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May 2009

Making Moms Crazy

CrazyMom-main_Full Yesterday I went to the conference on Motherhood and Madness. The keynote speaker, Dr. Paula Caplan talked about competing myths about mothers, and how they are enough to drive a sane Mom nuts.

The Good Mother Myth: Moms are endlessly nurturing; they never get angry, they raise perfect children. They intuitively know how to raise happy, healthy children.

The Bad Mother Myth: Moms, with all their short comings, are essentially responsible for everything that goes wrong with their kids, and by extension, society. They can't possibly raise happy, healthy children without a coterie of experts preventing them from inflicting damage.

Of course, these are mutually exclusive concepts, but that doesn't stop women from being whipsawed between them. And worse, Good Moms aren't really good - they are bottomless pits of emotional neediness; they become "enmeshed" with their kids; they are controlling, smothering and their closeness with their kids is unhealthy.  Bad Moms, of course, are  already really bad; narcissistic because they look after their own needs,dubbed "Refrigerator Moms" because they are cold and withholding.

In other words, your damned if you do and damned if you don't. Or, as Caplan said, "Mothers are a deeply, intensely scape-goated group."

She went on to talk about the implications of all this mother blame - particularly in the psychiatric community and also in the court system. It was interesting stuff and I am going to talk to her further about how this applies particularly to the Mom-Son dynamic.

Moms, Madness and Books

Pile_of_books This morning I'm attending a conference in Manhattan called "Mothers Gone Mad." It is put on by The Association for Research on Mothering, a feminist research group based at York University in Canada.

I have already interviewed two of the conference presenters for my book and I thought it might be helpful to attend, though to be honest, I'm a bit taken aback by the conference's promise to explore "Motherhood and Madness, Oppression and Resistance." The keynote address is, "Who Decides If Mothers are Crazy? From Freud's Mothers to Today's."

 I'll probably learn something and it's coming at a good time. Yesterday I started to get a bit discouraged over how much has already been written about mothers and sons. I've come across nearly a dozen books written over the last 25 years that cover the topic. But then The Weatherman reminded me that over 15,000 books have been written about Abraham Lincoln, and historians are still at it. The topic of mothers and sons is even more timeless and broad, so perhaps I can add my own cents and make some sort of contribution to the discussion.

The Times Tweeting Future

Twitter_logo So I'm minding everyone else's business on Facebook yesterday afternoon when I see a post from my former editor announcing that she has been named the Times first-ever "Social Media Editor." Immediately I sent her a congratulatory note. And then the calls, emails and instant messages began to fly between myself and all my former colleagues.

Question number one of course, is what the hell is a "social media editor"? 

Gawker, the snarky media/gossip site, speculates that my former boss will be policing Times reporters who have been tweeting with abandon, sometimes criticizing the Mother Ship. But the Times brass said that policing would be only a small part of M.F.B.'s (My Former Boss's) responsibilities. She will also be "helping everybody figure out how to use social media as a tool for journalists."

Anyway, I checked out her new Twitter feed to see what I could learn, because the truth is I find Twitter baffling. I know what it is - a microblog - but I have yet to figure out how it is useful. First I had to get through the last 10 tweets in the last hour from media reporter David Carr, who seven minutes ago told the world, "Pretty sure that damp, inhospitable weather is direct message from God that I need not take training ride on bike today, right?"

MFB started with "Hi, I'm the NYT's new social media editor. More details later. How should @nytimes be using Twitter?" Well, shoot, isn't her job to know that? Anyway, I await her discoveries with baited breath. Sorta. 

Spring Cleaning

David McCallum This weekend, the Weatherman and I did some serious spring cleaning. Well, maybe "cleaning out" is the correct term. We rummaged through closets, sorted through drawers, scoured  the book shelves, all in an effort to get rid of things that have been sitting around for years and that we never use. (During the closet clean-out, there was also the, "Let's face it, I will never fit into this size again, and on the off-chance that it ever happens, I will deserve new clothes," method of weeding.)

There's a big community rummage sale coming up, along with our local library book sale, so everything that is still in good shape will go to a good cause.

It was when I was deep, and I mean deep, into the guest room closet, that I came across the item pictured here. It is an album (that's a record, young 'uns) by David McCallum, who people of a certain age will remember as "Illya Kuryakin," a Russian spy on "The Man From U.N.C.L.E," a classic 1960s TV series. 

McCallum, who I had a huge crush on when I was a kid, was actually Scottish. He also put out two albums, and this one, "It's Happening Now!" came out in 1967. In it, he conducts such classics as "Winchester Cathedral," "If I were A Carpenter" and "Alfie."

