Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Dining with Children: The Qdoba Experience

Once a week, I treat my kids to a meal out with just mommy. Their favorite restaurant is Qdoba, one of those fast-fresh Mexican joints. Ideally, we stand in line and tell a server what to pile on our tortilla bowl as we watch over the counter and scoot sideways to the cash register. While the food there is always decent, and I can feed the three of us for about 20 dollars, it's not convenient to eat there with kids. I am sure that the kind managers of Qdoba would argue with me that it is a kid-friendly place, and they certainly mean it to be. But this whole style of ordering, which is found at other places, such as Subway, Moe's, and Chipotle, is not conducive to peaceful and easy meal-engaging for anyone who totes in line a tyke or two. To clarify exactly why, here is what often takes place when my kids and I visit Qdoba:

Me: Allright, kids. While we wait, take a look at the menu and decide what you'd like. And no, you may not have Coke.
Tiny: Chips and wocamowee!
Chicken Little: Ummmmmmmm. Ummmmmmmmm.
Tiny: Chips and wocamowee! Mom? Mom. Mom! Chips and wocamowee, please.
Me (turning to CL): You need to decide. (turning to server when it's our time to order) I'll have the Mexican gumbo with black beans and salsa please.
CL: Ummmmm. Ummmmmm. I'll have the... ummmm.

Tiny Man starts walking back and forth behind the line of people being served, running his hand along the tile of the wall that divides the line from the dining room. He then quickly progresses to running back and forth.

Me: (ignoring daughter who has had ten minutes to make a decision): The little man over here will have the chips and woca...I mean guacamole. (to Tiny) Cut it out. Either stay beside me or go choose a table and wait.
CL: I'll have the regular nachos and a bowl of Mexican gumbo and a side of...
Me: No. We talked about this before we came in. That's too much food for you. Stick with the kid's nachos.
CL: But I am always hungry afterward!
Me: Then just pick one thing and one side.

Tiny has scampered off to find a table and I hear him calling (Mom? Mom. Mom!). Meanwhile, the server is doing her best to be patient. People are piling up behind me. At this point, Tiny may have come back from the table and is asking for a brownie, as there is always a bowl of saran-wrapped ones on the counter. Whoever puts those there should be shot.

Tiny: Mom? Mom! Can I have a brownie? Mom? Mom!
Me: No. Go sit down. (turning to CL) This year, sweetheart.

CL: Ok, then I'll have the regular nachos with a side of...
Me: Oh, no. What did I just say? That's too much food. (server heaves a sigh)
CL: Ooookkkaay. I'll have the kids' nachos with a side of Mexican gumbo.
Me: Tiny? Tiny. Come back here. (watching server pile way too much on the kid nachos as CL asks for every condiment there is.) Wait, no, stop. That's too much food. We have just had this conversation. No. No more. Grown ups shouldn't even eat that much.
CL: (to server) I'll have a coke, please.
ME: No, no she won't. We are all having unsweet tea. Holy God, that's a huge plate of nachos for kids. Chicken Little!

At this point, there is the gathering of food, paying for everything, getting the empty cups that the kids and I will have to fill ourselves, and then trying to figure out how to get it all to the table. If the restaurant isn't slammed, the very nice and patient server earns a wealth of gratitude prayers from me by offering to help. And then there's the pouring of tea and making sure that my daughter doesn't fill her cup with Sprite on the sly. When I arrive at the table, I have to tell the kids to quit arguing over who has more tea in whose cup while I wander back to get forks, spoons, and napkins.

By the time I sit down to eat, I am exhausted, my son's face is happily spattered with guac, my daughter is hunched over her food, and I begin the second set of parental badgerings, the ones that appear whether we eat at home or out.

"Sweetheart, sit up. Thank you. Chew with your mouth closed. Baby doll, look at your mother. Sit up straight. Like this. Honey, bring your food to you, not you to your food. Elbows off the table, Tiny.Wipe your face, Little Man. Elbows. Hey! Elbows! Don't grab your sister's food. No, you may not have his chips-- you have plenty. Oh, no thank you, Bunnykins. Mommy doesn't want to share and get your cold. Focus on your meal. Cut that out. Leave that alone. Chew with your mouth closed. Seriously, sweetheart, at twelve you should know how to chew with your mouth closed, and it's wearing me out to tell you this at least two meals a day every day each year. Holy God. Tiny. Dude. Eat. Cut that out..."

I know you read this and think to yourself that surely there are ways to prep the kids for this experience... or maybe, as I sometimes do, that birth control is a beautiful thing. We do prepare before going to Qdoba, but sometimes, even that fails to prevent mayheim, especially because my son feeds off activity, and if the place is crowded and loud, he becomes incredibly... all over the place.

