I decided I need to kick myself into gear and do something about the cottage cheese thighs that I bemoan every morning as I'm getting dressed. So this weekend I enlisted a friend who agreed to try to do the (evil) 30-Day Shred with me for a month. We figured if we emailed each other every evening to check in, we might motivate each other into sticking to the plan.
We also decided to cut out desserts and dessert-like objects (read: that chocolate muffin I eat at 3pm when I'm starving and there's nothing else edible at the kiosk in my building).
And then we got all hyped up on our own excited planning and issued a throw-down to the husbands: we're weighing ourselves on February 1, and taking all of our measurements, and then we're going to do amazing things to our bodies in the next month. What are you doing? Very quickly, a boys vs. girls challenge was born. Whichever team loses the most weight (based on percentages) in combination with the most inches by March 1 is the winner.
Why did we choose February? Well, it is conveniently now, and there was no reason to put this off. But also, it doesn't hurt to pick the very shortest month of the year if you are promising yourself to exercise every single day for a month.
And then I thought: how better to keep motivated for such a thing than to try to enlist as many friends as possible into the Great February Shape Up? The more of us the merrier, right?
No contest involved. Just moral support.
So here's the deal: If you've been thinking of starting your own personal fitness regimen, or you're bored and want (virtual) work-out partners, or you need some group mojo going on to keep working out, sign up.
Set whatever goals you like. Make them realistic but just a bit ambitious.
Leave a comment on this post saying what your goals are.
Email me every Saturday (mommysmartini AT gmail DOT com) with your weekly update, saying how well you managed to stick to the weekly goals and/or what you still want to work on. (Include a link to your blog.)
Every Sunday, I will post a weekly recap of everyone's great accomplishments so we can all check on in how each other is doing and keep the motivation going.
So: who's in?
(1) Exercise: do something every day. I prefer running or a Pilates class, but it takes a long time to get to the gym and do these things, so I've decided the 30-day Shred video (which only takes 20 minutes) will be acceptable as many days per week as needed.
(2) Food: cut out alcohol and desserts/dessert-like objects; pay better attention to portion sizes to emphasize fruits and veg much more and pasta a bit less.
Jump on the shape up train! Tell me what you're going to do this month...
Sunday, January 31, 2010
Friday, January 29, 2010
Biggest Holly Homemaker fail: Dec 25: make giant stock pot of rich, fragrant turkey broth after Christmas dinner; store pot in garage with below-freezing temps, due to lack of space in refrigerator. Jan 25: drain pot of stock, and throw away carcass, having neither made nor consumed one single teaspoon of turkey soup in the past month
Latest awesome product to be irritatingly discontinued: Bath and Body Works Sport Lip Balm with SPF 15 and extra-magic skin-healing potion
Most fantastic skin-hydrating lotion that's annoyingly hard to find locally: Udder Cream (natural ingredients, light scent, inexpensive, made for cows but great on human skin for everything from kids' excema to grown-up dry-hand-itis) -- seriously, it is the perfect all-purpose hand and body cream. Perfection in a cow-colored pot. What could be better?
Stupidest injury ever: one inch slice on the pad of my tallest finger, incurred while trying to scrape dried-up crumbs of cake off a serving plate. Apparently, dried cake glued to a plate with icing can be used as a knife. Who knew?
Best reminder of childhood: fried green plantains and black bean soup around the dinner table, with my own children lapping up the delicious food
Most horrifying reminder of upcoming birthday (5th annual 35th, but who's counting?): AARP membership mailing
Best way to combat blues caused by AARP membership mailing: run 3 1/2 miles fast, including some very fast sprints, after not having run at all in the last four months
Best way to combat total-body stiffness and muscle ache caused by running 3 1/2 miles fast, including some very fast sprints, after not having run at all in the last four months: a nice gentle Pilates class and soak in a hot tub
Most sobering reminder of that upcoming Unmentionable Birthday: the fact that running 3 1/2 miles requires an hour of stretching and a hot tub soak to recover from
Best way to beat the mid-winter blahs: get your son chef attire for his birthday, and start perusing epicurious.com together
Wednesday, January 27, 2010
Every year, in the two weeks before the week before Christmas, I face a veritable maelstrom of grading and cleaning and wrapping and cleaning and organizing and grading and cleaning. In addition to finals at work, which means I have a lot of papers to read and numbers to crunch, I am also trying to organize the holiday gifts that have to be mailed in timely fashion to 18 out-of-town relatives, and trying to get the house in reasonable shape for my parents' annual Christmas visit.
I love my parents. And I love this visit. But my parents are people with an almost impossibly clean house.
And I am a person with...well, with two small children, a dog, and a full-time job that is busiest from October-December. In short, I have relatively low standards of tidiness because I have chosen to maintain my relatively high standards of sanity. So...
Quick! Who is the most stressful person who could possibly visit your house, from the standpoint of the frenzy of pre-visit cleansing? You may say your parents (and my preamble here would suggest that is so). Or possibly that colleague whose house is always inhumanly perfect. Or possibly that neighbor who never calls first and invariably stops by when the dishes are piled in the sink and you are still in your pj bottoms. Or possibly that one friend who has a toddler while your children are long past the "everything in the mouth" stage, so that you are constantly worried about overlooked choking hazards.
