Wednesday, December 31, 2008

what we preserve

Because it's New Year's eve, and why should that bloody preschool take over one more neuron than is strictly necessary? Already, this business takes up too much space in my noggin.

So, I'm shoving it aside. Because the year is turning, this is one of those artificial transition/transfomation moments, and while I've never been a Dick Clark kind of gal, I can appreciate a moment when I see one. So. And I've never been too finicky about the pseudo-significant echo thing. So.

Right now, there's a nice quart jar on my counter, glowing with lemons and saffron and mustard seeds. The lid is sealed shut, thanks to my giant soup pot and lots of hot water. In a month or so, that jar will have something vaguely resembling Moroccan preserved lemons, but right now it's just sitting there, glowing.

I can't tell you how absurdly happy this jar makes me.

For some years now, magid has been presenting us with little jars of jams and chutneys. We've loved the first, but I've been the sole admirer of the second. (Not that being solo is bad here, mind you) What an idea: to make the kind of jam you want, because you can. Oh, but it's really easy, magid assured me. I nodded, trying to look non-skeptical. I'm sure. Someday, you should show me.

Summer after community garden summer, I haul in ridiculous amounts of tomatoes and green beans. I make big vats of tomato sauce, tossing in handfuls of herbs from the garden. You'd think that a winter of garden love in a jar would tip me over the edge into canning, but nooo.

What did it was the pickles. Pickles around here are too sweet, not garlicky and salty enough. Not enough Guss' Pickles on Delancey Street, with the guy who reaches into the barrel of garlic sours, pulls out a pickle, squeezes it to see if it's crisp, and then gives it to the kid who will try and make it last all the way back to Queens. Except it won't. And except that the kid can't find that pickle's cousin in New England. And, pickle companies are persnicketty about labelling exactly what spices they use - or telling you on the phone - so, now what?

First, refrigerator pickles. No canning, no worries about freakin' scary bacteria. But also no room in the fridge. So, winter break upon us and snow, snow, snow, cold rain, snow and it's time to get over myself and can.

We started with pickles, of course. Garlicky cukes and carrots. Then kinda kimchee. Then sweet pickled apples. And tonight, preserved lemons. Damn, this is fun. And I do hope I've got the hordes of scary bacteria thing worked out, because we cracked the garlic pickles tonight, and damn. They are garlicky.
So I leave you with this: I'm choosing what to keep, this year. 2008 had it's share of bumps - and one parting shot of a bleed - but in the end, like the Eldest's current bleed, phooey. I'm hanging on to the good stuff, like this trip, a challenge passed, a sun-warm berry, a certain irrepressible tushie and his wonderful, humbling brother. Who did this last night,

working with calm and competence and an ice pack on a painful swollen lump - and then spent a chunk of the morning running around with his friend, bashing each other with foam light sabers,. Idiotic, happy boy energy. Good, good stuff.

I'm going to bottle all of these, sealing them up in their marvellous imperfections. It's been a busy 2008, a wonderful, hair-raising, humbling education of a year. Dammit. And I might be feeling a bit dented by the end of it, but I can arrange my treasures on the shelf and see. We did okay, this year.

Hell, we did better than okay. In our knee scraping, muttering and delighted way, we flew.

So, 2009 is welcome to saunter on in. The house is grubby, the kids are sleeping and there's a distinct shortage of chocolate, but there's a jar on my kitchen counter that glows like a slice of leftover sunshine. It'll do me just fine. Oh - and in case you thought I was just that lovely and grounded to be able to set aside my semi-permanent growl over the preschool, um, no.

to clarify:

dammit, when I tell the preschool to go and suck lemons, they are not getting any of the sunny deliciousness on my countertop. Oh, no. And how could the grubby idiocy of the preschool brangle compare to the teeth-gritted love that came with this? Can't, that's what. So, neener, neener, neener.

(hauling myself up now, reinserting self-satisfied or at least balanced tone into bloggish mouth - right. Yes. Okay.)

Right, then. Bring it on, 2009. I've got sunshine in a bottle and a fist full of memory, and I'm completely able to fool myself into thinking that I'm prepared.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

going shopping - and checking tags

The Man and I have been reading and rereading labels, and still, the number of items we returned this week was ridiculous. We returned:

  • vanilla Soy Dream (should have been 'original' flavor)
  • flaxseed with blueberries (Trader Joes, had "natural flavors")
  • Galil sun dried tomatoes in oil (contains "spices")
  • 365 organic diced tomatoes (no kosher symbol - the conventional 365 tinned tomatoes are hechshered)
and oh, embarrassingly more.

For years after we had children, grocery shopping was almost leisurely. We'd do some aisles together, some separately - I liked to do produce, the Man likes to do anything "time efficient." (a concept I still don't quite grasp) But now, with at least one if not two kids in the cart and one adult herding them along, we move at top speed.

The rule for allergy shopping is simple: even if you've bought it a squidrillion times before, always read the label. Buying two of the same item? Read both labels. The acronism is REAL: Read Each And Every Label. But for us, that's a goal - not a reality. (ahem)

So, we try to read each and every label in the store, and then it gets reread at home, as we unpack the groceries. Unless it's dinnertime, in which case we might miss some. And I try to recheck items when I pull them out of the pantry. And thank heavens, because somehow we need all three checkpoints. Labels change so quickly, making the oft-requested "safe snack" list an infuriating hazard. Nice parent/teacher/friend, wants to feed my kids things that won't make them turn blue. This is wonderful! This is something we should support! This is going to be a headache!

I was once collared by a righteously infuriated friend for exactly this reason, and yes, she was right. But what are the options? One is for me to always provide the snacks. Another, is for me to provide a list of snacks, plus their ingredients and any warning labels - these are kosher only if identical to the item in the store. A third is for me to ask people to call me from the store, and read the labels to me - each and every time. How big of a pain in the ass can this possibly be? To reduce the PIA, I should be able to offer autonomy to the people willing to take on food allergy friendliness. To ensure safety, I can't - quite. My compromise is to offer the list, check the labels, and stash food in the car, just in case.

Even when we all get it right, the manufacturers present one last wild card. The Chicago Tribune offers a database of products recalled for undisclosed food allergens. They track(ed) the top 8 allergens, plus sesame, sulfites and Yellow #5. The database was built using reports from the FDA, USDA, NY State Department of Agriculture and Markets (one of the few to test imported foods).

A great big splashy, flashy caveat emptor hangs here: the Tribune notes that only 7% of consumer reported allergic reactions lead to a recall of the food. Assuming that some percentage of reported reactions are incorrectly attributed, or crank responses, that's still a remarkably low number. In one case, a complaint was lodged regarding a dairy allergic child's reaction to a Duncan Heins cake mix. You can see here why the product wasn't recalled for some time:

"When asked by the Tribune why the recall took so long, Pinnacle Foods said it immediately had the product tested but found no milk. A few month later, the company received a second complaint of an allergic reaction to the mix. Pinnacle said it again investigated, this time finding a likely culprit overlooked in the first inquiry: some chocolate chips."see rest of text here

Here's what gave me pause:

"The Tribune investigation found that 187 companies since 1998 have had more than one recall for hidden allergens. ... According to the Tribune investigation, half of all recalls for hidden allergens involve undeclared milk or egg. ... The Tribune investigation found that on average, five products are recalled each week for undeclared allergens. of all food recalled for hidden allergens involves cookies, candy, ice cream or snacks."


The full article is here but I think the lesson is simple: call the company yourself and ask, always. And avoid companies with bad track records, either in reviewing ingredients and cross-contamination information with you, or with recalls. When Silk had their recall for dairy contamination, I called the company and asked for updates. They were unable to tell me either where the dairy had come from, nor demonstrate a level of response that reassured me. Therefore, we avoid Silk products until our allergy nutritionist tells us otherwise.

And in general, we look for companies that have strong allergy labelling practices where cross-contamination labelling is concerned. A serious hat tip to the Nut-Free Mom, who points out that imported foods are even more problematic. They may not have reliable allergy labelling, and outside of New York, there isn't an agency that tests imports.

My many one-sided conversations with Israeli manufacturers have, alas, taught me this. But I heartily recommend Manishewitz, as a company who has at least one educated grandmother of a food allergic child...answering the customer service line. After an infuriating 45 minutes talking to someone at Osem, I called Manishewitz and braced myself. This grandmother lectured me on remembering to ask about cross-contamination, and I cheered.


I bin tagged!

So, since I think I did the 7 facts meme before - no, wait, that was a tag from the evidently patient Aidel Maidel. I'll go finish that, shall I? Meanwhile, here's my nearest book, opened to page 56, and sentences 2-5 are:

"This book has everything I love: early instrumentation, natural history, art..."

"But have you been thinking about what we discussed?" Sandy asked.

"Daddy," she said. "You may have noticed by now - I don't want to be a doctor."

-Intuition, by Allegra Goodman

(an excellent book, by the way, and I'm not just saying that because her son makes a brisket worth schlepping for.)

Sunday, December 21, 2008

But the Toddles was happy: part 3

When I talk to a school about food allergy, they are waiting for me to be the Crazy Allergy Mom, demanding extreme measures that they can walk away from, certain that anything that strict cannot possibly be necessary. No, they soothe themselves, these can only be the ideas produced by the fevered, overprotective neurotic parent. Cannot possibly be necessary.

