Mommy Olympics

The Grocery Shopping Marathon: Parent must buy a week’s worth of groceries for a family – with a child or children in tow. Extra points awarded if you’re not too embarrassed by the performance to return the next week.
The Young Child Schlep: Parent juggles children, including one who doesn’t yet know how or refuses to walk, and all the equipment needed for a 12-minute excursion from the house, including diaper bag, change of clothes, snack, drink, favorite toy, book, spare baby carrier, etc. Stroller not allowed. (You were just running out for a minute.) Extra points awarded if total strangers don’t offer major pitying looks.

The Public Toilet Germ Avoidance Dance: Parent must change baby’s diaper and/or assist older child on the toilet while simultaneously preventing any part of child and/or baby/child equipment from touching any part of the public facilities. Shoe bottoms an exception. Extra points awarded if family can exit restroom without anyone touching the door with bare skin.

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Exercise Time

MCM: You must be referring to a new exercise program that has been quite heavily publicized recently. It is indeed for a game console called, not pee-pee, but named apparently after that very same bodily function.

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Review: An Uncertain Inheritance

After reading Uncertain Inheritance, An: Writers on Caring for Family
it’s clear there are a few things we should probably all have lined up, just in case, to make it easier to deal with serious illness:
1. Lots of money.
2. Lots of competent, loving family members and/or friends.
3. Immortality.

The recently published book, edited by Nell Casey, is a collection of beautifully written essays on a not-so-pretty subject. Writers talk about all sorts of scenarios of caring for the ill – caring for sick parents or partners or siblings or children, or being cared for themselves.

Oh yes, of course I went through the boxes of tissues reading this one. The pieces make a strong emotional connection; which ones strike you most might depend on your circumstances or imagination. I had to read Ann Hood’s essay about her daughter’s death through squinched-up eyes. Susan Lehman’s piece about her mother’s sickness and death, and what it meant for her kids, allowed for a welcome surfacing for air with its, yes, at times humorous, tone.

The writers convey the emotional chaos that hits when people are sick, and there’s not a lot we can do about it. We are mortal and sickness strikes our bodies; number three on that list just isn’t happening any time soon.
So what about the money and supportive loved ones? Well line them up. Or hope that your loved ones have their resources in place. Because what’s noticeable in many of the stories is the importance of arranging the details – the heavy dailyness of life when you’re caring for someone sick, much like caring for an infant, although with a completely different emotional overlay. Food and sleep and going out and using the bathroom, and the very confusing details of medicine and treatment, all need to be thought out and taken into account every day.

This is tough even if you have a lot of what are currently considered the best resources, of insurance and money; but if they’re lacking at all, caring for the sick person sounds an even more overwhelming task. Caregivers get depressed and poor and sick themselves, and it’s no wonder.

Obviously there should be a better way. Sickness shouldn’t be a path to bankruptcy, nor should money or luck dictate the level of humane and appropriate caring you receive when you’re sick. Even with decent insurance for the sick person, it seems as if caretakers have to step in as patient advocates and organizers of the different services – finding home care, for example, or making sure medicines don’t conflict or just making sure the sick person gets what medical attention is needed.

It’s the same problem as with caring for a child; our current system relies on a mythical, anachronistic view – there’s a big happy family living all together, with mom in the kitchen running the home front all day. Sure there are day care and after-school programs, but are they affordable and any good? And does it make life easier or are you constantly cobbling together a solution? With illness, there’s help – chores and caring – the sick person needs beyond what the medical system is generally set up to provide; if the person is lucky a relative or friend steps in. But really, mom’s out at work these days, just like dad, so who can take care of grandma, especially when she lives on the other side of the country? Getting everyone covered access to health care is just a first step. We also need to support the family caretaker who fills in the gaps in what a sick person needs, or create an ideal system with well-trained professionals to cover those needs.

The book though, is about individual’s personal stories, not the system overall. The writers are sharing their thoughts and feelings about what it’s like to help family through a sickness – insights that are shared relatively little in writing compared with the degree to which many of us go through the same thing, as helper or helped.

