Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A Preview of Parenting

Several weeks ago I told Ian that we should think about investing some stock in the pet care industry. I had just read an article, Why America’s Falling Birth Rate Is Sensational News for the Pet Industry, which highlighted the trend of us job-hunting, loan-burdened, cohabiting 20-somethings turning to our furry babies to replace human ones. Ian and I very happily fall right into this quasi-parenthood. We bought Teddy health insurance, we buy him vanilla cones at Dairy Queen, we send him to daycare, and we've even taken him to get his picture with Santa.

For us, dog parenting is like real parenting “lite.” We still have responsibility for Teddy’s socialization, for his health care, and for remembering to bring his toys when we travel to “Grandma and Grandpa’s.” But we can still put him in his crate and go to the movies on a whim. And, of course, we love that friggin’ dog with our whole hearts. Even with the shedding, the drool, the vet bills (which, btdubs, I’m starting to think he has better healthcare than us), parenting him has been a blessing in our lives together.

However, dog parenting has given us another glimpse into a really annoying part of real parenting: unsolicited advice.

Let me take you through two scenes we encounter with our big pup all. the. time:

At a new groomer checking out:

Groomer: So, what do you feed Teddy at home?
Me: We feed him Purina Pro Plan for Sensitive Skin & Stomach.
Groomer: Gasp! Oh you know that Purina is not good food for him, right?
Me: Well, we’ve tried him on the really high quality foods - I want to feed him those - but he just doesn’t do well on them.
Groomer: Pulls up list of Pro Plan’s ingredients on computer screen. Well I just have to show you this. This ingredient is a byproduct of the brewing industry, this is a preservative...this isn’t hormone-free organic meat from Mount Sinai...

Everyday this week, walking in the shade in front of our building or at night:

Passerby 1: Your dog looks really hot.
Passerby 2: Your dog looks really hot.
Passerby 3: Your dog looks really hot.
Passerby 4: Your dog looks really hot.

In these two instances, these folks usually have the correct intentions. In fact, when people comment on Teddy being hot, it’s often observational (“Wow, he must be hot today!”). But it's the critical comments that make me want to get snippy. The wrong words or the wrong tone implies that we’re bad dog parents because he looks hot. Even though they don’t know that we live RIGHT ACROSS THE STREET.

And boy did I almost lose my cool at a critical comment last night. Ian and I were coming in with Teddy after his nighttime walk when two ladies asked us to hold the elevator for them. We did. I even pushed their floor button for them because they were carrying lawn chairs. One of the women narrowed her eyes, tilted her head in judgement, and asked us in a slow, drawn-out question:

"How can you liiiive with a dog like that in this building?"

In spite of her tone, I responded politely: “Well, Newfies are actually pretty good apartment dogs because they’re so lazy. He’s just a big floor potato.”

“Oh, alright.”

Our elevator stopped at our floor, so I loosened my tongue a bit as we stepped out: “... And, you know, there's the fact that we love him. We’re not going to get rid of him.”

The doors closed behind us, and I turned to Ian to say what I really thought: “Bitch.”

More than any fact about Teddy’s life, that he is big and lives in an apartment with us draws the strongest criticism. These particular commenters might think they have my dog's best interests at heart, like the food-mongers and the heat-observers, but they do not. Nevermind that Teddy is not a goldfish. Nevermind that we did, in fact, live in the suburbs with him and even with the big spaces and backyards, he still missed the city. Nevermind that he is a floor potato and, as I type these words, he is engaging in one of his all-time favorite activities: sleeping on the tile by the fireplace.

No, this line of thinking - that only small dogs can live in smaller spaces - is dangerous. As an animal shelter volunteer, I see dogs relinquished because their humans are moving to different spaces. I hear adopters come in and say to me, “I’m looking for a dog, but only a small one because I live in an apartment.” And then I see the shih tzus and poodle mixes adopted the same day they arrive on the adoption floor, while the shepherds and pit bull mixes, cursed only by their size, wait and wait and wait for someone who knows what Ian and I have known all along: dogs don't care about the size of your house, but the size of your heart.

When we got Teddy, we thought he would fit well into our lives. Little did we know that, two years later, we gladly fit into his. I bet it’s the same with real parenting, too.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Biting My Tongue, Part 2

Over the past few years I’ve dined at Italian restaurants with a few family members who, of the plethora of menu options available, have ordered the veal parmesan. Now, I’m not saying you shouldn't eat veal parmesan; I’m sure it’s very tasty, and to each his own blah blah blah... But, like gifting Turkish delights to an Armenian, or eating bacon-wrapped cheese curds in front of a devout Jewish person, picking the baby cow off the menu in front of a vegetarian makes me do a little mental head tilt of confusion. It’s just a little... weird?

