The New (Pay-to-Attend) Food Deserts

I hadn’t had a bite to eat since yesterday, so Jim he got out some corn-dodgers and buttermilk, and pork and cabbage and greens — there ain’t nothing in the world so good when it’s cooked right — and whilst I eat my supper we talked and had a good time. — Huckleberry Finn

And we danced all night
To the fiddle and the banjo.
Their drifting tunes seemed to fill the air.
So long ago, but I can still remember
How we fell in love at the Roseville Fair. — Bill Staines

Over the weekend, we attended the final day of the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair, a sprawling affair of equal parts livestock buildings and carnie rides. Maya loved patting the bunnies, and couldn’t get enough of the cows. And there were these pretty amazing owls.

We enjoyed the day as well — except that we couldn’t find anything even remotely worth eating in the whole durn place. We paid $10 for parking, and another $10 each per adult to get in, so in we were, stuck amongst the barkers and colored balloons.

There were battered and deep-fried oreo cookies, funnel cakes, french fries, pizza and corn dogs, as well as signs touting “fresh squeezed lemonade,” which, it was clear upon sampling, was an utter fiction. I picked at a relatively inoffensive brisket sandwich from the one place selling pit BBQ, and my hubs tried to eat a bit of a “gyro” that sported flabby, texture-less bread, watery, chemical-laden sauces and tubes of mashed meat. Mmm.

A single church-run place sold roasted chicken, and one shack dispensed mostly-naked roasted sweet corn (likely GMO, but still tasty) which at least is actual food. But there was nary a green, orange or rainbow-colored vegetable or fresh fruit to be had, except in the produce tent where the flora was present only to be judged, and not eaten. Cabbages and greens, hah!

Because we were, I dunno, at a county fair, when Maya sensibly asked for “watermelon,” I went searching and turned up zip. Processed dippin’ ice creams? Check. “Premium” ice cream from Turkey Hill loaded with:

HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP, NATURAL FLAVORS, CITRIC ACID, MONO & DIGLYCERIDES, GUAR GUM, CARRAGEENAN, RED 40, BLUE 1.

Check. Even the coating on the chocolate covered bananas was chemical-flavored. Though at least the banana couldn’t really be messed with, once you got into it.

Instead of food, stall after stall sold nothing but junk. High-fat, triglyceride-fests on a stick. A poke around the Internet told me the obvious: fairs and festivals have become venues in which vendors compete to see who can deep-fry the most shockingly unhealthy foods– one even sells frozen, battered deep fried sticks of butter. Others hawk fried frozen kool-aid and similarly unnatural feats alongside the fry-battered snickers bars and Oreos.

Now, I’ve been known to appreciate a little key lime pie on a stick sometimes myself. But it was still striking that at a fair bedecked in 4H signs and clearly intended to build our reverence for people who drive tractors, there was no sign of either practitioners of a greener, more sustainable approach to farming — something common now in Maryland — or of any appealing, healthier foodstuffs produced by the aforementioned farmerfolk.

Amidst the cutesy pig races down the “hamstretch” around the Hogway Speedway and tractor pulls designed to stir up nostalgia for our not-so-distant agri-past, something important evidently got lost, which is that people have always best connected to the land by eating its wondrous outputs.

Indeed, the World Fairs, in the mid- and early twentieth century, were places for people to sample international foods that may never have gotten attention from such a broad swath of the population, including a French tent from the 1940 fair that became a popular restaurant in New York, Le Pavilion. Of course, the Fairs were also places for the new industrial processes around food to be debuted and marveled at, such as cotton candy and Wonder Bread.

Fast forward, though, to 2012, and it feels as though the Frankenfood has eaten the fair. Most traces of a home-made past — pickles, preserves, pies — were not for sale. Instead, we got the industrial fryer, loads of sugar, and distracting, hyper-kitschy lights on every surface of the food conveyance truck, as if to say — look here, instead of down at the glistening brown surface of your greasy funnel cake.

At the risk of seeming like I’m not in on the joke, I’m just going to say it: what is so durn “fun” about eating crap served up by fairly miserable people trapped in little metal boxes? We are living in a time in which chemical-laden, highly addictive calories that trip every one of our biological triggers (salt! sugar! fat!) are cheap, and actual food is scarce, despite the ample offerings in every convenience store, every ball park, every amusement park, every beach or public place where the goal is supposed to be entertainment or ease.

But, really, isn’t this just a cheap trick on all of us? A way for us to pony up $5 (which seemed to be the cost of anything at the fair) or more for our own deprivation and illness, gussied up as self-indulgence?

And if we grownups are a lost cause, we should consider that there were thousands of kids at the fair who really had no option except to eat what was given to them. Cass Sunstein, in his book Nudge, described the power of “defaults” in structuring choices — which basically means that we choose from what is in our faces most of the time.

After all, we’re just bodies in space.

And when it comes to things we are biologically predisposed to like, you can bet that the food marketers know exactly how to dangle it in front of us as a form of perilous fun so that we’ll bite. And bite again.

