Thursday, December 22, 2011

Sassy Pants

Tensions were high this morning in my house. The holidays are looming, as are homework and school project deadlines. Staying up late with visiting family members, and the unwelcome actions of younger siblings just add to the stress. Top it off with everyone having a head cold, and I could understand why things went as they did at breakfast.

"Jacob, it's late. You need to eat something before it's time to get the bus."

"I don't like any of the cereal we have."

"Then have a yogurt and a banana. You can't go to school with nothing in your stomach--you have a test today."

"Watch me."

Granted, backtalk like this is likely considered welcome dialogue in the homes of families with older teens. But I'm a beginner at this teen thing; indeed, Jacob is just on the hormonal cusp of 'the ugly years' and still shows his sweet and thoughtful side most often--especially to me.

So this was unexpected sass to my virgin ears, and I spun on the poor, unsuspecting kid and pounced like a cat.

"Don't you dare talk to me that way, Mister," I said right into his face, holding my finger up for emphasis. "You can save the sassy mouth for the bus because it is not gonna fly in this house. Now go eat something."

I admit it was probably a bit harsh, and I could give you plenty of excuses for it. But I also had to wonder what really sparked it. Was it because I was feeling sick and therefore out of control of my own body, so I needed to assert my control over my kid? Perhaps. That long-buried need from my own middle-school years to fight back when pushed rather than back down? Not impossible. But later in the day, I read an article about arguing with your teen and discovered that--surprise surprise--it can actually help them.

According to a study of 157 13-year-olds and their parents, parents and teens who were able to have a calm and civil dialogue about tricky subjects like school, friends and troubling situations--without the teen giving up early on--produced positive results later on. Those teens who held their own in these discussions were able to stand up to peer pressure about drugs and alcohol.

This was good to learn. Not because I plan to turn everything Jacob says into an argument. But what I will do is make sure our exchanges turn into discussions and not fights. Listening is just as important as stating your case, no matter how loudly, when it comes to any interaction. The main point of the study is that "each person in the discussion needs to feel that they are being heard and they are using arguments and reasoning to have a calm back and forth,” according to study co-author Joanna Chango, a graduate student at the University of Virginia.

In my defense, though, I also think letting Jacob know as I did this morning that he cannot talk to me the way he does to the kids at school, much as he'd like to, will maintain what respect he does have for me. And that will be equally as important as listening when things really do get tricky down the road.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Bad Santa

I used to do my very best to avoid the mall at holiday time when my kids were younger, going only at night when they were in bed or on weekends when my husband was home with them. Yes, it was partly because shopping with kids in tow is a chore and half. But I was also avoiding Santa.

Unlike most parents I know, I was unwilling to stand in line to have my kid sit on a stranger's lap so I could get a picture. I never bought into the whole Santa farce, though I wouldn't deny his existence when my kids asked. In short, I did nothing to perpetuate or quash the possibility. I didn't so much weave magic as feel ambivalent about its swirling around our house, fed by others.

This worked great when they would come home from school and say "Mom, so-and-so said there's no such thing as Santa. Is he telling the truth?" Rather than commit either way, I'd turn it around: "Well, what do you think?"

But as they grew older and a bit more suspicious, I found the best thing to do to hurry along the inevitable dismissal of the Santa myth was to actually take them shopping with me at holiday time. Beginning December 1, Santas abound at virtually every store, and without a word I was able to let nature take its course.

"Mom, how can Santa be at Walmart when he was just at the mall with a line of kids in front of him?"

"Hey, Santa's beard is gray. Why isn't it white? Did he forget to wash it?"

"Mom, why is Santa so skinny? I thought he was fat and jolly?"

"Mom, why is Santa smoking?

Ultimately, I still leave the believing up to the kids. Deep down, I suspect they really *want* to believe, craving a bit of magic to help them escape from the commercialism they see on the TV all month long. And I won't be the one to tell them flat out that there is no Santa. If nothing else, they'll hold on to the notion and save a bit of forgiveness for Santa for his bad behavior. He may not be human, but he clearly works hard for an old guy.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Seasonal Shifts

It's the holiday season, so it only makes sense to talk about what's on everyone's mind: suffering.

I'll start with my own. There was a time when I worked a 40-or-more-hour-per-week, "part-time" job, which I loved. But it kept me away from my family and the money wasn't there. Leaving the job freed up time for both my family and my own writing, and I was able to feel selfish by writing for hours every day, and still spend time with my kids. But as any parent can confirm, no matter how much you give to your kids, it's never enough. They always want more and, wanting to make them happy, we do our best to give more. This meant sometimes not being able to write for long stretches, because I was giving my time to my family instead. But then my writing started to suffer, and I began to resent my family.

Welcome to the holiday mentality. And I'm not just talking about kids. Think about it. Every December, we hear about toy drives, food drives, pajama collections, fundraisers, donations for troops, the starving, the homeless, the cold and the orphaned. I'm not complaining that so many people exist in these horrible conditions. My gripe is that we only hear about them once a year.

I understand the logic that tapping into people's spirit of giving during the holidays will likely reap the most results. But like an election year, here's what I think happens: everyone gives until it hurts, feeling they are going to fix the ills of the world. But instead of hearing about how much their charity has helped, saved and cured, they just get solicitations from *other* needy charities and causes. And what they feel instead is a sense of thanklessness that morphs into resentment, and the certainty that their help didn't really help at all. So where’s the incentive to keep on giving?

The flaw in this thinking is, as I said, like that of an election year. A candidate comes out asking for our help, our money, our votes. He recognizes all the problems plaguing our country. He rallies us all together, with ideas of how these problems can be fixed. He says yes, we can make a difference. We get behind him, get excited, and feel the potential for real change. We send him our checks; we cast our votes.

And then we go back to our lives, and the “we” in our candidate’s solution is forgotten.

We help out once a year or, in the case of elections, once every four years, and then get mad when we step back and all the problems aren't solved. It's like going to work and giving it your all one day a year and expecting a huge bonus. It's like writing one great book in your twenties and expecting to live off the royalties for the rest of your life.

In short, it's unrealistic.

We cannot affect a sea change in any aspect of our lives unless we work at it every day. The suffering of those who are hungry, cold, orphaned and poor is a constant state of being. So why does our acknowledgment of it only last for one month a year?

Because it’s overwhelming. We all have our own problems to deal with. There is always someone worse off than us. And to wallow in the sorrows of others every day is depressing and emasculating. At least it seems that way when we only think about it once a year.

I’m an artist, so I know from suffering. To make a difference, you have to suffer every day for your cause. It’s not wallowing, it’s allowing the pain to fuel your passion. As a writer, writing every day is a necessity. But many days, it hurts. The blank page stares you down. It keeps you from doing other things that can feel more productive. It makes you dig into places you’d rather not go. But you do it anyway. You have to.

And after a while, something wonderful starts to happen: your writing gets better. The words flow more freely. The ideas take shape more fluently. The daily commitment to suffering begins to make a real difference.

This is how we need to approach the problems of the world. Not by giving once a year and then sitting back and waiting for change. Not by voting every four years and then expecting paradise. And not by giving all of our time to our children and leaving none for ourselves. We need to give daily—of our time, our wallets, our minds—toward improvement. Only by changing how we approach problems can we solve them.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Winter Holidays: The Early Years

Here I go again, regressing to the 'good old days.' This time, I'm asking you to indulge me as I pull out a blog post from ten years ago. Back then, my now smart-mouthed, wise-cracking 'tween was a young innocent, just grasping the meaning of the holidays for the first time. As I spend this week with my fingers in my ears, walking around the house going, "la la la la I can't hear you!" to tune out his requests for Uber Strike and other M-rated video games, I will wistfully be remembering those days that seem to have happened both yesterday and a lifetime ago. This was originally posted on 12/17/2001.
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This week we celebrated Hanukkah with Jacob. This wasn't the first he'd heard of the holiday though. Last year, to celebrate the differences in my husband's and my backgrounds, our thoughtful neighbors gave Jacob two books for the holidays: My First Christmas and My Hanukkah Alphabet, which we have read all year. But Jacob's interest in letters dictated which book we would read more often, so even in August we were reading about...you guessed it. Hanukkah.

While I'm not crazy about the book's inclusion of several pages about presents, it's a pretty good reference. Even I learned a few things about Hanukkah, and Jacob has all but memorized the entire book. That a two-year-old would know the words menorah, latke, shamash and dreidel is pretty amazing to me, so I figured he was really absorbing what we read.

But he didn't really understand the concept of the holiday being a once a year event, so when it was time to take out the REAL menorah and light the candles, Jacob was psyched. As soon as we put it on the table, he knew what it was.

"That's a menorah!" he smiled proudly.

"Yes it is, and what are we going to put in it? Do you remember?"

"Candles!"

"That's right, and then we're going to light the candles and sing the prayer!"

At this point, I guess Jacob put the concepts of singing and candles together from what he knew and started singing:

"Happy birthday dear Jacob..."

