Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Treadmill Culture

Prager Mommy and the Disciples Pretending to be Zen.

I have come to the conclusion that the accepted daily life in America is no different than being on a treadmill that won’t stop. And that treadmill rarely slows down and often times gets faster. Let me just say up front that I too am on this treadmill. But I am ready to get off! I just haven’t figured out how yet. Aside from retirees, the rest of the adult (and much of the child) population is way too busy. There are simply not enough hours in the day to accomplish everything that needs to be accomplished. As a result, most people are overstressed and under-rested. Everyone is in such a rush! Forget having more than a minute to discuss something. To make matters worse, the lines between work and leisure are so blurred these days that it is difficult to turn things off. If you ask someone how he/she is doing, the response is no longer the obligatory “fine” or “good,” it is “busy” or “stressed.” In fact, if you aren’t busy at the moment, then you better not admit it to anyone because being busy has almost become some sort of badge of honor. I am seriously tired of it!

This treadmill lifestyle has helped people formulate many bad habits including:
  • The inability to just sit and be
  • The inability to concentrate on one task at a time
  • The inability to pay attention or be there in the moment
  • The inability to be ok with periodic boredom
  • The need to be constantly stimulated by something fast and flashy whether it be TV, surfing the Internet, FaceBook, non-stop texting, or playing computer games
  • Having no idea what you truly enjoy doing with your time
  • Putting personal needs on the back burner
  • Not taking care of one’s physical self
  • Relying on conveniences that are unhealthy, create unnecessary waste, and cost more money because they save time
  • Not paying attention to other people or their problems (you have enough of your own)
  • Not taking vacation and/or feeling guilty about taking time off

I too share some of these bad habits. The worst for me is the inability to concentrate, pay attention, and be in the moment. Years of multitasking has rewired my brain. Yes, I get a lot of things done, but sometimes I rarely remember doing them. This is especially a problem with my kids as I get easily frustrated when they take a long time to do something or need to process an issue for what seems like hours. So what does this teach my kids? Well, it affirms that we are often in a hurry; we have too much going on; they should expect round the clock entertainment; and other things matter more over them. When I look at it this way, I have to admit this is not the message I want to reinforce through my actions.

Now that I am confessing, I will tell you about my other bad habit. For two years, I did a great job of ignoring my body as it slowly fell apart. I was too busy at work with a seriously stressful work project. Work and my dissertation pushed me over the edge. I rarely had time to exercise and I wasn’t sleeping that much or well. I rang in my 40th birthday last year with a full blown body revolt! For the better part of 2010, my upper back hurt non-stop. I had daily headaches that made it difficult to concentrate. The best was the tingling in my extremities. Some days I felt like I was hooked up to an electrical outlet. Oh yeah, there was also the one month of summer I spent barely eating a thing because my stomach hurt so bad when I did. Needless to say, these are all pretty serious symptoms for an otherwise healthy person. After many visits to numerous doctors and expensive medical tests, I have been diagnosed as healthy! Now that I have been able to weave these series of events into a story, I can clearly see that I had various stress induced symptoms. The symptoms never went away; they just migrated from one body part to another. First I had to admit stress and lifestyle were the cause. Then I had to do something about it. So far, 2011 has been good to me health wise. This is due in part to the changes I have been working on for the last nine months.

For starters, I stopped making lists of things to do. Occasionally I will write a note or two if I need to remember something for the day, but that is it. For planner types, this is really difficult. What I have come to realize is that lists made me feel more in control when I really wasn’t. I always had a list. Cross something off the list and two more things to it. The list never ended and it started making me feel bad.

In addition to my regular chiropractic appointments, I started getting a weekly massage on my upper back and neck. In addition to relaxing my very tight muscles, it is 30 minutes of peace for me. After six months of this, I still have tight muscles that need ongoing attention. At first I felt guilty. After all, it costs both time and money. But now I have come to really enjoy it! I am also making working out a priority and trying to do some nightly stretching on a foam roller.

I am still working at the retraining of the brain. I have decided that multitasking has done much harm to me. I really want to get to a point where my brain is clear and focused. To do this requires me to adopt standards far less than perfection. My house is dirtier and less tidy than before. My clothes are a bit more wrinkled and they are sometimes dirty. I have forgotten about some things I promised I would do. The word “no” has been reintroduced to my vocabulary. I admit that I am reading a book for pleasure. I am trying to stop telling people that I am busy when asked how I am doing. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Most of all, I am trying to remember that so much of what I am ignoring is minutiae. It really has very little impact on the quality of my life!

