Brontë Continues Her Food Mining Operations; Carrots Threaten to Topple John’s Workplace Authority

Bunnies make terrible managers.
Bunnies make terrible managers.

Whenever I make Brontë a quesadilla for lunch, she expertly removes every trace of cheese, leaving a tortilla husk. Can’t quite bring myself to serve her a plate of melted cheese, though it would save us both some time. She views the tortilla as a wrapper for cheese, much as she views a croissant as a visually-appealing wrapper for melted chocolate.

In related news, my husband just said he is not going to buy another bag of baby carrots at the store tonight because it might give him a fart attack.

In his ongoing battle to shed his (food) baby weight, he is trying to bring healthier snacks to work. Cubicle life is rough for healthy eating. People constantly bring in doughnuts, brownies, and assorted homemade treats. Office buildings don’t tend to be well ventilated, so the appealing scents of sugar-laden foodstuffs tend to swarm the dreary scene like floaty cartoon demons beckoning you to savor naughty goods.

Even if you can resist the appeal, there is still a lot of social pressure to participate. Not eating with every one else can make you look like less of a team player. I think it’s tribal. For example, at my last state job (before I quit to stay home with the kiddos), we had a weekly meeting that always involved a giant box of doughnuts that would be passed around the circle until it was emptied. I got a lot of crap from my coworkers for only eating ONE doughnut.

I had taken the one doughnut partly so I wouldn’t look like the uptight girl on a diet that was  probably secretly judging everyone and possibly had an eating disorder and likely shouldn’t be entrusted with any valuable projects. When the box made the rounds a second time, I quietly passed it to my neighbor when the guy who had been talking about software updates (I was in IT) suddenly stopped and said, “That’s all you’re gonna eat?”

Everyone stopped an stared at me as I shuffled around, trying to come up with excuses for not eating more doughnuts. “Yeah,” I said, “I’m trying to eat a little healthier.”

A couple coworkers rolled their eyes as someone else piped up with “But you’re not fat!” I shuffled around uncomfortably, wondering why I had to make excuses for not eating multiple pastries and wanting to shout out, “But I WILL get fat if I eat a bunch of doughnuts all the time!” I couldn’t say that, though, because then it looks like I’m shaming everyone else for eating doughnuts and I could give a crap how many doughnuts anyone else eats. I just didn’t want to outgrow my clothes and would rather spend my forbidden food points on stuff like beer, cheese and pizza than a bunch of pastries.

It didn’t end there. Yet another coworker started in with, “She never eats the brownies or cookies.” See, you know how people tend to bring big platters of brownies or cookies to work and leave them out for everyone to share? People like to put those on my desk, and I don’t tend to eat them. I guess people noticed.

“Well,” I explained, “I don’t really have much of a sweet tooth. I’m more into fatty stuff like nachos and cheese.” My coworkers considered this for a moment, decided it was an acceptable response, and went back to discussing software updates. Whew!

When I walked to my cubicle the next morning, guess what was sitting on my desk? A giant platter of nachos and cheese, hand-delivered by the but-you’re-not-fat coworker. It was very sweet of him, but also a little bizarre. I’m not underweight, so why did my coworkers believe  it was so critical that I get more to eat? Sigh… I picked at the nachos all day to reassure my coworkers that I didn’t have an eating disorder and business as usual resumed.

Back to John’s office. He has no problem convincing his coworkers that he wants to partake in the culinary bounty and they find him rather amusing. He will swoop by, again and again, to shave off another sliver of cake or discuss the new servers while swiping yet another brownie from the platter. Someone regularly brings in something called “Señorita Bread,” that John finds absolutely irresistible. “I can’t stop eating it!” he will report, “It’s some ind of cornbread made with honey and butter and cinnamon and, I don’t know… it’s crazy good. I ate about half of it today. I need to get the recipe from them so you can try it!”

Why would I want that recipe!? Lost the baby weight so I can… leave butter-soaked honey bread around the house? “Nah, I’m good,” I tell him as he rolls his eyes at me.

Sheesh. So, John has recently hit his threshold/rock bottom lately, which for him is the point where he has to either cut back or buy the next belt size up. In order to better combat workplace food peril, he tries to bring healthier snacks to keep himself full. He likes baby carrots. He will buy bags of them and munch on them all day at work. I keep advising him to pair his carrots with some hummus or other dipping sauce that includes some fat and protein (to keep him better satiated), but he’s tired of my nagging and stomps out the door each morning with his bare carrots as if to tell me I can keep my damn hummus because a real man eats his carrots naked.

He loves his carrots, but there’s one problem: they give him a ridiculous amount of gas. He has come home from a carrot binge and repeatedly been angrily sent to the other end of the house until his insides calm down.

This has led to a couple embarrassing incidents at work. One time, he was listening to his iPod when another coworker started a conversation with him. John felt a fart about to escape but figured it was going to be quiet, so he slowly let it go… He fumbled to turn off his music as he was talking and suddenly heard the thunderous sounds of his bowels vibrating through conversation. His coworker waited till it was over, then resumed conversation as though nothing had happened.

Another time, John got to work early and saw that his cubicle patch was empty. Good time to let one rip, he thought, and released a long, slow fart. Just then, a coworker popped her head up from her desk (apparently, she had been digging into a bottom drawer) and said, “good morning!” Not the best way to start your workday.

I’m impressed that everyone at John’s work can keep such straight faces and play off farts so expertly. I’m positive that if a coworker of mine accidentally ripped one, I would be in absolute hysterics. I would be wiping tears off my face and trying not to point.

At any rate, the carrot fart situation does not appear to be improving and John is at a loss about what to do. I think his body will eventually calm down as it adjusts to a higher amount of fiber, but he (reasonably) is not sure he can withstand the adjustment period. It’s hard to maintain your authority at work when your butt says more than you do.

