Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Play: Managing Expectations

As a child, I cried myself to sleep on Christmas night nearly every year.  I would count down the days starting in September, begin decorating in October, wake before sunrise on Christmas day, open mounds of gifts, visit with relatives, eat lovingly prepared meals and then lie in bed and realize that it was all over...and that, again, it hadn't quite measured up to my expectations.

It's not gifts that I fetishize these days, but family time.  I don't cry on Christmas night anymore; I pout on family Sunday's family ice skating trip. 

My husband and the girls got me a pair of ice skates for my birthday.  Though Big E has been in skating lessons for over a year and Little E recently started lessons, I haven't owned a pair of skates since I was in ninth grade.  There was no rink near where I grew up, so every winter I'd wait for the few days between when the lake down the street from my house froze and when a foot of crusty snow covered the smooth ice.  Sometimes that window of clean ice never came, and when it did it was brief. 

So, you can see why I might aggrandize the prospect of an afternoon at the rink with my loving family, wearing their overwhelming thoughtful gift --the one I've wanted since I was 15, sharing with my kids an activity that would have made my winter when I was their age.  Big E and I would hold hands and fly around the rink; Little E would clutch my hand in her little mittened paw as I supported her tentative steps.  My husband and would smile at each other over our happy children.  It would be just perfect.

Or maybe it wouldn't.  Maybe Little E would cling to my husband and glare at me, refusing to hold my hand.  Maybe Big E would decide that she'd rather die than hold my hand and that, actually, she'd rather pretend to play the arcade games in the lobby than skate with me.  Maybe some totally irresponsible little girl leaning on a training bar would wander into my path and I'd fall on my ass trying to avoid her.  Perhaps some older girls would even rush over to see if I was okay, looking pretty certain that I'd probably broken a hip, making me feel approximately as old as Betty White. It would be just typical.

I'll admit that the girl who cried at Christmas emerged for a bit.  But I soothed her by pointing out that not only do I have the skates now, but, even better than a mound of gifts, I have the family that knew to get me those skates for me... and we can work on the rest.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Work: Caging the beast

At this time last week I suddenly felt myself swallowed whole by a rapidly mounting workload, and I didn't respond well.  I would say I acted like a real baby, but actually the regression was more primitive than that.

As folders of ungraded papers piled up on my desk and vast empty space stared plaintively at me from my lesson plan book, I lost hold of my rational brain and acted on my basest instincts.  I maintained calm at work but went feral at home, lashing out at my family for a rising panic in which they had no role.  My behavior was not unlike that of our semi-vicious Boston Terrier, except that she saves her attack for the outside world.  And we have a cage for her.

I have dedicated this year to balance, and the moment that it felt as if my workload might be toppling me, like a frightened animal, I went into attack mode.  With my husband,  I picked fights over minutiae --arguing both sides, if necessary-- and revisited years old grievances.  With the children, I struggled to maintain a thin veneer of reasonable humanity; of course, they were witness to all of the spousal sniping, the slammed doors and drawers and low-throated growling.  All this while I took care to present as perfectly serene at work.

I am so sorry about all of it and I know I need to fix this or we'll all be miserable. I will reconsider how I manage my workload, but, more importantly, when I feel backed into a corner, I will restrain myself.  Or buy a bigger cage. 

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Dream: I will never be 17 again

I will never be 17 again, and every time I remember this I feel sad. 

This week I will turn 35; I am on the verge of lapping my 17-year-old self.  It's hard to accept that I am travelling on a one-way ticket and bewildering that I will never make the return trip.

I am a high school teacher and spend my days steeped in teenagedom.  This might partially account for my attachment to 17, but I know there's more to it than mere proximity.  What I miss about 17 is the giddy terror of considering the endless options fanned out before me and making the decisions that I was sure would lock in the trajectory of my life.  What I miss about 17 is the shimmering novelty of humble endeavours like cooking a meal or driving to the store alone to pick up some milk.  What I miss about 17 is velocity.

All of the time that I spend around teens reminds me that 17 isn't all promise and anticipation.  To be sure, there is the heavy gray fear that you will somehow slip up and erase those options or bungle those choices so irrevocably that you will never recover.  There is the quivering doubt that you will ever figure out how to look, act, feel or be right.  There is the covert yearning to slam on the brakes. 

