Monthly Archives: October 2009

Sweeter than sugar

We have always been a low-sweets household, but we’ve not wanted to be the parents who say their kids can never have sweets.  We all know how those kids turn out.  I have tried to ferret out the hidden sugar in breads and processed foods so that we can surreptitiously cut back on the kids’ intake of partially hydrogenated corn syrup and sugar without them recognizing our tight fist of authority.

Recently, we came to the conclusion that Benjamin has a bit of an issue with refined sugar.  Namely, he cannot seem to control himself.  I don’t mean he cannot control himself around sweets.  I mean he is totally insane.  I often suspect he misbehaves not because he wants to but because he simply cannot help himself.  We decided to limit his sugar intake even further to see if that would allow him to remain in control.

But, not wanting to be those parents, we figured there should be exceptions for birthday cakes and occasional nights out for ice cream.  Both of which he had last week.  And after both of which we found him pissing all over the bathroom floor, cackling with glee.

OK, maybe no sugar at all for awhile.  Cutting sugar from my diet has made a huge difference in my mood swings, so we think he may have similar trouble processing it.  I informed his teachers, since he gets most of his sugar at school.

Let’s pause for a minute and review that statement.  Does anyone see anything wrong with that?  His school is giving him sweets.

Whenever I have brought it up, albeit tentatively, the response has been, “You have to give kids treats now and again.”  To which, sure.  But shouldn’t the right to hand out sweets be reserved for the person who is also doling out the broccoli?  Why does the school get to give out all the treats and Mommy has to be in charge of vegetables?  That hardly seems fair.  I think teachers should hand out sugared stuff in a one-to-ten proportion to nutritious food.  If all the snacks are asparagus and fava beans, sure, go for it, pour the kid some grape juice now and again.  If, however, snacks are regularly Goldfish and graham crackers?  Well, you’ve kind of already used up your allotted portion of empty calories and partially hydrogenated anything.  You don’t get to hand out sugared sweets.

Between the birthday celebrations (and why are parents encouraged to bring in cupcakes for that?), classroom parties for Grand Day and the umpteen Jewish holidays the children must celebrate, and the regular use of Cheerios as snacks, there is a hell of a lot more sugar flowing out of that preschool than there ought to be.

Hence my comment to the teachers last week.  “We’re trying to severely limit his sugar intake,” I told them as Benjamin attempted to climb the built-in cubbies.  “For obvious reasons.”  I reminded them on Friday, when I was in the class for Shabbat, another “special occasion” that falls every week and seems to call for cup after cup of grape juice.

So, imagine my surprise when I walked into the classroom yesterday and saw packs of Oreo cookies on the table.  (And why is a Jewish preschool using Oreos instead of Hydrox?)  “Are you feeding those to him?” I asked.

“We’re making edible dirt today!” the teachers gushed.  “Crumbled up Oreos in chocolate pudding with gummy worms.”  Oh.  Because that’s so much better.

“I told you we’re trying to keep him away from sugar.”

“Well, we won’t let him have much.”  OK, that is so not the point.  The point is that we are trying to see if completely cutting out sugar helps him to control himself.  We are doing an experiment here.

And so, when I picked him up at school and was handed a cup of “edible dirt,” it took all my self-control to keep from flinging it at the teachers.  Now, I can either be unfair to my kid by telling him he cannot eat it or by putting him in a position where he cannot control his behavior and then gets punished for it.

For the record, I chose Option A.  I’m OK with being Mean Mommy.

Halloween is coming, and we’re going to have to get creative.  We’re also skipping as many birthday parties as possible.  But, ultimately, it won’t matter, since clearly the teachers plan to keep slipping him the stuff on the side.

Hunchback of West L.A.

“Stand still,” my husband told me, staring hard at the back of my head.  “Lift up your hair.”  He ran his hand along my spine at the base of my neck.  “I think you need to see a doctor.”

“Why?” I replied in my can-we-be-paranoid-some-other-time-I-am-sorting-laundry voice.

“Osteoporosis.”

“I don’t have osteoporosis,” I told him, handing him cleaning rags to put away.  “I’m thirty-five.  I take a calcium supplement and drink milk.”

“Yeah, and it’s all going right back out to her.”  He indicated Lilah, our third child and a dedicated nurser.

