Thursday, December 30, 2010

Shop Talk

When I am in Boston, I shop. It is not that I am lacking for the exact same stores at home, but I am usually in Boston during holiday sales and there is no sales tax on clothing. So even though I end up purchasing additional luggage to lug the items back across the country, in my mind the thrill of acquiring masses of clothes in a short period makes the new luggage (which rarely seems to be on sale at the same time as the clothing) seem like a savvy investment, rather than an economic anomaly.

Of course, shopping while on vacation is a bad idea for so many reasons, most obviously because time away from my real life means I am not experiencing my real life. Halter tops, sequined headbands, platform wedges, all things I would never be caught dead in back home look charmingly exotic. Yes, I think, looking at the people around me at leisure in their leisure garb, maybe I am a hat person. Why not an embellished top? Look how cute that woman looks with that flower barrette. Maybe I have an inner Rachel Zoe clamoring to express herself.

Another challenge is that my real life is in a completely different culture and climate as my leisure shopping outings. The Boston sale racks in late December boast amazing deals on wool jackets and wool sweaters and wool dresses and wool scarves and wool coats. Not only do I live in a place where it rarely dips below 70 degrees farenheit, but I am exceedingly warm blooded. I don't need much of a prompt to share the story of how I spent an entire New York winter with just a cotton cardigan. Of course, I had a closet full of coats and cashmere sweaters and scarves--I was a sale hoarder back then, too--but buying clothes and wearing clothes are two completely different issues. In fact, one of my few memories of college involves buying a Claude Montana taffeta wrap top at John Wanamaker in Philadelphia because it was marked down more than $1250 dollars! I don't know what business I had as an 18-year-old freshman spending $150 on a couture top that I literally never took the tags off of, but I think many of my thrifty sisters out there might understand the excitement of that score.

This past week, the urge to splurge was back, but in a modified "I have kids and a mortgage" way. I was sifting through the sales racks at Saks and found a Tory Burch dress that was in a decidedly un-Tory-like print (a good thing) and made in my favorite indestructible silk fabric, the type that looks and feels like 1970s double-knit polyester, but really is pure silk. It was a size too small, and, truthfully, I never wear dresses (although I had bought two the day before). But it was more than $200 off and maybe I could wear a Spanx and start rotating silk dresses into my wardrobe for work. In the old days, I would have grabbed it and bought it without even trying it on--what a deal!--but now that I am an adult with an occasional handle on my impulse-control issues, I used a self-talk strategy that I vaguely recall hearing about at a continuing-education seminar, and reminded myself that if I suddenly wore a silk dress to work, rumors would fly that I am job-hunting (which I am not), which would make me anxious and cause me to overeat, resulting in me having even less of a chance of squeezing into the Tory. The dress stayed on the rack. 

Earlier in the day, I was shopping at one of my favorite stores, Anthropologie. My husband recently read me a passage from an hysterically snarky book about my demographic sisters and brothers describing Anthropologie's offerings as looking vintage but being brand-spanking new; looking handmade, but being mass produced; and, best of all, giving the shopper the feeling that has searched through an estate sale, but without the annoyance of not having one's size in stock. People like me apparently love this aesthetic and I have to say the writer totally nailed me on this one.   

Anyway, I was busy pulling all sorts of delicate asymmetrical cardigans and funky patterned A-line skirts off the shelf when a salesperson introduced herself as the personal shopper and began advising me on how to wear a dress I was studying backwards for a chic-er effect. Typically, salespeople avoid me like the plague because, despite having a lovely engagement ring and a relatively significant purse, I also tend to be texting with one hand while attempting to balance a cup of coffee with my other hand. I think salespeople don't want to be responsible for cleaning up the mess they fear I will inevitably make. And I can't say I blame them. I still cringe at the memory of adjusting an enormous Coach purse on my shoulder at a Crate and Barrel and accidentally knocking over a display of wine glasses.  

So, this very thin and effortlessly accessorized woman continued to offer me advice, even after I shuffled into the dressing room. Anthropologie has the annoying practice of writing the shopper's own name on the fitting room door in dry marker. I will admit to giving false names in the past and then not being able to figure out which room was mine. This stunt also backfires for me at Starbucks, and at Radio Shack, when I make up a random zip code when they ask to input one into their system. Now, if the personal shopper had gotten any read at all on my aesthetic by the way I was dressed and groomed that day, she would have known that any suggestion of adding a shrug or belt to a potential outfit would be enough for me to put a kibosh on the purchase. Of course, if I were to imagine myself as a shrug person or someone with belts hanging on the back of my closet door, I very well might have scooped up the cream-colored wool dress that I would never wear because it is not dark, it is wool, and it is a dress. But I can be a contrarian at times, especially if in order to try anything on I have to first peel of various layers of cardigans and jackets and heavy leather boots. My rule is I have to have at least three items to try on to make it worth disrobing. I had at least a half a dozen items, all utterly incompatible with my real life and, even on sale, not exactly free. So I have to thank the personal shopper for her words of wisdom; she saved me from myself.  

Sleep Over (Threesome)

When my husband is out of town, or I travel alone with my children, they both sleep with me. Actually, they don't sleep with me as much as sleep on me.

I don't have any statistical proof to support this claim, but I would venture to say that my children are the most active sleepers who have ever existed. It is as though they view the mattress as a trampoline, and this is when they are asleep. My son is a flipper, who systematically rolls from one side of the bed to the other, leaving me with at least two appendages hanging off the side of the bed, My daughter's feet and head spend equal time on the pillow, but not as much time as they do on my pelvis. When I try to roll her bowling ball of a head off me, she instinctively holds on to my leg for dear life. And for a kid who has a precarious hold on her crayons, she manages to have a Vulcan death grip on my leg.

Part of the problem may be that both children has their own queen size mattress in their bedrooms, so they are used to being able to stretch and be free at night. This is not from any sort of parenting or sleep-training philosophy. Rather, it is a byproduct of our "Craig's List Concept." Having moved not only cross-country but within the same city seven times since we were married, including four times in a recent two-year stretch, we have become well-acquainted with the demographic who buy and sell used furniture on Craig's List. When making a long-distance move, time is of the essence, and we are not the types to pre-plan and make diagrams of where things will go in the new residence, so a mattress has to be flexible enough to work in an room of the house. In fact, when we moved back to LA from NY, we rebought essentially the same furniture we had sold on Craig's List just the year before. And this included three queen size mattresses. I know one is not supposed to buy used mattresses, but remember this was before the bedbug trend that is now sweeping the nation. And I swear we never removed the "Do Not Remove" tag on any of the mattresses.

My husband is taking a long trip this summer and we decided that we will bite the bullet and buy a king size mattress so that I will not have to suffer the trauma and injury of getting squished, pushed and pummeled in queen-sized quarters with my children. Not that I really think a bigger bed will solve the problem, because I have come to the conclusion that I am a maternal magnet and my children's cold limbs (did I mention my daughter's freezing feet??), nose-tickling hair, and heavy heads will still be dead weight in the dead of night.

Friday, December 24, 2010

ET: Skype Home

Not too long ago, my son asked me if we had electricity when I was young. Yes, I assured him, why was he asking? Well, he explained, I know you didn't have a cell phone or Wii, so I thought maybe you didn't have electricity.

Although I may not be a spring chicken, I am not such a miracle of nature that I waited almost 100 years until I began having children. But he had a point. It is hard to imagine what life was like before all the technology we have today. Sure, Atari and Pong were awesome in their day (and still rule!), but it is truly hard to imagine how my children would stay abreast of the latest baseball statistics or hone their hand-eye coordination without the advances of the last few decades.

We are decidedly backward in some basic ways--our largest television is 21 inches and I have to plug my Ipod into the casette deck of my car to play it while driving. However, generally I embrace gadgets, some years going through two or three Blackberries, and happy to remote control pretty much anything. And I will admit that a perfect day would be one holed up in a room with food and a TV and only communicate with the world through texting.

One of our favorite technological advances is Skype. Love Skype. The only drawback is the fact that there may be an expectation that one be groomed and presentable before clicking on the "video" icon. Our family has been known to Skype each other from different rooms in the house and, trust me, our home isn't that big. This practice caused confusion when my husband actually Skyped from China and my daughter thought daddy was calling from the next room and wasn't interested in talking. And it sure beats having to dial long series of numbers and attempt to communicate with hotel desk staff in foreign tongues. And my husband, who travels to Asia semi-frequently, has a name that is especially hard to communicate in Asian cultures.

