Lessons in Gift Giving

Posted: January 7th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Holidays, Little Rhody, Pets, Shopping, Sisters | 2 Comments »

The holidays are the perfect time to show kids that giving can be as much fun as getting. But I bungled my shot at teaching that lesson this year.

At Thanksgiving I had the harried working-mother last-minute realization that I wanted to find a way for us to give back somehow. But by the time I tried signing up to serve at a soup kitchen, all the places were flush with other more organized, plan-aheady do-gooders.

At Christmas I wanted us to bring toys to the local firehouse for Toys for Tots. At least, I had that thought then must’ve seen something shiny, got distracted, and forgot about it. It wasn’t until YESTERDAY when I saw a weeks-old photo of my friends’ kids on Facebook, arms laden with toys for those less fortunate that I slapped my head in a shoulda-had-a-V8 kinda way and remembered my intention.

Oh well.

Of course, it’s never too late to help others. All those soup kitchens still need donations and help and homeless kids need toys and clothes even though the Christmas spirit has been packed away and stowed in the attic for a year.

And it’s not like my kids learned nothing about the finer points of gift giving this year. There were plenty of gift swapping exchanges between them—trading toys they’d gotten that they decided they didn’t like as much as the thing their sister got. Inevitably once the new recipient of the item showed interest in it, the original owner howled to have it back. And Big Sis Kate, who’d usually contrived the often-unfair trade, would call Indian Giver. Which of course, we were always careful to point out should be Native American Giver.

They’ll learn eventually.

Other lessons in giving and receiving took place, and not just with the kids. After a long campaign between my three sisters and I, I’d tiraded against getting the ‘rents iPads feeling certain they didn’t want and/or wouldn’t use them. Instead I convinced one sib that a year-long subscription to The New York Times was just what they needed. On Day One of our visit home—with zero shopping days remaining—I saw that they already got the Times. D’oh! (And they LOVED the iPads they got from my other sister.)

This, I’ll note, was my follow up act to the previous year’s attempt at paternal gift giving. I’d decided a donation to a school in Africa was just what the man who had everything would appreciate. Paige’s preschool has a sister school in Zimbabwe and the kids there needed water canteens for their epic walks to school. After conferring with a sister on this donation-in-Dad’s-name concept, I was convinced that a gift card to a local restaurant would be more appreciated.

Dad called that Christmas, his voice cracking with emotion, to report he’d received the best gifts ever that morning. His wife had paid for some third-world kids to have surgery on their cleft palates. Another of my sisters bought desks for a dirt-floored school somewhere in Africa.

“Such incredible, thoughtful gifts,” he croaked huskily. “It was really the best Christmas ever.”

Seemed silly at that point to inquire if they were looking forward to their dinner out.

This Christmas also provided us with lessons in re-gifting. Dad and his wife received a bag of red and green dog biscuits. For their pooch, of course. They have one of those immensely-adored retirement dogs who lives the life of Cleopatra. No nutritional or manufacturing information came with the canine treats—they were in a clear plastic bag cinched with a festive red bow.

The dog treats were deemed suspect. References to babies dying in China from bad formula were made. Undaunted by the potential harm they could cause I grabbed the sack before heading to visit friends who have two very large, very hungry dogs. Those nefarious biscuits might take down Dad’s small Dachshund, but my friends have a German Shepherd and a Great Dane. I figured a few bum biscuits were less likely to kill them, based on their body mass alone.

Batting the muzzles of the dogs away, my friend took the bag, thanked me and holding it up out of reach, twirled it around to find an ingredient list. Did I know, she asked, if they contained chicken or beef? Turns out that Duke, their Great Dane, is allergic to the processed versions of those proteins. But, she said, setting the bag on her counter, her dog walkers’ dogs would most certainly appreciate the biscuits.

Or would they?

Let it be known that there’s a bag of Christmas-colored doggie treats currently making their way ’round South Eastern New England like some hot-potato fruitcake.

So then, my gifting take-aways to keep in mind for next year:

1. Reserve volunteer opportunities early at soup kitchens. Turns out those are some of the hottest reservations to book at the holidays.

2. Prioritize gift-buying impulses in this order: anything related to children in Africa or made by Apple.

3. Do not consult with—or lobby to—your siblings when buying gifts for your parents. Both approaches inevitably backfire.

4. When it comes to selecting gifts for pets, dispense with any notions of packaged snacks or treats. Opt instead for a gift card to the local fancy restaurant.


Thrift Queen

Posted: October 10th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Bargains, Clothing, Housewife Fashion Tips, Money, Shopping | 20 Comments »

When I was eight I had an interview to get into a private school. It was with the head of the lower school, a woman known as Miss Page.

Miss Page was in her late fifties, and wore thick woolen dresses with flat, sensible shoes. She had stocky calves and styled her hair in a blunt page-boy. She was, I would come to learn, one of those rare, wonderful institutional legends. She worked at the school for decades, taught in the classrooms, cheered alongside playing fields, and in her clipped New England way, greeted students by name as she bustled through the campus.

Because my sisters attended the school a decade before, I sensed–whether it was real or imagined—a genteel familiarity she had with my mother. I got the feeling that our “little talk”–an important step in the admissions process—was something only I could fuck up.

Which, I’m happy to report I didn’t do.

I wish I could be a fly on the wall looking back on that day. I’d love to remember the questions she asked me, and of course, how I answered. I know I had to do some memory exercises and a few puzzles. Probably some math too. The only thing I recall specifically is she asked me what “thrifty” meant.

And I had no idea.

Which, if you knew me today, might shock you. It’s not that I’m a penny pincher. On certain things I’m more than happy to spend spend spend. But I also love a good thrift store. I veer to the side of roads for yard sales. There’s nothing more thrilling or satisfying to me than a good bargain, a good find.

Yet I’ll also spend lavishly on dinners out. I’m an experience junkie and a whore for travel—whatever the cost. I shop infrequently for clothing but when I do I tend buy in bulk and gravitate towards expensive “quality items” that I rationalize are worth it because, well, cashmere never goes out of style.

But lately my psyche has embraced this idea that I can scale back across the board. This, it turns out, is one of the silver linings of unemployment. Along with having less money to spend, I have a lot of time these days to simply re-assess my modus operandi.

Last week I took my mother-in-law (an obliging sidekick shopper) to Nordstrom on a quest for new jeans. I’ve lost some weight recently, and as much as I’m trying not to spend money, all my jeans are now too big. I think I need to repeat that, MY JEANS ARE TOO BIG FOR ME. They’re actually—wait for it—BAGGY IN THE ASS.

Hold on a sec while I go high-five myself in the mirror.

It seemed somewhat Draconian to deny myself the glory of buying a new, smaller size of jeans. Especially since, given my current stay-at-home mom status, I wear those frickin’ jeans EVERY SINGLE DAY.

See? My amortized-over-time rationale is kicking in again.

I have a brand I like, but I was curious about what else was out there. While Peggy waited on a Gothic-looking wood-carved couch, I tried on roughly two zillion pairs of jeans. Even Peggy, a seasoned fitting room advisor with solid Midwestern staying power, had to wander into another department at one point to relieve herself of my relentless asking, “Wait, I think I look slightly thinner in these than I did in the ones three pairs ago. Do you?”

I finally settled on a fabulous dark blue “skinny” pair that cost a whopping $180. Well, that minus the $50 gift card I had.

