Monday, November 11, 2013


"What is that?"
"That! That music!"
"I don't know. Sounds like Christmas music."
"Yes! It's Bing Crosby! And all he sings are Christmas songs!"

So went the exchange between Sam and me on a family trip to Menards in September. As if I needed any other reason to loathe Menards, they were piping in Christmas music prematurely. I started hyperventilating, and right when we were boarding that magnetic moving walkway that transports customers with their carts up to the second floor and back. I had to grab onto the handrail to keep my balance, until I ended up looking straight into the eyes of a plastic reindeer that was on display. Unfortunately, reindeer in September aren't soothing to me. I sat down on one of the display toilets at the top of the walkway for a minute to compose myself. But then a gruff contractor wearing coveralls and a pencil behind his ear shooed me off so he could see the toilet's model number.

You might think I was overreacting, but I don't need anyone to push Christmas at me any faster than it's already coming. Every day that Christmas grows closer, I feel the walls closing in more tightly.

I'm not alone, of course. Lots of people feel pressure at the holidays. I just feel more pressure. That's because I'm one of those unfortunate wives whose husband's birthday falls a week before Christmas. I secretly scorned my in-laws for giving birth to a child on December 17 and then selfishly handing that child off to me, 25 years later, to handle the delicate issue of a Christmastime birthday. But then, a few years later, I gave birth to our daughter on the very same day of the year. That's right, there are now two people in my house who were born on December 17. For that, B and I have no one to blame but ourselves. (But really, I blame him.)

The reason that it's stressful to have family birthdays in December (aside from the obvious reasons, which are that you're strapped for cash and can't afford birthday presents in December, and you have to wedge birthday parties into an already overbooked party season) is that you have to take pains to clearly separate a mid-December birthday from Christmas. For instance, you have to be very careful how you wrap the presents. If a person has a birthday on December 17, and you hand that person a present wrapped in paper that looks even remotely Christmasy, you should quickly take cover, because Hell hath no fury like a December birthday boy receiving a birthday present wrapped in red or green. And unfortunately, more colors have become associated with Christmas as savvy designers stray from the traditional, leaving us very few safe colors for mid-December birthday presents. Silver and gold, of course, are no-nos, thanks to our pal Bing; and blue, pink and purple are really out too. And yellow is too close to gold. Once I even tried wrapping birthday presents in black wrapping paper, but then I was accused (accurately) of using clearance Halloween wrapping paper, and apparently that's offensive too. You can't win. By mid-December, it's also hard to find a place in the house that's not decorated for Christmas; last year we had to open birthday presents in the laundry room.

B is celebrating his 40th birthday this year, and for a time, the planning for this celebration only amplified my stress. After all, the Big 4-0 calls for a Big celebration! However, for years, B has been talking about putting another garage on our property. Why, you ask? I'll explain for those of you who are uninitiated city natives, like me: it's common in rural areas for homeowners to have multiple outbuildings, or garages, on their property, the purpose of which can range from snowmobile storage to poker parties. Because we a) don't live in a rural area (although my siblings and father might argue that), b) don't own any snowmobiles and c) our house has successfully accommodated several poker parties, I didn't see the need for us to add yet another space that I won't be able to keep clean. But, B works hard. He plays hard. He grew up in the country, and he's been dreaming of this garage for years. Therefore, his 40th birthday gift is a 1350-square-foot building at the edge of our property, much of which B built himself, and which we have dubbed The Party House. There. One present down.

The Party House is still in progress, but it's getting close to being finished. In fact, if we feel the need to add to the already overwhelming strain of the holiday season, we can do what we did last year, which was invite our entire neighborhood over for a Christmas party. About 70 people showed up, and when that many people are in your home at once, you never know what's going to happen. One neighbor, William, repeatedly exclaimed, "How brave of you to invite us all into your home! How brave!" He expressed the sentiment more and more as the eggnog flowed more freely, and I began to wonder what he meant. Were people stealing from us? Did someone clog the toilet? Or, Heaven forbid, did someone go into the laundry room and see the pile of junk that I shoved in there during a last-minute cleaning panic? Just then, one of the little girls from the neighborhood confessed to me that she'd dumped the gigantic bowl of Chex Mix on the floor. No stranger to spills, I was about to console her, but then suddenly her demeanor changed from remorseful to accusatory. "But YOU left it right on the edge of the table! THAT'S why it fell over!" And then she stormed away. I cleaned up the Chex Mix, and although I would never serve it to guests, I nibbled on it myself throughout the holiday season. Yes, William; I am brave.

One of my sisters and my brother also have birthdays in December. In case you've lost count, that's four birthdays I'm responsible for commemorating in a month that already includes the birthday of the Savior and Redeemer of the World. My brother, however, is so averse to aging that he insists that we not even acknowledge his birthday. I don't argue, because he's really hard to buy for. And the poor guy's birthday is on Christmas Eve. If I told my in-laws that we were skipping Christmas Eve at their place to celebrate my brother's birthday instead, you can bet I'd find something worse than coal in my stocking Christmas morning.