The next day, I decided it was all the fault of the Baby Bjorn, which was Lilah’s preferred method of transportation/nap position.  I pulled out the back carrier, gave away the Bjorn, and figured I had heard the last of old Hump on My Back.  Except that the bump did not go away.  Over the next month, it remained, all the more visible because I never have time to wash my hair, which is perpetually pinned up.  Fine.  I’ll see the doctor.

Don’t worry: I do not have osteoporosis.  I merely have an acute case of Carrying Children Around.  It probably doesn’t help that I contort my body to reach my laptop with one hand while breastfeeding the baby.  How else am I supposed to get any writing done?

I’ve been juggling writing and children for over five years.  I revised my dissertation in Philadelphia when my first child, Zachary, was seven weeks old.  I would put him down for a nap, then rush into my study, where I would pump because everyone told me I had to make him take a bottle so that I would not be tied down.  Then, I’d ferry the milk down to the fridge, race back up to my study, pull out my dissertation director’s list of comments, implement three changes, and then go back in to get the baby who somehow needed to eat once again.

Perhaps I would have gotten more done had the child actually ever taken a bottle.  Instead, he would scream until my breasts appeared.  One memorable conversation with my dissertation director featured me whispering so as not to disturb the nursing infant while I took notes with one hand.  Now, that’s the way to makes a professional impression.

I started writing creative non-fiction in London while my second child, Benjamin, was still taking morning naps.  I’d drop Zach off at preschool, then skedaddle home, all the while hoping Ben would not fall asleep in the stroller and thereby deprive me of 45 minutes to write.

And what was I writing about?

My children were my muse.  I was learning so much about them and me and parenting that everything they said was an inspiration.  The time I spent with my kids was the flip side of my writing time.  Parenting and writing were part of the same creative act, inextricably linked with one another as I developed both my writer’s voice and my maternal identity.

It is two years later, we live in Los Angeles, and I have three children.  Firing off an essay before the children get up in the morning is no longer invigorating.  The days are long enough already, with far too much to fit in.  Every time I try to write, I am torn.  When the youngest two are napping, I could force out half-processed thoughts or I could work with Zachary on his reading.  When the boys are at preschool, I could revise lusterless prose or I could actually focus on their sister.  And sometimes, when I sit down to nurse, I don’t want to look at a laptop screen and type with one hand.  I want to look down at my last baby.

Even if I had the time, what would I write about?  I don’t go anywhere or see anyone, unless the playground and the preschool count.

My children have made my breasts limp, my stomach flabby, and they have given me a hunchback.  They are gorgeous, but their beauty has come at the expense of my own.  I do not begrudge them my youth.  I have passed it along to them willingly.  But, some days their young minds seem to be growing only by draining my own intellect, and that stings.

My lovelies, you may not be sucking all the calcium from my bones, but there are moments it feels as though you are drinking my creativity for breakfast.

The one in which Emily apologizes for the one-way conversation

I just want to say I know I have sucked at reading other people’s blogs lately.  And I am sorry.  And I hit “Mark All as Read” again just now.  Do me a favor, huh?  If something really big has happened in your life lately, leave me the link to the post.  Because — and it bears repeating — I suck at reading blogs lately.

Lines written as I wait for my three-year-old to come running out of his room at bedtime

I worry about Zachary, who is so up in his own head sometimes that he makes his life more complicated than it needs to be.  I have a vague suspicion of where that trait may have come from, and I feel sorry for a child who over-thinks everything from the play dates that he builds up in his little head to the reward he wants for his sticker chart.

I worry about Lilah physically.  I was never one to run to the doctor, but with this little girl I am there every other week.  Perhaps it is because she got Benjamin’s pathetic immune system (thanks to Daddy) combined with Zachary’s diminutive stature (thanks to Mommy).  Or perhaps it was the pneumonia last year that landed her in the hospital for a week as a newborn.  Or maybe she really does get sick a lot.

But the one I worry the most about is Benjamin.  Because I just don’t get him.

He seems so heedless of rules and other people’s opinions that it’s easy to believe he is actually heedless of rules and other people’s opinions.  He runs off laughing maniacally when asked to brush his teeth, he makes his body go limp when we try to get him into the house, and he screams loudly just to hear the sound of his own voice.  On Sunday, I caught him sitting on top of his baby sister.  I think he was trying to ride her.

