Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The cheapest entertainment of all

My children's screen viewing gets on my nerves and my guilt. Last summer/year, it also made me feel powerless. I could pat myself on the back for only so long about them not watching television in the living room before I had to acknowledge that the educational games I let them play on the computer at had given way to straight up video games on Usually, they were by themselves. Ever see that episode of Star Trek where the mad doctor died after being trapped in his electronic torture chamber without a tormentor? That's what this reminded me of.

Video games have been gone for a few weeks now, and for the last week, much of television as well. Our time has been filled with board games, card games and reading.

Of all of the children, Sam was the only one who sat in rapt attention as I read when she was a baby. Everyone else wanted to grab the book and talk about the pictures. (I wonder if it's because she watched less TV?) Age 5 was the magic age for Jaz, and appears to be for the boys as well.

One of my favorite childhood books was D'Aulaire's Greek Myths. We got one for Sam when she was little. Michael, however, decided that he wanted to make sure she knew about the Jewish religion, so we alternated between what I'll call a graphic novel about the patriarchs and the Greek myths. I think D'Aulaire's is remembered more fondly, if only because the illustrations are so gorgeous.

We tried to read some of this last year to the boys, but usually didn't get too far. Then, a few months ago, Jacob started to talk about "Mother Earth", and connected some of what he learned in class with what he remembered. That sounded like an opportunity to me.

We've spent about a week and a half on this book, and last night we finished Heracles. Jazmyn listened in too and said, "Aww!" when I said we'd pick it up tomorrow. No worries though- she's using that for her reading homework. Jacob and Simon, of course, were fascinated by the Nemean Lion and the Centaur Nessus and eagerly wait to hear about the Minotaur. Yay!

We'll be done with this book soon, and I think it's a little early to start them on Bulfinch's mythology. Did a quick search this morning and found that the D'Aulaire's also wrote a book on Norse Myths. Yes! I have a call into Brookline Booksmith, and I'll hopefully be able to get that soon. Then there are the wonderful, complicated worlds of Indian and Egyptian mythology, and all the Korean myths, legends and folktales.

Now I'm thinking about my television. Do I really want to pay that cable bill every month?

Deb in the City
Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

Saturday, November 14, 2009

How is a good neighborhood like pornography?

Because you might have trouble defining it, but you know it when you see it- or, in this case, when you live in it.

My birthday was two months ago. It was for the big 3-7. Of course I'm being facetious- the 37th year has nothing special going for it, except that it's prime, and that's not exciting. Still, I decided to have extended family over for dinner. My sister and her husband were going to be in town because of the Caribbean Festival in Boston, my in-laws had just parked (literally) in Massachusetts after being gone for months and my oldest daughter was returning after almost two weeks at camp. I don't often have everyone here, and we'd just painted our living room, so it was perfect timing.

Because of the tight timing- Sam needed to be picked up about an hour before my sister and her young daughters wanted to come over- I was going to be doing most of the prep by myself. I also decided that I was going to make everything by myself. Yes, that's how I like to do things anyway, but with all of the various food issues in my family, that made sense.

That morning, I met with my friend S. whom I mentioned before. I took Jazmyn with me while Michael took the boys to get some last minute groceries I would need for the food. Potatoes, grated broccoli (I could have used grated cabbage) and frozen raspberries. That was, I thought, a reasonable request.

What wasn't reasonable? My husband (and our boys) had to take the train to Back Bay in order to buy those things. Alternatively, they could have gone to Brookline. This wasn't because of the broccoli slaw- as I said, I would have taken grated cabbage; I would even have taken cabbage and grated it by hand myself. This was because the grocery stores in my part of Boston leave much to be desired.

There are at least ten different sections of Boston, and all of them have their own different flavors. The part of Boston that I am in can be described as politically progressive, artsy, slightly counter-culture and slightly gentrified (compared to other sections, at least). If you're a Bostonian, you probably know exactly where I am.

After almost fourteen years here, I appreciate my community. People are pretty generous and open-minded. There is a mix of income and ethnicities, and a lot of community activity and activism. In some ways, it's a less exciting version of Cambridge in the 70s, keeping in mind, of course, that I was all of seven in 1979 and that everything might have looked a little more exciting to me back then.

What it doesn't have that Cambridge did back then is a dynamic educational institute. Those are very nice to have in your neighborhood, but I'll agree that it's not an essential. However, Cambridge at that time also had a bunch of places to buy food at varying price points and of various quality, and that *is* essential.

