Sunday, October 30, 2011

Thinking outside of the cardboard box

When I was a kid costumes were easy.

Or so I assumed.

A week or so before the last day in October some garment so incredibly wonderful and perfect in every way shape and form floated down from the heavens and beckoned me to wear it.

Of course it only seemed special to me if it came in a thin cardboard box with a cellophane oval on the front that revealed a plastic mask stapled on each side with a strand of rubber band.

Special meant store bought. It also meant “would-break-rip-or-become-musty-by-mid-evening.”

The first costume I remember adoring was a vampire assembled out of my mother's navy wool nursing cape, some red lipstick, talcum powder and a touch of burnt cork to hollow out my eyes and cheeks. It was simple, yet effective. Early arrivals were convinced I was the devil, and their shrieks could be heard loud and clear.

I felt bad enough to let my mom take over handing out candy, though not bad enough to change.

The fact that my parents had scoured the closet for old shirts that could be cinched at the waist or stuffed with pillows to recreate any number of clever personas on a smaller scale, was lost on me.

I was equally as oblivious to the sentiments my uncle scrawled – a thickly veiled expletive -- in permanent marker on the sign I paraded around, explaining I was masquerading as “Edith Anne … and you're not. PHPHPH.” It was years before he told us the inside joke on that last bit.

But this is a family paper so I can't spell it out. Let's just say I should have just schlepped around an oversized rocking chair to help people figure out who I was.

But, ahhh. Those were the days. We ebbed and flowed between spontaneous creativity and Saturday morning cartoon as effortlessly as butterflies took flight.

Some things don't change.

My kids have always had a mix of homemade and store-bought costumes. Princess garb has long been a favorite, as have Space Rangers and Spider Men.

And honestly, I've been fine with going the commercial route. Traffic moves faster there.

It took me so many months to come up with a cardboard box parade dragon for Chinese New Year that we finally used it in July.

Although it would give our neighbors a chuckle, I'm not sure I can make the kids wait for Christmas to go Trick-or-Treating.

But it looked like we were heading for Halloween in December this year as each passing day brought no clear decisions from either Ittybit or The Champ.

They knew what they didn't want to be.

“Not a princess.” “Not Batman.” “Someone already took the 'Fire Fairy.'” “And I am not wearing a Pirate outfit.” Racks and racks of perfectly presentable machine-made costumes left them mostly uninspired.

But there was time. Halloween browsing usually starts in mid-July. Stores know this kind of decision making doesn't happen overnight. They plan accordingly. Like right after swimsuit season is over in the Spring.

Still, my kids go down to the wire and eventually come up with stuff so out of the ordinary that even Lady Gaga's designers would have trouble delivering.

This year, in a stroke of inspiration at the break of dawn, a week before the big day, Ittybit appeared at my bedside with grand plans to be a butterfly whisperer.

“You want to whisper to butterflies?”

Her stern look set me straight. No, she will be a girl so sweet and so lovely that she just attracts the fragile insects wherever she goes. They will gather on her clothes, in her hair and drape around her like jewelry.

“She doesn't even wait for the question that is planning to escape after I rub my eyes of sleep.

“Construction paper and hot glue gun.”

It's nice to have a kid who has all the answers.

“Hey … your brother said he's decided he wants to be a superhero skeleton … how can we do that?”

“Oh … he wants to be Metroman when he faked his own death. In the movie, Metroman borrowed a fake skeleton from a nursing school and put it in his cape. You know of any nursing schools?”

“No. But I know where we can borrow a cape.”

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Waste not, want not

Technically we shouldn't have been there.

DropOff SwapOff is a semi-annual event for the community of Concord, Massachusetts, wherein residents drop off piles of hard to recycle recyclables as well as carloads of serviceable items, such as grandma's old sewing machine, and exchange them for things they could use, like a bookcase or a stroller or a big basket. You never know what treasure awaits.

But there we were in in this historic Boston suburb, visiting elderly relatives, smack dab in the middle of the social (and environmental) event of October. How could we miss it?

