Losing My Innocents

(Originally published October 15, 2010 at playgroupwithsylviaplath.com)

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Of course I knew it would happen.  I have three boys.  I’m not in denial.  I just kept thinking, “They’re so young. Does it have to happen so early?”

First, it was my oldest son up in his room.  Alone.

The other day, I was cleaning out my middle son’s backpack.  There it was at the bottom of his school bag.

Then, the postal service delivered a thick envelope for my husband.  It didn’t actually say what was inside, but I knew.

One by one, I’m losing the boys in my house to J.R.R. Tolkien and The Lord of The Rings.  It started with the paperbacks from our own shelves, then the audio books, extra copies checked out from the library, and now Netflix DVDs of the Peter Jackson masterpieces.  I thought the tales might be a passing fad in our house, but their pull and power seem to get stronger.

Back in college when I moved to China for a semester, my now husband told me he wanted to give me a gift to remember him by while I was halfway around the world.  He then presented me with The Lord of The Rings trilogy in paperback – plus the prequel, The Hobbit, to get me started.  That should have been my first hint to the whole Mars and Venus debate.

But, I hadn’t read the stories and was eager to find clues to the deeper meaning of our relationship that were surely written within.  I read away – all 1,646 pages (excluding appendices).  And no clues emerged from the depths.  Just Gollum and Smaug and other man-beast-amphibian type creatures.

The books did eventually unlock one mystery for me. Like, why I had so many male suitors to my Chinese dorm room.  We’d have tea, make vocabulary flash cards, and practice our Mandarin accents.  Eventually, every time, they’d find the way around to asking, “Can I borrow your Return of The King?”

Yes, all those adventurous American college boys halfway around the world wanted a little piece of The Fellowship.  They and more than 150 million other readers – making it the second best-selling book of all time, just behind Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

As if the written words weren’t enough, New Zealand director Sir Peter Jackson renewed and deepened the spell cast over men and boys by Lord of The Rings – or LOTR to its fans – with his big-screen version of the trilogy released in 2001, 2002 and 2003.

Slim and I walked out of the first installment together, both nearly speechless.  He finally mustered the words to say something akin to, “I think that was the best movie I’ve ever seen.”  I was still trying to wake myself from a 2 hour 18 minute stupor of incomparable boredom.

The husband of a friend uses his VHS (!) tape of the movie to lull himself to sleep at night — like the soothing lullaby of a trusted storyteller.  His trusted, soothing wife waits about five minutes and then turns it off.

Sir Peter and his shire-mates are hard at work on the two-part film of The Hobbit.  The movie’s production is rumored to be the most expensive of all time.  And that was before this month’s fire ripped through Jackson’s studio of miniatures used to create scenes and special effects for the films.  Mind you those are miniatures, not Gandalf and Frodo dolls.

Yes, I get it.  Boys love fantasy and a good adventure story.  But why these more than any others?  And why do they still appeal almost exclusively to male readers, when girls have been borrowing from the fantasy bookshelf for years?

The answer is apparently the only simple thing about Tolkien’s complex world.

“Basically, it’s a men’s club.  A very interesting one, but a men’s club,” says Anita Silvey, the premier authority on books for children and young adults.  “Children always like to see themselves reflected in a book – there has to be a role for them to play.  This is a cast of all male characters, with women playing only very minor roles.”

It shouldn’t surprise you that there are all kinds of websites with games, wikis, role-playing, and quizzes dedicated to the lore of LOTR. In the “Which Lord of The Rings Girl R U?” quiz, I landed Galadriel.  I don’t care if Tolkien did consider her “the greatest of elven women.”  If she doesn’t end up with Viggo Mortensen, I’m not interested.

Silvey says that Tolkien’s mastery of the genre and the English language has also bolstered his tales’ endurance.  “He set the highest standard of fantasy for anyone in the twentieth century.  So it’s no surprise that readers who don’t normally want a fantasy world are perfectly happy to live in that fantasy world.”

Which explains why Thing One, who has no patience for the fantastical and make-believe, will gladly trade the action of a game of men fighting for the ball on one channel for the tale of men fighting for a ring on another.

Completing The Lord of The Rings series is no small feat for any reader. But for a child or a maturing reader, the accomplishment can be a milestone.  “A child who finishes Tolkien knows that all of literature is open to them,” says Silvey.  “It is one of those books that changes the way you look at the world.  And those are very rare.”

That sentiment has me warming to the fact that Thing Two has taken to the books after resisting the series for years.  “In reading, you are looking for the right book, for the right child, at the right time.”  Silvey says that many readers attempt the series a number of times before they are ready.  “And then one day, you think I am really ready to go on this journey with them.  And with The Lord of The Rings you’ve got to be prepared to go all the way to the end.”

