Sunday, December 31, 2006

New Year's resolutions: But first a word from our sponsor

Sometimes your resolve just isn’t strong enough, and a resolution is in order ...

Dear Ittybit,

All the books say BABIES should NEVER under ANY circumstance watch TV before they are the age of two. NEVER!!!! And while there are ample studies to show early television viewing is rewiring our kids for the worse, new studies are showing we parents are using it more and more.

And so it is with complete mortification that I add the bane of the 20 and 21st centuries to the list of colossally bad parenting skills I’ve adopted in raising you: Television is sometimes your babysitter.

Your first friend — Elmo (who you quickly jilted for Ernie, and then Clifford, and now Curious George) — knocked on the door asking if you could come out to play when you were only one. I let him in.

While I hated his syrupy cloying voice, his insane giggle and his megalomaniacal insistence on referring to himself in the third person, I loved that with him around I could unload the dishwasher, fold laundry or use the bathroom in peace.
When you were sick, he comforted you. When you were sad he cheered you. When you were done with him, you moved on.

Did I teach you to be fickle, too?

Sure, there are a lot of hazards one might surmise that might come from television viewing, the least of which include eye strain and an insufferable urge to pester parental units into purchasing a veritable fortune of otherwise forgettable merchandise.

The television can literally kill them. This is not a joke.

On average, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, six children die each year as a result of televisions falling on them and thousands more are injured from falling furniture. Not surprisingly, 85 percent of the parents whose children were injured in this manner didn't know it was possible.

Let's face it, although serious and tragic, few of us parental unit-types are worried about a 40-lb hunk of plastic, metal and glass flattening our kids.

We're concerned with whether television viewing will lower your IQ while increasing your waistlines and violent tendencies.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, however, we're also worried about whether we'll have to miss Sopranos because of Sesame Street.

And to that end, we're putting television in our kids' rooms so we can watch our shows.

This just makes me want to throw out our TVs ... All seven of them.
Some, like your dad, blame their adult television addictions squarely on the shoulders of their parents, or more accurately their upbringing, which forbade television viewing early on and restricted it later in their development.

Yet, your father takes pride in his resourcefulness in overcoming the boundaries keeping him from pre-teen zombification — ruses which included writing a lengthy, scholarly paper to plead his case on "Why I Should be Allowed to Watch Television for the Good of My Education" and fashioning a replacement cable when his mother removed (and hid) the power cord while she was at work.

I imagine you will have some of his talent in this area when you grow older, Ittybit.

I, on the other hand, hail from a family of television connoisseurs — hearty people who relished every second of "Barney Miller," "St. Elsewhere" and "My So Called Life." Our television set was on non-stop whether anyone was watching or not. Oddly enough, television doesn't often hold my interest. I find myself turning it on as background noise so I can safely get lost in the warm glow of my computer. The computer, as you know, is my addiction.

The truth is, neither of us is good at pulling away from any form of media once our interest is caught, be they magazines, books or even the mail. ... But we're working on it, I promise.



Sunday, December 24, 2006

With a blink and a nod, Merry Christmas

I was reminded recently of all the earthy-crunchy, we-are-parents-hear-us-roar mantras that swirl around raising children these days when I read a story about a woman whose sister-in-law refused to lie to her children about the existence of such a being as the jolly old elf, Santa Claus.

"How can I expect my children to trust and believe in me if I tell them lies about Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy?" she wondered with a tone that implied superior parenting prowess.

The worst part was that as the sister-in-law's children grew up, their mother's distain for lies made it imperative for them to tell their younger, Santa-believing cousins the "truth."

I could only imagine the dread of attending family gatherings after it becomes clear there's always someone waiting in the wings to rain on the parade. It's almost as though kindness must take a back seat to honesty at every turn, and "I'm just telling you the truth" are the magic words that erase the onus of responsibility for hurt feelings.

I have to be honest. I never gave too much thought about whether or not we'd tell Ittybit about Santa.

A benevolent grandfatherly gentleman, who, against the forces of nature and with the help of eight tiny reindeer, each year somehow manages to circle the globe on a single day delivering presents to children everywhere ... chimney or not ... milk and cookies or not. What’s not to love?

My mother told me once that she remembered seeing Santa Claus from the top of her staircase one night when she was a child. She told me how magical it felt to know, really KNOW, that Santa was real. Back then I thought she was probably the luckiest kid in the world to have seen the great and powerful Claus.

I never SAW the "real" Santa for myself. I knew that the men in the 70's era pictures with me and my sister perched on their laps were all stand-ins. The "real" Santa was much too busy at the North Pole getting ready for his big night to be sitting in a fir hut at the mall. But I believed.

I don't remember when I learned the truth about Santa. I think that must be because I never really felt Santa’s lack of DNA veracity was in fact proof a lie had been told.

At the age I found out that the portly man in a red suit I had previously known as Santa -- a guy with snow-white mustache and beard, not to mention that iconic twinkle in his eye -- didn't actually come into the house via the chimney to bring me and my sister toys was also the day I learned about metaphors.

It was the day I learned that the truth was colored with many different shades of gray not to mention all the colors of the rainbow.

Far be it from me to tell people how to raise their kids; For some Santa only means revenue for retail and they’re just not that interested.

But to call Santa a lie, and lobby against the retelling of his lore, seems to me lacking imagination. Perhaps what this world needs are more benevolent lies rather than fewer. Maybe we need more held tongues and gazes of kindness than glares of derision. We need to realize that sometimes our realities aren't always shared, and that one's lies are another's truths.

The truth isn't some inalienable object, it's not even static. But when we boil it all down into one or the other -- the truth or a lie -- we might as well throw away fiction and fantasy and dreams.

Why bother with metaphor at all? It's a tricky business and some people just never get it. Imagination, what's it good for anyway?

No, I'll always believe in Santa Claus -- the spirit if not the man.
And for those of you out there who believe, too: I wish you a Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The mother of all fears

It's official. According to a Danish study, motherhood can make you crazy.

The study, based on medical records of 2.3 million people over a 30-year period in Denmark, found that the first three months after women have their first baby is riskiest, especially the first few weeks when the tremendous responsibility of caring for a newborn hits home.

In addition to postpartum depression, the analysis also found first-time mothers were more likely to experience bipolar disorder, with altering periods of depression and mania; schizophrenia and similar disorders; and adjustment disorders, which can include debilitating anxiety.

The study further notes that fathers are largely unaffected by mental illness as a result of the birth of a child, primarily because they are not likely to experience debilitating sleep depravation, tsunami-like hormone surges, isolation and a complete shift in identity.

Whew. I'm glad someone finally blew the lid off of that one.

Seriously, though, what surprises me is that it's taken this long for a "landmark" study to be conducted.

There's enough anecdotal information about mothers struggling with depression, anxiety and other forms of mental illness to fuel lively debates among friends, but few scientific studies that can help put the issues in perspective. Lo and behold, the stigma of mental illness persists.

From Andrea Yates and Christine Wilhelm to Tom Cruise and Brooke Shields, we participate so fervently in the dialogue about the consequences of maternal depression that I think we forget that not much is really known about the condition itself. We take sides. We bring forth our own experiences to prove our points, but we don't really know anything about what makes these women different ... if they are at all.

Many women, luckily, will never understand the astonishing depths of mental illness. They will never understand how a woman could hurt an innocent child or herself, because such abhorrent acts are so alien to their way of thinking, feeling and reacting. There will always be those who will say their "mother raised eight children and never complained, so grow up already."

Yet there will always be people, like me, who say "finally, some answers."

You see, I have on occasion suffered from bouts of prolonged sadness. And though manageable, I fully expected to descend into a full-fledged depression once Ittybit made her entrance.

But, I didn't suffer from postpartum depression. I had what I like to think was the opposite: I had an overall feeling of well being. It wasn't mania, or euphoria, it wasn't even worrisome. It was just a soothing little voice inside that made me believe everything was going to be just fine.

It wasn't until 15 months into my new life as a mother that the real adjustments took place.

Ittybit got sick and had to be hospitalized.

We didn't know at the time that her ailment wasn't going to be life altering. We were just petrified, as any parent would be. I handled the stress in stride. Aside from the few hours of internal turmoil between the car ride to the hospital and the assigning of a room, I was calm, collected and hopeful. The hardest part of the four-day stay – I recall now – was seeing other people's children who weren't as "lucky," and feeling the full weight of my helplessness as a parent.

After we got home and our lives returned to normal I noticed that that "good feeling" I'd once had was gone. And it wasn't coming back. Worry had taken its place and eventually overtook my place as a mother. It wasn't just run-of-the-mill anxiety. It was more of a not-wanting-to-leave-the-house fear. Only the darkest thoughts were permitted to take residence in my head. I was losing the struggle to keep them at bay.

I eventually sought help and was lucky enough to get it. I know others who did not (or could not), and I mourn them and the people they left behind, people who will always wonder: ‘What should I have done?"

Being a mother isn't easy, but just because it's a choice we make doesn't mean we are beholden to endure pain with grace and stoicism. It doesn't mean you're weak or defective; it just means sometimes you need a little help and support. The medical community is getting that message, it's time the rest of us do, too.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

We've got another mouth to feed -- and it's king sized

We recently purchased the first REAL bed of our together life.

IT'S HUGE. HUGE I tell you.

See, my husband's been itching to get a king-sized bed ever since he woke up one morning balanced on the edge of his side of our newly purchased queen-sized mattress and fell off with an unceremonious thud!