I honestly prefer to pay extra for a true sit-down meal, but I tend to save those for really special days. So, one Sunday not so long ago, the kids and I had brunch at a delightful place where college girls took our order from us at the table and charmed the kids with Shirley Temples, coloring pages, and toys. I sipped a Mimosa and sent the kids to play with paper airplanes between the restaurant's patio and a neighboring garden. I had a perfect view of them from the open windows of the enclosed patio where I sat. When our meal was delivered, complete with more waitresses fawning over the children, the kids sat up and ate with good manners. We told silly stories and relaxed as plates came and went, drinks were adjusted, and so forth. There was one brief episode where my son complained because he wanted his sister's toy. I nipped this quickly in the bud, distracted him with the crafting of a paper plane, and life went smoothly forward.

The bill? About 48 dollars for three of us. Worth every cent. I strolled away from there as mellow as a mom can be on a Sunday afternoon with two short-stacks in hand. I wish we could do that every week.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Ruby Sparks Inspires: Words, Music, Love

Today, my husband celebrates his 53rd birthday. In addition to a handsome box of his favorite cigars, I gave him a gift of words to music, inspired by a film I saw recently.

Ruby Sparks is 21st Century Pygmalion; a young writer's obsession with a character he sculpts from his soul, the conception of his true love. Ruby is Allan's Venus, blooming not from a seashell in the ocean, but from the pages of his DeLuxe typewriter.  Early in the film, Allan describes her to the psychologist who is trying to help him break through writer's block. He notes the roots of Ruby's origins and wanders through a string of observations about her character--her charms, her idiosyncracies, the honor of her affection. This piece of gentle monologue is captured and set to music on the soundtrack in a song that bears the same title as the film. I have not been able to let go of it just yet, and wondered, in the way that I like to set my own life to music, what words would I use to describe my love, were I the Pygmalion whose conceived love leaps from imagination to life. And so, having shared that piece of words and music with my husband, told him how I would describe him, and as I did, violin from Ruby Sparks continued to rise and fall in the background. This is what I said:

You're tall, and walk with the tall-man gait-- a confident stride of men who seem to accomplish much, yet not all tall men have done what you have. You can't open your mail. Nor can you tolerate the calamity of child's play, stuff which rolls off my own back. But you feel things, notice things. You note the changing of light in a room.

I don't remember what else I said before he reached his hand across the table to mine, only what I felt as I tried to rein in the rest of the words.

Happy Birthday, Husband. Know that I see you. I love you.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

My 'Tween in Heels: Chicken Little's Debut

Chicken Little has grown quite a bit over the summer; her feet are now the same size as mine, and she has been experimenting with fashion and paying more attention to hygiene. Sunday, I picked up my twelve-year-old daughter from a slumber party before church."Look!" she exclaimed as she came down the stairs, "I did my own hair with a curling iron all by myself, and I didn't even burn down the house!" Yes, while she was darling with a curled tendril draping one side of her face, the rest of her hair brushed neatly back into a low bun, she was also wearing sparkly blue eye shadow, a clingy shirt revealing the fullness of growing breasts, and a short, sequined skirt. I mulled all this over as I thanked the host mom and drove back to our home for a brief stop before heading to service.

"Baby girl, let me just give your make-up a little touch-up." I used my fingers and a little powder to blend and reduce her swipes of sky blue to a subtle glow. She then ran upstairs to change from her sandals, and returned sporting high-heeled cowboy boots. She posed for a moment, waiting for my approval, and all of a sudden I saw her as others might see her-- a bit Lolita-like as she tenderly, but awkwardly strove to reach beyond her early-girlhood. You know that moment of parental crisis-- the one when only you hear the thunderclap? You are called to duty. Should you choose your words recklessly, you potentially damage her trust in your opinion and her confidence in herself. I searched for words that would redirect. "Sweetheart, that is a great outfit for a party. Why don't we substitute something to make it a little more appropriate for church?" Minutes later, we painlessly emerged from the home, a long flowing skirt and belted sweater complementing her blossoming form.

