Saturday, December 29, 2012

Random Thoughts

I had a wonderful Christmas and got a lot of nice gifts, though the nicest was the chance to be with family and to watch Edwin get passed around from Grandmother to Uncle to Cousin to Great-Aunt. It reminded me of the description of the !Kung people in Harvey Karp's book The Happiest Baby on the Block. In tribes like the !Kung, infants are constantly being passed between family members and fellow tribesmen and women. In fact, in some tribes, babies aren't even allowed to touch the ground until at least one year of age. Talk about attachment parenting! Although I don't think this is feasible in our society, a recent article in Newsweek reported that children in hunter-gatherer societies, where the village raises the child, grow up to be much more confident and independent, with stronger social skills and better formed personalities, than Western-society children do.

This post just got away from me. I had meant to write about charitable donations, and how I find it difficult to choose a pet charity to give my money to. Does anyone have any charities that they are particularly devoted to? Why that specific one? My parents give a lot of money to charity, and they sometimes ask me where I'd like a donation to go in my name. I usually say the Make-A-Wish foundation or the American Cancer Society, but I know there are other wonderful foundations out there. It's hard to decide what I'm most passionate about. Curing cancer? Cleaning up the environment? Promoting music in our schools? Literacy programs? Saving animals? How do I choose when everything is so important? How do you choose?

Lastly, for those of you waiting for the Wallaby Christmas story sequel, it may be coming soon. I got several pages of good material and then kind of burned out with all the holiday hoopla. I know I'll finish it at some point, but if it takes me awhile I might wait until next Christmas to publish or post it. Just to give you a little preview, it's about a character who is only mentioned once in Sugar and Spice, and her secret obsession with a popular book series.

I can't think of another random topic, so I'll sign off here. Enjoy the last weekend of 2012!

Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Miracle

My son is playing baby Jesus in the nativity scene at church this evening. We really don't know whether he'll smile or cry, but either way, it'll be a memory for Christmases to come, and we'll always be able to tell him, "Hey, you better behave- you were Jesus!"

As the holiday approaches, I've been thinking a lot about faith. I was raised devoutly Catholic. Both of my parents were (and still are) very involved with the church, and we did many church-centered activities as a family, including prayer, saying rosaries, performing music at mass, even participating in family retreats. I found comfort in these rituals as a child and young teenager, but after I got cancer, I had much more trouble with my faith. I still believed God existed, but something major had happened to shake the belief that He was watching out for me. I'm sure this happens at least once in everyone's lives, even the most devoted. Tragedies, heartbreaks and deaths tend to have that effect. But I never really recovered from it, even after I went into remission. It didn't help that in college, especially grad school, I became interested in politics and picked up a lot of liberal ideas that didn't mesh well with the Catholic church. Not knowing how to reconcile the religion of my childhood with the social beliefs of my adulthood, I stopped going to mass altogether.

However, something happened last December that has slowly brought some of that faith back: becoming pregnant with my son. I'm a natural skeptic, especially about religion, but even I believe that Edwin's conception was an absolute miracle. I had to make adjustments to my thyroid medication in order to start trying to conceive, and the most recent test I'd had showed that my levels were still much too high. According to my doctors, I shouldn't have been able to conceive. Moreover, even after additional adjustments, my levels were high enough that there was a real risk of miscarriage in the first trimester. And yet, Edwin was conceived, unexpectedly but blessedly, and he thrived. It makes sense that he came when he did. Christmas has always been a significant time for my husband and me. We started dating, got engaged, and bought our first home, all during Christmas seasons. It's only natural that our baby would have originated then as well.

A baby is a miracle no matter what the circumstances. But I feel like the gift of Edwin during an unexpected but special time made him an extra-big miracle. Since his birth, I've seen so many positive changes in my life. He's made me a better, more patient person and given me joy far beyond my expectations. He's brought my husband and me even closer together. I've seen new sides of my parents and parents-in-law as they've become grandparents for the first time, and the whole extended family is lightened when he is in our midst. It's not hard to believe in miracles, or God, or the Christmas spirit, when something so transformative as a loving, charming, sweet baby comes into your life.

God bless you all, if you believe in God, and if not, may the spirit of the season inspire you and give you peace and joy.

And God, if you're listening, my Christmas wish this year is for a night of uninterrupted sleep. Please?

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Reading Your Fears

I'm not sure why this happens, but occasionally I find myself reading books that mirror my life in odd ways.

For example, I just finished reading Nantucket Nights by Elin Hilderbrand, and am now reading Little Earthquakes by Jennifer Weiner. Both books (spoiler alert) contain characters who have recently lost babies to SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). Coincidentally, the babies in both books were ten weeks old. My son is almost fifteen weeks and has been perfectly, beautifully healthy thus far, but I can't read these books in sequence and not walk around with the fear that something so terrible could happen to him, too. The thought plagues me every time I put him to sleep, much more now than it had before I read the books. If I had known about these plot points, I wouldn't have started the books in the first place, but I didn't realize it until I was far enough in to be engaged with the other characters. So I'm just sticking it out until it's over, and the next book I read will have absolutely nothing to do with babies or mothering at all.

Incidentally, Little Earthquakes, other than the SIDS-affected character, is a great book for new mothers. Each of the three new mothers in the book has different parenting styles, marriage situations and life challenges, and it provides a good perspective for those who think there's only one best way to raise a child.

Do you sometimes find that books you read have eerie connections to your life, or hit a little too close to home with a fear or an insecurity?

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


I did it.

I finished my historical fiction novel!

87,026 words. 214 pages (1.5 spaced). Thousands of hours of writing and research.

I began it during the school year a couple of years ago, working from 5:15-6:15 AM most days of the week. Then I put it aside for awhile to work on other projects, but I kept up my research, since I was interested in the time period and event I fictionalized. I finally picked it up again a few weeks before Edwin was born, editing the 32,000 words I already had and deciding how to continue it.

There were times that I didn't know where the novel was going and what the characters would do next, and I dreaded sitting down to write for the day. But I kept at it, 1,000 words a day, as many days as possible, and just over three months after Edwin's birth, it's finished. Finished! I can't really believe it's true.

There's still a lot of work to be done, of course. This is only a first draft, and I have many things to fix and change, many revisions to make, many more drafts to go through before it's ready to see the light of day. (Though I will probably ask for friends and family to step in and help me read and edit after a few more drafts.) But the hardest part is over. All the paint is on the canvas; now I just have to keep it wet and move it around until it's picture perfect.

12/12/12 is a very special day for me! I hope it's special for you too!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Valued Opinion

I recently had the pleasure of introducing my father to a series of books he now loves. It made me feel really good to do this, and I started to think about why. The obvious reasons are that:

1. In a small way, I made my dad happy
2. I can share my enjoyment of these books with him.

I go out of my way to do things like this. I recommend TV shows, sometimes even pushing DVD copies into my friends' hands. I recommend magazines and cookie recipes. Mostly, I recommend books, because my friends and family know that I'm a voracious reader of varied styles and subjects. Therefore I am more of an "expert" on books than I am on most other things. (Except perhaps teaching elementary music, because I actually have a degree in that. But the correct way to crow on a reed is not something that often comes up in conversations with "normal"- that is, non-musical- people.) And I obviously enjoy recommending books, because that's what this blog was about for an entire year.

But I think the main reason I like recommending isn't the altruistic one of making my dad or others happy, or the warm-and-fuzzy one of sharing a love of something. It's because, like every human, I like it when my opinion is valued and validated by others. If someone likes what I recommended, I take credit for my opinion. I am given the pride of knowing that I correctly assessed what someone else would like. This reflects positively on both my ability to evaluate art (books, TV shows) and people (like my dad).

This is the kind of thing my ego needs more of these days, as my professional opinion is not being utilized, and my opinion as a mother is pretty much limited to conversations with my husband. I guess that's why I have this blog!

Monday, December 3, 2012

Stay Tuned...

This is just a quick post to let you know that I'm working on a few things that might preclude new posts for a little while. I'm so close to the end of my novel that I'm making that my highest priority, but I'm also working on a new Christmas story, possibly a sequel to last year's Sugar and Spice. Read it so you're familiar with the Wallaby Women when the time comes!

I'd like to post the new story in the next few weeks. So if you're not seeing new blog posts, it's because I'm working on other big things! Stay tuned!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Mothers, Take The Time You Need

I accomplished a lot of great things this November. The most important, of course, was taking care of our baby. We finally taught him to take a bottle and figured out the food that caused his acid reflux (smoked salmon, weirdly). I stopped getting sprayed when I changed his diaper, which improved the laundry situation. Occasionally I even got 3-4 hours of sleep at a time.

