Archive for the ‘Mothering, Family Life, and Children’ Category

With a Little Help from our Friends

Monday, March 18th, 2013

It may not take an entire village to raise a child, but it surely takes a posse of friends and family members to make one’s dreams a reality. My eldest daughter, Reiley, decided to compete in pole vaulting this track season – at a school that hasn’t had a pole vaulting program in five years, shares practice time, space, and equipment with other schools in the district, and employed a coach who has never actually vaulted. What to do? Ask a climbing friend, who just happens to have been the 1990 Pac-10 Champion in Pole Vault, to885810_549514678426567_1707693206_o give Reiley some pointers.

His response, “Build it and they will come.”

No kidding. Less than a week after our initial conversation, which serendipitously followed a similar request by a mutual friend whose teenage daughter pole vaults – at a well-equipped school with no vaulting coach – we’d built a backyard pole vaulting training facility. We located and purchased a pole vault box, which my sister graciously picked up after a meeting in LA, borrowed a pole, and moved pads our friend had already acquired from his drive to a field at the far end of his backyard to create a pit. Even sans a proper runway and standards (”cross bars,” for the uninitiated), we have an enviable space for two Inland Valley teens to train.

Conversations I Never Thought I’d Have with a Son

Monday, March 11th, 2013

I remember my eldest son telling me once, following a detailed discussion of which one of the bras drying in the laundry room I wanted him to carry upstairs to me, “That was one conversation I never thought I’d have with you.” Well, his little brother has him beat.

talkin-bout-the-birds-and-the-beesMy 11-year-old son, Parker, is the first of my children to attend middle school, so his experience with “sex-u-al reproduction” as a study unit in science class represents new educational terrain for all of us. Prior to the start of this unit, I’d had no idea that my ongoing conversations with his now teen-aged siblings, had gone, quite literally, right over his head. And considering the almost annual arrival of new infant members into our extended family, and the “polite conversations” on human reproduction that attend to them, I was shocked at his apparent lack of common knowledge about the so-called “birds and bees.”

The sexual reproduction unit started innocently enough with pollination…

Then there was the day I asked Parker about school and he replied, “Well…I learned why women use tampons…” He also learned an alternative meaning for “period” and, as a consequence of a wisecrack remark by his science teacher, that it’s a good idea to avoid women during this “time of the month.” (Thank you very much, Mr. Science Teacher.) I did my very best to behave as if I discussed human reproduction with pre-teens all the time and and expressed my openness to any and all questions he might have. He responded, “No, Mom. I’m good.”

The highlight of our conversation came at the end when Parks concluded, “You know, it’s all about the woman.” Oh yeah, he’s going to make a terrific mate one day.

My Dog Has Mumps?!

Monday, March 4th, 2013

My eldest daughter, Reiley, is no fan of running with the dogs, but I thought she’d gone overboard yesterday when she complained that Ayla, our Alaskan Malamute, was not only slowing us down, but also had a fat face. From behind, I had to agree. It looked as if there was an over abundance of fur sticking out of the right side of Ayla’s face. I reached out to give it a tug, wholly expecting to pull out a chunk of her under-coat. (True to her breed, she almost always needs to be brushed!). No fur this time, just a mass or swollen cheek or…


Suddenly, her wincing when I put her collar on made sense. I hadn’t caught her ear, but rather absentmindedly tugged her collar over what now appeared to canine mumps. Of course, I researched her condition and narrowed it down to most likely a toothache or infection, though I couldn’t rule out something much worse.

Nor could I rule out mumps. Mumps is a viral infection that usually affects the parotid glands, one of three pairs of salivary glands located below and in front of your ears. Dogs have a similar arrangement of glands, and while a dog can get the mumps, they are far more likely to suffer from infections of the parotid salivary gland(s) caused by something other than the mumps virus.

After two hours and $380, the vet was sure Ayla had an infection near the salivary gland on her right side, likely the result of a puncture wound we’d somehow missed. (Our current best guess is that she cut herself on the chain link breaking out of her kennel and her wound was hidden by all that fur.) Treatment involved surgery to lance and drain the abscess, and she came home with the worst shearing I’ve ever seen, half a dozen stitches, and a drain protruding from her neck in two places.


