Thursday, December 23, 2010

Opportunity and Journey: the MATX

This past week, I submitted a substantial amount of materials to VCU for consideration into graduate school. Should I be accepted, the lovely, aging homes that house classrooms and offices on campus will become a familiar backdrop as I pursue a PhD in MATX (media, art, and text). This week, my children and I walked the campus, then gently tread the worn and creaking stairs of the graduate admissions building to drop off my transcripts. Under the bare trees outside the office, we paused to breathe the sharp scent of promise: a cold winter of waiting between hopefulness and an answer. I scanned the street for signs of welcome—anything that said this place was as much for me as it was for the young students that wandered in chattering pairs, their backpacks slung nonchalantly in place.

I thought of my mother and how she must have clasped the little hands of my sister and me when she herself first stepped onto a campus again. My mother had returned for her master’s, which she did complete after years of covering our dining room table with her books and papers. I told my daughter this.  She is still unsure of what my pursuit of a doctoral degree might mean, even though I promise a better future for all of us. Regardless of what letters behind my name might signify, my passage through this campus, even my effort to do so, will mark for her that she, too, has a future she can carve, one not necessarily pegged by gender role, family history, or outside expectation. Looking at VCU, even as the campus began to sleep with the approaching Christmas holiday, a tinge of excitement ran through us. The children and I, holding each other’s mittened hands against the chill, exchanged smiles.

Below is an image from my painting portfolio and an excerpt from my entrance essay. Wish me luck!

There are obvious reasons why an artist and writer like me would wish to return to school: the lure of a PhD with the potential of teaching at the university level; the connection with other artists, writers, and professionals who wish to share their interests; the desire for a saturated education in new computer and online media. The internal reasons, however, are the reasons I wander the path in the first place and they come with the very questions that the MATX may help me explore: As a mother still in child-rearing years and having lived in multiple states, I am lost in the woods. Where was I going before everyone else’s life took precedence? Can I break out of my gender role and become the explorer that will eventually guide other writers and artists to a plane of recognition, reason, and purpose?

Happy holidays, Readers.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Christmas Star

Everything I write today fails to communicate any measure of grace, wisdom, or humor on my part. I have written much, and deleted much. So, in light of a heartbreaking conversation I had with my little girl, I will leave you with this tidbit, a shining star in your own dark night:

Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas to all those who seek to bestow upon children a world of magic, miracles, and generosity. Merry Christmas to those who tend the sometimes wounded soul of a child, mend it, or lift it for even just a moment. May you embrace Wonderland, the kind of place where snowflakes dance in frozen perfection, bottomless hot chocolate cups steam in flawless spirals, and candy cane gift wrapping dresses boxes of toys and treasures. May a man in a crimson, fur-trimmed suit glide through the night, across treetops and rooftops, down chimneys, and into your waiting heart. May it all be possible, again and just once more, this night that we await: Christmas.

Long live Christmas, for its stillness and peace, the celebrated moment of one particular child’s birth, and the reminder that one man can change the world for the better. I send you blessings for new beginnings, a comet to blaze across your cobalt skies, and all the love in the world.

Merry Christmas to you.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Facebook vs. Blogger

It's quiet here at Cafe Catiche. I'm a little busy for the usual posts; I have been working on a research paper about blogging, of all things. The best part so far was an interview I conducted with the writer of The Extended Table, who complained about the nature of Facebook as an addictive, cheap, time-suck when he should be writing his blog.

"If Facebook is a whore," he said, "then blogger is the girl you bring home to meet your mother."

Thanks, pal. Can't say I ever thought of it that way.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Handmade for the Holidays

Each Christmas, I make a handmade gift or two, and I encourage the kids to do the same. This year, I decided on hats for a string of little children in the family. As I sat, head bowed toward the whirring sewing machine, my little son wandered into the room, watched me in wonder, and then retrieved his big sister’s pink Barbie sewing machine. Tiny pushed papers under the battery-operated safety needle and “sewed” to his heart’s content. He used each scrap that he completed to giftwrap one of his toy cars for his father. When he was done, he showed me a softball-sized wad of crumpled paper, bits of masking tape pasting loose ends in place. He must have labored for forty-five minutes in near silence. I have never seen him work so hard nor so quietly.

His sister sat not far from us, also fairly silent. Spread on the floor about her were around a dozed projects she had crafted—little paintings or ornaments from plastic gimp. She clumsily wrapped each one, tied them up with ribbon and strips of fabric or old bows. By the end of the evening, she had a pile of Christmas cheer. Later, I fingered the bows and the awkwardly folded packages, and considered the tenderness in which these precious items were created and wrapped.

My favorite gifts have always been the handmade ones. My cousins in Ohio labored each Christmas to produce beautiful crafts that I still have or still remember fondly. One year, they painted wooden ornaments and personalized them with our names. Another year, they made fabulous watermelon-slice placements—complete with painted seeds. Sorrowfully, the flood that followed Katrina took the placemats.

Last year for my parents, I sewed pillows with pictures of my children on them. Another year, I made tied-fringe fleece lap blankies. For my first ever married Christmas at the tender age of twenty-three, I made salt-clay angel ornaments for my husband.  The egg carton angel from first grade--I still have that, too, and enjoy displaying.

Some things last, some don’t. But the memories I have of holding those finely crafted items in my hands, of enjoying them on the tree or table or wherever--that lasts forever.

Happy holidays!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

UFOs (Unexplainably Flushed Objects) and Other Abberations

My son came into the kitchen crying. In his hand he held a shoe. My husband and I paused to ask what was the matter.

“My toe!” he yowled. “It has stink on it!”

Some things just cannot be explained. Among the unexplainable is my son’s fascination with the toilet. This past week, he flushed his toothbrush, thus causing a major overflow and a run to the store for an auger to repair the problem. I never did retrieve the toothbrush, but a few days later when the toilet overflowed again, I was able to rescue a long bobby pin from a sewer-y death. Our toilet now flushes as it should, but for how long, I would not consider safe to guess.

That one particular toilet has also survived the flushing of Littlest Pet Shops. The one downstairs, however, saw much greater difficulty in the processing of two large bars of soap. I blogged about that episode already and may likely do so again considering the incredible diligence and persistence of my flushing wonder, Tiny Man.

He also really likes lotion—mine in particular. He wants to emulate his mother desperately and is obsessed with all things feminine that are designed to improve one’s appearance or smell. I certainly can understand this, but what I cannot fathom is that in complete anger with me, he will eat my lotion to prove his point. Just this weekend, I found three mangled bottles demonstrating his complete outrage that I would put both he and his sister in time out for fighting. He put his hands on his hips and proudly confessed, “I ate yo’ yotion!”

“Boys,” shrug people who meet my son. “It’s just the way boys are.” This is not at all an acceptable explanation to me. I cannot understand why the benevolent God who made this earth has chosen to pair women with such strange and hard to comprehend creatures, creatures that cannot leave the toilet alone, eat lotion, and have other vile habits, yet somehow fall into a state of despair when their feet smell less than pleasing.

Why does a boy do these things? I asked my son this. He answered simply. Of course I knew this already: Cause I want to.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Test Preparation

If you are wondering why I have been so quiet on the blog, it is because I have been consumed with study. Last week I took the Graduate Record Exam, an unfortunate requirement for entry into the PhD program I wish to pursue. For the three weeks prior to that, I buried myself in math tutorials and vocabulary flashcards. No one saw me for anything social other than Thanksgiving and a dinner date or two with my husband. Daily, my children pulled at my legs in an effort to distract me. They were incredibly tolerant as I banged my head against a stack of notebooks and study guides. One afternoon, my daughter silently removed a growing collection of coffee cups from beside my computer in a sort of unspoken empathy for what I was undergoing. I called out to her as she retreated back to her own studies.

“Hey, you know that fear that you’ll fail? You ever get that?”

“Yeah,” she said. “All the time.”

“You ever afraid that people will think you’re stupid?”

“Totally,” she agreed, and then added woefully, “Now you know how I feel.”

“I get it, Sweetheart. I really do. I am right there.” I have a new respect for my daughter’s frustration with school and I worry that if I do get accepted into graduate school, I won’t be taken seriously.

There is nothing like a standardized exam to reflect inability and create self-doubt. I have never been a supporter of these kinds of tests. While I realize that these tests are the best numeric measure we have to sort and rank ability, they really only show one true thing: who tests well versus who doesn’t on a particular time during a particular day. Knowing this, I still studied four to six hours a day (plus editing a couple of papers for work and raising children) during the week for a math test score that would be ignored by an engineering department, slightly frowned over by someone in the humanities, but that would thrill me completely. (The test center calculates verbal and quantitative while you wait.) During study sessions, my main mistakes were not that I could not retain formulas, processes, or figure out what steps to employ in a lengthy word problem; my weaknesses always boiled down to details. Checking my work, I found consistent mistakes in basic addition and multiplication. Sometimes, I transposed figures incorrectly. How frustrating!

I complained to my husband that what I know how to do is not measured well in these tests. I can define British closed punctuation, reduce a paragraph of weak writing into two sentences, draw comparisons between literary works, and discuss the entry of softcover books into American readership in the 1960s. I can mentally calculate my budget and make plans with a rotating list of priorities, check my accounts online, and see that my figures match without having used additional software to balance the checkbook. When I read, I collect books in themes, and will independently explore the role of women in ancient China, American slave narratives, or coming of age experience according to gender and region. If I encounter an unknown word, I use a dictionary or research etymological origins online. I can even quickly assess and address croup, split-open chins, sick dogs, and some plumbing problems.

