Monday, April 22, 2013

Giving Myself a Break

A couple of months ago, I met with an admissions assistant at University of San Diego's Masters in Family Therapy program.  He was a young guy -- in his early 30s perhaps. We chatted for just 30 minutes about the admissions requirement so that I can start thinking about how someone like me -- someone post career no. 1, someone midlife, someone with a family -- can start to incorporate a masters program into her life. We sat in a small conference room, he with a brochure, me with a purse and a single piece of paper with all of my questions. I asked all the questions off of my list, and he gave me the answers that he gives in his capacity. After the short meeting, I walked around the building, briefly peering into classrooms where lecturers stood in front of whiteboards and a few kids in hooded sweatshirts sat hunched over their computers. As I walked around, I found myself muttering, "Really? Am I going to leave my kids at home with some stranger so that I can come sit here? Really??"

Shortly after that visit, I pushed aside the idea of doing a MFT program. If I'm so ready to push it aside, maybe it's not the right path for me. Maybe I really wasn't that into it in the first place -- not that committed to the idea. Maybe...

For the past few months, we've had a babysitter for about 12 hours a week so that I can figure these things out. I haven't been doing anything with that time other than blogging and entertaining the idea of doing something with my writing. I love writing. It grips me at my core -- deep inside where it really matters. Like any other craft, I need to keep at it -- practice it, immerse in it -- knead it like dough. Despite my shortcomings, I find it fulfilling in a way few other things are. But how do you make a living with it, make it a career? I know others do -- so why do I doubt that I can? I feel like such a coward at times. I've never taken a risk in my life. Not really. And I wonder what I even have to say that's worth saying -- really, is anything I have to say any different than what anyone else feels or says? And how could I ever write as beautifully as some of those writers out there? What about all those people with PhDs in literature, those who've read everything worth reading? I haven't read a book in ages -- I feel like such a phony.

Last night, I read some interviews with Kazuo Ishiguro. For the past year, I've been obsessed with his book Never Let Me Go, and I can't stop thinking about it. So I was just poking around on the net after putting my son down for the night, and what a pleasant surprise that he wasn't schooled in literature. He wanted to be a musician and went onto writing only when he couldn't make a success of a music career. He then went onto a MFA program. In one of the interviews, he identified the few writers who formed the foundation of his writing. I copied down that list.

I'm still floundering, but it's clear that I need some more structure. I've been all over the map lately. I sometimes think I should get the MFT because I can use that knowledge as a basis for writing anyway, even if I decide not to become a therapist. Other days, I'm convinced that I need to become a journalist, and build my foundation for writing that way. I've also considered just blogging -- using this as my basis for writing and launching my writing career that way. Since my time is so limited these days anyway, isn't that a good use of my time?

I've even been going back and forth about signing up for an online class. One class. Which takes up just a couple of hours a week. Just because it's right around dinner time, and I'm not sure whether I should delay the kids' dinner time so that I could sit in front of the computer.

What is wrong with me??!!

Ugh, ok, as I'm writing this, it's becoming obvious that I just need to sign up for a class. Stop feeling so guilty. I'm allowed to do this, right? What's the harm? I can spend a few hundres bucks on a class. I can. Really. Right??

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

My Favorite Time

Near the end of the day, after I've stacked all the crusty dishes in the dishwasher, washed the highchair tray for the eighth time that day, picked up smeared beets and clumped shredded cheese and sticky rice off of the high chair and floor, scrubbed the bottles and tiny spoons with the brush, and left all the leftovers on the table for Jeff to handle, I pick up my little girl. Even though I had just given her a bath less than an hour earlier, little gobs of rice and cheese are tangled in her wisps of hair. She smells of sweet potato and milk and cheese. I cart her over to the sink and rinse off what I can, even though she protests by pulling her hand back before all the soap has been washed out. I stretch her little limbs to meet the faucet once again and shrink back when she threatens to grab its mouth and splash us both. As I carry her down the hall to change her yet again, she giggles and coos and talks to me in her secret language.

We make our way upstairs, with her still cradled in my arms and a milk bottle in my hand. I bounce up the stairs with a little extra jolt to squeeze in her last fun for the day, as I exclaim, "Bouncy, bouncy, bounce!" She giggles with each jolt, squeezing her eyes and scrunching her nose. Upstairs, I click on one reading lamp, just enough to help me make my way across the room, where I bundle her in two layers of wearable blankets, and with the push of a button, I make raindrops magically fall without rain. As I zip her up, her hands rise to her eyes and she rubs and rubs as if suddenly lured by the spell of sleep.