But I am here to tell you that the most stressful visitor to clean for is none of these people. It is, in fact, the guys who are coming to install your new windows. THOSE guys, unlike your father, your neighbor or your colleague, will go into your laundry room. They will venture into your master bath. They will see the corners and crannies that you can usually keep hidden from visitors. AND, they will vacuum to clean up after themselves, which means they will see the dust bunnies next to the toilet and the grit behind your dryer, if those things exist.
The good news is, that if you have new windows installed a few weeks before your parents visit, you will be able to keep your house reasonably clean until the holidays.
In other helpful cleaning tips (what? installing *mumble*-thousand dollars worth of windows wasn't your idea of a quick and easy means of keeping your house clean? huh..odd...), may I suggest the benefit of rearranging your priorities?
I have finally come to the following (uneasy) conclusions.
1. I cannot keep this house clean on my own.
2. I do not enjoy spending half the weekend, which is our only family time together, assigning jobs and folding laundry.
3. My family doesn't love this either.
4. Instituting the timed "speedy family clean up" at the end of every day makes a huge difference in how tidy things are.
5. If things are kept relatively tidy, the actual dirt is less noticeable.
ERGO: huge time savings on the weekend, since just by rigorously picking up after ourselves on the weekdays, we can occasionally pretend the dirt just isn't there and go sledding instead of mopping the floors or scrubbing the bathrooms on weekends.
I don't recommend this strategy on a permanent basis, but I will say that judicious ignoring of dust bunnies has been good for family morale and my own state of happiness for several weeks now.
Sunday, January 24, 2010
A while ago, on the playground, I struck up a conversation with a father whose child was running with mine. Happy to be talking to someone, he confessed to me that often, when he takes his daughter to the playground in the middle of the day, the mothers there close ranks, giving off the clear signal that he may not enter their conversation circle.
Later, I watched him push his daughter in the swing and smile at her shrieks of "Daddy! look how high I am!!" And what he did not have to tell me was even more poignant than what said. The mothers looking at him askance? They were wary of what a grown man might be doing on a playground--in a world of mothers and very young children--on a Wednesday at mid-morning.
It is obvious that, having arrived with his own bundle of glee, this man was not there for untoward reasons. And yet, I could see that the world of mommies was giving him wide berth. They weren't exactly leaving the playground ahead of schedule, but they were pulling what I think of as the Back Away Slowly, mentally registering not only the whereabouts of their own children, but also this father's spot on the playground at all times.
What is it that makes a father with his joyful child at the playground an object of suspicion on a Wednesday morning, but an object of intense praise on a Saturday afternoon? Because it is certainly true, and I suspect our playground is not the only one like this, that there are scores of fathers at the playground on weekends, and the mommies never seem to hesitate to strike up a conversation with them then.
Clearly, it is a sense of normalcy. Fathers work during the week, and they get a chance to play with their children on the weekends, and so we revel in their involvement on Saturday afternoon.
But why do we revel? Is it because we think of them as "babysitting" rather than fathering?
What got me thinking about this in the first place was a comment this past summer by a great dad blogger who said that he feels like there are some topics he can't tackle on his blog because they are the province of mothers. He mentioned a conversation he'd witnessed, in which a woman got both angry and defensive about her husband's "interfering" in some aspect of the raising of their children. "I don't tell him how to do his job," she said. "He shouldn't try to tell me how to do mine." Matthew, who is, as anyone who has read his blog can tell, a deeply involved and committed father, chose not to respond to this comment.
I, on the other hand, got shaking mad on his account.
This, you see, is the other side of the Back Away Slowly. Some women see involved fathers and, afraid to trust their own judgment on what they see, remove themselves and their children from a situation that seems strange and foreign to them. Other women tell men, in no uncertain terms, essentially to Put Down the Child and Back Away Slowly, as if a father becoming involved in the upbringing of his own child is nothing short of threatening. As if children were weapons and fathers were criminals wielding them.
Of course, the polar opposite response also exists. The gushing, effusive, ebullient praise of the father who is "making time" to spend with his children. I have a male colleague who has two children who are just a few years older than my own. We started the same year on the job and live not far from each other. We both have spouses who work jobs with traditional M-F hours, while our schedules are much more flexible and change from one semester to the next, depending on what times of day we are teaching. So, he and I are the at-home-more-often parents. For a while, when our children were younger and not in school, we were taking periodic turns spelling each other with the children. One week, I'd leave mine with him for a morning to get some extra work done; the next week, he'd leave his with me.
One day, I was at the office on a morning that was unusual for me. "Where are the kids?" the department secretaries asked, knowing full-well that I only had them enrolled in part-time daycare. "Oh," I said casually, "J-- is taking care of them. We take turns almost every Friday..." But my second sentence was drowned out. As soon as I'd mentioned that my male colleague was taking care of my children along with his own, they were all agog, praising him to the skies, "Oh, what a wonderful man he is! Such a great father! Isn't that super!" and so on. I felt irrationally compelled, once the chorus of praise was over, to repeat myself. "Yes, well, we take turns taking each other's kids one morning a week." They barely looked up at me. "That's nice," I think one of them murmured blandly.
What's my point? He and I have the same jobs, the same amount of work, the same number of children, the same schedules, and yet he gets praised to the sky for taking on someone else's children and doing the hard work of hands-on fathering, while I am simply expected to do so without batting an eye. It did not occur to them to register that whatever juggling of his professional and personal lives he must do, so must I. Mothers, we generally assume, simply make those sacrifices and do that juggling. If they have to, they just sleep less. Fathers, on the other hand, are the best thing since sliced bread if they are willing to do what mothers do.
