Saggy psyche

Look at me!

I ran a half-marathon last Saturday. It was thrilling.

Now, four days later, on Wednesday, I am blue. After all that strengthening and tightening over the past three months of pre-marathon training, everything is firmer. Everything but my mood.

My psyche is saggy.

For me, this was a tremendously big deal to run this far, given that up until a year ago, I’d never been a runner. My friend Kim sent me a bouquet of chocolate-covered strawberries to congratulate me, and told me how bad ass I am. My son Sam said he was proud of me. So did my husband and mother and sister and pretty much my entire posse of supportive friends who were willing to exclaim over something that is sort of a big deal.

(Sort of a bid deal. I think of David Sedaris’s essay on how he once saw a woman almost fall to her death from a ferris wheel at an amusement park. If she had really fallen to her death, that would have been a big deal, something great to tell at a cocktail party. Saying I ran a “half marathon” is the same thing. It’s not a full marathon, something truly incredible to boast about at a cocktail party.)

Even still, I was Queen for a Day. At race’s end, I was given chocolate and champagne and energy bars and hugs. During the race, every few miles, a group of enthusiastic kids were cheering us on, enthusiastically waiting with cups of water, anxious to give it to one of the bad ass runners.

Ha. Me a bad ass. It’s such a joke. I was having all sorts of problems with long runs. I learned about muscles I never knew I had, and talked ad nauseum about them in the boring way that athletes will do. God bless my husband Steve for not falling asleep in his soup during one of the dozens of times I launched into a tedious running monologue.

“My It-band hurts so much. My trainer said I should roll on it, although it might be better to . . . ”

“My left lateral hamstring has a strain, so I’m icing it and staying off it for a week before the run. But I’m worried about . . .”

“My right knee is popping. I wonder if I should see a physical therapist or a sports doctor . . .”

Do other runners experience similar aches or am I a big baby who just can’t take it and run through the pain? When my thigh seizes up at, say, mile 9, I can’t seem to do anything but walk for about 30 seconds until the knot is gone. (See, this is boring! I know it is.)

Then I would fill too much of my working day reading Runner’s World and running blogs and talk with my marathon-running neighbors Ethan and Mike, and my running buddies Tita and Beau, about quads, hamstrings, rollers, blisters, race times, good running watches, runner’s nausea, bonking, and the merits of so many sports beans and gels.

Running is the strangest thing. You run. Then you run more. Oh, then you run. And you have to train for a long run, you have to run and run and run and run. Then you talk about running.

See, running is boring, but it’s so exciting. It’s painful, but exhilarating. On long runs, I often felt like keeling over but rarely — except a few times in my life, like when I fell in love with Steve, gave birth to Sam and Molly, hiked in Canyonlands, river rafted on the Colorado river, traveled alone on trains throughout Europe — have I felt so alive.

I’ve been talking with other runners who, like me, fell in love with and began this boring-cum-exhilarating sport during middle age. Why did we fall in love, so madly in love, later in life?

Because running equals youth. Movement. Freedom. If we can run fast and far, we hold out hope of gaining back these prizes.

There’s more. Running offers us a marker, a goal, something tangible and definite, when so much as we age becomes fuzzier, blander, less remarkable and less…felt. With age, the sharp edges of youth — confusion, heartache, existential despair — are finally smoothed over by less pain and more contentment. But there’s a price for the cushy-ness of middle-age. Being ordinary.

We go to Trader Joe’s and get excited about that free little cup of coffee. We look forward to a new season of Mad Men. These very cheap, very ordinary thrills.

Work–that Holy Grail that once promised fame and fortune and inspiration in our twenties–is a disappointment, a reminder of what we haven’t achieved, or of how little we’ve earned for the hard work.

If it weren’t running, maybe I would have found something else during my 46th year help me feel this life acutely, to wake me up and help me see and think more clearly: Buddhism, jewelry making, gardening.

But I stumbled upon running, which feels exceptionally real. It reminds me of my body and my capacity, still, to do something new and well. Even more, there’s always the promise of doing it farther and better: The next race, when I’m even faster and stronger.

So, then, why the saggy psyche today? I don’t know. But I’ll hazard a guess.

My guess is that for all that hard work, and despite the zing of passing through a giant plastic archway that marked the 13.1 mile finish line, a few days later I’ve returned to the land of the bland.

How, now, to feel so alive as that particular moment, when I have to make dinner tonight, and tomorrow, and the next day? I have an invoice to send a client. Clean up the garage and the files in my office. Figure out how to arrange the family photos in an artful way in the hallway. Yawn.

I’m so churlish, not to thrill at these little things, these banal duties of everyday living. I know. I know. I have my two children, my husband, plenty of loved ones and friends.

The true achievement isn’t an actual finish line, but to be present and feel truly alive and grateful for a peaceful, healthy life.

The trick, the truly difficult assignment that I’m failing at so miserably today, is to absolutely feel this, not when you get a cheap medal for a race that–let’s face it–2500 other people also managed to pull off, but to feel alive and to embrace this ordinary day.

Oh, maybe it’s as simple as the fact that my muscles–quads, hamstrings, heart and brain–are strained and exhausted today. Maybe I need to give all of it a rest. Maybe tomorrow I’ll have a new spring in my step, and my psyche.

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The Mother’s Corner

There is that corner in my house. A particularly unpleasant one that I try to avoid.

Tight, uncomfortable, it’s easy to back into but often tremendously difficult to escape. At least, once you’ve laid down the law and explained the rule to your screaming three-year-old child: “THIS IS HOW THINGS ARE, AND THIS IS WHY YOU CAN’T.”

The other night, pressed for time before I left for my weekly track run, I set down two bowls of split pea soup and grilled cheese sandwiches on the kitchen table for Sam and Molly.

“I want to eat my dinner in my room,” Molly says.

Now, Sam, who is eleven, has eaten dinner in all kinds of places: on a blanket on our front sidewalk, in the bathtub, on the neighbor’s trampoline.

But for no apparent reason, tonight I decide to be inflexible and tough with little Molly. “We don’t eat food in our bedrooms, Molly. That’s what the kitchen is for.”

I’ve made up this arbitrary new rule based on the sudden twisted logic that is an amalgam of several free-floating ideas drifting around my brain, including: 1) There must be order in the house because if there isn’t, then what will happen? 2) If she eats in her room tonight, she’ll think she can anytime, and then what will happen? 3) I need to be a firmer parent, not all loosey-goosey and permissive, because if I am that way, then what will happen? I’ll tell you what. Terrible, terrible things. I don’t know what, exactly, but it will be very bad.

In response, Molly starts to scream. Ninety-five percent of the time, she is a rather calm child, but when she shrieks, windows howl and dogs shatter into a thousand pieces. “I. Want. To. Eat. In. My. Room! Sob. Sob. Sob.”

By now, I’m standing in a very uncomfortable position in that bad, bad corner of our house and don’t know how to escape.

