Jul 20, 2010

Big City, Small Town


About a year ago I decided to treat myself to lunch at Naidre's--a fabulous coffee shop that is not in my neighborhood in Brooklyn. I'd been there a handful of times over the past couple of years since it's not far from my kids' school, but not enough to be known by the people working there. I was just another stranger heading in for a bite.

It was one of the first great springy days of the year and so I'd grabbed a lighter jacket than the wintry one I'd been slogging around in for months. Switching coats, bags, or tampering with anything for that matter is a dangerous thing for me and even though I'm forty-one, I refuse to remember how forgetful I am. I stuff money in coat pockets, or maybe a credit card'll end up there if I've pumped gas recently and have had to separate one out from my wallet for a period of time longer than just a regular swipe. And then of course I do something silly like wear a raincoat, or no coat, or decide at the last minute to carry a different bag than my regular one...and I have that terrible moment where I realize I have no money too late.

That's what happened at Naidre's that day. I ordered a big cup of Rosy Earl Grey tea with milk, and some exciting sandwich. And as they passed the goods to me I dug around in my pockets and soon realized I was completely penniless. I was flooded with the familiar feeling of having failed at being a grownup, yet again. **The familiar feeling of failure is my new favorite concept, poached from the new novel Four Wives, by Wendy Walker where it's mentioned in a lovely passage about a woman who nurses her fussy child in the middle of the night, simultaneously calming him down AND destroying all of her sleep-training efforts. I've found this ffof applies to many aspects of my life.

'I have no money,' I announced, with startled unhappy eyes. There was half of an uncomfortable moment, and then I ventured 'could I bring you the money later today?'

While I don't try this kind of thing often, I'm always surprised when perfect strangers trust me. I have this wide open honest midwestern face that seems to invite conversation from all kinds of people in all kinds of places, but I also tend to dress wayyy down and often feel like retailers think I'm going to shoplift. This paranoia, no doubt, stems from my early days in high-end retail. On days off (which were never weekend days) I'd refuse to put any effort into my appearance and I'd do my own shopping. I always thought it ironic that nervous eyes that would flicker at me as I'd pad around a store in my oversized sweater and birkenstocks with socks, since only the day before I was the fanciest girl in the world personal shopping with people like Phyllis George and the Sultan of Brunei. So used to being considered a shoplifter am I that these little moments of trust--this counter girl in one of the biggest cities in the world trusts that I'll bring her the $7 I owe her!--shock me. Still, I threw it out there as a possibility. Hoping that open honest face would trump slovenly con-lady appearance.

Sure enough the woman shrugged and said 'yeah okay, that'd be fine.'

'Really?' I nearly ruined the moment, starting to feel even more like a loser. Of course I was good for it, I'd bring the money later, I'd make a special trip from home to do it, etc. But this just seemed so much to ask.

'Sure, no problem' she said, pushing my food towards me. 'Enjoy.'

And enjoy I did. Nothing like a bit of reading material, some hot tea, and a good sandwich. I took my time, soaking up the experience. An hour later I pushed away from the table, bussed my own stuff, and went to leave.

'Thanks,' I said, approaching the counter on my way out. 'I'll be back later, what time do you close?'

'Oh!' she said, looking confused. 'Didn't anyone tell you? The lady behind you in line paid for you.'

'Someone paid for me?' I asked, searching the room, trying to place which 'lady' might have done this.

'Yeah, she heard you saying you didn't have your money and she told me she wanted to pay for you, said she tried to do a good deed every day. But she left already.'

'She...' I started, craning my neck to the sidewalk in front, still thinking I could find her somewhere. This wasn't computing. Try as I might I couldn't even remember anyone being in line after me. I settled on a simple 'wow.'

The counter lady winked at me, appreciating my befuddlement. 'Pay it forward,' she suggested, smiling.

I left Naidre's feeling light as air. Smiling giddily at the next thousand strangers I saw might not have been the right way to pay it forward but I couldn't help myself. The glow of this stranger's good deed stayed with me all afternoon, all week, and can still rise up and make me happy whenever I remember to remember it.

Later that day I tried to tell the story to my husband, but found that no actual telling could recapture the shiny specialness of the feeling of finding out that someone who didn't know me had decided to make my day (and it didn't help that there was a bit of 'you forgot your money?' incredulousness from him which kind of ruins all the good feeling of the story). Of all the choices that woman had to make in that moment--judge me, hate me, ignore me, she chose to settle my tab for me. Anonymously. Ignoring me would have been anonymous too.

Another small town story from big city Brooklyn. Of course a story like this could happen anywhere. `But the fact that things like this do happen here is something I love. I love this place.

Jul 19, 2010

They Know Movie Stars


Sasha swivels around in her seat, folds her arms high on her chest, lowers her chin and her eyes well up with tears. 'They're hurting my feelings,' she sniffs. The two blondes at her table look up at me with wide eyes. Still engrossed in their paintings and in their conversation, they can see that Sasha's troubled, but they don't understand why.

'How are they hurting your feelings?' I ask.

'They (sniff) they're talking about how they know movie stars. And I (sniff)--I don't know any movie stars.' Her face is screwed up now and red. The tears fall off her cheeks onto her plaid skirt.

I look at the other two, also in their plaid uniforms. Not sure if there was indeed any taunting, or if their innocent chatter about the movie stars they know was sufficient to send Sasha over the edge. She's prone to needing little bits of extra attention.

The other day Carrie got something in her eye and I knelt down and focussed on her intently and encouraged her to blink, and the next thing I knew the 'something in the eye' disease had become contagious, and four girls surrounded me pointing and blinking. Sasha took one look at the group and approached as well. 'Umm, Miss Morgan?' she said, in a grave, raspy voice. 'I think I should go to the nurse because I just threw up three times in my mouth and swallowed it.'

'Fine with me. Go.'

The two blonde movie-star knowers happen to wear glasses. Gigi's are rimmed in pink, and Trixie's aren't. Both girls squinted up at me, smiling uncertainly. Not sure what they'd done wrong.

'Well,' I started, looking at Sasha who was clearly assuming I'd defend her against this celebrity onslaught, 'you know, movie stars are just regular people--boring old people who just happen to have jobs that make them famous. It's really no big deal.'

'Yeah,' Gigi shrugged, setting her paintbrush down to push her glasses further up her nose. 'And they're just very good friends of mine who are in lots of movies, that's all.'

'See?' Sasha complained, with an accompanying sob. 'She's hurting my feelings again.'

Trixie looked at me, confused. 'But we didn't know it was hurting her feelings, we were just talking about all the movie stars we know. We can't help it that we know them.'

'See?' Sasha begged.

I tamped down the urge to ignore Sasha's complaints. How much fun it would be to pull up a stool and find out which movie stars these girls were talking about!

One youngster's mom knew Jackson Pollack, one is a direct descendant of Walt Disney ('Zoe's the whole reason we even have Mickey Mouse' is the skewed, but funny logic I've overheard since Zoe's been on the planet for about five and a half years), one has a mom who's on Project Runway. One girl's dad is good friends with Susan Sarandon--who to these little girls is just the voice of the evil witch in Enchanted. Regular, boring, old people. I reminded myself. But of course, what a blast it would be to know who these little girls were rubbing their little shoulders with.

'Can't you make them stop?' Sasha pleaded, snapping me out of my daydream.

'Girls, Sasha's feeling a little bit sensitive now, so do you think you could just change the subject?' I asked, soberly.

'Sure!' the girls said, gaily. I'm certain they were glowing inside from knowing their movie stars. When I was fourteen I went to New York City and saw Robby Benson in The Pirates of Penzance on Broadway. That I'd been in the same room as Robby Benson of Ice Castles and Death Be Not Proud fame (the desperate teenage girl kind of fame) felt really wonderful and I'm sure I felt important when I talked about it back in my midwestern high school.

I'm guessing these girls' degrees of separation from their own movie stars didn't involve complete anonymity and two thousand other audience members. Of course it would be fun to know who they know, but of course it doesn't really matter who they know. Of course I did the right thing and never asked.

The tableful of uniformed first graders settled back to their art projects. Sasha settled back in to her painting, and eventually decided she needed to visit the nurse again.

Just a little itty bit of a day in the life of the Upper West Side private school where I've been teaching this year.

Jul 17, 2010

Morals of These Stories


I was driving my daughter to camp this morning and at one point in our journey we came across a barrier of orange cones and a big sign that threatened 'Road Closed, Local and Emergency Traffic Only' and I took one look at the gridlock being caused by all the people obeying the sign and I thought to myself, simultaneously, 'her camp's local,' (it wasn't really) and 'this is an emergency, we're running a few minutes late.' And without feeling too guilty I drove right past the sign and made our way to camp. We didn't encounter anything that looked like construction or anything else, and glided smoothly, unobstructed, all the way there.

Years ago I had to go pick up W-something forms for our babysitter from the IRS agency. Either the place was as crowded as the DMV OR at that time it was combined with the DMV. I don't really remember which of these is true, but the basic idea is that it was just a disaster of a government agency. I was 'triaged' immediately by someone who learned that I just needed to pick up a form, and I was sent to some very specific line and given a very high number. I couldn't believe that I was supposed to wait for my number to be called. Around me people sat with sour faces, my memory is that there were chickens clucking and children screaming, but again that might be embellishment. You get the idea though. After a few minutes I did the math--they were on number 39 when I got here and I have number 187 and it's taken seven minutes to get to number 41--and realized that it would never be my turn. I asked a few official people if I really had to do all this waiting just to get a form, and they all nodded grimly. A few more minutes passed and then number 42 was called, pause, repeated, and I realized I could be in front of the open teller in seconds. I lept to the counter, confessed that I was not number 42, and said 'I just need this one form.' The woman rolled her eyes, reached behind her, pulled one down from the shelf, and handed it to me. I left the building fifteen minutes after I arrived, and strolled out past hundreds of downtrodden people on my way out, with my crisp W-whatever in my hand.

