Imagination Education

It’s not looking good for us. We’re just a couple of good guys, minding our own business. Then along comes a pirate jaguar with his sidekick, the pirate bird. (The actual pirate being lost somewhere in the toy bin.) The pirate jaguar grabs a gun and sets off to fight the bad guys in the jungle trucks.

“But he’s just going to shoot out the tires so they can’t chase us, right? No one gets hurt,” I interject, ever the uncool, overly p.c. mom, even in the midst of imaginative play with my 3 y.o. son. He looks at me like, “Whatever, Mom” and goes back to making his plastic jaguar shoot at a jeep.

Welcome to my world.

There was a time when I used to edit out the references to hunters in “Horton Hatches an Egg” and when I let my toddler son think that squirt guns were hairdryers. There was a time when I was embarrassed about his aggressive energy and loud enthusiasm. (OK, that was yesterday.) There are times when I worry that all his games involve bad guys and gunfights. But mostly, I just go with it. He’s all boy, this kid. And if he wants to “pretend-fight” his friends on the playground or shoot at Matchbox cars with a block, who am I to squelch his fun?

Lately, though, Miles has been out-imagining me. He cooks up these elaborate adventures involving Batman and race cars and rocket ships, full of action and intrigue. And he usually wants me to play along. I’m good for a few minutes of this, but then I run out of steam. There are only so many car-chase scenarios I can come up with before I start plagiarizing scenes from “The Bourne Identity.”

What? You think because I’m a writer I should have a good imagination? There’s a reason I don’t write fiction, people. I stink at making stuff up.

C., on the other hand… The boys are lucky they have such an imaginative dad. Ask me to tell a bedtime story and I’m likely to launch into a barely modified variation of Little Red Riding Hood. But if you ask C., he’ll spin a wild, rollicking tale about Pierre the Snowboarding Penguin. Oh, the adventures of this little flightless bird! You wouldn’t believe it. I can’t say more, though, because the Pierre stories are copyrighted. C. has sworn me to secrecy.

Sometimes, I’m lucky and Miles will feed me my lines. Like when we’re playing his all-time favorite game — Baby Animal. “Mama, you see this cute baby doggy in his basket and you say, ‘Hi, buddy, do you want to come home with us?’ OK, Mama? You say that.” Although this can get old pretty fast. Especially if I dare to veer from the script. Miles isn’t big on improvisation during Baby Animal.

Even though playing with a 3 y.o. can get repetitive (You want to play Construction Site? AGAIN?!), I know I should be glad he chooses me to be his playmate. The day will come soon enough when Mama doesn’t cut it anymore. Since I’m not ready for that yet, I’d better step up my game. Maybe I can go Google some scenarios for the pirate jaguar and baby doggy.

Say, they’re abandoned in the jungle and are adopted by a jolly bear. Oh, wait, that’s “The Jungle Book.” Maybe they’re stowaways on a freighter and get washed up on foreign shores. No, that’s “Madagascar.” See? I told you I stink at making stuff up.

LINK O’ THE WEEK: Is there anyone out there who doesn’t know about IMDb.com? The Internet Movie Database is the fastest way to look up the plot of any movie or find out the name of that obscure actor who played that guy in that one movie about that thing. You know who I’m talking about, right?


Tofurky Time!

I’ve been a vegetarian for more than 23 years. (Typing that number just now I almost had a coronary, realizing how old that makes me!) Ever since junior high, when I just couldn’t take my mother’s cooking anymore. I think it was the ham rollups stuffed with ricotta and raisins that put me over the edge.

Don’t get me wrong, my mom is a good cook, if perhaps a little overly creative at times. I certainly appreciate her efforts a lot more now that I have to feed my own (picky) family, night after night.

So obviously, I was not raised vegetarian. I ate my share of Happy Meals and hot dogs. But somewhere along the line, meat began to gross me out. The thought, the texture. It may have also had something to do with reading Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” in English class. (Tip for happy carnivores: DON’T. You’ll never look at a burger the same way again.)

