Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Feminist Spin Cycle

Dear Zen Mother,

My husband always buys me an appliance for Christmas – last year, it was a dishwasher. This year I think he has his eye on a trash compactor. How can I tell him women prefer something a little more romantic, maybe something cozy, without hurting his feelings?

Janet in Newburyport

Dear Janet,

As shocked as he may be, calmly explain to him that when the Victoria’s Secret catalogue arrives, it is not for him. He will be visibly shaken, in denial, and possibly despondent. You may want to have an extra-dry martini available – again, not for him. With a little encouragement from you, however, he’ll be selecting cashmere over the compactor in no time.

Why do husbands buy appliances for their wives? Well because of the vast Y Chromosome conspiracy, of course. To which my husband, “the doctor,” thinks I suffer from paranoia.

I can’t imagine why. I simply explained to him that the major appliance department at Sears is run by a secret male society to keep women in the bondage of dirty dishes and laundry – you know, those creeps from Stepford.

“And you don’t think your delusional?” he asked.

“Don’t you see those female androids on TV, with the glazed look in their eyes, selling those products? They use expressions like Voilà! I don’t know any real women who say Voilà while doing laundry – do you? Clearly they are being controlled by the man.”

“But Sweetheart,” my husband gently explained, while discussing the need for a new washer. “These machines save women from hours of domestic toil.”

“That’s so like a man to say that,” I quipped, as I locked myself in the bathroom with a 1974 copy of Ms. Magazine.

But aside from my husband’s neanderthal perspective, we were in sorry need of a new washer. So begrudgingly, I followed my husband to Sears. The selection of washers was overwhelming: high-efficiency, low-detergent, ultra-quiet, super-fast, keep-you-in-chains machines.

“These machines do not keep women in chains!” my husband yelled, exasperated.

“Oh yeah? Then show me the Elizabeth Cady Stanton model or the Billie Jean King model. All I see here are washers made by the Male Chauvinist Pig Corporation!”

“Well, we need to select one of these washers. Which one do you want?” he asked.

“One that’ll get the kids ready for school, pick up groceries and cook dinner so that I may enter the workforce, realize my full potential as a female, and make right the wrongs of this society. SISTERS! ARE YOU WITH ME?” I screamed from the top of a Maytag.

My husband pulled me down, selected a machine, and got out his credit card, while I continued screaming: “Pass the Nineteenth Amendment! My uterus belongs to me! I am more than my apron! Erica Jong, where are you?

In time, however, I came to accept my new washer. In fact, I have become quite attached to it. It lights up and beeps with the friendliest of manners; its exterior is shiny and elegant; and its barrel emits a soft whirl I find curiously captivating.

And it couldn’t be more efficient; I put the dirty clothes in and the clean clothes come out in half the time – Voilà! I mean, uh, it’s very liberating.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

So much to learn

Dear Zen Mother,

We only have one child and I want to make sure I do everything right for her. What parenting tips can you offer me?

Vicki from Amesbury

Dear Vicki,

There is enormous pressure these days to be the perfect parent and rear the perfect child. Well, get over it. You’re not perfect and neither is your kid. It doesn’t matter how many tap dancing classes she takes, or how many antioxidants she receives. And yet that doesn’t stop us from trying.

A few days after Halloween, my sister stopped by for a visit. She had spent the day volunteering in her daughter’s classroom.

“Can you believe it?” she said with a heavy tone. “Little Gretchen with the overbite and the pigtails? Her mother packed a bologna sandwich on white bread in her lunch box today.”

“That’s good,” I responded absently.

“No, it’s bad. That sandwich is filled with nitrates, trans fat and empty calories. Kids need to learn about good nutrition.”

“Oh,” I replied quietly, suddenly questioning the M&M and peanut butter sandwiches I packed for my kids that day.

“And Johnny, with the blonde curls, is starting Karate on Thursday.”

“And that’s… bad?”

“No, that’s good. Kids need a structured, physical outlet where they can learn to respect and listen. What are your kids doing after school these days?”

“Oh, you know. They… play and… stuff.” I glanced outside where my kids were shoving dirt into each other’s faces.

My sister shrugged her shoulders. “Learning doesn’t end just because school’s out,” she said, as she crunched on a package of neatly cut celery she had pulled from her purse.

