More on Hippie Christians

While I’ve never been much of a Christian, and in fact spent a good number of years being definitively not Christian, I have been a closeted Christian rock fan for a long time. It started when I encountered the local Christian rock station on the radio. I didn’t even realize, initially, that I was listening to religious music. But it was a nice, melodic, folksy break from the typical rigmarole of pop music.

I also, despite not being much of a Christian, have had a long standing fascination with the Jesus movement, i.e. the “hippie Christians” of the 1960s and 70s. I’m not sure why it ignites my interest; perhaps it’s the anomaly a group choosing to live a life without boundaries- free sex, free drugs, free everything- suddenly finding themselves in a position of adopting traditionalism. It’s like that scene in The Believer where the neo nazi’s girlfriend announces she wants to be an Orthodox Jew (“let’s f–k through a hole in the sheet!“).

Or perhaps it’s because my childhood best friend’s parents were converts to Christianity from Judaism during the Jesus movement, via a now infamous cult. Either way, it didn’t take me long to discover that the counter-cultural movement is a cornucopia of beautiful, and for the most part forgotten, Christian rock.

Take the group below, “All Saved Freak Band.” You can’t get more counter-cultural than that name! Nor can you get more 70s than this song, which was released the year I was born.



The Hippie Preacher

I recently came across a fascinating documentary about Lonnie Frisbee, a pentecostal preacher who is, arguably, single-handedly responsible for the inception of the Vineyard movement that grew into a huge “franchise” of churches worldwide. There are more than a few twists to this story: for one, Frisbee started out as a barely literate, drug-addled hippie whose first encounters with Jesus transpired courtesy of LSD. For second, he was openly gay until renouncing homosexuality once born-again. However he had difficulty giving up his sexual inklings and to some degree- how much isn’t known- he slipped back into gay relationships and gay sex during his ministry, “partying on Saturday night and preaching Sunday morning.” Once his predilections became known to the higher ups in the community he was summarily fired and written out of the history of the Jesus Movement despite being one of its most pivotal figures.

To be fair, Frisbee himself believed homosexuality to be a sin according to his own interpretation of scriptures. Despite his deep religiosity and “anointed” abilities to heal and proselytize, he continued to struggle with sexuality even at the height of his career. One can view this two ways, I suppose. Either he was a deliberate fraud, or he was a well-meaning- but tormented- man of deep faith. The documentary gives the impression of the latter, and I can only imagine how fierce Frisbee’s inner demons must have been while living a double life.

By all accounts, Frisbee was an extraordinarily charismatic individual who could bring droves to Jesus. He also believed that the miracles described in the New Testament should still be extant today, and the documentary relates two incidents of miraculous healings he performed, as well as moments where he converted vast crowds to Christ in one fell swoop. I sometimes wonder if these pentecostal preachers have some kind of hypnotic ability over their audience. Secularly speaking, how do they get people to fall to the ground, speak in tongues, to have life-altering encounters with Jesus/ God/ the holy spirit? I’ve been to evangelical churches, and while I enjoyed the music, I never felt anything close to dropping to the ground and praising Jesus. I guess Satan has a force field around me.

I once read the theory that sexual and religious passion are similar to one another, despite residing on polar sides of the morality spectrum. The Jewish reasoning for this is that the passages of the Sotah (adulteress) and Nazirite “touch” each other in the Torah (Numbers 5-6). It would seem that in certain individuals, like Frisbee, the wires of sexual and religious fervor get crossed. Maybe this is true for other men of the cloth; I had a friend married to a sex addict and once she finally made her way to a support group for spouses of sex addicts, she was surprised to find most of the women were married to preachers.

The documentary is well done and balanced, remaining respectful of Frisbee’s beliefs while not hammering the gay rights issue too hard. It was not executed by a Christian production company, but a secular one. It also offers a spellbinding peek into the early Jesus Movement within the 1960s counter-cultural era. Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher is available in full on youtube.

More Stupid Common Core

My poor 9 year old, who is already a grade behind in 3rd grade due to a variety of developmental delays, came home with this ridiculous workbook page:


I’m sure there are parents whose infinitely clever 8 year olds could solve this in a cinch, but not my daughter, and not, I daresay, the majority of 3rd graders out there. Keep in mind these third graders haven’t yet memorized their multiplication tables, nor is such memorization part of the common core curriculum. They’re developing “critical thinking skills” instead of something so mundane as rote memorization.

I can see what they’re trying to do here: introduce algebraic concepts early on in the hope that such exposure will make algebra easier come middle and high school. They’re also clumsily ripping off Singapore Math which does indeed introduce algebraic concepts as early as first grade, but it’s done in a far simpler and more elegant manner. For example, a child will be asked “5+_=7″ when learning addition facts, but it stays that simple for many years, and the child is repeatedly taught that to find the answer you have to subtract the given addend from the sum.

There are too many concepts in this exercise for a little kid. First, you have the “missing number” issue, which alone is going to be tough for a lot of kids this age. There is the concept of both sides of the equation being equal. All the arrows and parentheses are confusing. And of course, you need those multiplication facts in order to solve any of this. When my daughter brought this to my room begging for help, her eyes were glassed over, totally lost. So I pretty much did it for her, and told her to tell her teacher as much.

Her teacher would probably agree with me. Most of the teachers at her school have been teaching as long as I’ve been alive, and with her 3rd grade teacher on an indefinite leave of absence (she took a bad fall at home) the third graders have been under the watchful eye of an even older, already retired teacher. I’m sure “drill and kill” math was alive and well in her younger days of teaching and she likely saw no problem with it. It just shows you how out of touch the designers of these curricula are while they get paid a gazillion dollars in taxpayer money to churn it out.

So here is my long standing prediction for the common core experiment: the smart kids will be fine because they’ll figure out how to adapt to the confusing methodologies and approaches. The not so smart kids with resourceful parents will be ok because they will be coached and prodded through the fog of war. But the already disenfranchised will end up even further disenfranchised, and this is exactly what we saw in the last round of NYS test scores. The much despised achievement gap between blacks/hispanics and whites/asians actually grew wider even though common core “higher standards” (which increasingly strikes me as Orwellian doublespeak) were supposed to have the opposite effect.


Back when I was trying to force myself to be Christian, I attended a megachurch here on Staten Island in an effort to find salvation. It didn’t work, but I did get to hear a lot of sermons from the fire and brimstone pastor, and as a closeted fan of Christian rock I enjoyed the surprisingly good members-only band that churned out any number of favorites.

This pastor always told antisemitic jokes around Christmas. I’m not sure he even realized they were antisemitic, but usually they had to do with Jews profiting monetarily from the holiday. He also liked to tell heartstring-yanking tales of lives gone wrong on the path to rebirth in Christ. These stories were all supposedly true, and featured members of his very own mega-congregation. A few stuck with me. One was about a guy who preferred to jerk off to porn instead of having sex with his “gorgeous” wife (he didn’t use the term “jerk off” though). That guy eventually found Jesus, quit the porn habit, and reconciled with his hot wife.

Another was about a mother who watched her children, one after another, destroy their lives through various means despite the fact they’d been raised in a wholesome megachurch-attending household. “When I got married,” he quoted this mother as saying, “I thought it would be Camelot.” Instead: she had a child dead from heroin, another in jail, and another multiply divorced and chronically unemployed.

I think we all go into marriage and parenthood with an idealized view of how life will transpire, only to be faced with the stark visage of actuality. So far I’ve been lucky- no drugs, no jail, no teen pregnancies (though I sure would love grandchildren… think about it, my about-to-be-born child would automatically be an uncle) but life certainly is not how I imagined it eighteen years ago when I tied the knot with my husband.

Personally, I didn’t imagine Camelot. If I had to label it I envisioned something on par with Little House on the Prairie- the book series, not the TV series (which I never watched). Lacking TV for a good chunk of my childhood, we were forced to resort to books for entertainment. I had a bad habit of reading the same books over and over again. There are some books I probably read a hundred times over, and even memorized. Once, when I was sick with the flu, my mother decided to read to me in a rare gesture of maternalism. But I kept finishing the chapters for her because it was all in my head.

One such series was Little House on the Prairie. To this day I can “play” the books mentally, the dugout house with its whitewashed walls, Ma consistently by the stove fretting over the next meal, the new log cabin built on an ill-fated loan; the ferocious blizzard that left Pa stranded for days; the time Laura nearly drowned. This all is what I envisioned: a cozy family against a brutal world, a quiet home inside a sphere of chaos. It didn’t matter that we were as far removed from the Wisconsin wilderness as humanly possible. I saw it in my head, and it seemed real.

