Sunday, December 28, 2008

How do you spell fun? We spell it S.K.A.T.E.

“She certainly knows what she wants,” said the manager of the Skate Factory. Ittybit was standing in front of her, rearranging the order of the games.

“No … I don’t think we should do the lesson just yet. … Let’s play some games first,” she told the woman, the roller rink’s manager and MC, who was standing in front of her holding a microphone, bemused.

It seemed appropriate to me: we’re always going ’round in circles but Ittybit is nothing if not decisive.

She’s known for a year that she wanted to have a roller skating party to celebrate the big F.I.V.E.

No manner of reason (or deflection) could dissuade her. It didn’t matter that she’s not a terribly agile skater or even generally interested in the sport.

All that mattered was that she attended a skate party at this place the year before and decided it had to be spelled F. U. N.

And spelling is big on her list of all-important things these days, as are playing games set to music and walking around on shoes that could cause her untimely demise.
What five-year-old wouldn’t love to strap on a pair (or four) of wheels and take a spin around the floor?

Well ... Me. I’d have rather gone bowling. But I’m not five. Neither is The Champ, but he was happy with her choice. Although his feet were a tad too small for the toddler skates, he was thrilled to walk around with the big kids and climb on the lap of anyone who sat down at an arcade game.

From his joyful squeals, I could deduce that he’ll like driving fast. (Not going to worry about that right now ... I’ll give it another year or 14 before I panic).

Where was I?

Oh yes, a roller skating party.

I said it over and over in my mind.

“What were we thinking?”

“Ice storm. Christmas. Looming nor’easter.

“No one is going to come.

“We’ll be like a handful of loose marbles, rolling around a big empty tin can all by ourselves.”

To be honest, my husband was a little more concerned about this than I was. I knew Ittybit only needs a party of one to be happy. Still, we thought we should prepare her for the worst just in case no one showed up.

We let her know that even if it was only the four of us, it was going to be the best birthday ever.

She looked at us like we’d grown a third head.

“Don’t worry. People will come ... it’s a S-C-R-J-F-P party.”

“You mean S-K-A-T-E.”

Of course she was right. People did roll in, some even came from considerable distances. Others brought their own skates. From the moment the music started, the hours just glided by. We cruised the floor like it was 1984. We did the Limbo and the Funky Chicken. No egos were bruised even though everyone fell. ... They got up ... and then they fell again.

Another thing we fell for, looming large and well lit in the arcade, was The Claw.
No matter what you call the thing (my favorite term is “Brother, Can I Have All Your Quarters” machine) it is more addictive than sugar to the kids.

My husband, trend-spotter that he is, had seen it coming when we’d preemptively gone to check out the place the previous week, and had brought a roll of quarters to keep their addictions fed.

The screams of delight when the fuzzy blue panda got snagged, and then the silly poodle with the purple hat, were deafening.

I’m sensing next year we might just as well rent one of those things and let the kids take turns trying to hook some stuffed animals.

Of course, with our luck, The Champ would be one of those kids; the kind who climb through the collection flap and get stuck inside the box with the toys. Then we’d be getting our own visit from the fire department.

Now THAT would be F.U.N.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Holiday logic and Murphy's Law collide

I've been laughing at folks who tell me being without electricity for five days last week effectively put us back in the 1700s.

I laughed because my husband's generative powers -- with his Ranger 2000 and a few dozen gallons of gasoline -- it felt more like we'd effectively revisited the somewhat affluent '50s: Our refrigerator is running, but there wasn't much else in the way of amenities.

For instance:

We washed dishes by hand;

We watched television; but not cable;

We were able to cook on a hot-plate;

And, as a result of limited light, we turned in early.

Yet, it's not nostalgic or idyllic or even "romantical," as our firstborn would say.

The laundry is piling up but will have to wait until the power returns or we can schlep ourselves to the Laundromat, which mightn't be soon since I've had a sore throat for two days and The Champ got some vomity illness that is inconsistently realized (usually in the middle of the night when the generator has quit or run out of gas) as I'm fumbling around in the dark.

And this, for all intents and purposes, means I risk having to wear my prom dress to work (If I could muster the will to drag my sorry-for-my-Self out of bed again) because the aforementioned lack of clean clothes, combined with the growing pile of vomity duds are divided by no way to launder them (until the power comes back online or The Champ musters enough vim to make it through a trip to the local Sit and Spin).

But that's not the worst of it.