No, this stuff does not show up in a standardized exam. Instead, what I had to prepare for were analogies between words, a curse for the right brain that sees multiple possible relationships between close fits in the answer key. There were fill-in-the-blank exercises and antonym exercises (which could be more broadly interpreted than desirable). In math, I reiterated the formulas for the slope of a line, calculated probability, and used the Pythagorean theorem to answer questions that at first seemed to lack all the needed information. Now, none of these things I’ll need to discuss Faulkner or mass communication campaigns, but the practice of studying for these aspects of the test was a great glimpse into how I work and what I really wished could be measured.

When I did not know something, I took an online tutorial. I set up countless practice tests, checked for progress, noted weak spots, and addressed those areas. I followed a study chart that I had set up to organize the three weeks I had between registration for the exam and its administration. Between problem solving sessions, I created note cards for mathematic formulas and new vocabulary. I quizzed my English professor husband on contexts of words to develop better understanding of meanings and usage. And I did all this while still keeping a reasonably clean house, hot meals on the table, and meeting the punctual requirements for picking up children from school or being home for the bus. This was the test—can I handle this much study and still be a dutiful mother?

Yes, but that does not mean I will always have a pleasant demeanor, be available to chaperone field trips, or that a little extra dose of televised PBS won’t come in handy as a distracter during a rough spot. I did take some time off after the test to spend extra moments in coddling and play. Both the children needed this. My son was particularly amused and grateful for a short afternoon baking muffins; he talked about it the other night as I helped him wash his little wiggly toes in the tub. I hope he understands that my moments of unavailability will reward us as a family later in life—better jobs, better education. Those hard choices we make to better ourselves—I wish the GRE tested for that, too.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Gratitude: A Scoop on Poop

This holiday, most bloggers are eloquently posting their gratitude for friends, family, sound shelter, and the like. While I too am thankful for those things, I spent part of my week being absolutely overwhelmed with a certain compassion provided by strangers: the patience of women who wait in restroom lines because my son is taking a twenty minute poop.

God bless mothers. We put ourselves at great risk each time we boldly venture out of our homes with small children who roll us naively into predicaments. This applies to situations as seemingly mundane as a trip out for coffee and a cookie, especially when a trip to the restroom is likely to be involved.

“This is such hard work!” my four year old said as he strained on the toilet at Starbucks recently. Meanwhile, I was beginning to panic; we’d already endured one knock on the restroom door from a waiting woman. A few minutes after calling out that the room was occupied, my son was still working on some kind of mass production. I stuck my head out the door, murmured an explanation and apology, and retreated back toilet-side to anxiously encourage my son.

“Hurry up, son!”

“I has one more poop!” he said.

After we washed up and left, the young lady outside the restroom was most gracious despite what must have been an uncomfortably pressing bladder. My wee boy tripped happily and lightly past her the way my dog does after relieving her own discomfort in the yard. While many women see the post-poop dance and are amused by it, I have experienced incredibly rude remarks from a few angry non-mothers. I tell them I cannot control my son’s poop. (Sorry, ladies, but if you believe that you can control a boy’s poop now, just wait until you enter a relationship with a grown man when shit becomes a metaphor for something else.)

Lately, I am often trapped near the public toilet waiting for my son to finish up his dedicated service. I have thought about constructing some kind of sign that reads “Small Child at Work” to hang on restroom doors when we regretfully discover that the restroom is a single stall experience and that something other than urine will run afoul. To that sign I would make, I should add these words: “Please pardon anything you hear while you wait!”

“Come on, baby, you can do it!” I’ll say.

“Otay, Mommy!”

“People are waiting. Are you finished yet?”

“I still has poop.” (This statement is followed by a massive grunting sound from the small child.)

“Sweetheart, don’t touch that. And no, it’s not time to play with your wiener. Hurry up!”

“Mommy, my poop is stuck. I need help.”

“Focus, Tiny. You can do it!”

Anyone hearing applause from inside a restroom has to know massive accomplishment has taken place in there. Mothers spend the first several years of a child’s life teaching incredible life skills including proper hygiene and relieving oneself. We need all the understanding we can get while our children are so young. Not only are we teaching our sons to not spray the walls with those little firehoses of pee they wield, but how to wipe their own bottoms without spreading fecal matter on the toilet seat. This is a kind of work that requires surprising diligence and fortitude. Anytime my son needs to use a public restroom, I freeze and hope he does not have to conduct the dreaded number two. I pray that if a line of women develop outside, that these women will be understanding, gracious, and patient.

This weekend at a restroom near the highway, we took a break from travel, and Tiny once again parked himself on the throne. When he was done, the woman waiting outside was so kind to us about having been made to wait. To her and to all women who wait on small children to conduct small, but serious business, this mother is grateful. Thank you!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Peel Her a Grape

Yesterday, tired from studying, I took a break to exchange an extraordinary amount of gossip with my oldest step-daughter. Between chortles and guffaws, I realized how much I miss her. She has a powerful presence in the best way. I often joke that she is the Mae West of our household—voluptuous, saucy, quick with words, and unforgettable. She is direct and her intentions unmistakable. One of the funniest people I know, she has a wonderful sing-song voice when she humorously hints at a situation. For example, if she suspects tension in a room, she voices with a rise and fall of melody in soprano, “Uncomfortable!”

Mae does not seek high spirited adventure, but it finds her, such as this summer when we went swimming in the river. She and her sister begged me to swim out in the currents with them, but I chose to sunbathe on the rocks instead. (I grew up on the Mississippi River; I know better.) As I watched the girls plunge toward a large boulder in the river, a strong current picked up my husband’s firstborn and hurled her downstream over a small waterfall. Horrified, I ran along the riverbank calling her name. When her head finally appeared from the dark waters, she was laughing at herself, but still caught in a dangerous pull of water. A young man swam to her and guided her to sure footing and a place to rest. Frankly, I don’t know which of those two, the young man or our Mae, was more delighted for that particular opportunity.

The holidays are coming, and I will have the divine pleasure of wise cracking and carrying on with the queen of slick nice-nasty, as she calls her rather underhanded sarcasm. She has already promised to coach my fashion choices in a shopping expedition and, like her sister, is keenly anticipating decorating the Christmas tree. Having both Mae and her sister in my life has begun to change me. They bring out some of my best qualities and take the edge off the head-banging frustration of dealing with frequent and drastic change. This past summer was a period of sheer elation and joy that has helped restore the spirit of this household. For these wonderful girls, I will always be thankful. I think I can agree with a quote by the true Mae West, whose wit and sex appeal flashed across the silver screen so long ago: “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.”

Note: I came across this website of Mae West quotes. Laughed till I cried over some of them. Click here and amuse yourself.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Note on Music Blog

I left one thing out of yesterday’s blog. I forgot to mention the absolute pleasure of sharing music with someone who feels it as intensely as I do, someone who appreciates and understands the connections of history within certain pieces, and who will not make disparaging remarks should I become temporarily overwhelmed with the moment. Such a gift to share interests with the love of your life.
Bless you, Husband, for taking me to the symphony.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Music: The Seasons Project

Last night, my husband and I attended the awe-inspiring live performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons by the Venice Baroque Orchestra. Led by soloist Robert McDuffie, the orchestra followed Vivaldi’s composition with Phillip Glass’ "Violin Concerto No. 2". This performance, called the Seasons Project, showcases Glass’ reconstruction and American adaptation of Vivaldi’s original composition. I cannot remember the last time I was so stirred and inspired by such a performance. The sensory feast lay not just in the emotional power of sound, but in the visual effects of men and women whose music playing becomes their sole purpose of being.

The violinists stood to perform. During Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, the group swayed and bent in the emotional heights and tinglings of Baroque. Like fields of tall grass that ruffle and splay in wind, musicians alternately seemed to bow under the roll of music. Clusters of complementing accompanists nodded in wordless communication to each other. McDuffie himself, his eyes often closed and his face unable to restrain the effects of his own playing, conversed with his fellow musicians through leaning, turning, and bowing gently. Music swelled and receded. Notes painted pictures of falling leaves, rain, and yawning summer fields. My husband, with his leg pressed against my own, closed his own eyes under the dancing and tumbling notes. Crescendo after decrescendo, he fought to remain seated against the tide of harmonious string.

After intermission, McDuffie and the orchestra plunged into Glass’ concerto. One can easily trace the elements of Vivaldi that appear, but Glass’ composition is not at all as delicately structured as Vivaldi’s Baroque pieces. Glass is American by birth and his music is as dramatic and powerful as the reputation this country has developed. There is strength the sound of his simplified orchestration. Musicians suddenly no longer worked in conversation, but drew together as a unified team and moved sharply together. The seasons seemed to not be so separate as much as they merged, and the feeling, which is most American, can only be summed up by this word: forward.

A little glimpse of Glass’ concerto is here as it is discussed by the conductor working with the symphony in the video. For those of you who don’t think you are familiar with Glass, if you click here you can listen to Glass’ composition, "Truman Sleeps", for The Truman Show. A segment of the composition for the pinnacle of the film, which you are most likely to have heard, is this one:

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Tiny Force of Destruction

My husband lay exhausted in bed this morning. His day had not even begun.