As you can imagine, my children haven’t stayed on script. They’re a constant fount of surprise, joy, and disappointment, but some years ago I came across one of the most beautiful sayings I’ve ever encountered: we have to love our children for who they are, not in spite of who they are.

How many parents can say with utter sincerity that they adhere to this precept? Not all, to be sure. Perhaps not even most. But if there’s one phrase I’d like chiseled into my gravestone, it would be this.

It Only Takes One Microbe

I’ve officially entered the realm of crazy pregnant woman mode, where I’m in a constant and acute state of anxiety, superstition, and worry. I’ve been reading meaning into everyday occurrences. My daughter saw a mouse in the kitchen this morning. A good sign! There’s a dead cricket on the basement floor. Bad sign! And it would be even worse luck to touch that dead cricket, so it’s been there for weeks.

This morning I had to go to Willowbrook for yet another blood draw. My phlebotomist was an older Russian lady who suited up in a face mask before sticking me, ranting the whole time about Ebola and how neither the government nor the lab manager were taking adequate precautions to protect healthcare workers. “If it becomes an epidemic…” she said morosely, and put her hands in the air in a hopeless gesture. Then she jabbed me way too hard, and I still can’t fully extend my arm which is swollen and bruised opposite my elbow.

By that point I’d fasted for 14 hours, so I sat in the car and wolfed down a sandwich with juice. I was supposed to eat a high carb meal before returning two hours later for the second draw. I haven’t eaten bread in months, and while it was yummy it didn’t seem to re-awaken my bread addiction, especially since I knew it would make my levels shoot up (it did, I tested later at home out of curiosity).

During the second draw I overheard a group of phlebotomists in the hallway discussing Ebola. One intoned ominously there are a lot of Liberians on Staten Island. Yeah, but they live in West Brighton said another. No, they live in Park Hill said yet another. Well as long as they don’t come here, said a fourth. Errr… don’t they realize Staten Island is a mere 60 square miles? And microbes don’t care about neighborhood demarcations. As my aunt the pathologist always said when I left the cap off the toothpaste: It only takes one microbe.

I don’t know why but I’m just not worried abut Ebola, even in my crazy pregnant woman state of mind. I guess it could become as airborne as the common cold, then we’d all be in trouble. I’m a lot more worried about nasty flu viruses, or the enterovirus circulating the country, as two of my children have life threatening asthma and a third has moderately bad asthma. Even with suitcases of medication in the house they’ve been hospitalized for it, one in the ICU for a week (the overachiever). Anyway, if there were a clear and present Ebola threat I’m sure my aunt, who works for the CDC, would have contacted me. But so far she’s only sent me scary information about DV-68.

Here is the current state of the bump. It continues to look much smaller in pictures for some reason. It looks, and certainly feels, at least three times bigger in real life.


Zero to Three

The “Zero to Three” theory is the idea, quite popular in educational circles, that the first three years of life are when the human brain is the most active, malleable, impressionable, and that this “window” can serve as a springboard for intellectual prowess later in life. While the Birth to Three, or Zero to Three notion has become well known in popular culture over the past two decades (inspiring products like Baby Genius) it has been around for a while. My mother, whose degrees are in education and early childhood development, took these theories to heart and I have a clear memory of her denying me a hug in the 1970s- because I was already past my third birthday. Bonding experiences, she explained, were crucial primarily in the first three years of life, and here I was past three! I don’t think I ever asked her for a hug again.

Current policy on publically funded pre-kindergarten programs is entirely founded on this idea of early brain malleability: if you can get to a child young enough, you can “stimulate his brain” sufficiently to put him on an even playing field with the rest of humanity. Indeed, the dismal impact of headstart and pre-k on disenfranchised populations are typically blamed on the fact that they don’t start early enough, i.e. they’ve missed that magic window of birth to three when the rich kids hear Beethoven in the womb and solve Miquon puzzles with their nannies. I guarantee there will be government efforts to expand pre-k to ages three, and younger, in upcoming years.

The problem is, there is no evidence that an enriching, stimulating environment alone is what makes a child smart. Nor is there any consensus on what such an enriching environment ought to consist of. The only real evidence is that severe deprivation and neglect- say, tying an infant to a potty chair all day, or leaving him alone in a crib for the first years of life with little human interaction- does in fact cause cognitive and developmental delays. But this level of deprivation is typically found only in institutional settings in the developing world (a very sad documentary about Chinese orphanages, The Dying Rooms, illustrates this level of neglect). But there is no evidence that the opposite of a Communist orphanage produces a beaming genius. Nor is there any evidence, to quote John Bruer, that an hour of educational television is any better or worse for neurological priming than an hour of Rugrats. Or no TV at all.

Why am I blogging about Zero to Three? Because my adorable youngest daughter just turned three, and I have yet to take official action on her non-verbal state. “Non-verbal” isn’t quite accurate; she does have about 50 unique, meaningful squeaks and chirps. She has a few meaningful growls and a bunch of improvised hand gestures that somehow get her point across. I’ve wondered if this is what human proto-language sounded like? She sounds a bit like a bird, mixed with some monkey, mixed with a little sign language.

happy birthday

I’ll admit denial has played a part on our inaction. When you live with someone every day, especially a young child whom you’ve been with since birth (technically, even before birth) you kind of get used to how they are and stop seeing it as anything unusual. All of my kids were somewhat late talkers, with three of them profoundly late talkers. To us this is just normal (my teenage daughter was shocked to learn most babies are saying words by 10-12 months- my nephew even said “light!” at 8 months). The closest we’ve come to a normal talker is the overachiever, who babbled incessantly as a baby and said real words before her second birthday.

Or perhaps I’m jaded, having been through years of early intervention with my now 9 year old. While she too was non-verbal she was also mute- no squeaks, chirps, or even gestures- and she was globally delayed in other ways. I relented and called in the experts, and she had around the clock therapy from a veritable coterie of attendants for years. Even with all that intervention, she still didn’t talk until a year after we withdrew her from the program. And of course my son, who never received therapy of any kind, is today too articulate for his own good.

Come to think of it, only two of my kids attended any kind of pre-kindergarten program. My now 11 year old was in a full day pre-k; this is when the 9 year old was in all those therapy sessions, and I felt like I didn’t have enough time or attention for her. In retrospect I regret putting her in school at such a young age. 6+ plus hours is a long day for a four year old. The other one I put in pre-k was my hellion 6 year old. I needed a break from her during the day. I don’t feel too guilty about that one, though again, four is a very young age to be out of the house unnecessarily. It’s not like I was working or anything. None of my other kids, including the overachiever (who continues to leave her classmates in the dust) ever went to pre-k. So in theory they should all be at an academic deficit, but they’re not. If anything I wonder if it might have helped them to be in the relaxed environment of home, before entering school a little older than the current norm.

This is a possibility that is overlooked: systematically coaxing and prodding a small child to say or do things before he’s naturally inclined to do so might in fact be detrimental. And without solid evidence to support intervention of children deemed neurologically at-risk, is it really worth the expense and potential anxiety to “fix” the child? But social policy these days seems to be the most intervention at the earliest point possible. I guess where the government can spend more money, and take more control, it will always be eager to do so. It’s the nature of the beast. In the meantime my three year old is staying home, and yes, I’m still giving her hugs!

The Spanish Downton Abbey

I never caught on to the Downton Abbey craze. Any number of people recommended it to me, and I kept seeing rave reviews of it online, but somehow I couldn’t bring myself to watch a PBS gothic romance series. When I finally did relent, I was pleasantly surprised- for the first season- but as with so many good TV shows it went rapidly downhill after reaching its zenith of popularity, and by the end of season two I found it nauseatingly unwatchable and abandoned ship.

Last week my husband told me he discovered a “Spanish Downton Abbey” on netflix. Ughhhh. Not again! It was spectacular, he said, and he was quickly lost in marathon viewing sessions with our older daughters who were likewise instantly obsessed. Wanting to kill some time this weekend I decided to give it a try, and I have to admit it’s really good, even better than those lovely initial episodes of Downton Abbey.

gran hotel
Downton Abbey en español

Gran Hotel (“Grand Hotel”) is a Spanish (as in Spain) production set in the same era as Downton Abbey, but instead of a lofty estate, the backdrop is a posh hotel run by a drama-prone family that rules over the staff with an iron fist. While there is plenty of scheming, money lust, romance, love triangles, and love pentagons, the main difference between Gran Hotel and Downton Abbey is that the former maintains more than one compelling murder mystery throughout its plot lines; there’s even a charming and beautifully acted big-city inspector shipped in to investigate the murders. And its not just the inspector; the character development of the show is, overall, quite superb, much better than its PBS inspiration.

If you plan to watch Gran Hotel with kids, the raunchiness meter is about the same as Downton Abbey. There’s no gay snogging but there are a few semi-graphic sex scenes sprinkled in, plus brief topless female nudity during an autopsy. So I’d give it a PG or weak PG-13 rating. (My 11 year old has been watching it and doesn’t seem traumatized.) As far as language, it’s subtitled, but I noticed some of the Spanish isn’t accurately translated or is skipped over altogether, but it’s done well enough to get the main points of the plot across.

So until netflix snatches it away, enjoy! Just don’t lose track of your real life in the meantime.

My Kids Love Pop-Tarts


In a recent post I mentioned the remarkable self-regulation my kids have when it comes to pacing food intake. It dawned on me then, that I couldn’t recall a single argument they’ve had over food, despite being a large family with a sometimes limited dessert supply. It’s not that my kids don’t argue. They’ve had endless arguments, shouting matches, even years-long feuds over stuff like:

  • plagiarism and character theft. God forbid one kid writes a story or draws a comic that remotely resembles someone else’s story line in any way, shape, or manner.
  • access to books. One kid gets a book for their birthday and all the kids want to read it. Horrible fights ensue.
  • who gets to hold the remote.
  • what to watch on netflix.
  • chairs (“I was sitting there!!”)
  • space on the sofa
  • pillows- some kids hoard 5 or 6 pillows for themselves while expecting the other kids to sleep with just one.
  • access to the computer. This is probably the greatest source of conflict between the girls (my son has his own computer). I have to admit, ever since my 12 yr old got her iPad for school, the tension has lessened on this front.
  • lack of participation in chores compared to the complainer’s valiant efforts.

But there was never arguing- or even tension- about food. Until pop-tarts entered our household.

The first pop-tart came into our lives many years ago when my son’s friend gave him a piece. After a lot of begging from him, I bought a few boxes here and there but they were too expensive, and not even really food, so I stopped. Fast forward to last year and my oldest daughter began buying them individually during her debate team away trips. Upon her return she talked about those pop-tarts to her sisters as though describing an exotic vacation to faraway islands, and occasionally saved slivers for them to taste. When I finally got a membership to Costco, that same daughter immediately noticed they sell pop-tarts, and cheap. A huge box is $8, that box contains four smaller boxes, and each smaller box contains 12 “pastries.” She offered to buy them with her own money. I agreed as long as she shared with the rest of the kids (I imagined her eating through all four boxes in one day.) She readily agreed and the pop-tarts came home.

There was pandemonium when those pop-tarts crossed the threshold. We may as well have been holding the holy grail; they tore open the boxes, determined who wanted which flavor and did the math, based on that, to see who got how many. Despite their joy I felt guilty feeding them something so distinctly unhealthy. At least with their horrible lunches, I have the excuse of needing it to pack efficiently and be appetizing during the rushed lunch period. So I steered clear of pop-tarts for a while until their begging reached such a fever pitch that I gave in. I bought what I thought was an ample pop-tart supply and laid it out on the table like Agamemnon offering up Iphigenia. They descended like wolves.

Costco offers but two flavors: strawberry and brown sugar and they have to be purchased together. Strawberry is a solid favorite with the girls while my son prefers brown sugar. This leads to a surplus for him and a deficit for the girls. This morning Amadea, who never eats breakfast no matter how much I plead, pulled a chair to an upper kitchen cabinet and began scrounging.

“What are you doing?” I asked, genuinely puzzled. I’ve never seen her scrounge in any cabinet, ever. She barely eats.

Oh,” she said nonchalantly. “Just looking for something I might want for breakfast.”

She skulked away empty handed only to return a few minutes later, climbed back on the chair, and began digging anew.

“Did you find something to eat?” I asked.

“Ah!” she said with clearly feigned surprise. “What is this glint of tinfoil I see?” Lo and behold she extracted a sealed strawberry pop-tart packet from the back recesses of the cabinet.

“Wow,” I said. “Someone must have squirreled that away.” Ever slow on the uptake, it didn’t occur to me until later that “someone” was her.

When my six year old caught wind of Amadea eating a strawberry pop-tart she grew hysterical. “It’s a strawberry one!” she howled piteously. I told her she could have one when she got home from school, but there was no time for more breakfast now. Unassuaged by this she kept howling, and I later found her slumped in the back staircase, head buried in her uniform skirt while she wept. Her speech was garbled but I could make out “… strawberry… strawberry… strawberry.” Well this had reached emotional heights I hadn’t anticipated. I unwrapped one of the few remaining strawberry pop-tarts and handed it to her, advising her almost apologetically she could eat in the last few minutes before they needed to leave for school.

Gestational Diabetes

One reason I gave up bread and all grains is because I’m at risk for gestational diabetes, given my age. I don’t have any other risk factors, but apparently age is enough because I failed the first glucose tolerance test miserably (with my last pregnancy, I barely passed). This despite barely gaining pregnancy weight, and despite already eating a moderately low carb diet (about 70-100 grams of carbs a day, compared to the typical American intake of 300g+ a day). My only carbs come from non-starchy veggies (broccoli, lettuce, eggplant, cauliflower etc.) which are low carb to begin with, and a few servings of fresh fruit. I avoid fruit in the morning knowing blood sugar tends to spike earlier in the day.

After failing the glucose test I bought a glucose monitor and tested my fasting and post meal levels eating how I’ve been eating the past few months. I was happy to see my levels were in the very normal range of 60s-90s. Then one morning, as an experiment, I ate a banana for a breakfast, and my blood sugar went up to 130, which is the cut off point for normal. And that was just one lousy banana! What if I’d eaten a typical breakfast of banana, cereal, and OJ?

I’ve been eating a lot of chicken soup, some lamb, occasionally eggs or nuts, and lots and lots of low starch vegetables. Knowing that I may indeed have gestational diabetes, I’m afraid to eat much fruit at this point. The baby is already measuring rather huge (a symptom of GD) which isn’t necessarily a good thing. I guess it’s possible my dates are off by as much as a week, but he’s looking more and more like a behemoth in spite of my spartan diet.

I tried explaining to the midwife who works for the new OB that I already don’t eat grains, and that my current diet is far more restrictive than any GD diet a nutritionist would have me follow. She looked confused. “You don’t even eat pasta?” No, I said, and I pointed out if I give up fruit, I’ll be so low carb I’ll go into ketosis. She shrugged and said she didn’t know anything about carb counting, that they instead counsel women in terms of “servings” of grains and fruit.

The glucose test strips cost a fortune so it’s a good thing my insurance was reinstated. And if things go awry I may need to be induced early and/or have a c-section, neither of which I’ve experienced before. I have to say I’m surprised by all this, because I really thought if I kept my weight gain to a minimum, and restricted carbs, I’d be fine.

The Machine

[spoiler free]

The Machine is a 2013 British sci-fi thriller set in a dystopic world struggling with never-ending warfare. With this backdrop two computer scientists attempt to create a self-aware android under the auspices of a military research facility.

the machine
let’s make an android

The result is a surprisingly engrossing tale examining questions of consciousness, existence, and the right to life. Like the best science fiction, The Machine is as much philosophical treatise as action flick, and in that respect reminds me of Gattica or Ghost in the Shell.

Despite being a low budget film with a small cast, the acting is by and large excellent and the pacing very good. As I’ve mentioned before, it takes lot for a feature film to catch and hold my attention. In fact the last non-documentary I managed to sit through was All is Lost with Robert Redford. So it’s always a surprise for me to find myself pulled into an actual movie, which The Machine did with aplomb. Not only that, but The Machine offers a genuinely fascinating and non-annoying female protagonist, a rare thing indeed in Hollywood. We can probably all name any number of movies or TV shows with nuanced and riveting male leads (Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad comes to mind) but how many can do the same for female leads (Captain Janeway is the best I can come up with, and she was as much annoying as interesting)? If you do watch The Machine it’s probably not who you think- you’ll have to wait about a third through the film to meet her.

I’ve intentionally not read any background on the film, but The Machine seems to make deliberate references to autism throughout. Indeed, the opening scene shows a theory of mind test which is repeated throughout the story arc. For those who don’t know, theory of mind is the ability to accurately perceive or predict other people’s thoughts or emotional reactions, an ability autistics, even high functioning autistics, often lack. And the fact that the proto-androids (brain damaged humans with implants) turn non-verbal is also a nod to autism.

