Monday, April 26, 2010

We Will Listen

Shabbat #16 - Havdalah

Guests: Just us. And cousin L.

Menu: Easy Grill: Steak, Mixed Peppers & Portabellas, Mache with Fennel & Parmesan, Toby's Challah, Chill Frozen Yogurt

What I Learned:

I'm attempting to run a marathon in every state. Saturday I crossed off Tennessee. I'm well beyond believing that anyone actually cares. I'm not even sure I do. I see the members of this elusive club at races. They're easy to spot. Even without their signature red, white and blue "50 State Marathon" singlets. Limping. Listing to one side. White hair. Is this what I'm headed for?


I hope.

I signed up for Nashville last year. Before the Shabbat resolution. Steve had originally planned to join me. But he was at home. Collecting a squash tournament award instead.

And that was okay.

I didn't have to lay awake listening to him snore the night before the race. And he didn't have to worry whether I was throwing up in my mouth when they dropped the prime rib in front of me at the tournament banquet.

So I ran the marathon. And then out ran a tornado to make havdalah with the family on Saturday.

And the Nishmah Women's Conference at the J on Sunday.

Nishmah is a non-profit organization with a mission to enrich the lives of girls and women in the St. Louis Jewish community through educational, spiritual and social programming. Ronit Sherwin and Karen Sher founded it in 2005. They're also both mothers. They get it.

Nishmah translates to "we will listen."

We will listen.

Are there three more important words?

I started writing this blog for me. Mostly because I'm not good at organizing pictures. Or recipes. I'm only slightly better at writing. So I figured I would write about our journey back -- for my children. And organize the pictures later when they were gone. It'd also be a handy way to file my recipes.

I showed the blog to Steve. Then I started sharing the blog with our guests. They sent it to friends. People wanted the recipes. And the menu for the upcoming week. One thing led to another. Hits across the country. And few other countries. Emails. Handwritten notes. Hugs. And some tears.

Apparently people were listening. Or at least reading.

Yet, not a single week goes by when I don't think ...

Why am I writing this?

Peggy Orenstein was the keynote speaker and a workshop presenter at the Nishmah conference. Remember Jon Lovitz as the Pathological Liar from the old SNL? (When SNL was actually funny). That's how her bio reads.

My memoir Waiting for Daisy is a New York Times best-seller. And I write ... for the LA Times. And Vogue. And The New Yorker. Yeahhh. That's the ticket! Did you see me on The Today Show? And GMA? Oh ... and I'm married to a film maker.

Except it's true.

Her workshop was entitled Princesses, "Perfect" Girls and Pop Tarts: What the New Culture of Girlhood Means for Our Girls. The title alone made me shake in my knock-off Tory Burch flats.

Sure. I knew that I should encourage imaginary play. With dolls. And trucks. That I should shun Palm Beach Barbie. And push Astronaut Barbie. And beware of all Disney-made child stars. Who will inevitably turn out like Britney. And Lindsay.

But when Peggy, dressed west-coast cool, perched on the corner of a table in my midwest J launched into her case, I got a little scared. No. A lot scared. Who knew that the Disney Princesses were created to take my money? And her innocence? That "toddler" and "tween" were terms coined by marketers. Not my pediatrician. Or that American Girl had released Gwen - the homeless doll- for $95. Was it true that now not only did I have to worry whether Sarah was wearing her bike helmet? But also whether it was a red and green one with a dragon on it. And not her pink Hello Kitty helmet. That went with her pink Hello Kitty tutu. And necklace. And singing microphone.

And so I approached Peggy after. Nervously.


(Shuffle knock-off shoes).

I'm not sure I can do this. I don't know where to start. How can I say do as I say ... when I'm not even sure I'm doing what I'm saying?

And this is what she said. Without hesitation. And complete confidence.

You don't have to be perfect.

I took a breath. Maybe she was right? She had, after all, been on NPR. And she was a mother who had gotten a daughter to age seven. So by my standard she was the expert.

An hour or so later we all filed in for lunch. And the keynote address. By Peggy. I started to sweat again. Would I spend the lunch feverishly taking notes on more things to worry about?

But it was different. She was different. Or maybe I saw her differently.

This time she told a very personal story. One that was printed in the The New York Times Magazine eight years ago. I'm certain she must have read it to herself thousands of times. Aloud nearly just as many. But as she stood before us, reading her work, she was real. Speaking with a practiced cadence, but at times pausing. As she swayed -- consciously or not -- behind the podium. Differently than I had seen her in the workshop perched upon the table. She was a woman. And a mother. Who despite (or inspite of) her success had her own struggles.

