Friday, March 26, 2010

What We're Hungry For

All of us are hungry – for the same thing, for different things, for that one perfect taste we remember from long ago and can’t quite recreate. Many of my friends, adoptive parents, hungered for a family and found a child half a globe away. Those children, all of them, arrived hungry. We fed them in as many different ways as there are families in the world. Some of us have strict rules and set mealtimes and a firm “three – not two, I said three” policy on how many green beans must be consumed prior to the granting of dessert privileges. Some won’t allow eating meat, or nonorganic produce, and some wish there could be a 50-foot restraining order standing between Fruit Loops and their darling one. There are those who shrug and say, “Hey, I grew up on Kool-Aid and Wonder Bread, and look how great I turned out.”

I’ve found that many of my friends whose families were formed through international adoption often search for the deeper meaning that might be inherent in the food of their child’s country of origin. For those of us with children from China, we find that our children have come from a culture that happily admits its food obsession, a place where “how are you?” as a greeting is, literally, “Did you eat yet?” Many of us look to food as the strongest human connection our children can employ when trying to conjure positive thoughts of a homeland that is already ancient history to their candy-coated U.S. lives.

And every time one of our children says “I’m hungry,” we once again step on a path that connects our own pasts, our deeply held beliefs, their birth culture and their own unique selves, as expressed through appetite.

It turns out that my own parenting style tends toward intense firmness regarding sleep (my kids would say rigidity, but that’s just because they need a nap) and a willful ceding of my authority regarding food. “What are you hungry for?” I ask at mealtime, because I think they need to learn to ask themselves that question, several times daily for the rest of their lives, and discover what the answer is. Once they have an idea, I see what I can rustle up. (I am definitely more of a “rustler” than a cook). I’ve had to modify the rules over the years, of course, especially when I admitted to myself that one child, the white-atarian, would answer “pretzels” every time. But mostly, the non-plan plan has worked. They have listened to themselves and eaten what they wanted until they didn’t want any more. They’ve grown up relatively straight and somewhat tall, and I haven’t spent a fortune on dental bills (at least not yet).

Flush with this success, I waited until last May to announce to my sprouting adolescents that “The Summer of Independence” would commence upon last day of school. The main feature of said summer was that the current Chief Rustler (me) would be on sabbatical until Labor Day. With the Grownup Kitchen closed, they adapted, at least eventually.

The eldest, operating with the iron-will laziness visible mostly in the teen-aged, began with a two-part plan: 1) staring into the refrigerator for long stretches, apparently hoping for a reenactment from “Beauty and the Beast” that resulted in a dancing plate of steaming hot nachos rolling onto the kitchen table, and 2) existing in a state of extreme hunger until someone else in the family was moved to prepared a meal for themselves. Then she’d use her last ounce of energy to find a fork and start “sharing.”

Eventually, she broke down and cooked for herself. One day, as I was working upstairs on my computer, I smelled an onion being fried. I allowed myself as brief Victory Smile for winning this round. I came downstairs to discover that she had stopped willing the food to dance itself into meal-readiness and was actually preparing fried rice for herself. It would be, she told me, her signature dish. With each subsequent cooking attempt that summer, it became increasingly edible, until it veered right onto the onramp of actual palatability. These days, I prefer her version to my own, or to takeout. This has created a new burden for her – other people want to eat what she cooks. “Hey,” she squawked the other day, as I shamelessly shoveled in her most recent creation. “I’m taking that to school for lunch this week. It takes a long time to cook something that tastes good, you know,” she informed me.

Let the record show that I refrained from comment. Of course, my mouth was full of rice, but still.

For most of the world, including many, many people who live very near to me, the enormous variety of parental rules and children’s choices does not exist. Dinner is still that same block of government-subsidy cheese from the Community Food Pantry, perhaps with the most offending bits of mold scraped off. Or, not so very far from the United States, dinner is what a parent could pull from the ground that day. Dinner, for many children in this world, is nothing.

Which is why, with all the ways they have to satisfy their hunger, it’s great to see our own children reach out to help others with this most basic of needs. One night in November, a group of our families who have children adopted from China gathered to restock a local food pantry. For one night at least, we were neighbors who helped their neighbors. At events this past summer, more families gathered at Feed My Starving Children to create packets of hope, dignity and nutritionally dense meals for kids who might be just like them, if they weren’t so hungry.

