Monday, June 14, 2010

Sweet Treat (2.21.08)

At the end of a daytrip to the city with the kids, I always get a singular craving on the way home. We hit Lake Shore Drive going north and I must have a cupcake. Or two. A few bites of cake and cream are the perfect ending to an afternoon at the zoo or the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.

I'm lucky. Cupcakes are hot hot hot these days. Besides Chicagoland's wealth of bakeries that offer cupcakes (Sweet Mandy B's, Bittersweet, Deerfield Bakery), stand-alone shops selling the diminutive cakes are popping up like daffodils in spring. (My friend Ann says Swirls makes the prettiest cupcakes ever.) My favorite? The simply named, simply appointed Cupcakes. In a tiny jewel box of a storefront just off Broadway, you will find an adorable shop selling nothing but the tiny round cakes, displayed like so many pretty hats. Their flavors are inventive (Dr. Pepper! Chocolate Merlot! Salted Caramel!) and they offer "buy some -- get some free" cards, but horrors! They close the shop when they sell out. We've been burned by that "Closed" sign, but hope springs eternal.

Last weekend, after a lovely show of The Selfish Giant and a couple of hours in the Field Museum's new Crown Family Playlab, Mia and Nora and I headed up Clark Street to take our chances on Cupcakes.

But wait! Do I see a new cupcake shop? With Rock Star parking? (That's family slang for an empty spot out front.) I couldn't resist.

Molly's Cupcakes had just the right mix of whimsy to charm my kids: The name comes from a teacher who shared her favorite recipe and just happens to bear the same name as Mia's pre-school teacher. We found a free table complete with empty chairs and a game of Connect Four. Mia got a chocolate cupcake in a tiny flower pot, sprinkled with cookie crumb "dirt" and adorned with gummy worms. Nora and I shared a plate of four miniature cakes in Molly's house flavors - chocolate, vanilla, red velvet and carrot. (Please understand "sharing" for us is Nora taking a few licks at the frosting, then Mommy gobbling up the rest.) The subtle bite of sweet-sour in the carrot cake's cream cheese frosting was a pleasant surprise. And at the counter we found wooden seats suspended from the ceiling on chains so we could take a gentle swing before we hit the road. Adorable. Perfect for kids.

Molly's Cupcake's conventional flavors may not be the most daring but the whole experience satisfied in a basic way, like a swig of cold milk cutting through thick sweet icing.

Where do you find your favorite cupcake?

Cupcakes 613 W. Briar Place
Molly's Cupcakes 2536 N. Clark Street

American Girl's Big Changes (2.24.08)

In the February 20 Business section of the Chicago Tribune, theater critic Chris Jones broke the news that American Girl has decided to close all theatrical operations at their stores in Chicago, New York and LA. The last Chicago shows will take place in June. Later this year, the Chicago American Girl Place at 111 E. Chicago Avenue will close its doors and the store will move to Water Tower Place.

A million years ago, before I had kids, I took my nieces from Kansas City to the American Girl store for a performance in their comfortable basement theater. We enjoyed the sweet-voiced and earnest actresses and I was pleased not a single one sang, "Accessories are great!" ("Of course," my husband points out, "they got you in the seats. That's all the marketing they needed to do.")

I don't recall the particulars of the story, but the upbeat message was pretty much, "girl friendship means laughing and hugging and understanding and sometimes misunderstanding but eventually figuring it out-ing and forgiving and hugging some more."

I bought my tween niece a doll. (Her teenager sister was content to observe.) My sharpest memories of lunch in their café are of the little spotted scrunchies that encircled our napkins and matched the black, white and hot pink décor, the tiny seat for Chloe's new doll to join us at tableside (are non-American Girl dolls unwelcome?) and the sweet Irish waitress on a summer work visa. No word on whether the café will survive the move to Water Tower.