But, I have moments when I long for the clunky electronics of my youth, especially the telephone. I distinctly remember the first time I discovered how cool it was to talk to someone on the phone. It was third grade and my friend Debbie and I exchanged phone numbers (only five digits in those days) and as soon as we got home from school, I went into our home office, closed the door, and called her. We talked for probably about an hour, recapping the day that we had experienced only minutes before. Actually, the entire time wasn't spent talking; I put the handset down on the desk for long periods of time: to go to the bathroom, get a snack, and to remind my family several times not to bother me because I was on the phone (everyone was busy doing their own things and no one cared).

This was in the day of the rotary phone, where you had to stick your finger in the hole of the number and drag it around until you were blocked by a little metal doodad. There was a lot of strength and precision required, because if you didn't rotate the dial all the way, the wrong number would register. And to do this five, eight or 11 times without error was quite a feat. You also had to actually have the phone number memorized, or neatly written down, since there was no re-dial or stored phone numbers at that time. I remember once trying to dial during a blackout and counting each hole to complete the phone number, as if I were reading Braille. 

As I became telephonically more sophisticated, I reveled in the possibilities of dialing "O" or 411 for information. The excitement of being able to talk to someone on demand was mind-boggling. My summer friend Michelle and I spent hours trying to call Donny Osmond by attemptng to outsmart the information operator. We would call 411 and sound like we were in a great hurry, explaining that Donny asked us to call him, but we had misplaced his phone number. He would be annoyed if the operator did not pass along his information. It never worked, of course. After discovering 411, when I went to visit my grandparents in another state, the first thing I did was run to the phone to see if 411 worked there too. It did. Cool. Really cool. 

In high school, my friend Sara and I took the Donny ruse a step farther. We were devotees of another bygone bit of telephonic machinery: the pay phone. We were (and still are) big baseball fans, and during Red Sox home games, we would sneak into the pay phone at school and call the hotel where the visiting team would stay. In our most official-sounding teenage voices, we would ask the hotel receptionist to put us through to players on the visiting team. Unbelievably, it worked almost every time. One time I said I was Reggie Jackson's agent and needed to be connected to him; the front desk clerk may have wondered why Jackson's agent sounded like she was 14, but didn't question it. Jackson probably would have been hip to us, except as soon as we got connected, we both dissolved into giggles and had to hang up.

Sadly, those days are long behind us. But on the balance, I have to say I prefer having the ability to immediately spring thoughts on an unsuspecting person with a text, or wait until I have time to thoughtfully respond to an email. I have a very old friend (from rotary phone days) who is sophisticated in all ways except communication technology. She communicates by calling--imagine that!--but is in a different timezone, with a different work schedule, and kids with different sleep habits. So we play phone-email tag: I email, she returns the email with a call, I return her call with an email. Between her voicemails and my emails, I suppose we piece together the details of each other's lives. Hopefully a new old-school/new-school gadget will come along soon so we can really catch up with each other.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Social Work

I have liked almost every job I have ever had. I've scooped ice cream, worked at a movie theatre, toiled in a newsroom, did triage in a hospital. Spending a structured day with people with whom you have things in common, your own computer, business cards, a lunch room with a microwave... and they pay you for this too? It's like kindergarten with a 401(k).

I have felt genuine sadness upon leaving almost every job and have only left places of employment when relocating out of state. By choice, not because the company's legal counsel suggested I do so.... Although I easily grow weary of the inevitable technological and bureaucratic quirks of a workplace--such as calls that must routed through a Tetris-playing receptionist, or computer passwords that expire with no warning--for the most part, I love the quasi-social environment of the workplace.

The mental health field, my chosen line of work, is a profession where we frown upon so-called "dual-relationships," meaning that it is an ethical faux pas for your stockbroker or spouse to also be your patient. While this does not really apply to office interactions, since it would be more than a little awkward to set up a Victorian fainting couch in a cubicle to provide psychoanalysis during lunchbreak. But how cool would one of those Oriental-rug-draped sofas look amidst my government-issued simulated woodgrain filing cabinets?

This separation of church and state aspect of the workplace is easy and, frankly, part of what makes the office such an interesting place to be around. When I was just out of college, my coworkers were my demographic clones, and it was obvious that we would work together, spend lunch break talking about people at work who were not our demographic doppelgangers, and finish the day be emailing each other from our adjoining cubicles to plan what we would do after work. The hours where we were not physically inside of the office, we were meeting and greeting our college friends at trendy bistros (lunch) and bars (after work).

However, once I was no longer at the bottom of the barrel paying career dues with my prep school peers, I was pleased to see that I had passed the grown-up test and was deemed capable of mixing with people with a large variety of ages, interests, training, background, tastes, styles--everything from Type A to Z. In addition to hearing their points of view at office meetings, trainings, or elevators, I also learned about gallbladder operations, Quinceanera parties, IRS audits, and grandchildren's stints in rehab. When I asked other coworkers if they were aware of various disclosures that had been shared with me, they usually were not, even those who had worked in the office for many more years. The reason for the sharing of these coffee-machine confidences with me? My theory is I have a perpetually perky facade, honed at an all-girls' school, or perhaps I reek of the scent of being a captive audience--the smell of my palpable fear of being rude by cutting off their stories. I usually have no personal reference point for many of the anecdotes that are shared with me. I often feel like an imposter, trying not to be identified as an elitist interloper, or a clueless coworker. But I like to ask questions, can nod on cue and have a natural un-Botoxed furrowed brow that can convey an intense interest in the topic at hand. I appreciate that the security guard at work and the woman in the chart room have deemed me worthy to share their secrets. But the beauty of a workplace is there is no expectation that the relationship will expand beyond these extended pleasantries.

Come to think of it, there has only been one job that had an office vibe that was so inhospitable, even I was not able to make the best of it. Doors were slammed shut. Sarcasm reigned at meetings. And, for a reason I still cannot fathom, there was a timeclock to punch in and out, even though we were all on salary and often were at morning and evening meetings off-site. This workplace was so toxic that approximately 12 of my colleagues left within a six-month window of my departure. Although I consider myself to be a model coworker and team member, my ego is not so inflated that I assume their leaving was contingent upon my departure. I remember the day I knew it was time to shop the old resume around. The CEO, who interestingly was married to the COO (it was that kind of company), apparently was not happy with me, and pinpointed his displeasure with my performance thusly: "You smile too much. Why do you smile so much?" True story. Left the company. And lived happily ever after.

Sunday, December 19, 2010


I have always lived in old homes. Even when faced with the opportunity to live in a new dwelling, I have always opted for the space that has hosted many occupants before me and, presumably, will continue this pattern until the property is condemned or turned into a Starbucks.

In addition to the intrigue of living in the same place that a mysterious person once inhabited, there always seems to be something magical to discover about an old home. One house we lived in when I was young, a foreboding brick Victorian house that was equally unapproachable during the day as it was at night. Daytime guests' cars routinely took ominous plunges down our moutainous front lawn, and a skittish alarm system tested even the most seasoned deliverypeople; in the years we lived there, I don't believe we ever had a trick-or-treater. But it seemed the home's previous owners, an elderly couple who had lived there for half a century, were some sort of amateur inventors who left a series of pulleys and gadgets in the garage. Also, an antique Oriental rug with a deep red medallion--a rug that made such an impression on me that I swear someday I will decorate a room around such a carpet, if I ever find one that does the long-since-discarded original justice.

I remember being early school-age and going with my parents to look at a summer home they had just bought. The house itself didn't make an impression at the time, but to this day I can recall the thrill of finding a handful of dimes and quarters in the basement. This bounty also came with tremendous guilt, wondering if the homesellers were aware the money was there, and would they want the house back if they knew about the riches hidden in its basement?

In my adult life, my residences have also proven to be serendipitous. After college, a roommate and I sublet a pre-War-era Manhattan apartment from a staid divinity school professor. His professional reputation was such that his name was known even in those pre-google and wikipedia days. Well, no sooner did we move in that we discovered his decidedly unstodgy side, thanks to the heavily smoke-stained walls that were revealed as soon as his artwork was removed, some paraphernalia on the private roofdeck, and the interesting array of magazines that continued to be delivered for months after his departure.

The first apartment my husband and I rented after we got married, a renovated historic building near the National Zoo, provided us with some confusion because the previous tenant's name was an extremely unusual combination of my husband's and my last names put together. And the first name was Angel, making it seem as if our union was being spiritually sanctioned on the fifth floor in Woodley Park during the Clinton administration.

Several years ago, while on sabbatical, we rented a Brownstone in Brooklyn from a family who were on leave in Europe. This enormous 19th-century home was filled with legacies left for us by the traveling owners: a mold-filled shower and flea-infested sofa. Thanks!