To be clear: I say this neither to critique my excellent department secretaries nor to belittle what my friend does. He is an excellent father, an admirable scholar, and a superlative teacher.
Rather, I mention this example because I think that both the Back Away Slowly and the Over-Praise are responses to involved fathering that stem from the same impulse. They are both the product of a moment in which we are trying to reimagine, but have not fully succeeded in redefining, fatherhood.
There are certainly families today in which Father works outside the home, Mother works inside the home, and the division of labor is the traditional Dad-finances-yardwork-tools and Mom-children-cooking-cleaning-laundry. But the vast number of household in the United States boast two parents employed outside the home, or some sort of blended family, or a single-parent, or some alternative to the 2.2 kids and a dog model that was the ideal in the 1950s. It's true: not all SAHMs are the point-people for laundry any more.
This is not to cast aspersions at this old ideal or at families who still live it. It worked for my grandparents for 60 years, and they were one of the most happily married couples I ever met, and it works for a lot of families now.
Rather, it is to say that if many families are structured differently, it is time to become more conscious about how we think about parenting. No longer can we, or should we, assume that all mothers have all the responsibilites for housework, permission slips, present buying, and childcare. No longer can we, or should we, assume that all fathers are lovable buffoons with a bottle, who don't know a diaper from a binkie and can't figure out how to moderate a preschooler's tantrum in the grocery store (to the extent, of course, that it is humanly possible for anyone to moderate one of those spinny tantrums).
Rather than the stereotypes of parenting, it would be nice if we could approach one another on the playground, in our children's classroom on volunteer days, or at ballet class, with fewer assumptions. Too often, I think, we make instant judgments. While I didn't Back Away from the nice father on the playground, it did run through my mind when I first saw him, "huh, I wonder why he's not at work today." I think we're wired to assess people when we meet them, size them up, figure out what makes them tick -- and so we try to stick on labels. But the problem is, that while "mother" and "father" still describe biological roles in the very same way they always have, they don't necessarily describe social or even family roles in all the same ways before.
And I think there are more than a few mothers and fathers out there who would benefit from a collective cultural recognition that those names are no longer "one size fits all." It's a hard thing to remember, even for someone who's been thinking about it a lot. But the heart of parenting, I think, requires backing away slowly from snap judgments. Even on the playground.
Friday, January 22, 2010
When I was about 19, my little brother (age 6) asked me if I was a grown-up. I didn't know. I wasn't a kid, surely. I'd been in college for two years at that point. I was on my way to do a year abroad. But on the other hand, I had no mortgage, no car, no children, no responsibilities to anyone but myself. I struggled to figure out how to answer his next question, which was a more general one about how you know you're a grown-up.
But now, I have answers.
You know you're a grown up when you choose to have cereal for dinner and no one says anything.
You know you're a grown up when you spend the first night sleeping alone in your very own apartment.
You know you're a grown up at the moment it registers that you now have another tiny breathing human life dependent on your actions.
You know you're a grown up when you look around your house and realize that you do not only own clothes and shoes; you have a bed for a guest room and summer and winter versions of diaper bags.
And you have the little things. The random bits, slowly accumulated, that make life richer even though they are not strictly necessary. Things like:
* sushi rolling mats, so that you can have people over for make-your-own-sushi dinners
* the original game of Battleship
* an espressso/capuccino maker
* wall-hangings/carvings/ceramics from the trips you took before you had children (to Hawaii, New Zealand, the Yucatan, South Africa, Pompeii, Greece), plus one acquired since you had children (on a trip to Saugatuck, MI -- approximately 175 miles from home)
* that awesome gizmo that slices and cores apples in one fell swoop
* four perfect Thonet chairs, trash picked on Moving Day in a college town (when all the leases expire on August 14, and the new ones don't start till August 15, and 20,000 students are trying to figure out how to situate themselves in the interim, and are therefore just abandoning unneeded furniture by the side of the road)
* a giant cherry wood salad bowl, made in Vermont, with matching salad tongs
* your grandmother's silver pocket watch that doesn't run, but it doesn't matter because it looks so pretty hanging on that silver chain around your neck
* a fondu pot
* a beautiful set of cheese knives
What are the little things you love? The things you would certainly pack if you moved, even though it means a few extra boxes? The things you don't use every day but that you love to be able to pull out when the time is right. The things that mark you as having made a home.
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
Ann of Ann's Rants wrote yesterday what strikes me as perhaps the most perfect single sentence ever to capture what it is like to be a pre-adolescent girl. She was describing the activities of a typical "really fun" day for her eight-year-old self, and in the midst of the paragraph-long jumble of moving headlong from one thing to the next, she noted:
Do several amazing couch routines, because you are great at the ideas of gymnastics.
This single sentence sums up my childhood. Imaginative, and filled with a longing for things beyond my reach, I was fantastic at the ideas of many things.
I, like every girl aged 8-11, wanted a horse. I was sure our backyard was plenty big. And I believed every horsey story in which some lucky girl about my own age worked really hard and was rewarded with a horse of her very own. Nevermind that she invariably lived in the country and knew how to muck out stalls. I could certainly find a way. I could work hard.
And besides, I was tremendously good at the ideas of horseback riding. Didn't I, nearly every day, astonish my sisters with my feats of bareback dare-devilry on the old spring horse in our basement? Didn't I, in my tiny knitted slippers, balance delicately on one leg while being bounced headlong around a circus ring? Didn't the crowds cheer in amazement?
