Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Why making Baby Boomer friends is the best thing a mom can do

At my first rehearsal with the Berkeley Broadway Singers I was taken aback: For the first time in a very long time, I was one of the youngest people in the room.

After eight years of motherhood, I was beginning to believe that everyone in the Bay Area was either under the age of 10 or between 35-45 years old. I simply didn't meet anyone else.

Now, after spending a few years rubbing elbows with the more than 70 Baby Boomers in this showtunes choir, I have discovered that I had been missing something important about life, and I have been so grateful to learn it from them.

Specifically, getting older is just something that you do, and it's not all bad. It's not something that you can possibly Botox away or surgically remove. It hurts sometimes, and your hair changes color, and conversations may turn toward health care more often than they did before, but in general, these folks are ultimately so darn relaxed about themselves, it's a balm to my soul.

More times than I can count, I have brought up some "distressing" situation of mine with the older people in my choir and their responses seem initially dismissive: "What can you do? (Shrug)" This is usually followed by some sort of sassy pronouncement such as, "Some people are assholes," or "That's life!" And you know what? They're absolutely right.

The majority of my fellow choristers have survived life longer than I have, and they've earned the right to dismiss "the small stuff" I fret about. They drive slower than I do, their cars are (much) cleaner, their conversations are less frenzied than those of my peers and me, and they almost never check their iPhones in the middle of a conversation. (This may also be related to the fact that many of them need their "cheaters" to see the iPhone, but nevertheless, it's nice.)

I have gained so much unexpected perspective since I began socializing with this choir that I miss them now when I'm stuck out among the 35-45-year old jittery parents of suburbia (of which I am most certainly one). I find myself wondering what they would say when I'm faced with a dilemma (piano lessons? or chess?). Most likely it would just be a laugh and a shrug. And that's exactly what I need.

My next great frontier will be teenagers. Other than babysitters, I haven't had a real conversation with a teenager since I was one. Next week I will start working in a classroom with a bunch of teenage German students, and the culture shock may be even bigger than it was with the Baby Boomers. I can't wait.

Confessions of a dogfree couple

It seemed from the get-go that we couldn't be seen as "complete" as a couple until we had the pitter-patter of dog paws in our house. Our friends started getting dogs, immersing themselves in doggy day care and training classes ("Ours is the cutest one in there!") and putting their dog's faces on their Christmas cards. We gradually became one of the only dogless couples we know.

When people ask us, pulling back a dog on a leash, holding a newspaper bag of poop in the other hand, when we are going to FINALLY get a dog, they should know to be more sensitive about this topic.

The truth is, I'm allergic to dogs. When I confess this to pushy dog-owning acquaintances, they won't let it lie. "But what about medical interventions!? You could always adopt."

Even better, they will try to butter me up: "But you're so good with dogs, Erica. You could make some dog very happy."

But the truth is that we've carved out a dog-free existence for ourselves. Over the years we have added cats and children to our household, trying to fill the void, and we may just have been successful.

When we are at a party, and other guests have to leave because their dog is waiting to go out, we look at them quizzically. What is this existence by which you are beholden to an animal's "potty schedule?"

When we leave town for the weekend, there is no dragging Fido to the kennel or hiring a house sitter. We just chuck the children in the car and pull out of the driveway while four angry cat faces follow us with their eyes.

When our doorbell rings, we look at each other in excitement. "Who is it?" we wonder quietly. Then we walk to the door to find out, without a siege of harsh barking greeting our visitor.

And the lack of interaction with poop is a luxury I am not ready to surrender. I changed diapers for nine straight years, and kitty litter for more than that. But now the cats go outside to secret hidey-holes, and hey, so do the kids for the most part, so I am never seen bending at the waist with a bag over my hand, praising an animal while scraping the bag around to get it all.

Plus, I've had my share of playground politics, why add dog park politics to the mix? Someone is always mad at the person whose dog may or may not have bitten someone else's dog, and were they playing or fighting? Geez. Like some dogs, the judgments are fast, furious and ruthless at the dog park. No thanks.

It may seem like a huge waste, when I go on a run by myself, with no one to help me sniff things along the way. But the truth is that I'm content being a dog aunt. Occasionally. I will pet your dog, or, more often, make my children do it so that they might experience a "normal" relationship with dogs. Because who knows, perhaps a dog will insert his wet nose and smelly ears into our lives someday.

But in the meantime, we do hope that others can understand, if not embrace, our alternative dog-free lifestyle.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Missing the bus -- how parenting stripped me of my ability to judge myself and others

Looking back now, more than nine years after my first daughter's birth, I see that I was just jagged and pointy with judgmental tendencies before she was born. And that made me unhappy.

