29 June 2009


My children have all had a few annoying habits in common, corresponding with specific developmental stages.

First, was shoe flinging, which they all did as young walkers. Whenever they were seated in a stroller or car seat, they immediately proceeded to kick their shoes off. After you spend five minutes wrestling your baby's limp feet into, and then tying the laces of their first pair of shoes, only to find on arriving at your destination that said shoes are nowhere to be found, you get a little annoyed.

On more than one occasion when he was a baby, Sacha flung off a shoe while we were out for a walk, except I did not discover this until we were home. With one shoe. (Retracing our steps didn't help.) And so, I let him go barefoot in the winter. THAT REALLY TAUGHT HIM A LESSON.

Then, there is sock stuffing, which all three are still guilty of. Whenever I do a thorough house clean-up, I find socks hidden in every imaginable crevice; under couch cushions, behind radiators, under rugs, in the dishwasher (really; that's Sacha, I'm sure). They are all so reliable about this that it is a wonder I keep buying them socks, rather than sweep the premises when they tell me they need new ones. Sometimes a trip to Target is quicker than an archaeological excavation.

But the most annoying habit is the carping to watch television AS SOON AS WE GET IN THE CAR FOR A RETURN VOYAGE. This is a toddler habit which Sarah and Gabriel have aged out of, but Sacha is still in his prime. When the key turns in the ignition, Sacha brightly asks, “Can we watch TV?” I don't have a television in the car, so he is referring to the one in our den, which, when he asks, IS MILES AWAY.

That I refuse to answer this question in the affirmative does nothing to deter Sacha. So, we now have a well-worn conversational loop.

“Can I watch TEEVEE?” Sacha asks as I pull out of the parking space.
“Do you see a TV here?” I respond. I try to handle many discipline issues via the Socratic Method.
“Can I watch TEEVEE?”
“Please don't ask me about TV until we are home.”
“Can I watch TEEEVEEEE?”

This is followed by the sound of me banging my head against the windshield.

Today, on our way home from the pool, it began as soon as Sacha was buckled in his car seat.

“Can I watch TV?”

I opened my mouth to repeat my line, and Sarah chimed in: “Sacha, do we have a TV in the car?”
“Can I watch TV?”
I opened my mouth. Again, I was beaten to the punch.

By round three, I no longer bothered trying to speak. I gave Sarah the keys, and let her drive home.

27 June 2009

Good enough mother

I am still working my way through Ayelet Waldman's book Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace, and yesterday I came across Insult and Injury on Judith Warner's Domestic Disturbances blog.

Both deal with the Mommy Police, the judgmental strangers that can't help but offer unsolicited advice or criticism on a mother's parenting, and are the bane of many mother's existence.

I have written here before about my dismay over the ridiculous expectations high achieving women expect of themselves, and others, where mothering is concerned. It upsets me when I hear women like Waldman, or my friends, who are clearly not bad mothers, refer to themselves as such, even in jest.

It is partly the fault of living in a society where far more is expected of mothers than of fathers to be considered competent parents. But just as there comes a point in one's life where you can no longer blame you parents for your own failings, we cannot lay blame for this solely on external forces beyond our control. As mothers, we are also responsible for buying into this.

No one should feel obligated to be a perfect mother. Perfection is an unrealistic, and unattainable goal, and if this is where you set the bar for yourself, you will never measure up.

What we should strive for is to be is a good enough mother, and a decent parent. Mistakes will be made, and often. I know mothers whom I think are too controlling, some a bit lax. Some I think should take a firmer hand in disciplining, while others need to lighten up. I know mothers with substance abuse problems, others who run anxious, and far too many who are unduly hard on themselves. I am sure my friends find faults in my mothering. Yet even with our many flaws, most of the mothers I know seem to strike the right balance; I would not call any of us a bad mother.

We are all imperfect mothers, which is as it should be.

If you can't let go of your desire for perfection for yourself, at least try to do so for your children's sake. The more you build yourself up in your children's eyes, the farther your descent will be on your inevitable fall from grace. If you think you need to serve on PTA committees, volunteer at your local soup kitchen, provide stimulating activities for your kid's entertainment because you are worried about them watching too much television, keep a well stocked craft closet for rainy days, provide freshly cut fruit or home-baked items for every charity bake sale at your children's school, work a full-time job outside of the home, all while keeping up with basic household management and the care of your family, you are headed for a nervous breakdown.

This job is really, really hard. Mothers need to help one another out, rather than spend undue energy taking each other down. To those that seek to judge you, give them an insincere smile and a silent “Fuck you,” and hold your head up high as you take your children by the hand and walk away.

25 June 2009

Neda, myth, and martyr

Here is an interesting thread I noticed on XX Factor, a blog on Double X, Slate's newest venture. Double X is a website for women; I've only perused the site briefly, but my first impression is one of cross between Lifetime and Bust Magazine.

First Dana Stevens posted Is The "Neda" video a snuff movie?", a somewhat measured musing on the "construction of a martyr mythology in the blogosphere’s reporting on Iran," and concludes, "Western sympathizers convinced they’re manning the virtual barricades by turning their Twitter avator photos green, resetting their locations to 'Tehran,' and feverishly forwarding a graphic unsourced video of a young girl’s death strike me as both touchingly enthusiastic and dangerously inane." Fair enough.

As follow-up, there was Of Course the Neda Video is a Snuff Movie, by Susanna Breslin, a post whose self-righteous title is meant to be provocative. Just reading that title, I found my sensibilities offended to the point where I had to read on. The argument is the feminist trope that the world is gripped by the video of Neda Agha Soltan's murder, not merely because it is horrifying, but because she was young, and pretty, and female.

It suggests a naive political correctness by ascribing base motives to those who have seen the video: "We watch the video not purely for political reasons, but also because we are curious. About life, and death, and what happened. And in that, it becomes a form of entertainment. We fetishize it, its story, and its characters."

Stevens elaborates: "We're talking about the something else the video becomes when its focus and attendant narrative take on the qualities of martyr and myth. The video becomes something else altogether, something that, more often than not, is more about us than the subject itself."

The part that disturbed me the most was this: "No, like a 'true' snuff movie, the video was not created for the purpose of entertainment. Although why it was created, at least for now, remains something of a mystery. One man stood over Neda and videotaped her while she died. Somebody else uploaded it to the Internet. Now, we disseminate it. It plays before our eyes, enigmatic, and we imbue it with meaning."

I beg to differ.

I can tell you exactly why this video was created, and why it has caught the world's attention. Something horrible is happening before the eyes of the world in Iran, and I imagine that those who have the misfortune of bearing witness to it must feel an obligation to tell the world the truth. As one reader on Andrew Sullivan's The Daily Dish put it, what is happening in Iran is Anne Frank's diary. Live. Multiplied by millions.

Someone recorded this moment because a helpless woman lay dying and there was nothing anyone could do to save her. Neda Agah Soltan was powerless, as was everyone around her. Confronted with being so utterly useless in the face of such brutality, the videographer did the only thing he could do; record it for posterity, so that the world could see first hand what this regime is capable of.

By removing the Soltan family from their home, and denying them their right to mourn in keeping with their religious customs, and to lie about the cause of her death, it is the Iranian regime — not the media, not a bunch of perverts who enjoy jerking off to images of a woman killed — that is responsible for turning Neda into a martyr.

The story of Neda Agha Soltan's death is about human, not women's suffering. To pose an argument about the feminist implications of this horrifying clip while in the thick of a humanitarian crisis is small minded and reductive, the kind of naive, microcosmic feminism that gives feminism a bad name.

24 June 2009

Generation gap

Becoming a parent, and getting older in general, entails a willingness to eat a lot of crow.

When Sarah was an infant, I remember making a trip to the mall with my mother, and being appalled watching another mother casually converse with someone, while her baby wailed in the stroller. Once we were out of earshot, I turned to my mother and said, "Well, she's not very attentive to her baby."

Flash forward three years, and there I am with my back turned to Gabriel, my newest wailing baby, jiggling my stroller and chatting.

I issued a silent apology to that mother whom I was so quick to judge.

So I am more careful about things I say I will never do, because of the potential for embarrassing myself. Nonetheless, an exchange I had with my mother last night made me laugh.

I mentioned that I'd taken Sacha to the doctor because he'd developed, not one, but two distinctly different rashes, on his face and leg, and was uncharacteristically sedate.

"The rash on his face is probably impetigo," I said, "which I just learned sometimes accompanies staph or strep infections."

