Thursday, December 17, 2009

Bagel With a Smear

I come from New York which, second to Israel, is the most Jew-packed place in the world. I raised my kids in Philadelphia, where neighbors go sukkah-hopping in the fall. My life as a Jew has never been closeted. I grew up worried I would be made fun of for my braces or my pimples or my father --who had a penchant for walking around the house in his tidy whities with his undershirt tucked in and his black socks pulled up nice and high. But being Jewish was never a source of angst for me. On the East Coast, no one stood out for being Jewish. Things are different on the left coast.

Birds of a feather do tend to stick together. So when we relocated to Northern California, I was careful to find a town with all the signs of a robust Jewish Community. There is a large reform synagogue and an impressive Jewish Community Center. Yet, despite these signs, finding a box of egg matzo at Passover time is like discovering the Holy Grail. Explaining to the cashier at the posh supermarket that you want a loaf of chhhalllah for Friday night dinner (not “ch”allah) is like speaking Greek.

The Jews of Northern California seem anemic if not invisible compared to the Jews I know. There is a lot less “shhhhh” in their “shmear.” In fact, the menu at Noah’s Bagels out here reads “smear of cream cheese.” This invisibility is particularly evident at holiday time when the classrooms are filled with Christmas-themed decorations; the stores are dripping with Christmas-messages, Main Street is bursting with Christmas lights, and from November 27th on, everything is “beginning to look a lot like Christmas.” Only Christmas.

It’s surprising too, because Northern California truly is a melting pot of cultures. The classrooms are more diverse with students of Chinese, Korean, Indian, Japanese and other backgrounds. But, where on the East Coast, the schools acknowledged Chanukah and Kwanza in their holiday parties, here no one seems to bother. Perhaps the Jews of Northern California have assimilated to the point of being unrecognizable (at least to me!)

Don’t misunderstand; I’m all about holiday spirit. But now I realize growing up Jewish on the East Coast was a very different experience for me than it will be for my kids here on the West Coast. This realization is a wake-up call for me. It means I will have to work harder. I have to run the Hanukah table at the classroom parties (which I did.) I have to put up extra Hanukah decorations (not one electric menorah but two!) I have to give my kids the tools to fight the self-consciousness they now feel about standing out for being Jewish. In fact, I have to take that self-consciousness and massage it into understanding and pride.

Happy Cholidays everyone!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Mom, You are Smokin’!

My 12 year old son Ethan is learning about drugs in school as part of a drug awareness and prevention program. The goal of the program is to ensure our children understand the damaging affects drugs and alcohol can have on your mind and body, so they never abuse them despite social pressures. Sounds good, huh? But it’s clearly difficult to explain the difference between “use” and “abuse” to kids who are perfectly comfy in a world of absolutes where the good guys always do what’s right and the bad guys always do what’s wrong. Last night, I think I tarnished my good guy image in my son’s mind when he asked me straight up, “Mom, have you ever tried pot?” and I stopped for only a moment before saying, “Yes.”

Ethan is very passionate about his opinions on drug --an of course, tobacco is considered a very dangerous drug. When he sees a person smoking he is apt to say “Look at that dumb guy smoking! How gross!” When he was younger he did this without any self-editing. Now, that he is older, he realizes expressing his utter dismay this could hurt a smoker’s feelings. But despite not screaming it in stranger’s faces, he still feels a sense of shock and horror. I’m sure I must be part of the reason he is so anti-smoking biased. I’m not a smoker and I sure don’t want my kids to partake in this deadly and dirty habit. So, with the school as my partner, I’ve taught my son that smoking is a bad choice. And I stand by that.

Unfortunately, as a side effect, when it comes to smokers Ethan sees things as black and white. “Why does your friend Carolyn smoke?” he’s asked. “Is she stupid?!” And so, I’ve set out to teach him that making bad decisions doesn’t make you a bad person. It just makes you a person who made a bad decision. And it’s likely that most smokers regret ever starting the habit because it is a very hard habit to break. So, while it’s okay to dislike smoking, it’s not okay to dislike smokers. If anything, he should feel badly for them.

At the tender age of 12 he is more comfy seeing things as cut and dry. I was reminded of this when he was done giving me his Drug Awareness Inventory Test. He seemed a smidgen impressed that I scored 100%. I knew that smoking pot does not make you drive better and that drinking too much alcohol can be deadly. I was better prepared for the test than for Ethan’s question about my own drug use.

When he asked me if I liked it pot, I also told him the truth. “I hated the feeling of the hot smoke in my lungs.” When he asked me if I felt happy when I was high, I told him, “No, I never got high. I just got the munchies, which made me eat more.” Another truth.

He was clearly confused, running head on into a “Do as I say and not as I do” moment. There is a difference between drug use and drug abuse and I tried to explain this to him. “I was very curious and decided to try it,” I said. “If you decide to try it one day, it won’t make you a bad person either, Ethan.” He shook his head, “Well, I’m not going to!” Interestingly his 9-year old brother who is my mini-Quentin Tarantino, ball of creative energy, found the whole thing rather absurd. He didn’t get the big deal at all and said he was sure he would give it a try one day. (Note to self: Keep an eye on the midget in the Bob Marley t-shirt.)

So, I’m a parent who makes choices –good ones and bad ones. In this case, I chose to tell the truth. I could have gone the Bill Clinton route and waffled ala “I didn’t inhale.” But my gut told me that in the long run Ethan would respect my George Washington-like honesty. That said, his next question, which was screamed from down the hallway, took me a bit off-guard.

”Hey Mom, what’s this big blue plastic penis doing in your nightstand?!”

I didn’t hesitate for a moment.

“Ohhhhhh, that?! That was a joke gift my girlfriends gave me for my birthday, honey. Don't touch it!”

I’m just not ready for that discussion. In fact, I think I need a joint.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Who the hell am I?

When I first fell in love, I did what every future bride does with her groom to be. I checked if our names were compatible. Mrs. Ellen Stephanie S-k-y-w-a-l-k-e-r. It rolled off the tongue at the time. And when I double checked our destiny with AEIOU/12345 test (remember that?), I knew Luke was my future. Unfortunately, my beloved at 12 had other plans for himself --like kissing his sister and saving the galaxy—so I never did become Ellen Skywalker.