And later, when the bareback rider portion of the entertainment was over, didn't I impress them all anew with my fabulous dance routines? It was simply a fact that I was the very best of the three sisters at the ideas of ballet. Didn't I make up routines of weep-worthy grace at the drop of a hat? Weren't my long legs and fluttering arms a sight to behold? Didn't we, on Saturday mornings while watching cartoons, have dance contests to the tunes of the theme songs? And didn't I always win?
Throughout my whole childhood, these fantasies of grace and beauty, physical prowess and astonishing emotiveness swirled around in my head every day. I had taken a few months of ice skating lessons, but that did not stop me from skating along the family room floor to the music of the Winter Olympics, feeling the wind in my hair and the power in my leaps, landing perfect double axels, and twirling around to that magical sound of the blade swooshing tight circles on the ice.
If my actual feet, shod in slippers, never left the carpeted floor by more than three inches? No matter. At the ideas of ice-skating, I was unbeatable.
Horse-back riding, ballet, ice-skating...My body yearned towards those movements, instinctively chased the trajectory of those flights. I soared and cantered and pirouetted my way through those awkward years when one is no longer a baby but not an adolescent either. Not that adolescence isn't awkward -- but it is a known awkward, an awkward of burgeoning sexuality. The awkwardness of being 8 or 9 or 10 is that the magic of "firsts" (first step, first words, first book you can read by yourself) is past and the magic of first loves (be they music or boys) is future. The now, at those ages, needs magic.
And so, for the imagining girl, the time is ripe to become an astonishing prodigy at the ideas of many things.
The power of those ideas is consuming. You feel not just that you could do those things if you were taught, but that you actually are doing those things right there in your own living room. You have the physical sensations of leaping; you smell the sweat of the horse, your skin tingles at the chill rising from the ice. Your body moves through space, and in your mind's eye, you watch yourself, and even you are amazed at your own prowess. It is breathtaking, this power. It is as if you have sprouted wings.
Hints of those feelings come back to me occasionally. Skating outdoors on black ice, smooth as a mirror and vast as only a lake can be, I had a moment of skimming speed where I felt the untried Olympic champion stir within. But in the tentativeness of my 20s, I was too timid to hurl my body away from the ice, to trust myself to the air. To leap, perchance to dream.
The closest I have come to recapturing the power of those childish flights is when I discovered that I am surprisingly able at the facts of horseback riding. I can hold my seat better than I have any business doing, given how few times I have ever been on a horse. In the prosaic light of adulthood, I must also admit to a severe horse allergy. But that does not dim the dream of one day cantering along miles of deserted beach, barefoot, in a white sundress. I can smell the salt sea spray, I can feel the lowering sun warm on my shoulders, I can hear the rhythmic thrumming of hooves on sand.
When one has spent one's childhood being superior at the ideas of a thing, you see, it is impossible completely to erase thrill and romance of those ideas. And therein lies the perfection, and the poignancy, of imagination.
Monday, January 18, 2010
Dear Julie and Julia,
Poached eggs are not all that. Sure, they taste nice. But they're not so hard to cook that it requires a celebration over every forkful. And they are that hard to clean up. Have you ever tried to scrub albumen out of the tiny crevices of T-Rex feet? And don't tell me that your directions for poaching eggs don't include using dinosaur cookie cutters as a substitute for egg rings. How else do you expect me to get my three-year-old to try them?
* * * * *
Dear Scotch-Brite Greener Clean Scrubbing Pads,
You rock my world.
A Mom who Eggsperiments
* * * * *
Could we get some snow here, please? I'm sure there are some people just a bit south of us, or a few hundred miles east who would gladly give up their next storm for our benefit.
* * * * *
Dear Inventor of Cabin Fever,
Really, you shouldn't have.
My-children-need-to-burn-off-some-energy-but-it's-too-cold-for-the-playground-and-there-isn't-enough-snow-for-winter-sports-or-games-and-it's-making-us-all-crazy (But you can call me EveryMama for short)
* * * * *
Dear 1970s House Builder,
When you installed just one bathtub in a four-bedroom, three-bathroom house, what exactly was the rationale for choosing a tub so short that a prone adult could not fit into it, and so shallow that the peaks of the mountains created by bent knees towered miles above the clouds of bubbles? I'm not especially demanding, but when I need Calgon to take me away, it would be nice if I could feel more like I was floating off on a sea of relaxing bubbles and less like a pretzel dipped into the requisite hot water bath prior to baking.
* * * * *
Dear Crunchy/Feminist Bookstore,
You, with your steamed-milk-and-spices drinks? You are awesome. Nothing remedies the chill of winter like my knock-off of your concoctions. Well, a good snowball fight or a nice long soak in a hot tub might. But failing those? I'll take steamed milk with honey, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cardamom any day.
Thanks for teaching me what might be the most practical thing I learned in seven years of graduate school.
Wednesday, January 13, 2010
Fretting about my children asking for more, more more stuff has got me thinking not just about the annoyance factor (though admittedly it is annoying to have to say "no" eight frillion times in every store we must enter for things such as milk or batteries). I have also been thinking hard about why they ask. About what they really want. About my obligation to give them a sense of how lucky they are and my own desire to teach them to appreciate what they do have. About how to teach them the value of working for things, and about the satisfaction that comes from having stuff one has earned rather than simply been handed.
And about the fact that they are only 3 1/2 and nearly-6 years old.