He's made no secret of the fact that I am a bed hog, cover thief and whatever other crimes come with the unconsciousness of slumber. Although I think we are polar opposites of our waking selves in the dead of sleep - I turn into a cuddler and he turns into a mollusk - I don't argue with his reasoning that even though I constantly feel cold, my body emits the heat of a furnace. It's probably true and I blame whatever crazy endocrine lottery I won for this dichotomy.

So when one of his buddies needed a bed to sleep on he eagerly volunteered our six-year-old mattress set. As he wrung his hands and told me of his plans, I could envision the football field-sized bed he was anticipating replacing it with.

"Do you realize this means at least two sets of new sheets and a new comforter?" I ask, exasperated. "They cost at least twice the price of queen-sized sheets you know."

"Sleep is a precious commodity; you can't put a price on it," he assures me.

Since we were biting the bullet, we decided we might as well buy a bed frame to boot. You know, finally get ourselves off the floor and into civilization. (We're not in college anymore, right?) So we spend a long hour and a half perusing a local furniture store, bringing with us our expert toddler bed bouncer to test stability, and with her help we decided on a mattress that will allow one side to do back flips and half-gainers while the other side is able to snooze, undisturbed, with a glass of wine balanced perfectly upon his chest. (I'll give you two guess as to who usually gets to corral the kid in the mornings.)

We also selected a terribly inexpensive sleigh bed to cradle the luxury sheep-sold mattresses.

The furniture store's people delivered the beast about a week later and had it set up in minutes. I never thought I'd say this, but the darn thing makes our GIGANTIC room feel more like a cave. Seriously, if any room should be able to accommodate a king-sized bed easily it should have been that one. After all, it was the one room in the entire house that we both agreed we could live in if the rest of the place became uninhabitable as a result of piecemeal construction projects or natural disasters.

I'm still a little surprised by the feeling of claustrophobia that came over me as looked at it from the doorway. My huge bedroom with seemingly unending space was gone. All I could see was a bed. It just got worse when I climbed up and tested it out. Not only did my feet not reach the floor sitting upright, but when I stared up the ceiling I felt as if it were closing in on me.

The man in our life even had to admit the new bed is a bit of a monster.

"Uhm ... Honey. ... The bed just told me he'd like steak and eggs for breakfast ... and possibly one of the dogs."

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Spirit of the season ... or something

My husband and I don't really speak to each other in transit.

We could sit side by side in a car for four hours and the only words uttered would be "look, here comes our exit."

As odd as it sounds, it's one of those "healthy" relationships in which we are able to completely ignore most angst by merely willing the potential for strife into non-existence, and take pleasure in Car Talk or Prairie Home Companion instead.

I learned early on that reacting to the road hazards from the passenger seat was, in effect, calling into question his driving skills and would lead to nothing but hurt feelings. He learned that suggesting alternative routes from the one in which I had my heart (and my trip odometer) set was going to earn him the withering "if-you-wanted-to-drive-why-didn't-you" stare.

It's just that simple.

In the car, especially, we tend to shy away from all the party banter that gets non-habitating folks into trouble: politics, religion, the state of the environment, home maintenance, yard work. ... You name it, we’ve made an art form out of ignoring it.

The quarters are just too close for any sort of discomfort.

So, as we headed out to go hiking last weekend, (And for the record: Yes … hiking with a toddler is more like walk four steps, pick up leaves and rocks and yell Mama, UP-Y every fifth step, which has an appeal all its own, but I digress.) ignoring the first viable shopping day of the holiday season, I have NO idea what possessed me to break the traditional tranquility:

"So, what are we going to get your mother for Christmas?" I ask and then take a long drink from my coffee cup.


I looked over toward his side of the car. He was sitting there with his mouth hanging open.

"With that one sentence you have made the whole Christmas shopping season thing real for me."

He wasn't irritated, just stunned.

And his stunned silence brought the whole thing home for me, too.

I've spent so much time kvetching about the early marketing of Christmas that it's just now occurred to me – counting only the days I could feasibly get out and shop before Dec. 25 (discounting days that have been blocked off for other holiday chores) – I've only got five shopping days left.

Since I have typically done most of the actual selection, wrapping and shipping of items for both sides of the family, I should mention that the question I asked of him was elaborately rhetorical.

I ask for his input but I don't ever expect to use it.

He'll say "let's get the family to chip in and we'll get mom a riding lawnmower" and I'll say "oh, a posh tea kettle sounds perfect."

But this year, with a toddler-turn-preschooler who refuses the comfort of a stroller and insists upon leisurely strolls (not to mention hiding underneath clothes racks and juggling the breakables at Bed, Bath and Beyond) I don't have the energy to shop.

It's true: I've dropped before I've shopped.

If he had said let's get her an automatic car wash with a seven-head attachment I would have ordered it from the internet access of my cell phone that instant. Our "Buy Local" mantra be damned.

Truth be told, I've recently done a single scouting mission to The Mall to see what's what, and sadly I didn't even remember what's where, not to mention the confusion caused by some of my favorite stores falling off the directory.

We didn't come to any conclusions about our shopping list during the outing, and the car returned to its usual silence. And even though the clock is ticking down and the stress is rearing up, it occurs to me I wished I hadn't mentioned a word about the holidays. Maybe then I could have staved off Christmas (shopping) until next year and this year, just enjoy the season.


UPDATE: I received a letter from Edmay Mayers this week, thanking me for my contribution to her toy drive for Iraqi children and for getting the word out about the need for gently loved toys in that war-torn country.
I mention this because in the real spirit of Christmas and Eid ul-Adha, I want to remind you that Ms. Mayers is continuing her efforts to bring a little joy to children of Iraq and that your donations are still needed.
Again, please send gently used toys and clothes as well as hard candies and other non-perishable treats to her at:
Edmay Mayers, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Gulf Region South (GRS) APO, AE 09331.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

I'll never eat penguin again

We arrived an hour early but still the line snaked out of the theater, past the ticket booth and down the hall.

"Why do we do this to ourselves?" I ask myself as I haul all 28 pounds of Ittybit up back up to midlevel, shifting her weight from one foot to another. "Oh, yeah a free movie we can leave as soon as she gets tired of sitting still."

I'm not proud of this fact, but one of the perks of working for a newspaper is the possibility of free entertainment. Oh sure, there's usually a small price. I've had to sit through countless musical productions of Jesus Christ Superstar and Carousel, and spent hours trying to come up with reviews that were fair, honest and somewhat glowing when all I really wanted to do was muse maniacally about the possibilities of a Christ's Carousel. On the other hand, I've also seen dozens of stellar performances I'd never in a million years be able to afford on my own.

Of course, movies are a bit different. You may save some dough on the price of admission with the preview screening freebies but the popcorn and treats will still do some damage to the kid's college fund. I am reminded of this little fact as we s-l-o-w-l-y make our way past the concessions counter and Ittybit's eyes stay silently locked on the popcorn maker, willing it, I image, to pop on over to her side of the aisle and say 'hello.'

As we slowly inch toward the ticket taker, I nervously bite my lower lip, hoping we’ll get through and find three seats together. Ittybit has been talking about penguins since I showed her the movie pass for "Happy Feet" three days ago.
The line slows down to a crawl, and I mention that we might have to make other plans. Their may be no movie for us today.

She ignores me. Not even three yet, she has already pegged me as the alien being who obviously has no idea what life on Earth is all about. "Daddy will fix it."
When he hands over our tickets to the kid with the theater vest, I’m stunned there’s still room. "Over there; Theater 2," the kid directs with a flourish of his ticket-stuffed fist.

We climb up the near-vertical steps of the theater and find three seats in the last section in the middle. Ittybit settles into the seat between us and starts bouncing up and down.

"When is the MOOOOVIE starting?" she asks with the implied tone of the "Are We There Yet" game.

"Not for another hour," I grumble, getting out my trusty glue stick and ripping up that morning's junk mail so she can make a collage. It's a trick I've used successfully since she turned two, and it was working until three kids squeezed past us to their seats carrying monster tubs of popcorn.

"POPTORN? POPTORN!" she yells at highest threshold of indoor voice she can manage, remembering her mechanical friend from the lobby, and starts the dreaded chant: "I want poptorn, too. Pop torn, pop torn, pop torn, pop torn. … PEASE!!!!"

So I go off to get some non-buttery corn goodness as she sits and continues the art project with her dad. When I return 40 minutes later and $7 lighter, I barely get a chance to sit down when the plea comes for water. Ten minutes later and another $4 lighter, I'm back just in time to sit and watch the lights go down.

As the sound comes up, I realize that it's so loud I can’t hear the rhythmic munching to my left. Soon, however, I'm thinking partial hearing loss might be a worthy price for such splendid scenery: Icy blue water, amazing landscapes, and, of course, cute and fuzzy penguins.

Now I know as a parent I should be a little bit more vigilant about what my daughter watches. I noticed the movie was rated 'PG' and that the tickets mentioned that some language may be offensive, but I was willing to risk a little offensive language for cute and fuzzy penguins. After all, I'm one of THOSE types who feel that there are worse things in life than naughty words.

What I didn't realize, and was completely ill prepared for, was how completely horrifying it would be to watch an animated leopard seal attack the cute and fuzzy penguins. Circle of life or not, I had no idea something as lovable as a seal could transform into such a hideous looking creature.

Once the danger had passed and all was right in the movie again, Ittibit stood up and announced "I'm done here."

And with that we gathered our coats and bags, and washtub-sized container of popcorn and made our way down the stairs in the dark.

"Never fails," I grouse. "I'll have to wait for the video."

Until then I'll be picturing the hideous seal eating hapless penguins and dancing around in Joseph's Technicolor Dreamcoat.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Do they have preschool night courses for mommies?

If you ever want to feel the true weight of your dreadful parenting skills pressing down upon you, spend the day at a pre-school. I promise you will learn a lot about your shortcomings.

Every so often I am called upon to attend lessons with my daughter and her classmates at the Marilla Cuthbert Academy for Unspeakably Charming Children (or MCA-UCC for those of you who insist upon academic abbreviations — you know, for the bumper stickers).

As a cooperative pre-school, the MCA-UCC relies on parents to take turns in all tasks relating to upkeep, maintenance and the supplying of wholesome snacks. Helping children struggle into painting smocks and elaborate costumes to fulfill their wildest dreams during their child's "Special Day" is just a bonus.

The MCA-UCC is a place where all the children stand in line, take turns and play with wild restraint. When they forget and play with abandon, the teacher sings a reminder that children are to use their "walking feet," or turn on their "listening ears," or sit on their bottoms.

It becomes clear how reinforcement and expectation becomes part of any behavioral outcome. No one ever says "No." Instead they say: "We don't throw toys." "We don't eat paste." "We use indoor voices."

Such wonderment must be experienced first hand.

As a parent whose experience with tantrums has resulted in chocolate for dinner, no hair washing for days and more television than the FCC censors have ever seen, I can tell you teachers of small children are genetically different from the rest of the human race.

Whereas, I have one tiny gladiator to wrestle into a coat, she has 10.

Kids who develop hearing impairments at home as soon as you remind them to wash their hands after using the potty, or wipe their feet at the door are happily obliging the kindly headmistress. Eventually, everyone at school starts using their listening ears and their indoor voices. The accounting alone is enough to make you nominate her to a high-ranking
position in the United Nations.

I've been through the Special Day drill twice so far this year, and each time I feel as if I need remedial intervention.

When one kid in my charge dips his hand into the paint and drags it across his paper, she zips over with a paper towel, apparently observing with the eyes in the back of her head, and reminds us "We use brushes," in the same jovial tone.

Oops. My mistake.

"I'm just going to hang this over here," she sings as she relocates artwork I've hung right above the walkway. "Otherwise you're going to get painted. And we wouldn't want that."

Uh. Sorry.

"We use one puzzle at a time," she reminds as I sit with pieces from at least six puzzles strewn between three puzzlers.

Oh. ... I didn't even think.

I sit in awe as the three children I've just spend an unsuccessful 20 minutes trying to costume in elaborate dancewear, disappear into the main playroom. Not one -- not even my own Ittybit -- heeds my beseeching to come back and reverse the process. I panic. Snack time is fast approaching and if it takes 20 minutes to untangle them from the plumage there will be trouble.

"Um… Miss Cuthbert?" I stammer apologetically. "I can't get the kids to take off their costumes."

With a knowing look, she conjures the magic words: "Oh, girls, when I ring that bell you’re going to want to be ready for snack. And that means you'll have all the play clothes put away."

And wouldn’t you know, before you can say "abracadabra" all three are back in the dressing room, tugging off their costumes and handing me their shoes. Proof, I have to believe, that teachers have supernatural powers.

Hopefully some will rub off on me.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Fighting the system for mine and yours

Phleff, phleff, phleff. Eeeeeeeeeerrrrr. Scrabble scrabble. Click. Click.

The sound you didn't hear, dear readers, was me dusting off my soapbox, dragging it across the floor and climbing up. I don't do this that often, so please bear with me as I stand here precariously in unfamiliar territory.

A few weeks ago I met a neighbor while I was out and about on weekend errands, and during our conversation I learned that she'd made the "agonizing" decision to take her son out of public school.

Although in her soul of souls it pained her to know her son was attending what she saw as a "factory" for churning out children who will sit still, line up in single file and ask permission before they go to the bathroom, the straw that broke the camel's back was when her already literate kindergartener came home from school and reported he pretended he didn't know the alphabet, because that's what the teacher expected.

Like many parents, she said she and her husband had wanted to stick it out with public education. They believed in its importance. And, like many parents with a certain amount of disposable income, they ultimately decided that they couldn't let their child's education suffer because they didn't want to fight a losing battle with the establishment.

I don't want to slam her decision. I don't want to look down my nose as the uninitiated mother of a preschooler — who will undoubtedly face the same choice one day soon — and click my tongue in disappointment.

And yet, I can't help but wish she'd stuck it out. We are not talking about an inner city school district struggling to keep drugs and guns from seeping in through the security hurdles; we are talking about a suburban school in a moderately well-heeled community.

"Wait for me," I thought. "We'll fight them together. Maybe we'll even find others."
I think that by moving our kids to the "better" schools, often outside of the community, we are choosing isolation, some might say segregation, based on individual values, ideals and the ability to pay for them.

And why shouldn't we choose the best we can afford? We live in a society in which we are not only free to make such choices, we are encouraged to do so. Why shouldn't we take advantage of every opportunity life and budget allow? Why not advocate for our kids in the most expedient way? Don't our children deserve the best WE can offer?

But I still can't help feeling as if we are losing a sense of responsibility to one another and our communities, and this weighs on me, too.

I think about a different situation. What if we were talking about a school in a relatively wealthy district, where only the poorest of the poor attended because the affluent had other options? Or what if we were talking about a school in which education came second to security?

It wouldn't even be a question for most parents. Their child's safety is just more important than any ideology. But what about the children left behind? Does that mean they're less important?

I don't know the answers, but I know that we need to think long and hard about the question.

I just hope I am strong enough, when the time comes, to stick it out for Ittybit's sake. To make sure that the public school she attends will be a better place for everyone because we did our best to make it that. Or at least that our participation, for her, no matter how many stupid rules she's expected to follow, will have the most lasting effect.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Paging Dr. Google ... paging Dr. Google ...

What did our moms do without the Internet?

I've been wondering about this a lot lately as I have taken to parenting via Google.

Ideally and historically, women have turned to their own mothers for sage advice about the trickiest troubles of childrearing. Sociologists would tell us that we learn how to be parents by a lifetime of being parented. If we’re lucky enough to still have our parents when it's our turn for midnight feedings and early-years wrangling, we count on them to be a fount of wisdom.

Of course that hope goes right out the window the second you take that first drive with your mom (or mother-in-law) and the baby cries herself blue in the face.

"I'll just take her out and sit her on my lap," she'll offer.

"Oh, don't do that. Car seat laws, you know," you'll reply in horror.

"When my kids were little we didn't have those," she'll retort with a long sigh.

It would also seem that the laws of man don't hold the same weight with some mothers hailing from the 60s era, who would rather have a cooing child in their laps than the distraction of non-stop screaming for a half-hour ride. After all, they burned their bras, got male-only jobs, shut down government and helped end a war, damn it.

"How can this be safer than my strong and loving arms," she'll ask in earnest.

"It just is. Believe me," you'll say with the full conviction of possessing overriding vote.

Between the time when I was a child and now everything about childrearing has changed.

Car seats have gone from tubes of metal slung from a backseat, with little more than a tiny lap belt for restraint and a steering wheel for distraction, to space-age capsules with astronaut-quality harnesses. Walkers have lost their wheels; crib slats have become more tightly spaced and hard-soled shoes have gone the way of the dinosaur.

Modern moms have hundred's more experts willing to sell us their books than merely Dr. Spock.

It almost seems as if mothering has moved as far away from instinct as one can imagine.

In addition to a shifting understanding of safety, parenting styles have shifted right along with changes in social mores, and the fallout can even set modern mothers on a head-on collision course. Studies upon conflicting studies are pitting us against each other.

Circumcision, breast feeding, room-in or nursery, kangaroo-carry or cry-it-out, stay-at-home or working mothers; every potential decision is a landmine waiting to explode. It really shouldn't be surprising since we've all come to accept our children as the most important aspects of our lives. How could we NOT do what's best for them every second of every minute of every day?

While my own mother has eagerly soaked up all the changes of 21st-century mothering; often telling me about the trends before they happen, I know I'm in the minority.

I've got friends who's moms are mortified that their two-year-old grandchildren are still nursing or aren't potty trained. As soon as the bygone mom opens her mouth, eyes roll and fingers open and close in puppet mimicry.

All this study, it seems, is also causing us at times to mistrust our instincts, even though that's really we make most of our decisions on parenting: We go with our gut and when what we try fails, we try something else.

But even though my own mother is a font of medical wisdom, whenever I have a question about what to do about the behavior or some other situation, I still find myself asking Dr. Google's advice.

Within nanoseconds Dr. Google comes through with 18,000 or so answers, and I do what comes natural. After I've trolled all my on-line mom's groups and decided a course of action, I pick up the phone.

"Hello, Mom?"

Sunday, October 29, 2006

The twain meets, we just won't admit it

Why is it that Packrats and Would Chucks often dwell in the same habitat?

Is it because during the first blush of romance the female Would Chuck looks at the newspapers and magazines piling up on the chairs of a Packrat's bachelor pad and thinks, 'Finally! a man who reads?'