Still I feel the pull of 17.

If I am lucky enough to see my seventies, to lap myself once again, I know that I will look back and see 35 burnished by time.  The frustration that sometimes wells up out of seas of others' nagging, whining, questioning, needing will be replaced by the satisfaction of indispensability.  The short-breathed rushing and stamina-sapping busyness will look more like high purpose.  What feels stalled in the moment will reveal motion when viewed from a distance. 

In those moments of frustration and cursing the rush, I try to tell myself that someday I will see it all in the rearview mirror, as I now do 17.  I hope that at 35 my girls are lucky enough to be swept in the same swirl of nagging and tugging, rushing and running and that they'll invite me in for a return visit.  Still I know that  I should remind myself more often that it is all fleeting.

Because I'll never get back to 17, and with that realization I feel a stab of mourning.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Eat: Getting off the (salad dressing) bottle

After lamenting Little E's love of all things preservative-laced, it occurred to me that I should probably take a look at what I'm eating.  As it turns out, my food has fewer cartoon character tie-ins and is not as lunch box friendly, but it has its share of ingredients not found outside of a laboratory.

One of the biggest offenders was salad dressing, something we use nearly every night.  In college I had to do a Biology lab that involved adding a tiny drop of, er, something, to various types of salad dressing from the dining hall salad bar.  I have only a vague sense of what it was I was supposed to take from that lab --something about acids and bases?  Yet, I still think of the disturbingly gelatinous results, particularly in the ranch and fat-free varieties, every time I  make a dressing decision.  So, a dressing made from actual ingredients seemed a good place to start.

Making salad dressing is really easy.  Who knew?

First, I looked over vinaigrette recipes and extrapolated a general pattern that I could use for improvising:

1 part acid, like vinegar or lemon juice
3 parts oil,  olive is best
salt and pepper to taste
seasonings, like fresh herbs and finely minced garlic or shallot

Put it all into some covered vessel; an old  Mason jar would be charming here, but I used what I had on hand, an old Market Basket brand disposable tupperware-type container.  Shake well.

Then came a Ranch that wouldn't invoke the chalky ooze that I remember from that long ago Bio lab.  I found a Guy Fieri recipe on and modified it slightly:

1/3 cup sour cream
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons freshly chopped chives
1 tablespoons freshly chopped Italian parsley leaves
1/2 teaspoon dried dill
1 teaspoon salt, divided
1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
1 tablespoon white vinegar
3 cloves of garlic

Run the garlic cloves through a press and then form a paste by mashing them with half of the salt.  Throw all of the ingredients in a tupperware type bowl and mix to combine, then carefully seal the lid and shake it vigorously.  There you have it: salad dressing.

I was on such a roll with the dressings (and wanting to justify the purchase of a very large jar of Tahini for a very unsuccessful try at sesame noodles), that I even made a foray into dips with a homemade hummus.  I used an Emeril Lagasse recipe from food network: 

2 cups canned chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 lemon, juiced
2 tablespoons tahini paste
1 tablespoon garlic
1/4 cup olive oil, plus more, for drizzling
Freshly ground black pepper

In a food processor fitted with a metal blade, combine the chickpeas, lemon juice, tahini paste, and garlic. Process until smooth. With the machine running, add 1/4 cup olive oil, a little at a time. Season with salt and pepper.

The verdict on all three:  Very tasty and open to customization to suit personal tastes.  Please note, however, that actual garlic is much more potent than laboratory garlic and becomes even more so when the dressings/hummus are stored for a few days.  After lunching on the pictured veggies with ranch and hummus, I bent down to hug Little E.  She drew back grimacing and asked, "What's that smell?"  When I explained that it was probably my breath, she looked incredulous.  "No," she said, "that must be the dog."

Keep some Altoids on standby.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Play: Endless Soccer

I just finished discussing George Orwell's 1984 with my students.  I really should have been pondering parallels to the Patriot Act or U.S. involvement in the Middle East; my students did and they're only 17.  Instead, I thought about soccer.

The lives of the citizens of Orwell's Oceania are controlled in part by their nation's Endless War and its revolving enemies; my freetime is controlled by Endless Soccer. Just as Oceania wages an eternal battle with, alternately, Eastasia and Eurasia, soccer seasons, leagues, and obligations loop ceaselessly and undistinguishably through my life. 