It started out as kind of an experiment. How long could I go without eating meat? Would I miss it? Would my iron levels plummet, making me weak and anemic and stunting my growth? (My mother’s fear.) The answers: a long, long time; no; and no.

I developed a snappy retort for all those people who asked, incredulously, “But if you don’t eat meat, what DO you eat?” Answer: “Everything else.” To be specific, I eat pasta, eggs, beans, nuts, peanut butter, and a range of soy products from the excellent Morningstar Farms brand. I am not a strict vegetarian, because I have been known to eat soup made from chicken broth, and I do eat seafood from time to time.

My husband is not a vegetarian, nor are my kids — except sort of, by default, since I do most of the cooking. C. sometimes complains that we eat too many carbs, and blames any extra pounds on our meat-free meals. I tell him, “Cook yourself a steak, then.” I can abide meat in my house, even in my pots and pans, but don’t expect me to cook it. That’s like asking a deaf man to compose a symphony. Oh, wait, Beethoven…

Anyway, Miles enjoys the occasional turkey sandwich, hot dog, or nuggets at Chick-fil-A, but he just as happily munches soy-based “Chik’n nuggets” and black bean tacos. Riley has yet to have his first taste of meat. (I don’t know about you, but I find the pureed, jarred baby-food meat nas-TY!)

It’s much more common to be a vegetarian these days, so I’m not as much of an oddball as I once was. Except on Thanksgiving. No one can believe that even on this great American holiday, I don’t let one bite of the bird pass my lips. Not that a hunk of steaming flesh sawed off a crispy bird carcass isn’t appealing and all. 😉 But there’s so much other food at Thanksgiving – vegetables, even! – that I don’t miss it a bit.

In case you’re wondering, yes, I have tried the whimsically named “Tofurky.” Once, with some friends. We pretty much all agreed it looked, smelled, and tasted disgusting. And the texture… Yeeuuuccchhhh!

So I’ll just stick to the green beans, squash, and stuffing, thanks. That leaves more bird carcass for the rest of you!

READS O’ THE WEEK: One of my former students wrote this column about what happened when her teen daughter gave up meat. And here’s an essay about the challenges of putting a strict vegetarian through preschool.


My Apologies, Mom

So you know how before you have kids, you think you’re going to do everything differently? You’re going to play only classical music to your newborn, you’re never going to let them watch TV, you’re only going to buy educational wooden toys, and you’re never, ever going to force or bribe your child to eat or wear anything they don’t want to.

You most CERTAINLY will not spoil your kid like your neighbor does, yell at them like those obnoxious parents at Walmart, or make them do menial chores like your parents made you do.

Uhhhh, right. How’s that working out for you? Same here. Which is why I’ve compiled a list of people I owe an apology. Read more of my mea culpa at TheBump.com:


Zoo Days and Blender Days

It’s been 3 ½ years since I said good-bye to an office, coworkers, and the guarantee of daily adult conversation to stay home and raise one, now 2, boys. On a good day, it feels like I’m getting away with something. Like playing hooky, there’s this exhilarating sense of freedom when you’re still in your PJs at 9 a.m., or at the mall or the park in the middle of the day, and everyone else you know is at work.

A couple of weeks ago, my mom came to visit for a couple days. On Monday, we got up with no plans, no agenda, and decided on a whim to take the kids to the zoo. It was an overcast October day, just chilly enough to keep the crowds away, but warm enough if you bundled up with jackets and scarves.

Miles has only been to the zoo a few times, so he skipped around taking in everything with wide-eyed excitement. We rode on a tram to the African Journey part of the zoo. I think the ride was as thrilling to him, if not more, as seeing a giraffe up close. We saw gazelles and a cheetah, ostriches and rhinos, okapis and zebras, even a baby elephant. (Sometimes I think that kids who grow up watching Diego and Animal Planet and reading “My Big Backyard” aren’t suitably impressed by all this real-life exotic wildlife in the middle of a city. To them it must seem normal. Like, “Oh, there’s a camel. And look, a squirrel!”)

