Monday, August 31, 2009

Best Birthday Ever — CMB Post

This post originally appeared on the now defunct Chicago Moms Blog.

I often wonder what my kids will consider their best birthday ever. We've had some pretty good ones: the races at Dads Slot Cars, the serendipity of several Harry Potter films being released within days of my twins' birthday, the monster truck rally that my husband handled completely and I got to miss (hmmm, maybe that's my favorite).

The most creative party I ever threw was for my youngest son when he said he wanted a Chinese birthday. When I asked him what that was, he said: "I don't know. I'm sure you'll think of something." So, we had fortune cookies, ate a Chinese checkers cake (with gum balls instead of marbles), and gave everyone a set of homemade tangrams.

It was great — but not as great as my Best Birthday Ever.

Mine was the year I turned 11. My mom was recovering from major surgery, so she left the birthday celebration up to my dad (although, even as I write that, I realize that she probably planned the whole thing).

First, I got a groovy new outfit: a short, red split skirt that revealed navy blue hot pants underneath, topped with a crisp white poly/cotton pucker blouse with rows and rows of elastic. Before you block that image from your mind, be sure to add in a mouthful of braces. I thought I looked fabulous.

After presents, my stinky little brother stayed home with my mom, and my dad took me out for the evening. We drove to downtown Detroit — still vibrant and living high off low gas prices and big American cars. We parked and went to a big, beautiful movie theater where they were showing Love Story, that classic weeper with Ryan O'Neal and Ali McGraw. It was my first GP movie (in the days before PG or PG-13) and they even said the F-word. I think I fell in love with both Ryan and Ali, who looked beautiful even as she was dying. I was the only person in the theater who walked out with a big grin on my face. I felt so grown up.

After the movie, we went to a fancy restaurant with valet parking and everything. When we pulled up in the car, the valet opened my door and greeted me by name, wishing me a happy birthday. Everyone in the restaurant seemed to know my name. I don't remember the dinner, but I do remember the sparkler on the birthday cake and the whole room singing happy birthday to me.

During dinner, my dad told me that he wanted to show me a wonderful time — not just because it was my birthday, but because I was becoming a young lady. A dear friend of his had older daughters, and this friend told my dad that he always took his girls to nice places so that when they started dating, they would be impressed by the man, not by the trappings. My dad told me that story for the first time on my eleventh birthday and many times thereafter.

I hope when my children remember their Best Birthday Ever, it isn't just about the toys and the cake and the party. I hope somewhere deep down, they recognize the real gift we've tried to give them — that they are loved and cherished and worthy of being treated well. Thanks Dad.

This is an original Chicago Moms Blog post. When Susan Bearman is busy planning birthday parties for her large family, she can be found writing at Two Kinds of People and The Animal Store Blog.

Photo credit: Fireworks – sparkler  by tim & annette

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Short-changed Summer — CMB Post

This post originally appeared on the now defunct Chicago Moms Blog:

"Summer afternoon — summer afternoon …
the two most beautiful words in the English language."
Henry James (1843-1916)

I'm no climatologist, but by my calculations the average high temperature in Chicagoland so far this summer has been about 78°F. That's been the average high. Our average average high is closer to 82°F. Now, four degrees may not seem statistically significant to you lay people out there, but let me explain this in scientific terms. We was robbed. Ripped off. Or to be completely un-PC, we were gypped.

I hear all you centrists out there — you sweater-weather people — rejoicing in your temperate way over our temperate weather. Pooh on you. It's summer, damn it, and I want me some. I want hot and sweaty and lazy. I want to lift my head in search of that waft of a cooling breeze. I want to feel like we eked out every dime's worth of our pool and beach pass purchases. I want to be so sick of summer that I can't wait for the kids to go back to school on Monday.

But I'm not. I'm dreading it. Last winter was interminable and the only thing that got me through was the thought of a long, hot summer. Now it's over and it feels like it never even got here. Worse yet, I don't think it's entirely the weather's fault that I feel so cheated. I think it's that I realize this is the last summer — or at least the last of the sweet summers we've known since my twins were born nearly 18 years ago.

