Wednesday, July 27, 2011

By the Hammer Balls of Thor

Just when I think the little one has got this thing wired she proves to me that there are still a few areas that need refinement. Like yesterday morning when I was getting ready for what was going to be a very busy day and I suggested that she play quietly with a toy from her special basket until it was time for us to leave. While I nipped back to the bedroom to attempt to erase my entire face and draw it back in, with everything in the right places this time, she slipped back to the master bathroom and sat down 2 feet from me with the game we call, to Rick's horror, "Hammer Balls".

You know this one. You line up the garishly colored plastic balls (wooden balls, I guess, if you're one of those parents and if you are you can stop reading my blog now) at the top of the box and then smash them with a mallet until they drop into a short maze, roll out of the box and then get lost under the piano. And here they will stay until the movers roll back the piano and then squeal like a lady. Or maybe that only happens when the movers roll back the refrigerator and find the place where your cats have been chasing their creepily realistic stuffed baby mice toys for 2 years.

It took me 10 minutes to convince that mover that he wasn't looking at a pile of 75 dead mice babies. It probably would have sped things up a lot if I had started with, "If this was a real dead mouse baby would I put it in my mouth like this?"

In any event, the instant Mae's tiny plastic hammer made instant nerve jangling contact with its target it was like a scene from a war movie where our hero has been home for about a week and is about to enjoy a delicious breakfast of grapefruit and someone shuts the refrigerator door a little too aggressively and our hero kills that person with his grapefruit spoon. Thankfully the only instrument within my reach was an eyelash curler so the worst I could have done was deliver some incredibly tiny pinches. After I was peeled off of the ceiling I made sure Mae understood that one of the things we never do is play hammer balls within 10 feet of Mommy's room if the door is closed. Which, after a year here really should have been a given.

It reminded me of when a very dear friend whom I will call "Lisa" (hi, Lisa!) brought Mae a toy we call the "Pop Me Popper" when the kids are awake and "That &#@*ing Pop Me Popper" when the kids are asleep. You know the one. Its a plastic dome filled with plastic marbles that rides on a set of wheels when propelled across the floor by its long handle. It seems innocent enough until it gets going and you realize that the when the wheels are engaged the devil's hand is permitted to reach into the dome and start pinging those marbles around at warp speed creating a thundering cacophony of spine melting mini-crashes. I handed it right back to her and said, in my most gracious tone, "Come on! I have four kids now. You can't possibly imagine that I haven't thrown away hundreds of these already. My mom sends me a gross of them every quarter."

Because, when you're a certain kind of person, you get dozens of Pop Me Poppers every time you add a child to your family. That toy only exists to be gifted to that certain kind of person. Same with hammer balls. Which explains why we have 10 sets of them. Had 10 sets of them. We have 9 now.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

In Law

So, my mother-in-law will be arriving on Tuesday and staying with us for almost a fortnight (If you don't know how long a fortnight is, it is two ha'fortnights. You're welcome.) I am really looking forward to her visit.

No. Really.

Stop it. Really.

Okay, go ahead. I'll wait.

Okay, now?

At this point, there are people who know both me and my mother-in-law and they are still giggling but very nervously. Relax, Guys. It's just a blog post. What could go wrong?

They are nervous because I haven't always been able to say that I was unhesitatingly looking forward to my mother-in-law's visits. I always did anticipate them with some excitement but also a fair amount of caution. We weren't always simpatico. I don't want to go so far as to say that we were a tiny bit antagonistic to each other because I don't want to get into that kind of trouble.

At first, we got along just great. Rick and I were in the early phase of our relationship and so my exchanges with my mother-in-law-to-be (hereafter to be referred to as "Ruth") were of this variety:

Zelda: Your son is the most wonderful man in the universe. You've done a wonderful job raising him. And he's dreamy.

Ruth: Have some pie. TWO pieces.
Then, a wedding and some real life and our exchanges started to sound more like this:

Ruth: He is such a wonderful husband and father.

