Monthly Archives: December 2009

High-class problem to solve

It had been almost two months since I had seen a Bentley.  When we lived in Los Angeles, I saw them almost every day on the streets of my neighborhood.  The Bentley thing made me crazy; people driving around in $200,000 cars while the local public school shoved 35 kids into a classroom because the schools had been forced to do another round of layoffs.  I was never able to articulate just why I hated L.A. so much, but the Bentleys became a handy symbol.  Everyone in L.A. has something to prove: if you aren’t the wealthiest then you are the crunchiest or the prettiest or the famousest or the best connected or the bosomyest.

Having little left to prove myself in the way of crunchy or bosomy and figuring I had lost the best connected race before it even started, I found L.A. didn’t have so much to offer me, other than fabulous produce year-round.  So, we found an escape and this way or that ended up in New Jersey, my husband in a slightly less insane job and our family in a small town less than an hour from New York.  In the winter, the town maintains the ice on the lake, plowing paths between all the coves and so that people can skate through a WinterWonderland.  In the summer, there is canoeing and swimming at the lake and hiking on the trails.

It’s a fucking Norman Rockwell painting, except with more money.  Because maintaining a town like that in this day and age, so close to New York, takes a wealthy clientele.  People are rather comfortable here, except for the rather sizable group who has felt the recession.  But, those poor souls can no longer afford to live here, so they are selling their houses for rock-bottom prices before slinking out of town.

Hence, the lovely house we found that we can actually afford.  The housing market has tanked, and – despite losing money on our house in L.A. – we are able to get pretty much the house of our dreams.  Down the street from a fantastic elementary school with only sixteen kids in the largest kindergarten class.  The cars outside that school, mornings and afternoons, are Honda Odysseys and Volvos and – OK, I’ll admit it – the occasional Escalade.  Nice cars, but not Bentleys.  These are people who have chosen to live in a town with absurdly high taxes, 70% of which are earmarked for the schools.  Of course, the town is so small that plenty of people walk to school, not so much for the environment as for the fact that they are living in a Norman Rockwell painting and feel obliged to play the part.

But, all those people driving their somewhat-less-pretentious cars and wearing their considerably-less-obnoxious clothing and walking their wonderfully-kind-children?

They are all white.

Really.  All of them.  Well, OK, I have seen one Asian mother.  But everyone else is white.  And straight.  And financially comfortable.  And most of the moms stay home.  The town is 10% Jewish, but most of the Jews I have met are married to Christians, so even that slight smudge of religious diversity gets scrubbed away.

I am living in the Whitest Town in New Jersey.  Shit, we are the diversity in town.  That tells you something.

Now, these are very, very nice white, straight, well-to-do, Christian people, don’t get me wrong.  They have shown no tendency towards exclusivity or prejudice in the short time we have been here.  Our neighbor has offered us use of the swingset in her back yard.  There are babysitters in every third house.  The kids don’t tease Zachary, despite the fact that he looks like a Lilliputian next to them in the morning Kindergarten line.  It is a throwback to a simpler time, when people were neighborly and you didn’t have to buy shit all the time just to prove your very existence.

That simpler time, however, was also deeply segregated.

We’re thinking of withdrawing our offer on that dream home.  We’re thinking of buying ourselves a little more time to see if this is really the place for us.

There is another town – closer in to New York – that is renowned for its diversity.  It is filled with My People – the crunchy, the intellectual, the neurotic.  It is also filled with Other Kinds of People, which of course is just why My People want to live there.  It has little shops and restaurants, and although we don’t buy much or eat out all that often, it is nice to know I can walk to an independent bookstore.  Because My People support independent bookstores.  Since there are Other Kinds of People in that town, we can afford a dream house there, too.  Other Kinds of People tend to lower property values, after all.  Well, not the Gay Other People, but all the Other Other Kinds of People.

But.

And you know what’s coming next, don’t you?

The schools aren’t as good.  They aren’t bad, per se, they just aren’t the phenomenal, almost-private, low class size, corridors are paved with gold schools here in Rockwelland .  Their test scores are lower, which makes sense, because diversity not only means different races and sexual orientations and socio-economic brackets and religions, but also different languages and families and time to spend pushing the kids to do their homework.  The class sizes are larger, too, although only by about four kids once you start looking at second and third grade classes.  These are not bad schools.  They are pretty good schools.  They just aren’t outstanding schools.

And so, we have a choice.  We can close our eyes and jump into a very white, very comfortable pond, buying a house right down the street from the dream school in Rockwelland.  Or we can wait.  At the end of the school year, when the end of our lease is in sight, we can think about buying in DiverseTown, where the population appears to be attempting to recreate Brooklyn in New Jersey.