My only complaints about the film are that some of the scenes are choppily placed- you get the feeling much of the footage ended up on the editing floor; the main villain doesn’t come across as all that evil, and the supposed geniuses don’t come across as all that smart. I have the same problem when I try watching episodes of Eureka (which my kids love). All those supposed geniuses come across as average at best. In fact, they kind of seem like dumb actors.

So if you’re bored tonight and looking for something to watch, I heartily recommend The Machine to wile away the evening. It’s available, as of this post, on netflix streaming.


Nothing Strenuous is Strenuous

After 15 years of home ownership in NYC, I finally crossed a line I’d never crossed before: I hired a lawn service to deal with my lawn. In early summer I was forbidden to do “anything strenuous” because I appeared to be on the verge of miscarrying. And “strenuous” includes mowing the lawn, hacking weeds, and hauling watering cans to remote areas the hose won’t reach.

So the grass grew, and grew and grew. The weeds grew, twisting vines and thistles. The ornamental flowers I planted before knowing I was pregnant shriveled and died. A large oak dropped two massive limbs in the yard. They rotted while grass and weeds overtook them. By August, parts of our sidewalk were barely visible through the spreading bramble.

My husband promised to pick up the slack but he was too busy on weekends, and I long ago accepted nagging doesn’t work. My son, unenthusiastic about yard work to begin with, developed a nasty staph infection on his arm putting him out of manual-labor-commission for a month. I began collecting the numbers of landscapers from trucks I saw while out driving, but to our surprise no one called back. I thought the economy was souring and people were desperate for work? Apparently not, or, landscapers are extremely unorganized businessmen.

Finally we caught one, and the estimate was surprisingly cheap. I hired him on the spot. The next day three men spent three hours hacking and hauling debris from our lawn, and by the time they left it looked like a different house. I ventured outside with my almost three year old today- a few months too late- to enjoy the sun and grass while she ran back and forth in a joyous frenzy.


In living paleolithic cultures, such as the Amazon rain forest or Papua New Guinea, pregnant women remain active through their pregnancies, hauling older children, puppies, food, and everything else no matter how rotund their bellies grow.


Lolling around and letting other people do the work is unheard of. So I’m not sure taking it easy, physically, really does much to reduce the risk of miscarriage, but here I am still pregnant after months of idleness. The most strenuous activity I’ve done is haul bags of laundry to and from the basement once or twice a day, and technically I shouldn’t have done that.

Of course, women in stone age cultures aren’t going to worry about grass growing too tall. I’m not sure they could even grasp such a concept. But it caused me an awful lot of angst and lost sleep over the summer, wishing I could get out there with the rickety lawn mower. All’s well that ends well, or at least it will hopefully end well, soon enough.

Assembly Line Lunches

lots of lunches

I’m trying a new lunch technique this year; instead of packaging lunches each morning, I assembly-line produce large quantities at once, neatly stapled in brown paper bags and set aside for use over the week. Of course, this means I have to use shelf-stable foods that my picky kids will eat, i.e. junk food, but I surrendered that lunch battle a long time ago.

For half of the last school year I lovingly packaged healthy meals each morning. Homemade whole wheat muffins, fresh cut fruit, bottled water, even salads! It all came home uneaten and the kids starving. Since hunger impairs a child’s concentration in school, I felt like a cruel mother for these health food antics. (The overachiever claims hunger sharpens her concentration; is that like Hitler keeping the heat off?)

Goodbye healthy lunches, hello Ritz crackers, potato chips, and cookies. The change was met with delight and the kids stopped coming home clutching their stomachs. But I felt like an even worse mother now, just for different reasons.

Oh well. Here is this week’s menu: mandarin fruit cup (in syrup), juice box, cheez-its, cookies:

bag lunch

None of this would be first lady approved under new USDA guidelines for public schools (part of the juice box might be allowed for breakfast). Too much sodium, grain, and I don’t believe fruit cups with syrup are allowed. In my defense, as I assembled these lunches I was simultaneously cooking homemade chicken soup:

chicken soup

Ironically this probably wouldn’t be allowed either under the new guidelines. Too much fat (I never skim fat from broths), too much meat. The carrots, tomato and celery might be allowed if carefully rinsed and degreased. Let me tell you, this soup was delicious! I can’t believe I went so many years not eating meat.

In a Darwin Award moment I stapled both of my thumbs when trying to fix the stupid cheap Staples stapler that kept popping open. The more I moved my thumbs, clasped to the stapler via the staple, the deeper it went. After the initial gush of blood things calmed down and I was left with what looks like a pin prick, but oh, did it hurt!


I last received a tetanus shot in college when I was bitten by a feral kitten (the med student treating me had to look up “animal bite” in the index of his textbook before deciding what to do) and that was a long time ago. Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure these staples are older than my marriage. My husband had what seemed like an eternal supply of staples when we met, and he brought them into the marriage as a strange sort of dowry. I don’t think we’ve ever bought new staples over 17, soon to be 18, years of marital bliss.

1 in 14

I knuckled down today and forced myself to get the Rhogam shot, a requirement for all pregnant women with Rh negative blood. At least where I live, and going through my doctor’s practice, this is a drawn out process where I have to register at the hospital as an outpatient, navigate the byzantine inner corridors to the blood lab, wait to have my blood drawn, wait to have the Rh factor verified, then take the serum to the L&D unit where a nurse delivers it to my upper arm (ouch).

7% of people worldwide (about 1 in 14) have Rh negative blood but you’d think it was one in a million from the way clinicians react when a pregnant woman says she’s Rh-. I get something of the royal treatment every time I go through this ordeal, and the blood lab keeps a careful handwritten ledger of every pregnant Rh- woman coming through its doors. There are only a few of us each week, judging from the dates in the left margin, which surprised me too. How many women are pregnant on Staten Island at any one time?

Strangely, most of my kids are Rh- even though my husband is Rh+, which means he must have a negative allele, and the same for my parents: my mother is Rh- and my father Rh+, but both my sister and I are Rh-. So both my mother (whom I consider myself to be very different from, but maybe not) and I unknowingly elected to marry men with negative alleles. They say women instinctively prefer men with DNA similar to their own, so maybe this explains it, or maybe it’s just one of those weird things. Either way my son is in high demand on blood donor day at his high school and gets moved to the front of the line.

Being the obedient patient I’ve been so far this pregnancy, I registered at the front office then made my way to the blood lab.


It looks okay in this picture but this hospital always reminds me of Jacob’s Ladder; consecutive additions were built on top of old buildings and the result is a hopelessly confusing maze of wings, hallways, elevators, and disorienting stairways. It used to be a Catholic institution but was recently bought by a secular developer, though there’s still a big ol’ statue of Jesus in the lobby.

They took my blood and two hours later sent me to L&D with the serum and an awful lot of paperwork in hand. In the L&D waiting room I encountered a painfully young, very pregnant, mother and father to be, and a really pissed off mom (the mom to be’s mom) glaring at the two of them. I was ushered to the main nurses’ station and realized I was staring at the room where my almost three year old was born.

the room behind the gurney

An extremely friendly nurse took charge of me. “Is this your first baby?” she asked brightly. “Uhh… no. It’s my eighth.” It took her a few moments to recover from that one, then she brought me to the very room where I’d given birth nearly three years previous. If you’ve never seen the interior of a delivery room before, this is what it looks like:

delivery room
check out those stirrups

She gave me the shot and I was finally free to leave. On the way back to my car, a flock of birds followed me, swooping down three feet in front of me, taking flight when I got too close, only to alight back down another three feet in front. They did this all the way to my car.

Here’s one of the prettier houses on Bard Avenue near the hospital. I bet most people wouldn’t guess this is located in New York City if shown the picture randomly; this is typical of many older homes on the island that have retained large yards and thickets of trees.

gravel driveway!

In many ways time has stood still on Staten Island, not what you’d expect for a borough of a major metropolis.

iPad Depression

Over the summer we got a letter from the school advising us with great enthusiasm that all 7th and 8th graders will be required to have iPads for the upcoming school year, bringing classrooms “into the future” with enhanced education through technology. My heart sank, because I’ve gone to great effort over the span of my parenting life to keep my younger children off social media, gadgets, and phones. You don’t need technology to acquire a solid K-8 education (or even K-12, quite frankly) and more often than not laptops and ipads in the classroom are a distraction rather than a tool. Trust me, those moguls in Silicon Valley who spend a fortune sending their children to low-technology private schools know exactly what they’re doing.

Remember the smart board craze? When schools bragged about smart boards and parents demanded them as though they were the panacea for every education problem? Well the last school my kids attended had smart boards in every classroom and heavily advertised them, but many of the kids in those classrooms had standardized test (ITBS) scores in the single digit percentiles. The smart boards made no difference over wipe off boards, chalkboards, or writing with a stick in the mud. But as a society we continue to blame the faults of our feet on our shoes.

