Friday, August 22, 2008

Just Like Mom Used To Make

Like more than a few late blooming moms, I don't have my own mom around, but I think about her every day.

Her absence is felt acutely at moments when I watch my kids do something sweet, or try something for the first time, and I don't have her by me to see it. I can't even pick up the phone to tell her about it.

But one way I make sure my kids connect with her -- a grandma they'll never know in person -- is through food.

Today I did something my mom did about once a year, as a treat: I made fried chicken. Like mom, I soaked it in milk first, though I improved upon her recipe a wee bit: I soaked it in buttermilk. Mom's recipes are great but not sacrosanct, and if Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa, says to use buttermilk, I use buttermilk (you can find Ina's recipe here). Like mom AND Ina, I only fried the chicken briefly, and finished it off in the oven. And I hope my kids'll dig into it tonight the way my brother, father and I used to dig into my mom's.

Fried chicken was a rarity in mom's repertoire, which was generally more reflective of our Jewish heritage. From her I learned to make a rich and life-restoring chicken soup. Because of her, I developed a taste for home-made chopped chicken liver. I ate home-made latkes at Chanukah. And I've several times duplicated her two-tone cream cheese pie, which is topped with a layer of sweetened sour cream (we grew up in New York City, where cheesecake was a popular dessert at Jewish delis).

Mom also passed on to me an appreciation of home-made lasagna, though made only with meat sauce: bechamel, though typical in Italian-American homes, never made an appearance in ours. She improvised a pretty good faux barbecue chicken utilizing Heinz chili sauce (we lived in an apartment and never had access to a grill). She taught me to make ricotta-stuffed manicotti, home-made chocolate chip cookies, and summer fruit salad.

Occasionally mom's more adventurous attempts at cooking didn't quite work out. She was always cutting recipes out of the New York Times Sunday magazine, and when pesto became all the rage, she attempted a home version that wound up having the consistency of sand.

But she was a good home cook and she took joy in feeding her family, as well as herself. She was something of a foodie long before the term was coined. To her, life was a banquet and she was here to savor it.

When I got old enough to cook with her, she let me help. I still remember one New Year's Eve when we made crab cakes together and filled the apartment with the appetizing smell of just-fried food. They went great with the champagne we drank with dad to ring in the new year.

Mom's food is comfort food to me now. I miss my mom everyday, but when I cook her food for my kids, I feel a connection. I remember the tastes and smells of home, and I want to leave my kids the same kind of yummy memories I hold onto that make me feel mom isn't entirely gone from the world ... and is, in her own way, feeding the grandkids she's never met.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Psycho Kiddies, qu' es-ce que c'est?

Nobody tells you when you have a child that children are psycho.

I don't mean all the time.

But I do mean when they're hungry, tired, or anywhere in the vicinity of bedtime.

Last night, Thing 2 went into her nightly nuts routine. It happened pretty much on cue, right around the time it was politely suggested to her that it was time to get into pajamas. This was the signal she was waiting for. Suddenly she was on the floor, kicking and flailing, making contradictory and nonsensical demands ("Button my buttons" on the dress she was already wearing and needing to take off, "I wanna do it myself," "I want mommy to do it," "I want daddy," etc.). Any attempt by mommy or daddy to touch her or comply with one of her requests was met with a "Noooooo!" and more thrashing about. Forcible attempts to remove clothing didn't work; gently coaxed efforts finally succeeded in getting her naked. But then there was the issue of taking off the underwear and putting on the pull-ups, which mommy and daddy still require Thing 2 (and Thing 1 for that matter) to wear at night, to avoid a wet bed. Said pull-ups are "too squishy" and were unacceptable unless flat from the package. When a pull-up deemed worthy was located and donned, the next power struggle began, over the mandatory tooth-brushing. At this point, mommy and daddy pretty much gave up.

Oddly enough, the storm passed of its own accord a mere moment or two later. Perhaps the tipping point occurred when Thing 2 noticed the calm, ready-for-bed Thing 1 contentedly doing a puzzle with mommy. Perhaps it was simply that the fit had run its course. But no sooner than Thing 2 began to horn in on the puzzle activity than Thing 1 went from content to crazy in mere seconds. The tantrum's trigger? Natch, it was Thing 2's desire to share in the puzzle fun. Thing 1 wanted the puzzle to his own little self.

There was more sturm and drang, but finally mommy was able to mediate a sharing solution that seemed to pacify all parties. The kids then played as sweetly and politely as a couple of proper English children at a white glove tea party.


Even after 3-plus years into this parenting thing, I do not understand how children can be adorable, kind, gentle, huggy, kissable, squeezable munchkins saying "I wuv you" in that soft, quiet, tender way that makes you melt ... and seconds later, turn into Israeli commandos who'll stop at nothing to defend the Holy Land, even if that Holy Land is a Mickey Mouse Clubhouse 24-piece puzzle of a pastoral picnic scene featuring Mickey, Donald, Minnie, Goofy and Pluto.

What goes on in those developing brains, anyway?

I once saw an interview with the creators of SOUTH PARK, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, in which they explained that, contrary to the prevailing opinion that kids are born innocent and sweet, they're actually born selfish and mean. I don't subscribe to that view, but there are moments when I can see a little of Eric Cartman in each of my kids ... and while I enjoy the antics of Eric Cartman, I prefer them on screen. Parenting Eric Cartman would be hell.

I'm continually amazed at how suddenly the psycho behavior takes hold; how intense it is; and how it can end just as suddenly as it began. Sure I try to avoid the obvious triggers -- the aforementioned "too hungry" and "too tired" symptoms that are often the precursors of a full-on psycho episode. But let's face it, you can't avoid bedtime. Sometime soon, Thing 2 is gonna have to learn to get ready for bed without the pj request prompting an attack of the crazies.

I find myself repeating my new mantra: Ignore and Endure. That is, when I'm not succumbing to the temptation to scream at the kids, and have the self-control to temporarily leave the room. (One mom friend manages by breathing into a paper bag.)

I know I must've had my psycho moments, and now I imagine that somewhere, my late mom is probably keeping score, tabulating my own kids' fits and cheering them on, knowing they've still got far to go to equal what I put her through.

Payback's a bitch, mom. But really: was I this bad?

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Kids' Furniture Is Outta Control

When did decent children's furniture become as expensive -- or even more pricey -- than furniture for grown-ups?

Late Blooming Mom has lately been browsing the web and real-world stores for a couple of big-kid beds, since Thing 1 and Thing 2 have outgrown the need for a changing table, freeing up some space. They've adjusted to life in 3-sided cribs, and started asking about beds , apparently because real beds mean the possibility of sleeping on LITTLE MERMAID or CARS-themed bed sheets.

Sticker shock has been, well, shocking.

When Late Blooming Mom was a kid, there was no Pottery Barn Kids, no Land of Nod, no Room and Board kids' line. And toddler beds were rare because the main idea was that you went from crib to bed with no in-between step: who had the money to buy something three times for the same kid to sleep on? I went off to college leaving the same bed that had been mine since I'd turned five.

The high-end furniture lines all do something for the kids these days, and though some of beds look pretty nice, let's face it: twin beds use a lot less wood than, say, a queen or a king, so what's the deal with the mark-up?

Of course there's always Ikea ... Target ... Sears .. Penney's. The prices are reasonable at these kinds of places. But somehow pressed particleboard is not the material I want my kids dinging into for the next 14 years, because it's going to show every ding. I suppose I could buy the particle board stuff with an eye to replacing it in the tween or teen years, when the kids'll be clamoring for redecorating their rooms anyway. But again, that means more money spent down the line, and given that ten years ago I never expected to pay fifty bucks to fill up my non-SUV car (thank you Darth Cheney and all those who brought us the Iraq war), who knows what actual hardwood beds'll go for then.

I thought I'd circumvent the big suppliers by checking out beds at an unfinished furniture store. The prices were SLIGHTLY better -- but didn't take into account the back-breaking labor of assembling, staining and finishing two twin beds, nor the fact that I have no space in my home or communal condo garage in which to perform said assembling/staining/finishing.

The nutty prices don't just extend to beds, but any furniture item kids put in their rooms. And the stuff for babies -- which is only useful for a few years -- is equally insane. The "Coco Stylewood Baby Lounger" (shown at top and you can read about it here,) a glorified and admittedly cool-looking, Charles and Ray Eames-influenced bouncy seat that comes in color combos such as "cappuccino/coconut white," lists for two hundred dollars.

For a bouncy seat.

Let me repeat: $200 No, that wasn't a typo.

Now I'm all for kids' furniture not looking like crap, and maybe having a little more hip design sense than what most Late Blooming Moms had in our bedrooms as girls. But my kids' furniture budget should not rival what it costs to go to college. (I shudder to think what THAT will be when my kids are old enough to go).

I could keep Thing 1 and Thing 2 in cribs a little longer -- and probably will: the kids still fit in them -- but that's delaying the inevitable, and prices, as we all know, will only go up.

Sleeping bags on the floor, anyone?

Saturday, August 16, 2008

In Praise Of The "Yes" Zone

Familiar with the concept of the "yes" zone?

As a Late Blooming Mom, I learned of this term only recently, but I've quickly learned to love it.

A "yes" zone is defined as any place in which you don't have to constantly tell your children "no," as in, "No, you can't do FILL IN THE BLANK," the blank generally being something dangerous, unhealthy, or not age-appropriate. In a "yes" zone, they can do pretty much whatever they please. And if they ask if they can do something, you can keep saying yes.

Taking your kids to a "yes" zone is a wonderfully relaxing, fun experience: a time to enjoy your kids, not bark at them or worry about saving them from something could mean a trip to the emergency room and stitches. You don't have to argue with them about whether or not you'll buy them anything. The only time you may find yourself saying "no" is when it's time to leave, and they want to stay.

God bless the visionary folks at Los Angeles' Skirball Cultural Center for installing NOAH'S ARK, the ultimate preschooler's "yes" zone. Today was our second visit there, and it was blissful. Yes, it's in a museum, but everything in that exhibit is hands-on; touching is not only allowed, it's encouraged. There are rope nets and ladders to climb, that lead to cozy kid-sized balconies and nooks in which to wave down to parents. There are mechanical animals that can be hand-operated with cranks, machines at which kids can make rain, thunder, lightning and wind, a huge toy ark into which toy animals can be loaded, small cabins in which pretend food is stored in baskets, and even make-believe poop the kids can scoop. There's an arts-and-crafts room staffed and loaded with project supplies (we traced stencils of birds, cut the shapes out of magazines, and glue-sticked them to the table). There's an outdoor water feature, a mist fountain that makes rainbows ... the one place where our kids said "no" to us when we wanted to run through it (apparently it was a bit scary for our three-and-a-half year-olds). And there was even a live show in the amphitheater, in which a storyteller told us about traditions in Africa, played African percussion instruments, and imitated various wild animals, which prompted Thing 1 to exclaim, "He's so silly!" Blessedly, there are also snacks available.

I can think of few days with the kids as conflict-free as this one.

That's the beauty of the "yes" zone. The kids choose their activities within the zone, but they're all safe, fun, and relatively restful for mom and dad. Sure, we did have a moment when Thing 2 decided the exhibit's elephant, which made quite a loud sound when kids pulled a rope to set it off, was too scary. But she was soon pacified when removed from the immediate vicinity of said elephant, and brought into the arts and crafts area.

We managed to escape without the kids asking for a toy in the gift shop, where we allowed them to play for a few minutes. And by the time we left, they were so tuckered out they fell asleep on the brief car-ride home. They woke up briefly when we transferred them into their beds for nap time, but they soon succumbed to sweet dreams, as did Late Blooming Mom: napping when your kids nap is another mom secret I've come to learn.

"Yes" zones aren't easy to find. Our local playground is full of minor perils (e.g., running in front of a swing and getting hit, falling off the monkey bars) and in a hot month like this one, liable to leave mom or kid suffering from heatstroke. Most museums have very limited kid areas, or are meant for kids far older than preschoolers. Indoor play spaces are notorious for being closed for private birthday parties on the weekends, when we need them most.

But when you do find a "yes" zone, it's like taking a mini-vacation, without having to pack more than the usual (sippies, snacks, spare clothes).

Thanks again to the folks who brought us NOAH'S ARK. Before we left, I spied above us the white dove who brings the branch back to the ark after the storm has passed. After the stormy mornings we've had of late -- trying to get out the door for camp on time -- this was a welcome respite.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Working Mom Guilt

Like a lot of Late Blooming Moms, I was established in the working world before I had my kids.

I thought briefly about becoming a stay-at-home mom when I found out I would be having twins, but I know myself well enough to know I'd go crazy if I didn't have at least some kind of professional existence outside of mom-and-wife-hood. I also knew my husband and I would need the money; where we live ain't cheap. So there wasn't really a choice to be made, short of moving to some small hamlet where housing is inexpensive, we wouldn't know anyone, and as confirmed city mice, we'd have trouble adjusting.

Even though I briefly considered this option -- and sometimes I still do, when I get a look at our monthly mortgage payment -- there are other reasons I stuck with the plan to go back to work. I'd had friends who'd been working women grapple with being at home with just one baby, only to find they longed for the validation of other adults, the mental challenge of interesting work, and the independence that comes from earning a paycheck. One mom complained to me that she'd go to a dinner party and as soon as she told the person making conversation with her that she was a stay-at-home mom, that person's eyes glazed over ... and then the person inevitably focused on her software-executive spouse, and ignored her the rest of the night. It was just assumed she had nothing worthwhile to say. Of course that was ridiculous, but she felt stigmatized, as a former professional (with an MBA to her name) now deemed not worth dinner table conversation.

I took a six-month leave of absence when my babies arrived, and surprisingly, I didn't go crazy. I felt fortunate to have time to get to know them -- and get some experience and confidence at mothering -- before I resumed work. And when I did, I was able to work three days from home, two at the office, which afforded me the chance, once the kids hit the nine-month-mark, to use lunch hour a couple of times a week to take them to music and gym classes, accompanied by a nanny who proved an invaluable help (though of course an added expense).

I had some guilt then about not being around for every diaper change, every bottle, every nap, every minute of the day when some developmental milestone might occur. But babies are extremely high-maintenance, and I gotta admit, I was also relieved at times not to be on duty at home all the time. About a year later, I shifted to working at home nearly all the time, save for a meeting every week or two back at the office. I missed my colleagues and the social interaction, but it sure made it easier to see more of the kids: I bid them goodbye when the nanny took them to the park, greeted them with hugs and kisses on their return, helped put them down for nap, visited them briefly during afternoon snack, and kept up the lunch-hour toddler classes a couple of times a week. Best of all, I had no commute and was right there when the work day ended. I was far luckier than most working moms because I did, in fact, see my kids part of the day.

I still felt guilty, but if work was slow, I was as likely to take a much-needed nap as to spend it with the kids. Slowly, though, my guilt began to grow. And now that the kids are in a full-day preschool, my guilt is great.

Knowing I have to work to help pay the bills doesn't really help. It only contributes to the feeling that I'm in a bind, a bind of my own (and my husband's) making: we chose to live here and do the kind of work we do, and make our lives far from extended family, where we have to pay for all the help we get.

Thankfully, the kids love preschool, and though parting is still tough in the morning -- separation and transitions are difficult for most preschoolers, my kids included -- they have a great time most days. When I show up, they are thrilled to see me, but I often have to coax them from the school, which is filled with stimulating toys and craft projects, boasts an elaborate outdoor play yard with a huge sandbox, a play structure, water tables, and all manner of outdoor toys and activities. Teachers are warm and don't hesitate to administer hugs. The kids' vocabulary has expanded exponentially, and their social skills, while in constant need of refining, are getting a lot of practice.

Still, there is guilt. Lots of kids get picked up earlier in the day than mine, and go to play dates at the park or other classmates' homes. Sometimes they just go home and enjoy being in their own space. My kids don't get nearly as much time at home as some of their counterparts, who leave at noon or three. And on some days, it takes a toll on all of us. If they're slow leaving school due to potty breaks, changing out of wet clothes, or an inclination to dawdle, we get caught in traffic and limp home by six, when I've got maybe half an hour to get some dinner on the table if we're to have baths or showers and all our bedtime rituals. And the kids are hyper from the ride and the carb-laden snacks I've had to give them in the car to keep them occupied. Plus they've had to hold it together emotionally to be without mommy or daddy for many hours, and they've been out of the cozy comfort zone of their own space.

Some evenings, they act out a lot; or they're cranky, whiny and tired. Probably the same is true of their peers who get home earlier, but I can't say as I don't see those kids. All I know is, the rare day when work is slow or I've managed to work ahead, I can pick them up a bit early, and they seem calmer, more rested, better behaved. They give me a little time to breathe when we get home, and I can spend some time with them before I turn into short-order cook, and start barking at them to eat, wash, change into PJs, etc.

Though I value my work, I miss being with the kids. They're only going to be this small once, and as a late blooming mom in her fourth decade, I ain't likely to have more babies.

Naturally, I overcompensate: I know I give them too many treats, trinkets, trips to restaurants, etc. I make sure there are plenty of hugs and kisses when I'm with them, and I devote nearly every minute of every weekend to them save when I'm asleep. Every couple of weeks or so, I'm lucky enough to have a babysitter for the night. But the latter circumstance brings on more guilt. Okay, not so much that I don't leave the house. Mommy and daddy need date night or mommy and daddy will be as impossible as a couple of whining toddlers. But the guilt is there, nonetheless -- especially if we've left one of the kids crying because they don't want mommy and daddy to go.

I don't know what the solution is, aside from a wholesale revision of our lives. And I don't have quite enough guilt to try to puzzle out how, exactly, we could make that happen, and make do somewhere else, with far less. My job isn't part-time, and we couldn't make do on a part-time income.

So I soldier on, a working mom, hoping the example I'm setting, as a woman who earns her keep via her expertise, will be a good one for my daughter, and will make my son realize that when he gets married, some day, his wife is entitled to a working life too.

My own mom was stay-at-home for many years, then went back to work, but always had a series of jobs, not a career. This bothered her. She was capable of much more than she was able to accomplish in the working world. I don't think she regretted the years she spent at home. But at the same time, she felt she missed out. It's some consolation that I won't have that regret.

But the guilt is there every day. Oh, to be like daddy, who blithely goes off to work without giving it a second thought. Thanks, society, for making expectations so different for men and women, even in this day and age. Or should I ascribe it to nature? The daddy gene is, surely, a bit different than the mommy gene.

All I know is, I hope I'm not doing motherhood half-assed. I console myself, like many a working late blooming mom, with the thought that I'm doing the best I can, given the circumstances. I suspect, even if I was staying at home, I'd find some other aspect of my mothering to make me feel guilty.

Hey, we gotta give them SOMETHING to go to therapy about in twenty years, don't we?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Two Kids? Divide And Conquer

Awhile back I attended one of many invaluable support meetings at my local mothers-of-twins club (the West Los Angeles Parents of Multiples) and the guest speaker, a mother of twins who is also a therapist, had a mantra she kept repeating: separate, separate, separate. She didn't mean parents of multiples ought to get divorced. She meant that we ought to spend as much time one-on-one with each sibling as we can. When she was raising her twin boys, she said, she took one out with her at a time whenever possible, even if it was just to go to the grocery store, and left the other with daddy/nanny/babysitter/any available relative. She alternated which twin she'd take out, so both got plenty of mommy time. "Family time," she said -- meaning the whole family spending time as a unit -- "is over-rated."

Granted, this runs counter to a lot of conventional wisdom and studies that show families who eat dinner together are more stable. But as anyone who survived long family car rides with a sibling can attest, there's good reason to avoid enforced family togetherness, especially at close quarters. Backseat wars are no fun; who among us with a sibling doesn't remember the classic parental threat,"Don't MAKE me pull this car over!"

Late Blooming Mom that I am, I was initially opposed to the therapist/twin mom's advice, if only because it's taken me so long to have a family, and I had this idea I had to savor every precious moment of family life.

But I was in denial of a key reality: that every moment of family life ISN'T precious.

Why, just this morning, there was the moment when I cleaned up in the bathroom because my otherwise-potty-trained son missed the toilet.

Last night, I listened to my daughter scream her opposition to getting ready for bed for twenty-five ear-splitting moments.

And several times I've cleaned peanut butter out of places it should never be allowed to go.

Actually I figured out the therapist/twin mom was right on the money the very first time I ventured out solo on a Saturday with just one child. Suddenly a walk in the park was, well, just that: a walk in the park. When you're used to dealing with multiple kids and their multiple needs, tending to just one without having to have eyes in the back of your head and more hands than an octopus is a relief.

Yesterday I had one kid all morning. Today, I had the other kid all morning. I swear I can feel my blood pressure lowering as I write this.

It's not always easy to convince Thing 1 and Thing 2 that mommy and daddy are going to take them out on separate adventures. As twins, they're very close; they share a room, they attend the same preschool class, and they're always concerned about what their sibling is doing. Plus sometimes they're in a mommy phase or a daddy phase, and the odd parent out is stuck trying to convince a reluctant kid to come along.

But it's always worth the convincing.

Don't get me wrong: there are plenty of experiences I want us all to share together; read my entry just below this one. I wouldn't have changed our Chinatown adventure for anything.
But giving fully focused time and attention to one kid at a time pays off: they're better behaved when they're out on the excursion, and better behaved when they get home.

So go ahead, divide and conquer, at least every once in a while. You'll be glad you did.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Double Happiness: The Kids Are Chinese Restaurant-Ready

When I became the mother of twins, I learned of the Chinese expression Double Happiness.

When I took my kids to a Chinese restaurant for Sunday night dinner, I experienced it anew.

Like many of today's late blooming moms, I was born in the early 1960s. I grew up in a culturally Jewish, if mostly secular, family on Manhattan's Upper West Side. In families like mine, it was customary, on Sunday nights, to give mom a break with the cooking, and go out to eat Chinese food. I'm not sure how the tradition started, or just how widespread it was. But judging from the many Jewish families filling up the restaurants on Sundays (and always, always, on Christmas Day), we were far from alone.

I remember well those evenings at the now long-gone Great Shanghai, or the Harbin Inn, places where I had my first introduction to duck sauce and crispy noodles, egg rolls, chicken and snow peas, and wonton soup. Because my family was, as I mentioned, secular, we ate plenty of "traif" at these meals: shrimp in lobster sauce, mu-shu pork. We ate mountains of sticky white rice, and learned to use chopsticks. We over-sweetened our tea and loved drinking from the tea cups. We savored the crunchy sweet fortune cookies.

It wasn't all culinary delight. My brother and I ended most meals mixing a little of each dish in a water glass and daring each other -- or my father -- to drink it. No doubt we left the floor littered with red cloth napkins and spilled rice.

But we left with our childish palates made a little more adventurous.

In later years, when the Szechuan and Hunan restaurants replaced those that featured Mandarin and Cantonese, we enjoyed spicier fare: prawns in garlic sauce, General Tso's chicken (not exactly authentic Chinese -- like many of our favorite dishes, it was probably invented in the U.S. for Western palates). We developed a taste for peanut-ty cold sesame noodles. We spent our Sundays a little further uptown, in the West nineties, at the Hunan Balcony or the Empire Szechuan.

When I moved to Los Angeles, it took a long time for me to find Chinese food that tasted like what I remembered in New York. But eventually I did -- and knowing where to get it was one of the things that won me my future husband, another New York transplant.

Naturally, once we had children, I hoped to revive the Sunday night Jews-eat-Chinese-food family tradition. But our first attempt to do so, on a wildly overcrowded Christmas night at the Westside branch of an L.A. Chinatown institution, was an unmitigated disaster. The noise level was defeaning: every Jew on the Westside had apparently shown up to eat and schmooze. The service was agonizingly slow. I can't quite pin down the memory because I've clearly tried to block it out, so I'm not sure how old the kids were: about to turn one? Two? But I remember they started the meal in high chairs, then quickly insisted on sitting in parental laps. I know my brother, sister-in-law and niece were in town visiting, and witness to the horror. I have one vivid memory of trying to pick rice off Thing 1's hands, face, and the folds of his clothes. And I know for sure that most of the meal wound up at home with us in take-out containers, after a hasty exit and much wailing from both children, who were traumatized by the entire experience.

So we stayed away from Chinese restaurants, and I put aside hopes of reviving family custom.

Then, this past Sunday, after nap, inspiration hit me. At three-and-a-half, the kids might be ready for a re-introduction to Chinese cuisine. It wasn't Christmas, so the restaurants wouldn't likely be so packed. And the fortune cookie could be used as incentive to make the kids sit through an entire restaurant meal. Maybe it was time to try again.

So we piled into the car, prepping the kids by telling them we were going to have an adventure. We drove across L.A. to Chinatown, and parked right by the old Central Plaza, where as luck would have it, a free Shaolin self-defense demonstration was underway. The kids were mesmerized ... for about five minutes. But then it was off to see the lion statues, the pond with a waterfall and Buddhas, the coin-operated rides, the chotchke shops, the bakeries. The walk to the restaurant was full of unfamiliar but fascinating sights -- the Gold Line train station, pagoda-like rooftops, orange-red cooked ducks hanging in restaurant windows -- and new smells -- chicken and fish frying in savory/sweet sauces. The restaurant had a koi pond and live fish tanks brimming with crab, shrimp, cod, etc. The main dining room was huge, and decorated with a gilt golden Phoenix facing a gilt golden dragon. And there on the wall was that sign: the one for double happiness.

It was a good omen. The kids were fascinated with everything and though there was no pizza, no mac n' cheese, no pasta, nothing resembling a peanut butter sandwich, they actually ate. Thing 1 became a green bean and broccoli eating champ; Thing 2 slurped Chicken and corn soup, and both gobbled down the tender beef in the beef and broccoli. Lemon Chicken was a bit suspect, and we cringed every time they spilled water out of their teacups, but as expected, the fortune cookies went over big. Sure, the restaurant staff hovered over us as if we were going to break something precious, but we all got through it unscathed.

After the meal, we stopped on the steps of an old Chinese Benevolent Association, where the kids romped among the lion statues and columns, running off their energy in gleeful delight.

As I watched them I was transported back to the Upper West Side Sunday night Chinese dinners of my childhood ... and though I doubt we'll be having Chinese dinner every Sunday, we've established a beachhead.

My fortune that night told of a peaceful, happy future. But I was thinking about the past. Somewhere I bet mom and dad are smiling.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Once Upon A Time

Once upon a time -- actually more like late July -- Thing 2 began to make up stories for the first time.

In the car while we were driving home from preschool, she told some tales. They all began, "Once upon a time," and some of them went kinda like this: "There was a boy named XXX (the name of her brother) and a girl named XXX (her name), and they were inside a belly and an egg, and when they came out, they were butterflies!" Sometimes there is a girl with her brother's name, and a boy with her name. Sometimes there is a store they go to and sometimes they go to the beach. But whatever the story, it ends in about three sentences with "The End!"

Most of the time Thing 2 is trying to tell these stories, Thing 1 is interrupting her and trying to get my attention while I'm driving. Lately he does this by saying, "Mooooooom! Kin I tell you sompthing? I wanna tell you sompthing!"

Then one or the other drops their water or snack and demands help and I either have to pull over or risk the consequences of making them tough it out till we get home.

But those first few minutes of the preschool car ride pickup are pretty sweet.

As a writer, I am touched and thrilled that my daughter is starting to make up her own stories. And the fact that they make no sense (to me) makes them even sweeter.

Sometimes I'm so busy managing my kids I forget to notice how they've changed, and in the space of mere months, grown verbally adept ("sompthing" not withstanding) and gregarious.

For a long, long time I longed for this time, when I would be able to have real conversations, and send them into convulsions of laughter with a pun or a little wordplay. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed a lot of aspects of having babies and one and two-year-olds, but verbally, they're, um, developmentally challenged. Once that language bomb explodes inside their brains, though, there's apparently no holding them back. At three-and-a-half, I've got two extremely chatty preschoolers, both of whom insist they must be heard.

Thing 1, who is immersed in a CARS -- the Pixar movie -- phase, is liable to tell you that when he grows up he will be Lightning McQueen, only he can't quite say "lightning," so he says, "LightMcQueen," as if it's one word. When asked to make up a name for a toy or a character in a story I'm telling, he'll always choose "LightMcQueen." Meanwhile, Thing 2 will make up nonsense words to songs she knows and crack herself up. Sometimes the song is "Twinkle , Twinkle, Little Star," with "Peanut Butter Jelly" replacing key words in the song. Sometimes she knowingly drops in the word "penis," mostly because she realizes she's not supposed to say this word except in reference to Thing 1's anatomy (e.g., "My brother has a penis. I don't have a penis") and because she knows it sounds funny.

I'm hardly the first nor will be the last in the never-ending line of parents to be amazed and delighted and to crack up at the unintentionally cute things coming out of their children's mouths. But I gotta say this: back when it was all about burping and changing diapers and hoping that was an actual smile I witnessed, not just gas, this once upon a time seemed an eternity away.

Now that "once upon a time" time is finally here, I sit back behind the wheel and giggle along with the kids, and hope I can slow down time just enough to capture their joy in the discovery of having fun with something that costs nothing, but can mean so much: words.