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Posts tagged ‘Children’

I saw Mommy dissing Santa Claus

Ho ho...no (Wikipedia)

Ho ho…no (Wikipedia)

Prepare yourself for a special holiday memory.

I’m seven years old. It’s Christmas time. My mother is leaning against the butcher block in the kitchen.

“I have to tell you something,” she said to me. She paused. She struggled to suppress a laugh.

“There’s no such thing as Santa,” she said. And then the laughter came pealing out, like Christmas bells.

I think I said, “All right,” and then went on with my childhood. After all, we lived on one floor, so I could see the Christmas tree, and my parents putting presents under it, from my bed at night. Spoiler alert! If that was something people said in 1982.

And Christmas went on, too. We always hung stockings, got presents, and listened to worn cassettes of my father’s favorite carols. We drove around in the evenings to look at the neighborhood lights; we went to Rockefeller Center to see the big tree. My father decorated a meticulous tree; my mother made Belgian waffles on Christmas morning. Glad tidings, comfort, joy, all of that.

I asked my mother about this special memory recently, to see if she would admit to it. “Oh yeah,” she said. “If I couldn’t have Christmas when I was little, why should anybody else?” she said in a sing-song voice. Her sense of humor saves her from being the cynic of the Western world.

My mother emigrated to New York from Italy when she was five years old. She was born in a tiny mountaintop town, in Calabria, one of the poorest southern regions. The house she was born and lived in was built, like much of the town, around 1450. Dirt floors; smoking fires in the hearth; animals in the courtyard. There may have been a manger.

“There was no Christmas over there like here. We didn’t have much. Definitely no Santa,” she said. “Christmas was about going to church, the presepio [the Nativity scene], and the food.

“We didn’t have these endless supplies of food, everything was very limited. So whatever sugar or honey you had, you saved for Christmas.” My grandmother made Calabrese Christmas sweets, things we still love to eat, mainly variations on fried balls of dough dipped in honey or sugar: scalidi, struffoli, zeppole, turtiddi. And Christmas cookies. My husband likes to joke that cookies in my family are basically hard pieces of bread with sprinkles on them. But when you think about how getting sugar would mean walking an hour to the market town, it doesn’t seem so strange.

“And then, La Befana would come for Epiphany.” La Befana is the Italian equivalent of Santa Claus, in the form of a witch, left over from Pagan times, who comes on Epiphany Eve in January and fills stockings, certainly not plush ones with Snoopy on them like mine, with oranges, nuts, and candy. These things, part of my own children’s daily lives were cherished treats in Calabria. If you were bad, La Befana brought you coal. So that part translates. It’s the only part that does.

“When we got here, we didn’t speak English. We just didn’t get how Christmas was done,” my mother said. “The first year, we didn’t have a tree. We certainly didn’t have presents. Later we did have a tree, but Christmas was always a hard time. Your grandfather worked in construction, remember, so he was out of work all winter. So things were very lean until he could work again in the spring.” My mother was the youngest of five, with two sisters who were much older. “When they started working in the factory [they were seamstresses], I would get a doll, or they would make me a dress or a sweater. But still, the presents were the least of Christmas.”

Even in New York in the booming 1950s, where they had come to escape the want of the isolated villages of the Italian South, they still would hold sugar and honey in reserve till Christmas. I can see why the idea of Santa – even now, when we can dump entire pots of store-bought honey on trays of scalidi – would make you laugh, a little bit.

“But when we got married and you guys were little, we did Christmas the usual way. Your father always had that kind of a Christmas. His parents put up the Christmas tree on the 24th after all the kids were in bed, so they would wake up to a big surprise on Christmas morning. It was special for him. And Christmas was always special for you, too. But as for Santa, I don’t know. I just could never get into it.”

We gave Santa Claus lip service growing up, but I don’t have any memory of really believing, waiting for him to materialize in our house in the night. We didn’t have a chimney, so that didn’t help either. The presents, in my mind, were always from my parents, even though they kindly wrote “from Santa” on the labels. I have a friend whose parents did not go in much for Santa either. “We worked hard to buy those presents,” her mother told me. “Why should Santa get all the credit?” A fair point.

As for my all-American kids, two boys, ages six and three, they are excited about Santa Claus. As is their privilege. And I encourage them to believe. But what I don’t want, especially when I think of how Christmas used to be for so many in my family, and how it still is for so many people, is for the focus of Christmas to be receiving gifts.

Instead, let it be sweet treats, bright lights on cold nights, being good to each other. My three-year-old is thrilled to screaming at the sight of Christmas lights glowing in the dark; I would rather him hold on to that wonder than the mystery of a man in red bearing judgment, and Legos.

That’s not to say those two will wake up on Christmas morning to a house full of nothing but the smell of good cheer. I look forward to treating them at this time of year. What I don’t want is to dangle the old man in front of them as a threat, and tell them he’ll turn the sleigh around if they are not good; if they don’t stop yelling; if they don’t pick up their toys, or eat their vegetables. That doesn’t seem right.

So, how to handle Saint Nick? Short of calling the boys into the kitchen to deliver some bad tidings?

“Am I a good boy?” my six-year-old asked me the other day. I could see he was apprehensive of the judgment that was coming, the ups and downs of his behavior that year dancing through his head.

“Listen to me,” I held his face, looked him in the eyes. “You are a good boy. Let’s end the suspense. Santa is coming for you.”

His eyes widened. “But can he see what I am doing? Can he see me when I do things that aren’t good?”

“Santa can see that you have a good heart. You are a good brother. You are a good friend. Even good boys make mistakes sometimes, and he knows that. Everybody makes mistakes. But he knows you are good. So just keep showing him the good boy you are inside, OK?”

I guess the best thing about Santa is that it gives you something magical to believe in, in the bleakest nights of midwinter. So let him believe. But also let him believe in the good within himself, year round.

And let him believe that Santa uses the same wrapping paper as us. And has the same handwriting as me. Wouldn’t that be magical?

The spoiled child: how do you surprise younger siblings?

Spoiler alert! Six-year-olds love Star Wars. Particularly in Lego format. I was that age myself when The Empire Strikes Back came out. I remember the tie-in Happy Meal I received.  And I remember being lined up in a school hallway with my first-grade class, and the hot topic was Darth Vader, I think, and his relationship to uh, somebody, I won’t spoil it for you in case you are one of the few people in the world who hasn’t seen the movie.

