Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Thanksgiving Confessions

Thanksgiving is upon us and the nation is preparing to loosen its collective belt. Yes, it's the holiday where friends and family gather to feast on heaping helpings of turkey with all the trimmings. They will stuff themselves with stuffing, mash as many mashed potatoes as possible into each mouthful, and slice up second (and third, maybe fourth in my family!) servings of the pie. And I will make myself a small, sensible plate.

People across the country see the day as the single biggest pigout of the year. A day to throw calorie counting caution to the wind and trade the skinny jeans for turkey pants. An all-you-can-eat extravaganza of the biggest kind. But for me, it's just another day to eat small, sensible portions.

Because that's just what I do.

Because I am a small, sensible person.

Which sometimes makes me feel like a big, huge bore.

Whether it's Thanksgiving, Christmas, Arbor Day, my birthday, or a fancy meal out I am not one to overindulge. Dressing on the side. Baked, not fried. Steamed veggies if available. One small, sensible glass of wine. A few small, sensible bites of dessert shared with my husband. BO-ring.

And it doesn't end there. I don't stay out past my bedtime. I rarely miss an early morning workout. (Have you crossed me off your party list yet?) Along with small and sensible, I am also sometimes described with terms like "dependable" and "reliable." Ooh, fun stuff.

It hasn't always been that way. I spent most of my childhood and adolescence neither small nor sensible. The child of Egyptian parents, I grew up in a culture where food is used as an expression of pretty much everything: gratitude, hospitality, guilt, sadness, you name it, we eat it on a big platter garnished with olives and a side of hummus. Add to that the loneliness of being a not particularly popular, latchkey kid, and I fed my late afternoon loneliness with a daily peanut butter and honey sandwich and whatever else I could find in the cupboard.

Never a slim child, by middle school I was pudgy. By high school, pudgier still. By college, my hair and my waistline had both expanded to ridiculous proportions. (A health condition and a year in France surrounded by the world's finest pastries were partly to blame.. at least for the pounds. There is no excuse for my hair.) But somewhere over the years that followed I started to take control.

First I tackled the food end of the scale (so to speak). I became a vegetarian and I'd be lying if I said the decision wasn't in part a reaction to the giant plates of meat shoved at me for the first two decades of my life. I started reading labels, cut out the junk, and discovered the joy of cooking with fresh, seasonal ingredients.

A passion for exercise came next. I got hooked on step aerobics in the early 90s, became a gym rat shortly after, and finally discovered running while searching out some much needed grad school stress relief. Through a combination of my two new loves, fitness and nutrition, I managed to drop the weight, get in shape, and aside from two pregnancies (where I gained a small, sensible 20-25 pounds) that's where I've stayed.

So what's the problem? Well, sometimes when you close a door, when you lock it tightly and barricade it shut, the effort of holding it closed begins to consume you. Though my weight has barely budged in over a decade (and I don't even own a scale) I devote enormous amounts of subconscious energy to thinking about gaining weight. I don't count calories or fat grams because I don't have to. There's an invisible line in the sand that my brain just won't let me cross. Not even on Thanksgiving. The little devil on one shoulder says "Go ahead, have some more!" but it falls on deaf ears. Though it's not realistic, in my mind, overindulging at Thanksgiving would just open up the floodgates and reverse everything I've worked so hard for. You can take the pudgy girl out of her husky pants, but you can't ever make her feel at home in a small, sensible shape.

Don't get me wrong, I'm proud of what I've achieved and the healthy lifestyle I'm working hard to maintain for our family. I know we're living in a time of skyrocketing obesity and diabetes rates and I want no part of that. My son could eat fruit until the end of time and one of my little girl's first words was actually "broccoli." Without being too militant about it (I hope) we're a whole grain, non-processed, no fast food, homecooked meals 6 out of 7 days/week kind of a household, and I want to keep it that way. I just wish I personally knew how to dial it back a little for a holiday.