I pick her up once more and we move back across the room to sit on the glider. There, I nestle her in my lap with her back stretched across my left arm. With my other hand, I pick up the bottle and hold it up for her. Her mouth reaches for it eagerly, even though we had just eaten minutes earlier, and she fills up for the night. Her head rests on the hollow of my neck, and she slumps with a sudden heaviness, as if giving in, no longer fighting. I rock ever so gently, gently enough to help her find her rhythm of sleep.

There, while she drinks, I hold her. I pull her in a little closer and press my cheek against her forehead. I feel her warmth, her softness, the tickle of her hair. I breathe in the familiar, comforting scent of her skin. I listen to her breathe. I kiss her all over her face and pull up her tiny hand to plant some more kisses there.

When she is done, she pushes the bottle away. She rubs her eyes some more, and I keep rocking her. She rolls herself over and pulls up her head to look at me. She puts her delicate finger on my nose to say "nose." Then she folds herself into a little ball on my lap and shifts around to find a comfortable spot. I pick her up once more and ferry her across the room. I swing her slowly as I walk, whispering, "It's sleepy time." I lean over to kiss her a few more times, to smell her, to breathe in her breath, before I lean over to lay her in her crib. I run my hand down her hair and her cheeks as I say good night. With her eyes barely open, she kicks a couple of times in the air, then rolls over onto her stomach, turns her head to face the wall, and positions herself for sleep.

I linger a bit. Standing over her crib, I watch her shift and settle down. I see her back rise and fall. I fidget a bit with the curtain and then the stuffed animals sitting by the side. Then I watch some more. Then, reluctantly, I tip toe away and leave her in the care of the night.  

Monday, April 15, 2013

Our Weekend

When Jeff worried on Saturday evening that Sherlock may not make it through the night, I brushed aside his concerns. "He'll be fine," I said with a wave of the hand. "You just gave him his medication. It takes some time for it to kick in, and when it does, I'm sure he'll start eating again. You'll see."

Earlier that day, a little after 2pm, we arrived home after brunch at our friends'. All morning, Jeff waited for a call from the vet and the result of the biopsy, which would then determine the course of treatment. He spoke to the receptionist who told him that the vet wasn't in on the weekend and wouldn't be in until Tuesday. "I was told that we would have the results in 24 hours. We cannot wait until Tuesday," Jeff told the lady evenly. "Our dog is sick, and we need to get him his medication." Hours and multiple calls later, we finally had the medication. Sherlock hadn't eaten for days, and we were hoping the medication would help him regain his appetite.

After he fed Sherlock his one and half pills of prednisone, Jeff prepared the guest bedroom for Sherlock. He couldn't stand to leave Sherlock outside in such condition, despite T's allergies. He laid some towels on the carpet since all of Sherlock's beds were now weather beaten and filthy from being left outside. Jeff spent the night down there after helping put the kids to bed.

In the morning, Sherlock looked better. He still wasn't eating, but Jeff put some peanut butter around his pills and helped him swallow. In his bowl, we left out two of his favorite foods, salmon and cheese, and left to do our outing for the day. When we returned after lunch, we noticed that Sherlock still hadn't eaten and had thrown up what little he had. He was sitting by the side of the house, and Jeff cajoled him to his kennel where he could lie on his pad. When Sherlock started walking, his gait was staggered and he barely made it across the narrow yard.

While I was inside helping T go down for his nap and feeding S, Jeff sat outside with Sherlock hugging him and petting him. About an hour later, I went outside to see how they were doing. I saw Jeff sitting in front of the dog house crying. "I think I have to take him in," he said. "Look how he's suffering." Through the grates of his dog house, I could see Sherlock prostrated with his sides heaving up and down as if he were weighted down with bricks.

"Oh, no..." was all I could manage to say, and we cried and cried. "Tell me if that's not the right decision," Jeff asked through his tears. And I said, "I don't know, I don't know. I don't know when you're supposed to do something like that. How do you know?"

Jeff walked down the driveway with Sherlock's pad to put it in the back of his truck. Then he came back and waited for me as I finished petting him. He tried to cajole Sherlock out of the kennel but Sherlock couldn't move. Jeff reached in and pulled him out. Then, he picked him up and carried Sherlock's drooping 63 pound frame to the truck. There, Jeff hoisted him up on the back door propped open and climbed up. Once up there, Jeff picked up Sherlock once again and placed him on his pad. From his pad, Sherlock lifted his head to look at me as I stood on the curb. Then they drove away.

