Monday, April 26, 2010

Remembering My Strength

I dated a boy in college who was wildly jealous, devastatingly insecure. The longer we were together, the more controlling he became. By the end, there was little I could do without repercussion, and his desire to control had chipped away at the very core of who I was, but one thing remained. I was a writer. No amount of fighting, or jealousy, or silence could keep me from writing, partly because I had to, the same as breathing, and partly because it was the one thing left that I could control, the one weapon I had left against him. I came away with my identity as a writer firmly fixed, and since then, my answer has always been to write my way through.

I wrote my undergraduate thesis for my English major on Oscar Wilde. I still remember the days I spent working on it, locked away in my tiny bedroom. Papers scattered everywhere, books balanced precariously next to my computer and stacked on the floor. Towards the end, the frantic worry that I wouldn't finish in time, and the knowledge that the only way out of it was to write. Write my way through.

The countless papers and projects and articles in grad school, culminating with my dissertation, a three year long undertaking in itself. The same scattered papers, the same precariously balanced books. The same answer: write my way through.

Now, things are different. There's no jealous boyfriend to spite, no project, no deadline, no committee waiting to judge my work. But the answer is the same: write my way through. The two people who have been my strength all my life are very ill, and I feel unmoored. I've been casting about, trying to find strength, direction, trying to cope, and in the midst of doing so, I'd forgotten the one thing that has always been my strength, even more than any one person. Writing.

The answer at this moment in my life is the same as it's always been: write my way through. Whether it's here on my blog, or in my journal, or the essays I am always telling myself I will work on and send out in the hopes that one will eventually get published, writing is the thing that will hold me together, center me, and give me the strength to get through.

I am a writer.

What is your strength? Have you ever lost touch with that strength, and if so, how did you rediscover it?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Family Heirlooms and Unfortunate Inheritances

My mother has passed on to me an antique sapphire ring, pudgy knees, and a hair-trigger temper. The ring is lovely, the knees make me long for liposuction, and the temper is the thing I most dislike about myself. Since E was born, I've been particularly conscious of this unfortunate inheritance, and I've tried to be mindful of controlling my reactions. Lately, however, I've felt as if I'm fighting a losing battle, and worse, I am starting to see signs of that same temper developing in E.

J has been gone on business the past four days, and I sit now counting down the few remaining hours of his absence with a glass of wine in hand. The past few days have felt more like the emotional equivalent of hand to hand combat than parenting. There are a bunch of outside factors I could blame, but the truth is, E and I descend into this pattern because of me. Because of my temper. Because of the volatile reactions he is learning, courtesy of me.

We're working hard to teach E to give voice to his emotions, to help him identify feelings of anger, frustration, sadness, and talk about how he feels. We encourage him to take time outs if he needs them to calm down, and to take deep breaths when he's feeling upset. We've been surprisingly successful with this approach, with just one factor undermining our progress: me.

I haven't been able to get on board with these techniques for myself, and I'm beginning to see that until I do, E will never be able to use these techniques to their full advantage. He's learned the temper from example; he won't learn to control it without an example. I have to be that example, and if I am not, I will have to live with the knowledge that 30 years from now, E might think that his temper is the thing about himself he most dislikes. We all have failings, but those failings should be things of our own making, not patterns imposed on us from the generations that have gone before.

The ring is a family heirloom, and I hope someday to pass it on to a daughter or a granddaughter. The temper is an unfortunate inheritance, and I'm going to do everything in my power to make sure it doesn't make it to the next generation.

Do you have any "unfortunate inheritances"? What family patterns do you see being repeated in your children, and what strategies are you using to break those patterns?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Eating Green Things

The trees in the woods behind my house have sprouted leaves, seemingly overnight, and I can no longer see the houses on the other side of the ravine. We are once again cocooned in our own little green world. Which means, of course, that it's time to eat all the wonderful green things the season has to offer. One of my green foods in the spring and summer is basil pesto. It's wonderful in a pasta salad with fresh mozzarella and ripe tomatoes, or over grilled chicken, or as a dipping sauce for pita.

Basil Pesto

About 1 1/2 cups basil leaves, loosely packed
2-4 cloves garlic (depending on preference)
zest of 1 lemon
1/4 to 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes (depending on preference)
1 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
1/2 cup parmesan cheese
about 1/2 to 3/4 cup olive oil

Quick note: I do not use pine nuts in this recipe, but you should certainly add them in if you like them - about a 1/2 cup. If you do add the nuts, you'll need to increase your olive oil a bit if you're going for a thinner pesto. Another option is to just sprinkle the nuts whole over the top of a pasta salad, which looks very pretty.

