Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Just in time for the holidays! Tech is making me stupid!

My latest post over at Silicon Valley Moms blog seems to have touched a nerve with a lot of people. It's called "Technology is Making Me Stupid" and it's about losing my car -- a friend's car actually -- at the mall and having to call my family to come rescue me.

The craziest thing about this post is that I vowed two weeks ago to stop parking and simultaneously erase from all memory where I put the car. Except that I did it again yesterday. Yesterday! How quickly we forget. So I'm crafting my New Year's resolution early. This year I resolve not to be an idiot about parking my car.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Reflections of a public school newbie

My kindergartner has been in public school for fewer than 200 days, and I've already been thoroughly "schooled" in how little I know about elementary education. Having taught at a university for the better part of a decade, I think of myself as an educator. But this fall has taught me that the differences between teaching highly motivated adults at graduate school and teaching 4, 5 and 6 year olds (all in the same class!) are enormous. If adult students are from Mars, kindergartners are from a galaxy far, far away.

I volunteer in my son's class 5-6 times a month. Every time I leave the classroom, I'm in stimulus overdrive. Five cleansing breaths and a brisk walk later, my nerves are only slightly less frayed. The reserves of patience I try to tap into when I work with a challenging kindergartner never seem quite deep enough. The teacher often asks me to work with a boy in class who truly can not sit still, who runs away from the classroom, who won't make eye contact, and who generally says "I can't do it" about every task he faces. I try to teach him to count to five, but it's as if he doesn't know what numbers are. We work on writing his name, but he rarely makes it past the first two letters. After 15 minutes or so, the teacher usually takes over. I go find another table of smiling, wiggly, eager kids to work with. I breathe easier. I smile and help them. I feel useful.

As I leave the classroom, I often wish I had been more creative with the challenging boy. Could I have worked with him longer, if only to give the teacher a longer respite so she could focus on the other kids?

The teachers in my son's classroom are wonderful. Kind, patient, creative -- and they are both female. So are most of the parent volunteers. Sometimes I wonder if the boy I work with would react differently to a man? Would he try harder? Make more of an effort? Perhaps not, but it's interesting to note how few male teachers there are at our school. From my own experiences co-teaching courses with women and men, I know that adult students often respond very differently to male professors than female ones.

Phillip Done is a third-grade teacher at a local Silicon Valley public school. He's one of those beloved teachers who has been teaching for twenty-plus years and has received several national teaching awards. Mr. Done recently published a book of his thoughts about teacherhood called Close Encounters of the Third-Grade Kind. I just finished reading it for the SVMoms Book Club, and as I read it, I often wished I could be in Mr. Done's classroom. Many of the chapters are light and funny, like the one about gifts in which he talks about "Mug Week" (right before Christmas) when all teachers receive their "#1 Teacher" mugs from their students. Or for the male teachers, their novelty ties that play Christmas carols. (Note to self: perhaps we should just give gift cards to the teachers this year!)

The book's serious chapters shed light on the humanity of a caring, loving teacher. There are tear stains on at least three pages in my copy of the book. Reading about a girl named Rebecca, I was reminded of the boy I try to help in kindergarten.

Rebecca had trouble reading and lacked confidence to read aloud in class. Her mom was in jail and she was being raised by her grandparents. She fought at school and cried because she missed her mom. Worrying about her one night, Mr. Done hit upon the idea of having her read to the dog that comes to school a few times a week with the school secretary. He pitched it to the girl as a way she could help out the secretary, who was too busy to read the Max, the school's beloved golden Lab. After a few weeks of reading with Max, Rebecca's reading and confidence had improved. She chose books that she thought Max would love and got excited to read to him. Wiping away my tears, I kept wondering if there is a similar way that I could help the boy in my son's class. I haven't thought of any yet, but I have resolved to keep trying.

Even though I'm a newbie parent at my son's school, I know how vital it is to have caring, creative, kind teachers for all children. I'm grateful that my son has such a teacher and that great teachers like Mr. Done are sharing their stories so the rest of us can learn a thing or two about how it's done.

Erica also blogs for SVMoms. She received a copy of the book Close Encounters of the Third-Grade Kind for free as part of the SVMoms Group Book Club. She had hoped to give it to a friend as a Christmas gift but had an incident with some hummus while reading it.

Kids Say the Darndest Things!

Art Linkletter used to host a show called "Kids Say the Darndest Things". I don't think I realized how right he was until I had two kids of my own. I once read a blog by a Mom who was lamenting that now that her kids were older, they either didn't say so many unintentionally funny things, or if they did, they were too embarrassed to let her share the stories with friends and family. Apparently the window for maximum verbal cuteness is from about 2 to about 6.

Since my two don't care (and Rainman likes it when I tell funny stories about what he's said), I'm going to make this an annual end-of-year recap of the funnier moments we've shared.

1. "Dat beazer was SOOOO dead!" -- Red's take-away from seeing a dead beaver on a hike with her preschool and learning that when animals die, they don't ever wake up.

2. "Mama, does Hanukkah or Kwanzaa come first?" -- Not so inherently funny, except that Rainman woke us up at 6:30 this morning NEEDING TO KNOW THE ANSWER to this burning question. We celebrate neither of these holidays, mind you.

3. Rainman dipping his toast into his egg yolk, eating a fried egg: "I'm getting my toast and my egg together for a playdate in their swimming pool".

4. Red noticing the cat's rear-end, "I don't like she's belly button!"

5. Rainman after weeks of rain keeping us indoors in February: "It's no fair that the plants get to play outside in the rain. I wish I could bring everything inside -- all the plants, houses, cars, sky, planets, universe, Milky Way galaxy, and even the rain. Then I could go play outside."

4. Red, after getting buckled into Grandmommy's car announced: "OK, babycakes, let's go!"

3. When asked what he was thankful for last Thanksgiving, Rainman answered "You, hearts, myself, water, milk, juice and stuff like that. Oh and car smoke!" ( I'm pretty sure we had the only four year old who was thankful for tailpipe emissions. )

2. Red, getting ready to sing for us: "Everybody make some noise!" (She saw a cartoon version of a Kiss concert and has learned a few choice heavy metal-isms.)

1. "Mom, I've always wanted Christmas to be every day".

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Rep. Joe Wilson's Angry Outburst

Inspired by my own visceral reaction to the Congressman who screamed at the President last night during his address to a Joint Session of Congress and a post on Chicago Mom's blog, I wrote a letter to Rep. Joe Wilson.

I worked on Capitol Hill in the 1990s. There were some very polarizing figures there at the time: President Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, Jesse Helms. Yet I never recall an incident -- particularly at the Capitol -- where anyone heckled or screamed "YOU LIE!" in a snarling rage at these men while they made a speech. How times have changed. Civil discourse, anyone?

Here is my letter:

Dear Representative Wilson, Your angry outburst at last night's Joint Session of Congress was unwarranted and disrespectful. I used to work for a United States Senator -- a mere 15 years ago -- and back then, no one behaved that way in Congress. Now that I have young children and am teaching them to be respectful, to not interrupt and to not practice name-calling, I would hope that our elected leaders might set a good example for school kids. Some do. I think President Obama's thoughtful remarks to school children the other day, in which he urged them to work hard and stay in school was a good example. Your behavior last night was the opposite. I understand that you have apologized. That is a good first step. However, you really need to reconsider your core values, your ethics and how to behave in public. You did a disservice to all Americans by screaming "YOU LIE!" at our President in the middle of a speech. Shame on you. Sincerely, Erica Cosgrove

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

My Pain is Not Your Pain

My Pain is Not Your Pain

Reading the new book Birth Day by the ironically-named Dr. Mark Sloan (“Paging Dr. McSteamy from Gray’s Anatomy”), I was fascinated by the chapter on the history of the epidural and pain relief in child birth. The descriptions of old-timey remedies for labor pain were shocking. I can just picture one of my beleaguered ancestors screaming at her midwife 200 hundred years ago, “Where’s the damn viper fat!!!? I can’t take it anymore!”

We just finished reading the book for Silicon Valley Moms Book Club. Birth Day brought back my own vivid memories of childbirth and the judgment made by a complete stranger about my choices. As I learned, the last 400 years or so are full of episodes where men decided whether or not women should experience the full pain of childbirth or be knocked unconscious for it.