I suspect, however, that he actually does care.  I think there is a bravado there, covering a sensitive kid with a desire for constant stimulation.  He wants to rocket around the house, but he wants us to find a way to stop him before he hurts himself.  He wants us to be engaged in his game, even though his game is getting us to stop him from scraping his fork over the table.  And we cannot find an effective way to stop him.

Stop right there, because I know you are going to offer advice.  If you are going to suggest any of the following, don’t bother, because we’re already doing it:

  • sticker chart
  • yelling
  • not yelling and talking firmly
  • taking away television privileges one minute at a time
  • removing the fork from his hand
  • time outs
  • praise for good behavior

I’m also not interested in hearing any suggestions that we give him some special time each day just with a grown-up unless the suggestion comes with an offer to babysit the other two kids while I am patiently playing knights with Benjamin.  We do the best we can to give him individual attention, but it seems the suggestion that we spend time alone with each kid each day never comes from people with three kids five and under.  (What I am looking for in posting this, in case you are wondering, is commiseration.)

Benjamin is the kind of kid who, if he lived in a house of spanking, would try to get himself spanked, just to push the envelope a little further.  He loves rules, because without them there would be nothing to break.  He is charming, he is smart, and he is loving.  He will make a mighty fine adult some day, if we can keep him alive that long.

But there are going to be some mighty tough teen years in the middle.  Perhaps I had better alert the police department now.

Neighbors

We had been ignoring her for over a year.  When our kids went out to play at nine-thirty on a hot summer morning, we pretended not to hear her groaning out the window, “Can you please keep it down?  We’re still sleeping in here.”  We played stupid at 4:00 on a weekday afternoon, as she hollered over the high cinderblock wall, “I’m trying to give a piano lesson here!”  We raised our eyebrows silently when she imitated three-year-old Benjamin’s happy shrieks from her side of the property line, but we never responded.

It was, however, a whole lot harder to ignore the note she left on my  windshield one Saturday morning.

“To our neighbors,” it read.  “Could you please try and remember that this is a family neighborhood.  Some families actually like to sleep in the morning.  The level of noises and loud shouting emanating from your home is completely unacceptable!  The entire neighborhood can hear you!  Pease keep your windows closed, or try to be more considerate of your neighbors by keeping the noises down in the future!!!”

I guess we shouldn’t expect an invitation to the block party this year.

Now, to be fair, that morning she just might have heard me hollering something along the lines of, “You asked for that sandwich, so you will need to sit there and eat it or there will be nothing else to eat till snack time.”  Setting aside for a minute that we let our kids eat peanut butter and jelly for breakfast if they want to, I suppose my neighbor did not particularly appreciate waking up to that moment of stellar parenting.  She was probably already up, come to think of it; our boys had been pummeling one another for at least forty-five minutes by that point.

Crappy disciplinarian though I was being, that note got my Mama Bear up.  The appropriate thing to do seemed to be to ignore my kids for a half-an-hour while I crafted a response.  A two-page response that detailed the things we have already done to limit the noise and listed the loud noises coming from her house, which include but is no way limited to her teenaged son bursting out with cringe-inducing opera singing late into the night.

“Perhaps you can do what we do and simply close your windows when you wish to sleep, as this is an urban neighborhood with houses close together,” I concluded.  “Remember that this is a family neighborhood, and there are children here.  Children do not come with an off button, unfortunately.”

I dropped it in her mail slot and rapidly walked away, glancing over my shoulder to make sure she hadn’t seen me.

This, I assumed, would be the end of it.  Until the next morning, when I looked out my window to see another note on my windshield.  Clearly, my neighbor does not realize that we also possess a mail slot.

Her response was surprisingly civil, despite little choice phrases like “child protective services.”  And, so, I took the high road.  Baking challah for our Friday night dinner, my eldest child and I braided a second loaf for her.

“Is it for our crazy neighbor?” he asked.

“You might not want to call her that to her face.  OK, kiddo?”

“Why we bringing her bread?” the three-year-old wanted to know.

“Because, Benjamin,” I replied, “you are the loudest person in the world and you wake her up.”