It seems obvious to posit that a general American sense of "bigger and more is always better" influences my children's desires. And yet, I do think that they are a bit young for that to be the only factor. They do not have a clear sense yet of their own futures (19 and 69 are basically the same age in their minds), and their ideas of what they want to be when they grow up run the gamut from race car driver to "skateboard guy" to elephant. Between that and my own careful limiting of their access to commercials, American Consumerism is not solely to blame.
It is certainly true that Target and its plethora of goods beckons. Already, at 3, my daughter knows that. And perhaps she has internalized already the vastness of consumer possibility represented by that bullseye. The aisle after aisle of anything anyone could want is alluring, even to the very young. But she is still too young to grasp the concept of money fully: $50 is an almost-unimaginable wealth. The explanation that something costs $8 elicits a deep and impressed "Whoa!" from my son. And I do think that without a clear grasp of some money basics, of the actual cost of living, it is hard to say that their consumer desires are part and parcel of the American ethos that more is better and more cheaper is even better than that.
Nonetheless, I cannot deny, their own lives of privilege are partly to blame for this conundrum. And that is where I get stuck and wrestle with myself about what to do.
Because here's the thing: my children do not lack a single thing they need. They have warm snow boots that fit their ever-growing feet and hot home-cooked dinners and treats like berry-flavored rice cakes to pack in their lunchboxes. They have beds piled with comforters in their own rooms in a well-heated house. They have two parents who love them -- and who have good jobs that include excellent health insurance for the whole family. While they do not always get what they desire, they have never known want. And they have certainly never faced the painful, pinching sort of want that bedevils so many in these times of long-term unemployment (which is just over 15% here in Michigan, the highest in the nation).
It is clear to me that never having lacked for anything they needed, my children do not quite understand why they cannot have everything their little hearts desire. And while I am obviously not going to deny them food, a warm coat or antibiotics to prove a point, I am struggling with how and what I need to say to them or do with them to help them understand the tremendous privileges they already have and to make them more grateful.
I am not shy about telling them that we will not be buying certain toys because they are too expensive. I have no problem sticking to my guns about making a disobedient child dip into his piggybank to help replace the broom he broke through his shenanigans. I explain what we are doing when we make donations to the Salvation Army pot at the holidays or collect gently-worn clothes for the Purple Heart truck every other month. And I feel that at their ages, there are limits to what one can reveal about the hardships in the world.
But here's the rub I cannot ignore: that very ignorance is itself a privilege.
There are children their ages the world over who know in no uncertain terms about profound hardship through their own experience. There are children who live within 25 miles of their own house who know.
And yet, one cannot simply lecture them about how lucky they are all the time. "There are starving children in ____" was the stock phrase a generation or two ago, used to coerce fractious children in comfortable homes to clean their full dinner plates. But cliches like that only serve to breed resentment, not understanding.
We have talked about the local food bank as we participate in food drives. We have talked about children whose families cannot buy them warm mittens as we collect winter outerwear. But while those conversations are quiet and feel powerful when they are happening, and while my children ask pointed questions about the how? and why? that I try to answer as honestly as I can without overwhelming them with information, those lessons seem to evaporate as soon as they latch onto a new desire of their own.
But why can't I buy...? they whine. The evicted child in the family shelter, the one who will be wearing my child's outgrown mittens tonight, is forgotten. And anyway, that child is not them. They may have curiosity and empathy, but they do not have the logic to make the connection to their own privilege and be grateful.
Perhaps this is because children -- all children -- are innately self-focused creatures. This is not to suggest they cannot be kind or altruistic or empathetic on occasion, but rather that the infant who cries to remedy its own condition (feed me! or change me! or warm me! it demands, in its only, wordless, loud way) is not that far from the preschooler who whines to establish the boundaries of its world. I want more! it cries, perhaps because it wants more, or perhaps because it wants a limit. It wants a "no." It wants a thousand thousand NOs so that it can figure out exactly where its parameters lie. Perhaps, in much the same way that young children test the boundaries of our discipline (when does no really mean no? Will I get the thing I want with whining? or will the rule about how whining gets you nothing really stick all the time and always?), they test the boundaries of our fulfillment of their wish for stuff.
After all, consumer desires are, at root, simply desires. They are wants. And children beg to be told which of their wants are good for them and which are not. Above all, they desperately want us to be consistent about how we respond to those wants. The need for sleep? They will push and push, cajole and wheedle for one more story, one more drink, but if we are firm and consistent about what constitutes a bedtime routine, they eventually realize we will not relent, and so they do. And everyone gets more and better sleep as a result.
How, I ask myself, is their seduction by the notion of stuff any different? They want candy for breakfast? I say no. Every morning for weeks, sometimes. But the answer is never yes. They want to buy junky stuff in the store when we are on a quest for fresh fruit and veggies? I say no. Always. I think, I hope, that I am teaching them that some purchases are necessary and others are luxuries. Surely, chocolate chips are not strictly necessary, and we buy those, but the basic point that we are on a shopping trip for what we need to eat must sink in sometime. At least, I hope.
And so I try to teach them about money and its value. I have lately been offering them the option to spend their good behavior chips, which they are each accruing, on the things over which they pine. It is my hope that setting a price tag in chips might help them learn about the cost of what they want. (4 chips = $1 is my rough calculation of cost.) Interestingly, both of them are saving up for special things (a movie date with me, a sleep over, or other privileges), and so when it comes down to them buying with their chips, they tend to choose not to spend. With any luck, this system will help them begin to see that we all have to make choices about where and how we spend.