When I was pregnant with Rainman and living in New York, I experienced my first taste of Pregnancy Rage. The husband of a woman in my birthing class raised his hand to speak during our group discussion. “I don’t understand why any woman would not want drugs during labor”, he said belligerently. Why was he voicing an opinion on what other women (besides his heavily face-lifted second wife) chose to do about pain management? I had just told the group that I was doing Hypno-Birthing and hoped for a calm and drug-free delivery (I know, I know. Famous last words). Another woman had just admitted that she did not want drugs during labor because she had experienced some bad reactions to prescriptions painkillers. And that’s when Mr. Buttinsky decided to add his two cents.

Our nurse handled it beautifully, saying she thought that women who delivered without drugs were courageous, and that some women preferred avoiding the side effects for them and their babies. She made it clear that this was a big decision and described some of the pros and cons.

New research shows that redheads feel pain more strongly than others and require on average 20% more anesthetic than other-heads to block pain in dental procedures. My daughter, Red, may have to deal with this throughout her life. Mercifully, she will have choices when it comes to her own pain management if she has children, and I assume viper fat will not be one of them. I will do my best to prepare her for the waves of agonizing pain I experienced when my Pitocin-induced contractions began. I’ll also tell her what a blessing the epidural was for me and what a relief it was when the doctors told me we had to stop laboring and have a C-Section to get my giant 10-lb baby out.

I’ve decided to save my copy of Birth Day for Red because of its enlightening explanation of how difficult it is for our too-big human babies to pass through our too-small birth canals. I only wish I had read it before I had children. Reading the clinical description of a C-Section would have eased my fears about the surgery and put it all in context. Although there are many risks and a Cesarian is no walk in the park, the one thing I’m sure of is that it was right for me. After all, my pain is not your pain and my labor is not your labor.

Friday, July 31, 2009

The Nintendo Nanny?

It's 11 AM on a Wednesday. Do you know where your children are? If you're the moms at my athletic club, you do. They're sitting in the cafe with their handheld Nintendo DS games, glued to their screens, while you do Zumba. Welcome to the new version of electronic babysitting.

I just wrote a post about my reaction to finding ourselves surrounded by 12 boys, each with his own DS that I am posting on svmoms later this week. I wasn't the only one to notice this new scene that had popped up at the gym. You can bet my five-year old was fascinated. He couldn't tear his eyes away from all the big boys with their cool video games. The teenager working at the gym cafe noticed too. She commented to another customer on "the new version of babysitting".

Given that I happily let 5-year old Rainman play with his Leapster in the gym's daycare center (it's educational! Really!) while I do Zumba, I can't blame the Nintendo moms. But I do wonder how it will be when my kids are in school if "everyone" has a DS and they want one too.

This may be a uniquely Silicon Valley concern. My friend visited her cousin in Colorado recently. Her cousin and her husband had never heard of a DS, even though she has a seven-year old boy too and they're both teachers.

How will we cross this next gaming bridge when we come to it? I assume that like everything else, we'll say our kids have to ask for it for Christmas or a birthday (or maybe do chores to earn money to buy it if they're old enough), and then we'll set limits on screen-time.

Will I let it become my virtual nanny though? I hope not, but having just seen how quiet a room with 12 young boys can be when they have their DS, I know it will be tempting.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A Parent's Identity: Segmentation or Fragmentation?

Parenting 101: No one ever tells you before you have kids that one of the biggest challenges you may face as a parent is ensuring that you don't lose yourself along the way.  I've struggled with this for five years.  How can I fulfill the different -- and always multiplying -- roles I need to play as a parent and daughter without losing the core that makes me me? It has taken several years and a few mistakes, but I've found answers. I'm not cut out to be all one thing or another. My monthly routine has to include activities that anchor me solidly in the adult world, despite spending almost all day every day with my preschool-aged kids. That means my part-time consulting work and my volunteer work in city government.It also means managing the care of my ailing Dad as a part-time job.  Setting new challenges to accomplish small goals (like running a 10K) is part of the mix. And I need time for bonding with other women (like my book club and nights out with my oldest college or high school friends). 

Reading Michael Miller's memoir and self-help book What Happened to the Girl I Married? reminded me of the stark differences between a stay-at-home-parent and a full-time working parent. When Miller was working, his identity had three segments: Sales Executive, Dad and Husband. But that all changed when he decided to stay home for a year and try to do the job his wife had done for more than a decade. That's when he realized that while he was used to having three neat segments to his identity that rarely overlapped, the stay-at-home parent faces a more daunting situation. Her segments become fragmented between all the roles she has to play (e.g. Administrative Assistant, Taxi Driver, CEO of the House, Therapist, Social Planner, Chef, etc.)  As a SAHD, Miller could plan his day and anticipate that he might need to play seven roles such as Butler, Cook, Tutor and Taxi Driver in the morning followed by Laundry Man, Housekeeper and Husband in the evening. But the unpredictability of life with kids forced him to abandon nearly every task before it was complete and add new ones such as Nurse (sick kid), Facilities Manager (leaking toilet), and Counselor (child is bullied at school) at the spur of the moment and in response to everyone else's needs. He quickly lost his sense of self and felt fragmented or torn apart rather than segmented into tidy slices. 

Miller gained insight and empathy from walking a mile in his wife's shoes. That's something I try not to lose sight of in my own marriage. I've found the outlets that help me not to feel totally overwhelmed by my caregiving roles (most of the time). But my husband -- and all the full-time working parents I am close to -- has a different struggle. For the conscientious working parent like my hubby, the pattern in a typical day is  work, then Dad (until bedtime), a little bit of husband-time and then more work at night. At times I worry that he will lose his sense of self since there's so little time in that busy schedule for a social life, sports, volunteer work or hobbies. He carves out some time for himself (a weekly tennis class, bike-riding , the occasional baseball or hockey game), but I try to check in with him to make sure he's not disappearing in some way. I know how easy that is to do and that it takes hard work, planning and commitment to avoid it. Fortunately, my part-time work has always been something of a lifeline that prevents me from drowning in the overwhelming flood of my children's all-consuming needs. A working friend with three young children told me that she thinks the first thing to go for working Moms is attention to self. They work. Then they parent. There's not much time for adult activities. That's a struggle that SAHMs and working Moms can all relate to. We may each tackle it differently but it's a problem we can't just ignore. If we do, we risk losing ourselves. And once that is lost, what do we have left?,

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Saturday Morning Outing: Science and Tech with Toddlers?

"Mama, I don't want to listen to any boring talks!" proclaimed my five-year old, Rainman. "Mama, where's da popcorn?" asked my two year old, Red. Welcome to Saturday morning and my kids getting antsy just before Bill Nye the Science Guy gave his presentation at San Jose's Tech Museum of Innovation

Wrangling a two and five-year old by myself at a museum was not exactly what I had in mind for Saturday. This was supposed to be a family outing with Daddy solidly at the center of our group. Instead, he stayed home -- sidelined by the one-two punch of strep throat and pinkeye. 

After a week of Daddy being ill while my mother-in-law visited us from Canada and my own Dad's chronic illness took a turn for the worse, I was desperate for an outing. So I packed up the kids, remembered to pack some Goldfish to quell any whining or hunger pangs, and off we went. Despite the rocky start ("No, there's no popcorn here. It's not a movie." and "Don't worry, it will be fun!"), the kids and I loved our day. 

This was an event for SVMoms sponsored by a company that makes a green cleaning product called the ActiveIon Pro. The real lure for me was not the swag bag with science-y gifts for my kids and my own $300 water-based cleaning system (though that turned out to be an AMAZING perk), but the chance to see Bill Nye, the Science Guy. He was witty, smart and lively and managed to make all the science concepts he taught us about soap, fluid dynamics and how to make rings of air "poof" out of a modified garbage can fun. Rainman laughed at all of Nye's jokes and probably didn't get much of the science. Red sat on my lap and had a successful potty-training session at the museum (yay!). 

An unexpected highlight of the day turned out to be exploring the Tech Museum. I had only been there to see IMAX films and didn't realize how many interesting interactive exhibits they have. I would never have thought to take my preschoolers there (alone! while pottytraining!) but they had a ball and would have stayed all day. 

I walked away from the outing with three great takeaway lessons: 

1. Taking the kids on excursions by myself on a Saturday is not nearly as lonely or difficult when you have all your blogging friends there to play with. 

