Sunday, November 24, 2013

Puzzle Joy

My daughter and I spent about an hour today curled up in an armchair together. Our heads were pressed together as we bent over my iPad, working out jigsaw puzzles on the screen. I'm teaching her the way my mother taught me; fill in the border first using the straight edge pieces. Then use colors to fill in the middle unless the colors don't help, in which case evaluate the shapes of the pieces. I hold back as my daughter uses her chubby three-year-old fingers to drag the pieces off the sidebar and move them around the board. She still works mostly by trial and error but I see glimmers of logic emerging as she works out each new design. Anything that provides an hour of quiet fun for a preschooler is a winner in my book, and something that requires thought and problem solving is even better.

Puzzles have long been the purview of families. Around 1760 an engraver named John Spilsbury first pasted a map to a wooden board and used a saw to cut out the different countries. Wealthy English schoolchildren used his invention to learn their geography, but puzzles caught on as entertainment. In the early 20th century jigsaw puzzles were handmade and too expensive for anyone but the wealthy, but in the 1930's die cut cardboard puzzles opened the hobby up to the middle classes. Today puzzles are sold in two and three dimensional variations and can be made of cardboard, wood, plastic, styrofoam and now, pixels.  

Pixellated puzzles aren't perfect. I miss the tactile element of handling and sorting pieces and the sensation of edges locking together. The application I use holds the unused pieces in a sidebar; they are small and you can only see ten pieces at a time, which requires significant memorization skills. The puzzle screen itself is limited to the size of the iPad which tasks my eyesight on more complex puzzles. On the other hand, I can carry a library of hundreds of puzzles with me wherever I go. The pieces can't be lost or scattered and a solution in progress is held in memory without cats or preschoolers pulling the pieces apart. Each puzzle can be done at different levels of difficulty. You can choose the number of pieces ranging from 42 to 550 and you can set the pieces to rotate, imitating what would happen with physical puzzle pieces. I can solve a puzzle with my daughter on the easiest settings and then later return to it and challenge myself with a tougher version.

I wasn't a puzzle lover as a child. My mother and sister loved them but I usually wandered off to read a book. My daughter has been fascinated with them since her grandparents bought her a 24 piece cardboard puzzle with a popular cartoon character on it when she was two. I seem to have caught the bug from her, finding joy and achievement in assembling lovely pictures on an electronic screen. Perhaps it's just the fun of doing something together. Perhaps it's that puzzles are a nice metaphor for life, with hours of patient work fitting tiny pieces together producing a beautiful whole. Or perhaps the genetics just finally kicked in. Whatever the reason, I seem to be hooked.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Mary Poppins, Revisited

I watched Mary Poppins for the first time with my daughter this week. It took us three different showings because I forgot how long the movie is and we kept running into bedtime. This was one of my absolute favorite movies as a child and I loved watching her giggle over the carousel horses that won the race, the tea-party on the ceiling and of course the dance with the chimney sweeps over the roofs of London. Her mouth dropped open in astonishment when Julie Andrews (playing the title character) sang "Stay Awake" which has been Sarah's bedtime song her entire life. I hope she will love the movie as I did and that we will watch it together many times, but what interested me more is my own new understanding of the movie.

As a child I loved what my daughter loved; the bright colorful scenes, Julie Andrew's beautiful voice, the silliness and fun. As an adult, decades later, I found myself entranced by the relationships between the characters and how they changed. As a child I would have told you this movie is about Mary Poppins, a magical nanny for Jane and Michael, two British children in the year 1910. As an adult I think it is a story about their father Mr. Banks and his transformation.

