Friday, October 21, 2005


My husband and I are NFOE.

That's right:

Not Fans of Elmo.

We began watching Sesame Street as tiny tots in the days before Elmo. The days when the intro to the show was not "enhanced" with computer generated graphics and the folksy lyrics of the opening song were not set to watered-down faux hip-hop or imitation electronica. The days when each show followed a single coherent, well-written plot, interspersed with beautifully constructed live-action, muppet-action, and animated educational "commercials" that related in clever ways to the content of the show as a whole. The days when the show offered a range of interesting characters with realistic personalities and dealt with the full spectrum of human experience-- when a pathologically shy Telly, a spooky Count, and a cranky, abrasive Oscar the Grouch (my favorite!) made regular, in-story appearances alongside the cheerful and optimistic Big Bird and the bossy, outgoing Prairie Dawn-- the days when an entire episode could be written, for preschoolers, about death.

For us, the saccharin-sweet, adorably speech-impaired, unbelieveably hyperactive Elmo, as he rose from new character to principal character to Star of the Show to Unstoppable Commercial Juggernaut with His Own Lengthy Eponymous Segment at the End of Each Episode, came to symbolize the growth of a disappointing malaise afflicting a once-beloved series.

Sure, maybe part of it is just that the show's writers and producers simply started to run out of good ideas after the first 20 years. But it seems to me that Sesame Street has really been more a victim of its own success. Tempted by the promise of growing commercial tie-in revenues, and forced to compete with a steady stream of new educational children's shows entering the market Sesame Street had pioneered, is it really any surprise that eventually the people in charge of Sesame Street might end up commercializing, post-modernizing, and politically over-correcting the franchise to the point of absurdity?

The storylines, once well-written and morally fraught, have become less coherent; the action, more frenetic, while the format of the show as a whole has become dullingly formulaic, with repetitive segments like "Journey to Ernie" and "Elmo's World" taking up large chunks of the time that used to be devoted to original storyline. Potentially controversial characters, like the socially-challenged Telly and Oscar, have been pushed to the sidelines in favor of brighter, bouncier creatures that talk less, jump more, and are always friendly. The newer commercial-style educational shorts have become an ADD-medication salesman's dream: louder, faster, flashier, and, it seems to me, often less educational.

(And who does the computer animation for Sesame Street these days, anyway? An eighth-grader with a Dell? They did a much better job achieving realism back in the '80s with hand-drawn animation and muppets.)

Basically, Sesame Street, though by no means terrible as children's programming goes, does not strike me as being nearly as good as it once was. And, whether a symptom or cause, the rise of Elmo seems symbolic to me of the show's decline.

(Not to mention the fact that I just find Elmo so damned annoying. I have the same reaction to cloyingly cute, bouncy, hyperactive, constantly fake-happy muppets that I do to cloyingly cute, bouncy, hyperactive, constantly fake-happy people: I want to slap them. And my husband feels pretty much the same way).

(This may be because we are both quiet, lazy, anti-social pessimists).

(But nonetheless).

We are NFOE.

And so, we have a bit of a problem.

You see, our son loves Elmo.

In fact, you might more accurately say he's become totally obsessed with Elmo.

A few months before he was born, I bought him a Sesame Street DVD entitled Kids' Favorite Songs. I bought this DVD, in fact, in an attempt to introduce him to the joys of Sesame Street without exposing him to an overdose of Elmo. It was an older title; not being a regular episode, it was sans-Elmo's World, and none of the reviews I read on Amazon mentioned a heaping helping of Elmo as a primary feature of the program. So I thought it would be safe. Maybe an Elmo scene here or there. But not Elmo-mania. Right?

I didn't let him watch it until he was about a year old. And that's when I found out: I was wrong.

The DVD would have been more accurately titled: Elmo's Top Ten Countdown.

And my son loved it. (Except for the part with the singing pigs, which for some reason at first seemed to scare the bejeezus out of him, but he's used to it now).

