Tuesday, January 22, 2013

My friend H. sent along this article "Please Don't Help My Kids". Some really good points about letting kids learn and grow and figure things out for themselves and deal with frustration. (I see the writer hails from Alameda, California. I was there once, many years ago with a fifteen year-old-cousin who drove around without a license. I can't remember if he'd convinced his mom he had one or if he borrowed her car without her knowing. Maybe not the best anecdote to bring up in support of raising independent kids.)

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Garbanzo Debacle

We had a disastrous time trying to make chickpeas from scratch yesterday.

We did the quick soak (boil, then soak an hour) before starting to cook.

They cooked for a good 2 hours or more but were still crunchy. It was getting late and Wally kept asking, "Is the food ready yet?" so finally we served dinner, picking around the crunchy chickpeas in this delicious dish from naturallyella (which is pretty close to something we often had growing up, without the quinoa). The battle went on after dinner and even after Wally was in bed. We still couldn't get the chickpeas to soften up.Alex pledged not to give up no matter how long it took. Periodically as the night wore on he would come in where I was working at the computer and say, "They're still fighting!"

It was literally a battle to the death (of the chickpeas) in the end. I heard "F&*ck!" and then a loud crash coming from the kitchen. I didn't get up to check but Alex came in a few minutes later to tell me what happened. He was reaching to transfer them to a third pot when he accidentally* upended the whole saucepan into the trashcan. Down went the sweet potatoes, tomatoes, rock-hard chickpeas and all. In general, I love buying beans in a bag rather than a can. It's so cheap, much healthier (no salt and no BPA in the lining), and they taste better too. This was the first time I tried chickpeas. I should have taken a picture of the end result but I was too annoyed at that point. (Now it makes me laugh.)


Monday, January 14, 2013

Only in Manhattan! (Or maybe Park Slope)

I went on a school tour today of a public elementary school with the most unbelievable enrichment programs offered during the day -- art, music, musical theater, dance, cooking, swimming, learning to ride a bike. They grow their own vegetables that the kids cook and eat for lunch and they even have their own chickens! At one point we were down at the pool listening to the tour guide tell us about how every week all 2nd graders through 5th graders have swimming class. Parents don't even have to deal with wet swimsuits sent home in the backback because they are laundered on site along with the towels after each class. As we were being ushered out of the pool area one mom resisted, saying she wanted to "see how cold the water is". This is a pool! At a public elementary school for crying out loud. Who cares if the water is arctic? 

Friday, January 11, 2013

Winter Garden

The plants in the Little North Pole Garden Wally got from my parents for Hanukah are starting to sprout! After all our failed gardening attempts, I'm so glad that something is finally growing. A month or so ago I hid our 1973 printing of The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss so I wouldn't have to read it to Wally anymore. The boy waits and waits and waits while everyone tells him his carrot seed will never grow. Turns out the naysayers were wrong and the boy picks off an enormous carrot in the end. I was afraid that Wally would start to think if he just kept the faith and kept watering it eventually that damn strawberry plant from a year ago would start to sprout. Not to mention the barren carrot tops, the decapitated cactus, the four giant tomato plants on the porch last summer, hold-the tomatoes. The flora in our apartment just don't seem to flourish.

We don't get a lot of light -- East and North exposure. And Manhattan is just like a cave in the winter. But with these little seeds we've been chasing the sun from room to room in the morning, tilting the little egg carton this way and that, propping it up on book shelves, to get every little sliver of light we can. 

I finished and sent off my grad school application this week. Whether or not I get in, I just feel so happy to have actually applied. It feels like chasing down a 14-year-old ghost. I remember at my first round of job interviews when I moved to New York telling every prospective employer that I would most likely be heading to grad school the following year. That was my plan and I didn't want to mislead anyone into thinking I'd be sticking around forever. People told me it was a mistake to mention future plans. I never got any of those jobs. But I never applied to grad school, either. 

Yesterday I got to see some of the kids in the school in Harlem where I'm helping evaluate the jazz education programs. In all the years I've worked in minority education I've never actually met any of the students I write about so I was thrilled to have that opportunity. Plus I've only had experience talking in front of junior high kids from when I was a sub at MS 54 (plus a career-day thing at Alex's school). I was expecting the same blank faces and the sense that  the whole class is rolling their eyes behind your back, but these were 3rd graders and it was a whole different ball game. They were smiling and laughing, their hands kept shooting up, they couldn't wait to talk about their favorite ice cream flavor (which was just a sample question on the survey and didn't need to be answered), and they invited me to their concert in a few weeks. 

So there were the seeds and the application essays and the kids in Harlem this week, plus Wally and I might be in a macaroon commercial. On Saturday we stayed inside all day. Everything was so wonderfully quiet and restful and nice; no plans, no running around, no one coming over, for me no leaving the apartment even. Around 4:30 Alex was preparing to go to the studio and I was just reveling in the peaceful afternoon turning into evening, thinking about what to have for dinner with Wally. I checked my phone for the first time in hours and saw a message from this makeup artist I tangentially know asking if I could come to a studio in Williamsburg. So I ended up abandoning the lovely quiet evening and jumping on the L train to Bedford Avenue with Wally. The crew there did Wally's hair and makeup too, and shot some footage of both of us, then Wally alone. 