More recently, we moved to our current house which we purchased from a family (with children the exact same age) who decided to move across the street. And our next-door neighbors turned out to include a mother-son dyad whom I had met at my very first Mommy-and-Me class eight years earlier--when we both lived in completely different places. My daughter asks me on a regular basis to tell her about the person who built our house back in the 1920s. I am as intrigued as she is to see what I may find.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Harry Notter

Shortly after my son was born, I was in a thrift store rummaging through the book section. We are one of those families that donates a lot of our old stuff to thrift stores at the end of December for a tax write-off... but I am one of those people who immediately longs for the lost items and buys more than we donated at the very same store. One time at a yard sale to benefit my son's school, I inadvertently bought back several of the exact things we had donated for the sale.

Well, that day I was looking for children's books. This is more of a challenge than one would think if you are someone like me who begins to sneeze at the first unceremonious appearance of dust or dank. Browsing for semi-intact Golden Books at an urban Goodwill can really only be done with the Claritin handy.

As I was squelching the urge to categorize and alphabetize the haphazardly arranged tomes, I came upon a pristine hardcover copy of one of the Harry Potter books. This was a number of years ago, just as Harry Potter was beginning to be the big sensation it became, and I remembered seeing a news story with hoards of pre-teen kids--including many bespectacled boys--camped out at midnight at Barnes and Noble to get the newest HP book. Hmmm, I thought, I guess this is a book that my son will like when he is older. I envisioned myself sitting by a fireplace reading chapter after chapter of Harry Potter to my enthralled son. I pictured how the flickering of the flames would distort my shadow on the wall to make it resemble the ghostly characters that I imagined lurked in the pages of the book. The volume was $2. The price on the book jacket was $25. Wow, this was not only an investment, but a deal....

My Harry Potter prophesy proved to be as prescient as my dinosaur, Thomas the Tank Engine, and Lego predictions: Despite an absolute certainty that my son would take to each of these with an enthusiasm worthy of my hoarding of these items, my son had no interest in any of these. But, unlike my disappointment with his blase attitude toward a full train table and brightly colored vehicles bought at the most progressive of toy stores, when I finally got around to reading the first page of the Harry Potter book, I realized I had dodged a major, seven-volume, bullet.

First of all, I'll let you in on a little secret. When I purchase books for my pre-literate children, I review them for ease of reading aloud. That is code for short and sweet. I once made the mistake of buying a perfectly lovely book chronicling a Thai woman's attempt to protect her baby from the native animals. The damned book went through the exact same saga of the mother shooing away monkeys, water buffalo, gray mice, finishing each verse with the same rhyme... fine for the first two or three animals, but by the time the elephant came stomping by 35 pages later... well, you see the problem. So books get the yea or nay based on the syllable:picture ratio. The fewer words, the more pictures, the better. 

So when I picked up the Harry volume several years later and was already baffled by the first paragraph, I knew my fantasy of gathering the family for  Dickensian book-reading night was not gonna happen.  I confess to having been an English major at an East Coast college where liberal arts were deadly serious, and writing an appropriately verbose thesis on Samuel Richardson's use of the epistolary conceit in Clarissa, and an intricate deconstruction of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. However, in the years since the reality of family life, politics, fluctuating economies, and planes crashing into buildings, my interest in all things fictional has vanished. My patience for make-believe is limited to playing dolls with my daughter or being silly with my son. 

Speaking of my son, whose well-being I had in mind when purchasing the fantasy novel years ago, he seems to have inherited the practical academic approach that his parents embody. While some of his peers gravitate to the other-worldly stories of Harry and his friends, my son seeks out the very grounded  world of sports and the facts that are part of the territory. He roots for some teams that have had their share of hard knocks, similar to the unlikely heros of a Harry Potter book. Yes, even the practical, fantasy-averse suspend their disbelief from time to time. 

Monday, December 13, 2010

Portion Control

For the past few months, I have had the good fortune to have my weekday take-out lunch assembled by a particularly heavy-handed worker at the assembly-line style restaurant, Chipotle. This has meant my daily salad has included more than the average dollops of roasted chili-corn salsa, shredded vegetable-based rennet cheese, and sustainably raised chicken. A coworker who frequents a different Chipotle branch (and, hence, has never experienced the topping-overload from my unselfish server), informed that her location normally charges extra for especially hearty helpings. I’ve hit the jackpot with this plastic-gloved altruist who the manager has entrusted with doling out the cubes of pepper adobo steak, naturally raised pork carnitas, slowly braised barbacoa (no idea what that is), and fajita vegetable toppings. Too bad he doesn’t wear his Chipotle-issued nametag so I could properly credit him for his largesse.

I actually didn’t pay too much attention to the heft of my salad toppings until a few weeks back, when I opened my salad at my desk to find it to be limp and concave, as though its very soul of chicken chunks had been extracted and replaced with a mere spattering of foul morsels. I had grown accustomed to mounds of marinated chicken, smoky pinto beans, and tomatillo-green chili salsa; now, a sad pothole of romaine lettuce mocked me from the take-out container.

Last week, my salad savior was still not at his station, causing me great pains, hungerwise. One day he was at the cashier station, which did me no good at all. Later in the week, not anywhere to be seen. I considered specifically requesting his ingredient-scooping services, to see if maybe he had been relegated to pork-chopping or lettuce-shredding duty. But not only was I intimidated by the fast assembly-line pace of the environmentally sensitive fastfood chain, I couldn’t quite figure out what to ask and whom to ask. I rehearsed various scenarios in my head: “Excuse me,” I would ask the tortilla warmer/rice scooper (first in the assembly line), “Is the guy who sometimes works the chicken/cheese/salsa shift available to service my order?” The Chipotle I habituate has workers from all over the world, so my internal rehearsals usually involve me repeating the same request several times, getting louder and making more dramatic hand-gestures with each attempt, while the restaurant goes silent, E.F Hutton-style.

Probably if I had never experienced the glory of a salad that weighs more than a newborn, I wouldn’t have thought the more recent version of my $6.42 salad to be deficient in any way. But, knowing that it has indeed been possible to make virtuous salad-eating into an extreme sport, I just wish I could experience that roughage high just one more time…..

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Meet the New Shirt... Same as the Old Shirt

I wear black. Black shirts, black sweaters, black shoes, black watch. I have so many black tops that I feel compelled to explain to my coworkers that each day's shirt, despite appearing to be identical to the one worn the day before, is in fact a different and (usually) recently laundered piece of clothing.

I also own many black skirts that vary slightly in cut and fabric, but I have to give myself props for usually wearing a pattered or colored bottom with the black shirts. OK, to be entirely truthful, I will only buy patterned bottoms if black appears somewhere in the actual pattern itself to assure indisputable coordination. Some say everything goes with black.. I say nothing goes better with black than more black. I also buy in bulk. If a pair of faux croc leather kitten heels are in my size and on sale, I'll buy three pairs. My clothing is so interchangeable that one day this summer I actually went to work wearing two different shoes. Granted, only a trained connoisseur of Banana Republic pointy-toed flats would have known the difference--one had a patent flower, and the other a patent curlicue affixed to it.

To my credit, I have ventured into the blue territory, taken a turn into grays, and even dabbled in browns. I remember in my 20s wearing an ensemble of a J Crew chocolate brown linen button down and J Crew chocolate brown linen pencil skirt. I looked like a preppy UPS delivery person. And this was in the days before UPS went public and the employees became overnight millionaires. I was ahead of my time. Just last week I was all ready to finish off an ensemble of brown top, and brown and pink spotted silk skirt (cuter in person) with some adorable brown woven Mary Janes from Anthropologie. Love those shoes. Or rather, loved those shoes. I had one shoe on, ready to run out the door when I realized I couldn't find the other. My theory is that my husband--in his annual end-of-year sweep of the closet in search of items to donate for a tax write-off--scooped the other Italian leather marvel into a Goodwill-bound bag. Hopefully a one-legged (preferably left) person who wears a size 9 1/2 B shoe will enjoy my footwear.

When my son was born, I attempted to live on the wild side by dressing him in little patterned sweaters or multicolored shoes (again, cuter in person). I had brightly colored blankets, colorful crib sheets. If I was the dark, monochromatic minimalist, my son was the bold, lively fauvist.

So imagine my confusion when he announced he only wanted to have "blue things," in honor of the blue Power Ranger (his favorite at the time). Blue dishes, blue blanket, blue toys and, alas, blue clothing. In fact, for four or five years, I can only recall him not being dressed in blue one time:  I was away and my husband took my son to sit on Santa's lap and dressed him in an old (i.e. pre-blue fixation) outfit consisting of a solid red shirt and solid red pants; the picture consisted of a child's head and puffy white beard as the only relief from the sea of red.  For years, I had to study every prospective purchase to ensure that its blue-to-other-color ratio was correct, lest the item be rejected. This was not a battle I was going to pick, or else I would be waving the blue... I mean white... flag within hours. Children and their preferences are just not forces with which to be reckoned.