As much as I enjoy a good debate about the morality of meat-eating, I usually bite my tongue about others’ meals because nobody, especially vegetarian ole’ me, likes for their food choices to be the center of conversation. Even when the subject of my vegetarianism does come up, I try to be polite and never engage in a Wollenian style takedown of others’ carnism.

But the biggest reason I stay mum at the dinner table is because militancy - whether about gun rights, immigration, abortion, or calves being tethered into immobility - rarely works. At least not with friends and family.

As anyone who cares deeply about any issue knows, we impassioned folk have a choice to make everyday: to be outspoken about the wrongs that bother us, or to sit back quietly and lead by example. I think the latter works better in the long-run because, as much as we define ourselves by what we are, we also define ourselves by what we are not. The Other is just as much a part of our identities as The Self, so every time we say/tweet/post something divisive, we may harden the juxtaposition of opposing opinions.

Here’s what I mean:
  • I am a woman; I am American; I like Coke; I am a Chicagoan; I am a vegetarian
  • I’m not a man; I’m not an Afghani; I don’t prefer Pepsi; I’m not a New Yorker; I don't eat meat

So every time you say something about being a man; it reinforces my womanhood. Every time someone in suburbia posts about their 2nd Amendment rights, it reminds me that I’m a Chicagoan who hates gun violence. Everytime I share a video about overfishing or ag-gag laws, I’m forcing people to identify themselves at meat-eaters.

In other words, sharing strong opinions cultivates defensiveness. We think that the rightness of our own beliefs will entice people to step over to our side, but it usually makes people take big steps away from us. So, as much as I love the chance to correct someone who thinks that the milk in their fridge comes from a farm like Dotty and Kit’s in A League of Their Own, I try my best to stay mum on the subject of modern-day animal agriculture because, if I push my points to strongly, I’m going to push people away.

Perhaps the most persuasive action is a quiet, kind patience.

Take my cousin, Emma, for example - a lifelong vegetarian who gave up meat as soon as she learned who it came from. When I started thinking about transitioning to a meat-free diet, I naturally thought of her. But I didn’t think of her Tofurky or her leatherless shoes. Rather, I thought of her kindness and her patience with the rest of us; her constant acceptance of our different food choices. She was the quiet vegetarian who never made me feel guilty for eating turkey at the holidays or having down feathers in my winter coat.

And that’s the thing: when people hear the word “vegetarian,” I don’t want them to think of me. Or if they do, let it be with the kindness with which I always thought of Emma. Let my presence as a plant-eater in others’ lives be but a brief respite in their minds before going on to ponder the real substance of the word.

Militant vegetarians - or environmentalists, or Tea Partiers - do their cause a disservice. Combativeness should stay in the town hall or on the streets in protest, but not at the dinner table because - and this is the the truth that makes me bite my tongue every time a family member orders the veal - had I ever been made to feel guilty by a vegetarian, I probably wouldn't be one today.

I made the transition, and now there are two vegetarians at our family gatherings. Last Thanksgiving, Emma and I sat together at the far end of the table, happily plopping vegan stuffing and butter-free mashed potatoes on our plates while handing off the turkey slices and corn casserole to those around us. Then, at our most recent family gathering a few weeks ago, the turkey master himself, my grandpa, gladly scooped up a slice of of our vegan dish for the first time ever. A vegetable pot pie. He really liked it.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Biting My Tongue, Part 1

I’m a vegetarian, an almost-vegan these days (How you doin’ oatmeal chocolate chip cookies from Potbelly?). I’m a shy vegetarian, though - not because I’m ashamed or embarrassed, but because I realize what a lightning rod the word “vegetarian” can be.

Case in point: I was at a friend’s potluck a few months ago. I brought my vegan mac ‘n cheese, which everyone seemed to like even before they knew what was in it. Eventually someone mentioned the lack of dairy in my dish, and then this guy meandered over to me and said: “So you’re a vegan? You know that cows want to be milked, right?”

Game on.