Yet, I’m thrilled that’s all it was. Reiley’s right, Ayla isn’t as fast as she once was, and she’s way fuzzier than any So. Cal Malamute ought to be, and she does have an attitude…Still I can’t imagine a more loving and loyal canine companion.

Same Difference

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013


My two youngest sisters, Jeanna and Terri, are 11 months apart; their first children were born nine months apart. No two people from the same gene pool could be more different in coloring and temperament. Yet they were “joined at the hip” (or cheek) from the start. I don’t think Jeanna scored a solo photo once Terri arrived on the scene!

Terri’s been staying with Jeanna this week and took the kids out for a run today. This shot their “babies” sure brings back memories.

What are They Teaching our Kids These Days?

Tuesday, February 12th, 2013

models-observed-human-naturalI’ve been teaching environmental politics and policy for 20 years, so you can imagine my reaction to learning that a staff member at our local nature center told a group of Boy Scouts that global warming is just a cycle. Of course, the earth’s climate has changed naturally over the billion years of its existence. That global temperatures rise in response to increased heat is a basic principle of climate science. (And they fall when heat is lost.) However, according to the IPCC – Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – rising temperatures since the late 20th century are due to human activities.

Global warming is problematic because it contributes to dangerous and costly changes in weather – or short-term atmospheric changes, as opposed to fluctuations over the long-term. In the United States, both the violence of winter storms and the temperature and duration of heatwaves have increased, for example. Repairing the damages attributed to hurricane Sandy last year are estimated to exceed $70 billion; consumer prices for food are currently 2.5%-3.5% higher than a year ago due to last summer’s drought, which was harsher and more extensive than anything the United States has experienced in over 25 years.

Chief among the basket of greenhouse gases responsible for the climate feedbacks responsible for global warming is carbon dioxide (CO2) which is emitted from the combustion of fossil fuels currently believe necessary for heating and cooling our homes, offices, etc., and moving us around. It’s easy to understand why the petroleum industry would oppose CO2 regulation, but what about everyone else? Surely, investment in more efficient transit and cleaner sources of energy that are expected to generate long-term economic growth and jobs as well as a clean air and a stable climate is better than hemorrhaging relief aid.

aerial-photo-Los-Angeles-AHLB4483I am a recreational athlete and asthmatic, who spends more than the usual amount of time outside, and lives in a city renowned for poor air quality due to a combination of a large population, Southern California’s notorious automobile traffic, and the region’s bowl-shaped topography that traps pollution West of the mountains. So, yeah, I’d support transitioning to clean, renewable energy sooner rather than later, regardless of climate change and whatever impacts it might have on that speck of So. Cal. I call home.

More generally, though, I honestly have a hard time with the idea that some of my fellow Americans – dare I say neighbors and family members? – honestly believe that sustaining the capacity for corporate giants to make yet more money and, perhaps, preserving our individual driving privileges trumps the rights of all of us to the clean air necessary to healthy living. Pollution from energy production combined with the overall increasing costs of petroleum are reason enough to conserve energy, carpool, and opt for cleaner, renewable fuels. Climate change just ups the ante.

Sex, Drugs, and Rock Climbing

Monday, February 4th, 2013

Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.

~Helen Keller

Surely, but…

My son and I went rock climbing Saturday – I know, it’s a stretch, but no sex, no son – and I fell. My war wounds include a four-inch gash, sprained ankle, and broken rib.

105914198_medium_d1002cWe were climbing at Frustration Creek, a slot canyon near Forest Fall, CA accessible only via a 5.6 approach slab along a waterfall that involves some “sketchy” moves without protection. The 5.6 rating means that a lead climber should place intermediate gear – in this case, a rope – to assist others to make the ascent safely.

On Saturday, there was no rope.

Wholly under the influence of Imitrex, a triptan used to treat migraines, I opted to rest in the car while the my son and a friend headed up. I thought it would take about an hour for them to put a rope up and get a climb in each before I joined them. While I indulged a drug-induced loopiness and settled into to sleep off my “headache,” they decided to solo the approach. In other words, both of them would free solo the approach, or climb without a rope, harness, or other gear.