"Well, we are going to sing, but that's a different song. We sing that on your birthday."

We proceeded to pick out candles with colors that looked nice in the menorah. Then Dad lit them and sang the prayer while Jacob watched, mesmerized, and David and I looked at each other, so proud that our little boy was learning about the things that had given my husband such happy memories growing up.

At the end of the prayer, Jacob clapped his hands and said,

"Make a wish! Blow out the candles!"

OK, so we still have to work on the Hanukkah candles vs. birthday candles concept a bit.

The best part of all of this was that each night as we lit the candles, Jacob got excited. He couldn't wait to be with us, to see the candles being lit, to listen to the prayer and then watch as the candles burned down. And it had nothing to do with presents; we didn't even give him a gift until the second to last night. By that time, it was just an extra perk, an added bonus to an already cool holiday ritual.

When we celebrate Christmas next week, we will be surrounded by my family, holiday lights, good music, a warm fire and delicious food. And Jacob is already looking forward to that too. It's nice to see the pure joy that comes from holidays without consumerism, expectations and wish lists. In Jacob's eyes, at least for now, the holiday season is all about family and traditions. As it should be, for all of us.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Good Old Days

Go ahead and call me old-fashioned. It's OK, I won't be offended. In fact, I may just take it as a compliment.

Being old-fashioned means, to me, that the things parents are finding amusing these days just don't do it for me. I watched the videos people posted when Jimmy Kimmel suggested to parents 'as a joke' that they lie to their kids, telling them they ate all their Halloween candy, and then film and upload the kids' reactions. And I read the blogs about parenting that people rave about, even when the titles are off-putting to me. But instead of yelling "Hilarious!" and sharing them from my Facebook page, I cringe, and wonder why these things are going viral. The only deduction I can make is that I'm behind the times.

Perhaps I'm just one of those rose-colored-glasses-clad romantics. The ones who long for the days when parents were the grown-ups--the cranky, stodgy, rule-making, always-right guideposts that we loved and hated and wanted to be like and wanted to get the hell away from all at the same time. Maybe they weren't always right, but part of growing up was figuring that out along the way. For the most part, their principles were the foundation for the choices we made in life, like it or not. Things my VERY old-fashioned parents taught me by example include:

* Don't smoke. Even though I do, it's bad for you.
* Don't talk meanly about people. You have no idea what their life is like, and it's most likely a lot worse than yours.
* Everyone deserves a chance. Don't judge before you get to know a person.
* Don't curse. It's vulgar and makes you sound stupid.
* Your children are watching you and learning from you, mistakes and all. Always make them your priority and do your best so you won't have to apologize for anything later.
* Children are fragile--they trust you to be kind and honest, and keep their hearts safe. That's a huge responsibility, so don't mess with it.

It just seems like everyone who's looking for their 15 minutes of fame is going for the shock value, the thing that will be most controversial. Thanks to the likes of Lindsay Lohan and the Kardashians, sex is no longer a valid category for this because we've seen it all.

That leaves the kids.

Being cruel or mean, bullying your kids, abusing their trust "for fun" or taking advantage of their naiivete "as a joke" for a good laugh seems to be catching on. Rather than helping our kids grow up into kind, caring and mature adults (read: stodgy old rule-makers like us), we are instead turning into immature clowns so we can get attention, and all at our kids' expense.

The old saying, "why don't you pick on someone your own size?" comes to mind.

Again, I use the term "old". This is because I'm starting to wonder if there is a connection between our fear of growing old (notice I didn't say responsible) and our need to act childish and immature, to wield our power over the young, regardless of the consequences. Maybe Obnoxious is The New 40.

My hope is that I'm not alone. Based on a lot of the feedback I've seen on this type of behavior, there is some balance. Many love it, many despise it. But there are those in the middle who say, "This is so wrong yet so funny." I think of this group as the bystanders at the bullying event, the ones who know it's wrong but are afraid to speak up, so have somehow justified the behavior in their own mind (it's funny; at least it's not me; the kid will get over it.)

To me, the most interesting are the comments from folks abroad who choose to chime in. They mention the "complete decay of Western countries and their disappearing values," and note that "It is no wonder so many children grow up to be such screwed up adults."

What these outnumbered, ignored or combatted comments give me is hope. Hope that I am not the only person who sees this parenting slide as a bad thing; that there are more of us willing to stand up to the bullying-disguised-as-parenting stunts and condemn them.

It takes a village to raise a child, and a mob can just as easily prevent it from happening. Here's hoping we can dispel the mob before it's too late, that there's still a chance to parent our kids like they did in the old days, and raise them to be moral, trusting and kind adults. Heaven knows we could use some.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

It's Not Me; It's Them

OK, maybe someone needs to tell me to calm down.

What you may not be able to read in this picture is the label on this "prescription" so I'll write it out for you:

Harry Hypochondriac
SKITTLES TABLET

1 TAB ORALLY DAILY (FOR DEMONSTRATION PURPOSES)

DOOLITTLE, DR. MD

Now, I am a mom who has countless books and leaflets floating through my house about how to talk to your kids about drugs: why drugs are bad; what they can do to you; why kids shouldn't use them; why kids shouldn't trust friends who offer them drugs even if they are friends they would normally trust; how drugs can look harmless, or like candy or maybe even taste good. Need I go on?

OK. So one day, THIS thing shows up in my house. At first glance, it's amusing. Dr. Doolittle, ha ha. Harry Hypochondriac, ha ha. Take one a day for 30 days, and they are candy, ha ha.

But here's the thing: they were given to my kid. I'm not going to say when or by whom because this blog isn't really the place for that. But I do want to ask, "Seriously? Are middle schoolers really the right target for such a giveaway? Or did no one give it any thought?"

I'm thinking the latter, and I'm thinking that's a big part of the problem with many of our teen issues these days.

I'm embarrassed to say how many people I know who use drugs today, either recreationally or for self-medicating purposes. In every case, the drugs in question are illegal. This is why such a gimmicky giveaway is not surprising to me: I think adults take drug use much too lightly in this country.

Most would likely tell me to calm down--that I'm not just over but ├╝ber-reacting--because apparently I'm imagining a connection between the feelgood nature of sugar and drugs. But a recent study actually says I'm not.

We also live in a world where gimmicks get you noticed, where there is so much advertising and so many avertorials and infomercials that even adults can't tell what's marketing and what's news anymore. This is why I try to stay out of the television loop; to keep my perspective. When I do pass by it, and frequently hear a commercial for a new pill, I can't help but laugh at all of the possible side-effects that are listed at the end.

'Can't sleep? Take this pill and your problem will be solved. You may suffer from anxiety, depression, anger, pain and suicidal thoughts as a result, your car will break down, your house will burn to the ground and your spouse will leave you, but at least you'll be able to sleep.'

Really? Do people even listen to that part, or does it come off as an, 'oh, by the way, our lawyers made us say this' add-on?

I laugh, but probably because it scares me. My kids see these commercials. What do they think of them? What message do they hear?

Maybe I am crazy-aware. But I constantly try to see things from a different perspective so I can hopefully show my kids that not everything is what it seems. If nothing else, they need to stop and think about the product first. My job as a parent is to make that blurry line between ads and news as clear for them as I possibly can. How else can they make good, well-informed choices?

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Pet Therapy

We've all heard of pet therapy for children, the elderly, handicapped and others. Animals are an incredible source of comfort, calm and unconditional affection. But what about when your pet is the one who needs therapy?

Sure, we've all heard of the dog whisperer, the man who can help train you to control your dog's anxiety, hyperactivity, aggression, fear and more. But when your dog suffers from low self-esteem, things aren't as black and white. It's not like our beagle, Flash, was doing anything so drastic as stealing or using drugs. But when he first came to live with us, he was definitely not happy. It wasn't just that he was depressed that his beloved owner had just died--the only "dad" he'd known since he was a puppy. We could tell that he just didn't feel good about himself.

First off, our house rules were different from his old home's. No begging is allowed at the table. No people food except as a special treat, and only when we distribute said treats. No dogs allowed in the bedrooms or on the furniture. No using the indoors as your personal toilet. This was a lot to adjust to and learn. A total lifestyle change, really. It would require trial and error, and commitment on his part and ours. Unfortunately for Flash, the occasional (OK, frequent) disciplinary action was necessary. At every infraction, my husband would sternly tell Flash, "NO! Bad dog!" and Flash would growl back and snap, defensive, uncertain and confused. Like a spoiled child, he didn't know how to react to the word "no" because he'd never heard it before. So he'd pitch a fit.

It was frustrating for all of us, and it made us wonder: would he ever learn? Would he ever be a playful, happy dog?

The truth is, in Flash's old house he did what he wanted, with no consequences. So even if his owners were displeased with his behavior, they didn't express it strongly enough to motivate Flash to change. As a result, like any child who is overindulged and allowed to run wild and unattended, Flash didn't feel proud of himself, because he was never praised by the people he loved most. He did what he wanted, but it didn't get him what he needed.