Back then, it seemed like we had a lifetime of summers stretching before us. I was careful. I didn't waste our summers. We took them at a slow, leisurely pace. I paid attention. I tried not to squander them. While all my kids have gone to sleep-away camp, it's never been for more than two weeks. I'm not passing judgment, just being selfish. I wanted them home.

Since I first began to comprehend the concept of time, at just five or six years old, I recognized the incontrovertible (if inexplicable) law of nature that each summer is shorter than the last. Every winter, since that first dreadful one we spent on the NICU, I have made Big Plans for our summers. I dreamed of berry picking and bike riding and picnics. I planned how we would explore the city and discover a thousand new worlds in our own backyard. I envisioned car washes and sprinkler showers and lemonade stands. And bubbles. And sidewalk chalk.

We've done all those things, but not enough of them, if you know what I mean.

Next summer is technically our last one before the twins head off to college or work or whatever lies ahead for them; but this was the last one that wasn't haunted by the Ghost of Summers Yet to Come, summers full of plans and changes and departures. I guess that's why they give the next to the last thing such a fancy name — so you'll pay attention.

This was our penultimate summer. It was a good one, but not good enough.

But I have hope. There's still a little time left. Even though school starts on August 31 and the pool closes after Labor Day, summer doesn't technically end until September 22 at 5:18 p.m. EDT. Do you hear that, weather gods? I want the rest of this summer to feel like summer. I promise not to waste it.

This is an original Chicago Moms Blog post. When Susan Bearman isn't ranting about weather conditions, she can be found writing at Two Kinds of People and The Animal Store Blog.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Grazie! תוֹדָה! Dziękuję! Merci!

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who view their lives through the lens of gratitude and those who view it through a lens of snark.

Thanks to my mom, I learned early on to "please" and "thank you" with the best of them. I have taught these magic words to my children, too, and I believe they are some of the most charming incantations in the human spellbook. But, though I bandy the words about freely, I find myself dwelling deeply in the land of snark

I'm not apologizing here (although I do that very well, too, and far too often). A little snark never hurt anyone. Snark is funny. It helps get me through my day. It takes a quick wit and a sharp tongue to pull off snark with aplomb, and I appreciate a talented practitioner. Many of my favorite writers — Sarah Vowell, David Sedaris, Mark Twain, Dorothy Parker, professional snarkers all — have proven over and over again that the pen truly is mightier than the sword, and I wish I could thank them all personally.

So let me take just a moment to be a little snarky about gratitude. Ever since Oprah jumped on the gratitude bandwagon, it has become big business. If you search her Website, more than 200 results show up for gratitude. I'm not complaining. I'm grateful for Oprah. Her show has made me laugh and cry and think, no small feat for the small screen. But all this gratitude talk also makes me cringe just a little.

Some years ago, I was given a copy of the bestselling book Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy by Sarah Ban Breathnach. It was a lovely gesture, the perfect gift for an aspiring writer, for which I was very grateful. I've not read it. It stares at me reproachfully from the top shelf of my bedroom bookcase, it's sticky sweet pink cover making me feel like a middle-aged goth wannabe. Just thinking about it gives me a sudden urge to get a tattoo. I'm grateful for my profound aversion to pain, or I would be a painted lady by now.

The trouble with these prescriptions for injecting gratitude into our lives is that they tend to be full of cloying, treacly little algorithms for better living: Eat Pray Love; discover The Secret; Focus on the Good Stuff. It's hard to convey real gratitude without sounding mawkish (but when I discover the secret of how to do it and write my book about it, I will be eternally grateful to Oprah if she will interview me about it on her show).

"I feel a very unusual sensation — 
if it is not indigestion, I think it must be gratitude."
Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881)

But this morning (or yesterday morning or whenever it was that I last awoke from sleeping, as I see it is now after 3:00 a.m.) I heard a litany of "I hates" reverberating in my brain and the oddest thought popped into my mind: What if I changed every "I hate" statement I hear in my head to an "I love" statement. I know, I gagged, too, but that hazy, waking, early morning brain is hard to control and, unbidden, it started to make the conversions. Don't panic, there was no epiphany. But it did make me smile to myself in a genuine, unsnarky way — especially when I heard "I love school-related paperwork" whispered in my inner ear — and it got me thinking, which always a dangerous thing.