So this morning the overachiever showed me her shiny new ipad. “What are you going to do with it?” I asked.

“Students can have conversations with each other,” she replied. “And it has a dictionary.”

I stopped myself from pointing out we have a dictionary at home.

“And you can create notebooks.”

She showed me a few other features, none of which left me impressed, at least not in terms of her education. Honestly I think this is a ploy so the school can advertise “iPads in every 7th and 8th grade classroom!” because parents gobble up that sort of thing.

To be sure, we’ve always been a computer rich household, even when we barely had the money to spend on computers. My husband’s work is heavily computer dependent so he’s always had the latest iBook, and the kids are fanatical PC gamers so we maintain at least two desktop computers for the younger kids to share. So while they might be on the computer a lot, at least on non-school nights, it’s always in a public space and they take turns with each other which forcibly limits their screen time, which means they also do a lot of reading (of physical, paper books), goofing off, and imaginative play.

Once the kids are around 14 or 15 I give up and let them do what they want. My son has managed to save money for 2 computers and pretty much lives online, but he’s practically an adult and I trust him to use discretion when needed (though strangely, it doesn’t seem to be needed. what 17 year old doesn’t look at porn?). But it’s a whole different story for my younger kids, and seeing my 12 year old glued with head bowed to the iPad is depressing.

Staten Island School News

The most exciting school news on Staten Island, as of late, is the huge sex scandal brewing at Moore Catholic High School. So huge it made national networks like CNN and FOX, which is impressive given Staten Island may as well not exist when it comes to media attention. If only the tiles of the Moore locker rooms could talk! Not one but two female basketball coaches are accused of sexual liaisons with students. One was a lesbian tryst while the other lady is accused of involvement with a 16 year old guy. I really wonder what goes through adult women’s heads when they get involved in relationships like this. Is it some weird attempt to feel young? Because I can assure you if I had to have sex with a 16 year old, I’d feel nothing but old, old, old.

When I was in college a classmate confided in me (why, I don’t know; we were barely friendly acquaintances) that she was concerned about being an education major because she was “intensely attracted” to teenage boys. Oookay. That’s something partial strangers don’t confess to you every day. So every time one of these stories pops up in the news, I check to see if it was her. But so far, she hasn’t been caught, or at least it hasn’t made national headlines. I remember being puzzled by her predilection, because I spent my spare time lusting after my friends’ dads.

What’s even stranger about this story is that the coach herself is quite young, only 25, so it’s not like she’s having to deal with the erectile dysfunction crowd. Maybe what happens is that when you work with teenagers day in and day out, you forget you’re not one yourself. But I don’t know. The female biology teacher at my son’s all-boys high school told me her students were so obnoxious they drove her to drink. If I had to work in a building full of teenage boys I’d probably have a bottle of tequila under the desk too.

And in other school news, Mayor DeBlasio stepped foot on our humble shores for a preK photo-op this afternoon. Imagine my surprise, when trying to pick up my girls, to see the parking lot packed with news vans and NYPD posted at every entrance.


What was going on? Nothing happens on Staten Island. But there was the mayor himself, looking very tall indeed with a select few four year olds playing with colorful blocks at his feet. Since I’m an important blogger I should have approached him with pressing questions on fiscal policy and immigration reform, but because I had four whiny girls in tow I hightailed it out of there.

In yet further education news, my oldest daughter is now a free agent on the MTA system. She has a bus pass and she’s using it, and made it home alive this afternoon on her first solo trip. Hopefully she won’t be scooped up by some concerned passenger and carted off to Bellvue. A lot of crazy people ride public transportation so she shouldn’t stand out. I’ve wondered about those bus passes: in theory she could blow off school and ride all over the city. That might be a better education than she’s getting now.

Today was the first day of school for all my kids. It went off smoothly, a little too smoothly. I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. I’ve realized I need to be more cognizant of basic mom issues, like helping the younger ones get dressed, packing lunches, and otherwise assisting them in the morning rush. What else am I going to do? It’s not like I have a job. Being a housewife is an odd hybrid existence of retiree and babysitter.

Here’s my son looking down on humanity.


My oldest daughter looking sane and stable. That’s the goal, right?


And the youngest (though not for long) drawing circles. At least she knows what a circle is, even if she can’t say it, or anything else. She’s still totally non-verbal.


HBO: The Weight of the Nation

The Weight of the Nation is a 4-part 2012 documentary, free to watch on HBO and youtube, detailing the health and policy implications of skyrocketing obesity in American adults and children. Part 1 looks in graphic detail at the health consequences of obesity, complete with an examination of post-mortem hearts from normal and overweight individuals, and close-ups of diabetic foot lesions. Part 2 looks at weight loss methods and profiles weight loss success stories. Part 3 looks at the obesity crisis in children, and Part 4 examines the general psychological and physiological triggers for overeating: our hunter gatherer stomachs have not caught up with the first world environment of food excess, and we sit around staring at screens while our ancient ancestors were scrambling up trees and fleeing from wolves. This last segment also pushes fruits and vegetables as a weight loss boon (even though neither makes you lose weight) going so far as to suggest corn and soy stop being subsidized “so broccoli can be on an even playing field.” One farmer “guarantees” people will buy broccoli by the boatload if it were cheaper (for the record, broccoli is already cheap- I can buy a a huge bag of florets for $5 at Costco, frozen florets are even cheaper).

While interesting to watch, this is a “just okay” documentary. Often the most engrossing parts of the films are the quirky obesity experts who deliberate the issue. It’s also very long- it took me days to get through all four parts- and different experts in different sections contradict one another. For example, in Part 1 we’re told that a calorie is a calorie, but in part 3, childhood obesity is blamed on “unhealthy food” including the ever-evil corn and soy (predictably we see a “teaching breakfast” where junk food saturated children are exposed to fruits and vegetables). In part 2 we are told that exercise is ineffective for weight loss, yet in Part 3 the lack of a federal gym requirement is faulted for children’s expanding waistlines. There are also a few assertions I’m not sure are true, or at least have not been definitively proven. One claim is that two people of identical weight and height will have different caloric maintenance levels if one person started out at a heavier weight. This doesn’t make sense to me and I’d like to know how the studies concluding this were conducted, because self-reporting of food intake is notoriously inaccurate, particularly in people who have a tendency to overeat. In fact there’s a TV series based on this phenomena, the BBC Secret Eaters (which is available on youtube if you’re interested).

The Weight of the Nation delves into one facet of obesity I’d never considered: there is a lot of profit made off the obese, and not much financial incentive to solve obesity. The care for obesity related diabetes alone reaps billions for the healthcare industry; the diet industry rakes in billions, and the food industry would lose billions if people ate less. That’s a lot of billions resting on the status quo! So while we may give lip service to solving the crisis, who, beyond the individual, would actually benefit from doing so?

Even more sobering, many of the obesity experts and policy makers featured in the film are overweight themselves. For example, the eminently intelligent and thoughtful Kelly Brownell appears to be morbidly obese. You have to ask yourself: if the best educated and most aware of the risks can’t manage to stay within a normal weight range, what hope is there for the rest of us? This dovetails with my theory that your average person simply cannot not be overweight in an environment of food excess. We’re biologically programmed to eat, eat some more, and maybe more on top of that!

By the conventional wisdom presented in this documentary, my own children should be overweight. Except for the occasional bite of lettuce they don’t eat vegetables (yes, I’ve tried, a lot!); only a few like fruit. They eat much maligned kid foods like chicken nuggets, french fries, pizza, potato chips, and fruit juice. They’re not athletic in the least and spend too much time on video games and TV. But not only are they not overweight, they’re slightly underweight or on the low end of normal. Even my oldest daughter, who gained weight when she started corticosteroids, is on the low end of normal BMI.

I have no food rules and never limit how much of what they can take. They don’t even have to eat meals if they don’t feel like it, or can opt for something different from what I’ve cooked. The only real rule is “no wasting.” There are a few foods I never buy- like soda or heavily processed foods- but there is plenty of junk and borderline junk in the house. And after packing healthy lunches for much of last school year only to have it returned home uneaten and the kids starving, I gave up and began packing foods that fly in the face of new USDA school lunch guidelines.