I know that there are many, many, many people out there who think they live with the king (or queen) of all packrats, but let me tell you, as politely as I can, that you are wrong.

That distinction, I'm afraid, belongs to me and the 5,600 square feet of space underneath my house that allows my husband to collect thousands upon thousands of very important things.

And for those of you who think a Packrat can be reformed, let me explain why they call us Would Chucks: We would chuck if we could chuck, but the Packrat just finds it, fishes it out of the trash and restores it to its unnatural habitat. Otherwise we’d be heralded worldwide as Do Chucks.

Yet the thing I didn't realize until recently was how Would Chucks who are also consumers -- folks who would normally throw out two items for every one they bring home -- enable their Packrat counterparts by adding to the inventory of things that will never go away.

In the end, most Would Chucks wind up being Packrats by proxy.
So it is with this in mind that I tell you, dear reader, although I love my husband, I also love when he's away on business for a few days.

For those 24 to 72 hours I am a free woman. Free to let my inner Would Chuck out. I am free to toss with wild abandon (the things that I buy) and straighten up without the eyes of consternation (and futility) upon me.

In 72 hours I can empty the cupboards in the kitchen of three-year-old spices; cracked cups, which followed us from apartments to house but have not seen a drop of coffee in their tenure in our employ; and nearly empty containers sitting on the shelves alongside their most recent replacements. I can rid the refrigerator of things we will never eat but seem a shame to waste.

During those precious 72 hours I can find appropriate boxes and put things inside of them. And where I put these things they stay. For three days the scissors are in the drawer with the utensils (where I always look for them) and the mail is sorted in the bins with our names. For three days nothing piles up on the counters, nothing is draped on chairs and everything that has a place is in it.

In that long weekend of casting out I reclaim my inner soul.

"What is that? Who cares, it's gone," I sing to myself as I pitch another little bit of something that mysteriously appeared and that we never use. Only the recycling piles up: Seventeen half canisters of ground cinnamon await reclamation, their long-stale contents down the drain and rinsed away. I vow to shop more wisely and resist impulse. I feel lighter and the weight of the chores seem lighter, too.

Of course when he finally comes home, kicks off his shoes and flings his coat toward the chair, missing it by mere inches, I'll be glad to see him, but I'll also be ready.

"Hey, where are you going?"

"To Target; apparently we need another coat rack."

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Muppets get their marching orders

Another piece of sage advice that I disregarded: Never, under any circumstances buy toys in a child's presence.

The idea is that if you NEVER buy toys or candy or colorful trinkets while your kids are with you, even if they're NOT begging for them, they will eventually understand that you are the brick wall between consumerism and their overflowing toy chests, and that asking is futile.

My resolve to this parenting style lasted all the way up until Ittybit learned to talk, and asked oh-so-syrupy sweetly for a stuffed cat. She named him Fudgy and my fate was sealed.

I am a pushover.

So when we recently visited an apple orchard — that for some strange reason (possibly a result of the fact that farmers don't live by apples alone. ... You know since China surpassed our apple production in the '90s) harbors an entire gift shop of overpriced toys and novelties that have nothing whatsoever to do with apples — and Ittybit started begging and pleading for a stuffed cow that chimes moo (three times) when you press its middle, we struck a bargain.

If we bought the $10 bovine she would choose two toys in her collection that we would ship to an underprivileged kid somewhere in the world. She quickly agreed.

Back at home, and before her afternoon nap, we make room for Moo on her bed. Buffy Bunny and two more of Bunny's friends (Ittybit was insistent they travel in threes) are selected for a second chance at love, and we box them up.

"Where are they doing to do, Mama?"

"Well, babe, there's this nice woman in Iraq who is collected toys for kids who don't have anything. We're going to ship them to her in the mail,"

"That will make somebody very happy, right?"

"That's right."

As she drifts off to sleep, clutching Moo, I am relieved that the transaction went so smoothly. However, what I didn't count on was just how big this notion would grow inside her preschooler mind, taking over all of her bedtime thoughts.

That evening at bedtime: (This is the part in the story when most parents will realize that preschoolers don't read fine print.)

"Mama? Where's Kermit?"

"Don't you remember, we're sending him, Zoe and Buffy Bunny to Iraq so they can make some children happy."


"Because you have so much and there are some boys and girls there who have nothing."


"Because there's something called a war there, and it's very bad. Some of the children who live in Iraq are alone and scared. Your toys might help cheer and comfort them."

"Oh. ...

Are they standing up or sitting down?"

"Um ... standing up? What do you mean?"

"We dotta put that in a cage!"

"Uh. ... What I don't understand?"

"We have to get that raccoon out of there so the kids can play with Kermit. We need a cage to put him in."

"Honey? ... What raccoon?"

"You said we're sending Kermit to a raccoon for a childrens because they're lost and lonely. Isn't that what you said?"

"I said e-rack, not 'a raccoon.' We're sending toys to Iraq. It's a country in the middle ... oh, never mind. We'll talk about this when you're three, OK?"

The next morning while looking at the box, which is now addressed and ready for shipping, the excerise starts again.

"Ma-ma. Is Kermit in there? Where is they going?"

"They ARE going to Iraq. Remember. We discussed this yesterday."

"Oh, right, right. But I don't shink the raccoon needs any something. We need to send them to the big giant moose."

NOTE TO SELF: Invest in a world map.

Do a good deed today: United States Army Corp of Engineers Officer Edmay Mayers is taking it upon herself to distribute playthings to impoverished children in Iraq. Until recently she's been buying stuffed animals and candy with her own means, but the need has overwhelmed her resources. If you have gently used toys that need children to love, send them to her here: Edmay Mayers, USACE-GRS, APO AE 09331.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Variety is the spice of life

Recently the husband and I, with grand-parental intervention, stepped out for a night on the town. Alone.

A friend of ours was having a comedy show at a local venue and we were prepared to go and laugh until our sides fell off, have a few pricy beers and partake in conversations that didn't hinge on inquisitive primates, purple dinosaurs or colossal red dogs.

We made our way to the address we'd been given and found the Basilica Industria, a former knitting mill-turned-performance space along the Hudson waterfront. Since we don't get out much, it should go without saying that we were beyond early. On this evening, however, we expected to be right on time.

"I thought his e-mail said 8 o'clock," I say as we arrived to a hive of behind-the-scenes activity. Tattooed women and ponytailed men were busily performing sound and lighting checks. Some were still setting up chairs. A tall, lanky man wearing a full-length blue leotard, spangled rabbit ears and eight-inch stiletto heels was roaming amid the chaos.

"At least we have the right place," I say.

We go and find someone to take our money and realize our second surprise of the evening.

"Fifty bucks! I thought this show was supposed to be $15 apiece." No matter, I'd gotten the time wrong I'd probably misread the ticket price, too.

We hand over the cash and staked claim to two seats on a dais facing the stages. While he goes to get two brews from the concessions, I peruse the flyers on the cabaret table in front of me.

"No wonder everything's wrong," I say when he returns. "He's not performing until next week."

I can see a game of rock, paper, scissors forming in his head -- the winner of which will sit and finish their beer while the loser goes off to try and get back our picture of Ulysses S. Grant -- when more of a crowd trickles in.

"Pssst. Excuse me, sir?" I ask of a man who plunks himself down next to us. "It seems as if my husband and I are accidental hipsters tonight. What are we about to see?"

"Oh, dear friends, you have bought yourself a ticket to the other greatest show on Earth. You, my dears, are in for an evening of revelation and rejuvenation. Amazements the likes of which you've never seen before await you. (Cue echo chamber:) This is the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus.

(Actually the man said, "Oh, it's a really a cool circus act or something," but since we had decided the better part of valor would be to stick around, I amended the description when it turned out he had, in fact, undersold it.)

When the lights finally went down, a hobo clown trudged into the audience to bum a smoke. I knew right away from the expression on his face -- a fluid, indescribable look that marks a good actor even when he doesn't speak -- that this wasn't going to be amateur night.

Co-founder Keith Nelson's Kinko the clown moved imperceptibly from what at first appeared to be stiff and awkward attempts at slinging cigar boxes to a masterful display of diabolo juggling during his lengthy performance. Later, as Mr. Pennygaff, Nelson swallows swords in a display so terrifying I could barely watch.

About a dozen equally skilled performers added more astonishing feats to the bawdy act.

Ringleader Philomena, the troupe’s other founder Stephanie Monseu, in addition to her role as MC, swallows fire and gives school marm a new definition -- two things that I think should make her a shoe-in for public education should she grow weary of this particular circus of the bizarre.

More glitter follows as aerialist Una Mimnagh hurls herself from a trapeze dangling only a few yards from the stage, and is caught midway by a rope she'd curled around her torso; a burlesque troupe out of Albany, The Lipstick Lovelies, gyrate lasciviously as the laughs continue; Una returned to share the limelight with cowboy Angelo Iodice, and their dueling bolos routine ricochets in unison against the hollow stage to the delight of the crowd; and the aforementioned rabbit -- Scotty the Blue Bunny -- who as it turns out plays violin, did whatever it is that homosexual turquoise bunnies do best under the glare of a spotlight. All of which was accompanied (or orchestrated, not sure) by The Amazing Sxip, (pronounced "Skip") billed as a one-man Mutant Harmonica band.

When the lights came back up and we made our way to our car, suffice it to say I actually felt good about being parted from my money.