I am grateful — you know, sometimes. (Watch out, here comes the cotton candy.) When I look at my children, I am (usually) awash in a gratitude so profound that it defies verbal expression, so I smother them in kisses and make them promise never to grow up. I'm grateful to live in this country (where, despite all its faults, it is still the best place to be) and in this century (when, despite all its faults, it is still the best place to be). I'm grateful for our myriad comforts and gifts (even though I would be plenty grateful to wake up debt free with a brand new kitchen). 

I know I'm not grateful often enough. I don't need to read all those best sellers to understand that true gratitude, like exercise, takes practice and commitment before you can reap the benefits. I feel guilty enough without them harping at me.

My friend and fellow Chicago Moms Blogger, Kim Moldofsky, inspired this blog post (although, once she reads it, she may feel somewhat less than grateful). Kim has taken the 21-Day TinyPrints Gratitude Challenge and is writing about her feelings of gratitude for three straight weeks. I admire her commitment and effort at making gratitude a habit — as well as the speed, grace and frequency with which she posts.

I do have one funny little gratitude ritual. I keep a tzedakah box for collecting coins to give to charity in the cupboard above my washing machine. Whenever I find a penny or a dime or a quarter in the laundry, instead of pocketing it, I put it in the box and offer this little blessing: I'm grateful for the health and well being of my family. I try to say it without a trace of snark.

I'm always grateful for your comments — be they snarky or full of appreciation — just click here to share.

I'd like to express my gratitude for the fabulous photo that graces this post — Cafe Gratitude, San Francisco Mission District. My thanks to Shayan Sanyal who shared it through a Creative Commons license. 

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Healthcare is Bleeding Families & Small Businesses Dry — CMB Post

This post originally appeared on the now defunct Chicago Moms Blog:

I'll try to keep this short, but there will be nothing sweet about it. My husband and I have owned a small retail business for 18 years. This means we pay out of our own pocket every dime of our health coverage and expenses. The insurance premiums for our family are about $24,000 per year. Each year, they have increased dramatically, and we have had to reduce benefits and increase all our co-pays to be able to afford the premiums at all.

Over the course of 18 years, we have spent between $300,000 and $350,000 in healthcare premiums alone — just to protect our family, just in case. We have no dental or vision coverage, so those expenses are all out of pocket. Our gross and net income has actually declined since we started, so when I start doing the math … well, let's just say I feel sick.

But it isn't just the money.

We have been dropped by two different carriers who decided it was no longer profitable to provide individual family policies. We have a wonderful agent who continually looks for the best deal available, and we frequently change our coverage and carrier to keep our premiums from bankrupting us. In the course of this constant vigil to control our healthcare costs and remain a viable business, we have been denied coverage several times. I won't go into the reasons given to us. Most of them were spurious, and all of them were arbitrary and irrelevant to this discussion.

Our own discussions, as small business owners and heads of a household with small children, have included actually thinking about dropping our healthcare coverage. It is a dangerous, irresponsible option and we have always decided against it — but out of desperation, we have considered it. Between our insurance premiums and out of pocket medical expenses, the part of our budget that has been cut completely is savings, and this has its own long-term consequences.

My mother has Parkinson's Disease. She lives in Florida now, and has lost more primary care physicians and neurologists in four years than I can count because they have moved out of state, dropped her various Medicare supplemental plans, or simply stopped practicing. The stress on her and my father in weeding through the morass that is Medicare is taking a profound toll on their health and well being in these, their "golden" years.

I don't pretend to be an expert, but the AIG bailout and reports of record insurance industry profits make me break out in hives. Healthcare in America is profoundly dysfunctional — not because of the practitioners, who I know are the best educated, most skilled and profoundly dedicated medical personnel in the world — but because we, as a society, have been unwilling and unable to face up the the Herculean task of revising the financial aspects of this system and recognizing that healthcare is an important human right for everyone.

We have known for at least 20 years that this country was facing a serious healthcare crisis. Then the economy blew up and the crisis no longer loomed — it landed. Hard. If we have any hope of getting the economy back on its feet sooner rather than later, we must tackle the issue of healthcare head on, because it is the single biggest economic issue facing everyone from the largest multinational corporation to each individual citizen. Let's get busy.

