Saturday, December 31, 2011

Looking Back on the Year

Since coming back home from my in-laws' as the holiday season winds down, I've been feeling a little down. The stress of packing fourteen people (seven adults and seven children) into a small space for a week with dreary, cold weather and lots of opinions on parenting and cooking and politics and everything in-between has caught up with me. We had a lovely time with these amazing individuals, but after a few days of rubbing up against each other, things get a little chafed and it was time to head for home. For a person like me who tends to be very introspective, the tendency to self-judge and second guess becomes overwhelming. Unfortunately, we came home to a very sick hamster (Lola's) who was valiantly fighting off a bacterial infection and lost the battle yesterday. We are all very sad to lose this adorable, feisty member of the family and, as grief comes in waves, at any time of the day one of us can be found in tears over her loss.

As the sun rose today and I contemplated the gathering we will have tomorrow to welcome the new year, Bubba recognized my mood and strongly encouraged me to head to yoga. I did, and struggled a bit to stay "on my mat" in mind and body during the 90 minutes, but now, 90 minutes after class, I'm feeling somewhat more centered. I gathered the girls at the kitchen table to review our year a bit and was astonished to discover how quickly we amassed a pretty impressive list of things we have done in the past twelve months. In no particular order, here goes:

Eve: successfully learned to manage her 6th grade schedule
survived (and thrived at) her first sleepaway camp
had her first official babysitting job
cooked an entire dinner for the family (with significant help from Lola)
Turned 12
Broke her first bone
Played on her first basketball team and loved it
Did the dinner dishes for an entire month by herself
Went on her first class camping trip
Learned to sail with her classmates

Lola: started skateboarding lessons
survived (and thrived at) her first sleepaway camp
played her first season of lacrosse (and kicked butt)
did all of the laundry for an entire month by herself
cooked an entire dinner for the family with her sister
started a recycling education project in her classroom
lost her last baby tooth
got braces

Both girls: chicken-sat for the neighbors
went to the San Diego Zoo for the first time
visited Joshua Tree National Park for the first time (me, too!)
took paddleboarding lessons (me, too!)
steered a boat in the Pacific Ocean
saw a stingray off the coast of Maui (me, too!)
learned to play beach volleyball in Santa Barbara
kayaked in Lake Wenatchee

I managed to get published on line in BuddhaChick Magazine, created a relationship with BlogHer that increased my readership, took approximately 60 yoga classes, learned to make good gluten-free baguettes, took my first trip with Bubba away from the kids, turned 40 and saw U2 in concert. Bubba's company grew, he participated in his first camp singalong, he traveled to some new places and made new friends and became more beloved to each and every one of us.

Looking over the list we managed to put together in a few short minutes began restoring my faith in hope. I had Lola grab a fresh sheet of paper so we could scratch out some predictions for 2012 and we were quickly laughing and fantasizing. I've decided to leave both lists out so we can add to them throughout the day as inspiration or memory arises. Maybe it was the yoga. Maybe it was finally settling back in at home. Maybe I'm feeling better because the sadness is running its course. I don't know, but I am happy that the simple act of looking back on our year for a few moments had such a profound effect on my mood.

I am struck by the notion that most of the things on this list were not earth-shattering. Most of them were not things we specifically set out to do. They were simply things that happened in the course of our lives, moving along through space and time the best way we know how, loving each other and sticking to the values we hold most dear. I hope that a year from now I can look back again and be amazed at the adventures each of us have had, together and individually.

Here's to 2012 and all it brings.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A New Perspective on the Holiday

Five days until Christmas day. The kitchen is silent but for the sighs of the dog splayed out on the floor next to me. Eve and Lola are upstairs, straightening up their rooms so that they can find a place for each and every new treasure they receive on Christmas Day. Eve cleans while belting out popular songs with no pretense. Lola stops every few items to crouch on the floor and read a few pages of a Calvin and Hobbes book.

The day outside is grey and misty and I'm determined to avoid the reality of winter in the Northwest by only gazing at the 4x4 photo of Dad sitting on the front porch with the girls as babies, squinting in the sunshine, his freckled legs showing in a rare moment when he wore shorts outside of the gym.

I feel as though I ought to be rushing around completing last-minute tasks, but all but one gift is wrapped and under the tree and I'm not baking any treats this year. We have deliberately scaled back gift-exchanges over the years in deference both to those who have more stuff than they know what to do with as well as those whose needs run to the more serious - like groceries and money to pay the heating bill. We still spoil the children and delight in odd gifts for each other here and there, but I'm thrilled to be part of the older generation now, my true delight in watching the children's eyes as they rip the glossy paper off of their presents.

More than anything I look forward to the gathering. The unexpected history shared after a few glasses of wine that sets everyone to hysterical laughter. The moment where the youngest child discovers the piano in the living room and the magical sounds it makes. The stolen moments on the couch where I pretend to be asleep and hear philosophical conversations between adolescents. For all of the hoopla around Christmas cookies and intricate wrapping methods and hours spent in the kitchen preparing the roast, I look to the next five days for rest and quiet spaces and spontaneous bursts of joy. For this, I wish Christmas came more than once a year.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Life Lessons with Lola

On the way to school yesterday, Lola started complaining about her loose molar. She has one left to lose (yes, she is only nine, but both of my children were precocious about getting and losing teeth) and it is at that hanging-by-a-thread point that is making her nuts.

Eve used to love having wiggly teeth. She would push them back and forth, back and forth with her tongue and her finger, working it and working it to see just how precariously she could get it to cling before it fell out. She delighted in disgusting friends and family by pushing the tooth until it was perpendicular to the others in her mouth.

Lola was terrified of losing teeth. And I didn't help. Her first tooth began coming loose when she was five and in Kindergarten. Every day she would complain that it bugged her to eat with it like that and at bedtime she would cry in fear that it would come free in her sleep and she would swallow it or choke on it. Day by day it got more and more loose but she was afraid to touch it or let anyone else touch it for fear that it would rip violently from her mouth and she would bleed to death. Despite Eve's repeated efforts to calm her by telling her it didn't hurt to lose a tooth and my lectures about it being totally normal, Lola became increasingly hysterical as the days wore on.

One afternoon as I passed by the playground where Lola was having recess with her class (I worked in the office at the Montessori school), Lola ran to the chain-link fence and called to me. When I walked over to her, she burst in to tears and told me she was so worried about losing this tooth. I was frustrated and, frankly, done hearing about this damn tooth, so I asked her to open up and show me. As soon as she opened her mouth to its widest point I reached my thumb and index finger through the fence and into her mouth, grabbed the tooth and pulled it out. [It was only holding on by a thread, trust me, it didn't even bleed.] She jerked away from the fence, her eyes wide in horror and I presented the tooth to her.

"Here you go. Now you don't have to worry about it anymore, honey."

I know it was mean. But, honestly, after all of the drama we'd had for over a week about this damn thing, I was ready to show her that it wasn't such a big deal after all.

She never let me see a wiggly tooth again unless we were separated by a wide table or an entire room. I can't say that I blame her.

So fast forward four years and I'm terribly relieved she only has one more to lose. I asked her if she still feels as frightened now when she loses a tooth as she did back then.

"Not really, but you have to admit, Mom, the way you talk about it is pretty scary."

Huh? Turns out she's right. To a kid, "losing" something is always bad. Losing your favorite toy. Losing your mittens at school. Losing your TV privileges. And so when we say to a kid that they are going to lose a tooth, it doesn't sound natural. It sounds scary.

"You're right, Lola! I never thought about that. How else could we say it?"

"I don't know, Mom. Telling a kid their tooth is going to fall out isn't much better. Nobody wants to have some part of their body 'fall out.'"

She's right. And, ironically enough, by the time you are able to truly understand that losing a tooth is an exception to the rule that losing things is bad, losing a tooth actually would be a bad thing.

So here's to Lola's last baby tooth "leaving the nest."

