Sunday, April 30, 2006

Beware the ides of ... April?

"How may I help you?"

The first clue of advanced maturity should have been the conversation itself.

It was 9 a.m. and I was on the phone with a mutual fund company trying to max out my contributions to a retirement account. It’s a far cry from downloading the latest MP3s from iTunes and nowhere near as satisfying.

Since I’d waited until the last possible moment to make the year-end transaction, and I couldn't remember my secret pin number, I had to call the convenient 800 number and plead for help before the ides of April thwarted my financial future.

The woman on the other end of the line was calm, pleasant and accommodating. She even walked me through the Internet procedures with the skill and composure of a freelance Web designer apologizing for her company’s obviously clunky platform.

She ascertained my preliminary identity and then performed more rigorous tests to confirm it: Mother's maiden name; home telephone number; birth date (month and day) although, for some reason, she spared me the embarrassment of having to say the year aloud.
But she knew it anyway: "Oh, you have the same birth date as my husband ... though not the same year."

Then the entire conversation came into a different perspective. It just then dawned on me that perhaps I was no longer the youngest person in the "room." Though nothing in her words or demeanor gave me unequivocal proof, it became abundantly clear to me that I probably had at least a decade on her spouse - my unnamed rival - who almost shares my birthday.

See, I had pegged her as my age or older. I had assumed her care in walking me through the online procedure was more than formality. Yet, as the transaction progressed it became painfully obvious that there was no need for a simultaneous pressing of buttons; "Houston" didn’t need radio contact for this mission. She was merely helping an old woman cross the information super highway without getting squashed.

Its not like I don’t see time marching across my face whenever I look in a mirror. The evidence is clearly apparent. The grays that have been making ever more numerous appearances and the lines etching in deeper on my forehead are just two of its tell-tale signs.

But somehow it’s still a shock when you turn the corner from kid to adult. When you’re 50th birthday is closer than your 20th, and you know in a blink of an eye it will be upon you.

I suppose when you’ve been carded for R-rated movies a decade out of college and six months pregnant you just take it for granted that age will not outrun you. Of course, when you pull out that drivers’ license and show the pimply-faced kid behind the ticket counter the proof he requires, you’d better brace yourself for the response.

"Wow! Sorry, lady. I had no idea you were that old."

Monday, April 24, 2006

So much for soft and cuddly

rarin to go

I should have known by the words on the palisade that this was going to end badly.

The tape keeping the throng of sugar-craving toddlers at bay read "CRIME SCENE DO NOT CROSS." The message I chose to ignore was clear: There is nothing warm or cuddly about an Easter egg hunt.

We didn't attend our town's Easter egg hunt last year. We thought it would be too chaotic for a child still learning to walk. Instead we held a little hunt of our own in the front yard. I spent a few minutes hiding eight plastic eggs filled with Cheerios and other dry cereals in plain view. With a little help from her grandparents, Ittybit found all eight orbs in short order.

But this year we were ready to join the community of egg hunters. We even got to the hunt a half hour early afraid of the consequences of being late and also to hobnob a little with the neighbors. As we stood behind the police tape trying to keep Ittybit amused with songs and games, stopping every once in a while to explain why her soft pleas to "do out there and pict some ayes" were going unheeded.

I listened with interest as parents all around us were laying out strategies for their kids so complex I expected at any moment one of them would pull a chalkboard out of a stroller and diagram the game plans with arrows, Xs and Os. But even that didn’t register as odd. I was too giddy, as I clutched my camera, to notice.

Just when we thought it wouldn’t be possible to wait any longer, the man with the megaphone informed us the tiny tots’ event would start momentarily. He asked for volunteers from the parental audience to come into the field and guard the borders, a little assurance there would be eggs aplenty for the next gaggle of gigglies.

My husband said I should go out there. He thought it would entice the young 'un to run out to me, picking up eggs as she went. While my inner mother was screaming for me to tell him she would need his help, the outer one I didn't say a word. Off I went to be a minuteman.

When the signal was thrown dozens upon dozens of tiny tots broke rank. All except for our little one, who clung tightly to her father's shiny stain-proof pants.

Within minutes all the eggs were gone. I had even forgotten my job and let dozens of kids into forbidden territory as I watched my own little peanut move haltingly toward a shiny green egg a few feet from where I stood. I held my breath as she got closer and a blur wooshed in between us and it was gone. She stood there blinking in disbelief. By all accounts it was a dismal failure.

I had brought candy with me on the chance that the eggs were filled with a confection too advanced for her small palate. But she had her heart set on picking up an egg. As her tears started to fall like rain, I chastised myself for not scrubbing the soap scum out of last year’s mismatched egg halves, now transformed into misfit tub toys.