My daughter gravitated toward pink with even more of a vengeance than my son's obsession with blue. Being very detail-oriented, she specified that she prefers "light pink" over the hue's darker counterpart. Unfortunately, this preference was voiced after tags were removed and receipts lost for a stash of new magenta- and fuchsia-colored clothing. To make matters worse, she would only wear dresses. Not skirts, not culottes, not tunics, just dresses. For a few years, only Hanna Andersson striped "It's a Play Dress, It's a Day Dress" dresses. And only ones with pink stripes, or pink with a coordinating stripe. I became so accustomed to hoarding these dresses (which can only be ordered online), that I had stockpiled them in sizes for years to come, only to have her abruptly announce she no longer liked stripes, and only wanted to wear flower or heart clothing. And to go with these patterned dresses, red sequined ruby slippers (just like Dorothy!); yes, she owns so many pairs that she occasionally literally follows in the footsteps of her mother and wears an unmatching pair. Two lefts are her favorite combination.

A few weeks ago, I mixed it up by wearing a striped shirt (yes, with black stripes mixed among the other colors), with a black skirt and black shoes. I went to pick my son up at his after-school program. I saw him way across the playground and waved, as I do every day. But this time it took more energetic motioning, along with bellowing his name several times. When he finally stopped what he was doing and came to me, I asked what took so long. He told me that he hadn't recognized me wearing so much color.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

What a Crock!

"Slow down, you move too fast. You've got to make the morning last." While this advice may have made Simon and/or Garfunkel feel groovy, I don't really see the appeal of lollygagging. I mean, really, multi-dawdling is not going to get kids to school, appointments met, emails checked, blogs blogged. When my daughter is trying to stall for time, she quotes the aphorism: "Slow and steady wins the race"--I have no idea what TV show she learned that from; however, I am more of the mind of my son's response: "But that's TOO slow."

I have no explanation for what possessed me to purchase a Crockpot--more commonly known as, yes, a "Slow cooker." Wow! How life-changing this appliance could be! We could make all sorts of concoctions from "budget" cuts of meat. Except that we are not big carnivores and we shop at Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, neither of which carries any cut of an animal with the word "butt" in it. We can come home from a long day at the office to hot comfort food! Hmmm, we live in sunny Los Angeles and after a day at the office, hot, heavy food is about the last thing we would want. It can make enough for the entire family in one pot! Except that once you excavate through the glop and avoid the gelatinous goo stuck to the sides, there isn't enough that is edible for even a snack. Now we have an excuse to spend more time at Barnes & Nobles and buy all sorts of new books and magazines! But if I see one more Betty Crocker (oh no--is the "crock" from Betty??) "special" slow cooking recipe book at the drugstore check out, I am going to boycott Western medicine.

One thing I did not consider when I bought the Crockpot was just how big it would be. I don't mean "big" like "popular" or "trendy." I mean "big," as in it takes up a lot of room. So much room that it dislodged other appliances from the countertop. When it comes to gadgets, newer is better, so of course the most recent purchase must be displayed. But, alas, this was not a sleek espressor maker; rather, it was a behemoth of white ceramic with a 1970s-looking logo and dial that looks like it was affixed with Elmer's glue by an elementary schooler for a Science Fair.

Motivated solely to avoid the humiliation of this enormous pot mocking me every day in my kitchen, I made my first Crockpot creation. I had done my research and read that Crockpots were favorites for those people who accumulate "leftovers" and make all sorts of amazing concoctions literally by throwing in whatever is in the pantry. I had visions of blindfolded moms groping in the Fridgidaire for celery stalks and half-eaten hamburger patties and throwing them across the kitchen into gleaming stainless steel pots, much like Kobe hitting a 3-pointer at the buzzer.

I am not a recipe-follower; I like to research recipes to get the gestalt of a meal, and then wing it. Frankly, when it comes to cooking, I have the attention span of a gnat. I, of course, am not casting aspersions on the gnat community's ability to focus--there very well may be members of the species that would not benefit from Ritalin. But because I have little in common with the latter hypothetical insects, I had high hopes for my crockpottin' given that the appliance has been sold as a fool-proof meal-making method. In the admittedly few conversations I had ever had about Slowcookers with peers, no one had ever copped to a Crockpot bust.

I chose a weekend morning to try my 'pot for the first time. I bought hand-carved Angus beef cubes, Heirloom tomatoes, organic onions, and if a little garlic is good, the more the greater! I threw in more than a few dashes of smoked paprika, purchased for about $18 an ounce at Whole Foods. I took handfuls of every herb in the garden and threw them in, stems and all! I pictured myself as the new spokesperson for Ginzu knives! Maybe a neighbor with connections in the entertainment industry would get a waft of my masterpiece through the window and insist on booking me on the Food Network! I had found my calling!

I set the dial to "low"and gingerly felt the pot, expecting to get burned. Nothing. Was the pot even on? Maybe our electrical outlets weren't working. Did I plug in the blender instead? Would e coli set in because the food was at room temperature? The sweat was forming on my brow. And I had to wait 8-10 hours? Eight hours means the dinner will be ready at 2:30 in the afternoon! Who eats dinner at 2:30 in the afternoon? Ten hours means 4:30! That's not much better. Either way, I had a sense I would be needing to go higher-tech with the microwave by dinner time. Seriously, which is it: 8 or 10? There is a big difference between 8 hours and 10. Eight is a workday; 10 is overtime. Eight will get you to Hawaii; 10 to Asia. Is the house going to burn down from the appliance spontaneously combusting? The anxiety was building up to such an extent that I was glad I didn't end up boycotting Western medicine over those damned Betty Crockett pamphlets.

I was a nervous wreck by the time the 8-hour mark approached. There was all sorts of bubbling and gurgling going on. I carefully lifted the lid and was immediately pelted with a globule of mush. I had a flashback to second grade when I made popcorn for a bake sale and took the lid off the pot while the corn was popping. What look like freckles may actually be scars from that experience. I carefully stuck a fork in to try this creation--I wasn't trying to make a "stew," but the consistency was definitely "stewlike." And where was my $18 a pound steak? And my $9 of Heirloom tomatoes? All that was left was a cavernous vat of Cup o' Soup! After an entire day of worry and anticipation, I still needed a side dish to balance the goo. Pizza delivery did the trick. And to this day I still think a Nobel Prize should go to whoever invented the garbage disposal.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Sense of Entitlement

When my son was less than a year old, I signed up for a slew of Mommy-and-Me "enrichment" classes through the community center of my former West Side Los Angeles city. For those of you who know about "The West Side," you may already see where this is going. These activities were meant to promote parent-child bonding in a way that is superior to merely spending time and interacting with your child in your own home or in the park. Incidentally, these classes met at the very same park where I could have played with my son for free; however, this was the West Side of Los Angeles, so clearly it was far better to pay money to be able to coo at your child inside the recreation building that was undoubtedly built with an endowment by someone "in the industry." Also, if I recall correclty, to have the privilege of your 6-month-old child participaing in this higher learning, required one (presumably a parent, not the child) to provide proof of residency and submit an application at a precise time on a precise day, lest one ran the risk of being relegated to the "waiting list." What? And have my child wait until he is 8 months to be enriched?? The horror!

This music class turned out to be the first of at least two consecutive classes taught by someone who really was not cut out for the task. The first class, when my son was about four months, was run by a veteran of such classes, Simonna*. Ah yes, Simonna. She came dressed to the nines for every Tuesday at 8:45 a.m. class: Prada heels, D&G cashmere wrap, long, manicured nails. Her specialty was playing the piano which, as you can imagine, is about the worst way to engage anyone in a group, let alone babies with no discernible attention spans. Simonna would somberly sit at the piano, with her back to the rest of us--yes, you heard right, her back to us--so the babies didn't even have the benefit of seeing her fingers move or her facial expressions as she made music. A few weeks into the class, I figured out the secret to her avoidance of children and parents alike. She pulled me aside, remembering that I had introduced myself as being in the mental health field, and proceeded to tell me how she feels depressed and has always found her own children to be annoying nuisances. I didn't expect to be making professional referrals while at Mommy-and-Me. And I was more than a little wary of the city's hiring practices that they selected a kid-hating, depressed mother to help transition infants and women into the joys of mother- and babyhood.

