Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Coming of Age

Miguel played tackle football with a girl this past Saturday, and I was the chaperone.

He and Lyla, who is also 11 and lives a couple of blocks away, scootered past me as I drove in the neighborhood after officiating at a wedding. They took turns passing each other and then jumped off the curb, executing some scooter maneuver whose name I can never remember.

“How’s it going?”

“Fine,” they both said, which is slightly better than “Nothing” or “I don’t know.”

“Hey dad,” said Miguel, “Can you play football with us?”

It was 95 degrees outside and not quite 4 pm. I was almost indignant at his request.

“No,” I nearly screamed. “It’s boiling out here. I am not playing football right now.”

“We just need you to be the quarterback,” Miguel implored.

After ten minutes of pre-teenager persistence, I agreed to toss the ball to each of them.

“I don’t know what it is,” said Lyla, who has two younger sisters. Her parents are very sweet as well. All of them moved into the complex about a month ago. “But we always compete against each other.

A week or two ago, she and Miguel joined a few other neighborhood kids and Lyla's father, James, who coaches Lyla’s soccer team, for a spirited game of soccer in the park outside our home. At one point, Miguel sprinted alongside Lyla, trying to prevent her from breaking away for a goal. She zoomed ahead of him and he elbowed her, causing her to tumble to the ground.

Later I said to him, “So the only way to beat Lyla is soccer is to knock her to the ground.”

“I didn’t do it on purpose,” he said.

Yeah, right.

Since then, Miguel and Lyla have engaged in friendly but moderately intense competitions against each other: Soccer, skateboards, scooters, basketball, even baseball. They’d basically split the various contests and saw football as another opportunity to school the other person.

Once we got to the field, Miguel said, “We’re playing tackle.”

Tackle? What exactly was going on right in front of me? I played co-ed tackle football in high school during a Jewish youth group outing at Penwood State Park in Bloomfield. I thought the object that day was to play tackle football. Being the naïve nerd that I was, I didn’t realize that several of my male friends saw tackle football with girls as a quick and relatively hassle-free way to cop a feel of a member of the opposite sex.

Given that Miguel is younger than I was then and certainly more naïve and innocent, I wasn’t worried that he was anticipating a grope-fest with Lyla. On the contrary, he has yet to express any interest in females as sweet and lovely beings who get our hormonal motors racing. In fact, he becomes incensed if I even tease him about girls or girlfriends.

A few years ago, one of his classmates at the Greenwood School in Mill Valley was Monet Weir, daughter of Bob, a member of the Dead. “Miguel, I’d love to be in-laws with Monet’s parents.”

Miguel cringed and he appeared ready to belch fire at me.

Last year, I attempted some psychological matchmaking when I said, “So is Sela your girlfriend?” Sela is a very outgoing and fun-loving kid who I saw as a perfect complement to Miguel’s more reserved but active nature. Plus her dad teaches PE, so he'd be a great in-law to welcome into the family. He’s a Games and Fitness God.

Miguel’s response, though, was to basically threaten me with bodily harm when I joked about Sela. Two weeks ago I finally declared that I would no longer tease him about girls. As Miguel approaches adolescence, I know I risk alienating him at a crucial time in our lives if I persist in joshing him about girls or anything else. So I stopped.

But when Miguel said they were playing tackle, I did pause for a moment to ponder any deeper pubescent meanings behind his statement. But all he added was, “I’m going to school her.”

“I hope you’re not taunting,” I responded.

Lyla got the ball first and she and I lined up about ten yards from the sidewalk, which was the end zone. The rules were simple: four chances to score a touchdown. Lyla crouched slightly behind me. I handed her the ball and she ran right into Miguel, who wrestled her to the ground. On the next play, I lobbed the ball toward her and she scampered a yard or two before Miguel tackled her. She finally broke free on the next down and scored.

When it was my turn to quarterback for Miguel, he wanted to run as well. But given that Lyla had never played football before, I thought that was unfair. So I passed it to him. Lyla grabbed his jersey and eventually managed to drag Miguel to the turf.

“Lyla, grab him around his waist,” I called to her. “It’s easier to bring him down.”

She and Miguel traded touchdowns twice, so the score was tied, 2-2. It was broiling hot and Lyla was ready to quit. Miguel had the ball, so I said, “Next touchdown wins.” Then I proceeded to make a few poor passes on purpose because I didn’t want him to win. I didn’t want to him to lose, either, but I thought a tie was a successful outcome. And neither of them complained when the game ended after the ball soared past Miguel onto the grass beyond the sidewalk. They raced over to Lyla’s house to cool off into the wading pool.