She told her story. And in the room you could have heard a pin drop. As other women watched. And related. And were validated. That someone had said out loud what they had been thinking. And that felt good. For us. And probably for her.

We were listening.

And that is why I write each week.

Because I have a story. That I am telling.

Because maybe something about it is like yours.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Promised Land

Shabbat #15

Guests: Drake and Druanne. Bruce and Sharon. We've known them all since our double income no kid days. Bruce, a home builder, has also made our house a home.

Menu: Blue Cheese Crackers, Grilled Fish Skewers with Chickpea Puree, Greek Caponata, Toby's Challah, Beggar's Purse Baklava

What I Learned:

Steve and I are on our fourth house. And our 14th year of marriage.

A stucco duplex. A stone traditional. One in the suburbs. And, now an urban Tudor.

Seven years ago we lived in the house in the suburbs. It was my least favorite. Mostly because buying it it was not my idea. And typically, when something isn't my idea -- no matter how grand it happens to be -- it forever remains ... my least favorite.

One morning in the study of my least favorite house, I caught Steve surfing the internet. For real estate.

What-cha doin?

Looking at houses.


You wanna go look?

Those words still hung in a bubble over his desk as our car sped out of the driveway. Just like they had when he'd uttered them 16 years earlier. And we ended up at the jeweler.

I knew exactly where we were going. For years I had poured over the real estate section. Convinced that the "New Listings" somehow held the key to the Promised Land. And I'd run by the beautiful homes. Their manicured lawns with invisible-fenced labs lazing out front. Only steps from school, the park, the coffee shop.

That night we made our offer on our (very) small corner of that Land.

Our humble Tudor needed love. Lots of it. From its tired curb appeal to its green linoleum and lavender painted walls.

But we made it ours. And Bruce helped

Replacing the linoleum with slate. That never shows dirt. Hanging the custom glass door on the marriage-saving second shower. Not to be outdone by the marriage-saving heated front walk that never needs shoveling and the maintenance free yard that never needs mowing. And the back patio with enough room for all of our furniture. Plus the plastic playhouse, half a dozen ride-ons, the basketball hoop, the sand box and everything else the kids can push, drag, or otherwise pull outside. And that I eventually need to push, drag or pull back inside.

Other touches were uniquely mine.

The attic playroom painted sunshine yellow. Filled with toys that never migrate beyond the steep stairs. The fire engine I painted on Ben's bedroom wall. Right next to his tiny fire engine bed. Which I plan to keep him in until he is 18. The ladybugs that dance (almost) all the way around Sarah's room. A project cut short by her early arrival.

And some touches that are just unique.

The "secret" cut-through that Ben takes to Grant's house. The "not in my back yard" Metrolink that captivated him during his (far too short) Thomas the Tank Engine phase. And the million dollar view of the Clayton skyline from my bedroom. Where he lays with me at night playing "who's going to turn their light off" as we gaze up at the towers.

Our house. Small but mighty.

Last fall I caught Steve surfing the internet again. For a new house.

And a fresh start.

A few days later we were back hunting. And we thought we'd found it. Hearth room, master suite, big closets, soaking tub, and a two car garage. All right across the street from Ben's new school.

The next Promised Land.


The dining room was two feet to short. (Or my table was two feet too long.)

Where would we celebrate Shabbat?

This was not my house.

My house was around the corner and down the street. On the hill in the shadow of the skyline. With its dancing lady bugs and firetrucks. Its tiny bedrooms and big memories. With the dining room. Big enough for the table. And all the people that sit around it.

That night I thought about what I wanted. And what we needed.

Bigger closets would only be filled with more things we didn't wear. If I ever had enough time to soak in a tub, it's unlikely I'd spend it ... soaking in a tub. And my car would almost certainly be constructively evicted from the spacious garage by the bikes and wagons and ride-ons.

All I really needed (that I didn't have) was a kitchen table. A place where the kids could eat grilled cheese and pancakes. Color and play Candy Land. A place where we could have family meetings. About kindergarten. And curfews. And college.

A simple problem. With a simple fix. A new breakfast nook where we'll eat and color and play and talk. Thanks to Bruce.

And that's a heck of a lot cheaper than a new house.

Today as I sit in my more love per square foot Tudor I know that I have what I need. Even better. I want what I have. And that feels good.

As far as I can tell, fresh starts don't fix families. Families fix families.