Hooray, right? In each case I broke the rules and got exactly what I needed, as scores of other people, sheep-like obeyers, suffered the consequences of their obedience.

Good for me, right? Wrong.

These moments make me ill. I hate it. Leaping to open tellers, disobeying stern traffic signs, these things do not come naturally to me. But I live in New York--the land of 'HONK! the red light's taking too long, it MUST be broken! HONK, just drive through it--I tell you, it MUST be broken, HONK!' and I've just kind of adapted. So all I'm thinking as I waltz out of the IRS agency with my form in hand is 'crap, does this mean I have to be this pushy every time I need something from the IRS?' And when I sailed past the orange barrier and found nothing but open road and no traffic I thought 'crap, does this mean I have to consider ignoring every construction sign?'

In each case I got what I wanted, I got where I wanted to be, and I got these things quickly. But not without some shame on my part and yet another lesson learned: self-righteousness and aggression really pay off sometimes.

And even though I feel quite triumphant in these moments...I don't love the morals of these stories.

Jul 16, 2010

Easy Boy

The other day my neighbor sat on my stoop and we watched some of the younger kids playing on the block. Her son was screaming and racing around. He's five and is an especially rambunctious youngster with loud opinions and an at-rest stance (one arm up in front of his head with a clenched fist. the other fist at his waist, elbow pointing sharply out behind him) that makes him seem always prepared for battle.

When does he grow out of this phase? she asked me, pleadingly. When will he settle down like your son? She was referring to my nine year old. My younger kids are girls, seven and four.

I never know how to answer this. I'm asked it a lot. I think it can be traced to how the wave of gentrification has spread out over this corner of Brooklyn. We couldn't afford a nice brownstone in Fort Greene ten years ago like many of our counterparts could, but we could afford to take a chance on a crappy fixer-upper here in Clinton Hill. Several years later Fort Greene's prices were astronomical and all those thirty-year old professionals bursting with their first child bought up places in Clinton Hill. So while my son has a lot of peers about seven blocks away, there aren't many kids his age nearby. And among these parents of younger kids, he stands out as being this older, slightly mysterious kid. He's into baseball, he's into Star Wars, he's into whatever blockbuster movie's at the theater, he can talk to grown-ups but unless he's talking about one of the aforementioned subjects, he'd really rather not.

On the whole he's an incredibly mellow chill kid. So all these parents of younger boys ask me this question all the time: When will my son get to be all relaxed like yours?

Of course I have no crystal ball, but I do have the dark secret that my boy was never like their kid. I remember one time when he did this little destructo thing at a Barnes and Noble--pulling all the board books off the shelf to watch them kind of cascade down. But that's the only thing I remember. He was two. One other time (at a Barnes and Noble, I'm wondering if there's a pattern here), he cried and wouldn't share a train with a stranger-boy at the train table. He was two and a half. That's it. One destructive moment, one major unkindness. But that's really it. He's just a sweet gentle boy.

Full disclosure: My four-year old daughter has proven destructive and unkind enough for all of us. I've caught wind that the PreK she's entering has grouped the classes around HER powerful personality. In some ways, after watching my older two kids getting slotted in as space filler around some of the more out-there members of their grades, I do feel like I'm finally getting my money's worth, even though it's a public school.

But I'm not asked about her. I'm asked about him. Here's how I hear the question: When will my little monster turn into your amazing son? Another way is this: When did YOUR easy boy STOP being a terrible little kid? And I'm back to not knowing how to answer.

I usually just shrug and say 'well he was always pretty mellow,' I pull out the two examples that I mentioned above to show some 'mother-of-a-wild-boy' solidarity. But it's not too convincing.

Sorry folks, he's just a great kid. Good luck with your little nightmare.

Jul 15, 2010

The Blogger on my Shoulder


I've always been quick to make connections. Every single thing that happens to me, everything I notice, every news bit I hear sparks a swirl of ideas in my head about things in my own life, my kids, my suspicions about how the world works. Everything resonates.

Wishing my daughter wouldn't play in a puddle on the way home from school, I catch myself taking a half-step back and wondering why I'm so opposed to it. Is it really too much trouble to have her come home with wet feet? Am I really 'the mom who doesn't have the energy' to deal with several extra minutes of clean-up in the wake of my child having what might possibly be considered the single most perfect kid moment possible? The sheer enjoyment of splashing in a puddle on a wet sidewalk on the way home from school? Am I really trading in on the preciousness of her fleeting childhood for the preciousness of an easy first few minutes in my house? What does this say about me? What does this mean for her? What will it mean for her children somewhere down the road?

All that from one little moment on a sidewalk with a puddle.

How much fun that is when I have the energy to capture it in a little essay!

How satisfying it is to throw it up on a blog and get 'wow you really nailed it/I never thought if it that way!' comments! Or better yet, 'you describe what goes on in my mind so well, thanks for putting your words to my thoughts.'

What a ball and chain it feels like when I hit these patches where I don't feel like doing anything about these things in my head!

Sometimes I just want that 'hey I'm offended that they're showing a male enhancement ad during a Mets game on tv because my boy's nine and I have to explain so much to him and I don't really understand what male enhancement is (is it like Viagra? How come they're driving race cars?) and how am I going to explain it to him?' voice to disappear. Let me just observe that something's going on that I don't appreciate, and then let me move on without feeling compelled to write it down.

I know no one's asking for any of this from me. I also know that there are times I know that I need to write things down in order to stay sane, and sometimes I learn something just by virtue of having spent a few minutes getting it out in paper. But then sometimes, every now and then, I just want a puddle to be a puddle, and an ad to be an ad.

And for some odd reason, I had the urge to write this down today.

Jul 13, 2010

No Children


Years ago when I was pregnant for the first time, a new father colleague said to me, 'you'll be amazed to see how the world is really divided into two camps: those who have children, and those who don't.'

I remember noticing the tiny things at first:

The waiter who sets an open glass of liquid right in front of my toddler? No children.

The waiter who hands the liquids directly to me, or otherwise out of reach of the two year old? Children.

The waitress who'd put the hot steaming grease-bubbling pizza face pizza down right in front of my children? No children.

The waitress who waits til its not bubbling anymore to bring it to the table? Children.

It was just a slightly amusing but otherwise benign observation.

Lately I've had cause to make the same observations, but in situations that are slightly more heartbreaking. My son invited a grownup friend of the family over to watch a claymation movie that he'd made--it was about eight minutes long. The friend arrived, chatted with grownups in the kitchen for a bit, and just as the popcorn was being popped, he announced he had a headache and had to go home.
Headache and had to go home? No children.

Aspirin? Aleve? Tylenol? I offered. Knowing it would have little effect on a headache that was apparently so excruciating he couldn't just humor us all for eight (okay maybe nine, with compliments) minutes, but passive-aggressively shoving in his face anyway.

No, no...I think I just need to go lie down.

Go lie down? No children.

My son was heartbroken--and confused. Sure, he's being raised in that 'everyone gets a trophy' age, but this was really a proud accomplishment, this little product of his claymation summer camp. I certainly understand that my children are going to experience disappointment in their young lives--and I get that this is the best time for them to exercise that muscle...much better be disappointed when you're small and surrounded by loved ones who pay for you to do things than when you're older and have no one. But this just seemed cruel.

The grownup left.

My sister-in-law described a time when her own brother promised to take her son out to a movie, then cancelled mintues before. He just didn't feel like it anymore. Her son sat in the doorway, where he'd positioned himself to wait for the uncle, and wept.

Her brother? No children.

I have many childless friends who are over-the-top thoughtful and focussed on my kids. And while I have three kids of my own, I've probably made some stupid mistakes with other pals' toddlers, now that I've been out of the toddler-mindset for a few years.

This past weekend some relatives were lined up to take my daughter away for part of the weekend, to visit cousins. She was over-the-moon excited. On Saturday morning they called to say they'd decided to go up a day earlier, so wouldn't be able to take her. I hardly felt like I could beg them to change their minds, but my heart broke on behalf of my girl--a middle child who yearns for any form of attention that doesn't involve being lumped with her siblings. I want to scream 'don't you know how disappointed she'll be???' but I know that would be pointless. They just don't get it. They have, you guessed it, no children.

Jul 12, 2010

Vocabulary Lesson


Hooray my son got to use a vocabulary word at dinner tonight.
'Mama, that's one of my vocabulary words!' he exclaimed, with sparkles in his eyes.

This is a kid who has not been won over by school, until lately. Learning the tricky rules of the English language actually made him cry when he was in first grade. 'That's 'ph' instead of 'f?'' he'd wail? 'Why? This is just so mean!'

When he had to come up with five every-day uses for math in second grade, he struggled. If it weren't for his obsession with Yu-gi-oh cards which have points that have to be added and subtracted regularly, and if it weren't for the fact that he used allowance money to buy those beloved cards, he probably wouldn't have been able to come up with anything. 'What's the point of math?' He'd complain.