Oh wait a second, I just Wikipedia’d the release date for The Empire Strikes Back. Revision: the movie I remember being discussed in the hallway, actually, wasn’t The Empire Strikes Back, it was Raiders of the Lost Ark. [That’s right, I remember now: everyone just called it “Raiders” to sound cool, and no one cared to discuss the theatrical re-release of Cinderella I had seen…right right.] In any case, it was some adventure thing I didn’t care about and didn’t see. It’s Harrison Ford in some macho role or other. It’s all the same to me. The Happy Meal was definitely TM George Lucas, though.

Rats, that would have been a great lead-in to this post. But I digress. Back to the point: it occurs to me, as I look around my house, where I live with a six-year-old boy, and a three-year-old boy, and their Star Wars-loving father, Lucas detritus is everywhere. There are Lego Star Wars figurines strewn about the floor in every room, some with heads, some not; the series DVDs are never far from the TV set. When we play in the backyard, we don’t need swings, or even a ball; all that’s required is a few large sticks that become lightsavers (“They’re lightsabres! Even I know that,” I keep telling them). Roles are assigned, and there’s a battle royale; the boys alternate being Luke Skywalker and Hans (sorry – Han!) Solo, and I am usually assigned C3PO, or Princess Leia, and halfheartedly swing my sabre while trying to make the point that Princess Leia doesn’t need saving; she’s fighting bad guys too.

Even when the six-year-old is at school discussing the minutiae of the planet Hoth with his compadres, and we’re at play on our own, the three-year-old still wants to pick up some sticks and fight bad guys in space. He still wants to be Luke Skywalker through most of his day.

When my older son was that age, he was more interested in The Wiggles: things that were cozy and sweet.  His father didn’t introduce Star Wars to him until he was well over the age of four (he waited as long as he could stand). Things are different this time around; with an older brother around to worship and emulate, the little one is growing up so fast, all consumed with the epic battle for good over evil, so he can stay in step with his idol.

Those “few people in the world” I mentioned earlier, who have not seen the Star Wars franchise? Aside from grown-ups who don’t care for space games, who else can those people be, but little brothers and sisters? And how do we stop them from being exposed to secrets they are not ready to learn yet? Like the fact that you-know-who is you-know-who’s father?

As much as I like to make fun of my family for their adulation of George Lucas, the Star Wars films (and no, I don’t mean the ones with Hayden Christiansen, I know I know) are absolute classics, and it is one of the wonders of childhood to watch them and revel in their big moments. It’s almost like Christmas morning, the look of surprise on the face of a kid when the moment of truth comes in The Empire Strike Back; it’s like unwrapping an enormous gift. But it can only happen once.

At three, my little one is not ready for that revelation. It’s one thing to play at using the Force in the backyard, but he is simply too little to watch the films, where the violence is of a much more intense variety that a backyard twig fight. But when the background noise of his daily life with big brother is all Star Wars, all the time, how do we make sure that he will stay unspoiled, so that he can enjoy that moment to its fullest, gasp-inducing extent when he is ready for it?

This conundrum goes beyond Star Wars as well. My six-year-old’s teeth are falling out at an alarming pace and I, as Tooth Fairy, like to leave him a surprise under his pillow from time to time instead of cold, impersonal cash. But the three -year-old, as my personal shopping assistant, is very astute, and saw the special electric toothbrush I bought for his brother and tried to hide at the bottom of the cart, behind boring things like toilet paper and vegetables.  Did he make the connection the following morning when the same toothbrush appeared? If he did, he still doesn’t have the words to express it. But someday, perhaps sooner than he should, he might just put it all together.

And how will he believe in Santa, when his brother no longer believes? And the Easter Bunny? Not to mention every other book or movie his brother will read or see ahead of him. It’s powerful ammunition to have, this information, and I hope it is a long time before big brother realizes that he can wield it.

In the throes of busy days, I can’t police every moment. I can keep him from watching Star Wars on TV, but I can’t ensure that the boys’ playacting is spoiler-free. For now, I can only rely on the fact that three is still very young.  As incredible as his capacity to remember every kind of detail is, his ability to forget is almost as strong. He was, as I am sure he has forgotten, a baby not too long ago. But then again, they change and grow faster than my parenting can keep pace with, so that might not be true for very much longer.

Tomorrow morning, the Tooth Fairy will likely have been here. And that (spoiler alert!) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle sticker book might look awfully familiar to a little certain someone. Maybe I will just stick to cash.

Fussy Mother’s Locavore Cafe: First Day of School Menu

Apologies from Fussy Mother that the cafe (and blog) have been closed for so long. We have relocated our establishment from suburban Boston to coastal Connecticut over the summer.

In honor of the First Day of School in our new town, Fussy Mother presents a special menu, filled with the flavors of our new seaside surroundings, and sprinkled with a dash of the glee that accompanies the sight of a school bus heading away from the house.

So please, enjoy.

Breakfast

(NOT served all day)

Local berries lightly picked over

Three–hundredth consecutive daily waffle real syrup: Mrs Butterworth’s will be detected and refused

Alphabet cereal educational, when tired of three-hundredth consecutive waffle

Blueberry scones from the supermarket in our old town (not available)

Yogurt if you want to be a big strong boy

Eggs any style don’t you dare

Box lunch

Nutella sandwich does that count as nut-free

PB&J “for babies”

Heirloom Wheat Thins moving-van aged, summer

Baby carrots also made the journey

Loving note from Mom feel free to disregard

Round-trip Go-Gurt let’s not kid ourselves

Fresh water BPA free, good first impression

Monsters, Inc. juice box available next week

Nutella

Nutella (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After-School Snack

(served al fresco)

Snake jerky street pressed

Fisher cat poop never heard of such a thing in Boston

“10-foot diet” berries red, STOP!

Fresh clams salt marsh, local guy, bucket, good luck

Resident grasshoppers down the hatch

Dinner

(two-bite mininum)

Connecticut pizza universally better than Massachusetts, whole reason for moving

Untouched pasta affront to Italian mother

Most expensive available organic sausage SIT DOWN

Macaroni and cheese everyone else in the world likes it but you

Breaded chicken ditto

Quiet lobster roll at marina, sunset in your dreams

Easter candy finish it before Halloween

Marsh Bride Brook and Coastal Salt Marsh, East...