The flurry of December birthdays keeps me so busy that I don't get to do everything I'd like to do during the month. Like caroling. I've always wanted to go old-fashioned Christmas caroling, where you get a group together to go door-to-door around the neighborhood singing, wearing muffs and sipping wassail. But I'm afraid that even if I found the time to cajole a group of friends and family into actually dressing up like Victorians and singing at people's doors, we'd be arrested. So I've decided that I'm just going to carol on my own continually through the month of December. That way, everyone can enjoy my off-key rendition of "Mele Kalikimaka" while I'm cleaning, baking, shopping, and wrapping birthday presents in nondenominational clear plastic.

Another thing I'd like to do that I never have time for is make decorations. Unfortunately, my lack of talent and artistic ability makes it really difficult for me to create things like the adorable felted wool owl ornaments that I've seen on Pinterest. Even those projects that claim to be "easy" and "made with materials you already have on hand" are anything but. Last year, in my attempt to find something the kids and I could make in a couple of hours with things we had "on hand," there weren't a lot of choices. (And I wasn't about to make the trip to Menards to get anything.)  I don't have on hand different sized embroidery hoops, rolls of canvas, or metal primer. In fact, the only project I found that we could make with materials we actually had were these pathetic-looking trees made of twigs. And when I told my kids that we had to gather the twigs first, Sam argued that if we had to go out to the yard to gather the twigs, then that wasn't really something we had "on hand." (He's lucky Santa left him anything last year.)

So here we are, nearing the middle of November, and I can feel the minutes ticking ever closer to December and the boom of birthdays. You know, I didn't appreciate it when I was young and didn't do anything in December except make an ornament in Sunday School and watch A Charlie Brown Christmas.  I might have done more, except I also spent an inordinate amount of time compiling a detailed list of everything I wanted out of the Sears catalog and being disappointed every year on Christmas morning when not one thing from my list was under the tree. I could elaborate, but that's a story for another time. Perhaps after I finish therapy. And included in my therapy sessions will be the trauma I suffered by hearing Bing Crosby at Menards in September.

Friday, October 25, 2013


It's a lovely fall day. One of those days that's meant for driving along the Mississippi River in a convertible, taking in the changing fall colors. I'll bet that's where the woman in the black BMW M3 is headed. I'm looking out the window at her from the Midas near my house. I'd love to be taking a leisurely ride to look at the trees too, but that's not possible, what with my car on a lift. But, hey, if I crane my neck, I can make out some trees behind the strip mall across the street. They're looking a lovely chartreuse color.

I can't complain. I don't have to sit in auto-care shops very often, even though my car is almost 13 years old. Unfortunately, this is my second time at Midas in a week, as a routine oil change revealed some other problems, albeit minor. It gave me time to think, sitting in Midas, sipping my complimentary Diet Coke, about the pros and cons of owning an older car. One pro is definitely the free pop.

But there are many cons. My car is ugly, and it lost its new car smell about 12 years and 9 months ago. My kids don't like riding in it, but for that they really have themselves to blame. The back panel on the driver's side seat won't stay on, so it reveals an unsightly array of wires utilized by the long-defunct seat-heating mechanism. Lily constantly kicked the back of my seat when she was a toddler, and eventually the panel gave up and found a new home the the floor of the car. My kids (along with everyone else) also complain about the unpleasant smell in my car. The combination of Sam's messy eating habits, the foul odors he emits from every orifice, and my attempts to cover the stench with air freshener have turned the smell of my car into something vaguely like the bathroom at Buffalo Wild Wings. It's bothersome enough to Sam that he now rides with his head out the window, not unlike a dog. When the temperature drops below zero, I insist he close the window, so then he just plugs his nose. I've decided that one of those swimmers' nose clips will make a good stocking stuffer for him this year. Perhaps with both his hands free, he won't spill so much food.

As unpleasant as it is to ride in, my car gets pretty good gas mileage, so we usually take it if we're going on a long trip. Like the time we spent a weekend in Milwaukee. We had agreed to take our friends Dave and Molly with us, although when they saw that we were riding in my car, Dave said, "You know, on second thought, maybe I'll drive us." He eventually changed his mind, and to improve the experience for our friends, Brad covered the sticky, crumb-encrusted seats in the back of my car with a blanket. He also reattached the back panel of the driver's seat with duct tape. These quick fixes gave my car the ambiance of a vehicle that might be seen on Sanford and Son, or the Junky Car Club. Perhaps this is why Dave and Molly haven't taken a ride from us since then.

There is one big pro about my car: it's paid for. And contrary to many peoples' car-buying habits, when I paid off my car, I did not take my newly acquired car title straight to the dealership to buy a new one. I know many people who do, though. It's as if the title reads "By the time you own this vehicle, it'll be outdated. Please buy another." And I don't understand it. There is no bigger waste of money than a vehicle. Not gourmet coffee, not air conditioning, not Ugg boots, not BlackBerry stock, not even the new Vikings stadium. And yet people buy them with abandon. When I was younger, I knew people who couldn't afford to move out of their parents' house, but (or because) they bought an expensive vehicle. One such friend repeatedly complained that, at 22, she was too old to live in her childhood bedroom. But you'd never know it by the way she strutted to and from her brand-new Acura Integra. After listening to her complain for the umpteenth time about her living situation, I suggested she just move into her car. Unfortunately, this was right around the time of Chris Farley's SNL skit about living in a van down by the river, and therefore my friend wrote off my idea as just plain foolish.

