Sunday, August 30, 2015

Simply complicated

They were gathered around me like medical students crowding a hospital bed. They watched every move I made as if lives depended on their ability to bear witness.

And they were silent.

But it was my turn to ask the questions.

How do you turn it on?” I asked the boy.

This lever, right here, slides down,” he said, raising and lowering his hand in the air in front of him.

How do you adjust the settings?” I asked the girl.

I believe that knob underneath the lever has number markings. That's how you make adjustments.”

Good. Good.

Tricky question: How do you interrupt the process in an emergency?

Hit this button right there,” said the boy with a smirk. “The one that says 'Cancel'.”

OK, almost ready … One more question:

What should you never, ever, ever, ever do. ... Not in a million years?”

And they answered in unison using the tone-deaf-sing-song voice of pre-adolescent apathy: “Stick anything metal into the slots. … We know, we know. ... Can we just make toast now?!”

This was a momentous occasion, after all.

We have never, ever, in the dozen or so years of being a family, owned a proper toaster.

If you wanted evenly crunchy bread to slather with butter and jam in our house you had one of three options:

1) Let it go stale.
2) Stand in front of the toaster oven and burn all your fingers (as well as the bread).
3) Go to a diner.

Your wondering why you're reading this right now, aren't you? You are wondering: What kind of person doesn't have a toaster? What kind of rube can't toast bread in a toaster oven?

Well, I'll tell you.

The kind of person who secretly calculates the cost ratio of oven-to-toast-product efficiency. And then asks: How many ovens in a kitchen is too many? We already have a convection oven, a microwave oven and a toaster oven, do we really need the smallest in the series of nesting ovens to crisp bread?

Oh, wait. … That was my husband back there. He was the one questioning my sanity and my counter space as I gushed over how the kids had made their own whole grain “toast flags” at grandma's house. How they'd even looked up nations' flags to accurately represent in stripes of peanut butter and jam. Not to mention how cute Japan's center looked in a bright red, homemade raspberry blend.

For the sake of their global education, we need a toaster.”

So off to the department store we went.

Picked out a cherry of a toaster. Now, I can't be certain, because I didn't do any in-depth research into the purchase. But it sure looked like a snazzy device, with its name-brand logo, its bagel-sized slots, its one-touch cancel feature, and its easily removable crumb tray.

We would not be burning our house to the ground because we'd been unable to empty a more difficult crumb tray, no sir-ee.

As we stood there -- mouths watering for the taste of toast-y goodness -- I started to wonder why I've neglected this simple culinary pleasure.

Wondering why I'd ever settle for burnt-on-one-side-soggy-on-the-other substitute the toaster over spit out at me all these years when a toaster was always just a hardware-store impulse-buy away?

But then reality has a way of needling in, reminding me that “simple” has a way of getting complicated.

Turns out, I am also the same person who buys a toaster, plugs it into the wall, gives their kids a five-part tutorial on the safety and efficacy of using counter-top appliances only to find out the toaster is a dud.

That's right. It didn't work. Fresh off the shelf and out of the big box store and … Nothing. No light. No heat. No toast.

I was speechless.

I say we zap it with the mixer,” laughs the girl. “I'll rub the beaters together and yell, 'clear!' That should get it working again.”

“Wait. Hold on. Hold on. ... Since when do we have a mixer?”

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Do they feel our pain?

Do I need a pencil sharpener,asked the boy as he skipped alongside the shopping cart, thumping his feet in time with the clank of a rickety wheel.

Nope,I answered with confidence. His third grade school supplies list was refreshingly brief:

Twenty-four pencils, two erasers, a large box of crayons, two glue sticks, two dry erase markers, one spiral note book, three composition books, a cube of sticky notes and a few yellow highlighters.

But do I neeeeeed one?he asked again, prompting me to read the paper in my hand more carefully.

