Tuesday, November 29, 2011

What a Long, Strange Trip It Was

          My kids have messy rooms. I am not the kind of mom who wants my children’s inner slob to be in any way inhibited, so messy they stay. Not tidying up saves us all time and effort that can be better expended on watching TV.
         That is not to say that the floors of their rooms are never visible to any living creatures taller than a rodent. Not at all. Every couple of years we go a little crazy and hire someone to clean up. Yes, we outsource, but we keep the job here in the good ol’ U.S. of A. Our house is not sent overseas to be overhauled by any kids in a sweatshop. True, sometimes I have neglected to turn on the AC for the cleaner, so the job may have seemed as if it was done in a sweatshop. But that was purely accidental.
         My daughter has lots of toys; my son has lots of baseball cards. So the nature of their messes are qualitatively different. To enter my daughter’s room, the visitor must use his or her best en pointe ballet steps (otherwise known as the “tippy toe” walk) to safely wade through the minefield of Barbies, outgrown Crocs, stuffed animals, and a growing rock collection. For those who choose to venture into my son’s room, autographed Hall of Fame baseballs, mismatched soccer socks, and sharpened pencils grace the 1920s hardwood floor.
         So I should have been on my guard when I opened the door of my son’s room in order to “get things off the floor” so the cleaning person could mop. Or vacuum. Not exactly sure how one cleans hardwood floors unless it involves baby wipes and blowing dust bunnies into the closet.
         I slowly pushed open the door and, much like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, the next few moments were spent in a curious, dissociative state. My right foot hooked onto the drawstring of my son's David Ortiz backpack, which was hanging on to the doorknob for dear life. My foot brought down not only the Big Papi sack, but the three other backpacks precariously balanced on the very same knob. While my right foot was trying to get its bearings, my left foot slid on a discarded Josh Hamilton jersey, my normally very stiff and unlimber limbs splaying like a gymnast.  My knees crashed to the floor in unison, with a resounding thump. My forehead came down on top of my son's batting helmet, zipped into his baseball gear bag, which was sprawled across the floor. There was very little blood, so this household injury paled in comparison to the finger-in-the-Cuisinart maiming last winter. But, while the slashed finger throbbed and gushed, I have to say this display of grace actually hurt. 
         I called out to my family, all of whom were home, to get some assistance righting my body and taking inventory of my limbs and digits. Nothing. I hadn't recalled the Realtor telling us our home is sound-proof, so I called again, just a wee bit louder. Not a peep. Granted, it was a Monday evening and ESPN Sportscenter may have been on, so the inability for my kin to attend to two stimuli at once was understandable. I tried one more time, this time shrieking an SOS cry that probably could have been heard in our neighbor's possibly also soundproof home. 
          That did the trick. My family sauntered over to find out what all the commotion was. As they looked down at me, sprawled on the floor, attempting to cradle my knees and head at the same time (no easy feat), it was up to me to offer an explanation. "I tripped on the backpack," I said, my head throbbing, "can you please get me some ice?" 
          Everyone disappeared, presumably making a beeline for the freezer. Several minutes (it seemed) later--a commercial break??--my husband comes back with one ice pack. "You look OK," he proclaimed, handing me the ice pack.  
          "I think I need another ice pack," I explained, pointing to the welt growing on my forehead, as well as the swelling in my knees. My husband nodded and apparently directed our son to get me another ice pack. Time passed. Joints swelled. I was still alone on the floor. I called for my son, whose appearance at the scene of the accident had been suspiciously brief.
          "Are you going to the Emergency Room?" he called from another room, if I were to guess, I would say the room with the Wii. I assured him I was not. "Am I in trouble because it was my backpack?" he called from the other room. I hadn't considered that angle. "No, but you might be if you don't bring me another ice pack." 

