Paddle to the Sea Park!

My son’s favorite book is “Paddle to the Sea.” It’s not really “about” anything as much as it is the travelogue of a toy carving of a wooden canoe with an Indian in it. It was given to my son by mistake. His grandparents had remembered it as one of his father’s favorite books. His father had never seen it before.

It’s an easy mistake to make. The book was written in 1941 and follows Paddle from Lake Nipigon in Canada through the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. My husband’s favorite childhood book is One Morning in Maine by Robert McCloskey. It’s an exploration of (wait for it) the weather one morning in Maine. They are both the kind of book that leave normal kids asking when someone is going to fall through a magic wardrobe or into a covered wagon.

Although people often look at his dark curls and bright blue eyes and declare my son his father’s mini-me, the truth is that usually, it is the two of us that are alike. We laugh at the same things, we cry at the same things and oh do we struggle with the same things. We are left-handed melon heads and we share a bond that those scientifically minded, right-handed tiny heads in our family don’t.

But his love of sports, his love of nature, and his willingness to read and reread description after description of a place, those come from his father.

We had a trip planned to Lake Superior and my husband discovered that there was a park in Nipigon, Ontario based on Paddle to the Sea. The whole way there, for days, my son and I annoyed my daughter and husband by singing a song we made up. The words are “Paddle to the Sea Park, what, what, what, what.” We’re considering making it the first release on an album we’re planning titled “Joey from the Block, feat. Lil’ Mama.” My husband and daughter put up with a lot from us.

While singing the song we both secretly worried that the park might not live up to our expectations, while insisting to my daughter that it would. We became more worried when we stopped in White River, Ontario, apparently the birthplace of the bear Winnie who, named after Winnipeg, would go live in the London Zoo and provide the inspiration for Winnie-the-Pooh (my type of childhood book by the way). This was their park.

statue of Winnie the PoohThere was also this statue, which, um I am including without comment.

wooden statue of bear and soldierBut Paddle to the Sea did not disappoint.

Paddle to the Sea ParkThe park covers several blocks. For the most part, each part of the park is normal playground equipment that’s simply been arranged and themed to cover a part of the book. Here’s a bridge that Paddle crosses under.

Playground bridgeHere’s the forest fire he passes through.

Playground equipment

But if you look closely, you see a tiny figure of Paddle to the Sea hidden in each section.

slideAnd if you look even closer, you see an eleven-year-old who swore it would be boring, playing. (look just above her hands for another Paddle)

playground equipmentWe played in the park for over an hour. Spent the night in a nearby hotel and went back the next day to play again and pose with Paddle.

Paddle to the SeaThen we moved on. We followed more of Paddle’s adventure, and created our own. One day I’m sure that I will give my son’s kid a copy of Paddle to the Sea. Who knows, I may also give that child another book that my son never read and a whole new adventure will start.

child on playground

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Can We Use the F Word

A few weeks ago a friend of mine posted something like this on Facebook “Overheard at the playground from a Mother sitting on swing talking to her daughter: ‘God this makes me feel fat.'”

Everyone, including me, tsk tsked the overheard, non-enlightened mother. Does she really not know the damage she’s doing to her daughter? That poor girl is now destined to have a  lifetime of poor body image.

As I said, I joined in the tsk-tsking, too. Of course I did. For over eleven years now, since the day I gave birth to a girl, I have been careful to never mention the words “diet” or “fat” or to express discomfort with my appearance in front of her. I have pretended that I work out because I want to be “healthy” and that I don’t want that brownie sundae because I’m “full.” I have pretended that I have hot wax poured over my eyebrows and then ripped off my face because I enjoy it.

So far, it seems to have worked. As far as I can tell, my daughter has no body image issues. She never complains about being fat or calls other people fat. When I ask if she and her friends ever talk about diets or being overweight or how people look she tells me they have better things to do. Incidentally, my nine-year-old son also seems pretty happy with his body, at least judging by the amount of time he spends walking around the house naked.

But lately I’ve been wondering if I’m wrong. Parenting already involves a lot of self-censorship. As my neighbor said, “you want to maintain the adult status.” So, you don’t say things like “No, you’re the big idiot head,” or  “Jesus Christ you crybaby.” or “For the love of all that’s holy, do not tell me that story again.” You think it, but you do not say it.