But it still doesn't solve the larger problem of being grateful for what they have. And teaching gratitude is very very difficult -- particularly because they have no clear vision of what life is like for someone who does not have the things they take for granted. And, really, how can a 5 year old imagine what it is like to go to school hungry every day if he does not have to? Thus, I feel somewhat at a loss about how to teach gratitude. What sorts of volunteering might help teach these lessons? We have done things like stuff bears and tie blankets for children's hospitals, but those types of work still leave them fully insulated: they are making things for faceless children whose lives they cannot even begin to imagine.
At what point do I give them a vision of some of that reality? I feel now is not yet the time. But when? And how will I know? And what are the best ways to do it? What do you do with your own children?
Monday, January 11, 2010
It is two weeks after Christmas, and my son is begging for more stuff. There are several Star Wars legos models that he craves, having seen them in the
advertisement directions pamphlet that came with the ship he got from his grandparents. (That strike's for you, Marinka.) My daughter longs for a "Dora necklace that's pink and purple" in that way that only three-year-olds can, which is to say that she has a very distinct picture in her mind of what she wants, though she's never seen the necklace herself, and is quite sure that it is obviously purchaseable if only her Mama would take her to the store to buy it.
We largely managed to avoid accumulating junkish stuff over the holidays. There were books and a globe and family games for gifts, a few highly desired toys (the aforementioned legos and a Light Brite), and several things designed to combat the long grey winters we have, such as a giant inflatable punching bag and kids' sized boxing gloves, a brightly colored applique-flowered skirt and lots of art supplies. We eschewed items needing batteries and no imagination. We cleared the toy chest of all the random baby toys that were still sitting around. In short, we have managed to rein in the toys to a considerable degree.
And yet. Despite all the wonderful new, creative things lying around, my children have an almost insatiable desire for more stuff.
They want tiny, cheap, little plastic gizmos that break easily. They want "collections." They want "just one more" of nearly everything they already have. Husband, quite reasonably, I thought, asked Son the other day why he wanted more of something when he doesn't spend that much time playing with the ones he already owns. Son had no good answer.
But that didn't stop him from wanting.
Indeed, they both pine. They cajole and wheedle. They fondle toys when we go into Target for toothpaste. They beg for candy at the grocery store. They ask to make special trips to various stores to procure random items that their friends brought to school that day. (No, no, and no are my responses, respectively.)
It's not that they are influenced by the crack that is commercials for children's stuff. In fact, my children see almost no commercials whatsoever. Most of what they watch on TV is recorded or on demand. The only channels I will turn on for them to watch are Nick Jr. (no commercials) or CBC Kids (no commercials) or the Food Network (commercials, but none of them for plastic gimcracks emblazoned with sparkly ponies).
And much as I'd like to say it is all the fault of stuff-laden classmates with their pink sparkly princess dresses and Tech Decks for show-and-tell, that wouldn't be accurate either. Even if every child in their classes were stuff-spoiled (and in truth, I'm not convinced that most of them are), the desires inspired by their friends, while specific, are generally very short lived. And anyway, I could handle it if there were some one thing they each really really really wanted, and saved for, and dreamed about, and planned towards.
But that's not it.
Instead, it's a constant steady stream of "Mama, can I have...?" and "I want" and "Can't we just buy...?" Like drops of water slowly wearing down a stone, it is as if they hope to weaken my resistance to the point where I just throw up my hands and cry out, "Yes, yes, of course, you can have it all! Let's go out and buy everything in the whole wide world!"
Is this a factor of their ages? Or something much more? Do your kids beg and plead for more more more, even without precedents for the answer ever being "yes"?
(I am still chewing on my own answers to these questions. Part 2 of this post, on what I think might be motivating this desire for useless stuff, is coming soon.)
Wednesday, January 6, 2010
Scene: In the car on the way home from the movies at night.
"Did you ever push that red triangle button that's for emergencies?" Son asked.
"No," I replied. "I never did."
"Wow. That's lucky," he said.
"Push it now," chimed in Daughter.
"Nooo," Son replied with some scorn. "It's just for emergencies."
"Emergencies?" she asked.
"Yes," he replied definitively. And then began to explain more slowly, as if he was considering carefully and weighing his words while he spoke. "Like, if you don't have enough food, you can order some...or if you can't breathe, they will tell you what to do...or if you only have one eye, and you don't have any grown ups around to help you see..." his voice trailed off. He wasn't exactly sure what magic the people on the other end of the button could provide to remedy your lack of an eye and grown-ups.
I didn't have the heart to tell him that the hazard lights button just turns on some blinking lights so that other drivers don't hit you if you're stopped on the side of the road. It was way more enticing to think of it as a sort of magic call button that could provide everything from a hot dinner to self-resuscitation directions.
There are plenty of things about which we parents strive not to shatter our children's illusions lightly or too soon. Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy loom large on the list in our house right now. So do less magical things like the fact that I protect them from the notion that one's parents could die when one is still a little child or that people commit terrible crimes. (The other day Son asked me if anyone had ever gone to jail. He meant EVER. As in ever in the history of the world. Wide-eyed, he was trying to imagine what kind of thing would be bad enough to get you sent to jail for real. I simply told him yes, some people were in jail. He wanted to know if they were roberts -- which is how he and Daughter insist on pronouncing the word robber. I said I thought so and left it at that.)