Spending on what amounts to nothing more than a conveyance simply doesn't interest me. That goes for purchasing a car as well as maintaining one. And yet, my cars love me. I've only owned two vehicles in my entire life, because they stay with me for decades and never fail me despite the way I neglect them. I never wash my car. Ever. I leave it to Mother Nature to wash off the dirt and salt. And even when she doesn't, I wisely chose a car color called Autumn Bronze that hides the dirt remarkably well. In fact, I've decided that every car I ever own from now on will be Autumn Bronze. I know that surprises people who know I'm more of a warm-weather girl, but Summer White would plainly show that I haven't washed the car since I drove it out of the dealership. I don't clean the inside of the car, either. I used to depend on B to clean my car, but he's tired of spending hours trying to clean up a mess similar in scope to a small tornado and receiving nothing in the way of gratitude. But it's not that I'm ungrateful; I just don't notice.

The last time Brad cleaned my car, he was unhappy that I didn't acknowledge all his effort. And rightfully so. I apologized profusely. And then I asked B if he really wanted me to become a person who cares about the cars she drives. I could almost see the thoughts running though his mind: the thousands of dollars we'd be spending on a new car for me; the extra money we'd spend if I actually followed my car's maintenance schedule; the driving gloves, the sunglasses, the Weather-Tech floor liners I'd require. He said no. I know exactly how to appeal to my obsessively fiscally responsible husband.

Speaking of the maintenance schedule that I don't follow, I drag my feet about fixing my car for what I feel are non-critical issues. A power window that won't roll up and down properly is not critical to me; that's why I went for two years without fixing it on my first car. It drove people crazy, and I don't understand why! So what if I had to open the door and step out to get to my coffee? So what if a few five-layer burritos splattered on the ground while I flailed at the drive-through window attendant from my open car door outside Taco Bell? Finally, one day my friend Trent had had enough. He called a service shop and made an appointment for me to get my window fixed. Then he hounded me every day until it was done. I never did fix the dents that I inflicted in my car door from opening it at drive-throughs during the Broken Window years, but fortunately, the constant presence of salt on my car (this one happened to be black--a big mistake) provided ample camouflage.

As my car ages, it has crossed my mind that I may someday need to buy another one. What vehicle would I get? There are so many choices today that it's hard to decide. I can tell you this, though: it certainly won't be a minivan. I deliberately limited my family to two children so I could stay in a sedan. Besides, we already have one large vehicle in our family, and it's not for carrying kids. B requires an SUV just to carry all the stuff he needs: golf clubs, two-by-fours, cases of beer, a kayak, Sheetrock, Lederhosen, bicycles, a lawn mower, poker chips, boulders, a tile cutter, and a gas fireplace insert. And that was just last weekend. B leads a much more exciting and productive life than I do.

Ah, here it comes now, rolling off the lift: my 2001 Infiniti G20.  I'm listening to Seth, the nice man at Midas, describe how my car is all set, and he'll see me at my next oil change. That's right, Seth; I'll see you in about a year, when the leaves are changing again.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

No Trappers -- Please!

I'm conflicted every year when school starts. Part of me can't wait to get my kids out the door, because their boredom after three months of doing absolutely nothing is manifest in their supine position on the floor: arms at their sides, books in hand, glassy eyes staring up at the ceiling, drool running out the sides of their mouths. When I remind them that they're doing exactly what they asked to do over the summer, and that there are plenty of other things we could be doing, their gaze focuses on me for a brief second, and then they return to reading. Most of me, though, misses them when they go to school. Terribly.

There's no such conflict, however, about that end-of-summer ritual, the annual school supply shopping frenzy. I'm just glad it's over. If I were smart, like my friend Krista, I'd get online and order everything from Amazon, and a bunch of high-quality school supplies would arrive in neatly packed boxes at my door. Instead, my frugality (and my husband) demands that I scour the Sunday ads and go from store to store, trying to pick up the cheapest school supplies possible. Perhaps this is why, a month into the new school year, Sam's homework folder has already ripped in two. Those one-cent folders from Office Depot just aren't all they're cracked up to be!

As with most other facets of today's public education, like lunchtime (just enough time to shove dessert in), standardized testing (constant), and the schedule (jam-packed but remarkably sedentary), the process of acquiring school supplies has changed over the years. My parents bought very little, if any, school supplies. Minneapolis Public Schools provided everything we needed back then, and we got to keep everything, or at least borrow things. Unfortunately, today, there are few things that schools will loan to students. And I'm afraid I know why: my sister never returned the clarinet issued to her by Roosevelt Senior High when she graduated in 1979. Of course, she claims that she's still borrowing that clarinet, and that she's planning on returning it just as soon as she's done with it. I suggested that she return it to the old band room as a way to commemorate her upcoming 35th high-school reunion. Her high-school band teacher, if he's still alive, might finally feel a sense of closure from the gesture.