For him, school was just another big grown-up conspiracy. There were many. Like having to dress nicely for certain occasions, having to have a bed time (when it was clear the grownups were staying up later and having fun without him), and having to sit in the back seat of the car.
But this year, in fifth grade, it's all coming together. He got to use a vocabulary word at the dinner table tonight, when we first heard that that guy gone into the Holocaust Museum shooting.

'Why would anyone want to do that?' my eight year old daughter asked.

'Probably because he's an anti-Semite,' my son answered, before adding 'that's one of our vocabulary words.'

His class has been studying the Holocaust this month, on the heels of a unit on bullying, and one on slavery, and at one point, thanks to O Ambassadors, a former child slave from Africa came to his class to speak about his experiences, and last week some Holocaust Survivors shared their stories . He's become passionate about Emmett Till, and Anne Frank. And his own class has visited the Holocaust Museum in Manhattan several times this past month.

It's exciting to see what he's learning in class start to apply to the world around him. It's just so tragic that the history he's learning has become current events.

Jul 11, 2010

Brung It On


My otherwise perfect eight year old daughter can make me lose my mind with one word.
"I brung my shinguards."

"Sophie brung me this necklace from Africa."

"I wish I brung my money."

Can you guess what that one word is?

I should be clear. She's not getting perfect grammar from either of her parents. I don't make many written mistakes, but can be pretty lazy verbally--realizing, only after the fact, that I said 'and me' when I should have said 'and I' and vice versa, but I do know the difference, which should count for something. Something like having grown kids who speak without glaring mistakes. Brung? She's not hearing this word from us. Brung??

It probably used to be cute. Like how the fact that she didn't have the 'r' sound was adorable in kindergarten, and then less adorable in second grade. 'Brung' isn't cute anymore.
I have friends who correct every mis-speak that comes out of their children's mouths in real-time, and usually I think this is a bit over-the-top. First of all, it seems rude to correct them constantly--they have so much to figure out, and it would seem that eventually they'll just develop an ear for what is right and what isn't. And secondly, like with the writing-philosophy taught in their schools, I would hate for their little freedoms of expressions to be squelched by the fear of more so many virtual red-marks all over their stories. We've all watched bright little faces fall when faced with a barrage of nit-picky adult adjustments. It's heartbreaking.

Of course, I've found the right times to explain certain tricky language things ('a' vs. 'an,' and 'twenty-eleventeen isn't a real number'). And about a year ago I started to let her know, gently, that 'brung' isn't a word. Her response has been to get really put off by being corrected. Which is out of character for this girl who, for as long as I can remember, craved knowing all of the real rules--in part, I'm sure, so that she could correct her older, less-curious, less-exacting, brother.

But she's 'brunging' all the time. Sometimes I swear she's saying it to get a rise out of me.

I've tried to ignore it, I've tried to mention it minutes later, in private, just as an 'oh by the way' aside. Last weekend we were at a college graduation--eating eclairs on the lawn of the college President, surrounded by twenty-one year olds and their proud families, and she 'brung' it up again.

"I wish I brung my frisbee."

Something about the academicness of the whole event brought out the worst in me. A word that sounds like fingernails on chalkboard on a Brooklyn playground felt like fingernails in my brain on this campus green.

"'Brung' isn't a word and you know it! I don't EVER want to hear that word come out of your mouth again! Do you hear me?"

Instantly, I was left with the bad taste of having over-reacted. I'd pulled out a tone reserved for major sibling-bashing infractions. If you'd asked me, when I was a twenty-one year old in a graduation gown, if I'd have ever imagined using that tone in response to a minor grammatical error from an otherwise perfect eight year old daughter, I'd have said no way, I'm not going to be that kind of mom.

We stood facing each other, stunned, and then she glared at me with this glare that I'm one hundred percent sure will be a part of my daily life in three or four years. And I realized that I was powerless in the face of her 'brung.'

I comfort myself the way parents of late-potty trainers do. They tell themselves that their kids won't go off to college in diapers. I doubt she'll pull out a 'brung' in a college interview, or a job interview, or when she's being interviewed after leading her soccer team to victory in the World Cup. But for now, it's making me NUTS, and she knows it and that's the problem. It's too much power for her. And after my crazy outburst, I'm not sure I can trust my own response. It might get uglier. But what can I say? She done brung it on herself.

Jul 10, 2010

Biden Time


this originally appeared on nycmomsblog on May 1, 2009

Yesterday morning on the Today Show, Joe Biden said that he would recommend that his own family members stay away from travelling in confined spaces, in light of the whole swine flu thing. Planes and subways, more specifically. I wonder how his friends at Amtrak are taking this?

I watched several minutes of talking heads chatter on about whether or not this was alarmist, and predict a strong message from the White House to follow--and then I grabbed my stuff and headed out to the G train.

I could hear it rumbling underneath the sidewalk as I approached the station, and made a valiant effort to catch the Brooklyn bound train, but the doors closed before I could reach it, so I made my way to the rear staircase, where I could position myself to catch the next train, no matter which direction it was headed.

I got a nice seat on the north-bound G train, and settled in with my New Yorker magazine.

I love the subway. I've invented it many times. If only there were some vehicle that could scoot along, disobeying normal traffic signals, I'd think at times, with my arm outstretched hoping to hail a cab, my brain desperate to cough up some alternative to this waiting game--which could get emotional with the addition of other people looking for cabs. Then I'd realize that this imagined vehicle wouldn't necessarily know that I was waiting on the corner of, say, Houston and 6th Avenue. So I'd decided that this invented idea could just have designated stops along different routes. I'd be happy to walk a few blocks in either direction, I'd think, looking up and down 6th Avenue. Then of course I'd realize that this magical machine already existed, and in that particular area it was the C or the E train, and I could grab it simply by walking north to West 4th street, or south to Spring.


Of course we all know the ups and downs of the subway--we've all encountered the dreaded 'sick passenger' which can be code, it seems, for 'they're scraping someone off the tracks up ahead.' We've all had trains stall, run late, and be miserably hot and crowded with unpleasantness. But for me, in my life, the ups are just so great that I remain a huge devotee. What? I can read for 45 minutes, with little interruption and someone else will get me pretty close to where I work? No parking spots, no hassle? Checking my logical mind at the door and curling up with a great magazine on the way to and from work each day is an enormous benefit. No parking spots to search for, no cab to squabble over. When I moved to New York twenty years ago the bus was gently considered to be the 'classier' of the mass transit options--picture grandmothers with fun hats above ground, angry people below. Now the bus is a catastrophe of cell-phone users, angry people shouting into cell phones, angry people angry at people using cell phones, no chance to tune out and read and the subway is full of interesting people reading interesting books.

After fifteen solid minutes of reading, I switched to the Manhattan-bound L, which requires a bit of walking underground. The L train rumbled in just in time, and was very very crowded. I reached for a pole with my left hand and made a mental note to scratch all itches with my right. Joe Biden's warning flashed through my mind as I stood shoulder to shoulder with dozens of travellers. But what was I going to do? We only have one car, and my husband had taken it to work out in Long Island.

We jostled along to Union Square where I switched to the uptown express--4 or 5, I can't remember which one. I got a seat on that one and resumed my reading.

After my appointments I took the 3 to the F to pick the kids up from school, and then we all took the G back home. Later that night I took the G to the C to the F to get to a party at the Plaza, then I took the F to the A to the G back home. I sneezed a few times and a woman glared at me, but it was just the ticklish nose type of sneezing so she needn't have worried.

Twelve subway rides in one day, might even be a record for me.

I've always been a pretty relaxed parent when it comes to disease and disasters. I'm full of fears and worries for my kids, but without fail those are all limited to the social and emotional aspects of their lives. I guess I feel like everything else is just either going to happen or not. Yes, you could accuse me of waiting too long to call the pediatrician in certain cases, but in many many others my lack of anxiety has served my family members well.

So we just wash our hands when we get home and soldier on. On the subway mostly, and in a few weeks, we fly again.

Jul 9, 2010

Ode to a (Borrowed) Balance Bike



What a difference a balance bike makes! Last fall my three year old daughter pedaled to school every day, on a hand-me-down bike with streamers and training wheels. All of her friends still slumped down lazily in strollers (don't get me started...)--but not my girl...she was determined, energetic, and justifiably proud. Fast forward six months or so.

Now everyone was four, the weather was nice again, their little legs had gotten stronger (or their younger siblings had aged out of bjorns and needed the strollers themselves)--and all of these pals showed up at school on these little wooden balance bikes. It just didn't seem fair. She was still doing that terrible uphill pedal move necessary with training wheels--my open hand was never far from the small of her back, so I could give her the little jolts necessary to heave her over sidewalk cracks, curb cuts, patches of weeds--and all these little former slugs were on these lightning quick bikes, flashing by, coasting, having a ball.

I'm ashamed to admit that pick-up became a very emotional time for both of us. She'd pedal, hunched over her handlebars, crying, while teems of children swooped circles around her, saying 'helpful' things like just tell your mom to get you one of these!, or 'tactful' things like my mom told me not to make fun of you for having those things (indicating the training wheels. or maybe even the pedals).

Egad.

And it brought up all sorts of feelings of inadequacy as a mother and poorness for me. I have two older kids and honestly, this was the first time I felt peer-pressure about one of my kids having some must-have item. I started to pick her up at off-times, we'd find new blocks to walk/wheel down. Anything to avoid the horror.