One thing I’ve noticed with my children is that, for whatever reason, they are amazingly good at self regulating food intake. For instance they love the huge, decadent muffins from Costco but will only eat a fourth at a time.

costco muffins
two fourths to go

I normally don’t buy candy but we have a box of Hershey bars in the house. After a month, and between 7 children, it’s only half gone. When I do try to get them to sit down for dinner they take a few bites, announce they’re full and leap up from the table. This is maddening when I have fantasies of a pleasant sit down meal with my kids, but I guess it’s good for their health and future weight. As for why they are like this, I wish I knew; then I could share my secret with all the parents out there. Perhaps they are genetically predisposed to have small appetites because as much as I love food, I can only eat a little bit at a time unless I make a conscious effort to stuff myself. Maybe my complete lack of food rules allows them to be “in touch” with their true hunger signals. But I really don’t know.

As far as the documentary, if you have five hours to spare I definitely recommend it though it’s not the best food documentary I’ve seen. It does come with some fascinating scenes (like when cardiologists illustrate heart disease with actual human hearts) and people, both those struggling with their weight and the clinicians trying to help them.

Al Sharpton Cometh

Al Sharpton and 15,000 of his friends are due to arrive on the shores of Staten Island tomorrow, so I decided to do all my grocery shopping today. There will be a number of road closures and networks of diverted traffic due to the “We Will Not Go Back” rally (what exactly does that mean? Is it like “Never Again?”). I have trouble believing 15,000 people will journey to Staten Island for any reason, and it’s a shame those visitors who do show up will be marching through one of the more miserable sections of the island. Despite its supposed renaissance as the next Greenpoint, St. George for the most part is not a pretty sight. Yes, there are lovely historic landmarks here and there (like St. Peter’s Church) and some well kept Victorians. But for the most part it’s blight, ugly storefronts, and lots of down and out folks hanging around. Perhaps the borough president should have organized hospitality squads to shepherd protesters on diversionary tours of our sparkling beaches and vast greenbelt. They could even take a golf break in Todt Hill.

The timing of Mr. Sharpton’s visit to the island is serendipitous because the one year anniversary of my breach from sugar is approaching, and as some of you may be old enough to remember, Al once cut a portly figure.

chubby al

My husband often waxes poetic about Sharpton’s jumpsuits and bling that are now relics of a bygone era. Despite being chubby in years past, Sharpton is now emaciated thanks to a prison fast and vegan diet.

skinny al

I don’t know, I think he looked better fat! It’s people like Al who give veganism a bad name. They look sick, gray, and withered. But I’m going to assume that like me he has also sworn off desserts, even vegan cupcakes. It was almost one year ago tomorrow that I decided to quit all desserts, and I only fell off the bandwagon once through that period when under the influence of too much wine. I wolfed down a chocolate chip cookie before I remembered it was verboten.

What is life like without dessert? Honestly, not much different. The only physical change is that I have a somewhat less tortuous time trying to sleep. My entire life I’ve had difficulty staying asleep more than two hours, and without the sugar and accompanying chocolate (my weaknesses were chocolate croissants, chocolate chip cookies, chocolate cake, brownies, and chocolate) I can occasionally stay asleep for three hours. But other than that I feel no different. No extra energy. No greater immunity to the common cold. So if you’re considering giving up desserts, too, you may not want to bother.

Not only that but two months ago I finally managed to quit bread! This means I’ve been gluten free for some time. Other than some possible withdrawal symptoms, like a severe headache and bad mood, I can report that I feel no different without gluten either. So again, you may want to avoid this current health food craze. In fact, a recent study surmises that the gluten free fad is completely fake.

The only reason I gave up desserts and bread was because I realized they were wasted calories, and I would rather my carbohydrates derive from fruits as they, at least, contain antioxidants and fiber. The only perceptible difference is that so far I’m gaining less weight with this pregnancy than I gained in previous pregnancies, but that’s only because I’m not devouring bagels, rye bread, pizza, and homemade pretzels like I once did.

Yet another radical change in my dietary life is that I’m now eating meat. After being a devout vegan for years I began eating the very occasional egg, piece of chicken, or dairy item. But once I noticed Costco sold lamb at $5.50 per lb the die was cast. If there is one meat in the world I actually enjoy eating, it’s lamb. I cook it on “low” in the crockpot for 10 hours with wine, garlic, and tomatoes. It’s utterly divine and the final nail in my vegan coffin.

However, eating red meat for the first time in nearly 20 years has not made me feel any different. As I’ve noted before, I think humans are more like rats than we want to admit: we can survive nicely on just about any calorie source, as long as it’s not outright carcinogenic or poisonous.

If I weren’t very pregnant I might venture into the fray tomorrow to take pictures for my readers, but as it is, I can barely make the rounds of Costco without bordering on collapse. I don’t know why that is, because I haven’t gained much weight, though I guess it’s the nature of babies to suck the life out of their mothers.

Pregnant Conspiracies

Since all pregnant women are obliged to take selfies of themselves, I realized around six months I should be recording things for prosperity.


And this one I took a few weeks later:


I was surprised when I saw that first picture because I don’t look pregnant at all, despite being shy of six months. Maybe it’s the fluff of the shirt, or the angle, but the picture could pass for a non-pregnant women. This immediately brought to mind the conspiracy theories surrounding Sarah Palin, namely, that she was never pregnant with her son Trig and was in fact faking a pregnancy to cover up for her slutty daughter. Never mind the fact that they paraded said daughter (when she actually was pregnant) and the baby daddy around on the national stage during the election. The “proof” for the fake pregnancy was that Palin did not look pregnant in pictures taken while “allegedly” pregnant with Trig.

Now, I’m a bit of conspiracy theorist myself but this one is just stupid. And unless you think I’m covering up for my 15 year old daughter, who still thinks boys are smelly and annoying, here you have proof that a woman can be quite pregnant but not look it in a photograph.

But there’s an even more bizarre pregnancy conspiracy theory out there! I stumbled across this one by sheer chance a few weeks ago. This conspiracy claims that the Duchess of Cambridge (Kate Middleton) was never pregnant with heir to the throne George, and that the baby was actually borne by a surrogate with a donor egg. The proof? Kate doesn’t look pregnant in certain pictures taken during the pregnancy, or looks unevenly pregnant in photographs taken over the course of the pregnancy (i.e., bigger when she was less pregnant, smaller when more pregnant).

Even if the baby was carried by a surrogate, as long as it was the duchess’ egg and the prince’s sperm I don’t see what the big deal is. How the conspiracists somehow know that a donor egg was used, I don’t know. But once again, just because a woman doesn’t look pregnant doesn’t mean she isn’t. And having been pregnant a lot, I can tell you that the “bump” changes shape and height over the course of the pregnancy depending on the position of the baby and how much you’ve eaten that day.

Oh, and another piece of  “proof” is that Kate has neither stretch marks nor a linea nigra on her stomach (seen in a bikini shot not long after George’s birth). Perhaps they were airbrushed out- but despite my own numerous pregnancies I don’t have either of those things (though I do have stretch marks on my boobs from breastfeeding, yet another strike against my dismal chest). Here is a picture I took for a previous post.


So there you have it. No stretch marks, no linea nigra, and a non-pregnant looking picture -yet I’m about to bring my 8th hellion into the world. Proof positive all these pregnancy conspiracy theories are dumb.

Leader of the Pack

When I first embarked on having children I took it as a given they would all get along swimmingly. I have no idea why I thought this, since my own sister couldn’t stand me as a kid and rarely spoke to me. I don’t have a single memory of playing with her as a child. I learned to play games, including board games, by myself and spent most of my childhood in social isolation (no one at school liked me either). I did collect a few friends here and there but for the most part I was on my own social life-wise until high school.

My prediction was correct for my son and oldest daughter. They mutually adored each other and were inseparable. As soon as they could talk, which was at the same time as my son didn’t talk until he was five, they had a non-stop straight man (my son)/ funny man (my daughter) routine going on, finished each other’s sentences, and even shared a bedroom- by adamant choice- until adolescence. They’d go to sleep at night listening to books on tape, including Richard III which they memorized in long sequences. Life isn’t usually so highbrow around here; my husband considers Airplane! to be “the greatest linguistic achievement of modern man.”

Then the overachiever was born. As soon as she was walking and talking there was constant conflict between the two girls. At first I thought it was competition over my son, or that he and my oldest daughter perceived her as an intruder upon their harmonious union. But as they’ve gotten older it’s become clear that this is, in fact, a power struggle for leadership of the sibling pack. To borrow a term from the manosphere, my son was the natural alpha of the siblings: the tallest, the only male, the most condescending, the most demanding. But the overachiever, in all her ambition, naturally views herself as the predestined leader of the sibling group so the other children had to make choices of loyalty. My oldest daughter sides ferociously with my son, while the rest of the kids might sway son or overachiever depending on the matter at hand, like independent voters.