And that explains why a friend of mine calls The Hobbit a gateway drug.

Mr. Tolkien ends the first book – which, like so much of fine literature, began as a bedtime story for his children – with a blend of inspiration and reassurance to which most parents can only aspire. “You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!”

As a mother of three little fellows in the wide world only too eager to be part of an epic journey to Middle Earth, I am considering adding the book to the stack on my night table.

“I envy anyone who can read it for the first time,” says Silvey.

Then again, maybe I’ll just read Jane Eyre for the fourth time.

“Phineas And Ferb Are Making A Title Sequence”

(Originally published October 7, 2010 at playgroupwithsylviaplath.com)

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October.  School is fully back in session and routine has returned. There’s homework, soccer games, hockey practice, piano scales, and that shoebox diorama on inventions.

Which explains why I hear so many people saying, “I miss summer.” Or, “I’m ready for school to be out already.” Or even, “I miss the long, lazy days together.”

But I wonder, is this not just a wee bit of revisionist history?

Do many families today really spend their summer mornings chasing tadpoles, nights catching fireflies and afternoons reading on the porch with a lemonade – purchased from the neighborhood (organic) lemonade stand, no less?

Yes, I have done each of these things with my children.  But not all in the same summer.

Like those of many of my friends, my summers tend to start and end strong.  There’s a little fishing, summer reading, some sandcastles and maybe a ceramics camp in June.  We usher out the season with apple picking, a day in New York, the dreaded trip to the zoo, and the reappearance of that pesky summer reading.

That leaves days and sometimes weeks in between when I find myself staring at three brothers, pleading, “Go outside and do something. Play something, build something, just do something.”

By this time, they are likely ensconced on the couch fighting over the remote control. “But mom, we were just going to watch Phineas and Ferb.”  Sure, they want to stay inside to watch a show about brothers who go outside to play something, build something and do something.

And who wouldn’t, the show is fantastic. The hit Phineas and Ferb – about two brothers intent on making the most of summer vacation – has won an Emmy and has been rated the #1 animated show among kids and tweens.

Of course it’s animated.  Because as everyone knows, it’s much easier to depict fantastical things using cartoon characters rather than real people.  Like a boy who wakes up every morning of the summer and says, “I know what we’re going to do today.”

One of the first things my boys say in the morning is, “what’s for dinner?”

But not Phineas and Ferb.  These stepbrothers with pointy heads and green hair usually say goodbye to their mother at the beginning of the show, proceed to invent, create, build, travel, and solve in their backyard and beyond for the remainder of the day – or the 22 minute episode – to greet her again just before the credits roll.

Surely, I am not the only parent of children less ingenious, motivated and productive than Phineas and Ferb Fletcher.  Asking their mother how she does it is impossible.  Not only is she animated, she’s always busy getting her hair done plus she plays triangle in a free-form jazz band.  So I talked to her creators instead.

“There’s so much more competing for kids’ attention these days with computers, video games and the internet than there used to be,” agrees Dan Povenmire, a co-creator.  “We are always encouraging our kids to go out on their bikes, or draw or color instead of watching television.”

Feeling confident that these creative giants and I struggle with the same parenting challenges every day, I pushed further.  Do Dan and his creative partner Swampy Marsh think that the days of unscheduled summer wandering and adventuring are over?

No, they’re not over. But it’s harder now. “Kids need to be given the time and the space and tools to be bored and then be creative,” says Swampy.

I am then reminded that during his summers, Dan’s mother let him drape the living room with black fabric to use as an outer space background.  He would then hang model spaceships and film movies with his Super 8 camera.  (I decide against mentioning the cardboard boxes and rolls of duct tape I’ve given my children to enhance their summer experience.)

For his part, Swampy grew up in a “large blended family” and spent his summers outside “exploring” and taking part in lots of “different activities” in order to have fun.

The loose translation of their youth goes something like this, “mother gets out the way, boys find something to do, don’t get hurt and return for dinner.”  Of course, Dan and Swampy have turned that into a global creative franchise, I’m just looking to get through a few long days.

One of my greatest frustrations as a parent is that in the absence of scheduled activities, arranged play-dates or specifically required tasks, my kids seem to struggle with what to do next.  So I ask, WWLFFD?  What Would Linda Flynn-Fletcher Do?

The key to her character is not her great hair, her boundless patience or her admirable involvement in the Mexican Jewish Cultural Festival (Oy-lé! – seriously, you should hear the song).  After reviewing several episodes, I see that the real gift she gives to her boys, from my seat on the sofa, is to leave them entirely to their own devices.

