Monthly Archives: July 2010

What a wonderful world

About a mile and a half from our house is a small lake.  This whole area is punctuated by lakes, some of them large and majestic, others considerably more modest.  This particular specimen is not much to write home about – more like a glorified pond.  One side is bordered by a busy road, another by wooded land, and the last two sides are fringed with slightly ramshackle houses on a more or less forgotten dirt road.  It’s not the kind of place you really think about visiting.


There, in the middle of this silly little swampy puddle, is a very small island of branches and grasses.  And there, on this very small island live two swans.

They come every year to build their nest.  They spend the summer paddling around that miserable excuse for a lake, raising their babies and enjoying themselves tremendously.  They don’t care that the porch is falling down on the white house across the way.  To these stunning white birds, this lake is the perfect place to call home.

That’s really all we can ask for in life.

So many times, it happens too fast

The master told four-year-old Benjamin that if he learned “The Easy Way is No Way,” he could get a tiger patch for his tae kwon do uniform.  “The Easy Way is No Way” is a set of principles that the children must learn before becoming a yellow belt.  Zach – almost six – won his tiger patch awhile ago, as he started tae kwon do before Benjamin did, and he has since gotten a yellow belt.

Benjamin took that handout home, determined to learn every single word on the sheet.  He learned the first item immediately: the Five Benefits of Tae Kwon Do.  However, he wasn’t quite ready with the rest of the sheet when he had his next lesson.  No matter, we go twice a week.  He knew it all by the following lesson.

Which he missed because he was sick.

We kept practicing.  He belted out, “Discipline, sir! Focus, sir! Self-control, sir! Confidence, sir! Respect, sir!” with gusto.  He was ready.

I told the master to go ahead and test him.  This was a proud moment for me, watching my little boy who had tried so hard, with so much heart, stand up and be proud of himself.

The masters lined my two boys up together.

“What are the benefits of tae kwon do?”

Zach’s hand shot up.  “Discipline, sir! Respect, sir! Self-control, sir! Focus, sir! Respect, sir!”  The master gave it to him anyway.  Then he turned to Benjamin.

Benjamin stood flummoxed.  He had just heard Zachary do it wrong, but Zachary is his older brother, and thereby by definition never wrong.  He couldn’t do it.

“Why are you the best student?”

Zach’s hand shot up.  He fumbled it, not quite remembering the words.  Benjamin, slower to raise his hand but knowing the answer, couldn’t do it when his turn finally came.

I fought the urge to jump up and run onto the mat. It is important not to show up the masters.  But they were doing it wrong!  They were supposed to be testing Benjamin, and they were letting Zach answer every question first.  And he was fucking it up for his brother, for once not on purpose.

“What must you tell your parents every day?”

Zach’s hand shot up.  Benjamin started looking around at the ceiling.  My heart sank.

“I give you chance next time,” the master told them as they finished up, and the boys came running off the mat.

“Please,” I begged, “ask Ben again without Zach.  He knows it all.  He just got confused because his brother got it wrong.”  Unfortunately, he speaks mostly Korean and I speak absolutely no Korean, so we weren’t getting very far.

I haven’t been able to sleep the last couple of nights.

I watched Ben at the library magic show.  He was focused.  He was having a ball.  He would have loved to have been the volunteer.  But every time the magician asked, he was the only kid who didn’t put his hand up.  It was as though he didn’t quite register that he should raise his hand.  Ben’s best buddy was right next to him, and that child’s hand went up every time, along with every other kid in the room.  Except Benjamin’s.  Somehow, he is slower than children his same age.

He is a very, very smart child.  He is imaginative and incredibly verbal and has the most amazing building ability.  He has remarkable scissor skills. He is adding numbers together.  But he responds more slowly than his peers and from what I’ve seen in the last week, sometimes he gives up altogether because he is slower.  He won’t show it on his face – he has too much bravado to get upset about it… outwardly.  But that kind of continual defeat is going to wear him down.

I don’t know what to do.  I suspect a very mild processing issue, and I guess we should look into early intervention.

But first things first – tomorrow when we go to tae kwon do, I’m going to make sure they test him by himself.  He has earned that damned tiger patch.

