Monday, April 30, 2001

Reading 'Rosie'

One of the few remaining nice things about air travel -- especially if you are seated with the child who is happy to listen to her Aaron Carter CD for five solid hours instead of the child who mostly wants to talk, kick, fidget and scream -- is the opportunity for uninterrupted reading time. And so it was on our vacation last week that I finally got caught up on reading the magazines that had been piling high in recent weeks, including the inaugural issue of Rosie O'Donnell's new publishing effort, "Rosie" magazine.

When I first heard that the Queen of Nice was going into the magazine business, I had no intention of actually taking a look at it. First of all, who needed another celebrity magazine, or celebrity-led one? I've never read Oprah's or Martha's magazines either, and although Rosie is someone whose show I've watched and enjoyed from time to time, her foray into the written word seemed less an interesting brand extension than another step in a disturbing trend. Then, too, the fact that she did it by taking over the venerable "McCall's" made it easy to sniff about tradition and the dismantling thereof. Although, to be honest, I'd been less likely to buy the fusty old "McCall's" than about any other magazine on the newstand.

It was the kind of magazine my mother-in-law would read, and indeed she had a subscription, and since she lives downstairs her issue of "Rosie" turned up in our mail. I'd never have picked it up in the supermarket, but since it was there in my house, I flipped through. And what I saw made me ask my mother-in-law to send the issue back upstairs when she was done.

As I should have expected, the magazine nicely reflects not only Rosie's celebrity connections but also her causes, and that means a fair amount of adoption-related material. There was a profile of four waiting children, a story about a foster-care community, and a very nice essay by Rosie about adopting a foster child. There was a story on gun control, creditably enough a pro and con and not just a pro. There were the triumph-over-adversity stories, as required in a women's magazine, but in this case they both involved children, making them instantly of interest to this special-needs mom. And even the celebrity content was targeted, not fluffy: an interview with Fran Drescher centered exclusively on her battle with uterine cancer; an article featuring Uma Thurman was really about a program she supports for giving toys and supplies to parents who can't afford them; the parenting-advice column was staffed by guest celebrities Jane Seymour, Marilu Henner and Tracey Ullman.

It struck me that this was the parenting magazine I'd been waiting for since I adopted my kids six years ago. I'd always loved "Child" magazine, but when I finally had children I found that there was surprisingly little in its pages that applied to me. Lots about typically developing infants and precocious children, lots about post-pregnancy, little about adoption and special needs. "Adoptive Families," on the other hand, was rather too adoption-intensive; only a few pages in each issue actually applied to any situation I was dealing with at any given time, and I'd have to sort through pages and pages of information that was irrelevant to my children's age, origin and needs to find it -- not to mention pages and pages of ads for adoption agencies, which is like putting ads for fertility treatments in parenting magazines.

"Rosie" seems to me to strike a nice balance, though I wonder if people who have no children will be interested in it at all. It is really more a parenting magazine than a women's magazine, and while that pleases me greatly, it might not please my mother-in-law. Which means that when it comes time to renew, it might start coming to my part of the house first.

Thursday, April 12, 2001

Party paranoia

My daughter is having a birthday party in a little over a week, and I'm a nervous wreck. By all rights, she should be the one concerned over whether her friends will have a good time and continue to be her friends. She should be the one concerned over whether the girls who weren't invited will be hurt, or the ones who were invited will be rude. She should be obsessing, and I should be calmly singing Que sera, sera. But of course, that is not the case.

The one thing I never realized about parenting is how thoroughly you transfer your own social anxieties over to your child. I should have known, because my own mom did the same thing, living vicariously through my painful social encounters. I know there was a period in my youth where these things didn't bother me, as they don't bother my girl now. If my mom passed that anxiety to me through our shared genes, then my daughter, adopted we might hope from more self-confident stock, is in luck. If I got it through exposure to her pre-emptive hurt for me, then she's in big trouble.