2. We should rent Bill Nye the Science Guy DVD's so my kids can continue learning and thinking science is fun. 

3. Giving my five-year old our new ActiveIon Pro and turning him loose to spray and wipe all the hard surfaces in our house (with magically electrified water and no cleaning chemicals) is his idea of a rocking good time. And any free child labor I can get to clean my house is just the icing on the cake! 

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Supreme Court: Gets Way Too Involved in a Discussion about Underwear

My latest blog is titled "Hey Supreme Court: Keep Your Hands out of My Daughter's Underwear!".  You can read it in full on

It's about the cases of Savana Redding, a then-13 year old girl who was strip-searched with very little cause by school administrators. She ended up suing the school for violating her Fourth Amendment rights (the right against unreasonable searches). A lower court found in favor of the middle school, but the 9th Circuit Court of Appeal found her constitutional rights had been violated. The Supreme Court heard the case yesterday. The almost-all male justices made arguments including one by Justice Breyer that basically claimed it was no big deal to be strip-searched at school since kids change clothes at school for gym class. He later said that in his experience in changing for gym, some kids put stuff in his underwear. He then backpedaled and said maybe it was him that put stuff in their underwear. Either way, the deliberations had a through-the-looking-glass feel with Supreme Court justices bandying about the words "panties," "underwear," "brassieres" and "body cavity search" with great relish. Thank God for Justice Ginsburg, the lone woman on the court. She actually "sputtered" in response to the nonsense that her male colleagues were spewing and reminded them that Redding wasn't just forced to strip but to shake out her bra and open up her panties to show the officials there were no drugs in her crotch. 

Common sense in this case would point towards that search having been an unreasonable one, even though there might still be some set of extremely rare circumstances in which you could imagine school officials needing to strip-search a student. However, calling their parents or even the police first would also seem to be a common sense next step. 

I first heard about the story on NPR yesterday but decided to look into it online and to see what more conservative media sources were saying. After all, protection against unreasonable searches would seem to also be an issue that would resonate with conservatives, and certainly with libertarians. had some good coverage. Other outlets today, especially with its-always-entertaining Supreme Court dispatches by Dahlia Lithwick was excellent. 

So far everyone I've mentioned the case to is aghast. Those of us who are parents can imagine the nightmare scenario where our own innocent, honors student daughter is subjected to a humiliating strip-search at school.  It may be the best argument I've ever heard for home-schooling. 

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Is there a case against breastfeeding?

My latest blog on this crazily contentious subject is up on My post was inspired by reading an article in The Atlantic called "The Case Against Breastfeeding" by Hanna Rosin. 

It was also inspired by the experiences of some women I love who have not been able to breastfeed and have suffered greatly from the guilt they felt over that. I've always wondered a bit about why there is such guilt associated with this issue. I now believe that in part, it is generated by the overstated claims about the benefits of BF in the popular literature. Rosin's article offers a well-researched review of many of the studies of BF. She doesn't argue that BF is not better than bottle-feeding (on some criteria), but that the degree to which it is better is often overstated. 

As I've moved farther away from my own BF days, I've also gained a little distance and insight and realized that everyone -- myself included -- made way too big a deal of this at the time. Either way, we end up with healthy, happy kids and that's really the goal right? There's another goal too, which often gets lost in the frenzy around newborns and how to feed them: Mom's sanity and the health of the whole family. 

It is always best to look into these things a bit, especially when there's a bandwagon of people insisting that "breast is (always) best". I'm glad I read up on it, looked at the studies and noted their limitations. The upshot is, I'm for a moderate approach on this one. BF if you can and you want to and if it doesn't work out, don't beat yourself up about it. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

What I'm Reading: It Started with Poptarts

I have a neighbor who claims that she never looks at herself in the mirror if her daughters are around. Extreme? Maybe. But it does seem like a smart way to help instill what I think is a healthy “who cares” attitude about looks and body image in children.

As a busy Mom and a Northern California gal who just can’t be bothered with a lot of make-up and hassle about my appearance, I feel like I have a pretty sensible attitude about my looks. But then I remember the teenage years and my early twenties. That was a time of extreme insecurity about looks as well as an unhealthy focus on my weight and my appearance. I wonder if there is any way to help my own daughter (and even my son) avoid the pitfalls I fell into in those years? Or is this something all adolescents and young adults have to go through?