At 27, I did decide to go all out traditional and change my name when I got married. My grandmother did. My mother did. And, as I wanted nothing more than to meld my life with my then fiancĂ©e, I decided to do the same. The notion was a charming one. And I wasn’t alone in my thinking. Even today, some 70 percent of the respondents in a study conducted by the Center for Survey Research at Indiana University, felt they should take their spouse’s surname - and 50 percent said that it should be a legal requirement for a woman to take her spouse’s last name. Rush Limbaugh can do the happy dance.

It sounded simple enough but actually taking on another name and using it day to day kind of flipped me out. If after 27 years, I was no longer Ellen Stephanie Simon, who was I? Names are a big deal in Judaism. We name our kids after deceased love ones in the hopes that they will be imbued with that person’s positive traits. I was named after my great grandmother Esther, who was considered a very strong woman. I’d been told that my last name, Simon, was originally Siminovitz but it was hastily shortened by some lazy scribe at Ellis Island.

My name had meaning to me. If something that was such a big part of my identity, could be changed so easily (“sign right here”), who was I? I reasoned that nothing important was changing. It was just a label. And I started to think of myself, not as Ellen Stephanie Simon or Ellen Stephanie Pifer or Ellen Stephanie Simon Pifer or even Ellen Simon Pifer, though I tried them all on for size. I started to think of myself as simply “Ellen.” I figured, I’d follow in the footsteps of a long line of powerhouse women like Cleopatra, Cher, Madonna and Pink. Did they even have last names? Or did they change them seasonally?

Now with the dissolution of my marriage, I have the opportunity to change my name yet again and I find myself craving old me, wanting to shed this now ill-fitting name. It might be nice to symbolically slam the door on life as Ellen Pifer. But, as with most decisions there are other issues at play. Three big ones. My three sons have their father’s last name and I wonder how reclaiming my maiden name might affect them. I would never want them to feel I was leaving our family or rejecting them in any way. And Lord knows, I’m no longer a “maiden”. So, I’ve got a lot to think about in the coming weeks. And in the meantime, I’ll just be imagining my name up in lights “Ellen” On second thought, I’m shortening it to the much hipper “Elle”... Elle Skywalker. Yeah, I like the sound of that for my next great adventure …This is Red 5, I’m goin’ in.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Cage Fighting Mama

I read a great little inspiring article about a heavyweight cage fighter down on his luck. Patrick Berry was living on rice and ketchup before the cage fight that landed him a $120,000 prize. He credits his win to in no small part his being “hungry” –figuratively and literally. So, this got me thinking. I’m betting every motivated mother has a short list (ok, maybe a long one) of people they would love to beat the crap out of for a nice cash infusion. There’s the brat who told my son his cold sore made him look like a leper --that brought him to tears. There’s the parent who told my verbally advanced child that he was a bad influence on her pristine kid. There’s the “concerned” neighbor who called Animal Control when my dog jumped the fence. Not to mention the soccer coach who ostracized my son Ryan and made him feel like a total loser for the soccer season. In fact, I’d do the Knockout of the Night for free when it comes to Ryan’s soccer “coach.”

I put the word coach in quotes because this guy doesn’t deserve the title. He’s just a bad one-time bully. We put Ryan in a recreation league so he could have some fun and get some exercise. We had no Beckham-like illusions (I’m as likely to look like Victoria Beckham as Ryan is to play soccer like her hubby.) The first day of practice we had a bad feeling. The coach, who was no more than 25, decided to start things off with a nice game of keep away --him against all the kids. He whooped their 9-year old butts and clearly felt the better man for it. He followed that up with a nice race around the field so he could see who his fastest runners were, separating the men from the boys right off the bat. So much for teamwork; it was downhill from there. And Ryan hated it. So after way too many tears and being convinced that the experience was not an overall positive one, we pulled Ryan from soccer. The “coach” caught wind of our decision and sent me an email.

From: K (Asshole Coach Name Withheld)

Sent: Wednesday, October 28, 2009 6:52 PM


Subject: Ryan

Hello Ellen,
May I ask why you pulled Ryan from soccer? Anytime a boy quits I wonder what I could have done to make it a better experience for him. Is there anything you could suggest to either myself or my co-coach in the future?

Thanks and Best wishes,

K (aka Asshole Coach Name Withheld)

So, I wrote back and I was very careful to NOT point fingers or give ANY constructive criticism because my instincts told me his request was like his coaching –insincere.


To: (Asshole Coach Name Withheld)

Subject: RE: Ryan
Date: Tue, 3 Nov 2009 08:36:12 -0800

To be honest, Ryan's experience has not be a positive one. This was not his first soccer experience. He participated in a league back in Philly and then in the department of recreation league here in Los Gatos. Both these experiences were good ones and Ryan was a contributing member of the team. But for some reason, Ryan really never felt a part of your team. He seemed to have a hard time understanding the various positions and where he should be playing. While other kids seemed to aggressively attack the ball, Ryan avoided it. We tried to encourage him and assure him the game was for exercise and fun. It was more about working as a team than winning. But, that wasn't the message he was getting. And when he would run off the field he would ask us hoping it was almost over "How much longer?" When we would tell him its time for practice he would give us a hard time about going. He didn't connect with any of the other kids. Altogether, it just has not been a positive experience for our son. Ironically, he really enjoys playing soccer with his Dad and brothers. We signed him up to help him build confidence and we are pulling him out because it’s doing just the opposite.

And HERE is what I got in response.

From: (Asshole Coach Name Withheld)

Sent: Tuesday, November 03, 2009 10:27 AM


Subject: RE: Ryan

Ellen it seems all of your main concersn could have been simply addressed by bringing Ryan to practice with a good attitude. To be totally honest I did not appreciate the way your husband or you treated us and the fact that you held Ryan out of practices is the reason he never felt part of the team. Those kids spent three days a week with each other and grew together. You can't just show up on game day and expect magic to happen. I could go on, but in the future bring your kid to practice and put a smile on your face. The season isn't over, the next 2 weeks as a reward to the kids we are playing any game they want to play. Ryan is still welcome, but don't even attempt to show up to another game without bringing him to practice first.

