Become a Temporary Vegetarian!

This is one of the easiest things you can do to make a positive difference in the world.  Every time you choose a vegetarian meal instead of meat, you conserve some resources.  You don’t have to be vegetarian full-time or forever to make a difference.

Meat production has a huge environmental impact.  Growing plants and feeding them to meat animals uses more water, fuel, pesticide, and fertilizer, per calorie of person-food, than just eating the plants ourselves.  The waste products of meat animals pollute our drinking water.  The use of antibiotics on meat animals contributes to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can kill people.

Lent begins this Wednesday, March 1.  Whether you’re a Christian or not, you can use Lent as a 40-day free trial period to make the small sacrifice of changing one habit to a less wasteful habit.  You will make a difference, and you will learn something.  After Easter, you can reflect on what you learned and decide whether to keep the new habit permanently, modify it, or go back to your old ways and try making a different change next Lent.

Daniel and I gave up meat (including fish) for Lent 15 years ago.  It led to a permanent change in our eating habits.  We’re really glad we tried it!

Click here to read my article at Kitchen Stewardship with lots of advice on trying a less-meat or no-meat diet!  I’m always available for tech support on this topic, so please feel free to ask me about your specific meat-replacing questions.

Visit the Hearth & Soul Link Party for more great food-related articles!

lessmeat

EVERYTHING WILL BE ALL RIGHT.

This is a story I’ve been wanting to tell since it happened, but it almost doesn’t sound real.  This really did happen, though, and it was an important encouragement just when I needed one, and now I’m at a point where I really need encouragement again.  I’m kind of writing this for myself to read, but I also hope that it will help other people to see a glimmer of hope in desperate times.

In November 2014, I was in my fourth month of pregnancy and finally starting to get past the nausea when I had a nightmare.  I dreamed that I was walking in the jungle, admiring the exotic plants, having a pleasant hike until I noticed a glimmering spot in my vision.  Then, gradually, I understood that a migraine was coming, but I was in the jungle with no medicine and no help and–and I woke up, and in fact my vision really was disrupted.  This is the only time in my life that this ever started while I was asleep and I was able to perceive it.  I quickly got up and took my prescription migraine medication, which the midwife had told me was safer for my baby than allowing the migraine to proceed because migraines disrupt blood circulation.  I did not get much of a headache and was able to go back to sleep and then get through a normal workday.

The next time, I had no warning.  I just suddenly got a bad headache, and when I took my medicine it came right back up again.  But I had to go to work I had to I had to, because I was working toward a deadline but also because if I missed one more day, I wouldn’t be able to travel for Thanksgiving.

By then I’d worked out a morning survival strategy that involved having a bagel with butter at work every morning, except on the day when I was out of bagels and therefore would go to the bagel shop before work to buy a half-dozen bagels for later days, plus a bagel with cream cheese and a coffee to enjoy at the bagel shop.  This was my cream cheese day.  I told myself to look forward to the treat because I would feel better when I ate it, if not before.

Instead, I got worse.  A lot worse.  You know how doctors ask you to rank your pain on a scale of 1 to 10?  For years, I never ranked anything higher than 9, because it seemed to me that it would be possible for pain to be worse than what I had experienced.  I was right: In 2010, I had a migraine that went to Level 10 and stayed there until I went to the emergency room and was given an off-label schizophrenia drug that brought it down to a 3.

On this day in 2014, I hit Level 10 as I stepped off the bus into bright sunshine.  It only lasted one minute, maybe less, but that was too much.  My vision fragmented as if smashed by a rock, and that was about how my head felt.  I staggered across the sidewalk, crashed into the fence, and clung there, not thinking, barely breathing.  Then the pain dropped to Level 8, which for me is the clumsy, self-criticizing level where speech is difficult and vomiting is likely.  I ripped myself off the fence and stalked across the street toward the bank (because I needed cash for the bagels) as my brain yammered, Don’t you dare throw up; the baby needs every calorie; you are a terrible mother taking terrible care of your poor innocent baby; don’t even think about the hospital; they won’t give you any off-label schizophrenia drug when you’re pregnant; don’t be ridiculous; they can’t help you; stand up straight and look normal you freak; go to the bank like a grown-up and get your stupid bagel and go to work; nobody will help you; get yourself together and act like someone who can be trusted with a baby!!!

So I got to the bank machine, and I kept dropping my card, and then I must have pressed the wrong button because the machine was in Spanish, and it was my fault that I was doing it wrong and my fault that I don’t know Spanish, and although I muddled through well enough to get the cash, by then I was in tears.

I turned around, stupid and incompetent and crying in public, and in front of me was someone I had never seen before.  She was young, probably a student at the adjacent University of Pittsburgh.  She had a Chinese accent.

She smiled so gently at me and said, “Everything will be all right.”

I stared at her for a moment, and then, slowly, I repeated, “Everything will be all right.”

“Yes!” she said. “Everything will be all right.”  She hugged me.  My brain filled with different ideas: The headache will go away; I will feel better soon; I have money in my hand and more in the bank; I’m going to have a nice meal and several more meals today; I’m really quite lucky; I have what I need; I will have a healthy, beautiful baby, and all the struggles will be worth it worth it worth it.  Everything will be all right.  Maybe not this instant, but it will be.

She stepped back, gave me a radiant smile, then hurried on down the sidewalk as I called a bewildered “thank you…” after her.