I had priced the bikes out and they were around $80. We just don't spend that kind of money on our children, especially on our youngest (I know, that's terrible, but it's our reality). There'd be no younger siblings to use it when she was done and if she followed in her older siblings' footsteps, she'd be on a 'real' bike by fall. We might only have it for one season. It just didn't make good fiscal sense.

So I called my pal who owns a consignment shop and asked her to be on the lookout for one of these babies, and--glory be--it turns out her own middle child was 'finished' with his, and her baby wouldn't be needing it anytime soon. She said we could have it in the meantime.

So we got ourselves a balance bike, on loan. And it's changed everything.

It makes so much sense, it's hard to believe anyone ever thought training wheels on a bike with pedals made sense for young kids. No one really needs to learn to pedal, EVERYONE needs to learn to balance. Why not tackle the balance first, then add in the pedals?

My daughter zips around the neighborhood now, lightning fast, thrilled beyond belief. If I'd known how transforming it would be I would have plunked the money down sooner. I can't recommend it enough. I should say here that we did try to 'make' a balance bike by having the cranks removed from our tiniest bike, but the seat was still too high. This thing's brilliant; the smoothest, most graceful ride around. It's one of the few 'new-and-improved' contraptions for kids these days that is an absolute improvement. It actually feels like someone invented something new for a change--rather than just adding bells and whistles to something tried and true.

Jul 8, 2010

Trying Mushrooms


When my oldest child turned seven I decided to quit my job to stay home with the kids. It turned out to be the opposite of what most of the other moms were doing. I'd thought I was joining an amazing network of wonderful stay at home moms, but turns out they, after nurturing their infants into elementary school, were ready to hit the job market again. I hadn't had much interest in the days in and days out of little babies--so many unreasonable marbles rolling in so many directions--but got really interested in being around to influence homework habits, have the kinds of conversations you can have with fully formed kids, do things with them that they might remember, etc.

So with all this time on my hands and with no other neighborhood moms to do yoga and lunch with, I started to cook real meals for my family. I like to think I'd have been motivated to do that anyway, but there's no way of knowing.

Until that point my kids had consisted on chicken nuggets, velveeta shells and cheese, goldfish, ramen noodles, take-out Indian food, and ketchup. Not necessarily in that order.

Now I was asking them to get excited about the kinds of meals I was served as a kid. Meals with more colors in them, more textures. An upside-down shepherd's pie we call 'grumption,' (though, when I looked it up now to see if I could hyperlink to it, it turns out to have some pretty unrelated meanings), lemon poppy chicken, pasta with pesto, tacos, pot roast, etc. Of course some of my 'home-cooked' meals are the kinds of slapped together things that my more Enchanted Broccoli-types of friends would consider pre-cooked and processed. Not everyone would put tacos in the home-cooked category, but I figure if I'm messing up more than one pan and using a measuring cup, I've cooked.

The kids were not instantly excited. I'd prepared them for butter-waterfalls on their mashed potatoes, but rarely served the potatoes as hot as would be necessary to get that effect I remembered so much when I was a kid. They'd seen Fear Factor on tv though (something I'm not proud of) and so I ended up introducing a game called Family Fear Factor. The children could earn a dollar for every new thing they tried. And just like on the show, we'd all gather around for the chewing and swallowing and then we'd inspect the inside of their mouth to make sure they hadn't hidden a cockroach, sorry, I mean a stalk of broccoli somewhere. It was fun, it was funny, it was expensive, and--surprisingly, it worked. Once my son discovered he liked pot roast, he ate it every time. Once my daughter tasted pesto, she was a fan forever. Of course the food I was serving wasn't much of a stretch. I don't eat any kind of fish, at all. No mushrooms, ever. Not a lot of adventure in my own cuisine. Just meat, potatoes, some vegetables, variations on pasta...stuff like that.

I realize that it's hypocritical to encourage them to take chances on food when I refuse to do the same. But I'm kind of fully formed, have long identified as a non-seafood/non-mushroom kind of gal. At a clam bake (or was it oysters?) in Princeton twenty years ago I spent the entire evening with a guy I'd never met, having bonded with him only because of our disdain for all the sea-creature-slurping going on around us. It was kind of like having a husband--like that new concept of a work-husband?--he was definitely my party-husband. We clung together for the duration, gave each other knowing looks, and found strength in numbers when it came to being cornered by someone with oyster slime on his lip, demanding to know why we wouldn't even try it.

I'm aware that much of this food-aversion is in my head, as I enjoyed ruffles dipped in clam dip, sardines, and Howard Johnsons clam strips as a kid. Now that I know what most of that food is, I cringe at the thought of aiming for the chewy bits with my potato chips at all those neighborhood parties I grew up going to. And once, in my adult life, I was served a mushroom ravioli with mushroom sauce that managed to have no visible mushrooms anywhere. I didn't know what it was, liked it, and only rejected an offer of seconds once I was told what it was. I get how terrible it is to admit that. But still, eating those yucky brown slimy things that grow on rotting trees? Yuck. I don't even know why the beauty products that advertise shiitake mushroom extract, as the camera pans over artfully arranged mushroom, are playing that part up. What part of the word 'mushroom' makes you think of beautiful skin? Exactly. 'Fungus' might have something to do with feet but not in a very desirable way. What crazy person thought that one up?

As of a week ago, I'd never eaten a mushroom on purpose. But now I have. I'm not going to be ordering them on pizza anytime soon, but I can announce that little raw mushrooms just aren't that bad. At an Italian dinner the other night sponsored by Select Italy with chefs from Eatalian leading us through what we were eating, I (and a handful of other invited mom-bloggers) was invited to eat several frightening things. I'd planned to be a big girl and keep my feelings about mushrooms and seafood to myself, but of course I spilled my secret to the first mom I could, therein christening her the person in the room who I could make worried eyes at while being offered things like eggs with truffles, and porcini something-or-other.

The mushroom breakthrough moment came when one of the chefs brought out these soft powdery puffs that almost looked like meringues but were, indeed, some kind of fresh mushroom. The trick, he said, was that you don't wash them--that makes them turn brown, and slimy (or did I just add the slimy part?). You peel the edges off and then slice them into little inoffensive mushroom pieces. I don't know if I'd go so far as to say 'yum!' but...you know...they weren't that bad.

I even looked for them in the mushroom section at Fairway today as I scootched past with my cart. Big soft white powdery things. I saw them (amidst other more hideous varieties that look kind of like someone dumped a forest floor into the display case), and didn't buy them. But I didn't feel any animosity to them. I kind of felt like they were some familiar friends...ambassadors, maybe, to the other more drastic kinds of things in boxes around them.

And, just like every mom should have to relive the pain of a skinned knee so she can bring a bit more sympathy to the children who get them (they really, really hurt!), so should every mom take a wee bit of a chance on some kind of food she might have written off a lifetime ago. My meals aren't getting any more complicated around here as a result of having gone to this dinner (the rest of which was, by the way, out of this world spectacular), but I feel a bit more grown-up now. I handled a mushroom. Maybe I can handle anything.

Jul 7, 2010

Making it Happen


I rarely know what to ask for for Mother's Day. When it's far off in the future I feel like one of those moms who doesn't really care for all the fuss. Just another Hallmark creation, here to keep the flower companies in business...I'm not going to fall for that...and so on and so forth.

And then the day arrives and we trek off to do something that I said it was just fine to plan way back in March--usually a barbecue at a cousin's house that comes complete with several bickery hours in a car on a highway, and I find myself getting kind of worked up internally that, here it is, MOTHER'S DAY, my ONLY day of the WHOLE year, and I'm cooped up with ungrateful children and a husband who might offer up a few criticisms about my driving. Mother's Day Shmother's Day, I might text a friend from the cousin's driveway. And then I soldier on, smiling, acting like it's a day like any other.

Perhaps my ambivalence is linked to my day-to-day awareness of how imperfect my mothering is. I'm not exactly a superhero of a mom. I hope that a car never backs over one of my children, not because I'm worried about the child so much as I'm afraid that we'll all discover that I'm the one mom who'll turn out to be incapable of lifting the vehicle off the kid. I'm not a big advocate for my children, so uncertain am I that I even know what's best for them. I'm not even good at protecting them from weirdos. One afternoon, on a sidewalk, a crazy lady came up to my children and demanded that they call her "auntie." I just kind of froze and encouraged them to go along with it. It was a terrible failing and I apologized to them later. But I was hardly the ferocious mother bear on heightened alert for things that might endanger her cubs. On the contrary, I urged them to be polite, do the 'auntie' thing, before whisking them off, tail between my legs.

But this Mother's Day I'm feeling a bit more deserving. Seems I found my mother bear.

My nine year old son has been completely enthralled by The Lightning Thief series of books--wonderful fantasies full of Greek Mythology, something he's also come to love. This has been a breakthrough year for him with reading and academics in general, and I've been awestruck by the perfectness of these books for him. He and his 4th grade reading group have been plodding through the books for the last several months, reading a few chapters at a time, creating final presentations for their class after finishing each one. Promising each other they won't read ahead is one of their deals, and there have been times when, after finishing a chapter, my son has been doubled over in agony because he couldn't turn the page to see what happened next. I've never seen him so engaged. Hooray.