My mother stopped me: "Oh; well, I may not come tomorrow then. We're getting ready for our trip, and I don't want to risk exposing us to anything at this point."

"When are you leaving?" I asked.

"July 26."

The incubation period for strep infections is 2-5 days, which, by my calculations, puts my mother well outside the danger zone for a late July excursion.

So when I am a grandmother, and say something similar to my children, let the record show that I did not say I would never say something like this.

22 June 2009

Full contact snuggling

Yesterday morning, David was lying on the couch in the den while the boys watched TV. I watched Sacha climb on top of him, as David executed a skillful maneuver to protect his groin. It is a move he has perfected by now, as he has to utilize it often.

"I should have gotten you a cup for Father's Day," I said, to which David replied,"Sacha is just nature's way of saying, 'I am your last child.'"

Snuggling with Sacha is an extreme sport. It starts off nice enough, when he comes into our bed after waking, smelling of sleep and little boy. For a few minutes he lies between us, nuzzling and sighing contentedly.

Foolish parents, we fall for this every time! Isn't this lovely; isn't he delicious? How nice to have this quiet time to transition from sleep to wakefulness!

But soon enough, Sacha gets restless, and what was so sweet a minute ago quickly morphs into something more dangerous.

It begins with a few elbow jabs, at which point we instinctively turn our backs in protection. But now, Sacha's movement has been restricted, so he turns himself 180 degrees, to cleave the space between us, and more effectively use his arms and legs. I have to admire his efficiency as he simultaneously claws one of us while kicking the other. Insulted that we have turned away, he then climbs over one of us — usually David; this is the down-side of being the favored parent! — to make his way back into his arms.

At this point we must assume a defensive fetal crouch to protect ourselves from the blows reining down.

Sacha uses full contact snuggling as the platform for some fairly imaginative play. One recent morning he began to paw at my chest. I swatted him away, but he kept coming back, repeating “Elevator going up!” This was extremely irritating, and I had no idea what he was talking about. I gave David my WTF look, and he explained: buttons.

MY SON WAS USING MY BREASTS TO CALL AN IMAGINARY ELEVATOR. I hope he learns greater finesse before he starts dating, as I don't imagine many women would enjoy his type of foreplay.

Yesterday morning, soon after he had to initiate groin protection, David lay on the couch with his knees bent. Sacha began to use his head as a battering ram, trying to pry David's shins open, all the while saying "I'm a credit card." David and I looked at each other; here was just one more example of the ways in which our youngest is insane. But eventually, understanding began to dawn; Sacha was role playing, and had cast David as the swipe reader.

It does a mother proud; when it comes to loving, Sacha is not only sadistic, but clever! The Marquis de Sade could have learned a few things from his play book.

21 June 2009

Wherein toothpaste is a possible source of marital discord

This year, David and I experienced a subtle shift in our marital dynamic, which had we not handled it carefully, could have exposed a rift in the state of our union.

David switched toothpastes.

For longer than we have been married, we have been loyal to Tom's. Our favorite is the cinnamint, but if that is out of stock, we're happy with peppermint, or spearmint. Once, in the spirit of adventure, I tried the fennel, but although I love to eat fennel, it wasn't what I was looking for in a toothpaste.

So you can imagine my surprise when David came home from a trip to Costco with a 3-pack of Crest Pro-Health.

Is something wrong, I asked him? Why have you forsaken Tom's?

"I just wanted to try something new," was the reply.

Still, I worried. Perhaps this switch was symbolic of a larger problem of which I was unaware? For the first few months, I eyed the Crest suspiciously nestling with the Tom's in a cup on our sink basin, feeling a bit betrayed. I felt a little wistful as watched David brush his teeth every evening, thinking "I thought we were a team."

Many questions plagued me once this new side of my husband had been revealed: Have you no brand loyalty? How could you have made such a decision without consulting me? Have we upset the delicate balance that keeps a marriage working? And most worrisome: Will I be the next thing you casually toss aside?

Otherwise, things continued as smoothly as they normally do. I told myself that I was reading too much into this. Eventually, I grew accustomed to the sight of two toothpastes, and no longer felt threatened by it.

One day, I decided to try the Crest. I don't like the taste of artificial sweeteners, which is the reason we used Tom's, and so I expected to dislike it. It turned out, Crest wasn't so bad. I still prefer the taste of Tom's, but the Crest has these crunchy bits in it—which I now know is because of stannous flouride, one of it's active ingredients—that I rather like.

In the spirit of compromise, I decided to divide my time between Tom's and Crest.

At my most recent teeth cleaning, my dental hygienist asked me if I'd given up coffee or red wine? (No, and no.) "But I am using Crest, occasionally," I told her. This is something she'd been suggesting to me for some time. She nodded her head in satisfaction, affirming that there had been a dramatic shift in my mouth.

I came home emboldened and proud that I'd been so open to trying something new; the state of my union, as well as my teeth, were as strong as ever!

But still, I was a little nostalgic for simpler days, when we were a one toothpaste couple. Last night as we were washing up, I asked David if he ever used Tom's anymore.

"And you don't miss it?"
"Not really."

I was about to open my mouth to say something when he cut me off: "If you were to consult a therapist about this, she would laugh at you as she thanked you for your $125."

True enough. I married a wise man.

This morning, for Father's Day, I my chronically sleep-deprived husband sleep in. When he came downstairs, he gave me a good morning kiss, something we don't normally do. I thought it was just in thanks for letting him sleep, but something about they way he looked at me indicated that I was not reading the situation correctly.

I looked at him, puzzled, and he explained: "Tom's."

20 June 2009

On Iran

For the better part of this week, I have been gripped by events in Iran, a country I've never visited, and until very recently, knew very little about.

I've never been a fan of the 24/7 news cycle as practiced by the major cable networks. Partly because I'm not much of a television watcher, but also because I've always found their coverage shallow. While things are changing constantly, most of the time, the rate of change is not dramatic enough to warrant the coverage 24/7 necessitates to fill the time, and so we get endless repetition of the same insignificant information. This week, what could have been an opportunity to take advantage of a massive audience hungry for news, and endless space in which to cover it, instead exposed the weakness inherent in the system.

When I got my iPhone, my mother's little helper, I bypassed the cable news era and went directly to the blogosphere. And while there is certainly a lot of blather, there is also a lot of excellent news coverage, more than I could possibly absorb. It is times like this, when a news story of such historic proportions breaks, that the blogosphere shows its strengths.

I cannot recall a time when I've been so absorbed by the news, including our most recent election, which was undeniably exciting. Andrew Sullivan, and Twitter have been indispensable to me this week. Andrew Sullivan is invaluable for news coverage, while Twitter has especially has made it clear to me in a very tangible way what a small place the world has become. I have been following a few reliable Iranian Tweeters, and in a week's time, have become attached to these students and reporters, whose real names I do not know, and whom I will never meet. Becoming a mother activated my neural worry pathways, and I fear for these strangers' lives. I am in awe of their bravery, and pray for their safety. When they go quiet for a few hours, I get a bit anxious, and am relieved to see them surface again to tell what they've experienced on the streets of Tehran, or Shiraz.

Today we went out for lunch, and David rightly scolded me to put the phone away. This is not something I would normally do at mealtime, but I haven't been able to help myself this week. The kids asked what I was looking at, and we explained as best we could what is happening in Iran. Sarah asked, “Why can't people just leave if they don't like what's happening?”

The conversation then turned to a discussion of repressive regimes, and we tried to explain that it was not so simple as packing your bags. Leaving home is a complicated decision that few make lightly. Sometimes people don't have the luxury of a choice, and even if you do, you don't necessarily want to leave. Sarah then posed a philosophical question, asking if we would rather stay in our homeland, or go someplace where you could be free. We spoke of how sometimes, as in the case of David's and my forbears, you leave because you see the writing on the wall, and that our country is built on the backs of immigrants who left home in search of something better. But sometimes, staying and fighting is the right action.

This week especially, I've found myself thinking again about our last election—because I do believe that in some small way President Obama stirred some longing among Iranians—and again marveling at what great good fortune I have, that by accident of birth, or karma, I ended up here. Our last election was the most exciting one in my lifetime, and a stunning example of what ought to happen when people don't like the way their country is being run. The peaceful transfer of power that we take for granted is really miraculous, and not necessarily the norm for much of the world.

We've had so much rain the past few weeks on the East coast, and it is fraying everyone's nerves. At this point, the rain seems almost Biblical, and I can't help but feel that God is crying for Iran. We are lucky to have nothing better to complain about than shitty weather, when another part of the world seems to be unraveling. And I also found myself feeling grateful that it was inconceivable to my children that the way they experience the world could be any other way.

