Monday, July 23, 2012

Unlikely Souvenirs: Lessons I Learned In Portland

Funk and I received the super generous gift of a surprise honeymoon from his brother and his brother’s husband. The conversation went something like this:

J: So, we’re sending you on your honeymoon as a wedding gift.
Me:  (Faints)
J: And it’s going to be a surprise.
Me: (Faints again)

So, the night of our wedding, sitting in the middle of an Irish Pub, Loren and I opened up our “honeymoon box.” In it were airplane tickets, some spending money, and two travel books. We were leaving for Portland, Oregon in the morning.


I had only driven through Portland before – well, technically, I slept in the state university student union on a road trip to Washington – and I couldn’t wait to actually explore the city. Minus the throwing up and getting sick for the first day part (adrenaline crash, anyone?), I was not disappointed in the least. From the moment I stepped into the airport – those fancy toilets that conserve water! Easy, amazing light rail! Recyclable products everywhere! – to when I walked through the city – vegan options on every menu! Awesome vintage stores! POWELL’S BOOKS! – I was in love. I shot off a text to my brother-in-law professing my love for the city and he warned me I couldn’t move there. So, I decided to pay close attention and figure out what about Portland I could bring home with me. Here are a few of the lessons I learned (in list form, because I love my lists):

1.       Portable glass Tupperware for take-out: It’s the small things that count when it comes to being nice to the planet and this is one I saw everywhere in Portland. Food truck time? Bring your own dish. Know you can never finish that vegan hash from the corner bakery? Bring your own Tupperware. Have a routine of a black coffee every morning? Bring your own mug. It’s so simple and so easy to do.

2.       Make public transport work for you: I know, I know… public transport in the Los Angeles area SUCKS. It does. But do a little a research and find out what types of public transport are in your community and how it can work for you. Here, even if I just take the bus to town (I live on a college campus) and ride my bike to the grocery store and back, it’s saving me gas and getting my jeep off of the road for 15 miles (plus, it’s exercise!). Another thing I have to remind myself is that my own two feet are great public transport. Again, every little bit helps. 

3.       Bring reusable bags everywhere: Reusable bags are really catching on (to the point that Long Beach even has a law banning plastic bags!) and it’s really great. But even I forget to bring reusable bags to places other than the grocery store. In Portland, I saw the bags everywhere – in grocery stores, clothing stores, bookstores, toy stores, restaurants, tattoo shops – anywhere people knew they’d need a handle and a sack to help them carry something a reusable bag was there. So, I’m going to tuck mine into something I never forget at home – the diaper bag.

4.       Farmers’ markets are the bees’ knees: Farmer’s markets are everywhere in Portland and had delicious, locally grown, fresh food. And guess what? Camarillo has a local farmer’s market on Saturday mornings (and if you don’t live in Camarillo, I bet your city has one close by, too). The Camarillo focus is definitely food but other cities focus on art and culture as well. The market by my mom’s house in Long Beach even has pony rides and games for the kids (plus $2 hummus and fresh pita straight from the hands of the family who makes it). Really good stuff!

5.       A simple reminder:
The biggest lesson I took home from my honeymoon wasn’t a specific tip or hint. Instead, the lesson was something that happened gradually over the five days we were there. So many times, I found myself saying, “Oh! I wish we had this in California!” After irritating both myself (and, I’m sure, Funk), I realized I needed to stop complaining and start making things happen. In my “Rachael world,” I sometimes feel like it has to be all or nothing – I sit down to a blank page and will-write-a-novel-right-now-or-die or I want to sweep through and make-all-the-things-sustainable-and-green-and-awesome-this-week! But then I took the advice I always give to my students who are daunted by the large task of writing a paper; make a list of what you want to do, or free write about it, or make one small change to your writing habit. Make the task manageable. So, that’s what I’ll begin. I can make a small start by remembering my reusable bag, or by bringing Tupperware out to dinner, or riding my bike instead of driving to town.  All of these “small starts” will eventually add up to me living the life I want to live in my own head, the life where I’m making conscious decisions about how my actions affect more than me, where I’m practicing what I preach, and am trying to make some sort of change so that I leave a better place here for my kid.