Now if only I could unearth my turntable I'd really be rocking. As it is, I'm holding on to this particular item. No matter how useless, some things are too precious to part with.

Memorial Day and Dick Cheney

Flags-in-memorial-day This is about the last time of year I want to hear from former VP Dick Cheney. But there he was, weighing in after Obama's speech on dealing with terror detainees after the closing of the prison in Guantanamo Bay.

Look, this is an incredibly complex issue and the President's position isn't making anyone completely happy. The political right wing still holds that torture and other harsh interrogation techniques are needed, and they are appalled by the idea of bringing some suspected terrorists onto American soil, even if those suspects are placed in Super Max Prisons. The political left wing is dismayed that Obama said that he backs certain detentions without trial. They have also criticized the President for withholding photographs of past military abuse. 

And where does Cheney come down? Predictably. "In the fight against terrorism there is no middle ground and half measures keep you half exposed," he said in a speech.

Does it occur to him that it was this kind of black and white thinking, this dealing in absolutes and not nuance, that got us into this mess? That the issue might be complex? That there's a price to pay for that kind of dogma? Obama inherited two wars. This weekend we will be remembering thousands of soldiers who perished in them. We're still hopelessly entangled in Iraq and Afghanistan.  How's your political philosophy workin' out for you, Dick?

Will Boys Be Boys?

As part of my research for my book on mothers and sons, I'm learning a lot about gender studies, a field that barely existed in my student days. Scholars have various methods for trying to figure out what is by nature male or female and what has been socialized into boys and girls. 

070824-monkey-babytalk_big Yesterday I came across this nugget, from an interview with Dr. Margaret McCarthy, a professor in the Department of Physiology and Psychiatry at the University of Maryland Baltimore School of Medicine. Dr. McCarthy studies the brain. Here's what she said:

"Certainly culture plays a huge role in the behavior of boys and girls, but if we look at monkeys and we give them a choice of toys to play with that they’ve never seen before - and certainly their parents have had no influenced on - we can see that the boy monkeys all want things that move and make noise and that they can bang on the ground, and the girls pick up the soft things and they hold them softly and stuff, so there is something in their brains that’s biological that makes them choose, have a preference for these kinds of inanimate objects.  Where is the area in the brain is makes them choose a truck versus a doll? I wish we knew. We really aren’t sophisticated enough to pin point that."

I found this fascinating. I remember when The Boy was a baby, I was trying to be gender-neutral and I gave him a Barbie doll to play with. He looked at her puzzled, turned her around a few times, and then started running her along the floor, making "Vrooom! Vroom!" noises. Maybe it was nature, not nurture, after all. 

Another Sign of The Times

Voting_booth-723571 Yesterday was voting day in our town - time to cast our ballots for the local school budget and choose among candidates for the Board of Education and the Library Board. Every year, the League of Women Voters sends out a Voter's Guide that provides basic information on the issues and the background of the candidates.

As I read about this year's candidates, it was a real reflection of life in a well-to-do hamlet in this economy. Here, with names redacted, is the employment status of those running:

K.E.: Occupation - Retired Banker, Investment Advisor. (Translation - unemployed.)

W.R.: Occupation - Journalist and author. Former senior Public Affairs professional at Exxon Corp. (Translation - unemployed.)

L.S.: Occupation - Lawyer. (No firm listed. Translation - unemployed.)

D.S.: Occupation - Independent computer software consultant. Notes that he worked at IBM until last year. (Translation - unemployed.)

I am in NO WAY making fun of these people; unemployment is well-known in our household. And good for them to take their time and considerable expertise and use it towards helping out their own community. I'm just saying that it certainly is one more sign of the times.

Not Running On Empty

8-elliptical trainer I spend hours each week on an elliptical exercise machine at my gym. Many a time I feel bad about it - not burning up the calories or keeping my heart and lungs healthy, but at the waste of electricity. The big machines, standing in a row under the fluorescent lights of my low-rent gym, are all plugged into the floor. I watch their electronic read-outs of my heart rate and speed. Each machine has a little tv attached to it which I don't watch, but then again, I'm listening to my battery-powered ipod while I work out.

So I was delighted to read that at The University of Oregon in Eugene, they have rigged up their elipitical machines so that the person doing the exercise is actually generating power. The power from each elliptical goes through a converter that turns DC into AC and then allows it to flow into the grid.

What a great concept! Mind you, it's not a huge amount of power. The school estimates that 3000 peple a day on 20 machines would generate 6000 kilowatt hours a year, enough to power one small energy-efficient house. Looked at a different way, a typical 30-minute workout on one machine generates enough electricity to run a laptop for an hour, or a compact fluorescent light bulb for 2 1/2 hours.