Our new environs. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Just because they are awesome: MTN-Qhubeka

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MTN-Qhubeka’s distinctive yellow bikes. (Photo credit: acme59)

We got our son his first bike when he was two. It was a Strider balance bike, a tiny little thing with two wheels and no pedals. It let him get a running start, lift up his feet, and start coasting, fully balanced by momentum, no training wheels needed. I remember taking him out on the Strider on the boardwalk in Long Beach, Long Island. It was winter and all you could see of him as he whizzed past was his big blue coat and flame-streaked helmet. “Is that baby riding a two-wheeler?” Power-walkers scooting by turned their heads.

I have never liked riding bikes myself. I didn’t have the necessary freedom to roam in my neighborhood as a kid; a block or two in every direction there was a major road, Sunrise Highway or Long Beach Road, so I could only ride round and round the block, on the sidewalk, as my grandmother watched nervously from the window. Maybe it was because of these limits I still find the action of cycling difficult;  how do you just let go, let momentum keep you upright on two skinny wheels? How do you find the faith to travel at high speeds without touching the ground?

Nevertheless, I have come to love professional cycling over the years. At first, I found TV broadcasts of the Tour de France soothing, watching the bright colors of the peloton, brazen, jostling, and blazing past staggering mountain slopes, small towns, ancient cobbles, all the way to the Champs Elysees. But the more I watched to see the scenery, the more I got to understand, and enjoy, the sport. Because cyclists have to have complete confidence in themselves, and in their teammates, to get up on two wheels and just go, holding absolutely nothing back.

There is too much to admire in cycling to dismiss it because of its demons, whom I will let lie. For instance: have you ever heard of the professional team MTN-Qhubeka? You should. If you’ve read this far into a post about cycling, you probably have.

MTN-Qhubeka is the first African team to compete at the highest level of cycling, and on Saint Patrick’s Day, they were on the start line of Milan-Sanremo, one of the monument races of the sport, along with all of the European powerhouse teams. Just being at the race was a triumph. And then, they won. Their sprinter and captain, Gerald Ciolek, beat out the world’s best in a thrilling sprint finish. Behind him was a team that was a mix of European veterans and African newcomers, like Songezo Jim (read his blog about racing Milan-Sanremo here).

Songezo Jim @ Milan-Sanremo

Songezo Jim @ Milan-Sanremo (Photo credit: Glory Cycles)

Cycling is not much of a priority on American sports networks, like fishing and cheerleading are. So I found a way to watch Milan-Sanremo online, standing at my computer on the kitchen counter while my kids ran around and my husband, who actually does ride a bike, finished a well-deserved shamrock shake.

Milan-Sanremo is called “La Primavera,” the spring race, and careens over mountains and valleys from Milan to Sanremo on the Italian Riviera, and usually finishes with a blistering dash to the finish, with the sport’s top sprinters playing a game of cat and mouse until that final burst of speed makes one of them the winner. It is a dramatic enough race even on the brightest, green-and-pinkest Italian early spring day.

But while Boston was relatively spring-like that Sunday, the Italian Riviera was being pelted with snow and ice, prompting officials to cancel a mountain climb in the middle of the route and send the ice-covered racers further along the course by bus, like that lady who ran the New York Marathon years ago by subway.

It was pretty nuts, to put it plainly. Dozens of racers, including veterans and stars of the sport, dropped out midway, unable to or not willing to tolerate the intensely harsh conditions. Those who stayed in could barely grip their handlebars, or see through the frozen air that came at them along the way, and struggled to keep upright on the whitening, slickening roads.

But in a way, and I can say this because I watched, hot coffee in hand, from thousands of miles away, as problematic as it was, it was a race represented to me what’s pure about cycling: it’s you, and the elements, come as they may. It’s toughness above all. Any winner would have been deserving of heaps of praise and admiration. But it was extra sweet that the win went to a team that is trying to make it on the world stage, representing a corner of the world where cycling is not quite so in the blood, as it is in the chilly north of Europe.

The Qhubeka in MTN-Qhubeka is a foundation, that provides children across Africa with bicycles in return for service to their communities. According to their website, they have handed over more than 40,000 bikes since they started in 2004. And I know I usually write about whiny toddlers, temper tantrums, and the everyday guff of motherhood in the USA, but I just had to write, that I think this is an amazing thing. These bicycles mean freedom, they mean education, they mean independence. And by winning, and racing, and moving forward, their team, MTN-Qhubeka, is only calling more attention to their important mission, not only by their jersey colors but by the way they race.

In our home here, we are lucky enough to get our kids on bikes, walk them down the road to school, ready with everything they need. We take it for granted. Qhubeka knows that no one should. And school and mobility should not be a luxury, but a right. From their website:

Most of Africa’s rural population have no access to transport and people have to walk long distances to access opportunity, education, healthcare, shops and community services. Rural schoolchildren are particularly badly affected by lack of mobility. In South Africa, of the 16 million school going children, 12 million walk to school. Of these, 500,000 walk more than two hours each way, spending four hours getting to and back from school each day. Bicycles are the most effective and economical method of quickly addressing this problem.

Cycling is a great sport because no matter the context, competitive or not, alone, or in teams, in rural Africa or Western cities, it moves people forward [Qhubeka: an Nguni (Zulu, Xhosa) word that means “to carry on”, “to progress”, “to move forward”]. So I want to congratulate MTN-Qhubeka on their success in Milan-Sanremo, and all the other races they enter on the world stage, on moving the sport forward in Africa, on getting young people onto bikes.

They can do it, and my son can do it, and maybe so can I: this spring, now that the snow is receding, I will also get my own bike out of the basement, brush off the cobwebs, and trust myself to find my balance, and lift my feet off the ground.

My bike; the old Robin Hood.

My bike; the old Robin Hood.

Fussy Mother’s Locavore Cafe: Today’s Menu

 

Légumes

Welcome to Fussy Mother’s. All menu items are micro-local, carefully sourced from a five-block radius of Fussy Mother’s. Menu items vary seasonally and with the vacuuming schedule. 

