Tuesday, September 24, 2013

a plant killer and a primadonna go gardening

My sister, Laurie, and I got a plot in a community garden! 

After nine months of waiting for a spot to open, we were so excited to get this news that we did silly stuff like photograph our plot stake:

We grew up with a huge vegetable garden. That means that in our day, we picked a lot of green beans; we ate way too much egg plant, and we spent a good number of afternoons huddled on the front stoop while mom and dad fought over how to put jars in the canner (the potential for food spoilage and broken glass in the same activity always put my overly cautious mother right over the edge).

We had fun with it too.  Every year, my father would let one zucchini grow unfettered, "just for grins." If you leave a tomato on the vine, it will get riper and riper, but a zucchini?  A zucchini will just get bigger and bigger. 

A humongous zucchini might be fun to look at, but it's not so great to actually eat.  Still, after all that tending and growing, Dad couldn't let it go to waste.  So my mother would stuff it.  Then we'd all sit around the table gazing in wonder at this tremendous boat of a vegetable that my father had grown.  Should we have taken it to the fair?

It's too late for zucchini this year, but the park service insists that we plant something--within two weeks of signing our contract.

With this new sunny space, and the imperative that we move quickly, we raced to our plot, eager to see the site of our future vegetative triumphs.

We found this:

And for some context:

I suppose we should take the rule about keeping your garden plot functional as more of a suggestion than a hard and fast requirement. 

Not to be discouraged, we surveyed the situation and made a plan. 

We'd clear it out.  We'd get something growing.  We'd be a great team!

Thankfully, Laurie knows someone (her husband) who knows someone who has the kind of machinery you need to knock a job like this out in a jiffy.

That's great, but there's a glitch.  You see, the overgrowth was never our problem. 

If you have been reading this blog for a while, I wonder if perhaps you have guessed the real challenge. 

When I met Laurie at the plot the second day, I wondered as I watched her digging, if she knew what the real challenge would be.

The thing is, I've had a vegetable garden before.  When Steve and I first got married, I persuaded my apartment manager to allow me and the other residents to plant gardens on an empty plot of land.  I grew tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, bell peppers and carrots.  I loved that garden, laboring over it all summer. I even carried huge cans of water from the distant spigot every day. 

As I expected, it grew green and luscious.  I strutted around amid my leaves and vines like Foghorn Leghorn himself.  Oh, to be young and prideful; I had not yet discovered the true color of my thumb.  

Then one day, it died. 

Perhaps it wasn't just one day, but little by little, something in the way of disease or critter struck each and every plant I'd grown--before I'd picked a single thing. If I were Laura Ingalls, my journal would have come to a tragic end that year, the words falling off the page as my bony little fingers recorded my final words.

Oh the tragedy.

"How could it all die?" you ask. 

You should know. 

I am a plant killer, remember?  There's really no other way to explain it.  These things happen.  This kind of "luck" strikes people like me.

I'm not telling my sister any of this.  I don't want to dissuade her from our partnership.  You never know, she might cut me out of the whole deal. 

Instead, I'm scampering around wondering, what can a plant killer hope to grow, starting in late September?

Oh - I know! Why not something I've already begun to kill!  Although I haven't had a big vegetable garden since that first travesty, I do grow herbs in my yard's one sunny spot.  I dabble with vegetables in there, but they almost always come to a bad end.

This year, I thought I'd try my hand at some fall crops, planting broccoli, spinach and lettuce.  To my surprise, they grew heartily.  "Everything looks so good!" I thought.

Unfortunately, the deer thought so too.  Little by little, they've stripped the leaves in the dark of night, working their way furtively down the row.  I know this isn't the same as killing something with your own hands, but still, a better gardener would have deer semen, or deer blood, or whatever it is people in the know use for a deterrent--perhaps a fence?!  Not me.  I just sit and watch as my little plants disappear, one bite at a time.

Since the new garden has a fence, Laurie and I decided to transplant my broccoli and spinach.  She is excited and doesn't appear to understand the kind of liability I pose. Failure wouldn't occur to her anyway because her thumb glows so green it might have uranium in it.   When she walks into my house, my plants perk up in desperation, hoping she might notice their plights and intervene. 

While Laurie might not see the risks inherent in gardening with a plant-killer, I know full well how much I need her.  I was counting on her to give this garden a fighting chance.  I was feeling confident she can lead me into the world where plants live long enough to bear fruit.

Then my hopes were dashed when she showed up for our first day of labor wearing earrings and flip flops!

How can a person garden dressed like that!?  For god's sake, she's probably even wearing deodorant.

Our whole lives she has out shined me as the fancy pants in the family.  I suppose I should revel in the fact that we've found something to do together for which I'm the one with the better outfit.

Still, if she's going to make this happen for me, she needs to get dirty! 

You'll be glad to know that like true partners, we switched jobs.  I dug the holes (without posing for pictures thank god!) and she did the planting.