Monday, December 12, 2011

Lola's Holiday Heartbreak (and Recovery)

Let me start by saying that Lola, my nine-year-old, has a heart of gold. A heart the size of Texas that is solid gold. She is very emotionally sensitive and idealistic and sometimes this means her heart gets broken. It's hard to watch. It is even harder to watch when I know it's my fault (or Bubba's - in this case, it was Bubba's fault).

Lola has always believed in Santa Claus. Even after discovering that her older cousins and her older sister thought it was all a hoax, Lola maintained that they were crazy. From time to time she would come to me and ask how to counter their arguments (or taunting), and I could see that she so desperately wanted to believe in Santa that I would help her out. And maybe I was setting her up. But there is something magical about the notion that there exists someone out there in the world who loves you just because you are a kid. Someone that doesn't have to love you (they aren't your family, after all), but who, once a year, acknowledges the mystery and wonder that is you and surprises you with some of your heart's desires. Just because. And when you put it in that context, who wouldn't want to believe in that?

Bubba and I played our part - wrapping gifts from Santa in special wrapping paper that didn't match our family gifts and using our left hands to write out the names in case the kids scrutinized the handwriting. We even colluded with our extended family to share wrapping paper and buy the same kinds of treats for the stockings when we were planning on sharing Christmas morning with them. I will admit that we indulged a bit in the coercion of "Santa is watching" for the last few weeks before the holidays, but it was mostly joking. Or so I thought. But it's tricky to know how kids interpret things unless they talk about it. Or write to Santa.

Lola's letter to St. Nick last year went something like this:
"Dear Santa,
I do not think I deserve any presents this year. I've tried to be nice this year. But I
can't do it. But if you think I deserve it, I want a Zune.
Love, Lola
P.S. Never quit your job."

I started out chuckling when I read this letter, but quickly got a lump in my throat. Poor dear. Bubba was also charmed by the note and decided that we ought to keep this letter indefinitely. Even if we never showed it to her, it was a priceless keepsake. So it remained tucked in his desk, safely inside the envelope addressed by Lola herself, until Lola discovered it this July.


I never would have imagined how betrayed she would feel. She was mortified, both because she felt duped by her own parents (and stupid in the face of her cousins' teasing the last two years), and because of the implication. No, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus.

Bubba and I felt horrible. She cried for a long time and my only consolation was that it was the middle of summer and Santa's demise wasn't associated with Christmas.

Fast forward to December and I began wondering how she would handle the notion as the holiday approached. When I picked her up from school last Wednesday and inquired about her day, she told me her teachers had asked her to write a Christmas story to share with the younger kids in class. (Lola attends a mixed-age Montessori school and her classroom has kids in grades 1-4. She is the oldest.)

"So I wrote this story about this kid who asked for a toy boat and a scooter from Santa Claus and, since her parents didn't believe in Santa, they bought the things for her. But when Christmas morning came, the little girl got two boats and two scooters. The parents got into a fight later because they each accused the other one of buying the gifts but it turns out Santa did it. They still didn't believe it, but their daughter decided to give one boat and one scooter to the homeless shelter and she felt great. The next year, the same thing happened and the girl got two of what she asked for and gave half away. The next year, the parents both stayed up to spy on each other and catch the other one in the act, but they caught Santa instead. They were surprised and talked about not getting the little girl something from then on, but finally decided she had so much fun giving away half of her presents that they would just keep doing it. And Santa was happy, too."

Huh. I think she's recovered the spirit of the holiday. Something tells me she'll be just fine. Santa lives on in Lola's spirit, believe it or not.

Friday, December 09, 2011

President Obama Decision Fear-Based, Disappointing

From the AP Newswire on December 8, 2012:
"President Obama said today that 'as the father of two daughters' he supports his health secretary's decision to block over-the-counter sales of the Plan B 'morning after' birth control pill to girls under 17 years of age."

My response:
As the father of two daughters, Bubba once considered investing in chastity belts.
As the father of two daughters, Bubba has mentioned more than once that he is counting on me to talk him off the ledge when he considers shadowing Eve on her first date.
As the father of two daughters, Bubba is uncomfortable recalling what it was like to be a hormonally-driven teenage boy.

As the mother of two daughters, I realize that my girls may not always be completely honest with me about the pressures they face to do things that they aren't ready for LIKE HAVE SEX.
As the mother of two daughters, I am certain that my girls will make mistakes and I hope that they have the opportunity to clean up their messes and learn from them without it changing their lives forever.
As the mother of two daughters, I am appalled that President Obama, the man I voted for, would let his own discomfort with the notion of one of his daughters needing Plan B cloud his judgement on this issue.

I wish there were a world where girls as young as 10 and 11 couldn't possibly need access to Plan B.
If there is, we don't live in it.
And if I'm being totally honest, with this move, I can't honestly say that I trust Obama to protect abortion rights without requiring parental consent for girls under the age of 17. I don't see that that is much of a leap from this position, frankly. And that scares the crap out of me.

From the AP Newswire on December 8, 2012:
"Sebelius, overruling the Food and Drug Administration, said there are too many questions about the safety of Plan B for girls who can bear children as young as 10 or 11 years old."

My response:

Are you kidding me? Where to begin?
1. Overruling the FDA? Honestly? One person decided, despite the legions of scientists and policy-makers at the FDA who actually TESTED THE DRUG, that she knew more than they did? I don't think so.
2. What about the safety of a 10 or 11 year old child GOING THROUGH PREGNANCY AND CHILDBIRTH? Isn't that a consideration?

From the AP Newswire on December 8, 2012:

"He [Obama] and Sebelius decided 10- and 11-year olds should not be able to buy the drug 'alongside bubblegum or batteries' because it could have an adverse effect if not used properly. He said 'most parents' probably feel the same way."

My response:

Bubblegum and batteries can have an adverse effect if used improperly, too, President Obama. When I used to work with mentally ill populations of children I can remember a rash of attempted suicides where the kids would purchase - you guessed it - batteries and ingest them so that their stomach acids would break down the batteries and release the acid inside, killing them.

And since when is policy made based on an assumption that "most _________ probably feel that way?" The reason we have organizations like the FDA is so that policy will follow accepted guidelines of rigorous testing and examination of the implications of different actions. We don't make decisions based on how we THINK other people PROBABLY feel.

Yes, as a parent, the notion that Lola would need to sneak down to her local drugstore to buy an emergency contraceptive is terrifying. Because she is so young. But what about when she is sixteen? I hope against hope that both of my daughters will feel as though they can come to me if they are in any kind of trouble and I am working hard to create an atmosphere like that in our family. And I'm damn lucky. And so are Eve and Lola. Scores of girls don't have the luxury of a stable, supportive family. Some girls are neglected, abused, and even sexually exploited by their family members. So, please, Mr. President, don't use the emotionally evocative image of a 10-year old girl to justify your decision based on fear. Your daughters will grow up. And I hope that they feel comfortable coming to you and Michelle for support when they screw up, no matter what form that mistake takes. In the meantime, there are so many other girls for whom you are creating a hardship and a barrier to taking some control of their own lives, girls who are 13, 14, 15, and 16. Girls who we know, thanks to information professional organizations like the Guttmacher Institute, ARE HAVING SEX and are AT RISK FOR UNWANTED PREGNANCIES.

Monday, December 05, 2011

The Importance of Acknowledgement

Occasionally, I re-realize things that send shock waves through my life. Generally this happens after a bit of struggle and strife and when the shining moment comes for the pertinent message to penetrate my thick skull, I am astonished. And then, the more I think about it, the less astonished I am at the actual notion and the more shocked I am that I forgot this lesson in the first place.

My most recent realization? Humans need their actions to feel meaningful in order for them to be motivated.

I know. Duh.

