Sunday, September 27, 2009

Getting in on social event of the season

All she wanted to know was if there would be kids at Amah's and Papa's block party.

I wasn't sure. I thought of all the people I'd known from growing up on the horseshoe drive; the home turnover rate didn't seem that high. I'm sure there would be grandchildren, I told her. Some might even be her age.

All I really knew was that my mother — Ittybit's Amah — was making her famous black-bottomed cupcakes and that was reason enough to attend.

She ignored my drooling over cream cheese-filled baked goods. Kids HAD to be at block parties ... who else would play with the blocks?

Block parties started out as urban affairs during World War I. City streets were cordoned off — often without permission of the authorities — and thanks to street lights, folks would stay late into the evening communing with the community.

With the migration of people to suburbs and even more remote locations, I suppose the lowly American block party has become an endangered species. Like zebra muscles, the more grand-scale, corporate-sponsored events have choked them out.

Until recently, my experience with neighborhood get-togethers was limited to sitting in the dark as a John Hughes' neighborhood swapped the silver screen for Anytown, U.S.A. It didn't bother me to think that I knew Kevin Bacon or Molly Ringwald better than good old what's-her-name from two doors down.

In my mind, block parties were those gatherings at which the cool people (that would be US) with urbane and cultured interests, stood around watching the time while guys in plaid pants pulled up to their chests (that would be THEM) talked about the useless plastic flywheel on their Yardmaster 2000. Their wives would share the secret ingredient of their secret-ingredient casseroles (Chinese noodles) as the "career gals," rolled their eyes.

Of course, No one understands what anyone else is saying because of their perky, uprooted Minnesotan accents. We just accept the slice of watermelon and lean forward as we eat it so as not to get any on us.

But what we miss by attending only the designed, Disneyfied fĂȘtes is HUGE even though the missing bits are small enough to fit on nametags.

As my kid played with her best friend from her old preschool, I sat munching an apple and marveled aloud: I had NO IDEA Sierra lived on this street. Or that Tyler lived just around the corner.

My mom recognized both kids but didn't know their names.

Who's that? She wondered of the pretty young woman wearing a purple shirt.

I don't know. … Never seen her before.

On and on through the day people sampled the apple, seafood and ambrosia salads, sleuthed out the chefs and ask after recipes.

Some neighbors offered their lawns, some their grills. Everyone brought something to share. One neighbor, bearing a trendy water bottle, offered up cups filled with samples of his favorite libation: pineapple and rum.

An all-ages egg toss, the crux of which was designed to get egg on one's face by NOT getting egg on one's face, proved to be the perfect ice breaker.

A little girl name Kelly got stuck with me. As I introduced myself to the little girl who'd drawn the short straw, the pretty young woman in the purple shirt stretched out her hand and introduced herself: she's Kelly's mom, she lives in the brown house in the center of the block. They've live there for four years.

Turns out, she was also extremely gifted at catching uncooked eggs lobbed at her from 25 yards.

Both Ittybit and I were eliminated in the early rounds. But despite being in the midst of the "bestest party I've ever been to in the whole of my life," and having no shortage of kids with which to play, she sat in my lap, eager to cheer on the egg-toss winners.

None of us wanted to leave as it got dark and the realization of it being a school night came into focus.

Just about then, I overheard the man from the blue house on the corner, apologizing for the condition of his deck. "Wait until you see it next year … it'll be amazing."

And I thought: "I can't wait."

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Not a chip of the old (auction) block

I love the idea of yard sales.

I adore that on specific days of the year folks can browse the front yards of their neighbors and purchase things they want or need without paying sales tax or shipping costs, and in doing so save some perfectly serviceable item from an untimely demise in a landfill.

I also love the idea of being able to purge the house of clutter and get a small amount of cash in exchange. It is consumer recycling at its most efficient.

But in practice I have to admit I'd rather have a root canal.

Having strangers pawing over trinkets I've set out on a table, audibly sighing or making crinkled-nose expression as they weigh its value to them, usually outweighs my resolve to drag the inventory of my consumer-driven failings curbside.

For this reason the annual town-wide fall event often comes and goes without me, as I harbor only the tiniest of intentions to take part while making absolutely no effort on the organizational front.

This year, however, the potential stock practically organized itself when we moved to a house with fewer closets.

As an added incentive, Ittybit's inner entrepreneur was awakened over the summer when she saw kids selling lemonade by the roadside. She decided hawking beverages on our lawn would be the perfect accompaniment to a table offering mismatched salt and pepper shakers, a handful of outgrown kids' clothes and perfectly good toys missing only some of their parts.

I didn't lose hope, though. The weather forecast for the appointed weekend predicted rain.

When a gray blanket of looming precipitation covered the sky on the morning of our village's municipality-wide event, I was inwardly performing a thank-you dance to the gods of "Better Luck Next Year."