It began when Little E was a baby and my husband took on a soccer coaching job, from that sprung our occasional fall afternoons watching him coach, his winter Thursday nights playing indoors, our fall Saturday mornings watching him play outdoors, our spring Sunday mornings watching him play outdoors, our summer Wednesday nights watching him play outdoors, our spring Saturday afternoons watching him coach Big E's soccer team, and our fall Saturday afternoons watching him coach Big E's soccer team.  This is not to mention the week of soccer camp enjoyed by both girls, the seven pairs of soccer shoes that have moved in, the bags of variously sized soccer balls in the trunk of the car, or the chirp of British "football" announcers that has become the official background noise of our living room.

I did not grow up in a soccer family; my parents didn't let me play until third grade --ancient in youth soccer, according to my husband-- and when they did they were unenthusiastic.  My two most defining soccer memories: my coach forcing me to play with my arms clasped behind my back after I was called for a handball while cowering in terror, and my mother not buying shin guards until my younger brother began playing, when we shared a pair between us --his size, not mine.  So, I get it when I tell Little E that it's time to go to another game, and she wails, "Not Soccer!"

I am out of place on the soccer sideline.  The intensity of the parents at Big E's games gives me stomachaches and their smug satisfaction at their children's prowess makes me wish that reading group were a spectator sport.  And I learned the hard way that when the other soccer wives compliment your husband's foot speed, it is not appropriate to point out that while it may appear that way in a short sprint he is so not able to keep up with you over any kind of distance.

Lest I be disappeared by the Suburban Thought Police, I must say it's not all bad.  Endless Soccer has gotten my husband in great shape, given Big E some much-needed toughening up, and allowed me to pretend that I'm seventeen again, cheering on my man.  It has also forced on me some needed perspective: my children are not me and I cannot always mold them in my image...sometimes I have to give my husband a turn.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Work: In praise of kindness

When I was in school, I never thought much about my teachers' kindness. As a parent, I realize that kindness is a teacher's most valuable gift, better than experience, humor or knowledge.

As a kid, I defined my teachers as "nice" or "mean."  While they were mostly nice, the mean ones stuck with me.  There was the elementary school nurse who stood me up in front of my fourth grade class as an example of poor grooming due to my wild, thick hair and the seventh grade art teacher who noted that I might just have worms because I was fidgeting in my seat. 

More damaging was my senior year history teacher who listened politely as I nervously ran through my oral report on Roe vs. Wade.  When I'd finally shuffled past my last index card and asked if there were any questions, she raised her hand, cocked her head and asked if it wasn't uncomfortable to wear a skirt so short and tight.  She couldn't have known that my boyfriend had dumped me over the phone the night before, that I'd been so crushed that I'd crawled my seventeen-year-old self into my mother's bed, or that she had laid out my clothes for me that morning.  My teacher might have guessed that as a shy scholarship student, I didn't need to be singled out.  She must have known that what she'd said was unkind.

When I became a teacher ten years ago, I carried this experience with me and knew I would never be so mean.  I never was, but in those years before I was a parent I never fully grasped the importance of kindness.  In my first year I had to meet with an assigned mentor teacher once a week, a woman with teenaged children of her own. Once, as I tearfully lamented my frustration with a group of difficult students, she told me that she found some solace in reminding herself that they were all someone's children.  At the time I was baffled by her non sequitor, a random statement of biological fact.  Now, as a parent I can appreciate the perspective she offered; they are near-adults, but once were helpless infants, nervous kindergarteners.

My understanding of the importance of kindness has grown as Big E has.  To the bus driver who made sure she had someone to sit with on the way home from kindergarten, the school secretary who stopped her first day sobbing, the skating teacher who patiently gave her try after try to pass out of her group and, when she didn't make it, explained her strengths and prospects so optimistically that we both left happy: Thank you, thank you, thank you.  As a mother, I feel such huge gratitude for such small acts.

Before students reported for school, the faculty at the school where I teach was prescribed top priorites for the year: things like Rigor and Excellence, euphemisms for more impressive test scores. These are important and somewhat quantifiable.  There are procedures and steps and suggestions published by PhDs and generated by blue ribbon panels that outline how to meet these objectives. 