Author Dan Ariely puts it so well in his book The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home. He conducted experiments to determine whether people will continue to be motivated to complete tasks they knew were meaningless even if they were paid to do so. Not surprisingly, he discovered that the interest level falls off sharply when the work is disregarded or set aside without acknowledgement. Somewhat surprisingly, he noted that even the slightest form of acknowledgement (looking over the page of work and nodding your head before setting it aside) was enough to keep most people going for a long time despite the fact that they were paid the same amount as those whose work was not acknowledged.

I began thinking about the implications of this when it comes to my life. I know that when I had a job that made me feel as though I was making a difference in someone's life, I was not likely to grumble about it or drag my feet to get to work. I can't say that I am ever excited to get out of bed to the tune of an alarm clock before the sun rises, but I have always been much more likely to do so if I felt like the tasks ahead of me were important. (This may be why I hate packing school lunches so much. If the kids acknowledged the food as delicious and appreciated and I didn't see much of it come home and go into the trash, I might be happier making lunches every morning pre-dawn.)

When I quit my job to stay home with my kids I can honestly say that the monotony got to me. It is discouraging to change diapers again knowing that there will be more coming soon. The same tasks day after day, performed in the service of a non-verbal companion seemingly incapable of truly appreciating them didn't exactly feel meaningful.

Then I thought about the implications for my kids. The one year Eve went to the local public school, she came home with reams of papers to complete every week as homework. She quickly became discouraged despite the fact that her homework was always completed and turned in on time. Or maybe because of that. At some point her teacher learned to expect that from her and Eve was no longer acknowledged for being a student who was timely and efficient. At her first conference, the teacher verbalized her lack of concern for Eve by saying, "Oh, she's fine. I don't worry about her. She sits quietly in class and turns all of her homework in." That was nearly the extent of the entire conference. Eve felt meaningless. By December, she knew that the only way to get any attention at all from her teacher would be to misbehave. She couldn't intuit any sort of global meaning or ultimate pinnacle that all of the paperwork was leading up to (nor could I, for that matter), which led her to believe that it was all just busywork. Meaningless.

She checked out mentally and emotionally. She began pretending to be sick every day and begged me, in tears, not to make her go back to school. She was not being bullied or harassed. She was not performing poorly in school. She was somewhat bored, but more importantly, she was frustrated with the lack of meaning her days contained. I wonder how many kids feel that way. I wonder if we could find some way to help them understand the context of their school work and help them feel as though the assignments they are completing are important in some way, whether they would perform even better.

I also thought about the implications this lesson had for my relationships. How often do I let people know that they matter to me? I suspect not often enough. I suspect that there are times when Eve or Lola or Bubba would love some acknowledgement of their efforts. I know I would. When I was really struggling with depression several years ago, it was truly a crisis of confidence that I mattered. At my lowest point I truly believed that I was entirely replaceable. Bubba could hire a housekeeper and a nanny to take over my daily duties and nobody would miss me a whit. I know now that they would have missed me, but I still struggle from time to time wondering what value I bring to the world. Spending five years researching and writing a book that never gets published is a particularly effective way to become convinced that your work stands for nothing. Especially when so many of the other tasks I perform on a daily basis are "consumed," like the food I cook and the laundry and the housework. I know from experience that something as simple as a comment like, "Mom, great dinner tonight! Would you make this again?" can sustain me for days as I shop for groceries and do dishes.

As so many people find themselves out of work right now, I wonder if we wouldn't all do ourselves a big favor by finding ways to occupy ourselves that feel meaningful. Whether or not it brings in money, volunteering to help organizations in our communities or friends or family members can give us such a big boost in terms of our own self-worth that it may just elevate our spirits to the point where we catch the eye of a potential employer. Short of that, I think I will make a concerted effort to remind the people in my life how much their actions mean to me personally.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Social Media and Our Tween

We have rules when it comes to technology. Unfortunately, sometimes just knowing that leads to a bit of complacency on our part (the parents, I mean). And other times, even those limits aren't enough to spare us some lessons.

Let me just say that we have two daughters, ages 9 and 12. We have one computer that lives in the kitchen where I spend most of my time, at least when the girls are home. There are parental controls on the computer, but they honestly aren't clever enough to let the girls use certain sites that are perfectly safe, so from time to time I let them use my logon so they can get around the really dorky restrictions. But only when I'm in the kitchen.

Both girls have their own iTouch devices with a free texting app. Lola, my 9 year old, doesn't have any other friends who have the ability to text, so she's pretty much out of luck but it doesn't seem to bother her. She'd rather play iPhyzzle or Angry Birds, anyway. Eve, the 12 year old, texts her friends all the time and knows that either Bubba or I will perform surprise spot-checks to read text messages on a whim. Neither of the girls is allowed to have their iTouch upstairs without express permission since we have wi-fi at home and these devices can let them surf the 'net. At night, the iTouches live in the "technology box" on the kitchen counter.

So, yeah, I feel fairly secure.
Until now.

Yesterday I had to run downtown to get the dog from the groomer. Both girls had just arrived home from school and Lola was changing for basketball practice. I decided to leave the girls at home to have a snack while I went out to get the dog - I would be gone for 20 minutes, maximum. The rules were this: no screen time (TV, computer, iTouch), no sweets. I was fairly certain that if either of those rules was violated, one of the girls would rat the other one out. As I was opening the garage door, Eve called out, "Mom, can I just check my email really quick? D was supposed to email me about the assignment we're working on."

I gave her permission to check her email. But only that. Again, Lola would take immense pleasure in throwing Eve under the bus if she strayed.

So imagine my surprise when, two hours later, Bubba calls and tells me that Eve has joined some social networking site. HUH? When? How?

It turns out that, while checking her email, Eve discovered a message from one of her school friends inviting her to join this group where they can all socialize. Seeing the email addresses of several other classmates, Eve clicks on the link to this site. She swears she didn't go so far as to sign up, but somehow as soon as she enters the site, her entire email contact list is snagged by this site and emails go out to everyone she knows, telling them she has just joined this site ( and would they like to, too?

Bubba and I have some questions about whether or not Eve signed up for the site, but that's not the point. The point for us is that Eve didn't really understand the implications of what she was doing. Bubba sat with her and showed her around the site, pointing out the advertisements for "Find Hot Local Singles" and "Work from Home" scams. He explained that there are many of these kinds of sites around who use you for your email contact list and are not safe places for kids to build profiles.

Ultimately I am grateful that this happened, if only so that we could refine our guidelines for the girls.
First of all, if you go to a site that asks for your entire birthdate, month/day/year, that's a red flag.
If, upon determining that you are a minor, it doesn't tell you to get parental permission, that's a red flag. (The Terms of Service for this particular site says in teeny tiny letters that you have to be 16 to sign up, but even after Eve's birth year was entered, it didn't flag this or disable her account - hmmmm.)
If part of the registration process asks you what your sexual orientation is, that's a red flag.
If the site offers, as part of its main objectives, matches or dates or connections with people you don't already know, that's a red flag.
Before you join any site for any reason, check with Mom and Dad.

Thank goodness this site actually did SPAM all of Eve's contacts, or Bubba and I might not have discovered what was going on. It's questionable whether Eve would have actually had the opportunity to use this site anyway, given that the computer is in the kitchen, but I wonder how many of Eve's classmates have successfully created profiles on this site and opened themselves up to predators of all kinds.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Stuff and Nonsense (and a new book review)

My latest book review (a fictional novel which is a departure for me) can be found here. It is a quick, fun read about book-banning in a small town in the South.

Other things going on here over the long holiday weekend include some angst (on my part, anyway) about this little guy. I'd tell you his name, but there is some dispute about it, given that he doesn't really belong to us. Or maybe he does. I'm not sure at this point.

The day before Halloween I was in the driveway cleaning out my car (a weekly necessity thanks to the carpool snack consumption that goes on inside) and I heard a pathetic maiow. I looked up to see this skinny black kitten watching me and slowly, tentatively making his way toward me. I managed to convince him to come to me and I scooped him up and brought him to the garage. I called all of the neighbors to see if he belonged to anyone and we decided to keep him around until at least after Halloween to keep him safe. By the time I heard from one neighbor who claimed him, it was November 1 and he had settled in quite nicely to our garage and back porch with several periods a day of snuggling inside on the laps of Bubba and the girls. We couldn't let him live inside because of our other cat, but he seemed perfectly happy to play and sleep outside and come cuddle a few times a day.

