Thursday, June 30, 2011

Play: Home alone

When I was a child, I prided myself on my long blond hair, which garnered me many compliments from smiling grown-ups and which my mother would threaten to cut off every morning as I screamed and cried with every little tug and snarl.

My mother promised me then that someday I would have a little girl who screamed and cried and threw a fit no matter how gentle I was as I brushed her hair and then I would understand. And, yes, here I am with not one but two little girls who scream and cry and kick and yell every morning when I brush their hair. 

The other day after my husband and I smirked at the long list of instructions that we would have to carry out to dogsit my parents' coddled Boston Terrier, my mother promised me that someday we, too, would have no children around and would devote ourselves similarly to a dog.  I rolled my eyes, but I know that she's probably right. Since becoming a mother, I haven't done well in my children's absence.

Officially, I want my children to be independent and brave and capable of thriving even when they are away from me.  I also like to think that my marriage is built around more than just our shared children, and that I can enjoy my husband's company even away from the children's presence.  I just haven't done a great job of acting on these convictions.

It's not that I haven't spent time away from my kids, it's that I haven't spent it wisely.  When Big E was a baby my husband and I longed so badly for a few childfree days that we actually booked a trip to Vegas for when she was 18 months old.  The anticipation of the trip was glorious. Imagining leisurely meals out and late nights that involved activities more glamorous than trying to quiet our sleep-averse daugher got us through months of temper tantrums and diaper changes.  By the time we had to leave her with my parents and board our plane, however, our little escape seemed less glamorous and more neglectful.  I spent our few days away so racked with guilt and longing for my daughter that I actually started lactating after a six-month hiatus. Perhaps the least glamorous I've ever felt.

This past weekend I proved that even six years after that miserably failed attempt, I'm still no good at appreciating my kid-free time. My in-laws were in town and on their second night here they offered to take the kids so that we could go out to dinner. I was more than happy to take them up on it but was itching to call and check in with them before we even made it through our entrees.  My husband helped me resist the urge to call, but when we ended letting them spend the night with my in-laws in their hotel room he couldn't keep me from wasting the rest of the night worrying that Big E would miss me and crying because Little E wouldn't miss me enough. It's possible that I should have skipped that second Stella at dinner.

The next morning my husband left early for a class he's taking and I had the house to myself.  I could have read a book, done some writing, started backing up all the photos on my computer like I've been meaning to; instead, I made elaborate lunches for the girls to bring to the beach that day and then I sat down, folded my hands in my lap and waited for them to get home.  Also, I berated myself for my complete inability to be a fully-functioning individual without my children by my side.

In a couple of weeks we'll be sending both girls off for a few of nights of camping in my parents' backyard. Those nights of freedom have been getting me through the screaming and tears that comes with brushing out two heads of beach-snarled hair. This time I swear I won't waste my child-free time.  I already have plans to clean and rearrange the girls room. . . which is probably not necessarily a step in the right direction.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Work: Final Assessment

A co-worker has a cutesy wooden plaque in her classroom that is decorated with the red apples and proclaims the three best things about teaching to be June, July, and August. I hate its sorority-style dot letters and the sentiment feels crass, but I cannot deny that it's mostly true. Of all the great rewards of teaching, one of the greatest is that every year has a distinct end and plenty of time to reflect and prepare for the next beginning.

Usually at year's end I have a long list of things I feel I must accomplish before the next school year begins.  The list is usually daunting enough to paralytic and I rarely accomplish more than a few of the things that seem so important when school is still in.  This year feels different, probably because I spent 40 percent less time at work.

It is really hard to find fault with the part-time schedule that allows me to find myself enjoying this at 1:00 on a Wednesday during the school year:

And, yet, naturally I can find some fault with it.  For one thing, this is where I've been relegated as a trade-off for my choice to spend my afternoons on the beach: 

My desk is located not in a classroom decorated with the witty plaque of my choice but in a glorified supply closet surrounded by castoff overhead projectors and the toilet plungers that stood in as javelins at the freshman class Greek Day a few years ago. Every year in June, strange bugs breed in the fluorescent light fixtures in my little closet and then fall from the ceiling to the floor where they inevitably get turned on their backs and spin pathetically as they noisily beat their wings in vain attempts to right themselves.

There's probably a metaphor there, but I don't like to think about it.  I do know that much as I loved this year and hope that next year measures up, I did find myself frustrated at times.  Recently, I had a huge fight with my husband about fudgesicles, more specifically his lack of wonder and appreciation at the homemade fudgesicles I had dreamt up and prepared for the girls.  You see, when he walked in at the end of his workday to see me in the middle of a giant kitchen project he looked to me more wary than impressed or fascinated.  I took this to mean that he was either annoyed by my mess, bothered by my spending money that I wasn't earning on high end fudgesicle ingredients, disdainful of the level of idleness that would even prompt someone to undertake such an inconsequential project, or some combination of all of those. I now realize with some embarassment that I may have read a little too deeply into this.