An innocuous way to while away an afternoon, right? I'm not sure. I'm all for overindulging the visiting nieces and grandkids, but now that I'm a mom, I'm in no hurry to introduce my own girls, three and five, to "retail therapy." Right now, I'm happy they consider clothes a means to keeping warm and used toys as fun as new ones.

What did we actually do when we take our daughters shopping as entertainment? Reinforce the idea that consumption in and of itself is fun? Or spend quality time? Teach them to value the accumulation of material goods? Or to tell the difference between a bargain and an extravagance?

For me, all the fresh and fun girl-power vibe of the movie Enchanted ground to a halt when the little girl character (who was all of six years old) went on an extended shopping spree with her new princess friend.

The mood and music stayed lively in this brief montage sequence, but I was squirming. So the modern day princess no longer makes her own clothes, but whips out a credit card? How do all those shopping bags mesh with thinking for yourself and defeating your dragon?

I wonder how hollow "the American Girl experience" will sound when the theater shuts down and the emporium becomes little more than a store.

Check out Chris Jones' blog for more about this decision's impact on Chicago's theater community. The comments, some apparently from parents of performers in the American Girl shows, shed light on the possibility that the theatres are closing because management is unhappy at attempts to unionize.

SAD At The Movies (3.4.08)

My husband worked all night, the babysitter had to cancel because her car won't start, the front walk and steps need shoveling and little Nora woke me at five because she was frightened. My eyes are sore and my brain is slow with the fatigue, but here is the miracle: I'm fine.

I was fine last night when my five year old had a blow-out tantrum over, well, over everything - bath time, bathwater temperature, choice of nightgown, you name it. She slapped her sister, then burst into tears and flopped on the ground, screaming, "I didn't! I didn't slap her! You don't love me! I don't love you! I don't LIKE you! I'll NEVER LOVE YOU!"

And I was fine, calm and distant from her jabs. "That's okay, Mia, 'cause I'll always love you enough for the two of us. Now step into this jammie leg, will you?"

What's the difference between this capable mom-self and that more familiar gloomy-mommy I know so well?

I’m convinced it's the sun. Really.

Two more hours of daylight than the sky eked out and I'm revived. Seasonal Affective Disorder is common and easily treatable, I’ve learned, but it was only this year that I finally acknowledged I’ve got a case.

Remember that movie with Robin Williams about heaven? The reviews of What Dreams May Come were largely awful, but I like it because the movie was shot in Glacier National Park, where Randy surprised me by showing up, ring in hand, while I was on a backpacking trip.

In the movie, Annabella Sciorra kills herself after the death of her husband and children and is sent to hell. This afterlife isn't your typical craggy fire-filled cavern; this woman’s hell resembles her own home, transformed into a dark and haunted house, filled with cobwebs and debris. She is lost and afraid, alone and anxious. She doesn’t know she is dead; she doesn’t recognize her own husband. And shortly after he joins her, he starts to slip into the same depressive stupor.

This scene reminds me of my winters. Not that those months are hellish – oh no, far from it – there’s such joy in our snow angels and Christmas and sledding and the girls catching snowflakes on their tongues. But half of my November and parts of December and much of January can be dark and anxious around the edges. And like that lonely movie mother, I've been myopic about my own illness. I think I'm okay when I'm really not.

One sunny morning last week I held the girls’ hands as we walked to the car after gym and ballet. It had snowed the night before and I sang out to Mia and Nora how pretty the day was. The way I said it reminded me of Fargo and I suddenly understood that right now, with spring on the way, I am Officer Marge Gunderson driving in the front seat of the Prowler. My angry self is shackled in the back, silent, always silent, because he does not know why he does what he does. But now that I’m getting my daily dose of good sun, I can say, "And here ya are. And it's a beautiful day. Well. I just don't understand it."

