Sunday, January 25, 2015

Grub kind of rhymes with Ugh


I grunted.

Couldn't help it. Honestly. 

There we were, waiting in line at a sandwich shop for an out-of-the-ordinary, mid-week lunch date with my girl.

Clearly, I wasn't myself.

She eyed me suspiciously.

“Why are you ordering salad?”

“Because I want it,” I lied.

She wasn't buying it. Especially after I asked for a few lemon wedges instead of ranch dressing.

“It's because dad's all gung-ho on his resolution to lose weight, isn't it?”

“No!” I drawl, sounding like a petulant child. “It has nothing to do with him.”

She just leaned back and grinned.

“Just because he's tightened up one belt loop doesn't mean … Oh, never mind.”

Stupid, smart kids. Of course, I'm jealous.

The man stops eating one bowl of ice cream per night and jogs around the bedroom while he watches a half-hour of Netflix, and he loses 10 pounds in a week. I run 15 miles a week for a year and gain three pounds.

Maybe that's why I've gotten a notion in my mind that the weight he loses will somehow find its way to me … as if fat were an element on the periodic table that can't be decomposed by either physical or chemical means.

It's just floating in the house somewhere, waiting for me to let down my guard. And when I do, all havoc will break loose … Ketchup won't be a vegetable, and broken cookies will pack twice the caloric punch, not the half I'd always been calculating, on account of the missing crumbs.

See, this is what dieting does to me.

Shhhhh. I know that's crazy talk. You don't have to rub it in.

And I know … I don't like that D word, either.

Diets. They never work. Especially not when the word is defined as a "plan of caloric intake reduction so as to achieve a desired number on a scale," which is significantly lower than the number currently mocking you whenever you step on the infernal device.

For as long as I can remember, I've used the term as a way to express the dietary habits of a particular species. For instance, in my case – a middle-aged suburban homo sapiens – a typical diet consists of bread, cheese, sugary things and liberal amounts of a certain caffeinated beverage. This diet is randomly supplemented with heartily-consumed salads containing at least a week's worth of calories in the dressings alone, but we only record the first part of the latter.

Oh right ... it also consists of eating popcorn for dinner when I'm the only one home.

But now that my husband has embraced this plan of eating like a Neanderthal … You know ... the species of creature that safely grazes along the outer ring of the supermarket, where its food is free-range and organically grown. It NEVER wanders into the center aisles where the Oreos and Fruit Loops live. Those things will KILL you.

Makes sense, right? Well, it made sense on December 31st when we were all too veshnookered to think straight. But the next day, I sobered up enough to rationalize a life without cheese, wine or espresso chip ice cream might not be worth living.

Of course, all that was before the big, protruding-forehead guy who lives in our house lost a pant size.

So help me, if I end up finding his pant size taking up residence in my closet, my new diet will include twigs and nuts and berries and organically-raised beef sliders with capers and caramelized onion between two slices of roasted sweet potato, too.

You know … just like the cavemen.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Zombification


Zombification.

Bat, bat, bat. Purrrrrrrrrr.

It starts with soft paws at first, then a sandpapery tongue.

Can you feel it? A warm, fluffy kitten sitting on top of your chest as the soft light of a cold January morning filters in through the curtains?

Yeah … Neither can I.

Honestly, I WISH a warm circle of fur purring under my chin was my new wake up call.

It's still dark when that alarm sounds.

First there's a truncated bark. Just a yip, really, and then a thud followed by the skittering of many claws. More barking. More skittering. And an avalanche of quadrupeds tumbles downstairs into separate corners.

I am not fully awake – haven't even opened my eyes – but I can guess what's been happening in the dark. “Old Cat” has had enough of "New Cat's" antics, and "Deputy Dawg" – the self-appointed sheriff for these here parts – is laying down the law.

I reach for my phone. It's 4 a.m. There's no hitting snooze on this skirmish, either. There is no way the volleys would be evenly spaced nine minutes apart. Once waged, this war will last until kibble is spilled.

Jerks.

Daggers of cold stab at my knees when my heels touch the floor.