The daily grind though is still that, the daily grind. I keep fantasizing of the day when people have time to engage in a deep conversation, to talk about something they care passionately about, to take time to think, to not pay attention to the clock, to care less whether they have received a new email, or to have a cup of tea with a friend. Many would say this is not our culture. But then again, who creates our culture?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Bye Bye Plastic Food Storage Containers and Bags

Every time I turn around, there is more bad news about plastic. I could go on a big rant about plastic, but I won’t. Instead, I want to talk about plastic and its relationship with my food. First it was Bisphenol A (BPA) in my plastic drinking bottles. Then it was BPA in canned food (it is used in the lining of cans) especially for acidic foods like tomatoes. So we cleaned out our water bottle collection a few years ago (replacing them with metal water bottles) and stopped buying canned food this past year. We really didn’t buy all that much canned food, mostly beans and canned tomatoes. Last summer as the local farmer’s market was coming to an end, we bought a 25 lb box of Roma tomatoes and diced them up then froze them. We also started cooking our beans from scratch.

This was a good start, but we still had a bunch of plastic food storage containers that we used for lunches. Even though I tried my best not to heat food in them via the microwave, it occasionally happened especially at work. My second confession is our somewhat frequent use of plastic bags. We mostly used larger bags for freezing vegetables. The small snack bags made it easy to pack items for school lunches. I have to admit that while I know how bad they are for the environment, they can be pretty darn convenient at times. So I rationalized my behavior by using them sparingly and reusing when possible. That was until last month when I discovered from a blog that I follow (My Plastic-free Life) that animal fat is what makes the bags nice and slippery. I have no idea how I did not know this little fact after all of these years of not eating meat!

In my fit of disgust, I made several changes on the food storage front to complete our transformation:

  • I replaced the plastic drink pitcher and all of the plastic food storage containers with glass versions from the Container Store. This was an easy fix.
  • I replaced Lily and Semira’s insulated lunch bags (in to which went plastic bags and storage containers) with very cool metal bento boxes from Planet Box. I had to find something with built in containers to replace the plastic ones. The kids love the new lunch boxes because they could customize the plain metal with different magnets. Lunch has become much more exciting because there are small bites of more different foods. Both kids are eating more (especially the healthy things).
The outside of the boxes with the set of magnets each kid picked.

The inside of the boxes. Each comes with two round containers (sidekicks) to hold liquids.
  • I replaced my insulated, dog chewed lunch box with a metal tiffin (from To-Go Ware) identical to the one Steve bought a couple of years ago. I admit it, I made fun of Steve when he bought his tiffin. I did, however, make sure mine is a bit fancier. It has a nice bag and a set of bamboo utensils to go with it. I plan on keeping a plate at work to heat the contents in the microwave since the metal won’t work. This is the downside of the metal vs. glass option.
My lunch set comes with two big round containers that snap together as well as a sidekick to hold liquids.
  • I will continue to eat the food in the freezer that is in plastic bags as long as I defrost the bags so they do not need to be microwaved. After that, all food in the freezer will be stored in glass jars. We already do this for about half of our food so I know it works. I will just need to buy more jars this summer.

After the discovery of the animal fat in the plastic bags, I decided to explore a few of the plastic bag manufacturer’s web sites to see what they had to say. What I found is such a great example of irony. The most well-known plastic bag manufacturer takes great pride in telling you their products are BPA free. Very safe! Then they have an entire section of their web site (under the heading of” Sustainability”) exposing how environmental they are including how to divert the bags from the landfill by recycling them, how some of their products are made with wind energy, and how the boxes that hold the bags are made from recycled cardboard. Really, there is no way to make using plastic sustainable! I don’t care if they are made with wind energy or whether you can recycle the box they came in. The reality is millions of these bags sit in landfills. They do not decompose EVER. And recycling is so limited because most municipalities do not take bags. And I have yet to see any of these special recycling drop-offs for food storage bags. Do these companies really think that people will fall for this? What a great example of trying to sustain the unsustainable! Oh yeah, I never did find that complete list of chemicals and other ingredients that my food has been touching all these years. Somehow I am not surprised!

