Sunday, December 26, 2010

Seize the Present

In my observation, children in the midst of unwrapping Christmas presents bear a close resemblance to piranha during a feeding frenzy. They make staccato, carnivorous tears at the paper, sending bits of it flying in every direction. And once they have picked one present clean, the move onto the next in the pile until they have all been devoured in a manner of minutes.

It makes me sick.

Yet, I believe that this is a natural, instinctive behavior of a child beset with a feast after months of famine. Gifts are to be inhaled, consumed with great appetite and pleasure.

This is not my way.

I am a hoarder. The kind of person who would prefer to have chocolate melting in my hand than dissolving in my mouth. (Which calls to mind a memory of being in Latvia, where Western sweets were scarce. When my companions and I finally came upon some chocolates, a few of them immediately tore into our lucky find. I squirreled mine away for a more desperate moment of need. A rock-bottom, depleted-soul craving-for-chocolate kind of moment. I knew it would come and when it did I was ready. One of my companions was incredulous—why was I not seizing the moment, consuming it like the rest of them?

We lived in two completely different worlds.

I do not mean to say that the others were not grateful. They were…and there was something lovely about their shared enjoyment of the chocolates. Their estatic exclamations, faces bright with joy. I actually felt very much on the outside of things. Still I could not bring myself to join them, because I could not bear the absence of the chocolate I knew would follow.)

Holidays are the same way for me. Unwrapped presents mean the magical period of giving and getting is over. I could hold a wrapped gift in my hand for an eternity and be satisfied with my anticipatory pleasure. Like a meal not yet eaten, whole and beautifully laid out as opposed to the aftermath of a dinner consumed: plates littered with orts and crumbled napkins. I believe the reality is never quite as good as the fantasy.

So, of course, it pains me that Sophie is not an aberrant creature like myself. She wants the immediate gratification that every child her age wants. She rips one open and asks, unabashedly, “where is my next present?”

“Slow down,” was my refrain, as the Christmas morning passed with breakneck speed. “Let’s take a break,” I’d suggest, my words falling on deaf ears, all the others eager to reveal the secrets laid beneath the tree. “Say ‘thank you’ to grandpa. He gave you that game.’” was my last-ditch effort to restore some degree of decorum and gratitude to what looked simply like greed and a lack of appreciation.

To my adult eyes it doesn’t seem like she is appreciating each individual gift. And it is true, in the absence of my interruptions, she wouldn’t note who it came from, thank the giver, watch with excitement as others took pleasure in their own gifts. In other words, she would not adopt my grown-up, learned, behaviors of restraint and propriety.

I realize I can judge this way of being as somehow less…right than mine. But if I take an honest look at both Sophia and me…she is the one who is happy…and I am the one who is anxiously trying to transform the moment into an ideal in my head.

In retrospect, I can see that there was sheer joy in the act of unwrapping. That the feeding frenzy isn’t unchecked materialism at all…it is a joy of discovery, of continuous surprise, a literal relishing of the present.

Oh. I get it.

I unwrap this gift and stare at it, savoring the surprise.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Worth the Fight

Kevin has Sophie in what might look to the rest of the world like a chest lock, as I try to wrestle her pants onto her body.


She is writhing and kicking, fighting us with everything she has. She bends over and bites the pants.

“No, Sophie. Biting is bad,” says Kevin.

Sophie’s eyes gleam and she cranes her neck to bite me. I whip my forearm away, just in the nick of time.

“YOU DON’T BITE,” I say in my loud, firm, angry teacher voice.

“I want to bite you!” I’ve got one leg in, but she’s trying to work it off with her other leg. Kevin has both her arms pinned to prevent her from slapping, biting or scratching me.

“We are going to the zoo and that’s THAT!” I say.

How did it come to this? We need to rewind this moment to about five minutes ago.

Sophie is curled up on the couch with her father, who is now reading the 17th Dick and Jane story in the Complete Dick and Jane Reader.

“Sally goes down. Down. Down. Down. Funny Sally. Sally is down.” Or something like that, utterly devoid of content, written for the sole purpose of drilling sight words, ignorant of the importance of phonics as a critical component of early literacy programs. Though, the pictures are charming. I particularly like the ones of Father, who resembles Don Draper.

“Are we going to the holiday light display at the zoo or not?” My mother asks.

“How cold is it?” I ask back. Anything below freezing and the answer is no. Mom pops outside in her blue velour track suit and a few seconds later announces, “It’s 40 degrees and no wind. If we don’t go tonight, we’re not going to get an opportunity like this again. I’m going.” She’s lying through her teeth. I eye Sophie’s tights.

“Okay. But I don’t want Sophie walking around in just a pair of tights. She’s going to have to wear a pair of pants over them.”

“NO! I WILL NOT!” Sophie protests. “No pants over my tights. It will be very comfortable.” I know that she means uncomfortable, as she makes this mistake virtually every time I dress her.

“No pants, no zoo.” I tell her.

“Then no zoo,” Sophie shoots back, challenging me.

The gloves are off.