“What does it matter, Mom?” asks Sam, very reasonably. By now, Steve has gotten home so I can leave, and he’s also giving me a look like, “What does it matter?” but he’s a complete mensch and never disagrees with my rules—however arbitrary and crazy making—in front of Sam and Molly.

It’s not right to leave Steve with this chaos that could last for over an hour, given that Molly rarely ever gives up a fight if she feels her honor—or a lollipop (we’ve had more tantrums over lollipops)—is at stake.

When I’m in one, I often forget. But here’s the thing about corners. When you are facing the wrong way, there appears to be no way out. You are trapped by walls. But then, idiot that you are at that moment, you realize you can walk right out of it anytime, if only you can turn around and see that it’s all quite simple. You need only take a step or two and then you have plenty of wiggle room. Not just wiggle room. Room to run absolutely free and do as you like.

Suddenly, I flash to a page from Where the Wild Things Are, just after the character Max has returned to his room after his romp with the monsters. On his side table is a sandwich and bowl of soup, “And it’s still hot.”

I realize, at that moment, that there is a logic driving Molly’s desire. We had read the book a few days before, and it was the warm dinner waiting for Max, more than the escape from home, that made an impression on her. “Molly, did you want to be like Max and have your soup and sandwich in your room too?”

“Y-y-y-yes,” she says with a sniff and clutching her soup bowl like a shield.

“Oh, now I understand,” I say, stepping further and further away from that corner, that oxygen-deprived vortex. “So let’s do something special tonight. Usually, we don’t eat in our rooms. But just this once, you can be like Max and eat in your room.”

Molly looks so relieved. She starts marching upstairs. Steve looks so relieved. Sam gives me a look like, “Why are you so dim?”

No one is crying anymore. I can leave the house. My very square and corner-filled house.

Time to move to a round house.

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A Middle-Aged Woman is Born

Must be on my mind (oh yes it is, this aging thing), but more on the middle-aged woman front . . .

Yesterday, a few friends sent me the same YouTube video of a British woman named Susan Boyle. I then sent it to a few friends. I think by now everyone I know has seen it.

If for any reason you haven’t, it’s a clip from the British version of “American Idol” (and, in fact, is the show from which Idol was created). We are shown a middle-aged woman who looks like the portly and slightly dim farmer’s wife in the movie “Babe.” Stuffed into an unfashionable, ill-fitting pale yellow dress, she looks so homely and odd that, at first glance, it’s not even clear if she’s mentally all there.

In a brief interview before she walks on stage, Boyle says that she’s “never been kissed” and lives alone with her cat, Pebbles. Oh God, we’re about to watch something humiliating, so of course, we all keep watching.

As a friend of mine commented, there’s something of Roman circus to this: the camera pans the audience’s reaction as she walks on stage: people are covering their mouths in shock or grimacing, delighting at the opportunity to see her eviscerated. Judges included, they are practically salivating, getting ready to tear her apart the minute she opens her mouth. “I’m 47,” she says, and the entire audience gasps, as if she’s just told everyone that she roasts babies for her nightly supper. (Oh, as a 46-year-old woman, that one was hard to endure, the gasps at such an old, old age.)

Then she sings.

Oh yes, Boyle sings like an angel. Her voice, as one of the clearly bowled-over judges said afterwards, is “stunning.” When the audience realizes that the joke has been on them (they’ve been appropriately humbled once the fat lady sang), within seconds of hearing her perfect voice, they stand to applaud and then when she finishes singing “I Have a Dream” from Les Miserables, they give her another standing ovation.

Like many, I was crying by the end. But then I thought about it, and a couple of my middle-aged women friends emailed me back after I’d sent it, and they were a little…peeved if not full-out pissed off. Why is it so GD amazing that an older woman (but she’s not 120 years old, for lord’s sake), one who is a bit heavy, can sing like Beverly Sills?

Why does this video surprise us so much? Is it because she’s older? Because she doesn’t look at all, at all American Idol-ish? Did the producers of the show set us up, making sure she wore the most unflattering dress and coffee-colored panty hose with frizzed-out hair, just to make sure we were shocked?

I don’t know. But still I was touched. There’s no question. She won.

I will add her to my list of middle-aged, late-blooming women. Matter of fact, she’ll be my new poster girl.

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Run Middle-Aged Woman, Run

I’ve always hated, hated, hated running. Did I mention that I hated running?

That terrible, uncomfortable feeling I would get in my chest and legs when I would run more than a block. The embarrassment of falling so far behind the tall girls in junior high during gym class. The scorn I had for those self-satisfied lithe runners I’d see bounding past my house.

This meant that as an adult, I would never break into anything more than a trot. Which doesn’t quite fit me, or my idea of me, because I love to exercise. I always enjoyed those painful aerobic classes back in the nineties and was a yoga enthusiastic before everyone and their New Agey aunt trolled the neighborhood with their irritating eco-friendly yoga mat holder self-righteously slung over their shoulder.I spent my years in Paris always on my bike, once riding from the Loire Valley back to Paris during two, twelve-hour days when I found out my boyfriend John was cheating on me.

I liked the pain and sweat and catharsis that came with excessive effort. But pain and effort for running? Never.

Until about eight months ago.

For the past 11 years, ever since Sam was born, I stopped doing much of anything physically. We live on a hill in San Francisco, and I’m not macho enough to power up and down it with 30 pounds of toddler behind me on a bike. Classes of any kind – yoga, Pilates, aerobics — average out to cost about $35 an hour if you figure out the cost of the class and the babysitter. As a freelance writer, I never made quite enough money to justify the money to spend regularly on such a luxury. And I usually felt too guilty asking my husband Steve to watch Sam so I could jet off to a Saturday or Sunday Bikram yoga class.

But this year, at the age of 46, a few things at the same time happened in my life that turned me into a runner.

I had been doing The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron’s book on tapping into your creative self. Just as I had pooh-poohed running for so long, I’d also discounted Cameron’s book as too “New Agey,” too narcissistic, too pretentious, too too. But then my writer friend Hazel, who is as smart and sensible and non New Agey as they come, told me the book had changed her life as a writer.

I was looking to change my life as a writer, so bought the book, again, after having given it away only months earlier. I began doing Cameron’s morning writes every morning, and at week five in the 12-week self-directed course, had one of those rare epiphanies you pay a brilliant therapist to arrive at. For years, for most my life, I had been caught up in my own self-designed “virtue trap.”

For as long as I could remember, I made sure I was a good girl: a “good” mother, wife, daughter, employee. But in being the long-suffering “don’t worry about me” strain of your average fallen-Catholic martyr, I realized, you lose yourself, you lose your direction. And worst of all? You are secretly, silently seething, and blaming everyone around you – your fabulous husband, your adorable children – for not letting you live your life as you’d like to. But it wasn’t them who was stopping me. It was me who was stopping me.

When I realized trying to be Mother Mary Leslie, Holiest and Longest Suffering of All Mothers on the Block and Surrounding Environs, that’s when it hit me with the clarity and force of a religious epiphany what I needed to do: Stop blaming everyone else.