Whenever somebody starts to defend modern animal agriculture I get a little tickle of excitement in my gut because I loves me a good debate about the merits of vegetarianism. Seriously, I have several vegan cookbooks in my pantry; I attended a seminar with the founder of Farm Sanctuary and summarily adopted (symbolically, of course) one of their goats for Christmas; I subscribe to at least a dozen farm animal protection groups on Facebook; and I’m hoping to some day memorize this epic speech by Australian Philanthropist Philip Wollen in a debate called “Animals Should Be Taken Off the Menu":

So bring. it. on.

But, I had just met this guy, so I bit my tongue and responded diplomatically, “That’s just not true, but we don’t have to get into all of that right now. Tell me more about where you grew up?”

Deep down, I love when people want to talk to me about vegetarianism. That you care about where your food comes from, even if you disagree with me, makes me smile on the inside.

But I stay mum on the outside. I usually bite my tongue at these kinds of provocations because I never want people to feel like I’m different from them because of my food choices. That’s a very common complaint about vegetarians, isn’t it? That we think of ourselves as “better” than meat eaters. However, I think this defensiveness quietly asserts the opposite. Slaughtering animals for human consumption has been and always will be a violent, guilt-inducing act, especially nowadays. We all cringe at undercover PETA videos, and free-range eggs and organic meats have a growing market share because, deep down, everyone cares about animal welfare. We are all compassionate; we are all “better.” As a vegetarian, I may be more consistent with my values, but my values match yours. We are the same.

The biggest reason I bite my tongue at questions about my food choices is because I’m starting to realize how divergent opinions can reinforce each other. I leave my vegetarian dish to do the talking for me at the dinner table because the best way to get people to eat less meat might be to stop trying to convince them. I'll explore that idea in my next post.

Friday, June 28, 2013

The F Word: Wedding Edition

The “I am incomplete until I am thinner” message is a powerful one. Its ubiquity is so absurd that I sometimes wonder how any of us with BMIs over 20 manage to maintain a healthy self esteem. The Thindustry usually blends into the background of my everyday life - a diet pill ad here, a liposuction radio spot there - in a way that doesn’t usually catch my attention.

But I felt bombarded by the fear of Fat at a particular time in my life: during my engagement to Ian. Sure, I saw a few weight loss articles in bridal magazines and the targeted ads on Facebook. Yet, the most significant source of the Thin = Better messages I heard during the months leading up to our wedding was a group I never expected: my loved ones. No matter how important the occasion, it always hurts to hear the ones you love hate on themselves.

Let me be clear: nobody ever told me I should lose weight before my wedding day. Rather, for several of my family and friends, the wedding seemed to act like a catalyst for their otherwise-suppressed weight loss desires. It seemed like everyone close to us followed their congratulations with a brief calculation of how many months they had to lose x amount of weight.

Fortunately, I had a cop-out from this pressure: my wedding dress. I ordered my pretty ivory gown in a size 14, nine months before our big day, so it was imperative that I not lose weight, lest I want to pay beaucoup bucks for alterations on that lacey waistline. Yet, I kept hearing my loved ones malign their own lb’s throughout the wedding planning process. At one point, I felt so overwhelmed by the weight-loss efforts around me that I became a little paranoid about their intentions. Wondering if they were trying to make a subtle suggestion, I asked my bridesmaid sadly, “Am I supposed to be trying to lose weight?”

She reassured me of their intentions, and I got over it. July 10th arrived, I was at my normal weight, and I felt very pretty.

I’ll remember my engagement and my wedding day mostly for the obvious joyous reasons. But that time also sticks with me for a less pleasant one: it brought into stark contrast the beauty I see in my loved ones against their own body images. Faceless bureaucrats telling me I’m fat hurts; hearing my loved ones embrace those awful messages hurts even more.

At the end of the day, we should all try our darndest to see ourselves the way our loved ones see us. Let’s be our own Mark Darcy from Bridget Jones's Diary:

Mark: But the thing is, uhm, what I'm trying to say, very inarticulately, is that, uhm, in fact, perhaps despite appearances, I like you. Very much.
Bridget: Apart from the smoking and the drinking and the vulgar mother and the verbal diarrhea...
Mark: No, I like you very much. Just as you are.