Parenting often feels like Cage Fighting. Many days we are locked in the cage and left to use everything at our disposal to fight for our kids. We kick, punch, choke, bite and use every tool at our disposal to get them a good education, have them treated lovingly, ensure they feel good about themselves and grow into well adjusted, happy, adults. Some days it feels like a team effort but other days you really feel like the odds are against you. And those days, it sure would be nice to beat the crap out of someone and get $120,000 for it!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Soccer Mom Phenom

I’m new to this. The truth is I’ve managed to skillfully dodge the soccer mom bullet for a good few years. My kids did give soccer a shot back when they were 6 and 9, and bursting with Beckham-like potential. But after one season, the boys decided to trade in the Pele-path for more practical pursuits and set out to become Bruce Lee. I thought it was a wise decision. At least kung-fu might keep you from getting a swift butt-kickin’ on the playground. Now we are living on the left-coast and apparently soccer is mandatory. The logic goes like this. It gets the kids exercising. It gets them outside in the sunshine. It teaches them a versatile sport that requires nothing but a ball. It teaches them teamwork. Ok. I buy off on all that. Let’s assume it’s a good thing for the kids. I still hate soccer.

As I baked in the glaring sun yesterday on a field that hosted five simultaneous soccer games, I was quite the newbie. I was proud that I remembered to sunscreen my son and myself. I even had a bottle of water with me. Still, I was woefully unprepared. I didn’t have my folding chair, my visor, or my cooler overflowing with organic snacks. And worse than all that, I didn’t have a genuine interest in the game.

While other parents were screaming from the sidelines, my heart was aching for my 8 year old son, who clearly does not know how to play soccer (because of his neglectful parents no doubt.) He made it his job to stay as far from the ball as humanly possible. And as I watched him, I could feel his anxiety as if it were my own --remembering that horrible feeling of incompetence, not fitting in, being clueless and sticking out for it. He came off the field at half-time fighting back tears. “I don’t want to do this Mom,” he said. “The other kids are yelling at me and the coach is not nice. It’s just not fun.” I know, I said thinking, “I don’t want to do it either.” Of course, I didn’t say that. Instead, I handed him the bottled water and called in reinforcements –Dad.

Fortunately, Dad is a full-fledged graduate of sons who suffer soccer academy. In fact, he claims he could have qualified for a soccer scholarship had he not gotten completely burnt out on the sport. “Most soccer coaches suck,” he said. “But it’s just a game and he’ll get the hang of it. I’ll spend some time teaching him about the positions.” That brought me some relief as did the realization that we only have nine weeks left of soccer.

My distaste for soccer goes beyond my Jack Kerouac desire to be a creative rebel. It even goes beyond my hate for “shlepping” back and forth and back and forth. It’s rooted in a genuine global, socio-economic concern for our world . There actually are many reasons soccer sucks.

Kiddie soccer is big business and a financial burden. Leagues charge anywhere from $250 to $1000+ for an 11-week season. That doesn’t include equipment, uniforms, team sign, photos, snacks, etc. The better your kid is at soccer, the more you pay. If your son makes a competitive travel team, expect to shell out big bucks for hotel and travel expenses. To give you a sense of the depth of the investment, I have a friend who told me he was only able to afford to finally leave his wife, because his son took the season off from soccer!

Soccer speaks its own language. The first soccer glossary I found had over 300 entries from assist and banana kick to wingers and zone. I rather use my brain cells to master Spanish (at least then I might have a shot at getting the landscaper to haul out the dead branch in the backyard.)

Soccer is making us more dependent on Middle East oil. The sport requires relentless practice. For me, there are four practices a week plus two games. We have a soccer activity 5-6 days a week. Every practice and game requires a drive to a faraway field (younger siblings in tow.) Simply put, soccer guzzles gas.

Soccer is un-American.It just never caught on as a professional sport in the states. Maybe the rejection is rooted in Britain, which exported the game to its colonies some 150 years ago but any way you cut it, it’s never really caught on here.

We’re impeding soccer’s growth. The more soccer remains the sport of middle/upper-class suburbanites, the less likely it will become a part of popular culture. In order for a sport to gain popularity, it needs to appeal to all classes. Rich men’s folly, like lacrosse, will never make it big here. Think stickball and urban basketball courts. Perhaps I am hurting the sport by letting my kids play.

So, with Socratic sass, I think I’ve systematically proven there is no reason for me to be a Soccer Slave, I mean “Soccer Mom.” Are you with me or agin’ me?!

p.s. Bruce Lee would kick David Beckham’s pretty boy butt.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

SPF 100 = Super Parent Factor

My 12 year old son Ethan was blessed with his mother’s peaches and cream coloring. And while this pale palette of milky white skin and crystalline blue eyes might offer a vampire advantage, it doesn’t defend very well against the constant California sunshine.

So, with horrible childhood memories of my own sunburns, I looked over the cherry red skin on Ethan’s chest, shoulders, and back and felt horrible pangs of empathy pain. This was the kind of burn that makes anyone who has experienced it shudder. It hurt him too much for me to waste time discussing why he didn’t reapply sunscreen. I was certain that the pain would be his teacher. So, I was his sympathetic fair-skinned mom and doctor. I pulled out everything in my bag of tricks.

First line of defense: Ibuprofen, Tylenol, and white vinegar --a trick I learned from a wise Mexican waiter one painful summer when I fried the tops of my ears to a nacho crisp. The waiter tucked vinegar soaked cotton balls behind my ears and while I smelled like a salad, I could feel the heat being drawn away. Ethan felt it too. Mexican magic. But the affect didn’t last long. When he still complained of pain on day two, I brought out the big gun -- fresh aloe vera, which I scraped directly from an aloe vera plant.