I think there was a time when I was a lot of fun. Yes, that's me in the orange sequined dress, starring in a late night show at the Caribbean resort where I worked. Dare I say it, I was even a bit wild. I was also not a mom. And since that major life change, I've felt the lock in the door turn even more tightly. I feel like now that I have kids, I have a responsibility not just to myself but to them to keep the "bad stuff" away, to stay in control at all times.

But sometimes I wonder what it would feel like to let my hair down (which of course I cut into a short, sensible bob years ago) and just go a little bit crazy. I wonder if with all my sense and sensibility I've lost touch with my senses. I wonder if this Thanksgiving, I could dare to do something different. I wonder if I could show my kids another side, if I could teach them that letting go on special occasions can be... special.

Maybe this year I'll try. Maybe I'll surprise you. Maybe I'll surprise myself. In even just the smallest, most sensible way.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

"The Sound Of Music"- The Soundtrack of Childhood

It's funny how you can't wait for your kids to say "Mama." You coax them constantly to produce those two syllables, and then when they finally do and you eventually get to the point where you wish that every once in a while they'd say something else.

I have two little ones who seem to call out "Mama!" (or something similar like "Mom!" or "Mommy" or "I need YOOOOOUUUU!!") all day long, and often into the night, and right back into the early morning hours.

When I was their age, I was probably just as likely to call out "Teta" as "Mama." That's the Egyptian word for "Grandma," which may seem like an unusual thing to call the Polish nanny who lived with us when I was a child, but she was anything but usual. She was the widow of an Egyptian man, the mother of 5 (including a very close family friend, which is how she came to be with us), real-life "teta" to 21 grandchildren and 9 great grandchildren. An amazing woman we were blessed to have in our home for several years and in our lives until her passing just a few months ago.

Teta was a marvel, to put it mildly. She spoke more languages than a diplomat and was as devout as any religious figure. Well into her 7th decade she sewed dresses for me and my brigade of dolls with fingers flying at lightning speed. She introduced me to the delicious crunch of steaming hot homemade potato pancakes topped with cool sour cream and applesauce. She taught me the simple power of praying the rosary. I didn't find out until after she died, but as a young girl she survived being held prisoner of war when the Germans invaded Austria, never to speak of the experience again.

One day circa 1978-ish, she decided to take me and my brother to the zoo, and nothing- not the lack of a driver's license or the scarcity of public transportation in the Motor City was going stop her from making it happen. We walked 2 miles before we found a bus stop, rode for over an hour, and on the way back she stopped to pick grapeleaves off a vine on the side of the road for dinner. It was classic Teta.

But there's one thing I remember most of all about our beloved Teta. Every year, around this time of year, she would pull her chair up close to the TV, closer each time as her eyesight faded. "Mon Mon!" she would call out in her deep, heavily accented voice, "Come see! The Zonc of Moosic!"

Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music
And there we'd sit watching what became my favorite movie- The Sound of Music. Together we'd see the hills come alive, laugh at the exploits of the Von Trapp children, hum "Edelweiss" along with the gang. In the scene where Maria and the Captain finally wed, Teta would turn to me and say "Mon Mon! One day you will have a bootiful wedding like this!" It took almost 30 years but I'm happy to say she was right, and she was there to see it happen (I'm also happy no one was singing "How do you solve a problem like Mona?" as I walked down the aisle.)

Around the time I started school full-time, Teta left us and went back to her own home. Though she still visited often, I missed her dearly and found little comfort in the string of college and high school babysitters who took her place. To curb the sadness I came up with a fantasy that stuck around for many years: I imagined that every time the doorbell rang, it was Maria Von Trapp from the Sound of Music (or perhaps a slightly more modern version) showing up to be our Governess. No, I didn't want her to fall in love with my dad or take my mom's place, I just wanted her around on a part-time basis to fill the lonely hours after school, someone to keep me company on the weekends when everyone in our house seemed so busy with their own pursuits.