Nearly an hour later, I followed. When I reached the approach climb, there was no rope and the boys were too far away to hear me if I called, so I climbed up. I’ve climbed this pitch countless times hand-over-hand, so it was really no problem; however, climbing back down would be.

At the time, I felt great – euphoric even, which is typical for me during that blissful period between the end of a migraine and my return to reality. For a few hours to a day or more, I simply feel high – an odd combination of pin-point clarity through a kind of mental fuzziness that makes “even routine tasks take on an otherworldly quality.” My doctor has explained to me that this is the migraine postdrome, or final phase of this kind of neurovascular headache.

Although now I can recall feeling uncomfortable with my son's putting the rope away before we headed out of the canyon toward the top of the waterfall-adjacent route we'd have to negotiate en route to the car, at the time, I simply asked him, "Are you putting a rope up?" He either said, "No," or indicated as much by barreling back down ahead of me. I followed, confident at first and then more hesitantly because I honestly could not quite "see" where to put my foot. I even asked my son to "spot" me, or position himself to guide me down safely if I slipped.

Moments later, I was holding on with both hands, looking down for a place to place my right foot, when a piece of the rock I was holding onto with my right hand came off the wet canyon wall. I distinctly remember simultaneously falling backward and forcing my right foot down, as if to arrest my fall by forcing myself to stand on both feet, and then I was falling - hands, face, chest and ribs, hips, knees banging against the slab all the way down. Afterward, onlookers told me that I fell "really well," as if I'd practiced. Good to know.

As it is, I'll be more or less off my feet for as long as it takes for my sprained ankle to heal, and confined to activities with literally no risk of falling for far longer. Yes, it could be worse. What bothers me, is that it was entirely preventible.

If my son had set a rope before descending - either on his own initiative or because I insisted - I would have been rappelling or holding a rope, the rock I was balancing against as I stepped down probably would not have come loose, and I would still be preparing to compete in the Pasadena Rock 'n' Roll Half Marathon next month. Hindsight's a bitch.

Moral of this cautionary tale? While sex has much to recommend it off the rocks, drugs and climbing do not mix.

Back Story

Monday, December 17th, 2012


A picture is worth a thousand words…give or take.

I know I cannot be the only ’70s kid who wished, admittedly or not, that hers was a family of performers. Come on, I’m sure the “Brady Six” breathed life into the final season of the Brady Bunch. And it’s Friday night line-up partner, the Partrige Family? It would have been so cool to be part of a family like that! Then there was the Donny and Marie (Osmond) show, following fast on the heels of these prime time programs and Saturday morning’s animated offerings, which included the Jackson 5ive.

Alas, life did not imitate pop-art in my case, at least not until this weekend.

When my loving spouse suggested an early ’70s themed holiday card, I ran with it. Vintage and thrift store finds rounded out the treasures I pulled from my keepsake and costume crates (my mom actually made the patchwork blouse Olivia is wearing for me when I was just a little older than she is now!). And I asked the “gang” to humor me by performing Brady Six “hits,” including Time to Change – a.k.a. as “Sha na na na…”) and Keep on Movin’, with the camera rolling. Those shots turned out to be among the best of our morning’s work.

Before the “Elf on a Shelf”

Wednesday, December 12th, 2012


Elf on the Shelf tradition? Give me a break.

The Elf on the Shelf is based on a a children’s picture book published in 2005 that explains how Santa knows who’s naughty and nice because “scout” elves planted in our homes return to the North Pole each night to tattle in Santa’s ears. (And all this time I thought he looked in a magic snowball.) Apparently, the story originated with Japanese “knee-huggers,” which were central to the story Flora Johnson used to tell her children and grandchildren about elves who “pop” into homes around Thanksgiving and report their observations back to Santa until they disappear at Christmas. Johnson published her book in 1984, sold together with hand-crafted elves through 2004.

Maybe Johnson’s book is what motivated my little brother’s kindergarten teacher to give each of her young students a Christmas elf to take home over the holidays?