There are small things, too, that I don't bother to correct. The notion they have that I actually do really and truly have eyes in the back of my head, for example. One day Son did something naughty in the back seat of the car and without even turning around, and I told him to stop doing whatever it was. "How did you know that's what I was doing?" he breathed, completely mystified. I tossed off, as mothers will,the declaration that "I have eyes in the back of my head," and he completely believed it. I have even heard him warning his sister in a serious voice, "DON'T," he once said, as she went for something she wasn't supposed to that was behind my back, "You'll get in trouble. Mama has eyes in the back of her head, and she'll see."
And even smaller ones -- like that there may be real fairies somewhere in the world, or that rabbit tracks in the snow on Christmas morning really are from reindeer as the children assumed. Or that a simple button in the car can be a lifeline to anything one might need in the universe.
I don't think there's anything wrong with these illusions. Logic, observation, the practicality of age will all take over and reveal the truths about these and so many other elements of their lives soon enough. And so, for the present, I feed the magic.
I do worry sometimes about how I will talk my way through the inevitable, difficult conversations about The Truth. But I think I am beginning to find my way: The Truth is that parents who love the light in their children's eyes will tell them almost anything to perpetuate it, and allowing children's imaginations free play is part of the process of helping them to fuel their own mental growth. Children need magic.
Some people may argue that I am lying to my children. In a strict sense, they are right. But in an emotional sense, I am nurturing their fancy. I am helping them learn that the world can appear magical if you look at it from the right angle. That anyone can make stories. That imagination is sustaining.
And that, I think, is a lesson worth teaching young, so that once the practicality and Truths of maturity take over, it is still possible to harness the power of "what if..." and fly away on the backs of giant, rainbow-colored butterflies to fairyland.
Tuesday, January 5, 2010
The children were mercifully happy all throughout our errand running today. Why? Because they found the slender remote control that operates the now defunct portable DVD player, and then spent all of our drive time "changing the channel" to watch their favorite shows. They expressed surprise and shock when one bad guy cut off another bad guy's head, sang along with the theme songs, and took turns telling each other what numbers to press to get the channel they wanted. "099, that's CBC Kids," said Son, "and 422, that's Dora. And 61584712, that's the Weather." They paused their shows when we got out of the car.
Yes, it's true. My children were blissfully happy controlling an INVISIBLE television set in the back of the car for the duration of our errands. Try it sometime. I guarantee you peace and quiet and harmony in the back seat.
* * * * *
We cook a lot together as a family. Yesterday, Daughter invented her first recipe. Without further ado, I give you her "Soup with Noodles and Bread."
2 cups sugar
1 cup sesame (don't bother asking sesame what? Daughter says, "it's just sesame")
2 cups broccoli
2 strips bacon
4 strips "bacon" powder (it was the use of "strips" as a measurement that clued me in to how she hears the phrase "Baking powder")
3 cups flour
4 cheese (no unit provided)
4 cups nutmeg
5 cups bacon soup
There are no directions provided for assembly. But don't the ingredients sound just maaahhhhvelous?
* * * * *
How many bowls of chicken and stars soup will two children spill during one lunch hour? Three. I know 1 + 2 = 3, but somehow that doesn't seem like the right equation here.
* * * * *
How long will it take you to get a headache if you move the spray-painted cardboard box from the snow-covered driveway into the laundry-room to dry? 5 minutes. Max. And the headache will be serious.
* * * * *
"Can I see your i.d.?" the self-checker-outer-helper-lady asked me at Home Depot.
"My i.d.?" I was mystified.
"For that" she said, looking sternly at the can of spray paint in my hands. "Are you over eighteen?" Her look began to soften only slightly as she eyed the nearly-six year-old and three-year-old who accompanied me.
"Oh, THANK YOU," I responded with heartfelt enthusiasm. "I'm turning forty soon." I didn't add that back when I was under-eighteen, there were no laws restricting who could buy spray paint.
The men in professional overalls in front of me looked back and smiled.
What was the favorite part of my day? Hands down: getting carded while buying a can of black spray paint for my son's solar system project.
Monday, January 4, 2010
The Sun in London reports that "Thousands of American men are hiding their bellies with the latest underwear craze," while MSNBC reports that "a London department store is hoping to cash in on the lucrative men's underwear market."
What is this fabulous new craze sweeping two English-speaking countries, you ask?
The MIRDLE of course. Yes, mirdle. An unappealing contraction of the words men's girdle.
And, if you ask me, an unappealing undergarment as well, any way you style it.
Seriously? Men are supposed to wear this to the office? To slim their bellies? And be happy about it? I am not buying it, personally. At least, not that it's a giant fad. If nothing else, the fact that these news stories appeared last March and April, and my local news just reported on this "hot trend" last night suggests that it is not quite the phenomenon designers might hope. Though, as the unnaturally cheerful Londoner to the left said in the article, it is the sort of thing one might don for a wedding if he didn't want his belly hanging out. But otherwise? It is a suit that simply makes you feel like "a right prat." Which, even if you don't know the meaning of the word, is a Britishism that you can still can understand.
I did find one picture in my perusing online that suggested that perhaps there might be more appealing ways to style a mirdle.
But in all fairness, I think this guy didn't need a mirdle to begin with. If his pecks are any indication of his physique (and how could they not be?), I think this picture is akin to using a photo of Natalie Portman to advertise the wondrous power of Spanx.
Personally, I think that if men are looking for slimming undergarments, they need look no further than the 1890s.