At the Feed My Starving Children event in August, we gathered some of the participating teens for a photo. This group would be heading to high school in a few days, with worries about homework and sports and boys and if those jeans made their butts look big. In the months to come, they would be hungry for fun and acceptance and the headlong rush into “being older.” It was nice, for a moment, that they thought about the hunger of others, and tried to satisfy it as best they could.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Keep Calm and Carry On

I imagine what it must have been like, spending the night in the London underground during a Nazi bombing raid, then trudging up those high stairs at the sound of the all-clear. First light would be breaking, and, as I adjusted my sensible hat and pulled on a pair of gloves, I would notice a poster across the street, plastered to the only wall still standing on what had been a building the night before. Keep Calm and Carry On, the poster would say. Checking quickly to see that the dome of St. Paul’s was still in one piece, I’d clutch my umbrella to my side and head off briskly down the street, determined to do just that. My upper lip, and my resolve, would be perfectly stiff.

But it never could have happened that way. It turns out that the Keep Calm and Carry On poster was created by the Britain’s Ministry of Information early in the war. It was the secret propaganda weapon that was going to be plastered on every available surface in the event, which seemed horribly likely at times, that the Nazis actually invaded the island nation. The poster, happily never used and eventually forgotten, was rediscovered in 2000 in a secondhand bookstore in England.

Why it chose to make itself appear more than sixty years after it had been put in reserve in case it was needed to keep people from freaking out, after that “fighting them on the beaches” thing had failed to do the trick, is one of those great mysteries that always surround why things turn up when they do, like the wedding ring in the fish’s belly, found twenty years later. I like to think that the British people didn’t require one smidgen of extra bucking up in 1940, but that we need it now, and plenty. I certainly do. A copy of the poster has a prominent place in my office, and if I weren’t such a cheapskate and a baby, I’d get a tattoo of it on my bicep, just like a sailor. It evokes, for me, everything I admire when I read about the people of wartime England -- determination, energy and a complete lack of whining.

It’s a message I’ve been summoning up in my head quite often lately. I used it this past Sunday afternoon, when I was working at the Crisis Nursery. It’s my bimonthly volunteer gig, done in partnership with my eldest daughter. She is beautiful and cool and all the kids adore her on sight. Eventually, I do win the little ones over, at least the snuggle-minded ones, because they discover that sitting on Emma’s lap is like lying on a blender full of radioactive forks, whereas I have squishiness on my side.

I suppose the saddest kids at the Crisis Nursery should be the ones who obviously love it there. Three meals, two snacks, a bed of their own and a Disney movie every night? Man, sign them up to live here full time! They never take a backward glance to home, which makes me wonder just what home must be like.

The kids who really get to me, though, are the ones who clearly have something to miss – a loving parent, a space of their own, something to love and love them back. We don’t have those sorts of kids at the nursery very often, but they show up occasionally, and they break my heart.

I had spent the morning with T. and his sister, and they were clearly those sorts of kids. They understood about reading books (many of the kids, pitifully, don’t). I used my squishiness to maximum effect and we tried to forget ourselves in Goodnight, Gorilla. By lunchtime, when other kids were flipping forks off tables, falling off their chairs and cadging extra muffins or helpings of dessert, T. sat and stared at his plate. His mother, I could tell, had never served anything that remotely resembled this meal. Nothing here reminded him of her, except everything. As if I were casually looking for a place to rest my hands, I reached to his tiny, laden shoulders and attempted to rub out some of what he was holding onto.

As if confessing something, he whispered to me, “I want to go home.” Kids don’t often say that at the nursery, even if they’re thinking it all the time. “I know you do,” I said back softly, which was all I could think of to say, but of course how could I know? I didn’t know about his bed or his room or how he watched tv with his older brother, or how his mom rubbed his back, or even how she smelled. I wished very much, right then, that I could smell like his mom.

We moved over to the doorway to wait for the big eaters to finish, and I held him in my lap, like a baby. He was too big a boy for this, but, clearly used to this sort of love, he snuggled right in. Two nursery veterans, age six but already hardened toughs, had tired themselves of falling off their chairs and approached us with gleams in their eyes. “What’s wrong with him?” they confronted me. “Tired,” I said, with a shrug. “Big party last night.” They drifted away, and I leaned down and whispered in the boy’s ear. I repeated the new mantra that was getting me through the day, these days. “Keep Calm,” I said, as I patted his back, “and Carry On.” He burrowed himself further into my upholstery, and, together, we made it through until naptime.