In truth it took about six months to reach a breakthrough with Flash. But when we took him on vacation with us, he suddenly seemed to understand that we were his family, he belonged with us, and we expected certain things of him. When he's a good dog, we praise him excessively, and he loves it. Any setbacks cause me to withhold belly scratches and goofy baby talk from him, and he really seems saddened by it. Ironically, our conditional love has taught him how to behave well; training Flash to stay off the couch was just the therapy he needed.

Today, he's a happy, well-behaved dog. He pays attention and listens, he responds to our commands, and he knows and follows the rules. And when he makes a bad choice--like heading for the garbage bag that's left unattended for more than four seconds--a stern tone is all that's needed to cause him to stop and slink away, aware that he just missed getting into trouble.

We certainly didn't train Flash by whispering. Quite the contrary. If he could talk, he'd probably call me Old Yeller. But then, I'm willing to bet, he'd thank me for setting him straight.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Quiche Me, You Fool

I have a love/hate relationship with rain. OK, maybe love is too strong a word. I know rain is necessary. But because I am a dog owner, and the type of person who gets a chill if someone even utters the word "snow," waking up to rain and the knowledge that I have to walk the dogs is just downright painful. Griping and moaning, I drag the unwilling animals out of the house with two leashes in one hand and an umbrella in the other, sternly urging them at every pause to 'get on with it' so we can head back to the house as soon as possible.

And while I hate having to go out in the rain, with all the negative feelings that it incites in me, I actually have a great appreciation for it too. Because once I get back from walking the dogs on a rainy day, I dry them down, kick off my boots and put on my apron.

While many would consider rain to be a 'paperwork' day, when they can force themselves to sit down without guilt and go through bills and filing that have piled up, its cold and unappealing nature essentially shoves me out of the office and into the kitchen. Since it's the dark and cold that I loathe, the kitchen is my haven on these days, and cooking saves me.

Many times it doesn't even matter what I cook. A big pot of soup, some stew and biscuits or maybe a roast--nothing is ruled out. If I haven't figured out a dinner plan yet, I'll shoot for lunch. Today it was ham, cheese, spinach and tomato quiche with a homemade crust: one for me, one for the freezer. (OK, I'll share.) Since it didn't take very long, I'm thinking of making some pancakes to have on hand for the boys' breakfasts during the week, especially since they both have colds and sore throats now. (Ain't that always the way with the first month of school?) Finally, I'll have to truly christen the new oven with a batch of chocolate chip cookies.

For years I've wondered why my love of cooking swings to both ends of the spectrum: some days I just want to order every meal out, and others I want to eschew every other obligation and just cook for hours.

I'm starting to think that rushing to get something on the table that everyone will eat, while feeling I have other things that need tending to, is really the culprit behind those days I hate to cook. Knowing that I can't spend the time and creative energy to make it warm enough--in my kitchen and heart--to produce quality results is stressful and disheartening. It makes cooking feel like work.

So with winter here already (OK, maybe not technically, but 40-degree nights are, in my mind, winter), it's time to start planning some meals to really put my new kitchen to the test. And maybe with enough practice, I'll stumble upon some dishes that even my kids will be willing to try. If not, at least I'll be warm and dry and having fun trying.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Outsourced Diet

I would like to thank my husband for keeping me thin. Because yes, he is responsible. How, you may ask, is this possible?

Did he buy me a gym membership?

Does he exercise with me every day?

Does he cook me healthful and nutritious meals?

Or is it just the pure joy of being married to him that keeps me not only thin, but rich, happy and wrinkle-free too?

None of the above.

My husband keeps me thin by doing the grocery shopping. All of it.

"Wow!" you must be thinking. "How great! You must be thrilled that he does all the grocery shopping! One more huge task you don't have to deal with!"

Yes, I concede I am very happy to not worry about the grocery shopping and all of the flyer-studying, coupon-clipping and price-calculating that the job entails. Really. I pretty much hate math more than anything. Except maybe cleaning toilets.

But he does that too.

So yes, I also concede that not having to clean the toilets keeps me very happy (though the job is so nauseating that if I *did* have to do it, that would probably keep me pretty thin as well).

But I digress, and while I've listed some of the ways my husband keeps me happy, I haven't yet gotten to the point of exactly how his doing the grocery shopping actually keeps me thin. And so the truth comes out:

He buys lousy desserts.

Now, if you were to poll my children--or even my husband--on this, you'd get a very different answer. But this is my blog, so here, it's all about me. And to me, mint chocolate chip ice cream ranks right up there with Ben & Jerry's new flavor, Schweddy Balls on the appealing-flavor-meter. But since that's the fave of all the boys in the house (read: everyone who lives here but me), that's the flavor that rules in our freezer.

Fine. What about some cookies? Surely there are cookies?

Yes, there are cookies. If you could call them that. Like the mint ice cream, the cookie that comes home is the one that pleases the majority. So for those of you keeping track, #3 on the icky desserts list is:

Mallomars.

I'm not picky. I'd be happy with some Dark Chocolate M&Ms, Double Stuff Oreos, Ben & Jerry's New York Super Fudge Chunk and maybe the occasional bag of Hershey Kisses. I'd even stash them so no one else would have to see or eat them.

But those of you who can appreciate the common denominator in these options (read: you women out there) also understand that I can't complain. Because the reason I'm thin is that these things *aren't* in my house. Like, ever.

And since it really only irks me once a month or so, I'll let it go again. At least for today.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Secret Love

The women I know who have daughters are always telling me about the drama in the lives of girls: friends who aren't being friendly anymore; who said what about whom; crying outbursts over seemingly nothing. And every time I hear one of these stories, I am secretly happy--again--to have only sons. They don't wear their hearts on their sleeves. They say what they mean. Everything is pretty much black and white--very little middle ground. In essence, you know where you stand with boys, and emotion rarely gets in the way.

I thought this was wonderful. Until yesterday.

On the first day of school, I put little notes of encouragement into each of my sons' lunch boxes. A little pick me up from home to help with the anxiety of starting a new school year, I figured. Jacob came home and hugged me, thanking me for the note. Ben didn't say anything, but his note came back home with him in his lunch box. I left it in there for day two, just in case he had missed it the first day. I even opened it a little so he could see it was a card with a message inside. It came home again. Finally, I asked him if he had seen the note I sent him.

"Oh, yeah, I saw it. Um, Mom, please don't put those in my lunch anymore."

I'm sorry. What?

"Why not, Ben? Didn't you like it?" I asked, trying to hide the feeling of having been punched in the stomach.

Then Jacob piped up, perhaps to save my feelings in case Ben decided to be honest.

"It's OK, Mom, I've got this," he said. "Ben," he said, turning to his brother, "just do what I do. When you see the note, just pretend you're looking for something in your lunch bag and read it without taking it out. Then you don't have to be embarrassed."

Embarrassed? What? Jacob too? At this point, after having told all my friends about the love that boys have for their mothers, how much better it is to have boys than girls, I was speechless. I had to leave the room.

After a while, I realized that I couldn't take it personally. Kids are going to be embarrassed by their parents' expressions of care and love, regardless of whether they are boys are girls. It's not me. It's them.

Once I accepted this--that Ben was only rejecting my expression of love while among his peers, and not actually rejecting my love --I felt much better. Plus, Ben accepted his brother's advice with grace and was, mercifully, silent on the subject afterward.

Whether he would still welcome a love note, now that he has the reading tip from his brother, is unknown. I'm OK now, but I think I'll wait a little while before asking if he still wants me to refrain from sending them.

Like a year or two.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Irony of the Hurricane

Last week, our area was hit with an earthquake, something I don't recall happening in almost 25 years. The impact was laughable. Folks made jokes about 'rebuilding' and posted pictures on the Internet of their tipped patio chairs and flowerpots. I never even felt the quake; I heard about it from my husband, at work in NJ, and later on Facebook. I felt like the last one picked for a team in gym class: completely left out.

Perhaps Mother Nature is a quiet stalker on Facebook, one who doesn't like being mocked. That's my theory, because a couple of days later, she proceeded to trump the earthquake with Hurricane Irene, who barreled up the East coast like a woman scorned. I don't know who was left laughing on Facebook once Irene cleared out, though, because I lost my phone, Internet and cable television connections for five days as a result.

Rather than wallow (which would have been very easy to do, now being 'cut off' from the world, technologically speaking), I tried to look on the bright side. We still had power. We had running and heated water. We could cook, shower and use the computer. We just became very localized. After a couple of days, the kids got bored and the roads were cleared, so we headed over to the library once they got power restored (I called ahead from my cell phone to make sure). They have puzzles, games and of course plenty to read, plus I thought it would be nice to see how the building and librarians fared in the storm.

Little did I know what a surprise awaited me.

I saw more patrons at the library than I've seen in all my years in this town. I ran into friends I haven't seen all summer. I heard the word 'discombobulated' more times in one day than I think I've ever heard in my life.