I was harsh on others, but even more so on myself. When breastfeeding turned out to be terrible, I was mad at myself for not adhering to my original vision.

When the baby went out with a dirty face or hung out in a dirty diaper -- I was the only one who was beating myself up about it. I had invested so much energy being annoyed with other people's parenting, I now found that I was judging myself even more harshly ("Yes, but is she in enough stimulating toddler classes?") and it became an unsustainable way of life.

I tried to cut her fingernails and clipped off the end of her thumb. I put her in cute outfits that sent her into fits of grief (turns out she has tactile sensitivity issues, I didn't know!). Despite my best attempts, I installed every carseat wrong for the first two years, and she would tip and lurch in the backseat when I took a tight turn.

Two years after my first girl was born came another, and she, with her itsy-bitsy fists, sheared off almost every remaining point of pride I had. Her birth was cataclysmic, she never slept (still doesn't), she feels everything more acutely than other humans and defies all forms of discipline. Basically, the only thing that kind of, sort of, works to discipline her is cash. Once she starts screaming there is no end to it, and you might be in for an eight or nine hour scream fest.

Then one year later another, a completely different girl popped out of my body, with a wholly separate agenda. This is a quiet girl who will go along with the tides of the family until she DOESN'T and then when she DOESN'T there is no possible way to change her mind. Her opinion has been established, and your plans shall change. After things have finally gone her way (the only possible outcome), she will reestablish her regularly scheduled program of lying on the floor singing a ballad about Anna and Elsa from "Frozen."

With the arrival of this #3 came another precipitous lowering of standards. And I had to face all of the judgment I had heaped upon other parents and realize that it was all bullshit, basically. Every judgmental thought I'd ever had came back to kick me in the butt, without exception.

My third child never went to a Gymboree class. Her clothes have been twice handed down and her rear end hangs out of every pair of pants she owns. It's a miracle if one girl leaves the house with her hair brushed each day, let alone three.

See, I find that the more I am a parent, the less I have advice for anyone, but rather I have much more sympathy. "What should I do about this behavior?" a parent may ask me, and "Hell if I know" is the only honest answer I have.

Today I was served another giant slice of humble pie. I miscalculated the school bus pick-up time, and, not allowed to get off the bus without me waiting for her, my kindergartner was sent back to school, basically with a "Parent Fail" sign on her forehead. When she arrived back in the school yard, the principal found her on the bus, then her teacher called the office and both of the secretaries in the office called the after school care helpers.

Walking onto campus to retrieve my child should have been the biggest parade of shame ever. Everyone knew that I had carelessly left my upset five-year-old on the bus, and I'd had to chase her down in my car. I passed school employees who clucked and said, "Erica! What happened?" but the funniest thing happened.

I didn't feel embarrassed at all. Because after all these years caring for my kids, my Pride-in-Parenting mechanism simply doesn't function anymore -- I had no hill to fall down, I had already resigned myself to a happy, grubby survival mode.

Sure, I'm proud of my kids themselves. I'm proud of what individuals they are and that they continue to thrive despite my having fed them all Ramen Noodles for dinner tonight. But I noticed that in the space where I previously would have been devastated and embarrassed by missing that bus, all I had was a blank shrug, a "shit happens," and a big hug for my kindergartner. (Who, it must be said, was happily playing videogames when I got there.)

And this afternoon, by way of apology, I took all three girls and two of their friends out to Jamba Juice. The kids were wild and resembled a rugby scrum of excitement. They yelled about farts and maimed each other in my minivan. I drove down the road, listening to "Gonna Make You Sweat," pretty much oblivious to my previous parenting "standards."

My minivan was filled with dozens of fruit flies, invited by an apple core we have yet to find under the seats, and as I waved the flies, one my one, out the window, I felt really damn happy. Because I'm not holding myself or anyone else up to an impossible standard, I've got nothing left to lose.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

October is Pregnancy Loss and Infant Loss Awareness Month

I'm grateful that Seleni asked me to write an article about it for them. It is here.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

One of the toughest articles I've ever written

My latest article for Seleni has gone live, and I'm very proud of finally bringing it to fruition. It's about managing anxiety when you're parenting after a loss and it was tough times in the writing.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Ten books I obsess over


(1)

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden.

Perhaps any book that so prolongs the loss of the protagonist's virginity is by nature fascinating. Oma and I obsessed together over this book: e.g., sleeping on a wooden pillow?! The question still irks me: how was this tender tome written by a man? And why hasn't he written ever again?

(2)

Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Patterson.

Did you know you could use a stove as an incubator for a premature baby!? That is is just the tip of the iceberg of the obsessibility of this book. Sponge fishing? "I Wonder as I Wander?" Biblical lore? The relationships in this book are spectacularly realized, I consider it Katherine Patterson's master work, even though the rest of her books are terrific as well. Speaking of which...