That elf is the one I remember from childhood because my little brother was inconsolable at bedtime on the last day of school before Christmas because he’d left his elf in the classroom. My parents left me, then eight years old, in charge of my four younger siblings while they went to the elementary school, where they convinced the night-duty janitor or maintenance man to let them into my brother’s classroom so they could search for the forgotten elf. (Yes, they found the elf, thank goodness!)

And that elf is the one that prompted me to make our “shelf” elf 15 years ago as a “gag” gift for my brother. But the man who would become my loving spouse couldn’t let him go. Every year since, our elf has perched on the mantel, charged with nothing more taxing than reminding us of Christmases past.

How I Spent My Thanksgiving Break

Monday, November 26th, 2012

A friend just told me that last week’s Thanksgiving holiday really threw her for a loop. She’s a student again and had become so used to studying in the mornings after her children left for school that she couldn’t read or finish her homework with all three of them home and, literally, underfoot.

I had to laugh because while she was tearing her hair out, I was lying half-asleep on the couch while my three younger children practically ran wild. Olivia is currently my only home schooler, so it had been a while since we’d had a full house on a weekday. Parker printed the piano music for “Pumped up Kicks” and practiced it – over and over, until I’m sure every one of us could play it by ear! Reiley worked on the badges and other pre-requisites that she needs to begin her Girl Scout Gold Award, and Olivia “crafted,” whenever she wasn’t running in and out of the garage gathering supplies, door slamming shut behind her every time. The kitchen and family room floors were coated with a fine dusting of glitter by noon – sure sign of a good day.

Though I’m far from alone in my enjoyment of these respites from the school schedule, arguably many more parents find themselves desperate for their children to go back to school at the end of holidays/seasonal breaks and summer vacation. Weariness associated with simply keeping their progeny occupied is compounded by the costs of doing so and concerns that kids today have too much free time to ensure their competitiveness in the college entrance game. The resulting lack of parental enthusiasm for their children’s time off from school has generated demand for "holiday survival" kits for mom and dad, in addition to (day) camps, tutoring, and holiday entertainment industries designed to take over child-care and instruction when school lets out.

Believe me, parenting free of the usual school and extracurricular schedules can be fun. Tear a page out of the 70’s parenting manual and let go! Sleep in, employ earplugs or earbuds as mute button, open the door and let them go. In collaboration with my virtual British parenting soul mate Fiona Baker, consider the following groovy parenting tips:

12-year-oldLet them be bored. Take off your Activities Director hat and rest easy in the knowledge that tolerance for long periods of uncertainty and “boredom” breeds creativity.

Ignore them. Ban sentences that begin with “Mommy” and interruptions unaccompanied by blood. An iPod and/or a closed door can help, though I’ve found that manifesting a force field between me and them does the trick and is a lot more fun.
Put them outside. Don’t let your children become victims of Nature-Deficit Disorder. Aromatic therapy is well and good, but climbing trees, falling down, and getting really dirty is better.

Allow them to do it themselves. Days off from school provide the perfect opportunity to give up elements of your cook, chauffeur, and other such roles. Perhaps Lenore Skenazy, who left her nine-year-old in Manhattan with instructions to find his own way home, went too far, but kids really are more capable that many parents realize. Even younger elementary school children can prepare lunch unassisted (or order pizza delivery); older children can walk, bike, or scooter to the park or maybe even the movie theater.

Consider yourself well armed for the upcoming Christmas holiday or winter break.

Hold on to Your Kids

Monday, November 19th, 2012

Easier said than done in the course of wrangling four children, including two teens, one of whom is in college and chomping at the bit to “get out” of the house. Despite the pangs of separation they may feel as their children grow up and away from them, parents seeking respite from their duties as playmate, advisor, and punisher for their progeny can’t be faulted for giving a deep sigh of relief when their young find good friends to hang out with.

Not so fast, say Gorden Neufeld and Gabor Mate. Friends do play an important social and developmental role in our children’s lives, they argue, but even under the best of circumstances, Neufeld and Mate hedge their bets in favor of ensuring that the influence of parents and other adults in a child’s life trump the advice his friends provide. Neufeld and Mate argue that “peer orientation” tends to undermine the family and interferes with a child’s healthy development by fostering a hostile and sexualized conformist youth culture wherein being “cool” matters more than anything else.