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Born to Be Wild

                I am an outdoorsy person. I confront the wonder of nature every time I walk out my front door, which I do on a daily basis, usually at least once. We do not have a garage connected to our house, so I am thrust into the glorious wilderness every weekday, usually around 8 am PST, to trek from our front door to our driveway. Sometimes, a bird will fly by and startle me, reminding me again of how fortunate we are to coexist with creatures who are not capable of declining Latin verbs.  More often, there will be debris from our tree on my windshield. I take a meditative stance and notice the dead leaves that will soon obscure my view; I do not act or judge the discarded tree detritus, I just leave them be.
                I often have another opportunity to enjoy the outside when I go to work.  Although I work in a cement institutionalized building, the parking lot is a good five-minute walk from my office, which gives me sacred time to commune with nature. As well as text friends, drink coffee from my plastic travel mug, and apply lipgloss.
                So when it came time to plan a family vacation, going camping in the mountains seemed like a “natural” choice. I spend the weeks leading up to the trip stocking up on all the necessities one needs to survive about  90 minutes away from Los Angeles: winter coats, cashmere socks, Starbucks instant coffee packs, chocolate, arts and crafts activities, wine opener. We woke up on the morning of our drive—Thanksgiving day—and noticed it was drizzling where we live. The good thing about vacationing in nature is you know it isn’t going anywhere, and probably won’t significantly change for several million years, so there really is no hurry to get there. That left a little more time to check Facebook, sports scores, the stock market (whoops, forgot it is closed on national  holidays), and have another cup of coffee. Vacation is a time of leisure.
                We have a favorite camping location, nestled in the lush Santa Barbara hills, just minutes from all the activities one associates with roughing it: wineries, cafes, bookstores, and toy shops.  It is a perfect site for those of us craving a shot of nature. There are rocks, dirt, trees, bugs, and things constructed out of wood. We are reminded of our limited role in the ecosystem as we check in to the camp site and are handed a brochure with a disclaimer reminding us that we may encounter not only rattle snakes and coyotes, but Poison Oak. We are shown another brochure meant to assist us in identifying Poison Oak leaves from garden variety less-poison Oak leaves. Between you and me, leaves all look alike. But I nod gravely, and mumble something about how many points the leaves have and vow to keep an eagle eye open.  The campsite staff didn’t seem impressed by my powers of Oak observation, and added that because it is late fall, most of the leaves are gone, so the real danger are twigs. And, he noted, twigs tend to look pretty alike. Like I needed him to tell me that.  Sometimes nature lovers can be condescending show-offs.
                I forgot to mention something about this particular campsite. The cabins haves bathrooms (loaded with organic shampoos and body lotion), HVAC systems, microwaves, lights with dimmer switches, and daily maid service. So the delicate sounds that wake you in the early morning hours are as likely to be the water pump or heater kicking into high gear, as they are some sort of animal or bird. There is a full staff to not only provide you with S’mores ingredients, but also to light a campfire for you and be on-call if the flames begin to waver. There is a charming on-site cafĂ©/store with free-trade coffee, artisan soaps, and spinach-and-goat-cheese fritattas. This place puts the “amp” in “camping.”  
                When we trade the comfort and routine of our daily exurban life for the rough of the wild, we are drawn to activities that are congruent with the setting: catching up on work, checking stock quotes and sports scores, getting on each other’s nerves, littering, and inadvertently starting forest fires. Well, some of these are more compatible with our nature vacation than others. It doesn’t seem to matter to my daughter whether we are in the wild or the city, either way, she insists on singing the roles of Gabriella and Sharpay when we do High School Musical duets. I am always relegated to being Troy and Ryan. It just isn’t fair.
                When we drove up to our cabin and I started dragging all the newly purchased Nanook of the North clothing from the car, I was disappointed to notice that the weather was a balmy 70 degrees, with perfect blue skies. This was going to put a damper on our vacation, since the whole purpose of a fall getaway was to get photos of us wearing all the cold-weather garb we never wear at home. Fortunately, the clothing still had the tags, so I could return it as soon as the weekend was over. But in the meantime, I had a brood of uncomfortable sweaty people who kept telling me that I should have let them bring their Crocs like they kept asking. The fringed pink suede boots I got my daughter for the trip are pretty cute, though. Fashion is not about comfort.
                The first full day of our camping trip was spent back in the car driving to wineries in the Santa Ynez valley. I had spent weeks researching which wineries to visit. My Yelp and Google searches, however, were not to find the wineries with the most pristine settings, or ones that produces organic products. No, my goal was to find wineries that included free wine glasses with the tastings. Last time we went wine-tasting in the region (last Thanksgiving weekend, but we stayed in an actual hotel in the touristy area of Solvang), we “inadvertently” ended up with wine glasses that were not included in the tasting package. This was not a moral dilemma for my husband and me—in fact, we were pretty darn proud of scoring free wine goblets—but we let it slip in front of the kids that last year we “stole” some goblets, and the look of horror in their little eyes lingered even after my longwinded explanation as to how it wasn’t “stealing” really, because we did buy wine there, and not even the cheapest bottle, and the wineries buy the wine glasses in bulk and they have a big profit margin on them. So this year we tried to avoid this awkwardness again. We were successful in two of the three wineries we visited (sorry, Lincourt Vineyards L)!
                The rest of our trip also included car trips into civilization, including several bookstores, cafes, gift shops, TJ’s baseball card memorabilia store (run by an elderly man whose wares were mostly from his own bygone era), a ceramics store with kitschy items that was going out of business, an As Seen on TV store, and Nathalie’s Dolls and Toys. And a quick stop at some sort of field with a lot of butterflies. The viewing of the butterflies (pretty cool) was quick compared to the trek to the field itself. Families with kids half the age of ours were cheerfully hiking back and forth from the butterfly field, breaking nary a sweat; our kids, alleged athletes and dancers, could barely keep their wits about them after the first five minutes of the walk. My daughter was so distraught by the physical exertion, she declared not only the butterflies to be “ugly,” but also the trees, the people and the dogs who were at the site.
                I was not altogether surprised my children’s meltdown at the slightest attempt of combining exercise and nature because, let’s face it, I have known them all their lives. But I didn’t get a report from my husband that they had similarly decompensated at the previous night’s trial run up the paved trail from our cabin to a swimming pool area with a volleyball net on the camp ground. I timed the walk on Thanksgiving night, because it was on the way to the “Yurt” where our elegant holiday meal was served. Six minutes. Although we made a big show of mocking a fellow camper we overheard asking if there was a shuttle bus to the pool area, we privately agreed that a shuttle service would be an excellent addition to the camping experience.
                Toward the end of our weekend, we asked the kids how they were enjoying the vacation. They both enthusiastically asked if we could come back. The extent of their excitement took both my husband and me off-guard, since much of the time on the campsite seemed to be spent complaining about being bored, hungry and/or itchy. I was encouraged by their response, and subsequently made the fatal parental error of pushing my luck. I followed up my general query about our trip with a more specific, What was their favorite part of the vacation?  “The toy store” and “the baseball card store” my daughter blurted in unison. And a new generation of nature lovers is born….

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Carseat Defeat

I have a confession to make. I have a sneaking suspicion that my children spent the early years of their lives being chauffered in carseats that were not installed correctly.

For those of you who have kids under the age of 35, you understand the angst and guilt imparted on parents around the issue of the carseat. Parenting blogs and listserves are overrun by sanctimonious moms who debate the level of BPA in their seats and insist they will keep their children in carseats until the kids are 30. I would be willing to bet these are the same parents who shoot their faces full of Botox, but moral consistency is not what this is about.

And no matter how competent you may be around the house, unless you are a structural engineer, you are not qualified to install the seat. The seats inexplicably "expire" after a certain period of time, presumably when the toxins in the styrofoam they are made with is ready to self-combust. Yes, most of you reading this were driven around  like little projectile missiles ready to launch through the backwindow of your parents' wood-sided stationwagon. Every trip to the A&P or gymnastics lessons was as unstable as those jumpseats in the back of a school bus. Is it any wonder so many of us have digestive or nervous conditions?