We visited DiverseTown today.  We had lunch and got the boys new sneakers and drove around.  We had planned on going to a playground, but it was so cold that Benjamin thought he had wet his pants every time we stepped outside.  It is charming, it is interesting, and it is everything we are used to.  In a sense, it is the more comfortable choice for us, because we know it from our past lives.  The cars were shiny SUVs and old station wagons and dented sedans and a not-insignificant number of Priuses.  We felt instantly At Home.

We left, taking the boys to a nearby mall so they could stretch their legs someplace with heat.  J and I wondering if we were getting cold feet because Rockwelland is unfamiliar, someplace we will have to learn to love.  Or if part of a good education is exposing our kids to all kinds of people. Or whether we prefer to maintain the innocence fostered by growing up in a small town or to encourage the sophistication that comes with a larger, more diverse community.  Or whether I prefer to live among nice people with whom I cannot identify or My People whose pretentions and anxieties sometimes exhaust me.

As we strolled through the mall, I saw it.  Surrounded by ribbon, shining right in the middle of the corridor.  A red Bentley.

And I have no fucking idea what it symbolizes.

Cookies redux

There was a typo in the amount of butter in my cookie recipe.  Use 2 sticks of softened butter.  Because where butter is concerned, more is always better. If you missed the recipe and would like me to email it, leave a comment please.

Eco-friendly is the new sexy

I have this bloggy friend who is completely obsessed with her Bakfiets.  The uninitiated among you will be unfamiliar with the thing of beauty that is a Bakfiets, but allow me to assure you that it is the Cadillac of bicycles.  Well, actually, it is the Honda Odyssey of bicycles.  While other bikes carry one, maybe two people, this little beauty has the capacity to tote around three kids, not to mention groceries and – as my blog buddy discovered – a Christmas tree.  Unlike bike trailers in the back, it is designed for regular commuting because it is very stable and the kids are up front where the grown-up can see them.

When we decided to move to this town, I declared to my husband my secret passion for this particular mode of transportation.  I had known about the Bakfiets for years, as a it is more common in Europe, but reading about Sara’s adventures in bicycling has created a deep desire to try out one of these puppies.  Unfortunately, it’s not like test-driving a Saab Saturn Subaru– there aren’t dealerships on every corner.  In fact, when I contacted Sara to learn more about her Wonder Bike, she told me she had heard rumors of someone with one about an hour away in New Jersey.  Or I could come to her house, a few hours away, and test-drive it.

Fantastic.  The whole point of getting this puppy would be to cut down on my driving, and here I was, contemplating long carbon-spewing road trips to try out a bike.

A cargo bike, you must understand, is perfectly suited to this town.  The distances are just far enough that one cannot always walk, but they are easily bikable.  Even the grocery, just outside of town, is close enough to bike to.  But, with three kids and Lots of Stuff, I can’t exactly hop on the old Schwinn.  So, I find myself strapping children into carseats for the two-mile trip to the grocery.

Which is where I was headed – in my gas-guzzling Honda Odyssey – on Wednesday.  I was just about to turn into the parking lot when, what to my wond’ring eyes did appear, a man turned out of the parking lot.  Riding on a Bakfiets.

I was seized by anxiety.  How could I get to him, make him stop, before he and his Wonder Bike vanished from my life completely?  I switched off my blinker, inched forward to where he was headed, and honked at him, gesticulating rather insanely – I am afraid – for him to pull over.  Then I moved ahead, as cars behind and in front of me wondered what the fuck was wrong with me, and turned into a parking lot about 100 feet ahead of where this bike was headed.  I jammed the car into park, and – heedless of the toddler in the backseat – jumped out, completely blocking the entrance to the parking lot.  I ran up the sidewalk towards him, shouting something incredibly eloquent like, “Can I see your bike?”

Fortunately, the man decided I wasn’t completely batty.  He let me fondle his bike and even pulled into the parking lot for me when a rather impatient Toyota insisted I move the van that was blocking the bank parking lot.  I kept panting, “I’ve never seen one in real life.”  It’s probably a good thing I had that toddler sitting in the back, or he might have thought that this was the Weirdest Come-on Ever.

It turns out he is friends with the mother of one of Zach’s classmates.  He carts his 20 month old triplets around in that Bakfiets.  He offered to let me ride it, but there wasn’t much room in the lot, so I took his name and number.  He lives just one town over, and he said I can come over and ride his bike.

He is going to let me ride his bike.  He is going to let me ride his bike!  Once upon a time, it took the prospect of fancy vacations or gourmet meals to make me quiver with excitement, but clearly I have returned to a simpler time.