Zelda: Who? You mean, Mr. Oh-Dirty-Socks-Haven't-Always-Gone-In-The-Crisper? Yeah. He's awesome. Nice job on that, by the way. Is that pie?

Ruth: No.
Let's be honest. Under the best circumstances I am a difficult person to know and an even more difficult person to like. It was a real eye-opener for me on the day I thought to myself, "Isn't it funny how all of my dearest friends are the kind of people who can really just get along with anyone? They are so tolerant of even the most annoying people." I was feeling pretty smug about belonging to this special group of people until ever so slowly a cloud of realization moved across the sun that had been blinding me to the truth. All of my best friends were impossibly patient and sympathetic not because birds of feather flock together but because they were the only kind of people who would put up with me.

I do not wear this as a badge of honor as do some of my ilk. I recognize it with chagrin because I'd like to more likable. Theoretically. If it weren't so much work. And if it didn't require me to pretend to care about so many boring and/or unattractive people.

You have to understand that Ruth met me at a time in my life when I felt more at liberty to express my deep horribleness. And Ruth was not the only one of Rick's circle that had a tough time with me. One friend, who has yet to fully recover from meeting me, made the mistake of asking my opinion on a subject that was of no interest to me and that I, in fact, found somewhat distasteful to discuss in mixed company.

Friend: Don't you agree, Zelda?

Zelda: *Crickets*

Friend: Zelda?

Zelda: I find it somewhat difficult to have a strong opinion about this subject.*

Friend: *Open mouthed gaping*

*In its original form, Zelda's response was actually a deliberate and icy, "I really do not give a sh!t." It has been translated for the more delicate reader.
I'm embarrassed by this now, of course. Still, my years as an enfant terrible have managed to get us out of a fair number of wedding invitations so it wasn't a total wash.

I'm older and wiser now and I'm not a jot more likable but I know enough to try to hide it. For instance, instead of blurting out how bored I am by something I just pretend to have temporary deafness as the result of being too close to a car backfiring. Or, I pretend to only speak some obscure foreign language: "No listeno! No listeno! Ich bin parlez vous xie xie tambien!" Or I pretend to have quietly died in the middle of the conversation. That way no one's feelings are hurt by my lack of interest. Against all odds, I really am growing as a person.

So, I'm glad that my mother-in-law hung in there during the difficult years. No matter how tense things got between us (not that they did) we kept trying. I did it because I've always admired her and found her funny and sweet and warm. I would never pretend to die during one of her stories. The nights that we have all sat up until the wee hours of the morning and I have listened while the family exchanged stories of life on the farm where she raised her children, well, those have been some of my most treasured memories. I'm going to pretend she did it because she saw some potential in me and not just because four of her grandchildren call me, "Mom".

Someday, I want to tell her how much it has meant to me that she didn't just give up on me years ago. And how much it has meant to me that she has been such a wonderful grandmother to all of my children. And how I have appreciated the thoughtful gifts and notes and cards she has sent to me over the years. And how much I really, really love her banana cream pie. And someday I will. Just as soon as she gets over that temporary deafness from standing too close to someone firing a shot gun. Which has now happened just before she's left the last two times she's visited here. Weird, huh?


Thursday, July 21, 2011

Capricious

99% of the time I love my life. There's very little in it that's a real cause for complaint. As a result, it is to my deep sadness and shame that I spend a lot of my time complaining bitterly about nothing. *Sigh*

1% of the time I kind of hate my life. I hate all the things about it that I love 99% of the time. It happens at different times. Sometimes when I'm in line at the grocery store. At 5:30 in the afternoon some Fridays. While people-watching at the gym. Sometimes at the mall. But it always, always, without fail happens when I'm sitting somewhere listening to children's voices raised in song. One second I'm there, enrapt by the talents of my progeny and then in the next instant a kid will rip off a line so deeply inappropriate or absurd that my innards recoil:

THOUGH IM TYRANNASAURUS- REXY
SOME WILL FIND ME SEXY

It's then that I get what can only be described as "kaleidoscope eyes" in which my vision seems to shrink backward until all that's left are tiny pinpoints of light at the end of a dark, narrow tunnel.