A couple of hours later, as dusk settled on the neighborhood, a gaggle of girls came upon me and said, “Where’s Miguel? We want to meet Miguel.”

For reasons that defy human logic, Lyla’s father invited all 21 members of her soccer team for a bonding sleepover and 12 accepted. About eight of them stood before me, a pulsating mass of giggles and energy and female determination, and asked me to help them find Miguel.

“I’m sure he’ll show up,” I said.

And he did, completely oblivious that he was the object of their desire in ways that probably made little sense to any of them.

Miguel is growing up right before us. On one hand, he voluntarily sat on my lap yesterday when we studied Hebrew together after school, a gesture of innocence and immaturity that I treasured. But he has also taken on more responsibility in and out of the home as he earns our trust. And now he may have a crush (which might be reciprocal) on Lyla. I am just happy that they are friends and can share a love of sports and playing outside.

My chaperone duties will resume later in the school year at the 6th grade dance in the spring. I have been assured the event involves no tackling or tossing of any pigskin objects. Touchdown!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Boys Will Be Boys

I was jailed two nights ago and shot several times.

As soon as Maya and I walked into the park play area, one of the four year old boys who plays there most days by himself said, “Everyone who comes to the park has to play tag,” which meant I had to be the tagger.

Wuan ran off in one direction, followed by Maya with a beaming smile on her face. They were joined by two more four year-olds, Ryan and Alex, whose mother always walks the family dog, Toby, on the grass outside the play area and has it frolic with our dog, Gigi, and one older guy, Miguel.

I learned a couple of things by chasing four preschool aged children and one not quite teenager up and down the play structure. One, in sprint-like activities, I cannot catch up to Miguel anymore. He has gotten faster and more elusive and I, now 50, have slowed with age. The second thing I learned is boys, especially young boys, can be very aggressive.

I played tag for fifteen or twenty minutes and then decided to take a break. I wanted to talk with Verna and Toby’s owner, Patricia, who were on the edge of the park’s grass. But Wuan had other thoughts. He immediately grabbed me and said, “You’re going to jail.”

“Yeah, you’re going to jail,” added Maya for reinforcement.

“I’m going to jail?” I mockingly protested.

Miguel was either on his bike or not-so-surprisingly watching TV, so the four young ones grabbed me and locked me up near the periscope atop one of the play structures. Wuan and Maya guarded me and Ryan and Alex climbed near the slides. My hands were clasped behind my back around the bars of the structure.

Wuan was clearly the leader, giving orders with the manic energy of a prison guard amped up on steroids.

“You have to stay in jail,” he practically shouted. “And you can’t leave. If you do, I will shoot you.” Then he cocked his fingers like a gun and waved them menacingly in my face. He even made the shooting sound, “Pow, pow.”

Maya, who doesn’t watch any TV unless Miguel sneaks in cartoons on the ION channel while Verna and I are outside with Gigi, pulled out her fingers and imitated Wuan.

Great, I thought, just great, we try to shield Maya from violence and she shoots me anyway. I remember reading about one parent who never let her kids even play with water guns. One morning the kid fashioned a gun out of a piece of whole wheat toast. The real world is so damn opportunistic. It finds ways to seep into our daily lives.

Eventually Wuan’s father rescued me. He basically told Wuan to leave me alone. He’d been sitting on the park bench with Ryan’s father watching me tire myself out as they talked.

But the experience of being jailed and shot by four year olds got me thinking about aggression and boys. Last year, Wuan snatched his great-grandmother’s cane and whacked Maya in the head. I was on the park grass, probably tossing a baseball or football with Miguel, and Verna was with her. I came running after the attack and immediately grabbed Wuan by the shoulders.

“You may never, ever hit Maya or anyone again. Do you understand? What you did is very, very wrong. And if you hit anyone again I am going to make sure you aren’t allowed in the park. I’m going to speak with your father tonight.”

I did go over there, and his father was quite apologetic. He assured me nothing like that would ever happen again after I told him of at least a half dozen incidents where Wuan had terrorized kids at the park.

As I left his doorstep, I wondered if Wuan’s aggressiveness was the result of any abuse he was subjected to at home? Or was it because both of Wuan’s parents worked fulltime and Wuan was left in the care of a nearly crippled great-grandmother who was stooped at a 90-degree angle and shuffled so slowly?

Either way, I had to protect Maya. And after the incident, there were no problems with Wuan. He occasionally throws sand at kids and grabs them, but I have not yet heard of any more violence on his part.

Whenever he gets rambunctious in the park now, I just stop him and say, “Wuan, you know that is not right. You need to stop that now.”