Then I walked to the bagel place, and by the time I got there I was running; I ran straight to the back and into the bathroom and puked, but I hit the toilet perfectly, and after washing my face I looked into the mirror and said aloud, “Everything will be all right.”  That demonstrated that I could speak normally.  I went out and ordered my bagels and coffee.

Half an hour later, I had no headache at all.  I went on to a happy and productive day at work.

Of course, not everything was all right forever from then on.  I hit more really low spots before that pregnancy was over, and I’ve hit many more since then.  Life sucks sometimes!

But the odds are that everything will be all right, pretty soon.  Hang in there!  Try to notice the things that are okay, as well as the bad things that are so much more noticeable.  Try to look forward to the future.  It’s hard.  The past several weeks have made it obvious to me, again, that I’m not good at this.  I tell myself awful things and wish I could just give up.  I can tell that my brain is upside-down, but I don’t know how to fix it.  I just have to try to get along until things pick up.

This is Advent, the season of waiting, the darkest time of year.  Even if you are not a Christian or not religious at all, try for a few weeks to pray when you find yourself waiting.  It may not seem to accomplish much, but it is better than doing nothing.  If you’re too upset for specific prayers, just focus on this one idea: Everything will be all right.  It will.  It will.

Grandma, Grace, Portage, Petunias, and a Jade Green Sweatshirt

My grandma would be 101 years old today, if she were still alive.  Last year I tried to write the centennial tribute she deserved, but I was recovering from a brain injury, so not only was everything a struggle but I felt really terrible and inadequate about everything…and also, I realized, “Grandma meant so much to me that I can’t cram it all into one article.”

So here is another article with some inspirations from Grandma that have struck me over the past few months.

Grace

The school I attended in seventh and eighth grades closed this year and will be torn down.  That’s fine with me–it was poorly designed in the first place and was in bad shape when I was there 30 years ago.  I was reminiscing to my son about the bleak concrete courtyard in which we were forced to hang around until the first bell rang, and about how I was on the first bus to arrive and therefore had to sit there for 40 minutes, often getting bullied.  In particular, there was this one eighth-grade football player who made my seventh-grade mornings miserable by yelling insults at me across the courtyard while his friends laughed.

Suddenly I remembered telling Grandma about that, when she called after I’d spent the whole day wincing shamefully over what that football player had yelled when he noticed that I was sitting with my legs crossed at the knee.  I couldn’t bear to repeat exactly everything he said (the gist was that I was trying to control my urge to be raped by him); what I told her was his opening line of sneering, “Who sits with their legs crossed?!” in a way that sounded like it was a totally stupid, wrong thing to do.  Grandma said, “Hmm, who sits with her legs crossed?  A graceful, elegant lady with impeccable manners!”  That really turned it around for me.  That bully and others continued to hurt my feelings, but it did help to notice how often their insults boiled down to, “You’re behaving too well!  You think you’re better than us!” which implied that, for all their frightening volume and vitriol and violence, they actually were afraid that I was better than them–and gee, maybe I was.  It depends on what your standards are, and I’m glad that Grandma nudged me to consider mine. Read more of this post

A Person Who Deserves to Wear This Dress

A few days ago, I was unpacking my winter clothes and putting away my summer clothes, and I realized that there was a small section at the very back of my closet that had gone untouched for years.  The garments hanging back there literally had cobwebs and a thick layer of dust on the shoulders.  It was the Haunted Zone!

I pulled out these garments to decide if there was any justification for keeping them any longer, since I obviously hadn’t been wearing them frequently.  One was the skirt-suit I bought for a friend’s wedding in 2000 and wore a few times after that, but it’s out of style now.  One was a silk blouse I bought in a thrift shop, which is nice but too big for me.  One was the red velvet micro-mini cocktail dress I bought in 1992 and wore to a couple of college parties, but I really thought I’d passed it on years ago!  (I found that I still can squeeze into it, but it’s absurdly tight in the hips, and it always was uncomfortably short!)  All these things need to be given away.

p1030859But then there was this dress, this sort of elegant party dress that I’d totally forgotten I ever owned.  As best I recall, this is the story behind this dress: I was shopping for an outfit for a special event, a springtime event, and I wasn’t finding anything appropriate that fit me, but then in the downtown Macy’s this dress was marked down to an extremely reasonable price, like $20, and it fit so well that I bought it anyway.  I thought that although it really wasn’t a springtime style, I could wear it to the event if I couldn’t find anything more suitable.  But then I did find a nice springtime dress at another store, so I hung this one in the closet, thinking I’d wear it to some other special event in the future.

The event I was shopping for may have been my brother’s wedding, which was 7 years ago!  Not only do I not attend a whole lot of dressy events, but I really had forgotten that I had this dress.  Now what? Read more of this post

America is SAFER now than it used to be.

I worked with crime data for 17 years, and occasionally someone would say, “Gosh, that must make you so worried about your safety!”  No.  It didn’t.  It had exactly the opposite effect.  There are four patterns I saw, over and over again, that made me feel safer:

  1. Crime rates in Pittsburgh and in the United States overall were already declining when I started working for the Pittsburgh Youth Study in 1998 and have continued to decline or remained stable ever since.
  2. Most crimes (especially sexual assaults and homicide) occur between people who know one another; they are not random attacks by strangers.
  3. Homicide and shooting victims are disproportionately black and male.  I am white and female.
  4. Every map of crimes in Pittsburgh shows that I live near the middle of a large low-crime area.

