots of hugs that I am helping him. Maybe, if he ends up on the therapist's couch in 20 years, this will be one traumatic life event that he won't attribute to me. But more than anything, I hope this whole thing passes quickly, and isn't followed by some OTHER ailment. I hope within a few days, Ben will be once more out of his body and smiling, a happy five-year-old again.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Baby laughs

Oh my gosh, remember these days of heart-warming hysterics? This is great whenever I need a boost!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Clearing

I can't describe the comfort I take when seeing what a true friend is made of. The most recent example of this was watching a dear friend wielding an axe, going whole-heartedly at a stubborn, hard-wooded shrub with multiple roots in my yard. This shrub had been there for over 10 years, its roots and stems twisting and intertwining with each other until they were solidly tangled. The bane of my horticultural home owner's existence, it's been on my list for removal for years, but remained because I couldn't even imagine where to begin.

After a brief discussion one day, my friend arrived at my door with gloves, saws and an axe, and we proceeded to go at the tree until we won. I say we won because the damn thing fought back with its whip-like branches, scratchy needles and a hidden bed of poison ivy beneath it that we found the hard way.

When all was said and done, I had a pile of redwood cedar for burning, a clear view of my driveway from my front door, and a big planting bed in one of the few sunny spots in my yard. It is an open space to sow something new, for beauty or nourishment, filled with moist, healthy soil and etched by smooth stones.

What I loved most about the day, though, was not the sense of accomplishment we gained when this once-insurmountable (to me) job was completed. Rather, it was seeing my friend in a deeper sense. Metaphorically, her arriving to help me with my problem, staying on until the job was done, and repeatedly whacking away at the issue, piece by piece, was illuminating. As together we slowly removed one of my life's miseries, I saw her for the friend she really is: one who is unafraid to stand by my side and help me pull away painful elements of my life when I cannot do it alone, ripping them free from the tangles of long history. Getting rid of the bad, that which we no longer need, clears the way for new and better things to take root.

Call it therapy, or just plain loyalty. While it may sound corny, this is what friendship is all about. Connecting, helping, respecting and caring. I don't have a big circle of friends, but the ones I have are more valuable to me than I can put into words. I believe this is why we were put here on Earth: to help each other through the rough spots so that we can become the best we can be, and to make our life's journey as good and rich as it can be.

Monday, June 9, 2008

The Good, The Bad and the Germy

You've gotta love sick kids. Not because they wake you up in the middle of a summer night hot and feverish, wanting to sleep in your bed. Not because they are whiny and clingy all day long. Not because they vomit only during the hours of 2 and 5am and create more laundry by morning that you can create in a week on your own. While all these things are true, they are hardly lovable. They are also why you don't see classified ads posted by women wanting to fill the job of "mom" on bulletin boards at the supermarket or in the newspapers.

No, the thing about sick kids is that they require you to drop everything. I used to believe that was awful when I had deadlines, errands and a seemingly insurmountable to-do list, and I needed every available second to complete them while the children were in school. I used to get upset, frustrated and thrown when one of my kids woke up sick in the morning. I'd let it ruin my whole day. But something's changed.

Maybe it's me who's changed. Maybe it's because my schedule (other than caring for the kids) is no longer as pressing. Maybe it's having the same kid get sick three times in six weeks. Maybe it's hearing Ben, the kid who'll try any and every kind of food and is always ready to eat, tell me he's not hungry. Maybe it's watching him lay flushed and listless on the couch, no energy or interest in anything, and not hearing him say, "Mom, I have a question..." every 90 seconds. Or maybe it's some combination of those things that made me go "whoa. Time to slow down."

Whatever caused it, here I am, the stink of my screeching tires making me heady and filling me with worrisome thoughts about why Ben has been sick so often. The boy has a stronger constitution than his brother and me put together. Before this spring, I could count on one hand the number of times he'd been sick in his life. So what's going on?