I know we all want to get something for nothing, and this particular raucous cup of tea isn't for everyone, but it reminded me how distanced we are from the real magic of entertainment.

We shell out comparable amounts of money for Hollywood special effects and larger-than life celebrities smoothed by gel filters, and in doing so, without even knowing it, we lose an understanding of what real talent looks like on a human scale. To be reminded seemed a bargain at twice the price.

Variety, after all, is the spice of life.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Good cop, bad cop ... or accomplice?

I've seen the future, and her mother is wearing thigh-high go-go boots and short shorts, too.

Standing on the street corner with a boy I can identify by name as well as age are two girls I don’t know. Both are wearing form-fitting striped sweaters, hip-hugging belts, short shorts and high-heeled boots.

Had I not just come from the local library and been on my way to the farmers' market, I might have thought I was visiting Hunts Point in the Bronx. I've never been, mind you, but I've seen the HBO special on its prostitutes.

My husband, trying to balance borrowed books while choosing vegetables, pretended not to notice. He was, no doubt, unable to determine which was worse: the looking or the seeing.

"That's the style in Manhattan, you know," he says off-handedly when I mention the girls' attire later as we select apples from a vendor. "I bet their mothers are wearing the same thing at home."

Oh, the horror.

One way or another, like it or not, this perennial battle of parenthood will be ours one day.

The day will come when we will have to decide whether or not Ittybit leaves the house wearing ... well ... something I'd rather not describe. But until seeing the local street-corner gals, we had thought we'd be in the good-cop side of the fashion patrol.

As two people raised by parents who respected our decisions (to a certain degree) and whose collective teenage fashion faux pas amount to the Miami Vice look (him) and pink-streaked hair and combat boots (me) I can safely speak for him when I say we are feeling ill-prepared to deal with a potential Lolita.

I may be jumping the gun a little since Ittybit has only recently started preschool, but our clothing wars have long-since begun. And horror of all horrors: The seeds of destruction may have already been planted by yours truly.

It turns out her favorite dress -- a backless halter number acquired for $3 over the summer in a Target sale -- has already raised the eyebrow of at least one grandparent.

During a family party I watched in ignominy as the grandma tried her best to cover up Ittybit's naked shoulders. And I had to wonder. Was I one of those moms who thought sexy on a baby was cute? Of course I have trouble putting sexy and baby together in a sentence, but I understand there are people out there who will and do.

My thinking in buying the dress -- aside from its color and rock-bottom price -- was along the lines of: she spends half the summer wearing only a diaper and sunscreen, any piece of cloth would be an improvement. That she clutched the t-shirt soft material to her chest and didn't want to part with it long enough for the cashier to scan the price tag made it all the more attractive. When every outfit is a battlefield, it's nice to have one that’s a coup.

But with one sideways glance -- and the mention of indistinguishable posterior views of mothers and daughters at the shopping mall these days -- part of my world turns sideways.

I'm not sure which team I'm supposed to root for. The navel showing above low-rise pants, the distinctive sound of flip-flops clapping their way through Juniors' departments everywhere might very well belong to someone's mother. The part of you that hates getting old cheers her on, while the part of you that wants your daughter to respect herself jeers in her general direction. Where is the line?

Let's start by some admissions, shall we?

I am hardly ever an appropriately attired grownup. I have worn the same uniform -- Levis jeans, long-sleeve jersey top, bulky sweaters and some form of low-heel boot -- since I was in high school. Now, my clothes are not fashionable but all of my parts (save an ankle here and there) are covered.

I cringe a little every time my husband returns from the grocery store commenting on the latest middle aged woman he thought was a teenager. "PA-thetic," is his assessment.

"Am I any different?" I want to ask. I know I don't look like any of those moms in the commercials: the ones in khaki trousers and pastel blouses with their tasteful three-quarter sleeves. Those women are all happily cleaning the floors with the latest Swiffer product, so I know I'll never look like them. But I don't think I look like the ones vying for the position of prom queen, either.

I suppose we'll just have to wait and see, and hope that parkas will be back in fashion when our day of reckoning comes.

"You won't believe what I just heard," said the husband, munching on a cider doughnut. "A woman at the farm stand was talking about buying her daughter a $300 pair of jeans. She saw my jaw drop at the price, and she said 'yeah, but you should have seen her in them'."

"Thanks, I think I'll pass."

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Yard Sale - The totally authorized biography

At 7 a.m. I was out on the curb, shuffling bags of baby clothes and other stockpiled detritus from the couch in my abandoned office to tables set up in the driveway. I notice a light rain starting to fall. It was more of a mist, actually.

"The weather guy always lies," I grumble as I sort tiny shirts, pants and dresses and arrange them into lumpy piles. I leave some articles in the bag; they were destined for the trash bin anyway.

I hate yard-sale day. I hate feeling an obligation to purge my life of mistakes and recoup some of the misspent cash. I hate how the idea of it pulls me in with a do-it-yourself entrepreneurial air, but how quickly its atmosphere dissipates into something less desirable.

You can tell a lot about a person by their yard sales. Like that other roadside attraction -- bumper stickers -- yard sales are authorized biographies. While bumper stickers offer onlookers detailed tables of content, yard sales offer the annotated autobiography.

Both can tell you a lifetime worth of information in short order: Religious affiliations, favorite bands, who they supported in the last two elections, even what their kids are doing in school -- either they're honor students or they're beating up your honor student.

In my neighborhood the lives are fairly similar. We all have clothes we've held onto for sentimental reasons that wind up hanging from ropes when we forget what they were. You can find beat up toys and playthings that never got much attention; impulse buys that became instantly obsolete; exercise equipment picked up no doubt at last year's events, which will circle the block for at least a decade more; cassette tapes, sitting unused since you bought that new car with the six-CD changer six years ago, and mix tapes that might as well be torn pages from a diary. There is usually something that defies logic. In our case that something would be a half-dozen paper napkin dispensers.

I would wager there is also the something that its owners don't really want to sell but will offer up because they know someone will buy it. It's the loss leader: the item that makes certain that our sale -- when snubbed by the throngs of strangers who paw through our things with left eyebrow raised and upper lip curled in symmetry -- doesn't become a negative review of how we live. Of course, if someone does buy this once-treasured possession, we tend to mourn its departure from our lives.

On my hour off, I make my way to the farmers' market to buy Asian greens and soy beans checking out the sales in front of historic homes and manicured lawns along the way. I notice these sidewalk shops show the difference between us: Not as much impulsivity to the buying in these-here parts. I find antique baskets, with antique prices; etchings, prints and pieces of furniture that require houses with "libraries' (pronounced with an English flourish).

Even the Jones families on the side streets are keeping up. They offer designer clothes and tasteful handbags in their yard-front shops. There’s not a sign of kitsch anywhere; nothing that says "what one Earth possessed you to waste the kids' college education on that?"

Everything offered in these curbside boutiques is neat and tidy. You can almost see generations of children, sitting around a card table, sipping lemonade as they play the parlor games that are now gently worn and carefully stacked, awaiting new homes.

In a few hours I'll be bundling the remnants of our lot for Goodwill and wondering why I bother with this mid-step at all.

But by the time I get back with my bags of unpronounceable produce, my partner in slime has a full smile and is waving six dollar bills in my direction.

"Imagine that, hon -- I just sold all those napkin holders."

Sunday, September 24, 2006

New shoes are bound to cause blisters

Some people like to tell me that I've changed now that I've become a mother.

They say this gleefully, as if they always knew my softer, nurturing side would win out over my acerbic, cynical side. I don't have the same zest for off-color humor I once had, or so they say. I wax nostalgic about just about everything, even wax.

But as I stare into this empty white page, I wonder: What happened to me?

Did I just become a mother and all the other aspects of life faded into unimportance?

Did I buy into the notion that raising a child was the most important thing I would ever do in my lifetime, all the rest be damned?

Had I gone over to the dark side? The one I had eschewed from every precipice of my adult life. It was possible; my new wardrobe was starting to show pinks and other airy hues from beneath its comfortable layers of black.

One thing is true, where once all roads lead to my hatred for (but undeniable urge to watch and take in) morning talk/news shows or national politics or pretty much anything that comes from a spigot at Starbucks, my love for this little creature growing (too fast) before my eyes overshadowed it all.

But that does not mean I ceased to exist, does it? The world as I knew it wasn't an illusion.

I propose what might have happened is that I ceased to be an expert.
All of a sudden, I didn't KNOW anything. I had to feel my way through one problem to another with little by way of guidance. I had to stop and ask for directions. I learned what worked for someone else didn’t necessarily work for me.

I had to admit when I was wrong, because clearly my mistakes were increasingly visible.

Neighbors, you know, they talk:
  • The kid leaves house looking like blind person dressed her.
  • She hasn’t combed her own hair now, 8 days.
  • She washes floor with sink hose? (ok, I’ve done this forever, but I’m blaming motherhood now).
  • When was the last time Ittybit had her hair washed? I think a forest is growing in there.
  • When she drags the recycling to the curb its mountainous terrain threatens to blot out the sun.

Other things are only visible to me:
  • I can remember the last book I read because it was only one of three in the last three years, although I can’t remember how it ended.
  • I haven’t been out with friends for more than a year.
  • I miss my old self sometimes.

I once had a globe trotting friend who told me that life, when you are unsettled, is always the most challenging to your sense of self. It almost always takes you away from the person you thought you were and hands you to someone you hardly recognize. And for a time you don't even realize what’s really changed.