Our third anniversary is coming up, and I look forward to reminiscing about the love we felt that sunny day in July. Most of all, I remember everyone looking like the best versions of themselves, but not because they were dressed up, or were wearing fancy makeup, or had lost weight. Our wedding guests looked beautiful because their faces were lit up with happiness. I’ll take happiness over dress size any day of the year; it looks good on everyone.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The F Word

Ian and I hosted a housewarming at our new condo on Saturday. Expecting upwards of 25 people to attend, I decided to buy two dozen Do-Rite Donuts for a fun, local dessert. This turned out to be a GROSS OVERESTIMATE because my dear friends ate only 17 of the 24. So, left to my own devices, I ate four old-fashioned donuts in 36 hours over the weekend. Maybe it was five. Whatever. I just know that by Sunday evening I was wearing my stretchy pajama pants because I felt bloated and fat.

But, if I’m honest with myself, I’ve felt fat since 3rd grade.

I had a chubby little tummy by the time I was 8, which is when I started to revere thinness. I bragged to my parents about my meager accomplishments on our now-dusty treadmill; I squealed with glee in the dressing room of Abercombie & Fitch when, once during junior high, I fit into a size 8 pair of green cargo pants; and I hugged my high school boyfriend when, after a day of “feeling fat”, he put one hand on my back and one of my stomach to physically show me that I wasn’t. As a dutiful, nice American girl, I grew up fearing the power of the F word: you could call me stupid, you could call me a bitch, but whatever you do, please don’t ever call me fat.

Nothing has changed. I’m a 28 year old woman, but I’m still a nice American girl, and if someone called me fat tomorrow, I might curl up in my bed and cry.

The mirror has always been my biggest critic. In high school, I didn’t think I was thin (I weighed 145 pounds); Freshman year of college I didn’t think I was thin (I weighed 170 pounds); After two semesters in Europe, I didn’t think I was thin (I weighed 150 pounds); A year and a half ago in Indiana, I didn’t think I was thin (I weighed 180 pounds); today, I don’t think I’m thin (I weigh 161 pounds).

These days, I could not imagine feeling thin enough until I weigh less than 150 pounds, or at least until I could comfortably zip up the pair of pants I bought in London. But then I must remind myself that I did once make those benchmarks, and I still felt fat.

One day, upon pondering this absurdity, I decided to focus on the deluge of Skinny that usually blends into the white noise of everyday life. For a few hours, I counted the number of Skinnygirl and Special K commericals on Bravo; I studied the Hydroxycut ads in Ok! Magazine; I tuned into the bikini body and baby weight articles online; and I listened to Jennifer Hudson sing to me about "Feeling Good" on Weight Watchers. I even watched the oft-shared Dove Real Beauty Sketches commercial only to hear: “She was thin so you could see her cheekbones. And her chin, it was a nice thin chin.” And “She looks closed off and fatter; sadder, too.”

Then, like slamming a book shut, I tuned it out. In the silence, I laughed a little at the ubiquity of the Thin = Better messages I’d just paid attention to. They were everywhere, obscene in their commonplaceness.

I finally realized that it’s not that I’ve never felt thin; it’s that I’ve never felt fully satisfied with myself. Ever since I became aware of an outside gaze, my body has been a work in progress. In other words, all the Biggest Losers and the Hydroxycuts and the Atkins diets - all of these images have been working in tandem to form a singular, powerful subliminal message that I, and everyone I know has always embraced:

That I am incomplete until I am thinner.

Fuck that.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Are Big Cities The New Small Towns?

I miss Mayberry / Sitting on my porch drinking ice cold Cherry Coke / Where everything is black and white / Picking on my six string / People pass by and you call them by their first name / Watching the clouds roll by.
~ Rascal Flatts, "Mayberry"

When we decided to move back to Chicago from Indiana last year, we held kitchen-table talks and drafted several pros and cons lists. We had immensely enjoyed the special times we had spent my family and two of our dear friends who live in Indianapolis. We knew we’d miss them if we moved, and we do today - all the time. There were other pros in our Indiana column, too: the lower cost of living, the parking lots, and the tranquility of the natural environment around us.

Ultimately, though, we just couldn’t shake the heaviest con in my home state’s column: that we felt lonely.

It’s not that we didn’t spend time with our close friends and family there. We did, and we loved it. Rather, we felt lonely because of the suburbs themselves. For us, a childless young couple, they felt insular and quiet.

Of course, I thought it would be different. When we moved to Indiana, I had imagined a Mayberry-type sense of belonging: the smaller the town, the closer the community, right?

Not for us.