Not only does he love the DVD we now call Elmo's Top Ten Countdown; he also loves the "Elmo's World" segment on Sesame Street. Which we now let him watch every morning while he eats breakfast, because we've recently discovered that he eats more readily while watching TV (Before you judge me on creating a lifetime of bad eating habits, please read my previous post entitled "Failure to Thrive").

And a couple of days ago, while we were at Target picking up household essentials, my son started screaming "Elbow! Elbow!" at the top of his lungs like someone who'd just spotted a long-lost lover the moment I picked up a bulk-sized box of diaper wipes. I turned the box over to see a large grinning portrait of none other than our favorite red monster. My son refused to stop yelling until I let him clutch the box, which must have weighed five pounds, on his lap in the shopping cart, and he cried piteously when we had to hand the box to the clerk at checkout.

As I positioned the box carefully next to my wailing son's car seat so he could see the picture of Elmo clearly on our way home, I said to my husband, "Do you think that maybe we ought to get him an Elmo doll?"

"No," my husband muttered, gritting his teeth, "We are not getting him an Elmo doll. What's next? Barney?"

But the next day, as I watched my son watch the Elmo DVD, I saw something that took me by surpise. As Elmo counted backwards from ten to one, my son began repeating the numbers. Flawlessly.

I have been counting to him at least once a day, every day, since the day he was born, in three languages, and he's never repeated more than a couple half-garbled numbers back to me.

That's right. Thanks to Elmo, not me, my 17-month-old can now count. BACKWARDS.

Even my husband was pretty impressed.

We may have to put in a call to Santa Claus about that Elmo doll after all.

Monday, October 17, 2005


I am convinced that if mothers of small children ruled the world, there would be far less war, exploitation and famine than there is now, because anyone who can teach a four-year-old to share could certainly enlighten delegates at the U.N.

However, I do not believe mothers of small children will ever actually get around to ruling the world, because they simply do not have the time.

Most women who used to be mothers of small children and are now liberated mothers of grown children are currently enjoying a much-needed and well-deserved rest from teaching four-year-olds how to share, and therefore have no interest in running the world.

Which brings me to another thought.

Back before I had my first and so far only child, I often used to wonder why it seemed that, until very recently in recorded history, so few of the great achievements of art, literature, science, and architecture that have moved human societies forward have been attributed to women; why nearly all of the greatest artists and scholars whose names have come down to us through antiquity seem to have been men.

Being a woman myself, and fairly confident in my mental abilities, I was much more than reasonably certain that the noticeable lack of female names on the list of history's intellectual giants didn't have anything to do with a lack of intelligence, drive, or ability on the part of women of the historical past.

Of course, even then in my pre-motherhood days, I understood-- come on now, my mother was a Women's Studies professor-- that for millenia women have been oppressed, repressed, controlled, corralled, and exploited by men who cleverly created an exceedingly unfair and uncalled-for system of widespread gender-based discrimination by leveraging the natural male advantage of greater physical strength and prowess against the natural female disadvantage of needing someone around to help out with bearing and raising of those remarkably tough-to-handle little creatures known commonly as human children.

But, I reasoned, like all human beings, women in general are remarkably tough, and and crafty. And it seemed to me that, being remarkably tough, and crafty, despite all attempts by men to keep women from achieving their full potential or take credit for women's ideas and women's work, more women of history ought to have found a way to circumvent the system and get their names and their masterpieces on the books. It seemed a puzzle to me, then, before I was a mother.

And now, it doesn't.

On a typical day in my life as a SAHM, I wake up at 7:30 in the morning and work vigorously all day until my husband gets home at 5:30, without any genuine breaks to speak of except to use the restroom or eat-- doing laundry, folding laundry, washing dishes, cleaning counters, sweeping, dusting, putting things away; cooking; mending clothes; keeping my toddler from ingesting dangerous foreign objects, or climbing on bookcases, or drawing all over the walls, or breaking important things; making sure to change his diaper regularly, keep him in reasonably clean clothes, and feed him something nutritious every couple of hours; all the while SIMULTANEOUSLY trying to teach a very small, codependent, and impatient person manners, numbers, the alphabet, and how to be a reasonably decent human being-- only to discover at the end of the day when my husband comes home that I forgot to call the doctor and the insurance agent, one of the side dishes for dinner is burnt, and somehow the house still looks like a small group of Vikings came over for lunch and decided to practice their looting and pillaging skills for ten minutes or so while my back was turned.

So often I find myself feeling defeated and exhausted, wondering, where did all the time go? And when will I ever find time to get around to start writing down that novel I've been knocking around in my head for, oh, the past year or so?

I have only one child.

And I have a dishwasher! A clothes washing machine! AND a clothes dryer. I don't grow my own food; I buy it at the supermarket. I've never touched a spinning wheel or a loom in my life; I don't even own a sewing machine-- the clothes my family members wear all come pre-made and ready-tailored on plastic hangers. I don't have to draw my water from a well or carry it in buckets from the nearest stream; it comes hot and cold on my whim with a flick of the wrist from FIVE FAUCETS in three different rooms in my apartment.

No one has ever bound my feet, or fitted me with a rib-crushing whalebone corset, or told me I couldn't work, or go to school, or forced me to bear him 8 children before the age of 25.

Compared to most Women of Recorded History, my life is dream.

And I STILL can't seem to get around to writing the Great American Novel of the 21st century. Heck. I can't seem to even get around to trying.

Compared to most Women of Recorded History, I am a major wuss.

And so, I think I owe you ladies a big apology. I wondered once where thousands of years of feminine intelligence and drive had been spent. I don't wonder about it now.

You spent it raising humanity.

Thank you.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Failure to Thrive

My son, who just turned 17 months old, is an astonishingly picky eater. I know, I know: eighty percent of all toddlers are considered by their parents to be astonishingly picky eaters (The other twenty percent, I have deduced through casual observation, are generally considered by their parents to be walking garbage disposals. There is very little appreciation for the concept of moderation among toddlers; they tend to take nearly every preference to some sort of extreme).

But my son is so astonishingly picky when it comes to eating that, despite having started off happily and healthily in the 25th percentile for weight at birth, he has, in fact, managed in recent months to starve himself entirely off of the pediatric weight chart.

When a child falls that far in his weight-gain curve, they have a name for it: Failure to Thrive.

This has lead to several weeks of visits to various expensive and elaborately titled specialists who have poked my son with myriad pointy plastic and metal instruments, taken several vials of blood from his skinny quivering arms while his father or I held him down, and, on multiple occasions, instructed me to tape plastic bags to his little private parts and force-feed him water or fruit juice until he peed.

(None of this has improved his fear of doctors, which he developed after being subjected to "minor" craniofacial surgery to remove a benign but brain-threatening tumor on his skull at the tender age of 8 months. Can you blame him? The doctors don't believe he has a fear of doctors, though. When my normally extremely friendly baby starts screaming uncontrollably at the sight of a white coat, they ask me if he's always had such "separation anxiety issues.")

After weeks of testing and investigation, the experts have, amazingly, concluded something I could have told you three months ago:

My son is skinny because he doesn't eat.

It has become something of an epic quest in our household:


The battle plan for achieving this lofty goal is constantly under revision. Aside from mother's milk, which he of course likes, and luckily still gets twice a day with the blessing of a GI doctor (despite our family doctor's continued odd and misinformed insistence that breastmilk after one year has no nutritional value) there are a few foods that he actually seems to consistently enjoy, in small amounts.

Dried fruit, for instance.

Dried coconut.

Apple juice.

And Breyers vanilla ice cream.

Actually, that's it. That's all he likes. Dried fruit, dried coconut, apple juice, and Breyers vanilla ice cream.

That's not to say that's all he ever eats. Well before my son was born, I vowed not to be the sort of overly indulgent parent whose children wind up living entirely off of Coca-Cola and cheese doodles. Nor am I generally person who gives up easily, especially when the health of my child is at stake. So we constantly offer him a variety of good foods in a valiant ongoing attempt to try to wake his sleeping palate.

He drinks cow's milk in small quanitites-- he'll drink more of it if you add vanilla to it. Sometimes he'll eat a chicken nugget, or a french fry, if you cut it up small enough, and use a paper towel to dab off any extra grease. Once in a while he'll go for for a piece of thin-sliced honey-flavored deli ham, if you remove the edges. If he's hungry enough, he might eat a particular kind of fried vegetable chip that can only be found in the bulk section at the Whole Foods Market one hour's drive away from home. If he's in the mood, he'll eat white-bread toast with butter if you cut the crusts off, fold the toast in half so he can't feel the butter's greasiness on his fingers when he touches it, smoosh it flat, cut it into 1-inch pieces, and eat an identical piece of toast in front of him while smiling encouragingly and saying "Mmmm." He has been known, on occasion, to sample a bite or two of a homemade pancake, if it's taken off the griddle just barely cooked and served fresh, but not hot, with the slightest hint of butter and syrup (but by no means SLIMY or GREASY).


But he doesn't actually seem to enjoy any of these foods. He eyes them suspiciously. He picks at them. He frowns at them. He rolls pieces of them back and forth across his lips without actually opening his mouth. If he's really, really, hungry, he will eat a bite or three. But he quickly grows bored with such things and starts banging the tray on his high chair and moaning "Down, down, down," like a mournful church bell. The only things he is willing to eat in any quantity with a smile on his face are dried fruit, dried coconut, apple juice, and Breyers vanilla ice cream.

We've tried expanding on the known likes. For instance, we tried once for a whole week to get him to eat Ben and Jerry's premium organic vanilla ice cream instead of Breyers (It's organic, we thought. And it has lots more fat. Which is actually good when you weigh less than 20 lbs). It sure tasted good to us. But every other bite of this luscious fatty ice cream that entered his mouth was unceremoniously spat onto the floor. We've tried to get him to drink grape juice, or orange juice, or fruit punch, now and again, for variety. But after a few thoughtful sips he generally dumps it out in disgust. Coconut-flavored cakes, bread, and cookies: tried; no dice. Apple pie. Vanilla soy milk. Banana shakes. Wheat toast with apple-flavored jelly. Blueberry pancakes. Vanilla-flavored Pediasure. Fruit-flavored Pediasure.

No, no, no, no, no.

Lately, we've resorted to lying when introducing new foods (or, more often, reintroducing old ones that he's never actually given a worthy try). "Did I say that was turkey? Oops! I'm sure I meant ham. White ham!" "Dried sweet corn is EXACTLY like dried apples." "Try it! It's a . . . a new kind of french fry. Really."

However, my son, who, despite his nutritional issues, is frighteningly smart for his age, can generally tell when we're trying to pull one over on him. He has also rather precociously mastered a non-verbal way of instantly letting us know the gig is up: an artful look of withering sarcasm, of the sort more usually seen on teenagers.

So, we slog on, trying new tactics, with little progress, counting halves of ounces of weight gain. We worry, and worry, and see new doctors who tell us to worry some more, though, as all their other tests of our son's health come back normal, they can't tell us, specifically, why. "Poor progress," we hear. "Failure to thrive."

And all the while, my friendly, funny, bright-eyed, active, off-the-growth-chart-skinny son runs through life like a toy tornado, building towers and knocking them down, jumping, climbing, dancing, banging on the electric piano, practicing his alphabet with the magnets on the fridge, seeming to learn five or ten new words every day, making friends with every baby he meets at the mall, attacking his mother and father and sometimes casual acquaintances with baby bear hugs and lovely slobbery kisses.

It sure is hard to tell he isn't thriving.