Everyone, it seems, had become unmoored by their forced 'disconnect' from the virtual world. No one knew what to do about it, so they headed out into town to find others and share their experiences.

After leaving the library, I headed to the local pizza parlor, where I ran into three more families I haven't seen in a while, and we also got a chance to catch up while our lunch cooked. On the way home, I congratulated my children.

"For what?" they wanted to know.

"For being lucky enough to step back in time," I told them.

"Huh?" they said, as they often do when I try to teach them something.

"Today, you guys got a chance to see what life was like before the Internet, just like it was when I was a kid," I said. "We talked with our friends from town by running into them in various places around town, instead of on Facebook."

I wanted to add, "welcome to the real world," but realized that they might then think the Internet was connected again.

Now that things are pretty much back to normal, I haven't seen anyone laughing about the hurricane on Facebook. People's homes flooded; many lost power, and some still haven't gotten it back. The storm may cause folks to regard the power of Mother Nature with a bit more awe and humility going forward. But I can only wonder if it will make any of us work on becoming a little less dependent on technology from now on. I know I'm going to try.

As for my friends, I guess I'll read about it on Facebook.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Paring Season

There's something about the end of summer, the return home from vacation and the promise of structure soon to be restored by the routine of the school year that makes me, frankly, insane. Not because I don't welcome September with open arms. Quite the contrary: the two weeks at the end of August are riddled with bored children, messy rooms, last minute scrambles for playdates and day trips, and the final fraying of my nerves.

Clearly, I should be living in Florida. Not just because it's warm year round, or because the cost of living is a fraction of that of New York, but because in Florida, school starts tomorrow.

It's not like I'm uptight, one of those women whose houses look like children don't even live in them--like NO ONE lives in them--and can't bear to have a dried flower petal out of place. Truly, my summer has had its share of chaos. The first month consisted of various camp programs that changed each week. The changes had me driving all over the county so my kids could parttake in fun and engaging summer activities. The next four weeks encompassed rearranging my living room, emptying my kitchen into boxes into said living room, and then opening the door to contractors every day to have our kitchen remodelled. Let's just say that carrying dishes up and downstairs to wash them each day was less than fun. Finally, we spent over a week in Vermont, filling our days with shopping, excursions, touring and mountain activities. The kids were exhausted. The dogs were exhausted. We're all exhausted.

Yet all I want to do is rip apart every room and organize it. I want to get rid of the junk, the things we don't use and have no space for. I want to rotate the summer clothes into bins in the attic, bring out the comforters, change the tapestries and curtains and organize the magazines. It sounds like a lot of work for someone so exhausted, I know.

The only way I can explain this sudden burst of energy is to tell you that the focus is the only thing pulling me forward. To stand here surrounded by Nerf guns and sponge bullets, teddy bears and Goodwill donations, four days of newspaper sections and trays of perler beads littering my dining room table is causing a Sybil-esque reaction: my brain is escaping its present surroundings to go where it needs to in order to survive.

It happens every summer, this need for clearing, paring and straightening. A mom can only take constant disorganization for so long. And thanks to New York State's education schedule, in my case it's two weeks longer than I need it to be. So I will make lists and schedules, shop online for baskets and containers, and collect pictures of simplified homes from magazines to soothe my discomfited soul. And while I'm at it, maybe I'll take a look at real estate offerings in Florida. Just, you know, for fun.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Not Yer Mama's Salad

I love recipes. Cookbooks, websites, television shows--any source is welcome, but unlike my husband, I don't like to just "wing it" when it comes to cooking. In baking, of course, following a recipe is crucial, because you are dealing with chemistry. This means that if you add baking powder instead of baking soda, too much salt or not enough oil, you are going to be very disappointed with your final result. Though mixing flavors in dinner dishes is not quite as unforgiving, my husband is much better at it than I. Perhaps because I am a baker at heart, I don't like to experiment with my cooking.

One would think that when it comes to salad, a recipe would be unnecessary. There's no heat element involved, and not much variation of ingredients to work with, so why bother following instructions? Iceberg or romaine lettuce, celery, cucumber and a big ol' tomato. I grew up viewing salad as a peripheral--a boring but necessary add-on to dinner.

But then my kitchen disappeared, and kind friends took pity on us and invited us over for dinner. When they brought a big salad bowl filled with lime-cilantro chicken, provolone cheese and avocado to the table, followed by a colorful, spicy chicken salad topped with crisp tortilla strips, suddenly salad seemed like a great idea. When I raved to my friend about how delicious her salads were, she pulled out a cookbook. OK, maybe "cook"book isn't a completely accurate description. But she told me she swears by it, and as an avid cookbook user with one or two particular books that I refer to again and again, I knew exactly what she meant. As I flipped through the beautiful photos in Raising the Salad Bar, all my memories of iceberg lettuce, cucumbers and hothouse tomatoes flew out of my head. This was definitely not my mom's salad world.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are readily available in my area. Herbs and spices are growing in my garden. I have more flavors of vinegar than you could shake a stick at. Inspired, I decided maybe it was time to start experimenting.

The best part is that, though I love vegetables, I can't see myself as a strict vegetarian just yet. This book of recipes shows me how to incorporate grilled beef, salmon, chicken, shrimp and other proteins into interesting, beautiful and most importantly, delicious salads. No longer an afterthought, salad is about to become a meal staple--if not the meal itself--in my house. Sorry Mom. Not to give your iceberg lessons the cold shoulder, but it looks like my salads are about to grow up.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Flying By the Seat of My Cookie Sheets

They say you never really know what you've got until it's gone. But what they don't talk about is all the residual things you lose along with it. Anyone who has lived through (meaning lived in your house during) a kitchen remodelling project can understand what I mean.

We knew the kitchen would be gone--no stove, no sink, no countertops, no peace from the construction and, of course, no money. But we left out the toaster oven, dug out plastic utensils and paper plates, and filled the fridge with cold cuts. We may not be able to cook, but we still have to feed all the animals.

This all looked good on paper. But when I tried to apply it to day-to-day reality, it lost some of its fine, organized, two-dimensional sheen.

Here's what they don't tell you about a kitchen remodelling job: you have a lot more, er, stuff in your kitchen--however small your kitchen may seem--than you realize. You've just gotten really good at storing/hiding it. When you have to remove and relocate it all, while keeping portions of it somewhat accessible, you're also going to lose a lot of space in your living room, dining room, playroom, family room and mind. Because no matter how well you plan, all that visual clutter in your house can't help but clutter your mind and cause the occasional freak-out. Whether it's kids, dogs, Mom or Dad, someone will very likely be freaking out at any given moment during such a project.

Trying to be smart about it, we decided to do this during summer, when the kids were out of school and camp. What we had figured on was eating out occasionally, grilling on the porch often and eating lots of salads and sandwiches.

The same "they" who say all those smart things also say that life is what happens when you're busy making other plans. In our case, we made our plans but didn't account for a mid-July heat wave and someone staying in our guest room. Did I mention the frequent freak-outs?

A very smart friend said to me that suffering through to a new kitchen is a very high-class problem to have. And she's right. So I'm trying stay positive. Just think of how efficient this is turning out to be! Three adults, two children, two dogs, 100-degree weather and contractors finding hidden surprises at every turn (electrical, plumbing and the like)! How else could we build so much character at one time? May as well kill as many sprits as we can with one stone countertop, right?

Suffice it to say the "before" pictures are looking better and better, as we sit firmly entrenched in the middle of the "during" stage, all eagerly looking forward to the "after."

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Telltale Stomach

Much like raising children, there's nothing in the world like the unconditional love that you get from a pet. All you have to do is feed it, water it, pay for its doctor visits, house it and let it sleep in your bed it will love you forever. How could it not? Because of you, that lucky little guy will never have to figure out how to carry money without pockets or thumbs.

On top of all this, one would think that feeding a dog 'people food' like chicken lo mein, beef ribs and lasagna instead of just basic, dry kibble would secure you a place not just in Heaven but in your dog's heart as well. In fact, he'd likely be ready to go to the ends of the earth for you, bite a smelly, dirty person for you, even lie for you if it came down to that.

Apparently, you'd be wrong.

The life I've described is not a theoretical one, but apparently the very life Flash lived before he came to us. And when the poop came down, Flash didn't lie for his amazing owners who had treated him as if he were one of them.

After being told by the vet that Flash was overweight and had a terrible diet, and that his mom and dad needed to stop feeding him from their table, they agreed they would. The next time he went for a visit, the vet scolded Flash's mom yet again, as the pooch either didn't look good or hadn't lost weight: something told him that Flash was still on a strict people-food diet.

His mom proceeded to look the doctor in the eye and tell him with the straightest face that, "oh no, we don't feed him lasagna any more. We know we're not supposed to."

In the next moment, something happened. Maybe Flash decided it was now or never if he was ever going to get help obtaining the svelte figure he wanted. Or perhaps he felt that lying, especially to a doctor, was just plain wrong. We will never know the impetus, only the resulting action.