In the meantime, Brontë is feasting on melted cheese, Bridget is eating everything that isn’t nailed down, and John is trying his best not to blow the house up.


The Hungriest 6-Month-Old There Ever Was

She is temporarily satisfied and docile.
Temporarily satisfied and docile.

Seems like it was only yesterday that I couldn’t see my own feet, yet Bridget is already six months old. She is growing like a weed.

John and I were both only children, so this whole sibling thing is a novel experience for us. One thing we are discovering is how different every child is. There are so many theories about how environment affects child development that it’s easy to believe that parenting choices have consistent results.  You can easily fall into the trap of believing there is one “right” way to discipline, or to reassure your child, for example, because you had positive results when you tried it.

Yet Bridget has a distinct personality, already different from that of her big sister Brontë.So far, Bridget is much calmer, much less temperamental than her big sister in every way except one… she flies into a biting, scratching, screaming jackal-baby whenever she is hungry, and Bridget is much hungrier than you would ever think possible for someone who probably has a stomach the size of a crabapple.

Though I am still breastfeeding her as much as possible, her demands have far outstripped my supply at this point and I have the angry-baby welts, scratches, and bite marks from chin to bellybutton to prove it. It feels like I’m nursing a jackal. I’m pumping every chance I get in a mad attempt to increase said supply, and most of my free time is literally being eaten up by a frantic dash to get more food into my crazed infant. Our Vitamix is well used, these days, as every spare fruit and vegetable, grain and nut butter is blended into supplemental food smoothies we try to stuff down her gullet before she takes a match and burns the house down to the ground.

She will easily knock back ten ounces of milk in a sitting, then scream for more. I have made her drinks involving, say, a couple bananas, a few tablespoons of almond butter, some ground oatmeal, a couple cups of coconut water. I’ll think… This will definitely do the trick. She’s going to be absolutely stuffed… then watch the concoction disappear in under five minutes before she breaks into shrieking fits while clawing at my face. It’s not only exhausting, but baffling… WHERE IS SHE PUTTING IT? THE FOOD IS BIGGER THAN HER BODY!

Enormous appetite aside, Bridget appears to be extremely healthy. She is growing rapidly and gets high marks from our pediatrician (knock on wood!). She just eats… A LOT.  After every meal, I mash up whatever Brontë leaves on her plate and feed it to her baby sister. Then I mash up whatever I leave, then whatever John leaves. Then I usually duck into the kitchen to forage for more Bridget chow…

I swear this kid is going to eat us out of house and home.

Baby Chicken Progress Report

Chickens getting bigger.
Chickens getting bigger.

I bet in time, despite her past, through hard work and dedication Hester will come to be seen as an “able” and industrious chicken.

Please excuse the literature reference. I was an English major and just can’t help it.

The chicks are thriving. As you can see, their adult feather colors have replaced the yellow baby fluff. Rosie is becoming an exotic redhead as Hester grows into a charming brunette.

We still pet them everyday. Not having had chickens before, I have no idea whether they can become attached to you or not, but generally believe that petting animals is a good idea. It’s calming for you and tends to produce affectionate animals.

I suspect chickens can bond with you, however. In an earlier post, I mentioned my grandmother’s rooster that believed he was a dog after growing up around a pack of dogs. He was a little like Brian from The Family Guy. You know how Brian will do human stuff like drink martinis and debate politics then turn around and drag his butt on the floor like a dog?

Well, this rooster was also a hilarious mixture of different species’ behavior. He would roam around the yard with the dogs, occasionally pecking at the ground, and nap on top of the sleeping dog pile in the afternoons, his beak tucked back behind his wing. When the dogs got all riled up and started barking in unison, this rooster would loudly crow. Maybe he was thinking, Hmm, doesn’t seem like sunrise to me, but if the rest of the guys are on board…

Since that rooster was influenced by growing up in a foreign culture (dog culture), I figure these chickens might tame from daily cuddling. They are quite docile, so far. Brontë continues to observe them, happily, and yell at the cats whenever they menace the cage.

I’m less certain about the future psychological effects of constant cat menacing. Our kitties regularly spook around the baby chicks, wide-eyed and undoubtedly up to no good. Though Hester and Rosie are safely within their cage, being constantly stalked by four enormous dino-panthers throughout one’s childhood can’t be reassuring.

Occasionally, the kitties would tap on the cage with a raised paw, so we tried to put the cage up on a high shelf. Then the kitties would leap up to the shelf, which probably just made things worse. If there is anything scarier than being stalked by four enormous dino-panthers, it might be watching four dino-panthers leap the equivalent of fifteen stories to leer at you.

Finally, we moved the chicken cage to a back room and kept the cats out of it. Now maybe the little gals can cheep in peace.

Trip to Monterey; My Kids vs. The Army

Beach family
Beach family

For my birthday this year, we decided to take a trip to Monterey with the kids. It was an interesting experience for me, since I hadn’t been there in over a decade. Not since I was in the US Army, studying Arabic…

The surroundings seemed very surreal, foreign yet strangely familiar. It was a whole different life, a whole different marriage… When you keep visiting a place, the place grows with you. You make new memories and form new impressions. But sometimes when you, say, hear music or smell a scent you haven’t experienced in years, old memories come crashing back. You remember the feel, the atmosphere, and many of the thoughts that used to spin in your mind when you last roamed this environment, heard the song, or smelled the perfume… it’s as though you revisit an old self in a dream, but with your present self.