After I had stewed in my anger at his response for a night and then railed at my baffled husband about it for several hours the next day, it occurred to me that my ghost-like status at work just might make me a little attention-hungry and praise-needy.  I also realized that not earning a full-time salary has caused me to feel unsteady in the balance of power in our household and in my relationship with my husband.

I'm working part-time again next year, and I'm still happy about that,but I recognize that in shedding the burdens and stresses of full-time work I also lose some of the sense of worth and purpose that I didn't even realize I was getting from it at the time. Right now I'm just focusing on June, July and August, but finding a way to avoid strife over frozen treats --even if they are homemade-- is definitely on the list for next year.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Dream: The men who got us here

When we were young and first dating people sometimes mistook my husband and me for brother and sister. Once, some rarely seen relatives on my father's side even assumed my brother was my date because the family's New York Irish blood is so much more apparent in my freckled, Long Island-native husband than in my blond-haired, Massachusetts-born brother.

I suppose there is a passing physical resemblance, but if you looked at our childhood photos you'd never mistake us for siblings.  Where photographic evidence suggests my childhood was clothing-optional and love bead-mandatory, my husband was more often pictured wearing John-John Kennedyesque short suits.

I grew up in rural Massachusetts calling my parents by their first names.  My husband grew up in suburban Long Island calling his parents Mom and Dad and in the nearly 18 years since we first started dating, I could probably count on one hand the times I've heard my husband speak his parents' first names (and never to their faces).

A lot of these differences have to do with the men who raised us.  Where my father-in-law was in ROTC and served in Vietnam, my father, a National Merit Scholarship Finalist, skipped college and hitchhiked around the country.  My father-in-law smoked cigars; my father smoked, um, other things. My husband recently mentioned that when he was younger his father listened to the soundtrack of Les Miserable in his car.  My father took me to the first and second Lollapaloozas but left me home for the third because he and my brother agreed I'd be no good in the pit. When I was in high school my father embarrassed me with his penchant for black muscle shirts.  My husband suffered his father's inability to wear anything more casual than wrinkle-free khakis, shined loafers and madras shirts.  My father-in-law prides himself on his resemblance to John McCain (it's mostly in coloring and facial expression) and my father never fails to let me know when a stranger tells him how much he looks like Ron Perlman of Hellboy (google him and you'll have a close approximation of my father).

These differences have caused various tensions.  There was the time that my now husband and I treated both of our families to dinner the night before our college graduation. His parents sent back their entrees as they are wont to do and I could feel my mother, who waitressed for years when my brother and I were young, quietly fuming across the table. And while I love my father enough to make noises that simulate attentive listening when he lectures me over the phone about Obama's capitulation to Wall Street and weakness in the face of the Republicans, I did once --very politely, mind you-- hang up on my father-in-law's harangue about socialist healthcare and the end of democracy.  Also, I'm not overly proud of the way I occasionally tell my husband that he's being just like his father when what I really mean is incredibly unpleasant.

Still, on the occasion of Father's Day, it occurred to me that there is some overlap in the men who got us here.  For instance, they both made time for us despite taxing schedules.  My husband remembers his father driving through hours of traffic from his office in New Jersey to make it back to Long Island to watch him play soccer. When I was in high school, my father worked full-time heat treating metal blades by night and went to school full-time to finally earn his BA by day.  Not only did he drive me to school in the morning, but when I got my Learner's Permit he calmly took the passenger's seat as I ground through his gears the entire hourlong trip --and he was pretty good-natured on the day I finally burnt through the clutch and we sat stranded on the side of the road.

Both fathers wanted what they thought was best for us --even though it wasn't quite what we ended up with.  My father-in-law would have been very happy had his son ended up with a nice Catholic girl and a career in sales, whereas my father thought I should be whatever I wanted as long as I married a man with calloused, hardworking hands. Most importantly, though, they both stayed mostly out of the way when we wanted didn't match what they'd hoped.  My father-in-law was good-natured --outwardly, at least-- as he sat beneath the very unholy tent where we were married by the unmistakably secular Justice of the Peace.  My father, meanwhile, smiled proudly as he walked me down the aisle despite knowing full well that at the end waited a smooth-handed man who wore a tie each day to work.