People held doors, but didn’t engage in conversation; neighbors pulled their dogs away from ours, instead of stopping to say hello; And no one learned my name in Zumba class for at least two months. It felt like everyone belonged to their own social group - a church, an office, a school, or a playgroup - and we were always on the outside. My mom even paraphrased A Few Good Men to joke about our dog’s boredom in our neighborhood: “Teddy was leaving his apartment for a walk, and he didn’t see a soul, and he didn’t meet a thing.” That was really the crux of our loneliness: we missed walking out our door and seeing people, like we had in the city.

It took moving away from the big city to help us realize what a powerful sense of community urban environments foster. So we moved back, and I’ve renewed my belief that big cities are the new small towns.

As I’ve mused before, I sometimes long for simpler times. I wish I could have been born in a Fried Green Tomatoes kind of era, where everyone knew everyone and people stayed put. In fact, one of my biggest gripes about “the real world” so far has been the stark dichotomy of life during and after college: we transition from a campus life full to the brim of social activity and friendships, to an office life of sitting in lonely cubicles for 9 hours a day, staring at computer screens, Gchatting with friends who are a plane-ride away because we all took jobs in faraway places. I can’t help but wish we all lived closer together, in a simpler time and place.

While cities are hardly simple - especially this one - they do cultivate the most basic form of human communication: face-to-face interaction. These days, we real-life chat with our neighbors in the elevator and learn about their goings-on. We greet our doormen by name, as they do us, and talk about parking tickets and online shopping. We bond with dog-owners as crazy as us in our local dog park. We roll our eyes with our fellow pedestrians at errant bicyclists and honking taxis. And right now, we can hear the shouts of our fellow Blackhawks fans outside our window, and we can’t wait to celebrate with them later.

Big cities force us together, and I can’t help but love mine for it.

Chicago is our new Mayberry, and once the interest rates dropped low enough, we got to buy a little piece of it. "Sweet Home" indeed:

The new digs.
Ian smiling about the Blackhawks win.
Looking into the sunroom
Bathroom. Aka Teddy's room (he loves the cool tile)

Bedroom pics coming soon in a post about our wall art. Teaser: Ian picked out the prints in the bedroom.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Laughter Is The Best...

When I was younger, I liked to daydream about falling in love. I used to lie in my waterbed (be jealous) thinking about what it would feel like to have a boyfriend behind me wrapping his arms around my waist. I watched romantic movies and swooned over Eric twirling Ariel in her blue sparkle dress and Dmitri dancing with Anastasia on a boat in Paris, and I always wondered who my Bryan MacKenzie would be.

I found my Bryan, but I still dream about love, like last spring when a Downton Abbey character romanced my subconscious. Period dramas must be man’s most powerful aphrodisiac because yesterday I saw Les Miserables with Ian, and I came home with a belly full of popcorn, catchy melodies stuck in my head, and a big crush on Mr. Eddie Redmayne as Prince Charming Marius. SWOON.

Period dramas may also be the world’s leading source of male eye-rolls. Case in point - last night:

As I climbed into bed, waiting for Ian to join me, I turned my body towards the darkness of the wall, closed my eyes, and thought of my bespeckled British beau holding his beloved Cosette in his arms. As I played that final scene over and over again in my head, my body felt light and tingly from those old familiar feelings of imaginary romance.

I turned away from the wall and looked over at my husband, who was sitting on the a stool in his underwear, glasses slid down his nose, assembling a thousand-piece Titanic puzzle while humming “My Heart Will Go On.”

I smiled through my mouthguard, “Hey baby?”


“I have a really bad crush on Eddie Redmayne in Les Mis right now.”


I waited a moment to hear a proclamation of love before prompting him, “So...Do you love me like Marius loved Cosette?”

Ian walked over and climbed under the comforter with me. “Baby, he knew her for a hot minute before he fell for her. All she said to him was ‘I’m Cosette,’ and he was like ‘Ohmigosh she’s perfect.’”

“But, but he sang about her...” I sputtered out in protest.

“Annie,” he said firmly, “He obviously just wanted to get into her pants.”

“Well, it worked.”

Ian’s logic was killing my romance buzz, but he continued anyway, “And while we’re on the subject, Romeo and Juliet should have also taken the time to get to know each other because, you know what?” He pointed at me for emphasis, “If you were Juliet lying in the tomb, I totally would have known that that was your sleeping face!”

I pulled our blanket up over my mouth to muffle my loud laughs from the neighbors.

Eric and Dmitri twirled their pretty ladies around, and Marius held Cosette in his arms, but making someone laugh is way more difficult. And my guy sits in his underwear doing puzzles and humming James Horner movie scores. Maybe laughter is the best kind of romance.

Almost done!