Libations

Snow local boot mud, Massachusetts gravel

Housemade yogurt shake milk-flavored, November sippy-cup

Apple juice half town tap water, virtuous

Dregs recycle-bin wine bottle

Beginnings

School gym Cheerio native dust rabbit

Couch Goldfish damp leather sous-vide, oatmeal-crusted owl-head bowl

Year-old robin’s egg nest of pencil shavings, shredder paper

Shaped crackers native Lego

Backyard scourge mint call it basil if you want

Fridge-aged baby carrots lightly orange, dry

Stop & Shop Cereal Bar unwrapped, no TV

Apple squeezer stained car seat, I-95

Additional Goldfish when I get around to it

lego

Middles

Lunchbox contents available till dinner

Freezer chunk brown, ice crust, saddish peas

Sidewalk pine cone rain-stewed, not poop

Native dumplings plastic bag, 1994 Nissan, organic soy sauce

Found PB&J bitten, French-like jam

Meatballs backyard tomatoes, grandmother watching

White oak acorn mash driveway shards, chipmunk pee

Braised chicken cookbook-sourced, yuzu, wild rice, asparagus, deal with it

Sal’s pizza you liked it yesterday

Roasted farm share root vegetables for decoration

Afters

Girl Scout Cookies pushiest local troop

American chocolate fun-sized, Halloween 2011

Pez Spider-Man, with please and thank you

Mandatory apple peeled, or “whole bites”

Cheese plate wrapped stick, finger pinches of grated romano, no thank you

Your table awaits.

Your table awaits.

God forbid you provide your mother with gratuity 18% of the time
You won’t eat eggs so we don’t have to worry about how raw or cooked they are

Enjoy!

My mother hates Dr Seuss! and other stories

The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss, 1957

The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss, 1957 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This week my son brought home The Cat in the Hat from his school library, which is fitting because on March 2, Dr Seuss, the great children’s author and illustrator, would have been 109 years old.

He was great. Wasn’t he?

“Oh God, I hate Dr Seuss! He’s the worst!” my mother says. This jibes with my childhood memories; I had a ton of books at home growing up, but not a lot of Seuss. A few, yes: The Lorax, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, The Cat in the Hat Comes Back (but not the first one), and that’s about it. On my mother’s list of forbidden childhood fun, Dr Seuss came in at number two, just beneath Santa Claus. Number three: Play-Doh. Number four: every other toy that was messy in any possible way. Number Five: Fun-Dip or Fun-any kind of candy. Funyuns also. No, she’s a great mom. Really.

Recently when my son took One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish out of the library I realized I had never read it before. At least as a child. After college I worked at Random House Children’s Books, which publishes the works of Seuss: the ones he wrote when he was living and the ones he wrote after he was dead. One of my tasks was tracking the sales of Seuss books. The top title, if I recall correctly, was Green Eggs and Ham.

I did not read that in my house. I did not read that with a mouse. I did not read it with my mother. She did not like it, so don’t bother!

“Why do I hate Dr Seuss?” she said, when I called to ask her. “Can’t it just be fun and simple? Why does he have to be a such a smarty-pants?”

This makes sense. If there is one thing my mother can’t abide, it’s a smarty-pants. “It’s like he’s trying to prove he’s so smart so he goes on and on and on. Sam I am Sam I am who cares? You know me, I want it short and to the point. Not impressed.”

Green Eggs and Ham

Sam I am enough already (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For many years my mother worked in the library at our local kindergarten center, so she has a pretty good knowledge of kids’ books. What was your policy on Dr Seuss in the library? I asked.

“Of course kids took the books out, but I didn’t promote Dr Seuss, I didn’t read Dr Seuss. I didn’t tell them not to, but I wasn’t going to read that jibber-jabber out loud. The Lorax, and all that stupid stuff? There’s nothing about it that I like.”

All righty. So, who are your favorite kids’ authors, then? How about Maurice Sendak? “Nope, didn’t like him either.” I almost hung up. I think that Where the Wild Things Are is one of the most perfectly written books, for kids or adults, ever.

“But I love Little Bear [which is illustrated by Sendak but written by Else Holmelund Minarik],” she said. “It’s so sweet and charming. And what else? God, I can’t think, I’m out of the library business. Kevin Henkes [I agree, I love everything he writes]. And Rosemary Wells [Oh that Max and Ruby!]. The Arthur books. Tomie De Paola. I don’t know, something that made you feel happy and cozy and comforted. Or something really funny. I don’t find Dr Seuss comforting or funny.”

“So can I pin this dislike for Dr Seuss on your childhood?”

She pauses. “Yeah, probably.”

My mother was born and lived, until she emigrated at five, in the south of Italy, in a poor, rural, mountain village. It was not unlike the setting of Strega Nona, the Tomie De Paola book which is a favorite of hers. Strega Nona is set in a fictional, fairy-tale Calabria, the region she was from, with its rough edges softened: Catholic and hardscrabble and peopled with goats, stubborn country folk and witches, like her mother, my own Strega Nona, without all the smiling and kiss-blowing.

It’s the kind of upbringing that looks romantic and interesting only in retrospect, from our family’s new vantage point on the U.S. east coast. But at the time, there was little room for romance in a medieval house with no heating and dirt floors. There, I would imagine, you’d seek comfort. Coziness. A simple happiness found at the edge of a desperately practical existence.

Old school.

Old school. My mother’s village in Calabria.

As we were talking about Dr Seuss my aunt walked into my mother’s house. She immediately gets on the anti-Seuss bandwagon: “Oh, I never wanted to read Dr Seuss to the kids either,” she says. “Sam I am? I am Sam? Really?

“And The Cat in the Hat? In our house cleaning up was not an option.”

“Our mother never left the house, so we never got the chance to make a mess,” my mother added. “That’s for Americans with leisure time.” Oh, the zingers you’ll zing.

I will grant them their literary tastes. It’s a free country after all. You can have unusually strong opinions about whimsical children’s book authors if you want to. But I can’t let Dr Seuss go undefended on his birthday. Especially now as a parent, watching my five-year-old, newly-reading son, read Seuss books.

As fanciful as Seuss books are, it was Hop on Pop that introduced my son to reading in the most sensible way. The book repeats simple words and then switches the final letter, and encourages kids to note the differences as they are helped along by the bright, silly pictures.