Summer reading

“Let children choose what they want to read,” the summer reading handout from our school instructs.  “Even those popular fictions parents frown upon.”

Somehow, when they came up with that advice, I don’t think they anticipated the reading selections we’ve encountered around here this summer.

Lilah began the summer by plucking Sense and Sensibility off my shelf and insisting I read it to her.  She didn’t understand a damned thing I was reading, but she doesn’t get most of Blueberries for Sal, either, so I guess it didn’t make much of a difference whether we were reading Jane Austen or Robert McCloskey.

Then there was Benjamin’s fascination with The Making of Americans.  This is a tome that I once dedicated an entire month to reading.  Perhaps impressed by the sheer heft of it, Ben pulled it off the shelf.

“Mommy, can you read this to me?”  Sure, I can read it to you.  Just don’t ask me to explain it to you.

We did three sessions and made it five pages in, which is four pages more than most people do.  He dumped Gertrude Stein the minute the new American Girl catalogue came in.

“Mommy, I want an American Girl Doll,” Benjamin declared.  Now, I’m all for buying boys dolls, but those suckers go for a hundred bucks a pop, and that’s before the outfits, the puppy, and the outfit for the puppy.

This created a dilemma.  You see, if a girlchild asked for the doll, it would be because her friends had it and she was being invited to American Girl birthday parties.  Benjamin just thought the dolls looked pretty.  While he had just had his fourth birthday and we hadn’t gotten him a present, we were not interested in spending that much for a doll that would just be another toy to him.

We came up with a new policy: we will not discuss American Girl Dolls with children under five.  When they turn five, they are free to ask their grandparents for a hundred dollar doll with two hundred dollars worth of accessories.  Grandma would get a good laugh out of it.

I came up with an even more practical solution.  Lilah and I picked up a few Lionel train catalogues, and Benjamin has taken to reading one of those.  Lilah sleeps with the other one.

Zachary – the child with the actual summer reading list – is reading his way through the recommended books in whatever order I can get them out of the library.  We are keeping a separate list of the books we read to him.  Latest on the list?  Le Morte d’Arthur.  Because Malory is just the right speed for a five-year-old.

What amazes me the most is he actually comprehends what I’m reading to him. The book was published in 1485.  The version we have has somewhat modernized language, but it is still completely baffling to my husband.  Yet our rising first-grader understands it so well that it is keeping him up at night.

“Maybe we should stop reading that book if you can’t sleep,” I told him.

“Yeah, maybe I won’t get nightmares from it when I’m seven.”  That’s just what I was thinking – set Malory aside till second grade.

Maybe it’s time to start looking around for some of that popular fiction that parents frown upon.


County Fair

We went to the county fair this weekend because now that we’re living in the middle of nowhere, we do shit like that.  That’s sort of the point of living in the middle of nowhere, come to think of it.

First we took a hayride.  For some reason – perhaps because I was raised in sterile suburbs – I always pictured the hayride as an event that involved a horse.  Unfortunately, every hayride I encounter seems to consist of breathing in tractor exhaust while bits of straw poke into my thighs.

Whatever.  The kids loved it.  Plus, I gave them peaches to eat on it.

“I think if you live in New Jersey and you’re taking a hayride in July, you sort of need to eat peaches,” I said.

“Why?” asked one of my progeny.

“Because New Jersey is famous for peaches.”

“I thought that was Georgia,” mumbled my husband.

“No, silly.  Georgia has peanuts,” four-year-old Benjamin corrected.  Clearly, the ten bucks I spent on the U.S. States map is money well-spent.

We split up for the next event.  The boys are old enough that fire trucks no longer amuse them, so I took Lilah to sit in the fire truck while J took the boys to the hay maze.

If I may interrupt myself here for a moment, I’d like to comment that I love that I have a toddler who insists on wearing a “dess,” is obsessed with trains, and wants to be a firefighter when she grows up.  My daughter rocks.  I’m just sayin’.

We met back up with the gentlemen over by the baby chick station.  Benjamin was already inside, sitting cross-legged and holding a little chick.  I was a bit concerned he’d pull a Lennie, but he was holding it very gently.  Erring on the side of caution, I held Lilah’s for her while she stroked it with a finger.