And family dinners help.

At least they do in this family.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

My Powerful Princess

Shabbat #15

Guests: Karla and Bill and daughter R, Karla's sister Pam. Karla and I met at dancing school when we were two. Looking back now it was a wee bit like Toddlers in Tiaras, without the tiaras.

Menu: Blue Cheese Crackers, Stuffed Dates, Chicken with Forty Cloves of Garlic (in honor of our 40th years), Mache and Mint Salad with Fennel and Grapefruit Vinaigrette, Crack Pie

What I Learned:

At my first ultrasound I laid down on the OB's table. And prayed. G-d, please don't let it be twins. At 34 I was barely capable of taking care of myself, let alone two more people ... inside my body or out. G-d or whatever the galactic powers that be agreed. Onto the ultrasound screen popped one little pulsating globule.

Ten weeks later there I was again. Praying. On the table. Please G-d, let it be a boy. Not that I had anything against girls with their hair ribbons, polka dots and all things pink. I just wasn't ready to mother a girl like, well, me. Someone else must have agreed. Again. Onto the screen popped our pulsating globule ... and his package.

Three years and many spit-up, late night, self-doubt, lightening in a bottle moments later I decided that maybe I really could tackle this motherhood thing. While by no means an expert, I had managed to get Ben from the hospital to his third birthday without losing him. He ate. He grew. He talked back.

I was ready.

And back on the table. Praying again.

G-d? Hi. Yeah - it's me again. I'm 37 now and I know that I'm really pushing the envelope on this whole motherhood thing, so all I'm really asking for is just one more healthy baby. Of either flavor. But just in case you were wondering, well, I would really, really like a girl. Umm ... a healthy girl. Thanks.

Six months later my patient miracle arrived.

At dinner on Friday night the conversation inevitably turned to parenting. Girls. Namely, mean girls. (Remember them from high school?) How did they get that way? Surely there weren't mothers out there that aspired to have mean girls. Like fathers aspired to have baseball players. What made girls ... mean?

And what about all of those others traps so uniquely girl? Many of which I had fallen into - repeatedly.

How was I going to save Sarah from becoming the mean girl? Falling into those traps that I had?

An exhaustive researcher and planner by nature, I drove straight to Boarder's the next morning. I'd buy a book. Surely someone had written down the secret formula to raising a well-adjusted, confident, trap-avoiding, nice girl.

Going to the parenting section of a bookstore while in the throws of a parental panic is like going to the grocery store hungry. Nothing good comes of it. I almost wet my pants standing in the child care section - a place I hadn't been since I was pregnant with Ben (and most certainly in a similar panic). Rows of books with titles like "13 is the New 18." Are you kidding me? Had I really gotten that far behind?

That afternoon while Sarah napped I cracked open "The Everything Parent's Guide to Raising Girls." My tidy 300-page solution. Or not.

"Your little girl's attitude will be demanding."

Really. You don't say?

"Give her two choices."

Try twelve. On a good day.

I closed it up and added it to the dusty collection of parenting books. The one's I only open when the preschool sends home a note alerting us to some ailment that is whipping through the room. Which nearly always involves diarrhea.

And then I went back to my original plan.

Before I even had kids I thought a lot about raising them. I'd teach them about being grateful. And respectful. About the value of a dollar. And a friend. I'd tell them that even though it feels good to be taken care of, it feels even better to take care of yourself. And I'd help them learn how to do that.

I believed that those lessons would come fairly easily. And they did.

But there were harder lessons. Some of which were uniquely girl. One's I had been putting off. Even for myself.

Like moderation. Loving myself from the inside out. Worrying less about what others think and more about what I think. And that perfection is neither obtainable nor desirable.

Those were lessons I would start teaching (and living) ... tomorrow.

On Sunday Sarah and I were driving in our 5-mile bubble. While strapped in the backseat, her Lunchable (that I said I'd never buy) scattered onto the floor of the car (that I said she'd never eat in). Red-faced with clenched fists and in perfect context she screamed out:



So she had been listening to me after all. And no doubt watching too. In that moment tomorrow turned into today.

Finally. A reason (and the best one ever) to attack those uniquely girl lessons that I had been avoiding. For almost 40 years.

So good riddance to obsessing about eating the birthday cake. And then eating it while standing in the kitchen. For only seeing the flaws in the department store mirror. To letting bad hair ruin an otherwise perfect day. To worrying about what someone else thinks when that someone else isn't worrying about me. And to all of the other crazy, time-consuming, wasteful, irrational, insecure thoughts that are so uniquely girl ... and woman. They never made me feel good anyway.