While his mom's words were still hanging in the air, Flash puked up a stomach-full of undigested lasagna right there on the vet's floor.

I came by this story honestly, from a neighbor and dear friend of Flash's former mom, and the mom was the one who had told it to the neighbor.

Of course, I had to laugh as I imagined how many shades of red the mom must have turned at that moment. And I also imagine that she said not a word to the vet, nor he to her. What could be said? Flash had ended the conversation.

I love the story, and the lesson that--as with parenting children--we should always be very careful about what we say and do, especially when it comes to little white lies. Honesty will win in the end, and whether it's out of the mouths of babes or the stomachs of dogs, when we lie, the innocents we care for will be the ones to give us away. Even if they can't speak.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Random Waffles

Jacob has been gone to sleepaway camp for only two days, and already there's been a change in Benjamin. Perhaps it's because his brother isn't around to criticize him all the time (that sibling rivalry's a biotch), or perhaps Ben just appreciates the reduction of noise (Jacob does have a tendency to talk, sing, yell, hum, fill-in-the-blank-with-any-other-insistent-consistent-noise pretty constantly). Whatever it is, Ben has become much easier to see, and seems to be revelling in his ability to be seen without the smokescreen of the dynamic with his brother. Because, let's face it, when they are in competition for my attention, Ben is always painted as the villain, the hitter, the crybaby or the one who started it. It's tough to be yourself when someone is forever preceding you into the room and announcing, "Ladies and gentlemen, The Bad Guy."

To say that Ben has been a model child this week would not be an understatement. In fact, he's been so great that I could tell immediately when he was tired or hungry--the two triggers that often send him spiralling. We went out to a drive-in movie on Monday night with some friends. The theater is one of the few left in our area, and it was all kinds of fun. Sitting outdoors on a blanket, staying up late, eating junkfood surrounded by girls (Ben was the only boy in the party) and seeing a new flick made for an exciting night. So much so that he didn't even fall asleep on the trip home, keeping his eyes open until I tucked him in at 11:45pm.

I killed the fun the next morning when I woke him up at 7:30 to go to camp. As is typical for Ben when he doesn't want to get up, he went into full turtle mode: drawing his head and feet underneath the covers, he balled himself up in the middle of the bed and groaned. I asked if he wanted me to make him waffles for breakfast (to entice him into getting vertical) and he answered 'yes, please.'

Ten minutes later, waffles on the table, I returned to his room to let him know they would get cold if he didn't get out there soon.

"Mom, I don't WANT waffles!" he said rather loudly.

"Honey, I just asked you if you wanted waffles and you said 'yes, please.' That's why I made them."

"No I didn't! You just made RANDOM WAFFLES! I don't want waffles, I want cereal!" he contested.

This was shaping up to be an argument I couldn't possibly win, so I told him he could have cereal and left the room. I was tired too, and the last thing I could take at that moment was an accusation of being something even worse than a random-waffle-making mother.

What happened next was, for someone else's house, probably perfectly normal. But for my house, it was completely unexpected and perfectly lovely. In short:

David ate the waffles.
Ben ate his cereal.
David went to work.
Ben went to camp.

And that was it. Of course, if you don't live in my house, you can't fully appreciate what a momentous occurrence this was. In short:

There were no tears.
There was no screaming.
There were no ultimatums.
Ben ate breakfast.
Ben got dressed.
We got out the door on time.

Even if the first breakfast had gone to the dog, it would have been a small price to pay for such great strides, in my humble opinion.

Credit the absence of one child or the magic of random waffles. Whatever it was, I'm just praying it won't evaporate at the end of the week. Maybe I should consider expanding to an entire random meal plan....

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Inconsistent Gardener

One of the many things I love about summer is my flower garden. Mind you, I use the word "garden" very loosely. By standard definition, mine barely qualifies. Besides being small, misshapen and hilly, it lacks symmetry, reason and defined edges. The weeds don't seem to mind any of this, as they congregate there en masse quite regularly. And I spent the first year just clearing out old, crowding trees, which my husband replaced with a couple of smaller, flowering bushes moved from elsewhere in the yard.

But since gardens are a lot like children, I like to focus on the strong points, hoping that encouragement and optimism will help mine to thrive. Plus, this helps me to downplay my own weak points.

Being a woman, I exercise my right to change my mind all the time. When it comes to what I put in my closet, that's not such a good thing because it means new clothes are required every season. I also like things a certain way (read: I'm controlling). Happily, gardens have flexible, inexpensive options for people like me. Specifically, annuals. Last year, the first year that I actually planted anything, I was all about orange and yellow. Daffodils, marigolds, snapdragons, lilies, we had lots of variety with very few colors. I didn't mind though--it all went together nicely.

This year, I was feeling more daring, and more purplish-blue. Maybe I craved a wardrobe change that depressed me with thoughts of its prohibitive cost. Or perhaps the long, wet spring built a sunless mood in me that transitioned to my flower choices. Regardless, this year the palette is cool and wide. Purples, blues, pinks and fuscias have all made appearances since spring via hyacinth, irises, azaleas and tulips. Throw in some raspberry bushes, onion grass, wild strawberries and roses, and you can see the chaos in my garden has begun to parallel the chaos inside my house. Maybe I'm just getting older, but neither of these things seems to bother me the way it might have years ago.

In the three years I've worked on this little patch of land, I've learned a few things.

1) Wear gloves.
2) Gardening pants work better than shorts.
3) Clashing colors are allowed.
4) Plan to plant and mulch in spring to prevent weeds; don't wait till they've taken over in June and try to pull them out.
5) The gardener cares more than anyone else.

Today I learned that the hydrangea, my favorite of all my flowers, has a tendency to take over a garden. All summer long, the bush's flowers are a riot of color--white, green, pink, purple, yellow and blue, and the blossoms vary in location and size as much as in color. And it's not an annual. What will this mean if I change my color scheme next year? Thanks to lesson number three, not a thing.

In my 12 years of parenting, I've learned a little bit more than what my garden has taught me. But all those lessons have also been hands-on.

Despite the mix and mess, my ignorance and fumblings, my little corner garden makes me smile. And maybe if I'm lucky, and keep working optimistically, it will grow into something worth sharing. Like my children, it doesn't seem to mind my mistakes. It loves the attention and care, gets on well despite the weeds, tests and teaches me, and makes me smile every day.

"I think the true gardener, the older (s)he grows, should more and more develop a humble, grateful and uncertain spirit." ~Reginald Farrer, In a Yorkshire Garden, 1909

Amen, brother.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

How Does Your Dinner Grow?

Ben eats things from our yard. Not bugs. He outgrew that a few years ago. Basil, mint, raspberries, strawberries, tomatoes, onion grass, pretty much anything he finds, smells and thinks might taste interesting is an option. Just need to clear the non-poison factor with mom and dad and he's a happy camper. I think he was a rabbit in a past life.

Of course, nothing makes me happier. In fact, we've expanded our garden to include that of our generous neighbors, whose expansive property houses such a bounty of fresh produce that it could make the local market blush. Lettuce, tomatoes, squash, peppers, beans and herbs aplenty. Optimistic rabbits flood their lawn, plotting in clusters how to get over or under the fence. They look at me jealously when I stroll over to pick what I need and nothing more, wondering what I've got that they haven't, besides dinner.

Our apple trees are a bit crabby, but Ben doesn't mind. The fruit is tart and juicy, and squishes up his face with each bite. But tent caterpillars out of reach are threatening to overtake them now, so I'm researching options for replacing them. Shade, pines, deer and rabbits, coyotes, foxes and other woodsy creatures already threaten our salad buffet of hostas, lilies, berries and apples, and Ben almost resents the competition.

But not really.

He is a lover of nature, all nature, after all. To nurture and care for our dogs and our garden, and revel in the results he can reap--love and affection, fresh munchies--seems to be his strongest trait. Perhaps he was a farmer in a past life, or a chef, or even a dad. Whichever, I love to watch him grow, and grow, eat and thrive.

What parent wouldn't?

Friday, May 27, 2011

Concession (Or) Stand

Life is hard. It doesn't matter where you're from or whether you were born with a silver spoon or a wooden nickel in your mouth, your life is just a different kind of hard from the next guy's. But in the end, it's all relative.

What makes the difference is how we handle the roughest aspects of life. Much of what determines this is personality, but credit (or blame) also has to be given to parents, for the tools we give our children in everyday life. For example.

You're at a little league baseball game with your reluctant 8-year-old. Getting him into his uniform involved a lot of yelling and whining, and not just on his part. Getting him to the practice was, shall we say, a challenge. Getting him out of the car and onto the field caused the two of you to 'have words' and some of those words included, "I hate you, Mom."

