Thursday, January 26, 2012

Do As I Say, Not As I Do

If you had asked me 10 years ago whether I'd be a good dog owner, I'd have said 'sure!' because I knew very little about caring for dogs, even though we had a dog growing up. With a fence around our yard, all I had to do was open the door and let Lady out or in. Mom fed her every day, and when we went on vacation, my aunt and uncle next door took the dog while we were gone. As far as I knew, there was no work involved--just fun.

As a young twenty-something, I thought of babies the same way I used to think of dogs. Lots of fun, no real work except changing the occasional diaper. Yeah, I know. I was clueless about a lot of things back then.

My husband and brother-in-law often tell me that I let my children take advantage of me. Sure, I make threats to get them to do what they're supposed to, and I try to follow through, but come on. I also have to make dinner, walk the dogs, update my blog and a million other things. If they're still watching cartoons instead of doing homework, even though I threatened to take television away for a week, well how can I get anything done if I actually *do* that? The fact is, I can't I *need* the availability of television. Why can't they just do what they're told??

I never really put the ideas of dog ownership and parenting together in the same thought before. But this morning, I realized that not only am I sending the wrong message to my children, I'm sending the same message to my dogs.

After a morning walk, our beagle, Flash, likes to wrestle with Bailey, our lab. Despite being only half Bailey's size, Flash is relentless in his pursuit of entanglement. He'll chase Bailey, jump at his neck, roll over in front of him and attach himself to Bailey's heel, following him around in circles and barking ceaselessly until he gets some attention. Bailey, to his credit, will often play. If he's in the mood. But sometimes, he's just not, and I totally get that. When this is the case, he'll growl at Flash to make him go away.

It doesn't work.

So Bailey growls louder, more deeply, more menacingly. Flash remains unfazed. Ultimately, Bailey will bark a bark that would make a junkyard dog run the other way. It's downright scary to hear.

But not to Flash.

I keep waiting for Bailey to take a nip out of Flash, to really get the message across. "That would teach him," I think. "Let him know you mean it, Bailey!" I cry.

But Bailey just walks away. And in that moment, I see myself. Yelling louder, hurling ever more dire threats of, "You had betters..." and "Ooh, I'm gonnas...." and then leaving and ignoring the lack of compliance.

They say that admitting you have a problem is the first step in fixing it. Thanks to my dog, I realize I have some parenting skills to work on. Otherwise, like Flash, my kids will never take my threats seriously. Maybe we can do it together, Bailey and I. Like exercise, these things are always easier with a friend.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Distraction Faction

I am a mean mommy. I don't let my kids play video games, handheld or otherwise, on school days. On Fridays, I let Ben bring his DS to play on the school bus. His friends bring their game players every day, something Ben often points out.

But Ben has also accepted this rule of mine. Maybe because I choose prime moments to explain my motives. For example, one night he was playing Wii for about 45 minutes before dinner. When it was time to shut it off to come eat, he got loud and combative. When the answer was still "time for dinner. Turn it off," he got whiny. And so, like any good mother, over dinner I explained the connection between his jumpy, crack-addict behavior and what the light-speed action on his video game does to his brain. To have to go from dodging speeding dragons, cars and other flying objects all while trying to capture gold coins and not die, to a quiet family dinner is like slamming your brain into a brick wall. (Some may offer that sitting down to ANY family dinner is like slamming one's brain into a brick wall, but that's another post for another day).

He didn't like the answer, but one thing about Ben is that he's very attuned to his body. When he feels *that* uncomfortable, but can understand a possible connection to a cause, he'll go with it.

No, I don't offer any scientific studies or stats for my argument. It just seems logical to me, and I guess it seems logical to Ben because he doesn't question it. Even if it's not about understanding his body, I think he at least likes having an understanding of why his mother sets such stupid rules.

So on a recent Wednesday, I picked Ben and a friend up from school. I handed each of them a bag of Transformers fruit snacks, which they promptly opened. DS game in his lap, his friend asked me why Ben isn't allowed to bring is DS to school.

"I am allowed, on Fridays," Ben answered before I could. Then he commented on the character his fruit snack was and asked his friend which character he got.

"I never really notice the characters," he said.

And that made me smile. Because Ben notices EVERYTHING. He always has, and still does. I can't say for certain that it's because I withhold video games. But knowing that he doesn't have something in his pocket to distract him from his world all the time is enough scientific proof for me that I'm making the right choice. No matter how mean a mommy it makes me.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Allow Me To Introduce You Two: Brain, Food

"I was 32 when I started cooking. Up till then, I just ate." --Julia Child

I've decided that, when it comes to training on how to feed my family, I got shafted. (Sorry, Mom. Nothing personal). Actually, it's not my mom's fault. It's society's. My generation was reared during the rise of convenience foods, microwaves, working moms and pre-cable-television-as-a-safe-babysitter. And in fact my mom did her best: we were given raw veggies to munch on each afternoon while we watched the After School Specials on TV. She made a home-cooked meal every night. And I mean EVERY NIGHT. Roast chicken. Roast beef. Stew. Steak. Spaghetti and meatballs. Pot roast.  Real stick-to-your-ribs stuff that took hours to make and fed a family. Correction: took HER hours to make. Growing up, I never gave dinner a second thought.