“Well, Grandpa and I are going, whether you’re going or not.” My mother adds to the pot.

“I want to go too,” it comes out a little like a whine.

Kevin points out, his lids at half mast, “You three should go. When you come back and tell her all about it, she’ll learn from the consequences of her actions. The toddler should not make decisions for the family.”

My mother makes a crack about Sophie being raised by two psychologists.

I offer my evaluation: “She’s just being stubborn. If we get her there, she’ll have a great time. I vote we break her will.”

I go to the bedroom and re-appear with Sophie’s hot pink leggings.


And now we’re back where we started. We wrestle the pants on. Next the shoes, which are slightly too large, and she easily kicks across the room as soon as we jam her feet into them.

“Forget the shoes,” I say. “We’ll put them on in the car.” We force her into a pint-size cherry red down jacket. Sophie is crying real tears and snot is running into her mouth. Her hair is matting with sweat from her effort.

“Get me a tissue,” Kevin instructs, as he lifts Sophie up, who is all limbs and teeth and nails. I am back in a flash with the tissues, opening the front door, then the car door, clearing a path for Kevin and the whirling dervish in his arms.

Grandma and grandpa follow in disbelief.

Kevin straps her to her chair. “I NEED SNAKEY-PIE!” Sophia moans…she is showing signs of weakening. Grandma returns to the house for Snakey-pie. Kevin dabs her cheeks and Sophie fights him anew.

“I don’t want to go to the zoo! I don’t want to see the holiday lights!”

With snakey-pie in her arms and her thumb in her mouth, she relaxes. It’s quiet in the car for a few beats.

“I am going to knock down ALL the holiday lights!” Sophie says with conviction. Her last stand. We smirk in the darkness.

By the time we reach the zoo, Sophie is pointing out the decorations she sees on the way. Once we park, she compliantly dons her hat, scarf and mittens. As we push her through the entrance, she gasps with joy. Before long she is exclaiming over luminous images of zoo animals, begging to ride the carousel, staring in wonder at the wolf who glows strangely white in the light of a waxing moon. We run into her friends Reid and Mitchell. Sophie grasps Reid’s hand and the two of them walk through animal exhibits, transformed by this electrified night. Many of the few animals that are visible are asleep. An exception is the great python in the reptile house, his head lifted from the thick ropes of his body. Sophie puts her face to the glass and he touches her lips with the tines of his forked tongue.

“He gave you a kiss,” I tell Sophie. “I got a snake kiss!” Sophie exclaims. And she puts her face down for another.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Mommy, Please Drink Responsibly

We are on the road, headed to nursery school, when we pass a Corona (La cervesa mas fina) truck. Sophie gets all excited and stutters to get the words out: “Mommy! Look! Is just like what’s on your drink at home!”

And though I don’t often crack open a beer, she’s right. Kevin just came home with a case of Corona Light the other night. Guilty as charged.

After hours, at nursery school, when Sophia gets the run of the place and the toys she’s had to share all day become exclusively hers, she usually plants herself in the housekeeping corner. Often, I’m recruited as a playmate. Sophie hands me a blue bottle of pop, “Mommy, this is your vino.” I blush in front of my mother’s teetotaling teachers. “Sometimes we have wine with dinner,” I stammer by way of explanation.

And then, when I make a pit stop at the Wine Legend to pick up some adult beverages for a party, Sophie looks around the room replete with bottles of alcohol of every shape and size and says, loud enough for all to hear, “MY DADDY LOVES VINO!”

A few passers-by chuckle to themselves.

Sophia is well-aware of our drinking. I have mixed feelings about this. My parents were never drinkers, so I don’t have a positive (or negative) model of how to go about doing this. She has not, and it is my intention that she never will, seen us drunk. Nor will she ever witness me taking a drink and then stepping into a car. (Nor will I do it.) But I have to wonder what is the impact of seeing me engage in social drinking? What messages is she taking away about alcohol?

Is there such a thing as modeling responsible drinking?

Kevin and I have talked about this. We are aligned on this issue…when something becomes taboo, it is that much more desirable. Think prohibition. Think abstinence-only sex education. We don’t want to hide our drinking, as if it is something shameful. But we also don’t want her seeing us come home and have a drink to “unwind.” Even in jest, I don’t want her to hear the words, “what a day, I need a drink.” I don’t want her to perceive drinking as a solution.

By the same token, I don’t want her to think that a drink is necessary to have fun. I want it to be peripheral, not central to celebrations. And 'tis the season for such things.

So what to do? How do we establish such a balance? Research says, talk about it. Eat dinner together. Know who your child is with and, perhaps more importantly, let them know that you know who they are with. All useful (if not commonsensical) findings, and, with the exception of the family dinner, beyond her. Thing is, she doesn’t yet know that the drink has an effect on us. She doesn’t know that we drink it for the effect. And if this is the case, is there a conversation to be had? Maybe not at the present time. But, I know I need to remain vigilant. That I need to be alert to her evolving cognizance, because any day, she might be curious as to why these are adult-only beverages. When it happens, I’ll need to be responsive to her questions and accountable for my actions. And the thing that bothers me most is that I’m not quite sure what I’d say.