Surely this is something I can at least strive for.  And, after reviewing several months of my own mothering episodes, I see I’m well on my way.

Just last week I came down to find that my youngest had gotten up at 6:30 so he could have a little time to read before school.  “Now that summer’s over I never have enough time to read,” he said.  Right.  And what fine piece of literature is the boy making time for before third grade calls?  The Encyclopedia of Immaturity.

It should come as no surprise that this is the child who extolled to me the virtues of the game created in a vacuum of parental supervision, Sting Pong.

“Well, it’s like ping pong but you play it with no shirt on and if you win the point, then the other guy turns around and you get to hit the ball at him as hard as you can. And, so you see, it ‘stings’ so that’s why we call it ‘sting pong.’ And hopefully it leaves a mark.”

Sure there’s college prep, and then there’s frat prep.

The absence of an overly involved mother has encouraged my older two to take their inventiveness to the great outdoors.  They have spent many a summer day cavorting at what Rhode Island has deemed “the dirtiest beach in the state.”  This sorry state of environmental affairs surely only enhances the mystery and pleasure boys find in the cool bay where they play “Proof.”

One boy dives down to the bottom of the bay while the others watch him from the dock.  When the swimmer emerges from the deep, he must hold in his hand “proof” that he reached the bottom.

The intricacies of the game deepened this past summer.  In the latest iteration, the diver emerges from the deep holding “proof” of the dive, and then he proceeds to fling this handful of mud, seaweed, pebbles and sludge onto the boys watching from the dock. The spectator hit with the most murk is the next diver.

And the name of this mentally taxing game?  Clearly television has taught them valuable lessons in marketing.  “Proof Extreme,” says Thing Two.  No surprise then, that this is the child who presented me last week with his own sketch of Phineas and Ferb.

I’ve accepted that unstructured, creative adventuring won’t happen every day in my house and that it probably won’t spawn a hit television series either.  But, I realize that a little bit of cultivated boredom can go a long way in rounding out a childhood.

And when I look out my kitchen window, I swell with a certain kind of pride that the boys are out there making their own fun – and I didn’t even have to lock the door.  Just don’t tell my pediatrician that the game is called “who can lasso the guy on the bike while he rides downhill.”

If only we had a Super 8 camera.

PS – Here’s a bonus round for the Phineas and Ferb fans out there who love to pick out the guest voice-overs.  Sure they’ve had Seth Macfarlane, Cloris Leachman, Ben Stiller, Barry Bostwick, John Laroquette, Sandra Oh, Kevin Smith and Jennifer Grey.  And who can forget the duet “I Believe We Can” sung by Clay Aiken and Chaka Khan in the “Summer Belongs To You” episode?  Seriously.

Who would be Dan and Swampy’s dream voice-over on Phineas and Ferb?

“Meatloaf.”

The Wheels On The Bus

(Originally published September 14, 2010 at playgroupwithsylviaplath.com)

They say you can find anything on the internet.  Well, do you know how difficult it is to find a photo of the back of a school bus to use for a blog post?  There are hundreds of images of school buses from the front or the side, or the smarmy pics with the stop sign extended and the smiling kids waiting to board.  And there’s always some eager student ready to help load his wheelchair-bound classmate.  But really, it’s the view of the back of the bus I’m interested in.  Come September, I want to see that bus pulling away not pulling up.

images.jpegSo, instead of an image of a jaunty yellow school bus fading into the distance, I offer up this gem.  This bus is going places.

Sure that yellow barge on wheels means school is back in session, but it is also more than that. In just a few brief moments every morning, groups of children and adults wait for a bus. The bus arrives, the children board, parents give a wave, and kids take their seats.  (And contrary to many an After School Special, there’s actually no drama in finding a seat, because every child knows exactly where he belongs on the bus.)  In the scant minutes this drama plays out and the bus pulls away, the tectonic plates of the earth have shifted.  It actually is that big.

You head off to the bus stop or even the carpool drop-off circle as a family unit of three or four, a few doors open and close, the pneumatic brakes squeak and you are all alone. And, yes, perhaps happier than you have found yourself in weeks.

What I hadn’t realized until late last year was that the bus offers magical transitive powers when it travels in the other direction as well.  My boys usually ride the school bus halfway home and I pick them up at a transfer point.  Mostly, it is a matter of convenience.  It keeps me out of the arduous “carline” that threatens to define the lives of so many suburban parents, and it gets my boys home an hour earlier than if they rode the bus the entire way.