I became suspicious years ago about the carseat scam, after paying a $35 fee on top of the $200 for my oldest child's plastic-and-styrofoam seat--bought at an establishment with an incongruently brutish and aggressive sales staff, considering it was named something like Tiny Town-- to be professionally installed into our  Volvo stationwagon. I was aware then, as I am now, that "professional" simply means someone who is paid to do something. It does not speak to competency or skill. But to a new parent with a turbo engine stationwagon, it was all about safety. So a top-of-the-line carseat, bought at West Los Angeles' go-to store for baby gear, to go with the premier Volvo Mommymobile, calls out for a custom seat installation. Even if my delicate infant's seat was being jammed into place by a man with a thick gold chain and untended knuckle hair, who looked like he both had the ability and the desire to crush my new Eurocar with his bare hands.

The crack installer grunted and cursed (though, fortunately, in a foreign tongue, so as not to scar my newborn's psyche) as he screwed and hammered the puffy seat into our stationwagon. For someone who apparently made a living installing these carseats, he was all force and no finesse. Would I get my money back if he snapped the seat in two? Would he take out his frustration with the seat installation on our shiny new car, pounding the hood into submission?  Would the sweat flying off his brow stain our lovely leather seats? And do I have to tip this person?

My son just never seemed comfortable in the seat. Despite the foam padding and nifty cup holder (for his baby latte??), it was a daily struggle to wrench his body into the allotted seating area and buckle the five-point harness. There always seemed to be some appendage flailing out of the security of the complex constellation of belts. While the buckle was appropriately baby-proof, it was also adult-proof, and neither my husband nor I ever figured out the trick to unfasten it without at least one finger getting pinched.

Luckily, we only had to struggle with this deluxe piece of travel furniture for a short time, because when my son was 18 months old, our ultra-safe Volvo stationwagon burst into flames while we were returning from a vacation, turning both my son's fancy carseat and his beloved baby blanket into ashes. We were all safe, thanks to the superhuman parenting instinct that kicks in when there is a crisis. But for parents who obsessed over choosing the safest of everything for our child, we were underwhelmed by these highly touted items.

My daughter did not get a $200 carseat when she was born. Maybe it was second-child fatigue, but more likely it was our disenchantment with the items showcased in parenting magazines and The Right Start. Our daughter's carseat was a Target sale item, with no cup holder (we decided to raise #2 caffeine-free), but many belts and latches attached to it. Now, I am a whiz putting together Ikea furniture--and that is using a Swedish-made manual. But carseats made in my very own country of origin are clearly not meant for American-born, Ivy League English majors. The diagrams in the installation manual had absolutely no relationship to the actual seat. And the levers and hooks that the belts and gizmos were supposed to attach to did not seem to exist in my car, a popular Toyota SUV.

Fortunately, I have moments of desperation where I am able to channel my inner MacGyver (played by Richard Dean Anderson who, as we all know, also played Dr. Jeff Weber on General Hospital in the 1980s) and get the job done with bungee cords, masking tape, and a tube sock. Voila! My daughter always seemed to lean to the left, and she had to suck in her stomach to get the belt fastened, and once she hit the age of 4, she had to hold her breath and keep her left arm over her head in order to get the damn thing buckled. But I had officially done what a husky and bitter man with a unibrow was not able to do--even for $35. It was only recently, when I decided to remove the seat in favor of a "booster seat" (whose purpose is completely unfathomable to me), that I realized I probably shouldn't have had to use a steak knife and nail file to remove the seat if it had been installed according to code.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Quirk at Work

I am not a religious person. My knowledge of spiritual issues is almost exclusively derived from the lyrics of Van Morrison and Train songs. But even with my scant biblical knowledge, I would venture to guess that when God created humans, S/He didn't intend them to be together for extended periods of time.

People are inherently full of tics and quirks. The enthusiastic thumb's up gesture that seemed so endearing in a new friend will make you want to break those appendages by lunch time. A person who insists on analyzing the healthfulness of everything you eat will quickly give you a stomachache. And a morning with a throat-clearing acquaintance will make you want to throttle that person. Yes, people come with all sorts of seemingly benign eccentricities that are really best tolerated in small doses.

A typical workday is eight hours. Can you imagine having to spend more than that length of time with someone, especially not a person of your choosing? Coworkers seem to be chosen not for any particular skill or savvy, but for their incredibly annoying habits. Talking on speaker phone, typos in emails, shredding personal documents on the office shredder, quoting self-help books, wearing cowboy boots.  Not to mention affected mannerisms, nasal voices, nervous twitches, ill-conceived political ideas, a love of bureaucracy, and smells. To me, there isn't a hell of a lot of difference between patchouli incense and intense body odor. Neither belongs in the workplace.   

Although I am not a fan of the bureaucratic process, I think some Acting Deputy Liaison Administrator from the Central Bureau's Precinct Headquarters had the right idea in inserting lunchbreaks into the work day. After a morning (fueled only by the trailmix in the vending machine) of being appalled by the judgment of coworkers or desperately hoping the colleague two doors down would speak to her precious boyfriend in a slightly quieter voice, my nerves are shot by noon. I think Unions understood coworker overload because I think they are behind a regulation requiring 15-minute breaks throughout the day, though I personally have never had a job that seemed to include these respites. I think it must be a special perk afforded nicotine-addicted employees.

The eight-hour limit fits in nicely with the rest of the 24-hour cycle. When the first eight-hour round of enduring personal demands and tolerating individual differences ends, you return home to another eight-hour shift of personal demands. The home-round goes better when the 480 minutes are punctuated by snacking, iPad games, and trips to Trader Joe's. Then on to eight hours of sleep which, if you are anything like me, is nicely broken up by insomnia, anxiety, and nightmares.  

And, of course, I assume that if I am so easily irked by too much exposure to others, they are probably equally annoyed by me. Doors were meant to be closed, and phones were designed to go straight to voicemail. I am guessing if Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel spent less time together, things might have turned out  better for them all. 