We publicly wring our hands about childhood obesity, and the fact that record and growing numbers of children are acquiring Type 2 diabetes (from somewhere, hmmm), but our public policies allow soda and other sugary junk in our schools, and our public norms are to pay decent money to be admitted to a “fair” that serves our children expensive, dangerous processed swill in place of anything resembling food.

And don’t even get me started on children’s menus at restaurants, which are generally vegetable-free zones made entirely of a newly engineered item known as pizza-hot-dog-pasta-grilled-cheese-chicken-tenders.

Of course, you might say that if I’m going to be this picky, I should always bring along some of my foodie provisions to ensure that we have the uber-organic, sustainably raised squirrel seeds we prefer. And sometimes I do have it together enough to plan ahead and pack snacks. But one of the things about being out in the world is tasting at least some of its flavors, and toting whole meals along for all-day excursions is not a fair expectation for us or other parents, especially when we’ve paid for the privilege of attending some event.

Even when I bring food, that really only takes care of my family. But we need larger solutions to the problem of a lack of nutrition in our public food. And am I really supposed to bring my own grub to a restaurant? Please. In other words, on this one, its really not us, its them.

Unless we start getting ticked off about this pathetic state of affairs, though, I don’t see how things change or how we can get the food marketers’ ugly, deep-fried, doughy fingers off our arteries and those of our kids. I’m working on a friendly but firm letter to the Montgomery County organizers of the fair, asking them for a greater variety of healthier stuff to eat next year. In a pinch, they could set up a green tent as some fairs do, or bring in food trucks with more variety for some of the time, which are options I’ll suggest.

Today’s column by Mark Bittman has more great ideas for how we should really honor farmers and their labors making something essential out of sun, water, and dirt:

  • We need to reduce unemployment and increase the minimum wage (including that for farm and restaurant workers). This (obviously) goes beyond the realm of food, but it’s key to improving the quality of life for many if not most Americans. (Here’s a strong argument for that.)
  • We need to not cut but raise the amount of support we give to recipients of food stamps. A good example is New York City’s Health Bucks program, where food stamps are worth more at farmers’ markets (which don’t, as a rule, sell sugar-sweetened beverages!).
  • We need not only to attack the nonsensical and wasteful system that pays for corn and soybeans to be grown to create junk food and ethanol, but to support local and national legislation that encourages the birth of new small-and-medium farms. We need to encourage both new and established farms to grow a variety of fruits and vegetables, to raise animals in sensible ways and, using a combination of modern and time-tested techniques, treat those animals well and use their products sensibly.

Amen, brother.

I’m also thinking about designing a small, polite but clear card, addressed to the chef, that folks could hand to restaurants to raise the issue of improving offerings on kids’ menus. If you think this is something you would possibly print and use, please let me know.

The End of Summer

Yesterday at the pool, the air had a bite to it, causing both Maya and me to keep as much of our bodies submerged as we could, to the point of bobbing awkwardly just below the water line, stretched out in the baby pool.

And today after the rain cleared, the warmth largely went with it. At the park, it was possible to think of a light sweater with distinct longing.

In my small world, this end of summer has a pronounced bitter-sweetness. Maya is starting preschool in two weeks. It is a particular kind of beginning, the first year in which there is no “back” in back to school.

Up to this point, she’s been cared for by us, by a nanny and relatives based out of our home, which I realize is a very sheltered life. She’s never been to the hurly-burly of daycare, and has spent relatively little time around other children, with the exception of the four close-by cousins with whom she’s officially obsessed.

Hence, this beginning maintains an edge. It is an actual beginning, which is a rare thing, since most are colored by similar events before them.

And while I doubt that her play-based Reggio, two-days-a-week, co-op preschool bears much resemblance to Lord of the Flies, it nonetheless is the first time in which social consciousness may begin to be a force in the formation of her personality. Until now, she has never been:

  • late;
  • laughed at by others or teased;
  • embarrassed;
  • called upon to perform a particular task at a particular time;
  • asked to conform her day to a predetermined schedule;
  • spent any considerable time in an unfamiliar place, with unfamiliar people;
  • been characterized as anything by other people within earshot of her, etc.

In short, for Maya this is the start of a social mode of being that is utterly novel, in a real sense. It comes with embedded expectations of her, and eventually, for her.

Of course, even without preschool, by age three, many of these things likely should have occurred, and would have occurred. But the advent of preschool marks them with clarity, and even allows us some attention and ceremony around them.

And it does feel like a loss of freedom, even for me as an instigator and second-hand observer. Today in the car, Nina Simone’s powerful anthem of unfettered naturalism, Feeling Good, came on, stirred up by the magic of shuffle:

Birds flying high you know how I feel
Sun in the sky you know how I feel
Breeze driftin’ on by you know how I feel

Fish in the sea you know how I feel
River running free you know how I feel
Blossom on the tree you know how I feel

It’s a new dawn
It’s a new day
It’s a new life
For me
And I’m feeling good

Contrast that with my much-beloved Adrienne Rich’s almost-clinical telling of the costs and benefits of a truly liminal moment:

Prospective Immigrants, Please Note

Either you will
go through this door
or you will not go through.