Jeff returned less than an hour later. I saw him come in through the gate and start throwing things away. Two doggie bowls, a doggie pad, kennel, a roll of poop bags, shampoo, brush. He said Sherlock didn't even make it to the hospital. When they arrived, Sherlock was barely breathing, and he died in Jeff's arms in the back of the truck.

Just two weeks ago, he seemed perfectly fine. Then this past Thursday, we found out that he probably had cancer, and three days later, he was gone. I can't stop thinking of the book Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, where people are born burdened, fated for a cruel end, and yet they live looking forward, propelling themselves to the next rite of passage. When I read the book, I thought days on end about how true it was, and now I can feel how true it is. And I feel so burdened -- burdened with our fates and what we've brought on ourselves -- by having a pet, by having children. I think of our aging parents, of our numbered days, our vulnerability.

I wish I had been kinder to him instead of treating him as a source of irritation all those days. That I had petted him more. That I hadn't shooed him out of my way all those times. That I had been more of a pal than an enforcer.

Maybe I'm too old to be learning these lessons, but then again maybe you're never too old to learn such lessons. I think of the 10 years that passed so quickly, and how those years sum up to nothing more than the time spent with each other. And I think about how I have to love my children and Jeff a little more, how I have to hug and kiss them a little more, how we have to laugh a little more. I think about my friends I want to see, the talks we can have, the times we can share. I think about being a little more kind, a little more generous, a little more forgiving. And with those thoughts, life feels a little less and a little more at the same time.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Another Day

When we awoke, it was a day like any other. Little T ran into our room, screaming, "I'm awake! Mommy, Daddy, I'm awake. It's morning time!" In spurts from her crib, Little S cried "mamamamamama, mamamamama," until Jeff crawled out of bed and picked her up. When I managed to drag myself out from under the cover, T wrapped himself around my arm and screamed, "Mommy, I want to be with you, I want to be with you!" as he smothered me with open mouthed kisses.

I pried myself loose and ran downstairs to grab some milk for S and headed back up. After the milk, the change of diaper, the pee-pee on the potty, the undressing of pajamas and then the dressing into the day's outfit, after a discussion on whether it was a school day or a swim class day, we all scurried downstairs. After Jeff burned the frozen waffles and made another for T, after S nibbled on prunes and kiwi to make her business a little less unpleasant, I took my shower. Then I ran into the garage to unload the laundry dried the night before and to load yet another load in our never-ending cycle of laundry. When I turned with my basket in hand, I noticed a stack of plastic bins leaning, threatening to crush us, and I called Jeff into the garage to rearrange the plastic bins to remove the one with the broken lid on the bottom and set them straight. After the rearranging, we made plans to go out for lunch. Then, Jeff hurried out to take T to his morning swim class while I cleaned the smeared fruit off of S's face.

When Jeff and T returned, I loaded the kids into the car to go to playgroup. At E's house, we nibbled on snacks, chatted with other moms and cooed at other babies, rubbed smeared paint off of T and S as they expressed their artistic inclinations at the craft table. After the hour passed in what seemed like minutes, I hurried out with the kids to try to make it home in time to meet Jeff as we had planned. In the car, I checked my phone and noticed his email, canceling our lunch, explaining that he needed to take Sherlock to the vet for a follow up exam, that it wasn't looking good.

I drove around with the kids strapped in their carseats, little S fast asleep, T prattling on as he always does. We headed for the McDonalds drive thru, where I could feed T his lunch without disrupting little S's nap. After debating the disadvantages of the cheeseburger versus the chicken mcnuggets, we settled on the cheeseburger, which he promptly decided not to eat after poking five holes through the buns because he found the cheese not to his liking, although he ate the apple slices and drank the milk. I drove us back home and finally, impatient, and unable to entertain T any longer, I awoke S from her nap and herded us inside. After some playing with legos and magna tiles and tea sets, T fell asleep after I bribed him with an after-nap movie.

Three hours later, Jeff still wasn't home, and I left him a voicemail and a text, wondering what the hell was taking so long. S and I flipped through fourteen different board books, pointing at dog, dog, ruff, ruff, kitty, kitty, meow, meow, and duck, duck, quack, quack. I refilled the ball popper again and again as she giggled and bounced up and down in delight. We walked around the living room and then through the kitchen, and then through the living room again, with her soft tiny hand wrapped around my index finger. I wedged myself between her and the garbage drawer where she likes to practice her newly discovered hobby of throwing tissues away, after daintily dabbing away at her little mouth, me hoping she would never discover the crushing pain of closing doors.