I could write a lot about what I’ve learned and how it’s influenced my sense of personal safety, but at this moment in American history I need to focus on helping you understand how safe you are and who’s trying to mislead you.

Monday’s presidential debate included repeated ranting from Donald Trump about the number of murders and shootings in Chicago during the Obama administration, implying that Chicago has become more dangerous and that this is Obama’s fault.  Trump would like you to believe that America is a very dangerous place and only he can save you from hordes of dark-skinned killers.

U.S. Violent Crime Rate 1960-2014

Graph from factcheck.org based on FBI data. Click graph for full article.

“Almost four thousand” is an overstatement of the 3,624 homicides in Chicago since Obama’s inauguration, but 3,624 is still a lot of people, and as Hillary Clinton said, “One murder is too many.” Yes. But the fact is that murder is far less common in Chicago, and in the United States overall, than it was 15 years ago–and that was a big decrease from 20-25 years ago. If presidents are responsible for violent crimes that occur during their administrations, then by golly, George Bush Senior was the worst president ever!

And before anybody gets on my case about Bush-bashing, notice that George W. Bush was the president who presided over an enormous drop in violent crime.  Funny how Trump doesn’t mention that–because it would ruin his argument that crime is high and it’s Obama’s fault.

Homicides in Chicago also have declined during the 21st century so far, but the pattern there is even more striking: There was a big drop from 2002 to 2004, and since then Chicago’s homicide rate has never again gotten nearly as high as it was in 2003!

Homicides in Chicago, 2000-2015.

Chicago Tribune graph reprinted by the Los Angeles Times. Click graph for full article.

Now, of course, just because murders are less common now than they used to be doesn’t mean we’re all perfectly safe.  Homicide is still the leading cause of death for black males ages 15-34, and although many of those victims were involved in gangs or drug dealing or carrying guns (all of which increase a person’s chances of getting killed), many were not–every year, some innocent, law-abiding black men are killed because they are mistaken for someone else, because they happen to live in or be visiting an area that is “rival territory” for a gang, or because police or gun-toting citizens don’t give them a chance to explain themselves.  Only 13% of the United States population is African-American, yet 44% of homicide victims in the United States are African-American; only 49% of the United States population is male, yet 70% of homicide victims in the United States are male.  (My calculations are based on data from 2013, from this Census table and this FBI table.)

Every murder is a tragedy, and the prevalence of homicide among young black men is a horror that we must do our very best to control.  My concern is that Trump’s rhetoric makes it sound like America is getting more dangerous by the minute and like dark-skinned people are out to kill you no matter who you are, and this really isn’t the case.  83% of white murder victims are killed by other white peopleThose of us who are lucky enough to be white people living in safe neighborhoods should be concerned about the plight of black people in dangerous neighborhoods out of love and compassion, not out of fear for our own safety.  African-Americans face more risks than they should, but even they are safer now than they were 25 years ago.  Cities across the United States have made real progress in reducing crime, and it hasn’t been done by yelling, “Law and order!” like Donald Trump.

I could go on and on about crime prevention, too, but I’ll stick to telling you a little about what I learned from my own work on the book Young Homicide Offenders and Victims: Risk Factors, Prediction, and Prevention from Childhood.  I did all of the data processing and some preliminary analyses for this book, and I am a co-author of two chapters.  In this book, we studied the 37 convicted killers and the 39 homicide victims who were among the young men we had been interviewing since they were in elementary school, and we determined what predicted who would kill and who would be killed.  These are the nine factors measured when they were in elementary school that predicted which boys were more than twice as likely as the average boy to grow up to kill someone, in order of statistical significance with the best predictor first:

  1. One or both of his biological parents did not live with him.
  2. He lived in a high-crime neighborhood.
  3. His family qualified for welfare benefits.
  4. His mother was younger than 20 when her first child was born.
  5. He was old for his grade at the beginning of the study–either he started school late, or he was left back.
  6. His mother (or the female adult most responsible for him) was not employed outside the home.
  7. His parents and/or teachers agreed with the statement, “He doesn’t seem to feel guilty after doing things he shouldn’t.”
  8. The adult most responsible for him reported that his biological father had ever had “behavior problems.”  (This one bugs me because it is so vague and open to bias on the part of the person reporting, but the fact that it was a strong predictor indicates that it was measuring something important.)
  9. His family had low socioeconomic status–calculated from the current or most recent job and the highest education completed by the adults in the home.

Think about those things when you think about how to prevent murder.  There are so many things we as a society can do to support families so they can raise good kids and to help kids when they first show signs of trouble–instead of waiting until they hurt someone and then throwing them in jail.

Gun control is a factor, too, and a major issue in the current election.  I agree with both candidates that we need to do more to get guns out of the hands of convicted criminals who aren’t allowed to carry guns.  My opinion, informed by what I’ve seen in crime research, is that the way to do this is to control guns much more tightly, more like we do cars: Carrying, using, or owning a gun should require a license, and to get a license you should have to demonstrate that you know how to use a gun safely and you understand the laws.  Each gun should be registered with the state and that registration updated annually.  These policies would help to reduce illegal selling and borrowing of guns.  It’s also my opinion that we should have fewer guns in the United States and work away from the idea that we “need” guns so much, but those are cultural and psychological shifts, not changes in laws.