Besides creating an indelible Marge Gunderson, the great Frances McDormand (did you see her cheering and crying in the audience as her husband accepted the Best Picture Oscar?) played another role that is the most realistic depiction of non-clinical depression I’ve seen in a fiction film. In Nicole Holofcener’s Friends with Money, McDormand’s character Jane stops washing her hair and yells as parking space thieves, but still has a thriving career and loving relationships with her child, husband and friends. I look at her and again feel twinges of recognition. Here is a woman who is angry but functioning, out of sorts but more importantly, still capable of love and tenderness and concern for others.

I’m gettin’ me a SAD lamp. Twenty minutes a day, first thing, and we'll be good to go.

The Hunt for that Elusive Beast - Flattering Swimwear (3/12/08)

Alice Munro, one of my favorite writers, wrote a story about a young girl who, with a child's active imagination and innocent tactlessness, asks her parents, "Is there any sort of chance I could be adopted?"

To answer her, the mother unzips her skirt to show her "stomach, which looked flat when she was dressed, now (with) a slight fullness and sag." Proof positive, along with her silvery stretch marks, of pregnancy.

Despite Hollywood mommies claiming "good genes," most women have a little extra skin left after the superhuman stretching act that houses her child and enlarges her uterus five hundred percent of its normal size.

Extra belly may be the mother's badge of honor, but disguising my own wrinkly honor was foremost in my mind on a recent shopping trip for a new swimsuit. My faithful pink and orange number from two years ago had suffered a few too many beatings from the wash cycle - who has time to hand wash?

Post-pregnancy swimwear hunts have taught me that separates are the way to go - you can mix and match the top and bottom sizes and the degree of coverage. These days I don't mind showing a little cleavage, but I do feel naked in anything cut on high on the, ahem, nether regions. "Try Land's End," confided the kind saleslady at the department store. "You can choose your own height of the leg."

The new suit I finally found was cute and I looked okay in it. Tankinis are the greatest invention ever for moms who would be more likely candidates for space travel than for a tummy tuck. In my top, extra fabric falls from the bra top, while the back is bare. The bottom I chose resembled a pair of short shorts with a skirty wraparound piece that tied at the side. Cute. Functional.

Then I stepped in the water at the park district's indoor pool.

As I tried to swim laps, surrounded by a cloud of floating fabric, visions of Lindsey Lohan's filmy fabric in the Marilyn shoot and of Moslem women splashing in their long robes came to mind. The foam-filled cups that had cushioned and hid my girls on land now were floating to the surface, leaving me on my own, so to speak. I felt strangely chaste and lewd at the same time.

It seems there's a big difference between a "bathing" suit and a swim suit.

The Motherhood Learning Curve (3.19.08)

Mia says, “Mommy, I want to go to the library that’s the one next to the place that has the stickers with no pictures on them.”

I think for a minute. We’ve visited at least nine local libraries.

“Mia! Do you mean the library across the street from the park?”


Translation: When Mia said stickers with no pictures, she meant the circle stickers at the Paper Source on Central . . . . the specifics don't matter. What's exciting to me is that we just experienced a flash of our personal shorthand, or as I like to think of it, mother-daughter telepathy.

(When it happens, I always think of that moment in Broadcast News when Albert Brooks tells his close friend Holly Hunter over the phone, “Ok, I'll meet you at the place near the thing where we went that time.” And she knows exactly what he means.)

My occasional mind-reading is a kind of mothering competency that snuck up on me. When Mia was born, the forearms I tried to wrap around her seemed too stiff and straight for the job - how do you hold a soft infant with these two sticks? The grandparents and their advice were hundreds of miles away; the doctor may as well have handed me a baby Martian. Now, five years of on-the-job training and a second daughter later, I'm still fumbling with how to be a good mom, but I've learned a little bit about how to be their good mom.

Now I know when my two girls are hungry, I should demand very little of them, get food in their bellies ASAP and NEVER leave them alone in the same room together. I know when I catch Mia in a lie, her shame can be so painful that she may collapse. I know to make the correction matter-of-factly, and let her save face. I know to put out the bowl of broccoli and carrots first. I know the power of distraction and the power of a hug. Today, when Nora stopped in the middle of a foosball game and looked at me, I knew instantly she had wet her pants.

