Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Doll's House

My aversion to dolls is not a product of my adult, feminist mind. Nor can I confidently link it to the creepiest Twilight Zone episode ever in which Telly Savalas repeatedly tries to dismember his step-daughter’s doll, Talky Tina, only to have the doll survive and eventually murder him…. "Hi! I’m Talky Tina, and I’m going to KILL you.” No, my distaste for their molded plastic bodies, their vacant eyes, their unmanageable synthetic hair dates back to the day my mother brought my sister home from the hospital.

Mom got a new baby. A living, breathing, screaming thing that redirected her attention away from me. And I got a doll. A stiff, inanimate, indifferent thing meant to turn me into a nurturer. Mommy’s little helper. I was all of 19 months, and not yet keen to take up a parenting role. By my mother’s own report, when she returned from the hospital, I tossed off a bitchy, “Who dat?” in her direction and then didn’t speak a word to her for a week. She finally bribed me out of my silence with coffee ice cream.

The doll suffered from neglect from day one, and later, abuse. I took away her clothes. I chopped off her hair so one tuft protruded from the top of her head. I banished her from my bed, where my treasured stuffed animals comfortably slumbered, and hid her away from view. I don’t think I even gave her a name.

My sister, who was very much like a living doll herself, skinny with a big head covered in curls, adored dolls. In later years, Barbie was her favorite. I would delight in grabbing her Barbies away, flicking off their heads with my thumb while saying, “Mama had a baby and her head popped off.” This never failed to trigger her protective maternal instinct, and like a lioness, she would charge me, roaring and scratching.

Eventually I kept to verbal abuse. It proved to be my forte. I delighted in generating withering insults attacking their character, their physical appearance, their intellect (or lack thereof). And like the vacuous creatures they were, they still invited me to their birthday parties.

When I was pregnant, I might have been uncertain as to whether I would have a boy or a girl, but I was sure I would have a doll-free house. I fantasized about having a house where I could pass freely from room to room without fearing their steady, reproachful gaze. But give birth to a girl, and they come marching in. A little plastic army, ready to do battle and win the affections of my daughter. The first seemed harmless enough; she was made of cloth and rattled when you shook her. Sophie named her “Baby.” In the morning, I knew Sophia was a wake when I heard her slamming Baby around in her crib. Baby went everywhere with Sophie, and fearing that it had become her transitional object, I ran out and purchased an identical replacement. We did, briefly loose Baby, and so I produced Baby II, to whom Sophie (who recognized it as a replacement) gave the name Baby MmmMmm. Sophie easily transferred her affections to this doll. And when Baby resurfaced, we took to calling her Original Baby, as Sophie fickly went back and forth between the two.

When we finally did receive Sophie’s first official Stepford doll, I quickly and silently regifted it. (Yes, I’m sorry gifter and recipient, I did!) But then, on Sophia’s first Hanukkah, my sister (finally exacting her revenge) gave my daughter her first “real” doll. She had blond hair and blue eyes. Kevin and I jokingly referred to her as, “The Arian.” And Sophie, mishearing us, called her “Karen.”

During her first year in residence, Karen was relatively in obtrusive. She joined the masses that flanked the side of Sophie’s crib…the nameless entourage that swallowed her up each evening.

But, overnight, Karen rose from relative obscurity into the number two position, second only to Snakey-Pie (now the official transitional object). Sophie took her down to breakfast. “Karen wants breakfast too.”

Was Karen grinning at me?

Begrudgingly I gave Karen a plastic pink bowl and spoon. “No! She needs cereal.”

“It’s in there. Pretend cereal. That’s what Karen eats.”

“Oh,” replied Sophie, buying it, and spooning pretend cereal up to Karen’s frozen pout.

Then Karen spoke. Her voice was creepier than I could have imagined, a high pitched, scratchy sound, “I like cereal, ma-ma!” Not sweet and angelic. More like the voice of an old crone.

“Sophia, a little less for Karen, a little more for you, please.” I redirected her back to her breakfast.

It was only the beginning. Snakey-pie might still be at the top of the heap while she slept, but during the day, Sophie belonged to Karen. There was no place the doll was unwelcome. Karen was soon accompanying us to the grocery store, the babysitters, the bath. Sophie would insist on holding her over the toilet and wiping Karen’s butt before going to the bathroom herself.

And then Karen began to make demands. “Karen wants a high chair for my birthday,” Sophie told me. “And a crib.” Though I resented the fact that Karen was going to be the ultimate recipient of the birthday present, it was what Sophie wanted, so I acquiesced. On November 15th, Karen came downstairs to find a swing, a stroller, a high chair and a cradle with matching pink-checked upholstery waiting for her in front of the fire place. Sophia was charmed and immediately set to feeding and caring for her baby.

That night, putting Karen to sleep in the cradle alongside her own her own bed Sophia told me, “I do all the mommy things, and she does all the baby things.”