And then I found out that Rick Riordan, the author, was going to be doing a reading-slash-Q&A session at Bank Street--way up town in Manhattan on a Friday night. Double-hooray! I emailed the teachers and reading group parents and everyone got excited, but when I called to 'reserve a spot' I found out that, not only was the event itself completely full, the waiting list was full. The best we could do, the lady offered, was to come and wait outside the event, and maybe the author would eventually sign their books. He was crushed.

Roar!

I raced to the author's website to see what could be done. Surely he'd come visit their classroom that afternoon--right? Wrong. Don't even contact me about scheduling events until 2009, his website urged. He was very busy. No new events, no tag-ons to current events. Nothing.

Heave!

I searched the calendar for anything else nearby. He'd be in Massachusetts the following day. Hmmm, I've always liked Massachusetts. He'd be in Indiana the day before. Well, my parents live in Ohio. That could be convenient. But then I saw that he'd be signing books in Books, Bytes, and Beyond in Glen Rock, NJ. GoogleMaps said it was a 50 minute trip, but to allow an hour and forty minutes.

I called the store and nailed it all down. Yes Rick Riordan would be signing books from 3-4 o'clock. No it wasn't a reading or a Q&A. Yes we'd have to buy the books there. No we didn't need to camp out the day before. Yes they could meet him. Hallelujah.

I emailed his publicist to say we'd be making the trip from Brooklyn and were hoping to have a picture taken with him. She responded that he'd be happy to accomodate.

My son was excited, his reading group was thrilled, parents were amused, teachers were cooperative. I picked everyone up from school at noon to allow three hours for the trip. We were NOT going to miss meeting this guy. No way.

We got to the bookstore an hour early (had to stop for AFFORDABLE New Jersey gas!) and got to know the women who work there. It took fifteen minutes to make our complicated combinations of purchases. Each child had money to spend, gifts to buy, hardcovers, softcovers, the works. The kids spoke animatedly about Greek Gods and the women in the store were impressed that they were only in 4th grade. Private school, right? they ventured. Nope, public shcool, we replied. Now they were really impressed.

When the author showed up the two girls in the group swooned, Marcia Brady-like. He was ushered into the room to get ready, and we lined up outside the door. When the door swung open a few mintues later we were invited to come in as a group. You must be the reading group from Brooklyn, Mr. Riordan said.

He signed each of their books, addressing each kid by name as he signed them. Then he asked if they had any questions. They had plenty. By the time our time with him was over, we'd had about ten solid minutes alone with him. We took several pictures, asked tons of questions. The kids forgave him for making one of the main characters a Yankees fan when they learned that he really doesn't have a preference for Yankees or Mets, being from Texas himself. They asked him about his inspiration, his writing habits, his favorite books, his children, his last name (first syllable rhymes with 'fire').

And then we were done. Elated, the kids spent the majority of the trip home talking about Greek Gods again. In The Lightning Thief, the main character--a kid from Manhattan--learns that one of his parents is a Greek God, and so the kids tossed around ideas about who their own Greek God parents might be. Having warlike tendencies meant Ares, falling in love easily might mean Aphrodite, loving to work hard could mean Hephaestus. We were enshrouded in fog as we drove over the George Washington Bridge and it was easy to imagine that Poseidon had something to do with it.

All of the details of the day had kept me from appreciating the magnitude of what was happening. It didn't hit me until later that night when I uploaded the photo we'd taken of Rick Riordan surrounded by the children. One boy thought to open his book wide to the signed front page, another girl holds two hard-bound books in front of her. Everyone is beaming. It had been an incredible experience that the kids would never forget. Who needs an overcrowded reading at Bank Street? We had a private audience with the man who's taught these kids to love books and Greek Mythology. I'd lifted the car off the kid.

Maybe I deserve a massage after all.

Jul 6, 2010

Ten Dollars in my Pocket


I set out the other day to pick up the kids from school. I had ten dollars in my pocket. It was one of those new, crisp ones with the big head and the large numbers. I'm used to thinking that a ten dollar bill is something to be excited about. But on this particular day it occurred to me: That's not really enough, is it?

How many twenties do you want? The ATM machine basically asks me. I used to think that was ridiculous--my choices are 20, 40, 60, 80 or a quick hundred? A hundred dollars still seems like a lot of money to me. There shouldn't be anything quick about a hundred dollars.

But if $10 really isn't enough to get through an afternoon with the kids, then a hundred dollars isn't much anymore either.

Let's say we want to indulge in the ice cream truck--something we only do on Fridays, unless there are special circumstances (a new policy that deserves an entire essay, it's been working so well). Let's say someone's thirsty so we end up needing to buy a few Vitamin Waters? But then we want some Pringles too? What if I remember I need milk and spend $5.29 on a half gallon of organic? We're done, overdrawn, broke.

I used to begin every week with a twenty in my pocket and I'd see if it could last all week. It was a reasonable personal challenge--and it meant I was the person making bright 'let's have coffee!' eyes at other moms at drop-off early in the week, and it meant that I was the dull-eyed 'I'm just going to go home' mom by the end of the week. And I was okay with that. A goat cheese sandwich on Monday meant ramen noodles on Friday. A tangible (tasteless) consequence. And I learned to make the necessary adjustments.

But now there are so many more temptations.

We live in a vibrant neighborhood with a lot of new and exciting eateries and cafes and I'd love to be one of the people who frequents these joints. But ducking into any of these establishments for a snack with any combination of my children and/or their friends ends up draining my wallet. I'm the Johnny Appleseed of money, wandering around town leaving twenties in my wake. My new game is to see if I can walk out of my house without spending money. I'm not very good at it.

I guess it's one of the downsides of living in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Hooray my husband and I thought to buy a brownstone for mere pennies ten years ago! Aw shucks the neighborhood got popular and now I'm surrounded by millionaires and the kinds of exciting businesses they attract. I suppose there's plenty of money in my walls, but that's not the same as eating a fun sandwich every day.

Those of us who bought homes here years and years ago are considered pioneers. People look at us with envy in their eyes when they do the math and realize how little our houses cost us. You can usually spot a pioneer mom at the playground because she's the one with baby carrots in a bag. The envy in our eyes is aimed at their exotic coffees and aerodynamic tangerine-colored strollers.

I haven't consigned myself to the bags of vegetables yet. I don't pack up snacks to fetch my children from school. I'll pack a picnic for a baseball game, but not for pick-up. I'm just stubborn like that. I've always enjoyed a more 'where will the day take us?' kind of mentality. But with out-of-pocket dental insurance in our near future (my husband was laid off last year and the benefits are running out soon), gas prices making weekend trips something to reconsider, and three kids who go through $40 worth of organic milk a week, I think the day should just start taking us right back home where we can get our money's worth out of our cable bill, and where we can save for the important things. Like babysitters.

Jul 5, 2010

It Takes a Village--To Ignore the Ice Cream Truck


One of the best things about our Brooklyn neighborhood is Underwood Playground--a full city-block of great play equipment, shady areas, a separate sprinkler area, and even an enclosed mini-'meadow' place where kids can play in the grass, dig, and romp in a way that has nothing to do with concrete.

I love that I can show up with any combination of children at any time and find friends/make friends...or just let the kids stretch their legs.

You find out a lot about other parents in the playground. I'm a major bench-sitter. People think I've chosen to give my children all sorts of independence, but really I'm lazy and I just like sitting. I admire the moms and dads who agree to play monster, or who invent elaborate and comical ways to push their kids in a swing. How energetic they are! I'm bored by the spotter-parents, the ones who are always underneath their kids, acting nervous and jittery whenever junior's up too high. How humorless they seem!

Another major test involves the ice cream truck and the icee man. At first I prided myself on being one of the moms who enjoyed these things. I grew up on a dead-end street and ice cream trucks were nonexistent. Part of me still finds it magical that a little bus full of ice cream rolls through Brooklyn. I mean, that's pretty great, right? Plus I decided that I'm annoyed by the kinds of people who make hay out of being annoyed by the ice cream truck. 'Can you believe some of our neighbors have tried to report the ice cream man for coming on our street late at night?' I'd hiss. How could someone admit to being such a Grinch? They'd totally be the villain in the movie about the neighborhood.

There were always a few hold-outs. The moms pushing baby carrots and granola bars on their children, while everyone else swarmed, lemming-like, to the curb at the sound of the Entertainer music or the bicycle-horn of the icee man's cart. Poor kids, I'd think...as I'd shell out more money for my brood.

One summer a soy ice cream truck rolled around, manned by a rastafarian guy. The granola folks got off their benches for that one, but there were rumors about drugs and we never ended up seeing the guy again.

It's important to mention that my two older children were always reasonable kids. While they enjoyed being kids who could get treats from those trucks, they also understood it when I said 'no,'--whether that no was based on my having no money with me, or a reminder that they'd had/or were going to have some other kind of treat that day. But my youngest? Not so easy this way. She's the queen of instant gratification--whatever suggestion passes through her mind becomes a desperate need within minutes--if it's not fulfilled within seconds of it occurring to her, she collapses noisily and dramatically. It can ruin everybody's afternoon. So when the weather started to turn towards summer about a month ago, now that she can't be distracted as easily as she could last summer, I started to get worried about the ice cream trucks-to-be.

Easy, my friend Ingrid said, when I said 'what are we going to do about the ice cream truck all summer?'--'just say 'only on Fridays.''