Zachary, ever my animal husbandrist, freaked out the minute J put the chick in his hands and quickly exited to the hay maze, where he ran around with the kid he had met 3 minutes before and was now best friends with, even though they didn’t know each other’s names.

Lilah willingly put the chick back after a few minutes and we went out to look at the ducks.  J convinced Benjamin to put his chick back, too, but the minute they stepped out of the cage, he got this pathetically mournful look on his face and we let him go back in for another chick-fondling session.

“Chick-fondling session.”  That’s gonna mean something very different in a few years, isn’t it?

When he finally came out, he made a beeline for the baby calves, where he sat for five minutes stroking the white and brown one through the fence.  I was starting to worry we’d never get the hell out of that tent.  Fortunately, there were no more baby animals to be found, so after grossing Mommy out in the slimy snake section, we moved on to the small animal tent.

I was all for the cute little bunnies and the hamsters and even the chickens.  But, folks, I gotta tell you, I could have done without my son stroking a rat.  For a very long time.  On two separate occasions.

When we finally got Dr. Doolittle’s hands cleaned, it was time for the children’s watermelon-eating contest.  Now, my oldest son survives on air and water, and my youngest child takes her time eating, but Benjamin, oh Benjamin.  My middle child is made for the competitive-eating circuit.

We’re trying to train him up for the Nathan’s hotdog eating contest.  There just aren’t enough Jewish hotdog-eating champions.

The teenagers who ran the contest were joking about whether any of our kids would win.  After all, there were some pretty big kids there.  “Look,” I said, “he’s a ringer.”

Now, Benjamin did not win.  However, he sat there, poised to grab his melon the minute the contest started.  And he went at it like a champion.  Say what you will about my kid – he has heart.  He was absolutely determined to win, and he stayed focused on the task at hand.  When he stuffed too much in his mouth, he refused to spit it out because – damn it all – he was gonna win fair and square.

He managed to eat four pieces in the time the teenager next to him finished seven.  A teenager three times his weight.  I had to convince him that he had won for the four-year-olds or he would have eaten the entire seven pieces, which means he most likely would have thrown up the entire seven pieces.

Kobayashi better watch his ass, is all I’m sayin’.

By this point, Benjamin’s clothes were completely covered in watermelon.  I had stripped Lilah to her diaper, which was a good call, because she was also sticky from head to foot.

We’re going back to the county fair next year.  But next time, we’re starting Benjamin’s training in March.

And we’re avoiding the rats.

Benjamin’s beet cupcakes

For his birthday, Benjamin wanted to bring in cupcakes to camp.  Red cupcakes with chocolate frosting.  He was very specific about the red thing.

Y’all know me well enough to know I was not just going to dose white cake batter with artificial coloring and call it a day.  Fortunately, in my fridge were four very small beets, stuck in my weekly produce bag from the organic co-op.  They often stick me with stuff we don’t normally eat, like parsnips and some strange, spiky, bitter green leaves that made even me give up on the salad.  We find ourselves forced to eat cucumbers because, hey, they were in this week’s bag.

I had been staring at those beets, trying to get motivated to do something useful with them, but they were too small for any meaningful dinner recipe.  Fortunately, beets provide an absolutely lovely red color, just perfect for a fourth birthday.

Whereas once I hated to have Benjamin help in the kitchen, he has recently become so competent that he is actually an asset.  He can level off flour well, he butters pans, he stirs without spilling.  He uses the electric beaters with no supervision, so I can start on the next step while he is creaming butter.  He’s way better in the kitchen than his father is, and far less messy.

So, while we were boiling the beets, I decided to ask him what he thought ought to go into the cupcakes, and here is the recipe we camp up with.  Needless to say, due to the high sugar content, we went with mini cupcakes, which is only effective if you don’t eat twelve of them.

4 small beets – boiled till soft enough to pierce with a knife (depends on size but mine too 20 minutes).

2 cups of flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 egg whites plus 2 eggs

1 cup sugar

2 sticks butter, softened

½ cup milk

½ teaspoon vanilla

Rub the boiled beets under some tap water and the skins should easily scrub right off.  Then chop them roughly and toss in the food processor with a bit of the milk to help puree smooth.