So, thanks Portland, for these unlikely souvenirs.(And delicious vegan doughnuts...)

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Child Autonomy: I’m Vegan But My Toddler Isn’t

I’m very interested in children’s autonomy – their ability to make their own decisions, choose their own actions, and control their own behavior – and how we, as parents, interfere with or inspire those choices. The questions of how much to “control” versus “inspire” has been a huge question for me, especially when it comes to food.

I’m a vegan. Or, putting it in a way that is more comfortable for most people (the term “vegan,” I have sadly come to learn, has lots of negative connotations or preconceived notions about it but that is for a different blog post), I eat a plant-based diet. I do not eat any animal products at all (yes, this means cheese and other forms of dairy, fish, meat, and eggs). I do this for a variety of reasons ranging from health, to ethics, to morals, and to the environment.* Again, I could write a whole blog post about the reasons why I am vegan but that isn’t the focus of this one. What is important here is that a vegan, plant-based diet, is what works best for me physically, emotionally, and intellectually. 

The most popular question I get after “How do you get your protein?” (easy peasy) is “Well, is your kid vegan?”

No, the droidlet is not.

Now, this isn’t because you can’t raise a child vegan (because you TOTALLY CAN and it’s TOTALLY HEALTHY) but for a variety of reasons I am still exploring for myself. One part that plays into the droidlet’s meanderings into meat is because my partner, his dad, is not a vegan. I’m very adamant about making ONE meal for my family at dinnertime that the droidlet, even at two, eats. This means, though, that Funk sometimes cooks meat to add to the vegan dish I’ve prepared. When droidlet wants to try it, I don’t stop him.

What I eat and put into my body has been a very conscious decision I have made that has included much research, study, and decision-making. All things I want droidlet to do for himself some day. Just like I am not pushing one religion on droidlet, I’m not going to force one food philosophy on him either (and no, this is not a dig at other vegetarian or vegan families – that totally rocks that you’re all experiencing it together, it’s just not for my situation). Now, does this mean I’m going to let him eat McDonald’s every day? Hell no. Does this mean I’m going to let him eat a ton of processed food? NO. Ice cream for dinner every night? Um, no.

What this means, is that I’m going to model healthy eating habits and make available a variety of healthy foods to my son. I’m going to show him that plant-based dishes are delicious, fun to make, and help make our bodies feel good. But I’m also going to give him autonomy. Allow him to choose chicken if he wants it (of course, hoping it is local and grass fed). 

Will I be thrilled if the droidlet decides to be a vegan one day? Of course!! But, I will never berate him for not eating like me. The goal is to teach him that what we put into our bodies matters. To teach him how to make healthy choices and where they are available. To teach him about locally grown, fresh food.

I’d like to think I’ve already planted the seed with our CSA box. Every week, he screams and jumps to open our vegetable box to see what we got and is stoked to try out new vegetables and fruits we’ve never had before. Just a small box is showing him that supporting local agriculture is fun, that healthy food is both visually appealing and delicious, and that food is something that brings our family together. Just like with so many other things in life – morals, values, relationships – I hope that I’m arming the droidlet with the best information and experience I can so that when we unleash him into the world as an adult, he can make the decision that is right for him

*My Composition Professor self is nagging me for a disclaimer -- these links are very simple and easy to read sources that are usually linked to some sort of vegan advocacy cause. Because this blog post is not trying to persuade people to become vegan or defend my own position as a vegan, I haven't equipped the sources from long, scholarly articles. These links are purely for informational purposes should any readers want a little more detail. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Being a Mom Made Me Better At My Job

