Tuesday, March 29, 2011

So Not The Fonz

When I was in elementary school, I had an enormous poster of The Fonz on my wall. I actually liked Pottsie better, but I don't think there were any Pottsie posters for sale at the time. So my homage to the show "Happy Days" was Fonzie giving a big thumb's up, long before upward facing thumbs were co-opted by pre-school teachers to indicate a child had used the potty correctly.

The fact that I preferred Pottsie to the ultra cool Arthur Fonzarelli was already an early sign that I was not going to be one of the "cool" crowd. Maybe briefly in college, when I did a pretty spot-on impression of a tortured intellectual. But, hey, Henry Winkler was a Yale graduate, so it makes sense that Ivy League angst would be channeling the King of Cool himself.

My oldest child is at the age where he is kind of getting that his mom is a little dorky. I use the word "awesome" a lot, and not just when I am describing weighty philosophical matters. And not just in private when I am trying to build family self-esteem. I showcase my unhipness by yelling out awkward phrases at Little League games, usually incorporating the apparently humiliating "A" word. "Awesome cut!" I bellow when a player takes a big swing, but misses. "Awesome D!" I have been known to shriek after a competent catch of a fly ball. I think I have one more season before I am banished from games.

To make matters worse, at work I meet teenagers who are in street gangs, have elaborate tattoos, and are savvy to the ways of the world. I am a Clinical Psychologist at a large, urban Juvenile Hall. That means jail for kids. Yes, kids end up in jail. I read a court report for a teen from a part of town where very few kids end up in juvey, and her mother had told the judge that she called the police on her daughter so they could take her to juvenile hall, which the mom apparently thought was some sort of dormitory with kindly counselors. Sorry, mom, if LAPD is involved, your child is not being taken to a slumber party. So I guess I am not the only mom who is uncool.

The kids--called "minors" by probation, and "clients" by mental health--tell me about a lot of talents and interests they have. Some write poetry, paint, play sports, do hair. There are a lot of terrific, smart kids in juvey, who were born into really sad circumstances. I learn a lot from them and generally they tolerate my inability to use the right lingo to describe their interests and vices. The first time I assessed a teen for "pot" use and got a blank stare, although this kid had a pretty intense marijuana habit, I knew it was better not to even try to be hip.

One 16-year-old boy I interviewed had been a gang member for a number of years, and had a slew of gang related "tats." He was soft-spoken and a kid of few words. He wasn't giving too much away. I asked him what he liked to do for fun. He lit up and said what sounded to me like "beads." I asked him what he made. The light in his eye flickered and he sort of grunted, "huh?" Necklaces, bracelets, keychains? I was getting excited because I have dabbled in jewelry making myself. "Uh, what?" he asked, staring at me. Beads, what did he make with the beads, I continued to probe, desperate at this point not to lose the momentum. "Beads? I said Beets," he informed me, the brightness in his face now completely overshadowed by confusion and scorn. "Oh, you garden?" I queried hopefully. "Beats. Like drums. I drum," he said exasperatedly. "Oh, cool," I said, defeated.


Saturday, March 26, 2011

Country Crock

I have been stalking Whole Foods, in search of fava beans. Apparently beans have seasons, and favas have been in hibernation.

After months of regularly parking haphazardly and rushing into two different stores, making a beeline for the produce section, I finally found them. Granted, I know so little about produce I am not sure whether beans are vegetables, legumes--maybe legumes are vegetables??--or some other species entirely. And fava beans are identical to other kinds of beans-in-pods at Whole Foods, so I probably could have been feasting on a cousin bean for months already without being any the wiser. In fact, had the Whole Foods staff accidentally put a sign that said "Fava Beans" in front of a pork roast, I would have bought it without thinking twice. But the beans they had in the bin today looked vaguely similar to the fava beans I recalled eating last year, and there was even a sign that said "Fava Beans" to confirm my hunch. So I grabbed handful after handful and jammed them into the plastic produce bag.