Looking at the beach, I suddenly remembered how every Friday was the “Fun Run,” AKA the day we ran on the beach (most soldiers were suckered in by the marketing, but I knew running on the beach is just HARDER). I saw Compagno’s Market and suddenly remembered how we would drop by for Meatball Subs, handwritten sandwich descriptions on the wall. I saw fish murals lining the highway and the occasional soldier dressed in his BD Uniform walking up stark hills with the perfect posture that comes from constant formation line-ups. I remembered all the fun nights at the American Legion (no one can blow off steam like a soldier in training), and regretted that I couldn’t visit the base. I’m sure more memories I would never otherwise remember would crop up if I could only stroll the grounds…

How different the place seems when you are just a tourist. Suddenly, it’s a happy beach town packed with John Steinbeck references. We strolled along Cannery Row before heading to the beach, where our daughters encountered the ocean for the very first time.

That was amazing. Brontë giggled and ran back and forth chasing seagulls, racing into the water and squealing back onto shore as the icy waves tingled her feet. Bystanders couldn’t help but chuckle at her loud, unbridled enthusiasm. How incredible everything seems to my daughter… the feel of the sand, the sounds of the ocean, the scattering sea gulls racing about the sand… it’s all so new and real and powerfully raw to children.

When do we lose that enthusiasm? How do we get it back? It may be cliche, but seeing the world through your child’s eyes reminds you how stunning our universe is, even the simple things that we adults have long taken for granted.

Bridget can’t walk yet, so she was sadly unable to race around the beach with her sister, but she seemed happy enough squeezing wet sand through her fingers. Kids live in the moment. The aren’t worried about what they need to accomplish, or what time it is, or what someone else will think of their behavior. They can just sit there, feeling the sun on their backs, the cool water splashing on their bare toes, and wet sand squeezing through their little fingers.

We then went to the kitschy little Monterey history wax museum at Cannery Row. For a modest fee, you go underground to see a bunch of fun wax figures that appear to be unchanged since about 1955, as well as the sentiments.

Many of the early exhibits show Conquistadors conquering the Natives in the Monterey area and establishing the early capitol of California (did you know Monterey used to be the capitol of California?). They depict a Spanish class of elite overlords with Native American slave labor… whipped, forcibly converted to Christianity, and otherwise treated like crap. The Spanish conquerors sure seem to have been bastards. Are we allowed to say that? Do they count as conquering Europeans in this case, or as part of Latin/Catholic history that I, as a descendent of WASP’s, should be reluctant to judge? I’m feeling white guilt confusion. Either way, the natives got a pretty raw deal.

Then we learned about how sardines used to be the “in” fish to eat in America. This was the heyday of Monterey’s canning operations, the setting of John Steinbeck’s novel. I guess canned tuna hit the market eventually and America dropped sardines like bell-bottems in the 1980’s. Monterey’s canning industry never recovered.

The kids couldn’t follow the history yet, of course, but they liked all the dolls dressed up in vintage costumes.

Finally, we went to the aquarium. It’s an amazing place, packed with more types of fish than I ever knew existed. The penguin tank was delightful. The hagfish was fascinating… also known as the “slime eel,” the hagfish is a primitive fish with five hearts and no eyes. They squirt a sticky sugar slime as a defense mechanism.

The hag fish truly seems like it should’ve been weeded out by newer evolutionary models, but since they are still around, I guess it’s a solid design.

I’ve included a photo I took from the second level of a massive fish tank. It’s a palimpsest–underneath the photo people is a fish exhibit…

The human animal at play, taking photos.
The human animal at play, taking photos.

After a long, wonderful day, we bundled the kiddos up and drive back to Sacramento. I’m a little surprised I hadn’t visited since my Army days, given that it’s only a few hours away. But then again, maybe I hadn’t wanted to revisit my Army days.

I think seeing Monterey through my children’s eyes was tremendously healing. Instead of the pressure, the fear, the uncertainty, this time I only saw the peaceful ocean, the scattering birds, and the warm sand.

We Have Chickens!

Our daughter is kinda happy about the new chickens.

We finally took the plunge and brought a couple of baby chicks home.  As I mentioned in an earlier post (Kids make Messes), I had been thinking about getting chickens so our daughters could play with them, eat fresh organic eggs, and learn that food doesn’t all come from a store-bought box. We decided to get two so they would have a friend (but a family of four only needs so many eggs). Knowing my plans, my folks graciously gifted me a cute little chicken coop for our backyard.

After doing a little research on chicken breeds (since I’m beginning this project with almost no chicken knowledge), I first looked into the Leghorn variety. Why? Well, Foghorn Leghorn, of course (that’s how little I know about chickens–I’m referencing talking cartoon characters). Turns out, American Leghorns were bred for high egg production, not personality, and are basically jerks. This doesn’t work for my granola fantasies about my daughters bonding with their new chicken buddies.

Alright, I guess cartoons didn't completely whitewash Leghorn jerkiness...
Alright, I guess cartoons didn’t completely whitewash Leghorn jerkiness…

Scratching Leghorns off my list, I was next intrigued by the Araucana breed because it lays blue eggs. That’s pretty cool. The eggs taste the same, however, which makes the blue shade more of a novelty than a game changer. Hmm…

The Rhode Island Red is a very controversial breed. Many owners said they are bullies who boss around other chickens, while other owners claimed they are the sweetest chickens they have ever had. After reading a lot of conflicting diatribes, I got the impression that Rhode Island Reds have a lot of personality, which can either be extremely friendly or belligerent.

Ultimately, John and I decided to just go into a feed store in Loomis and grab whatever appealed to us. We stuck our hands in a giant cage packed with miscellaneous chicks and went on a petting frenzy. Fuzzy yellow dandelion butts scattered to and fro in a chorus of peeping as the clerk pointed out breeds (how the heck could he tell which breeds he was looking at, I haven’t the foggiest idea).