Even Riley — usually fussy, clingy baby Riley — had a great time out in the fresh air in his stroller. My mom, who hadn’t been to a zoo in years, gamely hoisted up Miles so he could see over the railings, chased him down the pathways, and even accompanied him on a couple turns on the merry-go-round. It was as close to a perfect day as you can get.

So there are those days, and then there are the other days. The days when there are no visitors or playdates, the baby’s been up since before dawn and the toddler’s already complaining about being bored and it’s not even 10 a.m. The days when this one’s cranky, that one’s whiny, and Mom’s exhausted from getting up 3 times during the night.

The days when even going to the grocery store seems like a monumental task, and you can’t face one more trip to the library to pass the time, where you’ll inevitably have to break up squabbles and force your child to share and be quiet and maneuver everybody in and out of the germy bathroom. The days when the clock barely seems to move, and you find yourself pushing the stroller aimlessly around the neighborhood, peering into houses wondering what the hell THEY do to get through the day.

Days when you can feel yourself grinding your teeth and your back clenching up, when you say mean things to your children and think bad thoughts about your husband. Days when the freaking blender lid comes flying off, spraying pureed sweet potato and broccoli all over the kitchen, even the DOG. (People who get more than 5 hrs. sleep a night may find this funny, but trust me, to the rest of us it’s not. Not yet, anyway.)

The thing is, you never know what kind of a day it’s going to be. It could start out dreary, and then you could find yourself picnicking by a sunny pond on an unexpectedly warm fall day while your children amuse themselves for ages feeding the ducks. I guess that’s what keeps it interesting. That, and exciting challenges like figuring out how to scrub sweet potato off the ceiling.

LINKS O’ THE WEEK: Anchormommy often blogs about the adjustment to life as a SAHM. And, she makes yummy food. And Kelli from “Writing the Waves of Motherhood” seems to have such a positive attitude all the time. She is always doing fun & spontaneous things with her kids. Just read this post.


I Was the Real Ugly Betty

I have been a fan of “Ugly Betty” since it premiered. I’m not happy that ABC moved it to Fridays at 9 p.m. since that seems like a death knell for the series, but we’ll see. Besides the eye-candy sets, the snarky humor, and the insider’s glimpse into magazine publishing, know why I like it? Because I WAS Ugly Betty. For real.

It was my junior year of college. Picture it: NYC, the winter of 1995/96. Me: a frumpy, naïve college kid who’d never plucked her eyebrows or seen a Manolo Blahnik. Though I didn’t share Betty’s affinity for ankle socks and heels, my idea of fashion was a boxy Esprit blazer, pleated (!) pants, and chunky, rubber-soled loafers. Maybe even Doc Martens, I’ve blocked it out. Not pretty. Even less so because I had bad skin and was still carrying the “Freshman 15” -– or in my case, the “Freshman 22.” I would share a photo, but all pictures from that era have been burned.

I had this idea that I might like to work in magazine publishing. I’d grown up hoarding Elle magazines and making collages from the NYT Sunday Style section. Plus, I fancied myself a writer. At the time I was an editorial intern for a *tiny* local paper in upstate New York. So over Christmas break, I applied for and got an internship with a glossy magazine in New York City. The big time, people!

The magazine was called “Swing,” and it was a general interest publication for Gen-X’ers, NOT a porno, as I grew weary of explaining to people. Playing the role of Daniel Meade was David Lauren, son of the famous Ralph. (BTW, I learned that Lauren is pronounced like the girl’s name, not all Frenchy –- “Lau-REN” -– like people usually say it.) David was a preppier, more disheveled, equally charming version of Daniel. He was one of the few people in that office who looked me in the eye and thanked me for giving up my winter break to lick stamps for no pay.

The offices, sadly, were nowhere near as glamorous as Meade Publications’ digs. It was a Madison Avenue address, but the cramped quarters were cluttered and fluorescent-lit, and you had to ask for a key to use the bathroom.

Also, there weren’t any characters nearly as colorful or devious as Marc or Wilhelmina, though there was an Amanda-esque junior editor who wore glittery eyeshadow and got invited to events at the Met and MOMA. There was also an extremely unpleasant photo editor with B.O. who once bitched me out for not taking a message properly.

My sole friend at the magazine, if you could call her that, was a fellow intern named Sloane or Skye or something like that. She had grown up in Manhattan, attended fancy prep schools, and wore tight pants and Gucci belts. Coming from a campus where overalls and pajama bottoms were considered acceptable daywear, I’d never seen such an exotic creature as Sloane. She came to work with stories about her boyfriend’s exploits with “Leo’s posse.” Leo, as in DiCaprio.

I didn’t have any madcap adventures like Betty, unless you count running for the bus through a foot of slush or my encounter with a crazy homeless man. Nor was there any romance. (Have I mentioned how unfortunate-looking I was at the time?) I did once spot a supermodel on the street, one of those tall, blonde girls from the mid-‘90s. (But doesn’t that describe pretty much EVERY supermodel?)

I didn’t write a single article, interview a single celebrity, or attend a single event. I just stuffed envelopes and answered phones for 5 weeks. As thanks, some of the staffers took me out for a fancy lunch. I distinctly remember their words: “We’re not dessert people, but you go right ahead.” Can’t you just see Wilhelmina saying that to Betty?

Ah, good old “Swing” magazine. The experience that convinced me I wanted to stay as far the hell away from New York City as humanly possible. Too bad for me, it didn’t cure me of my lust for the glamorous world of magazine publishing. Which is why I ended up at “Maryland” magazine after graduation. But that’s not nearly as good of a story.

LINK O’ THE WEEK: Check out this site for all your Ugly Betty news. Turns out Marc was recently on NPR. Cool!


How to Make Life Easier

My new motto is “If it’s only pee, let it be.” What’s the point of getting everyone all riled up — especially in the middle of the night — just to change a wet diaper? If it doesn’t bother the baby, it doesn’t bother me.

Same goes for baths and bottles. I’ll skip a bath or two if I’m tired, and I never warm up my baby’s bottles. And you know what? He could care less.

I’ve stumbled upon some other tips and shortcuts to manage the stress and neverending tasks that come with a baby. And who doesn’t need that? Read more about how to make life easier at TheBump.com:


Can SAHMs Quit?

I ran into a friend at the playground who mentioned that her neighbor had recently quit her job as a lawyer to stay home with her 2 small kids. I found this interesting. You always hear people say, “Oh, I wish I could stay home with my kids.” But what about the other way around? How often do you hear a stay-at-home mom say, “I wish I could go back to work”?

Obviously, I know moms who stayed home for a while and then went back to their old jobs. To me, that’s more like extended maternity leave. I’m talking about people who have every intention of being a SAHM but change their minds and go look for a job. People who say, “You know what? I was wrong. This isn’t for me. My kids are far better off in daycare, and I’d rather go to an office everyday than play one more game of Candyland.”

‘Cause the thing is, I’m kind of leaning that way. Yup. I admit it. As I’ve said many times here, I never had the intention of being either a full-time work-outside-the-home mom or a 100% SAHM. I hate labels. And I sort of thought I could straddle the fence, have the best of both worlds as a work-at-home writer.