The idea is pretty self-explanatory: Some people haul their unwanted stuff to the department of public works, and a veritable army of volunteers sort the goods according to destination: Rags here. Lightbulbs there. Hmmm. … What's this? Working telescope? Walk it over to the swap yard.

It is trash and treasure hunting at its finest: A giant yard sale without the hassle of pricing or paying or keeping watch over the shop.

Since dumps have closed in cities and towns across the country, household waste days have by necessity gotten more creative. Most communities have opportunities for residents to pile their unwanted junk at the ends of their driveways so, in the early morning hours, a municipal truck can spirit it away … never to be seen again.

Not all of our seen-better-days stuff winds up in the trash, of course. But that's a conscious decision made by the few, the proud, the willing to dumpster dive. College students, and even first-time apartment dwellers, have long engaged in this brand of midnight curbside shopping.

Scavenger hunts ahead of the garbage trucks, however, aren't the meat as much as the byproduct. Concord, by contrast, puts reuse ahead of refuse.

Waste not, want not has special meaning for this community.

After midday, the SwapOff was still refreshing its second-hand inventory, though now in a trickling stream. One man hauled in a basketball hoop while another schlepped out a pile of lacrosse sticks.

A woman pushes in a tiny tricycle and rolls out with a spiffy, new-to-her two-wheeler.

As I watched the controlled chaos of the exchange it occurred to me that what I was witnessing was so much more than an ordinary clean-up day. It was more like a challenge-your-imagination day.

Smack dab in front of the DPW building, a man wearing a bright orange vest was building an elaborate sculpture out of the junk that no one wanted. His nametag read “Bill.”

“Today I'm really just an editor,” he said as we were walking by. “You can make suggestions. You can even help,” he told the children as they showed some interest.

It was my husband, though, who couldn't resist. He's the real junk-art-aholic.

As they positioned cross-country skis this way and screwed ping-pong paddles to bird feeders that way, I meandered through the SwapOff. I looked back to see the men upending a battered old Dog Igloo onto a floating basketball hoop, and imagined them discussing the finer points of screw guns and duct tape.

I continued browsing, thinking truly there was nothing I needed. That's when I nearly tripped over the wooden two-room doll house sitting alone and unwanted. I picked it up, my mind whirring: the roof drooped from a broken hinge, a window bulged out, the wallpaper was water stained and faded. It was perfect. The toy I always wanted but, as a self-declared tomboy, had never asked for.

I hauled the prize back to my family and our new friend, Bill.

“Is that for ME?” my daughter asked a little nervously. She already has a dollhouse that suits her fine.

“No. It's for me. I always wanted to make a haunted dollhouse. Now I have my chance.”

The look on her face told me I never really had to worry about my tomboy status.

The only thing I have to worry about now is what occasion will bring us back to Concord in May.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Digging out of the money pit

It all started when I bought him the wallet. Alright … it was, in all likelihood, some time before that … possibly when I told him he could have any money he found under the couch cushions if he helped me vacuum … but that's neither here nor there.

Vacuuming wasn't The Champ's first choice of employment options. With his slight frame and fear of loud noises, it simply wasn't a good match.

The wallet, on the other hand, was the thing that pulled the whole idea together. The wallet meant independence. It also meant incentive.

The fact that the blue, nylon billfold sported an adorable pirate smiling out in sweet cartoonish innocence under a red sticker marked “Half Price” was only incidental.

It was a perfect storm of development milestone meets consumer millstone … a fiduciary accessory that was cute to boot.

Of course it was an impulse purchase.

Regardless, it seemed like the perfect time to introduce the concept of cold hard cash. Shopping trips as of late had become interesting, mostly as a result of his interest in points of purchase and my dwindling income. “Just go to the bank,” was never a viable solution to the perennial “We don't have any money for that frivolous purchase” conundrum anyway

How much things cost was the easy part. How much he was worth, harder. Confusion about why I could not give him a job that could earn him riches beyond his wildest dreams lead to many questions … and then, like any good capitalist, the ignoring of answers all together.