We ended up choosing the ones that didn’t run away when we tried to pet them: a Rhode Island Red (who we named Rosie) and an Australorp (named Hester).  I grilled the clerk at length about how to care for baby chicks before we went home to set up their little cage with a warming light bulb.

As you can see from the above photo, Brontë is absolutely tickled pink to have baby chickens. We pull them out to pet them at least once a day, since we want them to be as tame as possible around our babies. Our daughter stares at them for hours, wide-eyed. She yells out “Eat!” when they peck at their feed and “Milk!” whenever they drink water (all liquids are “milk” to Brontë). She is beside herself giggling and chirping at them.

She is also very protective of them, having appointed herself First Lieutenant of Cat Patrol. Brontë goes berserk whenever a kitty veers too close to the chicken cage, yelling “NO NO! BAD! GO AWAY! NO!” Cartoons have already taught her to be suspicious of cat intentions around little birds, much as she loves the kitties.

Brontë is thrilled just to have a couple of chickens around. I’ve tried to explain that they will be laying eggs, but I’m not sure if she gets it. She stares at me, blinking, and probably thinking, “What is this delusional woman telling me? Eggs are white things that come in a carton from the grocery store. These are birds. Well, maybe if I just listen and nod occasionally, she will stop talking this nonsense about eggs falling out of these little yellow birds.”

I can’t wait to see her gather the first eggs.

Cats Will Babysit Your Kids

Raj is on Bridget-Watch this morning.

My great grandmother used to believe that cats will suck the breath out of babies. She had a lot of interesting beliefs. Sounds crazy, but I guess that used to be a common opinion that still surfaces from time to time. You would think a little logic would dispel the myth, yes? I’ve never seen a cat try to suck the breath out of anything. How would a cat even do that? Why would a cat NEED to do that, given how plentiful oxygen is?

It all smacks of a much older, even ancient, mythology… where cats are demons that are possessing the souls of the innocents. Something about cats and witches and devils and calamity. My great grandmother was a strange mixture of extremely Christian and throwback Druid… she would obsessively watch religious programming, yet knew all kinds of herbal remedies and would buy dozens of Ouija boards. She would paint them black because the Ouija symbols were “of the devil,” then use them as lap desks. I always wondered why she felt compelled to buy them if they were of the devil, but she seemed determined.

She was also an odd mixture of helpful advice and bizarre superstitions. She was a breastfeeding advocate who never shaved (because “that’s the was God made me”), and did not believe in episiotomies (“They shouldn’t have to cut you. Doctors should know how to turn the baby right”). You go, grandma… I sure as hell didn’t want to be cut, and apparently medical wisdom is starting to turn against routine cutting. She also didn’t believe in buying special baby food instead of grinding up whatever the parents are eating. You could say she had ancient wisdom about such things.

But she also had some strange beliefs, like the idea that eating too much salt will make your blood turn to salt in your veins. She spoke in a symbolic way that was lost on me as a child. She would say, “Jesus is knocking at the door!” so, I would run to the door and open it, wondering where Jesus went. I could never figure out if grandma was hearing things or if Jesus was constantly pranking the house.

Either way, the cat sucking baby’s breath deal is most definitely a myth. It’s always a good idea to supervise animals around infants, of course, because even blankets can accidentally suffocate an infant who is unable to flip over or move around much. But at our house, at least, the cats have been excellent infant guardians. They snuggle up around our babies and purr, these protective panthers who never scratch. Cats are calming. They must seem enormous to our kids. I wonder if they are leaving a primal impression on their developing minds and whether the image of giant feline sentries is lodging itself in their collective unconscious. Freya, the Norse love goddess who rides a chariot pulled by massive cats, may seem significant some day. Or Bastet, the Egyptian perfumed protector.

Cats really suffered a reputation slip in Medieval Europe, didn’t they? Once they were gods, and then they were suddenly evil witches’ companions. You would think cats would be held in higher esteem by the Medieval folks, what with all their rat problems: Rats busting into the granaries to demolish the bread supply, rats spreading the Bubonic Plague all over the place… A well-equipped Cat Army might have really helped out.

Cats must have been a great comfort to older women in those days, napping quietly nearby as women sat at the hearth, weaving, stirring stews, and doing whatever older ladies did back then. Rounding up old women and their pets seems unspeakably cruel.

My grandma kept a few cats around the house, despite her conviction that they were after babies’ breath. She would have liked mine.

Kids Make Messes

Chickens = Eggs
Chickens = Eggs


Breathe… Breathe… It’s gonna be okay…

Saying kids are messy is a bit like calling the sky blue and the grass green. Yes, we all know kids are messy (whether we have them or not), but the sheer scope and magnitude of their messes can be mind-blowing. Like the time Brontë pulled her diaper off, hid it, then used our white-carpeted stairs as one giant roll of toilet paper…

She is genuinely distraught about the eggs. I think I know what she was planning: John and I have been discussing getting some chickens. Our kids love animals, I think animals are good for children and I think getting fresh, organic, free-range eggs would be terrific for the family. I like the idea of involving our kids in making meals. They should know where real food comes from.

My plans may be a tad ambitious, but I’d love to keep chickens and let the girls collect the eggs. I’d also like to grow some vegetables and let the girls help tend the garden. Maybe they will want to eat more eggs and veggies if they have been involved in their production? It has to be better than food always magically appearing out of a bag or box, right?

Brontë has hit an age where she wants to be helpful. She likes to help unload the dishwasher and clothes washer. It takes a little longer with her participation, but I’m trying to be encouraging about it. I figure if she has positive associations with these sorts of chores, she will continue being helpful when she is older and more dexterous. Why not put this helpfulness to good use by getting chickens? It’s a win-win… she can build a sense of competence, we can spend time together in a productive activity, and she can learn to eat better food.