It's not just my family dinner that made me think about how my neighborhood could be improved. We've lost a lot of businesses in the last year. This is not news; every place in the country has. However, the losses here have highlighted the deficiencies that already existed.

Do you want to get coffee, eat pizza, grab a pastry or go out to eat? Visit me here- the world is your oyster. Want to browse some used clothing? We've got choices there too. But are you looking for a recent bestseller? Do you want to buy school clothing for your kids? Are you looking for groceries? Then... I hope you have a car, or a T-pass, because while you can find something, the offerings in those categories are pretty weak, and if you have the means, you'll probably venture out of this area. Even if it's raining. Or you have five-year-old twins.

So what does a Main Street in a good neighborhood contain? I think a lot, actually, and we're kidding ourselves if we think that we can contain it with a big box like Walmart (I need a moment, I just gagged), Home Depot, Borders and Super Stop and Shop or all of those things in a big strip mall. And, excuse me, that we can contain all of those things for not just one but several surrounding neighborhoods and communities. You, the four people who read my blog, already know that those stores remove money from the local economies. You also already know that the more you go to a big box, the sooner the local store will close, and eventually, lacking much convenient competition, your prices will go up. Forget all that- the selection at those big stores is also, in many cases, lacking. You'd better all like a similar brand of dishwashing detergent, or a certain hemlength on your skirts. Or the type of information in the form of books and magazines that you can buy. Variety- under one roof- is considered too expensive to indulge.

I've been thinking about this idea even more in the last few weeks as we've tried to settle into a grocery shopping rhythm. Those four kids of mine are hungry, and I've got the back and right shoulder to prove it. Those are some heavy bags I've had to carry. I think the labor is good- I think I'm a healthier person for it- but it's becoming more and more irritating to me that I have to go so far out of my way. Why can't my neighborhood have a better selection of food? Or clothing? Or entertainment?

Below is what I think a Main Street needs to have- your list may vary.

Grocery store
Hardware store
Clothing store
Music store
Movie theater
Post office
Toy store
Beauty Salon
Doctor's office
Dental office
Appliance store
Repair shop
Sporting goods store
Arts and craft store
Antique store
Law office (at least two!)
Furniture store
Jewelry store
Art store
Community center
Swimming pool
Physical therapist's office
Chiropractor's office
Print shop
Photo shop
Computer repair store
Public meeting places

And of course, at least one Deb

Yours truly,
Deb in the City

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Define health care reform

I wrote a few weeks ago about my friends who are poster children for good people getting the shaft over health insurance. Since then, I've been thinking a lot about the topic, both because it's in the news (I don't have words about the Stupak Amendment that aren't Anglo-Saxon) and in my life.

Michael left his job last month. This is the last month to make sure that I got in my annual physical and my semi-annual dental exam, which really hasn't occurred since before I was pregnant with the twins about seven years ago. Also, because Michael is starting to get paid, I was finally able to schedule Sam for a long-overdue acupuncture treatment. She was very happy about this- hands were clapped- particularly because we were both dissatisfied with the recent visit to the pediatrician about a specific issue. Let's take those one at a time- I will try to be brief.

Sam saw the acupuncturist last Monday. I rented a Zipcar. I drove to Lexington. It isn't covered by our insurance. It was, however, so satisfying. Sam had a specific problem, and the acupuncturist had a specific answer. Sam was soothed, not only by the nice music, heat and soft lighting, but by the confidence this person has. When we saw the pediatrician the week before, the nurse we had the appointment with and the doctor she corralled guessed. Good enough, except that part of their recommended treatment was taking steroids. Great.

My previous doctor left the practice last year. She recommended that I (and a slew of other patients) see Doctor A. When I first began developing scary food allergy symptoms, I made an appointment. Before the appointment was over, I vowed to myself to switch doctors. She'll be fine in a couple of years, I'm sure, but her bedside manner left much to be desired. I've never felt so rushed at a doctor's appointment before, and trust me, we hadn't gotten anywhere close to my twenty minutes.

So be it. Michael had started seeing Doctor B a few months ago and spoke highly of her. Plus she had room in her practice. Good enough. I finally secured an appointment with her for last Friday. I waited about twenty minutes before she could see me, but she was wonderful.