I told myself this was thrifty.

But at home later, I tucked the pants and receipt carefully into my dresser and questioned whether they were there to stay. Two of my O-town besties had mentioned a mall-store that had good-fitting, cheap jeans. And, although skeptical—could a woman my age really shop in that store?—I was curious.

So two days later I took my dear, patient mother-in-law to some Godforsaken suburban shopping complex a half-hour away to TRY ON MORE JEANS. (If you saw a gray-haired woman pawing at the window of a silver Subaru heading to Pleasanton last week, that was her.)

But guess WHAT? Cheap jeans look cute too! And you can still feel cool about getting them in your new smaller size! In fact, you can get one pair that works with flip flops and another to wear with boots—all for $80!

Woo hoo!

High on my jeans buy I made another, possibly rash cost-cutting call. I decided to cheat on my hairdresser—the extremely talented, extremely gay, extremely expensive guy I ADORE and go to in San Francisco (a not extremely convenient location). I have my first low-to-the-ground local cut and color in less than an hour. And when they don’t hand me a mug of organic mint tea or offer to put money in my meter when it runs low, I’m going to be okay with that.


If I don’t come out looking like pre-makeover Kate Gosselin, that is.

Oh and yesterday? Getting a new prescription for my contacts the doc tells me there’s another brand of daily-disposables that are much cheaper and just as good. It’s like SHE KNEW I’m high on a money-saving binge. I’m all, “Hook a sister UP!”

When you see me next you won’t even notice the lenses I’m wearing are less expensive than my old ones. As long as I’m able to see you back, that is.

There’s really no telling how long I’ll ride this austerity wave. I’m fearful I’m just in the honeymoon phase and I could go back to my old ways faster than you can say “new pair of fall boots.” But in the meantime I’m enjoying my newfound thriftiness.

Miss Page would be so proud.


Stocking Up

Posted: May 11th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: City Livin', Daddio, Discoveries, Hoarding, Housewife Superhero, Husbandry, Shopping | 19 Comments »

I must’ve forgotten to lock my car the other night.

Living in Oakland this results in one of three outcomes:

1) Someone steals the car. This is not a risk for me as I drive a 1999 Subaru with a dent on the passenger side that goes from the front door to the back bumper. The interior is covered in pretzels and dessicated mini carrots, and at least one sippy cup of sour milk is lodged under a seat somewhere. If anything, car thieves leave Post-It Notes on my windshield suggesting I look into some of the new leasing deals.

2) Someone rifles through your belongings. Generally this involves stealing change, cell phone headsets, and Luna Bars or Slim Jims (depending on your dietary preferences).

3) Nothing. Whenever my car’s been left unlocked and nothing has happened I freak out a little. Worried that Oakland is losing its edge or something. Then I get insulted. “What—my parking change is no good for you?” I yell to the homeless man picking through our recycling. “There are some perfectly good Elmo board books in here, only lightly chewed,” I bellow. “You can still read all the words!” I find myself merchandising old maps of downtown Sacramento and broken Crayon bits to anyone passing by.

I’ll get them to want to steal my stuff if it’s the last thing I do.

Well yesterday—on my birthday—after a rousing early-morning argument with my husband, I frantically shooed the running-late kids to the car where I see the contents of our glove box—insurance papers, registration, Children’s Benadryl, a box of raisins, an old work ID with a really good photo of me, Band-Aids, hair clips, a black Sharpie, and several tampons—strewn over the front seat.

Yes, I said tampons. Do YOU keep tampons in your car?

As I scooped everything up to shove back into the glove box I was surprised to see just how many tampons I had. (While feeling slightly offended that they weren’t taken. What is WRONG with my tampons? They’ve got easy-glide applicators! I have a variety of absorbancies! Are they not good enough for my neighborhood hoodlums?)

I ended up counting NINE emergency tampons. This, it appears, is one of those things I do. I have the thought, “I should keep a tampon in the car in case I ever need one.” Then three months later, I have the same thought. And without looking to see what’s there, I toss another one in.

As I mentioned this car is a ’99. Given our long history it’s a miracle the entire hatch back isn’t teeming with feminine products.

And as far as I can tell I’ve never once needed an emergency tampon. And if I did, I’d probably forget they were there. And simply drive to a store to get some.

I’m not sure what the scenario I’m envisioning for their use. That we’re driving through the temperate Berkeley hills and get stuck in a snow bank? Then I start menstruating at a phenomenal, un-soppable rate? And while rationing out the small box of raisins between my cold hungry children, I suddenly experience stigmata? Thankfully I’ll have some light-flow Tampax I can tie to my wrists to staunch the blood, freeing me up to write a life-saving emergency message on a 1998 map of the Gilroy Outlets with my black Sharpie.

See? It all MAKES SENSE.

But really, irrational thoughts about what’s needed to protect our families just comes with the territory when you’re a mom. I can assure you that before having children I never thought that having a bold-colored permanent marker in my car was likely to be the difference between my survival and dying in the parking lot of my neighborhood Trader Joe’s.

Whenever a snowstorm is predicted in Rhode Island my father calls me to report on the scene at the grocery stores. This is especially entertaining since George Bush Senior has been in a grocery store more recently than my father. Nonetheless Dad claims that the stores in town are packed with folks frantically stocking up on bread and milk. These people could be lactose intolerants who haven’t touched carbs in years, but they’re blindly compelled to purchase these things at times of imminent snowfall. It’s a natural instinct you just can’t fight.

Me? I’m the same way. But it doesn’t take a storm for me to buy two boxes of Wheat Thins EVERY TIME I GO TO THE STORE. I get agita imagining what might happen if we were to ever run out of those delightful whole grain crackers. Not that we even eat them all that much.

I also buy black beans every time I shop. And that Near East rice pilaf. “Do we already have some of this?” I wonder. But because I’m the one asking the question, I’m unsurprisingly unable to provide the answer.

So always, always, I roll on the safe side and buy more.

This habit causes Mark to bellow from our basement pantry things like, “Embargo on Cheerios!” Followed by him muttering, “For the love of God we have no less than 15 boxes of cereal here.”

Which leads to me call down the stairs, “How’re we doing on black beans?”

As far as tampons go, I feel quite certain that the supplies in our cars alone could take me through to menopause. At which point I’ll likely make regular trips to Walgreens to pick up my estrogen prescription.

But, don’t you worry. Should anything go awry when I venture three blocks to the store, I’ve got raisins, Band-Aids, and a black Sharpie marker. I am totally ready.

What do you obsessively stock up on?


Get It in Writing

Posted: April 14th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Daddio, Holidays, Husbandry, Shopping, Style | 2 Comments »

You really should do something divine for me so I’ll send you a thank you note. Not because I need a favor or anything—though I’m not actively discouraging them—just because I got new stationery and it’s so damn fab-u-luss. My note card alone, without a word on it, should be all the thanks you’ll need.

I’ve been wanting to get my own stationery for about ever. And I don’t think of myself as indecisive. But every time I looked at all the options for fonts, colors, or even the damn paper liner for the envelopes, I’d get light-headed and woozy. I’d have to sit down and pour myself a bourbon to steady my nerves.

Add to that the size and shape of the card. Flat or folded? And the paper stock. I was flummoxed.