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Road Sage

       I remember it like it was yesterday. I was exiting Brooks Drugs on a not-so-quaint stretch of Great Barrington in the Berkshire Mountains. I think Brooks Drugs is now called the less unseemly Brooks Pharmacy. Jaunts to Brooks were frequent in GB because, well, it was in the middle of the mountains and where else was someone supposed to get toothpaste? I am guessing locals of the tiny town stocked up on necessities at a Costco in Springfield, but Brooks was a savior for the weekenders who forgot club soda at their co-ops on the Upper West Side. GB was a town full of decades-old auto repair shops and years-old sushi bars and artisan pottery shops. But only one place to get an Ativan prescription refilled.
       Anyway, the memory is as clear as a mountain day--because, of course, the incident occurred on a mountain in the day. I was leaving Brooks Drugs, with white, non-recyclable plastic bags breaking under the weight of gum, Chapstick, and Diet Coke, and I stepped into the cross walk. The stretch of road was not particularly busy, so there wasn't any great peril to stepping into it in a slightly distracted haze. But this time, something happened that I will never forget: A car ambling up Main Street stopped. Not a jam-on-your-brakes-tires-screeching kind of stop. A refined, thoughtful stop.
        I stood there, one foot into the cross walk, not sure what was going on. There was no traffic light, no stop sign. No family of ducklings waddling. The car continued to calmly idle. What was going on? Was I magic? Never before had I experienced such an unexpected causal relationship. I was well into adulthood at that point and had crossed many a street in my lifetime. I had never before had a car stop for me without swear words being hurled.
         Little did I know at the time, but apparently there is a rule--actually, a full-fledged law!--that mandates drivers stop for pedestrians who are crossing in a crosswalk. In fact, in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts--one of the original 13 states and the originator of the feast of Thanksgiving--this act of restraint is stipulated in Title XIV, Chapter 89, Section 11, of the General Laws of the land. And whoever violates any provision of this section shall be punished by a fine of not more than $200. And keep in mind that this was many years ago, when the U.S. Dollar was worth more than the Canadian dollar. And there was no Euro to help tank the international markets. Would I have been awarded $200 if the driver had not stopped?
          I have been both a dedicated pedestrian and driver in my years. I have to say that although it may be safer to be a driver it is definitely cheaper to be a walker. There are so many infractions to driving, more than any sane person could ever be expected to master. I have gotten dinged for all the nit-picky rules that I presumably memorized when I took my driving test back in the 1980s. Parking more than 18 inches from a curb cost me about $45 (1998). I tried to fight that one by claiming I use the metric system, but I was probably 20 years too late for that argument to fly. Speeding in a "construction zone," even if the only thing constructed was the sign designating it a "construction zone," several hundred dollars (2006), and the main reason I am avoiding Nevada until 2013. Talking on a cell phone that is not at my ear (2010), a $25 ticket that turns into $242 with no explanation. And $500 for some infraction that needed to be explained to my twice (2010) and I swear isn't even a real law. Many of us who enhanced CV by studying for and passing the DMV examination pursue higher education through one of the many prestigious Traffic Schools that populate our fair Internet.
          Walking, which is a skill I mastered more than 15 years prior to driving, appears to be less regulated. I like to think of walking as a more Libertarian pursuit than driving. Having spent many of my formative years ambulatory in cities whose streets were designed well before the advent of the automobile, I grew up without an understanding of the actual purpose of crosswalks and flashing white figures and sidewalks. One crosses when one needs to cross. If Starbucks is directly across the street, an Easterner just intrinsically knows how to dodge Saab hatchbacks to get to a latte quickly, without being flattened by a ton of Swedish steel. When I moved to Los Angeles and saw tourists patiently standing on street corners before crossing, I assumed they were waiting for a bus. When in Tokyo I saw locals stop abruptly as a light changed, I worried they were having a seizure. Now that I have children, I make a show of loudly proclaiming how we "always wait for the white walking man," even if there are no cars for miles around. Of course, this is only if there are other pedestrians around.
          So, as a highly educated driver, and a pedestrian of the school-of-hard-knocks variety, I have inadvertently learned pedestrian laws from my experience as a driver. One is not supposed to drive over a cross-walk until the walker is on the other side of the street. Who knew? I grew up playing Frogger with cars, and assumed dodging rolling vehicles was half the fun of getting from Point A to Point B. It hadn't occurred to me until I was ticketed for this very driving infraction (2009) that the driver/walker relationship was not meant to be an adversarial one.  Really, what is the point of having a piercing horn front and center on the steering wheel if not to encourage meandering crossers to light a fire under the asses? Weren't electric windows invented to make it easier for a driver to curse out the window at a jogger with headphones?
           In California, however, the government has the last laugh on pedestrians, Liberterians and, especially, Libertarian pedestrians. Like the "off sides" rule in soccer, people have explained "Jaywalking" to me countless times. I still don't understand how it is done, what the problem is with it, and what it has to do with either the letter "J" or the Blue Jay bird. But that didn't stop a member of my immediate family from coming home with a $100-plus ticket for this alleged infraction. Drivers are fined $200 for not letting a pedestrian cross, and a walker is fined $100 to cross a street? I think it is time for me to use a parasail to get around town.