The problem was that though we chatted a bit about my allergies (and the answer was go see the allergist again), we really didn't do that much. She got my medical history, she palpitated my abdomen and listened to my lungs. Her nurse took my blood pressure and weight. We didn't do a breast exam because doctors aren't really doing that anymore (but if I really wanted one I could have one). We didn't do an internal exam because I'd had one last year and since I had a clean history I didn't need one for another two years. It was... sort of a whole bunch of nothing. When she was done with the questions, she was at a loss for words. There was nothing that we needed to worry about.

This is a good thing, of course. I'm healthy, and I evidently have yet another doctor's seal of approval. But determining that cost a lot of money. Fortunately, my insurance covered most of that (there is a copay), but boy would I have felt stupid if I had gone in for the annual every responsible adult is supposed to have and paid money out of pocket to find out how okay I was.

Contrast that with my visit to the dentist this afternoon. I had a higher copay because this dentist is out of network. Fine, because I really wanted a cleaning at long last, and I know he's good. His hygenist performed the cleaning. A lovely woman named Maria from Russia. Oh, how she worked! She was concerned about my wisdom teeth and saw something that looked like a cavity on each of them. She was leaning towards removal. Otherwise, my teeth were in good shape. The dentist came in at the end and took a look, and he said the wisdom teeth were fine as well. Yay! All of that flossing when I would rather sleep has been paying off, but I do need to back off a little on the brushing technique. I liked getting a good bill of health on my teeth- I didn't care of my primary teeth when I was younger, and I always got yelled at for it- but I also didn't mind this visit that much because we actually did something.

I am not sure how much all of the doctors cost, but from what I know of the dentist's price and previous experience, I think that Sam and I spent over $500 in a two week period to get medical attention. (And this doesn't include copayments I paid on Halloween weekend.) In Sam's case, not so bad, because she had a problem, but only an 1/8th of that or thereabouts addressed the problem.

In my case, not so much. The problem is that nothing was wrong with me, and I paid money to have someone tell me that. The bigger issue is that nothing was wrong with me because I do all of those things healthy people are supposed to do on their own. Really, at this point, the doctors have nothing to do with it. So why, as a healthy person, do I have to pay so much for insurance?

To be fair, years ago, my doctor told me that I needed to lose some weight, and I took her seriously. I was about 15 to 20 lbs heavier than I am now. By today's standards, though, I'm not sure anyone would blink. That isn't obese, and it certainly isn't morbidly obese. I think doctors have started to see so many serious health problems that something like being somewhat overweight doesn't faze them anymore. They've got bigger problems to deal with.

I understand that the flip side of me and other healthy people paying a high price for insurance is that if we don't share in the cost, the truly sick, the ones who need not just that annual visit but possibly visits every week, will ultimately pay a higher and probably prohibitive price when they need care. If we lived in a perfect world where we all had level circumstances, then maybe they should. But we don't. There are millions of people of people in this country who don't have access to fresh produce, which I believe is our first line of defense against illness. Many of those people also don't live in areas where they can safely walk and get regular exercise. On top of that, people have different genetic predispositions, and Social Darwinism is unconscionable in a hospital.

But... why do I have to see the doctor every year if two out of three of those years are going to be a big nothing? The acupuncturist is all out of pocket, but her charge is much less than the MD's. Why can't insurance cover her? I mean, she palpitates abdomens as well, and she also knows how to take blood pressure too.

I'm happy to go to the dentist though, because there is a specific service s/he provides, and few chronic ailments are more annoying than a toothache.

We keep talking about health care reform in a way that's making everyone look at their insurance premiums and copayments. Good, because it's an expensive system that isn't efficiently working. But we should be talking more about prevention. We should be living in a country that encourages people to eat healthfully and get regular exercise. And no, we don't, and I can prove it by the ads that are being put up advocating the consumption of chocolate milk as part of a healthy, balanced lunch and the purchase of a fuel-efficient, hybrid or solar powered vehicle as the ultimate in "green" living. Sure, healthy food is out there, but it's taken on a very weird gourmet cast to it. As has exercise in its own way, because now most of us believe that if we don't belong to a gym we can't do it. Health is just one more thing we have to pay for. But it's not.