I thought my next foray into this city's Mommy-and-Me activities couldn't possibly get any worse than Simonna. I was wrong. The new instructor's own neuroses made me yearn for the reticent isolationism of Simonna. This instructor was a young, nervous woman named Teacher Elizabeth**. That was how she introduced ourselves to us, "Teacher Elizabeth." Now, it is quite possible that her given-name was indeed "Teacher," much like some boys are named "Dean" who may not ever pursue a career in academic administration. But Teacher Elizabeth insisted on referring to herself in the third person and with this dubious title attached to her name. I do not know why a bunch of over-educated, over-achieving moms, most of whom had credentials that had ceremonial titles connected with them, needed to refer to someone with a CD player and basket of tambourines with an honorific title. Perhaps she was trying to indoctrinate these infants of privilege into the hierarchical civil service bureaucracy system, in case their family fortunes dried up in the next 18 years?

Poor Teacher Elizabeth started the first class by telling us she had no children of her own, and that she liked order. We were schooled on the proper way to disinfect the mini bongo drums if our children were uncouth enough to successfully gum them. Mother and child got a joint repressed-evil-eye from Teacher Elizabeth** if an infant was not quite ready to relinquish said instrument at the conclusion of the appropriate song (for some reason, each melody had a different instrument to go with it, so the majority of the class was involved with selecting and returning items to various color-coded bins).  It was a lose-lose situation from the beginning.

Now, besides her obvious ineptitude, I think one reason I could not make eye-contact with Teacher Elizabeth without rolling my eyes is that I was raised to use ceremonial titles for adults, such as teachers or friends' parents, or professional titles if one of these people had a job where being identified by the profession had life-or-death consequences. For example, it's good for society to be able to identify doctors, firefighters and police officers, because these are professionals who can step in and assist in emergency situations. It is even useful, in the right context, to be able to identify principals and professors, because they can greatly impact one's future by failing or expelling someone. The same logic can be extended to include judges and members of Congress. And most definitely to Mother Nature and Sister Christian.

*This may or may not be her real name. I actually forgot what her real name was, so I can't use an alias since I don't know what name to not use.

**Yes, her real name, although not sure if the "Teacher" part is on her birth certificate or not. If you know her, please tell her my child continues to dislike music lessons of any kind.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Hoard, Hoard Again

Being in the line of work I am (psychology), I have conducted many informal self-assessments and have a reasonable sense of my behaviors that would be diagnosed as clinically pathological, and the habits I have that can be categorized as "loveable". So it is with professional confidence that I share a proclivity of mine that falls squarely into the latter category: I like to accumulate food and food-related products. Not to the extent where you cannot enter my home without tripping on heads of cauliflower, but more in the "why buy one when you can buy two or  three?" mindset.

I have very little interest in food that has been prepared or cooked. I like to make some meals and have had success despite my refusal to follow a recipe or use any measuring implements. Rather than have to deal with putting unused raw food into a ziplock bag, I tend to cook however much is included in the pack I purchased. Whereas my husband will meticulously measure a "portion" size of spaghetti for each family member and put aside the rest, I just throw the entire packet in the boiling water, whether it be for one person or an entire soccer team. And for the mounds of leftovers that invariably remain at the end of a meal, I am just as happy to dump it down the disposal and let it do its magic. The satisfaction never dissipates of witnessing machinery pulverize waste until there is no longer evidence that you have wasted (sorry, starving kids in far-away lands....). And I have never been the type of parent who cared too much whether my children ate everything on their plates. So I don't see my issue having much to do with fear of malnutrition or emaciaton. Trust me, these are not problems ever seen in my bloodline.

Rather, I overbuy. I wouldn't have thought much about the number of packets of rice cakes, boxes of Organic Raisin Bran Clusters or pounds of English Cucumbers that I buy if a cashier at Trader Joe's hadn't once asked me if I were preparing for a camping trip. True, he may more have been referring to my slightly unkempt hair and rustic-looking ensemble, composed of layered cardigans and a baggy skirt. And come to think of it, I may have been going through a beefy jerky phase at the time. Perhaps, even though it was mid-day in the middle of a work week, and I had a badge on a lanyard indicating I was in the process of a work day, he thought I was going to grab a canteen and ditch my office in favor of a tent and Coleman grill. For the record, nature makes me sneeze and wheeze, and animals smaller than wildebeast make me nervous.

But, the cheerful cashier had a point. I do not have a family of 12 who require more than a bag or two of bags of capellini in a given week. I do not have a catering business on the side. I live in an urban-ish area and actually live .3 miles from the aforementioned Trader Joe's. Truthfully, I do not believe there was ever a time when I needed Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil when it was not stocked on the shelves. So it is bewildering, even to a licensed mental health professional like myself, why I cannot approach the checkout line without 3 bags of shredded parmesan cheese (in my defense, once in February 2006 TJs was out of this cheese and I had to come back the next day for it...).

And the compulsion is not limited to store-bought food. Sugar-substitute packets, condiments, napkins and plastic utensils are not safe from my paws. I do, however, draw the line at those little packets of salt and the high-sodium soy sauce packets. I am not a big fan of sodium. No matter where I have worked, the top drawer of my desk has been devoted to packets of unused condiments. And they remain unused until the day I switch jobs, when they are promptly thrown away. You would think there might be some sentimentality involved in ensuring that these little packets of spicy perfection are passed on to a worthy soon-to-be ex-coworker. But no. Maybe there is a tinge of disappointment in my never becoming "known" in any job I have had as the seasoning go-to person. I am not one to self-promote, but I have learned the hard way that a reputation is not earned through silence...

Friday, November 19, 2010


I am a multitasker. I'm a firm believer that there are very few things that can't be done simultaneously. Walking and chewing gum. Listening to music while cooking. Checking email while giving birth. Really, what is the point of stretching out activities when the more efficiently you can check things off the to-do list, the quicker you can go to sleep?

One of my all-time favorite books is "Cheaper by the Dozen," written in 1948 by Frank Gilbreth Jr., a real-life father of 12 who was some sort of scientist/efficiency expert. The dad took multitasking to a degree rarely seen in a person with a Y chromosome. The only actual example I can think of involved the father writing foreign language snippets on the bathroom wall so the family could memorize French phrases while on the toilet... or perhaps bidet.  The story covers the 1930s and 1940s, when there wasn't as much "stuff" to multitask--no iPhones or self-parking cars--and his military-style approach to layering activities was done with such spirit it is almost amusing to think that in this day and age such task-mastering would probably lead to a Child Protective Services call from a disgruntled offspring.

My principle particularly holds true when it comes to socializing. We have to eat and drink anyway, so why not combine catching up with a friend with lunch? For the sake of decorum, I would prefer that gossiping while chewing should not be combined... but who am I to judge if the urge to interject a comment is too great to wait until the guacamole has made it all the way down your esophagus?

So when I became a parent, it was perfectly natural to pair infant-rearing with daily-necessity activities. A trip to Whole Foods can be a way to teach about colors and shapes. A drive to H&M (which also has a kids section!) is a legitimate way to access the carpool lane on the freeway. And a gynecologist visit is a great opportunity for the baby to reminisce about old times. 

Once my children were old enough to participate in "enrichment" activities, I found that I made friends with other mothers in the groups. Aha! Who knew that a child could be a means to a BFF end? When the children were babies and toddlers, their playmates were selected purely on the basis of my fondness for their mothers. Kids of easy-going, slightly snarky mothers were frequent playdates, whereas overly neurotic, child-rearing-book-reading moms were lower on the list. If a mom let it be known that she carried hand sanitizer to sterilize objects her child might touch, she was on her own.

My children are several years apart, and we lived on different coasts when they were young, so the mom friends I made on the East Coast when my son was in kindergarten were 3,000 miles away when we were on the West Coast for first grade. I found myself a working mom in a new city where, like my previous home, moms had bonded over playdates in those precious early years when kids had preferences for many things, but not really friends. Luckily, I had a second chance when child #2 entered the schoolforce...

The moms I hung with at drop-off or pick-up at the beginning of preschool became my buddies and we easily mixed among each other's kids and spouses. Multitasking was possible even on behalf of others--what a concept--such as a mom picking up my daughter with hers for a playdate when I had a late appointment and couldn't easily pick my daughter up. Birthday parties (with wine) were a time for us all to catch up and gossip, for the good of the children, of course...

So imagine the rude awakening when my kids matured enough to want to have a say in who they played with! The offspring of the mom who shared my political philosophy was now playing in the sandbox instead of the dress-up area. The child of the mom with the dry sense of humor called my daughter a poopyhead and now doesn't want to play princesses together. The son of the mom who works in the same field as I do is now off-limits because my daughter only wants to be with girls. Her new friend at school has a mom I haven't met because dad is the drop-offer/pick-upper, but the family photo on the wall of the classroom shows an effortlessly chic mom who might be too trendy and edgy to let see the inside of our Craig's List-decorated home. Navigating the pre-school mom-child social dyads is rife with potential minefields. If a child breaks an item at a sympathetic moms home, it becomes a cute story; at an unfriendly mother's abode, a potential lawsuit. 