We went on over, carrying our loaf wrapped in a towel.  Fortunately, the door was opened by her housekeeper fighting to keep back the bevy of yapping dogs.  We handed over the bread and made our escape.  I spent the rest of the day dodging past her house, not wanting to talk to her, hoping she would carry on avoiding any actual face-to-face contact.

The next afternoon, we came home to find a small pot of roses on our front step.  It seems we have made peace, without all the bureaucratic hassle of calling in family services.

I put the roses in the window facing her house.  A window that now remains closed until at least 8:30 in the morning.

Saucy

God bless my third child, because that girl will eat anything.  Well, almost anything.  When the time came to switch from breast milk to whole milk, she spit that crap right out.  Only when we started putting skim milk in her cup did she agree to drink the stuff.  A girl has to watch her figure.

Other than whole milk and ice cream, however, Lilah will eat whatever is put in front of her.  Lentils, eggplant, spinach, chicken… you name it, she eats it.  Unlike Benjamin, who gorges himself on giant fistfuls of victuals like a cross between a caveman and Henry VIII, Lilah is a lady with table manners.  She deliberately picks up one morsel at a time, content to spend forty-five minutes on a twelve-course meal.  To be completely honest, all her delicate manners do nothing to prevent her from getting soup in her ears and cheese on her head.

I have earned this baby.  Feeding Zachary has the potential to become a full-time obsession, what with his constantly shifting sensitivities to textures and smells.  One day he cannot handle skin on his fruit, the next day he eats only the skin.  This week he likes grapes, next week he’ll declare them disgusting.  Every food has to be vetted for offensive odors or sauces that might inadvertently slip onto the plate.  After five years of this shit, I deserve a kid who doesn’t make me think too hard about what I feed her, damn it.

Lilah almost turned out to be the one.

Unfortunately, it turns out that everything she eats makes her break out into hives.  It started with squashes, but quickly grew.  Eggs.  Lentils.  Beans.  Chicken.  Tofu.  Pizza.  Pasta.  At every meal, she would happily dip into the creamed spinach soup or paint herself black with beans.  And by the end, her face was covered in hives.

We decided to test her for food allergies.  Maybe it was tomatoes, beans, and dairy that gave her the eczema.  Or perhaps she was sensitive to meat proteins.  Maybe it was gluten, whatever the fuck that is.  The doctor and I discussed some possibilities, and she ticked off the choices on her little referral form.  It wasn’t until I got the thing home that I realized there was one common denominator in all the foods Lilah was eating.  I called the doctor and had her add one more item to the list for the blood screening.

And that’s how we came to find that our daughter is allergic to garlic.  Mildly allergic, mind you, but since she was getting it in everything, she was pretty much constantly exposed to an irritant.  Hence the blotchy skin and scaly elbows.

I panicked.  How the hell was I supposed to cook?  I use garlic in pretty much everything.  Short of chocolate chip cookies, there isn’t a dish out there that doesn’t get its best start in life from olive oil, onions, and garlic.  Although I was already cooking most of our food from scratch, I liked to know I had the option of ordering in.  I rarely would, but I need that escape hatch for weeks when everyone had didn’t have swine flu and the oven door fell off.  I defy you to think of a single food one can order in that does not have garlic in it.

Just listen to that escape hatch swing shut.

What I quickly have come to realize, however, is that adding more onions allows me to remove the garlic without any catastrophic effects.  The taste is milder usually, but equally good.  Contrary to popular opinion, pasta sauce made without garlic does not cause your rigatoni to shrivel up into a ball and beg for mercy.  It can be quite good.

So, here’s how I made Lilah’s Garlicless Red Sauce:

6 to 10 tomatoes, deseeded and diced

2 medium sized onions, diced

olive oil

bay leaf

one bunch spinach, washed well and chopped

fresh basil, oregano and parsley (or dried)

salt and pepper

Heat the olive oil in a large pot.  Let me spill a little secret about olive oil: it doesn’t really matter how much you put in.  The onions will cook well no matter what amount you use.  If you really need a measurement, let’s go with two tablespoons, but I won’t tell anyone if you just dump some in.  Cook the onions for about ten minutes until translucent.  Toss in the tomatoes and cook until well stewed, maybe five to ten minutes.