At one point I even enlisted my uber-stylish gay friend Larry to help me. No doubt he’d have strong opinions and excellent taste. We met at Gumps, a high-end department store that’s a San Francisco institution. But our field trip was fruitless. He flipped through the books and mocked half the designs. “Too Holly Hobbie.” “Too country club.” “I used something like that for my sweet sixteen party.”

And when the snooty saleswoman stepped away for a moment he whispered, “You can get this MUCH cheaper online.” So we left and went to lunch.

And I was sent back to square one. Stymied now by which website offered the best price, and left to fend for myself with my own inadequate straight-girl taste.

The thing is I’ve spent so many years working with companies on their branding that this kind of design decision is out-of-whack important to me. As if the recipients of my correspondence were some sort of customers with whom I was delivering an emotional experience that I wanted them to associate with me.

Absurd, yes. But I still couldn’t shake the thought that these cards would be a representation of me, albeit a small one. And I was gripped with the dismal realization that I had no idea who that ‘me’ was.

Perhaps other people don’t suffer identity crises when they buy note cards. At least, I hope not.

Or maybe Cranes is somehow in cahoots with the American Psychiatric Association. I mean, I don’t want to start some conspiracy theory or anything. I’m just saying it’s possible.

I watched one of those horrible fashion reality shows once where the husband of some poor sweat-pants-clad woman who’s altogether given up on herself sticks a team of fashionistas and a crew of hidden cameras on his wife for a week. And by the end of the montage of her myriad fashion faux-pas you find yourself screaming at the TV, “Could she at least COMB HER HAIR before picking up the kids from school?”

And then at a commercial you run into the bathroom and comb your own hair really quickly.

Anyway, one of the sniveling show hostesses said something about how people’s clothing choices tend to get stuck in the happiest periods of their lives. So, like, if your glory days were in the 80s, you still gravitate towards neon lime green FRANKIE SAY RELAX t-shirts when you’re out shopping.

I found this theory interesting. I do sometimes find myself reverting to a preppie fashion comfort zone. Sometimes I’ll look at a pair of Pepto-Bismal pink capri pants with royal blue clams embroidered on them and actually take them off the rack to the dressing room.

What’s scarier is half the time I go on to buy them.

And it doesn’t take years of therapy to know that this harkens back to my teen years. I don’t have any tattoos, but if I’d gotten one back then it would’ve probably been an alligator on my left breast or a ribbon belt of nautical flags around my waist. Thank God for my fear of needles.

So was high school the happiest time in my life? I had fun but, God, I hope not. I’ve been lucky to be blessed with lots of happiness. Hell, I was happy during both my pregnancies but have never considered buying elastic-waistband jeans while out shopping for a cute new outfit.

Anyway, when I’ve tried to come up with personalized note cards I kept finding myself reverting to that bad preppie juju. Yet I knew that a conservative navy blue monogram wasn’t what I was really looking for.

So thank God for Mark (once again), who deftly put an end to this whole quandary at Christmas. He researched old-world printers and found an exceptional authentic engraver in New York City. He even got the process started by working with an art director there to develop some initial designs. My gift allowed me to see the process through—coming up with whatever I liked.

Turns out I loved one of the typefaces she originally comped, and from there picking a color (orange) was easy. She matched the envelope papers to the font ink exactly, and in the matter of a few email exchanges and some samples sent via mail, I finally hammered out my personal stationery. In the end it seemed weirdly easy.

And it rocks.

Best of all, there isn’t a single whale, anchor, or martini glass on it anywhere.

A couple weeks ago I called my dad as if I was announcing I’d had a baby. “Guess what?” I gushed. “I got my new note cards today and I feel like the Duchess of Glam.”

“Ho ho ho!” he responded, the enthusiastic reaction reserved only for him and Santa. “Tell me!”

Dad, it turns out, takes his stationery VERY seriously. Since as far back as I can remember he was childishly excited about selecting letterhead for his law firm. He’d get the boxes from the printer and lift off the lids like a pirate opening a trunk of gold. He’d run his fingers over the raised engraving, remark on the heft of the paper, point out the watermark, then turn to five-year-old me asking, “So ho ho! Whaddaya think?”

To which I’d reply, “Can I get some graham crackers?”

I was perhaps the only eight-year-old to have her own letterhead as well. I had reams of the stuff in two colors—a pastel pink and a kinda minty green. The lettering was a darker shade of each color. My name and address was along the top of the paper, and on the envelopes too. I think I wrote a total of eight—maybe 12—letters (from the 200+ sheets I had), but Dad got a thrill out of the stuff.

I remember the year he ordered European-sized business cards. They were slimmer than standard ones, and extra long. “They don’t even fit in American wallets!” he declared triumphantly. Sorta like, fuck my clients of they can’t handle high style. If they wanted his cards on hand they could damn well buy European wallets.

So then, Dad was riveted by the news of this gift from Mark. (As if he needed more reason to adore his youngest son-in-law.)

“Send me a caaahd!” he urged in his Kennedyesque New England accent.

Dad is also a fountain pen collector. He has a crazy vast collection, and if you’re ever suffering from insomnia he can lecture you on the historical background and artistic merits of each one. (I’m sure he’d be happy to do this via phone.) He aims to “keep the aht of lettah writing alive.”

“And what kind of pen are you using with this new stationery?” he asked with reverence.

“Uh, Bic? Or… felt tip?” I stammered lamely.

“Now then,” he said in his we’ll-sort-this-out lawyerly fashion. “You send a me note cahd and I’ll find some pens—and I’ve got some wonderful inks—a brown Italian one that’s really first-rate. A real first-class ink. The cahds are orange? The brown could look quite smaht with them. Trust me.”

Within days four pens arrived in the mail. And once he got a copy of the card and was able to creative-direct an ink choice, a package with inks arrived too.

So then, here I am, exceptionally well-poised to send out a note. I’ve got the stationery, I’ve got the pen. I’ve even got some designer brown ink that’s apparently worthy of kings.

And I’ve got two great men in my life to thank for making me look so good. I really should send them both notes.


A Fish Called Wanda

Posted: October 26th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Kate's Friends, Miss Kate, Pets, Shopping | 5 Comments »

At a dinner party my sister hosted once, one of her guests left the table to use the bathroom and his boyfriend leaned over and whispered, “I’m sorry that Roger’s not been himself. He’s been a total wreck ever since Brenda died.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” my sis responded. “I didn’t know… Who—if I may ask—was Brenda?”

“Our cat,” the man said solemnly.

This just slayed my sister and me. Not that her friends’ beloved pet had croaked, but their cat’s name. I mean, really. How many cats out there are named Brenda?

Last week we had a playdate with a boy from Kate’s class. He, as it turns out, has two cats (neither of whom are named Brenda), two rats (who were surprisingly loveable), several fish, and a yard full of carnivorous plants.

His mother read in this here blog about our attempts at buying a fish for Kate. Our failed attempts. And as a self-described “fishaholic,” she kindly offered to give me a crash course. Call it Fish 101.

A bargain-hunter after my own heart, Fish Mama emailed me links to used tanks on Craig’s List. She offered to escort us to a pet store to pick out some finned friends when our tank was up and running. And in the meantime, she invited us to hang out at her house to meet their menagerie of pets and meat-eating plants.

Needless to say, it was incredibly thoughtful and helpful. I’d put my incompetence on display, and she was throwing me a lifeline. One that might get us closer to making good on Kate’s birthday present, instead of having to sell her on the benefits of a pet rock or imaginary puppy.