My girls and I had lunch with two mom-friends and their kids the other day. I held my friend's nine-month old while she took her toddler to the bathroom. With a grabbing, curious little monkey in my arms, I was still able to eat my lunch and help my two girls with their noodles and drinks. And enjoy it all. When did this ease sneak up on me?

There's an old joke we used to tell in the teachers’ lounge:

New Teacher: Where did you get your good judgment?
Veteran Teacher: Lots of experience.
New Teacher: And where does your experience come from?
Veteran Teacher: A lot of bad judgment.

Of course I still have questions, doubts. I am happy that my children are not transparent to me - they need the private corners in their heads where they can go to be their own mysterious, wonderful selves. So nearly every day I find myself playing a game called Loving? Or Spoiling?

Round One. By request, I hold Nora's nose while she washes her hands after a big poop. Loving or indulging?

Round Two: While I'm reprimanding her, Mia pulls a Mary Catherine Gallager, flopping around and crashing into some conveniently nearby furniture. She bursts into tears and holds up the injured limb. My stern voice morphs into comforting murmurs. Indulgent? Or empathetic?

It's a doubting game I may never finish. So be it. Perhaps what I'm calling mothering competency is actually, simply, a form of intimacy. An imperfect and precious intimacy born of hours, days, years spent close together, learning my children as they learn the world.

“Blood Relation” Sounds Like Something Out Of Braveheart (3.27.08)

My daughters have a “Grandma Ruth” and a “Grandma Lulu”, although neither one is my mother. Mia and Eleanor have lots of young relatives that we call “cousins” and women we call “aunts. ” Those titles emerged out of love and for the sake of simplicity; the actual relationships are a little more complicated. My girls are five and three years old – I figure there will be plenty of time to clarify the actual bonds when they are older.

For now, Aunt is our name for special friends and relatives alike.

Above all, it is a moniker of affection. It adds a little specialness, and sparkle. “Auntie,” like “Grandma,” has such a sweet sound, the food industry uses it to name pretzels, pancake syrup, frozen sweet potato pie.

I beam when called “Aunt Cindy.” My nieces and nephews who start to leave off the “aunt” sound old before their time, our relationship less huggy, more handshake. Aunthood can be such a pleasure to have with children, and when I was childless, it felt like an easy pleasure. There was such fun to be had making posters to flash at the NFL cameras with Max and Paige, dancing at the American Idols concert with the Tallahassee nieces, laughing as Maggie and Chloe rode a 10-speed and a trike around our living room couch. All the fun, but I still got to put my feet up to watch Tivo at the end of the visit. It was like parent try-outs.

Now I have my own girls and I’m on the other side of the fence, appreciating the women friends who act like my girls’ aunts, aching over the lost opportunities for relatives who could be closer. My girls are too young to know the difference, but for me, it’s a lesson in patience, in tolerance, in gratitude.

Aunt Jeanne may not acknowledge or reciprocate birthday or holidays, but she still sends funny and sweet random emails that brighten an otherwise uneventful Tuesday. Aunt Nancy divorced my brother, but she has never paused in the love and affection she pours on my girls. Aunt Jan, Aunt Boo - how shall I put it? - love their nieces in their own way. And those who earned honorary titles are truly queens: Aunt Becky, Aunt Rena, Aunt Sally, Aunt Katie all rushed into loving and close relationships with my daughters and they are cherished friends to me as a result.

It's like the old saying, some are born “Auntie,” some achieve “Auntie” and some have “Auntie” thrust upon them. I'm glad for them all.

An Inclusion Preschool Experience (4/9/08)

"Aren't you afraid of the other children hurting your daughter?" asked the mom at the playground. “Oh no,” I hurried to reply. “Mia gets more grief from her little sister than from any of the kids at school.”