So right at the same time I realized this, thank you Ms. Julia Cameron (former wife of Martin Scorsese, by the way), I also looked in the mirror: Straight on, in my underwear, without squinting or flinching.

I’m a thin woman. But just because you’re thin doesn’t mean you don’t have fat. Weird fatty areas around the underarms and especially at the waist. And it was newish fat. Blobs of skin and excess I hadn’t noticed, and certainly hadn’t reckoned with, since my thirties. My waist had disappeared. I’d turned into a human refrigerator: A square torso with skinny legs and arms sticking out.

That gift of psychic self-awareness along with the stunning, startling realization that my body had gone all squishy middle-agey brought me to the divine realization that my time of reckoning had come. Time to stop being a martyr. Time to find time for myself. Time to fight the blobs.

And just around this time I read an essay in The New Yorker by Haruki Murakami, entitled “The Running Novelist,” which was an excerpt from his new memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.

What surprised me was how sort of ordinary, almost lacking affect, Murakami’s essay was. As opposed to his lyrical, almost mystical novels, his writing wasn’t inspired or beautiful. It was matter-of-fact and sort of rambling and almost boring. But it got to me. He wrote about how one day he had his own epiphany: He had been running a jazz club and had been at a baseball game when suddenly, at the moment the bat hit the ball, he thought: I could be a writer.

He began writing, but was getting heavy, and then decided to start running. For Murakami, running meshed perfectly with writing. He would sit and be sedentary for much of the day, but running gave him the emotional and physical outlet he needed to stay balanced and fit.

For decades now, he has run and written with equal intensity and dedication. They are his two passions, and one passion feeds the other.

“Leslie, you idiot,” I thought. After all these years as a freelancer, after those many days when I’d feel all stiff and fuzzy-headed, I could have done something so simple, and free, as to go for a run.

So the next day I ran. It was terrible, but also inspiring. I ran a block. Then I walked. I felt mildly uncomfortable. But then I’d run a little more. The next day I’d do it again. I surprised myself at how driven I became. Not driven compared to an accomplished runner, or even a garden-variety runner. But compared to me. Compared to the old me. The squishy, martyr me.

My knees started giving me problems and I talked with my next-door-neighbor Mick, who is a scientist-cum-marathon runner, who told me I might want to invest in real running shoes rather than wear my 10-year-old tennis shoes. My knees got better. And of course, after a few weeks, I found myself getting incrementally stronger and better at longer distances.

I’d wake at 6:00, zip out of the house before anyone – my husband, my son, my daughter had a chance to wake and ask something of me. (Confession: Plenty of mornings I’d hear my three-year-old daughter wake, she usually wakes crying, and I’d escape from the house with my shoes still in my hand…then put them on a half block down. The old me would have felt too guilty doing this: Poor Molly crying. Poor Steve having to take care of her. Now I know we’ll all be okay. Better than okay. Molly learns Steve can take care of her. Steve learns he can take care of Molly. Leslie learns she can take care of herself.)

San Francisco, despite or because of the hills, is a wonderful city for running. Because of the hills, there are odd little hidden staircases I discovered; remarkable, living here for 20 years and just finding them now. There are plenty of undeveloped hills where, after laboring to the top, I stop for some push-ups and a few Maria von Trapp twirls as I look out over the city, just waking up. There are gingerbread houses and Dr. Seuss trees. There is silence and birds and just my own self huffing and puffing. And so often, so often, I think of me here running and it feels ridiculous: Me, a dyed-in-the-wool running hater. It’s like I’d been one religion and switched. I’d recreated myself, in my own stealth, middle-aged, unremarkable way.

For my last birthday, my friend Kim – who has also had a recent born-again fitness experience, thanks to her very ripped goddess  personal trainer Kelly (who writes about getting in touch with “your inner baddass”)gave me an IPOD Nano with hours of running music. Kim felt sorry for me because I told her when I would run with my IPOD, more often than not “Elmo’s Song” would come on, because it mostly had Molly’s favorite songs on it. God bless good friends.

Through See Jane Run, this fantastic women’s running store down the street, I’m now training for a half marathon, which really, isn’t that much, when compared to most serious runners. But compared to me, it’s something.

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Lasterday seems so very far away

Lately, I’ll get into these conversations with Molly in which both of us get stuck in an endless loop that neither of us can get out of. It goes something like this:

“Mama, when are we going to the zoo?”

“Tomorrow sweetie.”

“Is it tomorrow right now?”

“No, it’s today. When today is over, then it will be tomorrow.”

Then next day (a.k.a. tomorrow) Molly will wake up to find she’s the star in her own little Groundhog’s Day movie, and say, “Mama, is it tomorrow?”

“No, love, when today is over it will be tomorrow.”

I can see her sitting there thinking: But big head, you said it would be tomorrow today. Because none of it makes sense, she starts crying. “But I wanted to go to the zoo tomorrow!”

“We are going to the zoo,” I say, as if to reassure her. “Tomorrow is today.” Thanks for clarifying, Mom!

Time, for children, time is such a slippery concept. As we grow older, we learn to conform to this artificial construct — time — even though it trips us up for years. We have to figure out what “Just a second” and “In a minute” really means (what we figure out is time is relative, depending on who is saying it), and how eternal a Sunday morning is when it’s just as long as any other morning. Then, as we enter our twenties, we learn that time is no longer this vast, sprawling thing, but as the older we get, the more it speeds by.

When Sam was just about Molly’s age, he very cleverly came up with his own word that perfectly sums up anything in the past: Lasterday.  Lasterday could be a few hours ago, yesterday, a week ago, a year . . . anywhere in that murky territory of time that is particularly vague when you are three and — unlike grown-ups who resort to meditating so we can, usually futilely, try to being in the moment — every thing is in the moment. Unless it’s tomorrow. Today.

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Ask Mr.(or is that Miss?)Wizard

“Mom, can you get a wizard to turn me into a boy?” Molly asks me at breakfast yesterday.

“No, love, a wizard can’t turn you into a boy,” I say. “You are a girl. That’s what you are. That’s all you can be.”  It’s one of those things a parent says that has no logic, and that has an edge of cruelty to it.

True, a wizard can’t turn her into a boy. But in her three-year-old world, why not? Why can’t a wizard turn her into a boy? Of course he could. Every day, a wizard turns my daughter into a rabbit, a frog, a dog. Wouldn’t a boy be half as easy? Tears are puddling and about to spill over the edges of her lovely blue eyes.

It’s the same look she had, that on the brink of despair look, when last week I finished singing, “On Top Of Spaghetti” and I had to spend fifteen minutes reassuring her that that original meatball that had rolled out the door was okay, it wasn’t dead. “Wh-wh-what happened to the meatball?” she asks, her voice shaky. Well, sweetie, yes, it turned into mush, but then it turned back into a meatball, so everything is okay. Her lip is quivering, eyes still watering. Wait, wait, there’s more! It gets better. That meatball that landed in the garden grew into a meatball tree and grew hundreds of wonderful little meatballs just like it. So everything is okay. The meatball is better than okay!

Why can’t I be so generous in my lies with this new question?

“But I want to be a boy,” she says, her voice shaky, and I know we’re heading towards a meltdown, a meltdown over the impossibility of getting a gender change at age three. It’s all become very important this past month: Who has a vagina, who has a penis. Of course, because she is three and so has pretty much no boundary issues, she feels compelled to review who has which equipment no matter who, what, or when: at the Whole Foods check-out line, to our neighborhood librarian, or to her wonderful godmother, to which she says as part announcement, part query: “You have a vagina.” And just as further proof of how wonderful she is, Molly’s godmother didn’t blink or laugh in that icky way adults do when a child says something inappropriate. She just said, with the enthusiasm of a new campaign slogan, “Yes, Molly,  I do have a vagina!” (I imagine a chorus of newly empowered, unembarrassed vaginas chanting, “Yes. We. Can!”)

I start reading too much into her question: What if my little girl feels like a boy trapped in a girl’s body? This will be her burden to bear throughout life. But why do I care? I live in San Francisco, a half mile from Castro and Market, where Sean Penn playing Harvey Milk made his famous “I am angry” speech. There’s an enormous, multi-million center for Lesbian, Gay, and Transgender individuals not far away from where we live. I know a couple transgender people, and here I am, getting uptight about a comment that may, or may not, mean anything for my tiny little girl. You’d think I’d be down with whatever, or whoever, she wants to be, thinks she is.

Steve is completely unfazed and, I think , surprised that I was bothered by Molly’s question. “It’s a normal thing to say at this age,” he says. Oh really? And how many parenting books have you read in the last ten years, I want to say? But what’s most infuriating is that even though the answer is “zero,” Steve’s right. It is normal at her age to be sorting out girl from boy, vagina from penis, pink from blue.

And even if for some reason she does grow up wanting to be a boy and finally becomes one, adds Steve, who has morphed before my eyes into Dr. Sears, then we’ll love her and hope she is happy.

Now…what was it that I was worried about?

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Screaming meanies

Or rather, screaming mommies. It’s a terrible, terrible moment when it first happens to you — the usually benevolent and loving mother transforms into a tyrant — and terrible every time after that.

My friend Gail send me this funny and honest piece by Lisa Belkin at nytimes.com on why, sometimes, a harshly spoken word may not be that bad. Belkin makes a good case.  Kids need to know that anger is an acceptable emotion, as long as its not abusive.

But I still contend (and as perfect a mother as I vowed to be, woe is me, I’ve had my tantrums) that children shouldn’t be yelled at and this doesn’t make kids behave. It makes them cower. Or retreat. Or rebel.

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Feeling up trees

I am a journalist. I should know better than to tip-toe across the journalist-subject divide. Because I know what journalists do.

They get other people to do and say things they later regret. (Or as Joan Didion said: “That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.”)

Not only did I voluntarily become the sacrificial New Age lamb, tiptoeing and tromping in front of the camera for French TV, I felt up a tree…blindfolded. I asked a flower’s permission if I could connect with it before rubbing it’s felty leaves. I stood alongside a woman named Hyacinthe and a man named Sunbeam and consented to renaming myself Sparrow.

Hello France! Watch the daffy Californian engage in a nefarious New Age ritual. How did I — a journalist, who, I repeat, should know better — fall so far so fast?

I’ll tell you why.

About a year and a half ago I wrote a feature for San Francisco Magazine on eco-anxiety. Yes, it seems crazy that I — Madame Neuroticmama  —  would be anxious about anything! (Ha ha ha.) But thanks be to Gore, who went all eco-Cassandra on us, ruining the pleasure of all these balmy San Francisco February days we’ve now accepted as normal, I found myself frequently waking up in terror about this inconvenient end of the world (and somehow, a man-made apocalypse is inconvenient…’cause if we had just been more conscious and less consumeristic and piggish and thoughtless, our children’s children would still know what it is to have snow in winter). It would be an ending that — I wonder if this is worse than nuclear devastation, which is as brutal as it is quick — wouldn’t end quickly.

It would be more of an excruciating, heart-breaking, fast-melting, slow-burning, environmental apocalypse.

One thing led to another.

A French reporter who wanted to do a story on eco-psychology couldn’t find many  eco-neurotics in California who were willing to go on film. So, why not. I volunteered myself to be France’s poster girl for American eco-neurosis. After all, I’m happy to be open about my anxieties since the very reason I wrote the article is because I have been so freaked out about the planet and wanted to know a) Were others as freaked out as I was? b) I they weren’t, why the hell not? How they couldn’t possibly be besides themselves with the terribleness of it all and how can they live with themselves as they idle in their Land Rover in the carpool lane?

That’s why I write most articles. I want to know: it just me, or is there something going on that wasn’t before? Or again, to conjure up the great Didion: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

Is everyone else as afraid for the world as I am?

So there I am last Saturday, having consented to Monsieur French Journalist to be filmed attending a workshop in Golden Gate Park on how to reconnect with nature.

The idea is that so many of us urban dwellers, who live most the sunny hours of our days cubicle-bound and fluorescent-lit, are so disconnected from the natural world that we can’t feel part of it. If you separate yourself from anything — a tree, a person — then you don’t care so much. And if you don’t care as much, then it’s not so sad a thing if that weeping willow is later milled as paper for your derriere.

This seminar, a group of about eight middle-aged white people, was to help us bridge that rift. To once again go back to the garden — yes, that garden — before there were cell phones and  Cinnabun (TM) franchises. To be alive and aware as one who is part of nature rather than another of some 6-billion hapless onlookers who are either helplessly (gotta drive to work, gotta feed the kids) participating in its devastation or a  heartless butcher of its bounty. (Stay with me here. This gets cheerier in the next paragraph.)

Sure, I make fun of the New Agey-ness of it because I felt self-conscious being so predictably Californian, so touchy-feely with the lawn. But here’s the thing. After 2.5 hours of consciously communing with the natural world, I came away feeling connected and softer and less in free-fall despair out about our planet. Maybe somewhere in the Amazon they’re burning down a football field’s worth of rain forests an hour. But I realized in that afternoon, in a moment while I looked without distraction at this one noble, big-barked tree, that the world might be burning up and melting and falling into the sea.

At least, though, there is this one tree in front of me. And I loved it and touched it and felt, for that moment, at peace with the world. It’s been so long that I’ve felt anything but very, very nervous. I mean, come on, the Boy Scouts sold thousands of acres of preserved wilderness to developers. Next thing you know, the Sierra Club will be clubbing seals.

The reporter asked me something to the effect of, Will this solve the world’s environmental woes if we all hugged trees?”

“Of course not,” I sort of laughed, embarrassed. We need legislation. We need bold steps. But it doesn’t hurt, the hug, that is.

I know it’s so retro. So earnest. So seventies to be hugging a tree. It’s the environmental equivalent of the original and  icky and all-too-hirsute Joy of Sex. So the hell what.

Come on, just try it. Hug him. Or go ahead and stroke him in a very suggestive way. (So much better to feel up a tree then to fell it.) Because after that, you’ll never look at your new wooden deck in quite the same way.