I can't say that I am solving the world's plastic problems with these minor changes. If you want some inspiration on that front, check out Beth Terry's blog at She is amazing! On the other hand, I have definitely become more aware of the vast amounts of plastics all around us. This awareness has certainly led to more thoughtful personal decisions as to whether to buy a particular product or not. I just wish I didn't have to try so hard to find plastic-free alternatives for many of the products I like to use. Some days I have the energy to go the extra mile; other days I don't. I guess this makes me human.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Semira: What You Don't See

Semira turned six years old this week and we are inching closer to our three-year anniversary being a family of four. I just received my notice from our adoption agency that our annual post-placement report is due soon. Since I am writing about our last year together anyway, I thought I would write a bit about what it’s like being a mom to a child who first met you when she was three years old (and change). People usually see a happy, go-lucky little girl who has adjusted to her new life rather well. Much of the time, Semira is this way. But there is also another side to being her mother that I want people to know. People sometimes comment about all the wonderful opportunities that Semira has now. In a sense this is true, but these opportunities come at a price. On some level though, it implies that what she has now is somehow better than what she had before. I am not sure this is always true! I have also noticed that people assume she doesn’t remember her past because she was only three at the time we adopted her. I can assure you this is not the case.

Steve and I spent a fair amount of time reading about parenting an adopted child and about international adoption in general prior to adopting Semira. We considered ourselves fairly prepared or at least knowledgeable. What I have come to realize is that dealing with issues in the abstract is very clinical. Living them every day is very emotional. It is only recently that I can see the forest through the trees. The first six months home were simply a whirlwind. I experienced every kind of emotion imaginable from extreme panic to absolute excitement. We were all getting to know each other. Semira had to become comfortable with her new surroundings and learn a new language. Each day was different from the next. You never knew what to expect. It was truly an adjustment and attachment period - one that is, in fact, still ongoing.

First meeting Semira in 2008

Lily was a great big sister from the start!

Once Semira started to gain trust in us and could communicate, we began to experience her grief. Behind her smiling face is a little girl who grieves for a culture and country lost, and most importantly for her mother in Ethiopia. Grief and fear go hand in hand. She is afraid because her memories of Ethiopia have become less clear over time. She makes comments about no longer speaking Amharic. She wants to go back to Ethiopia, but is scared because it will be different and no one will understand her (kind of like being a stranger in your own house). Plus, she loves us and fears that we may not be permanent. Telling a child who has already lost a family that we will always be there falls on deaf ears. She wants to believe it, but sometimes can't. This has been extremely emotional for our family at times. It is so hard to watch your child suffer and to realize there is little assurance you can give her. As a mother, it is also difficult to hear that she wants her other mother. In all honesty, it has been a dagger in the heart at times. The most difficult part is to put your own feelings and ego aside to deal with Semira's feelings. I have definitely gotten better at handling these situations. There are no short cuts; it takes time and produces a lot of tears. But it is ok, I am at peace with the fact that I am not the only maternal figure in her life.

Now that Semira is older and in school, I am beginning to see new issues about acceptance and self-perception. For the first two years, Semira rarely commented about her looks, in particular that she was different than us. There were plenty of statements of fact about skin and hair color, but nothing more than that. But over the last year, the comments have been more like desires to be different than she is. This makes me so incredibly sad. I tell her over and over that she is beautiful and perfect that way she is. While I have always considered myself to be very open-minded about race issues, I have to say that this experience is opening my eyes to the many subtleties about race that I was simply not capable of realizing as a white person. It has become obvious that there are things not said, but rather implied to Semira in her day-to-day interactions that have caused her to formulate such thoughts. I remember my first professional job out of graduate school where I was working on a grant to decrease alcohol abuse in certain Charlotte, NC neighborhoods. I had a real ah-ha moment when I realized that I was the only white person in the room at most meetings and events. All of the sudden, things felt kind of strange. Well, this is probably pretty close to Semira’s view moving from Ethiopia to the United States. I don’t pretend to have this race issue figured out at all. My goal is to raise Semira so that she has a positive identity of herself and her situation. Pretending that race doesn’t matter or that love is color blind is stupid. I am hopeful that the endless hours of conversation about skin color in our house will yield something positive. But beyond talking, we have other ideas such as living in Ethiopia for a year during Steve’s upcoming sabbatical. I can’t help but think this experience will be transformational for us all.

Like I said, there is more to being Semira’s mother than what people see every day. There are extra layers of complexity that we deal with. Even so, I have no regrets about parenting in general or adoption. Our family is on this journey together. When I look ahead, I see good things and I am hopeful. I see our family growing in new ways because of Semira. She is a beautiful little girl inside and out.

This fall in our front yard (above).

Semira celebrating her 6th birthday (below).