I do not say things that will hurt my children’s feelings and I do not swear in front of my kids. Is adding self-censorship about my body really a good way to teach healthy self-esteem?

My daughter isn’t an idiot. Eventually she’s going to figure out that after a night where I was woken up by dogs, kids, and a husband running at 6 a.m. is not “healthy.” She knows what a brownie sundae tastes like, she surely already knows that it is physically impossible to be too full to eat a brownie sundae.

Eventually, she will know that if you take your 40-something ass and try and squeeze it in to a playground swing built for a five-year-old, it will make you feel like a sausage. It will make you feel fat. So, why can’t you say that?

I have always wondered why calling yourself or anyone else “fat” is forbidden. Try going in to a room of women and saying, “I feel fat.” You’ll instantly be met with a chorus of “Oh my god, you are so not fat” and “If you’re fat I’d hate to know what I am!”

In February when a film critic referred to Amy Schumer as “chubby” and an “unrealistic” object of romantic desire she took to Twitter to proclaim that she wasn’t chubby she was a “proud size 6.”

Whether or not Amy Schumer is a size six is debatable, but either way, she is chubby. So what? The issue isn’t whether or not she’s chubby, she is. The issues are 1. Why is a film critic spending so much space on the actress’ appearance instead of her performance or the movie she wrote and 2. Why does he think being chubby makes you unattractive or unlovable?

I loved Schumer so much more in June when she accepted a Glamour “Woman of the Year” Award not by proclaiming how thin she was but by saying, “I’m like 160 pounds right now, and I can catch a dick whenever I want, and that’s the truth.”

The problem isn’t being fat or feeling fat, the problem is thinking that your weight is all that matters. The problem is thinking that weight defines you or anyone else. The problem is that thinking you’re fat also means you’re unlovable or incapable of catching a dick.

When I talk to my female friends we talk about a lot of things. We talk about work, politics, art, television, food, sex, and sometimes we talk about our weight, or the ways our aging bodies seem to be betraying us. This conversation is part of our lives as women, but we aren’t allowed to share that part with our daughters.

Lately it seems like we’ve been replacing all the old oppressive rules about eating small portions and being polite and well mannered with new oppressive rules. Women should never use upspeak? We shouldn’t say that we “feel” or “believe” something, and most recently we learned that we just shouldn’t use the word “just.” We shouldn’t offer to make the coffee or help a coworker or do anything that might mean we’re perceived as care-taking.

If you are a middle-aged American woman and you have never thought to yourself, “I feel fat” or “I wish my thighs were smaller” if you have never convinced yourself that it was worth it to spend $100 on eye cream, then more power to you sister. It makes perfect sense that you never mention your weight or your wrinkles to your daughter.

But for the rest of us, those of us who have spent a lifetime living in and thinking about our imperfect bodies, why are we adding this pressure? Why do we think that refusing to acknowledge that we are fat or have imperfect bodies will help our daughters be accepting of their own bodies? Why do we think that practicing a constant form of self-censorship will help our girls grow in to healthy and confident women?

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Memorial Day Weekend

On Thursday night my friend Sandy’s father died. I was feeling sad for her and sad for myself, for being at the stage of life where your friends’ parents die. My friends Vince and Miller called. They are also friends of Sandy’s and for them the news of her father’s death had sparked one of those arguments that only a couple who has been together since high school can have.

They called me to settle the question of whether Miller had dated a certain boy (the answer, yes). The conversation spun off in to trying to put together a timeline of our young lives and romances, memories of stupid things we did, and for reasons best left unsaid, an unquenchable desire to watch the movie Camelot. I went to bed still sad for Sandy, but also laughing and grateful to have so many people who share my memories.

Saturday I got to see Sheila and Kate, friends I haven’t seen in years. Sheila’s father also recently died. She and I, both mothers, talked about how much we missed lazy Saturdays spent wandering in and out of stores and meeting people for coffee. Kate is a real-life Hollywood writer. Sheila and I wanted dirt on that most nostalgic of shows, Mad Men, which Kate used to work on. We had questions such as, “Is Jon Hamm really that good looking?” (ok, that was my question and apparently, yes). But we also just wanted to talk about the characters.