He actually stayed away from the park for several weeks after he hurt Maya. He must’ve been afraid…of me. Good. Nothing like fear to change behavior. The next time he came to the park and we were there, I decided to say hello, which I did. Then he sat alone on the swing as his grandmother rested on the bench.

“Wuan, do you want me to push you?” So I pushed him in one swing and Maya in the one next to him. I figured he deserved Good Steve unless he did anything to upset me.

But Wuan is still aggressive, though he now controls his impulses toward others. He yelled about me being in jail and repeatedly warned me he would “shoot me for real” if I tried to escape from jail. And he kept poking me with a plastic ball casket, similar to the one used in Jai Alai. Even after I asked him to stop, he poked and prodded until his father finally intervened.

So I started wondering about boys and aggression. Why are some boys predisposed to violence and why do others learn how to be physically and emotionally mean?
There have been plenty of books on this subject, so I will not venture into any scholarly, therapeutic, or journalistic areas. I will just share a random thought or two based on my experiences as a father and teacher.

First, I think TV and media saturation in general plays a big role in kids becoming more aggressive. Kids are exposed to massive amounts of TV and video games by the time they reach kindergarten and that is not good.

One time, when Miguel was about four or five, he was at a birthday party for someone in our play group. Most of the kids were at regular preschools, but Miguel and his buddy Zach were at a Waldorf-inspired one. The mother of the birthday boy noticed how calmer Miguel and Zach were compared with the other kids, especially her own son who threw a fit if he didn’t have one of each colored Starburst candies. She reasoned Miguel and Zach were more sedate because of their Waldorf-inspired preschool.

Not that Miguel was immune to being mischievous. One time he convinced Zachary to throw one of their classmates’ necklaces in the toilet. Another time he and two other boys viciously ripped out some freshly potted flowers from the school garden.

But on the whole, Miguel can entertain himself outdoors and in his room, reading and creating his own imaginary worlds, and that is largely because we supported Waldorf ideology when he was younger and deemphasized TV and video games. Miguel didn’t see his first theater movie until he was eight, and only got to use the computer once he entered public school and then only for educational purposes.

I know I sound like some neo-Luddite, but we chose a path that worked for us and we hope it served Miguel. At the very least, he can now mold beeswax, knit, and only babbles incoherently to himself once or twice a week.

So I don’t have the answers. Verna and I made choices based on books we read, lectures we attended, experiences we had, and our intuition. OK, Verna’s intuition, because Mother (at least in Verna’s case) almost always knows best. Therefore, I don’t know how to keep boys from being too aggressive. I can only role model for Miguel (and Maya) and hope they learn from what they see around them. And use the experience they have with Verna and me to guide them during the turbulent times of life outside our home, when they are exposed to a world we can’t always control.

If all else fails, I have brochures for monasteries we might consider once I free myself from jail and can think more clearly. I have gunshot wounds to tend.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Kids Are All Right: Revenge of the Skateboard Nation

Adolescents often get a bad rap, such as they’re moody, loud, selfish, and lazy. And sometimes all those things are true. But other times we confuse the cover with the book and forget or completely miss their grace and deep humanity.

I personally witnessed some adolescent magic yesterday, and it happened at just the right time, thanks to one husky and intellectually curious student I am tutoring.

But let me digress. Adolescents have been on my mind a lot lately for two big reasons. One is because I have an adolescent roaming the halls of our home. He is not quite 12, and is a super delightful guy. But he has his challenging moments as well. A few months ago we were eating breakfast when I said, “Miguel, hurry up and eat.” Maya repeated me, as she loves to do, and Miguel responded that Maya was not his boss and then he promptly started crying.

He is also occasionally moody, has added the mantra “I am bored” to his lexicon, and sneaks watching TV even though he knows we don’t allow it during the school week. But Miguel is also the young guy that every single toddler and preschool-aged boy within 5 miles of our development wants to play with. Verna and I trust him enough to let him babysit for Maya for 1-2 hours. And our neighbor has him over as a mother’s helper with her three-year old son.

The other reason adolescents and adolescence occupy my mind is because we are dealing with some behavioral issues in our neighborhood. One of our neighbors has been complaining that the kids are too noisy during daylight hours, ride their bikes in the streets, and then leave them in the middle of common area walkways. I know all this because I am the president of the Homeowner’s Association, which isn’t at all like being POTUS, but I do feel under attack on some days.

Anyway, I think some people, including my neighbor, who has a 17-year old son, are too quick to judge adolescents as unruly and disruptive, or as unstable repositories for overflowing hormones. And at times they are just that, but more often than not, they are sweet, engaging, and fun to be around.