When I told our neighbor I'd bring him back home, she said, "Whatever. He lives outside, anyway. He'll come back on his own." This cat was not destined to live inside their house, in any case, so she figured he would just roam the neighborhood at will and roost at their place. We disrupted that, I'm afraid.

At this point, two days after Thanksgiving, I'm not sure they've seen him at all. We have settled in to this pattern of feeding him in the morning, snuggling with him often during the day, and feeding him again at night. Bubba generally claims him for an hour before bed, messing with his tail and ears and paws in a show of masculine affection.

I know, I know. We have stolen the cat. I have considered not feeding him but that feels mean. We have plopped him back inside the fence of the neighbors' yard and he promptly jumps on top of the posts and follows us back to our place. They won't let him inside their house, so there's no keeping him away (and we're not terribly motivated to, in any case). Lola has expressed some concern from time to time that we are doing the wrong thing and I understand her sentiment, but this little guy is so lovely I can't stand it. I have this squishy morality going on in my head that says he can go home anytime he wants - roaming the neighborhood until he gets there (they live next door) and, if they offered him any affection, he would choose to stay. I know we're tipping the balance by feeding him.

But wouldn't you?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Miss Representation and the Beauty of the Internet

Newest Miss Representation Trailer (2011 Sundance Film Festival Official Selection) from Miss Representation on Vimeo.

A few weeks ago I saw that the OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network) was offering an encore presentation of the documentary "Miss Representation" and I set my DVR. I finally found a couple of hours the other day to watch the show and my emotions alternated between disgust, rage and sharp sadness. The film breaks down the role of modern media in perpetuating negative stereotypes of women and girls in a clear, concise way that is an absolute call-to-action.

I found myself cringing from time to time as I agreed with some of the people interviewed for this documentary (among them Katie Couric and Lisa Ling and others who are not household names but are doing really important work). Not because I didn't want to agree with them, but because I have always identified myself as a bleeding-heart liberal - one who believes in freedom of speech and expression. The atrociously misogynistic Go Daddy advertisements come to mind. I can't stand them and the way that women are portrayed, but I have always respected their right to exist. I can't say I still feel that way after watching this film.

As they began to detail the ways in which female leaders are judged in the media (Hilary Clinton was not "assertive" or "certain of her convictions," she was a "harpy" and a "bitch;" Sarah Palin was not judged on her knowledge of issues - or relative lack thereof - but on the way her skirt highlighted her ass and whether or not she had gotten breast implants) I began to laud the physical anonymity of the Internet for helping women's voices and opinions be heard without this kind of scrutiny. Organizations like Moms Rising and Emily's List can amass the voices of many women and present convincing arguments - or at the very least, convincing power - without having to dodge the conversations about whether their leader is a dyke or a man-hater. Let's be honest, anytime a strong female role model has come out to challenge the status quo, regardless of her message, she is instantly judged by her physical attributes. If she doesn't look like one of the original Charlie's Angels, she is instantly pronounced a lesbian and that somehow is supposed to mean that when she opens her mouth, we hear the voice of the parents on every Charlie Brown special, "Wah wah, wah wah, wah wah." If she does look like a pinup, she is carefully examined for any trace of plastic surgery or asked about her exercise regime or diet, as if those things trump the message she is trying to convey. The internet eases some of the pressure in that way. The more women can clearly articulate their positions in writing and band together as groups to support a common cause, the less power the media has to derail their momentum by commenting on her boobs or her fashion sense.

While I still feel that it is important for us to address the way women and girls are treated in the media, I am relieved that there seems to be one place where our words speak louder than our looks. Now, go out there and use it to the best of your ability, folks!

And if you haven't yet seen "Miss Representation," please go see it. Whether you're single or married, have daughters or sons, are female or male, it is an eye-opening documentary that features the voices of men and women alike. Go here to find a showing in your neighborhood.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Holiday Musings

I officially broke the seal on Christmas last Friday and purchased the first holiday gift of the season. I didn't really mean to, but this particular item struck me as something Bubba and the girls would get a huge kick out of. So I got it and brought it home. It is sitting in my underwear drawer, buried beneath a pile of boot socks and in order to diminish the paranoia that someone will find it, I suppose later today I'll go dig out the wrapping paper and ribbons and Christmas labels and camouflage it for real.

And once the holiday wrap is out, it's all over. I will begin accumulating gifts and wrapping them as they show up on my doorstep (I do 99% of my gift-buying online - I hate shopping except for groceries and love that I can click a few buttons and have things show up on the porch for days afterward).

I have favorite sites for books, weird stocking stuffers, and lovely gifts for friends. Before kids, I loved to browse through craft stores and small, independent clothing or book stores, selecting just the right gift for everyone on my list. Inevitably, I would over-purchase, forgetting that I had Gift A at home in the closet for Susan and buy Gift B for her because it struck me as the perfect thing. As our family grew, both with our children and our siblings' children, Bubba and I realized that the expense was getting out of control. Not to mention the fact that our kids (and everyone else's) had one of everything and didn't need a dang thing.

A few years ago, we agreed (through much angst and negotiation) to draw names for the adults in the family on both sides and just buy for the children. In doing so, I also made my plea for minimal gifts for the kids. A science kit or craft kit, perhaps. Maybe one article of clothing and a nice book instead of an entire outfit and a series of books. Outings are nice - tickets to a play or an IOU for a pedicure with Grandma don't clutter up the closet and are fun to look forward to. I was cast as the Grinch in some instances.

It's not that I don't want my kids to have a lovely holiday. It's that I don't think they need stuff to make it lovely. And I know that Bubba's parents and mine waited a long time for grandchildren and they see it as their Universe-given right to spoil them, but I think we're sending the wrong message. Here we are three days before Thanksgiving and instead of seeing messages about gratitude and communities coming together, the media is trumpeting Black Friday Sales and economic forecasts for the holiday season. I love giving gifts as much as the next person, but I seem to be the one in the family who keeps trying to come up with ways to minimize the consumerism every year.

Eve had to do a project for school this week that highlighted a cultural difference between a South American country and the U.S. She chose to interview a family friend from Argentina about the way they celebrate holidays. In the beginning, it was fun to think about the fact that Christmas happens in the middle of summer for them and she had to remind herself that Argentineans have no reason to celebrate Thanksgiving. As the interview went on, however, it became clear that the differences run deeper than that. Leandro spoke about the importance of family gatherings on Christmas, New Year's and Easter and the way that they are centered around togetherness and food. Yes, the Easter Bunny has made it's way to South America, but thus far, he plays a fairly minimal part in their celebration of the holiday itself. It reminded me of my childhood Christmases as we traveled to Southern California to be with my mother's family. My mom's parents and her four siblings lived in Santa Barbara and there were four cousins for the four of us kids to play with. I don't honestly remember how they managed gift-giving. I do recall my mom sewing matching dresses for the girl cousins one year, but other than that, I have no clue whether she and her siblings exchanged gifts or not. For me, the memories revolve around going to the beach and playing hide-and-seek in my Aunt Barb's huge house. The gifts were those moments spent with my cousins.