Despite all this tension and drama I believe we have less sibling conflict than many smaller families. One thing I’ve heard from mothers of other large families is that when you have a lot of kids, feuds and offenses grow diffuse within the larger sea of children. Shortly put, it’s not that big a deal if two children out of seven can’t stand each other, whereas if two children out of two are constantly fighting there’s no avoiding it. With so many children there’s just no time or energy to allow it to take center stage (though it occasionally does). This is similar to my belief that we actually spend less money on our sizable brood than many parents spend on just one or two children. I once met a guy who pays for his daughters to get their eyebrows waxed. Are you kidding me? There is no way on god’s green earth I’m paying for 6 eyebrow wax jobs, so we have no waxing costs. Our beauty treatment consists of me trimming their long hair once a year. Same goes for other luxuries like electronics, exotic vacations and so on that are simply that: luxuries. We couldn’t afford these things for all the children so it becomes a non-issue. And amazingly, the kids don’t complain.

The Zo’e Tribe

Last night I watched a documentary about the Zo’e people, an indigenous tribe of a few hundred living in the remote Amazonian jungle in Brazil. They are a somewhat uncontacted tribe with little to no influence from the modern world, still living with stone age technology. While the documentary paints a rosy picture of life in the jungle, the Zo’e appear to be more peaceful than other Amazonian tribes known for vicious infighting and brutality.

The Zo’e practice a form of open polyamory where both men and women have multiple spouses. I guess this makes sense for a small group of people living in the jungle, since it ensures high fertility among the women and lessens tension between the men. Given that women have multiple husbands, I wonder what their concept of paternity is? Their days are spent hunting and gathering food, preparing food, and caring for the young and elderly (who enjoy daily massages). Life seems to alternate between work and resting in hammocks. Occasionally there are festivities marked by the ingestion of expectorants and ritual vomiting.

I’ve watched many a documentary on indigenous tribes and my mind always falls on one question: what happens to the outcasts in these tribal societies? Or do they not have outcasts? It’s hard to believe kids in the jungle are immune to targeting the weirdo for daily torment and mockery. And given how stringent the borders of tribal territories are, and how deliberately isolated each tribe is, it’s not like you can just immigrate to a neighboring tribe for a fresh start, at least not without being shot full of arrows.

So loners and outcasts must have an especially tormented existence in these societies because there is quite literally nowhere else to go. Imagine being trapped in a jungle, having to eat monkey brains with a bunch of bullies for the rest of your life.

Speaking of monkey brains, the Zo’e, like most other living stone age tribes, debunk a core tenant of the paleo diet. Every indigenous tribe I know of, except for perhaps those living in places with no edible vegetation, create flour from plant starches that is then cooked into bread. The Zo’e use a root flour to make large pancakes; in fact meat and fish seem to be a relatively small (but frequent) part of their diet. In Papua New Guinea indigenous tribes scrape starch from tree trunks and boil it into dumplings.

If you would like to watch the Zo’e documentary it is available on youtube, but be forewarned it contains nonstop nudity- and probably not of the variety you are interested in viewing. There is also an incredibly obnoxious narration that comes across as a Troy McClure parody, but if you can manage to ignore it the film contains a great deal of fascinating footage of what life was like before the wheel.

Fancy Feast

I recently discovered an interesting PBS series, The Mind of a Chef. In each season a famous chef takes you around his favorite haunts, demonstrates dishes in his famous kitchen, and pontificates about food. There’s even a guest scientist who shares factoids about things like frying and alkalinity in noodles.

By far the best episodes are those featuring David Chang of Momofuku fame. Apparently Chang is the bad boy of the culinary world: he refuses to put vegetarian dishes on his menu, makes fun of women and San Francisco, and uses the F word a lot (PBS bleeps it out). In many scenes he appears with food writer Peter Meehan, who wears shabby clothes to Michelin starred restaurants. Chang refers to Meehan in all seriousness as his “boyfriend” which puzzled me since my highly accurate gaydar didn’t go off for either of them.

gaydar: negative

… but according to google Chang does in fact have a girlfriend, so I guess he was joking.

I’ve been watching a lot of food documentaries lately, especially those featuring haute cuisine and world renowned chefs. Almost without fail I can say that the higher up the food chain a restaurant perches, the more disgusting the food looks to me. Alinea, one of the top rated restaurants in the world, offers food that doesn’t even look like food. Maybe I’m not highbrow enough to appreciate paying thousands of dollars for glop and slime while being deprived of utensils and plates- Alinea slaps dessert straight on the table and makes you eat bacon without your hands.

Looks like kitty threw up.

I wondered if I was alone in my sentiment so looked up patron reviews for Alinea on yelp. Here is one of my favorites:

For the price I paid here I could have flown to switzerland, rented a chalet, and had a private chef for a week. But no instead all my recently divorced friends decided to go to this Frankenstein restaurant. Why would I want to eat edible styrofoam?   What a damn waste.

To be fair, Alinea receives copious yelp accolades and owner Grant Achatz (featured in the excellent documentary Spinning Plates) seems quite affable, if exceedingly pretentious in his views on food. Food is no longer about nourishment, he explains, but entertainment, and the root of entertainment is making people test their boundaries. Granted I’m a picky eater, but “testing my boundaries” Alinea-style might just push me over the edge and make me never eat again.

It is a lot of fun watching Chang relish various dishes across Japan; he certainly does love to eat. I wonder how his friend Meehan stays so scrawny despite shoveling down gargantuan bowlfuls of noodles. Later episodes focus on traditional Southern US cooking, which is more plant-centered than people realize, and British cooking with its fried fish, fried potatoes, and various animal organs put through meat grinders. All episodes from the first two seasons are available on netflix, as is Spinning Plates which is worth watching even if you have no interest in food or cooking.

Polycystic Avian Syndrome

This morning I had an appointment with the new doctor. The results of the triple screen came in slightly elevated for Down Syndrome, but I knew from past experience these screenings have high false positive rates. Also, they gave me the information a month too late so I’m out of the window for an amniocentesis or medical termination (not that I would necessarily want one). As I alluded to before, though I didn’t know this when I chose the doctor from “the book,” the office appears to somehow be associated with the local crisis pregnancy center, a pro-life enterprise helping mothers who fall pregnant under less than ideal circumstances. It’s hard to tell how much of their clientele yields from it but there is a solid representation of teen moms and surly boyfriends in the waiting room.

I discussed the results with the on-staff midwife since the doctor continues to remain AWOL. I knew due to my age (“ancient” says my son) I was at increased risk of having a baby with Down Syndrome- somewhere in the 1-2% zone. But the results of the triple screen put me at a 1:145 odds which is actually a better statistic than the general one for my ancient counterparts. But it is still worse than the 1:270 cutoff used to deem women at risk.

I calmly explained to her that I understood these screenings have false positives and I wasn’t too worried. But I was curious, what happens to women as far along as me who do want to terminate? Is it even legal? Do they make exceptions for medical situations?

From her reaction my question didn’t fall on hospitable ears. “You would have to go somewhere else,” she said vaguely, rustling papers and avoiding eye contact. (Where somewhere else? Another practice? State? Country?) “And it would have to be a saline abortion to make sure the baby isn’t born alive.” She then said I should have a sonogram “So I could see my baby.” I suddenly realized she was trying to talk me out of a theoretical abortion I didn’t even want.

I didn’t delve further and they sent me to the basement storage closet for my sonogram. It’s cramped quarters down there, the waiting room the size of a modest bathroom. In strolled one of the aforementioned teen couples- the guy sporting those miraculously aloft baggy pants, and a hefty mother-to-be sporting tight leggings displaying more of her underwear and ample derriere than I needed to see.

They were both glued to their phones except for the occasional harsh exchange of words. The guy was agitated, pacing relentlessly back and forth in the small hallway muttering along to music off his earphones. He’d sit for a few minutes then get back up to pace. The Steve Harvey show was on TV, and though it’s not my cup of tea I have to admit it was kind of funny. He hosted a comedienne who joked her standard for boyfriends was a few real teeth and the ability to walk.

Then Mr. Harvey interviewed an expert on Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. The teen mom snapped out of her phone coma. “I got that!” she said excitedly. “I got that!!”

“You got what?” asked her boyfriend.

“Polycystic… polycystic… avian syndrome.”

“You don’t got nuthin.”

“Yes I do!” she retorted, all offense. “I got cysts on my… my… avians.”