Evidently there are about 30,000 health clubs in this country. If every gym in America could figure out how to retrofit their exercise machines, it would at least make a dent in energy consumption.  And I wouldn't feel quite so much like I was going nowhere every time I climb onto one of these babies.

Covering Yourself

David Carr, who covers the media for the NY Times, is one of my favorite reporters. Today he has an article on his own place of employment.

In the last year, I have frequently been asked "What's going to happen to the New York Times?" I could answer for the regional coverage - sure saw that one coming, and certainly I understand the bigger picture on all the pressures facing the print newspaper industry.  But I lack the expertise to wrap my head around the Times' economic situation specifically.

Carr recaps much of what I've read in the business pages - the Times has $1 billion in debt and declining revenue. It posted a loss of $74.5 million in the first quarter. And it's not just print advertising that is plummeting - the first quarter reports also show an 8 percent decline in digital advertising.

Times1 On the (relatively) positive side, Carr also notes that company is within its existing debt covenants, and that two recent transactions - the sale-leaseback of the fancy new building pictured here, and a $250 million loan from a Mexican industrialist -"probably have given it the wherewithal to operate into 2011."

Wait- it can probably limp along for another two years? Of course he goes on to look at different models for charging for online content, how to get readers to pay without alienating advertisers, and in the end notes cautiously that the NY Times has a long history and will use all of its many assets to navigate this very difficult period.

What's so frightening to me is that this is no longer a discussion of whether the print edition of the paper will survive. This is about the company itself, or as the headline on the jump reads, "The New York Times And I's Uncertain Future."

Well, if I have any extra time today, I am going to move a whole bunch of files containing articles for the NYT I've written into storage, to make room for files of interviews for the book. Very bittersweet.

Dental Work - It's Not So Bad

Dentist Yeah, right. As faithful readers know, the story of my teeth is a long and painful saga. This morning I am returning to the dentist to have two old crowns removed, so she can see what's going on under there. Here's a fun fact: you can already have had a root canal and still need to have more work on the tooth, up to and quite possibly its removal.

I'll spare you further details (at least for now) but share with you instead how I try to mentally wrap my head around the idea that there will be even more money spent, more pain endured and more time lost to my teeth.

Reaction One - %$&%*^%&((^(*&!

Reaction Two - Keep things in perspective. This is not cancer. This is not incurable. This is something that can be fixed. Not so long ago, you just would have been one of those ladies who kept her false teeth in a glass of water by the bed. Aren't you lucky they've come so far in dentistry? (And note today's illustration for further proof of this bromide.)

Reaction Three - Take in the bigger picture. Do you live in Afghanistan? Did you lose your children to an air strike? Do you live in Sri Lanka, and watch your children die, one by one, on a raft as you tried to escape the blood shed? For God's sake, stop whining about your teeth.

Reaction Four - %^*&%*&^)&*^#$#!!!!!!!!


Large_bar  See this well-lit bar populated by all these happy attractive people? That is NOT what last night's gathering to say goodbye to the NYT Regional section looked like. There was a bar - needless to say the room that had been rented was in a dark basement - but  the atmosphere was a combination of forlorn and anxious. It was hot, noisy and unpleasant, and the sadness of the occasion was certainly not leavened by the final editor of the section addressing the group to tell us how proud we should be of the work we had done.

I was talking to one reporter from the Jersey section and she likened this whole process to a long, painful messy divorce. Can we just sign the final papers and be done with this already? It was nice to see some of the former editors I worked with, it was nice to meet some of the newer writers for the Westchester section who I knew by byline only, and it was certainly nice not only to talk about the book I am writing but also to have people react with genuine interest and begin to tell me stories about their own sons, brothers, whatever.

But still, I found myself wide awake at 4 a.m. this morning, with images of this get-together in my head, and memories of better times at the paper. Certainly this is the end of an era for me, but a marker too of the continuing decline of print journalism.

Who Thought This Was A Good Idea?

Boxers5  Boy, I'm going to miss the print version of the New York Times. This morning for instance, I picked up my paper and there was this huge photo of Specialist Zachery Boyd in a trench wearing his pink boxers. The photo caption identifies the soldier and then explains that he had to scramble out of bed to help his platoon defend an attack by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

You know, you sacrifice enough being a soldier. This man puts his life on the line everyday. The military culture in not for the fainthearted or sensitive. What was the Times thinking by humiliating this soldier in such a public way?