Monday, December 6, 2010

On the Second Day of Hanukkah...

On the second day of Hanukkah, Sophie and I were making our weekly pilgrimage to nursery school. Sophie held her brand-new plush menorah with removable candles in her hot little hands and was singing to herself, “Hanukkah is my fav-or-ite holiday….” Silently, I thought, “until December 25th rolls around.”

The night before we had a small holiday dinner at my mother’s house. It was the first year that Sophie “got it.” She knew we were celebrating, she knew it was somehow related to the fact that we’re Jewish, she knew it meant we’d be eating latkes with people we loved, lighting the candles on menorah, and opening gifts. She wrapped some books from her room in tissue paper, handed it to me and told me, “this is a gift for the Macabees,” which my mother has repeated to anyone who will listen.

As she unwrapped her menorah, her face lit up and she cried, “ooohhhh,” and immediately began inserting the candles. “Remember,” she reminded me, “there are EIGHT days.” “Yes, I remember,” I told her, wondering if she was just charmed by the numbers or if the subtext was that she is expecting eight gifts over the course of the holiday. That night, she begged to sleep with the menorah. I convinced her that it would be nice to put it in the window for everyone passing by to see that we are celebrating Hanukkah. “It’s our holiday decoration,” I told her.

Just a few days earlier we had been driving through our town. I was pointing out the colored lights illuminating many of the homes near ours. Much like the town I grew up in, it’s very Christian and hence, well-decorated. When we were young and out for a drive in December, my sister and I used to make a game of counting the holiday lights on our side of the car…seeing who had the most on the way to our destination. I was hopeful that I could engage Sophie in a more basic form of the game.

It was quiet in the backseat. Then Sophia asked, “Mommy? Can we have holiday decorations?” She said holiday decorations because that was the phrase I used. I have been consciously avoiding the word Christmas. Its not that I’m hiding Christmas from her. We will be celebrating it this year when we go out to visit Kevin’s father in Illinois. I just wanted her to have a clear sense of her own religious culture and traditions before the very-hard-to-compete-with Christmas took the foreground.

I know Hanukkah is not a major Jewish holiday, as much as it is a way for Jewish kids to not feel left out, or worse, seduced away from their own religion by the very sexy Santa Claus. And that is precisely how I am employing it now.

“Let me talk to Daddy about that,” I stalled. Perhaps we could do a garish electric menorah. Or maybe she would be satisfied by the more colonial-looking single-candle in each window.

I was pleased that, at my mothers, the toy menorah sufficed.

“I am going to show my menorah to all my friends,” Sophie said, “we can count the candles. Remember: there are eight.”

“I remember.”

“Can we listen to some music?” I cringed at the thought of listening, once again, to our Music Together albums.

I got an idea, “How about some holiday music? Holiday songs will be playing on the radio now.” I turned on Lite-FM and sure enough, Sarah McLaughlin was singing, “and so this is Christmas….” Sophie’s eyes lit up at the mention of Christmas. It was NOT my imagination. She smiled, listening to the music.

Next was the theme to the Charlie Brown Christmas special. I thought about how much I loved those Charlie Brown specials. How could I deny her the things that I loved and enjoyed? Hadn’t I come to my sense of religion and culture, despite the visits from Santa, the Christmas specials, even the faux 4-ft tree we perched atop dad’s stereo speakers each year? “I bet I could learn to play this,” I told Sophia, pretending to play the cords with one hand as I steered with the other.

“NO! I’m going to play it on my piano at Grandma’s,” she told me.

And then Santa Clause is Coming to Town came on. Sophia looked concerned as Sinatra sang about Santa seeing you while you were sleeping. “Where is Santa?” she asked.

“I’ll tell you when the song is over,” I replied, stalling again.

Do I tell her that Santa is not real? That he’s a character like the ones she reads about in books? Or do I give her the whole schpiel, how he lives up at the North Pole and that we’ll see his helpers everywhere for the next month, trying to get a read on what all the consumers…I mean kids…want for Christmas this year?

The song ended.

“Santa Claus is a little like Cat in the Hat,” I began. “He’s a character that you can read about and think about, and we’ll start to see images of him everywhere.” Just then, we passed a flag with Santa on it on the side of the road—“See? There’s a picture of him right there!” “You’re Jewish, so you celebrate holidays like Hanukkah, and Passover, and Rosh Hashannah…there are people who are Christian, and they celebrate Christmas. Daddy grew up Christian and celebrated Christmas. Now we get to share holidays. We’re Jews and we can share Hanukkah with daddy. He’s Christian and he can share Christmas with us.” That felt right. I didn’t really solve the Santa issue, but the idea of sharing holidays is the foundation. Then Santa becomes okay for me. It’s about appreciating difference in the context of feeling the primacy of her Jewish identity.

Yes, I know this is heavy for a three-year-old. But I tend to aim high, and hope that some kernel of what I say lodges in her brain.

“Oh!” said Sophie. “Hey look! There’s Santa again!”