Which is why I have to stop now. If there's anything I want to pass to my children, it's the ability to not worry endlessly over what other people think of you. And then, by extension, what other people will think of you if you do a particular thing. Because once you get there, you wind up not doing many, many particular things. And then people think you're standoffish, or snobby. Hyperconsciousness is not a good social strategy, and I'd sure like my two to learn from my mistakes.

So far, so good, because if anything, these kids are hypoconscious. They seem largely oblivious to peer opinion. My son's FAE inspired behavior is not what any eight-year-old would call normal, but he's so self-contained that he sort of rolls on through life on his own little wavelength. Since he rarely seeks approval, the lack of it doesn't irk him, and kids seem to treat him gently as a result. This is a blessing that will no doubt wear off with age, as he gets weirder and kids get meaner. If he's unable to use peer disapproval as a signal to curb his behavior, then I wish him continued obliviousness.

Then there's my daughter, who appears to have raised obliviousness to an art form. It should bother her to be two years older than her classmates, and it should bother them, but from all reports--hers and the teachers and what I have seen from other kids--it's a non-issue. She knows she's older, they know she's older, they're a little surprised, but if anything it makes them think she knows things she doesn't. The tears and taunting I imagine occurring in these situations are apparently occurring only in my head. Let's hope they stay there.

Except that it makes my head a very busy place, and a place where it's hard to just sit back and enjoy party planning and look forward to an event with anticipation rather than dread. The outcome of this event will probably neither make nor break my daughter's social status in any particular way, and the other moms are probably not waiting to mock me for my poor planning skills. It will probably be moderately successful, not wondrous, not disastrous. They'll eat pizza, they'll play, they'll eat cake, they'll go home. How hard can it be?

Still, I worry. According to my mother, that's a mother's job.

Wednesday, April 11, 2001

Fat is good

Hey, great news about fat!

Those are words you sure don't see together often, but it's true. Right now, at the forefront of medical research, at the crux of cures for diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, at the healing edge, stands good old fashioned blubber. And if anything can make spare tires desirable, this is going to be it.

According to a recent research study, fat -- yes, that fat, the stuff making your pants tight and your arms floppy -- contains stem cells. Stem cells, those nifty little building blocks that can become any kind of human tissue with the right inspiration, are thought to be the key to cures for a smorgasbord of formerly intractible ailments. It's previously been extracted from bone marrow and, controversially, fetal tissue. But now, it looks like just a little liposuction is all you need.

So right now -- stop exercising! Eat a chocolate bar instead. The research suggests that our own body fat may be a resource for healing our injuries and treating our diseases, and don't you want to make sure you have plenty on hand, and waist, and thigh? How tragic to be so tight and toned you can't take advantage of this precious natural resource.

Just picture it -- picture a world where the overweight aren't viewed as unhealthful, but as potential fat donors. A world where doctors tell you to keep those extra pounds right where they are. A world where liposuction is a public service. A world where ice cream is medicinal.

Tomorrow, a news report will undoubtedly come out that overturns all these fine fantasies, but for today, I can dream. And eat a few extra cookies.

Tuesday, April 10, 2001

Wanted: Trying tots

Is your preschooler a little restless? A little overactive? Does he have trouble sitting still or shutting up? Have you ever thought he might be hyperactive or attention deficient? Has your doctor resisted prescribing him Ritalin because he's only 3? Then the National Institute of Mental Health might be looking for you.

The institute is funding a $6 million research study on the effect of Ritalin on the very young, and is looking for 300 good kids in the preschool age range to be their little guinea pigs. It's hard to know what's more troubling here -- that Ritalin is already being prescribed to kids that young without having been tested for safety, or that we're now going to test it.

Screening for the Preschool ADHD Treatment Study will be careful, to be sure. A kid who's a whirling dervish sometimes but in control others won't make the cut. Qualified applicants need to be able to speak in three-word sentences, and of course they need to be able to swallow a pill. Children whose behavior can be traced to traumatic stress or Oppositional Defiant Disorder will get the boot.