If you go through
there is always the risk
of remembering your name.

Things look at you doubly
and you must look back
and let them happen.

Of course, in the Rich poem, our courageous immigrant has a choice, and Maya has none. As parents, we hold all the choices still, and merely hope we’ve chosen well.

Then again, about growing up and, more tragically, starting to see ourselves with the double lens of how we are perceived by others, none of us have agency. I recall in high school, when we were encouraged to read a number of bildungsroman – novels about the passage from childhood or adolescence to the long twilight of adult life.

There is so much literary talent and attention spent on this moment, and so little on the earliest transition from a self-directed to a social being, perhaps because this initial stepping forth into the world happens alongside our meaningful first uses of language, and even prior to real memory. But if there is an “age of innocence,” surely this is it.

About school, I have as much ambivalence as most likely do. I remain deeply appreciative of certain teachers, and still have some friends from those faraway days. Yet when I think about it for any length of time, I also relive the harshness and bureaucracy of it: the way we watched those fundamentally humanitarian John Hughes films for clues about how to find, we hoped, our own comic forms of justice in all the petty mess.

Without learning and context, of course, we could never appreciate the transcendent. But still, as Maya enters the fray, stepping into the mundane of scheduling and schoolmates, I wonder to myself how to preserve her current intense presence in the world.

I once wrote a short poem, about an older girl tussling with these late-summer impulses and threats, poised in self-discovery. I was that girl, and the memory of bicycling up that steep incline is as clear as yesterday’s sunlight over the pool.

Gospel

Serious child, it is September.
You are bossing your bike up

this hill, and worried for school.
Summer has you in her long arms

still, and her permissiveness
seems natural. She goes on musing

in your ear of mushrooms, sprung
from sleepy lawns, demure

and shining in the late light, echoing
an early moon. Or of last Sunday,

foreign in a Baptist church,
when sudden angels trilled

their brilliant wings, and took you,
for the first time, from yourself.

The Many Uses of Disappointment

tantrum #500

tantrum #500 (Photo credit: demandaj)

I try to disappoint Maya every day. It’s really not hard to disappoint a 2-year-old, as she frequently loses it over the fact her bunny isn’t properly seated in its tiny stroller. (Those straps are so confusing!)

But many times, even in ways that I could satisfy her fleeting desire to have a cracker or play with the green crayon, I try to make her wait a bit, so long as I am genuinely busy doing something more useful to me.

I usually acknowledge that I did hear what she has asked for, so she knows her attempt at communicating was effective. But I’ll often ask for time to respond, and tell her no if it’s not a good time for her bizarre request.

Any parent of a toddler obviously says “NO” a lot — most often when their beloved fount of mischief gets their busy little hands up into all of the many things they shouldn’t. (“Not the wall! Please, the paper, not the wall!”)

That kind of instant “no” may be a learning moment, but it’s also a mandatory kind of denial. It’s essential to keeping our child (or walls!) safe and largely in one piece.

But calmly saying no to the stream of “wannas” issuing forth from a child — “No, you may not have a cracker, because we’re going to eat dinner soon” or “No, I can’t play the most annoying children’s song in the world again right now because my brain will liquefy and run out of my ears” — is a very different form of no. It is a more deliberate, even anti-democratic, moment in parenting.

It’s often hard to deny a child what’s gettable, or easy to get with a small stretch of our intentions. After all, we dream of our baby getting whatever it is she wants out of life, and as parents, it’s equally easy to imagine ourselves as the delivery devices for all of those desires. They break us all in when they are cute, needy, helpless newborns, and boy, do they train us well.

I’ve been complaining audibly about the lack of social supports for parents, but it also seems important to notice that the demands that many modern parents put on themselves are unrelenting, leading to charges of “over-parenting,” or (gasp!) “helicopter parenting.” (That last one always gives me a mental image of a mom wearing one of those multicolored beanies with heli-rotors spinning madly around her ears.)

English: Propeller beanie Français : Casquette...

Official Helicopter Mom Beanie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In fact, one recent New Yorker article, reviewing a book, compared “spoiled” American children, unfavorably of course, to Amazonian 6-year-olds, who can evidently catch and gut their own fish. Those children are welcome in my house any time, as they could show me a thing or two about not injuring myself around sharp cutlery.

It’s true that parenting sometimes can feel like a bad on-demand experience, in which whatever moving, well-acted art-house movie you wanted to watch is nowhere to be found in the arid wasteland that is now Netflix, and the only thing left on the menu is the same mind-numbing Clifford book you already read eight times today.

While I’ll normally suck it up with good ol’ Clifford, because, well, it’s reading at least, I do wage a more-or-less deliberate daily campaign to get Maya to accept the words “not now,” “not here” and “not so much.”