Thursday, November 17, 2011

Voluntary Commitment

         My mommy drinks wine. Is that healthy?” my daughter apparently asked a doctor-parent who volunteered to speak to her kindergarten classroom during the school’s Healthy Choices Week. “That depends,” the apparently scientifically credentialled dad responded. “How much does she drink?”
            I learned of this interaction not from an emergency call from either Child Protective Services or an AA sponsor, but from my child herself. I cannot speak as to why she queried this man about her mother’s once-in-a-blue-moon half-glass of wine, and not about my daily ingesting of jars of defatted peanut butter. And I cannot say whether this self-identified “health expert” parent is related to a child with whom she may someday want a playdate. But I can say that this experience should have been a wake-up call for me.
            No, my humiliation in absentia did not give me pause as to whether I should order a Shirley Temple in lieu of a Pinot Noir next time we go to a French bistro. And, no, I have not taken to wearing dark glasses at school drop-off to avoid the possible disapproving look of her teacher. (Though that wouldn’t be a bad idea because my eye make-up is usually not adequately blended at drop-off time.) What this incident confirmed to me is that I need to stay as far away from my children’s classrooms as possible.
            The “My Mommy is a Lush” scenario was not my first inkling that there is a very good reason I work at a job that is completely unrelated to my children’s educational milieu. The red flags were there early on, and wildly waving, alerting me to the danger of spending too much time at my children’s school. The traffic stops by our city’s finest, citing me for illegally stopping in a School Zone. Twice. The daily cursing under my breath (but apparently loud enough to be heard by a classmate’s sibling—sorry!) at the inept crossing guard who clearly did not ace his classes in, well, street-crossing. And the inability to recall the actual name of my child’s current teacher when calling the truancy office to explain why my child was late. And neglecting to read apparently critical flyers jammed into a designated folder in my child’s backpack. And sending my child to school with a large 15-pound pumpkin for a seasonal activity which, unbeknownst to me, involved my 5 year old needing to carry it around all day. I still don’t exactly understand that activity, because, fortunately, I was not there to witness it. But kudos to the parent-volunteer on duty who lugged the pumpkin around all day for my daughter!
            Even with all of the clues that I am not meant to spend more than three minutes at a time on an elementary school campus—and, trust me, I can do a drop-off in less time than that—for some reason I still tempt fate.
            I had a day off about a month into the school year, so I thought I would volunteer my Ph.D.-educated time and skills to my children’s school. After a frenetic set of emails with both children’s teachers (frenetic on my part, calm and reasoned on theirs), it was determined that I would help out in my kids’ classrooms for certain activities. This time around, I was savvy enough to insist that I help in the classrooms themselves. I learned the hard way in my last attempt to volunteer (two years earlier) that if a parent does not specify the desire to be able to eyeball their kid during the volunteering experience, the parent will get stuck in the Xerox room unjamming spelling lists from the copier.
            I made arrangements to spend half the morning at my daughter’s kindergarten class, the other half at my son’s 5th grade class, and then concocted a complex schedule to maximize my one-on-one time with each child individually once they were out of school, but without either of them having to go to the dreaded “after-care” for even a moment. Perhaps you see why the Ph.D. and intensive statistical training were needed. I explained the schedule to my children, who followed the plan well enough for my 10-year-old son to interrupt me with a look of horror: “You are not going to be in my class, are you?” Ah, well, er, yes dear, that was the plan. I provided an abridged history of my life leading up to becoming a working mother, and how I would derive great joy from this rare opportunity to share in my children’s educational enrichment. My son, whose listening skills usually run the gamut from distracted to more distracted, repeated his mantra: “No, seriously, you are NOT going to be in my class.”
            Well, since the point of the day was to demonstrate my support of their academic process, humiliating my pre-teen by sitting in his classroom was indeed negotiable. So after another set of one-sidedly urgent emails, his teacher devised a way for me to help out by sitting in the hallway, so I could be near enough to peek in periodically. She is brilliant.
            So, the big day arrives and I come armed with a travel mug of coffee and fully charged iPhone. It was hard to balance my oversized Coach bag onto those little, tiny kindergarten chairs, but after rearranging the art supplies and worksheets on the little, tiny kindergarten table I was assigned to, I was ready to roll. My daughter’s teacher had Scholastic book order brochures waiting for me to collate, group and distribute into the children’s folders. Little did she know I was a pro at such projects after many years in the 1980s stuffing envelopes for political campaigns. I was determined to collate, group and distribute better than any parent volunteer before me. So much so that it took a while for me to notice my daughter was craning her neck during story time to make sure I was still there. The worried look on her face did not match the thrill I was getting from imagining how I was besting all the mothers and fathers who stuffed folders before me. She looked anxious to have me there, not knowing when I was going to leave. When the time finally came, I was still on a high from not only the quantity but the quality of my pencil-sharpening, alphabetizing, and stamping. There was no doubt in my mind that I would move up to the top of the list as the most in-demand parent-volunteer. My daughter, however, was not savoring my victory; she was crying and had to be extricated from my leg by her teacher, with assurances that I would be back to pick her up later, for Phase II of Mommy’s Day Off. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Animal Harm

My kids hate animals.

Not hate in that they wish kitties ill will. They just want nothing to do with creatures that are not capable of playing Barbies or Xbox.

I blame myself. I remember reading a picture book to my son when he was an infant and unduly stressing because I was not able to identify what sound most farm animals made. I don't think I ever felt the pressure I did when confronted with an illustration of a zebra. I know technically zebras are not farm animals, unless one is farming in the nether regions of Africa, but surely zebras expel some sort of utterance. My child seemed to have a talent for mimicking the baas and neighs I burped out for sheep and horses, so if I were to botch the zebra (always a kid favorite: It's black! It's white! It has stripes!) my child would surely be mocked for life when this deficiency were to be revealed at a preschool trip to the zoo.

Speaking of which, when he was two, I did indeed go on a playdate with a more animal-aware mother-son duo. Biggest mistake of my life. As I huffed and puffed pushing a stroller through the winding (but, thankfully, concrete) trails of the LA Zoo, my allergies activated by all that damned nature, my mom counterpart eagerly informed me that she and her wunderkind toddler were excited to find the Godforsaken Lemurs. Now, the descriptor of Godforsaken was not hers. She had taught her little bundle of brilliance the Latin name of a very particular breed of lemur, and they were in search of just this species. Thankfully, I was vaguely aware of what a lemur was from an episode of The Simpsons where Lisa uses flashcards to quiz baby Maggie on different species of animals. This was in the days before Dora's jungle do-gooder cousin Diego exposed a wider audience of children to the Ring-Tailed Lemur.  

Neither my son nor child #2 ever had the slightest interest in the inevitable petting zoos and--living in a fairly posh area of Los Angeles--ponies that seemed to appear at every civic event. Nothing makes a semi-urban community gathering more memorable than a subsequent bout of e coli or taxoplasmosis. In the spirit of full disclosure, I should mention that I was once bitten by either a goat or mini zebra at a 4H event in the 1970s. So dragging my children into a chain-link fenced area to mingle with animals (are lambs and sheep the same thing? How about goats?) is doubly stressful for me and, I might add, not at all cathartic. And I have to say those damned creatures never make any sound that anywhere near resembles the noises I grunted while sharing a farm animal tome with my kid. Get it? Isn't a "kid" also a baby animal of some kind? 

Recently my daughter's school had a field trip to some kind of wild animal farm up an unpopular freeway in the sticks of Los Angeles County. In a remote town that also houses a Juvenile Detention Hall.  I'll give you all a moment to pause to let the irony soak in. Anyway, neither my husband nor I checked the website in advance, so we could not get a consensus on whether the animals she would be seeing were more the "farm" or "safari" or even the "house pet" variety. So our attempts to excite her prior to the trip ran the gamut from conjuring up images of puppies to elephants. I think between the two of us, our knowledge of animals is limited to puppies and elephants. 

On the day of the field trip itself, my daughter was not a happy camper because she knows that field trips mean her mommy has to pack her a sack lunch that will undoubtedly include some form of crushed granola bar and juice box with no straw. There is no humiliation greater for a young child than a mother who does a bad sack lunch. My poor child's sub-par upbringing is exposed to all as other children gleefully open their PBA-free tupperware containers containing brown rice and bok choy, while my girl chomps on Pirate Booty as her main course. And things did not improve as I whisked her into the classroom (mommy had a meeting to get to) and gave her a quick goodbye, punctuated with a "Say hello to the zebras!" 

At the end of the day, as I wracked my brain to remember what field trip she had been on, I picked her up at her school and asked her how her day was. She seemed perky and was coloring a picture of a dolphin. Oh yeah, animals! Were there dolphins at the animal farm? I probably should have done a quick Google search at work to be more prepared for the end-of-the-day small talk on the way home. Luckily, we only live two minutes away. "What a lovely pink dolphin," I exclaimed in my best let's-get-this-show-on-the-road voice of efficiency. "What was your favorite part of the farm?" My daughter, ever the Mini Me, looked at me with a face that was in the process of changing from contentment to something else: "The bus ride."    

Monday, November 7, 2011

A Blog Day Afternoon: Trader Joe's, We Have To Talk....

A Blog Day Afternoon: Trader Joe's, We Have To Talk....: Dear Trader Joe's: You know I have shown my loyalty to you many times over the years. Yes, there was the time you discontinued my favorite ...

Trader Joe's, We Have To Talk....

Dear Trader Joe's:

You know I have shown my loyalty to you many times over the years. Yes, there was the time you discontinued my favorite Sweet n' Hot Mustard. It took me months of therapy, and bags--cases I would estimate--of your Baked Cheese Crunchies, but I learned to trust you again. 

Trader Joe's, you had me at “Better N’ Peanut Butter.” I see you almost every day. More than I see anyone aside from my immediate family, who live just .3 of a mile closer to me than you do. You never go on strike. You don't confuse me with an ATM or cafe in-house. You are everything that is pure and good in the food-services industry. I would never cheat on you.

Well, except for cold cereal. What can I say? My kids watch television nonstop and are slaves to corporate marketing. Let’s face it, General Mills’ graphic designers could so whip your graphic designers’ asses. The honey dripping from that honey-dripping doohickey on your box of Honey Nut O’s does not motivate my child to Just Eat Your Damn Breakfast Already! the way Buzz the Honey Nut Cheerios Bee does. And Buzz is so darn cute! And s/he has so much wisdom to impart about the FDA food pyramid! It’s a win-win-win situation!

OK. I also avoid your paper products like the plague. Yes, I am fully aware that the toilet paper at Target is not made in an Amazonion Rainforest (as I am assuming yours is), but there is only so much I can fit into those damn re-usable Trader Joe’s cloth sacks. I cannot tell you how many of those reusable bags I have purchased over the years. I have most likely filled a good-size landfill with the bags I have purchased and promptly lost. But I turn lemons into lemonade by thinking of all those in-store raffles I have entered in the name of the environment. Although I have never won the weekly raffle, I am not bitter. I do not throw the recyclable bags I can find away, just to wipe the beatific grins off the faces on the photos of your happy and loyal customers. Guess what? I have seen in person the prominently featured trio of Francesca, Makayla, and another person with many vowels in her name (loyal shoppers since 2003!), and they did not appear to be anywhere near as Zen as they appear in the photo next to the bag display. If I am not mistaken, I may have even seen them carrying a bag from the big-box grocery store down the street. 

Come to think of it, I also go elsewhere for pre-ground coffee. Perhaps I shouldn’t admit this in such a public forum, but I do not grind coffee beans. I tried—Lord knows, how hard I tried—to dutifully grind your Fair Trade Organic Sumatra Coffee beans right there in the store. The pride I felt at performing manual labor in full view of so many of my neighbors was only slightly diminished by the mortification I felt at getting pelted with flying Fair Trade Organic Sumatra Coffee grounds when I mishandled your industrial-strength grinder and had to use the supplied brush to clean up my mess. At the time, it was worth it to be able to have a role in the production of my very own cup of coffee—and I experienced the trifecta (Fairly Traded! Organic! and Sumatran!) of moral victory with every subsequent sip. Yes, my aversion to measuring coffee prior to brewing meant that my experience of bitter or watery coffee at times outpaced my feeling of righteous superiority. But, to be honest with you TJ (may I call you “TJ”?), I am tired after a long day of work when I visit you and my nerves are shot. Between the taking off of the various plastic lids (which I assume are free of BPA, by the way) and that grinding sound--that infernal grinding sound--I just couldn’t take it any more.

Which brings me to the real reason for this talk. Between the grinding sound, those constantly chiming bells, and your perpetual Coldplay/Rolling Stones/Motown soundtrack, is it really necessary for your cashiers to talk so damn much? I swear I know more about a certain blonde female cashier’s daughter’s snack preferences than I know about my own children. Trust me, if I had questions about what side dish to serve with your frozen Mandarin Orange Chicken, your staff would be the first ones I would ask. And if I really couldn’t make up my mind on whether to try the Thai Vegetable Kao Soi or Lemongrass Chicken Stix, sure, I would stop a Hawaiian-shirted team member and pick her brain. Ditto if I didn’t find an item I needed, thank you for asking. But, barring any of the aforementioned scenarios, please just scan and bag. At the very least, please make your innocuous observations while simultaneously scanning and bagging. No need to pause the check-out process (and, why is it such a process??) to look at the ingredients of an item I am buying and vow to try it yourself. Frankly, I don’t give a damn. I am pretty sure I am oozing all sorts of nonverbal cues (and some fairly to-the-point verbal ones, as well) to hint at the fact that I really want to get out of there. Quickly and quietly. 