No, only kids who really have ADD/ADHD will be involved, though the medical profession is deeply divided on the question of whether you can even diagnose the thing in children so young. Researchers will put parents through a 10-week training course to try to increase their behavior modification skills, and if that brings the squirminess under control, the little test subjects will go on their way, pill-free. If not, they will be administered the medication and monitored for side effects over an 18-week period. The Food and Drug Administration is making a small-dose pill up special.

It will be interesting to see what the results of this little experiment turn out to be, but I can't say I expect anything to turn up that would keep the drug from being a regular feature in nursery schools and day-care centers across the land. Which -- without even getting into a debate here about the appropriateness of Ritalin or psychiatric medications for any child -- disheartens me greatly.

Is proper deportment now so important for 3 and 4 year olds that we must medicate them into it? There may be an argument for school-age children needing to be able to get with the program, but toddlers? Are infants who keep Mommy and Daddy awake too much next in line here? What an easy drug trial that will be -- they can screen the newborns right there in the hospital and send the teensy pills home with them.

Monday, April 09, 2001

The Sue-pranos

From the "people who need to get a life" file, we today look at the case that has been brought in Illinois' Cook County Circuit Court by the American Italian Defense Association, which believes that the HBO series "The Sopranos" slanders Italians.

According to a Reuters report, the association of lawyers of Italian descent (and why the heck aren't they suing for the way lawyers are depicted on TV?) complains that the much-praised series "suggests that criminality is in the blood or in the genes of Italian Americans and that Italians as early immigrants to this country had little opportunity other than to turn to crime." The group's chairman is quoted as saying "We're looking for a vindication of our reputation. We realize that we can't stop the free speech rights of Time Warner. We're not looking for money. We want a moral victory here, we want to balance things." And a little publicity wouldn't hurt, either.

Another one of the attorneys complained that, "This is like no family I know. I don't know Italian mothers, ever, who try to have their son killed. That's not realistic." As supposed to the blazing verisimilitude of a series like "The X-Files," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" or "Third Rock from the Sun."

Dude, repeat after me: It's only TV.

If you watch "The Sopranos," you could get the idea that all Italians are criminals. If you watch "Everybody Loves Raymond," you could get the idea that all Italian men are henpecked mama's boys. If you watch the Food Network, you could get the idea that all Italians are great cooks. If you watch one show and decide that every member of every ethnic group depicted is exactly like the one you are watching, then you have more problems than Tony Soprano.

The lawsuit-bringers are not trying to get the show removed from the air, or have upstanding Italian characters inserted into it, or have huge monetary damages paid so that they can fund some sort of foundation for the development of scripts in which Italians are crime-fighting superheroes. No, they just want to have a judge declare, "Mama mia, that's unfair." Thus giving the impression that Italians are obsessed with honor beyond all reason. But at least their mothers love them.

Personally, I think if any group has the right to sue for the way they've been depicted on TV, it's parents. What a load of buffoons we look on sitcom after sitcom. And since most of the shows with the most derogatory depictions of dad and mom are aimed at children, you could probably say that this has promoted disrespect and disregard of authority amongst the younger generation. Hey, where's the Beleaguered Parent Defense Association when you need them?

Friday, April 06, 2001

Nutrionally sound-off

Everyone knows spinach is good for you, right? Chock full of super-good nutrients like Vitamin C, Vitamin A, folic acid and lutein. Eat it a few times a week and you'll be hale and hearty as Popeye. And yet, I think I speak for a majority of children and quite a lot of adults here when I say -- yuck.

It seems a cruel conspiracy that the things that are best for you taste the worst. I wouldn't go near liver for all the iron in the world. Brussels sprouts may be little bundles of cancer-fighting phytochemicals, but I ain't going near them, either. And spinach--well, it doesn't make me gag the way it did when I was a kid, but I wouldn't miss it if it went away. Why can't cookies and crackers and big greasy fast-food burgers be loaded with nutrients? The good stuff's always bad, and vice versa.

Nutritionists at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, are trying to do something about that, but I'm not sure how effective they're going to be. Their plan: To sneak spinach into foods we like and hope we don't notice. Tell this to my daughter, who was able to pluck every molecule of the green stuff out of a serving of spinach manicotti. We who dislike spinach are a determined lot.