All it takes to get me all hot and bothered these days is some boy who offers to let me ride his bike.

Dancing with the devil

A friend is having a rough time.  Please go and support her.  She has held my hand for years now, and I hope you will help me hold hers.

Please come to Boston

We were supposed to be leaving for Philly tomorrow to visit J’s best friend and his family.

Actually, we were supposed to be hosting my best friend and her family on their way back home from Pennsylvania.  But, their two-year-old developed pneumonia from the virus that is making its rounds on the East Coast.  The doctor okayed him to travel, but really…?  Why make a two-year-old with pneumonia take a long car ride?  So, I volunteered to bring two of my kids up to Boston to visit my best friend, instead.  We’ve all already had this particular virus, so we’re not too concerned about catching it from him.  We were supposed to be leaving tonight.

Except?  Yesterday morning, she told me the little guy had had a very bad night.  “Maybe you could wait to come till Saturday?”

I want to see her.  I want my kids to know her kids, which is possible now that we live on the same coast.  But, I am cautious about pneumonia.  Just over a year ago, I was camping out in the pediatric unit of UCLA Santa Monica, as my two-month-old wheezed and breathed through the help of an oxygen machine.

At the time, I was all blasé and shit.  Eh, pneumonia is not a big deal, as long as we catch and treat it.  She was fine, six days and many thousands of dollars later (on our “Cadillac” insurance plan, we still couldn’t meet all our out-of-pocket medical costs last year).  It seems, however, that something about that experience affected me more than I realized.

I am the mother who figures that unless the boogers coming out of your child’s nose are neon orange, you ought to send him to school.  Some people hyperventilate every time their kids start sneezing, but I tend to think that, short of Dengue fever combined with bubonic plague, it all works to strengthen the immune system.  Your kid has a virus?  Does it involve partial paralysis?  No?  Then no need to cancel the play date.  My kids have probably already been exposed to it anyway.

But that pneumonia a year ago shook me, despite my nonchalance at the time.  Every time Lilah gets sick, I clench up inside.  Last week, when she was wheezing and having trouble breathing, I ignored my inner skeptic and gave in to my worry.  We saw the doctor, despite the fact that it was a Sunday and the East Coast was digging itself out from under the first major storm of the season.  It turned out she had a virus but that her breathing was tortured enough to require a nebulizer.  Chances are that she has asthma, not a huge surprise given both the history of pneumonia and the fact that I am asthmatic.

In fact, Little Girl has the entire trifecta, it would seem.  Asthma.  Eczema.  Allergies.  While Zachary never gets sick and Benjamin can get an ear infection without even noticing, Lilah’s illnesses are tragic, as her little eyes turn red and her tiny lungs struggle to accomplish their job.  She is the easiest child in the world, unless you look at the giant stack of medical records.  Although I am more or less relaxed about the boys’ illnesses, every virus she gets seems to throw me back to those days in December 2008, when my newly hatched baby was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance.

I also appear to be hyper-cautious about pneumonia in other people’s kids.  When my friend suggested we wait till Saturday, I countered, “Don’t you think it makes sense to cancel altogether?  If he’s that sick, why are we exposing him to more germs?”  She hesitated.  We both want to see each other.  But she agreed that now is just not the best time.

So, we changed our plans and were going to Philly.  Except that J came down with the virus the rest of our family has already kicked.  And the friends in Philly have a newborn.  I just don’t want to be the ones who give a newborn the virus that lands her in the hospital.  The woman who a little over a year ago shrugged her shoulders at coughs and colds has learned that a minor annoyance to a bigger child or an adult can have grave consequences for a baby.

We are not going to Philadelphia.  We are not going to Boston.  We are staying right here, nebulizing Lilah three times a day and counting our blessings.

It’s a wonderful life

My in-laws are here.

In most bad sitcoms and over-baked comedy films, that line would be a cue for the music from Jaws.  I’ll admit, we’ve had periods of tense visits in the past, with the typical extended family inability to figure out what to do with one another.  Lately, however, we’ve all come to find our places together.  When they are here, my place is out running, as I take advantage of the other adult hands to go hit the trails.

Grandpa’s place, on the other hand, is on the living room floor, preferably tied up with string, covered with a blanket, and pinned down by at least one child.  He is an alien, and my boys won’t put up with an alien in their living room.  They rope him.  Then they remove his spikes, poke out his eyeballs, and take him to the zoo.  For the big alien exhibit, I guess.

Not that there has been all that much time to play alien, what with the boys’ first ice-skating adventure and the trip to Chuck E Cheese’s, a venue so vile that I adamantly refuse to set foot into it.  I have tried to convince my children that it is a place best suited to trips with their grandparents.  This week, not only did they take both boys to the home of the giant, pizza-eating rat, but they took Zach’s friend from across the street, as well.  Earning them the title of The Bravest Grandparents in North America.