This is an original Chicago Moms Blog post. When Susan Bearman isn't feeling nauseated over the state of healthcare in America, she can be found writing at Two Kinds of People and The Animal Store Blog.

Ed. Note: As a result of this post, CNN contacted Kenn at The Animal Store and interviewed him about healthcare and small business on 3/25/10. See the video clip here.

Friday, August 14, 2009

One Ephelis, Many Ephelides

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who have freckles and those who don't. 

I started thinking about this today as I smoothed sunscreen across that cute little nose you see there. I swear, if the boy could have stood still for more than 15 seconds, I would have been able to see them pop out of his skin and settle on his cheek bones. But it was hot, and the pool's siren song was just too strong, so off he went before I could get an accurate count.

Simple freckles, officially known as ephelides (but only to dermatologists), are small individual spots on the skin produced by cells that happen to contain more melanin – or pigment – than other skin cells. They are found most often in fair-skinned, light-eyed individuals, and are more common before puberty. 

My son seems pretty comfortable with his freckles. Like buds on the trees, they are one of the first signs of summer.  

Most of the kids I knew growing up hated their freckles. The actress Julianne Moore joined the growing list of celebrity children's book authors and revealed her own discomfort with her freckly skin in the Freckleface Strawberry books: "Once upon a time there was a little girl who was just like everybody else … except for one thing. She had red hair. And something worse … freckles." 

I'm not sure I like the idea of freckles being described as "worse" than anything, but I certainly knew kids who felt that way. One friend regularly rubbed lemon halves over her face in an effort to fade her freckles. Another, a red-head who was freckled from head to toe, took the opposite tack, obsessively sunning herself on the theory that if she produced enough freckles they would eventually merge together and finally produce the tan she so desperately wanted. It didn't work; she just burned between her freckles.

Not everyone feels that freckles are a cosmetic liability. In Judy Blume's classic children's tale, Freckle Juice, Andrew tries to make a potion to create freckles so his mom won't know when his neck is dirty. Today, you can learn to "Be beautiful. Be sexy. Be freckled." at (I kid you not).

The world of skin has completely changed since my childhood. Back then, we courted the sun. Instead of hiding, we slathered on baby oil, hoping to attract those tanning rays. Coppertone, Sea & Ski and Hawaiian Tropic were suntan lotions, not sunscreen or sunblock. Tans were in. I always found it ironic that while white America was struggling with the idea of civil rights for African Americans, most of us paid cold, hard cash to get a deep, dark tan.

Here's a bit of tanning trivia for you: while it's an urban legend that Jodie Foster posed for the little girl on the Coppertone bottle, she did make a commercial for the company in 1965 when she was just three years old (see it here on her Facebook fan page.)

In those unenlightened times, groups of teenage girls at pools and beaches everywhere would set kitchen timers so they knew when to turn and rotate their bodies to promote an even tan. My mom even had a friend who would sit in the yard with a bifold, foil-covered screen propped under her chin to intensify and focus those ultraviolet rays directly onto her face. 

Somehow we used to believe that you wouldn't start to tan until you had your first sunburn of the season, complete with the stinging red burn, followed by the prickling mini-blisters and, finally, the peculiarly delicious sensation of peeling tissue paper thin layers of sloughing skin from your body. I've only had a few sunburns in my life, but I will never forget the hours I spent on the peeling process. 

Now, of course, we know better. Summer,  like everything else, is one big risk factor. We can't even take a walk without worrying about skin cancer. I buy vats of the thick, generic sunscreen for our bodies, as well as the expensive oil-free stuff to coddle the vulnerable skin on my adolescents' faces. It costs a small fortune to keep us protected.

My own freckles aren't nearly as cute as those the sun sprinkles across my son's face each summer. Mostly on my arms and shoulders, my freckles are more irregular in size and color, evidence of the risky, irresponsible behavior of my youth. I'm glad I know how to educate myself and protect my family, but I miss the days when we didn't obsess about every little thing. We may have reduced our risk of melanoma, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it's at the expense of increased stress-related illness. Like Roseanne Rosannadanna said: "It's always something."

Who's your favorite freckle face. Pippi Longstocking? Ron Weasley? Howdy Doody? Click here to tell me. 

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Dressing Up in a Casual World — CMB Post

This post originally appeared on the now defunct Chicago Moms Blog.