Now we return to yesterday and my tutoring encounter with one not quite teenager who was practicing prayers in anticipation of his January 2010 bar mitzvah ceremony. Our session was to start at four, but because we left the hospital late after Maya’s MRI, I was about fifteen minutes late. My student (fully aware of the reason for my tardiness) waited in the synagogue lobby and did his math homework.

He ran through all the prayers he knew, which is the entire service for which he is responsible before singing his portion from the Torah, the first section of the Bible. Just after he recited the Mi Shebeirach, the prayer for healing, he said, “For your daughter.”

I am sure he saw confusion plastered on my face before he continued, “The prayer for healing, because of her back.”

I was shocked, not because I have rarely experienced such pure grace from anyone, let alone someone who religiously uses his iPod Nano and ponders such metaphysical mysteries as acne and parental nagging. I was shocked because his comments seemingly came out of nowhere. Here we were just studying and chanting our way through 45 minutes of the Sabbath service when he interrupted our flow with heartfelt concern for my daughter by applying what he was learning to the real world and my life.

I finally said, “Awesome. That was great. I appreciate that very much.”

So I will conclude with the healing prayer’s words, secure that, yes, the kids are all right and adults better start paying more attention to their gifts:

Mi shebeirach avoteinu
M'kor habracha l'imoteinu
May the source of strength who blessed the ones before us,
Help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing
And let us say: Amen.

Mi shebeirach imoteinu
M'kor habracha l'avoteinu
Bless those in need of healing with refuah sh'leimah
The renewal of body, the renewal of spirit.
And let us say: Amen.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Way Back Machine

Maya had her MRI today to determine if she needs spinal surgery. I took the day off from work, and Verna and I drove her into San Francisco for her radiology appointment at Kaiser.

The first thing Maya said when she entered the hospital was, “This was grandma’s hospital.”

Not quite a year ago, Maya visited her Grandma Chela, Verna’s mother, a few times during the last two weeks of Chela’s life. Today, without any prompting or reminders from us, Maya recalled the place, summoned up the memories of tagging along with Verna in mid-October 2008.

“I’m just so glad the place doesn’t freak her out,” said Verna, who always reminds people that Maya was born on the same floor at Kaiser SF where Chela died, a place of life, death, and the ineffable bonds of family.

So we brought Maya up to the second floor and the radiology department where they promptly gave her a coloring book with Disney characters. Then we had to go back down to the lobby, get admitted to the hospital, and then return upstairs to the ambulatory surgery unit (ASU), where they would prep Maya for her MRI.

A three-year-old having a MRI is more complicated than usual, mainly because it has to be done under a general anesthetic. There is no way a young child can lie motionless inside a rumbling tube for any amount of time. So they had to knock Maya out.

But first we waited some more, which gave Verna and I ample time to raise our anxiety levels to all-time highs. Actually, we were pretty calm. Maya helped ease the tension. Everywhere we walked, someone—a doctor, nurse, medical technician, or a hospital worker—said the same thing as they saw Maya: “She is the cutest little girl I’ve ever seen. She’s gorgeous. I have never seen someone so pretty.”

All I was thinking at that point was thank goodness Maya looks like Verna.

We waited in the ASU with Chris, a nurse who lives near in the same San Francisco neighborhood that Verna and I did when we were first married in 1991. She was very sweet, and eventually brought Maya over to the ASU prize drawer and gave Maya a flower ring with a smiley face and a green plastic watch with a mouse face. After that, when Maya asked me what time it was, I said, “Half past the mouse and cheese.”

They finally called us back to radiology after we’d been at the hospital for close to two hours. Maya was dressed in her surgical gown and pajama-like pants as they wheeled her to the MRI rooms. There we met the anesthesiologist, who reeked of alcohol (probably from washing his hands with an antiseptic alcohol solution) and explained how he was going to get Maya to sleep.

“We’ll put a mask on her that emits some gas and oxygen,” he said. “And then when she is out for several minutes we’ll give her an IV drip. Once she’s asleep we kick the parents out. Then you can come back in when she’s in the recovery room. Usually that takes about an hour. Any questions?”


I looked over at Verna, then at Maya. Verna and I were teary-eyed. Maya was unusually quiet. We’d told her earlier that she was going to get a treat, ice cream, cake, juice, or a combination of all three, after the doctor was done checking her out. One of the nurses mentioned a Popsicle and Maya’s eyes lit up. But now she was focused and probably more than a little scared.

“Do you want to put the mask on her?” the doctor asked Verna.

Verna grabbed the mask and started to put it on Maya, who resisted slightly, so Verna gently held Maya’s arms with one hand and the doctor held the mask in place. Within a minute at most, Maya’s eyelids drooped and the doctor and radiology tech lowered her onto the bed.