So, there has been a lot of egg talk around the house lately. Free-range chickens produce better eggs. Farmed chickens, in addition to living pretty miserable lives, are fed cheap grain and pumped full of antibiotics. backyard chickens eat grass and insects all around your yard, which is packed with more protein and nutritious plant oils.

Brontë keeps hearing us talk about needing eggs. My guess is that she thought, ” Eggs? Mommy needs eggs? I know where there are a whole BUNCH of eggs! I’ll get into the fridge and bring mommy a carton of eggs and she will be so happy!” Excited by her plans, she undoubtedly dug into the refrigerator, pulled out a carton, and shakily carried it up the staircase while envisioning mommy’s approval and delight.

And suddenly, she tripped. A carton of eggs crashed to the floor, smearing yellow goo and shattered shell bits all down the stairs. Mommy runs out to see what happened and throws her arms up in the air as frustration breaks out all over her face. Brontë feels defeated and a slow wail builds deep within, crescendoing into a loud, sobbing scream. Mommy sighs, tells her it’s okay, and goes off to get some cleaning rags.

Poor Brontë. I think she meant well.

Date Night Unexpectedly Becomes Anti-Vegan Propaganda

Tom Cruise plans to hang off the outside of planes well into his 80's.
Tom Cruise plans to hang off the outside of planes well into his 80’s.

Since my folks have graciously offered to watch the girls for an evening a week, every Friday is date night for John and I. This is a fantastic arrangement I would recommend to all parents, if possible, because it lets our kids regularly spend time with their grandparents and gives us a weekly break.

Let’s face it: as much as you adore your children, they are a lot of work and consume a huge amount of attention. Taking an occasional breather helps you be a better parent and strengthens your relationship. It’s good to spend some quality time with your partner without being on constant alert, in perpetual hyper-vigilant parent mode.

Our routine usually consists of dinner and a movie. We recently signed up for MoviePass to save a little money, and I am getting no kickbacks for endorsing them (though I would be very open to kickbacks. Did you hear that, MoviePass?). Anyhoo, John and I have different film tastes, so we take turns picking the movie each week. One week will be a romantic comedy, the next a superhero film, the next a crusty British period drama, and the next a bank heist… you get the idea. This system has served us well. Not only do we spare ourselves endless bickering, but we also end up sometimes loving the movie our partner picked, which we would probably never have otherwise seen. For example, we saw Trainwreck last week, and John thought it was hysterical.

This week was John’s pick, so we saw Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. It was a lot of fun, even if a couple scenes crossed the line from improbable to ridiculous, but I’m not here to talk about the relative merits of that movie. No, I feel the more urgent topic here is the dramatic difference between how Tom Cruise and Alec Baldwin are aging.

I realize some people think Tom Cruise has aged out of the Mission Impossible series, but while I was watching the movie, I couldn’t help but think, Holy crap, that man is in his 50’s! He looks freakin’ incredible! He is in amazing shape, and only has a few fine lines about the eyes. I believe he could easily pass for a man in his early 30’s.

On the other hand, time has been less kind to Alec Baldwin. I hate to pick on the guy, because I think he’s a wonderful actor and I loved him on 30 Rock. But he could easily play Tom Cruise’s father (a father with distinguished good looks, but his father, nonetheless). So, I googled their birthdays to find out the actual age difference between them, and holy crap, Alec Baldwin is only four years older than Tom Cruise. Not enough to merit a generational difference, to be certain. Tom is 53 and Alec is 57.

What makes this all so surprising for me is the fact that, in my opinion, Alec used to be so much hotter than Tom. Because of intellectual property issues and copyright law, I can’t just post a bunch of early Alec Baldwin photos, but google him. The man was an Adonis… the type that could make you forget your name with a single intense flash of those smoldering blue eyes. He started off ahead of Tom, so we can’t just dismiss the difference to superior genetics. At this point, Alec is still pleasant looking, but slap an abrasive personality on those looks instead of his confidant charisma, and no one would look at him twice.

Tom, on the other hand, is a damn fine-looking man, even if his couch-leaping Oprah antics make him seem a bit insane. I found myself wondering what the hell he does to stay in such good condition after so many years. After all, his iconic Risky Business dance took place in 1983. That’s more than thirty years ago. Most current hot guys weren’t even born yet.

The easy answer is that Tom is super rich and can afford plastic surgery, botox, dietitians, and personal trainers. True, but isn’t that also the case with so many other celebrities? Like, for instance… Alec Baldwin? Not all A-listers are faring as well as Tom, despite their special access to perks.

There are a countless number of different diets touted by the media, nutrition experts, and various stars. You’ve got low-fat, low-carb, Paleo, vegetarian, vegan, anti-gluten, anti-dairy, Dukkan, Atkins, calorie restriction… they are not only different, but mutually exclusive. Countless fitness and beauty magazines feature gorgeous celebrities on the cover, who answer detailed questions about dietary preferences and exercise habits in the inside articles.

The problem with these interviews is that the celebrities are so often in their early to mid twenties. Young bodies can be pretty forgiving. In college, I knew loads of people who looked terrific despite living off Top Ramen, takeout pizza and six-packs of cheap beer. Lifestyle choices simply hadn’t caught up to them yet.