At the beginning of the story the Banks are what I would term professionally a narcissistic family. The parents are involved in their own lives; Mr. Banks in rising in influence and power at his bank and Mrs. Banks in the women's suffrage movement. They don't pay much attention to their children except to scold them for not being good little "children-bots" who reflect credit on their parents and don't cause trouble. Jane and Michael are cared for by a series of nannies whom they torment with various tricks, including running away. At the opening of the movie they are brought back by a constable after having run off chasing a kite and causing the latest nanny to quit. The children attempt to apologize and ask their father to help them with their kite but he ignores this, instead focusing on dictating to his wife the qualities he wants to see in a new nanny. Jane and Michael write their own advertisement for a nanny in an effort to help; Mr. Banks finds their letter ridiculous and tears it up. The wind snatches it up through the window and thus the crisis is created that allows Mary Poppins to enter the family as an agent of transformation.

Over the course of a few days Mary Poppins and Burt (an old friend and admirer of Mary Poppins and local man of all work - chalk artist, one man band, kite seller and chimney sweep) take Jane and Michael on magical adventures. The children are delighted and Mr. Banks is perturbed, insisting that the children need a grounded, reality based education. He attempts to intimidate Mary Poppins as he does the rest of his household but she remains calm and unflustered. She then neatly turns the tables by agreeing with him and arranging for the children to accompany Mr. Banks to work the next day. Chaos ensues when Michael wants to spend his tuppence to feed the birds from the bird woman as Mary Poppins had suggested and his father insists he invest it in the bank.

The bank scene is a lovely illustration of narcissistic parenthood. Mr. Banks brings Jane and Michael in and announces to his superiors that Michael wishes to open an account, despite the fact that Michael has repeatedly stated he wants to feed the birds. The bank officers and Mr. Banks sing about the glories of investment while Jane and Michael appear steadily more confused and frightened by the circle of grownups pressing in on them. Finally, the president of the bank snatches Michael's tuppence away from him and Michael responds by shrieking and wrestling it back. The fight disturbs the other bank customers who only realize that the bank won't give someone their money back and a run on the bank is created. Michael and Jane run off through the confusion. Throughout this scene Jane and Michael are not seen as individuals. Their father wishes them to behave a certain way in order to bolster his own prestige and image at work.

Mary Poppins created the conditions for change with her magic and ability to stand up to Mr. Banks, but it is Burt who capitalizes on her work to reach the characters and start changing their relationships. Burt finds Jane and Michael after they've run off and helps them empathize with their father in his position of responsibility and loneliness. When Mr. Banks comes home from work devastated by the incident and knowing he will be ruined Burt (in the home to clean the chimney) empathizes with him and then gently in song helps him see that he's rapidly losing the window of opportunity to connect with his children. Burt leaves it there, with Mr. Banks sitting quietly in a dawning awareness. Jane and Michael approach and apologize to their father, handing him the tuppence and asking if that will make everything better. Mr. Banks appears to really see his children for the first time; their desire to connect with him and love him. He receives a phone call ordering him to report to the bank and we follow him through the streets of London as he appears to see things for the first time, pausing to gaze at the spot where the bird woman sits.

The turning point of the movie is the scene in the bank. Mr. Banks enters and is marched to the board room between two tuxedoed officers. There is a strong sense of a criminal being brought to justice which is heightened when Mr. Banks enters the darkened boardroom, where light falls only on the board  sitting at their table. Mr. Banks is reprimanded for his behavior and he apologizes, but then things become ridiculous. While the president of the bank looks on with undisguised pleasure Mr. Banks's boutonniere is torn, his umbrella is turned inside out, and the top of his hat is punched out by one of the senior board members. Clearly this is intended as a ritual shaming and casting out and yet all of a sudden Mr. Banks sees it for the nonsense it is. It's a pretend world that he bought, to the exclusion of his family, and he gets it now. He laughs and delightedly shares a joke that Michael had told him much earlier in the movie, a joke that he only now understands. He dances off singing, returning home to repair the kite and take Jane and Michael out as they had requested in the first moments of the movie. Mrs. Banks follows her husband's lead and offers her suffragette sash as a tail for the kite. The family skips off together hand in hand. Mary Poppins and Burt, their work accomplished, quietly fade out of sight to allow the restored family relationship to keep center stage.