An hour later they came and got us in the waiting room and we helped escort a sleeping beauty to the recovery room. Maya slept in a room filled with adults in various states of recuperation. She woke up crying after 15 minutes and was cranky for a few more. Her nurse, Scott, suggested I lift her onto Verna’s lap. Verna cradled her for a bit before Maya asked to sit up. Soon Maya ate two graham crackers, sipped a can of apple juice, and chomped down a cherry Popsicle.

On the car ride home, Maya ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich Verna had packed earlier in the morning. Maya hadn’t eaten anything since dinner yesterday, and hadn’t been allowed any fluids after ten this morning. So she was hungry!

She was quiet in the car but alert, not at all dazed or confused. Before we left the hospital, Scott gave us an instruction sheet for handling young kids post-MRI and anesthesia. It said, “Allow your child to walk unassisted before leaving him or her alone or unattended. It is normal for them not to resume regular activities until the following day.”

Except in the case of Maya, who screamed with joy when we got home because she saw her friend Jira, 2, our next-door neighbor. Then we joined Jira, her 10-month old sister, and her parents, Ken and Corina, at the Thursday night Farmer’s Market in downtown San Rafael so Maya could get a head start on her normal activities. She and Jira danced for close to an hour after we ate dinner to a local rock and blues band, Ruckus, which was jamming on one of the street corners.

What can I say? Maya is abnormally effervescent.

But before we left, Maya’s pediatrician called us with the results of Maya’s MRI. Negative. No spinal surgery necessary. Hallelujah!

At home this evening, Verna plopped down on the couch and said, “I’m more exhausted than Maya because it took a toll on you and me having to watch her go through everything.”

But Maya is OK. More than OK. And we are all breathing much easier for now.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The One Minute Millionaire

I think I am ready to shed most of my post-hippie aversion to making money. Born in 1959, I am not a true child of the 60s, but I kind of came of age with a stubborn commitment to avoid pursuing the almighty dollar. Lately, though, I have been feeling that it’s time for me to grow up and be a better provider for my family.

Why the change of heart? Why not? Life is precarious and Verna deserves that trip to Paris or wherever. And our kids deserve to be treated a little more with a few outings to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk or Raging Waters or maybe even Disneyland.

I sometimes fear I won’t be able to provide as well as my father-in-law. He basically treats us to everything: Thanksgiving trips to Tahoe for Verna, her two brothers and their families; dinners; day trips to the county fair; carnivals. And he is also very generous with his time as well. My in-laws never refused to babysit for us, and then when Verna and I got back from the movies they treated us to dinner.

But I am not at all financially stable, which is fairly standard these days for those of us weathering the economic tsunami. Prior to 2009, the big problem had been my philosophical loathing to making too much money. I once spent two-and-a-half years canvassing for a community organization that routinely railed against the corporate man for polluting our waters and raping or economy. I quit a job last year at a local acoustical drywall manufacturer when they asked me to spend 2-3 weeks each month traveling to Oregon, Washington State, and Canada.

I stand by my choices to put family first, but I also question if I have the fortitude to do just about whatever it takes to make more money? Then again, do I really want to work 60+ hours a week when I’d rather push Maya on the swings in the park? Or pitch to Miguel? Or gossip with the neighbors at night? But nothing great is ever earned without some sacrifice.

So I went out and bought The One Minute Millionaire by Mark Victor Hansen and Robert Allen, a phenomenal bestseller by two men who have made, lost, and made more money than the universe has actually produced about leveraging one’s talents into major, major bucks. And I even read the book and enjoyed it.

Then I signed up for a free DVD, Internet Riches Made Easy, which arrived promptly but I haven’t yet watched. And I went to the OMM website and signed up for their free e-zine and other notices from the Enlightened Wealth Institute. Now I get invited two times a week to lunchtime webinars hosted by Robert Allen about increasing my personal revenue streams and becoming an apostle for Allen’s stated goal of increasing everyone’s wealth and creating a vast network of millionaires who will improve the economy and the lives of zillions.

Normally I eschew self-help books and get-rich network marketing schemes. Many years ago, after hearing political activist and comedian Dick Gregory, I got involved in selling his ultra-healthy diet and energy powder. I sold one case to a coworker who was quite overweight. Net profit to me: $24.

I have several friends who have been hounding me for months to get involved in another network marketing scheme, er, plan to sell Deepak Chopra’s latest product, some kind of healthy juice that will help you leap tall buildings…

And these Chopra disciples are intelligent people who talk about building their income lines and expanding their base. One woman gushed that her handyman was earning $2000 a week through Chopra and only working part time.