When I went to look for the electronic version of this photo on the website, it was nowhere to be found. (It may be in there somewhere, but they sure aren't making it easy.) I'm assuming that after they ran the photo, they realized it was an error in judgment.

Normally, I'd say, geez, heads are going to roll for that decision. But at the NYT these days, that's nothing new. Tomorrow evening I'm heading into the Times for what is essentially a wake for the Regional sections. Writers and editors will gather for drinks (a cash bar, of course, Times are tough) and reminisce about the old days, when the suburbs were covered. I doubt any photographers will be there, but if so, it's not an occasion you'd want commemorated anyway.

Post Mother's Day

126painting1ch We had a weekend full of happy family occasions - most significantly the celebration on Saturday of my Dad's 85th birthday. The Boy drove down from Maine for this occasion, and My Daughter came up from the city. Their cousins were also present, as were my brother and sister and all in all it was a lovely event, spearheaded and organized by my Mom.

The next day was Mother's Day, certainly one of my favorite holidays, as well as  the explanation of today's illustration of Abraham Lincoln's mother.

As you know, I am working on a book about mothers and sons. There will be a chapter on famous historical figures who were close to their Moms. Here's Honest Abe on his Mom: "All I am, or can be, I owe to my angel mother."

Now that was a wise man.

It's For Your Own Good

Sometimes when I'm illustrating my blog posts, I come up with some weird images. But I doCarrierskipper have to wonder if I'm the first to illustrate my morning with both Judas and a cat carrier.

Judas-Apostle-e This morning, as Lawson (the cat - see yesterday's post) sat innocently on my lap, purring and looking lovingly into my face, I tried to explain it to him. "It's for your own good," I told him. He needs a check up, a rabies shot, and other well-kitty care. But when, as he snuggled into me trustingly, I picked him up and carried him to the kitchen to begin the process of getting him into his carrier, I felt terrible.

He realized in a millisecond what was going on, and to describe his cries as pitiful is a horrible understatement. They were cries from the underworld. I am not going to describe the process we resort to in order to get Lawson from my outstretched arms into the carrier. Let's just say it involves a pillow case, workman's gloves and other household items.

I asked the Weatherman to take him to the vet a bit early, because I couldn't stand to listen to him howling in that carrier. I feel terrible. Just terrible. I betrayed him with a morning cuddle.

I know, I know. It's for his own good. Is it too early for a drink?

How Does He Know?

Big Lawson There was absolutely nothing around the house to give Lawson, our oldest cat, a clue that he had an appointment with the vet this morning.

His carrier was carefully hidden. No one made any sudden moves. The only possible give away was a pair of work gloves on the kitchen counter - always a good idea to have those on if you are trying to get The BIg Boy (one of our nicknames for Lawson) into the dreaded carrier.

No matter - yet again, he somehow sensed something was up, and instead of spending his morning curled up on my lap while I read the paper, he hightailed it under the bed and won't budge. It's a little shameful to be outwitted by a cat. But we have been foiled again.

Lawson is rescheduled for another vet appointment tomorrow morning. I'm not optimistic.

Moving On

Quindlen_anna Anna Quindlen recently wrote her last column for Newsweek, and much of its theme was about moving on, making way for the next generation. 

I've had cause to think about this myself this week. On Monday, I had hired a friend of my daughter's, a photographer, to come take my portrait.  I need a photo for the website I am developing for the new book. Nancy, the photographer, is about to turn 24, and for two hours she lugged her heavy equipment -cameras, reflectors, standing lights - in and out of my house, and contorted herself into all sorts of positions to take my picture. I describe it this way because I was struck by her energy and the physicality of her job. I have no doubts about her creativity and competence.

Another friend of my daughter's, Alexis,  had a Modern Love column published in the style section of the New York Times on Sunday. It was a charming essay about language and communication. And it could have only been written by someone in their twenties - it was specifically that perspective, that take on the world, their world.

Of course, I'm done with my column too, and my work at the Times. I'm not going out to pasture quite yet - anymore than Anna Quindlen is (she's working on her fiction). My book can't be written by a young person. It needs the perspective of someone who's raised children.

I am really happy and proud for these young people coming up, with their talent and energy. I thrill at my own kids' accomplishments. 

But this morning I couldn't help but think about my own tenuous connection to Anna. When I worked as a copy girl at the New York Times, she was already assistant Metro Editor. When I started freelancing, back when I had babies, I interviewed her for a piece I wrote for a woman's magazine on balancing work and motherhood. She was not only generous with her time, but also with her journalism connections, hooking me up with several editors. Over the years, we'd cross paths at professional events. Most recently, we were staying at the same Inn in rural Ohio, visiting our daughters at the same small liberal arts college.