Recently I was at pick-up at my daughter's school when a woman I had never seen came up to me and asked if I was the owner of one of the cars in the awkwardly shaped school parking lot. Why was she asking? Well, she said sheepishly, she was backing out and she nicked my fender... I was parked at a jaunty angle, she explained (however, she didn't use the actual word "jaunty," that is just one of my personal favorite words and I like to work it in when I can). My car has one or two nicks already (I am from Boston where we park in tiny spots using bumpers in the way they were named... to bump other cars out of the way), but that didn't mean this mishap wouldn't make for future awkwardness at birthday parties and playdates. I asked how old her child was. She told me that her daughter was a good two years younger than mine--well out of possible playdate range.  Crisis averted.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

We've Got Balls

I was in our backyard looking around and thought, "Damn, we have a lot of balls."

We really do. For a family who spends a lot of time in front of the computer, Wii and television, one might be surprised by just how big balls are in our family.

I sent my son--a future researcher if genes are any indication--to categorize and tally the balls in the backyard. He counted 50 spheres in our yard. This does not include deflated balls (such as the flat basketball my son received as a gift from a classmate for his 9th birthday), nor does it include the estimated 25 balls that have been lost in the two years we have lived here. If the neighbors on either side of our house were to count their balls, they would have approximately 25 balls of unknown origins, if you follow the logic.

The balls in my son's tally include orbs that fall into the following categories: Basketballs: 10; rubber curveball baseballs: 10; regular baseballs: 8; soccer balls: 5; footballs: 5; rubber balls with TV characters: 3; ping pong balls (but no table): 3; baseball with team logos: 2; volleyballs: 1; and whiffle balls: 1. This count does not include the indoor balls: 29 autographed baseballs and 20 commemorative baseballs. We like baseball.

All these balls and the thought of them bouncing and scoring goals and plopping into gloves got me thinking about some of the emotional ups and downs that I associate with balls. As a lifelong sports spectator (with very little discernible athleticism of my own), I only have to think about Game 6 of the 1986  World Series and/or Game 4 of the 2004 World Series to reduce me to tears (for very different reasons). As a parent, I get wistful thinking about my daughter maturing from the cuteness of a toddler throwing a ball backwards (so it would drop behind her) to being a competent catcher and thrower as a preschooler.

When my oldest child was about 2, he attended a preschool affiliated with a major research university. I like to think the preschool's provenance was the reason for the inane surveys and reports that the staff would guilt us into scheduling conferences to receive the results. Truthfully, these evaluations were most likely state-mandated, but it is more fun to chalk them up to the occasional silliness of academia. Anyway, at the 2 year mark, I nervously sat with the teacher, a kindly woman whose stability was comforting, although it also meant that she didn't ever, ever deviate from the bureaucratically mandated procedures. Don't get me started. Anyway, I had the usual first-child concerns about whether my child was socializing and responding within the bell curve of expectations. Well, yes, he was. He received 2s and 3s (out of 3) in most areas, including being able to differentiate up from down (3), being able to put on his sweater or jacket with minimal help (2, but this is Los Angeles and there is rarely a reason for outerwear), and seemed destined to be on the Toddler Honor Roll. His quest for excellence, however, was marred by one apparently fatal flaw. He did not show adequate ball-kicking skills. My son was behind his peers in the ball-kicking department. This apparently was a precursor to all sorts of life failures. I asked her to repeat this Achilles' heel (or rather toe) to me--her English was a work in progress and I wanted to make sure I heard her correctly. Yes I had. Well, I posited, we live in the city in an apartment and have never had the opportunity to kick a ball with him. Would that perhaps have something to do with is? Well, yes, given that he is showing no other deficits in coordination, that would explain it. OK.

Ironically, just a few years after being castigated for not providing my son with adequate ball-booting opportunities, I was with my son at the airport when we were approached by a man who identified himself as--I kid you not--a Division 1 College Soccer Coach. He had the cool jacket with "coach" embroidered on it, and was traveling with a large group of gangly young men, similarly attired, so he seemed legit. My son was barely out of diapers and this man told me: "Your son reminds me of a young David Beckham." Huh?? We actually had taken my son to hotshot orthopedists on both coasts because of his tendency to toe-in. And to say graceful athleticism is in the genes would greatly exaggerate the modicum of tennis and ping pong skill that occasionally shows up in blood relatives. But, guess what? When we signed him up for AYSO soccer in 3rd grade--he turned out to be a natural! Who needs to go to a Psychic when a Division I Soccer Coach is available to make predictions?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Garden of Weedin'

I preface this all by stressing that I am by no means a meticulous person. My housecleaning philosophy is to invite only those guests with acute astigmatism (Ok, my father is an ophthalmologist) and a blunted sense of smell. Sort of like a proverbial unobserved tree falling in the woods: if no one notices or is ill-mannered enough to comment, then the clutter does not exist. When visiting friends' homes, I, in turn, encompass the trio of monkeys by neglecting to see, hear, or speak about mess or mold.

Having said that, I also have to confess that, when it comes to weeds in other people's gardens, I take no prisoners. And this is from someone who is philosophically against any sort of scenario that might theoretically involve the taking of prisoners: war, bank robberies, kidnappings. I am the first to admit that I am too lazy and uncoordinated to actually pull weeds from my own garden. No one in my household seems to be aware of the existence of weeds. And I will also, in the spirit of full disclosure, admit that we are too thrifty to employ a gardener.

My distaste for weeds is all the more incongruent given that my favorite flower growing up was a dandelion. I was well into my 20s before I realized that the puffy yellow flowers that morph into soft, but pollen-inducing, powder clouds are considered by the horticultural world to be the enemy of their lawns. I should have known then that I was not meant to live in harmony with nature. My lawn now is overrun with clovers, which I grew up thinking were somehow lucky, but now am told are the scourge of turf worldwide. Hmmmm.

I live on a block where everyone has front--and I imagine, back--yards. It is a pretty town, so it is not surprising that most of these lawns are well maintained. Even the little areas between the sidewalk and street are perfectly trimmed. I found out the hard way that homeowners are responsible for the upkeep of those little rectangles of sod. One day, shortly after we moved in, we came home to sprinklers aggressively watering the entire spread of sidewalk in front of our stretch of block. We were returning from a daytrip, and a neighbor ran up to us to inform us the sprinklers had been on all day. Since I had never actually been at home when the sprinklers went off, I assumed that this extra special watering (we live in a desert after all) was planned and funded by the largesse of our city. "Wow," I said to our neighbor--who is under the impression that my name is "Carol" and insists on using my name to punctuate every sentence he says to me--"this city really takes good care of the grass." The Carol-caller looked at me and gave it to me straight: "You own this land, Carol, and you will be billed for the entire day's worth of water." Whoops.

I tell you all this to illustrate that we live in a very conscientious and responsible neighborhood, where lawns are generally pristine and tended to by "professionals." So it is very curious that every time I stroll down the block to our corner Trader Joe's, I have to squelch the urge to yank what I perceive to be errant growths from these glistening rectangles of sod. The one exception would be the environmentally aware neighbors who insist on drought-tolerant gardens with plants native to the area (which, I say again for emphasis, is a desert). I have looked at such plants online and they are so pricey one could pay for months of overwatered lawns and still not break even. But these ecologically sensitive gardens tend to be wispy and look like the plants are all on death's door. One might think these gardens belonged to abandoned homes if the owners weren't so vigilant about cultivating these oases of faux weeds. I walk by and I just want water and prune. And, of course, weed.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Unplanned Parenthood

When my practical and low-key sister-in-law was pregnant with my
first nephew, I prided myself in making edgy (at least by mid 1990s standards)
baby shower selections. I was in the midst of my hipster days, and rejected the
Babies R’Us  registry and went rogue at Barneys. Or, rather, at the annual
Barneys Warehouse Sale (I was a thrifty hipster), back in the days when it was
held once a year in New York only.

We knew my brother and wife were having a boy, and we were
reportedly all sturdy newborns, so I carefully studied the infant selections,
looking for items that the parents would not buy on their own, so as to make the
gift that much more special. My brother and sister-in-law are down-to-earth
folks in a small New England town—but, I posited, maybe they wanted their
offspring to be super stylin’! The name they had chosen for their son began with
a “T,” so I hit the jackpot with a small linen throw pillow with a
hand-stenciled “t” in a funky font. In another bin, I spotted a pair of bright,
bright red linen overalls—hey, clowns always look stylish—which got me thinking
“what baby doesn’t look good in bright, bright red?” True, at that point I had
never been within 15 feet of a baby, but I could just imagine how red would
bring out the ruddiness—or highlight the eczema--of a winter New England baby.