Besides, this mom and I had been meaning to get together for over a year now. Ever since I sent her a crazy-lady email following her visit to Kate’s school when she talked to the kids about her job sending robots to space for NASA. Yes, it was the most impossibly cool “What Mommy Does for Work” classroom presentation ever. One which NO MORTAL COULD EVER FRICKIN’ HOPE TO FOLLOW.

And yet, even though I lashed out at her that she’d set the bar stratospherically high (no pun intended) for the rest of us, she was genteel and friendly, even suggesting we get together some time.

Anyway, if you’d seen how overwhelmed and utterly inept Mark and I were in our recent efforts to buy Kate a fish, you might’ve thought to yourself, “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to buy a kid a goldfish.”

But for us, apparently it does.

Although, as it turned out it didn’t work out that way. Because the day after our playdate—in which I was indoctrinated into the world of fish and filters and cleaning out tanks and led to believe how easy it all could be—the girls and I ducked into a bird store. A local little place that looks trapped in the 70′s, next door to our favorite ice cream shop. And there, tucked away on the back wall, Kate fell in love with a bluish, purplish fish—a betta. Just a single little dude swimming around in an old-school glass fishbowl.

I immediately tossed in the towel on the idea of an entire aquarium. And that Saturday, while I was out of town visiting a friend, Mark and the girls brought that little, inexpensive, low-maintenance bundle of love home.

For all its flowy beauty and apparent lack of brawn, it turns out the thing’s a pretty aggressive “Siamese fighting fish.” So much so that you can’t have more than one of them in a bowl at a time. I guess it turns into some sort of back-alley pit bull willing to fight to the death. Not very good at working and playing with others. Looking at the puny, femmy thing, it seems unbelievable—like calling an orchid a bully—though I have no intention of testing how amicable our new fishy friend really is.

Bettas are also one of those animals where the males get the all pretty colors and the females are more drab and dull. So the shopkeeper informed the girls that our new family member is a “he.” This fact meant little to Kate, who is resolute in her determination to believe that all the dolls, stuffed animals, inchworms, ladybugs, butterflies, and snails that she ever encounters and takes under her wing are girls. In Queen Kate’s world being a girl is the only option.

When I returned home late in the afternoon of Fish Acquisition Day, Kate raced to meet me at the door and yanked me by my arm  to our built-in hutch, the home of the new fishbowl. She stood in front of it, then jumped aside to do a Big Reveal (all HGTV-like) and to make the very special introduction. “Mama,” she said, her eyes shining with glee, “this is our new fish. Her name is… KAREN!”

Yes, Karen.

A week later, Mark brought a snail home from the pet store. And not because Karen was lonely (though I have fretted about that). No, Mark bought it because he’d read [Warning: The following content may not be suitable for all readers] snails EAT THE FISH’S POOP.

What, you may wonder, is the upside of that vile fact? You have to clean the fish bowl less often, of course. And we’re all about low maintenance here. (And yes, I’m currently in the R & D Phase of creating a strain of snails that you can stick in baby diapers. I know, I know—it’s GENIUS.)

After plunking the snail into the fishbowl to commune with Karen, Mark stood back and asked the girls, “What do you think we should name it?” And without a second’s thought Kate blurted out, “CARLOS!” As if she’d always known that she’d someday name a snail that.

Of COURSE his name would be Carlos. Duh.

So then, we’ve got Karen the male fighting fish, and Carlos the shit-eating snail. I take back anything I ever said about Brenda the cat.


How Much is that Guppy in the Window?

Posted: October 3rd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Birthdays, Discoveries, Miss Kate, Parenting, Shopping | No Comments »

Karma’s a bitch. Here I was lacking a plan, so I took the easy path. And where did it lead me? Hell. Specifically, pet hell.

I’ll explain. Kate recently turned six. And Mark was away for work the 10 days before her birthday. So I planned the party, and shopped for the pinata, and food, and decorations. I came up with activities for the kids, hired a magician, attempted to gussy up our yard. I scoured social media outlets, cookbooks, and the Inter-Web for the most succulent, moist chocolate cake recipe in all the land.

Then one night, toiling over a hot laptop and reviewing my gift purchases on Amazon, I lamented that I hadn’t ordered a special present for Kate. So I emailed Mark.

“What do you say we buy her a fish?” I suggested. “I mean, just write a promissory note, then we can all go together and she can pick it out.”

From Down Under, hours later, Mark received the email and shot back, “Great idea.”

I brushed my hands together with the smug satisfaction of a mother who had in fact done it all. Easiest. Present. Ever.

That must’ve been when the gods looked down at me and shared belly laugh. “Foolish mother!” they chortled. “She thinks it’ll be easy, does she?”

Then, to put my all my perfect party planning to shame—to show how powerless I truly was—they cursed me with overcast weather on the day of the party. It’d been in the low 80s and gloriously sunny for over a week, but the day of the party—the outdoor party in our backyard—was bleak and chilly. The Bay Area’s legendary Indian Summer let me down.

Had I only known that the gathering of gray clouds that day was a foreshadowing. Oh, the party went off without a hitch, weather aside. But the next day we piled into the car, the girls chanting “Fish! Fish! Fish!” and Mark and I smiling at each other from the front seats, smug with the sweet knowledge that we were doing something wonderful to enrich our darling nuclear family.

Hey, we were hardly buying the kids a Labrador Retriever. But, you know, baby steps.

Mark had sussed out fish stores online and took us to a place two towns over that was supposed to be “the best.” The squat, windowless building was covered with a mural of tropical fish, and I delightedly sing-songed to the girls as we pulled up, “Guess which place we’re going to?”

It was all so thrilling and wonderful. I took a history-capturing photo of Kate, arms and legs stretched wide, in front of the mural before we entered the building. Mark gallantly held the door open for me and I smiled as I slipped in. A happy young family on our way to add a fishy friend to our ranks.

Inside, the walls gleamed with rows of brightly lit tanks. Within them stirred all manner of colorful, flowy-finned fishies with green sea grasses swaying. The girls ran from one tank to the next. “Nemo!” Paige squealed. “Whoa, look at these guys!” Kate yelped peering into a tank of small silvery fish glowing with purple iridescence. “I want them!”

While the kids and I explored deeper into the store’s back rooms, Mark got the attention of a young Asian employee—a collegiate tattooed fish geek—who we eventually met up with at the front of the shop. I pulled out a scrap of paper from my purse and recited to her the amount of space we had for a tank. (I had every detail figured out.)

Okay, so tanks. Fish Geek Girl started reeling off statistics about cubic something-or-others of water, and pointed to a wall full of spankin’ new, unoccupied fish homes. “This one’s a little smaller. It needs a light, but it’s got the filter built in. Now for a little more you can get this larger tank, with the light and the filter, but the lid is sold separately. This one is a kit and where you think it would be the best deal, you’re actually better off buying a light from these people, and a filter which will last you three to four years, then get the tank over here from this other vendor but they are totally compatible—as long as you make sure you’re getting everything in the M Series.”

The wall of tanks started to swirl together before me. Like fly-vision I was seeing hundreds of identical images. Despite how dazzlingly confusing just picking a tank was, there also seemed to be some digital ticker tape of the cost of all this flashing behind Fish Geek’s head. The numbers multiplied the more she talked.

At this rate we’d get one goldfish and have to decide whether it was Kate or Paige who we could send to college. I was starting to wonder whether we should’ve gotten pre-approved for a loan before entering the fish store.