It was a crumpled, messy thing. All summer long I had taken it out of his hot little hands, refolded it and pegged it back onto the refrigerator above his natural reach but not above his much taller, chair-dragged-out-from-the-dining-room height.

It's not time yet,I said gruffly, knowing that other families may be able to save on school supplies by buying early but not us. All those shiny new things would be soggy and used before September if they lived in our house too long.

Are you sure I don't need a pencil sharpener,he interrupted my flashback with new urgency.

The only other items on the list two boxes of facial tissue and a box of gallon-sized resealable plastic bags we would find at the grocery store.

I turned the page over.

It was blank.

No. Pencil sharpener is definitely NOT on the list.”

His face told me that somehow I had not understood his question, I had missed the subtleties of tone with respect to his back-to-school shopping voice, which was only slightly different from his hen is it Summer Vacationvoice and his re We There Yetvoice.

But, even he understood that his mom's School Shopping voice seemed a little too relaxed to be catching his meaning. He had to be more blunt:

Can I have a pencil sharpener anyway?”

I didn't even speak I just nodded toward the cart. It was a supply-side demand that seemed a breeze compared to what I faced with his middle-school-entering sister, who stalked along behind us, staring at her list and muttering to herself as we crisscrossed the store.

She smiled faintly and her eyes glazed over as she unfurled the two-sided, tiny-print scroll that one might presume from its size listed every item available in inventory at the office supply warehouse.

This may take a while,she said with an air of adolescent importance. There are so many things I need.

By the time we finished, the wonky-wheeled cart was having trouble navigating turns it was so overfilled with notebooks and binders, reams of loose-leaf paper, page dividers, index cards, pencils and pens, pocket folders and zippered pencil cases, markers and rulers, and tools I had to look up online.

Is a 'four-function' calculator a standard device,I asked the cardboard display of scientific instruments, presumably visiting from Texas.

It never answered, it just mocked me with too many buttons and symbols I didn't understand.

Mom, you're losing it,sang my daughter as she dropped an inexpensive calculator in the carriage. It was a pretty pink-colored plastic cherry on top of the haul.

By the time we got to the check-out line I was worried my credit card might just collapse under the weight of this pending debt. But I was more worried the forrest that gave its life for this school year would haunt my dreams.

And I just hope all the pencils my boy sharpens unnecessarily don't feel any pain.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

A mother on the edge in Vacationland

The squabbling had reached a crescendo. Vacation wasn't even halfway over and already the meter on flailing tempers had run out.

Mostly, it seemed, the meter had run out on mine.

It always starts innocuously enough. A little theatrical play put on by vacationing cousins. The stage has a rumpled bedspread. The costumes are fashioned out of moth-eaten table cloths. When the plot meanders -- as it traditionally tends to do in these homemade productions – and the smaller of the relatives get antsy, the advice to break a leg, all of a sudden sounds literal.

Arguments escalate.

Growling starts.

Punches aren't pulled.

Timeouts become cease-and-desist orders.

Over and over it goes, rolling like waves in an ocean that is childhood.

As a parent, I try to make everyone happy. But it soon becomes clear that I am fighting a losing battle. As a parent, I feel, I have failed.

All along, my decisions have lacked decisiveness. I had tried to balance the waves while the middle ground I'd hoped to occupy eroded away.

And then the whole ocean seemed to crash over me.

Someone, I suppose, had to step in. But when that someone was my husband -- the man, who, up until this point had reaped heaps of praise for grilling the meals that I had prepared and washed up -- something inside me broke.

The words had come out of his mouth like legal decree from someone almighty.

Decision made. The end. All that's left is for him to dusts his own hands and turn on his heels and for everything else to fall into step behind him.

Only there was a wake from this top-down decree, and in it was a building storm and an open convertible waiting for the rains to come pouring inside.

I wanted to scream.

In my head I could hear the crystal-shattering notes as they headed straight for the intended target.