Putting Life On Pause

This is official notice that friends will no longer be receiving any birthday wishes from me. I still do hope people have happy birthdays, but I refuse to say anything; what I could get back has become too risky. Like the latest example: I recently popped off an email to wish an old friend happy birthday, and she wrote back to thank me, sighing that she’s really not paying attention now because we’re getting so close to 50. 50? 50? Hardly, although she certainly does seem to have catapulted into a touch of senility.
Let me explain. Technically, my friend and I are in the decade that leads up to 50, but way way way on the young end of it. Barely there at all in fact. And, as my friends should be aware, and will be reminded if they ask, I’m younger than everyone I know. And staying that way.
Not that there’s anything wrong with 50. But there’s no need to get ahead of yourself. Not that you have any choice in how fast you age, but once that desperate looking-ahead to driving age and legal drinking status has passed, it’s time to relax and enjoy the ride.
There’s more to this than my personal refusal to accept that I’m getting older. I’m part of the baby bust, generation X if you remember back to that once-popular marketing term that took off after Douglas Coupland’s novel. All our lives we busters have trailed the baby boomers, that post-World War II span of high birthrates; that’s like growing up with a motormouthed, self-involved older sibling monopolizing mom and dad’s attention. (After all, when was the last time you heard the term “Gen X” used? We’re not the mass of boomers and we’re not so young, so who cares about selling to us anymore?)
Because they’re such a bunch of blabbermouths, I mean, because they have been breaking ground over the years in their openness to discuss personal issues, we’ve been hearing about what the boomers are doing and what they’re concerned about at every age – so that sometimes their concerns overshadowed our own. We couldn’t even spell sexuality, they were already having their ´60s hippies explorations and then 70´s disco decadence; so we ended up with Laugh-In go-go dancers, and gym class hustle lessons. Then, we were moving into the prime years to be concerned about contraception, just as some boomers started to worry about infertility; so news on IVF techniques filled health stories.
Now, with the oldest boomers into their 60s, we’re all being swept along as The Vagina Monologues crowds move on to Menopause: The Musical (well, perhaps not quite the same crowds). To go by the amount of chatter, we’re either all there already or are simply pre-menopausal, which is technically true (for women at least; men miss out on these clear hormonal cycle markers).
Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that previously taboo topics of life’s stages (I’m thinking more about women here, although who’s not comfy chatting about erectile disfunction these days?) are discussed more openly. Sharing information about what childbirth’s like, and illnesses, and what aging means, is a great help for people following behind and going through the same thing, and we could go further with openness. The bulbous generation will forge ahead on how to treat hot flashes, and what an aging neck really looks like. And I really hope boomers will sort out Medicare problems and the healthcare mess, and agitate for some gentle, respectful way to care for the elderly as their parents and they themselves face old age.
Heck, now, thanks to boomers sharing, I know all about breasts shrinking with age. And so I know what to watch develop (undevelop?). But…do I really want to have another detail of aging to focus on? Especially if there’s nothing (non-surgical) I can do about it?
And, yes, Nora (and you’re technically a pre-boomer, I see), my neck’s starting to bother me too – particularly after having seen an especially unflattering picture taken from a kid angle (pictures aimed up do no one any favors; my advice: don’t let your kids near a camera until they’re as tall as you are). But if it weren’t for having the title of your book stuck in my mind, maybe I wouldn’t have noticed it as much. I mean, don’t I have a few years before I need to buy a jaunty little scarf for my neck? In the meantime, I’d like to slap on some moisturizer and concentrate on other things than when my AARP subscription can start.
But the boomers’ concerns become everyone’s concerns. Or at least the concerns of anyone who chooses to pays attention to them. But at least if you pay attention there’s time to prepare for the next stage, which with my aging plan I figure won’t come for another 30, 40 years.