And I know they won't make Sarah feel good either.

A few months ago our friend Taka snapped a picture of Sarah at preschool. There she was. Dressed from head to toe in mis-matched hues of pink, white-knuckled hands around the handlebars of her tricycle bouncing over a wooden bridge. Eyes twinkling with a smile that was half-grin, half-grimace. All while balancing a gold crown adorned with colorful gems atop her head. So uniquely ... Sarah.

My Powerful Princess.

May she always be.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Don't Wish It Away

Shabbat #14

Guests: Bill and Nancy and their daughter K. Mike and Julie and their daughter E. I run and ride bikes with these folks ... and spared them front row seats to the vomit-palooza that played at the Brown household by rescinding their dinner invitation last week.

Menu: Grilled Lamb Skewers with Chickpea Puree and Mache, Macaroons ... served 2 days later on Easter to rave reviews.

What I Learned:

I consider my running a public service. If I don't do it, I'm not fit to be with. So I run. For your sake. And mine.

When I run I think. In fact, a lot of the time I can't think unless I'm running. Most recently I've been thinking about the blog. Who's coming. What I'm cooking. What I'll write. Even before the guests arrive. I usually end up writing about something completely different. But this week I'll write about what I thought I would write about. While I was running.

I've know the Shabbat #14 crew for almost as long as I've been running. A few years ago Mike and Bill made the transition from pure running to triathlon. And like most endurance-obsessed runners, they started with the mother of all triathlons: Ironman. 2.4 miles of swimming, followed by 112 miles of cycling, topped off by a 26.2 mile marathon. Mike and Bill engaged in this undertaking with a group of similarly-minded men -- no doubt all on the brink of some mid-life crisis. Nancy and I affectionately refer to them as the "boys."

Ironman is like parenting. Once you've done it you can't help but give advice on it. Even if you weren't so good at it yourself. As far as I can tell survival is the only prerequisite to deeming yourself an expert. Just like parenting. But believe me, as a parent (who wants to survive) I'm eating it up so keep it coming. Ideas on toilet training? Frankly, it doesn't really matter much to me whether your kids were raised by wolves. If they're out of diapers, I'm listening.

As a Ironman finisher, I'm no different. So when the "boys" -- one in particular who has since moved to Colorado -- asked me for advice on Ironman, this is what I said:

Don't wish it away.

The months of training will be long. And mundane. And tiring. But be grateful that you are healthy enough to do it. And have friends with screws that are equally loose. Who will ride next to you for hours even though the finish line is nothing more than your parked car and a warm Gatorade. Who never ridicule you when you are dressed in your skin-tight wetsuit. And on those early morning runs before the sun is up, soak in the solitude and the feeling that you are the only one awake. Because you probably are.

On race day. Look up. For a moment take your eyes off the wheel in front of you and count yourself lucky. The day will be hot and painful. And long. But this will make the pay-off even greater. When you cross the line, know that your life will change because you have propelled yourself across 140.6 miles. All by yourself. And, regardless what physical form your body (or that tattoo you had to have) takes, inside you will always be an Ironman.

This has been my approach to parenting.

Don't wish it away.

Adopting this approach got a little easier the second time around. Not that I wished away moments with Ben. I just focused more on what was next, instead of what was now. I figured that if I got to what was next, that necessarily meant that I had survived what was now. And that was a comfort.

It's different with Sarah. I can focus on the now, because I know the next is coming. Fast. When I was pregnant with Sarah I owned my belly in my spandex shorts riding circles around Creve Coeur Lake. Dreaming about the day when she would be riding next to me. When she was born, I cherished the three days alone in the hospital with her. Without the boys. In those wee hours that were neither morning nor night, I rocked my girl. My patient miracle. Who barely needs to be rocked these days. Now I tip-toe into her room while she sleeps, kneel next to the crib and whisper.

If you ever have a problem, come to me. I will help you. Always.

Hoping that these words somehow, by osmosis, will be ironed into her memory, resurfacing at the critical time.

And every morning I tell her she is the Triple Threat -- smart, beautiful and brave. The Trifecta. Because it's true. And I want her to believe its true. Especially when she is 13. And doesn't want to listen to me.

And I look at my almost 40, mother of two with all the signs of childbirth, late nights, worries and doubt ... body. And embrace it. Like I embrace them. Knowing what I am capable of doing. And what I have done.