When you are trying to figure out the ins and outs of a new city, trying to get the business of living all squared away — get a job, meet new people, learn a new language and customs — you forget that you once wrote poetry or enjoyed nature walks.

When you finally remember, and mourn the loss, the new challenge will be to fit bits of your old life into the new one.

Until you make the business-end of life fit like comfortable shoes, it seems, blisters are an unavoidable part of the process.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Tantrum yoga

She wanted to draw.

After breakfast, before work, she wanted to "draw a pisher." But there wasn't time.

Her body is board straight: legs pressing agilely against the back of the driver's seat, arms stock still and clamped to the rim of her car carrier. Her bottom will never make contact with seat.

Her ability to wedge her tiny weight against me, leveraging it against my will, is a sight to behold. No matter how I beg, plead or push there’s no physical way to for me to buckle her in.

Regardless of our divergent goals, we sound alike.

"I. Have. To. Go. To. Work."


"But. I. Have. TOooo."


As crazy as it sounds, this is nowhere near as dangerous as the Lunch Strike of '05, when Ittybit refused to eat anything put on a plate in her presence, unless the sustenance in question belonged in the ice cream family.

Nor is it as frightening as the early Sleep Strikes of '04, when her tiny infant body, worn in a Snugli frontpack by a sleep deprived mommy, writhed uncontrollably amid cat-like sobs until suddenly falling slack-limbed into a scream-induced sleep. The immediacy of which caused a hand mirror to be placed under her nasal passages to assure life signs.

In some ways, I suppose, the latest incarnation of histrionics – this real, honest-to-badness frustration fest — is just more entertaining. I'm beginning to think of it as TANTRUM yoga.

For those of you unaware of the persistence that is necessary to perform such feats, let me go over some of the poses:

Sitting poses are especially appealing for capture avoidance. In them, toddlers can easily avoid interception by one of two variations. First, they may ball up into a tight little package. If the sheer force of will were enough, giant spikes would protrude up from their overalls and onesies to repel meddling parents. Another option at their disposal from this position is to turn into a noodle. This is when the toddler relaxes every muscle in her body at the very same rate as each and every one of yours tenses.

While neither variation will aid the child in staving off the inevitable, it will throw a parent off long enough for them to bring out the big guns, known to all grown people as the "wriggling fish."

This is the pose, in which you finally are able to get the child into your arms, they struggle with the vim of a brown trout trying to get away from a black bear.

Tantrum yoga is an art every toddler tries to perfect and every parent tries to counteract. It’s the yin and yang that brings us together.

Sometimes when I witness these escalations — usually before work, going out to dinner or even just to go to the bathroom by myself — the positions I find her in, and often have to extract her from, are truly astounding. Each episode, I think, would make a good exercise program. Before I can plan my cable access debut, however, I realize the routines are really too taxing and should be less routine.

Every parent finds themselves in the position of defusing these minor catastrophes. We decide which battles to wage, which to relinquish and which to handle diplomatically. Sometimes we win. Sometimes we lose. Sometimes we draw.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

A fair to remember

There was a time (exactly a week ago last year in fact) that Ittybit's love for barnyard animals was trapped inside the pages of her story books.

At an early age she could tell chicks from cygnets, and cygnets from ducklings. Her voice boomed bass (or as low as a toddler can sound) for the MOO a "daddy" bull says, while she screeched up high for the moo the "baby" makes.

Since we'd traipsed through the farmyard, page by page, for months, we naively thought she'd enjoy a trip to the fair to see the real things up close and in person.

But picture books, we learned, don't really prepare tots for the realities of livestock. Toulouse Geese don't make their truck-horn sounds apparent under the stylish bonnet of Mother Goose stories, and the size comparison isn't even close. I don’t even wish to recount the meeting of toddler and ewe.

The nearest I think a picture book can really come to life on the farm would be if publishers employed scratch and sniff technology, and let's face it, there are a few among us who'd pay money to give the smell silage and manure space on our bookshelves.

Understandably, as the year wore on following what turned out to be a traumatic experience -- screaming and crying from one barn to the next until we found ice cream -- her interest in the farm books waned.

So with a little apprehension, we headed off to this year's fair and aimed ourselves in the direction of the livestock exhibits first thing.

I figured we could get them out of the way quickly if she decided the animals were too scary, go right to the food and proceed eating our way through the attractions. (After all, who wants to eat fried dough at the goat barn? Not I.)

It was as if she'd remembered the torture of a year ago, and decided to settle an old score.

"Cows!" She instructed. "Cows, mama." And off we went, past turkeys, sheep, goats and pigs into the cattle barns. No sooner had we gotten there then she'd reached out her itty bitty hand to give Bessie's head a little pat. "Enough!"

"Chickens! Chickens, mama." So off we went to see fowl. "They're funny ... and loud," she laughs.

"Rabbits. Let's go see rabbits next," she instructs, pulling at my pant leg and grunting with exertion. "Ooooh, they're sooooo cute," she coos into the wire cages, wriggling her nose in imitation.

"What are we gonna see next? How about the chicks?" And off we go to find something that looks like a popcorn popper, containing twelve eggs. Many of the orbs are still intact, but others have large cracks and holes made in perfect circles by the tiny egg teeth on the tops of the chicks' beaks. Some of the babies, still covered in the gook of life, lay spent on the warm grate, resting from their hours-long struggle to get free.

"See that right there," points out a woman overseeing the exhibit. ... And I look into the incubator to see a foot protruding from an otherwise perfect shell. "I've never seen anything like that in my life. They never come out feet first."

Turns out, the eggs came from Cornell, where their genetic codes have been collected and studied. She tells me the University expects one of 12 to die. "That could be one that doesn't make it," she says sadly.

So we leave with a little bit more knowledge of the miracles and mysteries of life, but wondering if that little breech chick will survive the night. Ittybit wants to stay and make sure the chicks, which have made it into to the world unscathed and are running around their shaving-strewn pens, "go to sleep."

We coax her out of the building with the promise of a corn dog I'll have to "peel" and a ride in a tea cup I'll undoubtedly regret. And by the end of the evening we have an entirely new experience of the fair.

"It's fun here, mama. Let's go again."

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Something change doesn't change

Growing up in the northeast, and now raising a child here, it shouldn't shock me to learn I have a special fondness for places that remind me of my childhood.

I shouldn't be surprised at the delight I take in enrolling my child in the same nursery school I attended as a tot, or even the calm of knowing that she won’t attend the high school I wished I'd never seen from the inside.

It's the kind of comfort that comes from a smidgen of experience and a smackerel of pride. But such comfort is deceiving. What I never count on is change.

As she napped her way to the North Country, unaware of our advance to the Great Escape -- a late-in-the-season theme park visit, only the second of her lifetime -- my mind processed the road signs and mile markers as I drove, and yet my thoughts were clearly steering toward Storytown USA.

Of course I knew about all the transformations that have taken place since a theme park chain attached itself to Charles Wood's creation a decade ago. Mr. Wood himself made enough big-time changes during my own adolescence to keep the park viable as tastes and generations changed. But somehow, traveling up the Northway on a fall-coming afternoon, the movie in my mind was running the Mother Goose stories, swan boats and pumpkin carriages of my own tiny tot-hood on a Technicolor loop.

It's a good thing I was trailing a friend or I'd never have found the entrance to the new parking lots. Gone were the gravel-strewn acres with attendants in orange vests and folding chairs, waiting to show us where to dock our car. In their place was a landscaped, black-topped expanse that meanders past a new swanky resort-style hotel and little guard shack, where a woman collects my $10 parking fee.

None of this was here two years ago when the park turned 50 and Ittybit turned 9 months old.

As I mourn the loss of the simple things, yet again, I realize I'm probably lamenting something that never really existed in the first place.

As we constantly weigh it, change tends to comes up wanting. But you can't deny change, and sometimes change is good. The pedestrian highway overpass, looming large over Route 9, is a case in point.

After looking down at my squirmy wormy stroller screamer, I gaze up at the bridge thankfully. For that bridge alone I’d have happily forked over half a day'’s pay to park and gain admission had it not been for the special coupon my friend had procured.

It's a slow day inside the park. The threat of rain and cold temperatures had taken their toll on attendance. At a number of kiddy ride stations one operator is operating two. The lines aren't long but our timing is rarely perfect. Often we wait in a line and watch the operator move to the neighboring ride. Minutes don’t seem to matter. We chat and watch, and try to keep our kids from howling too loudly. It doesn’t seem to matter if the rides are new or the park is bigger.

As we pass Cinderella's castle my adult mind begins to doubt its childhood memories. It wonders about a photograph in my parents' collection: the one of me peeking out of a great orange carriage, waving with the shadow of celebrity beside me -- the graceful curve of a neck against a chignon twist, and the shadow of her gloved hand waving in the background has always seemed unreal and ghostlike, as if it were all illusion caused by stray lights.

As is usual, at least from recent experience, Cinderella's castle stands oddly vacant behind wrought iron fencing; locked up tight and no carriage in sight. As I look around at the throng of ittybits holding on tightly to the hands of their own mommies, I realize how near hopeless it would be to wait in line for a fairytale dream come true, even on a slow day.

I momentarily regret pointing out the castle to Ittybit knowing her love of the storybook princess may render me deaf. And in that moment Cinderella comes from around a corner, or out of nowhere, wearing a blue sparkling dress. She bends to give Ittybit a hug, telling her sweetly to have a magical day before she floats away.