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Little plastic pig

Sometimes, no often, well usually, when Sam leaves at 8:00 for elementary school, and then at 8:45 when I walk Molly to her preschool and hug her goodbye and head for home, I am relieved.

Finally, I think, I am unburdened. I have time to myself. I can get to the articles I have to write. I can wash the dirty breakfast dishes (let’s just say standards for fun change after children) and sweep the kitchen floor. I take a shower and talk on the phone uninterrupted and eat the fancy chocolate I’ve hidden in the freezer.

This morning, I found a little plastic pig Molly had left on the bathroom sink. That pig made me so sad, made me miss her so much, because suddenly I could picture her being so busy with that pig, washing it and talking to it and then getting distracted by something else she needs to do right now! (Put a clump of Silly Putty in a glass of water, cook a pile of snakes on her toy oven. . .)

I walked around the house, doing my morning post-child clean-up, and after the pig had caught me off-guard, I noticed other physical echoes of my children. The arm from a pirate pinata Sam had brought home after a party this week-end. The deflated Trader Joe’s balloon Molly had me tie on the tricycle she rides around the house, faster and faster these days.  Sam’s pajamas that he left, as usual, on his bedroom floor, and the pile of BB gun pellets he’d emptied out the night before, excitedly telling me how he’d found them on the AstroTurf at soccer practice.

Usually, I’m so obsessed with getting the house clean before I get to my work. But today, I left the things where Sam and Molly had left them. The house became the Historical Museum of Sam and Molly. This is just how the house looked on February 4, 2009, when Sam was 11 and Molly was 3.

All these still-lifes are so loaded with my children, and seeing these things now inert, lifeless without the life Sam and Molly breath into them, well, today it hit me: There’s life with my children, and sometimes, no often, it’s more than I want — too many demands, too many tears and conflicts and needs and talking, talking, talking, and just too much life.

But how can you have too much life?

Tomorrow, I’m sure, I’ll forget that you can’t. But at least for today, I got it.

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Heaven and jello.

This may not look like bliss to you . . . jello1. . . but to Molly, this is wiggly-jiggly heaven. Do adults ever get as excited about anything as a three year old gets about getting to bring a pan of red jello to pre-school? Yes, they do (wink, wink), but it’s not jello. Or maybe it is…but you didn’t have to go and get all jello fetishy on me. Is there a jello fetish? Of course there is. Time to Google…

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Weep. Goodbye Wondertime Magazine.

It’s not just because I was about to publish two articles in my favorite parenting magazine that I’m mourning Wondertime magazine’s passing.

It’s that Wondertime is, was, such an original, top-notch magazine: A zippy publication for parents with honest, funny, smart writing that could be at once touching and snarky, with writers like the heart-achingly talented Catherine Newman. The woman can write poetry about tamale pie.

Now I read, too, that Conde Nast is shuttering Domino magazine, my monthly home decor Bible.

How will I raise my children? How will I decorate my home? What’s a freelance writer to do when the best magazines are shutting down?

Sigh. Sigh. Sigh.

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Lizard Mother

American alligators (Alligator mississippiensis)It’s not about the car seat. It’s about the lunch box. No, it’s about the nap Molly didn’t take yesterday. No, it’s about me being a bad Mother. Not merely a bad Mother. A bad lizard Mother.

When we have conflicts with our children (“conflict”…who am I kidding…more like screaming hysterical confusion), it is rarely over the thing we are railing about. The car seat battle of ours this morning? Not about the car seat.

It’s about both of you — your three year old and your ridiculous, 46-year-old-should-know-better self — reverting to your primitive, “reptile” brains, where higher brain functions like rational thought and empathy simply don’t exist.

That’s why your basic, big-toothed reptile (think alligator) will mindlessly chomp your leg off without giving it a second thought. Chomp. Chew. Swallow. Stare mindlessly into space. How easy to be an alligator. No guilt. No sympathy. Just straightforward, undiluted, cold-blooded gut instinct.

How hard to be people, with our species confusion. Part reptile. Part mammal. Sure, we’ve evolved, abandoned the swamp and learned to cuddle and suckle and use napkins and drive cars.

But it’s not that long ago, evolutionarily, we were swamp bound. And it’s been hardly the blink of a crocodile’s eye that every one of us had lizard-like derrieres and somersaulted in our private amniotic swamp.

This morning, I woke Sam and Molly at 8:00. Sam needed to get to school on time (8:30…a 12 minute ride from our house). But I let him sleep so ridiculously late because he has standardized testing today, and I wanted him to get as much sleep as possible. (What about breakfast? Unless it’s chocolate chip pancakes, which I hadn’t had the foresight to make, he refuses to eat it anyway.) Molly hadn’t napped yesterday, or the day before, and needed every minute of rest she could get. But waking them at 8:00 when we have to leave at 8:15?

Stupid, yes. But wait. More Motherly stupidity follows. Molly, who didn’t nap yesterday because our new loud phone woke her just as she was falling asleep,  was such a good girl, though, and helped me get her dressed in minutes after waking so late.

We were almost out the door by 8:10 (I thought: I’ll get her breakfast after I get Sam and Lucy, his carpool schoolmate, to school), until she announced she wanted to make her lunch. Uh-oh.

She always wants to make her lunch. I love this about her. She’s independent and capable and only three. But in order to save time this morning I packed it myself. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Why didn’t I wake her 15 minutes earlier so she could make lunch with me?

When she learned what I had done, Molly became hysterical. When Molly becomes hysterical, she shrieks so loudly glass trembles and dogs wail. I tried being logical, which is the dumbest possible thing when you have a wailing three-year-old. “We can’t make your lunch now. We’ll come home and do it after we take Sam and Lucy to school !”

Didn’t work. So I tried being authoritarian, which works almost as well as being logical.

Then I became the brute, and picked her up and carried her to the car. Incredibly, she transformed herself into a wet trout, and no man or woman could have strapped such a writhing creature into a five-point car seat.

“Stop. It. You HAVE to get in your car seat!” I say, as I (gently, but firmly), press my head into her abdomen in an attempt to bend her into the seat.

“No!!!!!!!” wails Molly. “I want to pack my lunch NOW!” She will not be bended. She will not be folded. Or strapped. Or forced.

Sam, my eleven year old, begins yelling, “Mom, mom, you’re being too mean. Don’t do that.” And even though by that point it’s 8:22 and we’re going to be late, I stop and walk away and sit on the front steps and cry alligator tears. Time out for me.

By the time I get back to the car, Sam has strapped Molly into her car seat and nobody is crying. Sam patiently explains to me that in times like these, yelling and brute force and lecturing don’t work. You have to tell a “white lie” to convince her to get going.

He had told her a complicated and unlikely story about needing to get our house key at his school so we could get back into our house to repack her lunch. So I followed Sam’s lead and when we got to his school, late of course, we mimed him running into the front school door and back out to hand me the magical key.