So to figure out the best way to cheat time, I want to read about the regimens of folks who still look incredible after their contemporaries have started resembling a melted-candle version of their former selves, not the fickle food fads of babies. Take veganism, for example… maybe it’s the way to go, but it scares me. There aren’t enough examples of people who remained vegans for decades. Maybe it keeps you young, or maybe it just makes young people skinny while nutritional deficiencies add up like termites munching at your very foundations until the whole building collapses by midlife. Pamela Anderson isn’t looking so hot these days. Michelle Pfeiffer looks good, but she’s a recent convert. Maybe veganism is a lot like tanning: it looks great now, but you’re gonna be sorry twenty years later.

Maybe Tom has figured out the fountain of youth. At the very least, I decided to do an internet search of Tom’s and Alec’s set and fitness regimes, hoping that the differences might reveal some answers…

Most of what I found about Tom’s diet came from sketchy sites with lots of misspelled words, as though the author was neither a native speaker, nor had the means to employ one. Hardly the sort of person that has a special pass to celebrity secrets. All the info I could glean from more reputable sources consisted of:

  1. Tom using his buddy David Beckham’s plan, which consisted of a 1200 calorie diet made up of lean proteins (chicken and fish), fruits and vegetables,
  2. His personal chef cooked for the cast of Mission Impossible, Cast member Simon Pegg said they ate things like,”incredible stews and chorizo, these dates that were stuffed with peanut butter and sprinkled with coconut.” And apparently, cast members would “break” by eating chocolates left on their hotel pillows: “They would ask each other ‘Did you eat your chocolates?’ But Tom never did. Tom is disciplined to a T. It’s amazing.”
  3. He works out a lot.

Hmm. Not a ton of information to go off of here, but the lean meats, fish, and chorizo suggests Tom is definitely not a vegetarian or vegan. His refusal to touch hotel chocolates suggests he stays away from refined sugars, and I didn’t notice any refined carbs on these lists. The chorizo and peanut butter suggest he doesn’t avoid fats… could he be Paleo? Dates and coconuts are sweet, but they are natural sugars. Dairy wasn’t mentioned. The Beckham method of meats, fruits and veggies would fit into the Paleo system.

In contrast, let’s look at what Alec has been eating. Apparently, he was vegetarian for many years since he was married to Kim Bassinger (famously vegetarian). This isn’t looking good for vegetarians, though we really have no idea what kind of vegetarian Alec was. For all we know, Alec was eating french fries and ice cream all day, which would still make him a vegetarian.

Alec married an inappropriately younger woman a few years back, which made him more conscious of his physical condition. He lost 35 pounds, saying he avoided added sugar and started using soy milk. Maybe the soy milk speaks to his previously veggie lifestyle. At least he agrees with Tom about the evils of added sugar.

On Alec’s exercise he has apparently lost a lot of weight for his young wife using pilates an yoga, in contrast to Tom’s resistance training (more Paleo-inspired clues). I’m partial to yoga and pilates, since I do them myself and have seen great results, but again, Alec’s physique is no match for Tom’s. Alec’s neck is now wider than his head.

Based on this admittedly limited data, I’m going to have to award a point to the Paleo team. Or at the very least, I have to conclude that a well-balanced carnivorous diet beats out a sloppy vegetarian one. I’m anxiously awaiting what life lessons can be gleaned from next week’s flick.

Americans Are Too Damn Clean, Part 1; Bronte Continues to Try the Cats’ Patience

Send help.
Send help.

Brontë told me today that the cat took her diaper off and applied diaper cream. It was really nice of him to help out, since we have so much going on around here.

This photo of my daughter and our resourceful cat will likely inspire a range of reader reactions. Some (probably pet owners) will think it’s adorable. Others will be horrified.

In the horrified group, some will have noticed the “help me” look in the cat’s eyes. Well… my daughter loves the kitties a lot, sometimes a lot like Lenny from Of Mice and Men. She tackles them and buries her little face in their fur. The cats have shown tremendous patience throughout her exuberant toddlerdom, mostly indulging her aggressive love, and occasionally running away when she gets too rough. When she truly crosses the line (trying to yank whiskers out or pulling on tails), they lightly pepper her arm, which has proven a far more effective training tool than our insistence that she be more gentle. Overall, the cats have a wonderful relationship with our daughters, packed with snuggling, purring, and hysterical string chasing.

The horrified group that aren’t concerned about the pet’s health and safety are made up of folks who believe you should get rid of your pets when you have children. This is usually because they are afraid that:

  1. Pets will injure their kids. If you have a vicious, unpredictable pet, getting rid of it is a good idea. I don’t believe cats should be declawed, however, unless the cat is  unusually aggressive. Or,
  2. Pets are dirty and will make their children sick.

I’d like to address the hygiene issue, for the benefit of potentially relocated pets everywhere. If your child has severe allergies or a compromised immune system, then yes, it may be a good idea to get rid of your pets. For everyone else, however, pets will actually improve your child’s health.

Yes, cats and dogs are a little bit dirty (by human standards). They run around outside, rolling in dirt and various plants, crapping in litter boxes or the open air, and don’t scrub themselves with soap and hot water. They are covered in germs. The very idea induces shudders amongst ultra-hygienic Americans, as they bathe their hands in sanitizer.

But you know what? Americans are too damn clean. I know, I know… that sounds crazy. Clean is good. Clean is pure. Clean is healthy. We have all kinds of pleasant associations with cleanliness, from happy clean bodies to sinless souls. Ivory soap is 99 44/100 % pure, so pure it floats (and in my experience, so caustic that it leathers your skin in a few washings). Clorox cleans the “purest clean.” Cover Girl is “clean makeup” (even though it makes everyone break out).

We Americans really like clean. And if there is anything we need to keep clean, it’s babies. They came into the world clean, clean of body and spirit, and we need to keep them that way. Why would we want anything dirty around our clean babies?