(3)

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Patterson.

Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? I was devastated for weeks after reading this book. I had never had an author screw me up as badly as Katherine Patterson did with this doozy. OBSESS! I named a remote section of our current property "Terabithia" but I respectfully ask that no one DIE THERE just because their friend went to an art museum without them. Thanks.

(4)

Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews.

Any woman in her 40's who doesn't include this in her list of 10 books that "stuck with her" is TOTALLY LYING. Hi, would you like a powdered donut? NO! Because I read "Flowers in the Attic," people, and I know you are trying to slowly, slowly kill me because you consider me to be devil spawn. I also think about My Sweet Audrina with some regularity, particularly when I manipulate the clocks in my daughter's rooms to suit my EVIL PURPOSES.

(5)

Beloved by Toni Morrison.

Just oh my GOD. "Beloved" was Sixth Sense-ish before it was cool. Why are the traumatizing books the ones that stick with me so much? The tombstone in this book is seared in my mind. The TOMBSTONE. Also, Toni Morrison did an incredible job creating the house in this book -- I could draw it for you now, so many years after reading this book. Rarely are novelists such good architects.

(6)

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon.

This book contains so much disparate juiceness. Hi, Zombies! Greetings, real dirigible terminal on the top of the Empire State Building! Escape artists, comics, nerds and houses on Long Island. The wild ride of the narrative stops before the book does, but by that point you're already obsessed.

(7)

East of Eden by John Steinbeck.

I feel self-conscious including a literary classic in this list, but this book is so visceral, sweeping and sexy. The love scenes beneath the tree are exquisite, and the sibling relationship is unpredictable and kept me on the edge of my seat. Whenever we are driving down through Central California, I get obsessed all over again and start looking for little farms and whorehouses.

(8)

The Book of Genesis by R. Crumb.

WHAT?! A cartoon rendering of the first book of the bible? Tchya! It is not a satire, but a straight retelling that pulls no punches. I still think about the drawings and the expressions on the character's faces when they encountered, for example, a burning bush, or checking out their drunk dad (poor Ham!). I check and re-check R. Crumb's latest bibliographies to see if he's tackled any more bible stories.

(9)

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig.

Road trips, parenting and mental illness: three great tastes that go great together. (Girls! If you find yourself separated from me by a glass wall, do not panic.) This book has been my only brush with philosophy, presented in a way that I mostly understood. But I can still smell the motor oil when I think of this book, which is often.

(10)

Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.

Was Barbara Kingsolver possessed when she wrote this? I think constantly about the strange reaction of American seeds to African soil, and the bugs and the crowds, and the sister jutting out her elbows to survive a stampede. Imagine my disappointment when Kingsolver returned to writing the same type of ecological/relationship stories after she released this book. I USED to love those stories, but Poisonwood Bible wrecked my enjoyment of them -- like going on a formerly-fun merry-go-round after an unexpected Congan rollercoaster ride.






Sunday, August 31, 2014

In which Mama almost loses the snake

I took Slinky out last night.  I carried him around with me while I put the girls to bed, then plopped the five-foot long corn snake in the bathtub. As I have done a dozen times before, I left him there while I folded laundry.

Any SECRET HOLES here?
Fifteen minutes later I walked into the bathroom only to see the last ten inches of the snake's tail disappearing into a tiny hole beneath our bathroom cabinet.

I lunged and grabbed onto that last bit of tail for dear life.

Slinky fought me with every bit of his muscled body. He wanted to go into this hole underneath our cabinet, but there were several problems with this:

(1) This newly discovered hole goes directly into the bowels of our house, completely inaccessible (barring destruction of our bathroom cabinetry and drywall).

(2) Slinky must be kept at a balmy 76-79 degrees, otherwise he will be unable to digest his food and die. Our house is pretty darn cold at night, even in the summer.

(3) The cats would like to eat him. So if he were to emerge back into the bathroom at night (corn snakes are nocturnal, as are cats), he would likely meet his doom.

Therefore, if I were to let go of those last few inches of my daughter's corn snake, Slinky would become a doomed, feral cornsnake, and we would spend weeks, or possibly months, seeking him out -- dead or alive -- in the ductwork of our house.

Slinky writhed fiercely against my grip while Hub-D and I problem-solved.

"What's our plan?" he asked me, as we gaped at each other.

"My current plan is to never let go," I said. And it seemed the snake and I were at a stand-off.

Although I was covered in sweat and had both of my shaking legs braced against the bathroom cabinet, I would not give in.