I am a worrier by nature, a true "what if?" kind of person, but I'm doing my best to believe this is not something bigger than what it appears to be. Maybe it's because I'm spending so much time with him, in the moment and by his side, that I'm comforted in that idea. Or maybe I'm in denial and know I'll function better dealing with the here and now instead of the possible-down-the-road. Whatever it is, I've pushed negative thoughts to the background, at least for today.

What I *do* know is that building racetracks, playing cards, eating soup and watching cartoons with Ben while he's home sick is the most fun I've had in a while. His fever takes his 'edge' off, and rather than bouncing off the furniture, he's curled by my side. Having him slow down has helped me to do the same, and enjoy every breath with him. What's not to love about that?

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Animal Magnetism

They're here again: the children of the neighbors across the street, the next door neighbors' dog. They are drawn to our house, the yard, the playroom, something. The children always want to play here; the dog, well, he just wants to come in and see what's what. Where does our dog sleep? What does it look like upstairs? Where do we keep our kitchen? What does it smell like? Who knows what goes through his mind?

Every neighborhood has a house like ours. When I was growing up, it was my house. The kid with the alcoholic father; the kids who lived with their step-mother; the kids whose mom lived alone, they always seemed to want to hang at our house. I knew it wasn't our cool toys that brought them. We had no playroom, an unfinished basement, and only seven channels on the 13" television. Boys were not allowed in my room, and girls were not allowed in my brother's. The yard was small, fenced and full of dog poop, and we didn't have "the cool parents" by any stretch of the imagination. My mom worked in the church, my dad was a cop, and just to tighten security measures, my uncle the narc lived next door in our two-family home, with my lovely, artist aunt, their Eagle Scout son and his brothers. I vividly remember my sweet 16 birthday party for two reasons: it was the first birthday party I'd ever had with friends instead of family, and nothing memorable/interesting/illegal/ immoral/unsanitary/embarrassing or noteworthy happened. And yes, it was a co-ed party.

So what was it about our home that called to the masses? Perhaps it was the security of a double family unit in one house. Maybe it was the lovable dogs, or the rowdy laughter than always seemed to emanate from our yard. By this I mean either the laughter of us climbing trees and chasing each other, or my extended family gathered for frequent barbecues to celebrate every birthday, anniversary, holiday and commemorative event that occurred. When I look back now, through rosy, nostalgic glasses, we were a very loving bunch. There were always relatives around: cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles. But I think what was most memorable were the cooking smells, since we were forever cooking something. My aunt's famous Italian gravy; burgers and steaks on the backyard grill; Armenian flatbread meat pies and Turkish coffee in our kitchen; something was always wafting from the windows, depending on which side of the family was visiting.

Yet I don't think that's what's drawing the crowd to my house. I don't cook much. The occasional meatloaf, cupcakes for school, that's pretty much my limit, unless one of the kids is having a playdate. Then I'll whip up a batch of homemade chocolate chip cookies, but it's not often and it's just for show.

No, I'd have to say it's the consistency: the light that's always on, someone always home to answer the door or the phone when help is needed, that brings them here. I'm always at the bus stop when all the kids come home. I'm always out walking the dog when the neighbors are out walking theirs. I'm a constant, an unwavering presence in these days of working parents and not knowing your neighbors. When I was growing up, we took comfort in the security that such a house offered. Maybe some things never change.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Nibble Quirks

You don't need to ask my mother about what a terrible eater I was as a child. I have no problem owning up to it, if only to help explain why my son Jacob is the way he is. Like musical genius or a brilliant way with words, picky eating is apparently genetic.

When I was young, I wanted nothing but the solitude of my room (so that I could read and write) and, when I had to come to the table, bread and milk. No vegetables, no fruit, no meat; my needs were simple. I would have made a great prisoner.

Jacob is the child my mother always wished upon me during mealtimes, mumbling as she set the timer for me, ostensibly giving me a deadline by which to finish my meal or go to bed. These were the meals I often finished alone, after the sun had set, the dishes had been washed and the rest of the family had retired to the living room to watch M*A*S*H. Jacob is the offspring I was to her, the one whose job it is to put me through the hell of worry over whether he is getting the nutrition he needs, whether he's got an eating disorder, whether he's going to turn out to be only five feet tall. Though she'll never say it, surely she's thinking, "it serves her right."

