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?”