Tonight, we went out for Chinese food, a fine Jewish tradition on Christmas.  It is not easy to take my kids out to a Chinese restaurant.  True, Benjamin will eat almost anything, as he has won the Least Discerning Palate Award the last two years running.  He loves Chinese food, but he also loves to eat lemons and lentils and tofu, bless his little heart.  If it can’t run away from him, he’s likely to eat it.  Lilah will also eat anything, whereupon she usually breaks out into hives.  And what does Zach eat in a Chinese restaurant?  Those nasty fried noodles they serve with the soup.  Sometimes, it astonishes me that he hasn’t keeled over from malnutrition.

Zachary insisted he needed one of those little plastic swords that come in the fancy drinks, and Grandpa gamely trotted over to the bar to get one.  That kept the child happy for the rest of the evening.  Until we got home, he tripped, and it broke on the kitchen floor.

J and I respond to such crises with the ever-so-sympathetic response of, “Well, these things happen.”  Strangely, that did not comfort my five-year-old.  “I can try to glue it together tonight,” J offered.

Then, Grandma came over.  “Peanut,” she said.  “Would you like me to go back and get another one for you?”  He stopped wailing and turned to nod at her.  So, damned if the woman didn’t start fishing out her car keys.  As she was headed to the door, Zach ran after her and hugged her legs.  By the time Zach got out of the bath, there was a pile of little plastic swords waiting for him.

So, there you have it.  Parenting may be about setting limits, providing guidelines, or wearing a baby on a sling.  Five years into this gig, I’m still not sure what exactly makes a good parent.  But, I am pretty damned sure what makes a good grandparent.

Aliens and little plastic swords.

COOKIE!!!!!

It is quite easy to keep a three-year-old from eating sugar, provided you are willing to seal up all your doors and windows, plug up your chimney, and not let him out of the house until he’s old enough to register for Selective Service.  If however, you send him to preschool, take him on play dates, or occasionally step out to get the paper, he is pretty much guaranteed to stumble across mounds of refined sugar on a daily basis.

Then there are the “events.”  You know what I’m talking about – birthday parties, Halloween, cupcakes for kids’ birthdays in school even though all the same kids are going to the party that weekend, dinners out, and family get-togethers.  People always say to me, “Oh, but on special occasions, he should have a little treat.”  Hell, yes.  But, um, could we be a little more circumspect in how we define “special occasions”?  Because it seems like those come up about four times a week.

Thanksgiving dinner, as you can imagine, is a fucking minefield.  Nothing says “sugar rush” like a dessert buffet.  As we led up to the big day, Benjamin found it important to underscore his sugar issues.  We gave him a mango lassi and a smoothie a few days prior to Thanksgiving, whereupon he proceeded to flush his toothbrush down the toilet in a fit of mania.

I couldn’t exactly ask everyone to 86 dessert that night.  It wasn’t happening.  So, I knew I needed to come up with a sugar-free sweet for him.  That would be easier if I were into chemical substitutes like Splenda or the pink packets, but I just don’t trust that shit.  I flirted with agave briefly, only to discover that the reason its glucose index is so low is that it is high in fructose.  Sort of like high fructose corn syrup.  Instead of hitting one’s blood stream, it goes straight to other systems and overloads them, so the argument goes.  I am still not convinced agave isn’t a perfectly safe item, given that fructose is the sugar in fruit, but what I read raised enough concerns.  If it were as fantastic as everyone seems to think it is, I guess we’d have been using agave a great deal more frequently for decades.  We’d probably have Agave Twinkies for the yuppie who can’t let go of his childhood passion.  They’d sell for $8.95 a pack.

Anyway, I needed to find another sweetener.  Something that takes awhile to digest, that makes the body root around for the sugar, rather than simply shooting it straight into the various organs.  You know – like fruit.  I love the way apples require the body to work hard for that sugar.  I do still sweeten with honey, as that does not give the same rush as refined sugar and has been around long enough that I figure time has safety tested it as a substitute.  Nonetheless, I try to keep the honey content as low as possible, because it is still a much more direct form of sugar than fruit.

I came up with these little numbers for Thanksgiving.  They are quite good, both hot and when cooled.  The peanut butter option makes them, like, way better, but if you are baking them for school or if you have a one-year-old who has declared herself allergic to everything, you should probably leave it out.  The only sugar is the chocolate chips, and if you get very, very dark chips, the sugar content is pretty low.

Please note that I have removed the cookie recipe.  The problem with posting recipes is that people STEAL them and then they somehow become public property.