Whether my sister returns the long-lost clarinet or not, the point is that people who abused the generosity of public schools ruined it for the rest of us. I was forced to shell out for Sam's trombone, and let me tell you, I intend to get my money's worth. That boy will be playing that thing until his cheeks are like Dizzy Gillespie's.

Of course, band instruments aren't technically school supplies, and if they were, they'd be at the high end of the school-supply cost spectrum. But the rest of the items add up, both in cost and in the amount of frustration involved in buying them.  I wish I could find the people who created the school supply list for my kids' school (which we'll call Evergreen Elementary), but no one will own up to it.  And if you look through the supply list for the various grades, you can see why.  There doesn't appear to be any logic behind the school supply requirements, unless you're muscle-bound, obsessed with glue and in possession of a constantly regenerating forest.

Take the first-grade supply list, for example. The celebration when my youngest child, Lily, finished first grade rivaled any high school graduation, because I never again had to watch her haul a thick binder stuffed with empty folders and manila envelopes to and from school. I'm sure the teachers had good intentions for that binder; perhaps they thought it would help control the number of excuses for lost homework (although "I lost it in my massive binder" seemed like a reasonable excuse, if you ask me).  But after watching Lily drag home her heavy backpack like a ball and chain every day, I'd flip through each and every folder and envelope and laminated page of outdated math instructions in that binder to find that everything was empty. Oh, there may have been a math worksheet once in a while, and maybe a few spelling words, but nothing that warranted a binder that weighed more than Lily herself.  It took up the great majority of space in her backpack, too. It was tough to squeeze that binder in with all the other items Evergreen School required of her, like her Obama Administration-approved lunch and snack, her gallon of purified spring water, her tub of hand sanitizer, container of sanitizing wipes, bleach pen, organic cotton sweater, all-natural gym shoes, boots, and snowpants (it is Minnesota, after all). Although she never complained about the weight of the backpack, It was difficult to watch her hobble along like a six-year-old Hunchback of Notre Dame. Since then, I noticed that the first-grade supply list has been modified to specify "Large backpack -10x14." Yet, in order to fit everything, the requirement should really be "Mountain climbing backpack, preferably Everest size - 500 x 500."

Out of all the school supply requirements on the kids' list, glue may be the most curious.  At Evergreen School, kindergarten, first, and second graders are required to have glue sticks. Third graders only need white glue.  Fourth graders need both glue and glue sticks. And in fifth and sixth grade, they need just glue sticks again. After careful consideration, Sam determined that the glue requirements are a metaphor for life. You're just learning to use your hands when you're young; therefore, glue sticks are a better option. You get to use liquid glue when you're at the peak of your vitality and therefore at the lowest risk of spilling it. In old age, you lose control of your faculties and have to go back to glue sticks again. I say that's as good an explanation as any. I have my own particular theory about third grade, the one year that several bottles of liquid white glue are required: decoupage. They have to have something to fill that Everest backpack from first grade, and I think an old dresser would fit nicely. Plus, our old dresser would look sharp covered with various pictures of One Direction pasted on with white school glue.

Some parents worry about having every item exactly as it's listed on the school supply list. I was like that too, until I realized that just because something is on the list doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be used. About 30 percent of the supplies you fought for at Target at the end of the summer will come right back to you at the beginning of next summer, like an old war buddy returning home. Just put it in the drawer with all the other old buddies that came home last year and that you forgot about when you needed school supplies this year. You can also probably add all the notebooks that you sent to school that come home with one or two pages filled in out of 70. When your kids graduate from high school, you can open up your own paper-supply store to help pay for college.

Many of today's children, besides being mouthy and lazy, are apparently dehydrated. Therefore, they must have water with them at all times in elementary school. This idea is perpetuated by the media.  Just this morning I saw a local fitness guru on TV pushing water to parents. "Sometimes kids will go an entire school day without drinking water!" The perky personal trainer said with alarm, as if she was announcing that kids go all day without clothes. Well, when they don't have gym and they stand around during their 15-minute recess, they probably don't need to have a bottle of water within reach at every moment. A novel idea would be to a) become thirsty and b) go get a drink from that relic of old, the drinking fountain.  (They just have to remember to apply sanitizer to the spout first.)

My kids are off to a good start at school, even with their cheap school supplies in tow. One thing they don't have though, is a Trapper Keeper. Something must have happened in the fifth grade once with a Trapper Keeper. Maybe someone got injured by the zipper, or perhaps someone was caught carrying something illicit in their Trapper, like a dreidel or a set of Klick-Klacks or a copy of And Tango Makes Three. Whatever the reason, on the fifth-grade school supply list, there's an emphatic "No Trappers--Please!"

So the kids won't have a Trapper Keeper like I did in fifth grade.  Either that, or Evergreen School wants you to stop trying to catch that raccoon that hides out on the playground at night.  Please!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Leave(s) Me Alone

Autumn is a favorite season for many people. Grown-up people. People who appreciate the change brought on by the September equinox, resulting from the yearly revolution of the earth around the sun and the tilt of the earth's axis relative to the revolution. I'm excluded from this group.