These are small, unimportant ways to make her comfortable with the difference, in a practical sense, between wanting the crayon and needing the crayon.

This is a distinction both she and I will find useful. When I see children acting unpleasantly, it’s often this piece of the puzzle that seems to be missing. And if all the hype over “over-parenting” is about calling out a parenting culture that never lets a child feel upset or sad, then the critiques are right, IMHO, that parents are taking something important away from their kids.

Both learning to mediate your own desires — and that being denied something you really, really want does little actual damage — are critical skills. If I watch very closely, I can sometimes even see Maya’s relinquishment of her need following a minor disappointment– that moment of letting go — and also see her experience the comforting persistence of the self despite this small hardship.

Of course, on occasion (though actually not that often anymore) she just flips out. So, there’s that to deal with. But even as I acknowledge her frustration, I still try not to give in on whatever point’s at issue. Why? Because I’m the mom, that’s why.

Often, if not always, the up-side of dealing with disappointment is self-reliance. Just today, Maya put it together how to ask that “mommy” get the bunny from the other room. My opinion happened to be that “Maya” should go get the bunny, since “Maya” wanted it. She went and got the bunny. I tried not to visibly gloat.

Just in case you think I’m merely being mean, there’s a bunch of science that shows that doing things for children that they should do for themselves — and praising them for merely being, instead of for trying hard at some task — actually undermines their self-esteem.

I remember how shocked I was during law school when a very successful fellow student — someone I’d always admired for their incredible drive — told me that he would feel utterly lost, and “wonder who he was” if he didn’t get that most-coveted of prizes, a Supreme Court clerkship. He didn’t get it, and although I have no idea whether the things are connected at all, I also gather he’s no longer working as a lawyer. It was sad to me at the time to see how brittle his self-concept was, and how all of his many achievements meant nothing if he couldn’t have this particular golden ring.

A focus on achievement uber alles leads to such pointless suffering. A focus on adaptability, on the other hand, should, if done right, produce more supple and likable people at the end, with a few more tantrums weathered along the way.

So there you have it, my friends. My oh-so-sage parenting advice from all 2 years of my experience thus far boils down to: Disappoint your child. Early and often.

In fact, look for openings to do it, since you’ll still spend far more of your day waiting on them hand and foot.

Clifford

Clifford (Photo credit: OneTigerFan)

###

I found the following sources interesting on these and related points:

How do you think parents should respond to the debate about “over-parenting”? Is it media punditry or fact?

Are American parents over-protective or overly permissive or (could it be?) both — perhaps alternating these flaws in a self-defeating cycle just because we can never get it right?

Most importantly, how many times have you read Clifford in a row? I need some company in my misery!

Some New Shoes: Looking for Work at 40 Years Old

Dorothy's Ruby Slippers

Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers (Photo credit: AlbinoFlea)

I’ll be 41 in November and, in some ways, I still don’t know exactly what I’d like to be when I grow up. More precisely, I’m just this minute trying to figure out what more I would want to be, since I’m pretty much set, like everyone is, with what’s happened up ‘til now.

This looking for work business for mid-career folks is now far more common than it used to be, back, oh, whenever that time was when people went to the same job for much of their adult lives. Now, we change jobs more often than shoes.

(Well, at least for some of us. Personally, I haven’t updated my shoes since I got pregnant and they mostly became an expensive form of torture. I refuse to concede that I will never be able to fit into those utterly dated but still pristine kitten heels again. Stubborn, pointless pre-preggo nostalgia, anyone?)

Still, each moment of change asks us something different – who and what do we want, now? Is the next step a linear move from the last one, a side-step, a step down, or a leap off the steps entirely into something new?

Since I’ve been writing about work-life (im)balance a bit, I’ve had to acknowledge my ambivalence, and that my priorities since having my daughter (who turns 2 in two weeks, sniff) have shifted more profoundly than I would have thought possible as a mid-thirties workaholic.

Being with Maya is so delicious, right this second, with her stumbling attempts at 3-word strings that actually mostly make sense, and her “look, mommy” need for my gaze while she tries something new.

I’m keenly aware that this will too soon pass into something else entirely. Even when she’s testing me, I think, well, she’s still so manageable, so obviously ill-equipped to deal with her quick shifts of emotions and desires that she’s really hard to dislike. I suppose that parenting will soon become so much less about physical labor and so much more emotional work – less what will she eat and more what will she think. Wow, that will be harder.

So I rather like it here, with her, right now. I have a job to do that’s reasonably clear to both of us. And Maya would still agree that she needs me, which is something.

Unfortunately, it’s not something I can take to the bank. One considerable downside of being a public interest lawyer, as opposed to some other kind, is the persistence of student loans that require continuing employment.

And far more importantly, so long as my health holds out, I have 30 years of gainful contributions to things I care deeply about left in me. I’m up for that, and looking forward to what can be done with whatever I already know, and whatever I’ll learn. I have energy for that next thing, and I think I’ll know it when I see it.