Ben, on the other hand, looks exactly like me, but that is where the similarities between us end. One of Ben's favorite statements as a baby was, "Mom, what's dat? I eat dat!" He has tried everything from arugula salad to yellowfin tuna (cooked and raw), and prefers steamed mussels to chicken nuggets. Eschewing all forms of processed "kiddie" food, he is the child who will clean his own plate and then ask to eat from mine. He is his father's son, without question or limitation.

Aside from food jags, which we are thankfully pretty much past, I actually enjoy watching the bizarre ways my kids go at food. Benjamin likes to eat raw carrots from the fat end to the skinny. They both prefer small pancakes so that they can boast that they each ate 21 of them for breakfast. And Ben will only eat string beans by opening the hull and pouring out the individual beans, then popping them like M&Ms. If Jacob's steak has even a shadow on it that resembles fat, it will not touch his lips, though he will eat miso soup, made from seaweed and tofu, as well as various kinds of raw fish sushi. But forget about giving him a grape because, he says, "the insides look like boogers." How do you reason with that kind of logic? "Just try a bite" doesn't fly in my house, because if it looks like a booger, he figures, I don't need to try it to know I won't like it.

My hope is that we can expand Jacob's palate by getting him to start making some meals for the family, beyond opening a jar of Ragu and adding fresh basil to it. Since Ben is up for anything edible, he's sure to go along with the kitchen staff change without argument, and will probably sign up as sous chef. In fact, I am looking forward to the day when we incorporate family game night into family sushi night, and roll our own sushi. I can just hear them now.

"Mom, how do you spell 'wasabi'?"

"W-a-s-a-b-i. And when you're done with it, pass it down this way. Oh, and don't forget the soy sauce."

Sure, their friends might think that sushi and Scrabble sound kind of quirky, but hey, we're expanding palates and vocabularies. What's not to like? If that makes us a quirky family, I'm all over it.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Seasonal Shifts

In my suburban New York yard this morning, as we walked past the thermometer on our way to the bus, it read 39 degrees Farenheit. As Ben pointed out, "if it was seven degrees colder, it could SNOW!" Fast forward to meeting the afternoon bus, and it is now 80 degrees in the shade. Welcome, spring.

For as often as I gripe about the bitterness of New York winters, and point out to my husband that his is a global company, and I can write from anywhere (even California, hint, hint), I know that if I were ever to move to the desert or even the south, I would miss the changing of the seasons. In a sadistic sort of way, I like the potential for bizarre variations in temperatures between morning and afternoon, the kind of variations that only come with these seasonal shifts. Winter in the morning, summer in the evening--where else can you get such diversity but in New York?

Of course, my plants are very confused, I'm never really sure when the threat of frost is past, and my kids are layered like onions when they leave for school each day. Jacob actually owns pants that have zippers mid-leg. He leaves in long pants, and returns in shorts at the end of the day. Quite ingenious, actually, and likely invented by a New York mother.

But I think the real reason I love the season changes is my belief in the need to mix things up every now and then. It keeps us from getting into ruts; it keeps things interesting. After months of "here's your hat, here are your mittens," we have, "What's the temperature today?" "Short sleeves or long?" and "Sweatshirt or jacket?" It's Mother Nature's guessing game, and anyone can play. May also makes it more likely that we'll have sun, and one can practically feel the temperature rising on the short walk from the driveway to the bus stop. Seasonal transistions signify the great unknowing, and they always makes me smile.

Sure, we could move somewhere where it's warm all the time, where the sun is almost always guaranteed to shine, and I could get rid of my turtlenecks and wool sweaters. But I would miss the autumn most, when the days begin to shorten, the air turns crisp and clear, and the excitement of a new school year is bursting like spring flower buds. Besides, I'm just getting good enough at throwing snowballs that my kids want me on their team. What California mom can claim that talent?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

This Odd Universe

In another vein of the irony post, I realized today that I don't like to cook. Not that I won't, not that I don't. We've all got to eat, and when you have kids, you have to cook since (I've read) the law frowns on giving birth to children and then not giving them nourishment enough to sustain them. So I cook, but I pretty much hate to do it.