Only on Fridays? Okay. Let's do it only on Fridays.

Is today Friday Mommy? my youngest would ask as she biked to school in the morning.

Nope, I'd say. Friday's in two days.

Okay. So I get ice cream in two days, right Mommy?

Right.

Perfect! Keith, neighborhood dad suddenly visible in the playground those days to help with a brand new baby, pointed out that it was the same theory behind the rat experiment involving randomly assigned rewards versus predictable rewards. Apparently the rats who were given treats at random were anxiety-filled beasts, who spent their days frantically pressing buttons. The rats whose rewards were doled out in predictable chunks were calm and relaxed. He was dead right. By giving in every now and then, but never in a predictable way, I'd created an anxiety filled beast. Poor thing.

No more frantic anxiety-filled afternoons, but rather, four year olds at peace with the fact that the rewards would come, just only on Fridays. Dozing quietly in the corner of their cages, in their nests of shredded newspaper, I mean...playing happily on the swings, in the tunnel, playing bumper cars on the slide...

Now I should mention here that it rained for about four Fridays in a row, so our poor kids hung in there week after week with no Friday ice cream. Because the rule is designed to help with the temptation of having the ice cream jingle repeated a thousand times several yards away from us, there's no real hard and fast rule about having cold treats at other times during the week. Of course the Friday rule is open to interpretation and the decisions we make when we're not all clustered together in the park are up to us. On a recent Thursday, for example, we all decided to cave. The heat was excessive, and several of the children weren't going to be in town the following day. But it was a firm trade-off. Yes today, but no tomorrow. And the kids managed it well. But the best thing is that the tension that used to arise whenever the sick-honk of the icee cart approached, where some of us would give in immediately, and others would cringe and bristle as they prepared their defenses for their own soon-to-be disappointed children, is gone. We're all more relaxed now.

We're now approaching July and I'm ultra-impressed with this whole system. I spend a lot of time wishing I'd known about it eight years ago, but am mostly glad to know about it now. There was one Tuesday afternoon where she just about broke down, begging for it. But I held firm, stressed how much fun Friday would be, and we haven't had a repeat of that. I've always known that psycho-mumbo jumbo about giving kids limits, and how they thrive with boundaries and all that but all parenting advice seems to be preachy and mired in denying them things and I tire of it quickly. Something about those poor little rats really drives the whole thing home.

Jul 4, 2010

My Boyfriends


this post appeared on nycmomsblog on June 23, 2008

When I got the news that Tim Russert died I was crushed. I was in the car with my 9 year old son and I noticed that it was the 'top of the hour' as they say in the news world. I had some strange hunch that there might be some new news so I turned on 1010Wins just in time to hear Tim Brokaw say "...moderator of Meet the Press, Washington Bureau Chief..." and my heart sank. I knew what was going to follow, and I was right. Omigod Omigod I said, turning the dial up to hear. As the story unfolded my son said 'oh you loved that guy, right?'

Right.

We came home and told my husband. 'Oh your boyfriend!' he said. 'I'm so sorry.'

What a loss. Everyone's been agreeing all over 24-hour news land and I won't even go into the particulars about how wonderful he seemed to be. But suffice it to say it was Tim Russert, not even Jon Stewart, who got me through this whole Democratic Primary season. I'd learned how to catch him in the minutes past 7am on the Today Show, then switch to MSNBC just in time to see Tim walk on the set, be greeted with kisses and hugs, and then settle in to explain everything with a twinkle in his eye.

I've loved him from a distance for over a decade (and once, up kinda close, when I saw him at a Bob Dylan/Van Morrison concert at the Paramount Theater--the night before the Monica Lewinsky story broke). I love other people too. That's normal, right? Doesn't every married couple with three young children have lists of acceptable 'affairs'--like, if I came home one day and announced that I'd hooked up with Tim Russert, my husband would have had to say 'well, good for you...so proud honey, I know you've always really liked him.' And that would be that.

My list has two categories. I can be a sucker for the latest smokey Hollywood hunk--Robert Downey Jr, in Ironman, anyone? After Black Hawk Down Josh Hartnett was high on my list, now he's no where near it. Jake Gyllenhaal was on it until I discovered Peter Saarsgaard.....and there was the time I left the movie Serendipity with such a crush on Jon Cusack it occurred to me that the TRUE serendipitous event was that I'd gone to see the movie and realized that I was meant to spend the rest of my life with him. I fall hard and fast and then I move on.

And then there's the brainy clever-man part of my list. Tim Russert, Jon Stewart, Bill Maher (when he isn't bashing breastfeeding), David Sedaris. That list doesn't change too much--if any of these men ever found me fascinating it would be more flattering than anything else I could imagine, given how sharply observant they are.

My husband is much steadier in the celebrity crush department. If he were to confess to making out with Isabella Rossellini in an elevator somewhere, or if he decided to leave me for Jody Foster--I've already agreed to smile and be happy for him. Those have been his two faves ever since I've known him. In fact, those choices helped him win the 'best husband ever 'award at playgroup a few years ago (a fact I've never shared with him). The subject of who our husbands had crushes on came up (perhaps I'm the one who brought it up?) and I totally won. Seems everyone hears those two women's names and thinks 'oh, classy guy, good taste.' Sally's husband lusts after Pam Anderson? Gross! Marissa's guy digs Cindy Crawford? Bo-ring!

I'm so sorry to have lost Tim Russert; I was really looking forward to going through the elections with his enthusiasm and grace and generosity and curiosity. But he was on my clever-guy list, and that's proven to be a pretty permanent list. So in a way, I suppose, he'll be with me forever.

Jul 3, 2010

Barack Around the Block


this originally appeared on nycmomsblog on November 6, 2008

I'm not sure I'll ever forgive myself for staying in bed watching TV instead of joining the throngs outside, but to my credit, the throngs weren't celebrating on my own little block, but rather around the corner on the main avenue. I could hear them. Shouting, cheers, swells of pleasure wafting in through my open window.

It started when Ohio was called for Obama. A loud cheer went up. It was like watching a tense sporting event and hearing neighbors celebrating the highs and moaning through the lows to the rhythms of what the announcer on my little tv was saying. Just another reason to love New York--when you're like me and the thought of not having people around (within shouting distance, preferably) gives you the total heebie-jeebies, In Cold Blood style, if you know what I mean. I like to know they're out there, and I like the shared experience of having them shout out to the things on my tv.

All was right with the world. The swing states were swinging our way, the kids were all asleep. We let them watch until about 9:30 but past elections haven't been called (truly called, and I was feeling superstitious) until 3am, or the next morning, or sometime near Christmas, so I didn't want to keep them up. Plus, I have a special relationship with Murphy's Law and chances were that if I'd kept them up, Ohio and Florida and Iowa might have swung the other way, and so I figured we should all just play it safe and get to bed.

Plus they'd had the day off. If you ask me, NO ONE should have to do anything but vote on Election Day, but that's another post for another time. Or you could watch this excellent and chilling (but less chilling now that we know the outcome) Rachel Maddow piece on the new poll tax, and hear a great argument for that. So the kids had been off of school all day and had been at each other's throats. And they did have to wake up early the next day so keeping them up til midnight seemed careless (of course if I'd known...).

So all was right with the world and I decided to let myself doze off, just a little drifting, at about 10:30, to the ocean of noise from the people outside, but nothing distracting. Just great happy noises. At 11 my husband woke me up. He's done it! Obama won! They just called it! The crowd outside went nuts, I sat up and sat, glued, to the footage of the Spellman College kids dancing and singing to Signed, Sealed, Delivered. A perfect song for the moment.

The phone rang and my friend was on a street corner near her house a few blocks away. You should see this! she shouted into the phone. Everyone's out here, everyone's cheering, the streets are full, there are fireworks! I made great tearful happy noises into the phone and let her get back to the craziness.

I'm not sure Obama would have approved of the gunshots that punctuated the celebrating I could hear from my bed. Just a few enthusiastic shots, I'm sure. Not unlike what we hear sometimes at midnight on New Years. But when you want to make a loud fireworks like noise and all you have is a gun, I guess you use the gun, eh? What's a guy with a gun who didn't think to buy fireworks in advance to do?

This all made my husband want a beer, so he went down and got one, and went out and walked around a bit to get the feel of it. Part of me wanted to go, but part of me wanted to lie in bed, under my comforter, and watch the Spellman College students weep and sing and wait for McCain to concede and for Obama to speak. I didn't want to miss a minute.

Just before twelve we tried to wake up our oldest. Obama just won, my husband said to him.

He did? my son responded.

Yeah, and he's about to give his acceptance speech, do you want to come into our room and watch it with us?

That's okay, I'm all set. was the reassured reply. I learned later that my son has no memory of our attempt to rouse him, or of his own polite refusal. He felt a little bit left out when the kids in his class raised their hands to indicate they'd seen the whole thing, but in my husband's Obama shirt, worn down to his knees, he didn't feel that left out.

I did wonder if we should just go ahead and wake everyone up--forcefully, if they kept refusing our polite suggestions--to make them bear witness to this incredible, completely unmatchable moment. But decided against it as well.

The moment was the moment and I was in it. I wasn't out in it, I was in in it. I wasn't alone in it, but I wasn't making it anything other than it was. I didn't have to do anything to create a more perfect version of it. A perfect moment, a perfect speech, perfect children asleep in perfect beds, a perfect comforter and a perfect pillow, a perfectly wonderful feeling that nothing could ever do anything to take this moment away. Nothing could happen--not anything--that would make this moment not have happened.

At about 12:35 I decided that Obama must be on his way to bed. He'd been in like a zillion states in the last few days, giving speeches at rallies at all hours, and he must have been exhausted and now he could rest and he seems like a sensible guy and since he couldn't go smoke cigarettes he might have just chosen to go to sleep. I hadn't done much out of the ordinary in the last few days, 'cept some awesome trick-or-treating on Friday, and cheering on the NYC Marathoners who run up the avenue around the corner on Sunday, and teaching art to sixty little girls on Monday. Oh, and getting up at 5:30 to wait in line at 5:45 for the polls to open at 6am with my 8 year old daughter, and giving terrorist fist jabs to the neighbors (including our local councilwoman) in the polling place, and smiling at everyone, and feeling buckets of hopefulness laced with twinges of worry all day. And maybe that was enough.

So I figured if Obama was in bed, I might as well go to sleep too. And I dozed off again with a happy heart to the sound of a million neighbors celebrating the most wonderful moment that my children would never forget, even though they were sound asleep, and that I would never forget, even though I was still in bed.

Jul 2, 2010

Pick a Peck of Poplar Palin


this post originally appeared on nycmomsblog on October 16, 2008

I am not poking fun at Sarah Palin's family. That would be in poor taste. Rather, I'm going to spend a few moments publicly bemoaning the fact that one of my children shares the name of one of hers.

Quick! Name Obama's kids! Having trouble, right? Now try McCain's kids, or Biden's kids? Can't do it. There's Megan McCain who said "no one knows what war is like other than my family [p]eriod" and there's Bo Biden whose name I only know because of all the Fee Fie Fo Biden jokes, but I can't name the rest, and, probably, neither can you.

But Sarah Palin's kids' names are up there with Apple and Moses. Palin's kids' names are (of course) Track, Willow, Bristol, Piper, and Trig--which I think must be short for trigonometry. Everyone knows them, most people make fun of the outrageousness of them. There's even the Sarah Palin Baby Name Generator where you enter your own name and watch it morph into something like 'Rifle Commando Palin' or 'Blaster Puck Palin.'

Writing here under a pseudonym, I feel compelled to preserve my young daughter's own anonymity, so I won't divulge which name is the same. But let's pretend Sarah had a daughter named Poplar. And let's pretend I had named my own daughter Poplar. Let's say the name Poplar was a departure from our older children's names, and that it was chosen because it was a combination of several family members we wanted to honor, as well as just being a damned cute-seeming name. And until Palin's Poplar came along, we'd only ever met maybe one or two other Poplars.

There's a strange thing in our neighborhood, and maybe in Wasila Alaska as well...there's this incredible baby naming freedom. In fact, most of the names in our neighborhood seem to indicate an intent to be original, to side step the more obviously common names like Ethan, Emily, Tiffany, Andrew... Of course the strange by-product of that is every boy in our neighborhood is named Hudson or Lucian, and every girl is Ella or Eden. We also have Arrow, Lion, Tiger and Boo.

So we've all had a bit of fun naming our children. And some of us have had the same exact kind of fun naming our children with the odd result that the original names have become common and the regular names rare. Surely the mom who chose the name Daisy never envisioned that her daughter would have to be Daisy R. for her entire elementary school career to distinguish her from Daisy L. and Daisy C. while the one girl named Lisa would get to be the only girl named Lisa.

My first two children have names mined from some of the older branches on my family tree. They are actual names (not types of fields or mathematics) but are more in the old-fashioned category, and we've never met another child with one of their names (older adults, yes, but no kids) which, I have to say, is kind of nice, though it can be frustrating that souvenirs never come pre-printed with their names. My third child is the one with the same name as one of the Palin crew. My fifth grader wrote an essay for school (he was able to choose the topic himself) that was a hilarious rant against Senator McCain, and in it he listed things that bothered him about the Republican ticket, and number one was that Sarah Palin's daughter has the same name as his little sister. I thought that was really cute, until a few weeks later when I found myself at a birthday party for a child I didn't know very well. I had to tell about a dozen different people that my daughter's name was 'Poplar' and I found myself cringing every time, since given the current political climate it kept seeming to link me to Sarah Palin, and that made me very unhappy.

It reminds me of when my son--at age four--had these delicious long blond locks and then he had his first haircut and ended up looking like all the other little bowl-cut towheads--with the platinum blond straight top and the little brown 'V' of hair close cut at the top of the neck. I was in a little hippie bread shop in a little hippie town upstate and he was calling me 'mommy' and I had this strange realization that I felt like his ultra-conservative 'do was somehow misrepresenting who he was, who I was, and what types of things we value (or don't put much value on). Strange, and probably not so great to admit, but true.

The way we dress or style (or don't style) our youngsters is a reflection of who we are. Likewise, the names we choose to give our children are also a way of advertising our own taste. Several dozen families naming their first child Michael doesn't necessarily join them at the hip politically, but two different moms choosing the name Poplar for their daughter? Those moms must have something in common, right? And that's precisely what made me cringe as I met new people at that birthday party and told them my daughter's name.

I am hoping that, come November 4th, Sarah Palin drops off the media radar. It might take a little bit of time, but I'd like to get back to the world where I can say my daughter's name out loud without thinking that I'm being subconsciously linked to a politician who really doesn't represent me, or speak to me, and who doesn't even seem to care about me--or my daughters, for that matter--at all.

Jul 1, 2010

The Conflicts of Their Interests


For years we've made travel plans with our children, despite whatever small obligations we/they might have at home. It was awfully convenient back when they didn't have the awareness to know what they were missing (back when a peek-a-boo-playing parent's face really did cease to exist when it wasn't in sight), and also nice when they'd know what they were missing but the obviousness of the greatness of the experience we were sailing off to have was so apparent that they didn't care about a class celebration or some kid's birthday party--it was hard for my seven year old to know that she was missing her second grade poetry celebration, but when we remembered about it on the beach in Waikiki we were able to laugh it off as not being reason enough to still be in dreary Brooklyn.

Of course all that lovely ignorance couldn't last forever, and just when we started to feel able to count on their indifference, it's all changed. We're in a new phase.

The phase of much-anticipated weekend plans bumping up against important family obligations and travel. And it's significant that they are still too young to be old enough to be excused from many of these adventures, but they are old enough to feel the agony of missing out on, say, a weekend full of baseball double-headers, a movie premier with a friend and his dad, a cherished friend's sleepover, and so on. And I'm just not feeling equipped to guide them through the emotions of having to be in two attractive places at once. It's just life, of course. But it's hard to reconcile in my own head, let alone walk them through navigating their own feelings about it.

Parenting was so much easier back when my children's problems were all things I felt that I'd mastered over my life time. I feel comfortable encouraging them to share (barely, since no one's asking me to share my most precious possessions with near-strangers or friends who are annoying to me), I feel comfortable asking them to take turns, not to hit, to brush their teeth, to avoid eating too many treats, to do things that all of us grownups know just make sense.

But now they're getting into things that are more difficult to resolve. My son complains that he did all the work on a group project and then had to watch the teacher praise all of the kids equally, my daughter is baffled about why she's losing good friends to some of the meaner girls in her grade. And I don't know how to parent this. Because they parallel the things in my life that keep me awake at night.

We have some of the most wonderful family-event-themed weekends coming up this spring--weekends for which we'll be doing a lot of flying, and in the 'old days' of them being just a few years younger these would have been single-minded pursuits. Nothing but plain old 'this is what we're doing this weekend' stuff going on. But now my kids know their sports schedules--my son can see that he's missing a total of four baseball games (out of only, like, ten) and two practices (which are just as much fun). My two girls are missing six soccer games and two practices between them. They're losing some momentum, as well as much of the bonding that goes on during these events. And they're sad about it.

We are clear in our priorities--no one has asked why we have to travel to these amazing (once in a lifetime) family functions--but we are all left feeling unsettled by all they're missing.

I know I know it's just life. We have many more sports seasons ahead of us, and we'll look back on this as having been an amazing spring for being with extended family, and we might even forget that there were tinges of heartache about missed games and other events.

Or we could go the schadenfreude route and pray for rain. Lots and lots and lots of rain. With plenty of makeup games waiting for us in June.

Jun 30, 2010

Revolutionary Road--Warning



I'll do my best to avoid requiring a special spoiler alert but I just feel a duty to warn my fellow wives and mothers about Revolutionary Road.

I went in completely blank. I could tell from the trailer that it was some kind of heartbreaking/aching look at suburban life...but that's it. It might have been funny in parts, it might have been uplifting, it might have been any combination of suburban life and anything else. I wasn't quite sure. I did know enough to know that I wasn't really looking forward to seeing it. When was I going to feel like spending two hours away from my kids in a dark room watching a young vibrant couple deteriorate?

And then it went and got all mentioned at the Awards shows... and I ended up deciding that it was one of the movies I should see.

I went with another mom when the kids were at school on Thursday. We sat in a row behind Lauren Hutton--and I spent a little bit of time wondering if I should tell her that I was her personal shopper at FAO Schwarz about eighteen years earlier, and that I remember she had an eight year old boy with her who was in to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and that I hand-delivered her purchase to her Noho loft, and then decided not to.


I won't give away any specifics about the movie, but I can say that when the lights came on again a few hours later my mom friend and I turned to each other in tears and said 'at least we live in Brooklyn...that's different, right?'