19 June 2009

Boys and their toys

No, I'm not talking about those toys, but I do believe there is a strong connection.

This week, Sacha found an old Leapster in the bottom of the toy chest in his room. He's not entirely new to this phenomenon, as he's been shadowing Gabriel as he plays Wii for some time now. Sacha holds a broken Wii remote and waves it around as Gabriel plays, and explains to anyone who will listen, “I PLAYING BIDEO GAMES!”

But nonetheless, when he discovered the Leapster, some previously dormant boy circuit was activated, and now he has most certainly discovered THE POWER OF GAMING. At this point I can't be certain if he's actually playing, because I can't be bothered to watch that closely. But he believes he is playing, which is all that really matters.

As far as electronics are concerned, I make no distinction between television, computer, and gaming. It's all the same, and don't try to tell me that it has educational value. It has vegetative value, which can be valuable in and of itself. It seems especially effective at putting boys in a state of flow, which is a beautiful thing, and something I sorely miss myself, having only rarely experienced it since becoming a mother.

But since in my experience, boys are so strongly attracted to electronics, to the point where they can lose touch with the world, I feel that part of my job is controlling the amount of time spent gaming. I love nerds (I married one), but am trying to raise well rounded, three-dimensional people, not misfits with no social skills who can only relate to other machines.

Sacha has been walking around the house all week carrying his gaming system like a security blanket. If he's been quiet and out of sight for a period of time, I can now be assured that he is communing with his game. That, and he's most likely pooped.

One day this week, after we got home from walking Sarah and Gabriel to school, Sacha asked, as is his usual habit upon stepping foot in the house (if not sooner) if he could watch TV. Except, he was holding the Leapster at the the time. (We'd already had a heated discussion prior to leaving for school because he wanted to take the Leapster with him in the stroller.)

Once we were home, I told him he would have to make a choice; he could play with the Leapster or watch TV, but not both. He chose television, although sure enough, not ten minutes later, I heard the distinctive beeping of the Leapster while he was watching TV. I went into the den to check on him, and was not surprised to find him sitting inches from the television, naked from the waist down, playing with his penis Leapster.

This seems like willful cultivation of an attention deficit disorder, and as such, feels too neglectful to me. So I know that soon I'm going to have to set some limits. But, because he is in the throes of a new crush, I've let it go for the time being.

Since he is a child who responds so beautifully abhorrently to discipline, this should be fun. So stay tuned; it should give me lots of good material!

18 June 2009

On nudity

It's possible that there was a stripper somewhere in our family lineage, because our kids sure love to streak.

Perhaps David and I set the bar for this, as we have always both slept in our altogether, even before we knew one another. (I hope this does not cross the line into TMI?) But at this point in time, with three children, we're discrete about this, and keep bedclothes immediately at hand for any middle of the night emergencies, and the occasional noctural bed visitations.

Sarah is at an age where she has developed some modesty, but my boys are still going full force.

If I put the television on for Sacha, I am no longer surprised when I check on him to find he has TAKEN IT ALL OFF.

Adorable yes, but problematic.

First, he is not toilet trained, and thus armed with a LOADED WEAPON (technically, two). Second, as much as I love to see my kids naked, it is part of my job as their parent to socialize them, and as we do not run a nudist colony, that means that we put our clothes on in the morning, and keep them on until it is time for bed.

Sacha's other main offense is that he loves to remove his clothing after we have put him to bed. I have always been in the habit of checking on the kids before I go up to bed. (What mother doesn't do this? I do not understand how fathers can be perfectly comfortable retiring for the evening before a)gazing upon their beautiful sleeping children in awe, and b)being reassured that they are still breathing. But maybe it's one of those Men are from Mars divides.)

In Sacha's case, this pre-bed check is also necessary as he is NEVER WEARING EXACTLY WHAT WE PUT HIM TO SLEEP IN. Sometimes he takes off his pants, sometimes his shirt, sometimes both, until he is down to his onesie.

And then, some nights, he takes it all off, including his sheet. On those nights, it's also highly likely that he's peed in the crib, necessitating not only a change of clothes, but a change of bedding. Being his mother is truly exhausting.

Gabriel also enjoys sleeping in the buff. When he was younger, he wanted to sleep naked so badly that it provided an incentive for him to toilet train. He has two modes of dress for bed; feetie pajamas in the winter (which he calls his babies), and once the weather has warmed, nothing at all. So dedicated is he to the art of naked sleeping that although he falls asleep reading on the couch a few nights a week, when David carries him up to bed, he rouses himself sufficiently to slough off his underwear off.

One recent evening as the kids were getting ready for bed, Gabriel teased Sarah, giggling, "Ha- ha, I can see your underwear." This sort of conversation between siblings would be nothing to write home about, were it not for the fact that HE WAS STARK NAKED WHEN HE SAID IT.

Today, I was the subject to Gabriel's tittering. I recently made my first foray into old-ladydom with a sexy compression thigh-high for my left leg, proscribed to me by a vascular surgeon to soothe my aching varicose veins. (As I roll it on, I imagine that I am a flapper; it helps me feel more sophisticated, and less old.)

Sarah and I spent a wet day in New York City today, and by the time we got home, we were both soaked. I went upstairs to change, but my spare stocking—don't you also think stocking is sexier than compression hose?—was on the first floor. I ran downstairs in my underwear, pants in hand, so I could put it on. Gabriel was absorbed in a book, but not so much that he couldn't stop for a moment to tease me. He giggled and said, "Mama, I can see your underwear!"

This, coming from a kid who would spend most of his time naked. So I replied, "Hello, pot, may I introduce you to my friend kettle?"

And then I reclaimed what was left of my dignity, grabbed my stocking, and slunk out of the room.

17 June 2009

An open letter to MeMe Roth

Here is an interesting item from Monday's New York Times.

It is about a MeMe Roth, Manhattan mother of two, and her battle against the New York City schools to combat obesity. She is passionate about this issue, and even runs a group, the National Action Against Obesity, dedicated to combating the epidemic of obesity in this country.

An admirable cause, no?

After reading about her, in this case, I would have to say, no. It is undeniable true that we live in a chubby nation, and there is much evidence that certain health problems are linked to obesity.

However, MeMe Roth is an unfortunate example of what happens when passion for a cause turns into an unhealthy obsession. Ms. Roth is admittedly happy with the quality of lunches served in her children's school. What sets her off is not junk food served at lunch, but all the extracurricular snacks, so to speak, that are the trappings of childhood: the cupcakes and donuts brought in for class celebration of birthdays.

Ms. Roth's children are instructed to place any foods served at school that could be considered unhealthy in a Tupperwear container, which I'm assuming she provides, and her children must carry in their backpacks, along with their binders and folders.

Lets leave aside for a moment the great lengths Ms. Roth is going to to control her children's behavior when she is not around to supervise.

Her daughter must have been subject to great confusion recently when her teacher handed out juice pops for snack. According to the article, "The teacher told Ms. Roth’s daughter to eat it or lose it, and according to the child pointed out that she had seen the young girl eating the corn chips served with school lunch — did that not count as junk food?"

This episode motivated Ms. Roth to send an angry e-mail to school officials, "Which, in turn, prompted administrators to pull her daughter out of class to discuss the juice pop incident, which only further infuriated Ms. Roth, who said her daughter felt as if she’d been ambushed."

It gets better.

"Helene Moffatt, a school safety official, [said] that if [the Roths] considered the regular dissemination of junk food a threat to their children’s health and safety — and indeed, they do — they should request a health and safety transfer, something that generally follows threats of violence. That transfer request, they were told, would also require filing a complaint with the police."

To which Ms. Roth's husband, Ben, replied, “What would that conversation even sound like? ‘We know you guys are dealing with stabbings and shootings, but stop everything: We have a cupcake situation’ ?”

But wait, there's more!

It turns out, the Roth's have a history of hostile outbursts where obesity is concerned. They used to live in Millburn, NJ, where "after Ms. Roth waged war on the bagels and Pringles meal served to kids at lunch, received e-mail from one member of the P.T.A. that said, “Please, consider moving.”

I guess the Roths considered this sound advice, because they decamped to New York City.

While the Roths still lived in New Jersey, in meetings to discuss the problem of junk food, according to Diane Brady, the principal at the Roth children's school in Millburn, Ms. Roth, “threw candy onto the table and cursed.” It was not the first time, she added, that Ms. Roth had “displayed this hostile behavior.”