In the end I think that it's these similar landmarks on our very separate paths that have led my husband and I to be fairly well synced in our approaches to parenting, despite the fact our own parents could scarcely be more different.  And as the girls and I feted my husband yesterday on Father's Day, I thought a lot about how he is giving of his time, committed to giving our kids the best and accepting of who they are. 

Mostly, though, I felt lucky that he was wearing neither madras nor a muscle-tee.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Eat: Crispy fish sandwich

I didn't eat a lot of fish growing up, but when my husband and I moved to a fishing city it seemed the thing to do, and I learned to love it.  I did not, however, learn to cook it. Fish has long been the last cooking frontier or me, the challenge I thought best left in the hands of the professionals.  Recently, though, I got bold.

This crispy, satisfying sandwich is easier and more foolproof than I would have anticipated and it fits the category of fast food made slow, though it's not that slow and I would never actually eat a fast food fish sandwich.  Also, my kids eat it, which is beyond shocking and ridiculously satisfying to me.

Crispy Fish Sandwich

For the fish:
2 flounder fillets
salt and pepper
1 cup of flour
1/2 cup of corn meal
1 tablespoon Old Bay Seasoning (optional)
3 eggs
1/4 cups milk
2 cups panko
2 tablespoons of oil (olive, vegetable or canola work)

For the sandwiches:
4 sesame seed rolls
2 tablespoons of butter
lettuce (for sandwiches)
tomato slices
tartar sauce

Prepare the rolls first by heating butter in a non-stick pan, slicing rolls and then browning them in the butter.

Meanwhile, combine the flour, corn meal and seasoning in a shallow and in another shallow bowl whip together the eggs and milk.  Pour the panko onto a plate.

Cut the fillets in two, horizontally and season them with salt and pepper.  Dredge each piece in the flour mixture, dip in the egg and then coat with panko and set aside. 

Heat the oil in a heavy skillet over medium high heat and cook the fish three to four minutes per side.  You'll probably have two thicker slices and two thinner pieces; to make things easier, cook the fish in batches, first the thin pieces and then the thick. 

Allow the fish to drain on paper towels for a few minutes before assembling the sandwiches.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Play: On princesses, pink and where I've gone wrong

A couple of Saturdays ago I brought Big E to a book signing.  The whole idea made me feel very literary and cultured and like an overall good mother. Until it didn't.

The PTA at Big E's school sponsored the reading by Victoria Kann, author of Pinkalicious (and the ensuing crop of -licious books: Purplicious, Goldilicious, and Silverlicious).  Big E, a devoted lover of all things pink, had liked the original enough to choose it as her birthday book donation to her kindergarten classroom the previous year. I thought that the story was kind of cute and the illustrations sort of charming, but mostly I liked it because Big E's insistence on pink everything had conditioned me to respond in Pavlovian fashion to the color (witness our pink dvd player and pink vacuum cleaner).

I honestly hadn't thought much about the pinkification of my daughter's and seemingly the nation's girlhood, until the morning of the book signing as I dried my hair with the hot pink blow dryer the girls had picked out for me.  That was when I got to chapter 3 in Peggy Orenstein's Cinderella Ate My Daughter.  I had been enjoying the book from a pleasant distance up to that point, as the earlier chapters focused primarily on the whole princess phenomenon that we have have blessedly been able to escape with little more than passing interest from Big E. On our recent trip, when a well-meaning Disney employee greeted  Little E with "Hello there, Princess," she glanced over her shoulder to see what all the fuss was about. I felt good about that.

I arrived at Kann's reading ruminating on Orenstein's assertion that "[pink] is such a tiny slice of the rainbow, and, though it may celebrate girlhood in one way, it also repeatedly and firmly fuses girls' identity to appearance."  So you can understand why I felt a little less literary, cultured and good motherish as I looked around at the roomful of little girls in pink tutus and fairy wings.  Big E, in t-shirt, denim skirt with subtle pink embellishment and pink Chuck Taylors, looked decidedly sedate; still, there were also Orenstein's points about the cunning use of pink as a marketing tool which made me cringe as I handed Big E a twenty so she could by a hardcover book to have signed after the reading.

I didn't find out either of my children's genders during my pregnancies. This meant that due to my obsessive preparations for my first born, Big E was dressed in and surrounded by a lot of yellow and green.  This might explain why I was so eager to embrace pink before she was even old enough to register a preference. I employed the wisdom I'd gained with Big E when Little E was born and bought very little before her arrival and brought both pink and blue going home outfits to the hospital, hoping to avoid the gender-neutral thing altogether. Ironically, her favorite color is red, though she does on occasion claim that she is getting older and will shortly start liking pink.