Children’s books serve all sorts of purposes. The books published before Dr Seuss, were, in many cases, cozy and comforting, and those books, like Goodnight Moon, have their essential place. And there were those, too, like the work of the excellent Virginia Lee Burton (The Little House), which took on the real world is a wonderful, honest way.

On the other hand, Dr Seuss, smarty-pants extraordinaire, introduced twentieth-century children to a world beyond the comforts of hearth and home, a world that recognizes the importance of letting your imagination run amok. Yet, they are not just flights of fancy; many Seuss books have essential lessons that burst right through the silliness. Think of The Lorax, The Sneeches, the Grinch, on and on. These books were of little use for my mother and aunt whose imaginations were shaped back in the old country, where they pretty much lived in the sixteenth century.

A few minutes after we spoke, my mother called back. “Here’s another quote for your blog. Everyone says they love Dr Seuss, but do they really?” When we say we like Dr Seuss, are we all just pretending to like something that comes off a bit highbrow? Like jazz, or Champions League soccer? I asked my son when he got home from kindergarten.

“O darling child, may I ask you something? Please, finish your quinoa and locally-sourced beets first.”

“Hm?” Looks up from book of mazes.

“Do you like Dr Seuss books?”

“Yes,” he says, unreservedly.

“Why?”

“Because they’re funny.” (Take that, Mom!)

“Why else?”

“They’re cool.”

OK, I can see that this is going to be the typical cavalcade of one-word knee-jerk responses. Not the burst of enlightenment I thought my research would bring me. But suffice it to say, he likes the books. He wants to read them, or have them read to him. My two-year-old does, too. He even likes And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. But he’s old school.

“What are else are you going to write about me?” my mother asked. “‘She didn’t bake, she didn’t play games, she didn’t do arts and crafts,’ right?” Well, she didn’t really. Those things aren’t in her bones. But listening is. And she talked to us. Candidly. And all the time. She still does.

So right now I’m going to call her back, for the fifth time today, and tell her: my grandparents schlepped all the way to America so that their descendants could sit around and enjoy piffle like Bartholomew and the Oobleck. So let’s, shall we? Oh, the places we can theoretically go!

Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) half-length portrait, s...

Happy birthday to you. World Telegram & Sun photo by Al Ravenna. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Black ice

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One year later, I am still grieving for Newtown.

http://www.momsdemandaction.org
http://www.sandyhookpromise.org

[Originally posted December 17, 2012]

The morning after last Friday, my five-year-old son, C, went over to his little play table, and told me not to look. But I watched his back as he sat quietly, even though he kept calling over his shoulder: “Don’t look at what I’m doing.” What else could I do, but look at him? Since he came home from kindergarten the day before all I could do was hold his face in my hands, rumple his baby-chick hair, listen to him earnestly tell me about another Friday at school. I hardly let him walk at all on Friday night, and Saturday morning; I practically carried him around the house with his head on my shoulder. So he knew something was up.

“OK, you can look now,” he called, and I hurried over to him. He made me a card. “C loves Mommeyy” it said.

I turned away from him, hid my tears. I rummaged in the drawer to find tape, take a breath, and stick the card up on a cabinet. I hugged him, again. “Don’t forget T,” he said, and I hugged the two-year-old too. Again. And that little glimpse of sadness is about as much of an inkling I want them to have that something horrible happened on Friday.

The internet is clogged with cliches this week, and here’s another: once you become a parent, you can never relax again. It’s a cliche because it’s true. And I can’t. A parent’s job is to anticipate peril, in any form, and shield a child from it as best we can, for as long as we can. But what about a peril, an evil, that’s so palpable, and hits us right where we send our children to be safe, and to thrive? We all know danger is always right around the corner, no matter what we do, but this is too stark and immediate a reminder to us all that everything must end.

I am sure I am not alone when I say it was difficult to send C to school today. Another embodiment of the fact that every goodbye releases him into the unknown. So we all put on boots and hats; instead of one or the other of us dropping C at school a few houses up the street, we all decided to go.

When we opened our front door, it looked like another raw, wet December day in New England. But on his first step out of the house, C slipped and fell. The wooden porch and steps were covered with a thin, invisible layer of black ice. The front walk looked merely wet but it was too, too slick; back in the house we went. We would go out the back door. But those steps were the same. We stumbled back into the house.

Finally, we made it out the third, and last door, through the murky basement. Cobwebs cover the stone foundation walls. C hoped that our noise would scare away the mice he thinks run rampant down there. “What’s that?!” A leaf scurried across our path as we opened the door.

Out on the sidewalk, C was still slipping on the invisible ice, and I walked tentatively, clutching a squirming T. I grabbed a bush to steady myself as I walked, and the leaves crackled. “I’d better take T back inside. Just hold on to C and go,” I said to their dad. There were more pressing dangers at hand; I couldn’t risk a fall to make a statement that would only soothe me, and not protect the boys.

Aside from police that are set to cruise by schools in town throughout the day, it will, I hope, be just another day. And though I will continue to grieve for Newtown, and pray that something good will come of this nightmare, I will say nothing of it all to C. He is five; he is too little to comprehend the evil that people are capable of in the world, evil that can end the lives of twenty beautiful children, and how close to it we all can find ourselves. Though on the other side of it, there is a lesson to be learned in the bravery that was shown by so many that day.

Little kids, judging from watching my own at play, see the world in black and white, like the pages of a comic book. Nearly every game C invents with his friends is about “good guys” and “bad guys.” It could be Spider-Man, or Batman, or themselves in superhero form. But in their make-believe world, the emphasis is not on the evil that these dreamed-up bad guys do. They are just bad; what they do is never specified. What’s important, in the game, is the imperative that the good guys (themselves included) have to vanquish evil and save the day.

“Are bad guys real?” C asked me a few days ago, before any of this happened. “They are,” I said. “Bad guys in comics aren’t real, but there are people in the world that aren’t nice, that do bad things. But there are good guys out there, to stop them.”

We can’t always, as we learned so painfully, stop them. And I can’t always carry my children around the house, or away from black ice, or shield them from terrible things. They will have to be able to stand on their own one day. But not today.

