Tuesday, June 24, 2014

How to Make Your Life Super Difficult

Writing, Storytelling, HumorI've been thinking a lot lately about how I always take the long way around. And not in the cool, off-the-beaten-path Dixie Chicks kind of way. No, no, no. In the effing infuriating, why-can't-I-just-get-a-grip kind of way. The pluck-your-eyeballs-out-of-your-head-from-exhaustion kind of way. It's my specialty.

I've also been thinking about something a writer-acquaintance said about "mommy blogging." That we are all trying to find some kind of UNIVERSAL message. Something that can go viral and get picked up by the Huffington Post. No one is just telling her story anymore, for the intrinsic value in the story and in the telling.

But that's not why we started writing, is it? For page views and high fives?

I wrote the post below in August 2012, mere weeks after I began blogging. It's a simple story about my family and how brilliant I am at making things difficult. Enjoy.


This is my corgi, Hudson: 

Urban Moo Cow
I updated the photo to a more recent one. He's so cute, right?
He has become insanely neurotic. Things he is afraid of include, in no particular order: swimming in water, driving in cars, going through doorways, the Swiffer, the vacuum, my Medela breast pump and anything that squirts out of a nozzle.

Of these, the only one that makes sense is swimming. When Hudson was eight months old, Rayne decided it would be brilliant to teach him to swim by tossing him into my parents' pool where I was waiting. As I lunged for him, Little Hudsy rose to the surface in a frantic fit of desperate doggy paddling and has never recovered.

I've tried many, many times to get him back in the water, even submerging my body in a small, warm, undoubtedly pee-filled dog therapy pool in downtown Manhattan. Hudson spent the entire time clawing at my body until he was up on my shoulder, clinging to my scalp for dear life. The place refunded my money. The whole experience was awesome and not at all embarrassing or revolting.

Let's just say that Rayne won't be taking the same approach with Henry. {Ed. note: Oh, no, he has not. He has NOT.}

But I digress.

This weekend we had plans to go to Boston for our friends’ son’s second birthday party. In the past, I might have left Hudson alone in our apartment for the one night and arranged for a dog walker. But I have a good deal of dog-mommy guilt about how unhappy Hudson has been since Henry arrived and we turned his world upside down by moving.

So in a bid to make my life extremely difficult, I found a friend to watch him. A friend who lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, at least two hundred thousand miles from my apartment in Brooklyn, metaphorically speaking.

“Okay where are we dropping Hudson off?” Rayne asked as we were piling the stroller, two pieces of luggage, the diaper bag, the Pack-and-Play, Henry, Henry’s binky, Hudsy, Hudsy’s bag o’ tricks and our already-exhausted selves into the car. He was not mega-psyched about my response.

“Let’s take the Brooklyn Bridge and go south on the FDR, around the horn. We’ll zip right up the West Side Highway,” I offered unhelpfully (as it turned out).

After over two hours in the car, we were not yet to the dog's weekend destination. Hudson was apoplectic from having been in the car so long; Henry was waking from a nap. Boston was another five hours away according to our GPS and another six according to Google Maps. We were going to miss the birthday party. And our friends, who had just brought home a new baby, were unlikely to want to split a few bottles of wine with us into the wee hours.

Rayne parked the car in a tow zone on Broadway in the 70s, where we sat while eating take-out mediocrity from a Euro-pan cafĂ©. He was furious, which he seldom is. “Our life is complicated enough. Why can’t we make decisions that make it simpler?!”

I didn’t have an answer. Taking the long way has always been my specialty. I walk the fine line between “doing (what I think is) the right thing, even if it’s harder” and “being compulsively stubborn.”

We drove an hour home, for a final tally of nearly four hours in the car. And a net total of zero miles traveled.



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Monday, June 16, 2014

Generation Grit: Better Toys for Boys

The best toys are ones that allow for trial and error, encourage exploration through touch and are based on pretending and imaginary play. So says Kim John Payne, M.Ed., author of one of the very few "parenting advice" books that resonated with me: Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids

I think most of us can agree that our children have too many toys with unnecessary -- not to mention annoying -- bells and whistles, made from plastic in a factory in China that probably has terrible working conditions and not particularly high safety standards. So I am completely on board with Payne's approach to simplification: less plastic, more imagination.

But besides my dismay at spending money on plastic trinkets, something else about toys bothers me: their overtly gendered aspect. I wrote recently at Mamalode about my refusal to accept my son's supposed "biologically predetermined" love trains and trucks.

Not content with my own anecdotal hunch, however, I bought another book, Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps – And What We Can Do About It, by Lise Eliot, to see what science said about the issue. Was a love of trucks (and all other objects we identify as "boy things") really genetically programmed? Was there something about a boy's brain that made him love trucks?

Eliot says, in a nutshell that there is "surprisingly little solid evidence of sex differences in children's brains." The same, however, certainly cannot be said for adult men and women. That's because one of the most important characteristics/attributes of the brain is its "plasticity," or the fact that "the brain actually changes in response to its own experience." She writes:
Learning and practice rewire the human brain, and considering the very different ways boys and girls spend their time while growing up, as well as the special potency of early experience in molding neuronal connections, it would be shocking if the two sexes' brains didn't work different by the time they were adults.

Enter Generation Grit. Founder and entrepreneur Laura Hale is the mother four children – three girls and a boy. As mother of three girls, she applauded the backlash against traditional girls’ toys -- princess fatigue, anyone? -- in the form of some great new products like Goldie Blox, which seeks to "get girls building," and, hopefully, excited about engineering and science, and role models like the female scientist Lego minifigure.

But what about her little boy? A part from construction toys and vehicles, the only role models were superheroes. "I love superheroes," says Hale, "but I also long for my son to have heroes who are regular boys. And wouldn't it be great if the heroes were featured in page-turning adventure books, not on screens?”

Yes. Yes! Because boys' exposure to superheroes' overly developed musculature can be just as damaging as girls' exposure to Barbie's gravity-defying dimensions. And teaching boys that they must be stoic saviors is just as problematic as teaching girls their role is to be saved. If, as Lise Eliot writes, our brains are the product of our experiences, don't we want our boys exposed to role models other than superheroes who swoop in to save the universe and larger-than-life video game soldiers who shoot to kill?

Instead, Generation Grit is seeking funding to bring to life a collection of characters for boys. Each character has an action figure, books and accessories to spark hours of reading and imaginative play. The first character is fourteen-year-old Mac Mason, whose story takes place in 1943 on the home front during World War II. Although Mac is an avid baseball player, he feels overshadowed when his athletic British cousin William comes to California to escape the London bombings. Things change when the two uncover clues to a fraudulent rations ring. They have to figure out how to work together to save a friend from being falsely accused. Mac's adventures include smugglers, ciphers, mystery and an epic camping trip.

While the book revolves around Mac’s adventures and the ration mystery, it also walks through important issues of friendship, ego and courage. The book is intended for middle grade readers, ages 8-12.

Mac Mason's accessories. Photo courtesy of Generation Grit's Kickstarter campaign.

Support Generation Grit's Kickstarter campaign before July 3, and be among the first to receive the new toys and books. For those who back Generation Grit, the company is offering the opportunity to get the 10-inch Mac Mason adventure figure, the softcover edition of his chapter book and his collection of accessories. Not to mention the chance to support better toys for boys.

Disclosure: I was compensated for this post by Generation Grit, but all opinions are my own. I rarely do product reviews or sponsored posts and only accept assignments that are personally compelling to me.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Which Memories Will You Choose to Keep? A Review of This Is Childhood

I have a confession: I fear the moment my sweet little boy becomes a bigger boy who no longer lives and breathes untainted, unconditional adoration for his imperfect mamma. I, who have always been self-sufficient to a fault, feel drunk on the love in his eyes, his wet toddler kisses. I am greedy; I don’t want to lose my fix. And I don’t want to know when I will lose it.

And so it was with trepidation that I picked up my review copy of Brain, Child Magazine’s This Is Childhood, a lovely and extraordinarily well-written anthology of essays about the first ten years of childhood. But the book proved to be relatable, even cathartic, and I highly recommend it.

Despite the outpouring on my blog, I lack the courage to write to my son as opposed to about him. And so I wept with abandon at the essay on One by Aidan Donnelly Rowley, a letter to her daughter on the cusp of turning two. Both she and the author of Two, Kristen Levithan, express the hope that their children will understand how much they were loved simply by reading their mothers’ missives. I, too, claim record-keeping as a large motivation for my writing: I want future-Henry to know just how funny and sweet and innocent he was, just how much we adored him.

But the idea that we keep memories for our children until they can keep them for themselves is a fallacy. The truth is we craft recollections through the lens of our own experience. Blogging, jotting down notes in his baby book – they are more than just a way to preserve a record of his milestones; they are the way I capture how I myself felt in the moment he first smiled or sang me a song or said I love you, Mommy. As Nina Badzin writes in Three, “they’re the [memories] I choose to keep.” My scribblings and ramblings are but a continuation of the small, yellow spiral-bound notebook labeled PRIVATE that I kept in my nightstand drawer at age seven. My memories, my truth.

Speaking of seven, the vivid recollection of first keeping my own memories at that age is no mere coincidence. Seven appears, in this anthology, to be a fulcrum around which the age of innocence is divided from its more aware cousin. Like the bucking of car when a novice changes gears, there was a palpable shift between Bethany Meyer’s essay on Six -- “No matter how many leaps forward you take, six, you’re still so preciously innocent” – and Tracy Morrison’s essay on Seven.

Seven is precarious. Morrison describes the two “sevens” she has experienced. For her eldest daughter, Morrison writes, seven “meant starting to care about what other people think, insisting on wearing the ‘right’ clothes…” while for her younger daughter, seven means “not caring about those things, living with her head in the clouds of happy oblivion while wearing twirly skirts, tights, Mary Janes, big bows….” The lever balances atop its fulcrum.

And then Eight. “You back yourself into your closet and dress alone;” writes Amanda Magee, “then, each morning as you leave your room, you close the door securely behind you.” And: “I rarely let my lips touch your [sleeping] face as I lean in to kiss you because you often wake, not always gently. I am an intrusion.” Thwap. The lever falls to the other side.

I am not ready. I am the swollen-eyed, sniffling, opposite of ready.

I pull myself together and breathe a sigh of relief, knowing I have almost five years of the intoxicating little man love drug before seven rears its trembling, unsteady head. The question is whether I will be brave enough to continue writing when he is Seven, Eight, Fifteen, Eighteen. Will the memory of his loss of innocence be one I choose to keep?

Denise Ullem’s note following her essay on Nine catches my breath. “One of my greatest joys – watching my children grow – lives beside a subtle sorrow that my time with them is finite.” There is comfort, at least, in knowing you are not alone.

Disclosure: I received a review copy of This Is Childhood from Brain, Child Magazine, for whom I have contributed essays.