For this reason, every afternoon, pre school bus and post lunch/work time, I get a sinking feeling in my stomach. What to make for dinner for four people? Do I have to defrost something? What do we have that's defrostable in the microwave, and will everyone eat it? What dish can I make that is quick and of minimal effort? I could probably learn a lot from Rachael Ray, but she's just so damned annoying that I can't stand to watch her. So I'm on my own. Every day.

I used to be able to make pasta once a week. That was my favorite thing to make. What could be easier than boiling water? Plus, everyone ate it, so I only had to make one meal. None of this, "I don't like meatloaf," or "why does he get the last hot dog?" and doing something different for everyone, based on tastes, how much of each leftover dish there is and what time I finally turned off my computer. But then came gymnastics classes. Conveniently, both boys go on the same night, one class after the other. I was lucky enough that they're also on the same day that my husband works from home, so we can switch off--one kid stays and does homework, I take the other up to class. Then my husband brings the second child up for class, takes the first one home and makes dinner. The one major kink in this plan is that the only thing it makes sense to make on these nights is pasta. It's quick, everyone eats it and it can sit until we walk in the door an hour after they eat. So there went my favorite dinner plan, right into the hands of my husband.

One might say, "well, he's a guy, so he probably needs such a dish if he's in charge of dinner." One would be wrong. Way wrong. My husband not only cooks circles around me, owns "The Joy of Cooking" and at least a dozen other cookbooks (I own two), and handles every big holiday dinner when we have 30 of my family members over, but he loves to cook. He wooed me with food when we were dating. Homecooked. He bought me one of my two cookbooks as a gift. He owns a smoker, a dehydrator (he just made beef jerky last week), a Le Creuset dutch oven and does all the grocery shopping. And every night, he flips around between Clint Eastwood movies, Top Chef, Lydia's Kitchen and Chef Anthony Bourdain's show on the Travel channel. If that's not irony, I don't know what is.

Ideally, my goal is to become so good at my writing, and land so many great paying jobs that my husband can quit his day job (which, of course, he is great at, but less than passionate--more irony) and stay home to be domestic dad. This is his dream too, which is nice, something that we actually have in common. Truthfully, we are a perfect match for each other. He is a domestic, I am a workaholic. The problem is he has to spend all his time at work, and I have to keep interrupting my work to do things like cook, clean and take care of the kids. The irony just never ends.

Yet what would life be without these little challenges? Puzzles like this cause us to work together, make plans, tag team and make it all happen. If our dream did come true, really, what would life be? Probably a lot happier for all of us, actually, but I won't dwell on that now, because the microwave just beeped. Ladies and gentlemen, dinner is served.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

My Addiction

Ah, irony. I don't know if my life holds more of it, or if I've just developed a better sense of seeing it in my old(er) age, but these days it seems to be everywhere. Today, for example, I have been trying to edit a book proposal for an agent who has asked to see it, and been constantly interrupted by my children. Of course, this is a parenting book I'm proposing, so the fact that it may never get out the door because my children are not listening to me is pretty ironic.

Actually, my kids are great. The problem is me. Since quitting my editing job all of a month ago, I have sold two articles to a national magazine, have a request for more queries, and have gotten this email from a literary agent asking to see my book proposal. I hate rain, but I love it when it pours like this. I love it so much, in fact, that I've been all but neglecting everything (including meals and sleep) for as long as possible this weekend to get in more writing than ever. It's not that I'm on tight deadlines. I realized my problem at 4:30 this morning when, after giving feverish Ben some cold water, I seriously considered getting up to write. When I decided that would be crazy, I instead continued to lie in bed and write and edit in my head for a good 45 minutes. That's when I realized: I have an addiction. I am addicted to writing.