As we took yet another turn around the living room, I heard the gate squeak open, and I scooped S up and headed to the front door. There I saw Sherlock lingering around his dog house next to the bowl of dry food still left uneaten, his belly shaven of fur in a large rectangular patch the size of a laptop, and no sight of Jeff. Still carrying S, I walked out the front door, toward the front gate when I saw Jeff come out from behind the garage where he had been throwing something out.

He saw me, came up the three steps into our front yard, and standing with his hand extended to steady the swinging gate, said with an attempted smile, "I took him for a swim," pointing at Sherlock. "How did it go? Did the vet figure out what's wrong?" I asked.

And he looked up once again and looked back down, with his hand still on the gate, as he said, "So, he has cancer. They did all the tests and the ultrasound showed the lumps and they're pretty sure that's what it is. And we can do chemo but it's eight thousand dollars and it may or may not give him another six months and I always thought it made no sense for dogs when there are kids out there who can't get treatment and maybe we just donate that money where it can be used for a kid. They think he has a few weeks left, but they have some steroid treatment they can try..."

And he kept talking as if he were afraid to stop talking, afraid to take a breath, afraid to let the words run out. And as he talked, my ears must have gotten stuck many words ago, right around the beginning when he said the word cancer and a part of my brain must have been trying to process it because I stood very still as the word began to sink in. And I felt myself starting to crumble. It was as if someone had injected me with some narcotic, making my body feel heavy, weighted, overtaken by emotion and tears that just sprang out of nowhere, and I started crying and Jeff said, "You're going to make me cry now."

I reached out and we held each other with S in between us, in front of the gate, both of us leaning in to each other and staring at Sherlock through our tears.

Friday, April 12, 2013

In Honor of Sibling Day

When we were planning our family, Jeff and I never considered stopping after one. We always wanted to have at least two children (although, much to Jeff's horror, I initially floated the idea of going for four.) The reason was partly selfish. We didn't want to get stuck playing Legos with our kid until he left for college. But we also considered all the benefits siblings can provide each other. Like having a partner for Ring Around the Rosie. And having someone who will eat the rest of the mashed sweet potatoes (which T always does) instead of having countless Earth's Best jars accumulate in the fridge. And making up some silly song for his sister to make her giggle even though she has no idea what he's saying. And giving each other a little smooch when the other falls. We wanted our children to be there for each other when life's hardships inevitably surface. We wanted to find a way for them not to feel so alone in this world. To feel like there is always someone who has your back, who is sitting with you in your corner, even when Jeff and I are no longer around.

I've always been glad not to be an only child. I think I would have hated it. I pitied some of my friends who had no siblings. So many of them seemed lonely. And some seemed overly self-involved. And a few others seemed to have narrower exposure to the world, which I attributed to them not having as many influences within the family. Not all my only child friends were like that, of course, and I also have some perfectly well adjusted friends who have no siblings. But even they have to carry more burden than I would prefer in looking out for their parents and worrying about their well being as they age.

I know I learned a lot from my siblings. Even from my brother's heavy metal music, which I found painful to listen to at ear drum breaking volume. My sister introduced me to a lot of literature and ways of seing things. And we used to talk so much about our family issues -- and everything else. I miss that.

Yesterday morning, I saw a couple of posts on Facebook about Sibling Day when I first woke up, and I found myself bawling when I was later using the bathroom. Our family seems like such a failure these days, and I'm not sure why that is. Why our family fell apart when others manage to hold theirs together. It feels like the biggest failure in my life. It colors everything, making all else feel somewhat hopeless. Whenever Jeff and I have an argument, even the most trivial, I find myself saying, "Well, this is going to shit like everything else." I feel pessimistic and flawed, as if it is all my fault. As if I really don't have any skills in managing human relationships. I also feel alone in this world in an existential sense, in a way I've never felt before, even though I have a wonderful family of my own.

I've been reading about sibling strife to understand better why we have so much in my family. The book I recently finished profiles 60 different sets of sibling of different backgrounds and ages. I'm amazed to see how varied the specific disputes can be and yet, when it comes down to it, it seems there is just a handful of root causes of sibling friction.