Now, all I can do is foster the good that lives in them, and remind them of the good in the world, the kindness, the bravery. In our town, and other New England towns like ours. And I will remind them with a smile, with warmth and reassurance, while all the while I wear a mantle of grief and fear, that I will hide behind me.

How Not to Talk With Children About the Newtown Shooting (from the Motherlode blog at The New York Times)

Damning with the wrong praise

English: Boy in front of jungle gym

It’s a jungle out there, kids. (Wikipedia)

Now, I am not usually someone who enjoys taking her husband’s advice. You know what I mean? Girl, I know you do. As a pediatrician, he often pretend-casually tosses me articles and books about child rearing that he comes across, full of what I am sure are good parenting practices. That I am meant to read stat. I know there is a lot of value in these bits he passes on, but part of me wants to say, yeah so? I’ve got a deal with them all day and then read a book about how I’m doing it all wrong after they go to sleep, when I can instead watch a TV show without any talking animals in it? I’m the mother; I know what’s best, right? And that’s the part of me usually gets to say what it wants.

“I think I know what I’m talking about here!” he says in a huff, when I blow off his reading tips. Harumph to you too.

Cover of "NurtureShock: New Thinking Abou...

Cover via Amazon

But I’ll admit that recently he gave me some reading material that I will take to heart (See? I do listen sometimes). In book called NurtureShock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, which I’ve promised to read in its entirety just after I read this stack of old Hello! magazines (And also! That DVR won’t empty itself!), there is a chapter called “The Inverse Power of Praise.” The gist: when you praise your child, like we all do, you should praise effort towards specific tasks, and not general ability. For example:

Not: “You finished that whole Lego Star Wars set all by yourself?? For ages 8+? And what are you, FIVE? You are so smart!!!!!!!! Exclamation point!”

Instead: “You put that Sarlacc together all by yourself? I am so proud that worked so hard at that and you did it!”

“The presumption is,” the book states, “that if a child believes he’s smart (having been told so, repeatedly), he won’t be intimidated by new academic challenges. The constant praise is meant to be an angel on the shoulder, ensuring that the children do not sell their talents short.” And as Dr. Carol Dweck, who has pioneered much of this way of thinking, says, “When we praise children for their intelligence, we tell them that this is the name of the game, look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.” NurtureShock, as well as Dweck’s research, argues that if a child is constantly told he or she is smart (or, I extrapolate, a natural athlete or musician, say) he won’t risk the damage to his self-esteem by attempting something difficult or challenging, and failing.

The book also quotes NYU professor Judith Brook: “Praise is important, but not vacuous praise. It has to be based on a real thing.” So the praise, which we can’t help but give, is better directed toward specific goals. “Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control. They come to see themselves in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding for failure.”

OK, that’s enough quoting. I think I’ve proved that I read it. Suffice it to say, it gave me pause.

I give C the third degree on the walk home from school every day, and I get some facts out of him, like what he did in gym or math, or some other bit of schoolroom arcana, but it’s hard to put it all together to get a full picture of his day. It’s a mystery, it’s omerta; it’s being five, I guess.

So besides the cryptic comments about “choice time” and “work board” and being the “lunch helper” and all of the other byzantine rituals of school he now holds dear (“I don’t tell anyone when I have to go the the bathroom, I just go!”), my best vantage point from which to observe C’s new life is on the playground after dismissal. I watch him and his friends dash back and forth, leaping and cutting swaths through the air, falling tragically to the ground, then touching black to regain their superpowers, or touching something blue to transfer them.

The hotspot on the playground, for all of the kindergartners at C’s school, is the monkey bars. It’s where it’s at. Daily I watch as six or seven of them clamor over each other, each trying desperately to achieve mastery of this six-foot row of rungs. They look like kiddie versions of the dancers in that old Paula Abdul video where they are all flinging themselves over some scaffolding. But it’s where their whole day boils down; you can see who’s agressive, who hangs back, hear what they really think. I heard a girl there call C “mean” because “he’s blond.” “But you’re blonde,” her mother said. Touche, mama. Or, nanny-nanny-poo-poo, which I am told is the thing to say in these situations, to you too.

Bavarian horticultural exhibition 2010 in Rose...

Now that’s a challenge! Monkey bars of wooden poles, 9 metres high at a German expo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But hey, she’s under stress. Have you, adults, ever tried crossing the monkey bars? It’s hard! I tried it recently and I couldn’t make it one rung without deep pain. But maybe that’s just me. I couldn’t do them when I was a kid either. Maybe its because my parents never praised my effort, just assuming that I would be awesome at them. No, I don’t think that’s it. I think they knew those Olympic dreams were never going to get off the ground.

Since the first day of school, C has been determined to make it all the way across the monkey bars. Every day I watch him wait his turn (“You’re only supposed to go across in one direction!”), and then take his first one-handed swing. For weeks he fell to the ground as he tried to get to the first rung. It didn’t seemed to bother him; he just kept doing it over and over again until his friends called him to some other business. And while C was at the monkey bars, little T was climbing the play structure steps gingerly, then more steadily, to the top of the slide, standing there, then turning around and stepping back down. No amount of cajoling could get him down the slide.

Then one day, T stood at the top of the slide, waited for me to look at him, and slid all the way down. I cheered and hollered. Then, he couldn’t be stopped. And while catching T at the bottom, moving him out of the way of a fifth grader that was coming barrelling down after, I looked over at the bars; C was swinging all the way across.

“Did you see me?” he said, hopping down and running over.

“I did! I did! That was amazing! Wait till we tell Daddy!” I went ape, as it were.

As we were walking home, over the sound of T’s devastated mewling at being torn away from him new favorite thing, I said to C, “Do you see what you did on the monkey bars? You couldn’t do it at first, and then you kept trying, and then you did it! Do you see what you can do when you practice? If there is something you want to do, keep trying…” I hammered the point home in as many ways as I could: you wanted to accomplish something, you made an effort, and you succeeded. Well done. He beamed.

I don’t want to be one of those parents who carries her child through life on a cushion of praise, hands outstretched constantly to break every (figurative) fall. I guess, aside from keeping them healthy, what I want most is to teach my boys not to fear challenges. To aim for goals, and rise to meet them. And to be able to cope, and pick themselves up when they, as they inevitably will sometimes, fail. If they can do that, I think, they will have the tools they need to be in control of their own success, and strive for lives as big and as broad as they want them to be, rather than take a safe, middling, path. They can put to use whatever attributes they might have: intelligence, athletic ability, Lego skills, rather than lean on perceived strengths, taking them for granted.