Getting the aloe vera plant leaves, which house a well respected healing and moisturizing agent, entailed driving 25 minutes to the pediatrician’s office. Mind you, I didn’t actually see the pediatrician, but I did steal two huge aloe leaves from the plants that line his parking lot. People looked me sideways, and the kids were concerned I was breaking a law somewhere. But, I whipped out my knife with the confident entitlement of a ranger who knows the power of healing herbs and a patient who has invested enough co-pays to earn two aloe leaves. Heck, I’m a brazen east-coaster who believes it is easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. And more than that, I am a mother whose son was in pain. So, with two precious leaves in tow, I headed home where I peeled the leaves, smashed the pulp and spread the gelatinous magical healing liquid across Ethan’s skin. He felt better and slept on day two.

Day three is where things went out of control. Ethan was still a glowing orb and he decided to smash another aloe leaf himself and spread it across his chest. A few minutes later he seemed to have some sudden allergic reaction. His chest was itching horribly and because of the urn he could not scratch it. This wasn’t annoying itch, this was tortuous, won’t let up itch. The kind of itch that causes you to draw blood. So, I practically threw him in the shower and lathered him up with a moisturizing wash. I told him he could use the tips of his fingers to ease the itchiness and let the water ease his discomfort. It didn’t. The itching seemed to get worse. Ethan was now crying in the shower. I gave him a dose of ibuprofen, an ice pack, and left him for a moment to call his dad, who happens to be a doctor. His dad advised me to give him a dose of Benadryl and wait a bit. The waiting was torture. Ethan was now inconsolable as the itchiness seemed to get worse and worse with each minute.

“Help me Mom,” he cried. “Please, make it stop!”

Nothing we did seemed to help. And as he rubbed his infernally itchy chest, it reddened with Dante’s inferno like pain. Scratching raw sunburn is never a good thing. After consulting again with Dad, I decided to take Ethan to the Emergency Room. It was after 5pm, the pediatrician’s office was closed and I had nothing left in my bag of tricks. So, I packed up the siblings and headed off to the ER.

If you’ve ever brought your car to the mechanic to finally have that troublesome clunking fixed, you know where this story is going. Deciding to go to the ER is never easy. ERs are filled with long lines, sick people, irritable/jaded/overworked staff and germs. They are a great place to get sick and not one of my favorite places to bring my three kids.

We got into the ER and as the triage nurse questioned Ethan, I realized he wasn’t crying any more. In fact, his eyes didn’t even look red. When she asked him to rate his pain on a scale of 1 to 10, he said about a 3. The nurse looked at me curiously.

“He was dying just 15 minutes ago,” I said.

Ethan was taken back and seen by the ER doctor who asked the same series of questions and gave me the same curious look. Now I was feeling defensive. I’m not a novice here. I am an experience mother of three. I don’t overreact as a rule. It takes a lot to get me shaken and even more to get me to the ER.

“He was hysterical in the shower,” I added.

The doctor didn’t even look back at me.

Do you think I came here because I wanted to? Do you think I enjoy having to keep my other two kids from using your cot as a skateboard? Do you think I wanted to shell out a $50 co-pay?!

All these thoughts raced through my head as I said calmly, “I’m not a histrionic mom.”

He stopped for a moment and looked at me as if to say “This is what I went to medical school for?” But he actually didn’t say anything, which was worse. He just asked the nurse to get Ethan another Benadryl and then explained to me very slowly like that reactions to things you put on your skin are never life-threatening. Ethan could not have gone into anaphylactic shock. If I had waited 15 more minutes, the Benedryl would have taken effect. Then Dr.Smartie Pants left. I felt like a total fool. And I was almost angry at Ethan for feeling better!

As I sat in the car ready to drive my three healthy monsters home, I texted a close friend who said, “Your son is ok and that is a happy ending. Don’t care what anyone else thinks. You are a great Mom.” I read that a few times and then thought to myself taking it to heart would protect me --almost as much as the SPF 100 sunscreen I would be buying Ethan would protect him from future burns.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Who Says Only Angels Wear Halos?

It was the first time I actually got to see my son play the video game he’d raved about playing at his buddy’s house for months. We were visiting my brother and like every 30-something year old male suffering from terminal arrested development, my brother had a gaming system or two ‑an X-box 360 and Playstation. The kids were in hog heaven since I don’t have one of these boxes of evil at my house. Uncle Matt was a kindred spirit. He could burp, fart, stocked massive quantities of fruit roll-up, and had a huge video game collection. My 8- and 12-year old sons, Ryan and Ethan, sunk into the black leather sofa and set out to make the world a safer place for mankind by machine-gunning down each other in a game called Halo.

For those of you that don’t know what Halo is, let me enlighten you. It’s not your typical shoot-em-up video game. What makes Halo so different is that it is an on-line multi-player game. People from all over the world can play and interact. But Halo isn’t exactly the United Nations of video games. This isn’t where the elite meet for some cultural exchange. Playing Halo, people of all ages, educational backgrounds. and warped beliefs, are able to interact with –in this case, my kids.

As I was wrapping my head around this rather scary notion, my eldest, a rather sweet-natured musician, machine-gunned down his younger brother, my intuitive-artist. The two of them screamed like testosterone drunk silver-back apes. As my little one’s character laid flat waiting to revive, my victorious older son, stood over the now dead soldier body of his brother and made his own soldier do some sort of victorious happy dance. Only this wasn’t the kind of prideful display you see on a football field. The winning soldier appeared to be humping his dead victim in humiliating glory. That struck me as odd.

“What are you doing to him?” I asked.

“Tea-bagging him,” he said without hesitation.

My brother almost lost his lunch in a fit of hysterics that set in with the suddenness of a herpes flare-up. He asked if I knew what the expression meant. No one in the room did. Not even my sons, who used it. So, my brother enlightened us all. Tea-bagging is the act of dipping one’s testicles into the open mouth of another person, kind of like dipping a tea bag in and out of a cup of water. I shot a look of horror towards my sons as they groaned in perfect synchronized disgust “Ewwwwww!”

“Did you know what that meant?” I asked Ethan


“Heck NO!” he said.

“Well, who taught you the expression?” I asked, realizing my son’s real world education is largely beyond my control.

