Tuesday, April 12, 2016
Monday, March 31, 2014
A number of friends have asked me how it is that I get my kids to eat pretty much anything. For example, this week's menu included marinated kale, potato, avocado, and asparagus salad, roasted squash and sweet potatoes, lentil curry, tahini dressed quinoa, and a tofu vegetable stirfry--all of which they ate without complaint and much of which was unfamiliar.
While I can positively say that my children used to exhibit that infuriating habit of refusing to eat anything but toast and juice and now they will eat anything, I can't be 100% certain if it's anything I'm doing or if they just grew out of bad habits. One thing I am sure about is that mealtimes used to be insufferable battles and after I instituted a few simple rules we've had relative peace at the table.
So here's some rules that WE follow and my reasons for them. They might be worth a try if you are having table troubles with the kiddies.
1) COOK-- and exhibit confidence in your own cooking. If you don't have any confidence in your ability to make something delicious, then it wouldn't be surprising if your kid is picking up on that. When my kids wrinkle their noses at something I put in front of them I always say cheerily and with complete confidence that "Mummy doesn't make yucky food--everything I make is delicious." By the same token--don't make your kids eat food you messed up. Forcing them to eat burnt porridge is not in the spirit of what you are trying to do. If you have truly messed dinner up--own up to it and don't make them eat it. Dig out the peanut butter jar and try again next time. Remember that feeding your kids isn't ultimately about putting necessary nutrients into their bodies. It's about teaching them to enjoy meals socially and develop healthy attitudes to food and eating. You can't teach them to enjoy good healthy food if you expect them to eat bad food.
2)DON'T BE A SHORT-ORDER COOK. This is a really bad habit that is easy to get into if you don't meal plan. You come downstairs in the morning and before you even think about what you are doing (probably because the coffee didn't make itself and walk upstairs to you) you say the worst thing possible:"What do you want for breakfast?" Before you know it the kids are asking for different meals that require heroic multitasking to pull off (especially first thing in the morning) and then the kicker: they change their minds half way through or start fighting over what they want you to make. The best way to avoid turning yourself into a kitchen slave is never ever to ask "What do you want to eat?" This just gives the kids the false impression that they don't have to eat anything they don't want to and undermines your authority as the household teacher of culinary good taste.
3) DON'T BUY KIDDIE FOOD. And by "kiddie food" I mean anything marketed to children (fruit cups, rollups, snacks, mum-mums, cereals, yogurt cups, cheese strings, fish crackers etc etc). If you can't make it at home from scratch just don't buy it-- this is a good nutritional rule as well as a good way to combat food pickiness. Kiddie food, even Cheerios, is mostly sugar, totally stripped of all it's nutritional value (even the "organic" stuff). It's expensive, and worst of all, it's designed to make kids want it all the time. Not just with packaging or advertising, but taste, shape, texture--everything. We give our kids these things for 2 reasons: first, they are designed for a kid to be able to easily feed themselves independently of help from mum or dad, and second, we are all under the impression in the west that our kids physically need to be able to eat, unassisted, on demand, and so we keep an arsenal of this stuff in our cupboards and diaper bags and cars lest our kid should get hungry when we haven't the time to sit them at a table for a proper, civilised meal--something we rarely make time for these days. I firmly believe that while it's handy for a kid to be able to feed themselves, the habitual use of kiddie snack foods only reinforces the notion of control a kid thinks they ought have over what they put in their mouth, while teaching them nothing about table manners, good taste, nutrition, or how to wait for meals.
4) HAVE CIVILISED MEALS-- and don't offer snacks between meals if you can possibly avoid it. This is really, really hard to manage these days. I know. We're always busy, always on the go, and 3 meals a day is really hard to manage a lot of the time. I homeschool and I find this rule hard to stick to because we go out of the house, often over lunch time, at least 2 or 3 times a week and it's hard not to give into processed convenience food when you're out and about if you're already in the habit of packing it around. And let's face it, cooking 3 times a day is a LOT of cooking. One way to facilitate this is to get into the habit of having meals I call "bit of everything" meals. They are basically a Ploughman's Lunch, or lunches which you can open and present, but require little or no prep--a grain, a dairy product, a fruit, a veggie, and a pickle or preserve (or both). This is what picnic food used to be before the advent of sandwiches and fish crackers. Having whole food that you don't have to cook or prepare much makes it a lot easier to live a busy life and not be tied to your stove all day, while still keeping some kind of meal routine. Sticking to a meals-at-the-table rule when you're at home (as opposed to snacks whenever they ask for them) goes a long way towards getting them to try what you put in front of them-- at least in the case of my kids. Once we nixed snacks between meals and insisted on meals at the table, my kids were not only better behaved at the table, but they were a lot more likely to eat what was offered-- and usually finish it.