But kindness will be my unofficial priority for the year, and the steps to achieving it are not as clear cut, its results not so easily translated to numbers.  I'll start by allowing the mother in me to crack my professional facade from time to time.  I'll remember that even though my students are near-adults, even at their least lovable, they are each someone's child.  And you never know who among them crawled crying into her mother's bed last night...or who just wanted to.     

Friday, September 10, 2010

Dream: Lines of Demarcation

There is a pack-n-play in my bedroom; it is right next to the pink little girl's dresser with the flower lamp on top of it.  There is a foam poodle and a Goofy washcloth in my bathtub, to say nothing of the bucket of waterlogged toys that sits beside the tub.  In my living room, stands a Hello Kitty gumball machine.  My kitchen is furnished with a smaller non-functional version of itself beside the actual refrigerator and my dining room walls are hung with child-art created with supplies that fill the three sets of plastic drawers housed in that room.  No need to discuss the playroom or the girls' bedroom.

My children rightly occupy a vast majority of my mental real estate, but should their stuff be allowed the same privilege in my actual real estate?

The answer is no, and the obvious solution is to load up a truck and head to Goodwill.  Sadly, I don't have it in me. While I stopped keeping track of our toy collection long ago, my children keep a careful catalogue.  I realized this when I made the mistake of jettisoning Turtle the turtle, a carnival prize stuffed turtle whose size far surpassed his attractiveness.  He looked to me utterly expendable.  Nearly a year later the girls still ask after him resulting in conversations as awkward and evasive as those surrounding Purry the neighborhood cat who disappeared years ago and is believed in our house to have met a pretty girl cat and moved away to start a cat family.

So I am choosing the next most obvious solution and solving my problem Brady Bunch-style by drawing a line.  The playroom and office were previously painted the same fleshy peach and divided by a wide opening edged by a distractingly ugly dark wooden frame.  I am drawing my line by painting the frame white, the office Marine Blue and the playroom Honeydew Melon. 

When my project is through, I'm envisioning a reverse-mullet effect: the party in the front (bright colors, kid art and well-organized toys) and business in the back (neatly maintained computer desk, book shelves, family photos).  The children have been warned that the new office is off-limits to toys and I've been trying to spend as many evenings in there as I can manage, taping, priming, painting and reclaiming a tiny bit of my real estate.

Maybe when I finish I'll get around to thinning the toy herd...Christmas is just a few months away.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Eat:Crackers and cheez

Three years ago, Little E started on solid foods and I embarked on a mission to create myself a kindred eater in my family.  I'd suffered long enough tailoring the menu to suit first my husband's numerous aversions and then Big E's finicky palate.  I was not going to let Little E grow up to be a sauce-on-the-side, make-mine-plain-kind of girl.

I skipped the little tubs of Gerber, which had clearly done nothing for Big E's palate, and instead spent hours steaming, blending and freezing my own recipes.  She ate mashed sweet potatoes spiked with cumin, ginger peach puree, pumpkin with a dash of cinnamon, chicken-mango whip...and she liked them all.  My heart swelled when she moved onto finger foods like bites of mango-brie quesadilla and tiny handfuls of rice vermicelli and Vietnamese spring roll. Big E's fascination with my shoe wardrobe had assured me that I had a shopping partner in the making, and finally I had hope of a culinary partner in crime.

I now fear that hope was unfounded.

Somehow Little E's eating habits have veered off my carefully mapped course.  At 3 1/2 she has decided that her favored cuisine is not Vietnamese or French or Italian or even American; it is Vending Machine.  She eschews the spiced fruits and exotic quesadillas of her baby- and toddlerhood in favor of pouched applesauce and cheez crackers.  And it breaks my heart.

You might suspect that my preschool-aged daughter isn't the primary shopper in our house.  You would be right, and I accept blame for her culinary regression...but not all of the blame.  I would also point fingers at both my job, for occupying time that I might otherwise spend preparing and packing fresh and interesting lunches, and our daycare center, for the draconian measures it takes to remain certifiably devoid of any all potential traces of nut germs.

