Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Baseball And Football

While I don’t believe in God, I do feel a sense of Divine intervention at work when I consider that both our children love sports. For Miguel, it is both organized and free play. For Maya, it is imitation, free play, acting silly, and running around.

Miguel played in one of the wackiest Little League games I’ve ever seen this past Monday night.

The opposing team, the Athletics, whose assistant coach, Chuck Rosso, is a good friend of mine, scored three runs in the top half of the first. Miguel’s team, the Yankees, rallied to tie it, 3-3, by the 3rd inning.

In the top half of the 4th, the Athletics scored three runs to go ahead, 6-3. In the bottom half of the inning, the Athletics brought Chuck’s son, Adam, who is a very close friend of Miguel’s, in to pitch.

We scored twice and loaded the bases, so it was 6-5 with Miguel at the plate. Miguel lofted a single just past the shortstop on the grass in the outfield to tie the score, 6-6.

In the bottom of the 6th, with the score tied, we loaded the bases again with no outs. Then our next batter hit the ball to Adam (who'd switched positions) in shallow centerfield which he either caught or trapped. The Yankees base-runners held up, not sure if it had been snagged, then took off running.

The fielder threw home as the runner on third was maybe ¾ of the way toward the plate. The ball went through a hole in the backstop fence. The Yankee parents had been on the edge of our seats, nervously watching the end of game drama. After the ball rolled through, the umpire ruled that all runners advance one base. We’d won the game in less than dramatic fashion. We barely even cheered. We’d been so excited moments before, cheering the boys on as they rallied in the final inning. But, now, after it was over due to a passed ball, it didn’t seem the game should’ve ended so anticlimactically.

For Maya, I guess imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. She’s been watching Miguel and me play all kinds of sports inside and outside the house for three years. She’s seen us play knee football in the house and watched me try to tackle Miguel on the park lawn near our house; she’s also watched us shoot hoops, play catch, run races, and wrestle in our living room.

Last night she wanted to play football. She said, “I want to use Miguel’s yellow football”, the one I bought him a few years ago at a Cal football game. So she and I went onto the park lawn and played football according to Maya’s rules.

I lobbed her the ball, which she sometimes caught, missed or dropped, and then she ran. I had to catch and then tackle her. Then she squealed, “Oh man!” She then jumped up and down and tossed the ball to me. I jogged at a snail’s snail pace as she grabbed onto my pants and ‘tackled’ me. We repeated the routine several times, laughing and rubbing off tufts of grass because they’d mowed the lawn earlier in the day.

I kept thinking, amid the howls of laughter from both of us, Maya will probably turn out to be a tomboy, which I think would be great. I always need another sports buddy. Maya is already planning to play Little League. During the Little League parade last Saturday, while Maya, Verna, and I waited on the street corner for the procession of decorated cars and screaming children, clad in their uniforms, to pass us by, Maya and I talked about her playing baseball.

“You can play t-ball when you’re five,” I said. “How would you like that?”

She said she wanted to play.

Play ball. Sweet, sweet words to my ears, and sweeter still because they mean so much to Miguel and Maya.

Friday, March 20, 2009

I'm Not Like Everybody Else

“I don’t want to live my life like everybody else…’cause I’m not like everybody else.”

--The Kinks

I lasted a little more than three weeks as a lapsed vegetarian. Like a punch-drunk fighter, I often stumbled through my non-vegetarian meals lost and unenthused. I felt guilty about being a traitor. I felt weird eating chicken and fish even if it was range-free and free from hormones, antibiotics, and other fillers, and then blessed by organic farmers and a foodie guru who only comes out at night. I didn’t really enjoy those meals. I just ate to get them over with.

After nearly 30 years as a vegetarian, I savored my first chicken meal: rotisserie chicken and red potatoes. Last week Verna made a teriyaki chicken that she’d marinated overnight. She was so excited. And it did taste very good, which made me feel even guiltier.

“I bet this doesn’t compare to Quorn,” a premium line of all-natural, meat-free frozen foods, made from mycoprotein, which is a fungus found originally in England, Verna said at dinner.

“That’s for sure,” I admitted. “This is definitely better.”

I anguished so much about abandoning my vegetarianism that I sought counsel from the two women who sell us pesticide-free apples at the Farmer’s Market, Anna Lappe, author and daughter of the women who wrote Diet for a Small Planet, and Dr. Elmo, a local vegetarian who recorded the Christmas classic Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer.

All four of them told me to act mindfully. One of the apple babes used to be a vegetarian, but her body craved meat. So she switched. Anna said, “In terms of diet, I always say the number one thing is to LISTEN TO YOUR OWN BODY. No one should feel like a “traitor” for eating what he or she feels is right. And what is right will most likely change over one’s lifetime…I’ve been eating the occasional sustainable fish or organic chicken as my body desires it for years now and feel good listening to what my body needs…Finally, take everything I’ve said here with a grain of salt! I’m not a nutritionist or a doctor, just sharing my own personal approach to health.”