So of course once I was on my own, working, taking care of my own apartment and going to night school, I'd eat when I was hungry. If I was out of food or time, I'd grab something on my way to wherever--taco, doughnut, burger, fries. Too tired to cook at night? Mac and cheese or cereal filled the bill. Salad? Um, yeah, I think I bought some last month for some recipe; oh, never mind. It went bad. See? This is why I don't buy vegetables or fruit. It's a waste of money. That was my logic. I had kept with the idea of rich, filling food when it's time to eat, but lost the message about the planning. But all that was fine on my 20-something body, because no matter how badly I abused it, it kept on staying the same.

Remember those days?

Fast forward 15+ years. Insert family here. Yes we work long hours, manage kids' activities, pets' schedules and the medical and financial paperwork of aging parents, not to mention piles of laundry, spelling tests and the constant task of keeping clutter at bay. There is not a lot of downtime. No one will dispute that fact.

But here's the thing: there *is* downtime. In my parents' generation, I see now, that time was once filled with, among other things, coupon-clipping and weekly meal-planning. But in this world of constant communication, we all walk around with a pocketful of distraction every moment of every day. And aren't Facebook and Tweeting more fun than meal-planning?

Technology has made it possible to download a recipe for kimchi while riding on the train, shop for groceries online during lunch hour and have them delivered to our homes in the evening, then spend our nights watching any number of cooking shows that would make Julia Child's mouth hang open. But the irony is that, with all those advances, we are still dealing with our food on the go, outsourcing the shopping, preparation and experimentation that make cooking so great. For many of us, sensual food is something we enjoy only on TV.

Feeding our families and selves is as necessary as it's always been. Feeding them well is more important than we've ever realized before. But *teaching* them how to think about food is critical to their health. And it's no easy task, especially if we never actually learn to do it ourselves.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Repress After Reading

When I volunteered to help as a lunch monitor at my son's middle school, I had no idea how little the job would actually be about food. I spent two hours in the cafeteria as an "extra pair of eyes" to help out the staff and insure the safety and well-being of the kids. In the course of those hours, four waves of kids cycled through for lunch periods: eighth graders, seventh graders and two rounds of sixth graders.

Here's what I learned:

For years, I have apparently repressed many memories of middle school. Now I know why.

Many eighth graders look like they are 16 years old.

Many eighth grade girls act like they are 16 years old.

Few eighth grade boys act older than 12 years old.

Most eighth graders spend their lunch hour talking, playing on iGadgets and horsing around. Very little food is consumed.

I use the term "food" loosely. One child had a container of chocolate milk and four chocolate chip cookies in front of him. And nothing else. I wonder if his mother knows.

Seventh graders are loud. REALLY loud.

The noise of seventh graders is not gender-specific.

Whether to impress girls or make others laugh, seventh grade boys like to make themselves look stupid.

Many seventh grade boys use food to do this. I saw one boy repeatedly smash an apple into his forehead. I wonder if his mother knows. A lunch monitor finally took the apple from him and threw it away.

In middle school, Gatorade is the new water.

No one sings the Barney "clean up" song in the cafeteria. Nor do they all clean up. I wonder if there's a correlation.

Sixth graders are quiet and respectful and neat. They eat what's in their lunch boxes and go to the auditorium when they are told. They do this only after cleaning up.

The moral of this experience was, don't give your children money to buy lunch without specific instructions on what lunch should and should not be.

Oh, and keep your child in sixth grade for as long as possible. Their lunch monitors will thank you.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Selling Points

I have a coupon for one of those services that gives you a discount at various restaurants. You know, buy the coupon for $5 and get $25 worth of food when you go. So I visited the website to see what restaurants were available in the area I was searching. 

One of the options for each search result is to see more about the restaurant in question: Amenities, Special Features, Attire, Banquet Facilities, etc. While checking out an Asian-fusion restaurant, I clicked for more info to see if there were certain days I would not be able to use the coupon. While going through the list of info, I saw it. The atmosphere of the restaurant is described this way:

Family/Children, Gay Friendly, Romantic

I was smiling without even realizing it. I mean, think about the possibilities!