Here is where the plot thickens. Apparently, this gem of enlightenment came from his buddy Ben, who is the hyperactive, somewhat dorky, and completely innocent son of one of my most conservative mom-friends ‑the very same friend who was horrified when Ethan mooned her pure children in their pool. The perfection of my son’s tush escaped the church lady and his act of kiddie porn necessitated several conversations as well as new pool rules to prevent such scandalous horrors in the future. So, imagine my chagrin when I learned, the source of Ethan’s latest vocabulary word. This called for an email.

Dear Cynthia…I am sure you are as shocked at the info Ben has picked up on-line as we were. There is limitless supply of inappropriate info in these online games. Apparently prejudiced terms are also used frequently. This is why we don’t allow them in our home. I know that you run a somewhat conservative household, and I felt that you would want to know what Ben has picked up on Halo. After the mooning incident, I know you were offended and now I can totally relate.

I sent the email and then did my own happy parent dance gloating over yet another lesser-Mom. True my son might be a flasher, but at least I didn’t leave his sex ed to teenagers playing Halo. My son was no tea-bagger! Polly Puritanical’s response was surprisingly appreciative and got to the heart of the matter rather succinctly.

Dear Ellen…Thank you for keeping the lines of communication open. We have discussed this with Ben and will inform the parents of his friends who play Halo as well. We no longer allow him to play Halo without supervision. But, the one question that remains is…what is the difference between tea-bagging and a simple blow job?”

I had to laugh at the response and the whole experience. It’s true we need to monitor our kids’ activities on the Internet with care. We never know what they might learn or not learn. Heck, without proper adult guidance, they could grow up not knowing the critical difference between tea-bagging and a blow job (see: –to settle the great tea-bag/BJ debate)

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Calculated Risk of Joy

Your first kiss. Getting your driver’s license. The thrill of that first roller coaster. So very many firsts are unforgettable. Yesterday held such a magical moment for my 8-year old son Ryan. Because yesterday, after completing a grueling week of physically demanding and oh-so-globally aware –indeed gloriously green, Rock Climbing Camp (here it comes), I indulged Ryan in a life-altering first. His first Big Mac.

The drive-thru lady handed me the fragrant paper bag, and as I balanced it on my lap while trying to clear my cup holders, the entire car was perfumed in eau du French fries. Forget lavender and eucalyptus, this is the intoxicating aroma of carb-kings everywhere. Ryan must have sensed his booty was at risk.

“Pass me the bag,” he demanded.

“I’m making room for the drinks,” I said, clearly getting high off the fries.

“Pass it to me now!” he insisted.

I put my small diet coke (yes, that is all I ordered for myself) firmly in the cup holder and pulled away from the window.

“Can I have it NOWWWW?” Veruca Salt whined from the back seat, desperation mounting.

“Absolutely,” I said with complete calm as I stealthily stole five fries from the bag. “Here you go!”

And then there was silence. You could have heard a fry drop in the car. A few minutes went by and then the Roger Ebert of fast food said, having dissected his two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun, “Wow Mom, it’s like two burgers in one.” His voice trailed off into mmm’s. And when I figured he was done, I said “Ryan, this was your first Big Mac, so can you describe it for me in one word?”

He paused and then said simply, “OHMYGAWD!”

In my defense, I waited eight years to introduce Ryan to the “gateway drug” they call the Big Mac. I prepared him for this day by feeding him healthy food, teaching him the value of exercise and making him watch “Super Size Me” –the documentary about the impact of eating fast food on your body. By the time Ryan downed this first Big Mac, he was wise enough to ask me “Mommy, is this as bad for me as it is delicious?”

Knowledge is power when it comes to all things, including food. It’s always good to know when you are making a poor decision and the consequences, right? So, it was with great joy (and horror) that I learned California is the first U.S. state to force fast-food restaurant chains to post calorie information on menus.

"This legislation will help Californians make more informed, healthier choices by making calorie information easily accessible at thousands of restaurants throughout our state," Governor Schwarzenegger said.

Can’t you just smell the avocado on his breath?

According to the California Department of Public Health, Californians have gained 360 million pounds over the last decade. One in three children and one in four teens are overweight or at-risk, while obesity is listed as the second deadliest cause of preventable death among Californians after tobacco.

So, while my son was “lighting up” his first Big Mac, I decided that life is too short to always make the wise decision. Sometimes we have to take calculated risks in the name of blissful yet fleeting joy. Ryan’s first Big Mac was one of those moments. I am glad I was there to be his drug/joy dealer.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

On The Golden Rule & Raising Kind Kids

Karl Malden died yesterday. And so, this blog is dedicated to the man with the incredible, memorable nose.

The nanny could not catch her breath. I could tell it was her on the phone, because even through the sobs, I could make out her Aussie accent. But, this was not a Russell Crowe moment. More like Nicole Kidman weeping with all appropriate pale frailty.

“The kids are so mean to me,” was all I could make out.

Five minutes later she had regained her Aussie-composure enough to tell me in some detail how my kids were demonically insensitive and mean. And I say that with no sarcasm. Apparently yesterday morning, the sweet nanny, took Damien and Freddy to brunch at the bagel joint. While awaiting bagel and a schmear, bad seed #1 made comment that the good nanny had a big nose. She poo-poo’d him.

“Big noses rock!” she said playfully.

Humor is often a good technique with children but my monster would not be deterred. “Yours is really big though,” he chided. She tried distraction.

Then his older brother leaned in to take a gander and agreed.

“Yep it’s pretty darn big,” he offered.

I wasn’t there to offer a life preserver, but apparently I was in spirit because the Nanny countered with, “Your mom’s nose is as big as mine!”

Both my genetic anomalies disagreed vehemently. “Nope, yours is much bigger. In fact, yours looks kind of like a pig nose. Doesn’t it?”

“Yep it’s definitely a pig nose,” his evil twin agreed. “Definitely piggish.”

They did all but start oinking and digging for truffles. The nanny was flustered. And where as I would have probably oinked at them and told them they looked like jackasses, she’d been dealt a fatal blow. And my little jackasses sensed weakness. The farmer had lost control of the animals. Kids can smell it, ya know. If you are tired or burnt out, they may just knock you on your butt and, as they did in Lord of the Flies, grab the conch and take over.