This movie resonates for me now on so many new levels. As a therapist, because the narcissistic family dynamic is so common, so damaging and so insidious. I admire the empathy as a change agent that Burt utilizes and the focus Mary Poppins maintains on her work of healing this family. Her leaving scene, where she is obviously saddened but determined not to usurp the parents' rightful position, is a lovely illustration of what therapists should do when their work is complete. More importantly I see this movie now as a parent, as I strive to be a non-narcissistic mother to my own daughter. I remind myself to balance discipline and acceptance, to balance my work with parenting, and most of all I remind myself focus on my daughter and her truth, to see her as she is and not as I would wish her to be for my own gratification.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Toy or Tool?

I finally broke down and bought an iPad. I wrestled with the decision for quite a while, because the reality is that I don't really need an iPad or any other kind of electronic toy. My husband and I have laptops and phones and kindles. My daughter doesn't technically own any electronics and I don't really want her to, because I want to control and monitor her screen time for as long as I can. It's easier to do when all the electronics belong to a grown-up and she has to ask to use it. In reality, though, she is the major user of the kindle when we are traveling. We let her have unlimited screen time when we are on an airplane because it makes the trip much more pleasant for ourselves and for everyone else on the plane. Still, I certainly can't argue that I needed an iPad. I'm fundamentally cheap, and I hate spending a lot of money on something I don't need.

I wanted one, though. I've wanted one since they came out about four years ago. They just seem like magic to me. When I was little I remember watching a cartoon called Inspector Gadget. The TV show was about a bumbling bionic detective with extendable arms and legs with a variety of gadget attachments, which would invariable malfunction in humorous ways. He made no progress whatsoever on his own cases, but fortunately he had a very intelligent dog, Brain, and a niece, Penny, with a computer book. The computer book was an amazing little device that looked like an ordinary book but which could speak, display maps, and answer questions. It fit in Penny's backpack and she carried it everywhere with her. Thanks to the computer book Penny always knew where her uncle was and what was going on. She would then send Brain to go help out Inspector Gadget and solve the case. I loved that computer book in the show. I would get bored and frustrated by the inept Inspector Gadget but I was all attention and wide eyes when the computer book came out. I really, really wanted one. Now, with the iPad, it feels like I have one.

I do plan to use the iPad for writing purposes. I don't love writing things out longhand, particularly since I would just have to retype them later. Also my thoughts seem to flow better when I am using a keyboard. My laptop is great but it is very heavy when we travel and too bulky to take to work. With a Logitech keyboard folio my iPad transforms into a very small, very lightweight laptop for a much lower price than a MacBook Air, which is the other product I had considered. My goal is to use the iPad as a functional tool that allows me to write on the go, taking better advantage of spare minutes that accumulate here and there.

Which is not to say that it isn't also a toy. I've put several apps on it already for my daughter, although I am determined to maintain my position as the owner of the iPad. But "do X and you can have 10 minutes of iPad time" is too attractive a bribe to pass up. I also found the app "Color Zen" for myself, which is a puzzle game that is incredibly absorbing as well as oddly calming. And of course I had to download the Kindle app, so that I could access my library on the lovely large screen of the iPad instead of my tiny phone screen and spare my eyes some strain. I am sure that over time I will accumulate more games and entertainment. That's okay. As long as I can keep on writing I will feel like it is a worthwhile tool.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Don't Pick on Parents

Recently I read an online article that claimed time-outs are ineffective and terrible for children. The author stated that time-out threatens a child’s sense of security because separation from parents is a child’s worst fear. It stated that time-outs create clingy children who believe their parents can’t handle them in their worst moments. I read this and I wasn’t sure if I should laugh or scream. The article didn’t offer any suggestions for alternative discipline techniques. It did suggest reasoning with your child, which left me with the impression that the author did not actually have or know any small children. If you haven’t tried it, I encourage you to attempt to reason with a little kid who is not behaving well. I will sit back and laugh at you. You can reason with a preschooler who is well-rested, well-fed, perfectly healthy and in a cheerful frame of mind, but a misbehaving three-year-old is almost certainly none of the above. In general attempts to reason with a cranky and ill-behaved child will be met with tears, screams, arguments, running away, throwing things, hitting, kicking, biting or some combination of these charming actions.