And with that comforting thought, doors close.

So, my approach is a bit different. I talk people through anaphylaxis (scary, scary) and talk them through how moderates develop into anaphylaxis (oy with a dose of sheesh) and review how different each allergic kid is. Allergies are like toddlers, I tell teachers/admin/people in charge. You never can tell what they're going to do, you can only make sure the sharp stuff is out of reach. (wry, almost funny, see not so bad, come smile with me)

When I'm done, I offer a dose of serious combined with teamwork. I know my kid, I tell the teachers/admin/p.i.c, and you know your environment. Together, we can figure this out. I know we can. A chemist-friend calls that declaration of trust manipulative, and well, yes. But usually, the schools and I do work it out, and that initial, instinctive trust is earned many times over in that process.

One nursery school, one preschool and one grade school have worked with me, had follow-up meetings, stop-and-review meetings and happily used my approach to hammer out workable guidelines. Often, they start with too much strictness, then scaling back. They wait for me to take extreme stances, and are often surprised to find that they prefer those positions, for their safety and simplicity. Identify allergen, remove allergen, right? Still, they look to me to do it first. Parents will say anything where their children are concerned, and I expected you to have demands. I thought that taking the Eldest was just crazy, the assistant head of the Eldest's school told me. But you didn't, and your approach made the difference. (summarized, not quoted)

I agree. And, had I walked in with firm guidelines as to practice (no X in the classroom), rather than firm statements as to the Eldest's needs (not touching anaphylactics), then the staff/teachers/admin/p.i.c would not have understood the needs as well. Which is crucial, in my view.

Classrooms are not static. Things happen, children bring in mice from home and teachers realize that there's something problematic in the mouse food. They need to understand the issue without being specifically prepped for it, and respond. (although in reality, the mother of the mouse-lover called me first, but still, it makes a nice example) One kid wants to sit next to the Allergy Kid at lunch, but he's got something allergy-questionable in his lunchbox. Now what? There's a bunch of wrappers at the bus stop during the field trip. What do you do?

It's just not enough to have a food allergy management plan. People also have to understand why it's there, and be able to work with the underlying principles. Not just follow bullet points. And this understanding is my real goal. The bullet points build habits to reinforce the understanding, or to buy time while the understanding develops.

When it works, this is an astonishingly powerful approach. But it's great weakness is that it depends on the ability of the teachers/admin/p.i.c to partner, or work with me. We walked away from a grade school that had no interest in doing so, and I was surprised to be sitting in a meeting that, post-allergic reaction, demonstrated that I'd walked into another.

We don't understand why we're here, they told me. Can you explain what you want us to do here? I took a deep breath. No point going postal on them, they really don't understand. (Note to self: they don't understand? Oh. my. god. They do not understand. And yet.)

I explained that I've been at this point before, where something happens that is alarming, but it's part of the deal: no bubbles for my boys. Sending my boys to school means accepting the chance that something can happen to them. It's a harsh reality. But, we all work to do our best to keep them safe, and when something like this does happen, it can shake you. Then, it's good to sit down and review what we're doing.

Silence followed. I fell into the trap, and leaned forward to explain.

I'm not as interested in what happened as I am in what happens next. In this room, we have caring people who are putting in the time and energy to keep the Toddles safe, and to let him have this opportunity. We have experience here, we have knowledge, and we have caring, right in this room. We have everything we need to make this situation work, and I know that it's working this well because of the systems and arrangements you have in place. What I'd like to do is understand those better, so that I can help support them, and we can look for where they need to be enhanced.

I looked at a circle of blank - and one closed - faces, counted to ten, and pressed on in the silence. I handed out a copy of the Board of Jewish Ed's excellent "Managing Food Allergies in Jewish Schools" (oddly unlisted on their site). As the director took her copy, she began to look offended, while the teachers looked bemused. I handed out the FAAN's guide to managing food allergies in schools, speckled with seals from approving organizations, and explained that I'd used these as guides to think about what is typically done for food allergy management plans. The director's jaw clenched. And I handed out a skeleton FA management plan based on these, in which I'd identified things that I thought of as the parent's responsibility, teacher's responsibility and team responsibility. I explained that this was a potential template, and perhaps we could use it to clarify together how the Toddles' allergies are being managed.

Too much paper for one meeting, I know. It's a failing.

And apparently, it was offensive. The director's jaw tightened farther, while the teachers looked astonished. And then, after a brief, gaping pause, the hail began to fall.

Why do we need to write this stuff down? It's just what we do.

Why do you need to know this? You could come and watch us. (I could, I'd see what you do, but I also want to understand why)

Look, look what we do for him! (example A, example B, example overwrought C)

See, here's all of his foods (cupboard opened), just like we told you. See? the baking things? (cupboard opens again), all kept separate.

But why do you need to go through this? We're doing what you told us to do. See, we use paper plates for his food. (I find an internal wall, and bang my head on it.)

Here, here - this is our food allergy plan for the school. (I look at this piece of paper, surprised. I'd never heard of its existence until then, but oh - before I pause to be reassurred, there's the Toddles' allergies listed at the top, along with every allergic child's list. Except that many of the Toddles' are missing. Sigh. But enough rumination - people are hollering now.)

Here, here - this is what we do for him, specifically. (Another piece of paper, also missing great big important things. I ignore the sense of disorganization from these bits of different, incomplete papers. Be positive, I remind myself. Point out opportunities - not lack. I find with my finger a few such on the FA management skeleton I've given them, and then my hand goes limp as the tide rushes past me.)

Okay, so what about this? (finger jabs at page) What does that mean? Realizing that I actually get to speak, I open my mouth. This means that one of you does a quick visual scan of a room when you enter it with the kids. You don't have to leave the children, just run your eyes over the area, and if you see some food there, be prepared to respond accordingly. (Referee's call: clock runs out for the mama, possession turned over to the other team)

What do you mean scan? We have responsibilities to the other children, we can't just abandon them - and what if we see something, we'd pick it up, but can he react to the crumbs? (blood pressure climbing - mine. blood pressure climbing - theirs.) And what if there are crumbs that we don't see? Is he that sensitive? (penalty to the mama for opening her mouth, preparatory to trying to respond, saith the ref) Does every room, asks the director almost gleefully, have to be vacuumed before he walks in? Because that, she says, the glee shifting to triumph, we cannot accommodate.

sigh. Did I ask you to?

Oh, but I can't narrate the meeting. It washed over me like a bad sitcom, predictable once it got going, and with an inevitable result. Hours, minutes, who knows what later, I felt like a herd of elephants had been testing their hot pink stilettos on my skull. Don't you trust us? asked the director, and I nearly began roaring.

Trust is earned, I nearly said. I trust that you will learn with me - not from me, with me - to figure out how to keep him safe. That we will work together. This is not the same as trust that you'll instantly become an expert on my son's specific allergies. That would be unfair to ask of you, I explained, actually managing to get a couple of full sentences out before the next stiletto descended.

But on they went. Until finally, it ended.

So, will he be back at school tomorrow?

Gathering up my things, I held myself together. While for the first 2/3rds of the meeting, my job had been to listen - but never, ever criticize (note: asking a question implied criticism, criticism implied a lack of appreciation for the astonishing, unbalanced and deeply caring effort the teachers had put in), for the last 1/3rd my job had been not to lose my temper. Or, worse, burst into tears. I respected those tears, but I knew that the room of defensive, perplexed - and one rather spiteful - women would not. So.

I took a deep breath, and spent a steadying moment putting my pencil too carefully into my bag. Then I stood. No, I said, gasping a bit. I'm sorry. He won't be back tomorrow.

But it's his shabbat!*

I struggled a bit, and then said, very low, yes. But we haven't resolved my concerns about the allergy management plan, so no, he cannot come back. And I left, brushing past blurring faces in the hall, and making it nearly to the curb before the shakes started.

Oh, no, said one of the parents as I rushed past. That doesn't look good.

I couldn't have agreed more.

* each child takes a turn bringing the challah for the shabbat circle, lighting the candles with one or both parents, and sharing the challah they'd brought with the class. For the Toddles, this would have been especially significant, as he is always the child who isn't shared with. And he notices that.

I am sorry to admit that no, this was not the ending. I wish it were. But I'll continue telling this story. In the meantime, I've finally licked every damned flap on the Chanuka cards, a tradition stalled for three years (buy the cards, refuse to spend extra on preprinted, buy card stock in bulk, plan to cut stock, print photos, cut photos, glue photos, write sweet little message, make list of people to send to, find addresses, address envelopes, seal, mail. Or not).

This year, off go about 20 or so cards into the wild, addressed to a slightly random assortment of people whose mailing addresses were close enough at hand. And especially to my grandmother, recovering from emergency hip surgery and doing her best to prove that she can go home, rather than to a nursing home. Oh, yes. Especially to her.

Wishing you all light and joy and health this season, and especially some listening, caring ears. My thanks to the oh-so patient skulls attached to mine. Yes, I know I'm droning on. I wish I weren't. Change the channel, somebody, 'kay?

Coming Soon: Talking to the Toddles (part 4, but the Toddles was happy)

Backtracking? See here for parts 1 and 2.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

But the Toddles was happy: part 2

The day before Thanksgiving, the Toddles' school had a Thanksgiving celebration.