I’d expected a lot more reactions like the playground mom’s to the news of our choice of an inclusion preschool for our daughter, who tests without developmental delays. But most parents I told just took it in stride, as did Mia. Since the passage of the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1975, children with vastly different skills learning together in the same classroom is becoming a commonplace reality.

In our area, there is a wealth (ha! "Wealth" is for sure!) of choices for private preschool with philosophies ranging from Waldorf to Montessori to "montessori-lite," from Emilio-Reggio to something called "Best Practices." (Wondertime magazine had a great recent article breaking down the differences between these approaches. You've got to check out the hilarious cereal boxes that illustrate the schools of thought.)

Years ago I’d studied the benefits and challenges of inclusion while getting my degree in education. I liked the idea of Mia learning lessons about patience and tenderness, acting as a role model, and forging friendship with children who had skills and abilities different than hers. I loved the idea of a classroom environment that embraced difference. I know that special education methods, such as varied repetition and using a variety of senses to explore an idea, can be beneficial to all children.

(But this all sounds rather lofty and I must be completely honest. Mia had had some episodes of fury probably not untypical of a two-year-old but pretty alarming to me. With my tendency to catastrophize, I felt most comfortable with her surrounded by unflappable professionals who were experienced with challenging little ones. And as the school months unrolled without incident, I figured out Mia was just saving all her love for me, if you know what I mean. Me and my lack of patience, that is.)

Two miles down the road from us, inside six classrooms within a public grammar school, we found Connecting Kids, a play-based inclusion pre-school. Services are without charge for children who test with special needs. The program's goal was for the classes to be balanced with half the kids having IEPs (individual education programs.)

After an initial visit to the school, my husband and I were happy with the ethnically diverse population of the children, the small class sizes, and the state-certified teachers. Two aides assisted each teacher in addition to the physical and speech therapists who worked with all the children as a group and individually. Mia did love the jumping and balance work of physical therapy and I was happy the lovely speech therapist could work with her on "the yadybug yives in the yog."

The classroom was large, colorful and bright, filled with neatly sorted toys and decorated with student work. Children played happily in this sensory rich environment with clearly delineated areas for reading, circle time and table work. A water table was periodically filled with snow, leaves, sand and other fun-to-touch materials. The education professionals appeared happy in their work.

Despite our initial idealistic goals of Mia acting as a role-model and such, the joyous real life tangle of playing and friend-making and interacting with the other kids was never a story of "us" and "them." The kids were all just kids. Like another playground mom said, "Hey, we ALL have special needs."

The actual day-to-day experience of Mia’s school seemed to require more adjustment from me than from my daughter. Mia made friends and loved going to school. But I was the one who felt impatience rising during classroom visits when the teacher and aides spent what I considered too much time teaching a student to sit quietly and still during circle time. So what if he wanted to flop around instead of sitting with "criss-cross-applesauce" legs?

"Is this a lesson in conformity or self-control?" I wondered to myself. I've taught high school and I've felt guilt over the imbalance of attention spent on my students, with the compliant ones usually getting the least. But this was not my classroom, these were not my students and Mia going to this school was not my experience - it was hers.

Mia came home one day and said, “Mike is funny! He says, ‘Muh-muh-muh-Mike!’ when he says his name!” Then she broke into peals of laughter. I knew Mike and his wonderful mom. I was horrified, picturing my daughter turned into a finger-pointing toddler-bully, but I pulled a mom-in-control face and replied, “Oh really?”

Then I couldn't help slipping into lecture mode. “Honey, you know you shouldn’t laugh when someone is trying to talk.” She gave me a blank look and I hustled to schedule a minute with the teacher.

“Is Mia making fun of Mike?”

“Oh no,” replied the young (so young) woman. “Mia LIKES Mike. And he likes her. They’re friends. She's not hurting his feelings.” It never occurred to me that Mia wouldn’t see anything wrong with the way her buddy Mike talked. In the innocent way of a child, she thought he was genuinely funny and just perfect the way he is. Chalk one up for Mia teaching Mommy again.