The Three Accessories I'll Have in Heaven

I can already hear the snorts of derisive laughter from those of you who know me well, but I imagine that I've got a pretty good shot at getting into heaven.  Assuming that the afterlife will be somewhat like this one, I'm hoping that Who You Know will matter, and if it does, I'm a lock.  With that whole Last Will Be First thing coming into play, my best friend -- the special education teacher, the foster mother to a disabled child, and the person who has endured me patiently since we were 15 -- well, she'll be the Madonna of Heaven, figuratively speaking, complete with a limo and an entourage.

I am hoping, also, that heaven looks exactly like a New Yorker cartoon, complete with fluffy clouds and robes.  I'm willing to go through eternity as a black-and-white line drawing just to close the loop on the joke. 

So I'm next in line and I see St. Peter do that little eye squint and head shake thing, like, Girl, No Way are you Crashing this Gig, but then he types my name into his computer and a big "Free Pass" Screen comes up, courtesy of Debra Gail Buxton,  Humble-Shall-Be-Exalted Superstar.  I'm in, and what can he do?  He sighs and issues me my heavenly accessories, then presses a little button under the counter to open the Pearly Gates.

My Accessories

Playbill.  Every good experience of my life has started with someone handing me a Playbill.  (The bad ones have usually begun with someone handing me a paper gown to change into, but that's another story.)  There will be comfy seating and adequate stalls in the ladies' room.  Heaven will mean that I won't have to hop on one foot and hope I don't miss the entr'acte.

Clipboard.  Personality-wise, I am more of a border collie than a golden retriever.  Specifically, I'm the kind of border collie who deconstructs the sofa if not kept sufficiently busy.  So I'll be happy to have a job in heaven, even if it's just part-time.  I could try a little guardian angel work, maybe keep kids from running into traffic, that sort of thing, and then radioing up "Roger That" when they're saved. But really, I'd be happy just to pick up God's dry cleaning.
Leash.  If there aren't dogs in heaven, I don't want to be there anyway.  I'm hoping we get assigned a dog, rather than picking out one for ourselves.  At the shelter, I always select the three-legged diabetic ones, and I'd like to spend eternity with a pet who's a little more upbeat.

So there I am, going to shows, working, walking my dog.  Heaven.  I suppose I'll see God from time to time.  He'll be wearing a beautiful tuxedo, of course, and maybe have a long cigarette holder.  He'll be very short, since everyone always says, "He's much shorter than I expected" when they meet someone famous.  Perhaps he'll look a little like Cole Porter, with a sad face and buggy eyes.  I'm hoping that Debbie will use her influence to get me past the bodyguards, and then I'll ask Him to sign my Playbill.

But I won't stay to chat, because the show will be about to start. In heaven, the show will always be about to start.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The "Two" Candle Looks Back, and a Little Bit Forward

Since I never throw anything away (there is a container in my laundry room to save drier lint for compost, and that I think that pretty much says it all), of course I save all birthday candles, decorative or numeric. Last week, I had occasion to consider that little recycling policy, and how it might play out in the future.

The candle in question was the “two.” I first used it for a quick light-up-and-blow-out the year Emma turned two, the year she was crazy about Barney (although she now denies it, but I have photographic evidence). Then it made an appearance when Mary Katherine turned two, which was, I think, the year when everyone in the house suddenly realized that she had won us over with her “Go Mary” sweetness. The person we’d all seen as an intrusion had suddenly become indispensible.

I lit the “two” as a part of a double-digit pair when Emma turned 12 and declared herself a “Two Teen.” And just last week it was dug from the bottom of a bag for Mary’s 12th birthday, an occasion marked by a gaggle-of-girls salon visit. It was a glamorous day that featured plenty of sparquins. (Mary’s new favorite word, recently coined.).

Every feast, at least in our family, requires the significant labor of a pre- and post-party House Elf. Everyone loves to put up the balloons, but only I seem to be around when they have to come down, as they did this past Monday. As I was collecting and storing all the feast decor (how many “Happy Birthday” banners does one family need?), I picked up the four-times-lit “two” candle and thought about the next time that I’d use it. It would be, I realized with my mighty slow English-major powers of numeric observation, when Emma was turning 20. And then I realized that, mid-February in 2015, she’d be away at college, and not celebrating in this house at all. No impossible cake demands (“Checkerboard, but in my school colors. And sprinkles, but can you pick out all the pink ones?”) No custom word search puzzles, made by me. No thousands of pictures plastered all over by the trudging House Elf. It would be a birthday with a gift mailed a week before, a phone call and a posting to her Facebook wall.