I've heard many times that when siblings don't get along -- not just fight now and then, but are antagonistic to each other -- often, the deep down root of the conflict is not with each other but really with the parents. In other words, a sibling does not dislike his or her sibling because he/she is a fundamentally bad person. Rather, the sibling is angry or grieved about some sense of unfairness at the parents' treatment of the children. For example, when a parent favors one child over others, the unfavored child expresses anger at the favored child, but it is really the parent whose behavior should be addressed.

This is probably part of the problem in my own case. Not to blame the parents. I think most parents do what they can, what they believe to be right. And I know my parents had no bad intentions. But like most people, they have their blind spots, their unquestioned cultural norms, their own weaknesses and needs. And they tend to be passive more than proactive, and for large segments of our childhood, they didn't have the time to be actively engaged in our lives. I think a lot of the problems in our family stems from a combination of these factors.

I also think sibling relationships need a lot of help to follow the right course. I see it in my own children. They have so much affection to share, but at the same time, there is inherent competition for attention and control. Without some intervention from me and Jeff, I don't know whether my children could have a healthy relationship. We have to set limits and teach them how to treat each other -- and to respect each other. And to see each other as individuals, not just as the younger or older sibling. There is an inherent imbalance of power, and I make an effort to help our older child be sensitive to that. I also try to teach them to value having a cohesive family. I tell T, "Do you know that you and S are going to be such good friends? When she learns to talk, you can talk to her about anything and everything. You guys will have so much fun together!"

I'm not trying to say that I am blameless in my fallouts with my own siblings. I know we've all done things we regret -- and wish that we could have found ways to conduct ourselves more maturely and with more foresight. But severing a family relationship is such a drastic act, and I can't help but wonder if the tensions in our relationships didn't result from a pattern of unhealthy behavior that should have been addressed along the way. If the relationship wasn't already at a breaking point.

I thought reading about other siblings would make me reflect further about my situation. It has to a degree, but it has also had this unexpected effect of making me want to wash my hands of the whole thing. Seeing others persistently engage in such painful and noxious battles makes me want to disengage. When I read about these other siblings, I wanted to tell them, just move on! Live your life. Why keep going back for more?

Yeah, good advice for myself. I'm starting to realize that there is nothing you really can do when someone in your family cuts you off. You can mourn the situation, but you can't change their minds -- not unilaterally. And I think the willingness to throw away a relationship may reflect the reality that the relationship was unhealthy to begin with -- and maybe the one throwing away the relationship wanted to find a way to come out from under the burdens of the relationship. That for them, the burdens outweighed any benefits.

And I can see that a little more objectively now, without feeling so defensive. And understanding that the relationship may not have entirely been about me but also about the dynamics of our family or my sibling's sense of self helps me to understand that maybe some separation is for the best. Because that person no longer wants to continue to engage in that role in the family. Or needs to affirm herself, to say, "I'm worthy of more than that. You can't treat me like that." Or no longer wants to be in the shadows of another, to see herself in comparison with her sibling. Or maybe a separation from the sibling somehow helps them salvage the direct relationship with the parent somehow, although I'm not sure why it works like that.

I wonder at what age we start to see ourselves through our own eyes. When do we stop viewing ourselves through our parents' eyes and judge ourselves to be inadequate? When do we stop being the one who was loved less? The one who didn't receive the kind of approval we felt we deserved? When do we stop competing against each other? When do we stop re-living the childhood wrongs we feel we suffered at the hands of our sibling? And when do we recognize childhood acts for what they were -- as immature behavior of children with underdeveloped judgment?

It's amazing that you can live the remaining 60-80% of your life stuck in the mold set by those first 18 years. Or fighting it. Or bitterly engaged in repudiating it. And still feeling angry, or deprived, or cheated.

I think the only thing you can do is to find a way to achieve your own happiness. It sounds so trite, but it's not really. You have to find a way to get your emotional needs met -- and to even get to that stage, you have to work on yourself and figure out what your emotional needs are. You have to find a way to figure yourself out -- and a way to be honest with yourself. I don't think you can have a healthy relationship with others unless you're happy with yourself -- and I know I need to work on that to protect my relationships with my own family.

I'm not sure where I am on that road, but I know I have a long way to go. There are things about myself that I don't even know I don't know. I have so many blind spots about myself. But thinking about this makes me feel somewhat liberated -- and helps me start to pull my head out of the muddle.