More importantly, I watched Edwin learn to knit his fingers together, start recognizing the cat, roll most of the way over, and laugh uncontrollably when his Daddy makes fart noises. We also had a successful first holiday where I was able to eat a whole Thanksgiving dinner (thanks, Nanna!) and enjoyed many other family gatherings. Now we're enjoying introducing him to his first Christmas milestones: first tree, first stocking, first viewing (of many) of National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.

However, I also set and met two other goals that were very important to me:

1. I exercised at least 4 times each week and managed to lose another 4 pounds, which means I've now lost more than 2/3, almost 3/4 of my pregnancy weight.

2. I wrote 20,000 words of my novel. It's almost finished! This is the accomplishment I'm most excited about. I started with about 35,000 words before Edwin was born. Now I'm at 79,000. To give you some perspective, most first novels are around 80,000 words. I think I have between 10,000 and 15,000 left to tell the story, and then some editing down to do. I'm so excited for the day I get to say, "I wrote a novel," not, "I'm working on a novel." Barring any major disruptions, that day will come before Christmas.

I also managed to keep my house clean and our laundry baskets from overflowing.

I'm not writing about this to toot my own horn (though I am proud of meeting these goals). I want to make a point that even with an infant at home- even with the countless hours it takes just to feed him, get him to sleep, keep him from fussing when awake, and even with the extreme unpredictability of time- it is possible to do things for yourself.

The narrative of motherhood in this country, especially of stay-at-home mothers, is that of complete martyrdom: spending every waking hour (and the sleeping ones too) taking care of the child, and taking no time for yourself. I believe that is both unhealthy and unnecessary. I know I can take better care of my baby if I'm healthy myself, which means taking care of my body and my mind, equally. If I don't exercise, I won't feel good. If I don't write.... well, I can't not write. It's like not breathing for me.

So I exercise in the morning while Edwin plays on his activity mat, happily squealing at his friend Ocho, the blue octopus. I write on my laptop with one arm circling his head, propped with a pillow, while I'm nursing him. I don't count on his sleeping time because it varies so much day to day, but I usually use that time to clean and do laundry. Edwin doesn't miss this time with me, because he's otherwise engaged. And even if he wasn't, he likes to watch me do things, and it's a learning experience for him to see me exercise, fold laundry or bake cookies. (I doubt he gets much out of watching me type, which is why I don't do that when he's awake and not eating.)

Things would certainly be harder if I didn't have the time off from my teaching job or helpful family members. But since motherhood of an infant definitely takes up more hours than a standard full-time job, I consider myself a working woman who is still meeting her personal goals.

So mothers, take some time for yourself. Don't wait until New Year's to make a resolution! Set some goals for this month that don't involve your family, the house, or holiday planning. You may not be able to do everything, but if you prioritize and look for the time in your day, you can achieve something meaningful to you. I promise you, at the end of the month, meeting that goal is going to feel fantastic.

Thursday, November 29, 2012


More places should have drive-throughs, specifically for parents with infants. I appreciate that I can do my banking, get my coffee, and pick up my prescriptions without getting Edwin out of his car seat. But that's not enough. We need drive-through grocery stores, libraries and department stores. Wouldn't it be great to pull up to a Target and order a high chair to go? Or request a library book through an open window? Or best of all, drive by a Hannaford and pick up cold cuts and milk?

Moreover, all the drive-throughs should have roundabouts attached. That way, while you wait for your food/prescription/bank slip, you can drive around in circles so the baby doesn't wake up just because the car has stopped. (Parents, you know what I'm talking about. Green lights = continued peace and quiet. Red lights = holding your breath, waiting for the crying to start.)

Or walk-throughs would be fine, too, with stroller privileges.

Of course, we're really quite blessed by the internet. Online shopping means I rarely NEED to leave the house for errands. I can get groceries delivered to my door, and Amazon provides nearly everything else (getting the Prime membership for free shipping was the smartest thing I did to prepare for the baby's arrival). I can't have library books delivered, but I can pay for Kindle downloads. How did our parents' generation do it? 

Just because I don't need to go out for errands, though, doesn't mean I don't want to. And for those times, I'd love more drive-throughs. I didn't appreciate them enough before having the baby. Before that, I could just as easily decide to walk into the store if the line was long. Now that involves much more hassle, and when the baby was less than 2 months old, there was no choice at all, as our doctor didn't want him out in public until his first round of vaccines was through.

At least I can always go to Starbucks.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

November Thankfulness

This month, on Facebook, I joined some of my friends by daily posting something I was thankful for, leading up to Thanksgiving. Here are all of my posts for the month. Thanksgiving is so early this year, there were only 21!

11/1- Today I'm thankful for my little boy's smile!
11/2- Today I'm thankful for my husband always asking if I need anything when he's on his way home!
11/3- Today I am thankful for my mother-in-law, who gave me a gift certificate to my favorite massage place for no reason at all! I used it today and feel great!
11/4- Today I am thankful for my great-grandmother's chicken soup recipe. The most delicious "Jewish Penicillin" ever. Serving it with matzoh balls for dinner tonight!
11/5- Today I am thankful for my good health, and the fact that it didn't take me very long at all to feel completely recovered from pregnancy and labor. My son's first 8 weeks would have been a lot harder if I hadn't had that in my favor!
11/6- Today I am thankful that I have the right to vote for my country's leaders. And I really, really hope that tomorrow I can be thankful that Barack Obama is still president.
11/7- Today I'm thankful that the election is over and we can all try to come together as a country again. Last June I did a piece about a baseball game with my 4th grade band at Beekman, and we all wore baseball caps. I told the audience, "We're all wearing hats of opposing teams, but we're still making music together." That's what this country needs to do now.
11/8- Today I am thankful for disposable diapers! Best. Invention. Ever.
11/9- Today I am thankful for my dad, who gives so much of himself to care for his family, and is one of my favorite people to spend time with! Going for SoCo milkshakes today!
11/10- Today I am thankful for funny television shows!
11/11- Today I am thankful for my son skipping a night feeding for the first time! I was only up for half an hour in the middle of the night!
11/12- After the first night of "sleeping through the night," Edwin woke up about thirty times last night. So I guess today what I'm thankful for is coffee!
11/13- Today I am thankful for my Ari, who has been my beautiful companion for eight years this month.
11/14- Today I am thankful for our comfortable home. I've spent a lot of time in it for the last several months, and I still love it!
11/15- Today I am thankful for online shopping! Much easier than taking Edwin out to buy Christmas presents. And it has the added bonus of getting excited when the FedEx truck comes up the street!
11/16- Today I am thankful for chocolate!
11/17- Today I am thankful for a much-needed nap! Thanks to my mother-in-law for watching the baby, the baby for not needing to eat, and Ari for being a very snuggly, purry nap partner!
11/18- Today I am thankful for my collection of CHRISTMAS TREE SPODE that I am getting out TODAY!
11/19- Today I am thankful for the elliptical in my basement so I can work out while Edwin plays on his mat!
11/20- Today I am thankful for the comfortable, private nursing room at the Danbury mall! How thoughtful of the architects. So glad I've been giving this mall my business for so many years!
11/21- Today I am thankful for so many things! I'm thankful that my husband is home for 5 days; that we have a lot of family time planned; that the Christmas season officially starts tomorrow, and we are already decorating; that we are taking Edwin to our favorite diner for the first time this morning! But the thing I am most thankful for is the sound of my son laughing last night, over and over again, at my husband's silly noises. There is no feeling in the world like hearing your baby really laugh for the first time!

And here's my last one for today, Thanksgiving day:

11/22- Today I am thankful for the written word. Whether I am reading or writing them, words are the love of my life.

Except my family, of course!

Happy Thanksgiving America!

Love this Norman Rockwell painting!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Symbol of Spode

Today, in early anticipation of the season, I got out my treasured Christmas Tree Spode. For those of you who don't know the pattern, it looks like this:

I have a pretty big collection, as my family adds to it each Christmas, and it gives me great pleasure to eat, drink, and serve from it. I love the day I unpack it, sometime around Thanksgiving, and loathe the day I have to put it away, usually around mid-January when my husband starts getting sick of it. (Or maybe he gets sick of it sooner and just waits until then to tell me.)