Our society is very quick to criticize parents and tell us what to do. We are told on a regular basis that we are screwing up our most important job, particularly when it comes to discipline. Contradictory articles on how to discipline abound, while in restaurants and grocery stores across the country misbehavior is met with glares and any attempts at discipline are met with disapproving stares. Discipline is one of the hardest parts of being a parent. It’s no fun to be angry or disappointed in a misbehaving child. It’s hard not to see your child’s actions as a direct reflection of your skills and worth as a parent. When they mess up you feel like you’re the one who’s failed. It’s a direct hit to the ego, and it generally comes at a time when you are also tired, hungry, ill or frazzled yourself. Yet it is absolutely your job to civilize this adorable but self-centered little person. Parenting means teaching your child to wait, share, use manners, persist in the face of challenge, and consider other people’s feelings. Even if you don’t see those skills as morally good they are necessary for adult productivity.

Here’s what I would tell you about time-outs, both as a parent and as a professional in the field of human behavior. Time-outs don’t always create clingy children or breed separation anxiety. The general rule for time-out is 1 minute for every year of life. That means a three-year-old will get a three-minute time out. A really bad day in our house will mean perhaps 6 time-outs total. If you do the math, that works out to eighteen non-contiguous minutes of separation on a really tough discipline day. Most days hold many fewer time-outs, since an advantage of consistent discipline is doing less of it. Contrast that 18 minutes with the twelve hours a day our daughter is awake, much of which is spent interacting with one or both of her parents. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that she is a cheerful, creative, verbal, affectionate child who enjoys preschool, relates well to other adults, and isn’t stressed by being separated from my husband and I.

Time-outs should be sending a child the message that their behavior at that moment is unacceptable. My ability to handle my daughter’s poor behavior does vary, but it will always be higher than the tolerance her peers, teachers, future employers and spouse are likely to show. Whining, tantrums, interrupting, yelling, hitting and their adult derivatives are not socially or professionally acceptable. In fact, the entire point of time-out or any discipline is to let a child know that he or she is out of line with an unpleasant but safe consequence.

Time-out works really well for my daughter in particular because she inherited the temper that runs in my family. We have the same hot flash of anger that intensifies the more other people attempt to interfere. When I am deeply angry I need to be alone in order to calm down and my daughter is the same way. She was about 18 months old when she started telling us “leave me alone!” in the midst of a tantrum, and she was right. When we left her alone for 2 minutes she was able to calm down. When we tried to stay with her, talk to her, console her, reason with her or otherwise interfere with her she became increasingly angry and distressed. So we started leaving her alone. That’s contrary to most parenting wisdom and it took us a while to trust her and trust ourselves to do what she really needed. Now that she’s older she’s learning to take deep breaths to calm down so she can stay in a situation, but the retreat of a time-out is a skill I hope she hangs on to throughout her life.

The biggest problem with parenting articles like the one I read is that they over-generalize. “No spanking, ever!” or  “Time-outs are terrible for children!” are two phrases I have read recently. They are probably true in some or even many cases. I imagine that some parents should never spank; that’s easy for me because I count myself among them. I get too angry too quickly sometimes to trust myself as a spanking parent. Some of my good friends spank their children in a very calm, deliberate way when needed. Their children are also happy, secure, creative and overall delightful young people. Time-outs are probably terrible for some children; I can imagine a very sensitive child being frightened or a parent using them too often or for too long. In that case wise parents would use a different consequence that suited their child. I have a friend who takes away privileges like reading a story or using a toy instead of time-outs and that works quite well for her children. Perhaps, despite my earlier mockery, there are some three-year-olds who listen to reason when upset and so their parents would appropriately reason with them. The point is, though, that my husband and I have to decide these things for our daughter and our family and you must decide them for yours. Beyond a few rules that I wish were common sense and common practice (don’t harm your child physically or emotionally, give your child plenty of love, be consistent with your rules, make sure your child has food, shelter, warm clothing, exercise and books) I can’t tell you what to do with your child. And I won’t. Your job is hard enough already.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Autumn Leaves