There is something so honest and unabashed about these men in corsets. And, dare I say? They look far more manly than the right prat in the sheer wrestling suit up above.
Perhaps it is their prodigious mustachios and oiled hair.
Sunday, January 3, 2010
At 4:34 this afternoon, I came to the profound realization that Winter Break needed to end. Immediately. The fact that at 8:30 tomorrow morning both children will be happily ensconced in their respective schools is NOT. NEARLY. SOON. ENOUGH.
For any of us.
Daughter is alternately climbing onto my shoulders to try to sit and play with my hair while I type and walking around in small circles on top of our bed chanting "I'm walking around in a circle...I'm walking around in a circle...I'm walking around in a circle...I'm walking around in a circle..."
Son is whining about the fact that I will not let him watch TV. "But I didn't get to watch TV all day," he moans.
"You already watched a whole movie and a basketball game," I respond.
"Aww...but that was this morning," he moans in a voice precisely calibrated to get on my very last nerve.
They are both whining and causing each other purposeful irritation.
Daughter, who is resourceful and (perhaps more significantly) as the second child never had my attention solely to herself, can find plenty of things to do that keep her interest. No audience necessary.
Son wants to be played with all the time. Every single minute. Preferably by me and only me. Playing with him is often fun. But in moods like this, it is simply torture. The rules are complex, and the games are not that interesting and the general point seems to be to produce annoyance. He cheats at board games and laughs that "HAW HAW!" laugh of a deranged bully in a cartoon. He takes away whatever Daughter has found that is keeping her perfectly happy to play with. He pokes and "tickles," climbs all over me, messes up Daughter's hair on purpose, plays keep away with the covers we are trying to snuggle under, turns the wooden trees from the train table scenery into aggressive missles of annoyance.
"I don't know what to do," he whines (all tones are whining this afternoon).
When I suggest puzzles, books, board games, the inflatable punching bag he got for Christmas, legos, art projects, or cooking, he moans "Nooooo," to each and every idea.
He buries his head behind my back and then shouts in a faux-panicked voice, "I can't breathe! I can't breathe! [pause; look up] What? It's funny!" And then his refrain starts again, "Can I watch TV?"
In short, he is a complete and utter pill whose only amusement right now is being as contrary as possible.
Darkness is approaching, so that I cannot send them outside to run this off -- and it is twelve degrees outside, so I couldn't have sent them outside earlier either. We did have one scare today when Daughter put on her boots and coat and took herself outside for a walk, thinking to follow me as I cared for the dog. Except I was already inside, and she was wandering down the neighborhood path towards the pond all by herself. Three years old with no mittens on in twelve degree weather. Nice. At least I panicked about her whereabouts after she'd been gone only about five minutes and we retrieved her quickly.
Those few minutes after she was home, snuggled safe on my lap, warming up, still hiccuping with a bit of panic, and drinking sips of steamed milk with spices, were lovely.
Otherwise, today? Not so much.
I think of myself as generally a creative and enthusiastic parent. But today, after two weeks of big meals, late nights, presents, visiting grandparents, sledding expeditions, I am worn out. All I want is for my two children, who are perfectly capable of entertaining themselves and each other for long stretches of time, to do so for ten continuous minutes.
But instead, they insist on occupying the same four square feet of bed as each other, and then moaning and whining that they don't have enough room, and that one won't get off the other's legs, even though the other already said please, because of course the other is "being totally annoying" and "I just want to be by myself."
"So go into your own room if you want to be alone," I snapped.
"No, I want to be alone right here, just in this exact spot. And she's always so annoying."
Now, finally, I get those ads that I never really understood when I was a child.
Calgon, take me away.
Seriously, if there's any cabin fever in your house, you MUST click this link, channel 1980, and have a good laugh.
Saturday, January 2, 2010
Yours is the year in which I turn forty and, truth be told, I'm not that excited about it.
Sure, my son can't remember if I'm currently 39 or 69, but I can understand that when you're almost six, anything past about 19 seems like the same age, where that age = old and unimaginable. And yet, while I've apparently been in that old and unimaginable realm for a while now, there is something that seems so horrifyingly middle-aged about forty. Forty. F.O.R.T.Y. (Hmmm... actually, if you write it enough times, it totally stops looking like a real word at all, so maybe that's what I should do.)
So let's make a deal, okay? Here's what I promise to try to do this year, if only you will help me ease into forty without too much panic:
* tell my children, every night as I tuck them in, something that they did that day that I loved seeing (I copied this one from my parenting guru, Anymommy)
* exercise regularly (apparently, with age comes wisdom, and I know better than to promise you or anyone else that I'll exercise 5 days per week; as long as it's regular, that will have to be sufficient)
* tidy something every day, even if just for five minutes right before bed, WITH the help of my children (we all need a little help forming better house-keeping habits around here)
* plan out a realistic timetable of reading for each month, so that I'm not running around like a chicken with my head cut off, reading everything in sight in a frenzy of speed (not that chickens without heads can read -- or chickens with them, either, for that matter -- or anyone running around can read, but you get the point; I have three conference papers to write in the next three months, on top of teaching my classes, so a little planning will go a long way)
* stick to the reading timetable (as anyone who loves making lists knows, sometimes the making of the plan substitutes for actually doing the thing, so this deserves its own bullet)
Overall, I hope in 2010, I will laugh more, have more patience, try some new foods, go on more dates with my husband, and try to remember every day that life is good and living in the now, even better.
For your part, 2010? Could you try to keep the grey hairs to a minimum?