Monday, August 10, 2009

How Do You Talk To YOUR Kids About SEX?

For months I’ve been attending workshops at Babeland, the women-friendly, sex-positive shop in New York City. In addition to the very popular workshop “Art of the Blow-Job” the store has an on-going “Sexy Moms Series” which I recommend to all parents.

Wednesday night’s free workshop was about “Raising Sex-Positive Kids”. Personally, I could hardly wait for this one and with good reason. Though I’ve put a great deal of effort into teaching my children about the mechanics of menstruation and birth, I still falter on the topic of sex in general. Part of me wants to keep my girls innocent and unaware of such realities and perhaps another part does not want them to experience that hideous moment when you realize your very own parents had to perform this task in order to create YOU.

But I have to brush those reservations aside, as that is my repressed upbringing instilling such prudishness. The cold fact is that if you do not speak to your children about sex they WILL learn about it in other ways outside of your control or approval.

Last week’s workshop was led by Amy Levine, a certified sexuality educator and sexologist (I love that title) who counsels adults on all matters of sexuality. For this workshop Amy, an articulate and adorably petite powerhouse, commanded the room, asking us to define what it is that we hoped to impart to OUR children about sex and to consider what we would have liked someone to have told US about sexuality.

This got the wheels turning and many adults confessed to having issues on both sides of the spectrum. Some came from households where sex was perhaps too openly encouraged and many came from families where the topic was verboten.

One of the points Amy made clear was that discussing sexual issues should be an on-going positive dialogue with our kids; not “the talk” kind of monologue. She pointed out that there are plenty of “teachable moments” in our lives that give opportunity for meaningful discussions. For example, what children see on TV, in movies or at school in addition to their questions about commitment, relationships, and body-image are all moments for exploration. All of those topics tie into the concept of “sexuality” in a broad and encompassing way. If you hear your child using the word “gay” as a derogatory adjective you can take that moment to discuss what the word means in our vernacular and how you feel about using demeaning terms. I remember the day my daughter asked, “Why does Hannah have TWO moms??” which caused me to launch into an explanation about gender roles and the notion of same-sex relationships being a part of our society.

This leads to another important point Amy made which is identifying your own values and beliefs then practicing the messages you want to share. This takes some time and thought to consider what you feel needs to be explained and what tone you will take. How will you actually address the definition of a “blow-job” when it’s posed to you by a curious sixth-grader who heard it at recess? What message do you want to deliver about homosexuality? Are you prepared to explain not only the mechanics of sex or masturbation but the notion that those activities evoke pleasurable feelings?

You can’t expect to have all the answers and it is perfectly acceptable to say to your child: “You know, I’m not sure how to answer that,” or “That topic is kind of uncomfortable for me; let me think about and we’ll talk later.” There are plenty of great age-appropriate books available to help guide you and your child through many of these topics. Certainly what a six-year-old should know is far different from a twelve-year-old. However, that a six-year-old should even know anything about sexuality was a bit of a revelation for me. I realized that keeping open communication, on ALL topics, is absolutely necessary for fostering a healthy relationship with my girls; and that communication has to include sex.

When I tested the waters the following day, my older daughter took the invitation to discuss questions about sex with a solemn nod. My seven-year-old child, however, looked at me with a curled lip and simply said, “Ewww.” She found it somewhat distasteful to discuss the topic with her own mother; however cool and fun she may find me (by her own admission). “Though”, she reasoned, “My friends' parents don’t know anything about sex and relationships because they’re all MARRIED.” Eureka! A teaching opportunity right there in front of me. And in the cozy comfort of their loft bed I stepped into the realm of imparting sexuality wisdom and acceptance one small moment at a time.

Recommended reading:

The Sexy Mom Series is jointly sponsored by New Space for Women’s Health and Park Slope Parents.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Death and Dying On Time

One summer day, when I was about twelve, I woke up and realized that nothing felt right. The day went on and the feeling of unnamed dread persisted, but I had no worry to pin it on. That night, my beloved cat was hit by a car and killed.

I thought about that day yesterday as I lay in bed staring at my gauzy mosquito netting. What does the day look like when you know your dad is going to die? It looked sunny and clear with no indication of anything out of the ordinary. Why was I so certain it was today?