But I hate bugging friends to get involved in network schemes, even pre-Madoff, when my income is directly related to how many suckers, er, acquaintances I can enlist. On the other hand, I am desperate. Struggling financially is not fun or easy. We are stressed out. And I hate, hate, absolutely hate telling Miguel that we can’t do something because it’s not in our budget.


I’m going to start with small steps. Hansen and Allen recommend meeting with a few wealthy people and querying them about how they became successful. I can do that. And if all else fails, I will resort to one tried and true method for earning money: begging. Maybe I can start right now. If everyone who reads this (on Facebook alone I have over 650 friends) just sends me $10, I think I can net at least $10,000. Not bad for a day’s work. Hey, I may be onto something.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Meat and Potatoes

Who am I and why am I here? Every once in a while I have the urge to quote the, um, immortal words of Admiral Stockdale, made during his interesting vice presidential candidacy many moons ago.

I ask those questions now because I am having a personal identity crisis. After being a vegetarian for 30 years, I started eating chicken and fish in February. My carnivorous ways lasted about three weeks before I returned to nuts, berries, and grazing in the backyard.

But this summer I was felled by a nasty virus that sapped me of all my strength. After I found out I wasn’t beset with the swine flu, meningitis, or severe sinusitis, Verna simply said, “Maybe you need to eat meat. Maybe your body isn’t getting enough protein.”

Thus I decided that after three decades of eating a high variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, and everything soy, maybe I needed larger volumes of animal protein. So I ate some salmon burgers and marinated chicken—not at the same time. Within a few days, I was feeling much better.

“See, you just needed to eat meat,” Verna said, trying to sound as if she were a nutritionist.

I argued with her to no avail. What if, I posed, the lingering virus had just run its’ course, and that was why I had more energy?

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that you ate meat and now you’re better just like that,” she responded.

Arguing with Verna is usually a losing proposition for me, so I gave up and gave in, lest I offend the marriage gods and awaken the slumbering virus. I accepted that as I’ve reached 50, my body may in fact need the nutrients provided by high quantities of animal products.

But I was sticking to my resolve that I only eat chicken and fish, and both had to be hormone and antibiotic-free and all-natural. I still struggled with guilt over abandoning my ethical commitment to vegetarianism, but I hoped I was doing something that would ultimately be healthier for me.

I even got to eat salmon that Miguel caught. He went fishing a few weeks ago on Lake Tahoe with my father-in-law and a few of Verna’s cousins, and caught five salmon, second most in the group of six.

“It was gross watching Roger (one of Verna’s first cousins) clean the fish,” said Miguel about the gutting and cleaning of the salmon, blood, bones, and fish entrails oozing to the floor.

Miguel didn’t enjoy eating the bounty he caught (he’s never been a fan of fish except for calamari), but he seemed glad that I ate it. And how often does one get to enjoy a meal his son or daughter fetched out of the open water?

So I wasn’t overjoyed about eating chicken or fish, but my resignation wasn’t too bad. Then, a few weeks ago, my neighbor Ken, whose wedding I officiated at recently, said, “We’re going to have a barbecue soon and we’ll be serving meat.”

“Ken,” I boasted, “you roast the meat and I’ll eat it.”

It was a throw away line, similar to ‘let’s do lunch’ or ‘just let me know how I can help’. I wasn’t really serious, but that’s my nature. I was almost bullshitting Ken in a neighborly way. He’s my friend, I officiated at his wedding, and he was inviting us to a small barbecue outside his home. Meat? Sure, no problem. I’m your guy.

I didn’t think he took me seriously. Most people rarely do.

On the day before the barbecue, two Sundays ago, Ken mentioned dinner was going to be around five. I didn’t even say anything to Verna, figuring that since we had no plans I could tell her on Sunday.

Well, on Sunday morning Verna came to me. “Steve, why didn’t you tell me about the barbecue Ken and Corina are having today?”

“I was going to tell you. It’s pretty informal. Just us and them.”

“Ken’s making steaks,” she said.

“I know he’s making meat. But I’m sure there’ll be chicken or fish too.”

“Just meat,” she said. “And he bought it special for you. They went to Whole Foods and got the grass-fed, range-free steaks. Just for you. You better eat the meat.”

Oops. Gulp.

So I ate steak for the first time in more than 30 years. The last time was in 1979 when Mindy Domb and I broiled kosher minute steaks we’d seasoned with garlic salt in our college dormitory in NYC.