But let’s be clear on terms: it’s more about values clarification than “work-life balance,” which, when you think about it for more than two shakes, doesn’t make a lot of sense anyway.

After all, for many of us, myself included, our professional work is a defining aspect of our so-called “life,” and we find purpose and meaning there, when we’re fortunate. On the other hand, of course, the notion that all of what we do outside of our jobs is not “work” is unfair because it disqualifies the ordinary labors of running a household, paying bills, or, more essentially, maintaining the emotional and physical lives of our relationships.

Weighing scale

Weighing scale (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So it’s not about “having” it all, or, more crudely, having some boxes checked. And while maybe sometimes it feels like a balancing act, it’s not really about a “balance” either, because it’s all (or mostly) work, and all (or mostly) life. Instead, it’s about how we want to spend our always limited time.

Once that’s clear, the question becomes what we value, personally, and what we think should be valued, by society at large. On that second measure, I would suggest, any truthful account would show we’re doing a terrible job at valuing the ways we care for and support each other – both for parents and other caregivers, and for the caring professions like nurses and teachers.

As to the more personal, my job search this time around is of course mainly about finding a job. But not just any job, I’ll (boldly) hope:

Mom, 40, ISO purpose, job: in that order.

When I consider where I am today – in terms of both looking forward to the next three decades, and what time away from Maya now and then will cost us – I need the following: to be part of something that suits me, that feels powerful and meaningful, and that allows me to build on and make sense of the my work and experiences thus far.

If only I could I be so lucky. As they used to say on my favorite series before they rushed out to take the field, “Clear eyes. Full heart. Can’t lose.”

Channa Masala (Simple Chickpea Tomato Curry)

Chickpeas or (less elegantly) garbanzo beans, rock. They are high in folate (which is key during pregnancy, as we all know), zinc and protein. For protein-lovers like my family, chickpeas are satisfying enough to make a complete meal, especially when accompanied by this rich mix of spices.

So if you love chickpeas and want to look beyond the ubiquitous hummus, you might give this wonderful, savory dish of India a try. (Bemusing side-note: an oldish, peevish David Brooks column actually called wielding hummus a telltale sign of “hipster” parenting. Um, how can a substance present at every single party I’ve attended since 1992 be the least bit hip? David, dear, haven’t you ever been to a gathering of the humans?)

A few notes:

One) If you don’t have all the spices listed below on hand, just do what ya’ can.

Two) The Weston A. Price folks don’t like pressure cookers, which I think is loopy. Pressure cooking tends to retain the nutrients and texture of food better than slow cooking does, and makes it possible to cook beans on a far more regular basis, which has got to be good for health.

Whether it’s my beloved Moroccan tagine or the Indian-style dishes we make in the pressure cooker, steam cooking has been a major part of these and other traditional cuisines for a long time (the tagine, at least, goes back hundreds of years). And the limited liquid you add becomes a flavorful part of the dish, so if the nutrients end up there, you get all that goodness included.

Just be sure your cooker is stainless steel, and not aluminum, to reduce exposure to aluminum where you can, particularly if cooking for children.

Ingredients

2 cups (when dried) soaked (organic) chickpeas (we favor soaking them for 24 hours in salty water and find them far more toothsome than canned ones area; if you are using canned, try Eden brand for their BPA-free-ness)

Spices galore: Cayenne pepper, Turmeric, Brown Mustard Seeds, Fennel Seeds, Cinnamon, Thyme, Coriander Seeds, Fenugreek Seeds, Cumin, Ground Cardamom, Garam Marsala (I just put a good shake of each, except I was more stinting on the Cayenne), plus salt and pepper to taste

Fresh (organic) tomatoes (found these heirloomy ones at the farmer’s market — what great flavor!)

4 cloves chopped (organic) garlic

1/2 thumb sized piece of ginger, peeled and chopped

1 chopped (organic) onion (I love how noble this one looks)

3 Tbl Olive oil, grassfed butter, or ghee (what I used)

Directions:

Warm up the pan and add the oil, butter or ghee. When heated, saute the garlic and onion over low to medium heat until the onions are translucent. Add the spices and stir.

After a few minutes, add the tomatoes and stir.

Finally, drain and add the chickpeas and give it a good stir, then add fresh water up to 2/3 of the cooker.

Bring the cooker up to 15 psi, and then slightly lower the heat. (Follow directions for your pressure cooker on the time allotted for cooking chickpeas, likely around 20 minutes or so.)

Serve over brown (organic) rice or wholewheat (organic) couscous. Also lovely with a little plain yogurt. Serves 4.

Embracing Your Inner Mommy Warrior

A Milk White Flag

A Milk White Flag (Photo credit: Vintaga Posters)

No one likes the so-called “Mommy Wars.” At the BlogHer 2012 conference last weekend, the speakers I heard were unanimously opposed to them, calling on all of us to move past these bloody battlefields to someplace more productive – a greener pasture of peace, tranquility and mutual appreciation. Where, I presume, we get to have tea together under a white flag and our children serve it to us with ceremonial perfection and crisp, clean napkins draped over their small forearms.