"The police were called to a YMCA in 2007 when [Roth] absconded with the sprinkles and syrups on a table where members were being served ice cream. That was Ms. Roth who called Santa Claus fat on television that Christmas, and she has a continuing campaign against the humble Girl Scout cookies, on the premise that no community activity should promote unhealthy eating.

And now, probably to their surprise and ire, the Roths have found themselves in a similar situation, yet again. This is the point where a reasonable person might notice a pattern of behavior, and take the opportunity to look within, and ask, am I, in any way, contributing to this situation? Anyone, that is, except for the most narcissistic, for whom things are either all about them, or about everyone else but them.

But not MeMe Roth; she is to junk food what PETA is to animal rights; militant to an extreme.

The Roths, in their devotion to the admirable cause of fighting obesity, seem genuinely blindsided by their irrationality, and the potential damage they could be causing to their own children.

I imagine that the Roths are serving up consistently healthy fare at home — nothing but soy spelt vegan fair trade brownies for them at snack time! — and that no one in the family has a weight problem. (The New York Times piece makes note of the fact that Ms. Roth is trim.) And, so, this is really a story about a control freak who lacks enough trust in her own abilities to raise her children well that she must impose her rigid rules on everyone with whom her children come into contact.

For better and for worse, junk food is an integral part of childhood in America, and, I would venture to say, in most wealthy, industrialized countries. One of the pleasures of childhood is that sometimes, you get to gorge yourself on crap. Hopefully not everyday, but on special occasions.

But MeMe Roth is hell bent on imposing her psychosis on her children. I empathize with the conflict and confusion Ms. Roth's poor children must experience every day, when they must SAY NO TO CANDY for fear of invoking their mother's wrath.

And I would not be surprised in the least if as teenagers, her children develop eating disorders. But I bet MeMe Roth would be. She will cry, "How could this happen to me (not her children); I've been so careful, I've tried so hard to teach them well!"

I hope that this never happens, but if that unfortunate day were to come, and I were to meet Ms. Roth at that date in the future, I would say to her, "Look in the mirror."

But in the meantime, she should consider homeschooling; how else could she possibly be assured that every morsel that enters her children's mouths will be 100% nourishing?

15 June 2009

Parental rant: responsibiity

Warning, warning; high horse alert!

There is a particular conversation I frequently overhear between parents and children.

At school pick-up: "James, please get off that icy patch; Ms. Stein (the principal) says you're not allowed over there."

Or, "Olivia; Elaine (the pool manager) won't like it if she sees you drinking water from the pool."

What is going on here? Parents, not principals, or any other adults in a position of authority, are in charge of our children. We made these kids, and like it or not, they are our responsibility. We are the final arbiters of what they are and are not allowed to do.

Are parents so intimidated by their children that they cannot simply say, "Get off the ice right now, James," or "Olivia, don't drink from the pool"? Why do we have so much trouble working up the gumption to discipline our own children?

As relationships, and lifestyles have become more casual, there has been a shift in the way we relate to other people, including our children. There is much that is nice about a more relaxed way of life—casual dress at work, eat-in kitchens, more common ground between generations. But the down side is that boundaries can get blurry, and traditional hierarchies become harder to maintain. Your boss may be a great person whose company you enjoy tremendously, you are still his subordinate.

Remember during the 2004 election campaign, when there was much talk about how George Bush would be a great guy to have a beer with? He may have been a hell of a lot of fun to get drunk with (back in the day, when he still tied one on), but it didn't exactly qualify him for the job. He was, in effect, our country's parent, and he did a pretty shitty job running the place. While I'd love to have a drink with Barack Obama (not very likely), it is not one of the qualities I look for in an elected official. I don't need to like the man at the top; I just need to trust and respect him. We're living in tough times, and I may not agree with every decision President Obama makes, but the last eight years left me so shell-shocked that every day since he took office, when I look at the newspaper, I am relieved to have a grown-up back in charge.

The same goes with our kids. It becomes easy to lose sight of the fact that our children are not our peers, but our charges. I am their mother, not their friend. They don't need me to be their friend; that's what their peers are for. While there can be aspects of friendship to our relationship, and I hope that when they are grown, and there is more separation between us, they can see me as something of a friend, now is not the time for that. Now is the time for boundaries. They give our kids something to rub up against. It is our job to set them, and theirs to test them.

I like to think of my household as a benign dictatorship. I aim for an authoritative, not authoritarian state; more Singapore than North Korea. We may open select items up to the populace for a vote, but this is by no means a democracy. The results would be disastrous. With your children, more often than not, the better policy is don't ask, tell.

We become so desperate for our kids to like us that we forget that they love us. Just as you began to bond with your children soon after they were born, so are they bonded to you. It is biologically determined.

Because by default your have your children's love, parents need not be afraid to scold, discipline, or when the situation calls for it, rip your kids a new one. Sometimes you have to be tough or forceful, and you may not win a popularity contest, but you will earn your children's respect if you treat them fairly, and with dignity, and are unafraid to assert your authority. We do not help our children by trying too hard to curry favor with them; it may make us feel better about ourselves, but it does them no service.

Nobody knows when they sign up for this job how hard it is going to be, and how often you'll find yourself feeling conflicted, and making it up as you go along. But if you reveal too many of the chinks in your armor; your children will be happy to exploit them. Don't let your kids take advantage of you; when their safety is on the line, you need them to heel, and quickly.

And although we all hated it when we were kids, one of the great satisfactions of parenthood is that sometimes, "because I said so" is the only explanation necessary.

14 June 2009

Cool Hand Luke

Have I told you about my youngest son Sacha, the most ball-bustingest child I have had to pleasure to spawn?

When Sacha was 3 days old, he had a brush with death. He was hypothermic, and had to be rushed to the NICU, where he resided for 16 days. Every parent knows that many aspects of one's temperament are clear from birth. Sacha loves to fight, and I am sure it helped to save his life. While it is my fondest wish that this quality will continue to serve him well throughout his life, it often makes mine a living hell.

I thought that Sarah was strong-willed; and then, I met Sacha.

The rules of parenting are much like dog training, and our children are attached to us by an invisible leash. Of all my children, Sacha is the one most willing to pull it to the breaking point. As a result, I am forced to yank his choke collar so frequently that his neck is in a state of constant irritation.

At about age 2 1/2, he began the charming habit of moaning "Ow, ow, you're hurting me!" whenever he was subjected to some routine act of bodily maintenance, like diapering, bathing, or god forbid, massaging his flesh with lotion after bathing. At first, I was concerned that perhaps my touch was too firm, and it was bothering him. So I lightened up. This proved to be a good experiment, because it did absolutely nothing to mitigate the complaining, and as such, served as an important reminder that my son is full of shit.

I am frequently relieved that he resembles me, because the way he carries on when he is forced to do something he does not want to—like leave the playground, hold my hand when crossing the street, or sit in the shopping cart (there is no way I want this child roaming freely in a public place!)—he kicks and screams and resists so fiercely that I fear someone will call the authorities to report a child abduction.

His destructive force is awesome to behold. Many items that have made it safely through my two older children have crumbled in his small hands. He destroys board books, and takes apart vehicles with unparalleled skill and efficiency. When it serves his mission, and hand strength is insufficient, he resorts to biting, which he does with impressive precision. His jaw can sever the wheels from matchbox cars. It is not uncommon, when I am vacuuming, to come across a stray foot, or head from a small plastic action figure. We have a collection Star Wars figures that were my brother's childhood toys; Sarah and Gabriel played with them happily and they remained unscathed. Sacha uses them as teething toys; Darth Vader quivers at his approach.

His tantrums are so fierce that I have seen him levitate with anger. I have yet to understand what motivates this child, other than the sheer delight of the fight. When I put him on the bottom step for a time-out, he will quickly calm himself down, until I come back to retrieve him, at which point, he starts up again, and so on the step he remains. Up and down, up and down he goes. One day this week, this went on for forty-five minutes.

Today, in a fit of anger he knocked over the contents of the recycling bins. David brought him in the house and placed him on the step. When David came to get him, and told Sacha that they were going outside clean up the mess. Sacha replied, "No."

And so he got another few minutes in solitary. When it became clear that this approach was not working, David dragged him, kicking and screaming to the yard to clean up, where Sacha staged another protest. Eventually, David got him to comply by handing him the trash, one item at at a time. (As a result, he also lost his television privileges for the day; ouch!) By the time the ordeal was over, Sacha had worn himself out so completely that he voluntarily climbed into his crib for a rest. This is unprecedented behavior for a child WHO GAVE UP NAPPING A YEAR AGO. For such a little thing, he has very large balls.