And for awhile, I did. Between preschool, a sitter, and my son’s 2-hr. naps, I had a decent chunk of time to devote to my freelance work — until my second son was born last winter. Then, the balance tipped. This baby’s fussier. My husband changed jobs. The economy tanked. My toddler stopped napping. The sitter didn’t have room for an infant. All of a sudden, I’ve found myself to be less and less a WAHM and more and more a SAHM. (There are those labels again…)

And I gotta say, I’m not loving it. Partly, we’re in a hard stage because the baby’s still napping 2-3x/day and my 3 y.o. wants to get up and go every day. (I tell him all the time, “We’re not going anywhere this morning. No playdates, no parks, no Target, sorry. Sometimes we just STAY HOME.” BTW, how ironic is it that SAHMs rarely stay home?) So the 2 ages are tough.

And partly, I’m worried about money and germs. Huh? What I mean is, we really don’t need to be going to Chick-fil-A or Target or the mall every day, just to get out of the house. I’m not that into recreational spending. Not when that money could be used for a sitter! But the free places – the library, the gym, storytimes – are germ fests. What do YOU think people do with their kids all day when they’re too sick for school? Not all of them stay home, I’ll tell you that!

A lot of my friends are similarly germophobic right now, so that also means fewer playdates. (Coupled with the fact that some preschools are Mon.-Wed.-Fri. and others are Tue.-Thurs., plus factor in siblings’ naptimes and schedules, good luck EVER finding a time that works for both of you!)

So that means I’m stuck in the house a LOT with 2 kids with very different needs who both need a LOT from me, and very LITTLE time to devote to work or writing or seeing my friends or any of my other interests. (If you think I could be doing that stuff at night, you’ve obviously never spent a day with 2 energetic kids who wake up at 5:30 a.m. and keep going full throttle till 8 p.m.)

Plus, my husband and I are totally in that “ships passing in the night” phase. (“You take Miles to gym class and I’ll stay home with Riley. Then we’ll switch so I can run to the grocery store and you can put the baby down for his nap. But first, let’s synchronize our watches!”)

It all adds up to a not very balanced life. Which is why I’ve been daydreaming about daycare lately.

There is this, though: I had Miles’ parent-teacher conference the other day. He got a glowing report. And I left with a glowing feeling. After all, I’ve been home with him for 3.5 years, so I deserve SOME credit, right?

LINK O’ THE WEEK: Hybrid Mom, the print magazine, and HybridMom.com have the right approach for label-shunners like me. Recognition that moms are a lot of different things. Plus, I love their tagline: “Mother your ambitions.”

RECALL O’ THE WEEK: Maclaren is recalling 1M strollers, due to a possible finger-amputation risk. Super.


You WILL Sleep Again (Someday)

This morning I talked to a friend who had a baby 5 weeks ago. (Congrats again, M.C.! Thanks for inspiring today’s post.) She’s in the stage of new motherhood I affectionately call the “what the hell did I get myself into?” stage. The stage where the post-birth euphoria has worn off, your help has gone home, Daddy’s gone back to work, and the baby has decided to reveal her true colors.

The stage where you go, “Oh, THAT’S why people kept harping about getting my rest while I still could.” When you realize weeks of sleep deprivation really is that bad and WORSE. When you wonder how in the hell people can do this more than once, and what the heck you were thinking when you were all, “Sure! Great! Let’s have a baby! It’ll be FUN!”

My friend said something that made me laugh. Another woman in her new mom’s group said she sees people with toddlers and is in awe that anybody lasts that long. It’s so true. As a new mom, you can’t imagine making it through the next DAY, let alone the next 18+ years.

The people who come up to new moms and tell them to enjoy every minute because it goes so fast don’t realize how much they’re endangering themselves, making those comments to an unstable, sleep-deprived, possibly homicidal new mom. (Here’s my rant against those people.)

So how DO people survive the tough early stages of babyhood? And the arguably tougher stages that follow it? I’ll tell you how the BABIES survive. As my mom says, “God made babies cute so we wouldn’t leave them on a hillside.”