But when I looked around I saw a roomful of uncomfortable faces -- some of whom were probably wishing they were playing "Barbies" in the next room instead of watching me lose my bearings in the land of adulthood -- nothing came out but three overly calm words: “I am done.”

I'm not doing this anymore.

I'm not smoothing anything over. I'm not making anything nice. I don't want to be the monkey in the middle.

If this keeps up I'll end up just being the monkey slinging poo.

I am done being a referee.

I can't make everyone get along. I can't force Tab A to fit into Slot, B and I don't understand why we have to fix it to begin with. Hand the kids a roll of transparent tape and they will revel in their own handiwork.

So what if it's ugly?

So what if it breaks?

They can go right ahead and fix it all by themselves. They will use chewing gum or spit or the whole roll of tape. And in the end it will be a mess or a masterpiece of their own creation.

The credit will be all theirs.

Because I'm done. I'm off the clock. I'm not taking any calls.

Leave a message after the beep, I'll talk to you next week.

When I'm back from vacation.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Spitting images

“She's the spitting image of you,” said the lady behind the counter as she handed my daughter a sack full of candy with one hand, and me a fistful of change with the other.

I just smiled as I stashed the cash, but I could feel the tiny little room in the tourist-town trinket shop shrink into an uncomfortable silence.

Ittybit remained quiet, too. Though, something was different in her silence. Her face showed not just the pre-teen annoyance of being noticed at all – an always futile attempt to hide embarrassment – but also an embarrassment that has started maturing into a wound.

I knew that expression. I've worn it myself. It was merely a pink tinge on peachy flesh, but it burns like raw scrapes on thin skin.

She does NOT want to look like me. She doesn't want to dress like me … or talk like me … or make any of the same decisions I have made in my lifetime … ever.

As hurtful any of those thoughts as can be. … we've all had them.

And I suppose, all it really amounts to is that she wants to be herself: which, I try to explain, is really just the mirror image of the person she sees in photographs. ... If it's an image at all.

Our frail egos … wanting to be different … and the same, only uniquely so.

This isn't a proud feeling, though it is filled with pride. We love our parents and grandparents, we may feel safe looking into comfortable faces and secure leaning into their ample embraces -- but we don't want to look like them with their flabby folds and their furry moles.

We just can't help ourselves. And who am I to blame her?

She doesn't want to look like me – a 40-something matron with frown-lines and unnaturally colored hair – any more than I want to resemble my mother – a 70-something stroke patient with a crooked smile.

Moreover, who are we to blame them for noting a resemblance?

Don't we all fall into that same trap? On the surface, the words mean nothing. Just noise to interrupt the silence. Just throwaway sentiments we inflate in our minds to epic proportions.

I don't know why small talk often has big implications. But it does seem to be just the tip of an iceberg that has the potential to sink our foundering ships. Small talk is the reason the internet exists at all; to put all possible slights (not caused by dinner-table politics) in listicle form as a cautionary tale for all who have ever Googled in the past or who will ever Google in the future, whatever the search engine name.

Ten things you should never say to a new mother …

Ten things you should never say to an adolescent …

Ten things you should never say ever again to anyone …

Ten things you can add to the ten things we subtracted last time you were here …

Of course … until you find yourself among strangers, and ice must be broken … what else is there besides taking note of the weather and other random observations, such as: “Well, I can tell that you two are definitely related, you look like the spitting image of each other.”

“Spitting image. That's just gross,” she growls in deflection once we've left the store.

“You don't really look like me,” I tell her in reassurance, the same way my mother told me. “We have long hair and light skin and we walked in here together. The mind draws those conclusions, not the eyes.

“But next time maybe we should try an experiment. Next time, YOU should buy the candy and I'LL eat the candy. Let's see if they think you're the mom and I'm the kid.”

“That would probably just make me spitting mad.”

Sunday, August 02, 2015

The great out of doors

At 7 a.m., when there was still breeze in the air and sun was yet to scald, the great out of doors seemed like such a good idea.