It doesn't look like much, but it's a start.  Hopefully together, we have what it takes to make this thing grow!


Interested in a community garden?  Check with your local park service to see if you have plots available for rent near you.  Ours is cheap - less than $10/month!


Wednesday, September 18, 2013

dear teacher, you're too sweet for me

Dear Teacher,

Please stop with the candy already! 

My daughter, Olivia, came home from school last week and announced that her math teacher has a huge jar filled with candy in her classroom.

That tells me this year won't differ from those past where my kids' teachers have doled out Jolly Ranchers, Starburst, Laffy Taffy and other food-dye, preservative and refined sugar-laden little bombs of distraction on a regular basis.


Four years ago, we experimented with nutrition to help Olivia focus in school.  As part of that experiment, we removed refined sugar from her diet. Two months later, we had a different child on our hands.  She was focused, happy, and energetic in a shockingly balanced way.  Most importantly, she was present.  Present like I'd never seen her before.

She actually told me, "Mom, I don't have that foggy feeling anymore."

Granted, we made other changes to her diet besides eliminating sugar.  We went gluten and dairy free, beefed up the amount of whole grains and vegetables she already ate, and added a few supplements like Omega-3 fish oil.  However, after seeing the benefits of these changes, it was the addition of sugar back into Olivia's diet that appeared to have the greatest negative impact on her behavior. 

On any given day after school, Olivia's ability to sit and do her homework independently told us whether or not she'd eaten candy during school that day.

Can you guess, dear teacher, who gave my daughter the brain-killing candy she ate during those school days when we noticed her changed behavior?


I understand that we live in a world full of people who make different choices than us.  We have the neighbor-kid whose cupboards are packed with soda, fruit roll-ups, and oatmeal pies.   We have the generous boy in the lunch room who brought marshmallows and pudding for lunch--and the sweet girl next to him who brought cupcakes to share for her birthday.  We have the nice ladies at the bank, the hairdresser, and even our favorite Vietnamese restaurant who all want to hand out lollipops like it's Halloween. 

And speaking of that, we have Halloween, Christmas, Valentine's Day, and Easter--all holidays for which the candy companies are happy to manufacture some kind of sweet must-have.  I'm telling you, if they invent a candy for Thanksgiving, I think my head will explode.

I understand and accept that we have to negotiate all of these hurdles on our road to a healthy lifestyle.  But YOU dear teacher.  YOU were supposed to be on my side.  The lady at the hairdresser hasn't made a career out of building the esteem and intellect of my child. 

You have. 

The lady at the bank doesn't hold a position of authority and influence over my child.

You do.

Why then, would you undermine all of our efforts (that's yours and mine), by drugging my child during the part of the day when she needs to be the most on, the most focused, the most well-behaved--for you?

If you think I'm being melodramatic then check out this infographic comparing sugar to cocaine. 

You may know that sugar is linked to big bad things like obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.  You must also know from your own experience that sugar causes hyperactivity.  But did you know that too much sugar has recently been connected to learning, memory, dementia and Alzheimer's?

I saw the effects myself in my chemically sensitive child, but perhaps my story about Olivia's sugar-free transformation doesn't impress you.  That's fair.  You can google "sugar and the brain" and find a plethora of articles such as this one: Psychodiabetes: Sugar on the Brain, this one: This is Your Brain on Sugar, and this one: Harmful Effects of Excess Sugar.  Oh, and this one: What Eating Too Much Sugar Does to Your Brain.

Dear teacher, you cannot give my daughter candy then ask her to sit still and focus.  You cannot give her candy then ask her to raise her hand before talking.  You cannot give her candy then ask her to learn

This one really burns me up: Dear teacher, you cannot give my daughter candy then punish her for acting as if she's eaten candy.  

Dear teacher, I know your job is hard.  That's not just lip service.  I tutor learning disabled students and can tell you that one-on-one instruction is hard enough.  I have the utmost respect for you and the work you do in a classroom overstuffed with children.  But I implore you to figure out a way to do that work without candy-bribes because, in the long run, candy just makes your job harder. 

If you think you can't teach without sugar, check out Dr. Yvonne Sanders-Butler talking about how she implemented a sugar-free policy at her elementary school in Lithonia, GA over a decade ago.  I find her whole story fascinating, but if you're pressed for time (I know there's a stack of papers waiting to be graded), then skip to minute 16:45.  That's when she discusses the changes she saw after they removed sugar from their cafeteria.

Do you still think that one Tootsie Roll or that one Jolly Rancher never hurt anyone? 

Even if you are right, you have to consider that you're not the only source of sweet. It's everywhere. Your classroom could be the one place besides home where a child isn't presented with the temptations of that fine white powder. 

You also have to consider that you're a role-model.  You're the teacher! You're not just feeding your students candy, you're teaching  them to eat it.