So while Bubba and I continue to seek out ways to connect with our families over the upcoming holidays, I struggle to find ways to divert my girls' attention from the fanfare of gift-giving (or, to be honest, gift-getting) in favor of those spontaneous moments that are generally more rewarding in the long run. I'm not sure what they are yet, but here's hoping we can continue to emphasize the less tangible aspects of the holiday.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Planet Explorer Book Reviews

I recently began reviewing books for BookPleasures and my second assignment was this series of travel guidebooks geared toward children. The author has written several and I offered to review the ones she wrote for Chicago, New York City, and Walt Disney World. The reviews are below and, while the books are suggested for 8-12 year olds, I would say that I think anyone with kids over the age of four or five could find a vast array of vital information in these books. Here goes:

Planet Explorers Walt Disney World: A Guidebook for Kids
If you are planning a trip to Walt Disney World, this is the perfect companion for your travels. The sheer size of this massive amusement park can make it overwhelming to navigate, but Laura Schaefer’s guidebook breaks it down in a fun, easy-to-read style.
The park is organized in to different areas in this book, each with its own list of restaurants, rides and attractions. Schaefer offers a wealth of good information about each ride, having devised a way to catalog them for kids of all ages (S=scary, D=dark, A=awesome, T=thrilling, W=wet). She also posts height restrictions so you can skip the ones your kids are too small to ride without much drama.
Each section also highlights fun facts like when certain attractions were built or if there are renovations or new rides being planned. There are tips on when to go do certain things or how to find characters roaming around the park.
The illustrations and photos, maps and fun facts are a fantastic complement to the vast amount of information packed in to this book. Most of the sections contain hyperlinks to things they might want to know more about like Bill Nye the Science Guy or the Samurai swords.
This book is a great way to help plan your trip through the park and come to an appreciation of the work that goes in to maintaining a place like Walt Disney World.
Links to the other two reviews are here for NYC and here for Chicago. The books all follow a similar format, so the reviews are quite similar as well. That being said, if you are planning a family vacation anytime soon, Laura has written Planet Explorer books for Disneyland, Disney cruises and Philadelphia as well as the three I reviewed. Do yourself a favor and find one that fits your travel needs.

Friday, November 11, 2011

My Anti-Multitasking Experiment

Thank goodness for AJ Jacobs. This is a man who knows how to write for attention-defunct brains. His chapters are short and concise and sprinkled throughout with humor (to keep my monkey mind on task), and I can sit down to read one and complete it in a relatively short time, limiting the amount of interruptions, both external ("Mom! I need my jeans!") and internal (I probably ought to throw that load of laundry in pretty soon.)

He does all of this, in many cases backed up by research that he explains in a simple, digestible way.

When I was reading My Life as an Experiment on my recent vacation, I was struck by one chapter in particular where Jacobs spends thirty days avoiding multitasking. Like most of us in Western societies with access to a multitude of technological toys and the perception that we need to be PRODUCTIVE above all else, he noticed that he had become increasingly unable to do anything with his full attention. I could give you examples, but I suspect many of you are lowering your heads right now under the weight of your own realizations. He did some digging and discovered that there is more than one research study showing that multitasking is, in all reality, much less efficient and more time consuming than simply doing one thing at a time. It also tends to split our attention to the point where we don't produce quality work like we would if we were single-minded. Over time, multitasking erodes our cognitive abilities to the point where our attention spans become pathetic little fleas, jumping from one side of the dog's rump to the other to find a tasty meal. Yikes!

I thoroughly enjoyed the chapter describing Jacobs' attempts to eliminate multitasking in his own life and decided to try it on my own. Disclaimer: I decided this while on vacation - away from home without the normal tasks of cooking meals, keeping house, driving kids to and from school and other activities, etc. I suspect it wouldn't have seemed nearly as possible an undertaking if I hadn't been lying near the pool in the sunshine when I decided this...

Upon arriving home, I began. For ten days I resisted efforts to empty the dishwasher while making my latte, check Facebook or email while writing a blog post or a book review, help Lola rehearse her lines for an upcoming play while folding laundry and watching the Oregon Ducks play football. It was hard. Really hard.

But I learned some valuable things.

1. When I multitask, I often start 57 things and only ever finish about 20 of them in a day. I have this frantic perception that if I don't at least start something RIGHT NOW that I'll forget I wanted to do it and it will be lost to the ether. When I explore that notion, I realize that if I forget I wanted to do it, it probably wasn't all that valuable a task in the first place and, it doesn't much matter that I started it if I don't ever finish the damn thing.

2. The more balls I have in the air, the more I have to worry about one dropping. It turns out that only doing one thing at a time is really calming. When I'm writing a book review and force myself to trust that All of Those Other Tasks Who Shall Not Be Named will wait, some part of my brain is given permission to shut down and rest for a bit. And that book review or blog post or letter to a teacher gets written much more quickly.

3. When I practice not multitasking with people (typing an email while I'm on the phone with my mother, playing a board game with Lola while helping Eve with homework, etc), they feel good. I can honestly say that, while it was terrifically challenging, using this tactic with Eve on her most recent homework project contributed to our ultimate success in completing it.

It occurred to me yesterday that multitasking is overkill. When I think about it, our bodies are already working really hard on several fronts simultaneously - pumping blood, creating white blood cells to knock off that cold virus we picked up from our kids, taking in visual information and processing it, moving our bodies through space, breathing, the list goes on... To ask them to do more than that is cruel and unusual punishment.

My single-mindedness has fallen off a bit of late. Old habits die hard, I guess, and Bubba has been out of town a lot lately. But when I recall the feeling of utter calm that came over me when I asked myself to do only one thing at a time, I am motivated to continue striving to get better at it.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

6th Grade Homework = Migraine + Connection

As I sit here writing this, I have a splitting headache that has so far not responded to twice the recommended dose of Advil and I am sporting a grin a mile wide. Yes, you read that right.

I am sporting a grin a mile wide after a Sunday night marathon homework session with Eve. No, she didn't save all of it for the last minute - just the most complex stuff. And normally, despite the fact that the subject was Science and that is generally my forte, I would have asked Bubba to step in for me, but he is out of town for the next few days, so I was it. Whether we liked it or not.

Eve and I have always had a bit of difficulty doing homework together. I generally chalk it up to the fact that we are two peas in a pod. Twins separated by three decades. Ex-act-ly a-like. Eve starts out with a chip on her shoulder if she is forced to ask me for help with anything. She is fiercely independent, a perfectionist, a control freak and stubborn. She quickly gets defensive and degenerates into high-pitched squeals of indignance if I don't understand precisely what she needs from me on the first explanation. God forbid I ask to see the directions or her notes from class. Bubba? He can joke with her, sit for hours and puzzle over something, or just tell her to suck it up and dig in and she smiles sweetly and follows his lead. It used to drive me nuts. Until I remembered how I felt about my mother when I was Eve's age. Until I read The Four Agreements and learned how to not take it personally.

So Eve and I, we are a bit gunshy about doing homework together. But tonight there was no choice. Bubba was away and this assignment is due tomorrow morning. I would be lying if I said I wasn't worried. But I swore not to let it show.

As Eve began explaining the assignment to me, my inner self let out a colossal groan. She was supposed to draw 3-dimensional schematics for an invention she would craft using pulleys, gears or levers.

Permit me to digress for a moment. There are a few things that I absolutely cannot do. Things I used to struggle with but eventually came to terms with the fact that I am incapable of doing. Things I have "traded" in my own mind for other things that I am oddly accomplished at. Fortunately, I have managed to structure my life in order that I don't have to do any of these things. They are (in no particular order):

1. Tying a knot in a balloon. I don't care what you say - you cannot teach me to do it. Been there, tried that, can't do it. Won't even try anymore. Not important.

2. Iron an oxford style shirt. You know, with the collar and buttons and plackets and all that. Again, no interest. Tried a million times.

3. Visualize things in three dimensions in my mind. Nope, can't do it. Took Organic Chemistry in college and had to purchase a set of Tinker Toys in order to put the molecules together and draw them on paper. My brain simply will not wrap around imagining things in 3-D when they are described to me or rendered in 2-D on paper. I can't manage it. At some point my brain simply shuts down during the process of trying.

And now here, I had to help Eve visualize her invention in 3-D and draw it to scale in each of its different perspectives so that her teacher could fully understand it and so that Eve can build it out of foam core according to those drawings.


I will confess that at one point I had to go get a toilet paper roll and some ribbon to use as props so I could "see" it.