 “You know that blog you wrote on routine?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Tiny Man destroys my morning routine. He comes downstairs and tells me, ‘I need. I want. Can I have…?’ and then my eggs are cold and I am late for work.”

Yes, Tiny Man destroys a lot of things, routine being the very least among them, but somehow we continue to love and adore him. This past week, my little son managed to do the following things:

He cut all the wooden beads off his lamp.
He pulled several strings out of his rug, thus losing the privilege of having a rug in his room.
He squeezed out half a bottle of toothpaste to “clean” his gladiator helmet.
He hid the toothpaste.
He ate the toothpaste.
He ate my very nice and pricey anti-aging Mary Kay lotion.
He dumped my jewelry box over, un-pairing earrings and losing earrings in the process.

What he does not destroy, he creates. Some of what he creates is not discovered until the aftermath, such as the liquid soap he painted on the toilet seat. This went unnoticed until my husband planted his rear on said toilet seat. (I am sure that in Tiny’s mind, he was cleaning the seat. So, what do you do?) Out of concern for the dog, he has tried to wash her—with powdered detergent. My understanding is that she actually sat still for this. He has painted abstract pictures with peanut butter on the kitchen window. We have the remains of toothpaste expressionism on the bathroom mirror upstairs.

This was all in the past few days. You may ask, “So, what is Catiche doing when all this is going on?”

Here is my list:

Tutoring my daughter 
Trying to potty in peace
Trying to cook
Trying to scrape playdoh, pumpkin pulp, or whatever the kids have had off the walls and floor
Folding laundry
Washing the afternoon dishes

I wish I could say I was on the phone exchanging juicy gossip, lying on the couch with Belgian chocolates in hand, or even surfing the web. I am not. My childless neighbor tried to give me suggestions one day, bless her heart. She is a woman for whom I have much respect and admiration, but one has to note that she was one of three girls. Girls are different animals. She asserts that her mother only allowed them fifteen minutes of cartoons before pushing her and her siblings outdoors to play. When they were inside, the girls folded laundry, swept the floor, et cetera. This all sounds very lovely. Obviously, her mother was not raising the bear cup that we have here.

Yesterday, my daughter sat down to homework and I began to mix spices for dinner, so I rolled the little man out the backdoor to frolic outside. I have a full view of the yard from two substantial windows in the kitchen. Within moments, my daughter called out that her brother had a hammer. When I looked up, Tiny had his hands full and the dog was running from him. I also noted that he had brought out the broom, a forbidden item because he wields it as a weapon (thereby eliminating sweeping as an entertainment option).

“Son, hand it over! I know what you’ve got!” I stood on the deck with my arms on my hips and watched my son try to hide behind the shed. The dog, poor old girl that she is, slinked in relief toward me, and then bolted to the now-open back door. There was no movement from behind the shed.

“One!” I said. My son stepped out and looked at me.

“Two!” This time, he ran behind the shed, retrieved his booty, and relinquished it.

A hammer, two screwdrivers, and a can of WD-40. Don’t tell me to put this stuff up high. We already do. We have all seen my son scale the kitchen cabinets using drawer pulls for leverage. He has also been caught standing on top of the bathroom sink reaching for the toothpaste that we keep on top of the mirrored cabinet.

I considered my neighbor’s advice, refuted it, and plopped Tiny down in front of PBS for 45 minutes so I could fold three loads of laundry in peace. When it was done, we did an exercise video together (which was hysterically funny to do with my son—and really the best part of my day). In the meantime, my daughter finished her homework, poured herself tea, and drank it without a little certain someone stealing the cup or spilling it for her. We were all happy again.

My son destroys a lot. Genetically, his kinetics and highly mischievous behavior seem to have flowed directly from my own uncles, one of whom was so bad my grandmother tied him to a tree so she could conduct housework without worry. She was happy and the neighborhood was safe. I have assurance from seeing my uncles that Tiny will grow out of his wildness, but a little doubt plagues me. We still have years ahead of us; he is only four. I have already announced that if he does not choose college, that he will be enlisted into the military at my earliest convenience--that’s if they’ll take him of course. I don’t know if they accept weapons of mass destruction as gifts from civilian mothers. We’ll see.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Handel's Messiah a la Mall

A wonderful performance of Handel's Messiah, promoted as a random act of culture in a Philadelphia mall, can be seen and heard here:
Who could not be moved by this most powerful and uplifting orchestration of voice and organ?

Big thank you to my adoring sister who sent it this morning! Happy listening!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Little Lessons in Vocabulary

Tiny Man ran through the kitchen, bulleted into the dining room, and clocked his head on the dining room table. I wiped away his tears and gently cautioned him about cracking his noggin.

“Like Humpy Dumpy?” he asked.

Don’t you just love the things children say? My daughter, at ten years old, still confuses syllables and invents words. Her vocabulary list includes the following:


Pablo Piccasillo (Picasso)

Tooken (as opposed to taken)

Celia Cruzz (She rhymes the last name with fuzz, but Cruz should sound like cruise.)

She also likes to pass on her wisdom to me, which yesterday was this juicy prize: You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him lead you to water. To tell you the truth, I think not only is she right, but this one is more precise in meaning than the original expression.

My son used to say something like chismomus. We did not know what chismomus was. After months of scratching our heads, we finally figured it out—transformers--the toys. He has also asked me for tassee (coffee) and most recently, wanted to know if something was attend (pretend). Last night, my husband sat at the table and translated a whole series of expressions for me, a curious irony since I am around Tiny the most, but this must mean that step-father and step-son are on the same wavelength.

My husband’s own girls used to pray at the dinner table, “Goddess bless.” Know one knows why. I still love how in a version of grace an in-law’s children sing, the little ones pipe out, “God’s our man! God’s our man!” Surely God blesses any child who diligently makes an effort to say grace before meals especially considering that child’s still maturing tongue and facial muscles.

My absolute favorite blundered words have to be my daughter’s accidental profanity, which she never failed to scream out in excitement in a public place. When she was about two, her father and I held her as we rode the down escalator in the Tampa International Airport. On the carpet, designers have emblazoned manatees among other things. My little girl saw fish-like qualities in the manatee at the foot of the escalator, and because she had a habit of reversing word sounds, pointed and yelled, “Shiiiittt!” at the top of her lungs. God forbid a firetruck round the corner. For that, she would shake her fists and holler, “Firefuck!” Fortunately for us, people were largely understanding when the errant profanity broke loose. But I would have to really work to stop my own laughter before explaining the original intentions of our little lady.

I can already imagine the comments and emails I’ll get about this topic. Send me your vocabulary list and I’ll post the best ones.

Friday, November 5, 2010


Periodically, I pick on my husband for his routine, mostly because I inadvertently do something to disrupt it. I am learning his ways, improving with time, and occasionally telling him his attempts to assimilate my ways are futile (nod to the Borg he was for Halloween). Once, during a sort of negotiation over where to hang towels, he asked me if I had particular preferences or routines I wished to preserve. After weeks of thinking about this, I can definitely list key things that establish order in my day. Also, I despise interruption in the process. (Yes, Handsome Husband, I admit it.) This is important because if I can just preserve the small things, the big things, which are absolutely out of my control, will matter less.

In the morning, I like coffee. Strong coffee with some kind of milk and some kind of sugar so long as those items are not chemically altered—no powdered creamer, or that strange faux-milk hazelnut flavored creamer stuff, or artificial sweeteners. I like to be showered and dressed before setting foot downstairs. I don’t feel right unless I have taken the time to fix my hair and apply cosmetics-- something I promised myself I would always do for two reasons: to avoid the question my naked face usually prompts in public (“Are you sick?”), and because I used to watch all the frumpy, worn out, disheveled mothers of babies and swear I would at least try to look groomed, polished, and less stressed than I usually am. (Is it working?)

The AM drop-off procedure allows me to sandwich errands on the way home before lines develop in stores, thus preserving valuable time. Child A, bus stop; Child B, personally delivered to school; grocery, bank, gas station, pharmacy, et cetera. By the time I get back here to the desk, never later than 10 AM, the potential warmth and smoky flavor of a second cup of coffee beckons. And so it must be these steps: heat coffee, have conversation with dog (most important), household and children’s administrative tasks, and if time allows, write a post for this blog. After that, the other work begins, and it must be done with as little noise as possible. I cannot edit to news, television, or music. There are breaks for chores and meals. Errands to Target, Home Depot, or the vet, which are in a different part of town from the kids’ schools, are scheduled 45 minutes to an hour before the youngest is released from school.

Routine is mini-tradition. It makes things sure and provides normalcy when everything else is new, changing, and uncertain. I love returning to routine at the end of holidays or vacation. We subconsciously create these customary habits out of necessity, and then later we consciously strive to preserve them. Even the family dog has her rituals: where she sleeps, when she rises, how long she prefers to be outside for her morning potty break, and the food bowl dance.

As I write this, I check the clock. I have scheduled chunks of desk time this week to work on an essay for graduate school--a big thing, a big maybe, and totally out of my control as to whether or not I will be accepted or live here long enough to complete. Researching and writing to apply for school though? This can fit snugly into my routine. I am assured that I will have at least accomplished an attempt to apply to school by the time January comes.