Because it’s possible to be too damn clean and Americans have crossed that line. Somewhere around the turn of the century, we figured out that survival rates in hospitals improved drastically when doctors washed their hands. Before that, doctors would handle patient after patient, some of whom had deadly infectious diseases, without washing their hands. Sometimes they even handled cadavers, often the cadavers of people who died from fatal infectious diseases, then went on to meet sick patients with compromised immune systems or even perform surgeries. Obviously, disease spread like wildfire under these conditions and there was a mass campaign to bring sterilization and better hygiene to the medical profession.

This is all very reasonable, but things eventually got out-of-hand. I blame advertising. Marketers jumped on the opportunity to convince everyone that you needed to buy their products and use a lot of them if you didn’t want to become an unhealthy, socially-unacceptable slob. People used to wash their hair weekly, but now you need to wash it every day, twice (lather, rinse, and repeat). Doesn’t matter if you have dry hair, because instead of washing less frequently, you should use a shampoo specially formulated for dry hair. You’ll wash out your styling products and need to apply more, which means you’ll need to buy more. You also need to scrub every inch of your body with antibacterial soap, every day, and apply antiperspirant. Anything else would just be gross.

Baby care became increasingly sanitized, especially through the 1950’s. Cleanliness was supreme, and a reflection on the mother. Everything needed to be scrubbed, laundered, and de-germed. Upholstery was regularly vacuumed. Strollers were taken apart and disinfected, bolt by bolt. Even today, grocery stores offer sanitary wipes to disinfect shopping cats before children are loaded into them.

You know what the result of all this effort has been? A crapload more allergies and asthma. You see, the human animal did not spawn in a vacuum. We were always meant to make contact with the outside world, and our immune system carefully evolved under these conditions. We have a delicate balance of microorganisms in our guts, one that can be really screwed up by regular antibacterial blasting. While we obviously need protection from really nasty, lethal germs like ebola and tuberculosis, our bodies are usually equipped to handle everyday germs.

When you start over-sanitizing everything, our systems suffer, and science has started catching onto this. What do you think probiotics are? It’s just a nicer-sounding word for germs. We are putting them back in yogurt and taking them in capsule form because we are figuring out that we don’t have enough good bacteria in our guts anymore. “Probiotic yogurt” sells better than “Yogurt with germs.”

People are getting vitamin B12 deficiencies because B12 normally comes from the gut of animals, but our factory stems are blasting them with so many antibacterials that they aren’t supplying our bodies with enough of it anymore. This didn’t use to be a problem.

When you get a vaccination, it works like this: you are exposed to a little bit of a germ and your immune system develops antibodies to handle it (I realize some people are against vaccination, but that’s a subject for another post). Well, when you have a cat or dog that runs around the yard, it acts a bit like a natural inoculation for your child. The pet picks up little bits of flora and fauna in its environment and brings it back to your kid. Your kid’s immune system is then familiarized with the flora and fauna and is less likely to view it as a foreign particle requiring an allergic reaction.

This is counterintuitive, I realize. It feels like if we work harder to create a clean environment, we should be rewarded with a healthier child. Harder work should equal a better result, yet science supports the theory that a little dirt is good. Kids raised with pets since infancy have fewer allergies and a lower incidence of asthma.

I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid, I used to eat grapes and berries straight from gardens or off bushes. Turns out, this was a good thing. Kids eating unwashed fruit have a better balance of gut bacteria than those who eat cleaned food. You should also let your kids play in dirt. It’s good for them.

Interestingly, some Swedish researchers recently found out that kids from homes that hand wash their dishes have a lower incidence of asthma, eczema, and allergies than the ones from homes with a dishwasher. This is probably because hand washing dishes removes the major germs, but doesn’t sterilize everything to the degree that a high-power dishwater does. Now I’m not suggesting everyone give up their dishwashers (I’m too lazy to hand wash everything), but it lends support to the idea that cleaner isn’t always better.

The takeaway from all this? Unless your kid has a specific condition, you probably don’t need to worry about a few germs or give away your pets. Pets are a little dirty, and that’s a good thing.

Space, Controversial Toys, and Getting Rid of Stuff

This photo symbolizes the importance of experience and outside play over having stuff (okay, not really. It's a cute photo of my daughter feeding ducks).
This photo symbolizes the importance of experience and outside play over having stuff (okay, not really. It’s a cute photo of my daughter feeding ducks).

My mother is an enthusiastic thrift store shopper and an even more enthusiastic grandma. Put those together and what have you got? Bibbidy-bobbidy, bibbidy-bobbidy, bibbidy-bobbidy… TOYS! (Can you tell I’ve been watching Cinderella lately?)

Mom is very good at finding awesome stuff at great prices. Thrift store/second-hand clothes and toys are also great for kids. They can get them dirty, mess them up, and grow out of them in two hours without breaking the bank. Mom has saved us loads of money by sending the girls home with endless outfits, shoes, books, and toys. They have had a blast with all of it.

The only downside to this arrangement is that all the stuff starts to add up, especially when combined with indulgent mommy and daddy purchases. The items keep increasing, which tends to explode all over the house until we desperately begin to box the overflow up and pack it into the garage. Now, the garage is overflowing and rapidly becoming unusable…

I realize that having too many toys is what some would call a “first world problem,” but it is a problem, nonetheless. I find myself struggling more and more to pick up exploded toy debris and if I can barely handle it, it’s impossible for a toddler to manage. The situation is getting desperate. I want to take the girls outside more, but keep feeling sucked into a black hole of archived possession upkeep. The more stuff we have, the more unusable it becomes… pieces to a toy set become randomly scattered like a roomful of mismatched puzzle pieces, and what good are toys doing us when they are boxed up in the garage?