I swallowed hard and looked over at Mark. Usually when my brain starts short-circuiting his is still going strong. (One of the many benefits of having him around so much.) Alas, turns out he wasn’t even tuned it. Instead he was preventing Paige from reaching into a tank to grab Nemo.

“Okay, uh, well that is all good to know,” I stammered. “Maybe you could tell us a bit about maintenance?”

“Well, depending on which tank you get [of course!] you’ll have to change half the water in the tank bi-weekly or one-third of the water weekly.” This was turning into a math word problem. I was afraid she was about to ask me how fast the train was traveling.

Then Little Miss Fish Facts moved across the room to Vannah her arms alongside a display of pumps. “Now with these pumps you can…”

I was growing dizzy. I felt like if there was just a window I could look out, I could somehow steady myself. If it’s possible to get sea sick in a fish store, I was.

Water changes? Filters? Lights? Thermometers? Whatever happened to those goldfish that you won in a plastic bag at the carnival?

Oh wait… I remember. After short stints as “pets” they went belly up. Those simple fish-bowl fish never lasted very long, maybe because they needed confusing costly contraptions to keep them going. Eventually they all experienced tragic toilet-borne funerals.

Standing in that store I felt the way I did when I almost bought a Honda Accord. It was when Mark and I were dating, and I needed a reliable car to get me to a new, far-flung job. I’d gotten so far as to select the color, interior, and options, and they were pulling my new ride up to the showroom from an off-site parking lot.

But I panicked. Suddenly a Honda Accord seemed like the most wretchedly safe, generic, boring commuter-mobile I could ever own. It was like if I bought that car I would be giving up my personality altogether. Every ounce of me-ness would be whitewashed with soul-robbing sensibility. There was no way I could go through with it. But I also couldn’t bring myself to share my change of heart with the super high-pressure salesman. So I whispered to Mark, “Uh, I can’t do this. Tell them no.”

I think he whispered back something along the lines of, “You fucking tell them! I’m not going to tell them!”

But anyway, this fish thing was different. We were in it together. I touched the arm of Fish Girl before she launched into a lecture on solar-powered filters and said, “I think we need a minute.”

Then I turned to Mark and said, “Let’s get out of here. This is insane! Maybe at that other place we can get a frog or something. Something easier to deal with.”

Fast-forward to Pet Store #2, where we met a tortoise. It was darling! And seemed so right for us in so many ways. The girls could take him out of his tank and play with him on the floor. Can you do that with a fish? Noooo. Plus, no filters! No water to change! No temperatures to fret over!

This all sounded great. Then the male equivalent of Fish Geek Girl informed us, “Now, these tortoises live to be 80 to 100 years old. Some breeds get to be 100—even 120.”

Okay, so this was the opposite end of the toilet-funeral spectrum. Instead of having to comfort the girls about the death of their fish some day, Mark and I would be moving this turtle to a nursing home with us. Paige’s grandchildren would be playing with that damn, un-killable pet.

I’m sorry, but even a truncated 70-year turtle existence was way, way too long.

But then, to really wrench at our heart strings the Reptile Dude plucks a couple itty bitty baby tortoises out of a tank. Suddenly every kid in the store was crowded around us. They were ADORABLE. I don’t care how long these little guys live, I wanted one. I wanted two!

“Now these fellas grow to be about twice the size of Martin over there,” he said, nodding his head towards an enormous tank. The turtle inside looked to be about the size of a bear cub. These turtles would require their own bedrooms one day.

But they were cute! I was undeterred.

Then Our Knowledgeable Salesperson starts in on how the tortoises eat table scraps—the ends of carrots, wilted lettuce, withered cucumbers. They were like living compost heaps. What could be greener? What could be easier? Turns out I have a refrigerator FULL OF TURTLE FOOD on any given day. What dumb luck!

As Kate and Paige acted proprietary with the wee turtles the other store-kids were pawing at, Reptile Ron went on. “Now these little guys have shells that are forming still. So you’ll need to bathe them in water just about up to their shell lines for 20 minutes a day. But only for the first two to three years.”

Did he really just say “ONLY for the first two to three YEARS?”

I nearly kicked the man in the crotch. I didn’t manage to get my own children into the bath every day for their first two to three years.

I snatched those darling turtles out of the girls’ hands and plopped them back in their tank. Not an option.

But I never say die. There must be a perfect pet somewhere in this huge store. What else could he show us?

Next up, a variety of small, darling frogs. They really were cute. Brightly colored teensy things, hopping around in little mossy, leafy fairy realms. I cut to the chase. “Talk to me about maintenance. Gear. Feedings. Baths.”

“Well, you have to spray water in their tanks every day. They need the moisture,” he started. “And they eat crickets…”

Live crickets?” I interrupted.

“Uh-huh,” he said. Then he gently explained that their “live food needs” would require us to drive to the pet store once a week, just to keep us in crickets. He failed to mention how the hell you got the crickets into the tank. And the potentially-traumatizing Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom experience of watching the wee frogs devour their dinner.

“And how often do you feed them these crickets?” I ventured.

“Every day,” he replied cautiously.

And really, I know it shouldn’t be so shocking to think that a living thing needs to eat every day, but I was horrified. Disgusted even. Every day? For the love of God, no.

I tugged on Mark’s sleeve. “Uh, I think we need to go home,” I whispered. “Regroup. Do some research. Sell the girls on a pet rock maybe.”

And so, we left. Somehow we got the girls into the car without them screaming, whining, throwing wild tantrums. Somehow they weren’t hurling accusations at us of being bad, lying parents who’d promised to buy them a pet. It was one of those eery times when the kids just seemed to go with the flow. They did what we needed them to do.

“We need some time to think about what the best choice is for us,” Mark said as he clipped them into their car seats. We looked at each other over the roof of the car before getting in, and rolled our eyes. What the HELL had we gotten ourselves into?

When we got home it was time for dinner. Late really. And once we’d cooked, and eaten, and cleaned up the dishes, we needed to start reading the kids their bedtime books. So we washed their hands and faces, brushed their teeth and hair, and got them into bed. There would be plenty of time for a bath tomorrow.

Then Mark and I went on with our evening, secure in the fact that—despite their state of compromised cleanliness—we didn’t have to worry that without having had a bath the girls’ shells might dry out, shrivel up, or crack. These human pets? So easy. Even if when they woke up in the morning we would have to feed them all over again.

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Highlights and Lowlights (and I’m Not Talking about My Hair)

Posted: January 2nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Bargains, Birthdays, Books, Daddio, Food, Kindergarten, Milestones, Miss Kate, Movies, Paigey Waigey Wiggle Pop, Parenting, Shopping, Summer | 3 Comments »

My friend Barb is perfect.

She’s extremely kind and thoughtful. She’s genuine through and through. She’s creative and silly and fun and smart. And, of course, she’s gorgeous. So much so that she was asked out on a date—approached on the sidewalk, no less—when she was nearly eight months pregnant.

If she wasn’t so wonderful, I’d hate her.

Barb and her hubby had kids long before Mark and I added to the world’s population problem. So going to their house for dinner always was an exercise in note-taking for our future family. One night after dinner I remember their kidlings hauled out a bunch of different instruments. We had a music and dance party that was such good clean fun I wanted to make lederhosen for them out of the drapes while belting out “The Hills Are Alive.” (Note to my sister-in-law: This is a reference to The Sound of Music. Which is a movie.)