Humans love sameness no matter how much we claim to fight it. Given a free seating choice in a classroom, most people choose the chair that they will continue to use each time class meets. Friday nights become the norm for movies at home or date nights with friends. We make our coffee the same way each morning or order the same drink, a bloody Mary, each time we indulge in Sunday brunch. We choose the same route for driving to work or we frequent certain restaurants on the weekend. I know one certain handsome husband that must shine his shoes each evening when he returns from the office.

Today, I am ahead of schedule, but pushed myself there due to a lunchtime obligation with my daughter at her school. You know, that sweet event might be a nice break from… routine.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

No Pink Tomatoes Here

Any good New Orleanian judges a restaurant on the quality of the bread served there. Our bread is distinctive: a thin, crisp crusted French bread with a dough center so light as to be ethereal in taste and texture. Across the country, other bakeries have bragged about their replication of French bread. They are misled. New Orleans bread, baked in brick ovens, and risen against a certain degree of humidity, is exceptional and unique.

Having left the city of my youth, I have since adapted other rules to restaurants. Last night, my husband and I discussed this over a very nice meal at a local wine café. While the recipe for the meal itself was wonderful, I was disappointed over the quality of the fruit cup, and I began to muse about the melon and cantaloupe in my bowl.

Restaurants often offer a fruit cup and the medley in the bowl is almost always the same. Cantaloupe and honey dew serves as the foundation for this side dish. You might be lucky enough to get a strawberry in there, maybe a few blueberries. Considering all the fruit available, why do we always have to have melon? I wouldn’t complain if it was actually tasty. Someone who orders the produce for commercial kitchens is failing to do a routine taste test. In all my years of restaurant fruit cups, I have seldom had any melon that tastes the way it is supposed to taste. Most of the time, it is bland. It is a pointless fruit, served as a filler, and makes the hunt for the magic slice of strawberry more urgent than necessary. Why? I have only had one restaurant-offered honey dew that was exceptional. The sweetness and smooth flavor was indescribable. Surely, this melon was picked and served at the height of its own natural ripeness. Since then, I have ordered fruit cups in hopes of experiencing this sublime tasting again. I should have known better last night: it’s October. I suppose it is best to hunt for wonderful melon at the local farmers’ markets and street stands during season.

Serving bad tomatoes is another restaurant sin. If a pink tomato arrives with the meal, the complete taste experience only slides downhill. No wonder many people hate tomatoes. Garden fresh maters are explosive, tangy, and rich. They have a firmness and depth that is like nothing else in the produce department. A good tomato tastes, well, like the color red (as opposed to the washed out, bleachy green of an under ripe, poorly chosen melon). The average tomato served at the average restaurant has the lure of cardboard and little aroma.

If it isn’t good, it should not be served. There are wonderful places to eat that have served their produce right out of the garden that grows behind the restaurant, but for those places that really don’t have the space, the time, money, or the philosophy to support that, the produce should at least be sampled, sliced, tasted, and tested before routinely ordering it from a supplier. And regular taste tests should be run across the week.

All right, now that I have gotten that diatribe out of my system, it’s time to make my own lunch here at Café Catiche… a sandwich of leftover roasted pork loin with a diced vegetable and Creole mustard marinade, homemade pumpkin bread (with fresh pumpkin puree that I made myself), and maybe there is one last plump, sliceable sandwich-challenging tomato in the drawer. Mmm!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Halloween: Break Out the Costume... or Break It Off

It’s Halloween here at Café Catiche. This time of year, I fondly recall orange and black icing-swirled cupcakes brought to school in shirt boxes, construction paper crafts, and homemade costumes. Having children, I get to live vicariously through their own little Halloween parties and pageants. Today, I was excited because Tiny Man was going to be celebrating with his schoolmates in his preschool parade. The assignment for costumes was sent home as a way to further literacy: dress your child as a character from his favorite book. Every night, my son enjoys what his own sister used to read repeatedly as well, a nonfiction book about Egyptian mythology and mummification rituals.

This is easy, I told myself as I patted my own back for creatively solving the costume problem: a roll of white crepe paper and a roll of self-adhesive bandage. This afternoon, with wrappings and a little magic tape on hand, I strode confidently into the classroom, where my son eagerly awaited, and began the process of mummifying him.

Oh, how foolish I was! He complained regardless of the fact that I had mentally prepared him for his mummy costume. This was not what he wanted to wear, he insisted. He would rather be a gladiator, which of course, is not a character in a book we read, so that one, designed (also handmade) for this weekend, was sitting at home.

“You’re choking me,” he whined, as I loosely wrapped the outside of his face and around his head and neck. By the time I was done, I had cleverly wrapped his body and arms as well. He looked fantastic, but the self-adhesive bandage (which works by pressure, not glue) bothered him, so he pulled it off, crinkling up the tape and binding it in places where it now complicated re-wrapping. His teacher and I re-attached it more comfortably. He went to sit with his friends (who, by the way, loved his costume) and watch a five minute counting video until the parade started. I hoped the crepe paper wrapping would hold. He seemed content with his friends and looked adorable, but I knew better than to assume that no battle lay ahead.

As the children lined up for the parade, my son came to me crying. All the wrappings were off and crumpled on the floor.

“New costume!” he demanded through tears. He had removed it all himself.

“No,” I said. I told him that the consequence of destroying his costume was that he would have to walk the parade as himself, not as a mummy. The crying became louder and he did not stop. Outside, I put him in time out and told him he could not cry in the parade, but that when he was done crying and ready, we would try again. The crying continued. I removed him from the playground, where children were being organized, and brought him, still crying, back to the classroom. We packed up his things and left. Meanwhile, Tiny Man, in that sort of still yet unnamed vowel sound that children are able to carry, continued to whine, complain, and really, just irritate me.

“Why are you mad at me?” he asked.

“Had I known this would have gone as badly, I would have stayed at home,” I said. Reiterating what he already knew (the effects of his choices), I tucked him into the car, turned out of the parking lot, and before we were half-way home, he was asleep.

Last year, he refused to wear the top half of his handmade shark costume. In full fish regalia, Tiny’s face peeked out of the jaws of the shark. It was a brilliant idea that took days to conceive but only a night or two to make. Everyone loved it but him, and he was the one that had chosen the shark concept. The year before, he was a superhero, but destroyed much of his face make up and undid the spiked hair prior to the trick-or-treat walk. The previous Halloween, he had also rebelled against his costume (a devil, because he is one). This weekend, he will be wearing a gladiator costume that I used my new sewing machine to help make. I built the whole concept around a helmet that he loves to wear.

I’ll let you know if we make it down the sidewalk, costume intact. I doubt it though.

Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Imagining Pants

The latest running joke in the house is that our dog wears pants. I am not sure why it started, and it may have been something suggested by the rabbit, but this is a definite topic of conversation lately. Today, I got a text from my husband that our dog preferred the laundry room to the outside. (I can no longer leave her in the house when no one is home. She gets lonely. She rebels. She poops under the baby grand piano in the living room.) I texted back to my husband that of course she prefers the laundry room, as that is where she washes her pants. Instantly, I could see her in all her full, fuzzy husky glory, slipping out of her red satin pajama bottoms and tossing them into the wash. I just wish she would wash her dog blanket as well.

This Sunday at dinner, my son asked why our dog poops under the piano. I quoted my husband, who was not here at the time.

“Because, it is a magic canopy and it makes her poop disappear,” I said.

“She thinks her poop is invisible,” added my daughter.

My son seemed satisfied with these answers and we moved onto non-fecal dinner conversation. In the meantime, the dog lay at our feet. She was thinking about her pants, I said to the children.

Last night at dinner, my daughter announced the dog’s newest outfit: a purple dress with matching hat. She said our old dog, a Sharpei that still lives out his existence in the home of my former life, once wore a tutu. I had forgotten about this, but he did. Such is the life in an imaginative household. We had even danced with him as he wore my daughter’s tutu.

Mid-morning today, I received a note from my youngest step-daughter. She said she had two pet mice, plastic ones. So I asked the most obvious question: Do they were pants?

And so it goes.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Travelling with Children

I spend huge amounts of time on the road with small children. Among the elements of our established travel routine, such as well-stocked activity bags for each child and pre-packed snacks with water bottles, I can also count on the youngest to create a distraction about one hour into the trip and again less than an hour from the destination.

Tiny Man burst into tears yesterday, going from whine to 60 in one second flat.

“Someone is tickling my back,” he sobbed. No one was tickling his back. His sister sat curled up on the opposite end of the rear seat with a book. She had not moved. His crying grew louder. I told him to hang on and we would pull over when there was a safe place. We were cruising a country road with no real shoulder above the ditch that separated asphalt from cotton fields and tobacco crops. His crying persisted among complaints of an apparently acute itch until we arrived in a one-stoplight town. I turned off the small highway and parked beside rows of desolate looking brick store fronts. Grass grew in the cracks of the sidewalk. One lone Mexican eyed my truck and disappeared into the dark doorway of a tienda behind me. I could hear the theme of “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” playing in my head. Tiny Man’s howling reduced to breath sucking sobs and tears ran down his cheeks. I unhooked his seat belt, checked his back, rubbed it, and told him he was fine.

Crawling back into the driver seat, I heard the call of the wild from the backseat again.

“I’m hungry,” said my daughter.

Let’s just say I am sometimes not the most patient person.

“For crying out loud,” I exclaimed. I was eager to escape this town. “We just ate!”

“We did?” she asked.

“I hungry, too,” insisted Tiny.