He may be a force of nature, but he is also incredibly funny, charismatic and sweet. Every day when I retrieve from preschool, once he is buckled in his car seat, he says to me, in his deep gravelly voice (think Tom Waits before puberty), "Thanks for picking me up, Mom."

He has a band of second graders with whom he pals around when I pick Sarah and Gabriel up from school. The funniest thing about their relationship is that it appears to be mutual. Although Sacha is so much smaller, he seems to be more than just their mascot; the big boys look forward to seeing him as much as he does them. Sacha is the is the bantam-weight champion of the elementary school playground. He greets his friends by punching them in the stomach, and then they run off to play tackle football, or whatever it is boys to do hurt one another in the name of having fun.

He is the child that broke us, the wild stallion that refuses to be tamed. David often says he may be the one who brings back corporal punishment. We have fantasized about military preschool. And while it is true that he drives me crazy on an hourly basis, he is wicked cute, rushes into my arms with such force that he nearly knocks me over after we have been apart for a while, and is very free with kisses and I love yous.

And do you know what his first word was?


Cross my heart and hope to die, he said Mama before Dada, no, bottle, bear, or blankie. How many children have done that?

12 June 2009

The apple does not fall far

I would say that Sarah is only a slightly fussy eater. In the scheme of a child's palate, hers is is pretty broad; she enjoys pasta with walnut sauce, all sorts of fish and like all my children, has a passion for mangoes that is slightly frightening.

She is also a highly articulate food critic. When she does not enjoy something, she will explain, in great detail, precisely why she can not eat it.

I suppose you could call it damning with faint praise:

"I like the flavor of this chicken, but the sauce is a little too slippery for me."

Or "I don't care for the way you made the asparagus tonight; it's a bit too crunchy."

Or "This pasta is good, but it's not my favorite because I prefer when you don't make it with whole wheat pasta."

Or my personal favorite, uttered when she was approximately three, in response to something delicious, "It's just too flavorish for me."

When I went grocery shopping this week, I bought a new kind of ice cream, Haagen-Dazs Five. It was on sale, and I'd heard it was good. (Since having children, I only buy ice cream on sale; holy shit it's expensive!)

Tonight we broke out the chocolate ice cream for the kids after dinner. David mentioned to me that Sarah hadn't eaten much of her ice cream, and if I was curious, I should try some.

I responded, "I don't really like chocolate ice cream, but I do I love chocolate."

I continued, "it's just that I think it tastes best on it's own. The flavor of the milk dilutes the the taste of chocolate. Actually, I feel the same way about most chocolate desserts."

David listened to all of this. We tried to keep a straight face, because I really did sound ridiculous. It was obvious who I sounded like.

As he left the room, he called out to me, "You reap what you have sown."

11 June 2009

Hausfrau on Barista Kids

Thanks very much to Kristen Kemp of Barista Kids for this wonderful piece on Hausfrau from last week.

Guilt-free mothering

I am in the midst of reading Ayelet Waldman's book, Bad Mother, and then today, I stumbled upon this piece on Lisa Belkin's Motherlode blog, entitled "What Mothers Are Unhappy About". It is a guest blog by Jen Singer of MommaSaid.net, which references an economic study, The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness, and a recent New York Times op-ed piece entitled Liberated and Unhappy, by Ross Douthat, the newest addition to the Times' Opinion page.

I won't pretend that I have read the study, or that I ever will, because I would be lying to you. But I did read the column, and Douthat's piece with great interest. Perhaps I am late to the pity party, because I am just beginning to understand the extent to which mothers subject themselves to guilt regarding their mothering skills. I find this sad beyond belief.

I am glad to say that by and large, I do not suffer from this guilt anymore. A few years ago, my book group read Judith Warner's Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, and I skipped that month. I did not feel much anxiety about being a mother at that point in my life, so I had no interest in reading it. Now, I would like to revisit that book, because I enjoy Warner's writing in general, and I'd like to gain a better understanding of what is motivating all this gut-churning angst.

I think a lot of mothers, especially new mothers, spend a good amount of time berating themselves as they adjust to the major life shift and their new responsibilities. And because many women have tendencies toward perfectionism, this berating of one's mothering skills becomes a bad habit that is hard to break.

I did experience my share of guilt early in my mothering career. The key years for me were when Sarah was a baby, also known as the time when I had no idea what the hell I was doing. I remember feeling so overwhelmed and stressed out by the job that I spent a lot of time worrying, beating myself up, and whining to my therapist about what a bad job I was doing raising my child. She gave me much sound advice on the subject—she was full of such wisdom; if anyone wants her number, contact me offline!—but there are a few things in particular that I really took to heart.

I would obsess about some perceived mistake I'd made in the rearing of my child, and cry that I was so very afraid that I was going to fuck her up, like my parents fucked me up, which was after all, the reason I had checked myself in for outpatient treatment gone into therapy. She responded, "You will not fuck her up like your parents did. You will fuck her up in your own way."

I found this very sensible, and freeing advice. I will fuck my children up, but I will do it MY WAY!

Mistakes in child rearing will be made; as in any other part of life, they are unavoidable. But most mistakes are also correctable. Everyone has had the experience while eating out where your waitperson messes up your order, or spills something on your table, or even worse, you. If your waitperson handles their mistake with aplomb—apologizing sincerely, taking money off the bill, bringing you a dessert gratis—do you not give them an even bigger tip?

So for me, the issue became not would I make a mistake, but what would I do about it when I did. As a new mother, I used to get very worried when I yelled at my children; my parents yelled a lot; at the kids, at each other, at the dry-cleaners, and I was so afraid, that if I too, yelled at my children, I WAS REPEATING THEIR MISTAKES.

That is, until I realized a mother, you will lose your temper with your children. That in and of itself does not make you a bad mother. If you lose your temper for good reason, you do not need to apologize. If, on the other hand, you explode at your children because you are tired, or PMS-ing, or are generally having a bad day, you have just had yourself a temper tantrum, and you owe your children an apology.

Own up to your mistakes soon as possible, and make amends. It is only when you let your stubbornness get the best of you that you run into trouble.

Perhaps the most important piece of advice on mothering that my therapist gave me came deep in the mire of postpartum depression, when I was sleep-deprived and extremely hungry all the time, because I was nursing, and spent so much time caring for this baby that I did not make time to eat. It was a truly vicious circle.

My therapist reminded me that there is a reason why, when you are on a plane, in the event of an emergency you are instructed to put your own respirator on before assisting your children. If I was hungry, it would be alright to let my baby cry in order to feed myself. She assured me that if Sarah had to wait a few minutes before nursing, she would not starve. Once I inured myself to the sounds of my wailing infant, I could eat a sandwich, if not in peace, at least confident that when I was sated, I would attend to her.

A mother needs to feed herself in order to serve her children. This is not only literally, but metaphorically true. If as a mother, you give all of yourself over to your children in selfless service, there will not be much of you to share with your children.

It is very easy to lose sight of this, especially in the early years, when you are responsible for all your children's needs. If you have the luxury of a stable marriage, and decent living conditions, I believe it is imperative as a mother to find something besides child-rearing that you love to do, and then, to make time to do it. If you love your job and can't stand the thought of spending your days at home with your children, then find the best child care that you can, and go to work. If you are home with your kids, and enjoy volunteer work, whether for your PTA, Junior League, your church or synagogue, do it. But if this does not bring you great satisfaction, you need not feel guilty about it. Cultivate your hobbies, and if you don't have one, make the time to discover something you might find interesting.

Do not do everything for the sake of your children; if it doesn't serve you, it will not serve them. Your children's mental health and stability are very much tied to your own. If you remember to feed yourself body and soul, you will be a happier, better-adjusted person, more interesting and well-rounded, and, as an added bonus, your children will be the beneficiaries.

10 June 2009

Skirt chaser

If you are the parent of a boy, you have no doubt noticed that they spend a good deal of time with their hands in their pants.

When I was pregnant with Sacha, at my 20-week sonogram, after the technician finished, the doctor came in to take a look at the contents of my belly. As he moved the paddle around, he said, "Now, I don't know if you want to know the sex of this child, and even if you did, I couldn't say for certain at this moment, but based on where the hands are, I'd say you are carrying a boy."

"Really? It starts this early?" David and I asked, incredulously.
"Yes," the doctor nodded, "It seems to be biologically determined; even in utero, boys love to play with themselves."