Tripping on a pile of toys in the living room and smacking my head on the wall was my rock bottom. I have reached a breaking point. This has to go.

Another huge motivator is that we have decided to move back to Sacramento. When we found out I was pregnant, John and I decided it was time to buy a house. We decided to move to the suburbs in the Rocklin/Roseville area because we could get a lot more house for our money and it seems like a great place to raise a family. Schools are good, crime is low, parking is ample…

After spending a few years out here, however, we have decided to come back. We are city people. We miss our friends and our hangouts. We miss city events, having museums and fun attractions nearby, the ability to walk or bike to farmer’s markets, more diversity, local writer’s groups, and block parties. Discussing the relative merits of the city vs. the suburbs would easily fill its own post, so let me just say that we have decided to move back and move on.

Moving back, however, almost certainly means we will be living in a smaller house. So, we absolutely HAVE to get rid of stuff. I think this is a good thing. Families used to live in smaller houses and were no less happy. Living in less space makes you get outside more. A bigger house means more upkeep, more to clean, and higher bills.

A smaller house will be good for us, I think, but it means my current project is editing our possessions. The past couple of days, I have brought every box of kid clothes, books, and toys in from the garage and begun the painstaking task of sorting through them. It’s difficult, because the kids love every single toy they own and freak out at the thought of losing it. But, someone has to make the tough decisions…

The first round is relatively easy: throw out anything broken, filthy, or incomplete. After that, things get trickier–there are some gems amongst the horde and I don’t want to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. One method that has been working well so far is grabbing a handful of toys and putting them on the ground. I let the girls loose while I tool around, running errands and such, and watch them for several hours. If they ignore a toy or don’t stay interested in it for more than 30 seconds, it goes into the “no” pile. We plan to sell the discarded toys and clothes at Once Upon a Child for credit and donate whatever they don’t take to the Salvation Army.

Amidst all this attempted editing, an interesting debate is emerging between my husband and I about controversial toys. What message do certain toys teach your child? What effects, if any, do they have on developing minds and identities? Certain categories have caused lively discussions around the house…

1. Barbie Dolls:  Do Barbie dolls teach little girls a superficial and unattainable beauty standard? They are given ridiculous figures, of course, and marketed to be all about wardrobes, fashion, and being pretty. Do they cause future body anxiety? Do they teach girls that their worth is defined by their appearance?

I can understand this interpretation and appreciate the concern. However, I would argue that none of the girls I knew growing up actually played with Barbie dolls as intended. I don’t know that little girls actually internalize the doll’s physical proportions, or if this does any more damage than the countless billboards, magazines, and other media that already surround growing girls will. Most little girls I knew used Barbie dolls as actress in mini-dramas we would create. There was the thrill of playing an adult, mimicking their dramas and situations, practicing for later dramas and situations, writing scripts. To me, having Barbie dolls doesn’t seem particularly destructive as long as there is a diversity of appearances (hair and eye colors, ethnic backgrounds) in order to counter a homogenous, Aryan ideal.

More eerily, every little girl I knew would at some point mutilate their Barbie dolls by cutting their hair, drawing on them, or otherwise melting or breaking them. I think Barbie dolls eventually become Voodoo dolls.

2.  Domestic Equipment:  It seems that while little boys get games, tools and balls, a lot of girls get equipment involving  domestic work. Little kitchen sets and vacuums let them do pretend work to train them for future actual work. Do little boys pretend to vacuum?

Eh, I’m not big on handing my daughters mini-models of domestic servitude, but cooking stuff is a tougher call. I plan on teaching my daughters to cook, but would also have taught my sons to cook, if I had any. Cooking is a life skill. Everyone needs to eat.

3.  Baby dolls: Along that same train of thought, is it creepy to give little girls baby dolls to feed, change, and push around in strollers? Are we forcing them to be mini-moms before they are even potty-trained? On one hand, Brontë has a baby sister and can mimic the infant care she sees, but on the other hand, boys don’t get baby dolls even though they may be fathers someday.  In this case, it’s an easy call because Brontë isn’t too interested in it.

4.  Plastic snakes: John wanted to throw away Brontë’s plastic snakes because he is afraid she will think it’s safe to play with actual snakes. I disagreed, because by that rationale, we should throw away her teddy bears and other assorted stuffed animals that are dangerous in real life. Plus, she likes her plastic snakes.

I also liked plastic snakes when I was a little girl. And… I guess I did pick up and play with a lot of garter snakes I found in the back yard, so maybe he has a point.

I think our different opinions on the subject have something to do with where we grew up. He grew up in the South, where poisonous snakes are everywhere. In urban California, not so much…

5. Guns:

It’s still too early to worry about, but I desperately wanted a laser tag set when I was a little girl. It sounded so fun. I grew up playing war. We loved GI Joe and Star Wars figures (playing was co-ed) and shot BB guns at targets. This early training might’ve helped me be a better shot when I eventually joined the Army.

John’s parents, however, were staunchly against letting him play with toy guns. They believed it glorified violence and weapons.   One time, a relative got John a toy gun and his father went ballistic.

Again, I can understand their rationale, but did it work? John ended up joining the military. He loved horror movies. He is an avid gamer who loves nothing better than indulging in cartoon carnage on a regular basis. When John and I were dating, he had literally decorated his apartment with bullet cartridges, blowguns, and spent grenades. Military books were everywhere. His movie collection featured “Full Metal Jacket” and zombie apocalypse flicks.

Maybe keeping John away from violence backfired. Maybe weapons became the proverbial forbidden fruit. Or maybe he is innately fascinated by the military and it wasn’t going to matter what he was allowed to play with.

Hmmm… none of this analysis is helping me get rid of crap. I think I will continue laying stuff out and seeing where the girls gravitate.