"Was that Cinderella?" she asks me in a whisper.

"Yes, baby, it was."

Then it dawns on me: Perhaps the simple things will always be simple like this; something that change doesn't change.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

When push comes to shove

"Mama, don't push me," Ittybit says sternly as I interrupt her latest game of "King of the Mountain" (my shoulders being the mountain) by putting her back on solid ground. "I didn't push you," I tell her, "I helped you repel down to the foothills."

She clamors up my chest and over my shoulders again, this time all slit-eyed and daring me to thwart her ascent. I drag her halfway down the mommy mountain, roll her over my knees and prop her back up into a sitting position at my feet. All the while she clings to two fistfuls of my uncombed hair.

She begins to protest again, but this time her tone has changed: 'NOOOOO, I wanna stay wit you, mama. I wanna stay wit yooooooou!'

Lately, I've noticed, she's been playing this game more and more. "But I wan YOU, mama" has become her mantra, especially when all mama wants is to be left in peace.

The look on her face when she changes from gleeful to glum is positively heartbreaking. It snaps me out of my annoyance and into another test of self. It makes me ashamed to think about all the times I haven't been fully present with her because I am lost in my own inner world. Whether she's manipulating the situation doesn’t seem to matter. I know that it won't be long until she doesn't want me within sight distance, let alone acting as the chair (or the mountain) beneath her.

However much I want to eat my toast or drink my coffee in peace right now is how much I'll want her to be her raucous little-girl self later, times two.

This particular morning, as we have in the past four mornings, we trundled out of the house forgetting rain gear. We were late this morning, which meant no sit-down breakfast again. A cup of "hot milk," an apple and a bag full of cereal were packed to go. I strap her into the car, hand her the breakfast and go back for her "um-bella," which she insists on propping above her head as we drive so she can munch on her "seer-we-wool" and stay dry, because it's "rainy out, mama."

I wonder, as we are driving along, if anyone will notice the car seat adorned with a blue and yellow-polka-dotted umbrella bobbing along with the unheard rhythm of The Wiggles. I wonder, if I were me in my previous life -- the childless one that seems as if it were 100 years ago -- and I saw this traveling circus drive by, would I laugh or shrug?

I contemplate the phenomenon of such annoyances in other people's children, but I can't sustain the notion. Because the fact is I really don't care what other people think anymore, and I'm sure glad I'm laughing now.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Eyes wide open

"My daddy was a baby, too," Ittybit tells the nice woman, who takes our paperwork and searches for any spaces left blank. "That's right. He was a baby, too," she says adroitly, rustling through the sheets, not finding the small For Emergencies, Contact card.

"Oh that one always gets caught on the bottom of the envelope," she chuckles, as I absently fish it out from underneath the manila flap and hand it over.

I am thinking about all the things Ittybit's six-word announcement doesn't explain. It didn't explain how wide her eyes got when we told her the story that her father had once slept in the very same cradle she had slept in when we brought her home from the hospital.

It doesn't explain how miraculous such a notion must be -- that her big, strong dad was once small -- that she is compelled to let the world in on the secret. My. Daddy. Was. A. Baby. Too.

It also doesn't explain the mind-boggling reality that Ittybit is now, officially, a pre-schooler. And, come September, she'll be attending the same nursery school I attended as a tot.

As we stood in the scrubbed-clean room, filled with summer-stored toys, I can tell she's excited. Her eyes are as wide as mine, as I looked around at the tiny chairs and tables feeling a little like a giant who, in a former life, was a Lilliputian, too.

She delightedly runs off to play with the toys, while I wait to speak with the intake coordinator and other chairpeople about our future roles as new pre-school parents. My head is spinning. My baby isn’t a baby anymore.

The school is a cooperative, which means the tuition is reduced for parents who pitch in to assist in the classroom, fundraise or maintain the property as needed.

With a list several sheets long of chores that need doing, the facilitator’s eyes open wide when she sees what I've checked off on the "expertise" portion of the form.

"You and your husband have a power washer?" Oh that's so great. That's wonderful. We were worried about that this year. We have to clean all the playground equipment in the backyard, and no one thus far seems to have the abilities in that department. We were sure we'd have to hire a professional."

The man's chest puffs up a little, as he realizes his services will be appreciated, and his daughter will benefit from his labor for a change.

Off we go into the play yard filled with all manner of ride-on toys, climbing towers, slides and playhouses ... even a real fiberglass boat sunk into the grass as if it were sailing an imaginary sea.

Ittybit stands stock-still. Presumably paralyzed by indecision, she waits for an impulse that will hurl her tiny body toward the best plaything.

That's when I noticed the man's eyes have lost their usual almond shape. "Something tells me I'm going to be very popular around here."

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Secret handshakes and all

"We have to stop meeting like this," I laughed.

But his cherubic face and Panama hat were a magnetic combination.

He giggled. The one-armed man he was attached to thought it was funny, too.

It occurred to me then, as I passed another similarly disabled shopper -- his charge in a ball cap, eating shell peas from the bag -- there was another club to which I cannot belong.

Fathers at the grocery store -- a kid in one arm and a grocery basket in the other -- is apparently the new black.

It's something I might never have noticed, though, had it not been for the fact that it was 8 a.m. Saturday morning and we were out of Milk. After all, my husband usually does the grocery shopping.

Where the supermarket was once the ballywick of the harried housewife, juggling bottles and sippy cups and corralling children aisle by aisle, I am noticing more and more men taking their place in line at the checkout.

As I push on the skins of melons and paw through bags of grapes for one with just the right amount, I notice the one-armed man going through pretty much the same motions with the lettuces.

We trailed each other through the store, missing each other in some aisles and meeting up in others. I wonder to myself: 'Is mom at home, enjoying a much needed break?'

I smile in line at the checkout when his items bump up against mine on the conveyor belt. I think of my own husband at home with our kidlet, and how he's probably done the very same thing with some other mommy who'd managed to sneak out of the house for some quiet, alone-time grocery gathering.

By the time I reach my car in the parking lot another one-armed man makes his way toward the market. He stops to greet the man with whom I’d been doing the grocery store shuffle just moments ago.

I started to pack my trunk with my purchases, taking extra time and trying to handle the bags gently so the rustling wouldn’t impugn my ability to eavesdrop on their conversation.

What were they talking about? I imagined they were discussing the best baby foods, sleepless nights and the-cutest-baby-in-the-world-has-changed-my-life small talk. But I couldn't make out all the words. It was as if their club had a secret vocal tone only dually sworn and initiated members could hear.

I stopped trying to hone in on the discussion, snapped the trunk closed and returned my cart before slipping into the driver's seat. I told myself I'd just be disappointed if they were talking about beer, or porn or who's head-butting who in major league sports.

They were still locked in conversation as I eased out of my parking space and drove in their direction. I couldn't contain my curiosity, though, and I lowered the window as I passed, just in case. As I passed, they just shifted the weight of their kids from one hip to the other and with a wave of their hands, they parted ways. Perhaps they have secret handshakes, too.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Next time I think I'll just spell

"We'll that’s not appropriate for toddlers," I say as I switch off the television blaring "The Sopranos," a video that somehow made it into the VCR instead of "Winnie the Pooh."

It was so much easier when Ittybit didn't appear to be so sponge-like in her absorption of knowledge. Oh sure, she was learning at a crazy pace but we were still a long way from having to spell out words, such as I-C-E C-R-E-A-M, to avoid unpleasantness. Back then she was too busy smashing sweet potatoes into every crevice of her face to notice.

Those were the days.

When my husband's right eyebrow arches upward now I know it's because I've dropped the ball and it's rolling away from me faster than you can say: "That prolly wasn't a good I-D-er."

  • Yes, she has eaten cake for breakfast on more than a few (10) occasions.
  • Yes, she knows all the people at our local pub, and sometimes they yell her name when we walk through the door on Friday evenings.
  • Yes, she watches "Shrek" (even though the characters are rude to each other). And yes, she sometimes doesn’t go to bed until after 10 p.m. once she’s eaten chocolate and NOT brushed her teeth.
Somehow you brush these failings aside. After all, do we not search high and low for child-friendly activities at museums and other cultural centers? That has to count for something.

Recently that meant attending Art Omi's open day, a culmination of three weeks of uninterrupted work by approximately 30 international artists. Open Day is an annual event in our house … or at lease it has been for a number of years (prior to Ittybit).

There's always something at which to marvel and scratch one’s head, such as an ordinary folding chair abandoned in a field that has dozens of people standing around, conversing in 'art speak.'

And every year there's at least one artist whose work makes my head spin: A memorable one a few years ago came from a woman from Tokyo who stained Kotex sanitary pads with a red substance and affixed them to the wall of her studio. That was fun.

Of course I wasn’t thinking about THAT this year, despite 'WHAT' and 'WHY' being the staple words of Ittybit’s conversations.

Like most modern parents, we've adopted the parenting style of explaining truisms in an age-appropriate manner. Say that three times, fast.

It's not easy. Especially at times when the imaginative part of my brain is more ready than the part of my brain that remembers 8th grade science. When she asks me why the sun goes away and it gets dark at night, I watch the hairs on The Dad's neck stand up as I tell her the sun has to take a nap, otherwise it couldn't shine as brightly.

Let’s just say I was not prepared when she pulled me into a studio space filled with paper-mache figures.