Fast forward six years and I am pregnant with my own child. Although
I still had no practical experience with babies, I had a Vision as to how the
early years of child rearing would go. Homemade organic babyfood, stylish burp
cloths, a casual-but-chic wardrobe, no television, classic picture books,
gender-neutral toys….

Yes, my destiny was to be Progressive-But-Nonjudgmental-Mom,
spreading edified fairness and self-important self-deprecation throughout the
Mommy World in my Left-Leaning City. I stocked up on primary colored blocks,
organic cotton swaddle blankets, handknit-by-local artisan infant caps… Ah, yes,
while my newborn slept, I could see a future full of just a few well-chosen
European wooden toys (made from reclaimed lumber and carved by rehabilitating
prisoners, of course), singing nursery rhymes in harmony with my Oilily-clad
toddler, delighting for hours in contemplating flowers in the garden, having
picnics in the park (organic finger foods for him, wine and a pesto panini for

Whenever my son showed the slightest interest in anything—Look! He 
pointed in the general direction of a tree! He loves nature! —I would become
inspired to load up on items to stimulate this apparent interest. OK, the dream
of a minimalist childhood was coming to an end…. But who knew there were so many
awesome things to buy a child?? I would bid furiously on Ebay for things I
remotely recalled liking from my own childhood, though at the time it didn’t
occur to me that if I had any memory of it, I was probably playing with the toy
a lot older than infancy… I distinctly remember bidding more than $50 for a
copied VHS tape (yes, this was a bygone era) of the 1970s special “Really
.” Had I not been so hormonally driven (and, to be honest, a naturally
competitive person), I might have calculated that I was well into double digits
when Really Rosie was released. Of course, by the time my daughter was old
enough to like Really Rosie, I had long since lost the tape and ended up
re-bidding on Ebay for the DVD (but paid less than half for it this time around.
The fervor around second children is much more subdued…..).

Pretty quickly, my parenting style began morphing with my personal
style. If an unblemished burp cloth wasn’t available at the time of an outing,
what’s wrong with tucking the stained corner under my baby’s bottom? Why not
have the news on while I feed him? After all, he was in my stomach during the
2000 presidential election and was exposed to so much cable news my husband and
I joked that he might think Chris Matthews was his father. And, seriously, how
annoying (and disturbing) are those nursery rhyme songs anyway? Humpty Dumpty’s
mortal injury, Jack Sprat’s wife’s body image issues, and the cultish possible
pedophile Pied Piper? And my husband can only make it through the first line of
Twinkle, Twinkle before resorting to humming. So why not sing songs we actually
know and can sing without our blood-pressure spiking? Bob Dylan anti-war songs.
Pearl Jam. The entire score of Rent. And my son turned out to have an affinity
for all things Power Rangers. Sock puppets remained ignored; books with peaceful
pictures stayed unread; videos of Caillou and Curious George, unwatched. So,
rather than amassing more animal puzzles and mini gardening tools, we did what
any Type A parents might do for their first (and at that point, only) child:
when in Tokyo, we spent an entire day at  (sigh) the Bandai museum carefully
examining exhibits chronicling decades worth of Power Rangers. He liked the
color blue, which represented the “blue” ranger, so every article of clothing,
plate, cup and toothbrush was blue. Yes, we occasionally tried to inject other
influences: stuffed dogs, a mobile from MOMA, a Disney video… but we usually
followed his lead and let him express himself this way. He is his own person,
and our job is to guide him to incorporate his interests into his ever-widening

Right after my son was born, an elderly neighbor arrived with a beautifully
wrapped box from Saks Fifth Avenue. Saks was right next to Barneys in our
neighborhood. She was a very kind person who said she had selected this outfit
for my son because it was the type of thing she knew I wouldn’t buy myself. I
opened the box and took out a precious, and undoubtedly tremendously expensive,
sailor suit, complete with jaunty hat. Now I am no more a Saks’-sailor-suit kind
of mom than my sister-in-law is a Barneys-red-overalls kind of mom. Alas, it
seems we all like to project our own Vision onto a baby… and it is the child’s
job to prove us all wrong.


Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Honor and Honor Students: A Bumpy Road Ahead

Let me be upfront about my belief: The sole purpose of a bumper sticker is to express one’s allegiance politically (national and statewide candidates only) and athletically (ideally, a team with a winning record in the season during which the sticker was purchased). Messages whizzing by in the carpool lane do not lend themselves to nuance or ambiguity. If people need to pull over and google on their iPhones what is on the bumper in front of them, it then becomes a public safety issue. The goal of a bumper sticker is to educate, not endanger, your four-wheeled friends.

A bumper sticker has achieved its end if the person following the car has to squelch the urge either to wave at the driver in solidarity or rear-end the car in question by gunning the accelerator. Obama—not Bush. Red Sox—not Yankees. Hugging with Nuclear Arms—probably not a good idea. These moral decision trees are difficult enough to navigate at a hard stop, let alone while driving 75 miles an hour. And throw in the insistent voice of an automated GPS dominatrix and you can see how the average driver is being pushed to the limit.

When it comes to bumper sticker protocol, I’m referring to those stickers that adhere directly to a car’s back bumper (also called a rear fender). Not the transparent ones that go on the back window, which should abide by a different set of rules. Those should identify an accredited alma mater of either the car’s owner or a first-degree relative. The school must have an actual campus (not just a floor in a high-rise) and be legally permitted to confer degrees. If the person is still attending the school, they should be full-time enrollees, not part of any extension, visiting or evening program. Otherwise, the driver should be able to produce on demand (like at a red light or traffic stop) proof that someone in the family has an actual bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degree from the school identified on the window. Of course, stickers on the back window should not depict a family of 8 with stick-figure drawings (with or without pets) in descending order of height. They should not glorify characters from Calvin and Hobbes urinating. And, it goes without saying, they should never, ever pay homage to any sort of religious figure or so-called spiritual personal belief.

The subject of the bumper sticker must be one that has been recently debated on a national Cable Television Network. The message should leave no doubt as to the driver’s leanings. Of course, if this means that some car owners may be more vulnerable to auto theft or burglary than others, then that is the price one has to pay for expressing their First Amendment Rights. One should be able to look at a pimped ride and picture the driver perhaps having cocktails with Keith Olbermann, or watching SportsCenter in Packers pajamas. The freeway is not the time to challenge fellow drivers to translate your message from a foreign tongue, or to promote a regional cause that will be meaningless to the driver in back of you. If you absolutely never take the Ford outside of your suburban cul-de-sac, then I suppose, if you must, you can get away with a sticker that touts a local restaurant or bar, for example. And then it should be because you are a frequent patron, not because the bumper sticker was free or you thought putting it on your car makes you seem edgier than you actually are.
Another ilk where there is no gray area whatsoever is the “Proud Parent of an Honor Student at… ” bumper sticker. First of all, I have never seen one of these stickers proclaim there to be “Proud Parents” or “Proud Relative Caregiver” or “Kind of Embarrassed Kin.” So these bumper stickers in and of themselves are making some sort of statement that in order for a child to be the recipient of “pride,” s/he must have a singular parent who is also a car owner/lessee. And if we start with that assumption, the constellation of students with the aforementioned auto-owning caregiver who ALSO get above-average grades is even smaller. For example, I do not believe any of my relatives have ever attended a school that had such bumper stickers available. And, truthfully, stressed teachers do not need added pressure from the administrations of those few schools who have stockpiled these stickers to produce good students. From a business model standpoint, the production of these stickers hardly seems worth it.

I have taken an informal sample of the bumpers of neighbors who I suspect may have excellent students, and I have yet to see any statement about their child’s grades affixed to their car. But more to the point, with the length of time people keep cars nowadays, such bumper stickers are rife with ethical dilemmas. First of all, Honor Student Status is only as good as the last report card. I mean, getting an “A” in one semester does nothing to mitigate a “D” the next. So by gluing onto an automobile public evidence of a parent’s presumed “pride” over an offspring’s academic accomplishment, the parent is banking on the fact that the child will continue to achieve at the same rate. If not, the parent risks being the laughingstock of his/her school district. Just as I believe people with university stickers on their windows should produce a diploma on demand, parents with these “Honor Student” stickers should be required to have a current report card in the glove compartment at all times.