Reading the book “It Started with Poptarts” by Lori Hanson (for the SVMoms Book Club) was a dark detour into the mind of a bulemic, albeit a recovered one. Some of the passages where she wrote about bingeing on junk food and then falling into a cycle of regretting it and berating herself afterward brought back painful memories of my own struggles. If I close my eyes, I can remember exactly how it felt to notice my body changing as a teen. It seems as though it only took a few months to morph from a long skinny beanpole who could eat anything she wanted to an overly sensitive 16-year old who frantically dieted on baked potatoes and cottage cheese to fit into my Size 4 prom dress.

Lori Hanson’s solution to her bulimia and alcoholism lay in self-help books, tapes, exercise regimes and a full range of alternative medical programs, healing massage therapy, unusual diets, and the like. My own struggles with weight and body image somehow sorted themselves out over time without any major interventions. My problems were not extreme, and for that I am grateful.

But the Mom in me wonders if there’s a way to pass on healthy notions about fitness, physique and diet to my kids and spare them the agony of yo-yo dieting and mental recriminations for gaining a few pounds here and there? So far, the best I can come up with is to encourage my kids to be as active as possible and to take an interest in sports. And maybe one of these days, I’ll even stop glancing in the mirror before I leave the house.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Slowing Down with the Grandparents

Do you ever have visitors from out of town who make you slow down and take life at a different pace? In our family, my kids are blessed with 6 grandparents and two great-grandparents. Their visits are glimpses into a different way of life -- and a different culture -- that I'm really learning to appreciate.

The 4 grandparents who live in Canada come to visit once or twice a year. When they're here, I downshift into low gear and live life at about half my usual speed. At first, it's a hard adjustment. I find myself flying through the house practically knocking them down in my rush to get somewhere. I have to stop myself from yelling, "Come on, we've got to go! My hair's on fire!" Once I get used to it though, we all coast along in the slow lane together and just relax.

Some days, we do a whole lot of nothing. Other days, we rouse them out of bed and make them go on long family excursions. But when we're on those excursions, we eat leisurely lunches, stop for coffee, take lots of pictures and never hurry. When we're at home, I'm amazed (and sometimes jealous) by their ability to sit still, read the paper, sip a glass of wine and shoot the breeze.

My frame of reference is all wrong at first too. When Grandpa says "I had my eyes done", I think: "Wow -- laser eye surgery!" Then I realize he means cataracts. When we decide to go for a walk before picking the kids up at school, I realize the GP's don't want to walk at my "Let's-burn-as-many-calories-as-we-can" pace and that I need to re-think how many things we can cram in before the next thing on our schedule.

All of the grandparents in our lives are GREAT with the kids, and I feel truly blessed when I see how much they love each other. They're also very patient with me and have learned to try to get out of my way when my hair is on fire. And I've learned to ratchet things down -- at least for a little while -- and just enjoy life in the slow lane.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The simple genius of micro-loans with Kiva

It's Sunday morning and we're not going to make it to church today. But I've done my good deed and think the Big Man upstairs would not be too upset with me. With a few clicks of the computer, I Paypal'd $25.00 to They are in turn partnering with Senegal Ecovillage Microfinance Fund (SEM) who will loan my money to the Kadidiatou Ndiaye Group. These five entrepreneurial women work in the fish industry in Senegal. They buy fresh produce and process it themselves to sell at weekly markets in Casamance, Senegal.

So what will happen to my $25? We'll be getting email updates about the women we helped fund. Once they repay their loan (C'mon ladies! I'm pulling for you!), we can lend our money to another entrepreneur that we find on kiva's site.

I need to give a shout-out to my neighbor Paul Hoekstra, whose birthday we're celebrating today. It was his idea to make a micro-loan in lieu of a gift. Way to go Paul! This donation was in your honor and it is getting credited to "Team Europe" on kiva.

I can feel myself getting carried away with this one already. The kiva site is addictive -- reading about entrepreneurs all over the world who just need a little bit of money so they can grow their small businesses and prosper. If I do get dangerously hooked on Kiva, at least the only thing that will suffer is my bank account. There's an addiction we can probably live with.