They say the first step in fixing your problem is admitting that you have one, but what do you do when you don't *want* to fix it? What if you don't consider it a problem and are merely recognizing a personality trait that you hadn't really appreciated before? You would think that by age 41, I would have learned this much about myself, but no. The truth is that before now, I have never had the luxury of being able to write full-time, committing all my energies and efforts to furthering my writing career. There were high-paying computer jobs; a new house; new babies; editing jobs; more editing jobs; T-ball; Cub Scouts; gymnastics classes. There was always something that kept me too busy. Fear of failure preventing me from making the leap? Fear of success? A nice, balanced life? Who knows.

The fact is that, now that I'm writing and submitting and getting positive responses and more opportunities to write, I'm hooked. It's an unbelievable feeling to do something you love, and have loved for as long as you can remember, and suddenly be getting praises for it, *requests* for it. They want more! I get to write more!

The problem then becomes my focus. If you could do what you loved all day long instead of what you needed to do, or what you should be doing, which would you choose? OK, Mr. Responsibility, but which one would you WANT to choose? Ah ha. So it's not just me.

If we were just talking dirty dishes in the sink, laundry, running out of milk, this compulsion to write exclusive of everything else wouldn't be a problem. These things can be put off. Food can be ordered in. I work at home and could do it in my pjs. But feverish children, dogs with small bladders and other family members who aren't all that fond of takeout or water on their cereal are hard to ignore. Not that I want to ignore them. OK, maybe a little. OK, maybe just for a few days. Just until I get this proposal out. Oh, and my next pitch to that magazine. Yikes.

OK, I admit it. I have a problem. Fortunately, a dog with a small bladder gets me out of the house several times a day, making me realize, "hey! It's really nice out today! That sun feels great!" And hungry children who are too picky to eat anything but bagels and tomato soup make sure I get up and move around the house once in a while. And while the soup is simmering, maybe I'll just throw in a load of laundry. Oh, and fever boy? He whines so much less when I read him funny books. And he smells so good after a bath that I want to cuddle with him and read to him forever.

Maybe addiction is not my problem. Maybe what's come over me is passion, and that is what makes my life so rich these days. It is filled with people, work and events that I am passionate about with my whole being. Who couldn't love a life like mine? It's filled with everything I've ever wanted.

The problem, it seems, is finding a way to go without sleep so that I can enjoy all of them as much as possible. Hmmm. Maybe I'll do a little research. If I can find a way to go without sleep, I can write an article about it....

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Don't Plug the Dam

My boys are very different from each other, as first- and second-borns tend to be. Ben wears his heart on his sleeve; if he's not sharing every thought going through his mind with me, I overhear him talking them over with himself. Jacob, though, is a different bird. He will talk endlessly (and sometimes relentlessly) about the outside world: what he has built with his LEGOs today, what it does, who drives it, its mission, and so on. Or he will go on about an historical figure he's read about or learned about in school, right down to the person's hobbies and habits. But he never talks about himself.

This can be easy to overlook. Two busy boys, a husband and a dog require a lot of organizing and generate a lot of noise. When the chatter finally ceases, I am the first to grasp at that moment of silence and claim it for myself for as long as possible. But this can be a mistake, and here's why I think so: this week a 14-year-old boy from my county stepped in front of a train. He was not a loner; he had many friends and admirers who described him as funny, happy, kind. He lived in one of the most affluent towns in this area and attended one of the best schools. But he never told anyone he was despondent. Why? Did he think his family was too busy to listen? Did he not want to bring his friends down? Was he afraid no one could understand or help? Maybe no one ever asked.

It would be very easy for me to tell myself that Jacob is only 8, that his problems are not so big that he can't work them out, that he's a smart, happy kid who would tell me if something was wrong and he needed some input. But I'd be wrong. Tucking him in the other night, I started asking him about his friends, his day, his thoughts and was surprised when he became very upset, his voice between anger and tears, and he burst with a flood of emotional turmoil. "Susan told me that John was telling everyone on the bus that I'm a nerd on the day I wasn't there. Now if I have to get braces, combined with my glasses, I'm going to be the biggest nerd in school!" Whoa.

It's already starting, the stress and worries, and it seemed clear that this was something that had been stewing inside of him for some time. So he talked, and I listened. We considered, we brainstormed. Whether he was happy with the conversation's outcome, I don't know. Whether our ideas put his mind at ease, I'm not sure. But I got a huge hug, kiss and "I love you" before I left the room, and that speaks volumes.

My kids usually tell me they love me spontaneously, when we're doing something fun or silly, bizarre or unexpected (things that are very unlike my usual way of operating). My guess is these are the times when they feel the most relaxed. They are happy to be with me and see my human side for a change. I think these moments convince them that I'm not just a farty old disciplinarian; that I really do love them. That's what I think asking, and listening, did for Jacob. Yes, he may have problems to work through, and I might not have all the answers. But while he may be reluctant to bring them up, I care enough about him to ask. And regardless of what other people think of him, I will always love AND like him. He needs to know this. All of our children do.

While raising children is a big job, it's not just about feeding their faces, paying the bills and cleaning their clothes and the house. It's about filling an emotional need in them that no one but a parent can fill, and letting them know often that we care about them, in as many ways as possible. Cuddle them, read to them, tickle them, tell them jokes, play games with them and listen to them. It seems like such a little thing, a non-productive thing (but I've got to start dinner/walk the dog/rake the yard/call the plumber). But it is critical to them. It adds another layer to the bond between parent and child, ultimately proving to them that--no matter what--they can rely on its strength, and on us, to weather whatever may come.

By the time they are teens, our children will be listening more to their friends than to us. If we want them to know then that we are always here for them, we need to start showing them now. And if we repeat it often enough, by the time it really matters, they'll know it without asking.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Nourishing the Soul

When I was in my 20s, trying to figure out who I was and where I was going, my friends and I would explore ourselves, each other and the world over food. Going out for lunch, dinner, appys and drinks and frequent sushi rolls, we fed our bellies and our minds and burned it all off chugging along toward maturity and self-actualization.

When I was in my 30s my husband and I discovered ourselves, as a couple and as individuals, over food. Chinese soups, Japanese salads, Thai dumplings, Indian nan and even the experimental moose burger were all fair game. I was daring and bold, willing to venture into unchartered epicurian territory with the plushness of new love as my safety net.

Now in my 40s, in a place where I don't quite have it all figured out but have gotten pretty good at pretenting for the sake of my children, I continue to nurture my soul at table. Unlike some cultures that offer up food as the antidote to whatever ails you, my gatherings with girlfriends are ways for us to come together and bond, share, cry, vent, laugh and comiserate. Warm mugs of coffee, bowls of sweet, seasonal fruits and steaming breads with creamy butter melting create the homey backdrops for our meetings, infusing them with all the comforting elements we remember from our mothers' kitchens. Slipping into mornings like these is, while all too infrequent, one of the bright spots of my life now. Great friends are the family we can choose, and are as essential to my soul as food is to my body.

Who knows what lies ahead for any of us? We have reached a place in our lives where the challenges are different from anything we have ever known: friends with cancer; aging parents; teenage children; troubled marriages; deaths of family members. As young as we still feel, we find ourselves facing problems that once only plagued our elders. I don't know if I have the strength it will take to weather any of it gracefully. But there's no question in my mind that I will be able to get through it all with these friends by my side.

These women bring a beauty to my life, and a richness to its tapestry, that is immeasurable. My soul is nourished, and I am truly thankful.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Inadvertent Lessons

With schools removing soda machines and fried food from their cafeterias and upping the number of phys ed classes per week, it seems like the whole nation has gotten on the bandwagon of "send healthy messages" when it comes to raising kids. I liken it to smoking: since you can't smoke in public anywhere anymore, and cigarettes are not advertised on TV or radio, I wasn't too surprised when my 5-year-old, Ben, asked me one day, "Mom, what's a cigarette?" If kids are surrounded by healthy options and messages, they'll accept them as the norm, a lifestyle, and make healthy choices. Helping them understand how the different foods impact their bodies and behaviors also helps a lot. Ben knows that if he eats too much sugar, it makes him feel "wacky" (his term). This makes it easier for me to say no when he asks for a second cookie, because he understands that he will not like what it does to his body.