After the church service, I noted my daughter slump-shouldered and stomping beside me. "Baby girl," I coached once more, "If you are going to wear heels, you need to learn to walk in them." I pulled her shoulders back and encouraged walking heel to toe. Now, I didn't buy those shoes for her, nor would they have been my choice. They came from her step-mother, and while I appreciate the generous gesture, I resent the privileges of maturity being presented to her so casually by someone I will always consider a stranger. Giving a girl her first pair of heels is a kind of honor reserved for the woman who makes most of the decisions about that child's transitions. My own mother sweetly started me off in eighth grade with kitten heels. The shoes were a perfect height for girls attempting to look like young ladies. I remember being thrilled by learning how to walk in those miniature heels, and would practice in the hall of my home. I remember how I thanked my mom for letting me have those shoes. In them, I felt elegant.

Those momentary adult-like privileges, once given, can be so quickly taken away, reminders of a child's place aptly flagged at moments of necessity. Minutes later, when my daughter began to use those cowboy boots to kick her brother, I turned to her: "You can't dress like a young lady if you plan on acting like a child!"
"Yes, ma'am," she frowned.

Yes, still twelve. The only thing easing this transition is the knowledge that she'll grow out of those boots in a few months... and then I can wear them!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Body Building and Banana Hangers

If I start with one Buster story, another must follow.

Buster has been deliberating participating in body building competitions, and on occasion attends them to learn more.

"So what's stopping you?" I asked the other day.
"Those things they wear," he said gesturing toward his lower half. This is a guy who won't even kiss on a first date. I can't even imagine him trying to strut his stuff in a banana hanger. I laughed about a Nutcracker ballet I attended some years ago. Seated in the first row, I had a full close-up of a male dancer in his white, somewhat transparent tights. Ummm, awkward.

Buster talked about the competitions and participants a little more before finally saying, "Hey, if I do one, I'll give your family tickets so you can go." Seriously, I would never be able to look him in the eye without laughing. There are just some things about a person you don't want to know.

"No thanks," I replied. "I'll just send you a good luck card."

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Can't You Just Find a Nice Girl at Church?

I work with a guy who comes to my desk once or twice a week to update me with amusing tales of his love life. Let's just call him Buster after a puppy I used to have that was absolutely endearing but refused to ever learn from the same mistakes. Buster is a good egg: a health enthusiast, an optimist, a bit of an unintentional comic, and he is oriented toward his family. He is well-liked by everyone who knows him.  But he seems to have a knack for bumbling into relationships with overbearing, controlling, fetish-engaging, soul-sucking women-- the kind of women who give my entire gender a bad name. Our conversations almost always end with my saying, "Can't you just find a nice girl at church?"

Buster once told me about a woman I now refer to as Five-by-Five because she was about as wide as she was tall (bless her heart). On their first date, having met online, she asked to meet at a Walmart and grabbed him by the hand there, pulling him to the soap aisle. Yes, I already hear you asking why Walmart on a first date. And wouldn't that alone be a red flag?

"What scent you want?" Five-by-Five asked, and then she blatantly stated that they would be getting a hotel room together immediately post-purchase. In a panic, he created an excuse to leave, and began to hide in other aisles, ducking her calls to his cell phone. Five-by-Five wasn't giving up. Finally, he recruited a store employee to see if there was a certain girl sitting on a certain car outside the doors.

"Daannngggg," said the Walmart clerk, "She is sitting right on that car, and SHE IS A BIG GIRL!" Buster panicked and enlisted him to pose as an uncle stating there was an emergency at home and that Buster needed to go right now. Outside, arms crossed and scowling, Five-by-Five didn't entirely buy his story, but she let him get in his own car and leave.

At first, Buster thought he was in the clear, but he noticed her following, then chasing him in her car, until he lost her in a neighborhood nearby. Meanwhile, his phone never stopped ringing and she left a host of threatening messages on his voicemail.

Now mind you, surely he could have just told the girl that her motive wasn't a shared one, and walked away at the first sign of psychosis. Most grown-ups don't run and hide in Walmart and recruit strangers to pose as family. But then most well-adjusted grown ups don't drag a stranger down the soap aisle in the first fifteen minutes of a first date and ask what scent one finds most pleasant for a sudden sexual encounter.

When I stopped laughing (more like seizing) about this story, he told me about a previous relationship with a dominating woman who, when that relationship was over, was angry with him for not continuing to financially support her, not that he ever should have done so in the first place. I tried to grasp the reality of that, and finally said, "Buster? Why can't you just find a nice girl in church?"

Buster, at 35 years old, is still a little hung up on appearance, and he pays a price in considering super-cute and young as initial criteria. I can't blame him for not feeling a chemical connection or for feeling turned off, but when I gave him the opportunity to go out with a wonderful, mature, professional woman his age, he balked. "You might be missing something great," I said. Oh, well. It's not my problem. And as I listen to his stories, I find myself telling him that he is a grown up and will figure out how to deal with things, but I still have to often shake my head, laugh, and remind him: Why can't you...