Mix together flour, baking powder, and salt.  Beat together eggs, egg whites, sugar, and butter until creamy.  Mix in remaining milk, beet puree, and vanilla.  Put in buttered mini-cupcake pans.

Bake  approximately 13 minutes at 350 degrees.  Makes 48 mini cupcakes.

I was quite pleased with how light and moist these were, probably a combo of the extra egg whites and the beets.  They were a dark pink, rather than red, but I didn’t notice anyone complaining.

As to the chocolate frosting, there was no reason to reinvent the wheel.  We used the recipe on the Domino sugar website.

Sweetest thing

I took Benjamin to Toys R Us last week.  We had been there the week before, scouting possible birthday presents, but we hadn’t bought anything. Now, he had filled his sticker chart, and we were off in search of a reward.

“I’m going to get an Iron Man toy,” he told me as we drove through a light drizzle.  “I saw them down the aisle when we were there.”

“Did you?”

“Most people didn’t see them, but I have a sharp eye,” he said.

Because I have a sharp eye, too, I knew that the Iron Man toys were just around the corner from the Appelgate Farms Flocked Pony Set with Dog.  This is the very same pony set he had returned to three times on our last trip, sighing over the beauty of the horses and exclaiming that it came with a little brush for giving the ponies beauty treatments.  I strongly suspected – despite the best laid plans of mice and men – that my son would be leaving Toys R Us with an Appelgate Farms Flocked Pony Set with Dog and not an Iron Man toy.

That’s just how my middle child rolls: half Iron Man, half ponies.

Normally, I wouldn’t get him either cheap crappy horses from China or a plastic violent superhero, but we give a little more latitude with sticker chart rewards.  That’s sort of the point of a reward.

When we pulled into the Toys R Us parking lot, the rain was picking up.  “Mommy, do you have an umbrella?” Ben asked.  “It’s kind of raining.”

“I do, sweetie.”  I got out of the car, opened the umbrella, and then opened his door.  He stepped out, and I handed him the umbrella.

As we turned to walk across the parking lot, he raised the umbrella.  It wasn’t a conscious thought, and he wasn’t trying to do the right thing.  He just saw that I was getting wet, and it was natural to him to try to cover me with the umbrella.

That moment.  That little motion.  That’s how I know – despite his impulse control issues and his tendency to bend the rules and what can only be described as a double dose of testosterone – that Benjamin is going to be just fine.

Happy fourth birthday to my little Iron Man.

And yes, he is now the proud owner of an Appelgate Farms Flocked Pony Set, complete with brush.  He lets his sister play with the dog.

In the clearing stands a boxer

Last week, you may recall, began with the thirty-fifth anniversary of my mother’s death, followed by my agent dumping me, then rounded out by another house falling through while the Train House came back into play.

So what I really didn’t need on Friday was the call from Zachary’s camp director telling me he had gotten into a fistfight.


“As a camp director, I have to tell you that we can’t have hitting at our camp.  As a mother, I have to tell you that he probably did the best thing he could have done for his self-esteem.”  The other kids were teasing him, Zach’s feelings got hurt, and then the fight started.

While at camp, Zach claimed he threw the first punch while the other child insisted he had done it.  By the time I picked him up, however, Zach decided that first the other child had sat on him, so Zach had, in turn, sat on the other child.  “Why didn’t you tell the counselors?” I asked.

“I couldn’t.  He was sitting on me.”  Can’t argue with that.

The good news is that my thirty-five pound almost-six-year-old can defend himself.  The bad news is that he gets in trouble for it.  Now, I don’t like to encourage fighting, so I tell him never to hit first.  When he does hit first, I bring down the wrath of an angry mama upon him.  However, I also tell him that if another kid physically attacks him, he should defend himself.  That is advice I stand by.  Never hit first, but always hit harder.  If everyone followed that coda, we’d have no more fighting.

The camp treats all physical fighting as equal.  I get why, really I do.  But I’m still not teaching my kid to sit there and get pounded until a counselor shows up to rescue him.