Back when Big E was a squalling, never sleeping, ambiguously dressed little bundle and I was a milky, sleep-deprived blob of hormonal mess, there was really no time to think about the long term repercussions of the color of her booties. It was all about survival. I had spent the months before her birth reading endless natural birth stories, eating copious amounts of chocolate pudding and shopping for things I thought babies needed (and which I would later learn they actually do not), like cotton balls, talcum powder and special babyproof q-tips.  There never was a convenient time, it seems, to develop a mission statement for motherhood.

I've had to develop my philosophy on the fly, and when I consider the thought that people like Orenstein have put into the whole thing I realize I've been derelict in my duties. Basically, I've assumed that if I can emphasize the importance of being kind and open-minded, helping those in need, trying your hardest, reading lots of books and getting plenty of exercise, the kids should turn out okay.  When I think about all of the messages they get besides mine, though, I realize that I really need to be a little more selective while I still can be.

Even though she's moved onto chapter books, Big E loved the reading.  She followed along in the copy of Silverlicious that I'd bought and I felt slightly victorious in knowing that I was one of the few mothers who had only purchased one of the four books in the series. Later that day, when she had a friend over after soccer I caught her showing off the new book, caressing the elaborately signed title page and calling it her "prized possession."

Her prized possession, at least for that day, was a book.  I may not have ended up feeling like a particularly great or enlightened mother, but I did manage literary.  That was something, at least.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Work: Breaking up is hard to do

Though I normally tune out when someone starts recounting a dream, I need to share one that I had a few nights ago.

I was at Little E's daycare waiting for some sort of student show to begin and I was angry.  The show, it seemed, was delayed and I was sitting cross-legged and sullen in a child-sized chair.  Head cocked, I glared at the center director and snapped my gum impatiently as she smiled politely and offered a continous stream of awkward apologies and acknowledgements of my patience, all while the rest of the parents squirmed in their little seats at the tension.  The dream ended when I stood up and announced that I would be heading out to the lobby to make a phone call --to our new daycare.

I didn't need an analyst to tell me that I was feeling anger toward the daycare; I'd spent enough of my waking hours stewing over the misunderstanding with Little E's registration for next year to be well aware of that.  I did think it was a neat trick of my subconscious, though, to bring together all of my personae in one room.

There was my crazy mom side, the one I keep in check almost always, the one who comes out primarily when I recount for my husband what I should have said in any number of situations.  In the gum cracking and cocked-head glaring was my inner bitchy 15-year-old, a version of me that I find myself in much closer touch with than many women my age simply because of my everyday proximity to a fair number of sullen teenagers. The director, though the object of my crazy self's rage, was also me in a sense, the teacher trying frantically to figure out what to say to mollify the seemingly irrationally angry parent. My polite and reasonable everyday self that works so hard to squelch the crazy mom side was present, too, in the form of the other parents in the room.

In thinking through my concerns about Little E's daycare, I've been feeling all awhirl as my various selves weigh in on how best to manage.  While crazy mom gets all feral at the first inkling that someone might be treating her baby unfairly, her more rational, albeit somewhat cynical counterpoint, the realistic teacher points out that Little E is not the only child in the daycare and not every parent request can honored nor can every child's needs be expressly catered to.  Still, the sulking teenager thinks the whole thing is so not fair, and is thoroughly pissed off at the director's power trip after we've been sending our kids there for six years now.  And while my reasonable everyday self grits her teeth at the shoddy treatment in the face of six years worth of tuition, she plasters on a tense smile because she knows that for now she still has to leave her kid with these people every day for the next couple of weeks.

Being a mother has been both a help and a hindrance at work; though I'm much more sympathetic and understanding than I was before I had kids, my commitment to the job is limited by my devotion to my family.  Similarly, being a teacher has both helped me in interacting with my daughters' teachers by giving me some insight as to their viewpoint, and it has also hurt at times when I've hesitated --sometimes at my kids' expense-- to be the difficult parent that I myself dread dealing with at work. 

In this case, reasonable me won out for the most part, though my teenage self was in evidence insofar as I chose to phone in my daycare breakup just as I did my high school breakup, though with much less name-calling and without a pre-written script and an audience of girlfriends urging me on.  I was pleasant but firm in explaining my decision to remove Little E from the program, and I only let crazy mom out when I reenacted for my husband what I would have said had Little E not been sitting right next to me when I called.

In all, I felt good about the way I handled it. Which is not to say that I can promise there won't any glaring or gum snapping when I go in to pick up Little E on her last day.
It's probably childish that I want to share this picture of Little E enjoying the superior playground at the new daycare with the director of her current daycare.  But would it really be a break up without a little pettiness?

Monday, June 6, 2011

Dream: Everything will be okay. I promise. . .