I’ve learned a lot about crime.  It’s made me feel safer.  Donald Trump wants to talk about a few carefully selected facts as if they prove that we’re in grave danger and only he can help us.  I hope that looking at facts about the bigger picture helps you to understand how twisted his views are.

It works for me!

Bedtime List: How to organize a child’s routine

Our two-year-old Lydia has always been the type who takes a while to wind down, but in the late spring after she stopped nursing, she went pretty easily into a relatively smooth routine of listening to several stories and then saying good night and lying alone in her bed in the dark listening to a story CD as she fell asleep.  She was napping inconsistently, but at least we could get her to bed for the night in a predictable way.

Then, at the end of June, I finished my job and the next day we traveled to visit my parents in another time zone for a week, and then when we got back our daytime routine relaxed because I didn’t have to get to work and get Lydia to childcare–and her happy routine disappeared.  She started freaking out when we turned out the light, screaming and crying and refusing to stay in bed.  Some nights she’d lie quietly if a parent stayed with her, but other nights she’d flip around, literally trying to climb the wall next to the bed and falling on the parent–ow!!–and if we didn’t stay, she was almost certain to get up and come looking for us.

Also, Daniel and I were sometimes forgetting one or another of the steps of getting her ready for bed, because we weren’t doing them in a consistent order and it’s easy to get distracted when anything unexpected happens–which is basically every evening in a household with not only a two-year-old but also an eleven-year-old sort of nutty inventor person….

snack; toilet; pajamas; brush teeth; brush hair; stories; tuck in; sleepI decided it was time for a Bedtime List. This is an idea I didn’t try on Nicholas until he was five, the age when I remember having my first Lists.  My dad made me a Morning List and an Evening List showing what to do before kindergarten and after.  I loved following my Lists!

Nicholas has never been so keen on the Lists; he likes deciding what color each item should be and how it should be illustrated, but then he doesn’t want to look at the list and tends to argue about what should happen when.  Probably this is mostly about his personality compared to mine, but what if it would have worked if I’d started earlier?

Lydia is too young to be involved in making the List.  Her father Daniel and I went over what needs to happen in what order to make sure we agreed, and then I made this List using drawings that I thought she would recognize.

It’s working very well!  Lydia likes looking at her List, pointing out the steps and talking about them.  She’s more cooperative with the routine than she was before, especially if we get back on track after a distraction by saying, “Okay, what have we done on the List?”

A fringe benefit is that Lydia is practicing her pre-reading skills: “This red sign says eat snack!  This other red sign says brush teeth!”  Understanding that written words convey meaning is a very important step toward recognizing those words when you see them without pictures.

We’re still working on getting her to stay in bed by herself.  But at least she’s understanding more clearly that certain things are going to happen every night and that the sequence is supposed to end with sleeping.

Organizing a child’s routine with a list works for me, at least sometimes!

Cooperation, Communication, and Consequences

One of the hardest, most humbling things about being a parent is those moments when your child communicates with you using strategies that you’ve used with him or that he’s seen you use with someone else–and you shouldn’t have.  We all have times when we do something to try to get another person to do what we want her to do, without giving enough thought to whether or not it’s a healthy strategy that we’d like our children to learn or that we’d like anybody to use on us.  My first child (now eleven years old) is an especially egalitarian-minded type: He doesn’t accept that adults have a natural authority over him by being adults, so he assumes that anything we can do to him is something he can do to us.  You can see this, rather humorously, in my story of why Counting to Three stopped working.  Since then, we’ve had many interactions in which Nick’s attempts to treat us the way he perceives us as treating him have been painfully enlightening!

Although these issues have been magnified by parenting, the same problems can come up between adults, especially adults who live together and/or have known each other for a long time.

What communication strategies am I talking about?  Here are some examples:

  • I want you to do something right now, so I just keep ordering you to do it in an increasingly angry voice.  No matter what you say about why you can’t do it this minute or why it might not be the right thing to do, I won’t listen or acknowledge hearing you.
  • You ask me for something, and I attack your desire to have the thing, bringing up a bunch of barely-related things that you asked for when you should’ve known better or that I gave you but you didn’t appreciate enough.
  • I want you to do something, and when you resist, I start complaining about all the other things I wish you would do that you haven’t done.
  • You ask me for something, and I list a lot of other things that I have done for you, making it sound like you ask too much of me.
  • Instead of asking for what I need, I work myself to exhaustion doing things that benefit both of us or just you.  When you don’t seem to notice, I feel resentful.  I keep working, refusing to pause to take care of myself, until I suddenly blow up at you and act like you are stupid for not knowing what’s wrong.
  • I complain about how I’m tired and having a bad day and overwhelmed by the things I need to do.  Then, without asking about how you’re doing, I tell you that you have to do something nice for me.

We saw a counselor a couple years ago who didn’t work out so well overall but had one really good point that has stuck with me: “The key to family harmony is emotional self-regulation.”  It is easy to say to yourself, “His nasty behavior put me in a bad mood!  I shouldn’t have to be nice when everyone’s being so awful to me!” but then you are putting other people in charge of your feelings and actions.  This is particularly problematic when the other people are children and you’re supposed to be their role model.  You have to snap out of the “person who has been treated badly gets to treat others badly” cycle and set a more positive tone.  It is hard, but in my experience it pays off.  Feeling like my family members are constantly ruining my day and I’m powerless to stop them is hard, too, and really wears me down in the long run. Read more of this post

What I’ve Learned By Reading Too Much (and 4 other books!)