Well. The two candle and I sat down for a moment while I thought that over. I had used the candle for toddlers who were driving me crazy. I had used it for tweens who were driving me crazy. And the next time that “two” came back into service, I would be done with all that, the day-to-dayness that is so much a part of my mothering, and onto another phase of my life, and theirs.

Not exactly hit with a ton of bricks, I felt more like I was receiving a friendly nudge of melted wax and frosting, telling me that yes, it’s difficult to be the constantly toiling Birthday House Elf, especially with their birthdays a day apart (poor planning, I know, talk to the Chinese government and my uterus). But in five years, I’ll be down one kid, helping the second one to plan her escape, and what will be left will be a bag of half-burned number candles. Perhaps I'll start holding little birthday ceremonies for whatever dog is still alive then, or, more pathetically, a cat.

Happy Birthday, Fluffy. Here’s a “two” candle stuck in your bowl of Friskies, and may you have many more to come.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Consciousness Raising (or is that Rising?) An Old Hippie Looks Back

If pressed, I suppose my excuse could be, “Hey, it was the 70s, and everyone was doing it,” but that doesn’t really explain how I became such an ardent, and terrible, bread baker. I can pinpoint exactly when my fervent and misplaced devotion began. I was attending a college that had decided to put the capital“L” in liberal arts. Right before my matriculation in 1976, they had banished same-sex dorms, general degree requirements, letter grades and other vestige of “the man” that those losers back east at Harvard were still insisting upon.

So it seemed totally cool when the teacher in my “History of Education” class decided to show us a movie about someone baking a loaf of Challah bread. “I view it with all my classes,” she had explained, “because it seems so relevant.” We freshman nodded, already inured to the italics that seemed to hover about that era like a veil of polyester. The Population Explosion. The Nuclear Freeze. The Equal Rights Amendment. And now, the italicized relevancy of the Challah Movie in an education class. It just all added up, sister.

The movie, which I guess I don’t really need to tell you was in black-and-white, had a wonderful sort of photographic haziness. The baker, and again I realize this is a detail that is probably already understood, had long hair that had been braided to droop over one shoulder. She wore a peasant blouse. I swear I could see, through that peasant blouse, that her armpits were unshaved. She mixed the flour. She hummed. She kneaded. She stared out the window thoughtfully, depicting the passage of time in a highly European way. After she pulled the bread from the oven, there was a closeup of her first taste of her hand-made, totally authentic expression of grain products. She looked absolutely blissed out, as if the population had been controlled, a nuclear freeze agreed to, and the Equal Rights Amendment passed, all on the same day.

My stomach rumbled, and I was sure I could feel every slice of Wonder Bread I had eaten in the past 17 years churning in there. Their days were numbered. I had seen the secret to being a truly authentic young adult, and it involved baking my own bread.

Hey, guess what, the college bookstore had a copy of Laurel’s Kitchen, the whole grain bible. Next was an ingredient-shopping trip to the local co-op, where mealy bugs scrabbled in the flour and the clerk had suspiciously yellowing eyeballs. I tried to recreate the movie scene, but, lacking a gauzy-focused kitchen and a long braid of hair, it just didn’t feel the same. I did enjoy the kneading, the waiting, the baking … and then, the moment when the bread came from the oven and I first tasted the results of my own honest labor – ick! What was this stuff? It wasn't like the movie.  It was Brown. Sodden. Gooey. I rechecked Laurel’s Kitchen, determined to try again. And again. And again. For most of the 70’s, I refused to give up, searching farther afield for ingredients, consulting more cookbooks. Apartment Life – a cool precursor to the Pottery Barn lifestyle -- carried a multi-photo exposé on bread baking, and I followed every syllable, but with no luck. My bread was flat. My bread was damp. My bread lacked not only philosophical significance, but flavor.

And then, 45 credits in creative writing and a few miscellaneous pottery classes later, I graduated from college. I began to concentrate on earning bread, not making it. I began to store glossy catalogs in that earnest-looking beige mixing bowl with the winsome blue stripe. And, along the way, a wonderful thing happened. Gourmet grocery stores opened. Bakeries began appearing. Women cut off their braids, shaved their armpits and began to see “artisanal” as the new homemade. Somewhere along the way, it became okay to eat something just because it tasted good, no matter what its political credentials. And now, years later, I don’t even know what happened to that old copy of Laurel’s Kitchen. I realize that I was a terrible bread baker all along, and I don’t eat that much bread now, anyway. The 70s were great, and sure, I loved all that black-and-white relevancy, but now I realize that it’s just as important to know what you can’t do well as to know where your talents lie.