Dear Teacher, we are in this together.  I will try to do my part: help with homework, send my kids off with a balanced breakfast in their bellies, and pack them healthy lunches for their school day. 

I just ask that you please, please stop with the candy already.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

the wheels on the car go round and round

I am a controlling mom.  It's the thing I most love and hate about myself.  When the kids were toddlers, I thrived in matriarchal heaven, ruling my roost with dictatorial glee.

Lest you worry my children lived in rigid deprivation, I always provided the illusion of choice in our house.  Would you like the apples or the pears? the peas or the carrots? the beans or the beets?  Would you like to play with puzzles or blocks? draw or paint? run or walk? It's your choice my little darling. 

The beauty of caring for toddlers is that they only know what you tell them.  They can't ask for pop tarts, potato chips, or the Disney Channel if they've never had or seen them before. 

Of course, I couldn't control everything.  I accepted food-goo smeared on the furniture, toys on the floor, sleep deprivation, and a marked lack of the quiet introspective time I needed so badly.  The house belonged to the kids, and that was okay.  I couldn't, however, give up what little quiet I could garner in the car.  Translation:  I just could not live without my NPR. 

One of my cardinal rules of parenting toddlers was always that nothing happens "just this once."  You can't let the kids jump on the furniture, eat ice cream before bed, or run wild around the grocery store (instead of ride in the cart) "just this once."  I always told Steve, "For a toddler, once is the same as always." 

To protect my NPR time, then, I never, NEVER, played kids' music in my car.  No Barney tapes, no Wiggles CDs, no Disney Channel on XM.  That way, they didn't know they could ever listen to anything but the calm and measured reporting of Diane Rehm and Kojo Nnamdi that I found so soothing.  My kids couldn't (and didn't) miss what they didn't know.

Once, however, after riding in his Aunt Laurie's van (always a bad influence, that darned sister of mine!), Gareth told me in his sweet little boy voice, "Mom, in Aunt Worie's car, she can play Barney!"  He said it with amazement and just a hint of sadness that I admit, almost made me feel bad for him, but I didn't relent.

I responded with a sinister willingness to deceive: "Really!? That's pretty cool! Too bad our car doesn't do that."

Gareth: "Yeah, I know!" 

He moved on to something else.  I swear, he wasn't even scarred. 

And I went on with my NPR.

Of course, the years went by and the kids grew out of "Wheels on the Bus." Despite their developing musical interests, however, we managed to keep a peaceful balance regarding radio use.

Until last year.

That's when I completely lost control of the car radio.  I lost it to Olivia, my tween monster who had a new-found passion for pop music.  Personally, I don't know how a child can listen to the same three songs over and over and OVER again for weeks.  I'm sure I never did this with Leif Garret, Andy Gibb, or Air Supply.  I'm sure of it.

In the mind numbing haze of repetition, I've caught myself entertaining angry sounding internal dialogues with the most repeated artists, asking Bruno Mars, "You should've bought me flowers? Really?  Well, I should've bought you laudanum. Take that!"  And Rihanna, "You couldn't possibly still want me to stay when I want so badly for you to go away!"  Then there's Katy Perry.  I don't talk to her, but I'll say that "Teenage Dream" feels more like a grown-up nightmare.

I cannot even bring myself to link up to these songs.  Surely you too have heard enough?

As the year progressed, the ten minute drive to Olivia's school became the longest ten minutes of my day.  The music, on its incessant loop, would assault me with sameness when I felt the most groggy and vulnerable.  Listening to Taylor Swift sing "I Knew You Were Trouble" every day before eight o'clock in the morning never failed to send me into a tailspin of suburban mother madness - a place where I wanted to bang my head incessantly into the driver's window of my minivan in a way that would involve drool.  

Still, I tried to hide at least some of my frustration from sweet Olivia who couldn't imagine I'd have a problem with her music choices. Having denied her the Wiggles during the car rides of her early years, I felt I owed her this coming of age.  I remember discovering pop music as a tween and feeling somehow, that I had discovered myself.

So I let the music play. 

Then, just when I thought I might have to flee my car in rush hour traffic, Olivia showed up with her ipod.

"Hey, Mom.  Look!" she said, holding up the gleaming device.  "I thought I'd listen on my ipod so you can hear your NPR!"

Feeling oh-so satisfied with this display of problem solving acumen, she plugged herself in with a smile and left me

in deafening silence.

Now I drive around listening to Michelle Martin's Tell Me More just like I wanted.  But I keep finding myself with things I want to say, stuff I want to share.  When I offer up my little insights, however, Olivia jerks an earphone out of her head and says, "What?!" with unmasked annoyance. 

Be careful what you wish for, right?

It's Karma coming back to get me, I know, because if I had to choose between the Wiggles, Katy Perry, and the silence in which I now find myself, I'd definitely go for a little family sing-a-long to Big Red Car.