Sunday, October 29, 2006

The twain meets, we just won't admit it

Why is it that Packrats and Would Chucks often dwell in the same habitat?

Is it because during the first blush of romance the female Would Chuck looks at the newspapers and magazines piling up on the chairs of a Packrat's bachelor pad and thinks, 'Finally! a man who reads?'

I know that there are many, many, many people out there who think they live with the king (or queen) of all packrats, but let me tell you, as politely as I can, that you are wrong.

That distinction, I'm afraid, belongs to me and the 5,600 square feet of space underneath my house that allows my husband to collect thousands upon thousands of very important things.

And for those of you who think a Packrat can be reformed, let me explain why they call us Would Chucks: We would chuck if we could chuck, but the Packrat just finds it, fishes it out of the trash and restores it to its unnatural habitat. Otherwise we’d be heralded worldwide as Do Chucks.

Yet the thing I didn't realize until recently was how Would Chucks who are also consumers -- folks who would normally throw out two items for every one they bring home -- enable their Packrat counterparts by adding to the inventory of things that will never go away.

In the end, most Would Chucks wind up being Packrats by proxy.
So it is with this in mind that I tell you, dear reader, although I love my husband, I also love when he's away on business for a few days.

For those 24 to 72 hours I am a free woman. Free to let my inner Would Chuck out. I am free to toss with wild abandon (the things that I buy) and straighten up without the eyes of consternation (and futility) upon me.

In 72 hours I can empty the cupboards in the kitchen of three-year-old spices; cracked cups, which followed us from apartments to house but have not seen a drop of coffee in their tenure in our employ; and nearly empty containers sitting on the shelves alongside their most recent replacements. I can rid the refrigerator of things we will never eat but seem a shame to waste.

During those precious 72 hours I can find appropriate boxes and put things inside of them. And where I put these things they stay. For three days the scissors are in the drawer with the utensils (where I always look for them) and the mail is sorted in the bins with our names. For three days nothing piles up on the counters, nothing is draped on chairs and everything that has a place is in it.

In that long weekend of casting out I reclaim my inner soul.

"What is that? Who cares, it's gone," I sing to myself as I pitch another little bit of something that mysteriously appeared and that we never use. Only the recycling piles up: Seventeen half canisters of ground cinnamon await reclamation, their long-stale contents down the drain and rinsed away. I vow to shop more wisely and resist impulse. I feel lighter and the weight of the chores seem lighter, too.

Of course when he finally comes home, kicks off his shoes and flings his coat toward the chair, missing it by mere inches, I'll be glad to see him, but I'll also be ready.

"Hey, where are you going?"

"To Target; apparently we need another coat rack."

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Muppets get their marching orders

Another piece of sage advice that I disregarded: Never, under any circumstances buy toys in a child's presence.

The idea is that if you NEVER buy toys or candy or colorful trinkets while your kids are with you, even if they're NOT begging for them, they will eventually understand that you are the brick wall between consumerism and their overflowing toy chests, and that asking is futile.

My resolve to this parenting style lasted all the way up until Ittybit learned to talk, and asked oh-so-syrupy sweetly for a stuffed cat. She named him Fudgy and my fate was sealed.

I am a pushover.

So when we recently visited an apple orchard — that for some strange reason (possibly a result of the fact that farmers don't live by apples alone. ... You know since China surpassed our apple production in the '90s) harbors an entire gift shop of overpriced toys and novelties that have nothing whatsoever to do with apples — and Ittybit started begging and pleading for a stuffed cow that chimes moo (three times) when you press its middle, we struck a bargain.

If we bought the $10 bovine she would choose two toys in her collection that we would ship to an underprivileged kid somewhere in the world. She quickly agreed.

Back at home, and before her afternoon nap, we make room for Moo on her bed. Buffy Bunny and two more of Bunny's friends (Ittybit was insistent they travel in threes) are selected for a second chance at love, and we box them up.

"Where are they doing to do, Mama?"

"Well, babe, there's this nice woman in Iraq who is collected toys for kids who don't have anything. We're going to ship them to her in the mail,"

"That will make somebody very happy, right?"

"That's right."

As she drifts off to sleep, clutching Moo, I am relieved that the transaction went so smoothly. However, what I didn't count on was just how big this notion would grow inside her preschooler mind, taking over all of her bedtime thoughts.