Yes, we had eaten a lovely brunch at a nice restaurant with my oldest step-daughter in her college town. I had enjoyed crabcakes with eggs hollandaise. It was an exceptional meal, and my son, who normally loves crab and likes just a bit of spicy on his plate, had turned his nose up mid-way through dining.

Sundays in a small town dominated with what looks like weapon-packing Mexicans really don’t leave a lot of snack options. Even the Exxon station a block away looked menacing.

“You are going to have to cope,” I growled. The truck kicked into gear and we headed to the bigger highway where commercial offerings seemed a little less…frontier. Eventually, children were fed, and then a third stop was made--this time to remove the offending shirt from Tiny’s back, rub lotion on his skin, and button a softer one back on him. I was not very friendly about this, to be honest. A fourth stop ensured a refueling of the gasoline tank and the emptying of bladders. We were somehow, still close to the initial schedule.

We were doing ok, aside from occasional death threats to restore peace and quiet, when a new, urgent call came from the back seat.

“I has to peeeeeeeeeee.” There were 38 miles left to travel, making it our fifth stop in four and half hours of drive-time, we had missed the rest area my husband had told me (via message) to seek, and I was tired of gross bathrooms. We found a gas station, pulled to the side of it where a guard rail bordered the parking lot, and I let Tiny Man urinate onto the grass on the other side. We both leaned over the rail to watch the stream and make sure we did not get splashed.

When he was done, he pulled up his pants, and I cuddled him then tossed him up and down for giggles. This is just life with kids, I thought.

“You’re a good mommy,” he said. “I know this.”

I sure hope so. One more roadtrip down, countless more to go. I think we can make it.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Only Time You'll See Politics Here

Young people will reiterate overheard opinions or stories, tack new meaning onto them, and state them as though entirely self-conceived. My daughter recently made a certain statement that I found a bit embarrassing. I don’t know where she heard it, but it at least entered private conversation at our own dinner table, where we could discuss her words and the impression they may give. Her opinion was terribly slanted and I am afraid that if she says it in public, she will have misrepresented the true feelings and spirit of this family.

“We really should stop selling stuff to China. We shouldn’t be paying them all this money,” she mused, “and let them solve their own problems or whatever.”

(Yes, I am sure you were expecting something a little different.)

My husband smiled and spoke gently. He said that what she appears to have learned about the relationship between the US and China is a bit limited. He explained about trade, about China having loaned money to the US, and touched on countries having to work with each other. He addressed her immediate statement and raised possible questions that will help her understand there is always more to a story, and that an opinion, such as what she likely overheard from another parent or teacher at school, is not necessarily a fact. He did a very nice job.

This week, my daughter hit us with another one:

“I’ve been studying Mesopotamia at school. Did you know we now call Mesopotamia Iraq? I hate Iraq. All they do is kill each other. The whole culture there is bad.”

Mercy! I took a breath.

“Sweetheart, it’s so much more complicated than that,” I began. I told her I have taught children whose families had emigrated from Iraq to the US. I explained that what she is seeing on the news about war there is indeed unfortunate and horrible, but just one slice of what is an ancient and incredibly fascinating culture. My husband said that to make a grand slam statement about an entire culture is not okay, and that she needs to learn more about it. Mothers, fathers, and children live there--just like us, I reminded her.

After that I gave her the usual reminders about the other things we teach our children: sit up, elbows off the table, and close your mouth when you chew. Conversation turned to other things, such as school and weekend plans. Visions of Breyer horses and doll dress designs resumed in her head. I am glad, however, my little girl is aware that these political issues are part of the world we live in, and maybe one day she will develop incredible diplomatic skills as a result of having to research an issue and form an educated opinion.  I do look forward to seeing what she will discuss next, and I hope that she still feels she can air her thoughts at the table. Trying not to quash that while coaching her toward a broader view requires diplomacy on our behalf as well.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Define Normal

Occasionally, I post conversations with my fifth grade daughter here. They have been funny and entertaining until recently, when other things about her behavior have started to suggest that a visit to the doctor is required. All of this is frustrating, fills me with both a terrible sense of urgency to help her, and yet gives me hope that finally, after years of enduring what we thought were personality quirks, there is an answer that will give her a new sense of focus and take care of certain compulsions that she has. Life here will change for the better.

Last night, I talked about a recent conversation with my daughter where I said, in a moment of complete quiet and joy, how much I love her and how I treasure her company. Her response: “Mom, if you were to throw chocolate in the ocean, would it float? What would happen to it?” Yesterday, again during a drive home from an errand, I paused to tell her again how much I enjoy being alone with her. She responded by asking, “Are we going to the grocery? Oh, wait, yes we are. I remember that.” Note that I had discussed the grocery with her as we got in the car after the last errand, discussed it again en route, and then suddenly she could not remember where we were going, nor could she realize that she is part of another conversation taking place.

This morning, my daughter lost her thumbdrive. We discovered this ten minutes before we were due to leave for school. Because she obsesses over certain things, and will toy and play with objects past the point that a child her age would, she had not followed repeated directions to safely store her drive in her school bag front pocket. I understand this, but even asking her about the homework’s back-up copy was hard:

“Sweetheart, did you save a copy of your presentation?” I asked gently.

“Well, I decided to study Mesopotamia and not do the Sumerians.”

“No, honey. Did you save a copy of your program on the computer?”

“Well, I did not want to do the Assyrians. There was nothing on the Assyrians,” she said.

“No, listen!” I said before asking again and slowly emphasing the words of my question. “Did you save a copy of the program you wrote on the hard drive of my computer?”

“Yes. Yes, I think so.”

She sat down at my desk, found her files, copied them to a new drive. When she was done, I brushed her hair and assured her that soon, we would see a doctor to help her. I said that she does things she cannot control, we know this, but she must try to remember, and try to meet us halfway. By the time I delivered both children to school, I was already exhausted with worry. I mailed the checklist and written interview that the pediatric psychologist had sent me last week. Both children will be evaluated, but for now, we have to wait for papers to be read and processed. For all of Tiny Man’s challenging behavior, his sister’s quiet and absent-minded ways have taken on a new meaning and her needs seem to overwhelm his right now.

I no longer get as angry. Even frustration is waning. Instead, I am moving to a sincere sadness. My daughter lives in her own world. She is suffering at school because of this. She is often lost in thought and I have to check her emotions. She forgets things, loses things, has a raging case of Pica, is unable to keep up with her classroom workflow, has incredible impulses regarding the need to shop, fidget, or dive into activities without waiting for instruction. Her grades yo-yo, homework takes 3 to 4 hours a night, she frequently wakes for potty breaks at night, and she seems discontent during her quiet moments.

Interestingly enough, her step-mother has been instrumental in helping support our daughter. This trouble is bringing us to a reconciliation that I had not anticipated, an unexpected blessing and relief in a time of hardship. Without this woman bravely coming forward and risking herself to my scrutiny and my ex-husband’s defensiveness, I might not have known as quickly what we think my daughter’s problem is, Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder. The step-mother assured me that ADHD is a multi-faceted problem. While my daughter does not exhibit overactive behaviors, she does all these other things that take away from life at home and at school. I am entirely grateful for this support and understanding.

For years, I was asked by strangers, friends, and family how I had raised such a sweet, cooperative daughter. I was told how lucky I was that she was so normal. Define normal. I had always thought she was, especially compared to so many kids I knew who were severely and profoundly challenged with physical and emotional disabilities. How, when, and why did this baby girl progress to suffer the challenges she faces?

We could have worse problems. We have already faced such things. There are remedies for my daughter’s issues and time is on our side. I know this. And I can be joyful that I have the support not just of my loving husband, but an ex-husband, his wife, the elementary school faculty, and my family. Soon, a doctor will be able to objectively examine both our children, make decisions, and eventually, everything will be okay—for a while before a new obstacle presents itself.

I guess you could say that’s normal.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

How to Kill a Bug

You know you have an interesting marriage when you ask your spouse to kill a bug and he shoots it with an air gun.

This story ties deeply into the past. When my husband was a young man, maybe college age, his father had been trying to trap a rat in the kitchen. He set a trap inside the kitchen cabinet, where the rat was indeed caught, but somewhat reluctant to die. My husband said his two little sisters sat at the kitchen table while their father disappeared wordlessly into the bedroom, returned with a gun, opened the cabinet door, and blasted that rat to kingdom come. My husband often jokes that there were three holes to patch that day—one where the bullet exploded the skull of the rat and travelled through the exterior wall of the home, and two for the heads of the girls as they hit the ceiling.

Just keep that story in mind. You see, tonight after the kids were tucked in, I was curled up in my reading chair in the office when a downright hideous mustache bug ran up the wall near me, across the fireplace, and down the other side. He was a really big bug, by the way. (I think he might even have been the size of a rat.) I despise these mustache bugs—also called house centipedes—because they have many legs with spines that can leave the same painful sting as a bee. Worse, the buggers are horribly fast. I used to kill my own bugs, but now, married to a former military officer, and hence, trained killer, I happily have reassigned that duty to him.

“Baby!” I said frowning. “Please kill it.” The bug had tried to camouflage himself against the brick near the corner of the fireplace where it jutted from the wall, a rather awkward location for a would-be safe and effective swatting. My husband established code red and put me on alert. My job was to watch the invader, track his every move, and report it. I tucked my legs up under me, leaned over the edge of the chair closest to the hiding bug, and made mental notes. At the time, I thought my husband was going upstairs to get a shoe. I was wrong. He came downstairs wielding a gun. I fled the scene for the kitchen, covered my ears, and waited.