Every year as I unpack the Spode, I can't help but remember the year my collection began. To give you some back story, I've loved Christmas Tree Spode ever since I was a teenager and my father started collecting it, based on his own childhood memories. My dad always said that he'd give me my starter set of Spode the first Christmas after I was married. This was a running promise for many years. But he didn't wait that long. Instead, my parents chose to gift me with my starter set the year I was twenty-two and had just moved out of the house. I had just graduated college and started my first job, and I was seriously dating my now-husband. I'm sure they saw me as having started the process of settling down. They were very excited to give it to me, and saved it for our traditionally special "last gift" opened on Christmas morning. I still remember my family all gathered around me as I opened the cardboard box to reveal the familiar Christmas tree pattern.

And I promptly burst into tears.

I'm not usually a crying sort of person, so my reaction, understandably, took my parents aback. I wasn't crying because I hated the gift; I was crying because of that long-standing promise they'd made to give me the Spode when I got married. If they were giving it to me early, it meant that they thought I was a Real Adult. Only Real Adults owned special holiday china. And I didn't feel ready for that title yet.

Years later, I've grown into my ownership of the Spode. I've brought my Spode from a roommate's house, to an apartment of my own, to a larger apartment with my boyfriend/fiance/husband, to our own first home. And today I unpacked it with my ten week old son watching me from the cradle in the kitchen. I'm definitely a Real Adult now, and I'm proud to be one.

The Spode is a symbol of me growing up. But it's just a symbol, and that's why today, in the middle of unpacking it, I stopped for a few minutes to pick up my son and dance with him around the kitchen as he giggled and pressed his cheek against mine. Because it's his turn to grow up now, and he's going to get all the special Christmas memories I can give him.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

My Favorite (Pregnancy) Things

I have a few friends who are either pregnant or trying to conceive, and as I've recently survived a rather challenging pregnancy, I've been thinking about advice I could give them. Since I try not to give my unsolicited opinion about serious issues like diet, prenatal vitamins and whether to find out the sex of the baby, I think I'll confine my advice to products that I was very grateful for during those nine months. Here's the list of my favorite (pregnancy) things:

1. My body pillow. Such a lifesaver, it helped me sleep so much better, and now it's become useful on the couch as an aid to nursing or snuggling the baby. I didn't get one of those expensive ones from Babies R Us, just a cheap one from Target and an equally cheap cover. Total bargain.

2. My prenatal yoga DVD. I credit it completely with my ability to touch my toes at nine months pregnant. I also think my body bounced back fairly quickly after delivery because I kept myself in good shape as much as possible. The DVD I used was Prenatal Yoga by Shiva Rea.
I also liked the Quick Fix Prenatal Workout for maintaining muscle tone in my arms.

3. My heating pad. Completely invaluable during month eight. Weirdly, I had no back pain at all in month nine.

4. My Birkenstock sandals. Easy to slip on and yet stayed on my feet, unlike flip-flops. The only problem is, they molded to my pregnancy-weight feet, so now they're set wrong for my normal weight. But at least I got good use out of them for one summer.

5. My iPad. When I was so sick during my first trimester, I spent hours and hours in bed, with the iPad on my lap, watching bad TV shows on Netflix- Gossip Girl, Greek and many more. It was a good distraction.

6. In the same vein, my husband and I spent many hours playing gin rummy and watching either Deal or No Deal or The West Wing during my last trimester.

7. Avocados. They were my only weird craving. I ate them almost every day and freaked out when I didn't have any in the house.

Looking over this list, I realize that it's not all that helpful. But it was interesting for me to think back on that time and what helped get me through. I can't say I'd ever look forward to being pregnant again, but if so, at least I'll be more prepared. And you should all buy stock in Hass Avocados beforehand.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

My Cancer's Better Than Your Cancer

Thyroid cancer has been in the news lately, since the celebrity Brooke Burke-Charvet was diagnosed with it. I didn't know who she was, but apparently she's the co-host of Dancing With the Stars. (I'm a So You Think You Can Dance girl, myself.) It's nice that thyroid cancer is getting some attention, because it's largely ignored by foundations and fundraisers. It doesn't have a month devoted to it, or even a ribbon. And yet it's one of the few cancers that is actually on the rise in the U.S., particularly in women.

I should probably stop here and reveal that I myself am a thyroid cancer survivor. I had to fight it pretty aggressively for four years in high school. Thankfully, I've been in remission for a long time, but there are certain things I'm never going to recover from. I have to take thyroid hormone supplements for the rest of my life, and that's a constant frustration. Over the years, I've had many and varied medical issues, ranging from severe stomach pain to hair loss, that resulted from an imbalance of thyroid hormone. I have frequent blood tests and dosage changes, especially when I was pregnant. I was also at increased risk for being unable to conceive, then of miscarriage, and finally of the baby not growing sufficiently in utero (thankfully, Edwin's a hearty Sowul). I also have had openly visible scars on my neck from my fourteenth birthday onward. And of course there's the emotional baggage that only comes from having cancer.

I say all this not to complain. I'm actually quite proud of being a cancer survivor and think it gave me a unique perspective on life at a young age. But my point is this: it was still CANCER. And the folks at Yahoo! news don't seem to think it's that big a deal.

Here's just one article on Brooke Burke-Chavet's diagnosis. Most of the articles I've read and news clips I've watched say similar things: thyroid cancer is the best type to have; it has a good rate of recovery; the treatment is fairly simple.

Yahoo! News: Brooke Burke-Charvet Diagnosed with "Good" Cancer

Out of those three points, I'll give them one half. I'll agree that thyroid cancer has a good rate of recovery. The surgery isn't as risky as the one for, say, cervical cancer, and the cancer's often caught before its metastasized. On the other side of the coin, though, it can be a very aggressive cancer in younger people, and needs to be attacked accordingly. Like most cancers, it also has a risk for relapse at any point in the patient's life, and puts him/her at higher risk for other cancers as well. And the surgery, while safer than some, carries risk of damage to the voice box and, if lymph nodes are infected, to shoulder musculature (I can't raise my left arm as high as my right for this reason).

As for the treatment, Yahoo! news makes it sound like all the patient needs to do is have the surgery and then take a few radioactive iodine pills, and she'll be fine. It's a lot more complicated than that. I had four surgeries, because the cancer kept spreading to my lymph nodes. And the radio-iodine therapy involves extended stays in hospital isolation rooms. The patient is essentially radioactive, and can't go near other people. It's like being a leper. I'm sure the procedures have gotten a lot more efficient and effective since I went through them (the radioactive iodine I took was in a drink, not a pill; I had to be isolated in a room covered with yellow tarps; and everything I took into the room with me had to be disposed of afterward). But it's still not as simple as "have the surgery, take some pills, you're done."

And to the last point, that thyroid cancer is the best type to have? I feel like that diminishes the difficulties that I and other thyroid cancer survivors endured. Our stories are just as valid as those suffering from other cancers. Our families went through just as much trauma and fear. Our lives were just as disrupted, and we felt just as fragile. 

So to Brooke Burke-Charvet, and to all the other thyroid cancer patients and survivors out there:

Join with me and give our cancer a voice, so that the world will stop dismissing it as "the best cancer" and understand that emotionally, all cancers are created equal.

UPDATE: If you are interested in learning more about thyroid cancer, or would like to donate to thyroid cancer research, here's a great place to start: THYCA

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Only Once

My son's having a growth spurt this week, and overnight he stopped fitting into his newborn-sized footie pajamas. He's a very tall boy, and has been pushing the lengths of the one-piece outfits for awhile, but it still came as a sad shock. My son will never fit into newborn-sized pajamas again. He'll never again be that tiny.

People keep telling me to enjoy every moment, because it's so fleeting. It's the one piece of parenting advice that I always take seriously (though I've been given a lot of other very helpful tips). I think a lot of parents go into the experience of first children thinking that there might be a second chance for those special moments of first smiles, first laughs and first words. After all, even though there has been an upswing of only children, most people in the United States have siblings, and I don't see that changing anytime soon.

Contrary to that norm, I'm approaching this experience as if I'm never going to have another child. It's possible that I won't (sorry, grandparents). I like the idea of having one child to focus on and nourish instead of splitting our attention between two. I like knowing we'd have more money to take our son on exciting vacations, give him enriching learning experiences and buy him expensive musical instruments. And I don't really buy the argument that all children need siblings to play with. I could never imagine life without my sister, but not all siblings are as close as we are. My best friend grew up an only child and is one of the most self-assured, well-adjusted people I know. That's what friends are for.

Not to mention that I didn't enjoy being pregnant at all. I was sick a lot, and I never got comfortable with the fact that my body was not my own.