Friday, September 7, 2012

Help Around the House

"I need a stay-at-home wife," I recently wrote my cousin.

I have worked outside the home for sometime now, but still find it a struggle to manage the professional routine without a stay-at-home mom. There's something about a mom at the house-- one that puts a cool hand on your forehead when you are ill, one that bakes cookies, that volunteers at school, and that mends the torn and worn clothes and stuffed animals. One that knows all the intimate details of a child since his or her birth. One that organizes everything. How does all this get done when Mom goes back to work?

There is a constant chorelist. So this week, I sat my daughter down before bed and thanked her for all she does to help maintain our home and pets.  I told her I would increase her allowance on the condition that each day she complete a list of chores I give her after school-- many chores that normally I would do. The other night, she made the salad for dinner complete with chopping up vegetables, slicing eggs, shredding cheese, and adding spices. She set the table, folded laundered blankets, fed the rabbit, and walked the dog. She wrote her school supply list, sorted her current supplies, labeled her materials, and completed her homework to boot. And she did all of this cheerfully. Another night, she took care of the pets again, folded and dried more laundry, unloaded the dishwasher, set the table, and looked after her brother for a few minutes. She even prepared the fish for dinner one evening. Because she has undertaken all these things, we have been able to eat dinner early and still have enough time to run back-to-school errands before bedtime. While there are many things she cannot do yet (cook on the stove unsupervised, pay my bills, or raise Cain with a merchant over a badly written return policy), every bit of help she can give on the most minor of tasks relieves some of the burden of being a working parent.

My husband needs a man-at-home, too, I am sure he would say. Someone to open his mail, sort it according to priority, write out the bills, deal with insurance, wrestle with the IRS, mow the yard, mend whatever is broken, fertilize the lawn, change his tires, do his shopping, and iron his shirts. Too bad Tiny isn't 12 yet, not that I would ever trust him with an iron. He does little-man chores like feed the dog and make his bed. He can help put away groceries. Mostly, he is good at giving hugs and kisses, and both my husband and I can say that comforts any parent who works in or out of the home.

This evening, as I kissed my daughter good night and sat down to write, I thought, "You know, everything is going all right." Thanks to her, it really is.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Educating Tiny

With school starting again, I have been a little anxious about how my youngest will fare out back in a traditional group setting. Tiny Man is best one-on-one and gets bored easily. He is, as I have told his teacher, THAT child in the classroom-- the one that stands out, the one that doesn't conform, and often cluelessly so. I understand the exasperation of his teachers, as I am drawn to that point myself some days; it is hard to be THE mother of THAT child. At least now, with some of his acts of defiance in the past, I can find those things amusing.

Late last year, I was called by the assistant principal because my five-year-old son had, according to her report, kicked and punched three kids while waiting in the lunch line. It wasn't the first call I had, and wouldn't be even close to the last. When I picked him up from school, I told him that sometimes I was embarrassed to be his mother.

"Why?" Tiny whined.
"You beat up three kids at school today!" I snapped. My son's brow furrowed in a moment of confusion and he quickly corrected me, "It was TWO!"

You see my point. Months before, I had gotten a tired and irritable email from his teacher who wrote to document all the craziness he had performed that day, and then added that right at the moment she was writing, he was flicking balls of foil around the room and refusing to follow the Spanish teacher's directions. He had worn everyone completely out.

"This is precisely why I don't teach anymore," I responded. "Good luck with that."

Honestly, we worked very hard with his teacher to help shape my son's mischief into bouts of productivity and compliance. For every good effort he made at school, we rewarded it at home. For his more disruptive episodes, we withdrew privileges. And yes, headway was made. This year, we have taken a more proactive approach knowing what we know about our son and what he tends to do, such as why, for example, he might have lost bus riding privileges last year.

"Son," I said on the first morning of school. "Keep it in your pants on the bus. Understand?"
Tiny heaved a sigh of massive resignation. "Okaaaayyyyy."

Monday, September 3, 2012

She's Back, Maybe

I'm back. At least I think I'm back. With the kids going back to school and a new routine having yet to be put to the full test, I have a hard time saying how often I will be here, or what kind of posts there will be. But this first one after the long silence is a tribute to my friend Shane, who complained months ago that I wasn't writing enough fun material.

In preparations for a return to school and work, I cleaned out my desk in the home office and found a few little notes to myself-- dashes of thought about things my son had said to me in November of 2011. He was about four then.

"Mom, I hate diarrhea. It's hard. It's frustrating. It's complicated. It's diarrhea."