But, the truth is, in the end, I would endure hours of cheerful food-related small-talk if it meant that I could get my weekly stash of Chicken Gyoza Potstickers, Beef-less Ground Beef, and those little tiny pizzas that are the only thing my daughter will eat for dinner.

Glad we had this little talk!


P.S.: See you tonight!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

You Say Po-tay-to, I Say Po-tah-to....

There was a boy in my third grade class named Ian MacDonald. According to a quick Google search, there are apparently at least 50 Ian MacDonalds and more than 100 Ian McDonalds still kicking it in the United States, so I don't think revealing his name decades later is any breach of ethics.

Anyway, what was unusual about this boy was not the commonness of his name, but the fact that he pronounced it Eye-an, not Ee-an. This was back in the 1970s, when Debbie (not Debi), Michelle (not Myshel) and, yes, Karen (not Carin), were a dime a dozen, so being so bold as to give a kid a name with a nonconforming pronunciation was way out there. But he was the first (and only, until college) Ian I had ever met, so Eye-an it was. I lived the innocent life of the blissfully ignorant.

Several years later, when I was attending an all-girls' school that, needless to say, had no one named Ian, I met Sophia. I won't give her last name because a Google search indicated there were only two people with her name, both in Ohio. Although I find it quite unlikely that she ended up in Ohio, I will err on the side of discretion.

Anyway, what was unusual about this girl, was not the apparent uncommonness of her name, but the fact that she pronounced it So-phy-a, not So-phee-a, as parents of children nowadays are accustomed. As with Ian, I remained unfazed, because I had never previously met a Sophia of any ilk, so could not have foreseen back then what stress and frustration lay ahead for my friends.

I have a fairly common last name that has two conventional articulations. The one my family uses, apparently, is more of an East Coast style, and the other more of, I suppose, an Un-East Coast style. But I get the impression there are some fancier East Coast folks who share my last name but opt for the other pronunciation. Thank you for asking but, no, I am not related to these people, although I am sure they are perfectly nice people, despite their apparent perch atop the social ladder.

My husband and children have a distinctly uncommon last name that is botched by 65% of teachers, 85% of sports coaches, and 100% of the telemarketing public. Unlike my un-fancy relatives, a targeted Google of his name brings up several authors (including his father) and what may be a polka musician, if that is not too much of an oxymoron. A governor or Georgia and a really skinny country singer are also distant relatives, but from sides of the family that did not inherit the family name. They have names that leave no room for error.

Growing up with a name that is usually mispronounced is indeed a cross to bear for many of us. My older child, not yet exposed to the gazillion incarnations of enunciations that exist for even the shortest of names, thinks those who screw up his five-letter last name must be intellectually dim (yes, true in many cases). He has only one decade under his belt to develop the sneer-and-condescending-smile combination that effectively corrects the inarticulate boob who spouts the erroneous utterance.

However, my family may finally gets its revenge. Now that talking to people--which provides them the opportunity to put an incorrect spin on our names--is being replaced with written forms of communication, there is less chance that our delicate ears will be offended by a ruffian riff. My anecdotal observations indicate that many kids of this generation have names that are more or less conventionally uttered. The future victims, I am afraid, are the sweet and innocent whose names have a variety of international incarnations, like Sophia/Sofia/Sofie/Sophie or Aiden/Aden or Isabella/Isabelle. They may grow up like the generations of wounded-but-resolute victims of verbal mispronunciations. But, hopefully, these sure-to-be text-savvy kids will develop a thick skin and a stinging retort for the IMers who misspell their names. And the LOLs will be on them.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

A Viking Far From Minnesota

Our 1920s era Spanish home came equipped with a vintage stove. It has various compartments and settings and the Antique Stove Consultant we hired to clean it said it would outlast us.

For someone like me, who keeps forgetting which part is the "stove" and which is the "oven," I have had the distinct misfortune for nearly a decade of being burdened by hulking, expensive, industrial stoves.

Unlike my allergies to cats and pollen, this affliction has not been a lifelong problem. I was happily reared on mid-range American-branded electric ranges. Turn a switch, stare at the black coil until you are not sure whether the glowing red color is because it has finally heated, or because you are hallucinating from not blinking for so long. Either way, let's face it, spaghetti and Campbell's condensed soups leave little room for nuance and thrive on a 1970s Amana Cooktop. And the company's loopy cursive logo stamped near the analog clock (perpetually stuck at 10:47) makes the process feel so elegant.

So when my family moved into a vertically sprawling, Victorian-era Brooklyn Brownstone, I was skeptically intrigued by the fact that the owner promised that a custom-designed $10,000 Viking stove would be delivered shortly after our arrival. Of course, she was too discreet to tell us the stove cost that much money (but thanks, Google!) and, since we were paying her rent, if we had been armed with that information, we would have wondered why we were giving any rent money at all to someone apparently not in need of money, since she was blowing $10,000 on a stove for a house she was not even going to live in. 

The home's owners were in Europe, and I won't bore you, kind readers, with the story of how many hours I was stuck negotiating with New York delivery people to get this mammoth appliance through the narrow 19th-century doors. Nor will I excerpt snippets of the emails describing how the exact shade of purple* was selected by her BFF who is a color consultant for J Crew. What I will share is that I contracted Shingles--yes, a stress-related ailment--during this period of my life. 