The Mommy Shift

Having spent much more time thinking about cleaning the house than actually doing it, I’ve mentally sorted housework into two categories: executive and shift work. Cleaning the house is mostly executive work, stuff that if it’s your responsibility, you do it whether or not your 40 hours for the week are up. Cleaning a bathroom, washing dishes, doing laundry, those are all things that can be time-shifted. Fewer of the household chores are shift work, meaning whoever’s on duty at the moment is responsible: things like letting in a plumber, replacing toilet paper (should be), taking out garbage (sort of, depending on your tolerance for stinkiness).
Taking care of young kids is a lot more shift work – just try telling a baby to wait when it’s hungry. There’s the basic watching, making sure they don’t decide to fly off the roof or something, and since kids don’t have a hibernate button, they need an adult or responsible substitute actually on-duty. Playing, changing diapers, meals, bedtimes, all are things that come up and that you can stall only briefly and usually at the cost of making more trouble for yourself. But things like buying shoes, making doctors’ appointments, finding preschools, and lots of the kid-related housework like washing clothes are all executive chores – things that wouldn’t be handled by a babysitter, for example. Well, maybe a Mary Poppins type. And though meals themselves are partly an of-the-moment kind of thing, somebody’s got to take a bit of an executive view of them, or else it’s take-out every night. (Those businesses that provide everything a cook needs to prep meals are making money off that idea).
It’s the executive nature of housewifery that created the second shift – the round of chores that working mothers and increasingly fathers come home to after paid employment. But it’s the on-call chores that create the mommy (and yes, daddy) shift. That’s the at-home parent’s round of work-for-pay that starts around 10 p.m. or so, after the kids are asleep and some of the dinner crumbs are wiped up. (The same time a working mom would pull out office papers too, of course, assuming she can keep her eyes open.)
I know mothers who have the main at-home responsibility for the kids and who also have some kind of part-time work going on, and that seems increasingly possible thanks to the Internet. Which seems like a great opportunity, until you get a whole crew of sleep-deprived moms in SUVs cruising around during the day. So why is there a mommy shift? Well, firstly, that kind of part-time, at-home work – like editing, transcription, eBaying – doesn’t support paying a lot of babysitter or daycare hours.
And secondly, it’s a reflection of Americans’ split-personality view of mothering. On the one hand it’s seen as so important we’ve created a new kind of Stay-at-Home Mother position, filled with scheduled classes and playdates and chauffeuring and enriching and shopping local and organic from pregnancy on. But on the other hand, mothering is seen as worth as much as it pays. What are you really doing, when you’re home with the kids? Nothing, right? So if you’re a stay-at-home mom, sure you can fit in some part-time work.
So whoopee, we can all work at home these days. Makes you want a nice cubicle to go nap in. Actually, working at home is a great option, but a child-filled house does lack a certain amount of the peace conducive to working that you’ll find in a grown-up office, not to mention you have to keep your short colleagues from stealing all your tape and staplers. I’m sure your kids are much more scheduled and self-sufficient than mine, but working at home means you’ll have interruptions and you’ll figure out a technique to nurse while typing on the computer and you’ll put in time on the mommy shift. And that’s true even in the preschool years, especially with the short hours of preschool a stay-at-home parent might choose (not to mention parenting time needed for illnesses, and school vacations, and doctors’ appointments, and recitals and so on). (I’m assuming schedules change with older kids, but I’ll get back to you on that.)
Smushing together parenting and working sells what moms do short, and it sells kids short. Kids certainly don’t need full-time, full-beam attention (and possibly less than all the directed adult attention some of them get these days), but caring for kids (and yes, the house too) is something real in itself, not something you can always do when you’re distracted (maybe only 90 percent of the time, depending on how much “Baby Einstein” you’re willing to crank on the TV).
Sure, moms used to strap the kid on their back and head out to gather nuts or whatever, but the sound of a computer keyboard isn’t quite as soothing as tramping through the fields. And in any case, once the kids got older they were left with an older child or relative. Sometimes a babysitter is the next best thing to a room of one’s own.

Grounds for Coffee

I don’t mean to sound like an effete little whiny Euro snob, but sometimes the stereotypes are true: Americans drink a lot of bad coffee. I’m back recently from a visit to the States and believe me, it was rough, coffee-wise.
I don’t mean the drinks at all these coffeehouses that have sprouted; I’m talking your average cup of joe that you can get at the corner diner, if that still exists. O.K., I know someone’s going to pipe up and say, “Hey, what about Starbucks? They’re all over and they have good coffee.” Well, yes, fine, maybe they do, but first of all, Starbucks isn’t really in the U.S. It’s the European coffeehouse as filtered through Seattle, meaning it’s a good place to discuss philosophy in the rain, or, in other words: Canada.
And then, I was visiting family, and my family’s not really a Starbucks kind of family. For one thing – and here I’ll share my own thinking but it must have come from somewhere – my kids might one day be interested in going to an American university and if so, that $17.50 per mucho mocha super gigantgrosso we’d shell out at Starbucks might well be missed. And then, for the calories in a mucho mocha etc., you can get a plain old black coffee and a donut at Dunkin’ Donuts.
Oh yes, we are a Dunkin’ Donuts kind of family. By the end of the trip Son the Elder was keeping track of how often you could spot a Dunkin’ Donuts, which in Rhode Island and the company’s home state of Massachusetts where we were driving around averages one per block. Hard to beat that convenience. And Son the Younger had made up his own tune to sing the advertising slogan his brother read to him off the donut bags.
So it’s clear what chain had claimed our loyalty this trip. All these chain places are in a coffee war or breakfast war or lunch war or something, so I expect we’ll be getting a thank-you note pretty soon.
No, I exaggerate, we didn’t really spend the whole trip driving from Dunkin’ to Dunkin’, but I did learn a coffee drinking secret of theirs, by accident. See, when I say “black coffee and a donut,” black coffee is what I intended to have, and what I usually drink in the U.S. But at Dunkin’ Donuts, while trying to communicate in what I thought was my native tongue, I ordered coffee. Now, as part of this foo-foo coffee trend everywhere (apparently I’m not the only one who’s noticed your average cup of coffee is not always so good), even ye olde Dunk has fancy coffees; so when the counterman asked me what kind of coffee I wanted, I asked for “just regular.” Which, as I sort of vaguely knew, but relearned with the first sip, at Dunkin’ Donuts means with cream and sugar. Which is actually quite tasty, and makes the coffee irrelevant, thanks to those extra calories tucked in. So that’s a slip I repeated accidentally on purpose.
Traveling around Europe, one of the things a coffee drinker can do is check the guidebook for each country on how coffee is served and the language to order it. I thought in the U.S. I’d have it down pat. Apparently not. Although Dunkin’s coffee quirk doesn’t bother me because it strikes me as a little piece of the chain’s regional background hanging on.
That’s like In-N-Out Burger’s “secret” ordering codes. The burger chain is a California institution and possibly the only chain that could be good enough and hip enough for both Paris Hilton and the late Julia Child to frequent. If you’re in the know, you can order in a special way instead of straight off the menu, like asking for an “animal-style” hamburger to up the condiments. Although at this point, if an uncool outsider like me has heard of the secret menu, it’s got to be well on its way from insider code to pure marketing schtick.
McDonald’s too, now that I think of it, offers a cheaper senior coffee that you can ask for even if it’s not on the menu. And their coffee is supposed to be relatively tasty these days. But that’s senior as in senior citizen, and I hope I’d have to be a bit more jet-lagged than I’ve been so far to look like I could order that one.
And Starbucks apparently has off-the-menu possibilities also. Like a small-sized, bargain-priced coffee you have to know to ask for. Which I might have to try sometime, if I can remember how to order it.
Gee, I thought I knew the lingo back home. This all makes café con leche look mighty easy.

Heavy Shopping

After all, you can’t grow out of a sofa. Well, you can, but it’s pretty hard to do and then you get featured on a reality show with the producers using a crane to take the wall off your house to get you out for emergency intervention. Typically women unhappy with some part of their body can satisfy their shopping jones with shoes and jewelry, but maybe we’ve hit the point where yes, you can grow out of those too. Calves too heavy for cool boots? A choker necklace just highlights the second chin? How about some new throw pillows and a shower curtain instead?

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Kosher Babies

Very clever all this hipster stuff, but if your mother didn’t go to Brown, she did go to Pembroke you know, (because they didn’t let women in in my day, and if you think that wasn’t tough, that’s another story)…. So we thought, these kids – if they see each other as cool and sexy and hip, or just that being Jewish doesn’t automatically make you a Woody Allan-type nebbish – maybe we’ll finally get to hear ourselves called “Bubbie” before it’s too late, God forbid.