Family with children at one table. Gay couple at the next table, feeling romantic (it's allowed--check the restaurant's description) and holding hands. One of the kids notices and asks his parents about it and starts a whole family discussion about love and gender and America and freedom and how families come in all shapes and colors and sizes and types.


Then I stopped being excited and wondered if I should be angry. I mean, why does a restaurant have to state something like that categorically? It doesn't say Latino Friendly or Black Friendly. Why the distinction? Is this considered such a rare thing in restaurants that putting it out there in their description is like a selling point?

What if a restaurant doesn't say that it's Gay Friendly? Are we to assume that it is anyway? Or that it's Gay Hostile? (Talk about an oxymoron). Is this a new phenomenon in Asian restaurants? Are they notoriously anti-gay and this restaurant is saying, "Hey, eat here! We're different from the rest!"?

It was then that I realized that it didn't matter why the description is on there. Because it made me think. It made me start this discussion with you. It made me realize both the good and the bad possibilities, and I will talk to people about it and see what they think as a result.

All because of a description at a fusion restaurant. How perfect.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Into the Ears of Babes

Today I went to a photography exhibit of a friend of mine. While there and waiting for a word with the artist, I met his young granddaughter. She is in elementary school and quite artistic too, and we got to talking. As always, I was very conscious of making my conversation topics interesting and child-friendly. We spoke of her bunny rabbit, Oreo, her teacher, her musical interests and the subjects she likes in school. I explained that I had two sons a little older than she, who also enjoyed art, music and the theater. 

Then she asked me if my boys went to the Y (after school program) when they were done with school, as she did. I explained that they took the bus home because I work at home, so am there to greet them and help with homework. She asked me what I worked on at home. I told her I was a writer. She asked if I had written any books. I told her I was working on two books right now, one fiction and one non-fiction.

At this point, I should pause to mention that I love speaking with children, and yet am often the one doing the questioning. But this little girl was so precocious and interesting, that she quickly made me realize how ill-equipped I am to give any kind of interviews with potentially malicious media personnel. She made me so comfortable and at-ease that I was unprepared to answer the question that came next.

"What are your books about?" 

I opened my mouth, then stopped. The non-fiction book, which I'm hoping to find an agent for soon, is about female sexual dysfunction and how to regain the sex life you once had, or get the one you've always wanted. Definitely no quick way to put that into 7-year-old friendly terms.

Immediately, then, I turned my thoughts to my novel. "One is about being a mom," I answered her confidently. And before she could inquire as to the title, I shifted to ask her about whether, when she has finished with a drawing, she likes to go back and make little changes, maybe color it in and add some more details. 

"Oh, sure," she said, obviously understanding my meaning. I explained that the book was in that 'fixer-upper' stage, also called the 'editing' stage and that I was working on making it better. But I had no workaround in mind if she were to ask me what the book is called. I just could not come up with a child-friendly substitute for a title with the word Prozac in it, so I instead asked her if she had tried the brownies. She had, and insisted that they were very good. 

My plan for this year is to finish my edits, take a course on being interviewed, and thank my stars every day that I am not in politics.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Embracing My Inner Geek

I have always been behind the times when it comes to technology. I had an analog cell phone for years after the digital ones came out, still enjoying the novelty of the 'flip' motion I had to use when I opened it to talk. It made me feel like I was a character on Star Trek or something, and the little belt holder made me look like a very important person.

Once everyone started getting Smart Phones, I went and bought myself a pay-as-you-go phone with a slide-out keyboard so I could learn, finally, how to text. Since my then-6th-grader had a phone with texting capabilities, it only made sense that I should be able to text him, and he me, even if he didn't want to ever do such a thing. I lovingly referred to it as my Stupid Phone.

This was all well and good for over a year, until I found my children involved in more and more activities that required me to drive them places and stay there for at least an hour. Normally I would bring a book for such events, but more than once I found myself waiting for an email from a literary agent or one of my kids' teachers, and it was time to walk out the door and leave my computer at home. I was surprised to find that not being able to be in touch when I needed to was actually stressful.

One evening at my son's martial arts class, as a friend sat next to me checking her email, I actually leaned over and asked, rather abashedly, if she would mind terribly if I checked my email on her phone when she was done. I was waiting for an answer from my co-author, I explained, and wanted to respond as soon as I heard from her. I knew post-class would involve homework, dinner, dog-walking and the like and I wouldn't get a chance to check my mail again until after 9pm, far too late.

While asking my friend, though, time seemed to slow down for me. Suddenly I was that kid at college who keeps bumming cigarettes from others until she's finally told to go buy her own damn pack. I could see myself doing this during every martial arts class until I would finally push my friend's generosity to its limit.

It was time to buy my own damn smart phone.