But I also "never say never" about the future. I didn't know if I wanted children in the first place, until something changed and I realized I did. I don't assume that my present self has the amount of wisdom and insight that my future self will, and therefore I don't try to make decisions for her.

What I do know is that if my future self decides not to have another child, I want to know that I didn't squander the special moments with my son. So I'm extra mindful of living in the moment, knowing that it might be the only chance I get.

I think that's a good way to live life.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Rowling Update & Recent Reads

I thought the NY Times reviewed The Casual Vacancy very well here:

NY Times Review- The Casual Vacancy

The reviewer saw more of the "societal ills" aspect to the book than I did, and after seeing Rowling do a few interviews on the subject, it was clear that for her, addressing those themes was the focus, even the impetus, of the novel. Maybe I needed to be hit over the head with it a little more, because that didn't completely come through for me. But I defer to the Times and to Rowling who both obviously know better than I.

Here's my original post on the book:

The Casual Vacancy

Other books I've read lately:

The Blue Bistro by Elin Hilderbrand- not my favorite of hers, but still a fun read.

Night Road by Kristin Hannah- excellent, a real tearjerker.

Three Girls and a Wedding/ Three Girls and a Leading Man by Rachel Schurig. I read the first in the series, Three Girls and a Baby, over the summer and liked it. It's nothing heavy, but the "three girls" are written well and have a great friendship

The Virgin's Lover by Philippa Gregory. I hated this book. I loved her Henry VIII books, so I was extremely disappointed by this one, which is about the early days of Elizabeth I's reign. It was so badly written that I had to stop reading it. The characters were wooden and the descriptions, particularly the adverbs, were repetitive and cringe-worthy.

I also read a biography of a woman who taught in a one-room schoolhouse in rural Arizona circa 1909-1913, which was interesting, but I forgot the author's name.

A lot of women's lit there, and I'm starting to tire of it. I need some male authors, some crime novels, maybe a mystery or two. Any suggestions? I'm reading even more now (still love that Kindle during baby feeding time) so I need help!

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Halloween Hater

It's my son's first Halloween, which should be filling me with excitement. But it's not. Because though he's too young to know it now, eventually he's going to find out that his mother is a not-so-closeted Halloween Hater.

I'm not really sure how this started for me. When I was younger, I liked Halloween. I dressed up in cute costumes, often coordinated with my little sister. (One memorable year, I was a car and she was a traffic light.) I went trick-or-treating, sometimes in my grandparents' neighborhood (we didn't have one), sometimes at the mall. I liked looking at the other costumes. I remember one of the years at the mall seeing someone dressed up as a flushing toilet. I also, of course, liked the candy. But sometime during my teenage years, that all changed.

The obvious theory is that my Halloween Hatred stemmed from the year my parents, worried about safety, wouldn't let me go trick-or-treating alone with my friends. While I don't blame them for this now (it's not even on the infamous "list of things Mom and Dad did to screw up Leanne's life" that I joke about with them now and then) at the time I remember it causing me a lot of angst and anger. But I also remember dressing up at school for the couple of years following that event, so I couldn't have been overly scarred at that time.

I guess it's as simple as this: as an adult, I just don't GET Halloween. It's a holiday based solely on greediness, scaring people for no reason, and changing who you are for one night. It's not a holiday about family or spirituality or giving. It's the opposite of that. It's about visiting strangers and pagan rituals and getting. None of which are positive things, at least to me.

It's also a lot of bother. Spending time and money on a costume I'm only going to wear for one night? No thank you. Watching scary movies that will keep me awake later? Nope. Buying tons of candy and traipsing up and down the stairs all night to heed the call of the doorbell? A major pain.

But now I have a son, and chances are, at least during his childhood years, he's going to love Halloween. So I need to get over my Halloween Hatred and find some redeeming feature of the holiday. I can only hope that his excitement over it will be infectious.

In the meantime, I'll be spending my Halloween looking forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas, two holidays I love and will spend lots of time and effort on.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Boy Toys

Yesterday, my son received a great gift from his Great-Uncle and Aunt: an interactive play yard. He had a blast with it, and it was so much fun for me too, getting to see him interact with objects and learn about cause-and-effect. But it got me thinking. This is only the first in a long series of toys I'm going to watch him play with. As a woman, a fairly girly woman at that, and one with no brothers growing up, I have no experience with "boy" toys. Sure, I played with Matchbox cars when I was really little, but most of my childhood was about Barbies, Rainbow Brite and playing dress-up. Am I going to cut it when it comes to playing with my son?

It could turn out that the toys he chooses will be gender-neutral- or who knows, even stereotypically "girly" (and if that happens, I won't discourage him) but chances are, there are Transformers, dinosaurs and guns in my future. I just don't get any of those things.
Transformers: What's the appeal of something that turns into something else? Who needs the option when you're always going to have a favorite version?
Dinosaurs: Cool, and can lead to lessons about history, but not something I'd ever obsess over as some little boys seem to.
Guns: Definitely not for me. I hate guns. But there was a story recently about the deaf boy who wasn't allowed to use the special sign for his name because it looked like a finger pointing a gun. In the wake of that, some research came out that boys naturally start playing "gun"- using their fingers, arms and voices to make gun motions and sounds- even when they've had little to no exposure to the real thing. Am I on board with that, or will I discourage it because it makes me so uncomfortable? I'm not sure.

Fortunately, my son does have a father who played with plenty of boy toys, and will probably be able to pick up my slack in this area. I can always stick to arts and crafts, reading and baking cookies. But I hope I'll learn to love what my son loves, even if its not something I'm naturally inclined toward. Childhood is so fleeting, and I want to make the most of it by spending time with my son doing what he loves to do. I'm grateful that right now, that means watching him kick, grab and learn!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Sing You Home

Last week, my late-night reading was very enjoyable. I could hardly put this book down to go to sleep:

I've always loved Jodi Picoult. She tackles sensitive, controversial subjects- abortion, euthanasia and child molestation, to name a few- and sets them in a narrative with very real characters representing strong opposing positions. Some have criticized her work as formulaic, and it's true she usually writes her way into a court case, with the verdict being the climax. But I don't see this as any sort of drawback, because as predictable as the formula may be, her characters are anything but. Moreover, her endings are nearly always a surprise, even for her most dedicated readers.

Sing You Home revolves around a music therapist named Zoe who has tried for years to get pregnant with her husband Max. When their final IVF attempt ends in stillbirth, the couple breaks apart. After their divorce, Zoe starts spending time with a guidance counselor named Vanessa, and after a few months of increased closeness, realizes that she wants a romantic relationship with her. Zoe and Vanessa get married in a neighboring state, and decide to try having a child with the three remaining frozen embryos from Zoe's last IVF. Zoe can no longer carry a child, so Vanessa will be the birth mother. But when Zoe approaches Max about the embryos, she finds that Max, previously a surfer and a heavy drinker, has sobered up and become a born-again Christian. Max's pastor, who he credits with saving his life, doesn't agree with a lesbian couple raising Max's children, and he presses Max to file a lawsuit preventing Zoe from using the embryos. Instead, he suggests that Max give the embryos to Max's brother and sister-in-law, a devout Christian couple who also have infertility problems.

What I liked best about this book was that even though I knew Jodi Picoult's agenda- her son is gay, and she's very clear about her advocacy for LGBT rights- I still thought the opposing characters, such as Max's pastor, brother and sister-in-law, were well-researched and written. They were not wooden, but passionate on the subject of the Bible and anti-homosexuality. Some might say that Picoult likes to bash the Christian right, and that may be true. But she does do her research among those she disagrees with: for this book, she interviewed several members of "Focus on the Family" to get her characters straight (no pun intended).

This book brought up a lot of thoughts for me about faith, religion and morality, and how those three things both overlap and stand alone.

For more information on Sing You Home, including the research and intent behind the book, visit Jodi Picoult's comprehensive website here: Jodi Picoult Sing You Home.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Living in the Moment

I've never been very good at living in the moment. I'm always thinking about what happened in the past, or planning for the future. I've improved since meeting my husband, who is more laid-back, much better at appreciating the small things in life, and is always finding something to laugh about. We've rubbed off on each other over the years, and now I'm a better relaxer. But there's nothing that teaches someone about appreciating every minute like having a baby.

You're going to think that I'm saying since babies grow so fast, I've learned that I need to enjoy every milestone, big or small, and all the moments in between. While that's true, I also mean appreciating every minute in the more literal sense. As in, I literally don't know what the next minute will bring. Right now my baby's sleeping soundly- but one minute from now, he could be wailing his head off, and I'll be dropping what I'm doing to go to him. There are things I need and things I want to accomplish in any given day, but I have no idea when the opportunities for each will arise. I will eventually eat lunch, but it might be hours after I first felt hungry. I will find time to write, but I have to wait until he's asleep. Yes, there are a few things under my control- taking a walk with the stroller guarantees at least a short nap time, and putting the baby in my baby-wearing pack means I'll be able to get some household chores done- but anything can get interrupted, at any minute, by the baby's needs, which are currently more important, or at least more urgent, than mine.

What's surprising to me is how well I've adapted to this. It still sometimes disappoints me when I don't get everything accomplished that I'd like. But overall, I'm adjusting well to my days going slower and with much less predictability. For someone who is a major planner, whose favorite pastimes include making lists of goals and things to do, and who has been known to resist major life changes, I'm kind of impressed with my ability to live in a completely foreign way. It's like I've picked up a whole new life-skills set.

At some point, this time will pass, and life will become more scheduled again. Bedtime will be at a set time; meals will be by the clock and not by demand; the baby will be able to communicate his needs with words and not sounds. But I hope when it does that I hold onto the skill of living in the moment. Because as cliche as it sounds, the moment we're in is the only one we're guaranteed to have. That makes me want to love and enjoy life and family as much as I can, with every moment I have.

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Casual Vacancy

It took me a few nights of steady reading, but I finally finished J.K. Rowling's new book, The Casual Vacancy. 

I want to preface this review with a few disclaimers.

1. I did not read any other reviews, either before or after reading this book, because I didn't want them clouding my own opinion. (I did accidentally notice that it got 3 stars on Amazon when I was looking for a new Kindle download.)

2. I will not let my feelings for Harry Potter affect my feelings for this book. I am already aware that no book could ever compare, so my expectations are are adjusted accordingly. But I am going to use my knowledge of Rowling's previous work to inform my thoughts on her current work.

I'm not going to synopsize the entire plot here, because it's incredibly complicated. Here's a simplified version:

The town of Pagford is divided over the issue of an adjacent housing project called the Fields, and a connected issue regarding the fate of a methadone lab that services many of the Fields' residents. The two issues are hotly debated in the Parish council, and two votes are forthcoming to allow the neighboring town to annex the Fields, and to withdraw the lease on the meth lab building. At the height of the debate, the Fields' most passionate supporter on the council, Barry Fairbrother, collapses of a heart attack. This is where the book begins. The rest of the book tells the stories of all the lives affected by Barry's death, the two Pagford issues, and the fight over the now-vacant Parish council seat. The cast of characters is vast and diverse, spanning from a bra-shop owner who tans too much and is obsessed with an American pop icon, to a very overweight, very prominent citizen of Pagford who is having a secret affair with his ugly (female) business partner, to an extremely troubled teenager, daughter of a heroin addict, whose goal is to be impregnated by the son of a rich family and be given a house of her own in the Fields. Those three characters are only the tip of the iceberg. Each member of the huge cast has quirks and foibles galore.

And here's what I think of the book:

If it wasn't for her name on the cover, I would not have known J.K. Rowling wrote this book. That's not meant to be a negative thing; it's just so far removed from her Harry Potter style that it's barely recognizable. I think that was probably the best tactic for her. The only common link I can think of between the two styes is that she shows, once again, her ability to handle a large cast and intricate web of storylines.

But The Casual Vacancy is incredibly dark. Wait, no, Harry Potter is dark too. I think I mean gritty. It almost seems like she went overboard trying to find explicitly adult themes and topics. The best example is the drug use in the book, which is widespread and very detailed. I now know a lot more about shooting up heroin than I'd ever wanted to.

The writing itself is also very different. I said in my initial thoughts about the new book, in my post Can Rowling Recapture the Magic? that she would need to grow-up her language a bit more, especially her descriptions- and she has.

The thing that surprised me the most is the lack of morality. This book is distinctly amoral. The ending is devastating- there's a huge loss without rhyme or reason. Harry Potter is all about morality: good and evil, right and wrong, making choices that have consequences. It surprised me that Rowling could write something so clearly opposite.

The huge differences between this book and Potter make me respect Rowling's ability even more than I previously had. However, I can't say I particularly liked the book. It was interesting, but it was long, and by the time I got about three-quarters of the way through, I started just wanting it to end. The characters are all interesting and well-formed, but none can be called likable. You need likable characters to get through a book that long.

So don't expect Harry Potter or anything remotely similar, but do expect a well-written, interesting story. Maybe you'll like some of the characters better than I did. Either way, it's worth the read.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

We Need a Union

Man, my new job is hard!

I mean, okay, it has some perks. For one, my Boss is really, really cute. Stare at him for hours, that kind of cute. And there's something to be said for working for a family member. I can work from home and I don't have to get out of my pajamas. (Translation: never have time to.)

But man, my Boss is demanding!

Get help from the union, you say? I wish there was one. I could start one, I guess. United Mothers Against Demanding Newborns (UMADN).

What would our aims be? Well, first of all, better hours. This 24/7 thing is a bit much. And not allowing for regular sleep time? Two hours at a time, three if I'm lucky and the Boss isn't being fussy. There's not even a lunch hour. Sometimes I have to eat lunch with the Boss yelling in my ear. Sometimes I can't eat at all because the Boss needs constant handling. If we had a union, I'd make sure they got us a more predictable schedule.

Better pay would be nice, too. Or any pay at all. If you think about it, I'm actually getting negative pay, because I can't work at my regular job. I'm LOSING money on this job!

I'd also lobby for better communication from the Boss. Interpreting his nonverbal cues isn't easy. No, I didn't get the memo that he didn't like his new bouncy seat. All I heard was loud noises coming from his mouth. Yes, if we had a union, I'd push to make the official language of Mother-Newborn be English. Or whatever language the mother speaks. Heck, I'd settle for sign language and just take a class. There are no classes in Newborn-ese. I've checked.

What else? It would be nice to have an assistant. Someone to take care of the household chores while I cater to the Boss's every need. It's hard to do the laundry and the vacuuming when the Boss is demanding to be fed.

And I would ask for better training for new employees. It's too late for me now, but I'm thinking about all the new UMADN members. They're joining up in droves, and they have no idea what they're getting into. We need something other than on-the-job training. Where's the HR department in all this?

Plus, most of us are coming into this partially handicapped! We just gave birth, for heaven's sake. We're all sore and exhausted and some of us even got stitches. Shouldn't we get some sort of compensation or help for that? I mean, the doctors told us not to lift anything heavy. Do they know how heavy the Boss's car seat is?

Yes, a union would be nice. I really should start one. Mothers, sign up today! I'll create lists of our goals, and start drawing up a contract between us and the Bosses. I'll find a place for us to meet and...

Wait. That sounds like a lot of work.

I think I'll just take a nap.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

How to Be an American Housewife

I have had the opportunity to read a few good books lately, mostly in the middle of the night. Surprisingly, the late-night timing has actually improved the quality of the reading, since it has to be a pretty good read to keep my attention when I'm that tired. The first one I read when I came home from the hospital was one I'd picked up for $3 at a recent Barnes and Noble sale: How to Be an American Housewife. 

The book is written from two points of view: Shoko, an elderly Japanese-American woman, who married an ex-GI after WWII and moved to California, and her daughter Sue, who is struggling with her identity and career path. Shoko has a bad heart, a possible after-effect of the Nagasaki atomic bombing, and it is expected that she won't live through her next surgery. She feels strongly that she wants to go back to Japan and reconcile with her brother Taro, who she hasn't seen or spoken to for decades, before she dies. Taro has never forgiven her for marrying an American, or for her previous affair with an Untouchable. But Shoko's doctors and her husband Charlie tell her she cannot possibly travel that far. Instead, she sends her daughter Sue and granddaughter Helena to Japan as emissaries to her family there. Sue's journey provides her with the sense of family and culture that she has always wished for, and brings healing to Taro and Shoko.

The "How to be an American Housewife" part comes in at the start of each chapter, with little excerpts from a fictional book of that title that supposedly helped Shoko assimilate into American culture (though after 40 years, she still speaks with very broken English and doesn't have any American friends). Those excerpts symbolize my favorite part of the book: the contrast between the American and Japanese cultures. For people who love reading about different cultures, this book provides a comfort zone. It's more accessible (though not as well-written) than Memoirs of a Geisha, my favorite book about Japan.