It feels a little strange to hold my tongue when I want to call one of them smart. “Sweet lord, you are a f***ing genius!” are not words you often hear in our house, unless I am saying them to myself when I’ve figured out how fit all the sippy cups in the cabinet without them all falling on my head. Instead, I try to replace that impulse with a wordier compliment about their efforts, and keep the kvelling in my head.

Hopefully, this philosophy will serve them well. We’ll see. Look, it’s worked for their dad! My not taking his advice? I just don’t want him to get a swelled head! That’s it! It’s not because I don’t want to read articles. No, I do it for you, dear!

Missing teeth

A young boy after losing two baby teeth, exfol...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was seven years old when my mother lost her last baby teeth. She was 32. I remember sitting at our dining room table and my mother striding in from the kitchen, then stopping. She put her thumbs in her mouth, gingerly touching each incisor. “Uh-oh,” she said. “My teeth are loose.” She wiggled her baby fangs, smaller than the rest of her teeth.

My mother and I were losing teeth at the same time! We were going through a childhood rite of passage together. The only difference was that my falling teeth were followed by visits from the tooth fairy, and hers by trips to the dentist to get fakes to replace adult teeth that were never going to come in.

In time, the family condition caught up with me. I was 10 when those same baby teeth came loose in my own mouth, with no permanent teeth underneath. I had to get a false tooth attached to my braces. Then at 11 I had a little operation to pull the other incisor down into my mouth from way up in my gums, or my head, wherever it was, tucked up in my sinuses, or my brain. I’ve heard of tumors that can grow teeth and hair within their amorphous masses. Teeth are strange, lawless little things that can grow in all the wrong places.

Eventually, when my braces came off, I had a bridge put in like my mother’s. Little metal wings stick the fake tooth to the two real teeth on either side. I walk around in my adult life waiting for the glue to become unstuck.  Where will I be, I wonder, when the bridge inevitably falls out? A PTA meeting? Pulling out my own child’s teeth?

After college, I went to a dentist for a checkup near where I lived in Brooklyn. I knew someone who lived above his office; she called him the “rentist.”

“Wow,” the rentist said when he checked my bridge. Then he said that since I had fewer teeth than the vast majority of people it meant that I was “highly evolved.” Fancy that. (Actually, it’s a genetic condition called hypodontia.) People with fewer teeth and less hair, according to him, were the future of the human race. A sleeker, smoother, less ferocious version of our atavistic selves, who would run wild through primeval forests, on the hunt, shaggy hair flying, like gaping, growling vestigial tumors.

I thought of my mother, with an extra missing incisor and fine, thin, straight hair. So she is as powerful as she would have us believe.

Naturally, I expected that my sons, being one generation more evolved than me, would also have a long wait for the tooth fairy. Imagine my surprise when I got a text from their Dad a short while ago: “C has a loose tooth!”

I was shocked. First because I’m usually there for every little thing my five-year-old does, for good or ill, and now I miss a major milestone whilst sitting in an Indian restaurant with a friend. As I picked up a samosa I felt a little woozy. I had a visceral reaction to the idea of these strange bones wobbling around his head.

I made it home just as C was settling into his bed. He let me put my finger in his little mouth and feel the front bottom tooth wiggle. “The tooth fairy is going to come soon!” I told him, a maniacal smile on my face. “Who’s the tooth fairy?” he asked.

I stroked his head as C fell asleep, untroubled by the tooth and the threats of paranormal nighttime visitors. I touched his cheek. But he just got these teeth! I thought. And they’re going already?

I closed the door to his room and went back down the dark stairs into the lighted kitchen, guns blazing. “Tomorrow we have to pull that tooth. It’s ready to come out. I feel queasy just thinking about it,” I said to his dad.

“Why?” he said. “What’s the rush?”

“What do you mean, ‘what’s the rush?’ We can’t just leave it hanging in there!”

“Why are you getting so excited about this? It will just fall out on its own, when its ready.”

Fall out when it’s ready? That’s not the way it was done in my family.  I knew my sisters would understand. I texted them about C’s tooth, and they both responded: “Don’t tell Crair.”

Our family is filled with stories of teeth that have been waylaid up in our heads or gone permanently missing. But when one of us gets a long-awaited loose tooth, it is removed post-haste. You’d think we’d want to enjoy it, let it hang out for a while. No. In our Italian family, our grandmother, whose teeth were most often found in a water-filled jar, or our aunt Crair (actually Elda Pia, which was Americanized to Claire, which became Crair in broken English) was summoned.

They were witch doctors for loose teeth. I still squirm when I think of myself at Crair’s house: steamy from bubbling pots on the stove, the telegiornale blaring, a thumb wrapped in a handkerchief bounding toward me. A sharp yank downwards. A dull, knee-weakening pain. The handkerchief shoved in to stop the blood.

I asked my husband, “This never happened to you?”

“No, that’s not how normal people do it. My parents never pulled out my teeth. I would just do it myself.  When it was really loose, I would just lift it out.” He moved his fingers like he was plucking a crocus. “Your family is weird.” Oh, really, you think my family is weird? I’ve never heard that before. ‘Mericani, I muttered. Just letting teeth flail about, instead of being proactive about it.

A few days passed, and the tooth was still dangling from C’s gums at all sorts of odd angles. I couldn’t take it anymore. I took matters into my own hands. He was at the dining room table waiting for an afterschool snack.

“Sssooo…do you want an apple? ” I asked him. He would. Super! Such a simple snack. I grabbed one from the kitchen, ran it under the tap, and proffered it to him in an enticing Lightning McQueen napkin.

“Is it fresh from the farm?” he asked. Kids these days.

“Oh yes.” I nodded innocently. “Enjoy, son.”

I went about my business. Then I heard, “What’s this?” On the napkin was a tiny morsel of white, with a bright red tip. Was it a bit of apple?