Now that you have the backstory, we'll move onto the setting. It's about 87 degrees outside. You're late for the game (see previous paragraph). Your son's uniform includes knee-high tube socks, long polyester pants, a t-shirt and hat, baseball mitt and, er, insurance that I may someday be blessed with grandchildren. Yes, the 8-year-old has to wear a cup. We are sweating before we reach the field. The amazingly patient coach is urging your child into left field, the grassy area that has the most bugs to watch because, really, what the heck else would you do if you were an 8-year-old boy standing in a grassy field? Watch for flies (from home plate)? Yes, well mine looks for ants by his shoes.

So when a bouncing grounder ends up hitting him in the knee and the tears begin to flow, I stand up. the coach heads out there and tries to get my son to shake it off, makes sure there's no blood, he can bend his knee, walk around, etc. All good, no need to call an ambulance. The inning continues.

Once the team heads back to the dugout and I am summoned to see how he's doing, my son asks me, "Mom, can I go home?"

"Oh, Sweetie, the team needs you here with them."

"Then can I have an ice cream after, since I got hurt?"

Ummm...

I have to say right here that if this had been my firstborn, I would very likely have reminded him that a mom's kisses are MUCH better for healing injuries than ice cream, even if it is ice cream at 11:00 in the morning. It's close, but kisses are actually better.

And he would have very likely said, "OK" and taken two or maybe even three of those kisses and been fine. More likely, he would never have asked the question at all.

But this is my second-born, my every-aspect-of-my-life-is-so-very-hard, please-can-we-make-it-a-little-less-hard-with-sugar? boy. And one would think, having had this conversation more than one or two (million) times before, that he would know the answer, because he lives in the same house with the same rules as his older brother.

The problem is that he also knows his mother.

In fact, he knows his mother so well that he would never ask such a question of his father, because his father is not nearly as malleable when it comes to such things. That's a nice way of saying his father's not a pushover.

The day I realized I had in fact become one of those mothers who caves to her child's requests to avoid a fight, a scene, a screaming match that sucks all the life out of her, it was too late. And I knew it was too late because I almost didn't care that this is what had become of me.

But when I sat down to think about which came first, the chicken or the screamer, I realize the answer was probably 'the screamer.' Because I could handle resistence from my older boy: it was half-hearted, short-lived and manageable. And of course, his brother has been the complete opposite, so I was not only ill-prepared for his persistence, I was even less ready for the heights to which he would raise the stakes. A meltdown over a video game? A crying fit because it's not dessert night? Seriously? Handling this did not fall within my job experience.

The good news is that, though I recognize how I have been perpetuating the situation, I also said that I *almost* didn't care that this is what has become of me. And although 'almost' usually only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, it is enough to keep me in the realm of logical thinking. That niggling feeling that continuing this behavior on my part is only going to cause one of us to move out before my son turns 13 just never goes away. It's my reminder that things are only going to get worse, so what better time than now to try to turn the situation around?

"No, Ben," I told him. "No ice cream in the morning. We can always have ice cream after dinner tonight. Now let me take a look at that knee."

This behavior has been going on since Ben was born, so it's pretty ingrained in both of us now. But if standing up a little harder and longer than I ever had to with his brother will help tip things back into balance--where I'm the boss and he has to listen--I'm willing to give it a try, for both our sakes.

After a big "Awwwww!" of protest, Ben actually let the matter drop.

I exhaled, thankful that I could still make a stand, and that Ben was still young enough to accept it without trying to push me over. Maybe there's hope for us yet.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The 17 Day Crankpot

There's a first time for everything. Sometimes, that's a good thing. First crush, first chocolate milkshake, first kiss. But sometimes a first is reached out of necessity, desperation or fear. In my case, it's a combination of these three things that has brought about a first for me this week.

I'm forty-something years old, and am on my very first diet.

I know, I know, poor me. But think about it from my perspective. All my life, I've loved starch and dairy. Lived on it, in fact, even way before college. Seriously, I'd have made a great French woman. Every kind of bread, any kind of cheese, I was all over it, not to mention pasta, noodles, macaroni and anything of that ilk. I drove my mother insane, much as my son does to me now, by eschewing all "food" remotely produce-related, picking apart every meal that contained anything green, and drinking up to a gallon of milk myself each week. I wouldn't be surprised if my parents put me through college with the money they made buying stock in Ronzoni.

Despite my starchoholism, my weight has never been an issue. Good genes, high metabolism and a bit of luck kept me bony-thin till my 20s, with only the occasional spread. These rare shifts came, coincidentally, during stressful points in my life, with the stress leading to greater indulgences in red wine and chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream. But a couple of months of daily mountain-bike riding and I was back down to my old size. Ah, to be in my 20s again.

In recent months, I found my jeans fitting tighter and tighter, and then, much to my chagrin, not at all. Donning my 'fat jeans' and looser fitting kahkis, I attributed the change to immobility, stomach problems and hormones. But one day I stepped on the scale and found that I had gained 10 pound of hormones. I was smacked out of my denial.

Having no money (or desire) to go out and buy all new clothes, I decided to try the 17-Day Diet, a regimen two friends had recently started. One had lost 20 pounds, the other ten, in a matter of weeks. I had nothing to lose but weight, so I bought the book.

Day one was fueled by lots of salads, green tea and optimism. I followed the book to a 'T' and went to bed a little hungry, but confident.

Day two was mostly the same menu, but with a few tweaks to mix things up a bit. Cottage cheese instead of plain yogurt; salmon instead of chicken. Lots of water and green tea. By afternoon, I was lightheaded and tired, so I had more salad.

Day three found my confidence in the diet and myself wavering. I told myself my headache was due to allergies, even as I drooled while watching my kids fill their bowls three times at dinner with pasta and freshly made pesto. I drank another cup of green tea and soldiered on.

By day four, I was cranky, terse and miserable. Ready for french bread pizza and a big glass of wine, with a bag of Hershey Kisses for dessert, I instead headed for the scale. And was shocked to find I had lost four pounds. The number fueled my reserve, most likely because I was getting so little fuel elsewhere.

I made it through the first week and lost five pounds. This was enough to get me back--comfortably--into many of my favorite pants. I also noticed, though, that my stomach had stopped bothering me, my constant heartburn was gone, and I was sleeping better. This led to a better mood, which trickled down to the rest of my family and improved the dynamic between us overall.

Since then, I have switched to the exception section of the book (for those times of the month when you just can't say no to chocolate), and have found it much better for my lifestyle. And the weight has not come back.

The big test came when I tried on a dress from a friend yesterday and fell in love with the way it fit me. Looking ahead to an upcoming wedding in June, I smiled at the way the dress hugged my curves in an elegant, sexy way instead of a muffin-top, too many cookies way. And while I can safely say that I never want to have to 'diet' again, in the way that diet means starve myself and eschew those things that make me happy, I have also learned something. In eating, as in many aspects of life, we get into ruts. It happens slowly, as do the consequences. The shock to the system of cold-turkey shifts sucks. But sometimes, that's what it takes.

If nothing else, it's made me conscious of what I eat, and how often. But more importanly, I've learned how diet impacts the body overall, from mood to energy to size, and how it changes as we age. If one week and five lost pounds can alter all those things, as well as my perspective, then it was definitely the right diet for me.

And once was enough.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Nature of Spring

After a cold, wet winter and an even wetter spring, the sun came out and the air warmed up and things dried out and bloomed.

And it was bad.

At least, it was bad for us allergy sufferers. Still is, actually, but I'm not complaining this year. That's because after seeing Bailey's allergic reactions to the blooming trees, complaining just didn't seem right.

Allergies tend to be typical in Labs, and we went into this adoption knowing that he had them. That first spring, they turned out to be a bit more serious than I had anticipated (read: worse than mine). I just get a runny nose, sneeze a lot and sometimes my eyes itch. As we quickly learned, though, it's different with dogs.

First, they have zones. Allergy response zones. Around their mouth, nose and eyes gets very red. Their muzzle itches. Their ears itch on the inside. The skin on the inside of their legs and their private parts becomes very sensitive and itchy.

Worse, they have claws. So when these areas start itching, dogs can scratch them. Really scratch them. I was not trying on my British accent when I referred to Bailey this week as "a bloody mess."

See, when the itching got bad (i.e. he would scratch until he was crying), he had to don the cone of shame. the problem is that Bailey is a smart dog, and anytime I left him home, he either figured out a way to get the cone off (doing his drunken sailor routine and walking into furniture and doorways) or enlisted Flash to spring him. So the sooner he got it off after I left, the longer he was, shall we say, on parole.

It was during these short periods that he would scratch his face bloody, and then proceed to rub said face all over the (thankfully covered) couch corner, in between its pillows and along the carpet to try to ease the itch. Not pretty.

Fortunately, Bailey can't read. Because if he could, he'd likely peruse my bookshelves filled with the works of Plath, Hemingway, Woolf and others. He might see himself in their torment, and get the idea in his head that the only way out of his discomfort and misery is suicide.

Fortunately for us, Bailey can't read. And fortunately for Bailey, there are doggie drug cocktails available to help him. Now when he walks into walls, I attribute it to the meds, because he's no longer scratching.