That evening at bedtime: (This is the part in the story when most parents will realize that preschoolers don't read fine print.)

"Mama? Where's Kermit?"

"Don't you remember, we're sending him, Zoe and Buffy Bunny to Iraq so they can make some children happy."


"Because you have so much and there are some boys and girls there who have nothing."


"Because there's something called a war there, and it's very bad. Some of the children who live in Iraq are alone and scared. Your toys might help cheer and comfort them."

"Oh. ...

Are they standing up or sitting down?"

"Um ... standing up? What do you mean?"

"We dotta put that in a cage!"

"Uh. ... What I don't understand?"

"We have to get that raccoon out of there so the kids can play with Kermit. We need a cage to put him in."

"Honey? ... What raccoon?"

"You said we're sending Kermit to a raccoon for a childrens because they're lost and lonely. Isn't that what you said?"

"I said e-rack, not 'a raccoon.' We're sending toys to Iraq. It's a country in the middle ... oh, never mind. We'll talk about this when you're three, OK?"

The next morning while looking at the box, which is now addressed and ready for shipping, the excerise starts again.

"Ma-ma. Is Kermit in there? Where is they going?"

"They ARE going to Iraq. Remember. We discussed this yesterday."

"Oh, right, right. But I don't shink the raccoon needs any something. We need to send them to the big giant moose."

NOTE TO SELF: Invest in a world map.

Do a good deed today: United States Army Corp of Engineers Officer Edmay Mayers is taking it upon herself to distribute playthings to impoverished children in Iraq. Until recently she's been buying stuffed animals and candy with her own means, but the need has overwhelmed her resources. If you have gently used toys that need children to love, send them to her here: Edmay Mayers, USACE-GRS, APO AE 09331.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Variety is the spice of life

Recently the husband and I, with grand-parental intervention, stepped out for a night on the town. Alone.

A friend of ours was having a comedy show at a local venue and we were prepared to go and laugh until our sides fell off, have a few pricy beers and partake in conversations that didn't hinge on inquisitive primates, purple dinosaurs or colossal red dogs.

We made our way to the address we'd been given and found the Basilica Industria, a former knitting mill-turned-performance space along the Hudson waterfront. Since we don't get out much, it should go without saying that we were beyond early. On this evening, however, we expected to be right on time.

"I thought his e-mail said 8 o'clock," I say as we arrived to a hive of behind-the-scenes activity. Tattooed women and ponytailed men were busily performing sound and lighting checks. Some were still setting up chairs. A tall, lanky man wearing a full-length blue leotard, spangled rabbit ears and eight-inch stiletto heels was roaming amid the chaos.

"At least we have the right place," I say.

We go and find someone to take our money and realize our second surprise of the evening.

"Fifty bucks! I thought this show was supposed to be $15 apiece." No matter, I'd gotten the time wrong I'd probably misread the ticket price, too.

We hand over the cash and staked claim to two seats on a dais facing the stages. While he goes to get two brews from the concessions, I peruse the flyers on the cabaret table in front of me.

"No wonder everything's wrong," I say when he returns. "He's not performing until next week."

I can see a game of rock, paper, scissors forming in his head -- the winner of which will sit and finish their beer while the loser goes off to try and get back our picture of Ulysses S. Grant -- when more of a crowd trickles in.

"Pssst. Excuse me, sir?" I ask of a man who plunks himself down next to us. "It seems as if my husband and I are accidental hipsters tonight. What are we about to see?"

"Oh, dear friends, you have bought yourself a ticket to the other greatest show on Earth. You, my dears, are in for an evening of revelation and rejuvenation. Amazements the likes of which you've never seen before await you. (Cue echo chamber:) This is the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus.

(Actually the man said, "Oh, it's a really a cool circus act or something," but since we had decided the better part of valor would be to stick around, I amended the description when it turned out he had, in fact, undersold it.)

When the lights finally went down, a hobo clown trudged into the audience to bum a smoke. I knew right away from the expression on his face -- a fluid, indescribable look that marks a good actor even when he doesn't speak -- that this wasn't going to be amateur night.

Co-founder Keith Nelson's Kinko the clown moved imperceptibly from what at first appeared to be stiff and awkward attempts at slinging cigar boxes to a masterful display of diabolo juggling during his lengthy performance. Later, as Mr. Pennygaff, Nelson swallows swords in a display so terrifying I could barely watch.