It was past Wally's bedtime when got back to Manhattan and we'd eaten a ridiculous amount of macaroons so on the walk home I stopped for a dinner of smoothies and french fries at McDonalds. So much for the cozy evening at home. By phone I talked to Alex briefly after putting Wally to bed. We had a good time, I told him, but I felt sort of funny about the sudden change in direction. Should I have said no to the makeup artist? Like, would it just kill me to have one full quiet day and night at home? There we were living out my pastoral fantasy of a lovely winter day hibernating inside with crayons and books and Viola seeds and hot chocolate and then I go for the grand finale traipsing off to the industrial riverfront of North Brooklyn with a (nearly) five-year-old in tow. 

"We're New Yorkers," said Alex. 

One more thing. Wally accompanied me to the doctor on Tuesday (he was home sick three days this week) and he got to hear the fetal heartbeat. Spoiler alert: I'm 6 months pregnant. Lots of things growing around here.

from The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss Pictures by Crockett Johnson

Friday, January 4, 2013

Pink Town

The Boy in the Purple Tutu - one year later

A month or so ago Wally was invited to a party where the kids were given the option to dress up as pirates or princesses if they wanted. I naturally assumed Wally would opt to be a princess, and told him we could adjust his "Queen Kitty-Cat" costume from Halloween (although he'd been mistaken then for Madonna, Mardi Gras and mostly Steven Tyler). He thought about it but came back from school one day with very clear instructions: boys were supposed to be pirates and girls princesses. 

I thought about a line from an article in Forbes published last September ("Why you should buy your little boy a princess costume", Jacoba Urist).

"Before parents know it, for better or worse, their children’s peers will be policing the gender boundaries for them." 

At just 4 1/2, we'd already reached that point. I wondered what had changed. Just a month earlier, at Halloween, Wally had shrugged off taunts about how boys couldn't be Queens (in Chelsea, no less, where there's so much proof to the contrary). 

I wasn't sure what to say. If he was being pressured into "hetero-normative" behavior, should I help him resist it? Or was the pressure, even if it was to "be your own person", coming from me? I was never my own person, certainly not at his age. I said I still thought he could be either, but after that, left it up to him. 

When it comes to dressing up, girls can be anything they want to be, a phenomenon that is only beginning to generalize to real life. One little girl was dressing as a pirate (her Halloween costume). That was of course okay, but Wally stuck to the idea of a pirate costume, too. On the morning of the party, we threw something together with a striped pajama shirt, Alex's eye patch, a baby swaddle wrapped around Wally's head and a jagged, yellow rag tied around Wally's waist. It was pretty convincing, if slightly less so than the store-bought costumes of his counterparts. 

A few weeks later, Wally was helping me sort through baby clothes to send to a pregnant friend who is due in a few weeks but has chosen not to find out the baby's gender. Once again, girls can wear almost anything, but in case it's a boy, I thought I should eliminate stuff that was really particularly girly (mainly pink and frilly items). I gave Wally instructions on what not to include in the pile for the upcoming baby of unknown gender (or, according to the writer of the Forbes article, I should say "unknown sex" as in her opinion gender is always unknown at that point). He was compliant, but the next day walking to school he asked why boys couldn't wear pink. 

"Oh, they can if they want to. Plenty of boys do," I answered.

"But Max [a friend at school] says they can't." Wally skipped along the street. 

"That's not true. They can," I assured him. 

"But you said for the baby, it might be a boy, so we can't give them pink."

I was caught. What to say? Pink is okay for toddler boys and up, but not newborns? Even though the friend had specifically said pink newborn clothes were okay as far as she was concerned, I just couldn't see putting a newborn baby boy into them. It just really seems strange to me. Almost like what I was afraid I would be doing in advocating for a princess costume for the party. Like you are so intent on gender-fluidity and being open and progressive that you do something deliberately confusing to others. An artistic statement. A political statement. Here's a newborn baby boy wearing a pink-sequined "Girls just wanna have fun" ones-y, just to expose how intolerant and narrow-minded you all are and by contrast how supremely enlightened I am. It's satirical, to me, almost burlesque.  

Still, I didn't have a good answer. We turned onto 10th avenue. 

"I like pink," Wally said, emphatically.

"I do too," I said, truthfully. As a child it was always my favorite color.

"Maybe somewhere there's a town where all the boys like pink," he said, just before we got to his school, where very few of them do.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Crowned with lilies and with laurel they go

On this blog I've discussed societal trends ranging from achievement obsession to media overload to increased marketing to kids to a lack of time spent in nature to over-scheduling and helicopter parenting that I believe are converging to undermine the experience of childhood for today's children. I've vacillated and equivocated about what I meant by "last American childhood" -- Was it the one that belonged to my generation? To my parents? A suburban fantasy complete with tree-houses and jello molds? I've acknowledged the flaws in imagining there a time where most kids were freer, safer, happier than they are now. 