Give this one a try if you're interested in cross-culture domesticity and deeply-rooted family dynamics.

It's September 27th! What does that mean? It means I just downloaded J.K. Rowling's first adult novel onto my Kindle. Expect a review in the next few days!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Things I Am Grateful For

When you're going through a challenging time, the little things in life start to mean more. To qualify, by challenging, I don't mean painful or even difficult, since those have negative connotations. I just mean that life is challenging you, stretching the limits of your abilities and forcing you to learn new skills. That's a good description of my current state of being, and I think most new parents would feel the same.

Here are some of the little things I am grateful for right now:

1. The tiny book light on my Kindle so that I can read during a 3 AM feeding and not wake my husband or disturb my child.

2. The sound sleeper that makes soothing nature noises to help all of us get to sleep.

3. Our older cat, who is usually a needy princess, going completely against expectations and adjusting to life with the baby beautifully. She's not even crying at the closed bedroom door, which she did for weeks before the baby came. She actually seems calmer and more self-assured than ever.

Here's a picture of my Ari:

Isn't she beautiful?

4. Decaf nonfat pumpkin spice lattes that my dad brings me from Starbucks most days. Thanks, Dad! (Even though I know you're mostly doing it so you can see your grandson.)

5. Aaron Sorkin. During the long wait before the baby came, my husband and I watched a lot of West Wing, which was free with our Amazon Prime membership. I love the writing, the pace, the wit. That prompted me to re-watch the single season of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, another Sorkin creation. I think it was a travesty that the show wasn't picked up for more seasons. Even with the competition from 30 Rock, another NBC show about late-night sketch comedy, I still think it would have held up. The writing and acting were brilliant and didn't compete at all with 30 Rock's style.

At any rate, Sorkin has gotten me through a few late nights recently, and I'm grateful.

6. All the Sephora beauty products I bought this summer. I like to shop, and since I couldn't shop for clothes, not wanting to waste money on maternity clothing for one summer, I spent a lot more time at my favorite beauty store. I love getting lost in Sephora, finding new products and spritzing all the perfumes. I've only been wearing the basics of makeup lately (concealer, powder foundation and mascara) but I still take the time every morning and night to smear on my favorite Korres moisturizers. I'm a huge fan of Korres products. They're expensive, but they're organic, feel wonderful, and last a long time. I think skincare is incredibly important, and I want to have good skin forever. So I'm grateful to Sephora and Korres.

There are more little things, and certainly a lot of big things- like my husband, our families, and our fantastic pediatrician- so this list is just a small piece of my gratitude. I hope all of you take some time today to think about the little things you're grateful for. If I have time to appreciate them, so do you!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Commodity of Sleep

It's time for the announcement we've been waiting for since I first posted about it back in March: Sowul, Renewing. My son, Edwin Michael, was born on Friday, September 7, at 8:57 PM. He took his time getting to us and I ended up needing to be induced, but labor and delivery went well. I'm grateful now that he took his time, because he came out so strong and alert! He completely defies the "drowsy newborn" stereotype. He's got a personality and energy that I never expected and am completely in love with. It's the perfect reward for the sleepless nights and endless diaper changes.

I am not going to post pictures here, as tempted as I am to do so. Many of you are Facebook friends and will be able to see pictures there. Since this blog is completely public, though, I feel it's important to protect my son's image here.

It's only been nine days since his birth, but it seems much longer. When you're awake for more hours, and when those hours span all 24, time seems like a different entity. I've also changed and learned so much in the last nine days that it seems an impossibly short span.

I'm not going to make this a very long post, as I don't want to set the bar too high during these next few weeks. But I wanted to write about two ideas I had at 3:00 this morning when I was up feeding Edwin. Unsurprisingly, I've been thinking a LOT about sleep since his birth. Sleep is something I've always treasured and protected. For the last 31 years (or at least since I had control over my own bedtime) I've been diligent about getting at least 7 hours a night. I think sleep is just as important for one's health and well-being as exercise and nutrition. I'm a good sleeper most of the time. I've never been much of a napper, though I did get better at it during the end of my pregnancy.

So for someone like me, being plunged into a newborn's sleep cycle was incredibly disorienting. The short periods of sleep don't suit me; the unpredictability makes it nearly impossible to always "sleep when the baby sleeps"; and the day-night flip that most newborns, or at least my baby, is still experiencing, just adds another layer to the problem. Once he can right himself on the day-night schedule, I predict things will be much better, but in the meantime, sleep has become something of a commodity in my house: valued much higher than it once was because of its scarcity and sometimes inaccessibility.

Here are my two 3 AM ideas:

1. Expectant parents take a lot of classes on labor, breastfeeding, newborn basics, etc. My husband and I took all of these, and they were very helpful. I think there should be a class on Sleep Training for new parents. Sleep training is a big debate for babies, but you can't sleep train a newborn, whatever your future plans are, so the parents need to adjust. If I had realized how difficult the sleep component would be, I might have tried to train myself. I might have stayed up later and slept later, to get myself closer to a reversed schedule. I might have slept less during the night and taken more naps. I think both of those things could have prepared me better, though never completely (unless I used one of those "training babies" programed to cry at random intervals).

2. Someone should invent a pill that makes people feel like they've gotten 8 hours of sleep. Why has no one done this? It would be wildly popular. Of course, there are plenty of illegal drugs that do this. I'm not talking about that. I mean something that would be reasonably organic, wouldn't adversely affect the person's health or personality, and could be taken while breastfeeding. With all the billions of dollars the drug companies take in, why has this not been invented yet?

Okay, they weren't great ideas, but please forgive; at 3 AM, I was lucky to have any coherent thought at all.

And now my baby's asleep, so I'm going to take a nap.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Teachers and Pushcarts

It's the first day of school today, and for the first time in 27 years (since I was 4) I'm missing it. It's a strange feeling for me, but I know that I'm about to embark on a new experience from which I'll learn more than I could ever imagine, and will also become the most important teaching job that I'll ever have. 

I want to give my appreciation to all my friends and colleagues returning to the classroom today. My thoughts are with you. I hope you all have a smooth start to the school year.

It's hard to be a teacher in America right now. At some point since I started teaching 9 years ago, teaching went from being a profession you proudly announced to one you mumbled about. I'm not sure when or why we've become the villains in society, but it kind of reminds me of the classic children's satire, The Pushcart War, by Jean Merrill. In the book, trucking companies are taking over New York City. There are so many trucks, and they are so big, that traffic is impossible, and rather than take responsibility, the trucking companies decide to find someone else to take the blame. They choose to target the pushcarts, those innocent sellers of produce, pretzels and clothing. They start a secret campaign, and people start to say, "I hear it is the pushcarts who are to blame," even though the 530 pushcarts in the city barely take up the space of a city block, while one big truck left idling in the street can stop traffic for miles. And yet, because every problem needs a scapegoat, the people of Manhattan blame the pushcarts, until the pushcart owners themselves decide to fight back. 

It's a great book, one of my favorites of all time. I still read it as an adult. 

I find it an appropriate analogy because as someone deeply entrenched in the educational system (as a student, a daughter of two teachers, a college student in a education program, and then a teacher myself, the spouse of a teacher, and the close relative of many other teachers and administrators) I see so much passion and hard work from educators. No one lasts in this profession unless they really love and believe in the power of learning. Contrary to belief, this is not a profession in which a person could "phone it in." There are students sitting in front of you every day, waiting for knowledge and understanding, and often for guidance and compassion. It's literally impossible to not respond to their bare need. Like the pushcart owners in the story, we're being blamed for America's larger problems, while our needs, and the true needs of our students, are going ignored or largely misunderstood. 

I'm not making any political argument here, or saying that the educational system in America is excellent. It's not. Any teacher will tell you that. We all know the system is broken- we fight against it every day. But it is not the teachers who are to blame. We are all doing the best we can with the resources we have, and we're doing it with passion. 

So teachers, as you go back to work today, remember to be proud of who you are and what you do. America may not value us right now, but America's students need us. 

In the meantime, take a lesson from the pushcarts, and don't let the trucks push you around.

Monday, September 3, 2012

What No Pregnancy Book Tells You

I've learned a lot of things in the last nine months, from books, friends and experiences. I've concluded that women need those nine months just as much as their babies do, for emotional development and education about babies and motherhood. When I got pregnant, I thought I was ready for a child, but I really wasn't- at least, not completely. I'm grateful for the whole process and emotional journey, because it was something I needed to get to this point. I just can't wait to meet this baby, and I'm not afraid of what comes next.