Wash the basil and remove the stems. Add the basil to the bowl of a food processor, along with the garlic, lemon zest, salt, black pepper, and red pepper flakes. Drizzle in a bit of the olive oil, maybe about a 1/4 cup, enough to get things moving. Blitz it and then scrape down the sides, taking note of how thick or thin the pesto looks. Add the cheese, and with the processor running, drizzle in more of the olive oil. If you want a thicker, chunkier pesto, you'll need less oil and you'll need to run the processor for only 10-15 seconds. If you want a thinner pesto, add more oil and process a little longer. Either way, stop frequently to check the status of your pesto, and when it looks like something you want to eat, call it done.

This recipe makes enough pesto to cover a pound of cooked pasta, but if you want to use it as a dipping sauce, you might want to double the recipe unless you've got a number of other dippers on offer.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Madness and Blessings

That we are not much sicker and much madder than we are is due exclusively to that most blessed and blessing of all natural graces, sleep.
- Aldous Huxley

There was a time in my life when I was graceless, when I would have paid an obscene, ridiculous amount of money for just one decent night's sleep. I was sick, and I was mad, and even though the pursuit of sleep became the organizing principle of my life, I wasn't getting any. The New York Times has been running a series on insomnia, and this article in particular really spoke to me.

My insomnia began in grad school, when I was preparing for my qualifying exams. At the time, it seemed normal - preparing for qualifying exams is incredibly stressful because the exams are on a pass/fail basis. If you fail, you can't continue on in the program. So I didn't think of myself as having insomnia, but rather that I was having trouble sleeping because I was stressed, and once the exams were over, I would sleep easily once more. Instead, the insomnia slowly got worse over the next few years. My inability to sleep peaked during my pregnancy, which again, might be normal enough, except for the fact that now I was having anxiety attacks over the thought of even trying to sleep. And then, after just a few hours of sleep, I had to get up and do a 90 minute commute. The only reason I never fell asleep at the wheel is because E spent the whole drive helpfully kicking my bladder.

Naturally, I expected to have trouble sleeping once E was born. Everything I'd heard about new parenthood, and my own experiences, all suggested that this problem would not resolve itself any time soon. Yet, within days of his birth, I was getting the best sleep I'd had in years. Most new mothers talk about struggling through the newborn stage, but I had more energy, more enthusiasm, and was happier than I'd been in a very long time. I was finally getting the sleep I needed, and even more importantly, I no longer felt anxiety about sleep. I knew I could count on sleep to come when I was ready, and that knowledge changed everything.

I freely admit that part of the reason I chose to be a stay at home mom was because of sleep. Now that I can sleep again, I feel the need to protect that ability. I know too well the physical and mental downward spiral that chronic sleep deprivation creates, and I refuse to go down that road again. The way our society structures work life, with its long hours, daycare drop-offs/pick-ups, and lengthy commutes, leaves so little time for self-care, and it seems that sleep is always the thing that we're expected to sacrifice. Somewhere along the way, sleep has become a luxury, something that if you're strong enough, you don't need, but sleep has given me my health and my happiness, and it's given me grace. For that, I feel blessed. Call me weak, call me indulgent, but call me asleep.

How important is sleep to you? Do you feel you get enough? Have you experienced insomnia? What are your coping strategies for times when you're not getting enough sleep?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Painted Toes

E's feet have always been my favorite part of his body. They're huge - long, wide, and fleshy, with big stubby toes topped off by toenails that tend to curl up at the ends when I'm less than vigilant about clipping them. His are feet that only a mother could love.

Lately, those curly toenails have been green, or blue, or orange. Whatever color strikes his fancy. It all began when he noticed that I painted my toenails and decided that he wanted "painted toes" too. So I let him choose a color from my (very small) collection of nail polishes. He chose hot pink, and when his friend came over later that day, E proudly stuck out his bare feet to show off his painted toes. His friend promptly stuck out his hand, the better to show off his painted fingernails.

A few weeks later, E started requesting colors that weren't in my nail polish collection, and so we made a trip to CVS to pick out a color. A few trips later, and we now have an enviable collection of quick dry nail polishes in all the colors that appeal to little boys. I came home from getting a pedicure yesterday and upon seeing my freshly painted toes, E excitedly ran for the drawer in my bathroom where the nail polishes live.

My mother is generally horrified that I paint my son's toenails, but I see things differently. Right now, painted toes have no gender association; they are just fun. He is so innocent and untouched by the expectations and prejudices about what it means to be a boy, about what makes a man. Soon, that innocence will fade, and he will no longer ask for painted toes. Every time he asks it's a reminder that he is still, still, my little boy. One day, he will stop asking, and those bottles of blue, green, and orange nail polish will sit in the drawer, untouched, and I will know: he is growing up.

I'm interested in how other families handle these issues. Do you encourage interest in things not traditionally associated with your child's gender? If your child displays a non-traditional interest, what is your response?