As he gets older, he'll get itchier and it will start earlier and last longer each season. But we're anticipating this, and have ammassed a geriatric canine medicine chest for just such occasions. And we laugh, sympathetically, at how these days, spring gives a whole new meaning to the term 'scratch and sniff.'

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Hoarders: TFV*

No, we haven't acquired any more animals. This confession is from Flash, being channelled through me. At least, this is what I hope he would say if he could talk. Because the first step in getting help is admitting you have a problem.

"My name is Flash, and I'm a hoarder. My old owners thought it was cute--they'd give me a dog biscuit, rawhide or other so-called 'treat' and stand there as if they were expecting me to put on a show of eating it. Please. Those things were either cardboard-y, rubbery or scratchy and hard. No matter how you sliced it, so to speak, they were nasty. In my opinion, dog treats created by people are going to be nasty. They claim to be the smartest animals, but hellooooo? If you're smart enough to know about our extraordinary sense of smell, don'tcha think it'd be nice to give us treats with flavors we can appreciate with that sense of smell?

So they'd give me these bone-shaped pieces of stuff and the only way I could get away with not eating it in front of them was to go bury it. The yard, the planters downstairs, heck I even hid one under a corner of the carpeting. I forgot all about it until they pulled up the rug and there it was. I almost laughed out loud! Anyway, they thought it was cute, and I'd get out of having to pretend they were yummy. I mean, come on. Lasagna for breakfast, beef lo mein for dinner and then rawhide?

But now I live with this new family. Sure, I still get to go home to visit my aunt and cousin and stuff when they stop by the old house every now and then, but things are definitely different on the whole. Last time I went to the old house, I dug up an old piece of a bone I had hidden in one of the plants downstairs. It was still hard, even though it was covered with wet dirt. But it was a piece of home, ya know? So I took it with me. I'll never tell what I did with it after, and I don't think my new owners noticed. Their place isn't as clean as my old one was. For one, they have carpet that's a few decades old. And they also have rats--rug rats, I think they call them. Mini-humans. And these minis have toys coming out the wazoo, tables with trains, tables for air hockey, tables for LEGOs, and lots of containers and shelves of even more toys. So there are TONS of places to hide stuff. I think this is where my problem started.

Last week, the head human gave me and Bailey each a GIANT rawhide bone. I practically squeaked with excitement. The thing was so big, it was like the ULTIMATE challenge to hide it! I couldn't wait! I took it right downstairs to where the mini-humans keep all their stuff, and went to work. Well, the head guy saw me in that room, but thankfully didn't come in. All I needed was a few minutes, and then I came trotting out. And pretty soon they were all, "Hey Flash, where's your bone? What did he do with it? I can't find it anywhere!" I'm telling you, it was brilliant.

You'd think after such an achievement (they still haven't found it), I'd be happy. But here's the thing. I had to get my teeth on Bailey's bone next. I mean, it was like I was compelled to hide it! I don't mind telling you, I was a little scared of the feeling, but I went and got the bone anyway.

But the humans, it's like they could read my mind or something. They stopped me. They took the bone and gave it back to Bailey. Then when I was able to grab it again, they actually chased me around the dining room and took it again! I let them have it because I didn't want them to see me struggle, but I felt like I was getting the DTs or something. It was weird. Like, I had to get that bone and hide it, like my life depended on it!

Long-story-not-very-short, I wasn't able to get the other bone. For two days after, I was beside myself. I couldn't eat. Couldn't poop. One night, the big human left a big hunk of fried chicken on the bone sitting out on the low table downstairs and just walked away. I was shocked! Of course, I was overcome and grabbed it, heading right into the playroom to hide that. I got busted though. Man, was he mad. He yelled so loud it scared me, so much so that I peed on the kitchen floor later.

That's when I knew I had a problem.

Anyway, thank you all for listening. It's good to be here. I hope we can all help each other. Peace."

*The Furry Version

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Looking A Gift Bunny In The Mouth

My family and I are practicing agnostics. I used to call myself a Unitarian Universalist, but the truth is, I just don't do well with weekly attendance at any kind of service. So while we don't have a spiritual 'community' in the usual sense of the word, we instead engage in various volunteer activities to help build, aid and beautify the community we live in, with hopes that others will pay it forward.

This works fine for adults, but once you have kids, not having structure for spirituality makes it a bit challenging to impart your values. Especially when it comes to holidays. We have a tree and a menorah in December; we have a seder and goody-filled baskets in spring. We atone in September, even though school has just started and the kids can't really figure out what they have done wrong in such a short period of time. So we are constantly talking about what's important, what life and the lives of others mean to us, and the best way to live in the world while keeping those values in mind.

After a week of school vacation that involved outings, movies, down time, playtime and lots of fighting, Easter morning arrived. This year, the Easter Bunny decided to give, in addition to sweets, a video game cartridge to each of my kids. One had been purchased on sale some time ago, and lusted after by my youngest son for much longer. With no birthdays, loose teeth or other opportunities for gift-giving in sight for several months, the basket seemed the perfect place for it. And to avoid trauma and in-fighting, Jacob received a game as well, though his was less expensive and not specifically requested. That, however, seemed to be the rub.

Here I was thinking myself magnanimous for going a little over the top for Easter, giving them actual gifts instead of just candy; enough over the top to earn disapproving looks from Mr. Bunny. Truly, Easter is not a gift-giving holiday--why was I spoiling the children? No, I said, this is OK. Less cavities, and guaranteed fun. Ben, at least, was thrilled.

"Mom, do you think the Easter Bunny kept the receipt?" Jacob asked me.

"I really don't know, Jacob. Why? Don't you like Pokemon?" I asked, a bit miffed that he didn't appreciate the fact that he'd just gotten a gift for no reason.

"I do, but I have another game that's a lot like this one, and it's pretty lame," he answered.

And that moment was when I realized my folly. The more we give our kids, 'just because' (fill in the blank: they want it; it's on sale; it's Easter/Passover/4th of July or any other holiday that has yet to be commercialized), we're only feeding the monster. Like our attention when they were younger, no matter how much you give, it will never be enough. Mr. Bunny was right--I'm sending the wrong message. I'm spoiling them.

When Mr. Bunny announced that there would be no video game playing today, I ducked, prepared for the backlash. After all, they had just gotten new games--how could we forbid them from playing? I dreaded the rest of the day, fueled by chocolate and the knowledge that those games were so close, yet so far. I thought him unreasonably cruel.

But then I realized two things. One, it was my own fault for setting up the situation, and two, I really hate video games. I would love to get rid of all of them, as well as our television set and fill the spaces with books, games and puzzles. But I can't, so instead I give them what they want, despite my better judgment. Maybe a bag of M&Ms would have been the better route, cavities be damned.

As the day has worn on, the kids cleaned their rooms, showered, and played outside with friends for an hour and a half. Next we will switch their winter clothes for summer ones in their closets and dressers, and then make sure the bookbags are packed with all they'll need to go back to school tomorrow. The games have been put away, and will likely be forgotten until next weekend. The lesson, though, will stay with me.

At least through Memorial Day.

Friday, April 22, 2011

This One's For You

Nothing says "I'm unhappy" like poop in the bedroom. Or should I say, nothing feels like your dog thumbing its nose at you like finding a log on your bedroom floor. And dogs don't even HAVE thumbs.

Look, rules suck. Just ask my kids. They have to do homework, bathe, clean up after themselves and go to school. They can't play video games all day, lie around on the couch until all hours or eat ice cream for dinner. But it's a lot harder to explain that these things build character and teach you to live in the real world when you're talking to a dog. A dog, mind you, who is used to sleeping in bed with his owner at night, on the couch during the day, and eating lasagna and chinese food more often than kibble.

I give Flash credit. He lost both his owners in a span of a couple of years. He had to move into a house that already had a pet, one very much loved by the family, and very well trained. He had to learn a new house, family dynamic, schedule and rules, and all while grieving his lost owners, home and lifestyle. And with all that, he's really been doing great. He's quick to learn, likes to please and is obviously trying to go with the flow until he figures it all out.

So I have to assume that, now that he fully grasps that this is his new home, he has decided to put his paw down, and put some things back into place. I've had to chase him off the couch twice this week--once, he got up there without my even noticing and likely had a nice nap before Ben realized where he was and alerted me. And Bailey has been uncommonly clingy. Perhaps his allergies are kicking in and he's feeling uncomfortable and grumpy, but when Flash comes over for a pet while Bailey is next to me, Bailey growls. Today, for the first time, he actually barked at Flash.

I admit I feel sorry for the little guy. For as far as he's come, he still knows he's second dog, he has to sleep on the floor, eat dog food and listen. We don't tolerate begging, rarely give out scraps, and don't take our dogs for car rides very often. Now that he's realized not only that his life has changed, but that it's not going to change back, he's pissed. So to speak. And who better to take it out on than the humans?