Then, suddenly I got it; the evidence was everywhere:

Like on the morning, weary from combat, I was sprawled out on my bed, waiting for Sophia to calm down so I could go in for round two in the Fight to Get Her Dressed. Sophia emerged, contrite and half-naked, holding out her shirt. “Can you help me put this on?” she asked in a tiny voice.

“Sure,” I said, pulling it down over her head.” Sophie disappeared into her room, and returned with a naked Karen in tow.

“Sometimes Karen has a fuss and doesn’t want to get dressed.” She told me.

“What do you do when Karen doesn’t want to get dressed?” I asked.

“I put her clothes on, because she needs to listen when I tell her to do something.” Sophia replied, matter-of-factly.

“That’s true.” I said, “You are her mommy.” Sophia nodded.

“And I know that you don’t want Karen to be cold and you want her to be ready to go out and enjoy the day.”

“Yeah,” said Sophie. “I’m a good mommy.”

I glanced down at the undressed Karen. Was she winking at me?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

How to Cook a Turkey

Every year Thanksgiving takes me back to the same place…the Internet. I rely on the information super highway to quickly school me in the intricacies preparing and roasting the turkey: How long should you thaw a frozen turkey (one night is NOT enough)? How do you truss it? At what temperature do you cook it? How often should you baste it? What if it starts to brown too quickly? How do you know when it’s done.

Well, this year, I didn’t have to Google the answers, and thanks to the 4-year-old class at Grandma Judi’s preschool, The Children’s Workshop, neither do you.

How to Cook a Turkey
(By the 4-year-old class at Miss Judi’s Children’s Workshop Preschool)

1. Shoot a turkey with a bow and arrow. If you don’t have an arrow, buy a turkey at Shop-Rite.
2. Put your turkey in a seat belt and drive it home.
3. Give the turkey a bath. (No soap.)
4. Dry it with a towel.
5. Put butter on it; put mayonnaise and cheese on it.
6. Heat up the oven really hot. Really really hot. Super hot.
7. Put the turkey in for at least one minute, but maybe 4 or 6 minutes.
8. Don’t forget to stuff it first. You can use pudding, ice cream, strawberries, blueberries and chocolate.
9. Take it out of the oven, cut it up, put it on a plate, say “Enjoy!” and eat it.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

Disclaimer: Any follower of this recipe (or guest at the table of the recipe follower) holds Melissa , Grandma Judi and the four year old class at the Children’s Workshop Preschool harmless for any damages, including illness or death, that result from following any and all of the above instructions for cooking a turkey.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Brilliant Today

On her third birthday, Sophia was already planning her fourth. “We’re going to have a pajama ball…and then for my fifth birthday….”

“Hold up a second.” I interrupted, “that’s a long ways away. By the time you are five, what you like is going to be very different from what you like now. Why don’t we wait a year before we start making plans? Hmmmm?”

Why not let her dream? The fact of the matter was I couldn’t bear the thought of her fourth birthday. Or her fifth. Of course, she is just enamored with the newly grasped concept of a day when all her friends come over to celebrate her. But I see those years flying by with breakneck speed. I feel us stepping into the future and climbing over the brilliant today.

You know how when you go on a vacation, the first day feels full of possibility? You’re excited about all the things you might do (or, if you’re my husband, don’t have to do). Then, by the middle of the week you’re already dreading the end. In fact, you begin to emerge from your relaxed state, prematurely, with the anticipation of what awaits you when you return. And then, suddenly, your vacation is over, and you’re pissed off at yourself for not enjoying it more. Okay, maybe that’s only me, but you get where I’m coming from. .

That’s how I think of these early years. Three marks the official beginning of “my favorite stage.” Through teaching, I have discovered that I love the years between three to seven, when every day is filled with the thrill of discovery and children are not yet ground down by the monotony of school, the pressure of friends, and the ugliness that exists in the world. Still innocent, still wide-eyed, still full of unbridled emotion, mostly joy. The years when they crack the code of the written word and they realize that anything they want to know or experience is open to them through the pages of a book. The years when they tell you what they think as it occurs to them, without censorship—good and bad. The years when, without an ounce of self consciousness they throw their arms around you and tell you how much they love you. It is a magical time.

That is how I found myself, on the eve of Sophia’s first day as a three-year-old, lamenting it’s advent to Kevin. In my mind, the hourglass was already half-empty. “Three years,” I sighed. Kevin nodded. Neither of us could believe she was already three. Kevin had recently viewed a few the videos we have made since Sophia was born. “You’ve got to see that footage,” Kevin told me. “It’s remarkable how much she’s changed.” “So I can cry my lungs out?” I replied. “No thank you.” I do want to see it, but it will evoke an exquisite sort of pain I am sure only the Germans have a word for. It’s all going to blow by so quickly,” I said for the nine-millionth time. Kevin assented. “It will. But it’s all wonderful.” I wish I could feel that way…that every stage, every age has it’s own gifts. But I dread the tween years, the teen years, the separation and individuation every child must undergo to become an independent self. I watch young girls who still hold their mother’s hand with hope and longing. And when she throws a fit, raging against me, I fear this is a glimpse into the future, of the opposition and resistance to come.