“And then we'll go to the Toy Store … and I will buy my own toy,” he said with the resolve of a thousand boys who'd only just yesterday been thwarted from that very pursuit with a single “No” for an answer.

“Son. You don't have enough money to buy the Super Duper Connecting Blocks Activity Set with the Inlayed Gold and Ruby Encrusted Helipad that I told you we couldn't afford yesterday … and the day before that.”

“But I have a wallet now.”

“And you haven't earned enough money. You only have 16 cents you found in the laundry and a pile of crumbs from the sofa.”

“You could give me more money. I would put it in my wallet and then I could buy the toy.”

“You have to save your money and stop spending it on Alien Attack packages you don't remember two days after you've bought them.”

“But you could …”

“Nice try, but no.

“The. End.

Dusting hands.”

Ok .. it was a string of Nos in rapid succession, but no one behind me in line would challenge my right to use the parenting express lane just because I'd put more than 14 items in my basket. Fourteen Nos are basically one item. Fourteen Nos aren't anything like one No and 13 Maybes … (if you Stop Carrying On like a Spoiled Brat or any number of other potentially mollifying flavors).”

Sounding crazy is just a perk of seat-of-my-pants parenting. I believe most kids intuitively know this and test you at inopportune moments just because they like proving their impish power.

It also shows where the power truly lies … with the squeakiest wheel.

Where was I? Oh yes ...

The empty wallet, which was still a problem in the eyes of The Champ.

“If I had a million dollars, ma, I'd buy you breakfast at Old McDonald's.”

“If you had a million dollars I'd want more than Old McDonald's my friend. I'd want you to pay your fair share of taxes so we could stop firing teachers and start fixing bridges.”

“So how can I earn the money for my Legos?”

I shrug my shoulders.

“Perhaps you should go out to the garden and dig for buried treasure. I'm pretty sure I saw some. All you need to do is clear away the weeds.”

Sunday, October 09, 2011

A model husband

“Did I miss a memo ...?”

His text messages were blinking. It was Sunday night, but his office manager had a pressing question that couldn't wait until Monday.

My husband laughed as he held out his phone so I could see the barrage:

“Is there something I should know? … Such as ... Have you changed professions? Exactly how long have you been a male model?”

She'd been leafing through her copy of This Old House magazine and recognized her employer's face in a Campbell's Soup ad.

Well, actually she only thought she recognized his face. She wasn't exactly sure until she studied the two children balanced on the back of the line-backer-esqe man pretending he was a bucking bronco.

“I'd know those kids anywhere,” she said of Ittybit and The Champ.

He was laughing as he typed a response: … “Ever since I married a photographer.”

He's a good sport.

How could he not be when the focus of my camera often makes my heavy-object-moving, truck-driving husband the target of cheek-biting barbs.

“You sure you can lift that all by yourself? I wouldn't want you to break a nail … or muss your hair ... now that you're a model and all.”

He's a better sport than I'd be, anyway, if my hairdresser had done the double-mirror inspection bit wherein I learned he'd been photoshopping hair on my bald spot ... for years, by the size of it.

I meant well. Really, I did.

But I digress.

I've been selling stock photographs for a few years: A couple of regional ads here, a few website illustrations there. Most of the sales amount to pocket change, which I try to squirrel away so the kids will be able to buy themselves sweatshirts from their college bookstores in 12 or 15 years.

We rarely see the finished advertisements or know where they end up other than the monthly statement of sales telling which ad agency bought what photo. Based on those accountings, it's been apparent that non-US sales are the bread and butter of my little toaster factory. In fact, his minor popularity abroad has become a running joke. He likes to tell people he's “big in Belgium,” though technically his likeness has been licensed more times in Germany.

So being recognized in this country, not to mention finding out (from another Facebook friend) that the same ad appeared in Sports Illustrated was an extra special treat. And one that meant he and I would spend our anniversary “date night” at the newsstand carefully leafing through every possible book that might contain ads for soup.