Whenever the loneliness really started to take over, I'd slip into my little Austrian musical fantasy world to sing and dance the pain away. Sometimes I was Gretl, the baby of the family, too young to stay up for the fancy dinner party. Sometimes I was 16 going on 17, with a schoolgirl crush on a boy named Rolf (of course in my fantasy he didn't turn out to be a Nazi). If I could have, I would have crossed the Alps on foot to somehow make it come true. "The Zonc of Moosic" was always calling out to me, always with a heavy Polish accent. I watched the movie whenever it was on, but it just wasn't the same without Teta.

I spent my junior year in college living in Paris and couldn't pass up the opportunity to get that close to the Promised Land.

Salzburg, Austria 1992
Yes, I shelled out for the deluxe Sound of Music Tour in Austria. We danced around the famous gazebo, and ran around the fountain singing "Doe a deer" (you can stop laughing at my giant, triangular hair now, thank you very much). I wanted to stay forever, except that Maria was still nowhere to be found. It was a bittersweet delight.

This year The Sound of Music celebrates its 45th anniversary. I watched the cast reunite on Oprah with great anticipation. I admit to getting a bit misty eyed seeing the Von Trapp children all grown up, amazed that they dared to deviate from the fantasy frozen in my head. But as they showed clip after clip from the movie, I realized it no longer made me sad, no longer left me longing to escape my current life.

I'll always cherish that movie and will no doubt torture my kids into watching it with me. And I'll always hear a loving but firm Polish voice calling me towards it. But now, I've got a new "Sound of Music" in my life, a different song in my heart.

It calls out "Mama" all day long.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Falling Down And Getting Back Up

She bends her legs, grunts, uses every bit of strength in her tiny body and pulls herself up to standing.

The grin that follows says it all: triumphant! So proud of herself, she looks around to see who might be watching. "Check me out! Look what I've done! Have you ever seen anything so impressive?" she seems to say.

As quickly as it happened, it's over. The little legs give out, she topples down onto her bottom, and giggles hysterically.

And then she does it all over again.

There's nothing much more entertaining than watching children learn to stand, or to be more exact, watching them fall. I marvel as I see my baby girl take those first tentative steps toward taking steps, and wish I could be more like her.

For a baby, not only is falling down not a big deal, it's downright enjoyable. In a baby's eyes, falling down is just part of the adventure, another part of the cycle. For babies, failure to stand doesn't translate to failure. Failure as we know it doesn't even exist. (It also doesn't hurt that everyone watching applauds the effort and encourages another attempt.)

At some point that changes. I can already see it beginning to happen with my 3-year-old, as frustration creeps in and tries to block his best efforts. He stacks his Legos into a tower but when it comes crashing down he no longer finds it funny, and needs to be reminded (through his tears and tantrums) that he can in fact put it back together, if he'll just try again.

I've had a few setbacks recently, I've taken a few falls both professionally and personally. There was the job that was offered that I couldn't take. Another job I dreamed of that was never even offered. The phone call I waited for that never came. Frustrations with a family member that don't seem to be easing up. Surprising behavior from someone I thought was a friend. With each stumble, it's been feeling harder and harder to get back up and start over again. I like to think of myself as a positive person, I like to believe I've learned how to pull myself back up when need be. But right now it's a struggle. I find myself thinking it's easier to just sit still rather than risk another fall.

As we get older, falling down seems to become so much more painful, and getting back up so much more of an effort. Is the ground really that much further away? Or do we just know too much about the risks of what lurks below?

I've never been one who suffered from a fear of failure, or someone who shied away from an opportunity. I don't want to start now- what message would that send to my kids? It's time to get back up, to focus on standing without overthinking the whole act.

So as I watch my little one on a seemingly endless loop of scrambling to her feet, tumbling down, laughing it off and starting over, I make a promise to that sweet baby girl:

I will hold your hand and help you to stand, I will try to always be there to cushion your fall, if you will keep teaching me how to get back up.