Why the obsession with a bitter-tasting bean that is only remotely edible after putting in an inordinate amount of time and effort? Because last year I inadvertently made a really good side dish with fava beans. I do not have the attention span to follow recipes, and we rarely have ingredients on hand that would conform to an actual recipe published in an actual cookbook. So I pretty much "wing" everything I make. Most of the time, my meals are pretty bad, so there is no reason to try to recreate them. But the garlic-stir-fry fava recipe was something special.  And I have been desperately trying to relive that past glory ever since.

Despite living at an Axis of Organic where Whole Foods, Trader Joes and Farmers' Markets all magically converge, we once actually ventured to a "working farm"  to pick our own fruits and vegetables. Many guilt-ridden families apparently make this farm journey so that they will never experience the humiliation of their child announcing in class that vegetables come "from the supermarket." I am not saying that I personally have lived this nightmare, just that I have a friend who had a friend who did.....

So sometime last spring, we sucked it up and drove almost an hour to have ourselves a good, old-fashioned day in the "country." You can tell a farm that is open to city folk mauling its goods by the homemade signs hawking "Pick Ur Own" on the side of the road. Apparently the country folks' perception of city folk is the latter can't read or spell. Thankfully, the farm we chose also had a hotdog stand and a smoothie booth, so we knew we wouldn't starve. By the way, had I known that nature included nitrate-laced faux pork products, I would have gone au naturel years ago!

The farm had a large selection of food growing on trees, vines, and bushes, such as boysenberries, which I had always thought was a joke name for a fruit that was meant to be the punchline of a bawdy joke. Who knew boysenberries really existed in nature? Cool! We decided to skip the Verdolaga and Tatsoi in favor of strawberries and salad items. We had the option of using a provided kiddie wagon and trekking out into the fields, or taking a hayride shuttle. A no-brainer! We can get a kiddie wagon at Toys R'Us any day! But a hayride and not having to walk a quarter of a mile in the heat with kids in tow? Sign us up! By the way, for those of you with delicate constitutions, the minute you climb onto a bale of hay, you will understand why a certain allergic reaction is called "hayfever." Note to self: Get Claritin before the next trip to the farm.

The good news is we didn't have much to carry much back because my daughter ate her weight in strawberries while we were out in the field. But out of guilt and fear of prosecution, we started tearing anything remotely leafy or bumpy from the plants en route to the parking lot. Lettuce? Who doesn't like a fresh salad? Radishes? Sure! Cauliflower? Keep it coming! Beans? Yeah! So by the time we made it to the cashier, we were ready to open our own salad bar. All we needed was a sneezeguard.

The bad news is when you have absolutely no idea what you are doing, you end up with mounds of produce in proportions that are not conducive to making anything anyone would want to eat. One or two eggplants go a long way, it turns out. So if you have picked eight, you are going to have a big, bumpy, purple pile on the kitchen counter for a long time to come. And you quickly realize there is a limit to how much chard a family of four can consume before the vegetable equivalent of fruit flies discover the stash.

The one bright spot to cluelessly grasping at leaves and beans from vines is once in an organic blue moon, you get something good. In this case, the fava beans. These were an afterthought, a last-minute grab en route to the farm check-out. When we got home to the beauty of paved roads and sushi restaurants, I stared at these bumpy pods and had no idea what to do with them. Do you eat them in the pods? Do they have seeds to be removed? Are there living creatures inside those pods? A quick Google search assured me that nothing Alien-like would emerge from the protective coating. I enlisted my son for a fun afternoon of pea-shuckin', similar to what I imagined they did on Little House on the Prairie (both the book and TV version). Even though I billed the activity as an opportunity to "bond," my son lasted about 30 seconds before sneaking out to shoot baskets.

Preparing fava beans requires shucking, de-skinning, and blanching. Three gerunds with which I had not previously been familiar. By the way, save the imbibing (a more familiar gerund) until at least step three. Trust me. Once the beans were ready to be officially made into a recipe, I was done with the Google searches. So I took the ingredients that I refer to as "bachelor staples"--olive oil, garlic, salt, pepper--and combined them in a skillet. Yum!

Unfortunately, when I tried to recreate the dish the next day with the remaining beans, I realized that this cooking-without-recipe thing isn't as foolproof as I had been led to believe by the Food Network. Whatever I did the second time was not nearly as tasty as my maiden attempt. Since I was then out of our hand-picked fava beans, I continued to buy the legumes at Farmers' Markets and Whole Foods--each time vowing to match the initial deliciousness of my fava bean concoction. Sometimes I forgot to use the fava beans before they went bad, and they ended up being discarded in a sad, brown, wilted state. Other times the dish came close... so close that I continued my quest with dried fava beans even when fresh ones were out of season. And now that fava beans are back in season, perhaps another trip to the farm will be in order. Or not. I bet if I look hard enough, I can even find Verdolaga and Tatsoi at Whole Foods.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Comparative Parenting

My family is loud.

But we are loud for a reason. We have several televisions and several computers. But since we live in a home with many rooms, none of this technology is housed in the same room. So, it follows, at any given time, none of my family members are in the same room at the same time. So how do we communicate? By shouting from room-to-room, of course. I didn’t say we had a good reason for being loud.

Yes, the official protocol in our home is to address each other face-to-face, using an “inside voice.” But this is not always realistic when you are a mom firing off multiple directives at children while simultaneously checking email and trying to beat your all-time high score in Webkinz’ Color Storm. When my family shriek at each other from room to room, I fulfill my mom duty by bellowing “Stop Yelling!” even louder from the comfort of my desk chair. By the way, our house was built in 1927 and has very thick, soundproof walls.

Having never been a parent before, I had little sense of whether our family interactions were anywhere on the bell curve. So I broached the subject of inter-room communication with some fellow moms. However, I carefully chose who I asked. Any mom who seemed too composed or took a Zen-like approach to child-rearing was out. I apparently picked likeminded moms because I was assured by my sample that they have their moments of engaging in “outside voice” talk while inside the confines of their homes. I felt better.

But I do not know for sure whether these moms truly are screechers, or were just humoring me. Because when you live in a house and travel by car, parenting is a private matter. Behind closed doors, you are free to yell, eat with your hands, sing off-key, watch bad TV, and engage in any number of socially unsanctioned activities, without fear of embarrassment or judgment.

However, there are ways to penetrate the “Cone of Silence” of suburban living: eavesdropping on your neighbors in their backyards and through open windows. During the spring days when it is too warm for the heater and too cool for air conditioning, I get an idea of how my unflattering parenting moments stack up against my neighbors’. Had it not been for auditory glimpses into our neighbor’s family lives, I never would have known that one neighbor’s child didn’t start her Science Fair project until the day before the fair. Or that another neighbor kid has a temper and gets really mouthy with his father. And if I thought we watched a lot of TV, we are absolute luddites compared to one set of neighbors.

Several years ago we lived in Brooklyn. Living in shared buildings, with no backyards, and where you are constantly walking, means your parenting skills are on constant display. For someone who is used to keeping separate sets of all parenting supplies (snacks, wipes, water, make-up, gum, change of clothing) in both the car and home, there is an enormous learning curve to this public parenting. Hair has to be combed, diapers packed, boogers cleaned, all before venturing out; no longer can these acts be done at a red light or a parking lot.

Parenting in the public arena seems to have a whole different set of priorities. In my experience, Brooklynites show a great deal of concern when a baby is missing a sock. My daughter was stroller age at the time, and enjoyed removing her left sock and hurling it in the street. Also in my experience, Brooklynites appear to calmly stroll with their toddlers while both mother and child are perfectly groomed, engaging in numerous “teachable moments” by observing the wonders of nature, while singing European children’s songs on pitch, with all socks intact. As a temporary Brooklynite, I was not up to any of the aforementioned tasks, and felt the looks of pity as I balanced ripping grocery bags on my shoulders as my child pulled the scrunchy out of her hair, knocking the stroller enough so my ice coffee spilled onto the handlebar tray, causing me to curse/trip/further spill.