As I was approaching my last year of grad school for my Master’s in English, I had been dating an awesome, goateed, tattooed locksmith for a few months. That Christmas, as I was choosing my thesis advisor and getting ready to embark on the challenge of writing a full short story collection, my body started to feel a little weird. What I thought was nerves over the impending thesis, we came to find, was actually our little droidlet beginning to grow. Surprise! The following August, my son was born.
I took a semester off from my program and went back five months later to complete one last class, my entire thesis, and teach the last class of my Teaching Associate’s career. And, somehow, I finished. This past May, the droidlet and his dad cheered my on as I walked across that stage and officially became a Master of English (I just pictured myself as a Jedi. Heh.).
Luckily, I got hired right away, as an adjunct faculty member for two different colleges. This meant I went from having a breezy summer hanging out with my son to teaching five classes, four days a week.
At first, I was very, very scared I wasn’t going to make it. However, now that I am charging into the second semester of this schedule, I realize that being a mom has actually improved my skills as a professor.
Before, when I was teaching as a Teaching Associate, I would do something like stay up all night playing Lord of the Rings Online or watching Dr. Who episodes on BBC America and then the next day realize “holy crap, I have 25 essays to grade before tomorrow!” Then, a caffeine-out eight hour shift at a local coffee shop would commence the next morning. Though I rallied at my students about procrastination, I, myself, was a procrastinator. Now, with little guy, I literally cannot do this anymore. Much to my free-spirited, spontaneous chagrine, I was forced to start managing my time and it’s improved my life. I now have scheduled times to grade and do work, where I am only focusing on my students. This means, that when I’m with my son it is all about him. Before, the priorities in my life would get handled when I thought of them (or remembered) and now, I’m making a conscious effort to get everything organized.
Before the droidlet, I didn’t really have boundaries between my home life and my “school” life.  I would  answer emails at all hours of the night, accept late work from students without giving them too hard of a time, easily reschedule appointments, and always keep their essays out and ready for feedback. Now, I’m much more effective in my teaching and interaction with my students. I still have my open-door policy, open communication, and support. However, now, I have more structure. I make it imperative for students to make and keep consistent appointments.  My students know I won’t be staying up ‘til 11 to check emails, so we handle issues during my office hours or after class. I’ve established a clear boundary of when and where we can discuss work which allows my students the academic and individual support they need while allowing me to come home, confident that I’ve done my job.
Having the droidlet while working has also forced me to not be so hard on myself. When I first began teaching, I was wracked with the “mama guilt.” I felt guilty for being happy at school even when I was away from him. I felt guilty for being gone eight hours a day four days a week. And the guilt was double edged. I’d then feel guilty at home chasing him around and reading books while a stack of papers burned a hole in the back of my head from my briefcase. I felt guilty just snuggling on the couch after he had fallen asleep for a nap because I could be lesson planning. And then the guilt even started to slip into my relationship with my partner. There was guilt over falling into bed with hardly a word to him because I was exhausted from my new schedule.  Guilt that our apartment was never clean. Guilt. Guilt. Guilt.
The problem was that I was trying to do everything. Be the most amazing professor my students ever had, be super mom, be the perfect partner, do all the laundry, wash all the dishes, feed all the snakes, clean the whole house, “no thanks, I don’t need help, I totally got this” – when I definitely did not have it.
Then, one night, I asked my partner if he could cook dinner three times a week. He was stoked. Then, I started taking the droidlet to the park more frequently (being out of the house makes me less likely to clean or want to do work). Then, I started to schedule time at school to actually benefit my students in an efficient and effective way. I started asking for help – swapping lesson plans with other professors, having mini “dates” with my colleagues where we could voice frustrations and achievements so that when I got home I could talk with my partner about his day. All of these little “yes, please, I need that” completely changed my life around.
My son has taught me so many things. One of the greatest – that has helped me be a better partner, professor, and mama – is to be able to ask for that little bit of help. And I’ve come to realize, people are more than willing and happy to give it.