Second to exploring their own genitalia, my sons, as toddlers, seemed to try their darndest to explore mine. Their mission was two-fold. First there is the noble quest to re-enter the birth canal, head first. (An impossible mission, but these intrepid explorers are undeterred!) Then, there is the time spent batting their hands away from my vajango. This seems especially alluring in warm weather, when my wardrobe turns primarily to skirts and dresses. (Husbands, of young children, this is in part why your wives are sometimes not in the mood; while you are earning the bacon, we are subject to heavy petting.)

Gabriel thankfully, is well past this stage, but Sacha, at three, is in his prime. I think it has something to do with the nexus between height (right about the pubis), Y chromosome and utter lack of socialization.

One warm day recently, I was at Whole Foods with my kids. As we wandered through the cheeses Sacha alternated between reaching for my hand and up my skirt. At one point, he wandered slightly far afield of me. I heard a woman call out, "Ooh," and looked up to find another mother gently batting my son's hands away from her skirt.

"I'm so sorry!" I said, mortified by Sacha's transgression.

It was a good thing she had a sense of humor, and a child around the same age; she took it in stride, and we laughed: boys!

But now, I can't wait until Sacha starts dating, because I look forward to regaling his paramours with tales of his earliest sexual escapades. I will mortify him, and his dates, by telling the story of the time he tried to finger fuck someone else's mother in the supermarket.

That ought to keep them abstinent for a while.

09 June 2009

My potty mouth

I love a good curse word, either spoken, or written. It feels so satisfying rolling off the tongue, and sometimes, an obscenity is exactly the right descriptor. Shit and fuck are my favorites, but asshole comes in handily as well. (You know I am an intellectual because I when I curse, I say fucking, instead of fuckin'.)

When I hurt myself, like stub a toe, or hit my ulnar nerve bang my funny bone, I cannot help but emit a string of expletives, as in "Fuck, fuck, fuck, FUCK!" or "Shit, shit, shit, SHIT!"

When Sarah was about two, and engaged in some game of her own making, David and I heard her muttering the very same to herself. David looked at me, as we heard my voice coming out of our small child's mouth, and the implication was clear. For the sake of our children, I had to curb my tongue.

In the intervening years, I have gotten much, much better about watching what I say. Now, when I stub my toe, I try to just breathe through the pain (pranayama; it works!).

But as I have cleaned up my mouth around the children, Sarah, at least, has been doing her damnedest to unlock the secrets of swearing. In my experience, this is a right of passage that begins in about second grade. Just as playground games get passed through the generations, without you ever explicitly teaching them to your children, friends begin to compare notes, at recess, and on play dates, with the determined goal of pooling their collective wisdom to compile the Complete Oxford Companion to Swearing for Children. (As is so often the case, older siblings are key players in the acquisition of such knowledge.)

I remember when Sarah first made me aware of this, one night as we were snuggling before bedtime. "Mom," she confessed, "I know the s-word."

"Yes. Can I say it to you?"

Sarah is in fourth grade now, and her knowledge is considerably more accurate. In fact, I have it on good authority that she has been cursing with abandon amongst her friends at recess. I kept this knowledge under my hat for a while, but it came up in conversation at dinner one night last week, and Sarah freely admitted that yes, she is cursing up a storm!

What can I say; she is her mother's daughter.

This morning, as were hurrying out the door, things got a bit harried. I noticed that while Gabriel had put on a raincoat, he was wearing leather sandals. I told him to change his shoes; while he's outgrown his rain boots, he just got a new pair of Keen sandals which were more suitable for the rain.

He moaned, and fussed and generally gave me a hard time. His sartorial choices are something that can really push my buttons. When he needs new clothes, I let him come with me to pick things out, and then, once the new items are settled in his drawers, he will continue to wear the same two old shirts in constant rotation.

So it is with these his new Keens, which, true to form, HE HAS PROCEEDED NOT TO WEAR. And it was raining, and we were late for school, and I was frustrated. So I said, "Gabriel, I am tired of this bullshit. Put the Keens on, or you will not play any Wii for the rest of the week."

Normally, one of my kids would have called me out. Perhaps it was the threat of losing Wii, but Gabriel just nodded, changed his shoes, and off to school we went.

Or maybe, sometimes, a good curse word, really is just the right thing.

08 June 2009

Mommy Junior

One of the first conversations David and I had regarding child-rearing after Sarah was born was that we agreed we wanted to raise a strong-willed girl.

To say that Sarah is strong-willed is something of an understatement. She is extremely articulate, has no trouble speaking her mind, and is an ace negotiator. She is very good at getting what she wants. I do not mean to imply that she is spoiled, because she is not. It's more that she is great at staying on message, and her follow-up skills are unparalleled. David calls her the best project manager he has ever worked for.

As her mother, I am very proud to see these qualities, as I know they will serve her well throughout her lifetime. Often, these qualities serve me very well. She is old enough to help me out a bit with household management, and caring for her brothers, and she thrives on this increased responsibility.

David packs our kids lunches in the morning before he leaves for work, leaving the finishing touches--desserts and cold packs--to me. This year, Sarah has taken this task on herself, which I love, because for reasons I don't understand, I loathe packing lunches.

She can, and will gladly change Sacha's diaper (I don't make her do the poopy ones), and dress him in the morning. I don't even need to lay out clothes for him anymore; as long as she knows the weather, she is more than capable of getting him ready.

At dinner time, I have seen her unbidden, clap her hands twice, call, "Boys, dinner!"
And they come running!

Her responsible nature is also very useful at the pool, as I can task her with watching Sacha, and go to the bathroom by myself. This ability to pee in private, even if it is still only an occasional occurrence, is a milestone in a mother's life!

But all this self-confidence and competence also comes with a price. She is so effortlessly authoritative, that I have, on occasion, found myself almost answering to her. Last week when I picked the kids up from school, I needed to move my car. After my kids were gathered, I told Sarah I was going to move the car, and she needed to watch Sacha on the playground for a few minutes. As I began to walk away, she stopped me to ask why I needed to move the car, and I began to answer her, before I remembered, WAIT A MINUTE; I AM THE MOTHER. I DON'T NEED TO GIVE YOU AN EXPLANATION! So I stopped myself mid-sentence, said,"Just go watch your brother!" and turned on my heel.

This weekend, I was running errands with Sarah and Sacha, and we were walking downhill, Sarah several feet in front of Sacha and me. She stopped, called, "Sacha, come!" at which point he let go of my hand, and started to run down the hill to catch up with her. I get a little crazy about small children running downhill. Like Cassandra, I foresee the nasty spill, the scrapes and bruises, the split chin. I wanted Sacha walking slowly down the hill, holding my hand. So I raised my voice: "Sarah: Mommy check! Is there a mother in charge here?" "Yes," she agreed. "Good," I said, "Now please remember this, or I will not even consider the possibility of you having a sleepover for the next month."

I am not sure how much her competence has to do with our excellent parenting skills (unlikely), and how much of it is her natural temperament (highly likely), but, as I am learning over time, be careful what you wish for, as it will sometimes come to bite you on the ass.

07 June 2009


Anhedonia: Loss of the capacity to experience pleasure. The inability to gain pleasure from normally pleasurable experiences. Anhedonia is a core clinical feature of depression, schizophrenia, and some other mental illnesses.

At the beginning of May, I suffered a small setback, and, for a few weeks, experienced a bout of depression. It was my own fault. I mail order my medications—much more economical—and let one of them lapse before I got around to calling in a refill. In part, I did it deliberately, as an experiment, to see what would happen. It wasn't exactly reckless; I wasn't going cold turkey. But although I know at this point that I am a lifer, so to speak, with regards to psychoactive medication, occasionally I get curious to see what life might be like without.

The experiment was a failure. It was about two weeks, just enough time for the medication to leave my system. And then, I was mildly depressed. In the scheme of what I have experienced regarding depression, it was nothing, really; more an annoying cold than a flu, but it was uncomfortable nonetheless.

By this point in my life, for better or for worse, I am a pro in dealing with this, so I recognized more or less immediately what was going on. Even though I have been through this many times, it is always humbling when the scales fall from my eyes. I have engaged in mindfulness practices long enough now that I know very quickly when I am depressed. My thought patterns move into a very specific, negative groove. And though I know this is depression speaking, and not me, I still believe the awful things I tell myself, with all my heart. It is special kind of madness to hold these contradictory states of mind simultaneously.