Like a typical mom, I want to give him more loving, more attention and make him feel better. But I also know that he knows the rules, and this was a blatant flouting of those rules. I've never been good at tough love, but I suppose now is the time to practice. The kids will be teenagers soon enough, and while a missed curfew isn't as bad as pooping in my room, it will still constitute a tightening of the rules. And while it will likely get the lesson learned, I guarantee the kids and dogs will agree, it still stinks.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

It's All Relative

I have to take issue with the fact that girls always get a bad rep for keeping boys waiting for dates. Granted, when I am getting ready to go out, I often have to get the kids bathed and fed, give instructions to the babysitter and walk the dogs first. Only then can I begin the increasingly arduous and lengthy process of prettying myself up for a date. So when my husband says, "are you almost ready?" and I answer "five more minutes," I really think that's all it will take. That's all it used to take. But since I'm getting old, these things end up taking longer. At least I have a good excuse.

Whether this is genetic, learned or just a circumstance of age, both my boys seem to have the same trait, but without the excuse. If I tell one of them that it's time for dinner and he needs to stop playing the video game he's playing, I'm told,

"OK, I just have to kill this guy and get to the next level."

While that sounds like something that should take all of three minutes, this is in fact the equivalent (in parenting language) of

"OK, I just have to finish middle school, college, medical school and go do my internship where I'll find the cure for cancer."

In other words, I'll be there soon-ish, with 'ish' being the operative quantifier. So don't hold your breath waiting, or you'll pass out.

As much as it's taken me time to figure this out, to realize that they will not be done as quickly as they make it sound, I also can't really get mad. Because the fact is, I get it. I'm a writer. I know what it's like to be 'in the zone,' totally focussed and absorbed, and then looking up five minutes later to find that I'm an hour behind schedule for starting dinner.

Like any problem (if not necessarily any genetic defect), recognizing the problem is the first step in working toward correcting it. But in a way, it's like the blind leading the blind--I know I need to get the kids off the video games and into books for a while each day, but at the same time, they are being very quiet. So quiet, in fact, that I can actually get some writing done, writing that I didn't think I'd get to do over the break because we'd be too busy running around doing stuff.

So now the question becomes, do I address my problem and be the good mommy, steering my kids back to interactive and educational activities for the rest of the afternoon? Or should I be selfish mommy and let them enjoy themselves a few minutes more? Just fifteen minutes, so I can work a little on my book outline.

Oh, and edit my chapters.

Oh, and finish updating my blog.

Wow, how did it get so late?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Steal My Thunder. Please.

As with any new event that changes the dynamic of a family, there are things that can be anticipated before the change, and things that cannot. Because we adopted Flash in the winter, we anticipated lots of 'indoor time' with both dogs as they got to learn how to live with each other, figured out the new pecking order and were taught the rules. There would be logistics to negotiate, such as feeding and sleeping areas, walking schedules and pet toy storage.

But one thing we didn't consider, because it had not been an issue for almost a year, was weather. Or, more specifically, storms. Not blizzards.

Thunderstorms.

Last night, with a house full of us and family visiting from out of state, we got our first, albeit mild, thunderstorm. Our guest room is in the basement, right next to the playroom, which is where we usually send Bailey during severe thunderstorms that rile and torment him. Downstairs, he can bark, pace, howl and moan at what we assume he perceives to be a fleet of big trucks going by on our road. Endlessly. Thankfully, once the truck...er, thunder stops making noise, so does Bailey. But with actual guests in our guest room, this wasn't really an option (although I did consider it very briefly).

What we discovered during this 30-minute, middle-of-the-night storm, though, was that Flash hates thunder. REALLY hates it. Like, he seems to think dozens of scary people are trying to knock down the walls and get into the house to steal the big, white box in the kitchen that holds all that awesome food. And like any good watch dog, if someone is trying to break in, you sound your alarm.

Well.

Flash's alarm, normally a cute little, high pitched bay, is, shall we say, not quite as cute at 1:30 in the morning as it is in the light of day. And for every ten minutes of alarm that plays without a snooze button option, the cute factor drops exponentially. After 20 minutes, I was praying the thunder would stop. After 30, I wanted to take Flash next door to his old, empty house and let him make all the noise he wanted. After 40, though the thunder had stopped, the alarm played on and I had my head buried under my pillow to no avail.

When he finally decided that the house was secure and the bad guys were gone, Flash finally gave up barking. Thankfully, it didn't take long for me to get back to sleep. Had the thunder continued though (or, dare I say it, had there really been bad guys trying to break in), I am certain that this little guy, with all the energy and passion and sense of duty he possesses, would have continued to warn us of the 'danger'. Like a furry postman, rain, lightning, dark of night and even exhaustion would not have caused him to quit. His sense of purpose is strong, and his loyalty high. At least, that's what I tell myself.

But I also know that, come summer, he will likely be getting to know our basement a lot better too.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Culinary Canine

Ben is my best eater, hands down. He will try anything, even if it's green. He loves vegetables, exotic foods and doesn't shy away from funky textures or combinations. Nor is he restricted by rules about what is acceptable food for certain times of day. This is a kid who eats cheeseburgers and raspberries for breakfast.

So it's no surprise that I consider him something of an expert on how to enjoy food, and I am not surprised when he stops everything to follow his dad downstairs when it's time to feed the dogs. This is especially true when they are getting leftovers, or as we like to call it, 'something from the big, white box' because the dogs go nuts when we pull something out of the refrigerator to heat for them. Then, noses in the air, they file behind dad as if he were the pied piper, drinking in the smell of melting beef fat that wafts behind him. It's music to their noses, and Ben trails behind them revelling in their excitement, feeling a kinship to those whose passion for food rivals his own.

But the excitement doesn't end there. Once kibble, fat and gravy have been divided and dispersed, Ben stays to watch the pooches chomp and slurp at their breakfast until the empty bowls clang against the tile floor.

On a typical dog food-only day, Flash will nibble his kibble and leave half behind. Sort of like Ben with chicken nuggets. It's bland, boring and processed, and therefore not worth the effort or calories. But when there are leftovers, Flash goes to town. Though only half of Bailey's size and weight, Flash often empties his dish first, putting on a show of grunts and snorts as he goes, as if he can't eat it fast enough. This has always amused Ben, but today something shifted in his thinking, and he commented on it.

"Mom, Flash always finishes his food first, but he just chomps it down. He doesn't saaavor it. He doesn't breeeathe."

He sounded disheartened, as if Flash had let him down, exposed himself as a gourmand rather than a gourmet. Clearly, if Flash eats so fast that he can't even breathe, he is not tasting the food. He therefore must not be enjoying it, and Ben seemed to pity the dog for what he is unknowingly missing out on.

If that's the case, so be it. I chalk it up to Ben's first in what will surely be many character studies. Surely it won't be the only time he sees someone for what they truly are, when reality will shatter illusion and someone will suddenly become a disappointment to him.

I try not to think about the day when Ben will realize his mom and dad are just people, not superheroes, and that we make mistakes like every other human, even when raising our kids.

If I'm lucky, his experience with the dogs will help him retain his faith in us--even after this jarring realization--and his love will continue unwavering.

But I'll be happy if he just deigns to share a good meal with us every once in a while.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Good Humor Men

It's hard to be little. You have to look up at everyone, you can't see the tops of counters, and you have to do what you're told. Things are confusing sometimes, and you want to be independent but you have no choice but to rely on others because you can't get a job. Sometimes you get yelled at, and you don't know what you did or why it was bad.

Just ask my beagle.

Perhaps this is why Ben has been so sympathetic with Flash lately: because he can relate. Before our dog days, Ben was the puppy in the pack. Everyone was bigger, smarter, older and better at stuff than he was (notice I didn't say 'louder'). Of course, being the smallest and youngest has its challenges, not the least of which is carving out your own niche, finding your place in the pack.

Not only were you not the first one here, but now you're competing for attention while trying to make up for lost time. Plus, everyone seems to know the rules, and their place, but you. So you go through your options:

Boy? Taken.
First born? Taken.
Smart? Taken.
Eager? Taken.
Obedient? Taken.
Creative? OPEN
Funny? OPEN

And there you go. Through the process of elimination, Flash and Ben have both been able to find their places in the pack. They are feisty, emotional, controversial, demanding and ultimately will do what they want regardless of what they're told.

But they are also the cuddliest, goofiest and funniest of the bunch. They love fearlessly and without reserve, and are creative in getting what they want. Ben will debate and finagle, tell you jokes and make ridiculous suggestions to get what he is after. Flash will roll around on the carpet like a wind-up toy, dig through the recycling bag to pull out and play with an empty peanut butter jar and use the couch to get up to the bay windowsill to bark at passersby. You're so busy laughing at their creativity that you forget to be angry at them. Henry Ward Beecher once said, "Men will let you abuse them if only you will make them laugh."

To Flash and Ben, rules are meant to be bent, looked upon as 'suggestions' rather than restrictions. In this family, at least, being the littlest means grabbing hold of what power you can and using it to your best advantage.

And if everyone is laughing at you, you've definitely got power. And a better chance of getting what you're really after.