Likewise, if you have an Achilles heel and they are lucky enough to stumble across it –good luck. They can be relentless. I remember how it would drive my mother nuts when my brother would yell at me venomously “I wish you were dead!”It horrified her and he knew it. So he would say it constantly! I often remember that when my monsters spew evil nonsense.

To hear it from the nanny, the imps were uncontrollable. She told them they could not talk to her like that, it was mean and hurtful. They had to stop. They were upsetting her. It was not permitted. And then, completely exasperated, she shuttled them off to camp, had a flashback about being teased as a kid about her honker, broke down, and called me in tears.

When my kids behave horribly and are called on it, I am flooded with emotions. Anger, shame, embarrassment and a good dose of defensiveness. After all, these guys are a reflection on me and my life’s work –raising them (or maybe one day writing about raising them!) At least, now that I have three births under my belt, I’ve learned to not react immediately and to get the entire story, which can take a good deal of time to unfold (makes me wish they were equipped with video cameras when they aren’t with me sometimes.)

My demon seeds are actually sweethearts and often demonstrate sensitivity and thoughtfulness. So, they seemed genuinely shocked that their teasing hurt the nanny so much. And their father and I sat down with them to discuss The Golden Rule and the concept of Respect. Treat others how you would like to be treated, we explained. You can’t get much simpler than that.

“It was just a joke,” Thing 1 countered defensively.

“Yeah, she is awfully sensitive,” added Thing 2.

They were missing the point. This required bringing it closer to home.

“How do you think I would feel if you teased me for having a big butt buddy?” I asked. He shrugged. “You do have a big butt Mom.”

ARGH. This was not working! Ok, plan B.

“Your feet get pretty Stinky and your hair is usually not brushed, right?” I asked.

Rosemary’s baby nodded, his big brown eyes doe-like.

“Well how would you feel if someone made fun of your stinky feet and knotted hair?”
The parallel hit home.

“Badly,” he said. Bingo!

Then came a mini-lesson on respecting your elders and those in positions of authority. Nannies, teachers, policemen, moms, dads, grandmas and grandpas. These people deserve your respect and you must speak to them politely whether you like them or not. Damien and Freddy looked like our words were actually getting through to them.

Next came the consequence. A technology moratorium. No TV. No computer. No playstation. As soon as the punishment was handed down a protestor’s wailing “Noooooooooooo!” filled the room and tears began to flow. (Silly, huh? This wasn’t Guantanamo Bay and clearly the only one about to be tortured --with constant whining-- was me!)

“We are sorry we have to punish you,” we explained (more sorry than you know!) but it’s the only way we can teach you how to be better kids.

The good news was that the Evil Twins could earn back their technology by completing any of several activities that demonstrated kindness, respect and good citizenship. They spent the remainder of the evening: writing the nanny an apology letter, taking out the trash, reading to their baby brother, loading the dishwasher, organizing the toy room, and taking the dog for a walk. Today, they will be on doggie poop pick-up duty. And by this evening –after delivering their letters to the nanny and apologizing in person—their debt will be paid. Their lessons learned (at least for a week or two.) And I will have survived another precious parenting challenge.

It was a rough day, and when I retold the story to a dear friend who is also a parent, she reacted with the empathy that only another parent in the trenches could give. She said with rare sensitivity, “So Big Butt, what are you going to do about Pig Nose?”

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Love is Patient. Love is Kind. Love STINKS.

"The rarest of all commodities in this world is love. It is that thing that we all yearn for at some level — to be simply loved unconditionally for nothing more than who we are — not what we can get, give or become."

Not sure I could have said it better. This insightful gem was swiped from a love letter from South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford to his Argentinian mistress. Why his most personal communications could be intercepted and then published for the world to see is beyond me. It’s a complete breach of personal space and an invasion of privacy. It wrong…it’s absolutely galling…and it’s irresistible. (

It’s irresistible not because of some shadenfruede. I take no pleasure in reading about yet another public official who’s gotten nabbed cheating on his incredibly supportive wife. Join the club; it’s not exactly an exclusive group. The fact is, husbands cheat on their wives and wives cheat on their husbands. It’s the corollary to marriage. It’s logical to presume politicians and other “powerful” people cheat more often. Frankly, I don’t think it impacts the job they do any more than it impacts the job of a cheater with a lesser visible job. It certainly didn’t seem to screw up Bill Clinton’s work. Then again, getting a lynch mob together and putting these men (I’d say people, but come on) under the microscope, doesn’t exactly improve their productivity. As an interesting side note, I worked with a woman who did PR for George Bush Senior and she told me that everyone on staff knew he was having an affair (so did you the moment you laid eyes on Barbara, right?) My friend told me, it was the job of the President’s staff to help cover for him. A happy President makes for a happy country, nes pas?

The emails got me thinking about the incredible passion and love and chemistry that bubbles over when the cork of new love pops. This is the stuff that dreams are made of. I read the emails and thought, damn the torpedoes! This is true love! Everyone deserves this. Full steam ahead. But then, as I was chasing the happy ending and nauseatingly heard the Governor, in a press conference, quote Corinthians (Love is patient and kind blah blah blah), I had a cynical thought. Maybe it’s just infatuation. Even if Romeo Sanford were to marry his Latino Julietta, odds are in a matter of years he would be in the same place, only with a different leading lady. Familiar. Married. Numb. Or even worse. Contemptuous. Miserable. Cheating?

Maybe we just aren’t meant to be monogamous or maybe marriages are like milk and should come with an expiration date, so you can prepare for the spoilage. All I know is…I want some emails like the ones Maria’s been getting!

Is marriage like milk and doomed to spoil? (skim, low-fat or whole?)

Is marriage more like cheese? (moldy, stinky but getting better with age?)

Monday, June 8, 2009

One Psychedelic Medium (Hold the Fries)

The session started with a prayer of appreciation and good intention –asking spirits from the afterlife for their positive guidance. “Amen,” I said hoping my beloved Grandpa Joe was about to make an appearance. So, Cheryl, a “medium” who has been a practicing psychic for some 25 years, set about connecting me to my loved ones “on the other side” –my guardian angels and spirit guides.