"We're going out," I had said to the kids.

"Can we bring our iPods?"


"Will there be free wifi when we get there?"

"No, but there will be free woodlands."
Turns out my kids already know everything there is to know about the great out of doors, and it seems highly overrated.

For one thing, it's hot out there.

Know how I know? My eight-year-old tells me repeatedly of his suffering. He also reminds me that his socks are damp and his shoes are swamped. And that it’s all my fault.

Eight-year-olds are big on assigning blame.

His sister's job, on the other hand, is to remind me -- wordlessly, of course, but not without ample drama -- that good parents would have brought bug spray and water, and quite possibly a Sherpa, on this forced hiking trip into the wilderness.

But there we were anyway, sprinting around a mile-long forest loop, trying to get back to where we started so this particular trail of tears could end.

Sadly, we are not the people we imagine ourselves to be, and this outing proves it. We are neither rugged nor adventurous. And as a family, we don't have an intrepid bone between us. Insipid, I'm afraid, is more defining of our structure.

So we do what it is one does when they come to the sudden realization that you have become a cultivated mushroom.

You try and fake it.

"This will be fun," I command, not even trying to sound convincing. "You have no choice." Case. Closed.

But within the decision that has been made for them, they always have choices. And they know it. The complaint department is always open for business.

"This is the worst day ever," accuses the boy as he trails along behind. And you don't even care if I get lost. You. Don't. Even. Care!"

The girl is no longer speaking, she's just swinging her arms in windmill fashion around her head and sobbing in great big puffs of exasperation.

"Oh great! Ticks and mosquitoes and chiggers, oh my."

"Nature! It's all over me, get it off," is only funny when a cartoon giraffe says it.

"Next time we should bring only the dog," I say to my husband, whose only role in this haphazard outing was to hold on to the end of a leash and keep the only member of our family who was having a good time from chasing squirrels.

"Or at least earplugs," was his tepid response.

He didn't want to be here, either. But he understood why I did.

The house would still be there, a refuge from the stifling heat, its refrigerator filled with frozen treats and in its warren of rooms a safe haven where the tweets of electronic fauna go undisturbed.

It is placid enough, but ultimately unfulfilling.

Summer should be filled with more. It was when I was a kid. Bike rides and fishing trips. Camping under the stars. A whole day to let the sand wedge between your toes and the sun bake your skin.

SPF wasn’t even a thing yet, Neither was Stranger Danger or Lyme disease.

Times change and we much change with them.

Otherwise there will just be out of doors.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Salad fork, dinner fork, pitchfork

I know my patience level registers time differently than clocks usually do. Waiting for things to begin (like breakfast) and for things to end (like a baby crying) can seem to take forever.

I'm just having trouble imagining how the Internet village turned a negative dining experience for one little foodie, and her family's subsequent review of it at a Portland, Maine diner, into "high-fives" for the cook. But it did, and my Facebook stream was swimming in discontent.

"Good riddance, annoying children who pester me in the hipster eateries I like to frequent because of their boozy brunches." (Not yours, though. Your children are perfect just like mine. They understand the importance of humanely raised veal and locally sourced organic kale.)

Too snarky? Okay. You're right.

Parenting is hard. Business owning is hard. Personally, I'd rather not frequent a diner that takes 40 minutes to serve breakfast, and then freaks out when you order three pancakes instead of two. But by all means, high-five a cook who responds to a tantrum with a tantrum. It's your prerogative as a patron.

But don't think this story is really about rude parents or about crazy cooks.

This story is about the village. A village with pitchforks. This story is a story because people are supporting a cook, who is unapologetic for screaming at a crying child. She declares it was the right thing to do because it worked.

That's it? A serene dining experience is all that matters?

So many people in my little social web seem to think so. And right this very minute some of them are planning trips to Maine so they can “high-five” this new celebrity chef, who has struck a blow for all customers tall enough to ride the bumper cars.

Bully for them.