But apparently there were no true spinach haters among the 40 tasters recruited by the university to do a hamburger taste test. Each got some half-burgers with iceburg and some half-burgers with spinach, and most couldn't tell the difference. Ditto with tacos. The nutritionist's conclusion: Fast food restaurants should make the switch, pronto.

Can't you just see it--McDonald's and Burger King keeping an eye on each other, waiting to see who makes the switch first, so the other can launch an ad campaign that goes "Eeeeeeeeeee-YUCK! That other place puts SPINACH in its burgers!" Have it your way, indeed. Anyplace that loves to see us smile won't be going for spinach anytime soon. Maybe the Popeye's fried chicken franchise could get away with it on a chicken sandwich, but that's about it.

That's not likely to deter nutritionists, for they, too, are a determined lot. What will they suggest next? Spinach stuffed in the crust of Pizza Hut's stuffed-crust pizza? A little chopped liver in cans of corned beef hash? A deep-fried Brussels sprout with every order of onion rings? One shudders to think.

Turns out, I'd just as soon keep my guilty pleasures guilty.

Thursday, April 05, 2001

Air rage or heir rage?

They're calling it "air rage," but the fury that overcame a father at Newark Airport and resulted in a broken neck for an airline gate agent suggests another phenomenon to me: maybe "child management rage," the overwhelming sense of anger and desperation that overcomes parents forced to keep their children under control under circumstances that make it impossible. Like, say, a two-hour wait in a boring airline waiting area when the child is expecting to be at Disney World NOW.

In this case, the 18-month-old--perhaps wandering aimlessly as toddlers will, or perhaps feeling that if she could just get on the airplane, then Mickey would be within her reach--headed down a passageway leading to a plane. Her mother, probably chagrined that the girl was entering forbidden territory, ran after her. And the gate agent, charged with keeping people the heck out of there, shoved her away. The dad intervened and, depending on whether the witness was related to him or not, was either attacked by the agent and fell to the floor with him, or picked the agent up unprovoked and plowed him head first into the ground.

An inexcusable act of air rage? The jury didn't think so; it acquited the dad this week of charges that could have led to up to 10 years in jail. I'm guessing at least some of those jurors were parents.

Which is not to say it's ever okay to cause violent bodily harm to another. But on the other hand, the airlines have to understand that if you treat passengers like cattle, now and then you're going to get a stampede. And as furious-making as airline maltreatment is to individual passengers, it's exponentially worse for passengers traveling with children, who understand the concept of delays even less than their grownup counterparts do.

Coming up close to crashing in my list of flying fears is the fear of being stuck on the runway for hours on end with no food, no water, no toilets, no hope of release, as has happened to hapless planeloads from time to time in stormy weather. To be in that situation in the first place, and then to be expected to keep my impulsive, hyperactive son from running up and down the aisles screaming...well, I would probably be the one running up and down the aisles screaming. There are only so many toys I can carry aboard, only so many entertaining scenarios I can unwind, only so much cajoling I can do. If you go beyond the limits of my abilities to reasonably control my children, it's not going to be pretty for any of us.

So far, we have not been in that situation, though we've been close enough for me to guess what it might feel like. And I've certainly lost my temper in public on other occasions, with less provocation. I'm stunned, in retrospect, to realize how out of control I was. Never resorted to violence, but then, nobody ever physically pushed me around. Since I'm only 4' 10" and not exactly gym-trained, the likelihood of me picking some guy up and breaking his neck is slight. But they say that mothers can pick up cars if their children are trapped underneath, so who knows.

It would be nice if this case led airlines to reassess how they communicate with and service their customers, but my hopes aren’t high. Probably it will just make gate agents more surly, knowing as they do that jurors don’t hold their physical well-being and professional duties in high esteem. Truth be told, I would probably rather be trapped on that plane with that screaming child for hours than have an airline employee job that forces me to interface with irate passengers. Really, the more I think about it, maybe we should all just stay home. Travel is more trouble than it’s worth.