I was surprised to encounter some setbacks along the way, though, and even more surprised at the form those setbacks took: other mothers.

If you had asked me nine months ago what other mothers' responses would be upon learning that I was pregnant, I would have predicted surprise, delight and encouragement. But while everyone expressed surprise and delight, I was shocked by the number of mothers who then immediately went into what I'm going to call "negative-cliche mode."

Here are some of the things I heard over and over again, from many different women- mostly acquaintances, but some strangers and even some friends. Here, also, is my inner response to these negative cliches.

1. "You're due in the summer? Oh, that's the worst! You're going to be so miserable." (Have you ever head of air conditioning? Or swimming pools? And truthfully, even in the intense heat of this July, I really didn't have much of a problem. I just stayed indoors more, drank a lot of water, and used up more electricity.)

2. "Enjoy that sleep now while you can! You're never going to sleep again once that baby comes." (I'm pretty sure that I will, in fact, sleep. Will it be when I want to and for long periods of time? No. But does that phase eventually end? Yes. At some point, the baby grows into a child who you can teach to stay in his room and play quietly. They even have alarm clocks now that change color at the time when it's ok to wake Mommy up, so he doesn't need to know how to tell time.)

3. "Oh, it's a boy? You need so much more energy with a boy." (Well, I have nothing to compare it to, but I'm a pretty high-energy person myself, so I think I'll be okay. Also, extra calorie burn! Yay!)

4. "You'll be exhausted all the time. You'll never have any time for yourself." (This one was my favorite, because it just seemed so mean. And while I'm sure there is some truth to this, I also don't believe any mother LITERALLY has no time for herself. After all, they have time to post on Facebook, read parenting articles, and spout negative cliches at pregnant women, don't they?)

5. "You say your husband is taking great care of you now? Don't get used to it. As soon as the baby comes, it's all on you, honey." (I feel sorry for you and your marriage. My husband and I have a great relationship, and he's going to be a fantastic dad. We also have amazing family in the area who can't wait to extend their support. Not everyone's situation is the same.)

6. "You're going to get so fat. Everyone gets fat with their first." (To be fair, this was only one person- the evil nurse-receptionist at my endocrinologist's office. She also swore up and down that I would be having a girl because I was so sick during my first trimester. It was fun to tell her she was wrong the next time I saw her after the ultrasound.)

I experienced these Negative Nancys often enough in the course of nine months that at times, it truly did make me feel like being a mother was going to be a terrible experience. However, I also had a lot of wonderful, true friends and mother role-models to give me support, encouragement and advice, and they got me through. I do believe that most mothers really love being mothers, and love their children more than anything else in the world. I'm not sure why some take the negative route so automatically, especially toward an innocent pregnant women, who is on the path to motherhood whether she's ready or not. Given the opportunity, why do these women choose to tear her down, rather than support her? What good does it do?

I hereby give my pledge to all my future mother friends and acquaintances that no matter what my experience is with my own child, I won't project any negativity onto you. I will support and encourage you, because that is what you need. I will only give you advice if you ask for it.

And I will never, ever tell you that you're going to get fat.

Monday, August 27, 2012

A Change of Sowul

Tomorrow, August 28th, is the 1-year anniversary of Words from the Sowul! I can't believe I've made it this far!

As the anniversary approached, I started to think about what this blog has meant to me, and what I've learned from it over the past year. I'm pleased with what it's given me. I've relished the opportunity to share my thoughts on books and reading, topics that I'm passionate and opinionated about. I've appreciated the recommendations from people who read the blog, and the new connections I've made with friends, family and strangers. Most importantly, I've re-learned a lesson I've known for years: writing about something clarifies it for me in a way that no other form of expression can. Putting thoughts and opinions into words, especially when those words are going to be shared with others, heightens and deepens those thoughts and opinions. Truly, they become words from the so(w)ul. You may think that process comes easy to me, but it does not. I am not someone who is easily in touch with her emotions. It takes excavation, and that's what writing does for me.

So while I hope this blog has been enjoyable for you- and I am grateful that many people, even across the globe, have found it to be- know that it has meant more to me than it could mean to anyone else.

This anniversary comes at an opportune time for two reasons. First, I may be taking a bit of a break, or at least posting less frequently, over the coming weeks. Today is my son's due date, and while he hasn't shown any sign of wanting to make an appearance yet, at some point very soon my family and I will be starting a whole new chapter in our lives (excuse the pun). I am committed to continue writing, no matter what, throughout the craziness that is to come, because I know it is vital to keeping my own sanity and helping me stay in touch with my emotions. But I also know I'll have more limited time, and I have to prioritize.

After my post a few weeks ago, A Fork in the Writing Road, I made the decision to take a second look at the novel I'd started last summer and fall. As I started re-editing the first 70 pages, I realized how much progress I'd made, and how badly I wanted to finish it. I've been working on it steadily ever since, and I'm determined to continue, even if I have to type with one hand on the keyboard and the other rocking the cradle. So when I have time to write, it will be primarily devoted to the novel. That's not to say I'm going to disappear from the blog, though. As I said above, this experience has been too valuable to let go.

The second reason this anniversary is opportune is that it gives me the chance to make some changes. I've been sticking pretty faithfully to the books and reading theme. There have been many book reviews, some general author reviews, discussions about types and styles of literature, and posts about everything from browsing the library to guilty pleasure reading. I've tried to mix things up and keep my approaches fresh, and I'm generally pleased with the results. But I've started to run out of fodder, as I suppose is inevitable. So I think it's time I expanded the blog's parameters.

Here are some topics I'm interested in blogging about:

- Adjusting as an independent-minded woman to a child-centered world
- Staying positive in the face of negative pressure from the outside world, particularly about parenting. I think our society is extremely judgmental about parenting.
- Keeping gratitude at the center of my life
- Music and education
- Other things I love and have certain tastes about: exercising and health, television, fashion, decorating, baking, makeup, household organization, travel

And of course, I'll still write about books and reading, because I'm still passionate about them.

I hope you're all as excited as I am about this new chapter. Stay tuned for the changes to come, and of course for news of the baby's arrival!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Exception to the Rule

I think most book lovers agree that the experience of reading a book is always greater than the experience of watching that book come to life onscreen. It's a simple reason: when you read, almost everything is left up to your interpretation and imagination. That's always going to be a deeper, more personal engagement than watching someone else's interpretation of the story, with casting of actors who don't look like the characters you envisioned, settings that don't capture the scenes in your head, and shortcuts to the root of the story so that it fits within a standard movie length. Movie adaptations can be enjoyable, however, if you take them for what they are. I enjoyed most of the Harry Potter series, even though they'll never live up to what I see in my head when I read the books. If they're really well-done, some movie adaptations will explore different angles and open up new avenues of thought in a story, and that can be interesting.

But basically, a movie is never greater than the book that comes before it. At least, that's always been my formula:


(I'd put the sign for infinity here, but I don't know how to make that happen on my keyboard.)

There always has to be the exception that proves the rule, though, and after years of believing in the absolutism of the above formula, I finally found one: Julie & Julia, the book written by Julie Powell vs. the movie acted by Meryl Streep and Amy Adams. Both are based on Powell's blog about the year she spent re-creating all of the recipes in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

For the first time ever, I enjoyed the movie more than the book. I attribute this to two things:

1. I dislike Julie Powell. I almost didn't finish the book. She's actually a good writer, but as a memoirist, her personality is clearly on the page, and I didn't like it at all. I liked her even less after reading a second of her books, Cleaving (I know, why did I even try? I'm either a masochist or an eternal book optimist). In that book, she intersperses stories about her learning the butchery trade with stories about her infidelities and crumbling marriage. While I'm not judging her marriage or her morality, I couldn't stand the fact that she hung her husband out to dry by putting all of their most personal problems, and every salacious detail of her affair, out there for the world to read. The whole book was exploitation masquerading as some sort of Eat, Pray, Love-type "journey." But I digress. The point is, I don't like Julie Powell, so I didn't like the book.

2. The movie was SO well done. Streep and Adams were both, of course, genius (and Adams was much more likable than her author) and the script/ directing/ editing were all superb. Plus, half of it was shot against the backdrop of 1950s Paris. How could I not have enjoyed that? The movie took a decent idea, that had spawned a blog, then turned into a ragged book written by a dislikable person, and spun it into gold.

So I finally found an exception that proved the rule. But I stand by my original formula 99.9999% of the time, and I defy anyone to argue with it.

That's right, I defy you. Comments?

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Free E-books

When I bought my Kindle last summer, the biggest drawback in my mind was that I'd end up spending more money on books. Even though e-books are cheaper, I so rarely purchase books that cost was definitely a factor. At the time, I saw myself using it mainly for travel purposes, which made the additional cost worth the portability. Since then, I've tried a few times to figure out how to download e-books from my local library, but even though they do have a system, it's apparently so confusing that the librarians themselves don't understand it- or the three that I've asked haven't, anyway. So I've been paying for my Kindle books since last summer, which means I haven't been using it exclusively. I still read "real" books more often.

Fortunately, I recently stumbled on a few different methods of reading e-books for free. We recently signed up for Amazon Prime, partly for the free shipping, and partly for the free TV episodes. (Did you know that the thousands of episodes of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood are free with Amazon Prime? Well, they are! Not that this will be useful to the baby for a couple of years, but it was certainly exciting to us.) One of the other perks of Prime is a free e-book to borrow once a month from their Kindle lending library. I took advantage of this right away. You can't get any book that you want, but the selection is quite large. I found myself more willing to try new authors and genres because I wasn't worried about the price. The first book I borrowed was called Better Off Without Him- A Romantic Comedy, by Dee Ernst. I wouldn't have spent money on this initially, but I was pleasantly surprised. It was well-written, funny and light. Another romance novel success for this non-believer. (See A Fairy Tale Quartet for the full story on my romance-novel inexperience.)

Once I'd started borrowing from the Kindle lending library, I got a few emails from Amazon suggesting their other free book options (does that sound like a smart marketing strategy to you? I assume there must be some statistic that people who borrow for free also spend more money in the store). It turns out that there are thousands of books that can be borrowed either directly from Amazon or from other open-library sources. Most are public-domain kinds of books, like Huckleberry Finn or Northanger Abbey, but that is no drawback in my book (no pun intended). It just encourages me to read more classic novels, which has been a recent goal of mine (see my most recent post, Back to the Literature.) I started with My Man Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse and a favorite childhood book, A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I can't wait to read both.

It's an opportune time for me to discover this cache of free books, because I can see using my Kindle a lot more during those long feeding sessions in my near future, when reading a heavy book with two hands would not be possible, but a light one-handed e-reader would. Another check in the pro-Kindle column for this reader.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Back to the Literature

As per my usual pattern, because it's summertime, I'm finding myself drawn to lighter reads. But while browsing around Barnes and Noble yesterday, I came across the table of recommended literature for summer. I assumed the table was mostly targeted toward high school students, which made me realize that I read most of these great works when I was in high school myself, which was.... thirteen years ago. I remember most of them reasonably well, but I can't claim I'm able to carry on an involved conversation about any of them.

Of course, there are a few that I've re-read over the years, such as The Handmaid's Tale and the novels of Jane Austen. But it's been too long since I've experienced The Catcher in the Rye, Of Mice and Men or The Bell Jar. I've also never read Brave New World, which was required reading in my dad's English classes but not at my high school. To be fair to myself, I read most of what was lying around the house in addition to my English class assignments and went above and beyond the recommended reading lists at the time, but there are still a few books left on my book bucket list.

So I'm putting Brave New World on my list, and I also pulled out a great summery piece of literature, Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth. I can't wait to get into the Wharton again. I remember her being witty and snarky, and I love her New York socialite characters, so relatable to today's characters, even though they're living in the early 1900s.

(Fun fact: some of Wharton was cribbed for Gossip Girl scripts. One of the characters in The House of Mirth, Lily Bart, can be directly traced to Lily Bass, who was married to Bart Bass. Other references to Wharton abound in the first season, and the characters are often seen holding her books. There's a lot more to Gossip Girl than a teen soap opera.)

Anything else I should add to my re-reading list? What books did you read in high school that you think it's time to review?

Thursday, August 2, 2012

A Fork in the Writing Road

I've reached a new stage in my pregnancy. I'm hitting 37 weeks on Monday, which pretty much means I could go into labor any time within the next 5-6 weeks. That's a long period of time. I'm not going back to work, since the school year starts after my due date. I'm as prepared for this baby to come as I can be, both physically and mentally. At this point, all I have to do is keep taking good care of my body, rest and relax, and play the waiting game.

But I've never been good at either waiting or relaxing. I like to keep my mind engaged. I can only watch TV for so long, and I've already done quite a bit of reading. I can't travel far or make any elaborate plans outside the house. What I'd like to do is take advantage of this time to write something.

For a few years now, I've been trying to find my writing niche. First, I started researching a novel, but had to backtrack when I realized I had no idea how to go about it. So I read a lot of books about writing. Then I took some fiction writing classes, where I started working on short stories. I even tried to get one of them published, but I gave up after a few attempts. I returned to the novel-writing with more skills and a new topic that I was excited about. I wrote about 75 pages before taking another writing class, which took some of my time away from the novel and devoted it back to short story writing. And then I got pregnant, and haven't felt well for most of the pregnancy, and so I haven't written much since, other than blog posts and my daily journal entries.

At this point, I have two problems with my writing:

1. I am interested in many different styles and genres of writing, and find it difficult to decide what to devote my time to. Novel? Short story? Memoir? Magazine articles? I have ideas and interest in all of these. But I can't produce anything of substance without choosing a path and sticking to it. What goal do I choose for myself?

2. I find it very difficult to work on any project that has no set deadline or accountability standard. I know myself to be a goal-oriented person and a hard worker. I was very good at school, because I knew what was expected of me, and I always delivered. I'm good at my job for the same reason. But with writing, something that for me is more than a hobby but not quite a career (yet), I have no goals, no deadlines, no expectations beyond what I give myself. Taking writing classes is a great way to create that accountability for a short period of time, but I can't go broke taking endless classes (especially when they don't lead to a degree) and I won't have the flexibility to take anything other than an online course for the next year or so.

I don't see myself coming up with a solution to either of these tonight, but the act of writing them down clarifies it for me. I do want this pre-baby time to be productive and personally fulfilling, and I think writing is the way to make that happen. It may even keep me sane after the baby is born; writing is a proven fighter of the "baby blues." I just need to choose something to work on, make some small, achievable goals for myself, and stick to it with some blind faith that it will turn into something good. And if it doesn't, I have to believe that I'm doing it for a reason. Even if that reason is just to call myself a writer.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Death Comes to Pemberley, but not Jane Austen

Last month, I was disappointed in a failed attempt at Jane Austen imitation, in my post Another Jane Austen Knockoff. This month, I'm impressed by P. D. James's efforts in Death Comes to Pemberley. 

The book picks up a few years after Pride and Prejudice leaves off. Darcy and Elizabeth are happily married, with two young sons. Elizabeth has risen to her role as Mrs. Darcy, and the household staff respects and admires her. Jane and Bingley live nearby, and have introduced a new friend into their circle: Henry Alveston, a London lawyer, soon to inherit his father's title. Georgiana Darcy, still at Pemberley, is being courted both by Alveston and by Colonel Fitzwilliam, their cousin and onetime admirer of Elizabeth.

The household is in the midst of preparations for the annual Harvest ball, to which much of the surrounding landowners and townspeople are invited, when a traumatic event occurs. Late on the eve of the ball, a carriage comes barreling down the lane, carrying Elizabeth and Jane's youngest sister Lydia, who is in hysterics. Lydia tells them she was on her way to the ball, accompanied by her husband, George Wickham, and his friend Captain Dennys. En route, Dennys and Wickham got into an argument and stopped the carriage to continue it outside. A little while later, Lydia and the carriage driver heard gunshots, and immediately left for the safety of Pemberley. A search party is sent out, and a dead body is found in the woods... but where is the murderer?

The most fascinating thing about this book is how very Austen-like it is. It's really astonishing. I've read all of Jane Austen's novels, and this book reads like Austen risen from the grave. The language, the level of description, the habits and temperaments of the characters are all en pointe. The story builds the same way, with unexpected climaxes and even the "dirty little secrets" that Austen incorporates into all her novels (i.e., Mr. Willoughby's affair with Brandon's young charge in Sense and Sensibility). The one concern I have is why this book was billed as a mystery. If it is a mystery, then all of Austen's work is mystery. The only difference is that the question in the book is centered around a murder, not around a marriage. But the plot structure adheres to a more literary novel like Pride and Prejudice itself, not to any Agatha Christie-like framework.

I've never read any P. D. James before, but she does such an extraordinary job with the near-impossible task of imitating Austen that I'm going to have to try some of her more original work. I am very impressed!