So for all of you out there with healthy sibling relationships, I envy you -- and I toast you. I hope you took note of the day that just passed and made a point to celebrate it in some way, however small.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Paranoia of a Mother

Being a mother makes me paranoid in a way I never expected. Every grandma, car, or dog we pass on the street is a potential enemy, and I keep my fangs ready to attack if necessary. That sweet faced blond college girl texting behind the wheel of her Prius? She's better stop long before the stop sign or I will scream bloody murder until I wake her out of her iPhone stupor. That lanky teenager hunched atop his skateboard careening down the sidewalk? Don't even dare swerve toward my baby in her stroller because I'll kick a rock in front of his wheels before he can say narly. That grandma walking her pitbull? Yeah, you'd better believe I'm going to cross the street because I don't want to have to try to pry that dog's jaws off of my baby's neck.

As if the everyday encounters weren't enough, I go looking for trouble. I scour the papers and read up on every abduction, every murder, every accident involving a child. I could not stop myself from reading every article on Leiby Kletzky, the Newtown massacre, Jaycee Dugard, you name it. I scour the stories of the incidents, the reactions of their family and friends, their funerals.

Every time I read about one of these kids, my teeth clench. I start rubbing my forehead and feel my chest tighten. I cry for them, their parents, their siblings. I jab my husband lying next to me reading some technical manual (if such things can be read) and say, "Can you believe this? Can you imagine something like this happening to us?"

"No, no, I can't" is always my husband's whisper of a response. As I rant on, he asks how I find this stuff -- and why am I always reading such stories?

I'm drawn to them. Somewhat curious, perhaps, and completely horrified. But I want to know. Where were the parents? What did the parents do or not do? And most importantly, what did the predator do? It's not just morbid curiosity. I feel as if we have to prepare. What IF something like this were to happen to us? What IF? And how can we prevent it? Who are these monsters? How do they think? What is their m.o.?

We have to come up with a plan of action. We have to know our enemies.

I imagine how I would react. What would I do if something unthinkable were to happen? If someone were to break into our house, how would I fight back? Would we bonk him with our $2 flashlight? I'm poorly equipped with not even a single martial arts class, barely an hour of self defense lesson. I've had fleeting thoughts about whether I need to equip myself with the proper tools.

We have perfectly rational friends, those with higher degrees, sensible and thoughtful people, without even a splotch of red on their necks -- those who seem like one of us -- arm themselves. "What, you bought a gun? You're willing to kill someone with that thing?" And they always respond, "Well, if I have to..."

One friend who is considering buying a gun has two beautiful daughters. Not yet teens. They are breathtakingly beautiful, sweet, and so, so innocent. Our friend wants a gun to protect her daughters. "What if some asshole tries to hurt one of them? I'm going to take that motherfucker out." She is tiny, our friend. Always with a smile on her face. And she loves babies. All babies. I can't even imagine her with a gun. Or shooting someone. But she would do it, take out that motherfucker, if she had to.

I wonder who is the fool here. Me, or those millions of people with guns in their possession. In the event of a break and entry, or god forbid, some kind of riot or a massive earthquake where law and order breaks down, wouldn't we want to protect ourselves, our children? I think of those images from the LA Riots, when those Korean grocers guarded their stores from their rooftops, brandishing their rifles. And I thought, "Damn right. Defend yourselves and what is rightfully yours." And aren't our children worth protecting more than a bunch of groceries? And if something were to happen, something terrible, would I be able to stand by helplessly? Wouldn't I want something -- anything -- to fight back?

Of course. Of course. What parent wouldn't? I would use it -- I know it in my gut. And I wouldn't be sorry because I would be doing what I had to do to defend my children. Every parent must feel this. And every parent has the same right to defend her child as I do.

So what does that mean? A couple of guns in every household. Teachers armed with guns. Guns in glove compartments. Guns in strollers. Guns at amusement parks, at basketball games, at picnics.

I think about when my children become old enough to play at their friends' houses without me. Do I ask the parents first -- "Do you have guns in your house? How is it secured? Can I come by to make sure it's not in a place where the children can access it?" And walking down the street, I now have to worry about people with guns in addition to texting drivers, reckless kids on skateboards, pitbulls.

I grew up with a lot of fear -- in New York in the 80s. It was pre-Giuliani New York, the days paralyzed by the murder of Kitty Genovese, the smoldering anger of Bernie Goetz, the rape of the Central Park jogger. I never went out at night, and if the sun started to set while we were out, we scurried home, looking over our shoulders. As I grew older, that fear never left me, even when my parents escaped to the placidity of Long Island. I remember coming home from work, in the quiet of the evening, looking all around the vicinity from within the safety of the locked car before I darted out and ran the 20 feet to our front door. When I was in law school, I remember stopping in my tracks and waiting for the men to pass me after making deliberate eye contact with them before I continued, because that's what I learned in a self defense class. Now, even though we live in the sanctuary of La Jolla, where people leave their french doors gaping open and elementary school kids roam the neighborhood on their own, I still look over my shoulders in the evening.