I was delighted. I picked him up and carried him around, making a fuss. I took pictures of the tooth, and his new smile, and sent them around. I talked up the tooth fairy, big time. C himself was a bit confused. “That red on the tooth is from the apple, right?” Sure it is. And then he moved on, to cars, Legos, pestering his little brother, who had eaten the remainder of the apple, seeds and all, when I was carrying on about the tooth.

I remember thinking, when C was a newborn, that once he sat up, or rolled over, I would never see him the same way again. He would become a totally different person to me. And now, with this tooth, and another one that fell out the following day at a Chinese restaurant, mid-dumpling (we never found it: presumed swallowed), it was the same. He was shedding his skin, and becoming a new, older boy, right before my eyes. As I parent I would need to catch up, again, and quickly morph into the mother of a genuine schoolboy, not a toddler, not a preschooler anymore.

Peeking in his mouth, I see a new tooth has already erupted; the baby tooth had no choice but to flee. Through these long days that make up life with little children, when it takes what seems like days to put on shoes and get out the door, they evolve so quickly into big, independent people. It’s like watching a time-elapsed video of a flower blooming. I try to keep up, but I know that one day, like the dinosaurs, I’ll be left behind by the march of time.

Even so, I am anxious for change to happen. I think of all the times I would prop up the boys up to sit, or roll them over, or wiggle C’s loose teeth. Though I love the boys how they are now, I know it’s my end game to see them through.

My mother was there as C’s second tooth came out in the restaurant. She looked over at him a little wistfully. “I’m still waiting for the tooth fairy,” she said.

Angry Birds Star Wars: O evil marketing geniuses!

Birds, Pigs and the mediator (Asi Cohen) posed...

Birds, Pigs and the mediator posed for a photo shortly before talks broke down. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Several months ago, I wrote a blog post about my decision to stop letting my four (now five) year-old son, C, play Angry Birds. It’s been about seven months, and all has been fairly well: keeping him away from the addictive game has diminished how much he fights about relinquishing the iPad when his time is up. It’s allowed me one small parenting victory (just one is all I ask!): he has become much more understanding of the fact that the iPad is a “sometimes” toy, rather than an all-encompassing center of the universe. And with no Angry Birds, he is much more interested in playing games directed towards children, built to be more like open-ended toys, like the Toca Boca games, or straight-up educational games. Lately he’s been playing this Montessori game which repeatedly drills him on the geography of North and Central America with no discernable end or even pretend achievements like stickers to keep him going. He probably thinks, “I can’t play anything fun, so I might as well learn where Belize is.” Is this something to be proud of? I’m not sure, but I’ll go with yes. Come on!

Can any of YOU pick Belize out on a map? Didn’t think so.

So the Great Experiment worked: he’s dropping out of kindergarten in the New Year to head to Yale on a bassoon/Geography/handball scholarship. Well, no. But I do think he got something out of it.

Until now. We are sitting at the dining room table on a Sunday, as little brother naps, doing crossword puzzles and coloring and computing, all while eating bacon: a collection of fortifying family activities for a brisk fall day, all in aid of our goal of leaf-raking avoidance. C just achieved a bevy of points in a reading game on the iPad. How does his father reward him?

I see him swiping at the screen. Swiper, no swiping!

Oh man! After months of keeping the birds at bay, turning sharp corners in the supermarket to avoid the Angry Birds gummy candy displays, and not commenting on the fact that his kindergarten teachers dressed as Angry Birds for Halloween, we are back at the trough. Angry Birds Star Wars has proved too much to resist. C’s Dad looks at me sheepishly as he hits BUY in the App Store.

Those Finnish geniuses. They know you might be able to resist plain old Angry Birds. But if you are Star Wars fans? Like this father and son duo I’m looking at right here, pondering how to chuck a Luke Skywalker bird at some Storm Trooper pigs? The force is too great. It can’t be escaped, just as Han Solo is trapped by the carbonite. They’ve pulled us into a Sarlacc pit in a nexus of perfect marketing synergy. I am trying to think of more Star Wars metaphors, but I’ve run out. Like I’ve written before, I’m not much of a Star Wars fan myself.

I suppose I am OK with C returning to the game. Maybe it’s because I have never gotten over my mother denying us certain toys when we were kids, practicing something, what’s that called again? Oh, restraint. Play-doh? Play don’t. Easy Bake Oven? Ask my sister how that request was handled. I respect that tactic now, but at the time it was a bummer. So though I am trying to teach my kids that a trip to into town is not cause to treat yourself, I can’t resist sometimes, when I see something I know they will really like.

Which is all the time. Those things that I know my kids will really like know how place themselves right in front of my face. Are my spending habits so easy to peg, O marketing gods? I am constantly confronted with versions of Angry Birds Star Wars every time I shop, those perfect combinations of favorite things: Spider-Man Matchbox cars? Synergy! Must-have! Bubble Guppies iPad game? Do it. Lego Star Wars, Lego Dinos, Lego Fire Trucks? Say no more. Candy that looks like Legos, gummies that look like Dinos? Yes. Switch and Go Dinos? It’s a car, it’s a dino, it’s a car, it’s a dino…it’s on Santa’s list.

It goes for me as well: how does Target know that I will totally buy them out of Orla Kiely-themed Method cleaning products? That seemed kind of specific, but apparently I am not the only one who so clearly fits into that Anglophile, green-clean loving, bargain shopping demographic.

Anyone who knows me, including the marketing elves that clearly follow me around, knows I bought a ton of these.

So I sympathize with Swiper McGee over here, although we will have to see what the consequences will be. There will be a lot of talk, as there is at this very moment, of the powers of the various bird-shaped Star Wars good guys, and we will have to listen. And if the fighting over the iPad returns, Angry Birds Star Wars is going back to its galaxy far, far away.

Christmas is coming, and my boys are still a bit young to come at me with an Excel spreadsheet of their demands – they don’t really have a lot of expectations for what they will receive, and it’s my job to keep it that way. And maybe because, throughout the year, they are gifted with things they didn’t even know they wanted, it keeps the pressure off Christmas to be a gift-fest. I hope.

Instead of charging into stores with long lists, we can focus on all of the other things about the season that we really enjoy: driving around looking at Christmas lights, decorating the tree, watching A Charlie Brown Christmas, making gingerbread houses. Do they make Star Wars Millenium Falcon gingerbread house kits? I’ll have to look into that.

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