The myth of negative parent-teen relationships looms large.

“Don’t worry.” I’m told. “Not every child is like that.” And the evidence is all around me, in my neighbors’ sweet kids, my impressive young cousins, and the responsible, caring, passionate teens I’ve encountered in my work and moving about in the world. Even, I, despite the arguments we had and the clandestine ways in which I rebelled, cherished the closeness I felt with my parents.

But, truth be told, if I could, I would hold us here in this known and splendid today.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Incidental Eco-Cook

This blog is inspired by Myra Goodman’s cookbook, The Earth-Bound Cook. The Earth-Bound Cook is a November selection of the fabulous online bookclub, From Left to Write.

I have a confession to make. When preparing meals, my first priority is nutrition, not the environment. I try to buy as much organic as possible and frequent the farmer’s market not out of a larger concern for the future of our planet, but for the immediate future of my family. Truly organic edibles contain none of the commercially produced pesticides, growth hormones or antibiotics present in so much of our food, despite the fact that we know very little about the impact of these chemicals on the human body. And local foods are so much fresher and vitamin-rich than those that are grown and shipped from far away places. But reading and cooking from The Earthbound Cook this past month, I felt a little less guilty about my lackadaisical attitude towards eating “green”, for the book illustrates that cooking in an eco-friendly manner and eating healthy are almost always synonymous.

I was not always the health nut I am now. In fact, there was definitely a time in my life I subsisted off of refined sugar, hamburgers, French fries, meatballs and spaghetti. It’s called childhood. But when I turned sixteen, my best friend handed me the book, Animal Liberation. It was exactly what the title suggests. And though I didn’t actually read it cover-to-cover, I did peruse the photographs of industrial farming stuffed between its pages, felt ethically ill and became a vegetarian overnight. A couple years later another friend showed me an article in the Utne Reader about how eating lower on the food chain, i.e., plants, conserves resources. Though it certainly contributed to my sense of self-righteousness, disgust remained the driving force behind my meat-free diet. At 21, I studied abroad and learned that in some countries they will laugh at you and call you a privileged American if you refuse what you are offered at the table. Ashamed of the luxury of vegetarianism, I became more flexible adding fish and chicken to my diet and now…I admit…the occasional red meat, though still well below the American average of 8oz of meat per day.

Today, I struggle with what to feed Sophia from the meat department. For me, she is the point at which all of these issues converge. Making nutritional choices, cultivating tastes, inculcating a food ethic, if you will, are all inextricably entwined in the question: What’s for dinner? I have decided that I want to start with her at the point where it took me 40 years to arrive—by feeding her a diet rich in a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, dairy products, and protein sources thoughtfully produced and distributed. For me, “thoughtfully” incorporates a variety of things…raising animals humanely; maximizing the nutritional content of food (not by genetically altering plants or adding nutrients to livestock feed, but by rotating crops and grazing animals); avoiding adding pollutants to our soil, water and air; eliminating the need to pump animals with hormones and antibiotics by allowing them to engage in their normal activities in a natural environment. And, on my end, supporting the farmers invested in making this effort.

Kevin and I have consciously made a decision to put a substantial portion of our income towards good food. It means that we spend less money on other things, including eating out. It also means that we have to apportion a good deal of time to the procurement, preparation, consumption (you want to savor what took some time to prepare) and cleaning up of this food. I have come to think of it as an investment in our health and well-being. Yes, it is true that modern medicine is keeping us alive longer than ever and even people with atrocious diets live to see triple-digits. But, I do wonder about the relative quality of life, health-care costs, and, yes, impact to the planet that eating “normally” has.

The Earth-Bound Cook was provided to me by the publisher free-of-charge through my participation in the online book club, From Left to Write. I was not paid to write this blog. See how other moms were inspired by this book here.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

A Mother's Motto: Be Prepared

From the time Sophia sprouted teeth, she has rejected our attempts to brush them. I suspect it is not so much the sensation of brushing, as it is the sense of violation that irks her. Either way, it is a daily and nightly battle that I wage in the name of oral health.

So, in part, my insanity about limiting juice and sweets is intimately related to her resistance to brushing. Until she is cleansing those teeth herself, taking responsibility for the consequence of her actions, I’m going to have some say in how much sugar crosses her lips. Go ahead. Call me a hypocrite. Yes, I eat a lot of chocolate. I also floss every night.