The movie's stayed with me these past few days. Every now and then I feel myself slipping into despair about all the dreams I had when I was younger and about how having children means that I won't ever realize those dreams, and I shake a mental fist at the movie for putting all that pessimism into me at such a vulnerable time.

I had breakfast with another mom the next morning and was telling her why the movie depressed me.

It hit me in all my weak spots, I said.

Like what? she asked.

Well, before my third child was born I had this idea that my husband and I could do a house swap for some portion of the year, and everyone kept telling me that I couldn't do that because of school. And I really hated hearing that because, like, who makes up those rules? Why can't we just live somewhere else for awhile and not get all trapped by the limitations of the school year and testing and stuff. And I half expected and fully hoped this friend to agree with me that anything is really possible and that I shouldn't feel like I can't have these enriching experiences just because I have children.

But she didn't. But you can't do those things once you have children, she said definitively and in a tone that made me feel like a silly little girl for thinking I could.

And I want to be strong in the face of it...just like Kate and Leo with their schadenfreudey neighbors. But it's winter time, and my mood is low, and even though I have the life I want and I'm even getting to do some great travelling in the midst of it, I've let go of certain dreams, dreams that people told me I shouldn't bother to have, but that I wanted to have anyway. And that's what depresses me.

So be warned, if you're thinking about going to the movie. Yes I live in Brooklyn (not Connecticut) and yes I saw the movie in a row behind Lauren Hutton which probably doesn't happen in the suburbs too much. But it got to me, and I can't let go of it. It's going to take a whole lotta lighthearted date movies (He's Just Not That Into You? anyone?) to bring me out of this funk.

Jun 29, 2010

So Long, Sarah




I have a secret to tell you, my four year old whispered to me on the couch a few weeks ago. She got up on her knees, cradled my head with her hot little hands, and managed the following, very serious statement:
Sarah's not real.

Wow. For over a year we've been hearing about Sarah. First Sarah lived in Africa. Then Sarah lived in a house in the woods somewhere near the Hudson River (she pointed it out as we drove over the Bear Mountain Bridge one Sunday in the fall). Sometimes Sarah lives in Manhattan--"Muh-hattan."

Sarah's parents were dead. Sarah has an older sister and an older brother. Sarah is much smarter than anyone else in our family.

When we were driving back from Ohio after Christmas we used our new blackberry/GPS device to find a family style Italian restaurant a few miles off the interstate. As we pulled up to it, the four older people in the car (ie. everyone but the four year old) were admiring the curtained and cozy little brick building--we were all so grateful for a change of pace from the same-old same-old service area places.
My daughter was unimpressed. Sarah brought me here when I was two, she said, dismissively.

It's been hard to keep up with Sarah these past two years. Sarah knows so much more than any of us do. One time when my daughter and I were butting heads about dressing warmly on a cold wintry day, I told her that it was going to be cold all day.

No, she said, it's going to be sunny.

No sweetie, the weatherman just said it's going to be freezing cold.

Well Sarah said it's going to be sunny.

Well maybe Sarah didn't see the news this morning.

No, she told me it was going to be warm out. And she told me--and then she paused for effect, and she slowed down her words so there'd be no mistaking her--before YOU were born.

So Sarah was a big know-it-all who breathed all kinds of words of wisdom to my four year old daughter, over forty-two years ago. It was pitiful watching my little one--the baby of the family--try to keep up in this world of taller smarter people, and kind of heartwarming that she'd invented this Sarah--a clear attempt to level the playing field a bit.

I'd often wondered how far to take the Sarah business. There was no evidence that my girl knew that Sarah wasn't real. While we never brought Sarah up out of nowhere, we did nod along and pretend to believe most of the stories that involved her.

The name Sarah would pop up here and there as well. Any new doll or stuffed animal was instantly named Sarah. And once, when recalling the day she was born my daughter told this story:

I was born at the dentist's office and you came to pick me up. And I wanted you to name me Sarah but you didn't so I was sad.

Sarah had hair like my daughter's (blonde), but then once it turned out that the lovely Asian dancer spinning in front of my family as they sat on a curb watching the Macy's Day Parade go by was Sarah.

It was hard to keep track of Sarah, and yet some things always remained the same.

I got worried one day when I was handed the telephone and told that Sarah was on the line. If I pretended to talk to Sarah wasn't I going a bit too far? Turns out Sarah wanted my girl to come for a sleepover. When I expressed concern that Sarah's parents had died so the two girls would be all alone, I was told that before they died they'd told Sarah that my daughter could come sleep over.

So, this Sarah isn't real comment was a bit of a jolt. Clearly my daughter was ready to put her to rest. The big question is: Am I?

Have you been waiting a long time to tell me that? I asked sympathetically.

Yes, she nodded.

Should we tell anyone else?

She glanced towards the kitchen where her brother and sister were doing their homework. No, they might miss her if we tell them she isn't real.

Well then, do you want to keep pretending that she is real. Just only sometimes? I asked--adopting her 'just-only' phrase, another thing I'm not sure I'm ready for her to be done with yet. She shrugged. We didn't hear about Sarah for about ten days after that.

And then, her PreK class went ice skating on Tuesday, and when I asked her about it in the car this morning she offered this:

There were lots of animals with us. And I only fell down once. And there was a unicorn, and I got to ride on it. And the animals weren't wearing ice skates, they just slid around on their hooves, and Sarah was there and everyone wanted to hold her hand. But she just only held mine. And when I fell down, I did a flip, and I landed on my feet.

I was glad to hear that Sarah made an appearance. They're much fewer and farther between these days.

Of course it's sweet that the unicorn was there too. None of the parents who chaperoned the outing mentioned that part to me.

Jun 28, 2010

The Downside of the Loftbed


We hear it from the moment our baby boys are born. Older people (and even younger people with older kids--who always end up feeling like older people) seem to love to tell us mothers of little boys that they'll grow up and leave us someday. My sister in law used to say she wanted daughters 'because they never really leave their moms.' It all kinda creeps me out, like there's some set rule out there. It's odd to think that my unique little baby boy could ever just become one of those grown up guys these women love to tell me about.

What a love affair it's been with this little boy! And to top it off he was kind of shy and preferred to be with me, hanging out, with us, in our living room, at home, than anywhere else. He wouldn't even take a class that didn't involve a parent being right by his side (we settled on rock-climbing, with his father spotting him). Of course we'd roll our eyes like everyone seemed to think we should and complain about his lack of independence, but frankly I didn't find anything wrong with it, plus I was perfectly content to hang out with him at home as well.

A few years ago his shyness morphed into an extreme self-awareness--almost like he was watching himself be a little boy, instead of just being one. By second grade he started to ditch us at the corner, half a block away from the school building. It was heartbreaking to watch, especially since I knew that he was aching to be with us. But I totally got it. I remember not wanting to be seen with my parents when I was a teenager. Sure, it was happening to him sooner, but the feelings still seemed the same--hyper-awareness of who he was in the eyes of the other kids, and a need to appear to have separated from his mom.

I stopped reaching for his hand when we'd cross the street. I stopped ducking back into his classroom to tell him things, I stopped waving hello to him if I saw him with his buddies in the school yard. Of course I'd keep my face open, waiting to return any gaze he'd send my way, but I wouldn't initiate anything. I respected his need to create his own little existence.

In our home he has the tiniest little bedroom at the top of our stairs. His two younger sisters share a larger room, and my husband and I have a medium sized room in the back. His room was so small that his door would bump into his bedframe when we opened it, and you had to sit on his bed to get the right leverage to open any of his dresser drawers. At one point, in a fury of adding things like floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and other desperate space-saving measures, we realized that if he had a loft bed that ran parallel to his back wall, he would have an entire room to play in, to celebrate all this new independence.

Some great workmen from Queens designed and built a really high bed, with a ladder leading up to it, and a built in desk underneath. When their work was done we all painted it, and the walls, a Shrek green. His favorite color. His room seemed enormous. The door opened all the way, he had his own little universe under the loftbed (he can stand straight up underneath it)--with his desk and his globe and his drawers and his chair and his desklamp. A little green paradise!

And then it came time to say goodnight. And I stood below him and watched him disappear up the ladder--almost like Jack climbing up the beanstalk. By the time he got to the top and pulled his barefeet off the ladder and onto the bed he looked teensy and very very far away. I tried, on a couple of occasions, to climb up with him, but the ladder was too vertical and while going up wasn't a problem, I had a genuine fear of getting in the right position to climb back down again.

The best I can do now, when I go in his room to say goodnight, is to reach up and grab a toe and wiggle it and say "I love you kiddo,' or something lame like that. There's no such thing as snuggling up with him, lying in his bed reading to him, or even stroking his forehead if he feels sick, or waking him up with a kiss.

Why didn't anyone tell me about this?

To make matters even worse, he's now a self-assured fifth grader, who will reach for my hand on occasion, even when his friends are around. Who wants to snuggle up and read, who wants me to come on his class trips, who gives me spontaneous hugs. I'm aware that this might be one big last push of closeness because he's sensing all the growing up that's just around the corner. But whatever it is, it's really there, and it's really great, and yet this crazy loftbed just makes some simple parenting moves feel impossible.

His loftbed makes him seem very very far away, which is kind of too bad since pretty soon he really might be really really far away, but right now he isn't, but still, he is.