Just like that summer day when I was an almost-teen, the predetermined knowledge seemed to be set in stone. I called my brother to confirm my hunch and he reported that dad had had a very bad night. I suggested visiting and he agreed, adding, “Check in every hour or so first.”

I had one major errand to do first and once that was completed I could head over to my family’s house and visit with my dad. I imagined that while there he’d die peacefully, perhaps while holding my hand; just like you see in the movies. But I quickly put the discomforting thought out of my head and drove into Manhattan to meet “Allan the ticket guy”. I was about to purchase two tickets to All Points West via a stranger from Craig’s list. Any doubts about his credibility were dashed as I deemed him honest and authentic through our emails and phone calls.

We were to meet in Union Square at noon; then I would drive over to the next task of the day. To Do List: 1. Pick up All Points tickets 2. Visit dying father 3. Get girls to swim practice. It all seemed rather perfunctory and unemotional – but that was how I could best process the impending event.

However, a major kink in the plan came in the form of Allan-the-ticket-guy carelessly leaving his cell phone at home. Arriving in Union Square and scanning the mob of folks reveling in the perfect summer day, he knew there was no chance of finding me. Meanwhile, waiting patiently for Allan’s call, I had parked my car then wandered around the neighborhood awash with memories of my dad.

When Bebe was small I worked just off of Union Square at a perfect little slacker software company. They let me bring my baby to work, and when she got older I recruited my dad in the form of free childcare. For my retired father this was a great way to hang out in New York and to spend time with his daughter and granddaughter. My dad was never much of a New Yorker – affecting more of a “tourists” viewpoint and agenda. But now he was a fixture in the local playgrounds, chatting with the Barbadian nannies; he was a regular in the children’s department of Barnes & Noble and he knew all the local bathrooms equipped with changing tables. Sometimes while Bebe dozed in her stroller my dad would just people-watch in the park; which amounted to girl-watching mostly.

I’d join him for lunch and he’d say things like, “Look-it all these broads! Don’t they ever wear bras??” He’d actually mimic the noise of what bouncing breasts might sound like, “Buh-loomp-a-loomp”. I’d roll my eyes in annoyance, just like I did in the Vatican.

Once he noticed the Virgin MegaStore on the south end of Union Square and cried out, “The VAGINA MEGA STORE? What kind of a name is THAT?”

“Dad, it’s VIRGIN, not vagina,” I explained peevishly. He’d also marvel at the giant billboards and their ambiguous photographs. “Is that a naked boy up there? Or a flat-chested lady?”

Despite these sexist and occasionally questionable remarks it was great to give my dad something productive to do and to give my daughter additional time with her grandpa. Each day, worn out from a day out on the town, the two would stroll into my office. My colleagues tolerated them both despite complaining once, “Do you think you can keep your dad from wandering into our meetings?” My dad could not imagine that guys in shorts and flip-flops could possibly be doing any legitimate work.

Back in the present, Allan took the train back home, grabbed his phone and explained his tardiness, apologizing for the blunder. “Just stay there,” he said, “I’ll be right back in fifteen minutes.”

How could I explain that my dad’s life hung in the balance and I sort of had more pressing demands ahead of me? But I said nothing and agreed to wait for him.

I paused at the door of my dad’s favorite diner and recalled all the breakfasts he enjoyed there as part of his babysitting routine. All in all, that was a really great time for my father and for us in adapting to my role as a mother. I was no longer that smart-allecky teenager traipsing through Italy on her dad’s dime. I was an adult with a small child and my own responsibilities and achievements.

Eventually Allan showed up and we exchanged cash for tickets. We chatted for just a few minutes but the nagging feeling that I needed to get somewhere quickly pulled me to my car and up Third Ave.

At this point I phoned my brother. “I’m running behind schedule,” I explained. “My noon appointment was an hour late.”

“Well…he might not make it till you get here,” my brother said.

The shock of those words hit me like a brick. “Please don’t say that,” I cried. “I’m driving there as fast as I can!” I hung up and panicked at each stoplight, at every slow truck and lazily strolling pedestrian. I called my friends saying, “Oh my God! I ran an errand before going to see my dad die and now I’m going to MISS IT!??? Can this be happening!?? Why did I do it in that order!???”

Everyone calmed me down and said, “Come on; your brother can’t predict the time of his death…just hang in there and for god sakes slow down.”

At some point on the highway I felt a sense of calm. I had a thought that seemed to come out of nowhere which basically said, “It’s okay that you’re not there…best to remember him the way you did; vibrant and ridiculous in New York City. Maybe it’s harder for him to depart if you’re hovering close and tethering him to this material world.”


I heard the message loud and clear, then watched the red speedometer needle drop slowly down to safer territory.

Fifteen minutes later I burst through the door of my family’s house. A hospital aide sat in the living room with her hands folded. My brother emerged from his anti-chamber (the den). “Well??” I said, a little too loudly, “Anything new??”

“He died, Jayne,” my brother half-laughed. “He died about five minutes after you called.”

The shock of that statement was a punch to the gut. I ran up the stairs half-expecting my brother to have been joking. I wish I hadn’t seen my dad, withered and white; mouth open wide like a broken hinge.

I stomped outside and sat in my hot car. I called my boyfriend and left an anguished message: ”How the fuck?? Why did I go to New York first?? Why was Allan so late?? If he wasn’t late; if he had BEEN there at NOON I would have been here on time!”

On time for what, I wondered. I walked back in the house and my brother, seeing my distress, said, “He was asleep from the morphine; besides, you said good-bye the other day when he was way more coherent.”

And that was true. Just two days before this, I brought my girls over and we all took turns saying good-bye and holding his papery-skinned hands. For some reason I asked Bebe to sing “Moonriver” with me; and thankfully she put up no resistance. We sang together, quietly but clearly, the song I have sung to my girls for years; the song that always puts them right to sleep.

I should feel grateful that this particular good-bye was a genuine and poignant one. That I wasn’t there for the “moment of passing” is really immaterial. It was pointed out to me that many, many people have experienced the bedside vigil only to step out for a much-needed shower or cup of coffee and have missed the actual death by moments.

As I spoke in turn to my friends that day, I was made aware of how many of us have lost our fathers - and lost them FIRST, as women nearly always outlast the men folk.

So my farewell was not played out in the script of my mind as I might have written it. But, death like birth, is beyond our control and we have a difficult time comprehending its will. In the end I came to peace with the frazzled day and had to believe that somehow the end came just as it was meant to be.

* * *

John Falconieri, trumpeter for Louis Prima, dies at 87

John Falconieri, a second-generation Sicilian musician and World War II veteran from Paterson, New Jersey who managed and played for the legendary bandleader Louis Prima, died Wednesday in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. He was 87 years old and died at home after complications from numerous strokes and related heart problems.

When Mr. Falconieri was forty years old he obtained a masters degree from Manhattan School of Music. He taught music to students in both the Ho-Ho-Kus and Old Tappan school districts. “Mr. F”, as he was known to his students, was also praised for giving students individual music lessons resulting in award-winning “big-band” ensembles. In addition to public school education, he was a manager at Victor’s House of Music in Ridgewood, NJ, where he ran the lesson department for over thirty years. Mr. Falconieri continued to give private lessons on many different instruments from piano to trumpet and guitar. His students and their parents enjoyed his lively stories of the big-band era and his heyday with Louis Prima.

Though Louis Prima passed away many decades ago, “Johnny Falcon” (his stage name from that time) remained close friends with Keely Smith, Mr. Prima’s wife and singing partner. When Ms. Smith would come to New York City and play the Rainbow Room, Mr. Falconieri would often attend her performances. If she caught sight of “Johnny” in the audience Ms. Smith would introduce him as, “The nicest guy in show-biz”. In the late 90s Mr. and Mrs. Falconieri attended Keely Smith’s daughter’s wedding in Palm Springs, CA.

John Falconieri will also be remembered for his bravery during the Battle of the Bulge, toward the end of World War II. He did not visit Europe again until the early 1990s when he reconnected with family on the island of Sicily.
Mr. Falconieri is survived by wife Jennie, son Frank, daughter Jayne Freeman, and two granddaughters, Bebe and Evelyn.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Men-ar-kee in the U.S.A. (yes, that's a Sex Pistols reference)

Menarche, pronounced "men-ar-kee" is the technical word for a girl's first period.

Though my daughters are only six and eight I have never kept the issue of "menstruation" out of their sight or minds. Maybe it's because we're an all-girl house - or perhaps it's just me and my "no holds barred" attitude. In fact, I'm often surprised when my friends' girls don't know anything about periods. "How come your daughter doesn't know what this is," I asked, holding up a tampon that clearly confused the heck out of my friend's eight-year-old daughter. “YOU know why," she said, looking at me expectantly. "Remember…I don't get my period."

Ahhh, the amenorrhea (absence of menstruation) that sometimes occurs with low body fat and prolonged breast-feeding. Yes, this friend in fact did not have her period for the two years she nursed her baby, and then again for another two years with the second one. However, the other day I said something to a mom like, "Well, doesn't your daughter see you take out a tampon once in a while? Or see bloody underwear? I mean, what do you say about that?" She looked a little confused, “ She's never seen any of that." I detected a note of concern in her answer that seemed to say, "I'm not sure your girls should know that either."

All of which made me wonder: Do I have no boundaries with my girls? Or is this one boundary for which I find the line indistinct? I like that my girls will say to me, "Mommy, did you get your moon yet?" They have heard me talk about the fluctuating moods and effects of my cycle. They understand that you "bleed" because there is no baby there and that if egg met with seed a baby would grow in the womb. So, it's all rather poetic and sometimes clinical; and that seems to suit our style.

Hormonal effects and subsequent moods have a huge impact on me. Recently, I had a rather difficult task ahead of me as I was called to be a character witness in a lengthy trial. As a witness I knew that MY character was bound to be attacked, as that is a defense tactic. So each time I was called for this task (there were two false alarms) I was truly concerned about where this obligation would fall within my lunar cycle. It didn't occur to me that this was even remotely "kooky" or strange and I spoke of it openly with friends. For a moment, it reminded me of a friend who would not sign a contract while "mercury was in retrograde". And while I had patience for her astrological observance I felt my concern was far more concrete and plausible.

I know my psyche and my cycle very well; and I knew that if I had to testify just before my period began I would be in a more vulnerable state than if it occurred at the turn of the cycle. Sure enough, the fateful day approached and it was to be exactly three days before my period started. Then somehow, rather miraculously, my clockwork cycle interrupted itself so that I bled three days early. I took the stand the morning after my moon commenced and I went up there with a raging self-confidence; I was eloquent and brave and shot down every single opposing mud-slinger the other attorney threw at me. And I did so with the power of being at the start of my cycle; when the inner voice of doubt had taken a backseat for a few weeks.

So, the other day I received a package from my new friend, Madeleine Shaw, founder of LunaPads. Her company is dedicated to creating environmentally-safe alternatives to disposable period accessories. Let’s face it, we get quite up-in-arms about millions of diapers clogging our landfills, but did you ever think about the used pads and tampons doing the same? And if you consider that one woman gets her period about 400 times in her life…well, that’s a lot of buried “biohazard” (anything with blood is considered biohazard). In this care-package was a whole bunch of reusable cloth menstrual pads, an insertible cup to catch menses, and a pair of cute black undies to hold the reusable pads. But most interesting was a beautiful booklet geared toward girls who were about to have their first periods, "menarche".

Sure having your period can sometimes be inconvenient, but we encourage you to keep a positive attitude about it. Better yet, learn to honor and understand your monthly cycle now, as it can have a big effect on how you feel about yourself now as well as later in life. Use language that reflects respect for your body. When you talk about your period consider phrases like "moon time" and avoid negative phrases like "I'm on the rag". In many cultures menarche is cause for a big celebration - a way to mark and celebrate our "official" transition from being a girl to being a woman. It's something that a lot of us wish that we had done!

I love this approach. And though the words in this booklet are directed at the girls themselves it's really the mother's job to initiate such a celebration. I thought about how I might do that for my girls when the time is right. We frequently worry about what's called "precocious puberty" as girls are experiencing menarche earlier and earlier. What used to be average has moved down a year and what used to be the normal range has gone down to 7 & 8-year-olds depending on culture (African-American and Latina girls leading the curve). My daughter, at eight-and-a-half, is probably just a few years, at minimum, away from moving into this realm. And I want her experience to be full of wonder, respect and knowledge...unlike the one most women from our generation had.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

On Pornography: The Author Hinges Her Essay on a Line by Susan Sontag

We all know that “The Onion” has its finger on the pulse with subversively accurate articles that make us spit out our muffins on the subway. This week “The Onion” printed a cover story that had everyone talking when days later an almost identical report was released in the authentic press. The topic was “depraved porn” and its prevalence in Japanese culture.

“The Onion” headline asserts: Japan Pledges To Halt Production Of Weirdo Porn That Makes People Puke. Acknowledging its embarrassment over worldwide outbreaks of violent, uncontrolled regurgitation, the Japanese government apologized Wednesday to the millions of viewers who have been sickened over the past three decades by the revolting depravity of the nation's pornographic exports.

"We honestly had no idea people did not enjoy this stuff," said Cultural Affairs Minister Kazuhiro Nakai, expressing regret for the thousands of hours of bondage porn, rape porn, utensil-rape porn, food-rape porn, frozen-food-rape porn, vomit-enema porn, elder-care-coma-patient-rape porn, and the kind of a porn in which a nubile youth is kidnapped, stripped, tied down in a wading pool and raped. "We are deeply ashamed for whatever it is about these films that has made people around the world vomit so vigorously. Please know that the content was only intended to entertain and arouse."

"I feel just awful that our work was received in this fashion," said Takuya Ishiyama, creative director of Shonen Young Forcible Jump. "But I know we can generate content more suitable for an international audience, perhaps by removing some of the characters who get off by choking on vomit they've drunk from a rubber tube inserted into their partner's stomach."
So, you get the idea that what appears to be wildly exaggerated porn themes causes cultural disbelief regarding everyone's repulsion. Though I am not personally well-acquainted with Japanese porn, I know that this style of extreme and repulsive fantasy described in loving detail by “The Onion” is not so far from the truth.

On the heels of that satirical story the following report came to us about a Japanese video game titled “Rapeplay” which encourages the player to sexually assault a mother and her two young daughters in a subway station. The players are also encouraged to force the virtual woman they rape to have an abortion. If she is allowed to give birth the woman throws the player's character under a train. Remember, this is not “The Onion” – this is an actual game that, by press admissions, was not intended for release outside of Japan.

A spokesman for the company said: "We believe there is no problem with the software, which has cleared the domestic ratings of an ethics watchdog body."

Naturally, I had a response probably consistent with yours, one of disgust and moral offense; we are left wondering if such a violent game indeed leads to an encouragement of rape. I became curious about what the rape statistics were in Japan compared with other industrialized nations. Surprise; they rank the lowest of all countries who keep stats on such crimes; twenty times lower than the US, for example.

This made me think about how in Susan Sontag’s essay “On Photography” she notes that the Japanese are essentially brutalized by a ruthless work ethic and it is due to this ethic that they take pictures incessantly. In a sense, shooting photos is a way of “working” while you’re supposed to be relaxing and or enjoying leisure time; it alleviates the guilt of "doing nothing".

Does it stand to reason that a similar release might be necessary in the recreational activities connected to sexual fantasy? If you think of the most cliché of all Japanese qualities, the one that may stand out clearest is that of being polite and respectful. Could the repression by such a controlled social ethic actually be alleviated by a perverse and hostile rape fantasy: i.e. Rapeplay?

Consider that in Japanese religion the gods are sexual beings and actually procreate carnally, as compared to “birth via miracle” in Christian cultures. Though prostitution is technically not legal in Japan it is tolerated in myriad forms, since the crime only applies to actual intercourse. There are porn magazines readily available in vending machines, and places called “love hotels” where young couples can be intimate outside of their family homes. Rituals and festivals abound weekly, for which phalluses are everywhere from costumes to savory treats and lollipops. As a whole, the Japanese culture is far more liberated about sex than Americans could ever hope to be, with our puritanically ingrained notions. There is a strong distinction between moral realities and tolerance for what is clearly pure fantasy.

Yet, why the prurient interest in the abjectly depraved and amoral? I do not have the answer to that and I certainly do not wish to vilify an entire culture for its dubious choice in entertainment. It is, after all, "make-believe", not a national pastime. I can only cling to the idea that this video game, and porn like it, was not meant to be examined or judged outside of its own culture. It makes me feel like I peeked into the bedside table at my best friend’s house and was shocked by what I found there. Am I justified in judging her sexual proclivities that were not meant for my review?

Surely, the Japanese would say the same thing, “Get out of our fantasy-world and mind your own business.”

Saturday, February 21, 2009

On Buying Your Parents Diapers

Today I was in our local consignment shop, Duck Duck Goose, shopping for a shower gift when I remembered I had to also pick up a baby monitor....for my dad.

When my brother asked me if I could find one so he could keep an ear on our father I didn't really consider how it would feel to hold the package in my hands. Staring at the image of a doting mother and a cheery baby in its crib, I stood frozen by the unlikely dichotomy.

"This is for my dad," I said to the woman who runs the shop. "Talk about the sandwich generation," I added, catching the eye of a customer who nodded as though she understood.

"The Sandwich Generation" isn't a very glamorous or well-known term. Even last year's film, "The Savages" starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, didn't exactly bring the issue of "coping with elderly parents" into the mainstream any more than the notion of aging in reverse has.

Yet, millions of us are dealing with it every day and the reason we are "sandwiched" has to do with our children pulling our attention in the other direction at the same time.

I watched "The Savages" with great interest, leaning forward on the couch so as not to miss a single word. The brother and sister characters were not so different from me and my brother; they had a certain familiar annoyance with one another in the face of this unpleasant turn of events. Their father is no longer able to care for himself and needs to be moved into a nursing home. The siblings battle it out - each one bringing their own demons into the arena: how they feel about dad, their guilt, their frustration with their own lives and direction. There is a moment where the sister is on an airplane bringing their dad back home and he insists on making his way to the bathroom. Somehow, in the narrow airplane aisle, his baggy trousers fall to ground - leaving his daughter to gape at his over-sized white diapers. This illuminating moment is witnessed by a captive audience of strangers, as though the incident was not hugely uncomfortable on its own.

My parents wear diapers. I'm not exaggerating when I say that as soon as my children were out of diapers my parents were in them. Kid diapers come with images of princesses and superheroes on them. My friend joked, "Couldn't your dad's diapers come with say, a photo of Ed McMahon on them?" Though this made me laugh, I could not get the image of those giant-sized white adult diapers out of my head; nor how awful it is to see your parents wearing them as they toddle – always too late—to the toilet.

Both my parents became dysfunctional old people before our eyes. My father used to drive into Manhattan and watch my daughter when she was small. They'd eat at Joe Junior's diner together then hang around in the playground with all the nannies. From that level of independence my father quickly became a menace behind the wheel, lost most of his common sense, and suddenly developed a mean, argumentative streak.

On the heels of these changes my brother and I discovered that he was spending thousands of dollars a month on worthless coins from the infamously fraudulent Franklin Mint. I cried to him, "Dad…I could use that money to pay for preschool! For a college fund! For gymnastics – anything! What are you thinking?" But he truly believed that the coins were an excellent investment – perfect for hoarding until the kiddies were older.

However, this was not the case, we learned. Some coins worth only $75 were never going to be valued at the $1,500 my disillusioned father had paid for them. Eventually, we managed to wrestle control away from him with his coin craze. As he grew more confused and forgetful we were able to take his credit cards away. I took Power of Attorney and my brother and I created living wills complete with a "Do Not Resuscitate" order. Talk about cheery dinner conversation.

And so, for years now, my sick and elderly folks have been just a ventilator's breath away from being holed-up in a nursing home – yet they persist in this nearly vegetative state, still at home, under my brother's somewhat negligent care.

This label "Sandwich Generation" describes me, and not so much my brother, because I have my own kids to contend with while my parents regress into" babydom" at an alarming rate. I'm not surprised that in reference to this term Wikipedia states: "There are very few or no other articles that link to this one." So, not only do people not really know about this phenomenon, but they don't seem to care that much about it either. Can you really blame anyone? I'm surprised you even got this far in my blog.

On the other end of the "sandwich" are my young daughters. They make no bones about hating to go their grandparents' house; and I cannot fault them for that. Sometimes we pull into the driveway of my folks' house and I pause to prepare them: "Girls…I know this isn't easy. I know you don't like coming here and frankly, neither do I. But they're my parents and that's what children do. But - promise me - if I get ever this bad please smother me with a pillow, okay?"

They nod and look at me blankly. "What's 'smother' mean again?" the younger one asks. Ah, I say, it's just propping me up with a pillow to make me comfy....