I wonder about what goes on in the homes of families with these stickers. Are children discouraged from taking challenging courses so as not to risk their A’s, lest mom or dad has to trade in the Honda before the lease is up? Does the child have to work at a fast-food establishment to pay for the fees incurred by turning in the car early? Are students who fall from Honor Roll punished by having to apply Goo-Gone to the back bumper until every trace of the sticker is gone? Will the children have to start walking to school so as not to be associated with the cars touting their former glory? Alas, there are no easy answers.  

Friday, October 15, 2010

Supermarket Hits and Missus

     I have grocery shopping down to a science. And I pay for groceries by credit card. I have a system for food shopping that ensures I always have the necessities stocked (olive oilHoney Nut Cheerios, diet Hansen's ginger ale), but leaves room for me to exercise my creative spirit. Trust me, feeding your inner artiste at the grocery store does not lend itself to budgeting. Impulse buys like venison or steel cut oatmeal do not seem to go on sale with any regularilty. So I email myself a grocery list and add items by re-forwarding the message to myself with the added items. As an aside, not only is it fun to get so much email (even if they are from me), but attempting to decode the final list on my Blackberry with all of those forwarding headers embedded in the text while pushing a shopping cart requires superior multitasking skills. 
     I have described my modus operandi for grocery acquisition to give a sense of how such a precise and complex system cannot include an option for "estimate price and go to ATM machine." Did George Bush (the senior) estimate the cost of pork rinds and take out cash to buy them at the grocery store? Of course not, he let the scanner do its magic and the snack got paid in some way that did not seem to involve cash. Ok, I don't have an entourage to buy me things... but maybe someday... Anyway, although George H.W. Bush was bewildered by the modernity of a scanner back in the 1980s, I embrace this wonderful machine and how it levels the playing field for cashiers throughout the supermarket industry. Gone is the need to ask the customer where an item was found so the cashier could go check the price. Just scan the items and move along. It;'s a beautiful thing.     So, except for one time in recent memory--an attempt to locate rice cakes in a local market in Phoenix (don't ask)--I can find my way around virtually any chain market in any major, left-leaning metropolitan area in the US. I'm that good. So I do not need to enlist the help of stock people, managers, or deli counter workers. If I am craving a quick hit of prepared sushi, I avoid having to converse with the market's resident sushi chef and go with whatever is already displayed. Don't bother me when I am in my element. 
     So you can imagine my frustration when the Grande Finale of the shopping experience--the Check Out--is marred by the cashier's inevitable awkward attempt at interpersonal relations. The cashier has undoubtedly heard me mutter about how slow the line is, sigh loudly, say (to no one in particular) that a new lane should be opened, and curse at the woman in front of me paying by check. Do I seem like someone who then wants to have the pronounciation of my name clarified? It never fails that the crackerjack cashier looks at my credit card and asks me: "Do you need help out, Mrs.--is that Le-veeeeen or Le-viiiiine?" First of all, unless you are going to announce my name at the Academy Awards or present me with a Nobel Prize, do you think I care how you pronounce my name? Let's have a little less chatting and a little more scanning.. And--and this is the killer--why does the cashier assume I am a "Mrs."? Did he google me on his Sidekick when he was pretending to look up the code for eggplants? 
     This attempt at connecting with customers was undoubtedly forced on cashiers during a mandatory staff training, but I am not there to be profiled, I am there to buy paprika and cottage cheese. It drives me batty not only because of the sheer irritation factor, but also because there is no equivalent for "Missus" for the Misters of the world. Until there is a term that identifies a male's marital status, let's just keep it all neutral. Ms., Mr., or how about "Hey, you?" It irks me so much that it almost makes me want to remain anonymous by paying cash... almost. 

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Back to School: Part One

               On a rare day off from work, I volunteered at my son’s elementary school. Even  though I was going to be amongst hundreds of unemployed 6-11 year olds, I made sure I was dressed in business casual so my son’s teacher and peers would perhaps see me as a no-nonsense type who possibly possessed advanced skills, and I would get assigned a really cool volunteering assignment, like color-coding flash cards or laminating worksheets. Basically, I was angling for anything but grading papers.
                There is something about being at an elementary school that can be very unsettling for those of us with still-raw memories of their own early school experience. If I screw up being a Mom Volunteer at school, will it go on my permanent record? I felt like I was in trouble right off the bat--It didn’t even occur to me that I was supposed to sign in at the office, let alone put on a bright red “Visitor” sticker. While the front office staff did not officially “tsk tsk” at my attempt to breeze through the office, they clearly were not going to have any rebellion here. An Insubordinate Mom would not reflect well on the child, who will in turn never be nominated for the school’s monthly “Best Citizen Award” because of his parent’s own poor display of Citizenship. I entertained the notion of signing in as somebody else’s mother, but had visions of them asking me for ID, and then being publically shamed by the assistant principal on the PA system once my ruse was discovered. 
               I put on the sticker with a smile, hoping to get bonus points by commenting on the charming bubble-letter font used to identify me as an oversized interloper at an elementary school. The principal was just getting up from his desk, so I pretended to be acutely interested in a flyer for Chess Club as he walked by me out of the office. Cleverly greeting the principal would be way too much pressure for a not-fully-caffeinated Monday morning. An awkward pause or poorly received attempt at lighthearted small-talk could send my son’s academic future down the toilet. Once he was gone, I scurried out of the office into the perfectly symmetrical courtyard, enclosed by identical looking structures where the classrooms are housed.
                I have been to my son’s school many times, but have never entered the school grounds from the same entrance more than once. I think finding the classrooms (no directional signs appear anywhere) is a test to see if your kin is genetically predisposed to have a semblance of intelligence and spatial relations skills. Well, hopefully no one will spill the news to the school department that I finally found Room 102 only after being pointed in the right direction by a first grader with a bathroom pass. I took a deep breath and rapped on the door several times. When there was no answer, a slight paranoia came over me that the teacher had dared the classroom to play a practical joke on me by hiding under their desks and pretending to be at recess. I peeked in the room, calling “Helloooo???” in my most cheerful-sounding falsetto. Nothing.

                After convincing myself that I was not re-experiencing a traumatizing school-age prank from my own childhood, I regrouped and went back to the front office. I explained to the efficient front desk administrator how I was pretty sure this was the day I was supposed to volunteer, but maybe there was some sort of miscommunication because no one was in the classroom. The staffer sensed my insecurity and did nothing whatsoever to assuage my anxiety. “Really, no one there?” she asked, gesturing in such a way to indicate that this was a great mystery to be solved. “Well,” I apologized, ”maybe I just didn’t see them. I mean, I didn’t look all around the classroom, just opened the door and didn’t seem to see anybody.” The staffer wondered if perhaps the class was at the principal’s “Discipline Assembly” in the Multipurpose Room, and why didn’t I go check there? Already feeling humiliated at not being able to locate 35 pre-teens in a 20X20 room, I didn’t have the nerve to ask for directions to the “Multipurpose Room,” but I thought how if the sign on the door of the room spelled “Multipurpose” as two words, I would have no choice but to go back to  the office and inform them of this engraved grammatical error; however, a hyphen  between “multi” and “purpose” might not be worth ruffling any feathers. My mind then wandered to thinking that if someone donated a wad of cash to the school, they could get the “Multipurpose Room” named after them, as long as the bequest didn’t specify only one purpose, because then it would have to be called a “Singlepurpose Room,” especially if the money were given anonymously. My focus was completely shot at this point and the thought of Xeroxing or sharpening pencils was getting more and more daunting as the moments ticked away.
                I ventured back into the courtyard and stood for a minute as though I were contemplating the dimensions of the courtyard for a renovation project. I was hoping that another bathroom-bound boy would take pity on me and show me where the Multipurpose Room was. Alas, a custodian sensed my confusion and offered to escort me there personally.
                The Multipurpose Room, despite its many purposes, had only one entrance. The principal was standing at a podium just feet away from the open door. He was on a roll, pointing at his Powerpoint slide and explaining an awkward acronym meant to serve as a mnemonic device for elementary school students to remember not to fight, cheat, embezzle or chew gum while at school. The teacher was sitting across the crowded room and did not initially see me standing at the doorway; however, the principal and the 100 members of the school’s fourth grade certainly did, and turned around in unison to stare at me. I had flashbacks to the time I gave a presentation in class not realizing I had a visible booger in my nose. I tried to scan the room to find my son, but the teacher had already started her journey toward me, stage-whispering “excuse me” every few kids and trying not to trip. When she finally reached me, my mind went completely blank except for the thought that she looks exactly like my son’s teacher from third grade, and I suddenly couldn’t remember what her name was. I should have crammed more for this outing. Going back to elementary school is not something that is covered in graduate school… but for those of us who double-degreed in parenting and academics, seminar on how to be an adult in a child’s setting would have been a class with actual real world applications. But I digress……