“Eleven pumps on this air gun,” he said. “Minimum recommended is three. Maximum is ten. The bug is gone.” He seemed more amused with himself than anything else. I think I was in a state of shock. I have seen people do a lot of things to insects—fry them with sunbeams and magnifying glasses, stomp them, catch and release them, kill them using one’s own hands (ugh!), and the last resort, shoot poison from a can of Raid.

In the kitchen, my husband gave me a debriefing. He showed me how the air gun worked and discussed the splattered bug, target practice, and the pellets, which he had not needed to use this time. Finally, I just started to laugh. I laughed until tears ran down my face.

“This just assures me you are exactly the man I thought I married,” I gasped reminding him about the time he shot a passel of house-eating squirrels in the backyard of a former home in a former marriage—from the hideout of his living room using the lock notch of the sliding glass door as a guide. I cannot remember how many critters he killed, but there had been a great question about what to do with the squirrel carcasses. I do recall something about his having to light candles and blow the scent of a fired gun out of the house…before his then-wife came home.

My husband was proud of tonight’s unique problem solving technique because of the awkward location of the bug, its known speed, and the likely ineffective use of a shoe. My version of solving this problem would have been to use the long wand of my Dyson vacuum, or what I like to call The Giant Bug Sucky. Either way, so long as no one gets hurt. In the meantime, if you really need to know how to kill a bug, you know who to call.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Wealth of Friendship

This morning, I wrote brief letters to some friends who each face intense heartbreak. My own troubles are light in comparison with theirs. I was going to write about hardship, forgiveness, and grace today, but as I reread the first two lines of this post, I see that I am rich with something that makes all our troubles bearable: friends.

I have close friends from every state in which I have lived. I have strong relationships with people that even if we have not spoken recently, they could be called upon for advice, prayer requests, or simple uplifting. For those of you who read this with whom I have not been in contact regularly, I sincerely apologize. Please note this does not mean you are far from my heart.

I have a close friend from the West that I have known since we were first-graders. In my head, I still visualize her as a double pony-tailed wispy blonde-haired little sprite. She is now a chicly coiffed professional and a single-mother. We don’t speak often, but when we do, we pick up as though we saw each other yesterday. My college girlfriend lives in the deepest South and has been a rock for get-real advice and for sheltering me at my worst and lowest moment. She has been a model for true Christianity in respect to her being able to love me when she could not understand how much in denial I was about the problems in first marriage. There is another lady friend in the Northeast, whom I also met in college, but we bonded some time after graduation. I sheltered her when her husband was serving overseas and she needed help with her son, who struggled with autism. What I learned from her was that people who are worried sick about their children can withdraw from a more public life as a protective measure; I was able to recognize it in myself when it started happening to me. We speak often. We are usually going through the same problem at the same time.

There is a couple that resided with me as neighbors in one state, and then after their move to the Midwest, my now-ex-husband and I ended up relocating an hour away from them. I will never forget hiding out from tornadoes in their basement, cooking together, or making stained glass art with my girlfriend. Her husband has always doted on my daughter (and now sends goodies to my son since his birth after we moved), told me funny stories, and talked to me as a real person. He never once ignored me or disregarded my opinion due to my gender (some men have a real talent for not “seeing” their friends’ wives.) He is a brother. When they visited here this summer, my husband and I were not quite ourselves. I have felt bothered by this ever since, but I think, given the history of their ceaseless love and support, that they understand families have ups and downs. They will love me as best they can from afar. I cherish this. Another friend from that same area was always a mentor for motherhood. She helped me care for my then-baby-daughter, guided me spiritually, and gave honest, but gentle childrearing feedback. We spoke recently when I needed parenting advice, which she gave me willingly and lovingly. Her influence on my daughter still runs strong today.

In my last state of residence, I had the unique experience of bonding with a Bible study women’s group, who supported me through separation and divorce. I also had good neighbors on my street with whom I still share great rapport (although I owe one of them a phone call before he shoots me). These neighbors, and my sister, bonded as a group. We still circulate support for each other almost in the form of a rally. Their obstacles, their hardships have made each of us more aware of our impact on others, how to support without judgment, how to live when under public scrutiny, and when I am with them, I feel so much love that I think nothing gets better than this. They have known me specifically through the birth of my son, the end of my first marriage, and witnessed the romance with my current husband. They gladly celebrated our remarriage. Last year, when we were up to my ears in legal troubles, they were incredibly positive and uplifting.

I tell my daughter that I am so rich. I may have lost my former homes or any financial assets I could have had, and sometimes my financial outlook is really scary, but I have never had more love. My own husband, who began as a friend himself, and was part of my family long before we ever married, has his own story, his own deep and abiding love despite the fact that I am over-sensitive, analytical to a fault, afraid of conflict, and exhausted from the responsibility of motherhood (which makes my first three flaws worse). He would rather blame himself than allow me to take the heat, even when I clearly deserve the blame.

I love you all. Don’t give up on me. I think of each of you daily. I hope I can honor you the way you have honored me with your loyalty. You all make living, not just bearable and worthwhile, but beautiful and joyful.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

DMV Bureaucracy

I posted this particular diatribe earlier this year, then retracted it after a day, and rewrote it. Here it is again:

Somehow in last year’s move, I misplaced the title to my car. My husband told me to check the firebox, but I did not see it in there. And, so began an adventure. I read the Department of Motor Vehicle (DMV) websites for the information I needed. I could not get tags for my present state of residence until I had a new title from my previous state. You might be able to understand my frustration with the DMV of my previous state of residence, as it posts the following unclear information below:

Where to Apply

You may apply for a replacement title at either your county tag office or the in-person Customer Service Operations of this department's Motor Vehicle Division. If you apply in-person through the Customer Service Operations on a 'while you wait' basis, there will be an additional $10.00 special handling fee charged per application. At this time, the county tag offices in this state do not issue titles.

If you are now a resident of another state and you have lost your title, you may apply for a replacement title at either this department's Motor Vehicle Division or at the tag offices in the county where you previously resided.

Save money! Apply at your county tag office. Most title applications processed at any of the county tag offices in this state result in the printing and mailing of the titles by this department's Motor Vehicle Division within three (3) business days of the county's entry and approval at no additional charge.

So, let me get this straight. The first paragraph says to apply at the county tag office and then says that office does not issue titles. If you come in person, you will be charged ten dollars and still do not get to walk out with your title. So, where does the title come from? And why are you charged ten dollars to just hand in your application in person to someone who won’t go through the extra trouble of printing your title for you on the spot? So why go there at all?

The second paragraph says that if you live in another state you can apply to the DMV or county tag offices (not that they will process your application). I believe this was largely covered in the first paragraph, and frankly the link to this web page was titled “If you are no longer a resident of this state”, so…

The third paragraph says you can save money by applying at the county tag office (which cannot really help you). The DMV will then print and mail your title. But I believe the first paragraph says if you do it in person, you will be charged ten dollars. So really, that does not save you money, now does it? Interestingly, this paragraph promises the mailing of your title in three days.

The form that I printed off the web shows that in order to have an expedited title, I need to pay a $10 fee in addition to the $8 replacement fee. According to the above quoted site, however, most title applications are approved and sent after three days with no additional charge. Define most. So, I wondered, do I do what the form says, or what the site says in regard to the fee? Is this some kind of trap or game?

Also, because I no longer live in the state of this particular DMV, I cannot apply in person. When I click the links of “department’s Motor Vehicle Division” and “tag offices”, I am directed to a site that shows office addresses and phone numbers. No specific information for my case exists there. There are email links, however. I fear that if I use them, an automatic response will direct me to call. I tried that. Twice. Two waits for ten minutes with automatic disconnection at the end of each wait period. And by the way, clicking the various highlighted links in the online text sent me in circles.

The entire web page (the site really) should be rewritten to say something effective, for crying out loud, like maybe the following:

If you are no longer a resident of the state of X and need to replace a lost or mutilated title, print out the form MV-1, fill it out, and mail it with copies of your current driver’s license (or whatever) to the state’s main DMV branch.

Please include the $8 fee in a check or money order for processing.

If you are able to visit our offices in person, please note that we charge an extra processing fee of $10, but that the new title will still have to be mailed to you.

Click on these links for addresses and phone numbers of the DMV branch you wish to contact:

(Main Department of Motor Vehicles for the State of X

Listing of tag offices by county.)

How hard is that??

So, having followed directions to the best of my ability and having mailed the application, I waited a couple of weeks and called the DMV again. This time, someone answered the phone and transferred me to someone else, who when I told her what the website said in regard to time, process, and fees, laughed at me.

“No,baby. It’s going take about a month to get your title. Maybe longer.”

I asked her if she was able to report to whomever managed the website that none of the information posted is correct. She laughed again. She still would not confirm if I had sent the right amount of money either.

“Can you enter the system and see if my application has been received?” I asked politely.

“No, baby. The only way you know if your application got here is if it has been processed. And then it shows up on the system.”

Well, now, this does not help me at all, I thought, and resigned myself to waiting. Finally, the title did come. The DMV office in my new state processed everything in front of me in fifteen minutes, printed a new title immediately, and I had a new plate in no more than a week’s time. I was not charged extra for showing up in person, nor did the state website provide unclear or untrue information. Beautiful, I thought happily.