Actually, that's not true. There are things I appreciate about fall. I appreciate that my toes are now covered up, so I can stop fretting about how terrible my toenails look because I'm too lazy to paint them and too cheap to get a pedicure. I appreciate that the library is quiet again because all the kids are back in school. And of course, I appreciate the changing landscape, when the trees show off their vibrant reds, yellows, and oranges. Once the leaves fall off the trees, though, that's when the appreciation ends and the aggravation begins.

We live on a one-acre lot. Given my urban upbringing, I'd always associated the measurement "acre" with farmland, certainly not yard. When we first looked at our home and I was told the house stood on an acre-sized lot, I looked out the window, expecting to see livestock lumber by. To my husband, an acre is nothing. He grew up in the country, and hopes one day to have the kind of land he grew up on: acre upon acre of rolling hills, ponds, trees, deer, and unshaven men carrying hatchets and riding ATVs and snowmobiles. I can't wait.

Well, B might have to wait for the acerage, but he didn't have to wait to get his trees. He was blessed with about 100 of them, and what seems to be their perpetual leaf production. The trees provide shade in the summer, beauty and interest in the winter, and in between, they provide nothing but drudergy. If we didn't do anything about the falling leaves, they'd be waist high by October 10. By Halloween, we'd lose our children when they went into the yard. By Thanksgiving, you'd be hard-pressed to find our house. It's best if we stay on top of the leaf situation.

Years ago, B would spend countless hours taking care of the yard in the fall. He had an elaborate system of moving leaves onto tarps and dragging the tarps to the curb, depositing the leaves for the city to pick up.  He'd come in the house when it got dark, cheeks flushed, smelling of fall. "That's a lot of work," I'd say. "Are you sure you don't need help?" He'd wave me off. "Of course not!" he'd say. He took a great amount of pride in the leaf job being his, and his alone. Most of our neighbors hired out their leaf removal, but not us. As the gargantuan piles of leaves grew bigger every day, people would stop and ask, Who did all this? Who did you hire? No one, B would say. I did it all myself.

Eleven years later, B's day job is much more demanding, leaving less time for him to be in his beloved yard. I bought him a leaf blower for his 30th birthday ("The best gift you ever got me!"), but even that high-powered piece of equipment can't keep up with the torrent of leaves. So this year, because I'm home during the day, I had no choice but to take over the leaf job myself. This idea made B nervous. 

"Now, do you know what to do?"  he asked me.

"Do I know what to do?" I asked. "I rake the leaves onto a tarp and drag them to the curb."

"Yes, but do you know the system?" He took my arm and guided me to the window. The same window I had looked out 11 years ago, expecting to see cattle. "You have to start over there, under those shrubs. Use a hard rake to get the leaves out from under there. Do you know what a hard rake is?" I looked at my husband. I realized at that moment that he thinks I'm an imbecile. I turned away, grabbed my coat and went outside. And I didn't come in for a week, except to cook dinner and put my children to bed.

People took notice. They're not used to seeing me outside for extended periods when the temperature dips below 70. And the fact that I was doing yard work made people wonder if my husband had died. They were relieved when they'd see B arrive home from work. And when he went outside to survey my progress, neighbors would corner him.  "Did you know your wife was out here? Raking? She even used a hard rake!" 

Day after day I'd head outside to tackle another section of the yard. I wore the same clothes every day to conserve laundry, even the day after it rained, when I was covered in mud. The next morning, when I walked into the kitchen, my children looked at me and then looked down at the trail of dirt I was leaving. Bravely, Sam asked, "Uh, Mom? Are you going to change clothes sometime?" This from the boy who once suggested he bathe only at the new moon each month. Sam decided to rescind his question after I told him to do some laundry so that I'd have some clothes to change into. 

The leaf job would have been quicker if I'd been able to use B's leaf blower, but I was strictly forbidden to touch it. And I really couldn't argue. B's tired of repairing or replacing equipment that I've broken. The can opener wasn't so bad, but it was kind of expensive to replace the lawn mower after I pushed it over a tree stump.  When I crashed our riding lawn mower into a tree, I was cut off from using any electrical device other than the coffee maker.  

So I raked. And raked. And raked.  I filled up countless tarps with leaves and dragged them to the curb, creating piles as high as I'm tall. Once, I stopped to look at my progress. I looked at the part of the yard I'd raked, and I thought, Wow! Look how how far I've gotten! And look how nice and clear it looks! Then I turned and looked at the remaining nine-tenths of the yard that I hadn't touched. And I cried. 

But I got through it. And I had a lot of time to think. One day I thought about the time in second grade when my teacher, Mrs. Wooldrick, posed the question, "What's your favorite season?" My classmates shouted out the predictable "Summer!" and "Winter!" But I knew that would do nothing for Mrs. Wooldrick, and I wanted her approval. I knew a woman of her age, which I gauged to be just under 100, would be enchanted by the falling leaves in autumn. I also knew that I'd sound much more sophisticated if I didn't call it fall. So I proudly responded "Autumn!" And just as I predicted, Mrs. Woodrick's wrinkly face lit up, and she said, "Why Sara, autumn is MY favorite season ALSO!"  I basked in the glow of her approval, even though I knew it was wrong to lie and I knew I'd have to go along with the charade that I liked fall for as long as I knew Mrs. Wooldrick. (Or for as long as she lived.)