Through painful observation last spring, I learned that the ride offers not only convenience, but also a buffer for my kids and me – particularly for my child who is letting go of childhood. That fifteen-minute ride bridges his two worlds.  The days are spent in classrooms that demand a student to be simultaneously independent and a dutiful pupil, and in a schoolyard that requires a child to be both offensive and defensive.  At home, for better or worse, dependence is tolerated, and he can let go of any need to be offensive or worry about self-preservation.

Home and family, by definition are a safe place.  Middle school, by definition, is a proving ground, a stage for pitched battles of discovering and defining one’s identity and role in the hierarchy.  To have these two worlds collide in a suburban parking lot is almost too much.

When he rides the bus, my son has time to digest his day, let go of most incidents, words or frustrations, and settle into his own skin again.  If I arrive in his world at 3:00 bringing the protective aura of home – in the guise of a 2400-pound SUV, it is almost too much for the raw emotions and fragile state of adolescence.  Even Clark Kent needed his phone booth to rectify his two worlds.

As a parent, middle school pick-up and drop-off has been strangely reminiscent of preschool.  I remember watching the teachers working carline crawl into the car in front of mine to physically extract a child from the idling minivan.  Most of the time mine were happy to go, but there were days that required extensive negotiations, and sometimes even going in to settle them with a puzzle or Play-Do, offering promises that I would definitely be back (really, how far can you get in two hours and fifteen minutes?)

Then there was preschool pickup.  In the early months, I remember saying over and over to myself as I waited in car line, “please let him be wearing the clothes he went to school in.”  (I have heard from some mothers of middle school girls, that they actually hope for the same thing now, in seventh and eighth grade.) Such were the demands I put on my children and my preschool.  If there was no accident, the day was a success.  If the teacher approached the car with a plastic grocery bag and my child was wearing shorts in a snowstorm, well, then I knew I’d be volunteering to bring more than cups and napkins to the holiday party.

Of course, you’d think that with the trappings of cell phones, Friday night dances and homework done while instant messaging, those days of graham crackers and construction paper pumpkins would seem far away.  But they feel acutely near.

A friend who counsels troubled teens says that middle school is thetime when kids figure out who they are and who their friends are.  And because self-discovery is no small task, many young teens spend much of middle school lost, confused, and afraid.  Sure, most of my son’s sixth grade challenges were remembering the right books on the right days, and seventh grade was more work and more books.  But in the vast spaces between books and sports and dances, he battles away at the real work of middle school.  And there are still mornings when a little boy wearing size 8 men’s shoes takes a deep breath before getting out of the car.

And on the afternoons when I do pick up at school, I am the one taking a deep breath saying over and over to myself, “please let him be smiling when he sees me.”  And really, I could care less if he’s wearing the clothes he went to school in.  Clark Kent can have his quick-change phone booth.  I’ll take the emotional buffer zone of school bus #34.  Besides, my kids say George the bus driver is hilarious.  And he does Sudoku while he drives.

The Suburban Blog Post In Which I Share A Recipe

(Originally published September 14, 2010 at playgroupwithsylviaplath.com)

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Hop, Skip and Go Naked.  That pretty much sums it up right there.

Here are the particulars: 1 can of limeade, 1 can of vodka (yes, that is as much fun to type as it to say), and 4 cheap light beers.  It’s perhaps best when stirred in a plastic pitcher of the ilk used for making Kool Aid and Tang.  Pour over ice.  Enjoy.  Hop, skip and go naked if you care to.

The recipe is not actually mine, and in true Barefoot Contessa style, I won’t be shy about my outright plagiarism.  A good friend brought the drinks to a board meeting during which we were voting on summer award recipients.  She prefaced the pour, “Well, if we’re going to be talking about people behind their backs, we might as well do it right.” (Like I said, she’s a good friend.)

So there.  Bring a pitcher of “skip and gos” to your next board meeting.  Or book club.  I would also imagine it would transport fine in a stainless steel travel mug to this weekend’s soccer games.

Studying The Recent Studies

(Originally published June 17, 2010 at playgroupwithsylviaplath.com)

Admittedly, most talk of the health care bill and the state of medical care in our country causes my eyes to glaze over.  (Apologies to my many friends who are talented, valuable doctors.)  But this spring, some new research was released with quite a splash that did catch my attention.

136618585v4_480x480_Front_Color-BabyBlue.jpgThe recent study said that the lives of 900 babies could be saved along with billions of dollars in lost employee wages if 90% of American women breastfed their babies exclusively for the first six months.  I am not sure which part of that goal stuns me more – the 90%, the six months or the “exclusively.”

When you really think through those demands, it is no wonder that only 12% of American mothers currently comply with that goal. And they’re hoping for a 600% improvement – even for the government, those are some pretty high expectations.