In addition to finishing the books I got for Christmas in time for my birthday, I’ve read a few other new-to-me books recently, including one that actually has the alternate title What I’ve Learned By Reading Too Much!  I learned something from each of these books.

The Dance of Anger by Harriet G. Lerner

This is one of the most helpful self-help books I’ve ever read.  It explains several ways that anger typically functions in women’s relationships (with men, family members, friends, and co-workers) and how our handling of anger often keeps a relationship stuck in frustrating patterns.  Although the book focuses on women and makes some generalizations about what women do vs. what men do, it’s more insightful than stereotypical, and some of the strategies could easily be useful to men, too, when they find themselves stuck in the same situations.  A particularly helpful section talks about the formation of triangles in which “we reduce anxiety in one relationship by focusing on a third party, who we unconsciously pull into the situation to lower the emotional intensity in the original pair.”  I’ve sometimes realized that I was doing this, or that two people had pulled me into the middle of a conflict that was really between them, but I haven’t been able to figure out how to get out of it.  The book explains how to figure out why it’s happening and how to get out of it by “staying calm, staying out, and hanging in”–none of which is especially easy to do, but the clear explanation of steps makes it sound possible, at least!  I also appreciate this book’s clear explanation of a pattern in which one person consistently “over-functions” (does too much) and the other “under-functions” and why both people find this difficult to stop.

The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon

This dystopian techno-thriller starts with a fascinating premise and goes on into a saga that seemed kind of muddled… Read more of this post

Diaper Changing Duties: What’s Fair?

Our daughter Lydia is 21 months old.  Since she was born, almost all of her diaper changes at home (rather than childcare) have been my job.  I also launder the cloth diapers myself.  Unfair, right?  Daniel is just as responsible as I am for the existence of this messy little human, so he should take charge of 50% of her sanitation needs, right?

Well, that’s the way I saw it 11 years ago when our first child was born.  I spelled out to Daniel what sounded like a perfectly reasonable plan: Whenever we were both home, we would split diaper-changing 50/50; when one of us was alone with the baby, of course that parent would change diapers; when we were together in public, Daniel would take him to the men’s room for changes (because a male should use the males’ restroom, when feasible) unless it was a place with a nice changing table in the ladies’ room and no suitable area in the men’s.  Daniel agreed that this was fair.

We had our first shouting argument about diaper changing before Nicholas was a month old, and it was often a touchy topic thereafter.  Why?  Read more of this post

Why My Toddler Doesn’t Watch Sesame Street

I remember, when I was 3 or 4 years old, sitting in front of the television watching the test pattern waiting for my local public television station to begin its broadcast day.  I liked the pretty colored stripes.  Finally they would disappear, the station information would be displayed along with a drawing of a scissor-tailed flycatcher (the state bird), and an authoritative voice would announce, “This is OETA.  Public television for all of Oklahoma.”  Then I would hear that cheerful song about sweeping the clouds away and going where the air is sweet, and for the next hour my television would show me a wonderful world in which fuzzy monsters and real people of all colors live side-by-side in a place where you can find a friend just by stepping out of the house.

My daughter Lydia is 18 months old and has never seen an episode of “Sesame Street”.  Why do I deprive her of this experience I loved so much??  There are two reasons.

One is that children under 2 years old should not watch any television at all.  The American Academy of Pediatrics still says this and has updated its statement to include the use of computers and tablets–no screen-time for toddlers.  I know, a lot of my parenting peers think this is simply impossible.  I agree that it’s impossible to avoid any screen exposure at all, in a world where electronic screens are incorporated into many public places and most adults are constantly poking some kind of PocketFox.  (Just yesterday, I was in a hospital elevator with a wall-mounted screen relentlessly playing hospital publicity videos!)  Still, it’s worth the effort to save our babies’ eyes and hearts and brains by keeping them away from the screens as much as we can and certainly not encouraging them to watch TV.  I’ve explained how we kept our first child off the screens until he was 2 and phased it in carefully after that.

Everybody told me it would be harder with the second child.  Yes, it is, because her big brother loves to play computer games, and our computer is in the living room.  It’s true that Lydia sometimes toddles over to watch what he is doing, so she’s probably had more total screen-time than he had by this age.  But when we rearranged before she was born, we placed our L-shaped computer desk such that the screen is turned 45 degrees toward the wall, instead of facing the center of the room; that makes it less eye-catching.  Our television set faces the couch, but we hardly ever watch it when Lydia’s awake.  Neither parent has a smartphone, so she’s not seeing a screen while we’re holding her.  I try to keep my iPad out of her sight; if she climbs into my lap while I’m using it, I finish up as quickly as I can.  Most importantly, we never turn on a video for her or let her play with the iPad herself.

But “Sesame Street” is so sweet and charming and a rich source of cultural references in our family and the wider society!  As I said in my previous article:

But then, when I was 7 months pregnant, an odd sound made by the elevator at work reminded me of the “Rubber Ducky” song from “Sesame Street”, and I suddenly felt devastated–how could I deprive my child of the joy of knowing Ernie and Big Bird and…and LOVABLE FURRY GROVER?!