When I was able to get a few minutes away to run a cart up and down the aisles at the grocery store with Ittybit, I somehow managed to lose the car key between the shopping and the buying and the pushing of a full cart out to the parking lot.

Yep. Lost.

Which means I had to get the husband to pack the vomity kid into the car and drive me the spare set.

Yep. He did.

After we got home, put away the groceries, I promptly found the keys in my sweatshirt pocket.

Yep. Found 'em. ...

Right where I'd jammed my panicking fists about a half-dozen times.

Still, I was hanging on to the corners of my smile. "One more day," I told myself. "We'll get the electricity back and the bad luck will turn on its heel and march back where it came from."

Should have known better.

Enter regularly scheduled doctors' appointment, wherein I learn that my insurance isn't of the variety they accept any more.

Turns out I had to pay the full boat right there and then and submit the claim myself. Even the lady in the checkout area looked shocked for me when she whispered the total: $180.

So much for health insurance.

I almost laughed when I got to work and learned our struggling company will - as of January - stop contributing to our 401Ks (that are only two years old) in order to get itself in better fiscal standing. Almost. Laughed.

So much for retirement.

There's more, but I won't bother you with it. It'll just make me wish I were home with my vomity boy and my silly husband and my ice princess daughter.

I'll just try and count the one blessing this week had in store for me: I filled the gas tank up from empty (for the first time in I can't remember how long) for under $20.

Let's just say, with the luck I've been having, I'm not going to be taking any long trips ... not even with an $18-fill-up.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Sugared snow dusts the houses of tradition

She was all ready to get started. She’d cast off her coat, hat and gloves and was eager to take a seat next to one of the fragrant gingerbread boxes dotting the centers of tables set up throughout the bakery.

“Which one is ours, mama?”

“Have patience, little might. They will tell us.”

It had been a long week of questions and concerns since some friends had signed us up to attend one of Zachary’s Pastry Shoppe’s gingerbread house workshop.

“When are we going to build the gingerbread house?

“Is it going to be just you and me?

“Can we invite more people?

“Can daddy come, too?”

“Are we really going to be able to take it home?

“Can we eat it?”

“How are we going to build it?”

I just shrugged my shoulders. I had no idea.

Though we’ve lived in various states of housing renewal during the past five years, none of us had any inkling of how to manufacture a confectionary cottage. And since I generally view consistency as the hobgoblin of baking, I felt it was probably best to go where the professionals can be on hand should a roof collapse or a wall cave in.

After all, weekend warriors such as myself, should never attempt heavy lifting –- even of the gingerbread variety -- without a spotter; safety first.

You can imagine my relief when I saw the houses had already been constructed, their sugared masonry perfectly cured, awaiting only finishing touches.

When I saw the bag of candy and the area of space needing to be spackled and shingled and decorated, however, I began to doubt all over again.

“We’ll be here all day,” I thought as my husband leaned back and cracked his knuckles, heaving a deep sigh of contentment. “This is what I’m talking about,” he says with confident bravado, no doubt assuming his years of home improvement with stand him in good stead.

I wasn’t convinced. I’ve lived in a renovation zone for nearly a decade without taping or trim.

When our friends arrived we were shown to our seats, at which point Ittybit started to sob inconsolably.

Turns out, no one answered her question about which house was “ours,” and when her friends sat down – one in front of each kit -- she assumed the answer was neither.

In moments that seemed like hours I was able to clarify the situation. Soon we were sitting, puffy-eyed but happy, next to one of the houses and a sweet little gingerbread girl, who’d quietly appeared next to Ittybit’s chair during the turmoil.

She opened the bag of building supplies and started looking through its contents as the bakers brought parchment-paper funnels of icing glue and specialty candy accouterments to our table. Carefully, she lined up all of her materials and asked if I might please spread some icing so she could get started.

Soon she was lost in her work, occasionally looking up at me with a polite request for more mastic.

She says please and thank-you a lot these days, keenly aware that Santa is watching.

She didn’t even mind that much when her father built a picture window out of pretzels on his wall, throwing off the symmetry she’d constructed on her side.

She never complained when her baby brother stuck a soggy gumdrop to the roof. She just handed him something he could unwrap and kept her nose to the grindstone.

She selected chocolate buttons for a chimney stack, and peppermint sticks for door jams. She’d carefully shingled the roof with Smarties and licorice whips.