Yet for all of the similarities between my advice on Ironman and parenting, there is one glaring difference. While the first Ironman may be life changing. The second is just, well, long.

Not so with children.

When I was pregnant with Sarah I confided in Steve. I can't possibily love another person as much as I love Ben. And this is what he told me. Your love is limitless. Don't tell him -- I hate it when this happens -- but he was (shhh) ... right . I love Sarah just as much as I love Ben. For lots of the same reasons. And for lots of reasons that are so uniquely Sarah.

As for a third?

Barring divine intervention (and a whole lot of crazy science) there will not be a third child. A third Ironman? Who knows. But I do like to run.

Monday, April 5, 2010

PSA: It's Not About Me

Shortly after Ben's first birthday I decided to take him on his first "real" trip to the zoo. Or, in other words, one where he was actually awake. My plan was to enter at the South Entrance. We'd start with the bears and work our way around clockwise. Penguins, apes, bird house, gazelles (why do we have so many of these at the St. Louis Zoo), lions, monkeys and rhinos. Topped off by a hands-on experience at the Children's Zoo. And then an overpriced ice cream cone to reward his hard work.

Surely this kind of trip would seal the deal on his admission to an Ivy.

It all changed the moment we entered. Down came the crossing gate making way for the train blowing it's plan-busting whistle.

Instead of spending the next two hours pointing out mammals and marsupials, we were riding the Zoo train. Round and round. When I finally convinced him to unload in Big Cat Country (without a complete meltdown) he was more interested in the penny smasher than the sunbathing lions. You know. That machine where you drop in a quarter to get a mis-shaped penny ... which isn't really even a penny.

But four years and one more child later I know the day was not loss.

Parenting got a lot easier (not to mention a lot more enjoyable) when I loosened up on the reigns a bit. And resolved that my kids' lack of interest or enthusiasm for my carefully charted itineraries (like the "Zoo odyssey") did not make me a failure as a parent. That I could just roll with it. Continue to give them opportunities to explore the world, knowing that sometimes cranking quarters into a carnival counterfeiter would be (to them) more exciting than Big (and Comatose) Cat Country.

And that's okay.

The same thing happened last week. My best laid plans were put to rest by a house full of sick kids. And a sick mom. Shabbat dinner was in jeopardy. I half considered going forward with the dinner determined not to break my streak. Potentially sending six innocent dinner guests home with their own front row seats to the vomit-palooza we had been experiencing.

But I didn't. Because right now, it's not about me. My plans. My streaks. It's about them.

And us.

And you.

To Nancy, Bill, Kaitlin, Mike, Julie and Elizabeth ... we will reschedule. May you all have a healthy, vomit-free week. Look for a post in a few days about what I would have written had you come.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Crib Note: What's Up with the Matzah?

Jews eat matzah during Passover. Instead of bread. For over a week. That's a long time for a carb-lover. Now I know why Jews are so manic about bagels -- boiled, crunchy on the outside, chewy in the center. They know what it's like to go without.

Matzah is unleavened bread. Basically a big cracker. Or, for St. Louis folks, kind of like Imo's Pizza... without the cheese (product), sauce and meat. Nothing to get excited about. Especially for a week.

During Passover, Jews forgo all foods with hametz -- basically anything leavened. Yes. Sadly this includes beer. Passover commemorates the Israelites Exodus from Egpyt and slavery. The story goes that the Israelites fled so quickly, their bread didn't have time to rise. Hence matzah. Eaten to remember the Exodus.

Shortly after Ben was born I started thinking more seriously about converting. Going from being a Methodist to a Jew is a tough nut to crack. For one thing, most Jewish services include a significant amount of Hebrew. Yikes. A new language. With new characters. Written backwards. Without vowels. And then there is the whole issue of resolving where the New Testament went.

Maybe I'll just stick with what I know.

That was until a running friend of mine told me about the family service at our temple. She has two older boys and encouraged me to start taking Ben to the weekly service. She said it was short and designed for children. Rabbis Susan and Randy would explain the Jewish concepts and rituals in very simple (think 5 year old) terms. Terms that even a 30-something Methodist would get. And I could come in my running clothes. Sold.

We still go. I went this morning -- in my running clothes. And Rabbi Susan explained what was up with the matzah. In 5-year old terms.

She said that matzah is bread without an ego. And that we eat it during Passover to remind ourselves that even if we are bullied we shouldn't bully back.

I get that. Maybe Ben got it too. Definitely easier to explain right now than Exodus, slavery and the plagues. And lot less scary.