Oh, wait, I forgot to tell you to put in the bay leaf, too.  Cook the bay leaf with the tomatoes.

Then throw in the spinach and the herbs.  Fresh is always better, and you cannot possibly have too much fresh basil.  However, dried also works fine, and in that case stick to a teaspoon or less of each herb.  When the spinach has wilted into the sauce, add salt (sparingly) and lots of pepper.

I didn’t have any cooked white beans, but if I had, I would have tossed those in, too.

Puree it all (except the bay leaf.  For the love of God, take that out).  It’s a little dark for a red sauce, but that spinach packs a nice punch.  I used it for a lasagna last night and the two children who actually eat loved it.  The other one sat on the floor across the room from the offending food and muttered to himself.  Every now and then I caught words like “disgusting” and “horrible.”

To make the lasagna, by the way, cook some noodles.  Put just a little sauce on the bottom of 9x 13 pan.  Put down a layer of noodles.  Ricotta cheese in splotches (or, if your ricotta has gone bad, use cottage cheese).  Lots of grated mozzarella.  Sauce.  Noodles.  Sauce.  Cottage cheese/ricotta.  Mozzarella.  Noodles.  Sauce.  Cottage cheese/ricotta.  Mozzarella.  Noodles.  Sauce.  Mozzarella.  Parmesan cheese.

Serve hot, then after the meal cut up a pear so that the picky one eats something before bed.

The key is to go very, very easy on the sauce each layer.  It is easy to go overboard and then you get a mushy lasagna.  But remember, there is no such thing as too much mozzarella.

Of course, I used to think that about garlic, too.

Glamorous

Annoying feminist magazines whine about positive body images and mainstream media’s obsession with thinness. Glossy fashion magazines like their ladies rail-thin with a side of anorexia.  That’s because feminists are a tiny minority of butch, fat, hairy chicks who don’t shower and stick pins into the crotch area of little male dolls, while the majority of women are obsessed with lip gloss and are stupid enough to believe that a size zero is attainable with exercise and a healthy diet.

Right?

Maybe not.  In the September 2009 issue, Glamour ran an almost-nude photo of plus-sized model Lizzie Miller.  The most startling feature of the photo was a little flap of belly flab, sitting right out there for all the world to Twitter about.  The magazine got a mailbag full of rave reviews and decided to follow through on reader enthusiasm.  In the November issue, Glamour declared a “body image revolution.”

“These bodies are beautiful” declares the headline.  The accompanying photo of nude models reveals curves, bellies, hips, creases, and all that good stuff.

To which we all reply, “yeah, whatever.”  We have seen it before.  The same industry that gave us Kate Moss is suddenly declaring Emme the model of “real” beauty.  Readers get that glow of self-righteousness and the fashion magazines sell a few more copies.  Everyone wins, and then we all go back to business as usual.

This time, however, Glamour came through with a couple of concrete commitments, in addition to the usual declaration of intent to show “a wide range of body types.”  The magazine also pledged to start showing more “so-called imperfections” on its pages, perhaps signaling a decline in the fetish for blemish-free models.

Glamour also committed to giving “the best plus models not just work, but the same great work straight-size models get, partnering with top photographers, stylists and makeup artists. Because a generous helping of fantasy, in our view, is fabulous—as long as it’s extended to women of all sizes.”  And this is where things start to get interesting.  The magazine is not saying thin women are less real or heavy women are more real or women should have pasty skin and be thrilled as all hell with their limp hair and the huge dark circles under their eyes.  It is saying, “yep, we are all about the fantasy, and that’s OK.  But let’s start rewriting the fantasy.”

So, the final commitment – a call to designers to please, for the love of all that is decent and holy, send them some samples for photo shoots in, say, a size eight – rings true.  Glamour is not redesigning itself as a magazine dedicated to deconstructing the complete works of Djuna Barnes.  It is a fashion magazine and will remain one, with all the makeup tips and designer handbags that can fit into three-hundred pages.  But, just maybe, it can use its market share to let the rest of us in on the fashion.

Ultimately, it is a smart business move, because I’m betting there are a whole lot more women size-eight to -eighteen looking to buy magazines than there are size-two models who feel they need the kind of advice that Glamour dishes out.  I know I am subscribing, because I want to see how this one shakes out.