About a dozen equally skilled performers added more astonishing feats to the bawdy act.

Ringleader Philomena, the troupe’s other founder Stephanie Monseu, in addition to her role as MC, swallows fire and gives school marm a new definition -- two things that I think should make her a shoe-in for public education should she grow weary of this particular circus of the bizarre.

More glitter follows as aerialist Una Mimnagh hurls herself from a trapeze dangling only a few yards from the stage, and is caught midway by a rope she'd curled around her torso; a burlesque troupe out of Albany, The Lipstick Lovelies, gyrate lasciviously as the laughs continue; Una returned to share the limelight with cowboy Angelo Iodice, and their dueling bolos routine ricochets in unison against the hollow stage to the delight of the crowd; and the aforementioned rabbit -- Scotty the Blue Bunny -- who as it turns out plays violin, did whatever it is that homosexual turquoise bunnies do best under the glare of a spotlight. All of which was accompanied (or orchestrated, not sure) by The Amazing Sxip, (pronounced "Skip") billed as a one-man Mutant Harmonica band.

When the lights came back up and we made our way to our car, suffice it to say I actually felt good about being parted from my money.

I know we all want to get something for nothing, and this particular raucous cup of tea isn't for everyone, but it reminded me how distanced we are from the real magic of entertainment.

We shell out comparable amounts of money for Hollywood special effects and larger-than life celebrities smoothed by gel filters, and in doing so, without even knowing it, we lose an understanding of what real talent looks like on a human scale. To be reminded seemed a bargain at twice the price.

Variety, after all, is the spice of life.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Good cop, bad cop ... or accomplice?

I've seen the future, and her mother is wearing thigh-high go-go boots and short shorts, too.

Standing on the street corner with a boy I can identify by name as well as age are two girls I don’t know. Both are wearing form-fitting striped sweaters, hip-hugging belts, short shorts and high-heeled boots.

Had I not just come from the local library and been on my way to the farmers' market, I might have thought I was visiting Hunts Point in the Bronx. I've never been, mind you, but I've seen the HBO special on its prostitutes.

My husband, trying to balance borrowed books while choosing vegetables, pretended not to notice. He was, no doubt, unable to determine which was worse: the looking or the seeing.

"That's the style in Manhattan, you know," he says off-handedly when I mention the girls' attire later as we select apples from a vendor. "I bet their mothers are wearing the same thing at home."

Oh, the horror.

One way or another, like it or not, this perennial battle of parenthood will be ours one day.

The day will come when we will have to decide whether or not Ittybit leaves the house wearing ... well ... something I'd rather not describe. But until seeing the local street-corner gals, we had thought we'd be in the good-cop side of the fashion patrol.

As two people raised by parents who respected our decisions (to a certain degree) and whose collective teenage fashion faux pas amount to the Miami Vice look (him) and pink-streaked hair and combat boots (me) I can safely speak for him when I say we are feeling ill-prepared to deal with a potential Lolita.

I may be jumping the gun a little since Ittybit has only recently started preschool, but our clothing wars have long-since begun. And horror of all horrors: The seeds of destruction may have already been planted by yours truly.

It turns out her favorite dress -- a backless halter number acquired for $3 over the summer in a Target sale -- has already raised the eyebrow of at least one grandparent.

During a family party I watched in ignominy as the grandma tried her best to cover up Ittybit's naked shoulders. And I had to wonder. Was I one of those moms who thought sexy on a baby was cute? Of course I have trouble putting sexy and baby together in a sentence, but I understand there are people out there who will and do.

My thinking in buying the dress -- aside from its color and rock-bottom price -- was along the lines of: she spends half the summer wearing only a diaper and sunscreen, any piece of cloth would be an improvement. That she clutched the t-shirt soft material to her chest and didn't want to part with it long enough for the cashier to scan the price tag made it all the more attractive. When every outfit is a battlefield, it's nice to have one that’s a coup.

But with one sideways glance -- and the mention of indistinguishable posterior views of mothers and daughters at the shopping mall these days -- part of my world turns sideways.

I'm not sure which team I'm supposed to root for. The navel showing above low-rise pants, the distinctive sound of flip-flops clapping their way through Juniors' departments everywhere might very well belong to someone's mother. The part of you that hates getting old cheers her on, while the part of you that wants your daughter to respect herself jeers in her general direction. Where is the line?