“We are going to find you some clarity,” she said. A lofty goal if ever there was one. Clarity has been my holy grail for a couple of years now. I have craved clarity like an alcoholic craves Jack. In fact, I want it so badly that I ordered and pre-paid for a custom-made ring with the world “clarity” stamped on it. The artist pocketed my money and my clarity never came. I figured it was a sign that some things just can’t be bought. Yet, here I was again ever hopeful, shelling out $150 in hopes of grabbing hold of that elusive wench –Clarity.

“Clarity is coming,” said Cheryl. “And so is the ring. You’ll get it in 2 to 3 months. Don’t be surprised.” I sat back in my chair and wondered what other surprises Cheryl had in store for me.

The phone went quiet for a moment as Cheryl became in tune with my spirit guides. "Your mother’s mother is here,” Cheryl said. “She is telling me she has a special affection for your oldest son because he is the only one she met in the physical world, though she knows all your children.”

So, Grandma Ceil is watching over me, I thought. Nice idea. “She says not to worry about your oldest son this summer,” Cheryl went on. “Is he going away to camp for 2 or 3 weeks?” This was the first on-da-money surprise. Ethan is in fact going cross country for his first 2-week sleep away camp experience. “Your Grandma says not to worry about him. She knows it’s hard to let go but the experience will be good for him and he will come home with many wonderful stories.”

Alright, so the believer in me was hopeful but the cynic was dubious. “Are you separated honey?” she asked. I am. “I see your husband watching you from across town through a telescope. He’s watching but not in a stalker like way. Just from a distance.”

Ok, that was admittedly a little goose-bumpy. She went on to tell me loads of things about my estranged husband. Information about finances and his work life. About his personality. About changes. All ridiculously accurate.

I asked about close friends and I asked about family. In each instance Cheryl had something piercingly relevant to say. My best friend was a “drama queen” and my demanding daughter in prior lifetime when we were French royals –oui oui. My Cali-friend whose name ends in “a” was a trustworthy confidante. My youngest son is extremely empathic and may absorb others' negative energy and complain of random tummy aches. Another friend, who was my brother in a prior life, is destined for big things professionally and I am going to be a critical part of that. While, yet another is going to bring a ton of easy joy into my life as we navigate through similar rough waters. My parents will remain healthy, as will I, and my kids will adjust quickly to this new life as they see how much happier I am becoming.

I asked about my career and I told Cheryl I was an advertising consultant and writer. She chuckled. “You write little slice of life pieces that are funny like Erma Bombeck, don’t you?” she asked. “I do,” I said. “Well they make you laugh when you are writing them. They make other people laugh too but you really enjoy writing them,” she said. Uh-huh. That is very true. She went on to say how I could have several novels in me. Fantastigorical tales that would make Harry Potter residuals seem like chump change. If only. “You’ve been creatively stifled by all that’s happened in your life and that’s changing now,” she said. “Maybe you should think about writing a blog!”

Do you believe in angels and spirit guides?

Ever had a similar experience you can share?

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

I don’t want a dog. It’s put me over the edge.

Our heartbroke heroine was craving beer for the first time in years.
Hardly haughty, she looked out at the splendid mountains surrounding her
Relocated to a sunken valley of the dolls 3000 miles from home
She wondered yet again for the umpteenth time
“Why am I here?” and took a swig from the amber bottle.
It was recyclable. Like so many things out west.
Just waiting to be reinvented. Replaced.
The hearty hops danced across her palette as playfully as the words that had become her heart’s haven.
Teasing her. The lengthy lexicon tempted her. Inspired her.
Our bemused muse amused herself
realizing she was at the starting line again.
Twenty years prior she stood on a marble podium hand extended.
The University President was stoic in cap and gown.
Our impish graduate reached for the rolled parchment and the ceremonial shake.
Passing the true BMOC an icy cold and very unexpected brewski.
Their eyes met and time froze. As must have his hand.
He looked down and smiled smirkily.
Cracked it open and raised it to the crowd of some hundreds before taking a hearty gulp.
At that moment, our graduating wordsmith stood proudly alone.
The moment needed no words.
The beer tingled tangy across her tongue with the memory .
You may have no map, but you still have moxie, she told herself.
She took another swig and stared out the window.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Drive-In Dreams

He outstretched his arm, all clever-like, feigning a big ole stretch and repositioned it around her shoulder. She smiled and nudged closer into the crook of his arm as they watched the movie dance past their windshield.

Remember that little slice of Americana called the drive-in? Well it’s not dead yet.

It’s been at least 25 years since I went to a drive-in movie theater. I recall those trips were all about finding a safe place to “get busy” in the back seat of a very spacious white-leather interior/red-cherry exterior, Oldsmobile Delta 88.

Well the drive-in isn’t just for James Dean and Sandra Dee. Last night me and my puerile posse packed up an SUV full of blankets, pillows, whoopers and chips and headed to the drive-in movie theater just 15 minutes from my Cali-home. The line of cars waiting to get in was impressive. Apparently, the drive-in is still very much alive and kicking.

A little research taught me that drive-in popularity peaked in the late 1950s with there being a high of 4063 drive in theaters. Now there are only about 377 nationwide (18 of those in California.) This drive-in was not exactly as I remembered them. Rather than the one mammoth screen, this parking lot was now packed (like so many theaters) with six more modest screens arranged in a crescent shape. We paid a very reasonable $10 for the carload and pulled in by our assigned screen, setting our radio to the movie’s station. The films were projected from a round building in the back of the lot that also housed the concessions (a perfect name for all indulgences sugary and buttery that temporarily silence children.)

This was starting to feel familiar. I loaded the kids up on the roof rack (oh, on how many long car rides have I dreamed of doing that?) They mounted the pile Iwo Jima style, my eldest victoriously planting the bag of Tostitos in his lap and settled in for their first drive-in experience.

“This is so cool Mom, thanks for bringing us!” I heard from above.

There was no room for me on the roof. And so, I huddled in my chaste car catching wanton glimpses of the couple in the pick-up beside me. Thinking, “Damn, I miss those days of the Delta 88.”