He remained unimpressed and returned to his phone. I wondered how these two managed to create a baby together, yet all the while he never knew she had a serious medical condition? Then he announced he needed to charge his phone, and as it turned out the only outlet was behind my seat. I wasn’t about to argue with a guy with knuckle tattoos so I switched seats. Well the girlfriend would have none of this and started chewing him out for making a pregnant woman surrender her seat for his sorry ass (her words). She then tried to make me take her seat- which would mean I’d be sitting next to the boyfriend- but by the grace of all the saint statues in the office, the sonographer called me in.

Everything was perfect with the baby, who continues to measure big which is a good sign. All of my babies except the overachiever were born big, but she came into the world a little peanut.

Kale Tastes Disgusting

I have now tried kale steamed, boiled, sauteed, juiced, raw; baby kale and mature kale. No matter what I do to this stuff, it tastes like green, chewy gasoline. If a health nut like me can’t stomach it- literally, it gives me a stomach ache- how are normal people ever going to eat it? Costco sells huge bags of baby kale. Who buys it? Do people feed it to their pets? I guess if you juice it with a very sweet fruit it would be more palatable, but it’s so gruesome I’m not even going to consider it a food anymore. Especially when there are alternatives like romaine, spinach and broccoli.

I initially turned to kale as a non-dairy source of calcium. While dairy foods are high in calcium, they are also acidifying and high in protein, and the theory goes that these facets inhibit calcium absorption. This is why countries with high dairy intake still have high rates of osteoporosis. So even though I’m no longer vegan I thought it behooved me to seek out non dairy sources of calcium. In the vegan world you hear a lot about vegetable sources of calcium, and it’s true, some beans and leafy greens contain a surprising amount of calcium, but what they don’t get into is exactly how much of this stuff you would have to consume in order to meet the daily recommendation for calcium. Take kale for example. 3 ounces contains 15% of the RDA for calcium, and is about 30 calories. First off, three ounces is a lot of kale. Imagine a dinner plate piled 3-4 inches high with kale leaves, and that’s just 15% of what you need to eat to meet the RDA. In fact if you look at it in terms of calories, you would have to consume as many calories in kale as you would in milk to fulfill the RDA, so you’re not even saving on calorie intake by eating horrid tasting leaves all day long.

Short of taking a supplement, the best calcium source I’ve discovered in terms of calories is fortified cereal. Of course this is “phood,” not “food,” just like calcium fortified orange juice or fortified tofu are “phoods.” But for 100 calories of General Mill’s “Total” you get the same amount of calcium as in 3 1/2 glasses of milk (depending on what type of milk you buy that would be 300-450 calories). Unfortunately for vegans, I’m not sure Total is vegan, even though the ingredients on my box are vegan it contains a “D” next to the kosher symbol (perhaps something in the vitamins added? or is this the fact that it’s typically eaten with milk? I eat it dry.). But it might be suitable for non-purist vegans.

Captain Phillips

I watched Captain Phillips last night, a film based on the true story of an American captain captured in 2009 by Somali pirates. This continues a trend of maritime survival stories as the last film I watched was All is Lost. Captain Phillips was good, but not great- perhaps it had been overhyped, but I had issues with the pacing and construction of the narrative. The real action doesn’t start until halfway through, then the film quickly shifts to the military operation addressing the capture, so it was like watching three abbreviated movies glued together.

The biggest surprise of the film was the excellent performance of Barkhad Abdi, a Somali American who, as far as I can tell, has not acted before. He continually upstages Tom Hanks (playing Vermonter Captain Phillips) with his icily sad and philosophical portrayal of the pirate captain commandeering the cargo ship.

Abdi browbeats Hanks.

Another surprise was the strange camaraderie that evolves between the two captains; I have no idea if this dynamic existed in the real life version of events, or if it was created for cinematic pathos.

I wish Hanks had not bothered trying to fake a New Englander accent. Even worse, as often happens in film and TV, the accent fades and increases unevenly, just like the fake Southern accents on The Walking Dead mysteriously appear and disappear. His accent sounded like a caricature of coastal Maine and nothing like actual Vermontese.

I learned some interesting facts about Somali pirates, namely that many were former fishermen who entered the pirating trade when overfishing of their coastline put them out of work. It would also appear that the men doing the actual pirating are in fact low level cogs in a larger crime syndicate.

So if you enjoy survival films, maritime films, or military action flicks, you would probably enjoy this movie. The re-enactment of the Navy SEAL efforts was thrilling to watch, but I had to wonder if Navy SEALS really look like steroid-pumped GQ models?

Max Martini as a handsome pretend Navy SEAL.

Good Mom vs Bad Mom

This week’s Economist has an interesting article called Choose Your Parents Wisely. (The link is here but it may eventually go behind a paywall.) The author sets forth interesting facts about class and parenting in America. Wealthy parents in cushy suburbs produce children with few behavioral problems and expansive academic achievement, while poor parents in lousy neighborhoods produce, comparatively, badly behaved dropouts. As for why, the article acknowledges a strong genetic factor: smart parents are more likely to have smart children for whom academic, and later financial, success comes easier. Yet 30% of the finished child product can be attributed to environment, where the middle and upper middle class families hold a firm advantage.

The article compares neurotic helicopter parents in well manicured Bethesda, to down and out single moms in Appalachia, delving into the well circulated fact that children from lower class households hear fewer words than children from more verbose upper class ones. By the age of three this results in a 30 million heard-word deficit on the part of the impoverished kids. One Bethesda mother describes talking to her two year old “constantly” over the course of the day.

It reminds me of a poster I saw years ago, in a social worker’s office when my daughter with developmental delays was going through the rigmarole of early intervention. A t-chart, the good mom was depicted on one side and the bad mom on the other. The good mom describes everything she is doing for her toddler: “I’m putting your shirt on now, what color is your shirt?” “I’m pouring orange juice now, is this a BIG cup or a LITTLE cup?” Whereas the bad mom just gets her kid dressed and shoves food in front of him. I cringed when I saw that, because I certainly wasn’t chattering away to my then non-verbal daughter, but I knew in my heart it wouldn’t make any difference. Though not deaf, she rarely seemed to hear a word we said.

It’s kind of funny to imagine well-off, well-educated households obeying each new speculation on child development. I’m sure any number of well-to-do parents now read to their infants by order of the American Academy of Pediatrics. How silly is that? I guess if the baby enjoys it, fine, but I can’t read to my younger kids without them grabbing the book and whacking me over the head with it. In fact, none of my kids particularly enjoyed being read to though they all grew into voracious readers. I can’t take credit for it, though, beyond buying them books and paying library fines.

I remain skeptical when I read articles like this about the dire state of the class divide, because I know so many people who grew up disadvantaged yet have achieved significant financial and academic success. This could be due to my age (perhaps it was easier to pull yourself up by your bootstraps 20 years ago), or maybe it’s the people I tend to interact with (nerds). My husband grew up in the projects with barely literate parents, attended a CUNY school, and is one of the more successful people I know. I had a friend who grew up in a blue collar area of Long Island- his father was a baker and for a time they were on food stamps- yet today he is general counsel at a major corporation (and no, he didn’t attend a prestigious law school). My first serious boyfriend was raised by an emotionally disturbed single mother, he too attended state schools but today is very wealthy and successful in Silicon Valley. I could go on and on with this list, including my own father who grew up in stark poverty in South America but managed to obtain several engineering degrees. The one common thread all these people have is that they’re highly intelligent and their poverty, rather than beating them down, made them driven to achieve a better life.

On the other hand I know many children of wealthy families who turned out to be drug-addled washouts. On a statistical level, though, I’m sure the findings of the article are accurate. As a trend there is more success in stable, wealthier neighborhoods, and more failure and crime in unstable ones. Increasingly the marker between these groups is marriage. A shocking statistic I’ve seen bandied about, including here, is that the in-wedlock birthrate for women with four year degrees or more has remained steady for generations (about 90%). There has been virtually no increase in the rate of well educated single mothers, while the opposite is true for less educated women with an unmarried birthrate of 60%. This is a staggering difference and not one you would imagine from the heavy cultural push to embrace single motherhood as a warranted way of life.

I often wonder if I’m going about things the right way with my children. If I’ve accrued any wisdom over 17 years and 7 children, it’s that you can’t force children to be what they are not. You also cannot force yourself, as a parent, to be who you are not. I couldn’t helicopter parent if I tried, and I have tried, sort of, in the past. I struggle internally with the possibility that I’m too checked out by today’s micromanagement standards (or any standard). But my kids seem more or less ok, they do well in school and know they’re loved. In fact “emotional support” is cited by researchers as one of the two most important factors in raising children; the other is intellectual stimulation (which I guess is where the constant chatter comes in). And that’s good news for any poor parents out there, because love is free.