I recognize depression in other people immediately. I can feel it, energetically, but the physical signs are also unmistakable. There is the tell tale way you hold your jaw, the tightening of the throat, the strained quality of your voice. Even if you wanted to, it is very difficult to smile, as gravity conspires to pull all your facial muscles downward.

When I am depressed, I have great difficulty connecting with other people in any meaningful way, so I tend to avoid social interaction. Depressives can be insufferable company, and I am always afraid of spreading my poison.

If you have suffered from clinical depression, you will never again use the word depressed casually, as in, “I am so depressed about this lousy weather we're having.” You can be sad, or disappointed, or frustrated about the weather, but depression is something else entirely.

Anhedonia, the loss of the capacity to experience pleasure, is a good place to start. When you are depressed, your emotions take on tangible weight, and the world lays heavily upon you. You feel like you are walking against the current. Your world view is very dark. You feel hopelessly pessimistic. You cry easily, and not necessarily for good reason.

Concentration is poor. For me, it is like my head is filled with white noise, or static interference. I have a limited attention span, and trouble retaining information. I give myself a break from reading the newspaper, as it will go in one ear and out the other; the shallow Style section is about the right level of reading comprehension at these times.

Anxiety is another part of the equation. That is, feeling irrationally worried about things over which you have no control. Do you remember the opening scene of Sex, Lies, and Videotape, where Andie MacDowell speaks with her therapist about how worried she is about garbage?

That about sums it up. (And I really did used to worry about garbage.)

I spent the first half of my life feeling this way, more or less constantly. I imagine it began in adolescence, as it often does, and there is a hereditary component. For some people, depression is situational. If you have suffered a great loss, or been dealing with a stressful situation, you may find yourself depressed. If you are lucky, it will lift of its own accord. If not, you can seek treatment, and eventually wean yourself from medication. But some people, who are predisposed toward depression, have the misfortune of getting stuck in this state for long periods of time.

When I finally figured this out about myself, in my late 20s, after the requisite spate of denial, I spent a good deal of time being angry with myself for not having known. I thought I was smart, and relatively self-aware, so how could I not have known something so fundamental about myself? But when you are depressed, you literally cannot see the forest for the trees.

It wasn't until I accepted the fact that I was depressed, and began to take medication, that I began to see things clearly, probably for the first time in my life.

The only thing I can compare it to is when I learned that I needed glasses. I was in college, and having trouble seeing what a professor was writing on the board. I asked a friend sitting next to me to help me interpret what was written, and he looked at me, perplexed—we weren't that far from the board—and handed me his glasses. And although they weren't the right prescription for me, I put them on, and things immediately became clearer. And then I made an appointment to see an eye doctor.

Beginning to take medication for depression was a similar revelation. The results were not so immediate, or as quick as getting fitted with a pair of glasses, but slowly, and consistently, my world view began to change.

I literally began to see myself differently. Prior to being treated for depression, I perceived myself as someone who could afford to lose ten pounds. After treatment, when I looked in the mirror, I realized my weight was absolutely fine, and had always been. I had previously thought my facial features were not proportionate; my nose too big, my chin too small. But again, when I reexamined myself through this new prism, I realized there was nothing wrong with my face.

Simple tasks, that had always been effortful for me, became effortless. I had not known that it was not normal to have trouble getting out of bed in the morning. Now, I would wake in the morning, and hop right up. Just like that! Who knew?

(I don't mean to sound like a PSA, but if any of this sounds familiar to you, you should get yourself to a qualified psychiatrist ASAP. A psychiatrist, as opposed to a GP, because they are better versed in the nuances of depression and anxiety disorders, and are better qualified to give you the right medication for your particular condition.)

While we have come a long way, there is still stigma attached to mental illness, and I am occasionally shocked at the way people, even some medical professionals, think it is a matter of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.

I once saw a dermatologist for a consultation, and as she scanned my chart and noticed the medications I was taking, she shook her head and said, with astonishing ignorance ,“I don't know what it is, I see so many people taking these drugs lately. I guess the drug companies must have really good marketing reps on this.” She then scanned me from head to toe, and I could see the thoughts running through her mind: You are an attractive, slim, well-dressed woman, she thought. And after thinking these things to herself, she said to me, aloud, “What do you have to be depressed about?”

I was speechless, as I, a layperson, tried to explain to this doctor, somewhat awkwardly, that this was the point of depression; and you don't necessarily have good reason. I never went back to see her again.

I even find my own psychiatrist's view of depression somewhat limited. When I first went to see her, I explained to her that while medication was an essential part of my treatment plan, I did many other things to manage my condition, including mindfulness practices like yoga and meditation, acupuncture, body work, and other energetic modalities. She looked at me, smiled insincerely and handed me my scrips, as if to say, “That's nice dear. You take your pills and run along now.” But she is a good mixologist, so to speak, and she takes my health insurance, so I stay on her client roster.

I was not at my best for most of the month of May. But I knew it was just a matter of being patient, and giving my body time for my medication to return to the right therapeutic level. Slowly, but surely, as the month progressed, I felt things improving. One day, about a week ago, David asked me how I was feeling, and after thinking for a moment, I responded, “Well, I'm not feeling depressed anymore, just a mild twinge of anxiety. It's nothing I can't handle.”

And then I laughed, because I realized I had made a joke at my own expense. Depressives have no sense of humor, and humor is a sign of joy. Once I was aware of it, these moments of grace came flooding back, intermittently but with increasing consistently, and the thrill of experiencing joy once again, was enough to make me giddy.

I would love to live my life without psychoactive medication, but at this point in time, it is not in the cards for me. After much soul searching, and rigorous asana practice, I've come to accept that I could stand on my head for hours a day—and at this point, I can do this, for quite some time, with good alignment—but without medication, it would not be enough. Perhaps someday I will find the energetic modality that once and for all rebalances my chakras. But until then, I will happily take my drugs.

I no longer consider the medication a sign of weakness, but one of strength. This is the difference between how a depressive sees the world as opposed to someone who is not suffering from depression. Once I accepted this as an essential fact about myself, it was a supreme act of surrender, an acknowledgment that there are things which I cannot control. I see it now the way I do adjustments, and props, in my yoga classes; as enhancements. Just as I would never tell a student who could not touch the ground in uttanasana not to use blocks, I would never tell myself, or someone else in my condition, to struggle unnecessarily when help is readily available.

These drugs are a fucking miracle. They changed my life. And while depression is as old as humanity itself, I thank God every day that I no longer have to live that way. And that it is why I am not shy about talking about this; because nobody, in this day and age, needs to live this way.

06 June 2009

Slinging hash: panini with chocolate and fontina

It is high time I told you about my favorite sandwich, the one I have not been able to stop eating for several months now. It may seem a little complicated or intimidating, because it starts with No-Knead Bread, but bear with me; it's easy, I swear.

I have long had an interest in bread baking. It began when I was in graduate school, and there was no place to get decent bread. Actually, it probably began in my youth, as I have always found playing with dough of any kind—from playdough to a basic mixture of flour and water—to be immensely satisfying.

I got so into bread making that I began to cultivate wild yeast spores to make starter. Yes; you can really do this, in your own kitchen! I even briefly contemplated becoming a baker, when it became clear to me that I didn't really want to be an academic, but the hours are shitty, and I moved to Brooklyn, and then Montclair, where good bread abounds, had a few kids, and for years, I stopped baking bread.

If you follow food news at all, or if you've stood next to me on the playground for any length of time, or dined at my house, you will have heard about No-Knead Bread, because I don't shut up about it.

Many, many pixels have been devoted to this recipe in the food blogosphere since Mark Bittman published the recipe in his Minimalist Column three years ago.

To sum up: No-Knead is a long-rise, virtually no work method developed by Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery, for making the most beautiful, professional looking, delicious bread you have ever tasted. Aside from the long rise, what is revolutionary about the recipe is that you bake it in a pre-heated covered pot, which duplicates the results of professional steam-injected ovens, giving you a thin, shattering crust, as opposed to a thick, overly toothsome one that will ruin your expensive dental work.

It took me a few years, but last winter, I finally bought an inexpensive dutch oven from Ikea, and got around to making it. If you have never baked bread before, and are at all curious about it, I urge you to try it; it is very hard to mess up.

To make a short story long(er), I had a dinner party last winter, for which I baked this bread, and cut more than we ate, so in the morning I had a few staling slices lying around. I could have toasted them, but I decided to make a variation of the Taleggio and Pear Panini from Giada's Kitchen. It was very good, but what surprised me most was how fantastic No-Knead Bread is when grilled. This bread is delicious on it's own, but there is some alchemy that happens when you grill it, which gives it the most pleasingly springy texture.