Everything will have wheat and eggs, the director'd tossed at me, and surprised at the ire in her voice, I'd backed away. But not far - uncertain how the Toddles' needs were being considered for this event, I arranged to be one of the people setting up for it. I spent an astonishing amount of that time running around to figure out what the allergy plan was, and who was responsible for carrying it out.

Surprisingly, that person seemed to be me. Um. Insofar as the organizer could tell, she said, puzzled, and tried to find someone to tell her what she should be doing. I shrugged.

Since the Allergy Kid is my kid, I ran back and forth while the organizer asked the parent association folks for guidance, securing the Toddle friendly cookies in my bag, marvelling at the squishy Toddle-friendly cupcakes (did they follow the recipe? I wrote it down - but no, they hadn't) and flipping plates onto tables.

A rather rushed job - and quick breather - later, the room was packed with children and their parents. For a large social hall, the room blinked and was full. We blinked again, and were mustered into a large clump, to sit and listen to stories and sing songs.

did she really say Indian? hissed a mother behind me. Shhhh, said the other. I grinned. Toto, we ain't in Cambridge no more. But the songs were silly and fun and we giggled our way through Albequerqe and his turkeyness. When we all sat down, I noticed that our table was the farthest from the door (far, far, far), and yet closest to the food (wheat, wheat, wheat, eggs). From behind my shoulder, a parent flipped a plate of cakes past me, dropping then sliding to the child across from us. Crumbs bounced across the table as a nearby parent watched, then looked at me worriedly. This stuff is all safe for your kiddo, right? I shook my head slowly, the hairs rising on my neck. No, I nearly whispered. It's really not.

Around us, children ran through the room, shouting and carrying food (wheatwheatwheateggs), and I looked at the chaos and realized that we were safer huddling in our corner for a bit.

So, the Toddles and I sat and ate bowls of soup, made especially in his classroom, with a knife and board reserved for them (and kept there), and tomato juice that I'd spent two hours checking out. (Oddly, tomato juice manufacturers also tend to make fruit punch sorts of juices. A.k.a., kiwi.) I'd carried the sealed pot upstairs, heated it myself, served it myself with a clean ladle. Plus, it was good. Hey, look, I pointed. Is that a green bean you've got there? Oh, but I've got corn in my spoon. The Toddles considered, and dug his spoon in deeper. Aha! I have corn, too, he informed me.

So. We avoided crumbs on the table, did not pick up his fallen spoon (crumbs under his seat), did not leap up to play with his friends and all in all, did a fantastic, unexpected, desperate job at teamwork. I was so grateful to him, I nearly cried. I carried him out in triumph, wiped him off and popped him into the car. As I finished the last buckle on his carseat, his teacher walked by.

So, how was it? she asked, kindly. I shuddered. Not going to do that again, I said ruefully. She patted me sympathetically. But, I perked up, he loved that vegetable soup! What was in it? Happily, the teacher reeled off a list of ingredients and I listened. Until my brain stopped cold, clutching my spine for support.

I muttered something and drove off, checking the Toddles in my mirror. One eye on the child, I drove past the Eldest's school, completely forgetting his early pickup time, watching, watching, watching the little one.

Thirty minutes later, the Toddles woke out of a sleep, wailing. Don't make me eat any more food - my tummy doesn't want any more food, he wept, clutching his middle. I eyed him carefully. He was flushed, and clearly in pain. And nausea.

A reaction, with one - possibly two - body systems, if the flushing was allergic and not from sleep. I nodded grimly, and stuck the EpiPens in my pocket.

Soothed back to sleep, the Toddles had perhaps a 40 minute break before the second wave. Already wire-tight, I was moving up the stairs before he quite finished that first cough. (Behind me, the Eldest watched with wide, worried eyes.) I held the little guy while he coughed and cried, my hand creeping towards the Epis, stilling, moving towards, stilling, pause and vibrating pause after pause. Finally, he stopped.

I knew what had happened, but not how. The teachers had used a soup mix for the veggie soup, one I'd flagged as potentially problematic. It could be fine, but I just don't know, I'd admitted, using one of my favorite lines. So I'll check it out and get back to you. The teacher smiled. It's really no problem, she said, we can always use water and a bay leaf or two, maybe a peppercorn. I nodded. Conversation done, messages delivered. And, short of someone sprinkling flour on the soup I'd guarded and served, the culprit was unlikely to sit somewhere else, thanks to the Toddles' unrepeatable teamwork. So how did we end up here, wavering on the brink of anaphylaxis?

I hadn't a clue.

The Man and I talked through the weekend, weighing the risks. The math just didn't look good, and we now worried about how little we actually knew about the allergy management. Three repetitions of the same mistake, four exposures and two subsequent reactions, I said, each one worse than the last. How willing are we to stick around for the next one? The pattern is just not good. We looked at each other, worried. I'll call the teachers and explain, I suggested, and we'll keep him out of school until we can have a meeting to review the allergy plan, given what's happened. The Man sighed. Keeping him home will, if nothing else, show how seriously we take this, he pointed out. And I hoped so.

On Tuesday, the Man kissed me goodbye, airline schedules in hand - and wished me good luck. I juggled kids, housework and agenda building until Thursday, when we'd all agreed to meet: the teachers, the director and I. I left the boys delightedly dangling off of QG at home, and drove off smiling. But by the first stop sign, I missed the Man fiercely. Three schools before this one, I mused, years of advocacy and teamwork in emergency situations, academic settings, and oh so much more - and yet, something here worries me.

I walked into the building, and nearly into the preschool director. Her back to me, I listened to her spitting out her frustration with me, and her relief that we're meeting with her tonight. If she's not prepared to be flexible, then she can just go. Over the director's shoulder, her listener met my eye, embarrassed.

oh, dear.

The director turned, saw me, ducked her head and escaped down the hall. Now this, I whispered, is not going to help at all. And it did not. I walked into the classroom, chatting with the teachers, and popped into a chair. The teachers sat down, and we chattered happily until the director came to the room, sat in the chair next to me and slid it away. I looked at the arc she'd deconstructed, and considered the row of four chairs now sternly facing my lonely one.

oh, boy. This is not going to be good.

Clearing her throat, the lead teacher caught the director's eye and began. We're not sure why we are here tonight, she said, and my heart sank. We've been over the things we did in preparation, she went on, and we see no problems. I aimed at looking friendly and interested, glancing at the bit of paper she gave me.

There, about a third of the way down, it said: onion soup mix - approved by Mom.
I looked up at the calm - and one smug - faces.

oh, NO.
Coming soon: But the Toddles was happy: part 3

Backtracking? Look here for the start of the story.

Monday, December 15, 2008

But the Toddles was happy: part 1

I have a deadline today, and a bit of writing that is occasionally lovely, sometimes wry and entirely entangled in something that crept in when I wasn't looking. I know what I need to do for it, but I haven't the time to do the difficult stepping-back and patient fresh-sheet-of-paper rewriting.

More to the point, when I think about doing the work, I can feel how stuffed full I am with story already, holding myself together while bits of narrative and emotion leak out the edges. Generous, wise friend after thoughtful patient friend have now listened to me wail, and still I'm walking carefully, feeling stuffed full of something unwieldy and sharp-edged. Holding my seams closed, I think that I have forgotten this blog, and how it lets me just drop my mess onto the screen. Story told, and clean, breathable spaces inside my chest.


When the Toddles was roughly a year, we already knew about his egg and wheat allergies, and had realized - together with the Eldest's preschool - that this was not going to be something the preschool could manage. Not in the youngest classroom, but perhaps the one afterwards? Relieved to have an honest opinion from folks we trusted to do their damndest, we waited. A year later, we all agreed that yes, this could work - if the floors were replaced before school started.

I was on the committee that managed to not get this done. But there was Mary Jr, and QG, and how could we possibly be so lucky? How can he ever go to school, my mother fretted, but I was certain we would figure it out. And we did.

Last year, the Toddles was offered spots at three different preschools, one which had had the Eldest at his youngest and non-clottingest. We chose a Jewish preschool with a nicely low-key religious approach. It had a promising trifecta: near enough to the Eldest's school for the commute to be manageable, with a strong enough budget to be able to afford accommodations for an allergic child, and above all, a range of experience with food allergy. It also happened to have a kickass curriculum, which I rather liked. Anything you need, just tell us, the director exclaimed, expansively. I suggested that perhaps we could work together, instead of me issuing instructions, and we smiled at each other.

But it was difficult to set up a meeting before school started - the teachers are on vacation, the director said, and I'm buried in work, can you email me back in September? and there we were, early September, days before school started, and the director offered me 15 minutes. I took 45, and the teachers hung in there with me.

We all did our best, but one meeting could only scratch the practical challenge of a wheat allergy in the classroom. And the director had stayed at that meeting just long enough to nix the idea of a wheat-free classroom, leaving me worried and gaping in her wake. The teachers, however, looked unsurprised. And unconcerned. They'd handled a kid with celiac the year before, they pointed out, in addition to others with severe allergies. A deep breath, and I'm going to trust you, but I'll admit that this makes me very, very nervous, I said. Just let me know if you have concerns about managing his allergy in a classroom with wheat, okay? I clamped my mouth shut before it labelled me a nervous mum, and shoved my gaze back to my notes.

Despite our years of experience with food allergy and classrooms, this was bound to be different. I knew that, going in. While I'm not a fan of the peanut-free rule, generally speaking, it does offer a beautiful simplicity. Identify allergen, remove allergen. Bam. But the peanut-free rule doesn't reconfigure itself automatically for the wheat allergic kiddos, even if they are laying claim to one of the big 8 allergens. Sorry, kidlets - wheat is so pervasive in the traditional early ed classroom that the early ed folks tend to stop and stutter when they think this one over. There go the snacks, they think. There goes the playdough. There goes the baking projects. There goes - oh, no. And they fall silent.

Obviously, a wheat-free, or gluten-free classroom can be managed - of course it can - but setting one up can only be a labor of love, driven by the deepest commitment to the individual child's needs. A big ass budget doesn't hurt, either, but we'd seen the Eldest's astonishing preschool director manage food allergies without one. Having seen her head off to the wilds of PA, we knew our chances of another paragon were slim. And so they were, but

It doesn't take a paragon to do a good job. Still, I admitted to the Man, I'm nervous. It's a bigger risk than we've taken before, and it's hard to walk the line between showing how serious the allergy is and working out terms for the allergen's management in the classroom. If the allergy is that bad, then why is the kid there at all? That's the real challenge: explaining that choice to the teachers and admin. The Man nodded, quiet.

There was no time to be nervous. Art supplies needed to be checked for wheat and egg, baking projects needed to be rethought, snack needed to be figured out, not to mention birthday celebrations, clean-up procedures, all school programs flagged for potential issues, and anaphylaxis training done. We did our best, and scrambled to keep up as school began.

Inevitably, there were mistakes. Unwarrantedly, we were lucky. When the teachers didn't have diaper wipes for the children to use at the door, the Toddles popped out in hives. The next day, children and their parents carefully wiped hands and face with wipes, and the Toddles was fine. Art supplies were used before I'd checked them, once and then twice. And look, he's fine now, the teachers said happily, and We cleaned him up carefully afterwards. I took deep breaths, and explained again.
Building an Allergy Friendly Classroom, Imperfectly (part 1):

Step One: don't automatically go peanut/whatever-free. Breathe. Mutter "balance" to yourself repeatedly. Assess the situation with the teachers & admin, and then decide if you need to go X-free. Check your decision with your allergist, if need be.

Step Two: brainstorm as follows. Mutter "ruthless pragmatism" as you do so.

The teachers and director (education/classroom experts) work with the parent (individual kid-expert) to identify risks and rank them by degree of hazard. Minor and moderate risks accumulate beyond manageable levels, surprisingly fast. Eliminate those that can be easily eliminated. Look at the remaining risks, and decide which must be eliminated for the child to be safe. Decide which can be managed, and work out how. Make sure you are taking on a reasonable, sustainable level of effort at any one time, and consider how much focus and stress can be handled over the course of the day, for teacher and student. See if the final situation seems manageable.

Above all, remember partnership. The parent has responsibilities to make this manageable, just like the teachers and administration. With good training, even the child has a part to play in making an allergy-friendly classroom work. (As do his classmates.)

translation: if you can avoid using something that is potentially risky, and it's simple to do so, then do. Especially if the avoidance is temporary, budget-friendly and helps folks relax by reducing risk. Convenience is not worth the risk of a reaction. Major imposition and effort by the teachers, staff and parent, however, should make us all stop and think.
Hallway conversation after hallway conversation followed, and the teachers and I worked to be clear and responsive. Baking projects became Toddle-friendly, and I grimly dropped their cost onto our already irked budget. Birthday celebrations became Toddle-friendly, and the budget sighed with relief when parents took the shopping over from me. But I couldn't help worrying about the emails unanswered, and the risks of the hallway chat - was I clear enough? Did I absorb enough of the information I was given? did I understand enough about how the wheat-based snack was handled? but the Toddles was happy, chattering and tired, and the "but he's fine so far" line crept in and painted my brain into quiet.

He was fine. And oh, but he was happy.
I'm going to have all the fun! he told me, disappearing into his classroom. He poked his head back through the door. Write that down, he told me, sternly. And I did.
This, the Toddles informed me, is gadol.* He pointed, then looked around. That, the Toddles instructed, is katan.* I followed his solemn finger and nodded. Indeed, it is so.
I know what we should sing, exclaimed the Toddles on a Friday night. He leapt up from the table, and arranged us all in a chain. Hiney rakevet, sang the Toddles, and lead us around the room, hi mistovevet, hagalgalim hagalgalim hagalgalim. Grinning, laughing we all chorused, toot! toot!
Oh, yes. He was happy.

The teachers smiled, I called companies and talked to customer service reps, ran to the grocery store daily and watched a sleepy Toddles nod off over his lunch. We all tried hard, and it was good. No big alarm bells, no maps saying beware, here be dragons.

It wasn't so easy to get information, though, and I found myself backing off, not wanting to rock the boat. What happens when they do this? I asked a parent, who then patiently pieced together what she'd seen and been told. What's being served then? I asked the parents' association folks, who shrugged. Can you tell me more about this? I asked the director, who looked irritated.

You can't keep him safe, not completely, you know, she informed me. I swallowed a follow-up question and watched her, carefully. People eat all over the building, and you can't control that. She flipped her hands in the air, exasperated now. If you take that child out to a restaurant, someone will be eating something he's allergic to. I leaned forward, and invited my calmest voice to the fray. This is true, I said calmly. He will never be completely safe. But the more information I have about what food is being served next week, and what it's made from, the more precise my risk analysis.

The director leaned back, pushing a short, sharp breath through her lips. Everything [at this event] will have wheat and eggs, she informed me, and I was dismissed.


I sought counsel, and decided to take a mellow line. Thank you for your time, I wrote. I see we share different views on food allergy, both in and outside of the classroom. I look forward to learning more about your approach. The director and I smiled at each other, but inwardly, I fumed. She was lecturing me about food allergy? I waited for my brain to put its hands on hips, cock my head to one side, and spit, WTF do you think you are doing, lady? But there was silence, and a looming calm. In that silence, a stern, British voice stepped forward. Oh, no, it said, rich with disappointment. This will not do at all.

But the Toddles was happy.
Coming Soon: the amended Imperfect Guide to Building an Allergy Friendly Classroom, and why it didn't do, after all. Or, if you prefer, part 2. And see here, for part 3.

hiney rakevet, hi mistovevet (etc): here is the train, it goes/ the wheels are turning...
gadol: big
katan: small

Friday, December 12, 2008

insert post here

no, really.

We're sitting in a painful limbo with the Toddles' preschool, for reasons I just don't have the energy - or coherence - to explain. But there will be a story to tell, and a post that fits here. Right now, there's just a sense of being stuck. And worried. And not really wanting to feel betrayed and angry, because how on earth is that going to get us unstuck?

But feeling that way anyway. And still, trying to get unstuck.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

quiet, with the odd worrying rumble

I'm not silent here - I'm silenced. When I figure out how to talk coherently about this situation, I will. But right now, I'm - oh, dammit, grr is just to prissy for an anger this visceral.

But want something afterschool special to go with incoherent rage? Try this:

I called my mom the other day, and apologized. I'd just had the Eldest's parent-teacher conference, and now I understood how packed those meetings are with hope and worry. I went in there wanting to know if the Eldest, now a sharp-edged grump after school, was a terror of the classroom.

They wanted me to stop fidgeting at them so they could sing the child's praises. For lo, unto the 1st grade, an Eldest is born. And he readeth at the 3rd grade level (just finished reading Mary Poppins to himself, and damn if he didn't understand it), and he computeth far beyond his years (and occasionally beyond mine, but that's not hard), and he spak and wrote and thought in manners astonishing. Handwriting's not bad, either.

No slouch our lad, and the chess club leader popped in to remind me. He's won a what? a tournament? The instructor looked at me pityingly, but really, now. Isn't this faintly absurd?

Oh, and he's a mensch in class.

So, I asked, what the hell is going on when I pick him up? He looks and acts like he's been through a wringer.
Ah, said the teachers, and looked somewhat embarrassed.

It seems that the allergy table in the lunchroom is now populated only by one allergic kid: mine. But last year a non-allergic child or two opted to bring Eldest-friendly lunches, so that they might sit with him. This year, the table is packed with the non-allergic and their allergy-friendly food.

It's become a real social hot spot, the teachers admitted, and none of those kids are eating a proper lunch. They're all grumpy at the end of the day.

I thought it over for oh, a millisecond.

That's just fine, I told the teachers. Do what you can, but I'm not complaining - I'll just pack him a bigger snack when I pick him up.

The Eldest's year has begun, shaped by community and friendship - and there's been a ripple effect in my direction. This year I've been watching friendships bloom with a number of 1st grade mothers who are perfectly happy being quirky and totally unafraid to discuss something taboo. They are taking me back to school, pushing me to rethink any number of complacently held ideas. And above all, laughing at me when I thank them for vacuuming, or shopping, or even baking for my crew.

Apparently the Eldest's friends get it from somewhere, and friendship really is more important than what you eat, or where you eat it. Damn.

(and now, a return to incoherence.)

Thursday, November 20, 2008

unfolding tags

My apologies for being so slow to notice, but tag, I'm it.

(The idea is to give one word answers to the questions. As you can imagine, creatures of brevity such as myself will undoubtedly kick ass here. Or just ramble on about the rules with unnecessary verbiage. Um.)

1. Where is your cell phone? charging

2. Where is your significant other? kitchen (making the dry ingredient mixes for our gluten-free, vegan challah!)

3. Your hair color? dark

4. Your mother? passionate

5. Your father? focused

6. Your favorite thing? I have to choose? ha. I'm out.

7. Your dream last night? dream? as in sleep?

8. Your dream/goal? joy

9.The room you’re in? study

10. Your hobby? exploring

11. Your fear? stagnation/chaos

12. Where do you want to be in six years? here

13. Where were you last night? bed (with a wee red headed boy)

14. What you’re not? low maintenance

15. One of your wish list items? vegetable garden

16. Where you grew up? um. got a map?

17. The last thing you did? redid my shabbat menu. We have guests coming!

18. What are you wearing? jeans and a sweater

19. Your T.V.? nope

20. Your pet? nope

21. Your computer? ahhh.

22. Your mood? relaxed

23. Missing someone? yes, but he's making those tedious dry ingredient mixes, so it's a pretty fair trade, no?

24. Your car? scraped and comfy, with just a select few bumper stickers...

25. Something you’re not wearing? pajamas - it's past bedtime!

26. Favorite store? craft stores (with lots of beautiful, funky wood)

27. Your Summer? educational

28. Love someone? yes. yes. yes.

29. Your favorite color? yes

30. Last time you laughed? five minutes ago

31. Last time you cried? when I needed to

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

the lice pictorial (with updated recipe)

At some point, deep in a murk of various vermin, laundry and overly sugared children, I realized that I was looking at a series of Kodak moments.

No, really.

Turns out that a kid released from the Combing Chair of Doom (also known as the 'cookie spot,' a happy image that only lasts a couple of minutes) is testy yet slightly giddy with their freedom, and has been combed into a truly fabulous damp, spiking hairdo.
Like so.

Sitting in the midst of my frantic trollness, the Eldest was relaxed, pleased and mugging gently. He was a slightly misplaced pocket of a smooth, quiet pleasure, and just before that began to ripple outwards, reality stepped in, tossed out the improbablity - and offered an alternative.
Truly, I give the Eldest credit for catching my mood so perfectly. Add a horrified voice bubble, and there you had me. We staggered around the house, making faces and gargling gagging noises, until the Toddles noticed. I want to do that, too! Make my hair look silly, too! I looked the kid over, jumping and dancing as he tried to persuade me. This, I thought, could be an even better incentive than cookies....and it was.

The Toddles did his valiant best, but clearly he has years of practice ahead. Still, the Eldest is often reasonably obliging of a mama and her camera, and offered his brother a quick tutorial.

Replete with boy-photos, I wandered off to mop up the kitchen, or Room of Doom (as the lice would have called it, had anyone been slightly interested in their opinions). And baked pumpkin cake.

Pumpkin Cake, or the Cake that Squished the Ick
This is a beautiful, brown-orange cake, with the rich pumpkin balanced by a nicely crisp crust. The credit here goes to the MIL, to whom I'd mentioned the hunt for pumpkin bars for the Toddles' class. She barely blinked before suggesting the mix/pumpkin combination. And she was absolutely right: it's yummy! The Toddles and his classmates dove in, and didn't leave any for the adults. (I had to bring the teachers a pumpkin cupcake from home.)

1 Namaste spice cake mix (I love this part): should be gluten-free, dairy/egg/nut/peanut-free.
3/4 cup canned pumpkin
3 Tb flax meal (ground flax seed)
2/3 c oil (note: this quantity makes a slightly oily cake, and you might want to try replacing 1-2 Tb oil with 1-2 Tb applesauce/pumpkin puree.)
3/4 c water

Open cake mix, and dump into a bowl. Proceed to ignore the mix's instructions, and plop the rest of the ingredients into the bowl, as well. Mix until smooth (watch out for clumping pumpkin puree).

Preheat oven to 350F, and decide if you are in a cupcake or cake mood. We tend to be in both, and this recipe will make 12 cupcakes + 1 shallow (low) bundt cake. Spray/grease tins, and bake - 24 minutes for cupcakes, 26 minutes or so for a shallow cake.

Let cool briefly, then transfer to a cooling rack.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

options in vermin

I seem to have had the kind of day that can only be excused by having Steve Martin walk in the door, saying 'hoooooney, I'm ho-ome!'

Cue the laugh track, folks, because the Imperfects have taken 'wow suckiness' over the edge and into cheap comedy. It began this morning, with a focussed, quick-moving Eldest and a recalcitrant Toddles. No, wait - to be absolutely precise, today began last month and with a book.

Over a few weeks, I've traded in our worrying Skin Deep scores for primarily 2s and 3s, with our lonely 5 and 6 reserved for the Man. I took my handy-dandy Sharpie to every bottle and tube, labelling them with their score. And for the Man, I added some suggestions for lower scored products. Looks like we're just going to keep the 'everybody makes their own decisions' conversation going for a while here...

Trading in my skin care products, however, was not so simple. Would this dry my skin out? Leave it too oily? What about deep cleaning pores? And can we avoid nuts and seeds and gluten-containing grains, along with the scary chemicals? Without the scary price tags? Um. Maybe. But when it comes to dandruff shampoo, I was stumped. None broke the bank, but most had wheat or some other verboten ingredient. I'd found one that left my hair oddly oily, and was still hunting around for another when I begain to wonder how well this thing handled dandruff, let alone why it was dumping oil on me.

I'm itchy, I thought - paused - thought again. Before I could chase the thought to its conclusion, the phone rang. Oh, sure! We'd love to have a playdate. Just drop him off - mm hm, yep - and we can feed him dinner before you get back. The Eldest glowed, I grinned, and happily bounced off to indulge in a moment of well-earned paranoia.

Yep. Again.

When he brought them home the first time, I felt terrible. The poor sweetie, so itchy from his eczema that he never noticed the crawling ickies? Oh, how we'd failed him. This time, however, I was just pissed. I have filing to do. Menus to make. Companies to harrass about potential cross-contamination (did you know that One-Pie canned pumpkin has potential nut and seed cross-contamination? hrugh), columns to write. And apparently, nits to pick.

Nevermind, I said cheerily - not so easy with the clenched jaw, let me tell you - I have a stash of lice treatments. We'll get this taken care of right now, I informed the boys. And off I went to my stash. We had nit and egg removal gel, a spray for unwashable items, and no - no? - shampoo. Oh.

Okay, I thought. We'll get more. Lots more. But, oh, can't leave for the next 3.75 hrs, or we'll miss the repair guy who is finally going to solve the dishwasher problem. Six weeks of arguing, and I'm sticking this one out. But staying here without lice management? Oh, no. I snagged my complementary medicine book and was informed that we would mix filtered water with tea tree oil, rub that into the hair and scalp, and do a careful combing. Right, then.

The Toddles wailed when I explained the plan, wailed again when I offered a DVD, and wailed some more when I informed the boys that the Eldest would go first. (Note to self: try to avoid delousing a newly awakened toddler.) I settled the Eldest next to the sink, and answered the phone. Yes, I told the pleasant repair man, we're here. See you in fifteen minutes.

Twenty minutes later, I was focussed on vermin - and so was the repair guy. Do you have mice? he asked, I don't know anything other than a mouse that can chew it's way into a dishwasher. Rinsing off something small and wriggling, I blinked. Chew? CHEW??


(Fuck breathing - CHEW???)

Tell you what, I suggested, I'll handle one vermin at a time.

The laundry piled up, and so did the nits in the sink. Held in place by a combination of cookies and growls, the Toddles bent his head to me. Is that a bug? he asked, twisting to see. Is that one a bug? Can I keep it?

I'm not sure, the handyman admitted. Ask your mother. The Toddles looked at me hopefully, but I was mentally bopping his visually impaired father on the head, and didn't reply. Can't get the air conditioner out, eh? I muttered. Window won't open, hmmm? I glared at the Toddles' scalp. Must be that the window is broken, because surely there's no bracket holding it shut. Under the comb, the Toddles winced, considered and reached for another cookie. Can't imagine why the wife thinks there might be a bracket, when clearly there isn't. Oh, noooo.

Quietly, the handyman fled. The laundry piled up higher, the playdate canceled, and I sent a message to the Man. Lice, I informed him. Drowning at work, he blipped back. I raised a dangerous eyebrow.

Behind me, the laundry filled the hallway, making a nice little infested barrier between the boys and the kitchen. The Toddles noted the pile's potential and dug in. Oh, said the Eldest, himself wrist deep in infested bedding. Should we not do that?

I snarled.

The beds stripped, the washing machine whining and my scalp itchy, I yanked a kerchief over my head. I can either delouse myself or feed the kids, I told myself sternly, but not both. And oh, for some post-bedtime quiet. (In the background, the Eldest sensed a cue and roared at his brother. The Toddles, justifiably, bopped him.) And some chocolate, I mused. Opening the fridge, I found my leftovers sitting in a small puddle of something brown and organic. Not chocolate, then, I suggested, and pulled my jaw shut. Whisky? On the shelf above, lettuce dissolved and quietly dribbled downwards.

No short-cuts today. And shouldn't that have become obvious by now? I glared at the ceiling, paused, told Skin Deep to shut up for a few - and called the Man to order up some poison.

One pot of basil-artichoke pasta, and a fragrant Indian tomato soup later, I called the SIL. I'm making dinner, I told her. And explained. The SIL didn't miss a beat. Given that, she informed me, making dinner is positively heroic. I grinned at the phone. Yep. But I called you so that you could tell me so.

By more-or-less bedtime, the boys had filled their tummies and I'd grimly poisoned their scalps. Scratching, I reluctantly poisoned mine while the Man experimented with his brand-new home barbering kit. He stuck his head in the door, looking like a cat who'd lost an argument. What do you think? he asked. I'm wondering why I bothered paying for a haircut before now! IHe posed in the doorway, odd tufts sprouting from his scalp - and grinned proudly at me.

Steve Martin he isn't, our Man, but he offers a humor all his own. And, after the day's bad comedy, I was happy to let him walk around like that for a couple of hours before tidying him up.

Monday, November 03, 2008

electing to...check out the fence

I'm getting civics lessons over here. And flag trivia.

As election day looms, the Eldest's class has swung into full gear - as has the rest of the school. The first graders are learning about the flag, it's history and significance, as well as some of the rules of flag use. (These do not, in case you were wondering, include matches. I asked.)

MumMumMumMumMum, can I help? I want to carry that in!
I look at the bouncing kid, and look at the enormous bowl of salad.
Sure, sweetie, but be careful. Take it right up to the table, and offer it to one of our guests.
The Eldest offers me a solemn look. Don't worry, Mum, he tells me. I'll carry it like the flag, and never let it touch the ground.
Oh. Um, thanks.

Tomorrow, the school will vote, echoing the adults. The kindergartners will count the votes, and the first grade will help (says the Eldest) tabulate them with graphs. The eighth graders will be at the real polling stations, and try to predict the outcome. And on, and on. It's a grand old flag, the Eldest sings to himself, and I have to smile. Tomorrow, his class will perform that at the school assembly, and the Eldest has been drilling us on the words. Just in case, I suppose.

Tomorrow also, our street will be packed with cars and people, jockeying for a decent parking spot near the polling station. The Man will come home early, and take the boys with him when he votes. And somewhere before, during and doubtless after, I'll talk to the Eldest about respecting people whose choices differ from our own. I'll remind him that John McCain served his country, and is worthy of our respect. But, I'm sure the Eldest will reply, John McCain is going to kill all the endangered animals! The Eldest will look at me, and at his father, with wide, horrified eyes. He will be certain of this coming slaughter, and he will know that his adults would not accept this.

And yet, his father will cast a vote as his conscience dictates.
Anon., you mention undecided voters and the derision that goes on around them. I live with one, and he's a thoughtful, worried man. Neither candidate quite suits him, and there isn't an issue that he is sufficiently passionate about, such that it could tip him off the fence. Believe me, I've checked.

I would have thought that he'd feel strongly enough about women's health (+ Obama) and reproductive rights (+Obama), redistributing the taxes to those with the cash to fork over (+Obama), the environment (if that means green tech to you, then somewhat + Obama - unless you ask the Eldest, who focuses on wildlife preserves and endangered species. In which case, +++Obama), revamping the health care system (depends on what that means to you), gay marriage and rights (+ Obama), thoughtful intelligence (+ Obama but take away a point for being a celeb candidate, then add one after remembering our most recent bout with a president's reflexive gut responses), etc.

Nope. A single issue won't do it, and the combined positions that the candidates hold won't tip the Man, either. It's not just a matter of Republican vs Democrat in our house, it's largely a matter of economics. (No, really). The Man believes in a free market, and I believe in an amoral one. I think healthcare is a right, and he thinks it's important. I believe that the average person doesn't know how to negotiate for their rights, nor are they aware of all of their options. He thinks that a sense of entitlement and awareness of resources isn't class-specific, and people who need help will find it. I think that industry runs amok in the US, and has too much influence in government. He thinks that a strong economy requires that influence, making the government's pro-industry decisions worthwhile. And on, and on. Our views on the world have much to do with how we read the candidates, and where we assign the points. I'm a flaming liberal wearing a t-shirt that says "if you aren't upset, you aren't paying attention." And he's....a libertarian, I think, wearing a nice red tie.

Inevitably, then, the choice that the Eldest - and I - find so clear is just not navigable for the Man. Which leaves one question: who will he write in?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

waking up to turning leaves

No, really - I'm here.

Good things are happening here, but also there were a bunch of holy things, and we just got chagged*. Deeply chagged, and we're emerging in to the light and blinking and looking at our astonishing lists of things that got put off, and oh boy but did we get chagged.

As I wake up from a haze of shul and family and wonderful allergy-friendly food (a significant proportion of which I did NOT cook), I realize that it's autumn, and the leaves have turned. I'm an autumn baby, and I've always loved the crispness and colors of the season. Summer is gloriously, showily generous with it's produce and flowers, but autumn asks me to be patient, and then smacks me with color. Bless Julia, whose eye and camera caught some wonders of autumn, and I'll let her show them to you. For me, I'm catching those wonders at about 40 mph. It's a daily pleasure to see the fire and the light in the leaves on our daily commutes to school, to the other school, home from the second, back to the first and then back home. On leg 3 of the daily schlep, there - there! - is a tree lit with yellow and orange. It lifts the heart, and onwards we go.

(hey Julia, does that let me off the hook?)

We've had a wonderful haze here, filled with grandpaternal liturgical music ("hi, Grandpa!" says the Toddles, as the FIL sings to us from the High Holy Days' liturgy), a birthday (and I couldn't spend it anywhere better than at camp), a rock climbing wall for 3 out of 4 Imperfects - but then again, possibly for all 4. And thoughts and stories about the first two months of school, for both the smaller and the larger of the Imperfect Jrs. I'm hoping to resist the urge to write about the election, but, well, have we met? Yep.

And gluten-free, vegan, nut/seed/etc-free pumpkin muffins, made the lazy way. Hang in there - it's on the way.

* chag means "holiday," the plural is chagim.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

reading materials

I just read a new book, I told my mum. Oh? she said, politely. And then considered.

Is it anything like that Pollan book you gave me? I haven't been able to think about my meat the same ever since, she said accusingly. Is this new book anything like that? I blinked. My mum, the warrior for the neglected (and occasionally lactating) woman, has been regaling me with green tips for a few months now. Pollan seemed right up her alley.

So, wherefore the oh-so casual (telephonic) inching towards the safety of the other room? The hiding behind old Save Darfur signs?

Um, no, I said. It's different. This one's about the cosmetics industry. On the other end of the line, mum started to relax. Really? she said, trying for mild encouragement. Yep, I said - and launched.

It's about the regulation of the chemicals used in the cosmetics industry, and how America and Europe regulate them differently. Mum made a noncommittal sound. Europe, I explained, makes companies prove that a chemical is safe before use. America, allows companies to use whatever they like until it's proven to be unsafe.

Ah. said the slightly worried voice on the phone.

I grinned. And of course, the industry is largely self-regulated, doing their own research, and the inevitable outcome for such a situation. I could feel the phone's shoulders tensing up. Which is how you end up with two different formulations for products, one that's deemed safe in Europe, and one that's accepted in the USA. Endocrine disruptors and all.

Um, said my mother. I have to go now.

In truth, I think she got off lightly. Tonight, a solid three weeks after finishing the book, I finally muttered, grabbed an armful of our household health and beauty items and looked them up. The database run by the EWG ranks individual products on a scale of 1-10, where 10 is the most toxic, or damaging. The information for these chemicals comes from lists made by the FDA, the EPA, National Toxicology Program, European Chemical Bureau, the US health and beauty industry's own standards for use, and peer-reviewed academic journals. No crazy blog ranting or rumormongering allowed.

The database shows you the rank of individual chemicals, and explains why they are a problem. It is, explained Stacey Malkan, the only one of its kind outside of the industry. And the folks who run it, says Malkan, really think someone, um, official should be taking charge. You know, someone who can actually do something about the problems that the database highlights? Yeh. Them.

The boys' food allergies have made me a skeptic in the face of apparent corporate good will and transparency. And if the food industry is hard to get information from, try the health and beauty folks, who have no obligations to tell me diddly about what's in their products, whether it's giving my kid hives or not. So our soaps have had steadily shorter ingredient lists, as have the boys' moisturizers and toothpastes. Shorter = interpretable, I figured. Interpretable = safe.

Shorter, plus avoiding chemicals that I can't pronounce (hey, everyone has a line, and this is where I've drawn it), with a dash of innate crunchiness would combine with poor reading skills...and get us a good score. But, points out Stacey Malkan, the health and beauty industry is not required to give a full listing of ingredients. Oh.

Here's how we did:
kids' toothpaste: 4
kids' shampoo/soap: 2 (and a shout-out to the allergy team, here, for recommending it..)
kids' moisturizer: 4

the Man's shampoo: 5 (so much for the 'pure and natural' bit on the label)
the Man's deoderant: 5 (this was fun: they rank the items against each other, and his was 525th. Yeesh)
the Man's toothpaste: 6 (oh, dear. He's not going to like this one.)

my shampoo: 5 (and another lousy ranking, sigh)
my face washes: 2 (yay!) and 4 (huh?)
my lovely mineral moisturizer: 5 (so much for natural Dead Sea whatevers)
my deoderant: 4 (but, said the database, did I know that it has wheat protein? crud.)
my hydrating toner spray (and my daily burst of ooh la la): 6 (holy fucking hell)

oh, dear.

I've filled a few post-its with scribbles, noting the evils of parabens, biotin, BHT, triclosan, coumarin and more. And used the rankings on the database to find safer toothpastes, shampoo and deoderant options. But can this database come up with the little zing of glamour that is my hydrating spray?

I now understand my mum's tone a bit better. Given the grumpy numbers I'm looking at, the damned thing had better come through. Because mama wants her oooh, la la, and she wants it first thing in the morning when everything else looks like sludge.

Shortly after she apologizes to her mum for the terrible things that this Pollan guy did.
Note: As part of the newly neural hurrah, the Man and I watched the VP debate the other night. Well, okay, so we don't have a working TV. But there were lots of nice live clips online, and we gritted our bandwidth and went for it. Intriguing - and worrying. Biden just didn't have Palin's down home tone, and he was less appealing (less smiling and mugging for the viewer, less inviting the viewer to nod and feel like he got the average Joe. Also bigger words - a double-edged tactic). It worries me.

What fascinated me, though, was the clip on gay rights. Palin said a lot of "tolerant"s in her response to the question of gay marriage. Or, rather, single-sex partnerships. (ahem) Oh, dearie me. Okay, so can we run through this? If you are "tolerant," then you are a bridge-building moment or thirty-seven away from "supportive." I'm not comforted by "tolerant," because it usually comes with a hefty list of exceptions and loopholes. To me, a tolerant person is the same person who parks in the handicapped spots, on those days when she's (um) late getting her kid to school. The parking lot's full, and so, oh, well, just this once. Exceptions and loopholes. And matters of convenience.
(Explanatory Note: yes, I am always late getting the kids to school. But no, unless the Eldest has a bleed, we do the walk of shame, from the not-quite-legal parking spots outside of the school parking lot, all the slow, long way to the office for our ritual pink slip. And, no it's not that I'm that virtuous, it's that someday, I could legitimately need that spot, and I'd hate me if I was one of the people blocking it off for momentary convenience. Sort of preemptive guilt, but it works.)
It's a slippery, worrying word, is "tolerance," for all that it wears a boy scout-ish earnestness. But then again, as before Palin wasn't actually talking to me, as one of those deviants who'd happily call a marriage between two individuals a marriage, regardless of gender. Or sex, for that matter.
(again, noting the distinction)

But what else would you expect from a gimp mama, on the hunt for insincerities? Oh, no - hang on there - she is cultivating my group. How silly of me to forget: she's going to support us, and let the others dangle. Well, phew.
I'll just go grab that nice parking spot, then, shall I?

Saturday, October 04, 2008

understanding joy - and viruses

We interrupt our rhapsodizing for a pleasant viral interlude. And Yom Kippur.

(somehow, it strikes me that the two of them go together well)

Hoping to return with slightly fewer stars in me eyes and a relaxing white cell count, I wish all of you a thoughtful season of self-examination, and much forgiveness, whether human or otherwise.

May we all, as joy wrote, be written down for a year in which we allow ourselves both to fly and to fall.

Somewhere in a haze of tissues and very hot tea, I did notice that Paul Newman died last week, at the end of a long battle with cancer. I sat down and read the long, generous obituaries in the Boston Globe, the NY Times and Time magazine, and want to tell you that they totally missed the point. Yes, he was a big movie star, and yes, he had fantastic blue eyes. And yes, it's kind of funny that he was colorblind.

Movies are great, but what made Newman fascinating is that he didn't stop at the edge of fantasyland. He was also the guy who created this place. People need joy and silliness, and Newman got that to a rare degree. And then, of course, he made it happen.

He used to visit the camp every year, during the big, boisterous general sessions, and quietly hang out. (It was, after all, just on the other side of the lake from his house.) One day, he was sitting in the dining hall, when a little girl realized that this old guy's face looked a lot like the face on her lemonade bottle. She looked at the lemonade bottle. Hm. Looked at Newman. Back at the lemonade bottle. Back to Newman. Finally, she asked, Mister, are you lost?

Newman laughed his ass off. Because, after all, no, he wasn't lost. In fact, if his camp is anything to go by, this was a man who very, very much knew exactly where he was. Baruch dayan ha'emet (blessed be the true Judge).

Next weekend, we Imperfects will follow Newman's map up to the Hole in the Wall camp, and we will drink a lot of lemonade, and remember a man who understood joy. And fish.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

being repetitive

I seem to be stuck. Repeating myself. Saying the same damned thing over and over. Quick, someone find the reset switch, because I'm stuck.

Rosh Hashana is staring me down, eyeball to eyeball (okay, liturgy?), and waiting for me to blink. Yes, okay, I know you are coming. Deep thoughts, internal cataloguing, the usual half-resigned, half-pleased discussion with my ceiling. Yes, I see you coming: the raisin challahs are cooling on the counter, and the boys are practicing on the Man's shofar.

But I'm not so much coming up with anything new to say to you. Or for that matter, anything off the donkey-track I've been tracing for the past few weeks. All I can think about is fear, and I think I've amply covered that one already. But what the hey, you're here and I'm here, so why not.

Recently, a doctor that I was working with told me that he thought I had an anxiety disorder, and pushed me to get a psychiatric evaluation. The psychiatrist laughed and sent me on my way, with a cautionary note about doctors and their opinions. But not before I, the apparently not clinically anxious, started to worry. Am I too anxious? Am I limiting my family and my self with my anxieties? Reluctantly, I let a niggle from the back of my brain creep into the light: am I defective? Will I need medication to be a functioning human being?

Self-doubt is a cruel thing, not just because of the way that it can undercut you, but also because it makes you back up and admit to fears and feelings that you would really rather bury. The Eldest takes medication to function, as does the Toddles, as do I. We've settled into our hematological and immunological imperfections, and kicked the idea of defectiveness into lurking under a rug. Where it waits for a new category to turn up, so that it can come out and loom.

This is where fear meets choice: defectiveness, imperfection, disability, challenges - the words we choose to define ourselves show what we want, as well as what we fear to be. My children will be marvellously imperfect and challenged, but they won't be disabled or defective. I can say that as often as I like, and even believe it. But oh, for that lurker.

Which brings me to Rosh Hashana. Every year at this time, I look myself over, poke at the bruised spots and pick at the scabs, as part of choosing how I want to kick myself in the ass. I can do better, we say around here, and we pick ourselves up and try. And as always, the boys are way ahead of me. While I worried about allergens, the Toddles went happily into his new preschool classroom, reconsidered the next day, and casually dismissed me on the third. You can go now, he told me. I'm going to have all the fun at peeschool, and then you can come and pick me up. Oh. The Eldest went up that crazy high ladder, over and over again, each time refusing to let a limit stop him at the bottom, and willing to try and see if the boundaries could change. It was fine not to make it all the way up, because I knew that I tried, and that's what counts, he informed me. Up, pause, down. Up a bit farther, pause, down. Yes, I'm watching you. And yes, I'm starting to get it.

Why must fear be static? say the boys. Why must our definitions of ourselves be static? reluctantly admits the mama. Our boundaries? (A brief pause to admit that this year, I've come up with a tough one. It's easier to stay within your boundaries than to question them, and investigate beyond. Sigh. But like I said, this is all I've got right now.)

So I started with something symbolic. Mind you, this wasn't my idea - somebody got this idea, and somebody had a new baby, and somebody needed to do something crazy. And she wanted me to do it with her. Ahem: no. But I somehow wasn't flatly turning her down, either. (And at this point, my apologies to anyone who is now really sick of trapeze stories, but hey, like I said: repetitive. )

As you may recall, the Eldest got stuck on this ladder. He made it high enough to touch the board between the ladders, but not onto the board, and certainly not off the board and onto the trapeze. And nevermind the net. Sneakily, my friend approached him: if your mum went up on the trapeze with you, would you try it? The Eldest considered, then agreed: yes.

I weighed my fear of heights against the strength of that agreement, knowing that his yes could easily melt near the top rungs. I pushed on the idea of my feet on the ground, and decided that in fact, I was quite happy with them there. I hate heights, hate the idea of falling, and losing control. Long since a member of the anti-rollercoaster party, I didn't have to think about this much. Yes, terra firma suits me fine. No thanks, I told my friend. Just not going up there. Can't. See you on the teacup ride.

Hearing fear shut down choice, something under the rug sniggered.

A few days later, the Eldest went up that ladder again. On the other side of the net, I did too. Until I stood at the base of the ladder, with my hands on the rungs, I hadn't really appreciated how damned high it was. Holy crap, my brain suggested. Not the point, I told it. I focused on the kid, watching him and hoping quietly that maybe together we could push past his limits. Rung by rung, we went up, carrying each other. Two-thirds of the way up, the Eldest stopped and remembered to be afraid. I'm here, I told him. We'll do this together. The kid reached the top of the ladder, and let go. He double high-fived the staffers at the top, his hands comfortably in the air - and then he went back down. The staffers cheered as he went down the ladder, and turned to me. Okay, then, up you go.

Watching the Eldest, my heart in my eyes, I blinked. Wha? Where?

The staffer smiled. Here, she said. Here turned out to be the board on which you stand, waiting for the trapeze. It was just barely wider than my feet are long.

Oh, I said. Um. Somewhere in my stomach, my brain muttered. The staffer reached out. Put your hand on the bar, she told me, and steadied the trapeze. I looked at the bar. To reach it, I'd have to lean far out - so far that I'd be off balance. I'd be falling.

Bloody fucking hell, my brain said. I'm outta here. In the frozen silence, the rest of me stopped and considered. One rung at a time, I remembered. I can choose to take the next rung. I accepted the cold tightness in my chest and reached past it. There was my hand on the bar, then another, and I was bending my knees and not - looking - down. Take a breath. Another. My hand is on the needle, on the EpiPen, yes, love, I told him years ago, but look at me and breathe. Yes.

and fly.

One of the things that I like about this bread, besides that it's gluten-free, egg-free and generally Imperfect-friendly, is that it's so flexibly flavored. Replace the honey with molasses, the vinegar with apple cider vinegar, and you have a pumpernickel-ish dough that practically begs for caraway seeds. Try a milder vinegar and honey or agave syrup, and you have a milder bread. We put raisins in this batch, but we've also flavored the bread with a mix of annato, mustard seeds, pink peppercorns and cumin seeds. Trust me: it's good. But however you mix it up, this is one gluten-free bread that is a legitimate challah, thanks to the oats. For some time now, we Imperfects have had non-legit challahs and invited our guests to make their ritual blessings on bread before arriving for our shabbat or holiday meals - or, sadly, to go off and make their blessings while we make ours. Meet you back here for main course! we'd say, but the division is pretty nastily symbolic.

However you choose to start your new year, there's few things that can beat an entire family, celebrating at one table. One meal, one bread, one ritual - and one family. If I needed a reminder that food has power, this might just be it.

Legally Yours: Oat Challah
makes 2 loaves on an ordinary day, 2 loaves plus a couple of rolls when the dough's enthusiastic

dry ingredients:
2 c brown rice flour
1 c oat flour
1 c teff flour
1/2 c quinoa/buckwheat flour
1 c tapioca flour
2/3 c arrowroot/cornstarch
2/3 c sweet rice flour
1/2 c flaxmeal/cornmeal
2 Tb xanthan/guar gum
6 Tb Ener-G egg replacer
6 Tb brown sugar
1 Tb salt

Combine dry ingredients, mixing gently. Keep very dry. (Note: you can combine these ingredients the night before using, but then keep in an airtight container.)

wet ingredients:
5 Tb hot water
1 tsp vinegar (see note above)
8 Tb margarine, melted
2 Tb honey/molasses/agave syrup (see note above)

Make sure that dry ingredients are at room temperature. Pour over dry ingredients.

2 Tb yeast
2 Tb sugar
3.5 c. hot water

Mix gently and let sit until the yeast is frothy, or awake! (as the Toddles says). Good morning, yeast. Pour gently into the dry and wet ingredients you've assembled thus far.

Mix all together - the dry ingredients will fly out of the bowl if you start mixing vigorously, so try being a bit gentle initially, and then mixing strongly. I use my cake mixer here, and mix for about 3-4 minutes.

Pour into greased loaf tins (or muffin pans, if you want rolls). Put in a warm place to rise for about 45 minutes - for me, this is on top of the oven, with the oven on to about 300 or 350F. Bake at 380F for 45 minutes. Cool on rack for 5 minutes before tipping the bread out of the pan.

To magid's friend in New Jersey, you are right: I should have a list of recipes. Magid pointed this out to me, and I realized that I don't even remember all of the recipes that I have on this thing. Which is part of the point. (sheesh) Hang in there with me - I'm working on it, starting with a list of my tags.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

letting him choose

(for this carnival, if somewhat belatedly. Sorry, folks!)

When the Eldest was just a lump in my tum, happily kicking my bladder, the Man and I discovered his lullabye. By Trout Fishing in America, it was an old song sung sweetly - and we fell in love.

Close your eyes and listen to my song
Lullabye, sleep the whole night long
The cricket's serenade echoes softly through the night
The clouds are on the lake and the moon is shining bright.
Don't worry, I'll be beside you should you call -
just go to sleep now, close your eyes.

We sang this song to each other, to my tummy, and when the Eldest was born (okay, extracted), I listened to the Man singing this to our tiny baby, while the docs sewed me up. Eight days later, we sang it to the Eldest while he got his first IV, his first transfusion, and his first emergency CT scan. I'll be beside you should you call, we sang, and we were.

One diagnosis later, we went home, and watched our cozy nest fill up with clotting meds and needles. On the table, the sharps container glowed.

Dragons in the sky, flying with their golden treasure
If you catch their eye, wishes granted more than you can measure

But could this kid fly? What kind of treasures could he have? Now, we laugh at the very question, but at the time, we couldn't imagine. So we settled for the end of the verse:

I'll be beside you should you fall,
just go to sleep now, close your eyes.

And we were. With cushions and knee pads and foam, in a caricature of the anxious parent. In fact, learning to let the Eldest fall was one of our greatest challenge as new - and newly diagnosed - parents. Letting him fall came to mean trust and knowledge for us: we had to know that he could fall without long-term harm, and we had to trust the three of us to figure out how to handle the aftermath. But we kept our promise: if he fell, we would be there for him. If he needed us.

We learned our lesson well, I think (I flatter myself), but the Eldest is still learning his. On the occasions when he remembers to be afraid, he's extremely good at it. Play soccer? no problem. Climb on the playground structures? sure. But something new comes with a high barrier: I don't know it, so I am reserving the right to be afraid of it, the Eldest tells us. Left to his own devices, half of the old question lingered: would this kid fly - or would he tie himself to the ground? The treasures, it turns out, were part of the answer.

This summer's adventures in circuses - and specifically, flying - was a much debated challenge to the Eldest's self-made boundaries. The Man was uncertain, I was uncertain, but we could both see the opportunity shining in front of the kid. On the days when the Eldest bounced home from circus camp, the Man glowed. I flew! The Eldest would tell us, and spout details about the trapeze. On the mornings when the Eldest huddled, refusing to go to camp, the Man glowered at me. By the time we were done, I felt like I was the one hooked into the trapeze safety lines, and being hauled up and down.

When camp ended, the Eldest turned to me and said, wistfully, Couldn't we have another class? I stared for a bit, and then sat down and turned to a friend. Moral support and friendship would help here, I thought - but she was ahead of me. Swiftly, she put together a group of three of the Eldest's classmates: the four of them would have a lesson together. Chattering, joking and irritating each other by turns, they did.

That day, the Eldest swung happily on the small trapeze (a mere 7 or so feet off the ground). I watched his body direct the swing, moving confidently and comfortably at that height. Well, now, I thought. That's new. The Eldest dropped down, unhooked his harness and stopped cold. He stared at the ladder going up, up to the big trapeze (goodness knows how high, but the net was above arm's length). He walked over to me, his face calm.

I'm going to try the ladder, he told me. I hugged him.

And he did. Up and up he climbed, making it about three-quarters of the way up. I could hardly watch him, afraid that he'd stop, be scared and the fear would overwhelm his courage. He stopped most of the way up, stared at the top and went back down. Holy crap, I thought. Now that's beyond new.

He came back to me, and I hugged him again. I'm so proud of you! I whispered. That was not easy, to try that. He pulled back a little. I'm going to get comfortable on the ladder first, he told me, and then I'll try standing on the board. And THEN, I'm going to try that trapeze. I let go of the kid before I started dripping on him, and wished him luck.

That day, he made it most of the way up, stopping four rungs from the top. A staffer leaned alarmingly far to high-five him, and he came down glowing. Slightly hoarse, I drove him home. We were nearly home when he spoke up. Can I do that again? I blinked and grabbed for my best poker face. Let me see what I can do.

On the last day, the Eldest made it up the ladder. He touched the board and thought it over. I think that's enough, he said. I tried not to crack his ribs. Well done, love, I told him.

On our way home, the Eldest politely listened to me enthuse. You have power in your body, I told him, and the Eldest nodded. You can use that power to kick a soccer ball, or to climb a ladder or even to use a needle. The Eldest made an I'm-listening noise. But when you are scared, it's easy to forget that you have power, isn't it? All you can think, or feel or see is scared. The Eldest's face lit up. Yes! That's exactly it!

Today, kid, I went on, I watched you push past being scared and remember your power. You had it on the little trapeze, and you had it when you chose to try the ladder. That's very hard to do, and I'm proud of you.

Quiet now, I listened to the Eldest thinking. He didn't fall, and he didn't fly either. But he did let himself reach for the sky.

It was more than enough.

tired of trapezes? No worries. For a change of pace, try getting your ears pinned back over here. So, are you pro-choice, pro-life, or pro-birth? Julia did a beautiful job on an often bitter topic - but what else is new?