Parents have been mostly silent, oddly enough. Cowed, perhaps, by the villagers with their pitchforks.

You may be arguing about your own restaurant experiences: how cooks are volatile, how parents of young children are rude, you know … how much you have suffered. But if you go to Maine just to patronize this business, you go in appreciation of an adult losing her cool at a toddler.

It's also not beyond possibility that the owner just succumbed to the pressure cooker that is a commercial kitchen. Everyone is entitled to a bad day.

But celebrating rudeness with a special order of intolerance seems just as distasteful.

But there is one other angle I think we've all forgotten in this debate.

Restaurant owners who treat people of all ages with kindness, and who actually enjoy feeding people, make much better experiences for everyone, too.

Having been a mother of an occasional unhappy traveler, I have always been grateful for the kindness of strangers. I owe them thanks.

So to cooks who make substitutions ...

And to servers who give smiles with an extra bread basket ...  Or who fix a mistake I made as a parent (kid is crying because I ordered wrong, I know it's not your fault).

Even the folks at countless next tables, who not only talk to but also listen to my kids as they prattle on with exuberance for life ...

You are the unsung heroes. You are the proverbial village. And I wish to thank you for making our dining experience a joy.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

A mid-summer night's wake up call

Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep!Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep ….

4:30 a.m.

Who set that alarm?

There is no answer. Just the ear-splitting sound of a new day dawning without the warm face of the sun.

I stumble across the room and try to turn off the sound. I press all the buttons, rotate all the dials, flick all the levers and still it drones on with its digital shriek.

“Just unplug it,” says my husband tossing around the gravel in his sleeping throat.

Just then, the cat walks across my chest, carrying ill-gotten game in her mouth:  a sable cosmetic brush.

She tosses the brush into the air, and it lands with on the floor with a soft thud before she skitters off to attack the prize again.

Another beautiful summer day off to an officious start.

With each step I take, my joints protest.  But I forget about the pain of age and second-floor dwellings once I hear the sound of fat droplets of water cascading somewhere below me.

I start to breath again when I locate the source of the flood.

It's raining in Minecraft, so, naturally, my son is sitting in the living room clutching the game controller in one hand and an umbrella in the other.

“I'm just trying to make the game feel more realistic,” he says with a sideways grin. I wonder how long he's been awake, and if he's figured out how to circumvent our preprogrammed time restrictions, but I don't speak. I can barely think in syllables: Kitchen. (Two). Coffee. (Two). Now (One).

Problem: We're out of coffee. Didn't get to the store yesterday so there's no breakfast either. The cat skulks past still holding her blusher brush and jumps on the counter.

I wish there were a nuclear option for errant cats, but I know the trigger sprayer filled with tap water is the only sanctioned weapon. … Of course, it's never within arm's reach.

“Not good eating,” I tell her instead. “Too much hair, not enough meat.”

She responds by casually knocking over a glass that was half filled with soured milk. She walks past it, disinterested, as the white-ringed glass rolls toward the counter's edge, where I am lucky to catch it before it breaks into shards.

More rancid milk sprays in my direction. Perfect.

I am searching for kitchen towels to clean up the mess when I hear the cat's mewling answered by the dog's measured bark. I investigate only to find the animals making the racket are all inside the game.

I go back to searching for towels.  And soon realize every single one  –  be they bath, hand or kitchen – has found its way to an upstairs bedroom and is snaking around the foot of one bed or another. It seems amazing how yesterday's laundry has magically transformed into a colorful carpet of moss and pool water.

I pick them up and throw them into the hamper.

As I load the washer, I wonder if I am dreaming. I should pinch myself awake.

Nope. Not a dream. It's just a mid-summer morning in which I have spilled some detergent on myself as I try to activate the machine.

I am just the latest part of this hot mess.

Luckily the cat has chosen this moment to encircle my feet, trying to trip me no doubt. So I wipe my hands on her fur and head back upstairs to bed.