I drove Molly home, we unpacked her lunch and then repacked it, ate a quick breakfast, and got to her school 20 minutes late, and I got to my meeting 35 minutes late.

And now that it’s 1:10 and everyone is where they need to be, none of our lateness seems to matter at all.

All that matters is that hours later, the fact that I was a raging brute, with nothing to show for it (nobody was on time, nothing was accomplished), hangs heavy as I get ready to collect my children at school.

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Children in India

This is not simply to tattle on my 11-year-old son, because what happens regularly in our home is being repeated millions of times daily in households across this great nation of ours.

Annoyed parent: “I’ve asked you three times. Turn off the Gamboys/DS/Wii/computer!”

Annoyed boy: “O-k-a-a-a-a-y! I just have to get to the next level.”

I know this is an American phenomenon, in fact, not just because most of my friends with boys ages 7-18 tell me so, but because I saw a t-shirt for sale in the boys’ section at Target that read: “Just let me get to the next level.”

Now time for me to tattle on Sam. Before Christmas, he was in full pout because he was sure he wasn’t getting an IPod for Christmas. “It’s not fair. Everyone in my class has an Ipod!”

That’s when Steve and I pull out the Bijwajit guilt card. Bijwajit is an Indian boy, also age 11, who our family sponsors through Children International. About $25 is automatically taken out of our credit card monthly; we barely notice the money is gone. Bijwajit’s father makes $50 a month. His family of four lives in a concrete, dirt-floored, two-room house, with no running water or electricity. Hey, at least they have two rooms.

“Hmmm. Wonder if everyone in Bijwajit’s class has an IPod?” I say.

“Maybe Bijwajit will get an extra grain of rice in his stocking,” Steve says (even funnier since Bijwajit’s family is Hindu).

“STOP talking about Bijwajit! ” says Sam. “You always talk about Bijwajit when I want something!”

Sam’s right and, in my heart, I know we’re wrong. But on some level, we’re trying, however ineffectively, to teach Sam how lucky he is, how he’s not deprived for the lack of an IPod. We want him to understand that  Bijwajit’s  father, who is a taxi driver, would have to work for four months to buy an IPod. And that’s not even covering the ITunes downloads.

On another level, Steve and I are being hypocrites. We don’t make $50 a month. Although we’re not swimming in luxury items, we’re another “average” two computer, two IPod, three TV, one Wii family.

It’s Sam’s sense of entitlement that we’re railing against. And the guilt (well, my guilt; Steve, remarkably since he was raised Jewish, doesn’t do guilt) that it’s our fault. If Sam has a sense of entitlement, it’s his parents doing. We got him the Gameboy, the DS, the Wii, and the dozens of $40 games to run on all of these high-end toys.

The moral of the story? After Steve and I discussed it ad naseum — since I was heartily against it and Steve believes if Sam wanted it so much, why not get it for him — we bought him an IPod. And we sent Bijwajit an extra $25 for Christmas.

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I Scream for Obama

Ben & Jerry’s “Yes, Pecan!” available  on inauguration day. Makes you proud to be an ice cream eater.yes-pecan

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Problem solved!

Here’s one from Dr. Jane Nelsen, author of  “Positive Discipline.” I interviewed Nelsen recently and what she told me has changed 48% of my parenting. No, make that 56%.

Maybe you’ve gotten backed into a corner with your strong-willed 11 year old and he won’t get ready for school on time. Or your three-year-old daughter has just painted the kitchen chair with her  paint set. What do you do?

You could guilt-trip, berate, say, “God, I told you so many times not to do that!” or “Why did you do that?” (Oh yeah, that always works, asking your child the “Why did you do that?” question.)

Or you could let your children figure out that problem themselves.

Just for kicks, try this response: “Hmmm…this is a problem. Can you think of a solution?”

Eleven year old will get his act together (or not, and then get in trouble for being late, and the next day, or the day after, be on time). Three year old will get out a sponge and wipe, wipe, wipe and be proud of her solution. (She uses that word frequently now.)

I don’t know why, entirely, but it works. Just about every time. It’s like a miracle drug or something. Thank you, Jane.

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Adele Adele Adele . . .

Adele Faber co-authored, “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen When Kids Talk.” and “Siblings Without Rivalry.” Years ago, I read her books and tried the techniques, with some success. But then, you know, time passes, you forget, it’s 5:00 p.m. and you are tired and suddenly you are horrible all over again and unfairly criticize your child or met out punishments that aren’t fair.

For me, learning to parent well  is like learning to cook well: If I have the chef in the kitchen with me, telling me what to do, somehow I get it. I can cook a beautiful dinner.

I really got it with Adele when I interviewed her recently for an article on discipline. She taught me a trick that helps me listen to myself, helps me correct my naggy, icky, mean self when I’m being naggy, icky, and mean.

All you have to do is pretend what you are saying to your child is something you’d say to your husband or co-worker. Basically, something you’d say to an adult. For most of us, when talking with other grown-ups, we are civil, polite, find the best way to say even an unpleasant thing.

I imagined saying to my husband: “Steve, you left your clothes on the floor again, so you can’t go out with your friend Eric tomorrow night.”  Or if he said to me: “Leslie, you cooked a bad dinner. Until you can cook a good dinner, you can’t watch Mad Men.”

A grown-up’s reaction? Hurt. Rage. Resentment.

Oh, I know. Parents out there are going to argue that we need to treat our children like children. Lest they turn into hellions on Heeley’s, we need to give them consequences and punishments. But I would argue (and so would the fabulous Adele Faber), maybe not. Maybe you can treat your child with the same respect you’d give other, taller human beings, and expect respect in return.

So instead of the illogical consequences, the angry words, the unfair punishments? It takes more work, more thought, and means being self-disciplined about taking a breath before letting the angry synapses fire. It means teaching your children to find solutions to problems they created. (“You spilled grape juice on the carpet. How are you going to fix it?” “You hurt your sister when you hit her. What can you do to make her feel better?”)

So much more to say. Read Adele Faber’s books. Put them under your pillow and absorb them. Practice, over and over, how to do what she says. It takes time, thought, effort. But it’s worth it.

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Momaholic

I was once called a Momaholic. “You used to be a workaholic,” said my tell-it-like-it-is best friend. “Now you’re a momaholic.” She was right. I was always there to make sure Sam was always happy.

I recently went to a seminar and one parenting expert said that always trying to make our children happy isn’t just exhausting. It’s bad for our children. (Read the fabulous, “Blessings of A Skinned Knee.”)Sometimes we need to leave our kids alone and let them figure things out as best they can.

Or as the expert said: “Sometimes the best parenting looks like neglect.”

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Best parenting books for moms…neurotic or not

1. “How to Talk to Kids so Kids Will Listen…” by Adele Faber. As a matter of fact, anything by Faber, who I had the privilege of interviewing her a few times. More than any child expert I’ve interviewed, Faber respects and understands children.

2. “Children: The Challenge” by By Rudolf Dreikurs. Nevermind the off-putting title. Dreikurs’ books gave me the clearest road-map of how to change  my behavior with my children and have less friction.