But seriously, the answer is — you get used to it. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, you learn to function on much, MUCH less sleep. You begin to think of showering not as a daily necessity, but as an optional activity. You become a devotee of Drs. Karp, Weissbluth, and possibly Ferber. Through the process of trial and error, you figure out what your baby likes and doesn’t like. (My friend has already discovered what she calls “the magical fleece blanket.”)

Soon, you will think nothing of whipping out a boob in public and sniffing your baby’s butt. You may have long, passionate discussions about sleep schedules and nipple cream – with strangers. You consider it a good day if the baby “only” screamed for 3 hours or “only” woke up 4 times during the night. Coming in frequent contact with another person’s vomit and feces no longer fazes you. You simply dab at it with a baby wipe and go about your day.

Yep, life after baby is a strange new world, people.

Who was it that said, “If you’re going through hell, keep on going”? That’s pretty much all you can do. And believe it or not, it WILL get better. One day you’ll wake up with a jolt at 6 a.m. and realize the baby FINALLY slept through the night. One evening you’ll notice a strange sound in the house and realize the baby ISN’T screaming. And one night long, LONG after you’ve given birth, you may turn to your husband and not only NOT hate him anymore, but actually feel attracted to him again. I know — crazy talk!!

But if it wasn’t true, how would the human race continue to reproduce? Because after the “what the hell did I get myself into?” stage eventually comes the “it wasn’t really so bad” stage. And that, my friends, is how you end up with Baby #2 and beyond. Consider yourselves warned.

TIP O’ THE WEEK: If you’re not intimately familiar with the 5 S’s, run — don’t walk — to Amazon.com and order The Happiest Baby on the Block DVD. (Not the book; new moms don’t have time to read!) Here’s the Cliff’s Notes version.


Did You Hear the One About…?

So we’re sitting around the dinner table tonight and my mom (who’s visiting) says to Miles, “Can you eat that big piece of broccoli or do you need me to cut it up into smaller pieces?” And Miles holds up the spear of broccoli like a cross and says, “Go in peace.” We all cracked up.

Encouraged by the crowd’s reaction, Miles starts rattling off the jokes. “How did the dinosaur get on top of the building? He jumped over it!” “What if there was a CROCODILE sitting at the table?” (3-year-old humor.)

The thing is, the kid is actually funny. Hilarious, even. He can do impressions. He does this uncanny impression of his dad singing a Chubby Checker song to the baby. (Get it? ‘Cause he’s chubby?) I guess you had to be there…

My son and my husband have similar senses of humor. They both think it’s hysterical to call each other names like “shark eyes” and “meatball.” With friends Miles’ own age, of course, potty jokes kill. That NEVER seems to get old to kids, huh? Miles calls his baby brother all sorts of “poopy”-themed names, which, I hate to admit, are pretty appropriate.

But nothing seems to crack up my boy more than good old-fashioned violence. The cartoon kind, anyway. We got him a Tom & Jerry DVD featuring classic cartoons of the cat and mouse chasing each other with hammers and slamming each other over the head with frying pans and that sort of thing. I have never, I mean NEVER, heard Miles laugh as hard in his life as when he’s watching Tom & Jerry. And when you see a little kid shrieking with laughter, you can’t help but laugh yourself. It’s impossible, people.

I have to say, I’m glad that my son has a sense of humor. Laughing at the funny noises the baby makes definitely lightens the mood on days when everybody’s tired and whiny. Did I tell you about the time C. staggered downstairs after a long night and said, “I can barely keep my eyes open”? And Miles, without missing a beat, launches into Johnny Cash: “I keep my eyes wide open all the time…” Now THAT’S funny.

A lot funnier than his knock-knock jokes. A poopy-headed dinosaur may be hilarious to the toddler set, but it’s lost on me. Keep working on your stand-up act, buddy!

TIP O’ THE WEEK: Check out this site for kid-friendly jokes, including an interactive knock-knock joke generator. Sample: Knock-Knock. “Who’s there?” Amish. “Amish who?” Amish you when you’re gone.

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