I'm older and wiser now, so I'll admit it: autumn is not my favorite season. My favorite season is any season but autumn. And if you don't approve, well, then, I have a hard rake with your name on it. 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Summer of Sloth

It's summer! It's the time of year most of us live for. School's out, the weather's hot, and the days are long. For some, summer means sending their children off to expensive camps where they learn to speak French or play the oboe; for others, it means packing up their families and heading up to their lakefront cabins. For George Clooney, it means hopping on a private jet with his girlfriend and flying to his Italian villa. For my children and me, it means holing up at home and going to seed.

We're homebodies, my kids and me. Unlike my husband, who's on the same schedule year-round (plus or minus several tee times), things change for my children and me in the summer. We go to bed late and sleep in. We eat odd food at odd hours, as we demonstrated this morning when we had lasagna for breakfast at 10:00. We don't get haircuts, we barely brush our teeth, and we don't shower unless absolutely necessary. It concerns some people, like Mike, the intern pastor at our church.  He looked alarmed when we arrived for the evening service last Sunday. "Sara?" he questioned, looking us up and down. "Were you the lake?"  I think he wanted to say "at the garbage dump," or "wrestling with wolves," but he restrained himself.  "No," I chirped happily. "We slept too late to make it to either service this morning."

I can't blame Intern Mike for being worried.  As a result of our severe lack of hygiene, my kids and I have let our appearance deteriorate from the usual school-year unkempt to the complete disrepair of summertime. If you don't believe me, take a look at this recent photo of us:

I didn't realize how bad it was getting until we were on Nicollet Mall this week after visiting my husband for lunch. Some woman tried to shove a dollar into the cup of coffee I was carrying.  That's when I figured it was time for all of us to comb our hair. And perhaps put on some shoes.  

Why, you ask, aside from occasional visits to the store to restock my supply of Diet Coke, do we stay at home when there's a whole world out there to explore?  Well, why do we need to?  The school year is demanding, so in the summer, some serious R&R is in order. Of course, our idea of R&R would drive some people mad. My best friend Amy, a high-ranking IT executive, brings her daughters to the American Girl store for some family-style enjoyment. Me, on the other hand, a freeloading housewife, can scarcely afford the gas money to get to the Mall of America, much less any purchase at the American Girl store. Fortunately, my kids don't mind. We don't need much. Give us a pile of books, a deck of cards, some lemonade, and ingredients to make M&M cookies (the dough made an excellent breakfast yesterday!), and we're good. Alright, fine. We're lazy.

And just when I thought that we couldn't be any more lazy, my kids decided that the act of speaking in sentences was too much effort. Therefore, they came up with their own language of abbreviated words, so that only the three of us could understand anything that they said.  My daughter wouldn't even look up from her book when I'd walk by and she wanted something to eat. She'd just say "muff", and I could translate that to mean "Mother, may I please have a muffin?"  On the rare occasions that we'd leave the house, my son would say "Yu?" which translates to "Are we going to drive Dad's Yukon?  Because I like riding in his vehicle much better than riding in your 11-year-old sedan.  It's old and it smells funny."  Unfortunately, I had to put a stop to the shorthand when they started abbreviating the words "butter," "hello," "peanut," and "assume."

Although we're in a state of extreme relaxation, we still keep a schedule, mostly because I worry about our muscles going into atrophy. We have our own set of activities every day, and missing them causes a great deal of distress. My daughter almost cried when I was in the bathroom at the scheduled start of our regular Dance Party on the Deck. The only way to redeem myself was to perform the Worm to the ubiquitous "Call Me Maybe." I'm not sure when I'll recover, either physically or emotionally.  Maybe I'll ask Intern Mike to add me to the prayer chain. If he hasn't added all of us already, that is.  

Intern Mike really shouldn't worry about us, though.  Although there's still plenty of summer, it's going to end. Those premature back-to-school ads remind us of that every day. Sometimes I consider what I'll do when school starts again and my kids are gone every day.  But I know the answer: I'll cry and eat cookie dough. And then I'll take a good, long shower. 

Friday, April 27, 2012

Excuse Me While I Kiss The Pergo

Last night I was quickly cleaning up the dishes after dinner when it happened. I was in a hurry because I wanted to join my family outside for a game of scramble. In my haste, I dumped over the can I keep for collecting discarded grease. This can had been nearly full, but was now almost empty, its contents quickly spreading across the kitchen floor. Many people would have cursed at this calamitous turn of events. Martha Stewart would surely have fired any minion who spilled a can of grease on her floor. (Except that Martha Stewart probably doesn't eat ground beef, so that example is moot.)  I simply sighed and began the long process of cleaning up my mess. Again.

My clumsiness is something I'm accustomed to. I've learned not to wear white; I've learned not to carry explosives; I've learned not to write with permanent marker without first putting on coveralls. I love wearing high-heeled sandals, but I say a little prayer before I leave the house so I don't end up in the emergency room if I fall off of them. While most people think my fear of heights is just a run-of-the-mill phobia, the truth is that heights pose a real danger to a klutz like me. I suppose I could try to avoid all situations that hold any chance of injury to myself or to others, but that would mean living my life inside an empty closet. Sometimes I think that might not be so bad; the peace and quiet might be nice. But then I think of everything I'd miss out on, like who Kim Kardashian is dating and the decision on the Vikings stadium. Not to mention dinner parties.