She planted Marshmallow Christmas trees next to the doors as a landscaping feature, and affixed flower boxes made of chocolate truffles under the windows. She crushed up pink ribbon candy and sprinkled it on the roof … presumably ice that had formed from lack of proper insulation. She even cemented together a pile of pretzel sticks, presumably to feed the woodstove that she imagined to be inside.

She turned to look at the bakers’ example after she was a few candy pieces from finished, having barely tasted any of her building supplies.

“Oh, wow. Look at THAT chimney, daddy.”

“Yes. … but our house doesn’t have a fireplace inside … only a furnace. We don’t really need such an ornate chimney as that,” her father answered defensively.

“Well, after Christmas we should eat this house, move into a house WITH a fireplace, and then next year we can build another house that has a chimney like THAT one.”

“Let’s just finish this house for now,” her father tells her, licking a smear of frosting from his knuckles and eyeing the chocolate chimney, perhaps wondering if anyone would notice if it was one or two Kisses shorter.

From the smile on his face I know we’ll be back next year, probably armed with blueprints and an extra bag of chocolate, (for energy).

As holiday traditions go, I suppose eating the cost of a gingerbread house really isn’t that hard to swallow.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Retailers may feel Scrooged, but the kids won’t notice

I’m standing under the warm glow of our new, seven foot-tall Blue Spruce Christmas tree, cursing.

The Champ just ran over my foot with the back wheel of his ride-on car. As the ache subsides I realize I should really be thankful he careened into me and not the newly festooned tree with its many breakable baubles.

The dressed up house, just one day before December was official, is not the norm for our family. Ittybit insisted we decorate as soon as the first flake of snow floated down from the sky. She’s got the Christmas bug, and, evidently, only miles of twinkle lights and crinkled tissue paper can cure it.

And although I agreed to open the door to a tree (Ittybit can be persuasive) I wasn’t prepared to be ushering in the Christmas spirit so early.

I knew this holiday season was going to be a tough one.

I watched nearly half of my 401k swirl down the drain with a stiff upper lip. I laughed this week as people in-the-know finally announced the recession that the rest of us had already known about for months. We’re all tightening our belts, even those of us who are still wearing our “fat” jeans.

Sometime last summer I vowed to start living a more frugal life: I pledged to buy fewer things, leave my plastic money at home and do more with less. It didn’t really happen. My monthly Visa bill hovered at the same balance every month. Even when gas prices dwindled something else -- usually small trinkets, purchased on a whim throughout the year -- filled the gap in the balance sheet.

Nevertheless, I stashed the stuff away like a squirrel stashes nuts.

“Oh, maybe my sister would like that?”

“That would be fabulous for my mother-in-law.”

“What is that? The kids will LOVE it.”

I thrifted and crafted though I am neither thrifty nor crafty; I visited Goodwills from Maine to Connecticut, and looked for treasures tucked in among the Target overstocks. Sometimes I got lucky. Other times I took the loss, returning the items in another donation bin along my travels.

Yet, when I cleaned out my closet last week as part of my usual “let’s make way for the excesses of our Christmas presents by donating the excesses of our Christmas pasts,” I found the evidence of my Christmas future in the small bags filled with tiny puppets, pencil sharpeners, slippers and socks. There are sparkly shoes and story books, toy cars and drawing pads. There are change purses made in exotic places by people who were paid a fair wage. There’s even a set of wooden blocks I couldn’t buy in a store for a small fortune let alone the pennies I paid at salvage.

No one could be more surprised than I was to realize that not only am I prepared for Christmas morning, but by the time the 24th page of December is peeled off the calendar I will probably be simultaneously hiding eggs for Easter.
I’m not trying to gloat. My holiday organizational skills this year are purely accidental.

After all, it doesn’t take a lot of planning to decide you’re going to attend Christmas morning dressed as a modified Ebenezer Scrooge.

There will be no big ticket items and no expensive gadgets. There will be nothing of the must-have gift varieties under the tree. Santa isn’t visiting anyone over the age of 12 this year in our house, and he’s not bringing anything that requires batteries or an electrical outlet. He’s only bringing things that require an imagination.

I look though the bags wedged in between my shoes and handbags, and immediately make a mental inventory of their contents. I smile. In my imagination, I fill the stockings and stack the boxes under the now, very real tree standing in our front room.

There is more than enough, and there’s more than meets the eye.
There will be no more trips to mall. We’ll spend the rest of our weekends sledding if the snow permits or baking cookies.

It may not be a good Christmas for retailers, but I’m sure it’s going to be a good Christmas for the family.