From there, I was off on a panini kick, which led me to try another recipe from Giada's Kitchen, for Panini with Chocolate and Brie, except I didn't have Brie, I had fontina cheese. And it was so very, very good, that I have been eating it happily, several times a week since then, for breakfast, or lunch.

I eat this so often, and with such gusto, that in my haste to get the kids off to school I have neglected to check my face before leaving the house, and Sarah, my 10 year-old, has occasionally had to tell me to clean the chocolate off of my face.

How is that for role reversal?

Chocolate + Fontina Panini

You do not need to bake your own bread for this sandwich; any good crusty loaf will do.

You also do not need a panini press; a cast iron pan or heavy skillet, plus a spatula, and a bit of muscle does the trick.

Heat a skillet, preferably a cast iron pan on medium heat.

Cut 2 slices of a good rustic loaf.

Drizzle one side of each slice with a bit of olive oil and lay both slices oil side down in the pan.

Place a few thin slices of a good melting cheese—I've been using a Val D'Aosta fontina, but there are tons of good candidates—on one slice of bread, to cover.

Place a few squares of dark chocolate on top of the cheese. Sprinkle with a bit of coarse salt.

Once the cheese and chocolate begin to soften and get a bit oozy, top with the second slice. Use a spatula to press down on the sandwich a few times. When the bread crisps and browns a bit, and the filling is sufficiently melted, remove from pan, cut, and eat.

Messy, delicious.

05 June 2009

Twitter kicks Facebook's ass

I was late to the social-networking party. By nature, I am not the most social of creatures; my idea of a fun Friday evening is dinner with my family, and in bed by 10pm. (Wouldn't you love to hang out with me?)

I've been so busy with the child rearing this past decade, that it wasn't until I got my iPhone that I began to move into the twenty-first century. And while I heard my friends talking about Facebook, I did not have much interest. I am generally not nostalgic about my past (what with the haze of depression), and didn't have much interest reconnecting with old friends. The way I see it, relationships that have dwindled off, did so for a reason.

So I resisted the evangelizing of friends, who told me what fun Facebook was, until Carrie Brownstein, one of my favorite bloggers, musicians, and all around people (although of course I do not know her personally), wrote, in January, on her excellent blog Monitor Mix, that she had joined Facebook. She wrote:

A few months ago, Facebook membership among my friends reached a Gladwellian tipping point. A lot of people who would theretofore never have considered joining a social-networking site caved in, shed their mistrust of visibility and nostalgia, and embraced the concept wholeheartedly. For the two Monitor Mix readers who are not on Facebook, think of it like this: Do you ever wonder what the guy you sat next to in high-school math class is doing? Right now? Well, Facebook answers that question. He is doing his laundry. Yes, it's that exciting.

Not exactly the most ringing endorsement, but it made me laugh, and was an accurate description of where I stood on the subject. Well, if Carrie (I like to call her that, although we've never met) did it, surely I could? I thought about it for a few months more, and eventually, my curiosity got the better of me, and/or I succumbed to peer pressure, and signed myself up.

I am not in love with Facebook. I find it overwhelming. I liken it to shopping at Ikea, in that it is deliberately disorienting. It's like wandering around the showroom looking for the kitchen accessories, and despite what you thought was an excellent sense of direction, you keep finding yourself back in the lighting department. And although you just came to get dishtowels, you end up coming home with a lamp, a chair, and some batteries. And you forgot the dishtowels.

You can get lost in Facebook, and then when you finally look up, bleary-eyed, from your screen, you think, WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO THE LAST 3 HOURS? I had laundry to do, and dishes to wash, and a really good book to read, and AND NOW IT IS BEDTIME AND I HAVEN'T ACCOMPLISHED ANY OF THESE SIMPLE TASKS.

I also think of it more as Acquaintancebook. For me to consider someone my friend, I have to have slept with you, dined with you, been mat to mat with you in a yoga class, or at some point, engaged in a substantial discussion about one thing or another. And so I sometimes feel disingenuous "friending" people who in reality, I don't know all that well. (Perhaps this is why I don't have many "friends"?)

But I don't think Facebook is all bad. I am glad to know where my my friends from high school are, and that they are happy and thriving, and it has helped me to forge stronger connections with people in my present who have been on the periphery of my life for a long time, who I am glad to get to be knowing better. And of course, it is good for self-promotion.

Soon after I joined Facebook, I decided to look into Twitter. And while I am lukewarm about Facebook, I LOVE Twitter! The short format (140 characters) is limiting, and forces you to be more succinct. Perhaps this has something to do with why I find it less disorienting than Facebook; for me, it is easier to dip in to Twitter without getting lost.

I find the self-limiting nature of tweeting to be a good writing exercise. It reminds me of one of the most challenging, but useful English classes I took in college, where we had to read a book a week, and write a one-page paper on it. Margins, font point, and line-spacing all had to be within a specified range, so you could not cheat. It forced you to choose your words very carefully, and make your argument elegantly.

Essentially, Twitter is a socially acceptable form of stalking. (Although come to think of it, so is Facebook.) Initially I was sheepish about following people I didn't know personally, so for the first few weeks, I spent a lot of time talking to my husband, my brother, and my sister-in-law, which was sort of ridiculous because I can speak to them any time I want.

Once I got over that fear, I found it less daunting to "follow" someone, as opposed to "friend" someone on Facebook. So I follow some of my favorite bloggers, and even a few celebrities. (I don't believe Carrie is on Twitter; I looked.) I followed Tom Waits for a while, but I started to suspect that he wasn't really Tom Waits, because he seemed to spend a lot of time talking about some Twitter specific pyramid scheme, so I un-followed him. (That sort of thing happens a bit on Twitter; it's easy to impersonate a celebrity in cyberspace!) I followed Neil Gaiman for a while, and while I adore his writing, I found him a bit too tweety for me, so I nixed him too. (Nothing personal, Neil; you're still one of the most gifted storytellers I've had the pleasure to read.)

When you first join Twitter, it's common to have Tweeter's block. You can't think of anything witty or clever to say, so you clam up. You spend the first week or so following people and wondering what the point is, and how is it any different that a status update on Facebook. But then you have an Eliza Doolittle moment, and all of a sudden, YOU'RE TWEETING ALL THE TIME! You can't stop, you have so much to say. All the funny thoughts that occur to you throughout the day: tweet, tweet, tweet! It's a bit like being in an infinitely sized room with no walls with a bunch of people who suffer from Tourette's syndrome. You're all running off at the mouth, and every once in a while, you happen to collide with someone else.

It is great for freelancers, or housewives; people who work from home, and spend a lot of time by themselves. Talking into the ether somehow helps you to feel less lonely. It gives a little thrill to see your thoughts blasted out into the ether. On Sunday, I tweeted Delicious spring evening, gentle breeze, Campari + soda. And moments later: Delicious spring evening now being marred by smell of rotting, sulphorous diaper wafting in on the breeze.

these tweets take on the flavor of little zen koans: Practical advice: know which way the wind is blowing before shaking out a flour covered towel outdoors.

I also find it a great tool for anger management. I am a little crazy about pedestrians having the right-of-way, and last week as I was crossing Bellevue Avenue with my kids, someone decided to make a left turn. While I was in the middle of the cross walk. With my kids. And I had the right of way. She just kept coming, even though I looked her directly in the eye. I finally held up my hand and demanded she stop, which she did, with much rude gesticulating in my direction. I was so furious, that as soon as we got safely to the other side of the street, I whipped out my phone, and tweeted: One who looks you in the eye as you cross the street with your children, and STILL tries their left turn is called...an ASSHOLE. It took a little work to condense my anger into 140 characters, but once I got it off my chest, I felt much better.

Or this, which I was compelled to write while reading about our former Vice-President:
DICK Cheney; never was a man more aptly named.

Tweeting sometimes gives me ideas for blog posts. I got two posts out of items I tweeted this week, while in Costco; one about the store itself, and the other, about SPF, all because as I passed the sunscreen display, I tweeted:
Does anyone else think things have gotten out of control w SPF#s?, and the next day, off I went on the blog.

So if you like Facebook, and social-networking in general, I encourage you to join me on Twitter. I am @rollergrl, although I'm thinking of changing that to @njhausfrau, you know, for branding. (@hausfrau is already taken; drat.) In fact, I tweeted last week to solicit people's opinions on whether I should change my screen name, but since I don't have that many followers, no one answered. (I didn't take it personally.) So if you join, then I'll have more real friends to "talk" to.