At dinner each member of Barb’s family shares the highlights and lowlights of their day. It’s something we started doing, and a few of our friends have since picked it up from us. It’s a sly way to lure kids into old-fashioned dinnertime convos. I never knew how deeply shrouded in secrecy a day at kindergarten could otherwise be.

Someone recently told me she does this too, but calls it ‘Roses and Thorns.’ She borrowed the name from the Obamas. Such a schmancy Presidential Rose Garden spin! Hey, what’s good enough for Malia and Sasha is good enough for my girls.

I stumbled across some other tips on Motherboard for taking the gruel out of family din-dins. Did you know that the more family dinners teens attend, the less likely they are to smoke pot, run away from home, and dress like sluts? Okay, so I’m not sure about that last one, but I’m still willing to enforce the you-sit-right-here-for-dinner-Missy rule for a while to come.

So, where was I?

Well, God knows it doesn’t some dinnertime game to get me talkin’. But with 2010 in my rear view mirror, I’ve been thinking about some of my year’s highlights and lowlights.

First, for the highlights:

Best Times with Paige: Every day when she climbs on me in bed for our delicious morning snuggle. I love this even when it’s brutally hellishly early in the morning. I can’t help but think she won’t be doing this forever, so I’m basking in it while it lasts.

Best Times with Kate: Reading. This year Katie Pie learned to read, which was magical and thrilling. But she’s not exactly devouring books on her own yet. And I cherish the times each day that I read to her. For an active kiddo, she totally calms down, snuggles up, and gets absorbed in stories. It rocks. We’re reading chapter books now too, which has lots of great day-after-day satisfaction, like some weird good-for-you soap opera.

Best Meal: The first out-put of Mark’s food smoker—pulled pork sandwiches for Paigey’s 2nd birthday party. (Feeding the kids was a total afterthought.)

Best Dessert Recipes: Three-way tie between The New York Times’ Maple Pear Upside-Down Cake, Sunset’s Lemon Rosemary Buttons, and Martha Stewart’s Cornmeal Cookies.

Best Yard Sale Bargain: Four Reidel stemless wineglasses for $2. (And to think I almost asked “For each one?” Ha!) Now I wish our vast Reidel collection was all stemless.

Best Once-in-a-Lifetime Trip: The Winter Olympics in Vancouver with Mark (who covered the games for Wired) and my dear collegiate frienda Brenda. If you have never been to this event, GO. It will renew your faith in, well, the world. Plus, you haven’t lived until you’ve gotten emotionally invested in a curling match.

Best Party We Attended: A Father’s Day brunch in our beloved friends’ the Bibbo’s back yard. We came for breakfast and stayed through dinner. Such fun. And the food! Oh, the food.

Proudest Mama Moments: Watching Kate walking into her first day of Kindergarten like such a big big sweet girl. And seeing Paige running around with the other kids at her 2nd b-day party. (If 2009 was about Paigey Wiggles learning to walk, 2010 was about her running and dancing and jumping and skipping and never looking back. Yippee!)

Best Televised Sports Experience: Watching a Canadian Olympic hockey game at a bar in Whistler with one of my best friends and my best (albeit only) husband. Man, those Canadians really do love their hockey. And their beer. (Turns out we do too.)

Best Life-Improving Purchase: Our super-cozy eco-groovy Keetsa memory foam mattress.

Best Happy Tears Moment: When I read the letter to Mark over the phone that Kate had gotten into to the super-excellent school she now goes to.

Best Date with Mark: His birthday dinner this November at Quince in San Fran. We forsook the entrees, ordered all five pastas, and had them bring us whatever wine they wanted with each course. And we didn’t talk about the kids once!

Best Summer Trip: Spending three glorious weeks at my dad’s house with the girls. The mercurial New England weather was set to Perfect Summer Beach Day the whole time. The girls were like little nature nymphs, dancing around in the waves and happily playing in the sand for hours each day. (TV? Who needs TV?) The 4th of July parade rocked, like it does, especially with all the far-flung friends we’ve managed to have to join us in Bristol. Best of all, we got truly excellent quality time with my Daddio, who watched more patio-staged ballet performances, and drew more hearts and princesses and rainbows then he ever bargained for.

Best Dose of I-Still-Got-It: Shaking off years of professional rust to do some freelance work at the very cool design firm in SF Hot Studio. A week into the project I told someone I’d been working at home as a mom for the past two-plus years, and he said he couldn’t believe it. (When he sneezed and I automatically started wiping his nose, I think he caught on.)

Best Home Furnishings Score: When my sister unloaded about a dozen duvet covers, sheet sets, pillows, bed skirts, and cloth napkins on me from her vast and fabulous personal collection. I now have a bad-ass world class bedscape. But it also takes an extra 20 minutes to move the pillows off our bed before going to sleep at night.

Best Wine: The huge-ass bottle (I think that’s what vintners call it) of supreme Surh-Luchtel vino that our friends Don and Shelley brought to a party at our house. Not only did it have A LOT of wicked good wine it it, the bottled was inscribed with our wedding invitation. (Try registering for that.)

Best Personal Challenge: Doing Oakland Adventure Boot Camp this summer/fall. I pride myself on voluntarily waking up at 6AM every-other morning, as well as the endless rounds of push-ups, wind sprints, and squats with medicine balls. Go me.

Best I’m Not As Young As I Used to Be Moment: Playing field hockey at my 25-year high school reunion. The other team (our old rivals who were also in town for their reunion) decimated us, but it was hilarious getting out on that field again. And it’s nice knowing that nothing I do now requires a mouth guard.

Best Foodie Celeb Sighting: Meeting Sarah Foster at her cafe/store Foster’s Market in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where we spent another fine Miller Family Thanksgiving.

Best Novel: The Help. But I also *loved* The Eloquence of the Hedgehog.

Best Non-Fiction Book: Life, on the Line: A Chef’s Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat. Mark got to know Chef Grant Achatz (of Alinea in Chicago) after writing about him for Wired, then contributing to his dazzling cook book. Even though I know the story, it was a total page-turner. I was lucky enough to read an advanced galley. When this book comes out in March, if you have any interest in the foodie realm, check it out. It’s way cheaper than a dinner at Alinea.

Best New TV Show Addiction: Seems pretty trite and light-core, but it’s Parenthood. A friend of mine said he and his wife were TiVoing it, but before they’d watched it someone told her, “I LOVE that show. It’s makes me laugh! It makes me cry!” So my friend’s wife went home and deleted it from their TiVo. Well, I admit it’s made this Mama laugh and cry too. I wuv the cast (Peter Krause is the celeb version of Mark), but there are a couple actors I loathe, which it turns out I actually kinda need in a show. And, of course, it’s supposed to be set in Berkeley. So I dig seeing the local landmarks, the Craftsman houses, and of course, the bra-less women and pot-adled liberals.

Best Old TV Show Addiction: Tie between Dexter and Damages. Glenn Close is so good at being bad. (What else should I be watching on DVD?)

Best Party Mark and I Threw: Hiring a chef to cook dinner for our six nearest and dearest Oakland friends, and my dad and stepmother who were visiting from Rhode Island. All I had to do was buy a centerpiece, set the table, and take a shower. Bliss! Plus, the food rocked. As did Dad’s card tricks.