It’s possible there’s someone out there who is still actually interested in our housing saga.  If so, this is for you, with a little review to help your head stop spinning.

The seventh or eighth house we tried to buy was the Train House.  They said they would sell it to us, then stalled and procrastinated and never signed the damned documents till we gave up and said, “You know what – just forget it.”

We put in a bid on a house with great bones but in need of a good deal of work.  We’ll call that the House on the Hill.  We didn’t get that house, as there were three competing bids.

The next week, I went to look at the dregs of houses that were left.  “You know,” our agent told me, “the Train people still want to sell you their house.”  Second verse, same as the first.  We agreed, they agreed, they un-agreed and decided not to sell their house at all.

I picked myself up off the floor and went to look at the House With the Pool and Screwed up Bedrooms and the House of Tiny Kitchen.  Of course, it goes without saying that the House With the Pool people decided to take their house off the market that day.  It didn’t matter, because the House on the Hill people called to tell our agent that their other deal had fallen through and they would now sell us their house.

But, here in New Jersey, we aren’t under contract till our attorneys squeeze some ducats out of us, and since our lawyer took a day off, attorney review took a day longer than it should have, giving the House on the Hill people just enough time to get and accept an offer from someone else.

Twenty-ninth verse, same as the first.

That was Friday.  I was eating lunch with Lilah and J called.  “What I have to say to you is completely unbelievable,” he began.

“The train people want to sell us their house.”

“Well, actually, yes,” he said.

You see, he works in the same company as Train House Woman, and she had called him up to tell him that they are now this time really, honestly, cross-your-heart-and-hope-to-die ready to sell us their house.

Fool us once, shame on you.  Fool us thrice?

So, um, we’re back to the train house.  Our agent has their signatures, which means crap until we get into and out of attorney review, but we put some Super Glue on our lawyer’s seat, so hopefully he’ll be stuck there until he finishes getting us under contract.

Maybe this will go through.  If not, anyone have a guest room where we can crash?

Feel my withered roots begin to grow

In January, 2008, my husband flew from London – where we were living – to Los Angeles – where we were moving.  It was a house-hunting trip.  He was going to narrow down neighborhoods, visit preschools, and scope out cars, as we had sold ours before moving.  I trusted him because I had to – someone had to stay in London with the boys.  But he also knows me and my requirements, and I trusted that he would look for a walkable area with good air, a preschool that could serve our kids well, and a car with low gas mileage.

When he came back from the trip, he was filling me in as we stood in the kitchen of our little London rental while our two boys watched television.

“Santa Monica has good air, but it’s pricey.  Plus, it can get touristy in the summer.”

“OK, what about Brentwood?”

“Brentwood is nice, but I don’t think you’re going to like it.”

“I think I need to take a pregnancy test in a few days.”

Without missing a beat, without so much as catching his breath, despite the fact that we had always planned on two children, he replied, “Well, then we aren’t getting a Prius.”


Six months earlier, he had looked at my body and commented, “You know, from the waist up, you’re thinner than you’ve ever been.”


Yesterday, I came downstairs to work while my husband was still sleeping.  I read my email and then worked for an hour.  Lilah woke up and I went up to shower with her in the room while J came down to feed Zach.  As I closed the bathroom door, I said, “My agent dumped me.”

I wasn’t interested in hearing his sympathy yesterday morning, but by mid-afternoon, I was ready to talk.  I called him.  “I don’t think it’s time for me to look for a job,” I said.  “What we’re doing is working.  I’m not making a lot of money, but I’m here for the kids.”

“I think that’s right,” he replied.  “Whether or not you sell the book, you are publishing.”

“But it’s going to mean we keep making the sacrifices we’re making, with you doing a lot of childcare and housework so that I have time to write.  You have to be sure you really want this, because it means you have to keep supporting my writing even though we’re not getting much money out of it.”

“I understand that,” he said.  “But since we’re not hiring any extra childcare for it, any money you do bring in is bonus.  If you were in a job, most of the money would go to childcare, anyway”

Sometimes, the man steps in it, but when it counts, he knows exactly what to say.

You’ll need to click over to see the video, but it’s worth it.