5) OFFER NEW STUFF OFTEN--but make sure one meal a day is fairly routine. This is where meal planning is so handy. I highly recommend it for budgeting as well as sanity. In our house dinner is different more or less every night and depending on what we have planned for that day depends on how laboursome the cooking will be for that night's dinner. Lunches, however, are usually limited to "bit of everything" or various soups with bread and butter. Occasionally I make sandwiches. Breakfasts are almost always the same: porridge with maple syrup and cream, plus a fruit and some plain yogurt (if they're still hungry). Kids LOVE predictability which is why they tend to demand the same four foods all the time, so we make sure that one meal is predictable. In our house it's the family meal that is always the adventurous meal. The attitude we model is that it's FUN to try new things and we do our best to make them feel that eating what we are all eating is a privilege-- they are getting to join in on an eating adventure with the grownups. If they aren't initially happy about what's offered don't take it off the menu after one try-- offer it more frequently. Especially if you like eating it.
6) DON'T AFFIRM NEGATIVE REACTIONS to new foods. My kids used to say "Ew that's disgusting!" and "I don't like it!" etc etc. It's important not to allow that kind of talk, but it's even more important not to let it come out of your own mouth. I was actually surprised how often and easily I slipped into mentioning to friends in my children's hearing that my daughter "disliked" or "wouldn't eat" something. I honestly think even asking our kid if they like something can be taken for offering control to your child over whether they eat something or not. All the recent science about food preferences suggests that if you dislike something it has everything to do with unfamiliarity of flavour or texture and that literally EVERYTHING is an acquired taste. When my kids object to unfamiliar foods I simply explain their reaction in a "scientific" way: "We don't call food disgusting--Mummy doesn't make disgusting food. Your mouth just hasn't learned how that food is good yet, so you have to keep trying it until your mouth learns to like it."
7) EXPECT THEM TO TRY EVERYTHING--but don't force them to finish it. I have a really hard time with this one because I'm such a control freak and I hate it when my kids waste food, so this rule is as much for me as for them. If you stick to the no-snacks rule, you can be pretty sure that they will be hungry come mealtime, so the rule at our place is that they must try everything--just one bite--before they get down from the table. But they needn't finish it. Sometimes your kid really is too full to finish. If our kids refuse to try things we offer (which is very, very rare if we stick to the other rules) we do everything in our power not lose our cool. We go through the list of reasons why they are expected to try it, and if that doesn't work, we excuse them, but--
8) OFFER NOTHING ELSE until the next meal. This is a hard one to stick to because in the West we have been taught to fear letting our kids go hungry for even a few minutes (hence the prolific power of the snack food industry). Because we have learned to reduce the value of foods to their nutritional components instead of enjoying them whole as part of a communal activity, we have unwittingly managed to convince ourselves that hunger is a sign that something is very, very wrong and must be immediately remedied by whatever means possible. And as parents we tend to use hunger as an excuse for bad behaviour in children as well. This may very well be true a lot of the time. I certainly get grumpier when I am hungry. But instead of teaching our children, or modelling ourselves, that good behaviour is expected regardless of what physical ailment may be bothering us, we tend to offer more food-- any food, at any time. Just make the screaming stop. Sympathy for discomfort is of course important, but not at the expense of reasonable boundaries and expectations. The hard thing I find in my house is to stick to those reasonable boundaries without losing my cool when they lose their cool. Practice, practice. One can affirm the emotional response without moving the boundary. But the key thing to keep in mind is that your child will not starve if you refuse to offer between meal snacks or allow participation in a dessert course when a meal is wholly rejected. (It helps if those dessert courses are rare too). Your child will not starve. Remind yourself of this. Repeatedly if necessary. They may get very, very hungry. They may get very, very angry. They may test your patience in every way possible. But they won't starve. Nor will they suffer malnourishment for having to wait until the next meal. Every other culture outside the West practices this and their health is usually better than ours. Depending on how stubborn or difficult your child can be when faced with boundaries depends on how rough this could initially be, but I guarantee you, you will not be damaging their health or guilty of child abuse because you made them wait for dinner. Quite the reverse.
9) DON'T FIGHT A LOSING BATTLE--make sure that every meal includes at least one thing you know they like and don't offer stuff that is too spicy or too sour or too strongly flavoured right off the bat. Introduce those things for sure, but slowly and only as "tastes" not as whole servings of food. Especially if your kids are used to only eating what they like and treating you like a short order cook. There's no point throwing them straight into the deep end. You could be setting yourself up for immediate failure. In our house we have been practicing these rules for long enough that I can generally experiment with any new recipe and be guaranteed that I will have little or no resistance about anything I put in front of my kids regardless of how unfamiliar or spicy or strongly flavoured. But even I won't serve my kids vindaloo or make them try wasabi on their sushi. And in the beginning I was careful to ensure that most meals included a course that they already enjoyed.
10)ENJOY YOUR MEALS--A big part of peaceful dining experiences is making sure that YOU are enjoying them. That you are cooking what you love to cook and eating what you like to eat with people you love in a civilised way. And that means setting boundaries not just for the kids but for yourself. Don't text at the table, don't rush your own eating, don't jump up from the table to change the baby or get people extra drinks or answer the phone. Make eating a priority and take the time to enjoy it. If you show the kids that you value cooking and eating and social interaction at the table by giving it your fullest attention, your kids will pick up on that priority too and learn to take enjoyment of food seriously.
So those are our household rules and I admit I am not always 100% good at following them. Nor am I completely certain that I didn't just get lucky with my kids. What may be easy for one family to do may be next to impossible for other families, so if any of this seems like way too tall an order for your family to manage don't beat yourself up or consider yourself a failure. Parenting is hard and picky eating is one of the hardest things to deal with. All of the above is merely what worked for us. I hope it's helpful for you.
Thursday, May 3, 2012
Ultimately, however, finishing school had a number of important advantages for my family as whole. For one, I am now that much closer to a paid profession which we have discovered I will eventually need if we are to afford living in the lower mainland of BC --especially if we have more kids. For another, our family has grown a lot and learned a lot. My husband and I have navigated a rocky road trying to figure out how to manage our finances and actually co-parent instead of one person taking all the responsibilities and the other retreating to do "work." I've also learned a lot more about myself than perhaps I learned about literature or academia. I learned just how much my kids needed me, how crappy I am at parenting and being a wife, how to sacrifice my own perceived needs for my children's actual ones. These things may seem like the sorts of things that come naturally in healthy family relationships, but I guess they came a little slower for selfish old me.
I also had the chance for closure when it came to what I wished to have before I met and married Greg and what I felt like I'd given up before I had really decided it wasn't what I wanted. Before I got married, having kids seemed more worth while than pursuing an academic career or a career in theatre, and of course I never changed my mind about that, even when I was desperately sleep deprived and dealing with daily meltdowns and toilet accidents. But after the kids turned up and the daily slog of constant demand began to wear on me, I began to wonder if I could have my cake and eat it too, that is, be a good mom/wife and still pursue academia or theatre. I began to wonder if I could be 23 again and continue to follow the path I abandoned 10 years ago and just drag my kids and husband along it. I am sure there must be some moms and families that can do that, but I found that I wasn't one of them.
This discovery wasn't a disappointment though. Just good closure for me. I didn't know what kind of a sacrifice it would be to try to juggle both until I actually tried to juggle both. The truth is that I wasn't sure how many balls academia or theatre required until I tried to keep them all up and I wasn't prepared to drop any balls out of my ambitions as a parent. There's only so many balls a person can juggle, even a smart, hardworking person who excels at multi-tasking. I still only have two arms. And when it came down to a decision between having more children and homeschooling or stopping at two and sending them to school, I chose the former. Ultimately that was a bigger priority for me and for my family. That's not a judgement on the choices any other family makes with regard to mom's career or activities. It's just what I learned that I wanted to do and I'm not sure that I could have learned that for certain if I hadn't gone back to school and tried to have it all. Deep down I kept wondering if I should have dropped out or if I couldn't go back, and the thought always plagued me when I was most dissatisfied with my marriage or my kids. Now that I've put it to rest, I can focus on being a better mom and a better wife instead of looking at the past with rose colored glasses.
And I am incredibly lucky, blessed actually, that I got to do it. That I got to go back to age 20 and pick up the path I dropped 10 years ago before I got married. When I think of how many people had to make sacrifices so that I could do that and not lose everything I had gained since leaving school, I'm overwhelmed with gratitude. My long-suffering husband put up with months, years even, of neglect as I tried to get through my work and revisit my life's plans from before we met. He paid for my tuition without complaint, working over time to manage it, and he never walked out on me even though I was probably the world's biggest you-know-what for about two years straight. My kids still snuggle me every morning and are somehow the world's most fantastic, loving, little urchins in spite of the fact that their mother has more or less ignored them whenever she wasn't screaming at them to shut the !!! up. Beyond all reason I'm still lucky enough to be their favorite person in the whole world and I don't deserve em.
My parents and my sister have been incredibly patient and generous with their time while I tried to juggle homework and classes and I owe it all to their care and attention (and of course my husband's) that my kids haven't turn into hellions during my two year emotional and mental absence. I would not have finished this degree without them. They gave me this oppotunity and did everything they could to help me see it through. And I haven't thanked them enough. I'm not sure I could if I had tried.
Including my folks, the kids had any number of terrific babysitters. These people not only watched or entertained them, but loved them. They made me feel less guilty about leaving my kids behind because I knew they were in good hands. They made me feel as though being with my kids wasn't just a job or a favour but an utter delight. They were reliable and generous, they gave me energy, taught ME how to be more patient and a better mom, and they even cleaned my house!
Then there was my many loving and understanding friends who encouraged me through it all, who never let on that they probably figured I was off my nut, never judged me for being constantly short tempered and exasperated, never hinted that maybe I shouldn't be going to school after all or thought I was selfish to try. They just patted me on the back, tried to keep my spirits up, and listened patiently to my endless complaining. If only I were such a friend.
There were teachers, friends, and family members without whom I would never have gotten through my work. They read my papers and encouraged me in my writing. They stayed up late to talk about my work or the books I was reading or the theory my class was discussing or the Shakespeare play I was working on. They never failed to email me, to answer my questions or help me muddle through a problem. And they never treated me like I was anything less than brilliant, even though I know that I owe most of my academic achievements to their help and not my own intelligence or talent.
Finally, there were the people at the UBC theatre department and Bard on the Beach who gave me the chance to see what I was missing. Who opened the door to me in spite of my long absence from the theatre, my relative inexperience, and my lack of connection to anyone in the business. I never would have been able to let go of that dream if they hadn't let me in and given me the opportunity to judge whether I could ever pursue it while raising my kids.
The last two years have been probably the hardest of my life and certainly of my marriage. I stepped back in time and I'm darn lucky that I didn't mess up the space time continuum and lose my family or destroy their world in the process of figuring out what part of me I'd left behind and whether it was worth recovering. Now that I'm standing back where I was before I turned back, threads of my past all tied up fittingly on the day of my anniversary, I feel ready to face the future. I've got so many people who love me to keep me from failing along the way, to keep the threads of my life from unravelling while I muddle through.
Saturday, July 23, 2011
Coda: The Role of the Player
“The play's the thing”--Hamlet
At the first rehearsal of a recent production of As You Like It, which I had the privilege to observe, the director opened the read-through of the script with the words “Now, it's Good Friday today, so feel free to crucify yourselves.” He meant, of course, that the actors were welcome to approach the script with as much creative gusto as they liked and ought not be too self-conscious about it. A sound piece of advice I thought, and one that I find too often actors need to be reminded of—especially when they approach Shakespeare. The simple reason, I expect, is this: modern actors favour character-focused interpretations over plot-centred ones. Such an approach assumes that Hamlet's value of “that within” is greater than a man's outward actions and that the truth and value of something is dependent upon its inward emotional manifestation. We have already examined the dangers of this approach for the actor. However, we have said little about the quality of the performance it produces.
As a part of the Elizabethan repertory system, plays were produced at frequent intervals. Andrew Gurr notes in The Shakespearean Stage that the players “can have had little time for doing more while studying their parts than the essential learning of the lines”(103). They performed 6 days a week and each day demanded a new play. Gurr observes that, “The Admiral's in their 1594-5 season...offered their audiences a total of thirty-eight plays, of which twenty-one were new to the repertory, added at more or less fortnightly intervals” (103). Such frequent introduction of new plays would hardly have allowed for in-depth character interpretations. As such, players were often type-cast to some degree according to their talents and plays were often tailored with the talents of the particular company in mind. While actors were admired for their versatility, the breadth of their talents rather than the idiosyncrasies of their interpretations were the real attractions.
By contrast, the modern actor is concerned with producing realistic and complex emotions on the stage. The preparatory work of the actor often involves a labour-some psychological background study of his character, including the invention of that character's biographical history. It is an extensive individual creative process. Similarly, in the modern production of Shakespeare plays, the design and direction of the play often involves careful and particular decisions aimed at offering a unique concept and fresh approach to the play. This approach or interpretation is frequently based on a particular message or issue of great personal importance to the director. In other words, the modern theatrical production is not only carefully crafted in its every detail, but is also essentially self-referential.
There is no question that Shakespeare took the purposes of playing very seriously, that his plays offered much more than mere entertainment, and that much of his own personal interests, beliefs and ideas must have gone into his writing. But the concept of a play or of that play's characters could not have been intended to overshadow the scripted play as a whole. The practical and business lives of the company members would have made such detailed artistic refinement impossible.
As such, many of Shakespeare's plays give trouble to modern actors and directors because they must invent non-existent motives and explanations to account for scenes or dialogue, which may have been intended as little more than an entertaining interlude to display the talents of a particular player. Such an idealistic approach to the script can, in a way, be admirably reverential. The assumption behind this approach, I imagine, may be that Shakespeare's genius is such that one must only stare at a play long enough and like a Magic Eye stereographic it will reveal its ultimate unifying truth. All the director needs to do to make sense of the play is figure out the meaning and purpose of anomalous scenes or bits of dialogue.
No doubt this approach is partly symptomatic of the past two hundred years of character-focused criticism, but the expectation that each play should be a consistent unified revelation of truth often leads to the most fantastical interpretations of characters and the creation of ever more bizarre play-concepts. And perhaps more unfortunately, it leads to the alteration of the script in order to aim at such concepts and present a unified play. Such a production is not one of the author's invention, but of the director's and the players'. The play is lost in the concept of the play, the character is lost in the concept of the character and the play, and the humanity of the production is lost in the concept of humanity represented by the production.
Part of this problem, I think, is due to the widely accepted method of characterization first introduced by Constantin Stanislavski, and now taught almost universally as part of an actor's training. Stanislavski invented what is known as “method acting” or “the method.” The basic principles of his approach involve an actor's use of his personal memories or actions on stage to produce convincing emotions. The actor is not performing a fake emotion. He is endeavouring to produce the emotion psychologically through memory or action and to react to it genuinely.
Most actors utilize method principles to some degree and many of today's most lauded and versatile actors are of the method school. Audiences value the believability of an actor's stage performance and there is no question that method principles help bring about some of the most marvellous and complex character interpretations which audiences cannot help but admire for their texture and realism. However, because the actors are looking at themselves and focused on their individual emotions as a way to tell the story, they are too often busy finding the truth of their character's emotions to tell Shakespeare's story instead of their own. The overall value of the play as a whole is often diminished
The loss to the performance is threefold. First, the method-actor whose performance is self-referential, runs the risk of never really performing anybody but himself. There is a sensationally funny scene in David Mamet's State and Main in which an actor is insisting to his director that cuts must be made to the script before they begin shooting. When the director asks his film star why a certain line must be cut the actor responds, “Because he wouldn't say that.” What the actor really means of course is that he himself wouldn't say that. With this attitude, the character is perceived by the actor as just another incarnation of himself under different circumstances and the craft of acting amounts to little less than self-indulgent fantasy.
Secondly, the actor who uses a self-referential form of characterization, while often pulling off brilliantly complex creative performances, also contributes little to the unified effort of the cast of a stage play. Method techniques may work wonderfully in film when one can cut and paste different shots or re-record dialogue to create a certain flow and consistency. But on the stage the players must work together to tell a story in real-time. I recall seeing Paul Gross play Hamlet in Stratford, Ontario several years ago, and while his performance of the character was quite compelling, the play itself was utterly forgettable. None of the actors were really talking to each other—least of all the lead, and the story was again eclipsed by the character.
Third and finally, the actor who is self-referential not only cuts himself off from his fellow actors, making for a disjointed production, but he also cuts himself off from his audience. This approach is easier because it involves looking no further than himself for emotionally stimulating material, but it is also easier because it is safe. While I was observing the rehearsals for As You Like It the actor playing Orlando was struggling with his opening speech and the coach recommended that he try not to allow the energy of his speech to build up in his shoulders, but to come from his gut and be cast into the audience. He tried the speech again in this manner and the result was beautifully engaging. The coach asked him how he felt about it and he replied that it was scary. When I asked him why, he said that throwing his performance out to the audience made him feel as though he was vulnerable and not in control. The actor who plays himself on the stage is effectively playing himself in disguise. The character becomes a barrier between himself and his audience and therefore any real contact with his audience is greatly diminished. The emotions he portrays are all genuine, but since they are not offered to the audience the loss to his performance is great.
In many instances I would argue, especially in the production of Shakespeare for the stage, what this approach amounts to is a disappointingly inconsistent play-experience. Shakespeare clearly felt that a person's actions, as opposed to emotions or intellectual thoughts, to be the determining factors of their character, both on and off the stage, and while there must be a certain amount of preparative thought that preempts a performance, method acting encourages a self-focused, emotive view of the craft which lends little to the talents of the actor, the production of a play, or the experience of an audience.
What Shakespeare seems to promote is an unself-conscious approach to acting which assumes a certain acceptance of one's part in the company. The clown may be free to extemporize but he was not free to play the hero. Nor indeed was the hero free to play the clown. In A Midsummer Night's Dream Shakespeare makes fun of the idea that being an actor proffers complete freedom to choose one's part. Bottom the Weaver repeatedly interrupts the handing out of parts in rehearsal to beg that he might play each one as well as his own, and while the absurdity of his excitement is almost endearing, the clear message is that every man must play his own part or there can be no play. Some men must play the heroes, others the lions, others amount to nothing more than a wall. The play is greater than the parts within it. This principle applies not only to the company of players, but to the world at large. The player's contribution to society is complex and important, but it is nonetheless a humble part to play and appears perfectly ludicrous when it is taken too seriously.
Thursday, March 10, 2011
Monday, March 7, 2011
I don't recall precisely the first time I picked up C.S. Lewis' The Four Loves. I read Lewis a lot in first year at UBC because he was a refreshing change from bullshit and something about his beautifully written, often intensely personal, and easily penetrable prose combined with his good common sense was just what I needed. It made me feel safe and a hell of a lot less confused.
Friday, March 4, 2011
I picked up a book of G.K. Chesterton's for the first time the other day because I am writing a term paper on rebellion against traditional forms of domesticity in the the inter-war period. I know: gripping. Chesterton was an outspoken advocate for the traditional family at a time when the Victorian ideal was under attack. The First World War left an entire generation shattered not only physically (through war wounds), but psychologically, politically, and socially. Chesterton felt that the attack on family values exacerbated the fractured psychological state of many Europeans and was detrimental politically as well. National identity was beginning to replace social identity and the casualties were both men and women, but most importantly children. Born into a world in which the home has no boundaries to separate them from the assault of capitalism, socialism, feminism, materialism, and atheism, children were given a more than daunting, perhaps even impossible, task of making sense of their world-- a job women were leaving for the State to manage.