So I was thrown a bit off guard one day when I was sitting in the pediatrician's office with my boys and a mother walked in with her three children, checked in with the receptionist and then sat down in the waiting room and proceeded to take donuts out of a Dunkin’ Donuts bag and give one to each of her overweight children. I had to try hard not to stare. Isn’t that akin to walking into a police station and lighting a joint? Isn't a donut the most unhealthy thing you can feed your children? This seemed to me like an outright mocking of the doctor in whose office we were sitting, not to mention extreme hypocrisy. When my youngest pointed out with great excitement, "hey mom, they have donuts!" all I could say was, "yes, they do."

Maybe I'm going a bit over the top. Have I been brainwashed by all the legislation, modifications and constant messages we've been bombarded with lately about child obesity and the need for a shift in habits? Not completely. I let my kids eat a munchkin every now and then when we're out on a shopping trip. I guess what bothered me more was the fact that this mom knew she would be out with her kids at meal or snack time, and had a choice to pack a snack. Instead she chose to make a special stop on the way to the doctor's office to buy them donuts. More than the sugar and calories, this feeds the children multiple messages: you don't need to plan ahead, since there’s always some fast food place you can stop on your way to wherever you’re going; any snack is fine, as long as it takes away the hunger; staying healthy only involves going to the doctor on schedule every year and getting your shots--it has nothing to do with how you live your life.

In fact, the mom probably didn't think too much about it. Or maybe the kids made a special request. Either way, I've been there and know that we all have those days. But I've also learned that I feel better when I eat better. What I'm hoping is that the doctor in that office saw some evidence of their snack and brought up the topic when he or she was giving the kids their physicals. If it's only a matter of educating the family, it would have been a perfect place to start. And while it may be harder for mom to change her old habits, it will be better for the kids if they don't get into the same habit now.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Mom Song (one of my all time favorites!)

Long, Strange Trip

Back when I was newly married and working full-time, I wondered about my sister-in-law. She had two school-aged children and didn't work outside the home. “But what does she do all day?” I asked my husband. I just couldn’t figure out how she spent her time during the day, how she kept from going crazy with boredom. After all, the kids were in school and didn't need her, right?

Then late one recent night, I got it. In a tired-but-adrenaline-fueled stupor, I set up my computer to make a karaoke CD for my 8-year-old's upcoming variety show. Then I put in a load of laundry and laid out lunch bags for the following morning, steeped some tea while I washed the dishes, and sewed three Cub Scout patches on a uniform for the next day’s den meeting. After the CD was done, I went online and confirmed both my sons' gymnastics class schedules, signed one up for baseball and sent an email to a class mom about supplies for an in-class party. All the while, the dog paced around the kitchen looking at me like I was nuts, and I started to wonder if he knew something I didn’t. “What?” I asked him. “What did I forget?”

If anyone had bothered to ask me what I wanted to be when I was a child, I would probably have said, 'alone.' A relentless young reader and oft-engrossed writer, I grew happy leaving the administrivia of daily life on the back burner for someone else to pick up or not. This m.o. worked well until I fell under the spell of a funny, family-loving man and cast my earthly existence to the wind. When I landed some 10 years later, I found myself at the center of a whirlwind household full of bills, kids, animals and noise. Now I seek writing time more than I seek sleep, eat when I feel dizzy and spend the rest of my time as tutor, chef, referee, dog walker, maid and animal feeder. Earplugs help.

While it's not the life I would have imagined for myself all those years ago, it is full of rewards and joys I could neither have fathomed nor gained had I not been dropped into it. Do I ever wonder 'what if?' About 50 times a day. But as Arthur Miller once said, "Maybe all we can hope to do is end up with the right regrets." On that count, I think I'm doing OK.