Monday, January 26, 2009

What I'm Reading -- SV Moms Book Club: Who by Fire by Diana Spechler

Like every parent in the world, I have thought about the horrible "what if" of losing a child. I lock my doors, fear strangers beyond a reasonable level, and tend to have a near cardiac arrest every time the PG&E man appears in my backyard on his way to read the gas meter. And like most parents I know, my internal pendulum swings wildly between my urge to "helicopter parent" and my strong dislike of overparenting. If it's morning, I'll decide to let the kids play in the backyard unsupervised. By afternoon, I'm kicking myself because my 2-year old ends up with a black eye.

I just finished reading the fictional novel "Who by Fire" for the my bloggers book club with SVMoms. I had a hard time putting it down and stayed up way past my bedtime for more nights than I should have. The book has complicated, sarcastic, funny-yet-empathetic characters and a brisk plot. It also touches on themes that strike a chord with me right now: religion, loss, parenting, sexuality, and growing up. It made me ask myself a lot of questions like how would we cope with the loss of a child? What if our little girl got into a stranger's car one day and we never saw her again? What is an appropriate role for religion in our lives? When does fervent religious belief cross the line and become a cult?

Interestingly, the story begins about fifteen years after the tragic kidnapping of the family's youngest daughter. So the horror of that day, and of the months and years that immediately followed are not seen by the reader but they are felt. They have scarred the family members in ways that surprised me. If I think about what would become of me if my own child was kidnapped, I draw a blank. I see a void. I can't begin to imagine how I would carry on or how it would scar, deform or ruin the lives of the rest of my family.

In the book, Ash, the older brother, ends up becoming a devout Jew and joining a Yeshiva in Israel. His sister, Bits, loses herself in risky sex with strangers. The parents divorce. The book moves back and forth between Israel and the United States as well as between the web of relations between the characters, who seem at first to have grown surprisingly distant from each other as they cope in their own unhealthy ways with their loss.

Reading this book reminded me of some important lessons that I seem to learn, and learn and then learn again in my own life. Not to judge. Not to be complacent or take relationships for granted. Get help when you need it. Find the balance between vigilance with your kids and letting them grow up and away from you. In the end, I got a lot more out of this book than mere bedtime reading.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

My New (Invisible) Running Partner: Robert

It's a new year and resolutions have been resolved (and even broken, sadly). Mine was to get back into running. After my peak of running the Santa Cruz Wharf to Wharf 10K last summer, my running fell off a cliff. I don't even really know why. Somehow I went from training for a 10K to not running at all, except for the occasional slow plod on the treadmill at the gym while watching the wacky women on The View.

A friend and her sister told me about their new plan to get in shape and lose the last blobs of baby weight. It's called "From Couch Potato to 5K". It's a beginner's training program that has you walk and jog in slow intervals and takes you from doing no exercise to being able to run 3 miles in about 2 months. You can find it on, but even better, you can download a podcast of it on ITunes. I somehow got my better half to agree to try this with me. Luckily, he did the hard technical stuff, like unearthing our Ipod, charging it up again and downloading the Podcasts. A warning to those of you hitting the gym again after a long break: It turns out the Ipod Shuffle is not machine washable! Left mine clipped to my gym clothes and it came out of my washing machine looking shiny, new and totally broken.

The great thing about doing a training program with a podcast playing in your ears is how little you have to think or even wear a watch. Needing a watch to time my workout intervals is tricky since I can never find it. The digital running watch I've had for years recently became part of Boy Wonder's superhero costumes. Ever since he began strapping it onto his wrist to talk to Commission Gordon, I can't find it.

I turn on the Ipod and there's Robert, my mellow 43-year old friend who decided to take up running again on his birthday. Go Robert! He has selected all sorts of dubious techno music snippets that he plays for the right length of time while I run. He usually ends the running intervals with little encouraging words about how great I'm doing. Really? I am? All right then. This all may sound cheezy and simplistic, but you won't know until you try it. It's refreshingly mindless to have someone talking you through a workout, and it even saves me from my own bad workout music mixes. An example: I ended up running Wharf to Wharf alternating between Madonna and the 8 Mile soundtrack.

Time will tell if I can stick to this program. But for ease of use and the slow build-up from lazybones to running wonder, it's hard to beat the couch potato to 5K plan.