I waited a few seconds to see if she would choke but no such luck. So I decided to take her advice and give my parenting skills an overhaul.

A week later Grammy Z came into the kitchen to pour herself a glass of vodka. “What are you doing?” she asked, seeing a collection of unhappy little faces at the kitchen table.

“We’re enjoying pesticide-free polyphenols for an afternoon snack,” I explained.

Grammy Z glanced at the untouched plate of sliced beets, chili peppers, and pomegranate.

“Why don’t you give them some Pop Tarts? Those are good.”

“No, those are bad. I’m teaching the kids to stay away from processed foods and other potential health hazards.”

“Sounds good,” she said, lighting a cigarette. I grabbed the cigarette away from her and tossed it down the sink.

“Mommy, I’m thirsty,” said my youngest.

“Here, sweetie,” chimed in Grammy Z, as she handed my five-year-old twenty dollars. “I’m thirsty too. Run down to the packy and get Grammy some more vodka.”

“You can’t ask him to do THAT!”

What? I’m teaching him about commerce,” she replied.

It was at this moment I realized that Grammy Z couldn’t be faulted for her parenting skills either. After all, nobody took the time to teach her. The important thing was to help her move forward.

“Grammy Z,” I said as I held her shoulders. “I forgive you for your limitations as a parent, and I recognize and accept these limitations as explanations for your actions. Let me teach you all that I’ve learned this past week.”

Showing no hurt or malice, Grammy Z’s eyes looked straight into mine. We were on the verge of a breakthrough; I could feel it.

She burst out laughing and left the room.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Beware of Flying Objects

Dear Zen Mother,

Now that the cold air has settled in, my children come home with a variety of sniffles and coughs. Should I keep them home from school?

Kim from Newburyport

Dear Kim,

While sniffles and coughs are irksome, they are hardly anything to worry about, and there is certainly no need to keep your children home from school. In time your children’s immune systems will catch up with the rest of us, able to withstand a Level Five Hurricane sneeze from the guy sitting next to you on the commuter rail. But if you do decide to keep your children home from school, a word (or more) of caution:

The day will start out like any other day. You scream at the kids to get out of bed, take a shower, scream at the dogs to get off the bed, and head downstairs. At breakfast you realize one of your kids is missing from the table. You go to find him; he is in bed.

You place the back of your hand to his cheeks. They are the color of cotton candy, flushed with warmth (a fever, you fear). He looks at you with enormous blue eyes (have they always been blue? You are not sure), coughs a few times, and asks you a simple question: “Mommy, may I have a tissue?” You nod your head, kissing his forehead. You reach over for a tissue and help your little one blow his little kitten nose. He is sick. He needs to stay home from school so you can take care of him.

You walk downstairs to call the school. You are Clara Barton, Wonder Woman and Mama Bear all rolled into one. You are Omnipotent Caregiver. You kick the other children out the door, telling them they can walk to school. “But, Mom!” they whine. You are undeterred. There is a sick child who needs you.

But somewhere between calling the school nurse and walking back upstairs, something changes – a barely perceptible shift in the atmosphere, a drop in temperature, perhaps. You open the door to your son’s room and he is no longer in bed. From up in the corner, he is laughing and throwing Beanie Babies at your head. You shut the door in a panic and, as you stand in the hallway, you ask yourself two questions: How did he recover so quickly? And, when did he learn to fly?

You brace yourself and walk back in the room but he is gone. “Sweetie, little angel, munchkin, kitten nose, where are you?”

An evil laugh breaks out from downstairs; you hear popcorn cooking in the microwave.

“Sugarpop, honey-bunny, snuggle-bear,” you say as you slowly enter the kitchen. “If you’re feeling better maybe you should go to…” But you stop talking at the shock of chocolate pudding hitting you square in the face. He flies past you and heads for the television.

You retreat and grab the Children’s Hospital Guide to Pediatric Illness, preparing to swat your child down with it the next time he swoops by.

At the end of the day, your husband “the doctor” comes home from work, and miraculously, your son is back in bed, coughing and sneezing.

“Do you think he should stay home tomorrow?” the thoughtful father asks after giving his son some medicine.

You look around your house. There are granola bars smashed into the couch and apple juice dripping from the chandelier. The dog’s fur has been shaved on one side. “He’s well enough to go to school,” you say. You are no fool.