I will also say that about 20 minutes in, Eve was flat on the floor in my closet sobbing and squealing like a pregnant potbellied pig, certain that we couldn't do this.

Normally this is the point where I call Bubba in.

Instead, I dug deep, stayed calm and came at it from another angle.

Somehow, I managed to get her back on track and she responded.
Somehow, when we thought we were done and checked the assignment sheet only to discover that we needed two more drawings, of the individual components to scale, I was able to remind her of how far we had come and help her see that the finish line wasn't that far off.
Somehow, I found myself having fun.

As I played cheerleader from across the kitchen where I was putting dinner together and reminding Lola to tuck her completed homework away in her backpack, I suddenly realized I was enjoying this. Far from feeling frantic and unmoored, I was the picture of calm, pureeing ingredients for soup in the food processor while reminding Eve of the scale and fixing her compass when the lead fell out. No yelling. No reprimands. No whining about "too much homework" or "this is too hard." We were working it out. We had managed to get past the defensiveness and blaming, the intractable positions in our opposite corners, and get it done.

At one point it seemed that all was lost. There was one more component of the project that seemed insurmountable at dinnertime on a Sunday night. And then it happened. I thought outside the box. I lived up to the nickname some of my former co-workers gave me one day: "Queen of the Workaround." Not cheating. Not even a shortcut. But a way to stick our tongues out at that brick wall, turn on our heels and walk right around the damn thing without even breaking a sweat.

As Eve finished packing her now completed homework away I told her how proud I was that she stuck it out and finished. She walked over to me, wrapped her arms around me and gave me the most genuine hug I've had from her since she was a toddler. Resting her head on my heart, she snuggled in tight and murmured, "I love you. Thank you, Mom."

So, yeah. I'm grinning like a fool. Headache and all.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

It's Your Words That Matter (Stupid!)

As I puttered around the house doing laundry and tidying the kitchen and fluffing pillows yesterday morning, my local NPR station was on in the background. The host was interviewing Barry McCaffrey of Clinton-era war-on-drugs fame and I found myself intrigued. I recall him taking a very different tack from the Nancy Reagan "just say no" campaign, but couldn't really remember many of the specifics, so my ears perked up and I slowed my tasks down in order to pay closer attention.

It is easy to pay attention to General McCaffrey, given that he is a career military man and speaks with 100% authority. He has very strong opinions on seemingly every subject in the Universe and speaks about them with no equivocation whatsoever. When callers or the host disagreed with him, he was not condescending, but so sure of himself that I wonder if he often causes others to question their own rationale. I found myself agreeing with him on a few issues and disagreeing about others, but glad I wasn't in the room with him admitting my dissent.

Until he began talking about the drug policy his task force crafted for the Office of National Drug Control Policy during his time in the Clinton White House. It started innocently enough, with him advocating for developmentally appropriate approaches to drug resistance education. Okay, fair enough. I can see the logic in that.

Saying, "You don't tell a 17-year old who is smoking a joint that they will get lung cancer or throat cancer. They don't care about that. You say, 'Hey, Stupid! You're going to get pregnant or drop out of school and never get a job!"



How is calling someone "Stupid" a way to change behavior?
How is belittling someone and trying to frighten them a way to motivate or encourage?
How is making someone think you see them as an idiot going to help you understand them?

As a former teenager who smoked a lot of pot (thank goodness my kids don't read this blog), I can tell you that by the time I had made the decision to engage in this behavior, I had already written myself off. I didn't need anyone else to. The reasons I used drugs were several:

1. There was a community of other potheads who accepted me into their group.
2. On some level I felt invincible (common among teenagers, and doesn't bode well for Gen. McCaffrey's fear tactics. I was sure I wasn't the one who would get pregnant or get caught smoking pot).
3. I was trying to escape some of the difficult realities in my life.
4. I felt somewhat hopeless about my life.

Luckily, stronger drugs weren't really available to me at that time. Couple that with the fact that I was a control freak and I had some pretty strong notions of which lines I wouldn't cross, which is why I never drank alcohol.

Also luckily, I had a few supportive adults in my life who may or may not have known I was smoking pot, but who believed in my ability to live my dreams. They encouraged me to get to college which afforded me a different way to escape the difficulties in my current situation. I saw that as a clean break and a way to reinvent myself somewhat and I was able to separate myself from the drug culture I had immersed myself in.

I certainly hope that General McCaffrey's drug policy is not standard operating procedure in most of the schools around the nation. I believe that the only way to really change the way we treat illegal drugs and alcohol is by understanding the reasons people turn to them in the first place and supporting them as they learn to deal honestly with the challenges in their lives. I understand that game plan isn't nearly as clearcut as a military man might like, but I am certain that berating and belittling and attempting to scare people is not the way to go.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Vacationing is Hard Work

When our children were toddlers, I had a girlfriend describe vacationing with children as “parenting in a different place.” She was right. If you’ve gone on a trip with your partner before having children, you know that taking children, especially babies or toddlers, out of town, is not nearly as relaxing as it could be. The endless accommodations you have to anticipate for diapers or food or public tantrums are, quite simply, exhausting. Corralling your children in a familiar place like home is much easier.

- Let me be the first to say how grateful I am that my girls are eleven and nine.
- Let me be the first to say how grateful I am that we insisted on swimming lessons (and they took to them like guppies) when they were toddlers.
- Let me be the first to say that there is nothing like traveling with your in-laws to a lovely tropical location to inspire such gratitude as you watch them manage twin 2-year-olds who want to go in two different directions, both of them potentially dangerous. (All this after you’ve given your kids some cash and told them to stay within shouting distance of the pool or the shave ice stand.)

It turns out that the most difficult thing I had to manage on my recent vacation was myself.

Day 1-3: Guilt. Despite the fact that my girls were both blissfully flitting from pool to beach to cousins to snack shack and back, requiring little if any interaction from me, I found myself often sitting in a chair on the beach beating myself up mentally. “I ought to be swimming with them.” “I ought to be taking a romantic walk down the beach with Bubba.” “I probably look really lazy sitting here in the sun while my sister-in-law struggles with the twins. I should go help her.” “Some exercise would be good. I ought to go for a run or swim some laps.” I could go on, but I suspect you’ve got the message by now.

I wasn’t getting dirty looks or pleas for attention. Cash, yes. Attention, not so much. The simple fact is, the girls were having a ball with their cousins (five of them accompanied us on the trip), and Bubba was fully immersed in vacation-mode, doing what he loves best (boogie-boarding with the girls, staring at the ocean, and having a martini with his father by the pool). And yet I couldn’t turn off the part of my mind that was certain there were more important things I could be doing.

Day 4-10: Occasional guilt. But mostly, since I continually worked on reminding myself that I work really hard at home and THIS IS MY VACATION, TOO, I was able to stop and give myself permission to be lazy relax. See? I can’t even bring myself to call it lazy. I guess that word is too thick with negative connotation for me to be comfortable with.

I won’t say that I didn’t continue to struggle with that constant questioning voice asking “what should you be doing?” At some point I was reminded that someone once told me no matter how far you run, you are still stuck with yourself. So while vacationing with my kids is now a lot easier, one thing that will never change is that going away in any circumstances is “being with myself in a different place.” It was a stark reminder that working on self-acceptance is still the most important work I have to do – no matter where I am.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Book Reviews are Back!

I recently joined Book Pleasures as a reviewer and my first assignment was a long but rewarding book. I've posted the review in its entirety here, but I highly recommend you pop over to their site for any other book reviews you might wish to see. Their reviewers represent all different genres and the list of books there is staggering.

Book Review
Victory Deferred: How AIDS Changed Gay Life in America
By John-Manuel Andriote
ISBN: 978-1-61364-678-6
University of Chicago Press

In this revised and updated version of his comprehensive book, the author takes a look at the AIDS epidemic in America from its explosive beginnings to present day. He traces the strange origins of what was first known as the “gay cancer” and, through exhaustive interviews and vast amounts of research, paints an extraordinary picture of the way gay culture was significantly altered because of it.