3. “Positive Discipline” by Jane Nelson. I had my doubts before reading it since I think, too often, “discipline” is a euphemism for “punishment.”  Nelson teaches to think of “discipline” as “guidance” and offers life-changing tools for creating a happy family life.

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What’s in a name?

molly-and-bubbles3Let’s say you have an incredibly sweet 3-year-old girl named Molly, but you never wanted to name her Molly. Never, ever, ever.

There’s a lot to a name, like the fact that Molly was a roommate of mine in San Francisco, an acquaintance of my best friend, who I liked okay but it was her name not my future daughter’s. No, not my girl. When I was four months pregnant and told my mother we were thinking of naming our daughter Molly, she said, “That sounds like an Irish washerwoman.” Another family member berated me as I was recovering in the hospital from my C-section for my admission that we might, after all, go with Molly, telling me it was a horrible name, evoking drippy hippy girls in the seventies who wore long, ugly skirts.

Maybe some names have magnetic attractions to some families. Molly seems to send mine (the family I grew up with, that is) running. The truth is, my family’s criticisms gave voice to my own reservations. I’ve never cottoned to the name Molly. Names sing to you or they don’t. Though it rhymes with a lot, and rhymes so much you could easily compose a jingle, the rhyme is simpy, sugery sweet: Dolly, Polly, Golly.

A name like Leslie doesn’t sing and, Elvis Presley and Nestle aside, doesn’t rhyme, which is why you never hear a Leslie love song. But I think Leslie has some strength to it, a unisexual power. There’s something to having a mannish name that can still be beautiful. Think Leslie Caron. Still, in the end, what I’d give for a name that sings, even a little.

My middle name, now that sings. Moira. No, not Moy-ra, but Mor-a. I love that name. It’s a leftover name, that middle name of mine. But when have I ever used it? Never. Middle names are a pity, really. Rarely uttered except to clarify bureaucratic pickles or criminal news stories. In my early thirties, I thought of changing my name, thinking I could suddenly become someone else entirely: A romantic Moira. All windswept hair, all Wuthering Heights. Moira. Now there’s a girl of character and wind-swept-hairness.

I know three women who have changed their name and all for the better: Julie Anne Guthrie became Julian. Susan Ellis became Clare Ellis (she is such a Clare…beautiful, smart, clear…). And my force-of-nature fantastic sister-in-law at age 60 went from Jeri to Suzanna when she moved to Italy. Well, why not? If you can change your sex, what’s the big deal about forsaking a name you’d rather slough off. Why go through life as Melvin, Hymen, Eunice?

But in the end, I’m not so bold to lay claim to a new name. When I told Steve my Moira fantasy, he thought it pretentious to change one’s name so late in life. (Ah, but 33 now seems so young.) As for regifting it to my daughter, Steve, in the Jewish tradition, believes it unseemly to name a living person after someone who is still living. (Thus, no Martin Finkelstein, III.) According to Jewish teachings, you might as well wish someone dead. I get a lot about Judaism and think it far superior to Catholicism, the religion I grew up with. Alas, I let go of that dream.

An organic farmer who sold strawberries at our farmers’ market asked me when I was pregnant what I was going to name my daughter. After having gotten such severe critiques, and being afraid of this woman anyway — who at any turn, is judgemental and mean — I demurred. “I’ve decided not to tell anyone what I’m thinking of naming her. People always have something to say about it.” She pressed and pressed. “Oh come on. Just tell me. I won’t say anything.”

Molly.” God. I have no backbone.

“Don’t name her Molly! With a name like Molly, she could never become a lawyer.”

“I’m not sure I want my daughter to become a lawyer.”

“What’s wrong with lawyers?”

I’d backed myself into a corner and honestly, I hated defending myself, and my unborn daughter, against Molly detractors, even if I didn’t want it myself. I kept trying it out: Molly, Molly, Molly and kept recoiling. So why did I give in to Steve’s top choice? In short, I so wanted a second child that when it happened, against all odds at age 42, I decided that in the end, I’d let Steve have the name since I got my wish.

I tried, I tried with other names. I was working at BabyCenter at the time and would go through the site’s name finders. Hundreds of names I’d scroll through, cherry picking my favorites that I’d email names to Steve throughout the work day. Unusual names:  Zelda, Eliza, Emelia, Stella, Sadie, Mia, Kelsey, Olive, Hazel; strong names: Hayden. September; gender neutral names: Chandler, August.  At last Steve and I found one we both loved: Ruby, only to realize that Ruby Fox could only be the name of a stripper.

Out too were names of women Steve has dated, names I love like Irene (Molly’s middle name and my grandmother’s name) and Julia.

My baby X was born and after days of stalling in the hospital, with the birth certificate woman knocking on our door every day, we had narrowed it down to “Isabel, Madeline, and Molly.” Sam, my then 8 year old said, “Come on, Mom, she’s Molly and you know it.” I didn’t but I couldn’t resist his pleas. I wanted him to feel invested in this interloper as much as I wanted Steve to embrace the reality of this fourth person in our family. Okay, in my Vicadin weariness I said, Molly it is. “Good thing you chose Molly,” said the birth certificate woman. “I’ve already issued three certificates for Isabel this morning.”

Okay, so that’s a plous. There aren’t many other Mollys around, unless you run with the pack. Yell “Molly” at a dog park and a tail wager will come running.

For months I resisted the name. I called my baby Moll, Molls, sweetie pie, pumpkin, love. But I hated saying “Molly.” It didn’t feel right. Never felt like her name to me. Postpartum, when I was leaving all of our big wooden furniture on the sidewalk (Has anyone else out there had postpartum furniture syndrome? Please let me know!) because a console a kitchen set set off a round of inexplicable sobbing, I was also plotting a name change.

For a while I settled on Quinn. Steve liked Quinn. Yes, Quinn is good. “There’s Miss Molly,” said Pat, one of my friends at the farmers’ market whose only fault, that I can see, is that upon seeing Molly , he always says, “Good golly Miss Molly!” (Remember, now, that’s a song about a hooker, “You sure like to ball.” And then there’s that book about a prostitute, Moll Flanders).

“I’m thinking of changing her name to Quinn,” I say, in part to test the waters, in part, defiance. Now he can never belt out a song in response to her name. (Oh, how I feel for the Allisons, who have heard, ad naseum, how this world is killing them;the Mandys, who must curse Barry Mantilow daily.) “Ah, the mighty Quinn!” he roared. Thanks, Pat.

But, still, I was determined to make a change. This urge was spurred on by Molly’s first babysitter. One day, hesitantly, guiltily, I said to Amancy, “Can I tell you something so weird? I don’t like Molly’s name and am thinking of changing it.” Amancy stared at me and I interpreted her look, mistakenly, as one that said, “You are a terrible woman who doesn’t love your daughter.” Because not to love a name, does that mean you love the name-holder less?