Talk about heartbreaking.

What's worse, the crowd was dispersing and no one seemed to notice the little girl with the empty basket. As we stood there like deer in headlights a neighbor came over to see about the tears. Their daughter had snagged four eggs. (She had been to the event last year and was a professional marksman at the tender age of two). After a brief conference to entice the child to hand over one of her eggs, our little benefactor happily handed over two.

I have never wanted to hug someone else’s child more than I did that very moment. I think Ittybit wanted to hug her too.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Out of sight, but not out of mind

mom's photoshopped family portrait

On a recent Saturday the stars aligned and the grandparents stepped up so we could step out.

“Date Night:” A sad two-word phrase that single folk scoff at and married folk have to schedule as if it were a dental appointment. The understanding is universal: If you have to plan it in advance your relationship’s romance would rather be napping.

Now everyone on Earth seems to know how important alone-time is for parents except parents. We spend much of our week away from the kid (and each other) in our respective jobs and activities. Reserving weekends for family-building seems only appropriate. But when you add a liberal dash of household chores into the mix as you try to schedule kid-friendly activities in between Journey to Ernie and the afternoon nap, you find the days just slipping away.

When we started performing dramatic interpretations of Winnie the Pooh (speaking to each other in the voices of the characters most closely resembling our moods), I knew it was time for some entertainment that carried a rating more restrictive than ‘G.’
After explaining the situation to Ittybit, who pleaded to be included in this magical dinner and movie experience, she finally relented as we helped “Amah and Papa” re-familiarize themselves with the locations of every possible food item the little queen might crave during our absence.

Bracing myself for a tearful goodbye, instead she begins gathering her play balls and ignores my continued presence. “Bye, Mommy. Bye.”
In case you weren’t already painfully aware, parents of small children tend to be unable to have conversations about anything else besides troubling body functions or behaviors exhibited by aforementioned kids. Date nights are no exceptions.

Through appetizers and drinks we discuss our non-existent potty training strategies; her aversion to water and soap coming anywhere near her skin, unless she’s playing in the sink of her own accord; and the potential that she is honing accelerated diversionary skills at the tender age of two.

When the meals arrive we inhale them, forgetting that tonight we have the luxury of time. Drumming our fingers on the table as the check arrives, the movie is still hours away.

“Should we call?” I venture.

“No. They’re fine,” my husband says, unsure.

We put the phone call out of our minds as we trudge over to the theater and wait in line. Even though we are silent, I can hear him thinking about snacks. Since we child-proofed our cupboards of virtually every food item off-limits to toddlers, we have been hankering for such contraband as popcorn, peanuts and sticky sweets.

We find seats and settle in, determined to leave parenthood behind for a few hours. When the lights dim and the film flickers to life on the screen we are transported back to our wild, carefree days when we could stay out all night, decide to go to parties at the last minute or even take off for the weekend on a whim.

We continue watching until all the credits have rolled and the lights come back up. On the drive home we discuss the magic of the movie with all the pretension of theater critics, and wager (with sly hope) that Ittybit will still be awake and entertaining her grandparents with her own dramatic exploits when we get there.

I lose. … She is fast asleep in her crib. But waiting for us in our room are the playballs, trussed up one on top of the other with masking tape and sporting a cardboard jewelry box “hat.” The gift is carefully balanced on the laundry basket next to my bedside table.

“Look, she built us a snowman,” I exclaim, as my mother fills us in on the details. And as it usually happens my husband finishes my thought: “I kind of wished we’d seen this movie.”

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Breaking the (piggy) bank

“Moe mondey, MOE MONDEY!” Ittybit chants as I break another cardinal rule of parenthood by handing her a “choke-able” and telling her to go play.

She’s only two, but already she knows how to swipe a credit card, hand cash to the cashier at the grocery store and put quarters into the family “piggy” bank (actually an enormous Coke bottle) for safekeeping.

She becomes vexed when the Eisenhower dollar her papa gave her won’t fit through the slot. “Go in there. Go in there. Go in there,” she instructs the coin, as if the emphasis on the right word will be the magic that makes it fit.
When the enormous silver dollar won’t listen, she asks me to make it a bank of its own.

Scrounging a bit, I find an empty diaper wipes box and some stickers for decoration, and in seconds we have a new repository, not to mention one very satisfying “plunk” sound.

If genetics has any role in financial acumen, I am praying that Ittybit will take after her “Amah.” I have nothing but hope that my mother, who loads her up with dollar bills (that probably have gone through the washer and dryer several times to ensure cleanliness), will also instill in our tiny tot some of the secrets of her saving ways. Lessons, I might add, which have been almost entirely lost on yours truly.