See if there is a drive-in near you –visit and search for your state.

What are your memories of the drive-in?

Thursday, May 28, 2009

I'm Raising A Derelict

I’m raising a derelict. This evening I took my three sons out for dinner. This is no small feat. I’m the woman you look at from the balcony bar while sipping your brewski and think, “That poor woman, how does she do it?” Well apparently she does it not as well as she would like.

While the kids were finishing up their dinners, Ryan put the finishing touches on his menu art. He is fantastically imaginative and artistic. I’ll give him that. Apparently he’d had his fill of paper art and crouched under the table. I figured he was just messing about. I was wrong. My budding artist had taken a crayon and written under the table. There amongst the dried out gum wads was Ryan’s first piece of graffiti "art." Scribbled hastily in sienna crayola, in an 8-year old’s shakey lettering was the king of four letter words: “F U C K” .

While his older brother may have been momentarily impressed by this vandalistic (there's a new word) act of terrorism, I wasn’t. I had one thought. I’m raising a derelict. And then after a moment the mother’s mouth moves. “What in god’s name were you thinking? Do you realize you damaged someone else’s property and that is against the law? Your behavior is not only horribly wrong, it is also embarrassing and shameful. You should be ashamed Ryan Pifer. Would you like me to call the owner over so you can apologize?”

I went for a damp rag and Ryan spend the next 10 minutes under the table scrubbing and tearing up pleafully (another new word). “It’s not coming off Mooooom. What should I do?” He ended up scribbling over it. And then, as his eyes welled up with tears, he asked me “Could I go to juve for this?”

The punishment was swift and severe by Ryan-standards. Two weeks without Play Station. And Ryan has spent the last hour attempting to right his wrong with “I’m sorry's” galore. I explained to him that it’s nice to say “sorry.” but it does not undo what he did. Actually, now that I think about it, he doesn’t care so much about righting his wrong as he does negotiating away the consequences. And, I’m not caving on this one. Because, damn it, I am not raising a derelict.

Ever had an experience like this?
Think its a harbinger of worse things to come?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

I Almost Lost My Lunch

Last week, I almost lost my lunch (and my shit) in a terrifying confluence of crazy circumstance because I "misplaced" one of the most precious things in my life --my four-year old son Eli. It was Open House at the elementary school and my middle son Ryan was very excited to show me his art projects. Together with his younger and older brother, the four of us walked the block and a half to school.

Little Eli was in the classroom with me. My eldest Ethan ran off to the tetherball courts. So, I did what mothers always do…I gave my two sons one eyeball each. And when Eli found a preschool buddy of his to occupy him, I was able to “Ooooo” and “Ahhhh” for Ryan with single-minded focus. Single-minded focus. Now, there is a novel concept for a mother of three. It is rare that I am able to focus completely on anything when the kids are around. Again, circumstance and adult onset ADD converge to create a world of challenge for me.

When the school bell rang, my sons and I proudly paraded out to the playground to watch the third graders do-see-doe. Again, the kids dispersed. Ryan off to find Ethan on the tetherball courts and Eli tagging confidently behind. He’s a third child and thirds are notoriously competent. That’s when my senses hit overload. I was trailing behind them, one eye on the goofy dancers, when I was intercepted by that rare creature that comes into my life on occasion –another adult. This one was a friend I’d not seen in some time and we had loads of catching up to do. She bought a house. She was headed back East for the Summer. Would we like to come swim in their pool? I looked past her and thought Eli looked fine with his brothers and so I enjoyed a few minutes of adult chat.

The time flew as it always does with adults. And then it was time to go. Most everyone had left the playground. So, I walked to the courts to grab the boys. They weren’t there. I saw them off in the distance on the grassy field and waved them in. Three had become two. Where was Eli? They didn’t know. They hadn’t seen him. I’ve been a mom long enough to know it’s never too late to assess blame (which clearly falls on me in this case.) Now was not the time. It was time to breathe, focus, stay calm, and simply find Eli.

We marshaled the troops. The boys searched the entire campus—checking the classrooms we had been in. The fields. The playgrounds. My friend’s kids checked all the bathrooms. The principal made an overhead announcement. Eli was no where. And as I saw all these people scattering across the school property, I felt my panic gathering in my chest. I’d had this feeling before. The building tightness. I’d lost Ryan a couple of times. He had a nasty habit of disappearing –once in a department store for a good 10 minutes (he decided it would be fun to try the escalator.) Once, as a toddler he unlocked the back door and left the house, managing to get the garage door open, locking himself in the car and then closing the garage door shut. That terrifying episode ended with a policeman in my driveway insisting I open the garage door just to be sure. And there was tear-stained Ryan, a set of headphones on to protect his ears from his screams for help.

So, this feeling of instantly mounting pressure was unfortunately familiar. I had a little dialogue with myself. “Stay calm. We will find him. This is a good neighborhood. No one would steal him. Freaking out will not help. Just a couple of more minutes and you will call the police.”

Just then I got an idea. “Run home and check if he’s there,” I dispatched Ethan and he took off for the 1-1/2 block walk to our house. Just as he leaped into action, we caught sight of Eli walking towards us, hand-in-hand with a neighbor of ours. She had spotted him sitting on our front stoop waiting for us.

Eli was cool as a cucumber. “I couldn’t find you,” he explained shrugging. “So I walked to my house.” I scooped him up in my arms. “I knocked on the door and I ringed the bell and no one was there. I was sitting on the stairs waiting for you and I was staying calm.” he said. “So was I Eli…I was trying really, really hard to stay calm.”

(After my heart stopped hammering, I explained to Eli that he should have stayed at the school and gone to the office or asked an adult for help.)

How my four year old managed to navigate his way home after only taking that walk one or two times with me, escapes me. He must have some GPS device linked to his Y-chromosome. I was so relieved to have him in my arms and completely exhausted by the experience. I’d like to say it was a huge wake-up call and it will never happen again…but after three kids, I know better and on the upside, I am too overwhelmed to beat myself up.

What’s the most precious thing you’ve lost? Did you find it again?

(and ffs, please don't say true love...I can't handle it this week.)