This phenomenon is not new; the bane of my dating experience in college was the predominance of guys who were simply more interested in appearing cool, particularly to their male peers, than in being decent and admirable human beings worthy of a second date. (See Michael Kimmel’s Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men for an update on the details.) What is new is the increasing absence of sufficient adult mentoring to provide a counter weight to peer pressure.

Whither the adults in our young people’s lives? A breakdown of adult influence attributable to some combination of a changed economy that makes it impossible to expect the presence of a permanent caretaker at home; educational and extracurricular institutions that place dozens of children into the care of a single adult for long periods of time; and the precociousness of children today, who are potentially more capable of independent thought and action than ever has generated the foundations for peer dominance at ever earlier ages. This trend toward intense peer identification is the basis for Judith Rich Harris'sargument that, contrary to popular belief in the indisputable significance of especially parental influence on children’s development (the nature hypothesis), the best thing you can do for your child is to choose the right neighborhood and thereby enhance her opportunities to “fall in” with a developmentally positive crowd (the “strong” nurture hypothesis).

0Neufeld and Mate dodge the nature versus nurture debate to argue simply that given peer-dominated social relationships that can be detrimental to a child’s development, parents can, and certainly should, (re)establish and maintain connection with their children. Specifically, and concisely, they suggest:

  • “Collect” your Kids: Get in his face, provide him with a basis for connection, and be a source of guidance and support. At the risk of sounding like an ABC Family PSA, even if your child insists “it’s cool,” it may not be. At the very least, make a point of knowing who your children’s friends are, where they hang out, what they spend their time doing, and make sure they know how to reach you, if necessary. Offer advice when you have it, and be available to help seek information and assistance when you do  not. Bottom line, even the brightest kids rarely know more than their parents and/or other adults in their lives about how to make life decisions, and how to enjoy or endure the consequences of those choices. Fight the temptation – or your children’s demands – to cordon even teens off from adults at social events and family gatherings, and invite them to listen to and even join in adult conversations.
  • Preserve the Ties that (Bind and) Empower: Focus on the relationship. Everyone knows that a marriage relationship requires work. Well so do parent-child relationships. Without that, it is impossible to impose meaningful behavioral constraints. Be available for, and even create, opportunities to connect. As in the case of any relationship, if you don’t already share your child’s interests, learn to; develop new skills, even if it requires moving way out of your comfort zone. What a terrific way to lead by example, expose your vulnerabilities, and step into spaces where your child can teach or lead you. Believe me, there is nothing scarier than dangling 40+ feet off the ground as your teen son belays you for the first time. Your child is more likely to seek your input and advice in the context of a strong relationship.
  • Discipline that Does Not Divide: Recognize the sources of inappropriate behavior and work on changing intentions, relying as heavily as possible and/or tolerable on natural consequences. Children will make mistakes, like all of us do. Focus less on avoiding these mistakes than on intentionally maleficent action. Reward intentions rather than behavior, which young children as well as those overly-influence by peer role models may not be able to manage, in part, because they cannot comprehend – emotionally, if not also intellectually – how their objectionable behavior affects others. of course, it is much more difficult to determine intentions than it is to identify misbehavior. How do I know if my son came it late because he intentionally disregarded his curfew, or because he was legitimately held up? Recently, our son’s presence at the gym 20 minutes before he was due home, when the trip takes at least 30 minutes provided some much needed information. Let them fail and suffer the natural consequences that can include separation from friends and/or loss of privileges, like access to the car keys in this case.

Note that Hold onto Your Kids is among the small collection of “parenting” books I’ve actually found useful. Together with Jean Liedloff’s The Continuum Concept and the Kabat-Zinn’s Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting, among others, these texts notably encourage greater parent-child intimacy than has become the norm in America and a consequent blurring of the lines between work and family life that tends to make some people uncomfortable. Adopting the collective advice they contain is not for the faint of heart, but it has produced some amazingly confident, independent, and self-directed kids for me.