 I was surprised this year by the autumn leaves. I think I was expecting the color in mid to late October, which is what I thought I remembered from last year. The appearance of fall color actually depends on the amount of light in a day, not on weather conditions, so the color should start around the same time every year in a given location. The weather conditions do make a difference to the vividness of the color; drought during the summer can keep the leaves from developing the colorful pigments. Severe autumn storms or early frost can cause leaves to drop before the color really shows.  When I didn't see fall color a few weeks ago I just thought this just wouldn't be a good year. Perhaps I just remembered it wrong, because all of a sudden last weekend there it was, gorgeous reds and oranges and yellows against a backdrop of evergreens and a bright blue sky.
I spent most of the weekend taking pictures to try to capture the beauty. The top picture is outside our local library, I love the few light brown leaves against the darker orange red of the rest of the tree. The middle pictures are from the zoo, where we spent a highly enjoyable and not too crowded Sunday afternoon. The animals were dozing and the new baby panda wasn't accepting visitors but we did get to see some elephants and lions, and I had a great time admiring the trees. The final picture is taken from the seventh floor window at work; the glass mutes some of the color but it's a wonderful view to stop and take in every time I need to go up and down the elevator (which is multiple times a day). I hope you enjoy these too!

Monday, November 4, 2013

Cava Mezze

My husband and I wandered sadly through our local shopping mall during our date last Saturday night. We had neglected to make reservations at our favorite eatery and couldn’t face the hour long wait before we were seated for dinner. We stopped to consult the directory, hoping for a new option, and asked each other “What’s Cava Mezze Grill?” My husband guessed a Spanish tapas bar since Cava is a type of wine from Spain he likes and mezze usually means small plates. We've enjoyed tapas in the past so off we went to check it out. 

Cava Mezze is not a tapas bar nor is it exactly small plates. It’s actually something much better for two adults who frequently eat out with a three year old. It is a local chain quick service restaurant in the Chipotle model but with Mediterranean style food instead of burritos. Your meal is assembled before your eyes as you select options from starches, dips, proteins, vegetables and dressings. It offers the promise of a tasty, relatively healthy meal that can be put together in minutes, before your preschooler starts screaming down the roof or attempting to play hide and seek amongst the other diner’s chairs. It also answers what my husband and I have seen as a dearth of decent Mediterranean style food in our local area that is oriented towards families. 

The restaurant's decor was stark and basic; plenty of metal and scratched up tables. I don't love the industrial look when I go out to eat although it does seem to be popular these days. I would imagine that it is easy to keep clean and tidy and that it gets people in and out quickly, so I can see the advantages from the restaurant's point of view. It's not a great ambience for a date night, but fortunately the food made up for it.

My husband ordered a large pita with a spicy feta dip, meatballs, and tabouleh. I chose two mini pitas, one with tzatziki and chicken and the other with hummus and meatballs, both with feta cheese crumbles and tomato cucumber salad. Everything was well prepared and reasonably well seasoned. The standout was the spicy feta dip which was blended into a smooth texture with a smoky chili pepper that reminded me of the hatch chilis we used to get once a year in San Antonio. Both of us were pleased with our selections and there were other items on the menu that interested us for next time.

I also liked that the restaurant posted a sign naming the (local) farms supplying their meat. Their website offers nutrition details with an excellent interface that lets you add up the values for your particular selections online. It also listed allergen information and everything is peanut free which is important to us since our daughter is allergic to peanuts. All in all, I am very excited about finding Cava Mezze Grill and we will definitely be back!