Andriote, himself a gay man who was present as AIDS made itself known, spreading like wildfire through the gay communities in cities like San Francisco and New York, has a unique perspective on what life was like for gay men before and after the epidemic hit. He watched as this population, actively discriminated against and almost completely disenfranchised, came together as a cohesive unit to address the issues that AIDS presented for them. The book is a fascinating history of the movement almost entirely started by the gay community to demand recognition and respect in the face of this deadly disease. It traces the roots of the comprehensive in-home care systems (known as the “San Francisco model”) that ensured that those afflicted with AIDS could receive effective, appropriate care based on their individual needs. Far from treating AIDS as a solely medical issue, the gay community quickly recognized the need for housing, food, and counseling as well as medical treatment.

The author looks at the drive for acceptance and acknowledgment by gay men and women and the monumental barriers put in their way by the political and cultural establishments of the 1980s and beyond. The reader quickly begins to understand how incredibly hard it is to navigate a bureaucracy like the United States government when you are part of a group so hated and stigmatized. Nonetheless, the early efforts of those determined to fight for funding and research and treatment for AIDS were tireless and passionate and served to change the gay community itself from a set of disparate individuals not prone to sharing struggles or finding commonality amongst themselves into a unified, organized force for change.

The book itself follows some of the most dynamic individuals in this struggle up to present day as well as the course of AIDS policy throughout the years and changes in political leadership in the US. The path taken by many of the organizations created in response to the AIDS crisis is a primer for any other service organization, as the author does a thorough job of exploring, through the lens of history, some of the mistakes and missteps as well as acknowledging the triumphs and lessons learned by these grassroots efforts.

Victory Deferred is a testament to the passion and spirit of the gay community when faced with a catastrophe within their ranks. He shows that the fight is far from over and, indeed, has gone a bit off-course in the last two decades, but his even-handed and painstakingly complete account of this crisis serves to enlighten and educate the reader to a degree I would not have thought possible.

If you're interested in buying this book click here.

Review by Kari O’Driscoll for

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

BlogHer's "Life Well-Lived" Series

What do you do to get your day going on an upbeat, positive note?

That was the question posed to me as a blogger featured on BlogHer. I signed up to answer questions as part of a series exploring how women can live better lives. Not change themselves or their life circumstances, but live in the lives they already have in a happier, more grounded way.

I will admit, when the question appeared in my inbox, my first thought was, "What makes them think I start my day on an upbeat, positive note?"

Joking aside, however, I do actually strive to ground myself before my eyes even open for the day by shoving aside the conveyor-belt to-do list that wants to muscle its way to forefront of my brain and imagining the day stretching out before me in the most positive way possible.

Upon hitting the kitchen (the nerve-center of our household), my routine is set and everyone in the house knows it. Other than letting the dog out to empty his bladder, the first needs that are met are mine. Over the years, I have discovered that using the espresso machine to make my latte is a ritual that is as soothing to complete as the final product is - my own "Japanese tea ceremony," if you will. The familiar process of priming the machine and steaming the milk until it makes just the right squeal somehow centers me. I never use a thermometer to check the temperature - on my machine I know the precise pitch of perfectly hot milk. I never get tired of watching the thick, dark espresso run into the shot glass, swirling as the foam rises to the top. I head to the kitchen table and gaze out at the fountain burbling away in the backyard. Many mornings, there is a chickadee or blue jay drinking or bathing in the fountain and this quick re-connection with nature, coupled with the warmth of my drink and a few moments to myself set the tone for my day.

What are your rituals for starting your day? Pop over to BlogHer's Life Well Lived site to add your two cents and read others' tips for starting your day off happy. You can also enter to win a $250.00 Visa gift card if you share your ideas.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Not the Post I Wanted to Write

I had planned another blog post for today - one I've been ruminating about for the last couple of days. Often, ideas for posts come to me as I walk or read or find quiet moments throughout my day, and this one was no exception. But I was derailed by the issue that has screamed its way in to my email inbox and plastered itself across my Facebook page every day this week - HR 358.

[H.R.358 would allow hospitals to refuse to provide a woman emergency, lifesaving abortion care, even if she will die without it.]

Anyone who reads my blog can easily peg me as someone who ardently supports a woman's right to make her own health care decisions - proudly "pro-choice." And despite having grown up with that right in place (I won't say firmly), I have never considered myself as someone who takes abortion rights for granted. That said, I didn't truly believe it was possible for the House of Representatives to pass this bill today. I live in an area where my state representative shares my conviction on this issue, relieving me from any email efforts to remind him where I stand. He voted against the bill just like I knew he would. But that didn't mitigate my complete and utter shock at the news that the bill passed anyway.

I'm not sure what I find more perplexing about this.

1. That politicians would presume to tell physicians - professionals who have undergone years of specialized training in healthcare issues - how to do their jobs. Physicians do take an oath to "first do no harm" upon passing the bar and beginning their practice. It seems to me that letting a woman die when there is a life-saving procedure available to her violates that oath. Egregiously.

2. That despite the much more pressing issues facing our country (recession, wars, a broken healthcare system), and the certain knowledge that should this bill find its way on to President Obama's desk, he will veto it, they insisted on spending time and energy and money putting it to a vote. For what? To send a message? Believe me, the public is clear about Boehner's intentions to end legalized abortion in the United States. We don't need the message in any other terms. We get it. This is the seventh time a bill attempting to restrict abortions in the U.S. has been up for a vote this year.

I must say, I'm past being disgusted and fully immersed in confusion at this point. Are politicians so completely out of touch with what is going on in the country that they think this is pressing work? Have they become such automatons in their belief that it is important for them to wield their power to make laws and push specific agendas that they have lost the ability to be flexible and respond to what the people of our country are dealing with on a daily basis?

Friday, October 07, 2011

Get Lost!

I like maps. And my GPS. Even when I think I know where I'm going, I like to plug the address in to my iPhone and get directions as a back up.

When we were in Tuscany with the girls in 2004, I found the Italian approach to road maps a tad frustrating, to say the least. Not only do they seem to lack accuracy in scale, they don't note the toll plazas and when you're faced with the prospect of changing lanes to exit when you don't have any change and there are locals whizzing by you at 125 mph, it often seems easier to just stay on the motorway. Except that the next opportunity to get off might be miles and miles down the road. And it is probably getting dark. And the two- and four-year-olds in the back seat are most likely getting hungry.

I decided that the Italians, who truly enjoy their hours-long lunches, complete with wine, might be better off outsourcing their mapping jobs to the Germans. They were the only ones who seemed more perturbed about the lack of accuracy than I was.

So I like to know where I'm going. And how long it will take me to get there. And I hate being late. So sue me. I get that it's a control thing. And I'm working on that - the being comfortable not being in control part, I mean. But I still need a knock on the head every once in a while.

Cue David Whyte and his amazing book, "The Three Marriages." I have written about it before, but I am reading the book again, having decided that I would get more out of it if I read it with some friends. So we have a mini-book-club thing going and I am much more mindful and deliberate about reading it this time and am able to go another layer deeper in to the subject matter.

It came as no surprise to me that, after a day of pinging around the house, lost to purpose and wondering when I might get some inkling of energy back to begin to engage in writing and creating, I read these words:

"Eventually we realize that not knowing what to do is just as real and just as useful as knowing what to do. Not knowing stops us from taking false directions. Not knowing what to do, we start to pay real attention. Just as people lost in the wilderness, on a cliff face or in a blizzard pay attention with a kind of acuity they would not have if they thought they knew where they were. Why? Because for those who are really lost, their life depends on paying real attention. If you think you know where you are, you stop looking."

It was the last line that really stopped me in my tracks. If you think you know where you are, you stop looking.