Next? Geez, I hope we cross paths on book tours for our respective best sellers! And our daughters will be in the audience, proud as punch of their Moms.

Moroccan Chicken With Green Olives and Lemon

Moroccan Chicken I don't know why these food photos come out with such lurid colors, but the real thing is quite pretty, and easy to make. The recipe comes from the May 2009 issue of Bon Appetit.

2 lemons
1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, halved, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves pressed
1 Tablespoon paprika
2 Teaspoons ground cumin
1 Teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 Teaspoon ground ginger
2 cups chicken broth
1 4 1/2 pound chicken, cut into 8 pieces, skin removed (I just used thighs and legs)
1/2 cup green olives

Cut 1 lemon into 8 wedges. Squeeze enough juice from second lemon to measure 2 tablespoons; set wedges and juice aside. Heat oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and sprinkle with salt and pepper; saute until golden brown. Add next 5 ingredients; stir 1 minute. Add broth; bring to boil. Sprinkle chicken with salt and pepper; add to skillet. Add lemon wedges. Cover, reduce heat to medium low, and simmer until chicken i cooked through, turning occasionally, 25 to 30 minutes. Transfer chicken to platter. Add olives and two tablespoons lemon juice to skillet. Increase heat to high; boil uncovered to thicken slightly, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Pour over chicken.

French Excel At Sleeping and Eating

French flag Say what you will about the French - they are number one in eating and sleeping. In a study of leisure in 18 countries by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, it was revealed that the French spend nearly 9 hours a night sleeping, and more than 2 hours a day eating and drinking. The institute that conducted the study, by the way, is based in Paris, so Lord knows how long it took to complete.

The country where people relax the most is Norway - they spent over a quarter of their day in leisure time. Mexicans are having the least0511-0812-2902-2033_Wealthy_Man_Relaxing_with_a_Book_clipart_image fun (and this was before the Swine flu) - spending just 16% of their day in leisure activities. Americans are no slouches - or wait, maybe this makes them slouches - in the sleep department, netting an average of 8.5 hours a day in bed. And Americans may race through their meals - in about an hour and a quarter per day - but they claim the highest obesity rates in the 30-member OECD.

More fun facts: Koreans don't get much sleep, the Japanese watch a lot of television and guess who are the most sociable people? The Turks - who spend more than 35 percent of their time entertaining. Who knew?

David Souter Doesn't Get Out Much

193px-DavidSouter At first I was charmed when I read about David Souter'sPic_apple_core retirement plan. The Supreme Court Justice didn't want to become a creature of Washington. He wanted to return to New Hampshire where he could hike and spend time outdoors. Right on, Justice Souter - I am with you on your priorities. Life is short, DC is a bubble and even though you are known for your eccentricities (eating one yogurt and one apple, including the core, everyday for lunch), go for your broader, real-world experience.7ae9bcc9e19559fecbc6be7ee1bd06a7

And then I read something that stopped me cold. Souter, who was a Rhodes scholar, returned home from Oxford and never again left the United States. According to the NYT, he often  told his friends, "Who needs Paris if you had Boston?"

Uh...comparing the history, culture and beauty, not to mention the cuisine of Paris unfavorably to that of Boston? Holy Cow! No wonder he was seen as a wild card on the bench.

Anvil - The Movie

Group No, no, I'm not turning the blog into one long movie review. It's just that I've happened to see several interesting films this week.

My friend Linda called and asked me if I wanted to see a documentary about a band. I said sure, because I love Linda and am happy to spend time doing anything with her. I didn't give a thought to the movie until it started to unfold on the screen and I realized - oh Lord - it's about a heavy metal band.

This is what I refer to as "Boy Music." I know Metallica and other such groups have female followers, but to me, it's just one loud, headache-inducing noise. Which is why I was shocked to find myself entranced and completely charmed by this movie.

The band Anvil had it's brief moment in the sun in the early 1980s. But these Canadian rockers never achieved the fame or success of some of their contemporaries. The documentary follows their everyday lives now in Toronto, their regular jobs (the lead singer loads trucks for a catering company for schools), their families - and most of all, their dreams of making a comeback. In their 50s now, they still have the long hair, the powerful amps, and a wistfulness and sweetness that is completely at odds with their lyrics and on-stage performance.

You find yourself just pulling for the these guys and their unlikely hopes. For me it was an unexpected window into humanity. Even if you'd rather listen to Joni Mitchell, you'd still get an enormous kick out of this film.