Last Wednesday evening I called my parents as I do most nights, but I wasn't able to reach them.  I didn't think much of it until I caught the tail end of a news report about possible tornadoes in their area.  I started to worry.  I called again.  I called their cell phones.  I lost my temper with the children.  I called some more. I turned off the television.

Just before I slipped into hardcore panic, I remembered something: this was my parents, they have been making everything okay for me for 35 years and so they would be just fine. 

When I was pregnant with Big E, my obstetrician sent me for a thyroid ultrasound.  As I lay on a table looking not at happy, gray-black pictures of my growing baby but at ominous heat-sensitive images of large nodules in my neck, the technician pondered aloud, "I wonder how they treat cancer when you're pregnant?" 

Over and over, my husband tried to comfort me, to tell me that the ultrasound tech was wrong and that everything would be alright. Then and now, I loved him in a way my words cannot do justice and I cherished his support and efforts to cheer and console me; yet, I knew that he was human and so I argued that he, like me, had no way of knowing how things would turn out. He had never banished the monsters from my closet, so I wasn't able to stop shopping for my casket until my parents came and took us out for pancakes and told me that they just knew everything would be fine. As always, they were right.

The tornado, it turns out, bypassed my parents' town but devastated the entire area around them.  They called later that night after driving through the wreckage until they could find cellular service.  They came up the next day to babysit and enjoy our electricity and running water, as the storm had spared their property but left them in the dark ages.  While here, they pored over news reports and exclaimed over YouTube videos of buildings demolished along the route my father had driven home under black skies and pounding hail just minutes before the twister hit.  Everything was okay as always, but it almost wasn't.

The next night Big E asked me a lot of questions about tornadoes and how it was possible that they could happen in Massachusetts, and I tried to be matter of fact, pointing out the unlikelihood of another big tornado when the last major tornado in the state had been over 50 years ago. She kept asking and I knew she wanted to hear without equivocation that it would be okay, but I know I am human and so instead I hugged her and told her I loved her and pointed out that we have both a basement and the weather channel.

When she was still awake and teary at 10:00 p.m., I got into bed with her, kissed her forehead, stroked her hair and watched her drift into sleep as I whispered over and over, "Everything will be okay.  I promise."

Today when I went to pick her up at Daisy Scouts the woman next to me turned and asked whether this was the last meeting of the year.  When I told her yes, she laughed and loudly sighed, "Thank God!" Because I felt the exact same way but worried too much about Daisy-decorum to admit it so publicly, I liked her right away.  I noticed that she looked maybe a year or two older than me, that she had pretty skin, a cute haircut and an enviably white t-shirt.  Then I noticed that she had a bandage on her wrist covering two catheters that appeared to pierce her veins.

I tried to think of an innocuous explanation but came up short, and then another mother scurried over and asked her how she was in a way that told me the answer was not good.  The woman told her about her first week of chemo and its side effects and the arrangements she'd made to be sure her daughter was cared for during the treatments.  It all sounded very new and very scary and like one of my worst nightmares. 

I wondered if just before her diagnosis anyone had told her that everything would be alright, and I wondered if before she started her treatment she had promised her Daisy Scout it would all turn out just fine.  And I really, really hoped for both of them that everything really would be okay.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Eat: Watermelon and Feta Salad

When I was Big E's age I earned honors from the Good Eater club at my school every week.  Clearly this was before childhood obesity was a concern, because I earned this accolade by choking down all of my American Chop Suey, canned pears in a paper cup, waxed beans or whatever else was slopped on my plate in the cafeteria line.  I didn't enjoy the food and some days I would struggle mightily to clean my plate, but I was highly motivated by the little paper apple, fresh from the mimeograph, that was my reward and so I made it work.

My husband and especially my daughters lack this ability to soldier through a meal.  If they aren't fans of a particular food, no amount of insisting, coercion or pleading makes any difference; as a result, I don't bother making a lot of my favorites because there seems no sense in preparing a dish that only I will eat.  This salad is the one exception to that.  I am the only one in the house who eats it, but I love it so much that not only do I make it but I actually spent my precious alone time between leaving work and volunteering in Big E's class today going to the store for ingredients and assembling this salad.

It's so easy that you don't really need a recipe, but here it is in all its summery, sweet-salty glory:

Watermelon and Feta Salad

1/2 watermelon, cut into bite-sized chunks

1/2 cup of crumbled feta

2 handfuls of baby arugula

fresh ground black pepper (to taste)

In a large bowl, toss together the watermelon and feta.  Season with pepper, then toss in the argula.  Allow it to sit for at least 30 minutes before serving, so the flavors can mingle.