"Mama? You wanna see a stulpture, mama? Tum on."

The sculptures were life-sized, paper mache body casts of figures writhing in pain. One showed its head exploding from the back. Another had two men in a pose that appeared ... to be ... well. ...

"Mommy what is that man doing to that other man?"

"Damn the Dad for foisting this studio visit off on me," I grumble to myself as I wonder what the appropriate response should be.

"Um. Well. They’re-making-love. Oh look, lemonade! ... Let's go get some, OK?"

Later, of course, she tells The Dad that the "mens in the stulpture were makting love."

"Ok … let me get this straight. You explained sex, but not what happens to the sun when it gets dark? Nice."

Sunday, July 30, 2006

It's all fun and games until someone loses a pie

The following are step-by-step instructions on how to make a strawberry tart with a toddler. (It is alternately known as a drinking game for parents).

Step one: Mom, quickly drink something alcoholic. A shot of tequilla works nicely.

Step two: Gather supplies. You will need: eight large strawberries; one box ready-made pie crusts (who needs to do all that work when Betty Crocker can do it for you?); one tablespoon of sugar; a sharp knife; a tartlet dish; a kitchen stool; a drop-cloth and a power washer, (a dog will suffice).


Step four: Slice the 6 strawberries while diverting toddler's attention with the 2 remaining "decoy" berries.

Step five: Put tartlet pan down on center of crust and cut a large circle with knife. Line pan with center part of crust material. Set aside crust remnants.

Step six: Instruct toddler to dump berries into pan. ... She may do so ONE AT A TIME … S-L-O-W-L-Y, so try and be patient. This may be a good time for a second drink.

Step seven: Put drop-cloth on floor then hand toddler a tablespoon and the sugar bowl. (Word to the wise: the perfect time for this project is where there is only a small smackerel of sugar clinging to the bottom of the bowl. Even a small amount of the sweet stuff strewn on the floor will make you feel like your walking on a beach, only without the nice surroundings and the calm push of rhythmic waves).


Step nine: Slice narrow strips of crust from remaining dough and weave them as best as you can across the top of pie. Toddlers can be great with this part, making curly-cue designs while throwing pieces at the dog. Some might call the result a giant wad of sweaty goo, though we like to call it "ART."

Step 10: Time for another shot? What do you think?

Step 11: Hand kid the leftover leftovers to play with since you forgot to preheat the oven to 350 degrees (hotter if your oven sucks) and you must kill time.

Step 12: Remove dough pieces from the dog's back.

Step 13: TAKE THE KNIFE AWAY FROM THE TODDLER and put it in the dishwasher already. Sheesh.

Step 14: When is that oven going to heat up, damnit? Tap foot incessantly and pace in front of the stove. It might be time for another drink.

Step 15: Make a second pie since you have the time and a left-over pie crust. Use your hands to mash strawberries and rip pie crust into the approximate shapes of circles and strips. (Don’t tempt fate by pulling the knife out of the dishwasher).

Step 16: One more nip won’t hurt. You’re still standing.

Step 17: Put pies in oven and bake about 30 minutes or until the crusts are a golden brown, (use the timer as your senses may be slightly impaired).

Step 18: Save one of the pies for daddy because toddler will feed hers to the dog and then demand "ICE PEEM."

Note to self: Pick up new bottle of hooch at the liquor store tomorrow.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Men are from Mars, women are from Venus and parades are from hell

Some days the idea of beating my head against a brick wall until my brain oozes out my ears doesn’t seem so bad. It certainly would feel better, I imagine, than the sharp pain I get behind my eyes when I try to decipher a Rosetta stone of marital miscommunication.

As it is my wont to try to distill all human interaction into its most efficient essence, I shall call this phenomenon 'D.U.H.' - Don't Understand Him/Her.

And I'm compiling entries for a pocket reference:

Case #1: "Let’s meet for lunch"

Recently, Ittybit and I were in town (where the man in our life was working for a half-day) not getting lunch because when we met the man he'd already eaten someplace else – D.U.H. Clearly the fault was my own:

I should have made it perfectly clear that “Hey, I'll meet you for lunch” is virtually the same as “Let's meet at the same restaurant somewhere round about noon and eat a mid-day meal together.”

Case #2: Entertain the child

Lunch aside, however, all is not lost. I had another purpose for going to town. There was shopping to do. There were gifts to gather for weddings and birthdays and special occasions. Things I usually don’t do with a toddler in tow, because, let’s face it, shopping with a toddler is in the same ballpark as bringing a pet billy goat to a China shop, smearing it with epoxy glue and setting it loose in the glassware aisle.

I had hoped the man could entertain her at the ice cream shop while I spent massive amounts of money on stuff my friends would stuff in a drawer. I did not intend for him to let her down in the same store I was perusing, where all she wanted to do is hang from my shirt and cry or stack Le Creuset crockery in reverse order, smallest to largest. D.U.H. Again, I am forced to see the error of my wording.

I should have made it perfectly clear that "Entertain her while I go shopping" actually means "Take her someplace else and don't bring her back. I will find you when I'm finished. If you see me by accident cross the street and pretend I’m someone else."

Case #3: Alone time

No matter how well you plan, of course, there will be some surprises. Unbeknownst to us, turns out it was fire department day in town, which means a long parade of trucks and marching bands meander down Main Street toward the fairgrounds.

We discuss whether we should move our cars, which will surely get blocked in and erase our option to leave midway through should a meltdown arise. We finally arrived at a conclusion: I would stay for the parade and he would go home to nap. D.U.H.

Perhaps you might have explained that a 'Family Day,' is technically the same as sitting on the couch watching a "Sopranos" re-run marathon. Double D.U.H. I will need to remember that the next time I volunteer to melt in the heat with a toddler who covers my eyes, pulls my hair and won't hold my hand.

I suppose it makes sense, though. After all, he did mention that we needed more “alone time.” Unfortunately I interpreted that to mean sans baby, avec each other.

I also forgot that date-night is a term that means the mommy must arrange babysitting and come up with a plan for stepping out on the town, otherwise the word means the husband is going to poker night.

And for the strangers in the parade:

After waving our fool heads off, clapping and cheering for you folks in the hot summer sun, I've come to the conclusion that it might have ACTUALLY killed you to smile or wave back.

I had no idea a PARADE in your language meant Perturbed And Rancorous Autocade Dourly Exercising.

Live and learn. Live and learn.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Just smile and nod


It was a cause célèbre in the newsroom. Everybody wanted a piece of the Joe.

Bruno, that is.

Senate Majority Leader.

Third man in the room at budget time.

And now, best of all, a bobblehead doll handed out at the ball field that bears his name.

Of course, there were few among us willing to wait in line after quitting time for one of the big-headed, coiffed haired, presidential-looking likenesses of the man we all know and love, not to mention the optional prostate screening thrown in as a bonus.

"They'll turn up on e-bay within the week, mark my words," chimed in one soothing voice of consolation. "'Cause you know the line for the dolls will be longer than the one for the tests."

What's with this fascination for bobbleheads?

They didn't just arrive in the land of excess yesterday, packaged in plastic eggs from the planet kitsch. They've been around for quite a while; long before the 1960s when the marketers of all things baseball adopted the big-headed curios and turned them into the icons we all know and love (so long as they are winning).

One of the earliest literary references to bobbleheads dates from 1842 when Russian author Nikolai Gogol wrote "The Overcoat," and described the main character's neck thusly: "like the necks of plaster cats which wag their heads."

I remember those bobbing headed animals from my childhood. Each and every one -- cat or bulldog -- bearing gold collars, sun bleached spots and velveteen hides rubbed raw from nodding against the rear windshields of every Chevy Impala ever to roll off an assembly line.

Somehow, inexplicably, while I was paying attention to the Pogues and the Pixies and Jane’s Addiction, the number of bobblehead creatures ballooned. Before I knew it, there were bobbleheads of presidents and first ladies, religious and literary figures and even, frighteningly enough, some that freakishly resembled yours truly.

Seriously, one of the first presents I ever remember getting from my soon-to-be father-in-law was a bobblehead me.

Her name was "Raven" and she was a "Goth" girl. With jet black hair, purple eyeshadow and the look of death warmed over, she came all wrapped in Christmas paper from a bearer who couldn’t stop giggling at his cleverness.

I suppose it might have been wise of me to cut and run right there, but I stuck it out. The following Christmas I was given an oversized wool sweater and all was forgiven.

It just stands to reason that sooner or later EVERYONE is going to have the chance to be a bobblehead. Some, undoubtedly, will be more flattering than others.

The surly woman who grunts every morning she takes my coffee order and then proceeds to splash a gallon of milk into my cup despite my ordering it BLACK, will probably have a some nodding plastic twin made in her likeness sooner or later. If I'm lucky enough to procure one I'll probably let the dogs chew on it just to administer a little passive revenge.

On the other hand, I'll have to plunk down some serious cash for the bobblehead of Ittybit’s babysitter. But it will be worth it. In addition to its bobbing head, hers will also have a wagging finger. Perhaps even a speaker to reminds us that "We-Don't-Poke-People-in-the-Eyes, That's-Not-Nice." Yeah, I'll be tucking that one safely away in a keepsake box to show Ittybit's teenage self who really deserves all the credit for her remarkable manners.

I wonder what Joe thought when he first laid eyes on his likeness. I imagine he might have wished the guys at the factory had given him a wider stance.

Or maybe he just smiled and nodded.