Torture.

Of course, this isn't an alarm. It's become routine, like a possessed cuckoo clock bestowed by a doddery old aunt. A new surprise is waiting every hour on the hour, beginning four minutes after my head hits the pillow, which is a full seven minutes after my husband has entered REM sleep.

First it's the barking. A yip you ignore, hoping the dog will settle and go to sleep.

“What does she want?” my husband will ask me accusingly. As if I understand Dog but refuse to speak it, thereby making him an unwilling emissary to the animal kingdom.

“The dog wants to go out.”

What? Of course I speak dog.

So, down the stairs I go ... dink, dink, dinkdinkdink … and let the dog out.

Ten minutes later … Back up the stairs …. dink, dink, dinkdinkdink. Back into bed.

I am wide awake. The dog gets a slobbery drink and circles from one room to another, deciding where she will hunker down for the first watch. This means I have to distract her until the children fall off to sleep. I will have to stay awake.

The girl has already closed her door to the pitter-patter of furry feet.

Oh, it was cute at first … The way the New Cat wanted to snuggle up and sleep among the toys. Until she displaced Old Cat and found that stuffing was delightful to pluck out of plush victims.

And can you guess where the dog wants to be? … Of course, you can.

“But Mom! … I can't sleep when they are in my room. The dog lays on my feet, and the kitten tries to eat my hair. It's TORTURE!”

The boy doesn't want them either. “The kitten jumps onto my curtains and the dog chews up my dinosaurs.”

So I wait and try to appease the quadrupeds until sleep comes for the children, and I can open their bedroom doors a smidge.

I don't feel bad about my deception. They sleep like the dead, but I sleep like the undead.   

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Unspeakable


Most mornings, I wake up to the sounds of breakfast already in progress: Pans shifting on the stove, cereal tumbling into hard plastic bowls, the last surge of water coming through the fancy coffee machine.

My husband wakes early, gets a fire going and stands in front of the stove rubbing his hands together as if a genie will magically appear and fork over a steaming plate of eggs Benedict.

“Morning ...” I'll say as I brush past him and reach for a mug from our precarious pile.

I won't commit to a “Good morning” just yet.

The kids crunch away at the cereal as their Christmas-delivered devices bleep frantically in a last-moment frenzy of activity before they must be set aside for the duration of another school day.

Aside from the sing-song voice on the television (which is on), no one has said another word.

My husband and I don't talk to each other anymore, either.

That's not true, really. But that's how it seems anyway, especially first thing in the morning.

He just hands me his phone -- usually with a shrug or an "I-don't-know-why-I-read-the-news" disclaimer -- and I come face to face with what's bothering him.

Last week it was ...

"Two-year-old shoots his mother with her own gun at Idaho Wal-Mart."

This week …

"Shooting at Paris satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, kills 12.”

“Have you see this?” he'll ask.

It doesn't matter what the headline reads, it feels as if the experience of it all has become unspeakable.

“No, I hadn't,” I say as I reach for the coffee.

Accident? Crime? Shooting? Death.

There's never a shortage.

Every day brings something we'd rather not see. Rather not know. Every day we are reminded of all that seems senseless, and virally so.

Neither of us wants to argue any of our usual points. We don't want to place blame or try to put it into context.

I skip over the comment sections more and more.

It's not about being right or wrong, I tell myself. It's about being neither without compassion.

Honestly, I don't know what to say.

This month we had two phone calls from school about worrisome incidents. Two 22 caliber bullets were found (a week apart) on my second-grader's school bus.

Questions were asked of the children:

“Did you see anything?”

“Do your parents hunt?”

Students were searched, asked to empty pockets. Lockers and book bags, as well.

Nothing was found.

The investigation will continue, claimed a sheet of paper sent home in a backpack.

We should feel better about that, I suppose. No other bullets. No gun. No apparent threat.

… But we don't feel better.

So much of this life boils down to some form of luck, good, bad or indifferent.

We don't speak about that, much, either. There's always someone waiting out in the world – maybe at the mechanic … or in the grocery store … or on the next treadmill at the gym – who will know exactly what's wrong in the world.

