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television

Ease

A Case for Summer Screen Time

It’s summer vacation. Woo-hoo!

But now what?

If you are anything like our family, you awoke this morning and lounged – TV, pancakes, jammies ‘til noon. It was probably spectacular.

But now it is 1:15 pm and all the kids want to do is squabble and eat ice cream and melt their brains with the iPad. For today, we just might do that. But what about the rest of the summer? With sloth and gluttony rule the days? We wait all school year to get our kiddos back, but how do we make the most of June, July, and whatever time we are allotted in August? How do we do summer right?

I read a compelling essay last year about offering children unlimited screen time. I confess I only clicked on it to see what kind of nut-job of a parent made that decision. But the reasoning was pretty great. One mom offered her kids unlimited electronics after they completed several previously agreed-upon tasks—the usual things: reading, cleaning, and something active or creative. Her theory was that kids tend to stick with what they start with. Give them a hot glue gun at 9:30 am and chances are they’ll still be crafting when it’s time for lunch. Insist that they read for an hour and they’ll probably keep a nose in a book for two.

I was doubtful, but the kids and I brainstormed our own list and gave it a try. We decided that they could have as much television and iPad time only after:

  1. Reading
  2. Exercise
  3. Something Creative
  4. A Chore

Lots of my ideas die before I ever fully implement them—the one about not washing any clothes until the prior load is folded and put away, the one about no food in the car. But this one, the one where we made a list and ordered our summer really, really worked. Reading daily turned into more trips to the library for reinforcement books, and sunbathing sessions in the backyard with the Junie B. Jones series. Exercise meant walking the dog, biking to the beach, and neighborhood games of sharks and minnows. Creativity flowed freely every single day. The kids wrote books and made birthday cards, and Lizzie taught herself to draw a horse rearing up in a field. Katie composed music, made a radio, played the piano, and distributed homemade donuts to all her friends. In fact, the kitchen became a second playground. We made our own pizza and ice cream, lemon bread, apple sauce, strawberry jam, caramel, and crepes. We rolled our own sushi and experimented with boba tea. And even the chores got done. The kids folded clothes, made their beds, and scrubbed the bathroom with far few complaints than ever before.

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Now they were still my kids. Plenty of days they groused about the list. They still fought over the iPad and who was in charge of the remote. But they also settled into the routine. Our list provided structure – but not too much – and freedom – but not too much. Some days, we breezed through the list and watched too many episodes of Supergirl. Other days, a lot of days, we never got to any screen time at all. We rode our bikes to the pool for exercise and stayed all day. We baked and shared the results. We summered.

And this morning, over pancakes, we made a new list to try it all over again.

Join us. We would love to hear your results.

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Goals & Dreams & Sandwiches

Help! My Baby Stole My Novel

A few years ago, a friend sent me a question.  She was a new mom and she was having a tough time.  The days were long, the diapers were many.  She had grown accustomed to life in the parenting trenches.  But she missed literacy.  Sharpness of mind.  And the friendship of a good book.  What she wanted to know was:  would she ever read again?  What follows is the answer I wrote for her.

Will you ever read again?

The short answer is No.

At least that’s what it will feel like. You will examine warning labels on baby Tylenol. You will peruse pediatric websites at 2 am seeking guidance on teething, green poop, or how to get your baby to leave you alone. You will discover notes to yourself that you do not remember writing. You will read the expression on your partner’s face that tells you s/he is in the mood for love.   S/he will read the expression on your face indicating you are in the mood for cereal. But will you read books? No, probably not.

It is normal that a sensitive, educated parent might miss reading. So, what follows is a 5-step program for reclaiming The Book.

Step 1: Chaucer Coasters

Believe it or not, TV and sleep are necessary pursuits if you ever want to read again. As a new parent, I was wonked out. Despite plans to “revisit the classics” during my maternity leave, whenever I touched a book, I promptly fell asleep. Pick up a book if you must, but then set it down and put a cold drink on it. Books make good coasters. Sip your beverage and catch up with Real Housewives. Check in on The Deadliest Catch. Watch a vacuum cleaner infomercial at 3 am, just to say you have. Slum some with basic cable. When I wasn’t napping, Sex in the City reruns and Ice Road Truckers massaged my brain where literary information had previously been stored. Television helped me hit rock bottom. It is said alcoholics bottom out before seeking help. New parents need to do the same. I once watched eleven cooking shows back-to-back, leaving the couch only to change the baby and toast Pop-tarts. TV saturation gave me the drive to read again.

Step 2: Embrace Kid Lit

A runner returning from an injury doesn’t start with a marathon. A model on maternity leave doesn’t come back for a swimsuit shoot. They stretch, ease in. The same is true of readers. Start slow. Reawaken the memory of simply holding a book. After the birth of my daughter, Katie, my first book had a fabric cover and no discernable title, plot, or, in fact, words. It consisted of three pages – one depicting a doggie, another a kitty, and finally (and always surprising to me), a bunny. It wasn’t much, but those were the first pages I successfully comprehended. We “read” this book often. Before long, legitimately lovely children’s books followed: Goodnight Moon; Runaway Bunny; The Very Hungry Caterpillar. I was educating myself with reruns of Gilmore Girls, but at least I read to my kid. It was a start.

Step 3: Forgive Your Brain

After children’s books, I figured grown-up reads were not far behind. However, babies melt brain cells. As a parent, I was dumber. My husband tells me I confuse left and right for about two years after the birth of each child. This makes reading challenging. Whatever you do, DON’T return to something you were reading pre-baby. Unless you start all over, you will not recall even the basics of the plot. Take my experience with what I am told is a gripping tale of historical intrigue, An Instance of the Fingerpost, by Iain Pears. I began this novel when I was pregnant, and picked it up again when my daughter was six months old. Technically, I did complete the book, in that I turned each of its pages. But at the end, I was left with two important questions:

  1. What was the Instance to which the title refers?
  2. What exactly was a Fingerpost?

I do not fault Mr. Pears. His characters performed surgeries and ate dinners in consummate detail. But my life was upside down and covered in baby vomit. I could not summon enough info from my first reading to inform the second. My eyes read words that my marshmallow brain refused to process.

Step 4: Forage in the Bathroom

So maybe whole books aren’t the best way to start. Graze instead. Nose through a Pottery Barn catalog; chew on Disney fliers that will magically appear in your mailbox as soon as you have children. I read magazines instead of cleaning house. And because I failed to clean, magazines were everywhere—clogging kitchen counters, cluttering coffee tables, and decorating every bathroom. In fact, most of my after-baby reading happened in the loo. I was alone there. So I dallied. I bopped from article to article, inching back towards literacy. I studied recipes I did not cook, and learned exercises I did not do. I read eight-month-old news articles that were still news to me. Whether my source was Oprah or Obama, I savored every stolen bathroom minute.

Step 5: Recovery: Vampires at the Beach

After magazines, books are yours. Drag your bambino to library story time and start browsing. Don’t be surprised if your stamina has altered during the months (or years) away. If you previously fancied Victorian novels or tended towards tomes with Russian heft, now, even in the dead of winter, you may crave a beach read. Unfamiliar with the genre? Just find a cover with a glassy-eyed woman staring into the mist. With a title like Love Promises or anything After the Harvest. But don’t laze in the sand for too long. Cultivate new interests. I discovered young adult novels after the birth of my daughter, Lizzie. Teen books aren’t all wizards and vampires. The Hunger Games rescued my neighbor from the brink. Looking for Alaska, a sweet and wry little adolescent romance, set me on the road to recovery. Nonfiction was also appealing. Essays were easy to pick up and put down. I found E.B. White again. Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions helped me laugh about parenting. To escape parenting, anything written or breathed upon by David Sedaris was always a good bet.

 

Eventually, the reader in you will resuscitate. For me, it happened one fall. Six years after my first maternity leave, I finally returned to the classics. I curled up late one night in my favorite rocking chair, and thumbed through Pride and Prejudice on my iPhone, with my baby daughter drowsing on my lap. Elizabeth and Darcy saw me through those nighttime feedings. Their flirtatiousness, their wit, their passion…it awakened in me a desire I had not felt in years.* I wanted to keep on reading. And, for once, I did.

 

*Of course, it also awakened in me other desires. Not long after, I was pregnant again, and right back at Chaucer Coasters. But, for a little bit there anyway, there was hope. And I know there will be again.

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A version of this piece was originally published on The Huffington Post.

Awesomeness, Birthday-mania

Take-Your-Daughter-to-Work Week

Once again, the job I love had me on the road last week. It was a quick trip, a day transiting through Istanbul and three more in Germany for a half-dozen meetings over beers and bratwurst. It’s the kind of jaunt I would have loved before kids, when I did not have to worry about them missing me, and me missing them. Plus, my departure was set for a couple days after Katie’s birthday, which is never ideal.

My brother, who lives in Germany, said, “Why don’t you bring her?” I poked around online, found cut-rate airfare, and made plans to meet up with my brother’s whole family in Munich. On Katie’s birthday, my present to her was an envelope with plane tickets, her passport, and 100 Euros (thanks Grandma). Two days and 10 time zones later, we were feet-dry in Deutschland. Between my work meetings, we saw castles and museums and ate pretzels until we were stuffed.

Most of all, we talked, about the kinds of things that only come out when you spend hours and hours with someone you love. We staggered through our jetlag together, and spent one too many midnights watching bad movies on German Netflix. Towards the end we began plotting our next adventure. Thailand?  South Africa?  Vladivostok?  As a father, it’s easy to bemoan the fact that my little girl is growing up. Too often, it happens while I am gone. But there is an upside. She’s becoming an awesome wingman.

Dreams

Video Killed the Radio Star

Katie and I were interviewed oh-so-briefly today for a fledgling TV talk show. Ordinarily, I avoid video cameras. Not just because they add 10-15 pounds to my already substantial frame, but also because I dislike sounding like an idiot. A relative stranger asks me a question, and in thirty seconds or less, I try to string together an articulate thought. If (when) I do not, the video happens anyway, and filters out into the world where it can mock me forever. I am altogether too flappable for such an endeavor. And too much of a chicken.

However, Katie has disliked weekdays lately. She and school have not exactly been simpatico. As a partial antidote, we have made a plan to infuse after-school hours with activities she enjoys. More swimming. More adventure. More “just us” afternoons. And, since we live in Los Angeles now, she would like to audition for a film. Ideally, she would like her first role to be Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter movies. But since that part has already been taken, we did this television interview instead.

And it was great.

Kind of. I mean, the finished product looks ridiculous. One of us is always on the verge of laughing. My eyes shut every time I speak, and my ears seem unusually crooked. Plus, has anyone studied the relationship between a rolling camera and a melting brain? Despite the fact that I compose sentences for a living, I could not remember the words tablet or adolescence when answering a question about tweens and technology. Part of me hopes they never air the tape.

Katie, on the other hand, sounded polished and articulate. She was thoughtful and humble and absolutely radiant on film. So there is this other part of me, the grown-up part, that desperately hopes they do air it. It may wound my pride, but it would bolster hers.

Ken and I muse sometimes about our purpose here on this planet – the ambition that drives us, the schemes we have deferred. He will probably never be a marine biologist or an astronaut. And I don’t think even an off-off-Broadway director is going to cast me as the saucy heroine in a new musical comedy. But we are making peace with these defeats. And adjusting our aims. Besides, it has occurred to us that our biggest mission here on earth is to be of service to our children. To raise them to be decent humans, to help them set their goals, to be the fire that fuels their dreams. Even if it means embarrassing ourselves from time to time on national television, it is worth the humiliation to see our kids soar.

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Interview Practice Introduction — Take 11

Health & Fitness & Oreos

Where the Sidewalk Ends

The greatest thing about having a child is putting yourself second in your own life.

— Louis C.K.

Ken works occasionally in San Francisco, and since this is one of my favorite cities in the universe, the kids and I occasionally tag along. This past weekend, we stayed opposite the water in lovely Pacifica. But after a shabby night’s sleep in a stuffy hotel room, I decided I needed a walk. I meandered a trail beside the ocean, and it was glorious – blue-green water, salty sea air, breathtaking vistas. I breathed deeply and felt lucky. We have neither wealth nor fame nor power, but we have good love, good adventures, and good kids.

It was warmer than I anticipated so before heading up the steepest trail, I zipped back to the car for sunscreen and a hat. In the hotel parking lot, I felt selfish for keeping such a scenic sojourn all to myself. I ventured upstairs to see if anyone wanted to join in.

My three precious yahoos were sitting in the Jacuzzi tub eating mini-muffins, drinking apple cider, and watching the Disney Channel. Ken was asleep.

 

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“I found an awesome trail!” I announced. “Who is up for a cool hike?”

No one acknowledged me. I stepped in front of the television and asked again.

“Hey, guys. Anyone want to come hiking?”

“Mom, I can’t see the TV.”

“No.”

“Ugh.”

Ken muttered that he would like to come with, but then rolled over and went back to sleep.

That should have been my cue. They were on vacation. They had muffins. And crap TV. They were happy.

Instead, I muted the program to clarify my suggestion – the blue-green water, that crisp sea air. Again, they declined. It turns out that children do not care about these things. And again, I failed to make my exit. Instead, I cajoled, complained, and insisted. Had we really driven six hours to watch television? Didn’t family walks always make us happy? Wouldn’t it be great to discover some hole-in-the-wall seafood shack for lunch?

After you live with folks for a while, you learn their particular kind of crazy. When Ken and the kids realized I was not going to drop this, they begrudgingly acquiesced.

It took nearly ninety minutes, but eventually, everyone was washed, dried, and dressed for the wonderful family outing I had declared. We set off up, up, up the hill.

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It was strange to be ascending with people so obviously downtrodden.

It was hotter than it had been when I originally set out. My formerly energetic pace was quickly slackened by grumbles, quarrels, and literal foot-dragging.

“I’m hot.”

“Walking is dumb.”

“I can’t believe we’re missing ‘A.N.T. Farm’ for this.”

I should have left them at the hotel. What kind of idiot drags kids out of a hot tub to go hiking? If and when we ever finished this dirty ramble, they were just going to need another bath. I had desperately wanted to share this outing with them, and as soon as we began sharing the outing, I desperately wanted them to go away.

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That’s the funny thing about doing anything with children. It does not matter what you do or where you go – Disney World, a restaurant, ice skating, the bathroom, the library, the airport, the mall — the very presence of the children makes doing that thing more difficult and usually less enjoyable. I often wonder why we bring our children anywhere at all.

They made me cranky and I made them cranky, and various threats were lobbed regarding the abandonment of the entire business, but we kept going anyway – me, because I refused to return to the hotel yet again without first climbing this damn hill, and them, because … well, they are kids, and kids are prone to follow trails and sidewalks until they end. Shel Silverstein taught us that.

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And here’s the thing: it’s actually really hard to stay angry when you are A. exercising, and B. face to face with beauty. It just is. And C. It’s hard to stay mad at your children when they have stopped being mad at you.

So, what began as a swift, splendid hike by myself turned into a slow, terrible hike with the kids. And then, for about eleven minutes, that same slog turned kind of awesome again. We caught a lizard. We reached the summit. We followed a secret trail to a hidden cove. We ate wild fennel on the beach. We even made it halfway back to the car before everyone started arguing again.

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That trek was different with our children there. It was so much worse, but also a little better.

And yet another reminder that we have neither wealth nor fame nor power, but we have good love, good adventures, and good kids. Mostly.

Entertainment

A Year Without a Television

It has been 53 weeks since we gave away our television. My daughters cried more about giving up that TV than they did about leaving their school and most of their friends.

Initially, it was not a deliberate decision. We were moving. The unit was mounted in the family room. The folks purchasing the house inquired as to whether we would leave it. Since we were driving our own U-Haul cross-country, we figured it more than likely that that we would pack the truck poorly and shatter the TV on some icy curve in the Rockies. So we left it.

When we arrived in our new town, we rented a small cottage where we would live while we looked for our real house that we intended to purchase. It seemed silly to buy a television for that tiny living room when our future room would likely require a different-sized unit.

Thus began our year-long experiment in television-less-ness.

During which, we learned a few things:

  1. Television is a handy extra parent. I had not thought we watched much TV until I was forced to live without it. I had forgotten about the way Uncle TV kept the kids entertained while I made dinner, the way he quieted arguments, and helped settle the kids down after a busy day.
  1. Television helps us fit in. Recent pop culture references were lost on my kiddos. They didn’t know what a Lego Ninjago was last Halloween or what the big deal was about Sofia the First when it came to purchasing a back-to-school knapsack.
  1. It is hard to watch sports without a TV. I missed the Super Bowl and March Madness and my Cleveland Cavaliers’ amazing run. Clips and sound bytes after the game are just not the same.
  1. Other electronics conspired to take the television’s place. First one iPad and then another. An upgrade on Dad’s smartphone freed up an old one for household use. Television time decreased, but gaming increased. My 3-year-old can now beat me at Temple Run II. And Subway Surfer. And Fruit Ninja.
  1. Saying you don’t have a television allows you to feel momentarily superior to other people. As though you are somehow above The Bachelor, the orange and black prison show, and all those Housewives. Except that self-importance is fleeting. Because then you sense those people sensing you sensing yourself superior to them…and then it’s just awkward. And also untrue. It wasn’t like I lived off the grid. I just watched Game of Thrones on my laptop instead of a television.

But kids are pretty awesome and capable, and I think sometimes television can get in the way of that. It makes them receivers rather than creators. In the year away from TV, Lizzie became an Artist. She taught herself to draw horses, and sea creatures, and Rapunzel-esque princesses with hair tumbling out of castles and carriages. She became an Author, an Archer, and a Friend. Katie became a Scientist. She soldered a radio, studied circuitry, and mixed batches of pink slime in the kitchen sink. She became a Musician, a Swimmer, a Reader, and a Mathematician. Henry became independent. He learned to entertain himself with puzzles and trucks and cars. He became a Gardener, a Conversationalist, and a Chef. Maybe all of these things would have happened in the presence of the Disney Channel anyway. But I’m not so sure.

All I know is that ever since we plugged in the new TV last week, my children have been happy little zombies. They have eaten, slept, and laughed in front of the television. And drawn almost nothing at all.

In our family, cake and ice cream are Sometimes Foods, treats that we indulge in every once in awhile. I think Uncle TV needs to be a Sometimes Friend, popping in for a weekend movie night, or maybe a couple sitcoms when someone is sick. For now, however, he is an unwelcome houseguest. I’m not entirely certain we should let him stay.