Which certainly sounds good to me. No one’s been more disdainful than I have about the media’s over-simplification of these issues. But then I got to thinking about how characterizing disagreements as disagreeable can be its own kind of social censure, and about all the playground conversational tangos and tangles that general impulse may be creating, even as it attempts a truce.

If what we mean by “Mommy Wars” is a tedious mud-wrestling match in which we hurl well-worn clichés at each other about stay-at-home moms versus working moms, I’m all for moving on. It’s a yawner, to begin with.

On the other hand, though, call me crazy, but I do have opinions on things. I maintain these developing viewpoints on all things mommy because, first, I have to make decisions for me and my family that impact how my daughter is raised, and second, with apologies to Kahlil Gibran, I’m not merely a vessel through which my daughter arrived into this dubious and sometimes wonderful place.

In this battle, I’m a frontline trench warfare expert, and I came by my stripes honestly. I’m not about to abandon my albeit modest rank of Captain-of-One-Child readily. As anyone can read here, I do not lack my own nutty perspective on a host of questions concerning how I’d like to be a parent to my kid and what impacts her health and experiences.

And it sometimes feels like the call to halt the “Mommy Wars” is about never, ever passing judgment, about anything. As though we must subscribe to an indifferent laissez faire attitude as a prerequisite for holding onto whatever shredded tatters remain of our coolness, post-child.

I do live in fear of being labeled – that horror of horrors – a “Sancti-mommy,” and have no doubt that I’ve crossed that line, at least in my heart. But given that moms are called upon to – and do – make 85 percent of the household purchase decisions, and that we, er, have brains and the concomitant opinions those brains freely generate, how do we tiptoe across these Mommy War minefields?

For example, when my sister, whom I dearly love, offered my not-yet-two-year old daughter a “princess pancake” a few weeks back, was I remiss in recoiling in horror and saying, with my typical grace, that “Maya will be happy with the obesity-shaped one.” Ok, I’ll admit the appalled look on my face was likely unnecessary, and that Cinderella may in fact one day eat my daughter, but in the meantime, durnit, Maya doesn’t yet know what a princess is and I hope to keep it that way for as long as possible.

Or yesterday, at a concert, was I wrong to be annoyed when another mom asked me to get out of the way of her 2-year-olds’ view of the show? First, the kid was catatonic and not even really paying attention, and second, IMHO, kids should be moved around adults and not the other way ‘round. Anything else just teaches the inmates that they are in charge, and dangerously sacrifices what little power we grown-ups may retain.

But clearly that’s just me. It’s also just me on the playground when I don’t want Maya grazing opportunistically from some other kid’s plastic bag o’ Cheez-its and have to find a semi-gracious way to say why I’m declining their generous offer to share. (“So sorry, we don’t eat sodium-packed, processed junk at our house” seems a tad ungrateful somehow.)

And when I happen to mention that Maya’s a little big for her tender age, I’m not being a Competi-mommy, I swear. I’m merely trying to cover for her lack of social grace. She looks like a 3-year-old, and so people are often puzzled when she won’t take turns – like, unless I beg her – without a dramatic amount of squealing and/or physical violence.

And even along the critical fault line of the SAHM vs. working mother, there are important things to say about how hard it is in ways it shouldn’t be, and about everyone’s ambivalence concerning the choices they’ve made. None of it is easy, as I’ve noted. And I’ve also been gratified to see “Grass: Greener” posts from far more gifted self-observers.

In short, moms have to navigate this world, trying to preserve their own peculiar take on parenting and choices for their kids. There will be judgment involved in this. There will also be provisional decisions pending more data, and lots of agony. Certainly, so long as we otherwise “click” as people, we can be friends and support each other regardless of these somewhat petty distinctions.

But some eye-rolling is also likely to be involved, particularly if we don’t know each other personally. We’re human, after all. We bring our discernment and pre-formed views with us wherever we go. And I, for one, get a lot out of reading even contentious comments on particular hot-button mommy topics, as they help inform where I come out on critical issues like whether investing in a Petunia Pickle Bottom diaper bag is cute or been-there-done-that. (My vote is the former, but I’m always behind on what’s hip by a decade or two.)

Even as we call for tranquility and tea, let’s be careful not to think that whenever a Mom – or Dad – expresses an opinion of any kind, that’s verboten under peacetime, post-Mommy War conditions. And let’s create an environment that allows us to compare notes on parenting without fear that any act of comparison at all is an odious attempt at competition.

Ultimately, we’re tougher than that. If we can deal with a red-faced two-year-old’s tantrums over absolutely nothing, we can also weather a little judgment concerning things that might actually matter. Making these decisions about our lives and families, is, after all, our prerogative as parents. We should be strong enough to debate the issues on the merits and indifferent enough to do what we decide is best. And, for the most part, to be friends (or sisters) after the disagreement, just as we were before.