Well, here’s what we learned when raising Nicholas: Read more of this post

The Power of Purple Is Real!!!

I am putting this post in a variety of categories because it’s kind of silly but I’m kind of serious, too.  I would like to believe that in this very complicated world, my actions truly do make a difference, even in unexpected metaphysical ways.

Purple is my favorite color.  At this point in my life, I feel like I finally own enough purple clothing.  On my fortieth birthday, which in various ways did not go very well, I was wearing an all-purple outfit when Daniel and I went out to lunch and he (very uncharacteristically) spilled an entire glass of ice water on me.  When we got home, I was able to change into another all-purple outfit.  That’s the way life should be!  I am happily on my way to being that old woman in the famous poem by Jenny Joseph.

Monday, I wore a purple sweater.  This was really just because I had finally gotten around to washing this particular sweater, so now it was available again, and at this point in the year I am kind of tired of most of my sweaters, but it had been at least two weeks since I’d worn this one.

Tuesday, I wore a purple and white striped knit top.  As I took it out of the drawer, I thought, “But I just wore purple yesterday!” like I might be enjoying myself too much or something, but then I remembered that my church was hosting the East End Lenten Series supper and service that night, and purple is the color for Lent because purple is the color of sadness in church tradition.  It works all backwards with me and is one of the reasons why I like Lent.

Tuesday morning’s e-newsletter, for employees of the gargantuan “health system” where I work, encouraged us to wear purple on Wednesday to support patient safety. Read more of this post

Get Up and Eat: 3 Years of Replenishment

Today is Ash Wednesday.  Three years ago on Ash Wednesday, I wrote this article about the renewal we can experience during Lent.  I had no idea what was coming my way!

You may have heard of the idea of choosing one word as a theme for your year.  You’re supposed to place this word around your home or on a bracelet, where you’ll see it regularly and be reminded of your intention, and it will inspire you and serve as a guiding principle.  Maybe you make some collages or something based on your word, for further inspiration.  Maybe you use it like a mantra for meditation.  Some people tell stories of amazing growth that resulted from this simple choice.

It sounds like a fine idea, and in January of 2012, when several bloggers I read were writing about what word each of them chose, I found that a particular word came into my mind as a goal for my own life.  The word was replenishment.

Almost a year earlier, during my church vestry retreat, I’d thought of replenishment as the one word that best expressed what I wanted for my church: We were worn out from years of struggle, and many people had left, so we were down to a small core of mostly old-ish people working really hard to keep our parish going.  I prayed for replenishment of our individual souls and strengths to keep us working toward the replenishment of our parish with new people and new energy.  It’s working!!  Our church is growing and getting really wonderful now!

But as 2012 dawned, I realized that I could use some replenishment myself.  Not only was I working really hard on the vestry, but I was still working my way out of being a migraineur, which is a deceptively elegant word for “chronic horrible headache victim” or, at least in my case, “person with a massively fucked-up tendency to allow her brain to malfunction and get some kind of bizarre power trip out of it.”  My New Year’s resolution for 2010 had been to battle the headaches from every possible direction, and that really helped: I went from having about four headaches per week to more like two per month!  But that battle had worn me down, what with various lifestyle changes and medical appointments and facing stuff in therapy and attempting to ask for what I need, so although I was suffering less pain, I was very depleted and had this awful sense of being so busy all the time yet never getting everything done.

So: 2012, my year of replenishment!  I didn’t write the word everywhere or make a collage, but I prayed about it a lot and, when faced with choices about what to do, considered what would be the most replenishing choice.  It was going pretty well for the first couple months, and then it was time for Lent, and I decided that I would fast from the idea, “I don’t have time to get things done.”  Well, guess how that turned out? Read more…

Oh, all right. But they didn’t Book my Face!

More than three years ago, I explained why I was boycotting Facebook.  Yesterday, I joined Facebook.  My intention was to join as The Earthling’s Handbook, but Facebook immediately responded, “You have to join with your real name!  I’m the only book allowed here!” so I joined with my own name but used The Earthling’s Handbook icon as my picture.  I did not give Facebook my face.

Why not?  Everyone else is doing it! Read more of this post

Things Not To Do: Fiction Writing Edition

Well, I was really hoping to write a nice long post for the What I’m Reading series at Modern Mrs. Darcy, where Anne and her readers talk about the books they’ve read recently, on the 15th of each month.  I’ve read a whole lot of new-to-me books this year, because having viral bronchitis for the entire month of January, then having a new baby in May and doing lots of breastfeeding, gave me plenty of time for reading–and it seems that a new baby makes me want to read books I haven’t read before.  But now that I’m back to work at my full-time job, as well as taking care of my baby and 9-year-old when I’m at home, I don’t have a lot of time for writing!  Maybe next month…

Meanwhile, I’m going to rant about two things that happen far too often in the novels I read.  (I won’t rat out specific books, though, because both of these are late-in-the-plot twists, thus spoilers.)  If you are an aspiring author, please avoid these irritating cliches! Read more…

Centerpiece

Our nine-year-old Nicholas has been interested in home decorating since he was about four years old. I often get frustrated with his desire to set up things that are merely decorative, have no useful purpose, and just get in my way! I am even more irritated when he wants to buy things just for decorating. I like our home to look clean and pleasant, but I feel we have enough stuff around without cluttering up the place with decorations.

However, I have learned that sometimes decorations help to motivate the family–myself included–to keep a space cleaner and neater, so that we can appreciate the decorations instead of losing them in the clutter or letting them be obscured by dust. The dining table centerpiece is a good example.

Read more…

Why I Spent My Birthday Money on Socks

My partner’s grandfather, Herschel, has a tradition of giving everyone a birthday gift of the number of dollars that matches her age, so he gave me $41 last month. I used it to order 8 pairs of socks from Maggie’s Organics.

What a boring gift! It brings to mind the 1980s “Saturday Night Live” skit in which Hanukkah Harry, the Jewish counterpart of Santa Claus, brings a good little child a big box of…socks. Why didn’t I spend this money on something luxurious and fun?!

Read more…

Fishgiving: A Feast from the Freezer!

Last weekend, my family enjoyed a spontaneous and somewhat silly holiday feast.

A few days earlier, we had finally gotten around to baking an acorn squash and two butternut squashes we’d received in our CSA farm share back in November.  Each of the three of us ate a big chunk of squash as a side dish to the Honey Baked Lentils we baked at the same time.  Actually, I like to eat my lentils in the mashed and buttered squash, and I packed up another portion for my lunch the next day.

Then we were left with 5 servings of baked squash and no more lentils.  On Saturday I asked my nine-year-old Nicholas to help me decide what to make for dinner with the squash–Butternut Squash Burritos?  No, he wanted it to be a side dish to something.  Okay, how about fish?  We had 4 fillets and some odd bits left in a big bag of frozen pollock.  Nicholas agreed to a meal of fish and squash.

Suddenly he said, “Can we make the squash like Grandma’s sweet potatoes?”  I was sure that we could adapt the New England Yam Bake recipe to the squash.  Nicholas and his father Daniel were planning to go to the supermarket in the afternoon anyway, so I checked the recipe and the pantry and put canned pineapple on the shopping list.

I was getting out the fish to thaw when Nicholas had another inspiration: “Since we’re having the squash like at Thanksgiving, can we have cranberry sauce?”  We happened to have a can of cranberry sauce in the pantry–and thinking of Thanksgiving reminded me that we still had a quart of stuffing and a quart of mashed potatoes in the freezer!  (We were among the few relatives who traveled by car rather than plane to Daniel’s family’s large Thanksgiving gathering, so we brought home all the leftovers we could manage.)  I got those out to thaw, too.

We baked the fish plain, with just a little olive oil for moisture.  We scooped the squash out of its skin and mashed it into a large flat baking pan, put the pineapple on top, and mixed up the crumblies according to the Yam Bake recipe.  Nicholas coaxed the cranberry sauce out of the can onto our official cranberry sauce server, which Daniel and I bought at a yard sale years ago when we were first living together because we just couldn’t resist the idea that for only 50 cents we could own a crystal plate and silver serving tool specifically designed for the elegant serving of canned gelatinous cranberry sauce!  (We think it’s from the 1950s, judging by the art on the box.)

Fish with Thanksgiving side dishes is just as good as turkey.  The squash bake was excellent.  We really enjoyed our festive meal!  Nicholas began speaking of “Fishgiving Dinner,” and I tried to make up a legend about how this was the commemoration of how the Indians taught our ancestors to eat fish, but he wasn’t buying it.  We had enough left over from our meal of leftovers to reprise Fishgiving Dinner on Sunday night.

Enjoying the autumn harvest to the fullest, with a random celebration in March, works for me!  Visit the Hearth & Soul Blog Hop for more food-related articles!  Visit Waste Not Want Not Wednesday and Fabulously Frugal Thursday for more ways to make the most of what you’ve got!

Planning, Parenting, and Perfection

Welcome to the December 2013 Carnival of Natural Parenting: The More Things Change . . .

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama. This month our participants have shared stories and wisdom about life changes.

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As a teenager, I went through several phases when I spent a lot of time daydreaming about my adult life.  I “planned” which neighborhoods I would live in at each stage, chose homes from architecture books and decided where I would put all the furniture, and selected names and birthdates for my child(ren) and their father(s).  Some of the details changed as I experimented with different possible futures–one child or two? Would I really be happy with just one man for decades?–but I was certain about a few things: I would become an architect, I would live in New York City, and I would give birth to a daughter within a few months of my 30th birthday.

Why 30?  Well, my parents are 30 calendar years older than I am and 30 years ahead in school, and that’s really neat!  It’s always been easy to figure out how old my parents are now, what year they were my age, and when they were in which grade.  It just feels right.  Also, 30 seemed to be a good age for parenthood: old enough to have experienced some adult adventures without kids, young enough to enjoy plenty of adventures with kids.

I was 20 when I admitted that I could not become an architect.  I changed my major to psychology, finished college, worked at a few assorted jobs, and eventually became the data manager of a social science research study–a career I’d never heard of when I was in high school that turns out to be very well suited to me.  Meanwhile, I’d decided not to move to New York, because I really love Pittsburgh–a city I’d never even considered visiting until Carnegie Mellon University sent me a recruiting brochure.