The voices around me get thin and tinny and far away sounding and I'm left there with just the sound of my own thoughts which are focused on my incredulity at being in this place in this moment. Invariably, the same thoughts occur during these episodes: "Why am I here? Who are these children? Whose shoes am I wearing? Why are they so practical and ugly? When did I give up shaving? Oh my gaw, are these Capri pants? Khaki Capri pants? Wait, am I in Capri? Nope. Who are these people? Why are they all so ordinary? Why are so many of them wearing jorts? I didn't write a book did I? I didn't move to the city. I don't have an apartment in Paris, do I? And no flat in London. I don't own anything from the current season's collections. Oh, s#!t, I think I might drive a van. Why are these 8-year olds doing pelvic thrusts in duck costumes? I made one of those costumes, didn't I?"

Then, just as I'm about to claw off my own face in a desperate attempt to escape from the bougie, suburban nightmare I'm living I snap back, clap vigorously, stop clapping because it's not time to be clapping and now everyone is staring at me and then I settle back into my impossibly comfortable and fulfilling life.

But if you do the math you will see:

1% + 40 years + various confrontations with mortality(x) = France

And that's why I'm planning a trip to France. What I don't know is when I'm going. As in I'm still sketchy on the decade. What is not in question is the improbability of going out of my way to see this while I'm there:


Monday, July 18, 2011

Like Water for Chocolate Elephants

This one's a rant. There's your warning.

Dear World,

Please stop making up for my parenting lapses by jumping in and fixing everything for my kids. I'm trying to do a thing here. You're wrecking it. Go away.

Hatefully yours,
Me

Of course there is a specific event that precipitated this but it is not an isolated event. Oh no. But that it were.

Once upon a time, I was the kind of parent that didn't leave the house without enough provisions to sustain a smallish army division for two weeks. Snacks, water bottles, extra snacks (in case we hit traffic), back-up canteens, blankets, toys for sand, toys for water, toys for watery sand, jackets, umbrellas, cyanide capsules, notebooks, crayons and spare undies. We'd be headed out for a trip to the park but if we changed our minds and decided to hike the Appalachian Trail instead, it was cool because we'd be ready.

Now, this could not be further from the way I remembered being a kid if I'd been a kid on Pluto. But, as a new parent I had a formula for deciding how I was going to do things. It was: Take whatever MY mom did and divide it by 5. Then set it on fire. Look at what other moms are doing and multiply by 1000. That led to a lot of conversations like this:

Zelda's Mom: Should Eleanor be outside in her bathing suit?
Zelda: What's your opinion?
Z's Mom: Well, it is January. In Michigan. I say no.
Zelda: Stop telling me how to raise my children. This is how it's done now. It's called, "Frostbite Parenting", and you wouldn't understand.
Or this:

Annoyika: I'm going to have balloons at Paisley's party. Are you going to have balloons.
Zelda: Well, yeah.
Annoyika: How many?
Zelda: How many are you having?
Annoyika: 24, I think.
Zelda: Oh. I'm having 24,000. WINNER!
My mom never carried water or snacks for us. Parents of my peer group always did. Do the math = Appalachian Trail. But at some point (third child) I said, "No mas!" I was taking more notice of what we were stuffing down our gullets. I mean, I have no doubt that our livers would have made an impossibly rich paté but I was skeptical that being the fattest family in the universe was as noble as it sounded. And I got tired of lugging all that gear everywhere. Tired enough to just not go places because it was too much trouble to get ready to go out for a 30 minute excursion that would involve 2 snack breaks.

And I was getting progressively more disgusted by the level of snacking in my kids' lives. Before, during and after every athletic event there was food or drink. Usually something that came in a palett. I'd feed my kids well all week just to have them play basketball on Saturday morning and chase their 27 water breaks and 15 minutes of skipping and flapping with a bag of Cheetos and a Hi-C.