At one time or another, that person will be one of us, too.

What else can we do but keep on moving forward … and keep on hoping for the best?

Maybe tomorrow I'll wake up early and make eggs Benedict.  

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Great expectations


I knew exactly what to expect.

We'd walk into a den of iniquity laid out like a user-friendly kitchen of the most thoughtfully designed suburban home. Every member of the family would be hustling about, pulling together the eight thousand loose strands that would tie the whole evening together.

Tension would be high. And not just because we would be among captains of industry and the intellectual elite within our clan, but also because we would have to wrangle kids whose beeping, whirring, running at top speeds and disappearing acts always keep their parents perched on the edge of a sharp blade.

We'd stand there for a moment wondering if we should remove our shoes. The dog would make the first move, scampering around with a smile drawing up her long face, suddenly remembering that she'd been here before. The resident dog would oblige.

There would be peace among dogs, at least.

You did mention we were bringing the dog, right?”

Drinks would be offered immediately and dinner, hints of which we could already smell on the air, would be homemade and plentiful. And, no doubt, detested by my youngest child, whom I can only hope will be quiet about his preferences.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

We are early, and the meal is at least six hours away.

First, of course, we'd be shown to our rooms. The beds would be comfortable but foreign. No doubt we'd toss and turn, fretting about all the things people fret about when they are out of their element.

Will the kids ever go to sleep? Will the dog bark and wake everyone up?

Back downstairs in the kitchen, the nerve center, my daughter is dancing around with her new device. She is video conferencing with a friend, showing a virtual stranger all the miraculous features of this elegant home … like its pantry and the double oven.

“It's amazing!!! You can roast beef AND bake cakes at the same time!” she gushes.

She introduces her aunt … and her cousins. … and then we all take turns saying hello.

“Kids!” We say sheepishly. And we pray she'll grow tired of her new pocket-sized world before it's time for dinner.

Who am I to complain? It's not like I haven't checked my emails six million times since I got here … and all I ever get is junk mail.

Soon, I find myself planted in front of the kitchen sink … using hand soap to wash the pots and pans because it makes me feel useful ... and I don't know that dish soap has a dedicated pump built right into the sink.

The hot water is comforting as is scraping the remains of a rich stew off the enamel bakeware. I am happy in my work.

My husband helps with the cooking, which I only resent a little. He is more skilled in that department, and as a more skilled department is more highly regarded. I have never claimed to be more than an assembler of parts. If you need someone to dish out pickles, I am your man.

The conversation never lags.

It meanders smoothly around the matters of the kitchen – the braising and the baking, the bechamel, and horseradish sauce. “How much fat goes into Brussels sprouts? Holy Moly! No wonder why the kids love them.”

From time to time, we see hard looks and hear the flat voices … yet these moments of tension all seem to pass without hard feeling. … melting right into the simmering froth, never coming to a boil. Even the taboo topics of politics and religion are touched upon gingerly enough to be acceptable.

We retire to the living room for a game we've never heard of – a version of Botticelli – all you need is a dictionary, some paper and pens and a fertile imagination.

For more than an hour we take turns choosing impossible words and making up our own cockamamie definitions. There is laughter, sometimes to the point of tears.

No one checked their phones.

Not that it really mattered.

Eventually, we all made our way toward some semblance of sleep. And we all awoke to each other, and the same laughter from the night before.

Soon it would be quiet again. And the traffic sounds would mingle with the pings and beeps of the machines that keep most travelers hushed and complacent.

I would be sad the visit was over.

Of course, I expected that, too.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Age appropriate


I had just left the room for a moment. A millisecond to be exact. I didn't even see the wrapping come off the package, which had seemed to arrive out of nowhere. But I heard it. The sound of paper tearing in long, continuous strips.

This can't be good.

No sooner had they unwrapped the Christmas Village building set, ripped open the box and dumped out it contents -- several pillows of multi-color parts -- than the bottoms of my feet began to tingle in anticipation of the pain that would undoubtedly follow.