During our year in New York, I signed my son up for some sort of martial arts class. He had taken a similar class back home in Los Angeles, and it was one of the few activities that didn’t have a waiting list dating back to when the child was in utero. The class was at 5:30, giving me time to return from work, pay the nanny and take my daughter to pick up my son at his after-school program. The karate class was 15 blocks away. No problem, I previously lived in New York and routinely walked dozens of blocks at a time, usually with a goal of reaching a shopping destination. Nothing can motivate like a good sale. However, when I calculated the distance from school to karate, I didn’t factor in dawdling, heavy backpacks, bathroom stops, stroller gridlock, hot weather, cold weather, rainy weather, snowy weather, layers of clothing stripped off, layers of clothing put back on. Why didn’t we take one of those famous NYC buses, you may ask? Well, who knew that no strollers allowed on the bus unless they are folded up? Like that would work with two fidgety kids and enough gear to survive for years in the wilderness. And, at the end of our journey: a second-floor karate studio with 18 steep stairs and no elevator. How’s that for adding insult to injury. And to top it all off: A child who didn‘t really like karate after all.  

Friday, March 11, 2011

TV, or Not TV, That is the Question

"Mommy, why are we so poor?" my 10-year-old son asked recently, out of the blue.

This was a perplexing question, since I had not really considered us so low on the totem pole of life. Both my husband and I are employed to our educational capacity with doctoral-level jobs. We live in a community that by many objective and subjective measures would be considered fairly desirable. We have a house with enough room for everyone, and with a back and a front yard. My son had already traveled on three continents by the time he was 5 years old. I would venture to say we are firmly in the middle of the pack.

So I asked my son--who, by the way, is the antithesis of a materially deprived child--why he thought we were down on our luck.

"Because our TVs suck," he replied. Actually, he used a much milder word, but the word "suck" seems to best reflect the disdain in his voice and facial expression.

OK, he had a point. we have four TVs, none of which were purchased in this millennium. One has a built-in VCR slot, all are boxy and heavy enough to do real damage if dropped on a foot, and all have screens that are somewhere in the 20something-inch range.

I get that people nowadays (and by "nowadays," I mean the past 25 years) prefer larger, sleeker televisions. People opine about their HDTV and surround sound. And I, truthfully, have never met an electronic gadget that I didn't want. And, despite our presumed impoverished state, I will admit to having purchased many, many of these electronic devices. Just not TVs.

But the problem with our hulking, but deceptively small-screened televisions is they still work. What does one do with four 80-pound boxes of transistors? We could donate them to charity, I suppose. But we have previously had items rejected from Goodwill and Salvation Army, and that is a humiliation no one needs to endure more than once in a lifetime. The televisions are too big to fit in our trash cans, which would mean arranging for a special collection by our local waste management service. This is nether pleasant nor cheap. I don't know which family member is going to lug hundreds of pounds of dated machinery to our driveway and risk neighbors seeing how clunky out technology is. These TVs have been with us for probably six or seven residences, and the stress of having to reinstall cables and DVD players and extension cords is just too much to contemplate. And, did I mention the TVs still work?

I made a mental note never to let him go over a friend's house again, lest the rest of our belongings seem even more sucky in comparison.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Thou Shalt Subsidize Thy Neighbor's Children

When we were buying a house several years ago, we looked at towns with reputations for good schools, parks, strong community ties, easy commute, cultural opportunities--all the typical things a family with young children might consider. As you can imagine, a community with all of these attributes in a major metropolitan area is not easy to find, and not cheap. When we finally found the house we eventually bought, within days of the house being listed for sale, there were three identical offers from, I suspect, three interchangeable families. Real estate to me is proof of Darwinian theory. And we did indeed prove to be the fittest of the trio of over-educated couples with a pair of precocious children.