Cinderella (Disney character)

Cinderella (Disney character) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

10 Fascinating (and Sometimes Hard) Things I Learned at BlogHer 2012

My little moment of snark about Martha Stewart notwithstanding, the Blogher12 conference was amazing and worthwhile. It was full of energy and wit, I learned things from each of the panels, and the workshops, in particular, were incredibly helpful.

The highlight for me was today’s lunchtime conversation with Katie Couric, who was insightful, substantive, funny, honest and warm. I hope that her new daytime program finds the viewers it deserves, both because it sounds great and because its success would flag the need for smarter programming for both women and television talk shows generally.

Second, I loved meeting all of these interesting, talented women. At lunch, I just happened to be sitting next to Globetrotting Mama, who recently completed (and blogged about) a year-long trip around the world with her family. She was full of practical advice about how to take that kind of a trip, and really clear about its value for her two sons and their family bonds.

Then, as the coup de grace when things were winding down this afternoon, I stumbled upon Beth Terry, one of my personal eco-heroines, who just published an incredible book, My Plastic Free Life. I’ll be posting a book review soon, thanks to my newly purchased (and signed!) copy. Beth and I had lots to talk about!

Below are a few things I think I learned (subject of course to your review, correction and further explication):

  1. Blogging is just one platform for increasing social influence. While it may be the heart of what you do, as it is for this wonderful blogger who led my workshop, in the end its traffic, readership demographics, time of stay, etc., measures just one form of social media footprint. Your value will be judged by the total picture across platforms, i.e., your blog, Twitter, Facebook, Google+ etc. As this implies, shortcomings in one platform can be compensated for by connections and influence in another.
  2. Metrics and stats matter. This is true not only because they will help to measure your social influence (what old timey poli-sci types call “social capital”), but because you can and should use them to see what kinds of materials, posts and tweets gets your community revved up and rarin’ to go. Then you can give them more of the good stuff they like, and, if you’re lucky, the virtuous cycle takes over.
  3. Social influence =’s trust in you. There are two main pathways to monetizing your activities, neither of which are really about your blog so much as they are about your social influence, and marketing you: 1) becoming a trusted, reliable marketing pathway for products and services (sponsorships, product reviews, give-aways and all that); 2) becoming a trusted, reliable expert on an issue or segment of the market, which can include freelance writing or a book, and/or selling yourself as a spokesperson or writer on other platforms or to traditional media. For both, you need the basic materials in your “media kit,” and the saucy Cecily K even gave us a link to her terrific guide for using picmonkey to make one. (I’m mainly in the second bucket, if I’m in any bucket at all. As both Cecily and the incredibly helpful Marcy Massura pointed out, if you’re pitching yourself as a writer, obviously including published clips and highlighting those in the kit is key.)
  4. Be your best self. Despite the sneers that mommy bloggers often surreptitiously receive, expectations for people working in this space, unsurprisingly, are the same as in any other profession. You’re ideally supposed to be organized, professional, truthful, be aware of and follow the law, and generally be nice.
  5. There are a truly unfair number of platforms, technologies, applications and measuring systems to try to get your head around. Of course they also change all the time. In one session alone, panelists mentioned Klout, Peer Index, Cred, Alexa, and Picmonkey. Others talked about Google Analytics, Google+, Survey Monkey, instagram and Tumblr. Many of these are useful tools, I’m sure, but I was unnerved by visions of myself floating aimlessly from platform to platform managing my Interwebs identity, and wondered when the writing and research might actually get done to make decent content.
  6. Connections, as in anything, still matter. But making connections, thanks to the unabashed, and even sometimes forced, intimacy of Twitter, is now far easier than ever before. From panel to panel, the advice was the same: be bold in approaching people, once you know what you want to accomplish and have your materials and story straight. Talk up your strengths and value, and advocate for yourself and your ideas.
  7. Be inventive with DIY publicity and promotions. In the book talk, one very crafty craft blogger shared her kamikaze marketing tactics, which included calling up the sewing machine company featured in her novel for a give-away, barnstorming the book signings of authors she liked to build goodwill towards her own book blurbs, and holding workshops with the purchase of her book built into the cost. Another made satirical videos to promote her book, as well as educational guides for schools. The takeaway was that the more channels and promotional avenues you have for your content, the better.
  8. There are a lot of people trying to do this, and (understandably) to make some money at it, and it’s not easy to do it well. While the Expo Hall was full of potential sponsors who want to engage the viral marketing potential of female bloggers and their audiences, it also seemed clear that the number of people who will dramatically succeed – at least enough to make a living at it – is far smaller than the number of us interested in making a go at it.
  9. Many people just use the Web – and blogging and other social media – for connection, personal journaling, and to give voice to fears and feelings. There was the wonderful woman I met who blogs about her depression and thoughts of suicide anonymously but courageously, and the woman with an autistic child who studies and writes about the science on autism. Blogs are places to share, build community, and get a comforting and perhaps even therapeutic confirmation that the things about us that make us feel alone are almost always things that other people are experiencing right now.
  10. This avenue for expression is not going away. It remains a very powerful way to find like-minded people and to give a thousand voices to the many ways we navigate our lives. While there were nice breaks for informal networking, if I had one suggestion for the next BlogHer, it would be that there should also be space on the official calendar for like-minded bloggers to find each other, so that they can better get to know each other in-person and discuss common interests. BlogHer could be a place to create networks across many more spaces – with less being talked to, and more talking to each other. In this kind of space, bloggers could hatch ideas to help each other out, pooling technical or other expertise, or maybe even share their ideas for changing the world to reflect the many things we all dream of and hope for, both on-line and off.