So I’d totally failed to meet my goals for my twenties, but I was very happy.  Also, oddly enough, I’d managed to do something that my cynical, depressed ninth-grade self had discarded as a dream too painfully impossible even to think about: I had found That Guy with the red curly hair and the beard who actually loved me in all my weirdness and understood and agreed about the kind of relationship I wanted to have with a man!  Daniel isn’t always in every way exactly what I wanted, but he’s much, much closer than I thought I would ever find.

We started trying to conceive shortly after I turned 29.  I knew that, with my long and irregular cycles, it would probably take several months to get pregnant, but that was perfect: I would be 30 when our baby was born!  It was all working out just as I’d planned!

But it didn’t.  Months passed, and I got more and more agitated about tracking everything precisely, trying to make my body do what I desperately hoped it could do–what if it couldn’t?  What if I could never be a mother, or if I could do it only with scary technologies that I wasn’t sure were really quite ethical in this crowded world?  I diligently prayed for pregnancy and was rewarded by getting my period on my 30th birthday–gee, thanks a lot, God!  I got more and more bitter and desperate.  Finally we started getting the tests to determine just how infertile we were, and I gave up on conceiving naturally.

That lasted two months.  Is it because I gave up control, or because the right time just was not quite when I thought it was?  I was 31 years 7 months old when Nicholas was born; he is 32 years behind me in school.  And he’s a boy.

Yet the timing was perfect!  He was conceived on 04-04-04, obviously a lucky day, and then my baby boy emerged into the world on Christmas Eve!  I was joyful and triumphant!  I completely forgave God for all the delay and worry (it took me much longer to admit what a jerk I’d been about it and to forgive myself) and accepted that this was the child who was meant for me, arriving at the right time. Read more…

Should Your Family Be Child-centered?

This is a controversial and confusing question.  Some people go on and on about how parenthood melted their selfish hearts and made them realize the importance of devoting themselves fully to making their children’s lives perfectly wonderful and completely safe.  Other people go on and on about how children are hedonistic little leeches whose spirits must be broken to show them who’s boss, and responsible parents must schedule their babies’ lives in 15-minute increments.  Then there are a lot of points of view in between.  It’s very easy, as a parent in this fast-paced society, to put a lot of energy into getting everything together for your kid and suddenly realize you’ve been neglecting yourself–or to rush around Getting Things Done and suddenly realize that you’ve been treating your child like a task on a checklist and haven’t focused on his sweet little face for days.  Where’s the balance?

Well, I can’t claim that Daniel and I have it all perfectly worked out, but in our 8 years 8 months as parents of Nicholas, we’ve done pretty well with this basic attitude: “We are all people together.  We are the same in some ways and different in other ways.  Experienced people help newer people learn how to do things.”  Nobody is the center.  This is the approach my parents seemed to be using when I was a child (I don’t know if they’d explain it in the same words) and I noticed from an early age that some other families had a different attitude.  Of course, every family is different, but I think all families could work from the basic principle that we’re all in this together and no one person is the most important.  It seems to me that whenever I wander away from this idea–either by getting dramatically self-sacrificing or by demanding that everybody take care of me–it works out badly.
Here are some of the issues parents often struggle with, and the ways they’ve worked out for our family.

Is it child-centered to allow your child to eat when hungry and sleep when sleepy?  Is it better to have a strict schedule?

Read more…

Prevent the Post-Party Sugar Crash!

My eight-year-old has attended many birthday parties at a bowling alley or similar venue where guests are served pizza (with white-flour crust), chips, soda pop, frosted cake, ice cream, more soda pop, and sometimes candy too.  That’s a lot of simple carbohydrates!  It’s the kind of meal that may be enjoyable while you’re eating it but tends to make you “crash” an hour or two later.  It’s even worse without the pizza and ice cream, which at least have some protein–frosted cake and soda pop on an empty stomach is a recipe for hyperactivity followed by meltdown.

I often attend these parties, too, because these “fun center” places are out in the suburbs, far from home.  Often I end up eating some of the food, if there’s extra.

We’ve always made a point of eating a solid, healthy meal not too long before the party, so that we don’t put the junk into a completely empty stomach and don’t overeat junk because we’re hungry.  I also try to plan for a healthy meal not too long after the party so that we eat again before getting hungry.  It’s the moment when the simple carbs are burned up and you suddenly have no calories to power your body that feels so awful.  After a party is no time to run a bunch of errands on the way home, unless you bring sandwiches or stop at a healthy restaurant–you will end up snapping at each other as you drag around some store, in our experience.  I’ve also learned that drinking too much coffee before or after the party will make the sugar crash worse or at least make me more irritable about it.

After the last such party we attended, I drove Nicholas straight home–40 minutes in the car, which was extremely hot at first, along an under-construction highway, in sunlight that seemed very bright after two hours in a bowling alley, with Nicholas clamoring, “Look what I drew on my dry-erase board NOW!” every few minutes (the board was a party favor), and then stop-and-go traffic through our neighborhood because of the detour around the tunnel renovation–so when I was finally getting out of the car and Nicholas was saying, “Can I watch TV?  I only watched one half-hour today, so can I watch another half-hour now?” and I said, “Well–” and he screeched, “YOU’RE INTERRUPTING!!!”, it was hard to resist clobbering him.  As I stomped toward the house, vowing for the hundredth time never to eat supermarket-bakery frosting again, I suddenly remembered a tip I had read a long time ago but never tried: Read more…