The convenience and provable nut-freeness of shelf stable cuisine has made it a staple in her lunchbox and, due to exhaustion and inattention, we have allowed it to creep onto our table.  This has to stop, so I am attaching an addendum to the food promise that I have made my family.  In addition to cutting out the fast food, I will endeavour to banish vending machine foods from our table.  Sorry, Little E.

With luck, I will be successful and regain my eating sidekick.  If not, I can take solace knowing that she'd be happily sated should she ever be forced to spend time in a bomb shelter or the waiting room at the Sears Automotive.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Play: Summer 2010, R.I.P.

At the close of summer, I am thinking about a book I bought for Big E's first Easter.  It was called I Am a Bunny, and was about Nicholas, a bunny who has mastered what folks like Oprah Winfrey and Deepak Chopra call "being present."  Nicholas, who lives in a hollow tree, runs down a list of how he spends his time: admiring spring's flowers, summer's frogs, autumn's leaves and winter's falling snowflakes.  (I would quote some of it, but sadly our copy was lost to a late-night vomiting incident about a year ago --Little E, not me.) 

I read that book to an eight-month-old Big E as her first summer drew to a close and I prepared to return to work and put her in daycare for the first time.  At the time, as I huddled with her on the utterly child-incompatible white carpet of our tiny condo, I felt myself on the precipice of a great loss; I'd finally gotten comfortable with being her mother and now I had to complicate the arrangement.  Attempting to fortify myself against the deep mourning I sensed ahead, I tried to draw strength from Nicholas, the contented bunny who sees beauty in all seasons.

Six years later and I am no Nicholas.  I know that there will be apple picking, sledding and puddle-jumping in the coming seasons, but none of it is a match for bobbing in the waves, lounging in the sand and eating ice cream under a star-dappled sky.  The days will shrink, the wind will bite at my skin, and a grey sludge of salty road grime will streak my windshield; it is unavoidable and whatever moments of beauty I find in it will not erase any of the hardships.    

Some strategic play will help pass the lesser seasons; apple picking, sledding and puddle jumping can be fun in their way, after all.  But what's really going to get me through is the sainted memory of the Summer of 2010: mornings parked in beach chairs, watching the girls jump and twirl at the ocean's edge; adventurous vacations; hours on the shady bench at the playground by the river; broken bedtimes and ice cream with sprinkles.  Summer 2010 was bliss bathed in sunshine and the memory of its blue-skied days will be both solace and hope when the crusty gray ice of February imprisons us all. 

In just nine months 2010's descendant will be upon us; Summer 2011 has big shoes to fill.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Work: System Failure

I was thinking that today I'd write about how I felt as I drove away after dropping Big E off for her first day of first grade.  Last year, when I left her on her first day of kindergarten I bent down to kiss her before I dashed off to work and was struck by a brief but distinct glimmer of her infant-self in her face.  She was my baby, but just for an instant.  I wept the whole way to work...and I was planning to reflect on a similarly poignant moment today.

We all know where planning gets you.

When I drove away from Big E's school today, I was overcome not with a wave of nostalgia or pang of separation anxiety, but with a tornado of full-fledged panic.  Due to a mix-up with the school's morning care program, when I drove away, it was with Big E in the back seat.

I apologized profusely to every higher-up that I encountered as I darted between clumps of teenagers, six-year-old in tow.  I gathered up a makeshift collection of art supplies, grabbed an abandoned picture book and brought Big E to my morning classes with me.  She colored quietly while I worked through my first day spiel to my new classes and by the time I was done, my panic was pretty well tamped down.  Save for some mild disapprobation from my boss, we had survived the worst case scenario.

Until, that is, we got her back to school, where she burst into tears upon entering the main office.  After a very kind secretary pried her from around my leg, calmed her and set off with her down the hall to the first grade, I finally made that solo drive to work.

I didn't think about how much she'd grown, like I'd planned to.  I thought about how messy it all was.  It didn't matter that I'd confirmed and reconfirmed my childcare arrangement, that the night before I'd talked her through the day that I thought she'd have as she started first grade, not even that I really looked like a competent professional when I left the house that morning.  It's all subject to change.  

Embarking on this year of balance, I'd planned to somehow subvert this kind of chaos.  If today is any indication, that will not be the case.  All I can do is try not to let the inevitable messes tip the scale.
Another panicked mother was nice enough to take this as we both hyperventilated and tried to figure out how to work around the missing childcare.