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Zee Accent

Do you zink dat zee very French accent in English, she is amusing? Well, yes, I did too, until I became zee Inspector Clouseau of Spain.
Peter Sellers played Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther movies with heavily French-accented English as part of his humor. That French-ee akzent is a pretty standard amusing shtick, funny and even charming to native English-speakers´ ears.
And likewise in Spanish, in Spain at least, English-accented Spanish is a good joke. Which I knew before, but I´m more sensitive to it these days. Because I’ll be talking about something pretty darn dull like, say, mortgages, and I’ll see a smile creep across someone´s face. Sometimes they’ll try to suppress it, but it’s still clear to me. And I have nothing against spreading a little humor in people’s lives, but there are times it would be nice to be surer of a chance at being taken seriously.
Perhaps I´m a little sensitive, but every so often it’s obvious that I’ve got the stock joke accent. Like when a store clerk asked me to repeat the word ”newspaper” – ”periodico” – because she thought my pronunciation was so hilarious. So OK, the letter r is not my strong point; sometimes it has to be rolled, and forget it, but even the shorter ‘r’ is different from the English pronunciation and beyond my tongue’s abilities. And my vowels could be a little cleaner. And, you know, the rhythm´s off. But can I help it if I was born in an English-speaking household?
When I first learned Spanish, after I had been trying to mimic proper pronunciation for a while and saw it was not coming, I tried a speech therapist. But after a few sessions it was clear I was never going to sound like a native, and I preferred to spend the money elsewhere, like a café.
Because look at Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Henry Kissinger. They did OK, accents and all. Of course, I can’t think of any notable public figures in Spain with major non-native accents like mine. And there are differences between the U.S. and European common perception of what traits a citizen has, including accent, but we are all amused by a good one.
It’s just, does it have to be mine?

A Hausfrau Explains Global Warming

Al Gore was just on the front cover of the Sunday magazine of Spain’s leading daily newspaper as “The Prophet of Climate Change” with an interview inside where he talked up his movie “An Inconvenient Truth” (“Una verdad inconveniente”) about global warming and his concerns about the environment.
(That’s how the global news cycle works, by the way. Spaniards get exposed to U.S. trends in books, movies and ideas (at least the ones being well flacked) with a slight delay. Americans get Spanish thinkers on the cover of the NY Times Sunday magazine…um, never?)
It was a “preaching to the choir” interview, in part because Europe is considered a relative good guy for the environment. Or at least better than the U.S. When people are looking for an example of how the U.S. can be less wasteful of resources, some will point to Europe, which has a fine standard of living but is generally less piggish.
So I figure it’s time to look at a few ways this actually translates into daily life. For example, that most basic act of dailyness (well, not daily if you’re lucky) — going to the grocery store. Here, I’m mainly thinking of how it is in Spain, less environmentally conscious than Northern Europe but also with lower income levels so perhaps less wasteful for that reason (which is not to say that some of Spaniards’ bad habits aren’t increasing as income levels rise).
How do you get to the grocery? SUV? Super-sized SUV? Tank? A European might actually – walk.
And what do you have when you get there? Not as much stuff, that’s for sure. Like all the food storage stuff — big baggies, little baggies, throw-away containers, foil, waxed paper – exists, but with fewer brands and styles, so there’s not as much encouragement to wrap up a leftover pea in a hunk of plastic until it rots in the fridge and it’s time to throw it out. Want to save something? Use a plate. Or maybe Tupperware-style stuff (which of course can be reused).
Now what about after you’ve walked home with your little wheelie cart and want to haul your groceries into your apartment? The hall lights are on, right? Nope, try a timer switch that you need to hit when you walk in. Some public bathrooms also have timer-switch lights. Very short timers, occasionally.
Paper products likewise just aren’t flung around as much. I’m thinking about one of our typical meals with kids in the States, where you walk away from the table leaving behind a three-foot-high stack of crumpled paper napkins. Here quite often any napkin dispenser on the table has flimsy little tissue-paper-type napkin things. Parents just don’t leave the same kind of stack. I don’t know what they do. Maybe a cloth from home? You can’t tell me their kids are neater. Well, maybe you can.
The question is, are Americans interested in the small sacrifices necessary to save energy, trees, space in their toy boxes? Who knows?
Here’s one way to save gas. Two of my most car-alert American visitors have each wanted to wrap up one of these cuties and take it home in their suitcase. One insisted we walk in the showroom and get her a brochure, which went with her as a favorite souvenir. The other spent some vacation time on the Internet researching how much it might cost to import the car or to try to buy it in the U.S. Now the Smart car is apparently heading to the U.S., but part of what makes it so cute is the relatively low price in Europe, which might not be the case when it’s in the U.S. But the closer U.S. gas prices get to European levels, the cuter it might look.