Sure, I’m all for solving the deficit and saving lives, but aren’t there far more insidious foes out there than suboptimal breastfeeding rates?  For example, smoking during pregnancy is said to cause more than 1,000 deaths annually.  And yet, more than 12% of women report smoking during the last three months of pregnancy.  I’ll go out on a limb of deductive reasoning here and say that 12% is not the same12% that breastfeeds exclusively.

I lend full support to the efforts of the study The Burden of Suboptimal Breastfeeding in the United States – breastfeeding-friendly legislation, more support for nursing mothers in the workplace, and more breastfeeding help for new mothers in our hospitals.

However, a goal of 90% of American mothers to breastfeed exclusively for six months is an effort I cannot rally behind, and nor frankly, as a woman and citizen, do I think it is a very healthy goal.

Sure, doctors and researchers have been able to put numbers and dollars on losses due to the nation’s breastfeeding rates.  But, what they haven’t looked at is what these “suboptimal” rates have prevented or gained for American women, children and families.  Where are the statistics on how many marriages have been saved by limiting breastfeeding?  Or simply what post-partum independence has meant for women’s mental health, and their confidence and trust in their relevance outside the domestic sphere.

When baby comes home from the hospital, there are those few first magical days of shared responsibility with your lab partner.  And then inevitably, someone’s got to take charge.  With breastfeeding, there is no question who is in charge, the authority, the source, the expert, the ultimate backstop. And for many, so begins the road of resentment.  A road on which it is very difficult to make a U-turn.

For many women and couples, having a baby is an epochal event after which a tenuous level of shared responsibility and psychological equality can be recovered.  Half a year of exclusive breastfeeding would make such reparations nearly impossible.

I suffer this bizarrely narcissistic relationship to many of the challenges of parenting and find myself frequently thinking, “If it’s this hard for me, imagine what it’s like for…”  Breastfeeding was no exception.

For me, nursing was fine.  Which is a far cry from saying it was easy.  I can still recall the nights with my firstborn when we’d play our own little game of, who can cry longer, baby or mother?  And of course, it’s strategic cousin, who can cry louder?  (That one was more fun during daylight hours while Slim was away.)

I nursed each of my children for respectable terms – 3 months, 5 months, and an almost embarrassing 10 months.  I stayed at home, I worked, I used a pump (and there is nothing stylish about the Pump-In-Style). I nursed in the Nordstrom’s “Mother’s Lounge” and pumped in The Gap dressing room.  I breastfed in the front seat of the car on I-95, though never while driving.  I even breastfed on a bathroom floor in Dallas wearing a bridesmaid’s dress.  It was novel, it was never elegant, and it always struck me as more science fiction than biblical.

I do not resent breastfeeding, my children, or my nearly perfect husband.  I do resent the expectation that after carrying a baby for nine months, that American women should surrender control for six more months.

Because really, it’s not just the physical and time commitment that breastfeeding takes (which at 6 to 18 hours a day is, no doubt, significant).  Being a nursing mother overrides everything.  It dictates what you do and don’t eat and drink, your sleep schedule, and where you can go, when and for how long.  It even holds sway over what you wear.  For an entire six months.

If that weren’t enough, the real rub is what women give up psychologically during that time.  There’s the illusion that you can return to any previously held status of equality at home or in the workplace, and that others’ perception of you, your value, and indispensability will not be affected.  Well, that notion is a four-ounce Avent bottle of expressed milk gone bad.

An entirely different, more compelling study was released just last month: You Can’t Be Happier than Your Wife: Happiness Gaps and Divorce.  I know, sounds like complete common sense, but I love a good study by German experts in “economy and wellbeing.”  And here’s what they found: the happiness gap increased when the wife handled most of the housework.  As they say in German, duh.  But they also discovered that unlike other benefits in a marriage, happiness cannot be redistributed between spouses.  You can share happiness.  And be happy for one another.  But his happiness cannot become her happiness.

Its conclusions?  “When spouses “agree” on too unequal a distribution of welfare, this puts the durability of their marriage at risk… public policy should avoid giving spouses incentives that lead to diverging levels of happiness. Individual income and employment have been shown to be among the main determinants of happiness; policies that affect the division of labor inside households should keep this in mind.”

In a word, be careful what you wish for.  Blue-ribbon breastfeeding goals could — in the extreme — lead to increased divorce, depression, and long-term damage to the delicate ecosystem of gender roles in our families, workplaces and society.  At the very least, the effort sanctions the message to women that their children and domestic duties come first.  For women and researchers for whom long-term breastfeeding is the answer, the question certainly needs to be asked, at what cost?