Ken’s steak tasted fine. I had two small pieces to go along with Verna’s homemade potato salad and Corina’s tomato, onion, and feta salad. I am not really a meat fan, so I can’t say I enjoyed the steak. But I truly appreciated all the effort Ken and Corina put into the meal, largely on my behalf. They kept asking me, “How is the meal?” And I kept answering truthfully, “Very nice. I am just glad to be here with you.”

And we topped off the slabs of flesh with chocolate pecan cookies and ice cream mud pies, delectable desserts designed to savor and enjoy with deep satisfaction.

But the meal did precipitate my identity crisis. If I am no longer a vegetarian, a health-conscious guy for ethical and environmental reasons, then who am I? Prior to becoming a vegetarian as a college sophomore, I kept kosher. Now I am no longer a vegetarian and the meat I am consuming is not even kosher. What the hell has happened to me? After so many years of defining myself by my commitment to sustainable eating, I felt adrift in the culinary sea.

The day before Ken and Corina’s barbecue, Verna, Miguel, Maya and I attended the Eat Real Festival in Oakland, which featured all-natural, sustainable, and locally grown foods that were either raised humanely (in the case of meat, chicken, and fish) or produced without any artificial preservatives or ingredients. I’d actually had a chicken sausage that was quite good. It made me realize that rubbery tofu hot dogs, even slathered with mustard and ketchup, are no match for the real thing.

So maybe I have solved my identity crisis. I may no longer be a vegetarian or someone who keeps kosher, but I am someone who only wants to eat foods grown in a sustainable manner. For now, that will not only have to do, but it will have to be something to celebrate AND enjoy. Who am I? I am a sustainatarian. Something like that.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Testing My Limits

OK, OK, I sometimes have a problem with patience.

As part of Maya’s routine check-up on Tuesday when we found out she may have a tethered spinal cord, they ran a series of diagnostic tests to gauge her development. The first one was for hearing. The medical assistant put a pair of headphones on Maya and asked her to raise her hand when she heard the beep. Maya raised her hand once, but just smiled and ignored the other beeps.

Miguel actually failed his hearing test when he was three because he never acknowledged any of the sounds through the headset. He was probably confused about why he needed to hear a series of beeps anyway.

For Maya’s second test, the medical assistant showed her a piece of paper divided into four quadrants. In each section, there were four symbols (boy, girl, two animals) and rows of the letter ‘E’ all pointing toward one of the symbols.

The assistant pointed to each symbol and identified them. “This one is a…” Then she pointed to one section and said, “Now, Maya, where are all the ‘Es’ pointing?”

“I don’t know,” she said. Her face glazed over as if they’d asked her to explain Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

That’s when I resisted the urge to temper myself and said, “This is a stupid test. How many three-year olds can figure that out?”

The medical assistant smiled sheepishly and said, “I know, but we do have to do it.” Then she handed us the paper and said we should practice with her. They’ll re-test her in 6 months.

I don’t need Maya to do well on these diagnostic-development tests because it will somehow validate our parenting or our DNA. I just get frustrated when kids have to face things that are to my slightly professional eye developmentally inappropriate.

Then, again, I am not exactly unbiased. We sent Miguel to a Waldorf preschool for three years and he spent another five in a Waldorf-inspired elementary school (he is now in a public middle school and thriving). This means he didn’t learn to read until he was nine and slept in the family bed until he was ten, but he could really manipulate beeswax.

The doctor gave us a Kaiser-approved survey that also assesses toddler development. There are a series of questions parents can answer and several more that we must ask Maya. One question is to show her a stick figure that looks like a half-completed snowman and then ask, “Maya, what does this look like?”

If she says a person, a snowman, Daddy, or anything resembling a human, we need to write that down. If she doesn’t have a remote clue or says “I don’t know”, we have to record those answers as well.

Miguel was sitting across from her as Maya pondered the stick figure, and I kept worrying that he was going to feed her the answer. But she plodded on by herself. Finally she said, “It looks like Daddy.”

For another question we had to hand her a writing implement and ask her to draw a circle. We needed to record how she gripped the pen or pencil and whether she could complete the task. She rested the pen against her left middle finger and pinched it between her thumb and forefinger and then drew an oval-shaped circle.

“I think Maya has very good fine motor skills,” I said to Verna after the kids were asleep. Visions of a masterful pianist or talented artist danced in my head as I contemplated Maya’s future.

But I basically thought the tests were silly. Parents could cheat with their answers and why should anyone trust a three-year old to be accurate about reality?

During my first summer in California, in 1988, I was the supervisor of counselors for the Marin Jewish Community Center’s Summer Camp. Each morning, while the 40 or 50 kids were gathered in a circle, I dazzled them with some telepathic feat that involved the counselors choosing an item from one kid and then having me guess it. I would hide and when I returned to the circle they would hand me my clipboard, on which was written the ‘secret’ item. My ‘trick’ never failed to utterly amaze and astound the four and five-year olds eagerly awaiting the day.