I mentioned that in watching reruns recently I noticed how much more fun Joan used to be and used to have. Kate agreed, “I think she did used to have more fun when she was younger, she hadn’t been worn down, she hadn’t had a kid, she hadn’t been raped.”  The three of us spent a long, effortless time talking about our careers and our declining eyesight.

That night my husband Danny and I went out for our anniversary. We went to our old neighborhood and ate a delicious dinner in what used to be a hang-out bar with no menu. We went to a play at a theater where we had both seen a lot of plays, and also where I used to take resist-a-ball class, because of course.

My friend Phil co-wrote and stars in the play and at one point, standing very near us, he begins a monologue. As the monologue progresses Danny and I realize that the story he is telling involves Danny’s oldest friend Eric, who committed suicide five years ago. The story is not about Eric, or his death, but about an old apartment of Phil’s. Eric and Phil were neighbors.

Later, over dessert, Danny and I try to joke about it. “Well, it’s not every day that a play brings up your best friend’s suicide, and not even thematically, but literally.” But all these memories are too close to the surface in this neighborhood where we used to live. The jokes fall flat and we bring home our uneaten desserts.

On Sunday, Danny and I take our son Joey to the forest preserve to  learn how to ride a bike. This is not an unloaded situation. It starts with a fight between Danny and Joey on whether or not today is the day, which leads in to a more general fight and tears. I can not ride a bike, and have tried to stay as far away from my kids learning how to ride a bike as possible. I don’t want to put my childhood on them. But Joey wants the dog and me to come along.

I take the dog for a walk and fifteen minutes later I get a phone call. “Mommy, I can do it, come back.”

When I come back I see him, my beautiful son. He is pedaling quickly but effortlessly, a wide smile on his face, he looks as though he’s been riding for years. His father watches from behind, an equally wide smile on his face.

When we were in college Miller told me that I was the only person he knew who looked forward to nostalgia. It’s true, sometimes I live too much in the past. I hold grudges and memories close to my heart. Maybe it is because I’m a writer, or maybe I’m a writer because I am always reworking something that is already past. There is an undeniable joy and comfort for me in reliving the past, even the painful parts, and in reconnecting with those who were there with me.

But sometimes the trip down memory lane is too bumpy even for me. At those times even I know that the best thing you can do is pedal quickly in to the future.

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Lessons Learned in the Rain at 4 a.m.

At four this morning my husband and I  heard a tick, ticking sound coming from the direction of his dresser. I assumed that my husband had accidentally set an alarm on his new phone, or that his old phone had somehow come back to life and was about to explode. He went over to the dresser, but could not find the source of the noise. I began thinking uncharitable thoughts about how messy his dresser was and that if he’d keep it clear, he would be able to find things.

He felt something wet. Later, he told me that he assumed he had gotten a text and his phone had vibrated knocking a glass of water over. At 4 am that theory made a lot of sense. In reality, it was raining, in our room.

Our house is under construction and we are currently without a roof. There was a 20% chance of rain last night and the odds were not in our favor.

We cleared most of my husband’s dresser and covered the rest with a towel. We went upstairs to investigate. The parts of the roof that were covered in a tarp were fine, but there were a few spots here and there where the tarp had not been nailed down or was missing. These spots happened to be over our bedroom and living room.

We looked for our camping tarp, but couldn’t find it since most of our non everyday items are in storage. I hit upon the idea of using the shower curtain from our now non existent basement shower. My husband wanted to look for nails to nail the curtain where the tarp should be. Although we’re living in a construction site, we could not find nails and so that is how I found myself at 4:30 in the morning trying to duct tape a polka dot shower curtain to a roof beam.

Duct tape does not solve everything. Eventually, we simply put the shower curtain on the ground hoping to catch some of the water, or keep it from seeping through to our bedroom. We moved the industrial garbage cans the workers had helpfully left under the worst spots and went back to bed.

We slept for half an hour, then the noise started again. This time it was raining hard and the drips were in our hallways and dripping through the main floor to the basement. So, we covered more things with towels and buckets.