Months passed, and my husband was cleaning out his firebox one afternoon. Guess what he found? My old title. Weeks of aggravation and dollars wasted.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Dinner, Diapers, and Desperation

Years ago, my father called me to ask if I would invite a friend of his to dinner. The gentleman and his wife were new to the area, and they happened to live an hour away from me in a university town where my husband had an office. Being delighted to meet another friendly face, I arranged a dinner for the friend, his wife, my husband, our little two-year-old girl, and me at an Indian restaurant on the town square.

On the afternoon of the dinner, with my husband conveniently working near the university that day, I chose dresses for myself and my little girl, made sure she had enough in her sippy cup for the hour drive there, and packed a diaper bag. I saw that there was one diaper left in the bag, and none in the house. It’s okay, I thought, I always keep a stash in her dad’s car. Somehow, wipes were also absent from this bag, but the other essentials were there: her blanket, her toys, snack food.

The drive ended up taking almost two hours due to road construction and there were no grocery stores en route. When I got to my husband’s office, my little girl’s nappy was soaked. I put her in the one remaining diaper I had and went to my husband’s car where I kept extras wedged into the door pockets. Finding none, I ran back in his office.

“Where are the diapers? The extra diapers?”

“We used them all--I guess,” he shrugged. He did not seem overly concerned. In hindsight, I should have gone ahead to meet our new friends and sent him to the store, but time was ticking and we were due at the restaurant in minutes. There was no store on the way to the restaurant, and the town was still unfamiliar to me. I reasoned that we would be okay because our daughter had already had her bowel movement of the day; however, mid-way through the meal, a certain stench wafted its way about the table.

Please let it be gas, I thought, but with the stench lingering, I knew that my daughter had officially soiled herself. I began to fret. I had no diapers, no wipes, and there were no other families with toddlers in the restaurant. I scooped up my daughter from her high chair, snatched a linen napkin from the table, and scurried into the restroom. The only place to change my daughter was the floor. Mothers hate this. How hard is it to install a fold-down changing shelf? Pushing thoughts of bacteria aside, I started to untape the diaper.

Please let the poo be solid enough so I can reuse this, I hoped. Oh, I was so far from any realistic expectation. The diaper was full of a certain despicable substance that penetrated each layer of padding. I started to pace as my baby girl lay on the floor peacefully observing my panic and cooing, “Mommy!”

Fortunately, there were paper towels to clean her pudgy bottom, and I had the linen napkin that would have to suffice until we could get home.

I laid the napkin in a triangle and slid it under my daughter. Please let this work, I prayed. But, a new problem arose: the napkin was too small and I could not tie or pin it closed around both chubby baby legs at once. There was only one solution, my underwear, which happened to be a white and pink hearted thong. I removed my undies, hoped that no one in the restaurant had x-ray vision, and then lifted my toddler’s legs through the leg holes. As I knotted the sides, my baby said, (seriously), “Good and tight, Mommy!”

I stood her up, tucked the napkin around the heart-speckled fabric, told her not to play with her diaper, and hoped that she would not bend over for the rest of the evening. She was wearing a cute little play dress, one that did not come with bloomers.

“What did you do?” whispered my husband when we returned to the table.

“I’m not telling,” I said.

“I bet I can guess,” sang the wife of my father’s friend. My daughter plopped down on the floor to play with toys.

“I’m still not telling,” I said, fidgeting in my seat and feeling suddenly awfully naked.

After dinner, with the night turned cool and breezy, we two couples hugged goodbye, parted ways, and walked toward our cars.

“Really, what did you do?” asked my husband once we were out of earshot.

I lifted the back of my daughter’s dress. A thin line of hearts ran between her cheeks and pinned a flap of linen about her. His laughter echoed on the quiet street.

“And what are you wearing?” he chuckled.

It was a cold walk in my dress that night. Lesson learned--I never again ran out of diapers or wipes.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Toxic Friendships

One day last year, I had a conversation with my daughter about toxic friendships.

“You know that kid at school that makes you crazy? She tries to be your friend and the whole thing is just wrong and bad for you? But you cannot figure out how to get rid of her?”

“Yeah,” said my little girl.

“I have one of those.”

“Oh, that’s bad,” she said, “real bad.”

I told her that there are many problems one encounters as a young person. I said you may grow older and more mature, but the obstacles still occur. This was not good news to her, but I assured her that moments like this are good learning experiences for future relationships. Over coffee and tea we discussed what to do about toxic people and what was happening with her own less-than-desirable relationship. Time resolved both of our problematic relationships. Eventually, my daughter stopped clashing with this other child at school, and the two could offer friendly hellos and move about in similar circles. In fact, they are together in class again this year, seem to be getting along better, and the other child’s mother has requested a playdate.

My own toxic friendship wasn’t just uncomfortable; it was frightening. A woman I had met at a children’s event became my walking partner for a very short time. She fairly quickly had alluded to her recent recovery from some kind of a mental episode. I was compassionate and non-judgmental at first, but as time grew, I became incredibly concerned. She exhibited difficult behaviors and told terrible stories about herself and her relationships. She could not interpret her friends’ actions as what they were—reactions to someone who behaves unpredictably and irrationally. The last time I walked with her, her dog lunged and snapped at a passing jogger. My then-friend repeatedly whipped her dog with the leash--in front of me, in the presence of others, and without an iota of remorse, shame, or sense of awkwardness.

Horrified, I went home as soon as I could. In the next several days, I neither initiated a call nor returned hers. Finally I did leave a message for her—that I was thinking about her, but was unable to commit to walking at this time. My answer was truthful, but I was not completely honest. I thought about telling her why we could not be friends, but no amount of honesty would have changed the situation, improved her future relationships, or made things ok. She was too far past the point of return. In fact, my telling her she scared the hell out of me may have invited more trouble than this family needed.

This past summer, I ran into her while exploring an historic part of town. My former friend had not even recognized me. In fact, wild-eyed and at least twenty pounds lighter than she once was, she was barely recognizable herself. Out of politeness, I stopped to say hello, but her conversation was strange and confused. She was almost as disheveled as some of the street people in the area.

Thankfully, I have never heard from her since, and that door to the potential relationship has officially closed. I cannot help but wish her well and hope that one day her interior light is restored and her reality includes healthy relationships. Sometimes, that well wishing is the best we can offer.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Ask and Ye Shall Receive

At Barnes and Noble last week, a kind clerk asked me if I had a Nook yet. Like the Kindle, Nook is B&N’s answer to the e-book. We talked about the fact that we each had not purchased one, but were beginning to lean toward the idea, particularly because we like to travel with two or three books, or need our reference books on hand at any given moment.

“I have been resisting,” I said. And I thought a minute. “You know what I really need right now, though? A sewing machine.” I don’t know what inspired me to say it to this woman, but beside me were both little children. Their little round mouths have been chattering non-stop about Halloween costumes we must make, creative projects we need a sewing machine to complete, and clothes that need altering. I had even noted on a sheet of paper at home that I would like a sewing machine for Christmas.

“I have one!” announced the clerk, and then after telling me she had taken it out of the box a few years ago, only to never use it, she offered to sell it to me for a good price. We exchanged emails, I thanked her, collected my purchase and my children, and turned to leave.

“Wait,” she said suddenly, “I’ll just give it to you. You can have it.” I was astonished.

So, yesterday, I brought my new sewing machine home. My son was so excited when I lifted the cover to show him the mechanics of needle, thread, and motor. He wants to be a gladiator for Halloween, and knows there are no gladiator costumes on the shelves at Target, but this machine makes his idea possible. In fact, this machine makes a lot of things possible. Years ago, my sister and I planned to buy one together to push the dyed silk I used to make to the next level of creative glory. The tiny one-stitch portable machines I have purchased really don’t work so well, and I want to teach my daughter to sew. I tell her stories about my mother making my clothes, making Christmas ornaments, and altering our outfit’s hems and waists. (My mother is, of course, the best mom in the world, and I want to be just like her, but I do not sew nearly as well.)

I am stunned that a stranger could be so generous. She asked for nothing in return. This little thing I held in my heart was not just for the convenience of professional stitching, but for the ability to produce memories and to teach my daughter something that she can build upon. She wants to design clothes when she grows up.

So, thank you, generous clerk. Thank you! And you’ll be the first to see Tiny Man in his gladiator outfit. Now, if I can just draw up a suitable pattern…

Monday, September 27, 2010

Hazards at the DZ

On occasional Saturdays, I round up the children and head to the drop zone to watch my husband and his cohorts skydive. We spend most of our time outside under a canopy of sky, but when the summer heat is strong enough, the children and I seek the air conditioned comfort of the club at the hanger. The club is a cinderblock shack slapped on the back of a quonset hut that shelters the skydivers who are training or packing their rigs. The club is horribly unsanitary and smells like dirty feet, but skydivers seem content to wait their turns out draped across the tattered, dingy couches, and even sleep on the floor. It reminds me of a frat house.

I complained about the state of the lounge and bathroom to my husband, who explained nicely who looks after the place, that this situation was not likely to improve due to the drop-in-drop-out nature of members, and that there was no fund designated for the prevention of staph infections or any other germ that hints of death, decomposition, or general disease. He recommended the building next door-- a small and apparently sanitary management facility for a few small aircraft and a medvac unit. I will start making sure the little ones and I use that restroom instead of the one at the DZ.