Let's start by some admissions, shall we?

I am hardly ever an appropriately attired grownup. I have worn the same uniform -- Levis jeans, long-sleeve jersey top, bulky sweaters and some form of low-heel boot -- since I was in high school. Now, my clothes are not fashionable but all of my parts (save an ankle here and there) are covered.

I cringe a little every time my husband returns from the grocery store commenting on the latest middle aged woman he thought was a teenager. "PA-thetic," is his assessment.

"Am I any different?" I want to ask. I know I don't look like any of those moms in the commercials: the ones in khaki trousers and pastel blouses with their tasteful three-quarter sleeves. Those women are all happily cleaning the floors with the latest Swiffer product, so I know I'll never look like them. But I don't think I look like the ones vying for the position of prom queen, either.

I suppose we'll just have to wait and see, and hope that parkas will be back in fashion when our day of reckoning comes.

"You won't believe what I just heard," said the husband, munching on a cider doughnut. "A woman at the farm stand was talking about buying her daughter a $300 pair of jeans. She saw my jaw drop at the price, and she said 'yeah, but you should have seen her in them'."

"Thanks, I think I'll pass."

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Yard Sale - The totally authorized biography

At 7 a.m. I was out on the curb, shuffling bags of baby clothes and other stockpiled detritus from the couch in my abandoned office to tables set up in the driveway. I notice a light rain starting to fall. It was more of a mist, actually.

"The weather guy always lies," I grumble as I sort tiny shirts, pants and dresses and arrange them into lumpy piles. I leave some articles in the bag; they were destined for the trash bin anyway.

I hate yard-sale day. I hate feeling an obligation to purge my life of mistakes and recoup some of the misspent cash. I hate how the idea of it pulls me in with a do-it-yourself entrepreneurial air, but how quickly its atmosphere dissipates into something less desirable.

You can tell a lot about a person by their yard sales. Like that other roadside attraction -- bumper stickers -- yard sales are authorized biographies. While bumper stickers offer onlookers detailed tables of content, yard sales offer the annotated autobiography.

Both can tell you a lifetime worth of information in short order: Religious affiliations, favorite bands, who they supported in the last two elections, even what their kids are doing in school -- either they're honor students or they're beating up your honor student.

In my neighborhood the lives are fairly similar. We all have clothes we've held onto for sentimental reasons that wind up hanging from ropes when we forget what they were. You can find beat up toys and playthings that never got much attention; impulse buys that became instantly obsolete; exercise equipment picked up no doubt at last year's events, which will circle the block for at least a decade more; cassette tapes, sitting unused since you bought that new car with the six-CD changer six years ago, and mix tapes that might as well be torn pages from a diary. There is usually something that defies logic. In our case that something would be a half-dozen paper napkin dispensers.

I would wager there is also the something that its owners don't really want to sell but will offer up because they know someone will buy it. It's the loss leader: the item that makes certain that our sale -- when snubbed by the throngs of strangers who paw through our things with left eyebrow raised and upper lip curled in symmetry -- doesn't become a negative review of how we live. Of course, if someone does buy this once-treasured possession, we tend to mourn its departure from our lives.

On my hour off, I make my way to the farmers' market to buy Asian greens and soy beans checking out the sales in front of historic homes and manicured lawns along the way. I notice these sidewalk shops show the difference between us: Not as much impulsivity to the buying in these-here parts. I find antique baskets, with antique prices; etchings, prints and pieces of furniture that require houses with "libraries' (pronounced with an English flourish).

Even the Jones families on the side streets are keeping up. They offer designer clothes and tasteful handbags in their yard-front shops. There’s not a sign of kitsch anywhere; nothing that says "what one Earth possessed you to waste the kids' college education on that?"

Everything offered in these curbside boutiques is neat and tidy. You can almost see generations of children, sitting around a card table, sipping lemonade as they play the parlor games that are now gently worn and carefully stacked, awaiting new homes.

In a few hours I'll be bundling the remnants of our lot for Goodwill and wondering why I bother with this mid-step at all.

But by the time I get back with my bags of unpronounceable produce, my partner in slime has a full smile and is waving six dollar bills in my direction.

"Imagine that, hon -- I just sold all those napkin holders."