Unless we were leaving for more than 2 hours I stopped bringing anything. Even water.

When did kids get so freaking thirsty? When did it become bad parenting for your children to experience thirst once in a while? I'm pretty sure the next generation of kids will be born with a bottle of water growing out of the place where a hand used to be.

When we are out and my kids say, "I'm thirsty." I say, "You may have a drink when we get home."

Try this some time, if you haven't already, and watch the heads snap around.

"She's not going to let them have water!"
"Shut up!"
"No, really. She just said they had to wait."
"For water? Oh my gaw!"
"I think the little one is turning into stone!"
"I can't look!"
Moms will dig furiously through their gear packs, "I have an extra bottle! It's here somewhere. Please don't let them die!" I will try to politely decline, "No, thank you. We're fine." But, if they press I will accept the water. Sometimes I just leave it unopened. Sometimes I open the bottle and pour it out in front of them and then toss the empty bottle over my shoulder and say, "Mmmm. That's was delicious. Wasn't that delicious kids? So refreshing."

No. But I want to. Because I'm sick of people interfering with my parenting.

It occurs to me lately that my children are tender. Like delicate, flaky French pastries. They are incredibly sensitive to fluctuations in temperature and humidity. They need a little toughening up. For the past year this has been my goal and I've stepped it up in recent months. Hiking. Bike rides. Enduring blistering temps in the low 80s without central air. Sparkling mineral water without a lemon wedge. All to the disapproving stares of other parents.

And here's what the kids have been hearing:

E: I'm hot.
Zelda: Good.

H: I'm hungry.
Zelda: Good.

S: I'm thirsty.
Zelda: Good.

M: Noodles?
Zelda: No.

Well, almost.

They've also heard:

"It's good to be hot and thirsty sometimes. Life isn't about sitting in your air conditioned living room in total comfort at a perfect level of hydration."

And:

"You're supposed to get hungry during the day. If you never get hungry you are eating too much."

And:

"None of you are going to be prepared for the zombie apocalypse if you can't go a few hours without nourishment. I am not going to get my brains eaten because you're feeling peckish."

Today, I was told, among other things, that my kids should be bringing a midmorning snack to camp because all the other kids did and they "might feel left out". What? We're eating to fit in? Fit into what? A size 42? When I said that we didn't eat midmorning snacks I was told that it could be something healthy. I found that pretty revealing, that I didn't HAVE to pack something unhealthy although that would clearly be the optimal choice.

I thanked the director for the suggestion and walked out to my van to try to figure out what had just happened. Ever try to flesh out the real story from a 9-year old that knows he is in trouble? Yeah. That. I'm still not clear on what happened but it may or may not involve robot alligators from Mars.

After I turned back into Bruce Banner, righted the van and started toward home I considered how to proceed. My inclination was to set my phasers to stun and come back in the morning with guns blazing. But then I remembered my new resolution which is to stop trying to save the world from itself because, frankly, it doesn't deserve my efforts (aka "Choose your battles", but mine's better). So, tomorrow, my kids will show up with a snack in their backpacks. But, they have been ordered not to eat them on penalty of no video games for a million years.

Next time: "Social Services: Which one of you called them?"

Friday, July 8, 2011

Absurd

For a brief and glorious time all of my best friends were eligible for the senior discount at the Muncie Mall Café while I wasn't yet old enough to buy cigarettes. This worked out pretty well because this particular generation of seniors didn't seem all that hung up on things like lung cancer and most seemed vaguely annoyed by even the concept of a minimum smoking age. That meant that some of them happily bought cigarettes for me. Even better, although they were all eligible for the MMC senior discount, most of them preferred less pedestrian fare and that is how I found myself eating lunch at places like the country club or the Roberts Hotel.