Best Kiddie Music the Whole Family Can TolerateLaurie Berkner

Best Self-Preservation Maneuver: Hiring a “hangover helper”—i.e. a babysitter to come over one Sunday at 7:30AM, the day after we had a party. She whisked in, took the kids out for breakfast and to the park, and allowed Mark and I some desperately-needed sleeeeep. This was such a supremely smart idea I think there’s a business plan in there somewhere.

Best Meeting I Attended: One in which it was determined that Paige was doing so well (physically and verbally) she was no longer eligible for the state’s early intervention services. Woo hoo!

Best Article of Clothing I Bought: A brown cotton Max Studio dress that I wear like it’s my favorite pair of jeans. Looks kinda like this one.

Best Hobby I Got Back Into: Reading. And really, reading one good book is like grocery shopping when you’re hungry. You want to start reading everything. According to the widget on this here blog, I read 20 books in 2010, about two a month. And that doesn’t count the small handful I started and abandoned.

Best Gift I’ve Used Every Day: When Mark was in Switzerland last winter for work, he bought me a fabulous perfect-for-everyday-use indestructible Freitag purse. It’s fabulous, and he’s fabulous for having such good taste (in wives, and in business-trip gifts).

Best Kitchen Gadget: An electric kettle, which I dropped and broke last week. It had been great for everything from making tea, to hot water for the kids oatmeal.

Best Stupid Comedy Rentals: Step Brothers (AMAZING tip, Drew!), and The Hangover. These bad frat-boy-humor movies were so damn good, I can’t believe I ever liked (okay, loved) Dumb and Dumber.

Best Stay-cation: Our Christmas/New Year’s break. The kids were off school for two weeks, and Mark was off work (for the most part) then too. It was the perfect balance of social plans, sleeping late, and lazy rainy days. Mark and I gave each other time for golf (him) and yoga (me). And I didn’t get out of my PJs all day on Christmas. I can’t remember the last time I did that.

Best Social Event: My high school reunion. If everyone waited until they were in their 40s to go to high school it’d be a much friendlier place.

Best Compliment: A babysitter told me I look like Ari Gold’s wife, Mrs. Ari, from Entourage. She was certain I “must hear that from people all the time.”

As for the year’s lowlights, I’m happy to report there were far fewer than the highlights. Which also means this blog post will end soon(ish) for you. Phew!

Saddest Loss: Mark’s wonderful grandpa passing away. And my Dad’s BFF and most-excellent neighbor, Eddie, and my sweet Uncle Ade also died.

Worst Foot-in-Mouth Moment: Asking a mother at Paige’s preschool if she was a nanny. Ugh!

Worst Mama Moment: How much time do you have? Seriously, nothing huge and hideous comes to mind here, THANK GOD, just a long list of times when I’ve lost my temper, raised my voice, irrationally barked out a, “No!,” or had my own form of grown-up of tantrum. You know, the usual stuff.

Worst Weekend-Away Phone Call: The one in which Mark reported that Kate got kicked out of kindergarten. Just for the day. But still.

Worst Morning: Crying at boot camp—while running the stairs!—because I had barely slept the night before (see Paige’s sleep issue below). The petite drill sergeant trainer gave me a double dose of tough love, when what I needed was a wee bit o’ encouragement. (At least she emailed me an apology that afternoon.)

Worst Weather Interference: A local daytime Halloween parade is a supremely super-fun place for kids and Halloween-obsessed adults (like moi) to revel in the holiday. This year it rained. Waaah! I was like a bride on her rainy wedding day. Even though the die-hards still came out, the raincoats over costumes were a bummer.

Worst Wretched Sleep Pattern: Paige went from being a star sleeper, to the kid who gets out of bed 15 times after you tuck her in. Plus a few times in the middle of the night. Oy! We’ve considered returning her to her crib (since this all started with the move to her Big Girl Bed), but I fear if we did that we’d leave her in it ’til her teens. And that’d bring about a whole ‘nother host of unsavory issues.

Biggest Regret: Realizing that the 8-hour drive to Palm Springs to visit my sister Judy is totally do-able with the kids—especially with a DVD player in the car. Why haven’t I been going to see her more? (And this doesn’t come solely from my desire to score more sheets.)

Worst Airline Travel: Twice—or maybe even three times—this year we’ve taken family trips with flights departing at 6AM. One time Kate refused to get dressed when we woke her up. We finally put her in the car in her panties, since we were about to miss our flight. At the long-term parking lot her tantrum continued, until Mark and I strong-armed her into her dress and shoes (a lovely public display of excellent parenting). Later, in a long busy airport hallway, she had another diabolical fit. Over her head (and while pretending to not be her parents) Mark and I vowed to never take a 6AM flight again. No matter how much cheaper the tickets were. And then, we went on two more trips with 6AM departures. Sigh.

Saddest Farewell: Our long-time nanny and friend Shelly moved back to Israel this fall. We are thrilled that she is back with her family and friends, but we miss her madly! It’s super sad to not know when—or if—we’ll see her again.

Most Shameful Injury: Pulling a groin muscle while bowling with the kids and Mark’s parents on our Thanksgiving vacation. My chiropractor said, “I don’t know what’s worse: Admitting you were bowling, or that you got injured while bowling.”

When it’s Mark’s turn to tell his day’s highlight at dinner, he sometimes says, “Right now.” Even though it means a relatively early dinner hour and food that’s geared towards the whole family, we’ve been making an effort to eat with the girls every night,. (Except for when we ditch them with a sitter and go out.)

So it’s sweet that our family meal is sometimes the highlight of Mark’s day. Either that, or his work day really sucked.

Now Kate and Paige sometimes use “right now” as their highlight too. Which would be fine if it wasn’t on the days I’ve busted my butt to take them to the beach and out for ice cream, or to a children’s museum, or to some other kid-gasmic concert or party or special event. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that it takes the wind out of my sails when the turkey burgers en famille beat all those other things out.

But maybe I should wise up a bit to Mark and the girls. Maybe the best highlight of all is the sum-total of our sweet family dinners together. Maybe turkey burgers really are the key to happiness.

I love you, Mark, Kate and Paigey, my three life highlights!

And Happy Happy New Year to the rest of you. In 2011, may your highlights blast your lowlights out of the water.


Too Young to Feel this Old

Posted: October 15th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: California, College, Friends and Strangers, Husbandry, Miss Kate, Paigey Waigey Wiggle Pop, Shopping | No Comments »

“So how much of an old lady am I?” I asked a friend the other day, as she came back from putting the kettle on. “I brought my own teabags.”

“Well, that depends,” she said. “Do you also have packets of sugar in your purse?”


For the record, I am not in the habit of making off with fistfuls of free sugar packs from restaurants. Well, not yet at least.

But lately it’s not just my teabags that are making me feel old. My lower back has been seizing up in the middle of the night. Waking me up and requiring me to spend several minutes just trying to roll over or move my legs to stretch out a bit. It’s excruciating.

Even my chiropractor wants to throw in the towel. And I’ve formed a twice-a-week habit with him.  But he suggested I see my primary doc for an MRI, and thinks I should get some physical therapy.

Add to that this cold—this loogie-laden, dull-headed seasonal cold that’s persisted now for well over a week. It saps my energy, leaving me lifeless by early afternoon, to the extent that I push aside soul-sucking guilt and plop Kate in front of TV while Paige is napping, so I can get some rest myself. By the time Mark gets home I’m a dishrag, stumbling through the day’s final acts of Mama-hood grumpy, impatient, and having slim hope I’ll feel any better the next day.