Nor would Slinky. It seems he had tasted freedom in the labyrinthine bowels of our cabinetry, and was not prepared to relent. I also wondered whether snakes even HAVE a "reverse gear." Could they be like kangaroos, who simply cannot go backwards?

Gigi stood near me while I held this pointy orange tail with everything I had. "You know whose fault this is, don't you?"

"I left him unattended, didn't I?" I said.

"Yes, you did."

It was 8:30pm. Hub-D reminded me that we had brunch reservations the next morning at 11:30am, so that really was our only "deadline" for removing the snake.

But I was NOT going to let go of that recalcitrant tail, even for mimosas.

Slinky wriggled and writhed. I was pretty sure he was going to poop on me. He was mad as hell, and kind of confused, I think.

I felt the same way, except I was mad at myself for leaving a five foot corn snake unattended in a bathroom which secretly harbored a tiny snake-sized hole under the bathroom sink. And I was very sweaty.

Hub-D began to coach me. "Pinch the part nearest the hole," he advised. "Then squeeze below it."

I thought about when I used to milk goats at The Country School in Ohio. I followed my goat-milking muscle memory and pinched the scaly bit closest to the hole.

To my amazement, Slinky retreated one millimeter. I continued milking the snake in miniscule increments until I had about 11 inches of Slinky in my possession, as opposed to my original 10 inches.

"Whose fault is this?" said the six year old behind me.

"Mine."

My face was dripping with sweat, but my hand remained steady. Milking, milking. One more millimeter. Writhing, wriggling, pulling against my hand. One more millimeter.

Then he was still for a moment. Tense, but still. And after long stand-off, during which Gigi asked me to take the blame several more times, Slinky finally switched into reverse. Snakes DO have that reverse gear, I am delighted to report.

And he gradually, very gradually, slithered out of the Hole of No Return. I finally had his head back in my possession and I looked deep into his wee red eyes.

"I am SO SORRY," I said to him, checking him all over for scale damage. He seemed a little resigned and thwarted, but he otherwise unperturbed.

As he scooted back into this cage, I reminded him, "This was my fault, Slinkster." And his warm red light blinked on, keeping him hearty for another day.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Love to the mamas taking the "first day" photos

The kids in other people's photos look cleaner than mine, and their clothes and hair look less rumpled than my kids', but I just bet you that those mamas look a little like me right now: it's an intense combination of happy and bereft.

I have yearned for this day to begin -- my kids, especially Gigi, psychologically thrive on being in a school environment. The summer was long and harried for her, and the other girls -- but especially me. The routine of school is good for all of us, and I have several big plans percolating for myself in the next few years.

But now, on the eve of the first day of school, I'm a basket case.

My baby, my Birdy, is flying the coop to kindergarten tomorrow. (And some ass will be mean to her, and I will hate that child forever, even when she decides 11 years from now to go to the Homecoming Dance with him.)

"My special power is I can fly"
I like having my kids here. They are messy and random and they fight over the most ridiculous flotsam ("That was MY two-inch piece of thread!"), but I love it when we're all together. I love it most when we travel together, even for a day trip to the beach. They pretend they are fairies together, and they spend hours deciding which special powers each of them will possess, and what color everyone's wings are. ("I already said my wings would be gold. How about yours are silver?")

Especially when all five of us are together, the girls make us laugh when they angle for treats and they collaborate on funny projects (e.g., a pulley system from the bottom porch to the top one, to transport questionable objects). They all plunk down in the living room and read on different cushions, or they all run next door and jump in the neighbors' much warmer pool on the slightest provocation.

We have shorthand and private jokes and the house is full of life during the summer. Chebbles makes elaborate drawings of hummingbirds, Gigi creates new harnesses for her leopards and Birdy cranks out one love note after the next, individually addressed to each member of the family, which she delivers with kisses up your arm, a la Pepe le Pew.

We work well as a team, the five of us, but this team isn't forever. At almost-nine, Chebbles is halfway to college, Gigi is heading into full-day first grade, and Birdy, oh my kindergarten Birdy!

The cleanest backpacks in the world are sitting in their cabinets, filled with labeled snacks and a few random treasures (Gigi has packed a big pink jewel).

And I am wracked with physical pain.

One last ice cream run before school starts
As I type this, it is 10:30pm and Gigi is still crying. This is the same sleepless routine as last year's first day of school, and yes, I've pulled out the big guns (Hello, Benadryl). Quite by accident, she is expressing what I am feeling. This is a transition that is joyful and upsetting at the same time, for both of us.

So I want the other moms to know I would love to see their faces too when they ship their kids off to school. We've worked hard to get to this moment, to ship our babies off on the bus. It takes some serious grit to hug the last babies goodbye, and I think I got some of it in my eye.