I enjoy entertaining, but unlike most hostesses, who only have to worry about the condition of their house, their food, and their kids during dinner, I have the added concern that some sort of mishap will leave me, or worse, one of my guests injured. I haven't injured anyone else (yet), but I once gave myself a second-degree burn on my wrist while making fajitas for guests. My friend Jennifer saw it and was horrified. "I'm fine," I said, and continued cooking, my raw skin shimmering as I flipped a steak in a cast-iron pan. Trying to be helpful, Jennifer reached for the freezer. "You should really put some ice on that."  What Jennifer didn't realize is that if I attempted to put ice on my burn, I'd most likely drop the ice, slip on it, fall, hit my head, and end up with a concussion. In the end, we all forgot the incident, and we went on to have a lovely evening. The two-inch burn scar on my wrist is like a of many that I have. In fact, If you look closely, you might find much of my life story from my collection of healed injuries: the huge scar on my knee from the time I crashed my bike into a tree, the scar on my elbow from the time I fell off the clothesline pole, the scars on my hand from the time I collided with David Eubanks during a basketball game in 8th-grade gym class. I can still see the lead in my palm from the time I joined my fellow high-school newspaper staffers in throwing pencils straight up so they'd stick into the holes in the acoustic ceiling tiles. Theirs stuck; mine instead flew back down and punctured my hand, leaving a tiny graphite spot. I worried for a while that I'd be poisoned, but now I think of it as a welcome excuse whenever my memory fails me. 

Throughout my life, my lack of grace has appealed to some, who find it charming. It's also annoyed many more, who consider it one of my several off-putting traits. Thankfully, my husband is in the former camp. Early in our relationship, on a trip to Hawaii, B and I were racing through the maze in the Dole pineapple plantation when I fell. In mud. I instantly got up, thoroughly embarrassed, expecting him to laugh at me. He laughed all right, and straight out of the manual How to Add Insult to Injury, he asked me to lay back down in the mud so he could take my picture. I declined. I assured him that he'd have plenty more opportunities to capture me horizontal after a tumble. Now when I fall, he doesn't even blink an eye. If we're talking, he continues the conversation as if nothing happened, although he might lean over so he can be sure I can hear what he's saying.

Somehow, people still trust me to perform tasks that are probably better left to the graceful.  Last week I was tasked with cleaning the white altar paraments for our church. Someone (apparently a fellow ham-fisted congregant) had spilled wine not once, but twice on the paraments. For most people, the process of bringing these materials home, washing them, drying them, ironing them, and returning them to the altar would not be a big deal.  For me, the assignment was more like a list of don'ts: don't drop the paraments in the street, don't run over them with your car, don't inadvertently wash them with your daughter's red sweatshirt, don't knock over the drying rack on top of the cat, don't burn yourself ironing them. On Sunday, when I looked at the clean, pressed paraments on the altar, I beamed with pride. Or maybe it was relief.

After Thanksgiving dinner at my brother's house last year, my sister dropped the tray that held the turkey, spilling grease all over the floor. (Yes, another grease spill. BP should have contacted me for advice.) As we were cleaning the floor, I realized that clumsiness runs in my family. My father used to ride his bike to my high-school tennis matches. Our dog, a Scottish terrier mix, rode in a crate my father ingeniously attached to the back of the bike. After one match, when I was exhausted after a particularly devastating loss, I watched longingly as my teammates climbed into the comfort of their parents' cars to go home. My dad gave me the option of either riding on the back of his bike or hitchhiking home. There are few things more humiliating for a 15-year-old than riding on the back of your father's bike with a dog named Scottie riding in a crate behind you. That is, unless that bike were to tip over, scattering you, your dad, your dog, and your tennis balls across 28th Avenue during rush hour. I think that's about the time my dad decided to quit smoking.

Thus far, my children appear to have inherited B's deftness. Nevertheless, they've had to learn to put up with me and my awkwardness. When my son was four and my daughter was three, we were stringing beads together to make Christmas ornaments. My son used his little fingers, his motor skills still developing, to meticulously slide twenty-five red beads onto a string. He handed me the string of beads, so proud of himself, and as I was attempting to tie the two ends together, praising him for his efforts, I dropped one end of the string and all 25 beads scattered across the floor. He was disillusioned, but after we picked all the beads up, he gamely started over. He carefully got all the beads back onto the string, and just as I was saying "Mommy will have to be more careful this time," I dropped the beads again. I gasped, looking at my son, expecting him to cry. Heck, I was almost in tears. Instead, he looked shocked for a moment, but then he cocked his head and looked at me with pity. "Oh, Mommy," he said, shaking his head. I realized that one advantage to my condition was that I was teaching my children to have sympathy for the less fortunate, and more klutzy, among them. Amen.

As for last night, I did eventually make it out to the scramble game. I was immediately knocked out of the game by my very athletic and agile daughter, but that's okay. I'd had enough exercise scrubbing the kitchen floor anyway.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Hey, Baby!

Some friends of ours, Seth and Betsy, are expecting their first baby in a couple of months.  As a mother of two, I am thrilled for these parents-to-be, because I remember what it was like to have a new baby! I also pity these parents-to-be, because I remember what it was like to have a new baby.

Watching our friends prepare for the arrival of their child brings me back to the days when my husband and I were expecting our first baby. We were so excited!  In fact, the very day I found out I was pregnant, my husband gutted what would become the baby's room. We had so much fun designing the room and picking out furniture. I attended showers where generous friends and family gave me beautiful and thoughtful gifts: the outfits I'd lovingly chosen, the stuffed animals that would coordinate with the quilt I'd registered for. Oh, the fun Seth and Betsy are going to have! Their lives are going to be so happy! Enjoy every minute, I say. Because once that baby comes, the fun is O-V-E-R, and you're left with a glut of useless stuffed animals and dressy outfits that the baby will wear once and ruin. No one gives you what you really need, which is diapers and a bottle of scotch, because that's not what you asked for. And now you're stuck with a bunch of stuffed bears, giraffes, and lambs, which would be great if they could hold, rock, and feed an inconsolable baby at 3:30 in the morning. But they can't. All they can do is sit there and look at you, and sometimes talk to you (or so you think when you haven't slept in three days).

When I consider the early days of my son's life, I'm glad I didn't know what I was getting into, because I'd never have done it. People tried to warn me, too, but I didn't listen. I remember being pregnant, in a state of bliss, munching on a doughnut and waddling around the office, when I came across a coworker, Chris. He looked like he'd been on a week-long bender, but really, he and his wife had just had a baby. Disheveled, bleary-eyed, barely coherent, Chris was clutching a cup of coffee and leaning against a wall. "It's so hard," he mumbled. ""  I patted him on the back and tried to comfort him by offering him a bite of my doughnut. But I also didn't let him dampen my spirits. Sure, he was having a hard time, but I was, after all, going to be a mother, not a father, and everyone knows mothers are better equipped to handle parenthood than fathers. Just ask my husband, who put our daughter's first diaper on backwards. You might think that's completely understandable, but a) she was our second child, b) our son was still in diapers at the time, and c) our nurse accused me of putting the diaper on backwards, because, naturally, my husband told her I'd done it. He was already on my bad side for blithely getting up during my labor and saying, "You look like you're okay. I'm hungry. I'm going to get a muffin." If I didn't think I needed him to help raise the children, I'd have bludgeoned him with my copy of What to Expect When You're Expecting.

I can only vaguely remember my son's first couple months of life, which is probably for the best, because most of what I remember was pure misery. All he did was eat, hiccup, and cry, over and over and over again. We had a cat that wanted to hurt him. Bad. Our son had jaundice and was supposed to wear a lighted blanket to sleep. Except that he didn't sleep, save for the times during the day when I'd put him in the stroller and attempt to jog with him. One of our neighbors, Mrs. Johnson, later told me that I looked less like a new mother and more like a zombie, stumbling back and forth along the street with a stroller. Mrs. Johnson is also the battle-ax who often shouted at me that it was too hot outside for the baby. I had to remind myself that people like her--who had babies during the Nixon administration--drank and smoked during pregnancy, didn't nurse their babies, buckled the baby into the car with them (if they even used a seat belt) and came from the school of Let Your Baby Cry it Out. But they will criticize anyone who brings a baby outside when it's over 72 degrees. Mrs. Johnson is a constant reminder to me that I have my parents to blame for all of my deep failings.

My mother-in-law, God bless her, stayed with us one night so that I could get a decent night's sleep. (I don't think she believed me when I said how bad it was. Either that, or she was scared into helping me by the fact that I was functioning just above the level of a comatose person.) She only did it once. When we asked her a month later if she'd stay with us another night, the look of horror on her face was immediate. "I just don't think...I can do that again." And I couldn't blame her. She'd survived one night with a baby that wouldn't sleep, on top of several years with me for a daughter-in-law. Asking for one more night was simply asking too much.

My friend Amy had her first daughter about a year and a half before my son was born, so the experience of having a newborn was fresh in her mind when I called her at the height of my misery, blubbering into the phone about how I didn't think I was going to survive. I remember her promise to me: "Sar, it's going to get better. Really."  She paused. "Didn't anyone buy you a bottle of scotch?"

That was nine years ago. It did get better. Now when I watch my son dive for a ball in a scramble game, quietly read a book, or double over after I've sat on a whoopee cushion he's planted on my chair, those memories of sleepless nights seem so long ago. Now I just enjoy his company. And I'll enjoy it even more when he learns to control his flatulence and he chews with his mouth closed.

Of course, I've not shared my stories of sleepless nights with Seth or Betsy. Who knows; their baby might sleep beautifully. And if that's true, I'll be so happy for them. Really. Of course, everyone knows that babies who are great sleepers will cause their parents the most trouble when they become teenagers and young adults. I heard the entire cast of Jersey Shore slept through the night straight out of their mothers' wombs. Just sayin'.