Dr. Elmo, who is in his late 70s, said, “I am not a strict vegetarian, however I rarely eat meat and never by my own hand. My wife is also a vegetarian, but insists that I should eat some meat when I'm training hard and running high mileage to make up for the depletion from exercise. She feels that it could help my immune system…I believe meat, dairy and eggs to be nutritious foods, however you can be equally healthy without them.”

I switched for the same reasons given by Dr. Elmo’s wife: Verna feared my long-term health was at risk if I didn’t include more animal products, such as chicken or fish. My friend Dan said Verna’s concerns were reason enough to change my culinary habits.

He was right. But I couldn’t maintain my allegiance to her for very long. Last night we had chicken alfredo that Verna prepared in her new crock pot in the morning. It was pretty good, mixed with broccoli and very healthy, but I felt so discombobulated about going through the motions, eating as if I were strung out on a massive dose of thorazine. I slowly stuffed the forkfuls of pasta and chicken in mouth, chewed them without any passion, and swallowed with the knowledge that I was that much closer to being done.

And that is no way to eat. As the sayings go, In America, we eat to live; in France, they live to eat. I want to live to eat and enjoy it all. So I said, rather meekly because I so want to please Verna, “Would you be upset if I went back to being a vegetarian?”

“How soon are you planning to change back?” she asked.

I practically avoided her eyes. “After this meal.”

Verna has been so thrilled these last three weeks or so, planning new and unchartered meals for the entire family, not having to worry about defrosting Quorn or launching a search for marinated tofu or lemon-flavored tempeh, that I didn’t want to burst her bubbles of excitement.

“Are you OK with that?” I asked.

“As long as the nights I am preparing meals like this one”, which are labor intensive, “you are fine with being on your own.”

After more than 18 years of catering to my culinary needs and subverting hers at times, Verna’s statement was more than acceptable.

“Of course,” I said.

And I meant it. I’m not like everybody else, which is a badge I wear with pride on my apron when I am baking Quorn, eating tofu cutlets, or scrounging in the backyard for nuts, berries, and twigs.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Maya Papaya

A psychic told Verna a few weeks before Maya was born that Maya was going to be a healing force. Shortly after Maya’s birth, which was six days after Verna’s breast cancer diagnosis in early 2006, we understood there might be some truth to the psychic’s vision.

Verna needed healing for a variety of emotional and physical reasons. Unfortunately, we sometimes forget Maya’s higher purpose when we are trying to get her socks on and to move down the stairs, without chunks of apple in her hands, as we rush out of the house.

When our frustration bubbles to the surface, I try to remember, “Maya is here for a purpose.”

Never mind that my naturally skeptical self rarely believes any of that cosmological stuff: Maya is a force, a character to reckon with.

She jokes and teases (where’d she get that from?) and has a beaming smile that literally illuminates nearly every corner of the universe. After listening to Bob Marley music with Miguel and me, she announced, “My name is Bobby. Bobby Marley.”

Other days she tells us her name is ‘the Little Sister’ or, simply, ‘the sister’. Last night, as all four of us sat on the living room couch, I squeezed Miguel’s thigh. He screamed. I squeezed Maya’s and she screamed. I repeated the sequence three times, with Miguel substituting his scream for a milder, different noise each time. And Maya imitated her big brother sound-for-sound with remarkable consistency for a three-year-old.

She repeats everything. If Verna or I prod Miguel to hurry up in the morning and eat, Maya chimes in, “Miguel, eat your breakfast.” She insists I dab lotion on her in the morning and wants to shave after watching me get ready for work.

Now she rides Miguel’s scooter in the neighborhood, wearing her yellow bike helmet with bumblebees on it. Last night, as Verna and I walked alongside scooter girl, Maya stopped to visit with Dylan, an 18-month neighbor who smiles adoringly at her. He is also a typical toddler, buzzing about and running wildly. When he bolted away from us, Maya called, “Dylan, don’t go in the street.”

I think she revealed again her purpose last Tuesday, March 3, which would’ve been Verna’s mother’s 85th birthday (she died last October). We went to church so Verna could pray for Chela, who was very devout, at morning Mass. I wanted to honor Chela’s memory as well, but I also wanted to corral Maya if she attempted to prance near the altar or talked too loudly.

Fortunately she sat quietly next to both of us and held our hands. Maya was leaning toward me when tears welled up in Verna’s eyes. With almost seamless movement, Maya climbed onto Verna’s lap and hugged her. She rested her head against Verna’s shoulder, a look of poignant concern etched on her face.

I was filled with a tremendous sense of bliss and blessing as I watched someone who has only been out of diapers for two months comfort her mother in such a gentle way.

Higher purpose indeed!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


Miguel’s fifth grade is class is finishing up their 8-day Family Life unit, which is just a code word for Sex Ed.

Last week, after he saw a film on the male anatomy, he said to me, “That was creepy.”

“Why?” I asked “You know what penises look like.”

“I don’t know. It was just creepy.”

A normal response from a slightly immature 11-year old, I thought.

I picked him up from school the next day after the teacher had screened the film on the female anatomy.

“Today was even worse than yesterday,” he said in response to my question about his day.

With Miguel on the cusp of puberty, Verna and I are glad he’s learning more details about the various changes his body and soul are about to undergo. But we also wonder if he’s a tad young for some of the topics.

Do fifth graders really need to know about AIDS, HIV, and STDs? His teacher, who is wonderful, said, “Yes, they do. Middle school kids are already sexually active in some places,” which is a good reason why the focus is on abstinence.

Miguel still protests loudly if I even suggest he finds another girl fascinating. So Verna and I want to protect his innocence for a couple more years. We know the raging hormonal torrent is inevitable, but why rush Mother Nature?

On the other hand, it’s not as if Miguel was clueless about the facts of life. He’s known the basic outline of where a baby comes from since he was 8. He asked the questions and I answered them.

Last year he got an involuntary refresher course when one of his classmates, another 10 year old at the time, told Miguel and two other boys in their class that he had a girlfriend, they’d had sex, and he could hook up Miguel and his friends with her so they could “hump together.”

“I knew he was lying,” Miguel said at the time. But I had to review the finer details of sex and reproduction with him because of the boy's fabrications. After we went over how a man and women get pregnant, Miguel looked at me as if to say, “I didn’t really need to know that, dad. Again.”

A few weeks ago, Miguel and I were outside with one of our neighbors, Rich, who was going in for a vasectomy that weekend. Rich casually mentioned having to go back in a few months to have his seminal fluid tested. On our way back inside the house, Miguel asked, “How does the man get the stuff out of his penis?”

Oh great, I thought, here comes the masturbation discussion. Miguel looked at me incredulously after I answered him.

Even though he said he all the Sex Ed. was creepy, Miguel wanted to test me last week before he went to bed.

“What is the thing inside the body that regulates it?” he asked.

“Biological clock?” I answered.

“No, it has to do with growth,” he said.

“Pituitary gland,” I said.

“Correct. What does the woman use to block her menstruation?”

Yes, he really asked me that. I said, “Tampon.”


So I gathered that Family Life wasn’t as creepy as Miguel had said. At the very least, he was learning and happy to share his knowledge with us. As long as he doesn’t end up sucking on a bottle of Woolite curbside, as Gene Wilder did in Woody Allen’s Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex, But Were Afraid to Ask, I think we’re OK.

OK, more than OK.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Diary of A Wimpy Kid

If the kids in the lunchline at Dixie Elementary School yesterday had voted for World's Coolest Adult, I might have won handily.

Miguel had loaned me books two and three in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, and I had book three with me yesterday as I prepared to check names off and direct them to bags marked either 'soup', 'hotdog' or 'quesadilla'. Because the other two volunteers and I finished stuffing the bags with the entrees, napkins, plastic spoons, or dinner rolls, hauling out cartons of milk, and placing grapes or carrots into twisty bags about ten minutes before the first wave of hungry fourth and fifth graders, I had some time to read.

So I sat reading and laughing as I immersed myself in the middle school adventures of Greg Heffly, who is tormented by his 3-year-old brother and also his teenaged brother, Roderick, who belongs to a heavy metal band, Loded Diper; hates school and exercise; adores Holly Hills, whom he can't muster the courage to talk to; loves cartooning; and constantly manages to tangle himself into highly embarrassing situations while maintaining an over-inflated sense of self.

I didn't really enjoy book one, but read it because I wanted Miguel to know I took his literary world seriously. But book 2 was very funny, and I laughed out loud several times as I pedaled on the Life Cycle early Tuesday morning.

As the students lined up, I put the book down next to me and my water bottle. I grabbed the clipboard, ready to check off names M-Z and remind them what they were signed up to eat. At least four or five students, after noticing the unmistakable cover of the book on the floor near my chair, exclaimed with enthusiasm, "Are you reading that?" They were stoked and then engaged me as if I were now a full fledged member of a secret society. A society, of course, of nine, ten, and eleven year olds, with me, someone who will be fifty in 35 days, as quite possibly the lone adult.

"Did you read the part where..." they kept asking me. One kid engaged me once and then again when he came back for more milk. Figures. Any kid who drinks two cartons of milk has got to be weird enough to voluntarily converse with an adult.

The great thing about reading the last two Diary of A Wimpy Kid books was how it deepened my relationship with Miguel. Several times he asked me, "What part are you on now?" Or, "Have you gotten to page 123 yet? Tell me when you read that." We talked about the book as if we belonged to the same book club.

He really wanted me to read page 123 as I was reading in his room last night while he tried to fall asleep. "Miguel," I said, "I probably won't get there while you are awake."

"C'mon, you can do it."

It was only 20 pages. So I said, "Should I just skip there now and then go back?"

"OK," he said.

I started reading and burst out laughing. Greg, whose room is littered with just dirty laundry, was having trouble finding anything clean to wear. He ended up searching for pants in a pile of soiled clothing. As Greg was walking near his locker, a pair of dirty underwear accidentally slid down his leg onto the floor. He kept walking nonchalantly, hoping to avoid embarrassment by having someone link the briefs to him.

Later, though, one of the school administrators announced to the entire school, "Will the owner of the underwear found in the hallway with the initials Greg H. sewn on the waistband please come to retrieve them in the office?"

I had tears in my eyes as I read. I can see why the books are popular, NY Times bestseller list popular, with kids. First, they get kids reading, much like the Harry Potter craze. Second, they offer us a protagonist who is funny, self-deprecating, self-absorbed, and, in a very exaggerated way, much like the average pre-adolescent.

I thanked Miguel this morning for loaning me the last two books. "I am looking forward to the next one." I said.

He smiled, brightly. Sometimes, kids just need to know adults take them and their world seriously. And sometimes we do, and it's to our benefit.

Comfort Food

Verna reached into the recesses of her youth to retrieve some recipes for comfort. Unfortunately, she chose as her life partner someone who is rigid about food, even if I am no longer a vegetarian.

There are just so many foods I won't eat or let her buy because I deem them to be unhealthy.

"No, Verna, we can't get that cereal. It contains GMOs." "No, that fruit is not organic. Can't buy it." "Verna, did you see all the colorings in this, no way." And on and on and on.

But lately she has had a serious need to eat and remember. Her mother, who died abruptly last October, left a legacy of food that never fails to warm Verna's heart. Her mother would've been 85 yesterday and that has weighed heavily on her.

Last week, now that I eat chicken and fish, she wanted to make one of her favorites: cream of mushroom tuna casserole, something her mother had lovingly prepared years ago. Of course, at her husband's insistence, she had to buy organic cream of mushroom soup sold only at Whole Food's.

The recipe was pretty good, but Verna said, "It's not like my mother's."

She was being way too hard on herself. How can one compare generations, when food was prepared from scratch, by heart, without a guidepost, to today where we use recipes from mountainous stacks of cookbooks or online resources?

So, with almost tears in her eyes, Verna implored me to let her buy Campbell's Cream of Mushroonm soup, as her mother had done. Then, she said, the recipe will be even better. What could I say?

Last week, Verna also mentioned banana bread, another recipe from her youth. So she went online and pulled something off She bought the ingredients we didn't already have, and while she was riding her Lifecycle two days ago, Maya and I made banana bread.

Maya poured several ingredients into the bowl, barely spilling any sugar or flour. Her favorite parts were stirring the goopy mixture and folding in the chocolate chips. I let her eat a few chips as a reward for her help and to pacify her while we prepared the bread.

We even mashed the bananas by hand, something I told Verna after she ate the bread and had enjoyed it. The look on her face revealed she might not have sampled any of the banana bread had she known our fingers had been immersed in the bowl.

"Did you have any comfort foods when you were a kid?" Verna asked.

I scanned my memories. "Yes," I said. "Shells with cottage cheese," a dish handed down to my mother from her grandmother, who died just weeks after she found out my mother was pregnant with me.

Verna squinted slightly, as if to say, "That's it?"

What can I say? My Ashkenazic (Eastern and Western European) culinary legacy is superficially bland. Ultimately, it's all about the memories food conjures. My mother spoke of her grandmother Sarah, for whom I was named, when she made the dish, so I always felt as if I were linking into my family legacy when I ate shells with cottage cheese, which smothered with butter and a dash of salt, is pretty darn tasty.

The banana bread was excellent. Miguel asked for some for breakfast and as his school snack. I caught Verna nibbling the edges while she washed the dishes. Maya clamored for more and more. It was still moist a day later after being relegated to the fridge. I can't wait to make it again.

Tuna casserole. Banana bread. What's next? Whatever Verna wants--unconditionally, though I may draw the line on gizzards and hearts, which her mother poured over pasta. I still have some standards, I think.