Both my husband and I spent most of our lives in urban apartments. In these settings, there are usually more dogs than children, and you can run into someone hundreds of times in the mailroom before realizing the person is actually your next door neighbor. No one knocks on your door, unless it is the Chinese food delivery person. For the childless or pre-child person, it is as ideal as it gets.

So you can imagine our shock--dare I say horror--the first time we heard the doorbell chime at our new home. We looked at each other not knowing what to do. Why was someone ringing our doorbell? Had one of us ordered pizza without mentioning it to the other? After considering the Dominos option, my mind went completely blank as I tried to think of other possible reasons someone would be at our door. The panic continued as we flailed around wondering what to do. Should we turn off the lights and pretend we aren't home? Should we grab a baseball bat? Should we call the police?

I tiptoed to the front door and peered out the peephole. There was a smiling man with a stack of brochures. In my best fake-calm falsetto I asked, "Can I help you?" He mumbled something about wanting to know if we needed anyone to touch up the paint on our house's exterior. "No, thank you!" I shrilled through the peephole. The anxiety over our uninvited visitor gave way to anxiety about our house's exterior paint. The house looked tidy and maintained, but how would we know? We never owned a 1920s Spanish home before. Was there some protocol about exterior upkeep we were not privy to? Was this intruder judging our home-owning skills?

The house-painting solicitor, it turned out, was the first of many similar seemingly judgmental would-be entrepreneurs. I learned to identify the men-with-homemade-business-cards by their shuffling footsteps and liberal use of the word "ma'am" or "senora" through the locked door. No, we do not want new windows, driveway paving, garage door, gardener. Sometimes, the knock on the door would yield not a single person in coveralls, but a group of elderly adults in their 1970s Sunday best. These folks did not carry business cards--at least not calling cards for an earthly business. Rather, they were selling something more than just a maintenance service. They solicit for their "man." These geriatric disciples persevere despite our neighborhood being replete with bumper stickers for Obama, against Prop 8 (i.e. in favor of same-sex marriage), peace signs, and a spattering of those stickers with the word "Co-exist" written in an intertwining of crucifixes and Jewish stars. Good luck with your proselytizing, witnesses of Jehova!

As disconcerting as these strangers are, they are easily ignored. The same cannot be said, however, for the hoards of neighborhood Girl Scouts, Orchestra members, Little League players, and Eagle Scouts. There's no way to get out of buying cookies, wrapping paper, caramel popcorn, or cookie dough when you know the kid's parent is on your block's Neighborhood Watch committee and can make the difference between  your car being burglarized or not. And you would be amazed how much 8 ounces of cheddar popcorn goes for when it is being sold for a "nonprofit." The unspoken quid pro quo of kid-friendly 'hoods is the old "you buy my child's fundraising items, I'll buy your child's fundraising items."

However, we learned pretty early on to interrogate the little urchins before ponying up any cash. The requisite questions are: 1) Who are you? 2) Where do you live? 3) Can you name at least one of your parents? 4) Can you provide a picture identification that you are related to said person? I have considered acquiring a monocle so I can grill them like the prosecutor in "Judgement at Nuremburg" or "Witness for the Prosecution"--some sort of histrionic prosecutor. Once they have successfully answered all four questions--the pass rate must be 100%--we succumb and purchase the least expensive item available. We once inadvertently committed to buy magazines from a boy in a Scout uniform who, it turned out, lived in a different town altogether, but one that did not yield as many suckers as ours. We will never make that mistake again.

Another drawback to living on a street with kids the same age is they are all selling the same things at the same time. My son's school and activities have many fundraisers each year that require the selling of tickets or items. Knowing that every kid on the block is vying for the same neighbor dollars, we opt for a kinder, gentler strategy: We write a check and buy all our son's tickets ourselves.