Well, for all the build-up over how life would never be the same (presumably in a good way) with the arrival of the Viking, I have to say that pasta boils the same whether it be on a $500 electric stove, held into place with masking tape, or a $10,000 J Crew-inspired job. The owners had apparently spent months obsessing over whether to get the configuration with the griddle attachment and, bless their hearts, opted for this bonus. Now, I don't recall any part of any parenting manual that indicates serving children food cooked Denny's-style. If children in my family are such gourmands that they require a breakfast item that is warmer than cold cereal, well, I am guessing there is room at Wolfgang Puck's house for a few new members.

The griddle attachment would probably have sent my immune system into another round of Shingles, had I not been on heavy meds to get rid of the first bout. I thought, hey, we have a $10,000 stove that we did not pay for, and it has a griddle attachment--let's make pancakes! Given my lack of experience making home-made breakfast items, and my reading of the Viking manual which indicated that the griddle was specially constructed so that food would virtually slide off, I was sure we were in for an idyllic, carbo-filled morning. Who knew that a simple mixture of floury stuff, milk and eggs could produce a substance that would adhere so strongly to the griddle of a $10,000 stove? I literally spent months attempting to scrape burnt residue off the griddle, for fear that our high-strung, globe-trotting landlords would sue us or, worse, mock us for our un-Viking-worthy cooking prowess. Eventually, after paying the crazy nanny/cleaning woman extra money to attempt to remove the remaining char (Fail!), I ordered a brand-spanking new griddle, at a cost of many hundreds of dollars, and socked the "old" one into a closet.

Ironically (or, perhaps, fittingly), shortly after the stove was delivered, I hosted a Make-Your-Own-English-Muffin-Pizza Party. I had never before conceived of such a party and, frankly, wouldn't recommend it based on my experience. So, with a kitchen stocked with a $10,000 stove, my guests probably assumed we would be cooking these kid-friendly meals in the fancy oven. They would be wrong. After hearing about how quickly and hot that Viking fire burns, and the knowledge that many of the kids at the party had parents with law degrees, I opted for a toaster oven party. 

The toaster oven in question had been bought that week from a local, family-run store on the quaint main drag of our neighborhood. I typically am an online shopper/delivery kind of person, especially since we were carless and the house had more steps than the Spanish ones in Rome. But I was trying to be a good neighbor, and the store's Brooklyn-surly owner said he would deliver it. 

Long story, short: Toaster oven pizza party with 20 people in the early evening, NYFD, Engine 220, with four firefighters in the late evening. Moral of this story: Thumb's down for small, multigenerational family stores;  big-box chain stores rock. 

And, of course, there is always the microwave.

*Not the color's real name

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Mommy the Mercenary

       As a working mom, I like to think I give both roles the old college try. Maybe even the old graduate school—including dissertation—try.
       I have been a working girl longer than a maternal one. I have mastered the concept of working: perform previously identified duties, get paid. It’s a pretty straightforward concept. There are days off and days to stay home if you are sick—even paid trips to flaunt those working skills in other locations, meals and airfare included!
       And, yes, no matter what one does for a living, there are invariably going to be the requisite meetings that go along with the job. Not my favorite part of my occupation but, nevertheless, I can do a good meeting. I sit attentively, nod at appropriate intervals, take copious notes, and even interject at times, often with a tension-reducing humorous, but wise, comment. I told you I am good.
       When I became a parent, it had not occurred to me that meetings were part of the deal. Yes, the ability to sit attentively, nod at appropriate intervals, and even interject at times, often with a tension-reducing humorous, but wise, comment, comes in handy when processing a child’s day at kindergarten. But as I understand it, the payback for all of this empathic listening is to keep my children somewhere on the enormous Bell curve of semi-well-adjustment.
       So given my mastery of the aforementioned skills, it would logically follow that I would be a whiz at participating in the slew of meetings that (I learned the hard way) are part and parcel of parenting. Before a child is old enough to walk, parents are called upon to attend “educational” meetings about parenting strategies and preschools. Fine, I can drop in on a meeting and grab a few pamphlets and high-tail it out the back door. When they actually do take steps, there are "introductory" meetings about sports teams and activities. Luckily, most sports leagues give parents a “buy out” option, so for between $50 and $200, one is absolved from any duties related to volunteering time, craft skills, or snack planning duties. And once they start any form of school whatsoever, the meetings become both educational and introductory, as parents clamor to find out more about what to expect with their child’s new teacher, helping out with school fundraising, PTA, organizing bake sales, art festivals.
       I really thought that, given my talent for being an enthusiastic participant at work meetings, I would be a superstar parent participant, as well. I have attended meetings for all of these activities, each time spending most of the time fidgeting and trying to look engaged while checking baseball scores on my iPhone. Any meeting worth its salt should furnish handouts and an email follow-up going over all the pertinent information, ideally in an easy-to-read font, with bullet points and a restrained use of italics. I am always happy to learn that a meeting I probably should make an appearance at is at a time that conflicts with a sanctioned mommy duty that takes precedence over the meeting itself. Nothing is a better demonstration of the art of Mommy Multitasking than conspicuously showing up at a meeting, making a drama out of hugging the host, and revealing in my best stage whisper that I have to dash to quiz my daughter on her Mandarin homework.
       My children seem wistful that their mom does not do the volunteering that is the inevitable outcome of these meetings. I constantly hear comparisons to other parents who help out in the classroom, or—perish the thought—chaperone school field trips. Sadly, these parents (like all parents I seem to know) are also busy people, so I am not able to play the “well, that parent has five nannies and three chauffeurs, so s/he has time to help out” card. I did try to explain that mommy and daddy give their schools money whenever they ask—and sometimes even when they don’t. And mommy saves those little boxtop thingies on the Cheerios and occasionally drops them off at the school. Oh yeah, and don’t forget, mommy gave birth to you. Voluntarily. That must count for something.  
       I have thought about why I cheerfully endure work meetings, but have the attention span of an ADHD gnat at parent-related meetings. My conclusion: One is paying me to pay attention, and the other is not. Yes, the school meetings often have bagels or donuts, but I am trying to live a low-carb lifestyle, so that doesn’t cut it for me. However, if the next band-uniform-fundraising-committee meeting wants to issue me a W2, sign me up.