Even if we all ate well and exercised daily, people would still get sick. See: Swine Flu, the common cold, or a gene mutation that turns into a cancer. Those things require care, and someone will have to pay. I'll pay happily- through my taxes, thank you- because evidently I'm paying now. In return, let me go to my acupuncturist, if I so choose, for a cold or digestive problem, but keep the emergency room open for those times when one of those rare vehicles does damage to a pedestrian. And one more thing: make organic foods affordable (remember when most food didn't use pesticides?), and build public walkways.

Sadly, I can't imagine a utopia, and maybe that's okay because utopian stories aren't fun to tell unless they turn into a dystopia. But I can imagine a world where my health care- and everyone else's- could cost significantly less.

Including for my dentist...

Deb in the City

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Despite all, a good weekend

I have so much I want to say about the neighborhood I live in and being car-free, the municipal elections and, of course, the evolution of health care reform (think: Stupak amendment), especially in light of the most anticlimactic doctor's visit ever. But that's all Russian novel territory, and my computer time is limited these days (there's actually a potential post about that as well). I will, therefore, just give a quick survey of the weekend (so far).

I decided that the best way to cap a stressful, crazy week was to organize and man the breakfast table at my children's school on Friday. Of course, I didn't really decide, I just got really vocal at a meeting, and that made me look like a leader. You live by the sword, you die by the sword. Shockingly, the event went off really well. The other parents came through, and the stressed out staff delivered, as usual.

That done, I decided that it was time to conquer another demon in my life: Sam's classes. I have bragged elsewhere that Sam was starting to make breakthroughs in Physics and Calculus. I was telling the truth. Cognitively, she was starting to get it. Psychologically though, not so much progress. At this point, she doesn't enjoy a challenge, it reminds her too much of being in places where a setback could lead to ridicule. I understand. Fifteen was a hellish age for me for different reasons, and it's just too exhausting for me to look at her and think, "If I'd had your circumstances, I would have...". Because maybe I wouldn't have, and even if I would have, maybe that isn't what's best for her.

On my way home from the elementary school, I called Sam's community college and got information about withdrawing from classes. She, Michael and I agreed that she should. But she didn't want to drop Physics. Of course- because I did terribly there. Michael, however, did not, and this morning I gave her an ultimatum that she had to accept her father's help or drop that class as well. Hey- I didn't say I was going to stop being her mom.

I'm not going to get upset about the money dropping the class(es?) technically wastes. No matter how much it is, it is not worth the emotional damage it does to her to be constantly under pressure. She pulled *far* too many late nights when she was 12 and 13- it's not worth it to me to put her through that now. Of course there will be times when she will have to do so again, but let it be something that's a little more meaningful to her, or let her be a little older.

Most extreme scenario is that she'll only take Spanish III this semester. Okay. She enjoys that class and does well in it. Who knows? Maybe she'll then be able to reflect on what she really enjoys and make some decisions based on that. Yeah, I know- fifteen...

Regardless, I'm starting to rethink how I want to approach the homeschooling aspect of her education. I really, really want her to be able to do Calculus- but maybe she can do it at home, at her pace, with me. That works for me, and by the new year, if not before, I plan on being home at least a little bit more.

I know I'm on the right track because my child looks happy. Immediately after she dropped the class, she was smiling. Michael and I always worried that she would feel disappointed in herself if she backed away from something. There is some merit to that thought, but it wasn't something we needed to worry about this weekend.

Yesterday my mother, bless her, took Jazmyn and the boys to see a movie. Michael and I spent a very uneventful afternoon on the couch while Sam happily worked on her Physics problems. I was in such a good mood I made both chocolate cupcakes (that everyone can eat) and my coconut ice cream. Oh yes...

Michael took the girls to their music commitments this afternoon, allowing him a couple of relatively uninterrupted hours of work. For our part, the boys and I took a trip into Chinatown. For at least the next few years, I am going to be underfed. The boys were supposed to split a cheesecake and I was supposed to eat my rice noodles. No. As they were devouring their food, they wanted to know why they weren't eating mine as well. So they did. After, we walked down Boylston Street on this unseasonably warm fall day to get to Trader Joe's. Jacob was so much more active than he was last year. Good? Once at our destination, they were relatively well-behaved as I picked out the supplies for breakfast, dinner and the cheesecake everyone (but me) can eat (one or two of the other patrons might disagree). And I want points for doing all of that, including Chinatown, for under $20.

Pardon me- I'm off to rest on my laurels for a few moments.

