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 aptitude 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 transitions 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.