And sometimes, when I am desperately seeking a path TO somewhere (home, the dentist, Eve's friend's house), my vision hones in so tightly as I look for clues that I fail to notice the breadth of the world around me. I am so focused on the end point, the goal, and what I imagine it to look like, that I might drive right past it because it doesn't seem to fit my expectations.

In the case of my writing goals, I am reminded that it is more fruitful to pay attention to where I am right now and simply take the next step than it might be to fantasize about what the final product will look like or how it will be received. I may well discover an entirely new path that contains delightful surprises or challenges me beyond what I thought I could do or leads me on the journey of a lifetime.

I need to get lost more often so that I can pay more attention.

Monday, October 03, 2011

You Make a Mess...

you clean it up. That's the rule in our house. It's the rule at Eve and Lola's school, and the rule at most workplaces I know. You dirty up some dishes in the lunchroom? Wash them, dry them and put them away. No reason anyone else ought to be doing your dishes. It's a respect thing.

I get that sometimes accidents happen. I've seen Lola trying to maneuver a container of yogurt out of the fridge from behind that enormous jar of pickles, only to bump the jar and have the pickles and pickle juice cascade all down the front of the refrigerator shelves and onto the floor. What generally happens in that instance is that someone comes to help her clean it up. But nobody does it for her.

More importantly, though, when it is a purposeful activity that leads to a mess - say Eve's got a hankering to bake cookies on a rainy Sunday afternoon - she's responsible for cleaning it up. If she needs help she can always ask.

If Lola gets aggravated at her sister for calling her a name or treating her disrespectfully and decides to dump her entire load of clean, folded laundry over the railing onto the hardwood floor below it is Lola's job to pick up the clothes, refold them and put the basket back in front of Eve's door.

Why is it that we hold ourselves to a higher standard than we hold our world leaders? It's a basic premise: You make a mess, you clean it up.

Last Thursday I was listening to NPR as they featured an interview with the man responsible for starting and maintaining the landmine museum in Afghanistan. Seems like an odd theme for a museum, I know, but his purpose is to bring awareness to the enormity of the problem with landmines in this war-fatigued country. I was astonished to learn that there are an estimated TEN MILLION LAND MINES IN AFGHANISTAN. Yes, you read that correctly. And I looked it up again to make sure I heard it correctly.

A huge majority of these mines are left over from the war between the former USSR and Afghanistan. You know, the one that ended in 1988. The mine of choice for this particular ten-year war is very benignly known as a "butterfly" mine. Turns out they actually look like butterflies and were designed this way so that they could be dropped via air and gently flutter to the ground without exploding. They only explode on contact with an animal or human being. Now, can you think of a human being that might be intrigued by a hand-sized object that resembles a butterfly? A child, perhaps? And can you imagine how many children have lost limbs and eyes and THEIR LIVES by picking up these land mines that have been in Afghanistan for the last 30 years or so?

Land mines litter the landscape of Afghanistan. They are on the land that is used to graze animals, paths to and from towns, and on school property. The incidence of land mines in Afghanistan has resulted in the depopulation of entire swaths of the country because people are unwilling to take the chance that they might come across one in their daily lives. And yet, the proprietor of this land mine museum still encounters children who actively seek out these mines in order to gather the scrap metal to make a little money for their families. Because their families have lost livestock to mines or they have been forced to give up growing crops that could sustain them because their land is too dangerous to work.

Ignoring the larger question of whether or not it is even morally defensible to use land mines as an offensive tactic, when a war is over, I think it is not unreasonable to expect the country that placed them to go in and clean up the land mines. Finding and disarming these deadly weapons is expensive and time consuming, but I think if you're willing to use them to target civilians (and don't tell me that this isn't what the the USSR and the Taliban were/are doing by placing mines in these particular areas), you ought to be willing to go pick up your mess when you've made your point. The fact that you can declare that a war is over and walk away knowing that generations of innocent civilians continue to be placed in harm's way as a direct result of your actions during wartime seems a little too easy.

It would seem to me that the countries who use land mines as a way to wage war ought to know in advance that they will be held responsible for all of the fallout from that decision. Not all is fair in war, and I believe that leaving a country riddled with land mines constitutes a war crime.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Curriculum Night

... at Eve's middle school. Those words are enough to strike fear (or frustration or boredom or eye-rolling) into most adults I know. One friend, confiding to me that she wasn't going to her daughter's Curriculum Night, explained that it is essentially an open house where the parents travel from room to room, following the path that their child takes during the day. Not much time for in-depth conversations with teachers or parents of other students. Not all that illuminating.

So why did I bend over backwards to go? Because Eve's school is different than any other school I've ever encountered. For examples of how, you can read this which has two other examples embedded within it. Suffice it to say that I LOVE THIS SCHOOL. So I was interested in what this year would look like for Eve and I moved Heaven and Earth to make sure I could get there.

And while I fully expected a happy ending, I still managed to be surprised at the depth of the presentation. Eve's 6th grade team has got it together! They have designed a curriculum that is integrated across all subjects (yes, music, art, physical education, math, humanities and science included) and speaks to the developmental phase that these girls are in right now. They have taken into account the brain research that shows how 11 and 12 year old girls' brains work, what they are interested in (themselves, mostly), and how best to engage them in the learning process. Each of these instructors stood up and talked about how excited they are about what they are charged with teaching to the girls this year and how important it is that each and every one of the students feels connected and supported and empowered within this community.

Now I understand that cynics' eyes are rolling at this point. Rhetoric. I'll believe it when I see it. But let me tell you that I do believe it. Because I've seen it. Last Thursday, the entire class embarked on a camping trip that was designed for team building. The girls did a ROPES course, rock climbed, and challenged each other and themselves physically, emotionally and mentally, sharing information about their hopes and fears for this school year. Last year, the 5th graders in Eve's class did similar exercises and came together so solidly as a group that when spring basketball signups rolled around, despite the fact that only two of the girls in the class had ever played basketball before, nearly the entire class went out for the team. Despite the fact that they looked more like the Harlem Globetrotters after a couple of bottles of tequila out there on the court, nobody worried about looking silly. They were simply a group of girls having fun playing together. As. A. Team. Let me repeat that: 5th-grade girls not worried about other girls making fun of them for looking silly. Because they trusted each other.

This school year is designed to be all about the girls. Because they are all about themselves right now. The first third of the year is spent exploring how they got to this point. In Art, they are looking at aboriginal art, basic techniques and building blocks. The Humanities teacher has them reading the book "Nation" by Terry Pratchett in an effort to get them to understand society-building. The Music teacher is exploring rhythm and the Science teacher has them building simple machines out of Lego blocks. The Math teacher is making sure everyone has basic skills in mathematical operations and the PE teacher is helping them tell their own stories, physically and verbally. How did I get here? To this point?

The second third of the year asks "Who am I?" Again, each teacher has his or her own way of exploring that question with the girls. For example, the girls will be sketching self-portraits in Art and breaking down the human body into operational systems (digestion, circulation, etc.) in Science.

The last portion of their studies focuses on development. Where are we going from here? They will all work together toward the end of the year for their final culmination ceremony which is a three day bike ride and camping trip on a nearby island. They will push themselves farther emotionally and physically than they ever thought they could, all while using simple machines (bicycles), examining this tribe they have created over the past nine months, and feeling supported.

I caught up with one new parent on our way out last night and she turned to me and exclaimed, "The teachers are all so dynamic! So different from my middle school experience. I wish I could go back to school like this!" I couldn't agree more. I wish every child had the opportunity to be a part of an educational experience like this. I love that Eve's school supports a diverse array of families through scholarships and opens up to kids who wouldn't otherwise get this opportunity, but it still isn't enough. Until we as a society begin demanding this kind of thoughtful, deliberate approach to education, involving the teachers in curriculum creation that excites them and empowers them and giving them the flexibility to utilize things like brain research and outside-the-box thinking, most kids won't ever experience this kind of education. I feel pretty damn lucky that Eve and Lola will and I can only hope that they will find a way to work toward making sure more kids get it, too.
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