This summer, I camped a night at the DZ with my younger step-daughter (she had jumped that day). We carefully brushed our teeth over the sink in the club bathroom, and I told her that peeing in the woods was a more sanitary option than using that icky toilet. I walked around with her the way I do my little ones, saying, “Dude. Gross. Don’t touch that. No, ew. Don’t touch that either.” I walked over bodies crashed out across the worn, scummy carpet, and guided us back out the hanger, across a field, and into our tent—our lovely, clean tent, despite the balmy humidity, the bugs, and the hole I burnt into the bottom of it (don’t ask).

I don’t care how much of a hot adrenaline jock magnet a drop zone is. There is nothing sexy or healthy about mineral and dirt build-up inside a shower, sink, and toilet, and sludge on the floor. Certain mysterious hairs left behind? Don’t even make me go there. Maybe it’s a mom thing. Maybe not. But don’t even get me started on the kitchen. Note to self: bring hand sanitizer, Lysol, and a hazmat suit.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Dining Out sans Enfants

This weekend, friends asked me for a restaurant recommendation. They had delivered their daughter to me so they could have an evening out as a twosome. As their girl clattered out of the car already in full chat mode with my daughter, I tossed out suggestions for great local dining. Finally, before they pulled away I said, “Have a good time. You won’t have to cut anyone else’s food.” Or, I was thinking as I listened to the girls, try to talk over children’s noise.

I love eating out… without my children. Don’t think I do not adore my children or enjoy meals with them, but frankly, whenever my children are with me, I consider myself on duty. There are constant reminders, prompts, rules, and, as a girlfriend of mine calls it, directing traffic. Mealtime is another training opportunity, and I simply cannot relax during those times.

Several years ago, still fairly newly located in a far away state, I needed a sitter. I had not been able to find one for months and I was getting desperate. I emailed my group of young mothers and friends that shared playdates with my first child and me. The letter read something like this:

Dear Ladies,

Please let me know if you have any recommendations for a good sitter for small children. I am looking for a responsible young woman over the age of sixteen who has a driver’s license and lives reasonably close. Not to offend anyone, but I absolutely will not hire an eighth grader to do the job that I am still learning how to do in my late twenties.

I would like to have an evening out with my husband in which I do not have to cut a child’s food, change explosive diapers mid-meal, or try to stop said child from crying. I would like to not have to tell this child to chew her food, keep her mouth closed while she chews, or withhold her beverage until she has finished eating. I would like to not have to tell anyone to keep elbows off the table, face straight forward, to quit playing, or better yet, to quit interrupting. I would like to not have to remind a child that she must take at least two bites of all things offered on the plate, that food must stay on the plate, and not be thrown. In fact, food must be consumed by her and not slipped quietly to the dog. I would like to sit leisurely at the table in relaxed grown up conversation without having to feed, burp, coddle, pat, juggle, or entertain a tiny, demanding person.

I would like to have a sitter come to my house and make this all possible, and in addition to the above, bathe my child, put her to bed, and tidy the house after herself so that there are no cracker crumbs on the couch or underfoot.

If this is possible, please let me know.

The response I got was one of two: complete sympathy or absolute hysterical laughter. I did find a sitter, but it took going through someone who knew someone else who knew a lifeguard. Many phone calls later, we found her, and things went well until I had to move again.

Oh, to date your spouse. Such a lovely thing. To be reminded of who we were before that incredible persona-altering force of childrearing came into play. I recently went to dinner with my husband, sans enfants of course, and was delighted to enjoy al fresco dining over a fried oyster po-boy customized to our request. We did not have to mind anyone else’s manners but our own, we were not interrupted, and no one had to be sent to time-out. It was lovely. Of course, when I got home, the first thing I did was ask the sitter why my daughter texted me twice to complain about her brother. Then I scurried up the stairs, kissed gentle little sleeping heads, nuzzled those warm bodies, and smiled over the perfectness of my son and daughter.

Peaceful eating, everyone.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Mommyhood and Madness

Today, I overslept by ten minutes. I had hit snooze on the Blackberry—or so I thought. Turns out I dismissed the alarm entirely. Stumbling down the stairs to check on children was my first obstacle of the day. My husband had already risen before them and was supervising their morning routine. I should have stayed upstairs with my coffee and readied myself first.

“Little people!” I called. “Breakfast!”

“I don’t want breakfast. I want to eat breakfast at school,” said the oldest.

“Cereal!” shouted the little guy.

“Mommy, can I have almond milk?” asked the oldest.

“Mommy, I want cereal. This kind!” stated the little one again, waving an empty box at me.

“Mommy, can I have medicine for my throat?”

“Mommy, there is no peanut butter.”

“Mommy, did you pack my lunch?”

“Mommy, can I have almond milk now?”

“Mommy, I don’t want the vitamin with the hippo on it.”


“That’s it!” I cried out, overwhelmed by the barrage of mommy demands, “I am changing my name! What should I change it to?”

“Avatar!” answered my boy.

After sorting through what was available for breakfast (we have cruised through groceries this week), and with my husband snickering at me in the kitchen, we somehow managed to pull it together, and get to the bus stop on time. But at the bus stop, I noticed my daughter was wearing crotch-length shorts. No, I was not the one that bought these for her.

“Baby girl! Those shorts are against dress code!”

“They won’t care!” she said in reference to the school faculty.

“Really? Well, when I have to interrupt my work to get you from school and bring you home to change, I will care very much, and be extremely unhappy about whatever citation you get for breaking rules.”

“Mo-om!” she sighed.

“Let’s go,” I said. Marching us home, we missed the bus, but the point was made clear long before she is old enough to try to sneak out of the house in a belly-bearing shirt. Minutes later, shorts changed for a longer version, we drove to school, negotiated the uncertainty of the drop-off car lane, and then I headed to my son’s preschool. I had been smug oh-too-soon about making the two schools on time despite the set-back of a wardrobe change and the morning mommy dance in the kitchen. As soon as I pulled up, my little son made the announcement I fear the most:

“Mommy, I’m hungry.” (I thought my name was Avatar now.)

“What!? What happened to your breakfast?”

“I did not like the toast. I fed it to the dog. I’m hungry.”

This is not a child that can forego a meal. When hungry, he becomes hyperactive and disruptive. I walked him into his school cafeteria for the public school breakfast, provided instructions to both child and cafeteria worker to skip milk today (it does not help him absorb iron), and hugged and kissed my tiny man.

“I’m tired,” he said. Oh, no. This is a danger sign. This means a virus is heading our way. So as I sit here, supposedly editing 34,000 words for a client many states away, I keep wondering when the phone will ring with the fact that Tiny Man barfed or developed fever. I planned a day stacked with work and have an overwhelming feeling that the list will remain uncrossed today.

So, in the meantime, I’ll plug away. In only a few hours, the non-stop call of “Mommy” will rise again. Oh, wait, just call me Avatar.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Samaritans, Circumstance, and Conscience

This week, I went to a class at church where the topic of personal safety and charity arose. It led to an interesting discussion about the good Samaritan. We asked ourselves, what do we do when approached by the local vagrants?

“Well, I fed someone this week,” I said, “Actually, it was two people.” The room became quiet, so I told the story:

The woman, a grandmother, had a child with her. I pulled up to the bank to run an errand, and hoped she would disappear as she watched me park, but she waited, and stood by the car door. The boy looked hopeful, but his companion had empty eyes. When I exited the car, she asked for a meal, not money. I looked at her, looked at the boy who was the same age as my son, and did not hesitate further. I promised to feed her, but that she would have to meet me at the restaurant on the other corner. We exchanged first names as a kind of seal on the promise. After my brief errand, we ordered food, had a polite chat about raising children, and I made sure she was seated in a comfortable place. She wanted me to stay with her, but I was afraid to do so, and did not order a meal for myself. Instead, I asked the restaurant manager to look after the two and to pack an extra meal on the house and send it with her. We made sure that woman and child ate well. When the boy was not looking, I slipped the grandmother money in addition to the paid meal. I left the restaurant only to return with a toy which the child accepted enthusiastically. I was kind, but careful. I wondered if the woman had just worn out what pride she had left in order to ask for help. I wondered about the boy’s future and where he would sleep that night. Driving away, I fought back tears of guilt because I had earlier been grousing about how much I wanted to buy a home instead of rent the one we had.

I told my husband the story that night and said I was well aware of the falsehoods or misrepresentations presented by beggars here or anywhere, but that my conscience could not have rested had I denied these two people a basic need: a meal. Looking at the child, a well-mannered boy in tattered and dingy clothes, what lesson would I have taught him by turning away? Growing up, I learned that God is embodied in each one of us. I had thought of how my own family has cared for me in moments of extreme duress. I believe we are all one step away from being as desperate as the woman and child on the street. I hope that my efforts to help are somehow mirrored by her or others for greater good. All these things ran through me in that moment two hungry people asked to be fed.

Later that day, my daughter and I spoke of this, and she sweetly asked if we could find them again so she could donate all her change—we keep a large jar in the house. She said she was so sorry to know of a child who needed so desperately. I told her that we would keep our eyes open, as many homeless have an area they frequent, but that I was troubled because, fear for our safety aside, I could only provide temporary relief for them. Tomorrow, grandmother and child will likely be hungry again. While I have much to come home to, much to give, I am unable to provide better circumstances for their rising above poverty.