There was some brief period -- after most kids in this country stopped spending most of their day working on farms or factories -- and before most kids spent much of their free time plugged in or involved in supervised activities -- when kids spent more time playing outside and more time engaged in imaginary play. I've tried to think about ways to increase those activities and to recognize books, articles and projects that promote a more natural approach to child-rearing. I've revealed both my admiration for and disillusionment with some of the more vocal members of the hands-off style of parenting. I've exposed mixed feelings over raising a city mouse, shown my appreciation (I hope) for the little village we have here, indulging often enough in my own pastoral fantasies. I've tried to confront demons that block me from pursuing my own childhood writing dreams with more vigor, to identify what experiences in my imagination and in nature made the strongest impact on me. Through this loosely-tied together series of digital essays I began over 2 1/2 years ago, attended to with varying degrees of care and mixed in with unrelated personal experience, I struggled with both what I meant to say about the erosion of--borrowing from Virginia Woolf--"that cathedral space of childhood" and what I intended to do about it.

When the shootings happened in Newtown, Connecticut just a few weeks ago, I was left reeling like so many others as the devastating news unfolded. I wondered, as I tried to wrap my mind around what the parents of those kids were going through, did this tragedy resonate more than others because it was closer geographically, because we are often in Connecticut, because Alex and my sister work in schools, because I have a child of a similar age to those who were killed? Those factors may have brought the story into sharper relief, the heartbreak, it seemed, was nearly universal. The story was truly intolerable. Twenty little kids -- just days earlier before smiling and playing with siblings and friends, excited for Christmas, the night before, even, tucked safe and cozy into their beds -- now gone, and in such a brutal, senseless way. It was too far outside the realm of what one can imagine happening to kindergarteners in a classroom with its alphabet-covered walls, dollhouses and play kitchens, miniature tables and plastic bins full of markers and crayons. A room full of little, joyful people just starting their lives. 

Suddenly writing about protecting childhood in terms of limiting scheduled activities and letting kids play in the woods felt trivial. I asked myself how I could write about the tragedy here. Even the title of the blog felt thoughtless, inappropriate, in light of the childhood these twenty children would never get to live. And yet I did not want to jump to a "no one is safe" position. I agree with Lenore Skenazy on this -- school shootings are still very rare. And the world is not going to hell in handbasket--the worst school massacre, she points out here, took place in 1927. 

But still, I wondered if I had overlooked real dangers to childhood to focus on plastic toys that stifled imagination. The need for gun control is blatant, glaring, obvious, the need to support organizations like The Brady Campaign, to write letters to Congress, to sign petitions like the Daily News Assault-Weapons Ban. I've taken it as axiomatic that, as Tim Denis put it so perfectly, "The right to own a weapon doesn't trump the right of a six-year-old kindergartener to be alive", that our responsibility to the safety of children is paramount - not a question, a debate or an uncertainty. Yes there is a need to devote greater resources to mental health services though I agree with others that such a point is a distraction in response to the shooting. And yet all of this, I realized, is really a separate--though related--conversation. It was not the one I was having, though perhaps it's one I should. 

Dropping Wally off at school on the Monday after the shooting I pictured the parents in Newtown who had dropped their kids or watched them walk out to the bus just three days before and never saw them again. But excessive fear about kids' safety fueled by the 24-hour news cycle--I remind myself--is part of what limits children's freedom, partly what altered the landscape of childhood, partly what led to the erosion of their cathedral. One can't protect against every horrible possibility. Armed guards, vaccines, safety belts, supervised activities, school security (Newtown had it, in fact, and Columbine and Virginia Tech both had armed guards)--none of these offer full inoculation. 

Even lovely New England towns, quiet snow-covered towns you might have weeks ago envied as you saw the signs from 84 driving through - even these are not walled cities. I don't say this to point the way toward "No one is safe" hysteria, or to draw the conclusion: there's nothing to be done. There's lots to be done -- petitions to sign, letters to write -- but there is nothing to be done in terms of guaranteeing protection from tragedy. I don't know if anything good can come out of acting like you can. It's terrifying to acknowledge that you can't always keep your kids safe, that basic, most fundamental, primal responsibility as a parent, their total safety, is beyond your control. You could keep them inside every minute of their free time -- away from tics and predators, cars and mentally-ill people -- but unless you go so far as to hide them away in a dungeon they're still just as vulnerable as those lovely children in Newtown: Grace, Charlotte, Noah, Daniel, Chase, Jack, Olivia, Josephine, Dylan, Madeleine, Catherine, Jesse, Ana, James, Emilie, Caroline, Jessica, Avielle, Allison and Benjamin, all either 6 or 7 years old, "the beautiful, the tender, the kind". 

So what then can you do then? You can choose wisely about how you spend your days together. Appreciate the time that you have. Today isn't a memory, yet. Today we are closer to the sun than we will be any other day this year. 

*title and quote, Edna St. Vincent Millay "Dirge Without Music" which begins:

"I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.  Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned."