When my daughter was 12 weeks old, I dropped her off at her new home daycare.
It was not the calmest of days. My grandfather’s shiva was concluding, my husband and I had flown back from our impromptu trip to Canada on the first flight of the morning, he was returning to work at the end of his paternity leave, and I was returning to work (late) after President’s day vacation. My entire family had some horrible flu-like bug we think we picked up at the hospice and my blissful 12-week-old was the only one not hurling.
Mother's Day and graphic design in Markham, Ontario
In April, I profiled software-designer-turned-artist Alex Hsu for the Markham Review after his artwork won the New Yorker annual cover art contest; profile appears here:
“Eustace Tilley in Gangnam Style” features Tilley dancing the Gangnam Style
dance with King Kong and the Statue of Liberty. “Coded Age” is closer to the
classic New Yorker cover, but Tilley’s hat and shirt are patterned with a bar
code, the butterfly is replaced with a QR code, and Tilley himself is holding
what appears to be a smartphone.
For Mother's Day, I wrote about fun things to do in and around Markham, here.
When Rena was born, I came up with a three-point financial plan: beg, borrow and steal.
My revulsion for larceny led me to interpret point #3 as "get everything you absolutely must buy for a steal."
Especially diapers. Really. The baby wears it for 5 minutes (if we're not lucky) or 10 hours (if we are) and then we just toss it in the trash. I'm not paying full price!
At first, a great Groupon made me think, diapers.com is the place to be. Then that great Groupon disqualified us from any discount ever again, and we said sayonara. For a while, we were using the Amazon Mom discounts on Amazon to score super-cheap diapers, discounted 30% and paid for with gift cards I got for free with Swagbucks and credit card points.
Have I mentioned I'm nuts?
All the while, my obsession with finding the best coupon codes was fueled by my favorite frugal mommy bloggers, Kosher on a Budget and Chief Family Officer. Unfortunately, a lot of the good couponing principles (like "stock up when there is a good price" and "wait for sales") don't work when there is only 1 diaper between the baby being adorable and the baby peeing on the bed on Shabbat morning.
I'm a bit annoyed because Amazon Mom is now only offering discounts of 20% on new subscriptions, meaning that I need to find a new "cheapest place to get wipes". I had lately been cheating on Amazon with CVS for diapers, since I can get the same gift cards with credit card points, and the Extra Bucks and stacked coupons often make a lackluster sale really cheap. However, the wipes deals have not been as easy to find. I expect that Ari will mutiny if I announce that we'll resume wiping the baby's adorable derriere with paper towels, like the doctor made us do for the first 12 weeks of her life.
We all have our own points of view, the things we don't care about and the things we can't let go. The thrill I get from a good deal combined with my feeling that I should not pay good money for anything I use to wipe my baby's butt keeps me reading circulars and pining for specials. Until the day I'm the lunatic driving a tractor trailer away from a store with $1000 worth of goods I paid $12 for in an episode of Extreme Couponing (which I'm convinced cannot be real), I'll be reading my circulars, searching for the best price and running to two CVS stores at 10pm on a Saturday night to get the best deal before it expires. In my own bizarre way, I'll consider it worth it.
Seriously, have you seen what they are charging for diapers these days?
Check out my profile of Mother's Milk Bank of New England founder Naomi Bar-Yam in Brandeis Magazine here:
“Milk banks are really designed to help premature, hospitalized babies,” she says. “Our screening procedures for both mothers and the milk they donate are so involved because we’re taking surplus milk from a healthy, full-term baby and providing it to a baby who weighs just 1 or 2 pounds.”
When Rena was born, I wanted to remember all the details, so I tried to record them as a note on my iPod. I went back and reread it, and had ended up with a dry list of facts I recorded between IVs, monitors and epidurals. Ari did a much better job, which Isis published today on their Parenting Starts Here blog. An excerpt:
The surgery went really well. Shortly before the baby was delivered, Aliza said something along the lines of "okay, call it. Boy or girl?" Neither of us really wanted to guess. I had a brief glimpse of a little blue thing get handed to the pediatricians, who then went to work. It took a few minutes before the baby started crying. They were probably the most terrifying moments of my life. I heard a lot of suctioning, and oxygen being pumped, while several people called out facts and figures. (The baby’s first APGAR score was a 5, the second was an 8. As a teacher, Aliza totally understands the need for the occasional retest.) One of the nurses came over to our side of the drapes to tell us that the pediatricians were doing their thing. Before she walked away, I managed to ask, "is it a boy or a girl?!" Amidst all of the carefully organized chaos, nobody bothered to inform us. The nurse ran over to peek, then came back to tell us that we were the parents of a little girl.
If it's not TMI, you can check out the rest of the story here.
My husband came home with a code for Hood cottage cheese rewards after a trip to Stop and Shop last week, which is right about when I discovered that the corporate rewards world had hit oversaturation.
When I first began to collect airline points, shortly after moving to Cambridge in 2005, I set a goal for myself: I would know I was doing a savvy job juggling points programs if I could fly for free once a year. Alternating Aeroplan miles, Aadvantage points and Bank of America rewards points, I have basically made that goal and flown for free or almost free four times. We also now have enough points for at least one free flight in the winter or spring.
Once upon a time, the rewards program world was a small one: airlines, credit cards, and that was about it. In Toronto, my father would make sure to pay Canadian Tire (like a smaller Home Depot) in cash so he could get his Canadian Tire money - literally, fake money that you could use at the store. These programs were particularly valuable to us, and I learned from him that it made sense to consider where you were buying, how you were paying, etc. so you could work all the angles and get the most rewards. If only all rewards programs that later sprang up were that straightforward and easy to use.
I got into survey-based incentive programs early (I've been doing e-Rewards for almost five years). When I joined, it was sponsored by Aadvantage, and I once got 1000 Aadvantage miles from them for the many surveys I had taken. A year or so later, a $50 gift card to Starbucks showed up in the mail. I was following, of course, the cardinal rule of rewards programs: they are only really valuable if you can use them to get things for free that you would have paid money for otherwise. Since I make it my goal to underspend my coffee budget and put the excess right into savings, and since I was never intending to miss my grandmother's 75th birthday, both rewards directly saved me money. There are many other programs whose email updates I've received, or who I've tried out, and none have delivered the way e-Rewards has. Not everyone is such a fan, though, including me two years later. They only gave out Starbucks gift cards for a really short time and they discontinued their partnership with American Airlines a while back. I now get rewards and don't know what to use them for. I've got too much credit to allow to expire, so I get magazine subscriptions, fill out the occasional survey and hope for better rewards in the future. But the time I spend on a site like theirs is directly proportional to the value I expect to get out of it going forward; in the case of e-Rewards these days, I'd say that both of those are "almost none."
You can't always tell at first if a rewards program will be good for you. I was passing along Coke points for My Coke Rewards to my brother-in-law for the longest time before we decided we could probably use it to our advantage. I admit, I have never been an early adopter, so though my sister-in-law sent me an invitation to Swagbucks in November '08, I didn't sign up until January 2010. Swagbucks seems to me to be in the same category as MyPoints, where the best benefits come to those who buy things and "participate" in "special offers" - read: buy things - but I regret not signing up 14 months earlier for Swagbucks. One of my favorite mommy bloggers, Chief Family Officer, calls it her favorite way to make free money, and I have come to agree since it only takes me 2ish months of >1 minute a day of investment and I get a $5 Amazon gift card effectively for free. Since the advent of Amazon's "Subscribe and Save," I've been buying certain groceries online, and this knocks down the price. (In one memorable transaction, I got 48 Timothy's K-cups for $2.21.) But I have no use for MyPoints. I am pretty sure I've been a member for longer, but I have never received a tangible benefit.
We all have a calculus of how much finagling and tracking is worth our time. I am of the mindset that if you wait to buy something until you absolutely need it, you'll probably pay too much. This has its reasonable limits - such as non-pregnant people buying maternity clothes - but is certainly true for things that one will use eventually, like toothpaste and toilet paper. If you're careful with coupons and savvy about ExtraBucks, you can get these items for a fraction of their original price (and sometimes even "make money" in the form of ExtraBucks) when you buy these things at CVS. I avoid making myself crazy, though, by sticking to one store, so I ignore Walgreens' parallel Register Rewards program. There are normal human limits.
It's a lot easier in this day and age to stretch a buck. Coming from Canada, where there are fewer consumers and less attractive programs, I am always appreciative of the ease of finding good sales, cheap shipping, coupons and coupon codes, and online shopping portals. (I use Ebates and Bank of America's Add it Up, though I prefer Ebates.) I like feeling like my loyalty and patronage are rewarded, that I am saving money I might otherwise have spent, and that I am doing my utmost to keep spending down so I can build a nest egg for the future. The road to financial security seems to sometimes be filled with useless rewards programs, and I occasionally think that the energy I put into something (like the Tropicana rewards program) has been completely wasted.
The fundamental theorem of corporate rewards programs seems to be simple: Their goal is to get you to spend more money than you initially intended, a larger fraction of your shopping budget there than elsewhere, and to get you to "come in" (in-store or online) for something cheap and wind up buying something expensive as well.
But who is to say that any of this is not to your advantage? The math is simple. If: Benefit to you > cost to you (especially if you would have spent the money anyways,) Then: It is worth your time.
That being said, there is some saying about needing to kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince, so I recently signed up for Hood Cottage Cheese rewards and Pampers Gift to Grow (since I'm hoping to have a lot of points before the baby is born so that we can reduce our inevitable spending by using rewards.) Though I ought to spend the rest of the evening doing work, my husband just walked into the apartment with my new issue of Conde Nast Traveler, to which I got a free subscription through e-Rewards. On the cover? A text box advertising "How to Save a Bundle: 15 Magic Web Sites."
Dear Fetus, you can come out of my womb if you promise not to lick the walls
In honor of our recent move, I wrote the piece below when it was still quite uncertain where on earth we were going to be living in the fall. I publish it as a musing on the absurd state of RWP (renting while pregnant) in Massachusetts. We do have a happy ending - we are now quite settled into our new apartment in Brookline, though we never did find a three-bedroom. I suppose it will richly prepare us for what we will shortly teach Fetus - you can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get a third-floor walk up not far from Coolidge Corner, and you think, "I can live with this."
I see them everywhere. Happy moms pushing strollers and fit pregnant women jogging, preparing their babies for all the advantages Brookline has to offer. I have taken to looking jealously at these happy families, wondering, "Where do they live?" And of course, "Do they have any vacancies?"
Brookline, like many parts of Metro Boston, has much to offer young families. Excellent schools, library programs for tots, playgrounds, and the Box Office Babies program at the Coolidge Theatre. My husband and I would love to raise a child here. If only we could find a place to do it.
When I tell landlords and realtors that my husband and I want a three-bedroom apartment, they always ask dubiously "And it's just you?" While the law doesn't require mommies and daddies to disclose this, and actually forbids discrimination against kids and families, I don't feel comfortable hiding the 21-week old blob in my uterus that my husband and I have taken to calling "Blueberry". But I don't want to disclose Blueberry's existence either. To many landlords, our little bundle of joy is their little nightmare. They see my oh-so fashionable baby bump and expect that he or she will pop out and commence a lead-paint-chip-eating contest with some infant buddies.
When we made the mistake of telling one landlord that we were in fact hoping to move somewhere we could raise our future kids, she would not let us apply without a lead paint inspection - that we had to pay for. Many other landlords said things like "Ours is a building full of roommates - we're not sure a married couple would fit in."
Of course, the history of discrimination of any group is full of code words and insinuation. Many groups of people have been led to feel that people "like them" were not welcome, even if it wasn't explicitly stated. And though Craigslist proudly proclaims "Stating a discriminatory preference in a housing post is illegal," it's clear that you don't have to state something to enact it. Instead, parents turn into detectives, lying about having kids and scoping out a potential place to see if there are strollers by the front door and Pampers boxes in the recycling.
The countdown to the birth of our first child is T minus 19 weeks, but even less time remains until it will be patently obvious to any realtor that I'm pregnant, so my residential clock is ticking much louder than my biological one. Though I am confident I'll be able to put a roof of some kind over Blueberry's head, I'm worried that we'll have to settle - for something too small, too leaded or too far from our synagogue. If that happens, I know that in two years we'll be apartment hunting again, searching for a place to raise toddler Blueberry and any sibling whose debut may or may not be imminent. But regardless of how many kids we plan to have, without a culture shift here in town we'll just have to keep saying "it's just us!"
Over a Sabbath meal this week, one of my friends commented that everyone had a blog five years ago - and no one has one now. Hard-core writers maintain them, but who ever has the time to update frequently unless it's a core part of their business strategy? For everyone else, there are Twitter and the Facebook status update. Since most of you who are reading this post are reading it syndicated to my Facebook page, I think the point is true.
I've been too busy to maintain this blog properly lately, leaving my grad speech unposted for an entire month and my comments unmoderated. (All those Chinese spammers must have been biting their nails, waiting for me to publish their comments. Rejected!)
Of course, it's a truism that if you want to get something done, ask a busy person to do it. Christina Katz wrote about that this week. As a teacher, I cannot believe that my summer is half over and I don't have a free minute to blog. (Question - you ask, "Why are you blogging now, Aliza? Does this not prove you have free time?" Answer: It just proves that I procrastinate as well as I snark.)
However, I agree with Christina. I am blessed to be so busy. I am blessed to have projects to work on for school that excite me. I am blessed to be expecting my first child. I am, thus, blessed to spend all my free time on hold with realtors, movers, daycares, pediatricians and utilities. The big move is in two weeks exactly and I have until Friday to get my office at work ready for the cleaners to take out all the furniture and clean it. This would all be nothing, except Fetus has given me a curfew - one hour doing anything, and my feet hurt.
Before bed, I expect to pack 4 more boxes, hand wash two more shirts, practice piano, and catch up on emails and phone calls. I would not have it any other way.
My first foray into speechwriting occurred somewhere around May 2004, when I went to speak to a Hadassah luncheon in Toronto about the challenges facing students on campus. I still have a thank you note from them somewhere in my parents' basement.
Speechwriting was not the most well-worn tool in my writing arsenal before late April, when on a lark I decided to enter the Harvard Extension School commencement speaker contest. My style tends to be to run long, and what I would consider only the second speech I ever wrote was twice as long as it needed to be when I entered the contest. (Special thanks to Shanna for reading it and suggesting cuts.) I was flattered and shocked when they called to tell me I won - and needed to chop three of the first four paragraphs. Two sessions with an extraordinary public speaking professor later, I was ready to give my first major address since my bat mitzvah. The text is below the embedded slightly sketchy quality Youtube video.
Lessons learned? Try things that you're not an expert at. That's the only way to become an expert (or at least proficient, in the meanwhile). Take public speaking from Marjorie North should you ever have the opportunity.
Extensions By Aliza Libman
In this year of the Harvard Extension School centennial, it’s clear that our school has fashioned a place for itself at the intersection between past and future. We take our classes on the same campus where many long-dead presidents once walked, but our prominence today is probably more linked to our Googleablity: When you Googletm “extension school”, we’re the first link that pops up. When you Googletm “extension” by itself, we’re third. This factoid is something that everyone graduating today from Educational Technologies, Information Technology, and Management recognizes as a substantial achievement.
We all have unique stories – and, as a teacher, I feel compelled to tell you that if we’re all unique, then really none of us are. In my journey through the Harvard Extension School, I discovered a number of different “extensions” that make me proud to stand here today. I think you will all glimpse shades of your own experiences in my story. I have previously mentioned that I’m a teacher. I grew up in Toronto Canada, and fell in love with Harvard (and Boston in general) at a young age. But an undergrad career at Harvard was not my destiny– I shudder to think that I actually handwrote my application form (in the year 2001!) – and though they never believe me, I always tell my private school students that not getting into Harvard for undergrad was the best thing that ever happened to me. Instead, I got a great education degree in Toronto for a sum of money that seems shockingly small in retrospect, and – because I was still in love with Beantown – got a great job teaching religious education in Brookline. And though people laugh when I say the excellent public transit drew me to Boston, it’s hard to scoff at my happy ending – I found a great career and a wonderful husband, all because I did such a poor job filling out my Harvard College application form.
So by now you are probably all wondering, “What on earth does this have to do with extension?” The first way I have found to connect this term to our school comes from the fact that I felt my career was missing something. Like many of you, I came here to extend my marketability. Many people often feel that the amount of respect they get for their skills is not directly proportional to their achievements, and we are here today because we wanted to earn degrees that would formalize what we already knew about ourselves. My desire to have a master’s degree led me to Harvard Extension’s Math for Teaching program, which stood apart from the dozens and dozens of interchangeable M.Ed. programs that didn’t interest me one bit. I didn’t want to take basic human development again or reflect about how teaching math made me feel, like I did with my first education degree. This brings me to Extension #2: By allowing students in the Math for Teaching program to choose which disciplines to study, Harvard extends the options available to teachers looking for professional development. While some of you took graph theory, I took Statistics for Baseball Fans, and learned about many important concepts I’d be able to discuss with my students – whether it was linear regression or the propensity of very few players to steal the majority of bases. Similarly, though computer science was offered every semester, I was more interested in probability. There were many ways I found these varied courses could work together nicely - like the time I used Bayes theorem to calculate the conditional probability I’d get at least a B minus on my calculus final, given the fact that I had a 70% percent chance of pulling an all-nighter.
The third extension I’ll mention is not one I’d prefer to discuss, but we cannot ignore the fact that there have been days when all this personal and professional extension and advancement has left us feeling overextended. Days when we ran to refill parking meters on breaks during lecture, when the red line got stuck underground three days in a row in December, when we were caught between commitments to class and commitments to our other priorities. We’ve all had to ask ourselves – what is most important to me? Is it my job or my GPA? We’ve had to sacrifice and accommodate, but we have found that a hand of support has been extended to us by our classmates, professors and colleagues. I personally found my program director, professors and thesis director willing to meet with me early in the morning and late in the evening, a level of personal accommodation that I would never have expected to be routine here.
My story is one of extension. No amount of calculus would enableus to do the time management necessary to balance Harvard, work and family. I’ve had to adapt my plans in life to accommodate various unexpected developments, but I’ve found a program that was better suited for me and my needs than I ever expected. I’ve also had to be flexible about what I consider appropriate and acceptable for myself. Many of us have had to extend the amount of time it takes to do what we wish to accomplish – according to the Extension School website, the average age of one of our students is 35. Many of us have had to broaden our personal definition of “cum laude” – given all that is demanded of us in all areas of our lives, it should be Latin for “I almost can’t believe that I finished.”
We have a lot to be proud of. There may not be that many of us, but you and I know that the adversity we overcame to be here, at this stage in our lives, makes our collective presence at Commencement quite the triumph. Whether it’s writing papers while packing lunches for our children, studying for finals while on break at work, or in my case, getting the take home final exam faxed to my hotel in DC and then completing it while on a bus with 30 exuberant 14-year-old girls, we have all moved mountains to be here today.
We’re all here for different reasons – but we are all here to extend our prospects. We’ve all had different paths through the school. Some of us know all our classmates and some of us have sat in classrooms filled entirely with strangers the entire semester – come on, you know you have – but we have all offered a hand of friendship or had one offered to us.
Though each of us has had a different experience, we have all been enriched. We know our lives will be changed because we took a chance, made some sacrifices, and extended our lives to include the Harvard Extension School. It’s too soon to tell how these degrees we are earning today will change our lives, but we’re here to celebrate because we know that we are fortunate that Harvard Extension was available to us.
Subversive Sequels in the Bible: How Biblical Stories Mine and Undermine Each Other by Judy Klitsner. (Jewish Publication Society, 173 pp. $35)
Judy Klitsner’s award-winning first book challenges her readers to take a fresh look at familiar biblical characters. Klitsner’s refusal to gloss over the Bible’s complexity and ambiguity lends to rich readings of the text. Her literary approach examines repeated Hebrew roots to unearth hidden meaning, and extensive textual references engage masters and novices alike. Quoting Abraham Joshua Heschel, who says the Bible “speaks in every language and in every age,” Klitsner addresses head-on the challenges of finding modern-day relevance in the Bible, especially in relation to women’s issues. She analyzes without apologizing, leaving the reader with much to consider. --Aliza Libman
Yesterday, Christina Katz solicited Memoir Recommendations from Folks on Facebook and Twitter. I thought I'd share my Passover reading gems, in the form of a book and a blog. Both are about my favorite topic, food. (Somewhere in the background, an anthropomorphic travel avatar is whining, "I thought I was your favorite topic!")
Former Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl wrote Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise about her tenure as food critic for the New York Times. Like other similar books I've reviewed, it has a personal tone that was very engaging and it has recipes interspersed throughout the book. I was floored to hear her review chefs I've seen on Top Chef and get her take on how nastily she was treated when she was in disguise. I've never had the opportunity to dine at truly glitzy restaurants, though Ari and I had lovely times at Le Marais in NYC and El Gaucho in Jerusalem. As I recall, the experience of feeling taken care of is the best part. ("The chef sends an amuse bouche? How thoughtful of him! How did he know my mouth was in desperate need of some amusement?) I'm all for anonymous reviewers - I would not wish to dine anywhere that thought they could boost their restaurant's credibility by treating half the guests as second-class citizens.
Shortly before Passover, my sister recommended Elisha's Double Portion blog. I went to school with Elisha briefly in 2001 so I'm not surprised she came up with an idea for a blog that's so creative, I wish I had thought of it. Elisha blogs weekly about food and the weekly Torah portion, finding foods that match the content of the Torah portion. (I can't wait to see what she does with leprosy next week.) It's not a quick read because her weekly posts are long and full of recipes and photos.
In case you were wondering what I've been reading while I was supposed to be doing something productive, these ladies are it.