There was no time between the crinkle and burst of cellophane bags to stop what was happening. A cascade of hard plastic building bricks hit the soft carpet, surging like a waterfall.

It didn't matter where I was in the house at that moment – the basement … the attic … or the garage 500 feet away – because the sound of the bricks clinking together like tiny champagne glasses could have easily pierced lead.

The heavy sigh that left me that moment, if you are a parent you know, was the unmistakable sound of despair ...

A sound that is exactly like twelve-hundred sixty-three pieces of LEGO raining down from the air and covering the entire eight-by-five area rug with an inch of debris. My living room was now a minefield of holiday cheer. Which meant it was only a matter of time until the whole place erupted.

I started to count …

Three. …

Two …

“MOMMY! Can you help me?”

I took a deep breath and chased it with a slurp of coffee that had grown cold.

“Nope. Can't. Says as much right on the box: Ages 12 and up. I am much upward of eight. Sorry (NOT) sorry.

“Awww!” he said in momentary protest before raking his hands through the bricks.

“I'll help him,” said his big sister, in a voice that took on the sweetness of a much younger child; a child who didn't need to talk herself into the belief that Santa Claus was, indeed, watching.

She knew it to be true.

They hovered over the plastic carnage and I went back to my work.

I didn't get far. I could hear the low growl, a warning sign and stopped in my tracks.

I started to count …

Three …

Two …

MOMMY! The kitten is stealing pieces we need.”

I think she ate one of the connecting rods!”

Maybe if you feed her, she'll leave you alone?”

I pick up the cat and take her away. A tiny kitten will not be the reason Rome in Toyland falls.

Silence. How long will it last?

Three ...

Two …

MOMMY! She is not even helping.”

BUT MOMMY! He's already messed it all up.”

I roll my eyes and push my luck … “Do what you can. Try not to fight.”

I take another deep breath and hold it …

Three ...

Two ...

One ...

Silence? I can't believe it worked.

Still quiet. A true Christmas miracle.

Chore after chore completed in blissful quiet. It certainly seemed miraculous. Now, some people might object to the singing of several rounds of “Jingle Bells, Batman Smells, Robin Laid An Egg,” being classified as either blissful or quiet, but in the absence of a full-on sibling war over which of them is holding the illustrated instructions upside down, there are a great many things I'm willing to overlook. Repetitious caroling among them.

Oh, to be a silly rube.

Turns out the silence had nothing to do with harmony. Christmas Village was abandoned. A few small buildings dotted the living room landscape in various states of completion, while the makings of a large, working carousel lay scattered on the floor like confetti. Any moment, I expected dog hair to float by like tumble weeds.

The children were gone. Both of them. Scattered to the wind … or their rooms. … or to Netflix once they realized the project they had started was a little beyond their pay grade. After all, neither of them had reached the ripe old age of 12 and up.

Still … there was the matter of the mess. ...

Carefully, oh so carefully, I eased my way into a seated position on the rug.

“I'm definitely older than 12,” I said and began raking my hands through the rubble.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Christmas spirit ... and other holiday casualties



I can't find my Christmas spirit.

I've looked for it everywhere. Somehow it's just gone missing.

I hope the kitten didn't get it. She's a feisty one. Always chewing the corners off Christmas cards and tearing up wrapping paper.

I would blame her if I could, but I know it's not her fault.

For a time, I thought that someone had stolen it. Shoplifted, as it were, from the storage room of my brain that usually contains all of my warm and fuzzy thoughts. Ordinarily it's not difficult to find. It's the room adjacent to the ones that harbor nostalgia and gratitude. The Spirit of the Season stuffed into a dented cardboard box with all the tinsel and construction paper ornaments I so carefully saved over the years.

But I don't think that's possible. Who would want my old, worn out joy?

Oh sure, the 24-hour news offers a lineup of possible culprits. …

There's no shortage of rampages, whether deadly or just damaging to the psyche. There's no shortage of depravity, which, over time, will tend to sap your reserves of good will.

Keep clicking through channels. Then turn it off. What else can you do?

Still can't get away from the feeling ...

As if the world around me has turned into a sales pitch.