I had been fairly amazed that all the commotion had not woken up our kids, blissfully asleep in the part of the house that still has a roof. My nine-year-old woke up for a few minutes and asked me to stay with him. It was tempting to climb in to that warm bed and sneak in some snuggles, but I got back out put down a few more towels and then the rain stopped again. We snuck in another half an hour or so of sleep.

It was cold and tiring but I had one thought: My husband and I had been woken up at 4 am, there was water coming in our bedroom and we did not yell at each other. Maybe that’s normal, but I grew up in a house where the fact that it was raining outside of the house might cause people to yell at each other.

When I tried to duct tape a polka dot shower curtain to the roof my husband did not insult me. When he suggested that we move a very large, heavy pile of roofing planks out of the way to better position the garbage can I did not insult him. We didn’t actually try and help each other do either of those absurd things, but we let each other try it and then we got back to work together.

I was never sure I wanted to be married. I liked the idea of having someone to change the lightbulbs and reach the high things, but the idea of living with someone, of having someone in my space all the time was hard for me to get behind.

Next month will be our twelfth anniversary. Like any normal human being I’ve spent a little time over the past dozen years of marriage thinking about what it might be like to still be single. I’ve imagined how nice it might be to not have someone who wants to talk when I want to read. I’ve dreamed about clean bathrooms and eating ice cream straight out of the carton.

But I think if you wake up at 4 am and it’s raining in your bedroom and you don’t want to kill the person lying next to you, then you’ve probably got a good thing going.

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Donna Day Blog-a-Thon for Childhood Cancer

I’ve had the word “Donna” on my to-do list for a week or so now. Every year I participate in something known as “Donna Day” a blog-a-thon that helps raise money for children’s cancer research, specifically St. Baldricks.

The blog-a-thon is in honor of Donna, the daughter of friends of mine. Donna died before her fifth birthday. Most years I’ve had an idea of what I wanted to write about a week or more before the blog post was due. This year, I’ve got nada. The name has stayed on my to-do list because I’m tired. I’m tired of childhood cancer. In the past year, two kids I know have gone in to remission and one new child has been diagnosed. I guess overall that’s a win, but it doesn’t feel like it. It feels like a loss, an exhausting and sad loss.

I know I’m lucky to have the luxury of being tired of thinking about kids with cancer. Like all of us whose children are not sick, I can move in and out, helping when I’m able or when I want to, pushing it to the back of my mind and leaving it on a to-do list when I do not want to think about it.

Those whose children have cancer, or survived cancer, or did not survive cancer, do not have that luxury. Once childhood cancer comes for a visit, it stays permanently, leaving little unwanted gifts: deafness, infertility, fear of strangers, brain damage … the list is long and unpredictable.

This year I have nothing new to say. So I will say the same old thing:

If you’d like to support children and families with cancer, those who can not simply write a name down on a to-do list and let it sit, and certainly can’t cross it off the list, but have to live with cancer every day, may I suggest you donate to St. Baldrick’s.

Donna Day is organized by Jeremy and Sheila, Donna’s loving parents who continue to parent Donna by raising awareness of and funds for childhood cancer. You can contribute directly to their annual St. Baldrick’s Fundraising event here. You can also learn more about the event and how you can participate.

You can learn more about St. Baldrick’s and the pitiful state of funding for childhood cancer here.

If you know someone that you think this message will resonate with, please share this post. If this message doesn’t resonate with you, that’s fine. Check out the Mary Tyler Mom blog or FB page (MTM is also Donna’s mother) or the Donna’s Good Things Facebook Page. Donna’s mother will have a list of other blogs participating, maybe one of their posts will hit the spot for you.



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The Licensed Babysitter

My almost-11-year-old’s current career ambition is to be a babysitter. She wants to babysit, then be a camp counselor, then one day, work with kids with autism. Or, maybe be a scientist that studies autism. Of course, being an author or a pastry chef are also still very much in the running.

On Saturday, she spent from 9:30 -3:30 in a “Safe Sitter” class, the first step on her professional ladder. Feeling giddy and punch drunk because I spent the day in an arcade with my 9-year-old son, I posted my daughter’s certificate and referred to her as a “licensed babysitter.”

