We must be doing something right

In this cover illustration, the big brother is teaching his little brother how to climb a tree. Also, Steve and I did not deserve the co-authorship, but Bini insisted.

Today, Bini sat down and wrote a book. It’s called “What brothers do best,” and yes, I’m preserving the sentence case of the title because I’M NOT GOING TO EDIT THIS BOOK.

Anyway, the book details how brothers help you eat, learn to ride a skateboard, get in the car and go to the gym. An interesting assortment, to be sure. Chosen and illustrated by Bini. I helped with the spelling, but it was from afar, as I did the dishes and other thrilling domestic tasks. I had no idea my baby was creating a masterpiece while I put away towels.

The book is made of stapled-together printer paper and the words sort of wind around the pages, but it’s … beautiful. Clutch-your-heart beautiful. We’re-doing-something-right beautiful. My son is beautiful. God, is he beautiful.

Page two of "What brothers do best:" They help you ride a skateboard.
Brothers also help you ride a skateboard.

Bini really wants to be a sibling, and he asks us over and over and over when it’s going to happen. We tell him the truth: It’s going to take a long time, but we’re willing to be patient. He sets aside toys and clothes for his little-brother-to-be. And now, this book.

“What brothers do best” drove home something that I’ve suspected over the last few days: My son is thinking about family. There’s lots of talk about it at school right now, because of the holidays. And in an effort to not screw up like Mother’s Day, we’ve been talking about it all. Birth parents, Thanksgiving, Ethiopia, feelings. Sometimes Bini’s face crumples and he cries for the family he doesn’t know, and sometimes he asks for cheese puffs. Today, he did this book.

As any parent knows, there are good days, bad days, and plenty of in-between days. I didn’t realize that today, on an average Monday in November, my son was going to blow me away with his thoughtfulness, his yearning, his sweetness, his love. After he read the story to his dad, he went over and added our names as co-authors. We tried to dissuade him, because we didn’t earn the honor. But he insisted. There’s something deep there that I should probably interpret, but I’m content not to just now. I’m content to feel like today was a really, really good day, and that we’re raising a really, really wonderful boy.

30 days of nice

In mid-October, I decided to do something nice, every day, for 30 days. It wasn’t exact. It wasn’t because of a Facebook initiative or a much-forwarded e-mail. I just made it up.

Why? Paris, I guess. I was so tuned in to everything when I was there: the art, the architecture, the flowers in the gardens, the public spaces, the people. When I got back, that awareness carried over for a little while. The leaves were turning and I was knocked out by the colors. When I went to places I’d been to a million times, I noticed new little details. It was cool, and I wanted to prolong it somehow.

I figured it wasn’t possible to be endlessly charmed by everyday life, but I didn’t want to go right back to zooming through on autopilot, either. So, I came up with 30 days of nice.

I’m a nice person, actually. It may not seem like it, but it’s true, damn it. I have a flinty exterior, but on the inside, I’m mush.

Don’t believe me? Check out my mailbox sometime. It’s stuffed with appeals from Oxfam, Smile Train, Orphan Acres, Humane Society International, Doris Day Animal League, Defenders of Wildlife, Greenpeace. I write a lot of checks, so I’m on a lot of lists. But check-writing is an arms-length niceness. It enables good things to happen, but it’s passive caring.

I like to do more active caring. At one workplace in San Francisco, I organized a Giving Tree at Christmas. I had to whip it together in about a week, and I was blown away by how many of my snotty co-workers contributed. One guy that I thought was a complete assclown offered to drive me 50 miles to the drop-off site when my car battery died. It was a classic Christmas lesson: Maybe you’re the assclown, sister.

After the 2011 tornado in Joplin, I reached out to my friends and my husband’s co-workers and got bags upon bags of food, dog beds and other supplies for the Humane Society there. It cost me $200 to ship it, and the guy at the shipping store actually paid for half. I did a stuffed animal drive a few years ago, and my Honda CR-V was stuffed from floor to ceiling with plush toys. I like facilitating things like that. It gives me a visceral, deep-in-the-gut good feeling that I can’t duplicate any other way.