This week, I got one. And while my 12-year-old drools on my shoulder all weekend while I wend my way through the icons, dual touch screens, apps, features and frills of the essentially-mini-computer, I still have not got a data plan. I use my home network for now, but at the end of the month I will be untethered and able to check email from anywhere.

I have to say the feeling is mixed. While I love the promise of being able to do what I need without having to be home, I also find myself drawn to checking my Facebook status more than necessary, and ignoring the laundry and impending dinner hour as I navigate my way through the Android market or poke around on Foursquare.

Ultimately, I hope the novelty will wear off and the phone will be just one more useful tool to help me do more from more places. If nothing else, though, when I'm not waiting for a message at martial arts class, at least I can blog about what I'm doing instead, or play Angry Birds instead of harassing my friend.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Workin' It

Trust me.
We are always bragging about how smart our dog Bailey is, but I never considered he was smart enough to learn the art of manipulation. Now I'm starting to wonder.

Little Flash was used to having his own way at his old place, and he knew how to make it happen. Bailey, on the other hand, had always been the 'textbook' pet: well-trained, smart, easy to teach and unconditionally loving. He knew what we expected of him and always gave his best and his all.

But since Flash and Bailey have started hanging out, Bailey seems to be picking up new tricks. Last month, he was starting to whine every two hours to go out, whereas four outings a day used to be enough for him. He made it sound as if he just couldn't hold it, to the point that we had him tested for a bladder infection. But the vet said he was perfectly fine. Once we started telling Bailey to be quiet and stopped letting him out every time he complained, he seemed to recognize we were on to him. The all-day whining stopped.

This week, he's been limping around on his front paw, as if he's pulled a muscle or maybe is struggling with the cold and arthritis. We've been paying him extra attention, catering to his disability and giving him lots of love because we feel bad he's hurting. Strangely, as soon as we go outside, he is running, jumping, pulling on the leash with his mouth and doing his 'happy bus dance' every morning and afternoon: there's no sign of pain or injury. But later when we are all inside, he will sit at the bottom of the stairs and moan when no one is downstairs with him, rather than  coming up to join us. When we call to him, he stares up at us as if he couldn't possibly climb all those stairs with his now-sore-again paw. As if we should come down and cuddle with him in front of the TV to prove that we really love him.

I don't know which behavior to believe is the truth anymore. How he has figured out how to get what he wants from us is a mystery. But Bailey is a smart dog, and I wouldn't put it past him to be playing us. If nothing else, this is good practice for when my kids start doing it.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Tell Me What You *Really* Think

At my most recent writers' group meeting, I had a chance to see my main character through the eyes of other writers. This, you might say, is what writers' groups are all about. You get a bunch of writers together, pour them coffee, and then hand them a piece of your soul and ask them to chew it up and spit it back at you. Couched in kindness and good intentions, of course. 

I have never been good at taking criticism, regardless of how constructive it is. When I was young, I always talked a blue streak, perhaps with the unconscious goal of not giving anyone a chance to censure me. My uncle used to joke about it, and now I see the same trait in my son. But when I started writing, I learned to talk less and listen more. I actually took a class that taught me how to sit back and listen to critiques of my work without interrupting, defending myself or explaining my motives. I'm shocked I passed.

To get around this uncomfortable but necessary aspect of learning to write well, I tended to lean toward poetry and non-fiction. It sounds strange, I know. But when writing poetry, you are forced to distill your message and emotions to their bare bones. Interpretation is often necessary and personal to the reader, and the formulas of tempo, alliteration and line counts can actually help me detach myself from what I'm writing. The words I choose must have heft and clarity and get the job done. Non-fiction, on the other hand, is just that: facts. Verifiable, indisputable facts laid out in articulate and hopefully lyrical form: no critique necessary. It's either right or it's wrong.

Maybe this is why workshopping fiction pieces is so tough for me. My novel contains characters I've created, coddled and cared for over several months. They are close to my heart, warts and all. But they must be put on display and evaluated, judged objectively by others. And it hurts me to hear them dubbed cranky, inept and even 'too perfect' even though I know they are. It's as if they were my own children.

Thankfully, this means I am on the right track to writing a novel. I've created characters I care about (perhaps a little too much), who are human and make mistakes, and who need room to grow. The best advice anyone ever gave me about writing a novel was this: let your characters make bad decisions. You can imagine how hard this was at first. I didn't want my characters to get hurt, hurt others or make fools of themselves. But until I started letting them make bad decisions, my novel was very dull because nothing was happening.

Being able to detach yourself may work for some forms of writing, but I understand now that for fiction to truly take flight, it must be messy, ugly and full of the stuff of real life. So I can't let myself shut people down when they criticize my characters. No parent wants to be told they are doing a bad job. But every good writer needs to learn to take criticism, even when it's about their characters. How else would my characters--or I as a writer--ever grow?