My cousin commented that the idea of a “licensed babysitter” was “scary.” I kind of know what he means, but, I still got snippy. I think sometimes those of us who are more on the “free range” side of the parenting spectrum take our dislike for more protective parenting a bit too far.

Just because we didn’t take babysitting classes before we started babysitting, doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea. I remember being 12 and being left with kids in diapers and having no idea how to change a diaper. Yes, I figured it out, but it wouldn’t have hurt to have been taught how to do it ahead of time. More importantly, I remember being given a ride home by a clearly drunk father and having no idea what I was supposed to do. They covered that in my daughter’s class. They also covered what to do if the drunk dad hits on you.

They also had discussions on how to set prices and how to communicate those prices.

Two of the reasons traditionally female jobs are often under paid are because the jobs are undervalued and women are often uncomfortable talking about money. That devaluation starts early on. If taking care of kids is something any 11-year-old can do with no training, than why do we need to pay daycare workers decently?

I hope that by telling my daughter before she starts her very first job that she is allowed to set prices, and that her services have value, she won’t be one of those women who accepts any salary offered.

I get it, the idea of licensing kids to do basic things that kids have been doing for centuries is weird and smacks of helicopter parenting. But what if instead we think of it as giving our girls a license to do things differently than the way they’ve been done for centuries? What if instead of a license to babysit my daughter has earned a license to stand up for herself? A license to know her self worth? A license to know the value of her services?

That license may scare other people, but it doesn’t scare me.

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Trust Vaccines? Then Please STFU

Kids should be vaccinated. My kids are vaccinated. My father-in-law is a polio survivor. My husband had a dangerous case of chicken pox as an adult. I have lived in third world countries and seen children disfigured by diseases that we don’t get in this country.

I was raised by scientists (well, they’re social scientists, but they will tell you that’s just as important as regular science, and also, they lack all the same social skills as regular scientists, so you know, they’re scientists). I believe in the scientific method and scientific evidence. I like my aromatherapy and my yoga and my pressure points, but when I have a cold bring on the Nyquil. I spent 8 weeks in Bradley Method classes. But after 36 hours of painful but going nowhere labor, pitocin was welcome. When my baby was stuck on my pelvis and we were both in danger of dying, I was pretty happy the midwife left and brought in a doctor with a suction cup. I believe in modern, Western medicine.

Here’s something that’s been shown by science, social science, but still, science. When someone has a firmly held belief, presenting them with facts to the contrary does not change their mind. In fact, it can cause them to cling to that belief more fiercely.

I understand that a sample size of two is not scientifically acceptable, but my kids have been conducting an experiment for years and the results may surprise you. Calling someone an idiot never gets them to do what you want them to do. Shocking I know, but my guess is that same thing holds true for adults. If you write a yelling, screaming blog post or newspaper article or Facebook status calling someone who doesn’t vaccinate their child an idiot they will not rush out and stick a needle that they firmly believe contains poison in to their child’s arm. It just won’t work.

I know that vaccines are safe and useful, but here’s something that may make you a little uncomfortable. Not everyone who thinks otherwise is an uninformed idiot. Yes, some people are being stupid and trendy. But as much as I believe in science, I also believe in history. History has made it pretty clear that sometimes doctors and scientists are wrong (remember thalidomide babies). Sometimes doctors and scientists make shit up (remember when autism was caused by cold-hearted moms).  Sometimes the government does not have our best interests at heart lies to us about science (hello Tuskeegee syphillis experiments). Sometimes pharmaceutical companies pay doctors to over-prescribe medicines (hi, ritalin).

It may feel great to toss off an angry post about stupid non-vaccinating parents. It may feel great to share angry posts on Facebook. I’ll be honest, I  read one too many of those angry posts this morning and it felt pretty good to write this, so I get the impulse.

But truly, what is that blog post or snarky Facebook post accomplishing? If you truly believe in science or you have any experience with human beings, you know that your snark, your anger, your name calling isn’t helping. Calling someone an idiot has not done a single thing to help prevent measles or polio or any other disease, and in fact, may make the situation worse.

I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t know how we convince people who distrust medicine and science to do so.

I’m sure that my children will keep working on their name calling experiment if they come up with a workable, scientifically replicable solution I’ll let you know. Until then, maybe you know, just try not to be an ass.

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