That kind of anxiety still lives in me. And that is my view of the world. A dangerous place where people prey on each other. Where you keep your door locked at all times. Where there is a monster lurking behind every corner.

Our three year old went through a monster phase recently. He was scared to sleep at night because he said there was a monster in his room. He didn't want us to leave, and he wanted to keep his door open. We wanted to allay his fears, so we told him how monsters don't really exist except in books and movies. When that didn't work, we told him that the monster was a cute cuddly monster, like Elmo. When he didn't believe us, we let him sleep with our dog in his room, until we found out that he was allergic to dogs.

He has since outgrown his fear of monsters. But we went through a lot to help him feel secure in this world, to feel less threatened. Because we want him to believe that he lives in that kind of a world, where not everyone is a monster, a potential threat. Where people are kind to each other. We don't want him to grow up with anxiety, with stress, with fears that make him shrivel. We want him to thrive, to be confident. We want him to be the yellow daisy in the middle of our flower garden, not the dandelion growing in the crack of the footpath at the cemetery.

I want our children to grow up in Michael Moore's Canada, not City of God's Rio de Janeiro. Dorothy's Kansas, not the Wild West. And when I think about how we create that kind of a community, I don't picture a lot of guns. I picture a community where people can resolve their differences without weapons. Where the mentally impaired cannot pick up a semi-automatic. Where there is help for people who need it. Where everyone is included, even the socially awkward, the shy nerd, the difficult misfit. Where the social contract hasn't frayed so much at the edges that people feel the need to fend for themselves.

As a parent, I can't stop imagining all the threats around us. But I also imagine utopias, a better community for my children. And maybe the only way to get there is to start imagining it.

Back In Charge

If there ever were such a thing as an Homeliness Pagent, I could have been a contender. I might even have been a semi-finalist. And if they had a bowl haircut competition, I could have been crowned the Homeliness Queen, with my coiffure in place of the tiara.

In middle school, I stood a good foot taller than most boys in my class. I have photos from my 6th grade birthday party, me "dancing" with my arms fully extended and resting on the shoulders of a scrawny blond boy named Stephen, who probably weighed about 30 pounds less and stood 18 inches shorter. My back hunched like Quasimodo, straining to shrink, straining to fit in. Coke bottle glasses resting on my oily nose. Hair that looked like I conditioned with bacon grease. No zits, thank goodness, but bushy eyebrows, flimsy K Mart t-shirt and no name jeans with some pair of nondescript shoes.

My parents downplayed the importance of looks when we were growing up. Initially, my dad refused to let us grow out our hair because he said it would "interfere" with our studying. We were prohibited from wearing make-up of any kind. And designer clothes? Out. No pierced ears. I don't remember wearing any jewelry. In 7th grade, I went to my friend Susan's house and was shocked to see her dresser covered with an assortment of little baskets overflowing with earrings, rings, bracelets, necklaces, sunglasses, and swatch covers. I hadn't realized before then that you could have more than one of each of those items.

I have always been awkward when it comes to looks. As a child, I was always the tallest for my age and rather chunky. I also reached puberty prematurely. One other girl and I were the only ones with boobs in fourth grade, and of course, she and I were friends, probably out of commiseration. Back then, I assumed I was chosen for this acclaim from some random luck of the draw, but now I wonder if our regular meals at Burger King didn't account for a surplus of hormones in my system.

Our diet only got worse when my parents started working long hours at the store.  With limited time to grocery shop, they stocked the fridge with boxes and boxes of frozen food from their fast food joint. We ate eggrolls for breakfast. And for lunch. And for dinner. I don't remember eating much else. Oh, and Hungry Man meals and Banquet Fried Chicken with rice and ketchup, which we of course consumed in front of the TV. There was a spurt in my early teens when my speed of growth outpaced my caloric intake, and I slimmed out for a short stretch. But the fried food soon caught up to me.  

It also didn't help that we rarely exercised. When we were little, we played an occasional game of tennis. And swam in the summer. But as we grew older and were left to our own, I rarely exercised, except to hit a tennis ball against the side of my school building when I was bored.