Honestly. I never knew there were so many magazines. Or so many ads. Or soups.

I think we might have been there an hour learning about the intricacies of advertising one publication at a time. Few ads seemed to be repeated, and don't bother looking for anything save performance enhancing potions in men's fitness magazines.

“So,” I wondered. “If we're blaming fashion magazines for bulimia can we blame fitness magazines for baseball?”

He shrugged.

“Look at this: Page after page of statistics. Honestly, I think I'm missing some genetic component for spectator sports. Reading this kinda thing would make me go blind.”

“Nope. This would make you go blind,” I laugh, holding up the prize he thought I'd overlooked: Maxim. I knew he'd poured over it slowly and carefully as I inspected every single offering in the home design section.

“I think I'll just go through that one more time. I may have missed a page.”

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Having influence often means trusting theirs

Most of the time, as a parent, and even as citizen of the world, I have no idea what I'm supposed to be doing.

It's not as if I don't look around and see all the things that others do differently. Do better.

The truth is, having so many directions to turn makes every step we take seem precarious. Go this way and you meet a dead end. Turn that way and you may fall off a cliff.

It's enough to make a parent crazy.

Raising children is life's eternal experiment.

Someday we will unleash these people we made into the world, our bath-phobic, pajama-wearing-in-public, screaming-mimi children will eventually be the bosses of themselves. I'm not sure I will ever be ready.

As I think of all the possibilities, I find myself wishing for perseverance instead of luck. In my anxious, hovercraft parent brain, failure is inevitable and luck is not only fleeting it's fickle. The same providence that wins the grand prize in the lottery also temps many a not-so-happy fate, of which we parents can't speak.

Yet, from the important to the seemingly inconsequential, decisions must be made. Navigations charted. And though we can see our destination, we rarely have a clear path to its shores. We can never really know with certainty which choice will affect which outcome.

What should we encourage? What should we dissuade?

I hate dance class. I've made no pretense of liking it though I wish, for Ittybit's sake, I could manage a better poker face.

I've been working on that.

We all carry our own experiences. Prejudices. Pride. Things that makes rebellion so intoxicating.

I talked her out of Girl Scouts and into 4-H.

I plan on indexing flyers for pee-wee football in the revolving file.

I'm wondering if I can convince them Disneyland is really just a bowling alley in southern Maine. "Hey kids ... look ... It says 'Vacationland.' I hope Mickey isn't on vacation."

I'm hoping neither of my kids get tattooed, but I know I'll learn to accept their bodies with scribbles. If I must.

I ebb and flow with and against convention.

She wants to be a ballerina-veterinarian who sings on stage. He wants to run away from home and take me with him. I'm sure he thinks I'll support him, even in his resistance from parental interference.

I shouldn't laugh. Must. Not. Laugh. It probably doesn't matter, I'll always embarrass them.

Instead, I just move from moment to moment wishing for calm and peace and hoping I don't inflict any lasting damage to bodies or psyches.

Who wouldn't like to raise a doctor? So long as they don't have to sell their souls lest they default on student loans.

And yet, when The Champ came to me and said the only thing he wanted for his “fird birfday” was a skateboard, I barely hesitated. Safety first: Helmet. Pads. Board. The three musketeers, all for one and one for all.

I'm not sure what possessed me: I just kept invoking the holy trinity: Helmet. Pads. Board.

And as he was working on balance, low and slow on the driveway, I quietly thanked the force behind his interest that I didn't have to sit in the bleachers at the Little League field passively rooting against someone else's kid on an opposing team.

But I know I can't keep them from the world. I can't even control how they move in it, truth be told. I can only hope to influence and that my influence, even with the best of intentions, isn't misguided.

He's a year older, now, and still dragging his board out on the driveway from time to time.

When a local skatepark opened this week, he wanted to go and bring his board.

But when he saw “the big kids” doing their thing ... he wanted to leave it in the car and just watch.

Then he wanted to go home.

And practice.