Strange, sometimes, to whom we confess. Because my confessor became my conspirator. Amancy went on to tell me the story about her five-year-old son Zavian. “Zavian used to be named Oscar,” she said. “I hate the name Oscar, but Frank wanted to name him after two of his relatives.” She went along with it until one day at church, when Zavian was two, the preacher gave a sermon about the meaning of names. How important their legacy, how important the meaning for the name bearer. After the sermon Amancy, who is as strong as she is sweet, announced to Frank, “We are changing Oscar’s name.”

After all, she pointed out, their son may have been named after two Oscars, but both had criminal records. So amidst and despite plenty of neighbor and family clucking, Amancy announced to the world that from that day forward, their son would be Zavian, the name she wanted all along. She got her son’s papers changed and it was a done deal.

That did it for me. I would change our daughter’s name. I went with Molly’s godmother Paula to the birth certificate window at San Francisco’s City Hall. I was going to do it. Give her Moira. Her name would be Molly Moira Irene Fox. Then, when she learned to dislike sympy, sweet, washerwoman Molly as much as I did, she could assume one of her other names. After waiting 45 minutes in line, I got to the window and the woman said, “Oh, no darling. To change a name you have to go through a process.”

A process? The process meant advertising in a local paper that you were changing this person’s name. It also meant filling out a lot of paperwork and appearing in court. It also meant getting Steve’s signature and approval.

Steve is a lovely man and if I crowed enough, I imagine he would have gone along with me. Not without some resentment, I’m sure, because after all we did name Molly after his beloved, sweet grandmother. (But again, I argue, that’s precisely it. Molly Brown aside, everyone expects Molly to be sweet, right?)  No, I didn’t go through the process. I felt a heel forcing Steve to give up a name he loved. But in an act of wimpy subversiveness, I got her a silver baby cup that reads, “Molly Moira Irene Fox.” At least she has the cup.

When they aren’t saying, “Good Golly, Miss Molly!” or “I know a dog named Molly,” people who meet her often say, “She looks like a Molly.” Red hair. Boingy curls. Yes, she does. To her, she is Molly. She can write her name now. This is her identity. Though the girl is in my heart, the name still, still after all these days of saying the name while I hold my daughter, sounds wrong.

Here comes the irrational part. (But what part of having children is rational? It’s all craziness and desire and blind love and fierce attachment.) Steve’s sister Berryl, was named after their dead brother Barry. So was Steve, whose legal documents name him as Steven-Barry, a name he hates so much he dropped “-Barry” in all but legal documents. So for their entire life they carry around this baby’s name, a baby who died mysteriously at around three days old in the hospital. Thanks to their parent’s particular brand of craziness, Berryl and Steve would get presents from their dead brother. “Love Barry,” the gift tags read.

Oh, we’re haunted by these ghosts. These names that carry such weight for some and sing to others (the others being the lovers of dead babies, the lovers of tough but lovable criminals, the lovers of grandmothers who baked heavenly cakes) What to do for those who feel the name has hit the wrong note?

Irrationally, wrongly I’m sure, I associate ovarian cancer, which runs in Steve’s family, with grandmother Molly, a woman I’ve never met who died of it and then passed it to her granddaughter Berryl, who died this year of it at age 50. Grandmother Molly may have also passed this on to Steve, who may — we won’t know until he and Molly take the test — may have passed it to our little Molly. Give her another name and we might give her another destiny.  She could be a lawyer. She doesn’t have to be sweet and bake cakes. She could avoid a mid-life death sentence and live until 90.

Molly is three now. I was carrying her down the stairs for hot chocolate this morning. She said, “You and Dad got married because you’re friends.” Yes, I told her, your Dad and I are best friends. We love each other so much, “so much that we got married and wanted to have two children.”

“Yes, two children! Sam and Molly,” said Molly Moira Irene Fox. “Right?”

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Car talk: The wrong way. The right way.

When Sam was three, I had a temper tantrum. Let’s clarify. I had one of my temper tantrums. It was February in San Francisco and pouring rain. I suddenly remembered I hadn’t moved my car because of steet-streeping day. Holding Sam, I rushed out in the rain to move it, the traffic control officer had just finished writing the ticket, and stuck it under the soggy windshield wiper. He took a look at me, hopped into his little parking meter car, and zipped away. Didn’t he see my good intentions? See that it was only two minutes past 12:00. That I held a child in my arms. That I’m a NICE person? My reaction? Kick the car. I cursed. Said something like, “Arghhhhhh!” And then kicked the tires a few times. Sam just stared in the way kids do when they are too scared to cry.

Clearly, deep beneath that brilliant mop of red hair, that experience — that movie of Mom spazing out — got stuck somewhere in his sweet little cortex. “Mama. Remember when you were so mad, and it was raining, and you screamed and kicked the car?” Oh, no, I hadn’t remembered, sweetie. Thanks for reminding me for the zillionth time.

Go forward, about a year later. We are visiting Steve at his office. When we come out of the building, I know it before I see it — or rather see the absence of our car. It’s been towed. I feel that rush of energy. The terrible one that when I turn into Mrs. Hide (as in the children should run and…) seems to sweep over me. I think it’s called anger. But I also know that if I don’t let the synapse fire — if I just stop, just for a moment — then it won’t catch and the spark dies before it takes off.

In a compact moment, the memory of my car transgression came back. I can make this right, I thought on some level. And I took that deep breath that can get you out of so much trouble if only you’d go to the trouble of taking it. And as I walked up to the empty space where our car had been, I said, “Sam! Look. This is so funny. Our car is gone. It’s been towed!” He looked a little scared. This is new. It could be bad. Mommy could lose it. “You’ve never gone to get a towed car! This is going to be fun. This is going to be an adventure.” Sam loves adventures. We hail a cab. Take it to the scary car-towing spot under the San Francisco viaduct. Pay $250.00. And get our car.

Sam reminded me of that for years. Years. “Mama, remember when we had that fun adventure and our car got towed?” Like it was the best fun he and I had ever had, ever.

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Filed under Moms Behaving Badly, Neurotic mom, Parenting advice

Your mama is so neurotic . . .

Should I call this blog “Neuroticmama?” No, I probably shouldn’t. It’s too self-referential, too winky, too “Hey, funny, see how neurotic I am.”

And the “mama” part? God. Oh course not.  “Neuroticmom,” which felt more right, was taken. I’ll come up with another name when I can think of one. For now, I’m at a loss. But looking at the big picture over the past 12 years since I’ve been with child, in utero or out, I’ve watched some patterns emerge. Thus, the blog name, which I’m ambivalent about, and which I may change. Or not. Who knows.

So the patterns: Does attachment parenting produce entitled children who have no emotional resiliency or strong, secure people? Did I hold my babies in the sling too much? How do you weigh out the benefits of a family bed for my 11-year-old son with the damage it might have done to the family? How much did I damage my son when at age four he wacked off all the leaves of a tree I had just planted and I rushed up to him, held him by his shoulders, and said, no yelled, “We are gentle with plants! Gentle. With. Plants!!!”

Then there are the obvious questions? Am I a bad mom or a good mom? What about global warming? Terrorism? What’s the point? What should I make for dinner for the next 15 years?

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