By the time I arrived in college, I had excess fat and a shortage of confidence. I always stood with my arms across my stomach to hide the bulge, and wore loose shirts and jackets to mask the crowning.  I never thought guys would be interested in me. I only had secret crushes, although I gave myself away with my ogling, awkward stammering, and undisguisable blushing.

It wasn't until I was forced to take a PE class in college that I started exercising. Sure, we had PE classes when I was at Cardozo High School in Queens, but I don't remember doing anything resembling physical activity. A bunch of us girls just stood around chatting until it was time to change out of our t-shirt and shorts. I figured college would be pretty much the same. To fulfill my PE requirement, I signed up for jogging because 20 of the 40 minute class were reserved for changing. I expected to fill up the 20 minutes of class pretty much the same way I had spent my time in high school.

The first time in my jogging class, I just walked. Very slowly. Often, my PE teacher jogged in place alongside me, trying to encourage me to pick up my pace. No pressure, just a smile, a wink, and a little "why not"? I just smiled and kept walking. That's how I spent the rest of the quarter. Then, one evening, a couple of years later, in the middle of Chicago winter, with the wind chill factor hitting the teens, with land blanketed with snow as far as the eyes could see, I ran out of my dorm in a pair of sweatpants and two layers of long sleeved knit shirts. I don't know what came over me, but I started running. I ran north on S. Shore Drive, past the apartment buildings to my left, past the field of snow on my right, along the lake that undulated with blocks of ice as large as Toyota Tundras. Even though it was late in the evening, the snow lit up the landscape around me, as if I were in the glow of a giant angel. I felt safe even though I was alone on the streets, and all I could hear was the sound of my own breathing. Steam rose from my mouth, my teeth hurt from the cold, and my cheeks felt completely numb. I ran as far as I could and turned back when my sides started to ache.

When I returned to my dorm, I was sweating and breathing like a horse. The sleeves that I had extended to cover my gloveless hands were wrinkled and damp. I ran into a friend in the lobby, and he said, "What the hell are you doing?" He looked at me like I was crazy. I felt a little crazy. I don't know what got into me that day. Maybe it was one of those days in college when I had spent too much time alone reading Thucydides. Or mulling over my future and feeling utterly hopeless. Or pining over some boy who would never see me in that way. But whatever it was, it was one of the best days of my life.

That was the day when I first realized that I was in charge of my body. Well, not really completely in charge, but still, not its slave. When I understood that I didn't have to feel bad about the way I looked and could do nothing. That I could stop being that chubby kid. That I could just run off the fat. That I wasn't stuck.

I spent good chunks of my 20s and 30s running. All I did my third year of law school was run and throw pottery. I clocked about 35 to 40 miles a week, sometimes 45. The first few years I lived in San Francisco, I lived in the Marina, and I spent hours running along the trail in Crissy Field. I am never completely confident, and I always feel 10 pounds overweight. But I no longer feel like a walrus.

When I got pregnant, I stopped running. I let myself go. I was partly afraid of running, especially after all my miscarriages. But I was also tired all the time. I thought it was important to listen to my body telling me to nap, to rest for the baby. I gained a lot of weight during my pregnancies, about 40 pounds with each. I lost most of that weight through breast feeding, but I somehow managed to regain 10 pounds of it in the last few months, probably because I kept eating as if I were still breastfeeding. I also lost a lot of my muscle mass during the last few years.

When I'm unhappy with the way I look, I feel downright bad. I hate looking at photos of myself. I wear raggedy t-shirts from Target that I stocked up on while I was pregnant. I wear the same jeans over and over again because I'm afraid to put on newly washed pants that are no longer stretched to my comfort. I let my hair grow out with their split ends because I don't want to look at myself in the mirror at the hair dresser's.

Last month, I started running again. I signed up at 24 Hour Fitness and got on the treadmill. I barely made it to 3 miles. But I still went back the next day. I'm up to 5 miles now. And I started doing P90X videos that my friends have been doing. I'm determined to get myself back in shape. I want to feel good about the way I look again. I don't want to stand with my arms blocking my stomach, and I don't want to hide behind large t-shirts. I don't want to waste time trying to recover from feeling bad after seeing photos of my blubbery self, and I don't want to stand around straining to shrink. My time is better spent exercising.

There are people who say you should love yourself no matter what. I don't buy into that. It takes too much energy to recover from feeling bad, to work on my emotional landscape. It's easier to shed the weight.

I'm giving myself two months to lose 10 pounds. Anyone want to do it with me?