I don't know if every 17-year old would enjoy socializing almost exclusively with the country club set of a rather small Midwestern town but most don't ever get the chance. I gamely tagged along on trips to the shop that carried Pendleton where I could not be convinced to turn in my shredded jeans for beautifully tailored wool blazers with coordinating trousers. The ladies, brightly festooned in their tartans and hosiery and tasteful pink Estée Lauder lipstick, would cluck and sigh about my military garb, dyed black hair, Kabuki white face powder and gash of red lipstick and refusal to wear even socks, even in winter. But I was fairly quiet and I listened to their stories. All of them. I couldn't hear enough of them enough times. And, so, they let me stay. A scraggly common crow among the magpies.

While other kids were out cruising, I did things like wait up for my grandparents to come home from the country club formals to hear about the food and the dances and the dresses. I fretted with them and their interior designer over how to reupholster the Henredon armchair in the family room. We went with the navy blue which was my first choice as well as that of the designer, Bill (who had been a belly gunner during WWII), or so he told me privately. I learned the importance of a weekly blow-dry and set. Went to ceramics class. Enjoyed Beef Wellington and Cherries Jubilee at dinner parties that started with what seemed to me an impossibly civilized ritual of cocktails. In glasses. Glass glasses.

I was horrified when my grandmother told me, some months later, that it was time for me to go live on campus at the university I was attending. "You shouldn't be hanging out with your grandparents and their friends," she said, "You need friends your own age."

I didn't.

Most people don't live with their grandparents if things are going well for them. I was no exception. I really needed to be with these genteel, learned, worldly people who had already raised families and had (nearly) limitless tolerance for the foibles of youth. Even better that they were snobs of the small town variety and so their brand of elitism was wholesome in some way that I've never quite identified. I became civilized. I had it imprinted on my impressionable mind that life could be mannerly, orderly, respectable and enjoyable rather than a state of constant turmoil whether real or imagined.

But, I went to the dorms because I was told to and I wasn't nearly as rebellious as the clothes and chain-smoking suggested. On the way there I complained bitterly (because neither was I as compliant as I could have been) that I would likely end up with a roommate that had huge blonde hair and even huger breasts and who would want to decorate the room in pink. My grandmother scoffed. We arrived at the building (just a few miles from home) and walked into the room where I met Jennie. My grandmother blanched and I smirked as the busty, blonde perched on a cloud of pink comforter hollered her, "HI!", in a voice that said, "Oh my gah, I'm rooming with flat-chested Elvira!"

There were still parties. Mostly of the red plastic cup variety. Gone were the glasses, the Harvey Wallbangers, the Baked Alaskas, the Swedish Meatballs. Gone were the stories of serving in the war or waiting for boyfriends and brothers to come home. Gone were the recollections of what happened after they did. And what happened after they didn't. None of these new friends had buried children. In my old group, one couple had buried two. No one wore Pendleton. No one got a weekly set. I hated it.

I missed my friends like Bea who had taken me under her wing when I first got to Muncie. She and her husband, John, were usually the ones who took me to lunch. Then we'd shop. Usually at the bookstore. They would pick out a book for me to read and let me pick one. She bought me my first (and only) bottle of Emeraude. It had been her first grown-up fragrance. She frequently defended me in arguments with my grandfather regarding his profligate use of racially incendiary language (this was our only real point of contention although he would probably argue that my tendency to strew my belongings throughout the house was a far more contentious issue).

I would shop with her for her granddaughters at stores that she called, "Jacques Peigné" and "Tarzhay", because it was absurd to refer to J.C. Penney's and Target that way.

And it is absurd to read in the paper today that Bea has died as part of a murder-suicide enacted by her beloved husband and constant companion of over 70 years. Absurd. Preposterous. Ridiculous. And completely, impossibly true.

I have spent the entire day reliving those months, those dinner parties, those shopping trips, those lunches. In the coming days I know that I will manage to sort and compartmentalize and make sense. But today I just want to remember with gratitude a time and a group of friends that changed, and possibly saved, my life.