But my nice things are sporadic. Most of the time, I’m worrying about stupid stuff like my hair length or whether my son has too much homework. I’ll sit down and write a bunch of checks to charitable organizations and feel that good, fuzzy feeling, but then the next day, I’m wrapped up in the mundane crap again.

My 30 days of nice experiment had one rule: Do one nice thing a day. That’s it. The nice thing could be a bigger gesture, like helping an older woman with Parkinson’s write out several Priority Mail slips at the post office. Or, it could be something as simple as letting a harried mom go ahead of me in the checkout line.

Sometimes, I had Bini with me, like the time I bought a Trader Joe’s gift card for a local family and delivered it to a mega church I normally wouldn’t have gone near. Sometimes, the gesture was personal, like when I wrote to a friend to tell her I was thinking of her. My favorite was when I called my dad up, just to talk. The surprise and pleasure in his voice was enough to convince me that small gestures do matter. A lot.

So, did doing something intentionally nice for 30 days change me as a person? Not really. I still zip around, ticking through my endless to-do lists and mentally gnawing on insignificant non-issues. But I do think my experiment helped me calm my chronic busy problem. If you’re looking for opportunities to do nice things, you have to pause. And when you pause, you chill out.

I don’t automatically hit the “close doors” button in the elevator anymore. I say “good morning” to the crossing guards, and make eye contact. When the checkout guy asks me how my day’s going, I also ask about his. Tiny gestures, I know. But they make me feel good. More human, more connected. Nice.

Confessions of a repentant food snob

All of my healthy, healthy food, and some corndogs. I don't actually like corndogs, but I think you get the point. I hope.
All of my healthy, healthy food, and some corndogs. I don’t actually like corndogs, but I think you get the point.

I’ve been abiding by some set of food rules since I was 15 years old. Fat-free, vegetarian, Weight Watchers, Atkins, Cabbage Soup, starvation. Many of the rules were of my own making. All of them were designed to give me “safe” guidelines from “scary” food. It was insane. But it was my life, for a really long time.

Two years ago, I went to see a nutritionist named Erin Dudley, and she saved my life. That’s the topic of another post. Erin taught me how to eat like a normal person again — a normal, healthy person — because I had totally forgotten how. Her rules replaced my other, unhealthy rules — but they were still rules.

Erin stressed to me the importance of eating the highest quality food you could find. Of course, I took it to the extreme. I remember being at Target and looking at a thing of mushrooms. I needed toilet paper, socks, toothpaste, light bulbs and mushrooms, but instead of buying the mushrooms at Target, I put them down, paid for my other stuff, and drove to Whole Foods. To buy organic mushrooms.

It was at this point that I became a food snob. I subscribed to a community-supported agriculture program and toughed it out through the fall and winter, when all you get is root vegetables and pears. If a recipe called for a tomato in February, I just didn’t make the recipe.

I also liked to evangelize my “new way” to anyone who would listen — and to people who really couldn’t have cared less. I lectured my mother about the importance of eating local. I sneered at her Foster Farms chicken. I remember having impassioned conversations with my mom friends about only buying organic, BPA-free canned foods. Also, about how much better a carrot tastes when it’s fresh from the ground. I’d kind of like to go back in time and punch myself.

Five months ago, I switched to a (mostly) grain-free diet. I didn’t do it to lose weight; rather, I hoped eschewing rice and pasta and bread and pizza would help correct some long-term health irritants that I won’t go into.  My doctor suggested outpatient surgery as one route to alleviate my symptoms, but told me that other women had seen great improvement going grain free. I wasn’t thrilled to give up my carbs, but I didn’t want to do surgery, either.

So, I waded into the Paleo morass, with its unique cross section of food rules and food snobbery. This could have been dangerous territory for me: I could have backslid into an eating disorder, or I could have become even more tiresome with my endless food yammering. But somehow, I managed to take what I wanted from the diet and disregard what I didn’t.

Yes, I bowed to the god of coconut oil. I made my own grain-free granola. I made bone broth. I tried, unsuccessfully, to make pizza crust out of cauliflower. I spent a shit-ton of money on food and more time in the kitchen than a celebrity chef.

However, I also ate dairy. I drank wine. I ate deep-dish pizza in Chicago, because DUH. I ate bread in Paris, for the same reason. Actually, I did more than eat bread — I had two pains au chocolat in one day, and felt not the slightest bit guilty.

The rules of the Paleo diet bugged me, but I think the  sanctimony bothered me more. (Probably because I recognized myself in the tedious lectures about legumes.) Well-meaning Paleo people will post recipes on blogs and get taken apart in the comments for their use of almond flour or agave nectar. The universe does not need another online argument about whether or not sweet potatoes are “allowed.” And then, there were the lasagna noodles.

One day, while looking for a use for leftover chicken, I found a recipe on PaleoOMG, for Creamy Rosemary Chicken Lasagna. Yes, lasagna. I have two other people to feed, and though they’ve been good sports about the grain-free thing, sometimes they just want some freakin’ pasta.

Anyway, I was going to use the $6 gluten-free noodles they sell at Whole Foods, but just for fun, I clicked on the link for lasagna noodles in the recipe. They cost $55. That’s not a typo. To be fair, it’s $55 for four packages, but that works out to over $13 per package. For noodles. Over 47 million Americans are on food stamps, but I guess it’s OK if poor people eat cheap food, isn’t it?

There are people, and a good friend of mine is among them, who have genuine food allergies. She cannot eat dairy or gluten or fibrous vegetables or garlic because if she does, her body will revolt. People like my friend need food rules. I get it.

But other people are just bored, I guess. They need a hobby, something other than making Paleo mayonnaise. They need food rules to feel safe, like I did. They need food rules to feel superior.

I chose to go mostly grain free as an experiment, and it was an experiment that worked — in more ways than one. My aforementioned long-term health irritants are much improved, so I avoided surgery. For now, anyway. And also, I proved to myself that I could restrict what I ate without getting all crazy and extreme. I’m restricting because it makes me feel better. But if I want a damned cupcake, I’m going to have one.

The Christmas of the leather jacket

I coveted the leather jacket Molly Ringwald wore in "The Breakfast Club." (Getty image)
I coveted the leather jacket Molly Ringwald wore in “The Breakfast Club.” (Getty image)

Last week, my mom asked me for Christmas lists — for me, for Steve and for Bini. Shortly, I will put out the same call, to my brothers, my parents, my in-laws. I know, it sucks all the spontaneity and “it’s the thought that counts”-ness out of the holiday. I understand. But we’ve been Christmas List People since 1985, since the Christmas of the leather jacket. Let me explain.

I was 15 in 1985 — a sophomore. That’s a touchy age for most teenage girls, and I was no exception. My friends were the end-all, my parents were idiots and the social pressure to look a certain way was intense. My mom had given up buying clothes for me without my input — I’d invariably roll my eyes and say: “I’m not wearing that.” I’m sure I was a delight, and I know karma is coming for me.

Anyway, “The Breakfast Club” was the movie of 1985, and every teenager could see themselves in one of the characters. I didn’t really identify with Molly Ringwald’s popular-girl character, Claire, but I loved her clothes. In particular, her leather jacket. It was brown and oversized, and she wore it with such insouciance. This was before the internet, of course, so I scoured all of the teen rags of the day, trying to find out where it was from. I didn’t find the exact jacket, but I found one similar, at Wilson’s, the Pantheon of mall leather-goods shops. I begged my mom for the jacket, and she said, “Maybe for Christmas.”

Christmas arrived and in the morning, I tore down the stairs like a kid. I saw, next to the Christmas tree, an opaque, hanging bag that said “Wilson’s.” I was so excited … until I opened it. It was not at all like the jacket I’d asked for. It looked like something an old person, like a 30-year-old, would wear. I was crushed. I have a terrible poker face.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I might have sulked around so much that my dad, who had chosen the jacket, sent me outside so he didn’t have to see my cheerless mug. (It was California. I was fine.) I could hear my mom arguing with him softly, saying things like, “Honey, stuff like this matters a lot to a teenage girl. I told you which jacket she wanted.” My dad was having none of it. He’d grown up in a very poor family, and as far as he was concerned, I was a spoiled, ungrateful brat. He would take the jacket back — and I would not get a replacement.

It’s true, I was a spoiled, ungrateful brat and it’s also true that I did not get a replacement jacket. But the next Christmas, my mother laid down the law: From here on out, we were doing Christmas lists, and if you went off list, it was at your own risk. We fell in line, and have done Christmas lists ever since.

Now that I have a child, I do see how wish lists, and their specificity, erode the true spirit of Christmas. I want my son to understand that Christmas, regardless of how you’re fixed church-wise, is a magical time of year, when families and friends gather together, and when people are a little kinder to each other. I adore Christmas and am prone to playing “O Holy Night” over and over, crying at the “fall on your knees” part, every every time.

These days, my Christmas list is pretty anemic anyway. This year, I want body lotion, a necklace and a book of photographs about materialism, oddly enough.  My family cannot operate without a list anymore, and I don’t want to stress anyone out by leaving them without a playbook. Also, if I’m honest, I don’t want a bunch of crap that I’ll end up returning.

I know we’re not the only Christmas-list family out there. Do you use Christmas lists? Or do you wing it?

Lapsed Catholic seeks … something

If I were to post a dating ad on Craigslist for my unmoored spirituality, it would read something like this:

Lapsed Catholic seeks … something. Not sure what. About me: I’m 43, married (husband number two, but he’s a keeper) and mom to a 5-year-old boy. Raised Catholic, but also raised by a father who taught me to question authority and be very, very suspicious of group think. I know, right? No wonder I’m so confused.

So, yeah, I got married at 24 — Nuptial High Mass, of course — and that fell apart within three years. I was living in Washington D.C. at the time and I went to Mass occasionally because I was lonely and confused and felt guilty. Guess what? Mass didn’t help. It made me feel worse.

Around that time, a family member came out, and the sex abuse scandal was all over the news, and frankly, I was disgusted by the hypocrisy. So I bailed, on Catholicism and on church in general. When I moved back to San Francisco, I didn’t know anyone who went to church anyway, so I just let my spirituality drift.

Steve, my husband, thinks religion is a little odd. He didn’t grow up with it and he has real problems with some of the unfortunate side effects. At its worst, people kill people over their beliefs and at a minimum, people of faith can be irritating, with their sanctimony and evangelizing.

But here’s the thing, Prospective Faith: We have this kid now, and he’s really smart. He has lots of questions and he feels things deeply. He’s also adopted, and I think that God (or Buddha, or Allah, or whatever) might be a comfort to him. I feel like Steve and I need to model some sort of spiritual practice for him, so he can have it if he needs it.

I’ve gone “shopping” for other faiths. I’ve gone to Lutheran, Episcopalian, Methodist and non-denominational services, and nothing feels right. The few times I’ve gone to Catholic Mass it felt familiar and kind of comforting. But I just couldn’t, in good conscience, take my son to a church that believes being gay is bad. So we’re in this limbo, and lately, I’ve been really feeling the void in my heart.

About you: Welcoming, open and diverse. Committed to good works in the community and beyond (I love that about the Catholic Church). No loud rock music onstage, please — I think that’s weird. Also, the hands-in-the-air stuff makes me uncomfortable. I think faith is a private thing, and too much emoting seems inauthentic to me. Sorry. That’s just how I feel.

I don’t know. Maybe there is no religion for a blue-streak-swearing, pro-choice, authority-questioning, marriage-equality-supporting person like me. But maybe there is. Maybe it’s a church I’ve already met, and the timing wasn’t right. Maybe it’s a church I haven’t tried. Maybe it’s you?