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What did you get out of the conference? What nuggets of wisdom do you have on the event or blogging in general? I’d love to hear!

Could Martha Stewart Ever Wake Up and Be a Force for Good?

English: Martha Stewart at the Vanity Fair par...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s amazingly easy to like Martha Stewart, despite what comes out of her mouth. An interview with her Blondeness was the lunchtime entertainment at the BlogHer 2012 conference today, and it didn’t disappoint.

In her tapered orange pants and matching sandals, Stewart appeared relaxed, or at least as relaxed as she ever probably gets. Yet she still managed to project a dizzying number of expectations about women, the priorities they should have, and the preeminent importance of “perfection.”  Even some of her attempts to relate were drolly inept – at one point, she actually said that feeding and patting her horses in the evenings is an example of how all of us should “keep it real.” Yes, she said that.

Also, when her dog jumped up and busted her lip, she made sure to mention that her driver was there at 10 pm in a blizzard to drive her to the hospital where she had bought a wing, or something. Yes, that does ring so real to me.

Predictably, she extolled the virtues of home-cooking and talked proudly about the number of home and consumer products her team designs, 8,500 of which are for sale in stores today. She also made clear that her team works long hours, and was breathtakingly judgmental about the talented women who work for her and decide not to come back after having a child. (Um, could it be the grueling hours?)

It’s not just Stewart, of course. After the dismissive statements by incoming Yahoo exec Marissa Mayer about “working through” her maternity leave, I for one think that it’s about time we ask women in positions of tremendous power to send a more respectful message on work-life balance.

But Stewart missed that opening, despite the thousands of moms in the audience. Instead, about two seconds after she admitted that her career drive had cost her marriage, she said, kind of creepily, that she could always pick out the women who were and were not coming back after a child, and, without a trace of irony or self-reflection, that “you just have to decide whether you want it all.” She almost growled this line, in an implied threat to any women who choose, unaccountably, to step off the career ladder at her much-coveted design juggernaut.

Apparently, her keen sense of the Twitterverse and social media excluded the recent heated debate over the Anne-Marie Slaughter piece on the impossibility of “having it all.” Even Slaughter has recanted that theme, noting that no one, not only women, gets to have it all.

That is, except maybe, possibly Stewart. Or at least that what she really, really needs us to believe. While she talked a good game of how social media has influenced her to get more personal about her own life, when asked in a final question to come clean about something she’s “bad at,” she produced a perfectionist tic in lieu of a genuine admission, actually offering us the lame “something I haven’t tried yet?”

In fact, the DIY emphasis she’s so famous for is just something else on the long list of self-improving, pure activities we should be doing and can’t. But Stewart has an answer for us: when we run out of time, her products side stands ready to sell us all the stuff we didn’t have time to make.

After all, our lives don’t look at all like the image of relaxed afternoons picking raspberries that Stewart (patently falsely) claimed she enjoys and that are all over her media marketing channels. And she knows that, of course. As she put it, “women don’t have time to sew anymore, because you’re busy blogging or whatever, so you need a place to buy that dress you saw in the magazine.”

This really makes her the worst part of both sides of the problem. On the one hand, we get to feel guilty for not making the damn dress, while on the other, she gets our money so that we don’t have to do without the thing she just guilted us into wanting. She creates desire and then is there to fill it, albeit always in a way that leaves us chasing the dream of that more authentic garment that we could have, should have, made ourselves.

What was so sad about her taut, demanding version of femininity was the utter lack of mission reflected in her choices. While selling us the unhurried, authentic life, she’s really all just lifestyle marketing, with emphasis on the stuff. I kept thinking about how her power is enormous, but it remains untapped for real good.

While it’s likely the case, as she remarked, that partisan politics could be damaging for her, that certainly wouldn’t bar her, or her company, from taking on any real social justice issue. Really, any position would be better than none. She could pick toxics, and work to reduce the chemicals in all the consumer stuff she sells, or worker’s rights for her factories around the world, or even, better work-life balance for the talented moms she obviously loses from her own company.

Perhaps when she’s out patting the horses of an evening, she could reflect a little more on why DIY became DIMS, and whether American “home cooks” really need another newly designed dishtowel, or her hard-working designers could go home early, to spend a little more time with their kids. Now that would be keeping it real.