My family has a history of bad teeth. My father, the child of depression-era parents, tells me he did not own a toothbrush (nor had he ever seen a dentist), prior to adolescence. His poor dental hygiene (coupled with some other bad habits) has eroded his smile. He has more bridges than Madison County, and frequently calls me, deliberating the choice to try to build in supports to save a tooth that is on its way out, or to save a few bucks and just have it pulled.

“It’s your teeth, Dad.”

“Yeah, but it costs me a lot of f-ing money.”

“Exactly, what are you saving your money for? Dentures?”

So I understand the importance of good dental hygiene. After losing my first adult tooth (gum disease, the component of my dad’s dental problems that might be genetic), I got serious. After years of my dentist pleading with me to floss, I finally broke down. And now, I bask in the praise of my dentist who acknowledges that I am a truly dedicated flosser. Not like those hacks who only floss the night before they go to the dentist and come into the office the next day their gums a shredded, bloody mess.

A necessary evil, I have long feared Sophia’s first trip to the dentist. Best case scenario—she throws a royal fit for us and we have to retrain her. Worst case scenario—she throws a royal fit for us and we have to restrain her as the dentist drills her 20 cavities-ridden teeth. So, I was terribly relieved when my pediatrician said to take her when I thought she could sit through it. (Of course, I had read elsewhere that you should take them as soon as they get a tooth. I say, when you hear conflicting advice, go with the thing you want to hear. Um, I mean, trust your instincts.)

Kevin and I have tried everything, and I mean everything, to get Sophia to brush her teeth—cute brushes, silly songs, modeling the behavior, a toothbrush that spins, vibrates and cleans your teeth just by holding it stationary in your mouth…pinning her down and forcibly prying her mouth open. Oh yeah, and begging and pleading. The only thing that has proven to be successful is to distract. Distract. DISTRACT DISTRACT. So, in the morning I let Sophia do a paltry job herself, and in the evening Kevin and Sophia lie side-by-side as he holds a book up over her face, while I hover over her, invading her mouth and sawing away, quadrant by quadrant, with the determination to keep her cavity free.
It works for us.

As her third birthday approached, I knew it was time. The last vestiges of babyhood were fading fast. The diapers went, then the high chair, the baby fat from her cheeks…and she could sit and focus, at least while I wasn’t making the demand that she do it.

Together, we went to the library to take out some dentist books. I found a whole shelf full of them, untouched since 1984. Two of them were a photojournalistic trip to the dentist’s. Perfect.

Sophia was enchanted. She made us read the books over and over again. And pretty soon, I was performing complete dental exams in the basement. She would lean her head back and open her mouth as wide as it would go. Still, I would quote from one of her books, “Open wider, Sophie. I can’t stand on my head.” We counted her teeth with a spoon, polished them with a plastic cake server, and then took x-rays by placing small folded pieces of cardboard in her mouth as I ran out of the room to push the button. Then, I’d come back and draw pictures of little teeth on them with black spots. “Oooh,” I’d say, “bad news. It looks like you have some cavities. We’re going to have to clean out those teeth.” And then I’d drill them with my little finger, as I made a high-pitched whirring sound.

When I was finished, she simply said, “Again!”
Still, fantasy is one thing, reality another. I really wasn’t sure how this was going to go down. When D-day finally arrived, Sophie was so excited she could hardly contain herself. Now I was really worried—what if she felt cheated by the experience. As if I had made something really awful into something really wonderful. What if our trip to the dentist made me a liar in my daughter’s eyes?

In the dentist office, Sophie shrieked with delight when she saw the toys in the waiting room. She dove in while I poured over the paperwork. We both looked up when the hygienist stood at the door: “Sophia?”

Sophia leapt up and ran for the door. “Are you my dentist?” she asked. No, she was not, but she would take us back to the room and the dentist would be there soon.

Sophia sprawled out on the red pleather dentist chair and opened her mouth as wide as it could go. “Not yet,” laughed the hygienist. “We need to wait for the dentist.” I made her shut of the television at the foot of the chair. “We won’t be needing that, “I told her, hoping it was true. I read a book I pilfered from the waiting room until the dentist walked in. On cue, Sophie’s mouth dropped open again. The dentist was charmed. “You may be my best patient yet today,” she told Sophia. Sophie beamed and then she opened her mouth again. “We’re not ready for that quite yet, honey. I want to show you my instruments first.” And then, just like in the books we read, she patiently showed Sophie each instrument and explained how it worked. Sophie was rapt. And compliant. She let the dentist count her teeth, polish them, scrape of the plaque (yes, she had a little, despite my best efforts) and paint them with fluoride. And when she was done, she left the room and re-emerged with a princess crown and a fairy wand.

Sophie almost passed out.

When we finally walked out of the office, Sophia burst into tears. “I want to stay!” she tantrummed.

I stood there and let her throw a fit, proud to be her mom.