Loom didn't lead to doom, unfortunately.

At the crack of noon (because the sky just would not cooperate and rain on her parade) I started transporting the minimum amount of stock allowable by the bylaws of Respectable Yard Sale Standards to the driveway.

The neighbors (as good neighbors always are) were way ahead of us. They'd opened their driveway boutique promptly at 9 a.m. and had quickly sold out of their impeccably maintained and carefully tagged inventory. Ittybit kept me apprised of their progress with regular reports on the quarter hour.

When it was her turn to open shop, Ittybit happily chirpped away as I lined the bottom of a cooler with icepacks I'd grabbed from the freezer. Of course I forgot to get ice.


Most of the work I'd done in preparation for the "Lemonriffic Yardsale of Ought 9" was preparing her for the potential of postponement and convincing her to sell cans of LemonadeTM instead cups of homemade.

I know … I know … the looks on the faces of her customers when she whipped out store-bought from behind her plywood storefront instead of scratch, told it all: I'd messed with the natural order of the universe (not to mention its subset of bylaws on tag sales) and disrupted the flow of karma, ecological living and even jeopardized the innocence of childhood, all in the pursuit of cutting corners.

I stammered trying to explain, launching into my usual stream of consciousness brain dump:

"I just couldn't do it. … I couldn't deal with cups and pitchers and the stirring of lemonade by a girl with grubby fingers who is always holding the cat. I couldn't think about replacing the pitcher I saw spill in my mind's eye every fourth pour as I tried to keep track of a toddler and a table of junk destined for Goodwill. I mean … Swine flu? Hello? Is this thing on?

"Maybe when she's older," I lied to myself.

"How much?" the first customer asked Ittybit.

My inner core of guilt, however, interrupted: "oh … fifty cents."

"It's a dollar," my daughter corrected, glaring at me.

"A bargain!" her customer declared, handing over the cash.

She thanked them and told them to "come again … Whenever you WANT," using her newly acquired eye-roll and head bob toward direction of "the help" - her two-year-old brother, who was busy drinking the inventory and yelling at potential customers to "GO AWAY from MY HOUSE," and her dear, old mom, who was trying to give away the store for free.

"Maybe next time I should just do the talking, Mom, OK? You can just give change. You're good at that part."

Sunday, September 13, 2009

All parents feel sting of 'Walmart slap'

To be honest, watching the media implode with anger and stunned disbelief that a stranger would strike a crying child in a Georgia Walmart seems like watching a train wreck from the safety of the wrong side of the tracks.

When I heard that story — after I fretted for the child, placed myself in her mother's shoes and telepathically hugged them both — I wondered if the man was having some kind of medical malfunction rather than merely exhibiting the manifestations of a man as mean as a junkyard dog.

Surely he must have had a stroke or is presenting with Alzheimer's disease. Something, anything, that would explain such abhorrent behavior.

In her essay about the slap heard 'round the world in the Huffington Post, Deborah Copaken Kogan ponders not the strange news story that had mothers from coast to coast clasping at their virtual pearls, but how it relates to all the strangers who would slap parents in the face with their unsolicited judgmental comments.

She calls it as she sees it: Unwanted or unsolicited advice from strangers is "aggression" plain and simple.

Yet somehow, as I was agreeing with the overall point of her message, the label seemed outlandish.

Even the anecdote Kogan related in her essay — her response to a stranger's concern that the boy, who was sitting in a hole on the beach, could be carried away if a tsunami-like wave were to somehow make its way from the sea to the place they were sitting — only seemed to reinforce the same judgmental snark she wishes to stop perpetuating: Snipe, snipe, dismissal. Fester, fester, fester.

It is not fair; People shouldn't just say every thought that comes into their heads. They should realize they don't have the full story. They don't have all the answers. Likewise we should react with the same measured resolve. Yet, aren’t we all a little guilty of wanting that perfect retort that will demote the pompous fool to the underside of the bridge most befitting their troll-ness?

When Ittybit was born, in December, we took her everywhere despite it being the most brutal winter I could remember. Numerous people chided us for "taking a baby out in such cold." The anger and indignation of being challenged rose in us. It felt like a slap in the face.

We slapped back, too: "Thank you for your concern, but you can go poop in your hat and pull it down over your ears."

I think it may have been the first time my husband gleefully told people he hails from Minnesota, where he spent a few of his less-than-memorable teenage years and where no one would ever leave home if they were waiting on timid weather.

When The Champ came around — a summer birth — I'd convinced myself that we'd avoid the same type of ear boxing.

But no. As I stepped out on the street one August afternoon, a sleeping infant in a sling and a preschooler in tow, a man sneered at me about what a "crime" it was to have a baby out in such heat.