'til the next time,
Deb in the City

Sunday, November 01, 2009

The New Math and Conscious Deprivation

We are now into the second or third week of Michael working from home. He got the last paycheck he was scheduled to get from his job, and mine are starting to come in. Translation: I'm almost all caught up, and will probably not have to deprive myself too much at the grocery store (bless Trader Joe's).

But I'm quickly getting to the point where, yet again, I think we need to change something. The work at the gym I teach at in the morning is spotty, and I don't think it's worth it, especially when Michael makes between 20 and 30 dollars more per hour, he works from home and has to get the kids out. Therefore, one hour of my work has the potential to deprive him of two hours of his. So, call my rate x and his, on average, x+25. My x costs him 2x+50, for a household loss of x+50. And it's possibly the least favorite of all the things I do, which makes it even less "worth it". Michael asked me to wait until his first independent paycheck comes in before I do anything. I'll let you know.

In the spirit of maximizing Michael's billable hours, this week we traded and he's taking the girls for all things music and I'm home with the boys. Jaz does like to talk, but she brought some literary entertainment with her so he can work while he's out. That gave me and the boys time to visit the "eh" Boston Vegetarian Food Fest and practice creative deprivation.

Earlier this week, the Times published an article on the refunds being offered by Disney for Baby Einstein media. See this: (sorry, hard to do a link on the Blackberry). I read with some guilt, because I happily stuck my three younger children in front of the videos and dvds. I wasn't convinced that they were becoming geniuses, but they were entertained.

I'm used to guilt. What got me here was the statement that children under 2 should get zero screen time. Worse, exposure at such young ages is linked to attention problems later on, circa age 7. Uh, great. Jazmyn, who spent the most time in front of the television, was incredibly alert at age 7. Would she have been even more so if she hadn't had screen time before the age of 2?

Piss me off. I wish I'd known. But what I do know, what I absolutely have heard is that children spend way too much time in front of the screen and that we should all cut down. This has been the subject of many increasingly acrimonious arguments between me and Michael lately. We've reached, at last, something of a compromise: no more computer games, but I don't complain when he puts them in front of the television while he has to work. (Which, by the way, is just one more reason to assess the amount of work I have.)

But today? I let them watch Arthur (that's one of my favorite shows) and then we turned off the tv. That's amazing for us. They've asked to use the computer and tv, but lived when I said no. They've been playing "their game"- which involves a lot of the things they've seen on tv and the computer. But it's a start, and I think they're getting tired.

Maybe Sundays can be consciously tv-free. They are already consciously car-free. Believe me, I think about it everytime Sam carts her bass to a lesson, but then I try to pretend that we're cool New Yorkers, and that's just how we are. I hope I'm still thinking that in the winter.

Honestly, I have no regrets. My attitude borders even on gratitude, especially since I drove from East Boston to Mattapan last Friday. Wow. I sat in traffic and kept telling myself how much easier this would have been via public transportation. I think I actually hate driving in Boston now. And how nice it is not to buy gas, or pay car insurance.

The other thing I have deprived myself of is... the dishwasher. Over the summer, when we needed to watch every penny, I stopped using the dishwasher because I didn't want to use the electricity. Yes it saved money, but the wastefullness irritated me as well. For a while, I was incredibly water inefficient, but then I spent $4 on a drain stopper and started washing dishes the old-fashioned way, filling up both sides of my two-sided sink, washing in one and rinsing in the other. (And sometimes I'll just fill up a pot or bowl for the washing part.) My tongue is pretty firmly in my cheek when I'm self-congratulatory here, but I can genuinely say that I feel downright virtuous and responsible when I wash the dishes now. That is, until I think about my aunt in Korea, who would be horrified if she saw how much soap I used. I'm trying folks, I'm trying hard.

But maybe my aunt would have been proud of me if she had seen me cleaning my kitchen and bathroom floor today. Hell, maybe even my Korean grandmother would have been proud. No Swiffer, not even a mop. Just me on my knees, my rags and some hot, soapy water. Yes, I have always felt guilty about the wastefulness and expense of the Swiffer, but it's more because this was the only way to get all of the muck in the corners and edges. Seriously, what good are modern efficiencies if they don't work?

And in case anyone is wondering, I haven't hopped on the computer today because I want to stay present for the boys. Why should I when I have my Blackberry? (Don't worry- I get the hypocrisy and irony.)

Deb in the City

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry