Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Good Life

George confessed that he misses the television, which is surprising given how thrilled he was to be rid of it several months ago. Those of you who read my post “Ode to Tim Gunn” will not be surprised to learn that I have done my own detox from television addiction. It’s probably also not surprising that we parted ways with the TV for the baby. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children under the age of two not watch TV. In a nutshell, the quick cuts and lack of realistic timelines aren’t supposed to be good for babies’ heads.

Plus, we want to be good role models for Claire. When you have a baby, your life changes mostly out of necessity. Then there are the things, like TV, that you choose to switch up. These changes are usually good for you too. Initially, George and I felt spiritually cleansed when the TV was exorcised from our lives. Our lives seemed lighter and more peaceful, rid of excess noise. We listened to classical radio. I read all eight hundred pages of Anna Karenina and started in on the Brothers Karamazov. But as with anything that’s “good medicine”, there’s an aftertaste. George started joking that Claire should call him “father”. I started wondering how many austerities are actually good for a person. I started to really think about what it actually means to take care of oneself.

Still, I doubt we will waver on our TV decision. I hope that we never measure the joy in our lives by the amount of television we watch. The television question is representative of a larger issue, though. The issue seems born out of an ambivalence displayed by the adults around us growing up – a conflict about the place of pleasure in a moral life. Like any good Eagle Scout, my dad’s favorite phrase to me was “the early bird gets the worm”. And true to his Germanic roots, he always taught me the value of a hard day’s work. Yet, when the whistle blew, the clink-clink of ice cubes in the glass marked a nightly ritual with alcohol designed to blow off steam from the efforts of the day. Then, there was my grandfather on my mother’s side who had an equally German sensibility. He was the one who taught me about saving money at age four -- my first lesson in delaying instant gratification. At his eulogy, the Presbyterian minister actually kvelled over the fact that my grandfather refused morphine to the bitter end. It’s not like my grandfather would have created a habit for the stuff in his last hours, so it just seemed sad to me. I’m sure he was touting my grandfather’s iron will, yet he probably also wasn’t privy to gramps’ love/hate relationship with food. He struggled with his weight his whole life. My mom thought he might have had a hidden eating disorder. I remember bouts of binge eating – meticulously stripping the flesh from mounds of Maryland crabs, dipping into bags of Snyder’s hard pretzels over and over, making his third trip to the Sunday all-you-can-eat buffet at the Marriot.

On both sides of my family, there was a pendulum swing between self-denial and excess that always confused me as a child. I am struggling with how to reconcile these two extremes within myself for the good of my own child. George and I have both dealt a blow to our own alcoholic demons, thankfully. But if we had had Claire ten years ago, it would have been a different story. Food is another matter entirely. I can see a “do as I say, not as I do” situation developing with Claire. George and I have had long discussions about how sugar and salt dull the palette. We hope to cultivate in Claire an appreciation of the myriad of flavors and textures of food. To that end, I make her food fresh. We add spices, and assure she gets variety. Yet as I feed her organic brown rice and sweet potato with cumin and garlic, I break through the hard chocolate shell of a Malomar from Christmas to get to the gooey marshmallow center. While I am busy in the kitchen preparing food for Claire, George runs out to get a Subway for him and me on the fly. Hopefully, this habit will improve once we are all eating the same thing and only one meal is being made. But there just always seems to be an excuse for eating poorly when you are busy.

What I find most touching about the lessons of my father and grandfather is that they both clearly wanted to teach me how to live life better than they did. While I understand their schizophrenia now, as a child I found the mixed messages confusing. But how to live life has vexed even the most venerable philosophers, so my forefathers were in good company. With this post, I can now count myself among them as well.
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