Anyway, one of the campers came up besides me one day and said she was sad. I said, “Why?”

She said, “Because my brother died.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said to her.

Later in the day I approached the girl’s mother at pick-up time. “I’m so sorry about Jackie’s brother,” I said. “She told me he died.”

“Interesting,” said the mother, “but Jackie doesn’t have a brother.”

So I am NOT saying kids cannot be trusted, but I am saying their grasp of truth is often anything but firm.

As for Maya, she’s fine and her motor skills and physical and emotional development seem to be progressing in normal fashion. First we’ll get her through the cognitive hurdles of the Kaiser diagnostic tests and then we’ll master quantum physics. And throughout the entire process, I will let Verna teach her to be patient.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Taut Ties That Bind

Maya doesn’t like to pee. She drinks a fair amount of fluids, but she can hold her water as it were for a few hours. Even her preschool teacher mentioned it to us. So yesterday we mentioned it to her pediatrician, a lovely and friendly doctor who has a 17-month old son.

“It’s probably nothing serious. Might just be a control issue,” Dr. Patel said. Then she examined Maya’s back and noticed a slight curving and puffiness on the right side near her butt.

“You know,” she continued, “the urination problems and the thing on her lower back could be a sign of something more serious. She could have a tethered spinal cord.”

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, “Tethered spinal cord syndrome is a neurological disorder caused by tissue attachments that limit the movement of the spinal cord within the spinal column. These attachments cause an abnormal stretching of the spinal cord. The course of the disorder is progressive. In children, symptoms may include lesions, hairy patches, dimples, or fatty tumors on the lower back; foot and spinal deformities; weakness in the legs; low back pain; scoliosis; and incontinence.

“Tethered spinal cord syndrome may go undiagnosed until adulthood, when sensory and motor problems and loss of bowel and bladder control emerge. This delayed presentation of symptoms is related to the degree of strain placed on the spinal cord over time…In children, early surgery is recommended to prevent further neurological deterioration. If surgery is not advisable, spinal cord nerve roots may be cut to relieve pain.”

Then there was the swift kick to the gut as the website continued, “With treatment, individuals with tethered spinal cord syndrome have a normal life expectancy. However, some neurological and motor impairments may not be fully correctable.”

Normal life expectancy? When did we go from not peeing enough to a normal life expectancy as if her future was ever in doubt?

You can imagine that Verna was quite upset and unnerved. As she said in the car on the way home, “I’ve had enough happen to me for our entire family. We should be immune from anything else.”

She was referring to her treatment for breast cancer in 2006, a condition that was diagnosed while Verna was 35 weeks pregnant.

The first step is for Maya to have an MRI to confirm or not the tethered spinal cord. The problem with a pediatric MRI is that no preschooler is going to lie stationary inside a rumbling and dark tube for 20 minutes, so they would have to sedate her with a general anesthetic.

If the condition is present, Maya would need surgery on her lower spine. When we shared the news with Miguel, his first response was, “Is Maya going to be paralyzed?”

I know these leaps of anxiety are essentially useless, but it is quite normal for the mind to wander and consider the various scenarios that could befall loved ones when major surgery could be on the horizon.

Yesterday was kind of a weird day, part blur, part the mundane rhythms of daily life. At first I was upbeat, but after discussing things with Verna I started to feel doubt and panic gnawing at me. Then I watched Maya frolic with our neighbor Luca, who is almost three, and I couldn’t fathom how anything could ever be wrong with her.

Luca brought out his Frisbee, which he and Maya played with for close to half an hour. They chased each other and the Frisbee, laughing wildly, and tossing the disk into the bushes and tall grass at the edge of the park.

Verna and I were talking to Luca’s mom, Erica, who just returned to not exactly full time work as an elementary school teacher, as Maya and Luca gently tackled each other and played completely on their own.

How could there by any problems with the illuminated spitfire who attacks life with zest and a joyful and sublime abandon?

Life is fragile, I know. Verna’s cancer taught me that or reinforced the notion in me. But the possibility that Maya will have to suffer at all when she should just be frolicking through life is enough to make me want to break down and sob uncontrollably.

I guess it’s one step at a time. First the MRI, then we see if the problem exists. Worrying about something that isn’t definite is pointless, but, then again, fretting may be part of my heritage and familial legacy, something coded into the deepest recesses of my DNA.

We can’t escape our biology; we can only hope that life works out well more often than not.