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Superwoman Pasta Salad

It's been ridiculously, unseasonably warm this week, such that by the end of the day, the last thing I wanted was anything hot for dinner. Hello, pasta salad!

I started making pasta salad in the first few months of E's life when it was high summer and we had no air-conditioning. By dinnertime, it was probably at least 90 degrees in the house and eating hot food was out of the question. In addition to being a great summer meal, pasta salad also has some huge positives to recommend it for new parents. It makes a massive quantity of food, and as we know, leftovers are key for new parents. It can be prepared in stages throughout the day, in those 5 and 10 minutes chunks that you find yourself calling "free time". And because it's meant to be served cold, you can serve it one-handed straight from the fridge if need be. (Place your plate next to platter on the shelf, and then use one hand to fling a couple of scoops of pasta onto the plate. Place serving spoon back on plate, lift plate, and use hip to close fridge door. Lunch. Done. While nursing.)

As a brand new mother, I could prepare this dish for dinner and have everything cleaned up by the time J got home, which made me feel like superwoman. Hence, Superwoman Pasta Salad. However, the "super" designation applies to anyone preparing this recipe under new parent conditions, so it can be referred to as Superman Pasta Salad, or alternatively, Superperson Pasta Salad, which admittedly has a nice alliterative element and circumvents the gender issue. Your call.

For the salad:
16 ounce box rotini or penne
1 package fresh tortellini or 1 can kidney beans (or both, if you wish)
several different colored vegetables - I generally use tomatoes, yellow bell pepper, zucchini, and asparagus. (Steam the zucchini and asparagus.)
fresh mozzarella cut into chunks

For the dressing:
1/4 cup good quality olive oil
2-3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar or lemon juice
1 tsp oregano
1 tsp rosemary
1 tsp garlic salt
1 tsp black pepper
1 tsp honey

Mix the dressing first so the flavors have time to meld. Place all the ingredients except for the olive oil into a small bowl, and then slowly add the olive oil while whisking. Once olive oil is added, continue to whisk vigorously for a couple of minutes, then put dressing in the fridge.

Chop up your veggies and get the pasta going. I cook the dried pasta and the fresh pasta in the same pot, I just add the fresh pasta in once the dried is about halfway cooked. If you are using veggies that need to be steamed, get them into a small pot to cook at the same time as you begin cooking the pasta. In a kid-free world, the veggies and the pasta would be done at the same time, but I don't live in that world, so I have a large serving platter ready. As things are done cooking, place them in the serving platter or bowl. If the pasta is going to have to sit out a bit before the other ingredients are done, stir a little olive oil in to keep it from sticking.

Add the remaining cold, chopped veggies, beans if using, and dressing to the cooked veggies and pasta on the platter. Stir until thoroughly combined, and when cool, add cubed cheese and serve. Or, if you're making it ahead of time, cover with cling wrap, stick in the fridge, and revel in your awesomeness.

Makes about 8 adult sized servings.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Lingering Smell of Spring

I associate seasons with moments, and I almost always associate those moments with smells. The sense of smell is powerfully connected with memory, such that catching a whiff of a certain smell can bring back the memory associated with it in full, visceral force. This is what spring smells like to me.

The smell of hyacinths and lilacs is the smell of Easter when I was a little girl. In my memory, the day was always fresh and bright, and I went to church wearing my new dress and hat, and white patent leather Mary Janes with lacy white socks.

The smell of fresh cut grass is the smell of my dad working in the yard while listening to baseball games on AM radio. That combination of smell and sound is still one of the safest things in the world to me.

The smell of mulch is the smell of college, and the boy I loved then.

While not a smell specific to spring, the smell of Pampers Swaddlers always means spring to me. It is the smell of the first weeks of E's life, late spring almost 3 years ago, when everything was perfect and beautiful and nothing could convince me otherwise. Sometimes, in Target, I stop to smell the Swaddlers, and I feel all the possibility and promise of spring, and that tiny new life.

It takes time for the smell of something to cement itself as an association in my mind. Spring here is almost garish, bursting into bloom overnight, and smells are everywhere. This time in my life doesn't have a smell yet, but I know it will. I wonder what the moment of watching E learn to ride a bike will smell like 10 years from now, when he is thirteen and wants nothing to do with me. When I am driving that sullen teenager to the mall or soccer practice, what smell will I catch a whiff of and be back in the moment of watching my little boy on his tiny red bike?

What does spring smell like to you? What memories are associated with those smells?

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Decision Process

Last weekend, we went up to the city for the day. On the lawn in front of the Capitol, there was a small group protesting male circumcision, which I found kind of ironic, given my recent guest post at An Attitude Adjustment. Jana's readers were very kind and for the most part offered only support for my choice, and I found myself in the position of, if not advocating male circumcision, at least not arguing against it. This was a curious position for me to find myself in because I spent seven years studying, and arguing against, female genital cutting rituals. All week I've been trying to reconcile my reaction to these two very different responses to male circumcision - protesting in front of the Capitol, and warm support for a mother who chose to have her son circumcised.

In the United States, more than half of infant males are circumcised before leaving the hospital. The practice of male circumcision is widely accepted and is often considered a healthier alternative than leaving the foreskin intact. Many parents choose to circumcise their sons because, in addition to perceived health benefits, they fear their sons will feel self-conscious later in life. This contrasts sharply with female genital cutting rituals in the United States, which were banned at the federal level in 1996.

Most people are familiar with what male circumcision involves - the removal of the foreskin - but many people are unaware of what is involved with female genital cutting practices (FGC). FGC, which is practiced mainly in Africa, can take several forms, and range from a small, symbolic cut that inflicts no organ damage, to the most severe form, known as infibulation, which involves the removal of external genitalia and stitching closed the vaginal opening, leaving a small hole through which urine and menstrual blood can flow. While there is a clear difference in the severity of these two practices, as well as in the potential side effects, there are often similar motivations for performing them - perceived health benefits and aesthetic preference. (The primary motivation for performing FGC is generally to ensure a girl's marriage prospects, which is obviously not a concern when it comes to male circumcision.) However, one is widely accepted in our society, and the other is not just reviled, but illegal.

I'll be clear here. I am not advocating FGC, nor do I agree with it. But my experience with choosing to have my son circumcised for religious and cultural reasons has shown me that these issues do not have easy answers. As the mother of a circumcised boy, I cringed when I saw those protesters at the Capitol. I identify with their basic position, yet they would likely drag me over the coals if they knew my story. As much as part of me agrees with them, I'm just not cool with being accused of child abuse, and I'm sure the mothers who have chosen for their daughters to undergo FGC don't like it either. I have always held the view that if we truly wish to help girls who are at risk of FGC, then we need to engage with their families and communities and seek to understand what the practice means to them. When we mistakenly assume that these parents don't go through the same kind of decision process I did, we undermine our own efforts to reduce the practice of FGC, just as I feel the protesters at the Capitol undermined their efforts with their angry signs equating male circumcision to abuse.

I'm interested in the decision process other parents went through in deciding whether or not to have their sons circumcised. If you're comfortable sharing, what was your reasoning in deciding for or against circumcision for your son? If you did choose to circumcise, what would your reaction be to those protesting against it?

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Happiness Meme

Jana at An Attitude Adjustment tagged me for this this moment, what makes you happy? I've been thinking about this for over a day now, and I've realized that it's actually a pretty hard exercise. It's easy to come up with 10 things that make you happy generally. Your kids, your spouse, not being homeless, etc. You don't have to think very hard to find 10 things that make you happy or that you're grateful for when you're looking at the big picture. But to come up with 10 things that make you happy right now, when you have a headache and are tired and the house is a mess and you have a to-do list a mile long, that is a challenge. So I've thought and I've thought, and here I go...

1. Sleeping dogs. Preferably pugs who sleep in my lap, snoring gently while I pet their warm, soft ears.

2. The smell of green. The other evening I was driving to the grocery store with the windows down, and I caught a whiff of green. You can only smell green in the spring and summer, when the air is warm and a little damp and carries with it the smell of the green things growing all around. One of my favorite smells.

3. The house is blessedly, blissfully, silent this Saturday morning, as J and E have just left for E's swimming lesson.

4. Yesterday evening it was warm enough to sit on the patio drinking white wine.

5. The scatter of puzzle pieces across the coffee table, the train track on the floor, and the half-sunk helium balloon tied to a tiny fire truck - a mess to some, even to me most of the time, but at this moment, the tools of E's trade, and proof that my little boy is happy and healthy.

6. Writing. It makes me happy in the same way that breathing does.

7. Conversation with J last night over aforementioned white wine. I love that I am married to someone who will discuss politics and philosophy with me, who actually knows what he's talking about, and who challenges me every time we talk about this stuff.

8. Gail Collins' column in today's New York Times. Really, the existence of Gail Collins in general.

9. The feeling that life is starting to open up to us again. We can make plans for the future - travel, dinners out, home improvements, and our careers - and know that all of this stuff isn't just us dreaming lofty dreams, but that it actually has a reasonable chance of happening. It's a wonderful, liberating feeling.

10. E's relationship with my parents. As he gets older, it's really blossoming, in spite of the fact that we live 5 hours away from them. He builds train tracks with my dad, bakes cupcakes with my mom, and in between visits he talks to them on the phone. Hearing this little person tell Grandma and Grandpa about his day always makes me smile.

I'm tagging Stacia at Fluffy Bunnies and Leslie at Five to Nine, and anyone else who might be reading this post who hasn't already been tagged for this meme. Spread the happiness!