But that's just white noise …

Something I should simply tune out.

I plug in the Christmas tree. Maybe the warm glow from “traditional” twinkle lights will thaw my icy heart.

It's a possibility, I tell myself. After all, I had rejoiced a little at the hardware store when I found strings of incandescent mini-lights at half price. I am done with the cold, lifeless LEDs.

Maybe this was all I'd need. A dose of white, environmentally unfriendly, light.

Still nothing.

Maybe it's the dread of more stuff entering the house, taking up space we no longer have. All the pretty parcels brought late at night by a guy in a sooty beard and wearing a red suit.

For a moment, shouldn't it bring happiness?

The hours he spent at the mall, or online, searching for the “perfect thing.”

Of course, you know there are no “perfect things.”

It's not about things at all. It's about change.

The kids are growing up. The Christmas card list gains one person and loses two others.

I try not to dwell in the inevitable future. I know it's unwise. The future exists in one form or another, not both. There's no point in trying to set up housekeeping there until it becomes the present and you know the address for certain.

I need exercise and fresh air. I'll take the kids sledding. That will help.

And for the twelve minutes the stars align and the children are racing the dog down an icy hill on their toboggans with unbridled glee, I am calm.

It doesn't matter that I wore the wrong socks and my toes are beginning to turn blue.

It doesn't matter that in a matter of minutes a fight will break out over who was faster, or who's allowed to use whose sled.

Christmas will come. I will find that stupid, ratty box in an unexpected place, and when I open it, it will be filled with the spirit of the season.

Hopefully, I can catch it before it gets loose again. It won't stand a chance against that kitten.


Sunday, December 14, 2014

Snow day


Outside, the world looked like a juggled snow globe.

Fat flakes swirl around in icy water, frantically at first and then slowly, as if deciding where to land. It was all beautifully precarious.

Inside, our world seems equally tumultuous.

A boy and girl dance around the house, celebrating this unexpected day off with mirth and glee, as well as a fantastic fight over the remote control.

“It's my turn to pick the movie,” shouts one as the other hollers: “You picked last time.” Of course, it doesn't matter which one said what, they both believe it should have been their turn.

I used to love snow days. The sledding. The snow fort building. The snow-encrusted mittens drying on the radiator. A day made of frozen sweet confection, wrapped in white icing and offered up insistently by Mother Nature.

She wouldn't take No for an answer.

Unlike myself. I take No as a question.

Wouldn't you like to play a game? No?

How about we make Christmas cookies? No?

I suppose the idea of you kids going out into the snow isn't going to happen either is it? No?

No.

I didn't want to do any of those things either, truth be told. If we played a game, they would just fight over the rules. If we made cookies, it would just be the “Royal We” baking. And if we went out in the snow I would have to be out in it, too. Freezing.

Let's just skip to the hot chocolate, shall we? The kind with mini marshmallows, of course.

No cocoa? You've got to be kidding.

Of course, I'm not kidding … Now I remember what I forgot at the grocery store.

The snow has turned to rain. Freezing rain.

I feel better. The fact that we're not outside has shifted from failure to fortune. Which means now the kids want to build a snowman.

“This is the worst snow day ever,” says one of them.

It doesn't matter which one. They speak for each other, even if they don't admit such sibling harmony exists between them.

It's cold all of a sudden. In the living room. The fire's gone out.

As I get it going again, the kids huddle together on the couch under a blanket.

They are whispering, which is good, since the weather and the bickering have left me with a tension headache. And then they are gone.

“Do you have any boxes?”

“Can we have some wrapping paper?”

“Tissue paper?”

I am happy for the truce and show them where they can find such things.

They disappear upstairs, where I hear not a peep nor a rustle for more than an hour.

One after the other they traipse down with packages and bags festooned with ribbons and bows and rolls' worth of Magic tape, and tuck them under the tree.

Each strangely shaped package was marked with its intended recipient: Dad. Mom. Grandma. Grandpa.

The biggest ones were dedicated to each other: My Little Bother and My Big Blister.

So much for sibling rivalry and snow days.