If you’ve never met anyone with the Midas touch before, you should park a chair next to my mom and sit for a while. She has the gift.

By the time she was my age — on a nurse’s salary — she had already helped her parents buy a house, her brother a car and established a healthy savings for her own growing family. During the course my youth, she and my father even salted away enough money to put both me and my sister through college.

Such fiscal diligence has its price, though.

Every now and again my mother asks me if I remember our Christmases, and how our piles compared with our friends’ piles. I know what she really wants to know is whether we were disappointed.

In terms of quantity, our celebrations were more subdued but I’m fairly confident neither my sister nor I ever felt any real inequity. Quite the contrary, in fact, we felt rich beyond belief. We had everything we wanted and even things we didn’t need. We felt lucky.

But it really wasn’t luck at all. It was skill. It was being able to decipher need from want. It was being able to hold off on gratification long enough to make a choice that was based on more than impulse. It was taking money out of the equation almost entirely. “This isn’t about the money. It’s about you. Things aren’t going to change you.”

I’m embarrassed to say it, but money still burns a hole in my pockets. At the end of any given work week my cash reserve is usually long gone. Although I’ve gotten a little better at saving (thanks to automatic banking) I could still use the kind of discipline my mother has and my daughter is practicing.

Come Thursday, as I’m scrounging for quarters on the bottom of by bag, Ittybit toddles over and hands me her purse. Inside are three crisp dollar bills.

“Hey, can I borrow this until payday?”

“Sure mommy, sure.”

Sunday, April 02, 2006

How do I love thee ... let me count the toys


After Ittybit’s bedtime I gather a bunch of toys left helter-skelter in the “Blue Area” — an empty question mark of a room situated between the master bedroom and the rest of the house, which my husband inexplicably painted the color of painter’s masking tape — and make my way to the playroom where they belong.

As I crouch on the floor near the toy bins, adjusting the small figures this way and that, it might appear to the untrained eye that I am merely tidying up.
My husband is not fooled.

Since my tiny two-year-old has started throwing up her hands at the “Mamarazzi” (‘No pishers, mama. No pishers, peas.’) I have turned my lens on HER toys. It’s regressive, I know, but it fills the void in my photographs where she once stood. I set the camera on a table and adjust the focus. Click. Inching the accessories forward just a bit, I reset the camera, re-check the focus and … click.

“Come on, she knows they’re YOUR toys,” my husband chuckles as I claw through a small box of figures. I am reminded of why I married him when he asks me if I’d like a bowl of ice cream while I play with MY toys.

It turns out, with respect to collections at least, I am like my father.
My dad would spend hours setting up his old train set under the tree every Christmas. One oval-shaped track, an engine and a handful of cars could consume the better part of an entire day. Forward and backward he’d send that train around the track, never letting it speed out of control or derail. He spent so much time giving detailed lessons on the set’s operation that when he was willing to hand over the controls we had already moved on to another game.

Unlike my father, who was satisfied with his small Lionel set, I covet what I don’t already own, and brand loyalty isn’t part of my vocabulary. My latest obsession is Playmobil. I can’t seem to pass a toy store without adopting one of the jewel-box sized “Specials.”

I like the ones that depict everyday scenes such as a woman in the laundry room or a mother grocery shopping. I one day hope to own the construction site portable toilet with crews and the airport screening line. They’ve even replaced my love of fast-food toys.

There’s just something satisfying about these German-made toys with their simple shapes, their smooth colors and ever-present smiles. They are always smiling, even when they’re vacuuming or shoveling elephant dung at the zoo.

I can’t imagine cleaving my life to another’s who didn’t share, or at least respect, such simple pleasures as the small toys that dwell in kids’ meals. I’d sheepishly go through the drive-through windows of fast food restaurants, order a Happy Meal and a coffee, pretending to be a mom with a kidlet to go home to just so I could collect all of the toy prizes from Toy Story, Batman and Shrek. I knew I’d married wisely when my husband ingested pride, happy meals and antacids (in that order) to procure some of my most beloved trinkets.

Even on our honeymoon in New Zealand, while most people would be busy visiting as many natural splendors as possible, he was willing to indulge my plaything fascination and risk 16 hours of travel time and our next room reservation to visit the “MacDonald’s Toys of the World Museum,” a private, basement collection listed in a book of “local attractions” provided by our motel in Foxton.

That is why I know my husband feels my pain as Ittybit thwarts my camera lens with a furrowed brow and an outstretched hand. I know he’d like to be able to ease it with a little ice cream and a kids’ meal toy.

I’m not sure enough can be said about a man who knows your weaknesses and loves you because of them, and not despite them.

“You know,” he says, handing me a bowl of Rocky Road, “these photographs would look really good in the blue room.”