I shrugged and gave him that pained expression that translates into "what-am-I-going to-do? I-have-to-buy-groceries." And I let it go.

He's never going to understand my seething rage. It's not going to change his genuine concern or beliefs. I know my baby was in no danger. Inhale. Exhale.

Instead I try to remember the kindness of strangers: people such as the older woman who leaned toward me in the lunch counter line as I juggled The Champ (who was wriggling to get down) and tried to assure Ittybit I’d heard “I’d like PEPPERONI pizza, PLEASE” the first time AND 50th time she'd said it. The woman smiled and said, "I don't know how you women do it. Little kids, groceries, shopping, up, down ... Maybe it's because I never had kids, but I'm always in awe of how you manage.”

I laugh and tell her what I know to be the truth: "Mostly we do it thinking we are failing."

She answered in kind: "Not from where I'm sitting you're not."

So now I make it a point to smile at the women who have their babies out in the cold, or in the heat. I mention how beautiful their children are as they cry or tantrum at the checkout. I tell them some days I'm there, too, with that same "what-are-you-going-to-do" expression.

I don't need to rage against injustice so much as I wish to offer a hand of support — a hand I know one day may be slapped away.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Cat tales: A pet saga in two parts


If it wasn't for the thin tinkling of a metallic vaccination tag against the clasp of an elastic collar, I'd have tripped over her a half-dozen times during the handful of visits I made to my office, which for the foreseeable future is really just a overflow room for homeless items.

Gingerly I stepped through the child gate into the makeshift storeroom expecting to see the black kitten perched on the school desk or higher up on the chest of drawers. She wasn't either place.

It had only been a few hours since she had been transported from the chaos of the local shelter and installed amid the chaos of our unpacked boxes still awaiting the final sifting, or permanent placement, in our own new forever home.

All indications were pointed toward positive: the little cat's transition was going well. She had allowed Ittybit to carry her in the most uncomfortable-looking ways without releasing her claws or even trying to squirm away. She was mush in her arms probably, I thought, a result of spending 16 weeks behind bars.

Ittybit chirped away as she slung the kitten from one arm to the other or one should to another (using one hold or another) in rapid succession. "Did you know they sometimes call cats FE-LIONS?" she said to the furry being in her arms.

Her new kitten was drinking up excessive love to excess.

Still, we didn't want to send her on bender from which she'd return angry and destructive. So, we ordered Ittybit into a forced television break to give her new charge a rest. But I couldn't help myself from sneaking into the room to get a look at the kitty, who I assumed would be tuckered from an afternoon of tussling and toting.

I took a peek into the gigantic cardboard box we'd emptied and outfitted with a soft bed and a litter box. Empty.

Scanning the room I found no trace of her.

I turned to leave but lost my balance as a fluffy shadow wove itself between my ankles, its feet sounding like tiny elephants rampaging off as I regained equilibrium and looked down to find empty floor.

Next, a tiny string mouse toy is sent scampering across my feet. And then another.

I smiled and switched off the light.

When her show was over, Ittybit launched into a game of a thousand questions -- all of them one variation or another of: "Can I play with my new kitty now?"

I shrugged. "She's not sleeping anyway. Go ahead."

I followed my daughter as she unclasped the gate and entered the room. There was no hesitation; no furtive peeking from behind cardboard. Just a black blur headed straight for her person.

And there was purring; lots and lots of purring.


She was barking ... and peeing all over the floor. My poor, old incontinent dog didn't know what to make of this cat inside the house. "It should not be here," she seemed to bark insistently.

I might have felt a twinge of guilt having unleashed a cat on my geriatric dog had the canine smile not crept back into her face. She was more animated than I've seen her in a while.

I snapped on the leash and we trotted out for a walk.

It wasn't immediate, but she found the scent of a never-before-noticed neighbor's cat. She took off after it. Her spring seemed back, too.

The shelter folks had told us to keep the dog away from the cat for a few days, but shower her with love from hands scented with new cat smell.

I smiled, thinking that's what the nurses had told us to do with the dog when we brought the first baby home.

Other folks had warned me that the adjustment wouldn't be easy; perhaps it would even be impossible for an old dog like Maddy. But I didn't buy it. She's a companion dog whose been missing her companion for two years now. She seems bored, possibly lonely.

I was thinking all these things, wishing them to be true, when the kitten ventured out from the office and sauntered past the dog, who immediately gave chase.

We all stopped breathing.

Around the couch and through the dining room they went; big dog, little cat.

As fast at it had started, the race stopped. The cat crashed to a halt, flipping over on her back to reveal her belly to the dog. She just lay there for what seemed an eternity as the dog did a backpedal to avoid a collision of cartoon proportions.

Maddy wasted no time: She immediately pushed her snout into the kitten's soft abdomen. And out came the tongue for a lick to the face.

The house exhaled.