This post is not about my wardrobe. That subject is too depressing for words.

And it's not about what my teenage daughter will wear to the family b'nai mitzvah (plural of bar and bat mitzvah) this weekend. She likes to dress up and, though she's not a fluffy or pouffy girly girl, she does have and wear dresses and skirts. Sadly for her, as someone who would always welcome a new party dress, she has plenty of appropriate options for this weekend, so no shopping required.

No, this post is about boys and dress clothes and why the mere thought of packing for this weekend has worn me out. During the year, there are only a handful of occasions that require my boys to get dressed up. And by "dressed up" I mean wearing pants with zippers, as my boys are slaves to comfort and live for the elastic waistband.

Here is just a sampling of the complaints I get from all three of them about zipper pants:
  • they're uncomfortable
  • they're too tight
  • they're inconvenient (I'm not making this up. Each of them has expressed to me that it is too much of a hassle to unzip when they need to use the john.)
So, because of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, one band performance and the occasional bar or bat mitzvah, I need to invest in dress clothes for three boys who don't want to wear them. Nothing aggravates me more than clothes that don't get worn taking up room in the bottom of a drawer or in our tight closets — nothing, that is, except paying for said clothes.

You would think with three boys at home there would be plenty of hand-me-downs to handle most occasions. Not so. Despite the fact that all three are slim, they have different body types. Elastic waist bands hand down quite easily; fitted clothing does not.

Earlier this year, I bought my eldest boy a new suit. He is 5' 7.5" and weighs 114 pounds. For those of you who don't instantly translate this into haberdashery equivalents, let me do it for you: suits do not exist in his size. He is too tall for the boys department, where he would wear a size 20, but the pants would be too short and most size 20s come in "Husky". With a 27" waist, he is definitely not husky; nor is he able to shop in the men's department, where pants start at size 30", with a rare 28" available in an ugly color or print, and they would still be too big, even with a belt.

I know some of you who watch What Not to Wear are about to utter the word "tailor". Let me warn you, I know two-fingered Vito, and he probably knows where you live, so don't say it. I am not about to pay to have expensive men's pants whittled down to fit my son so he can wear them once and then roll them into a ball in his closet. Not going to happen.

My middle guy, who will have his own bar mitzvah in November and is due for a new suit, can still fit in the jacket of his big brother's castoff, but the pants are too short. I'm not ready to buy him his bar mitzvah suit yet, because all 12 year olds do is eat and grow, and I would be highly irritated if the suit did not fit in four months. The youngest, who could theoretically wear the pants of the aforementioned castoff, won't wear them because they sit at his natural waist and that "bothers" him — he prefers pants that sit at his hips. Ugh.

Then there is the problem of shoes: my oldest boy's feet stopped growing mid-winter at a size 10 1/2 — bigger than his father's feet, so he can't borrow from dad. The shoes we bought him last year still fit (yay!). As of 10:30 this morning, however, he could only locate one of them.

The dress shoes I have for the middle guy are, granted, one or two sizes too big, but if I tie them really tight, I think they'll stay on for the two hours of the ceremony on Saturday. The only other pair of dress shoes we own are a size 4, which may be a bit snug for the little boy, but I think they'll fit. They will fit. I will make them fit, because I just don't think $2 flip flops from Old Navy with skulls on them are appropriate footwear for a b'nai mitzvah, do you?

Now, all we have left to worry about are ties. It seems the cute ones they got at age four, the ones that velcro on at the back of the neck, now reach only to mid-belly, which is less than cute. My husband's closet-full of rarely-if-ever-worn ties are too long, so I'm not quite sure what to do about the whole tie thing.

Here's my plea: can't we as moms figure out a way to recycle boys dress pants, suits, shirts, ties, belts and shoes. It's not like they wear out. It's not like they ever really even change in style. There must be a way to make dress-up events less toxic for families with boys. There. I have just given you a million-dollar idea. When you figure it out, let me know. I'll only take the 10% to which I am entitled, and I'd be happy to take that in trade.

This is an original Chicago Moms Blog post. When Susan Bearman isn't stuffing her children into uncomfortable clothing and telling them that they may not eat, play or breathe until after the event is over, she can be found writing at Two Kinds of People and The Animal Store Blog.