And Mark, my sprightly hubbie nearly five years my junior, even he’s coming undone lately. Ever the weekend warrior, he can hop on his bike after several computer-bound days and conquer a mountain with impressive ease. But suddenly, without even falling or wrenching it, he’s got a jenky knee. His body is letting him down for the first time ever, and it’s utterly infuriating. Digging an ice pack out of the freezer last week he grumbled to himself, “Is this is just what happens when you get old?”

But my bad back and his bum knee aside, it’s nearly Halloween. And no holiday makes me feel more young at heart.

For a week or so I was bereft, lacking a brilliant costume idea. For myself, that is. I feared I was losing my edge. I was coming up with possible get-ups that were both obscure and impossible to implement.

“Paige will be a piano… And I’ll be Liberace!” I declared to Mark one night.

Liberace?” he said, making a face like he’d sucked a lemon.

It wasn’t very supportive of him. But really I had no idea how I’d make Paige into a tiny grand piano anyway.

Then an idea came to me. Something kinda funny and doable that’s not lowering the bar over my past twisted, sordid, or absurd costumes. Something that won’t make me feel like the mother of two who had to hang it up.

What is it? Well, like the names of children I’m pregnant with, I don’t reveal anything until the Big Day.

Anyway, I set out for one of those pop-up Halloween superstores to forage for supplies. Inside the shop I tracked down a salesgirl, likely a student from the nearby Cal-Berkeley campus. Even though I’m making Kate’s requested dog costume (I know, BO-rrrring!), I’m curious to see what they have by way of props.

“You know,” the co-ed says, twisting a long lock of hair around her finger, “We don’t have animal costumes here. But we have another store in Emeryville. You might want to check there.”

“So wait,” I say. “What you’re saying is, you all don’t carry animal stuff, but another branch of the same store two miles away might?”

“Yeah. Weird, right?” she says. “I mean, when I got here I was like, where are all the animal things? Those are pretty standard costumes, right?”

“So do you think, it’s some sort of Berkeley thing?” I say, getting a little amped up with the absurdity of it. “Some kind of vegetarian-minded animal-cruelty type thinking?”

“Huh,” she says, looking out of the corner of her eyes, thinking. “Yeaaaaaaaah… Probably.”

Okay. So I feel old.

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The Presents of Greatness

Posted: September 27th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Bad Mom Moves, Doctors, Eating Out, Miss Kate, Mom, Paigey Waigey Wiggle Pop, Shopping | 2 Comments »

When I got home from school the afternoon of my 16th birthday, my mother was lying in bed and couldn’t move.

Now, the thing with my mother was she was a procrastinatory goddess. You never wanted to visit her and leave your prescription medicine. She’d tell you she’d mail it to you, and she’d have every good intention to, but ultimately weeks’d go by before you saw those pills again. And by then, your blood pressure, your acne, hell, a pregnancy even—whatever it was you were trying to ward off—would’ve gotten an excellent shot at entrenching itself in you.

So, on the morning of May 10, 1983, the 16th anniversary of my nativity, my mother woke up, ushered me off to school, and set out for her tennis game, utterly unprepared for my birthday. During doubles that day with “the girls” (a term she used even when they were long into granny-hood), she fell down. Landed on her elbow. And apparently gave it a substantial whack.

I assume it had to hurt. But this was a woman who left everything to the last minute. After tennis she’d have time to go to Ma Goetzinger’s, a cute boutique one town over, where she figured she’d find some little number or other that’d appeal to my fashion-frenzied teen self. She might also be able to swing by another shop or two, and round out her gifts for my sweet sixteen.

But there was, she decided, no time to see a doctor.

Well, by 3:30, or whatever time it was I got home from school that day, Mom’s elbow had had enough of being made a low priority. She’d hopped on her bed for a small rest when she got home, and in the calm of her quiet room, with the birthday whirlwind behind her, her body’s urgent pleas for attention finally got through.

The pain at that point was so great, she couldn’t even move.

I don’t really remember what happened next. How we got her up and to the medical center, or maybe to one of our small-town doctors’ home offices. But it turned out the arm was broken. She’d cracked or chipped or fractured some part of the elbow. An injury that was grave enough to warrant the doc, who we likely knew (whose wife was likely at the tennis game), to give her a good “What-the-hell-were-you-thinking-to-not-get-here-sooner?” lecture.

I assure you, I never expressed greater appreciation for birthday presents than I did that day.

Even in my ego-maniacal teen haze, I was struck with a jolt of insight into the greatness of a mother’s love. And her desire to make her child’s birthday just perfect.

Oh and you can bet I delivered my own “Geez-Mom-you-didn’t-hafta-do-that” lecture, managing upward as it were. After all, a daughter’s got love to give too.

But somehow, like those things do, that episode, that painful act of maternal sacrifice, faded into the backdrop of life. Never alluded to or held over my head, and only springing to my mind this morning as I lay in bed tickling the girls, awash in my own feelings of giddy love and gratitude for my daughters.

On Wednesday night, I went downstairs to the guest room closet to take stock of Kate’s birthday loot. And it turned out, that with all the shopping, or wrapping, or storing of gifts that I’d done on behalf of grandparents and other far-flung folk, I realized there wasn’t much for Kate that was from Mark and me. This discovery, of course, taking place late on the eve of her birthday.

So when she was in school that day, after Paige’s play group, I scrambled to a toy store. A mother ravaged with guilt that it’d taken until THE ACTUAL BIRTHDAY to get something. A woman incredulous that the Procrastination Gene she’d spent a lifetime denying, had somehow manifested itself in her, on the sly.

We found some little thing or other. A toy I’d say was from Paige to Kate. And by pure kismet I saw a billboard proclaiming the imminent arrival of Disney on Ice. The kind of branded, overpriced spectacle that makes the inner Waldorf mom in me shudder. But a perfect last-minute addition to Kate’s paltry set of parent-given gifts.

So there! I was done. With ten minutes to spare before fetching the birthday girl from school. I loaded Paige into the car, content that it’d all come together after all.

It wasn’t ’til later that evening, when Mark was back from his work trip and we were preparing to head to Kate’s favorite dinner haunt, that I noticed the stroller wasn’t in the back of the car.

I mentally retraced my steps.

Was it on the front porch? Had I left it outside Jen’s after play group? Or, in my haste to declare myself the ever-ready mother, did I smugly deposit both Paige and the birthday gifts in the car, then drive off leaving the stroller on the sidewalk?

Why yes, that’s exactly what I’d done.

As we headed to Filippo’s, pushing our unwieldy (but gratefully existent) double stroller, I asked myself, “How long does it take for an abandoned MacLaren stroller to biodegrade?”

Ah well, it’s good to have these humbling moments that prove I don’t really have my shit together after all. Right?

That said, I’ll have you know I’ve already purchased two (yes, 2) Christmas presents. So there.


Crimes of Passion

Posted: August 29th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Friends and Strangers, Miss Kate, Mom, Other Mothers, Paigey Waigey Wiggle Pop, Parenting, Preschool, Shopping | 1 Comment »

I can’t wait to see what the first thing will be that Kate steals.

Today I was stunned to see bras at Target that appeared to be marketed to six-year-olds. The triangles of fabric comprising the cups—in bright blues, pinks, and yellows, with colorful contrasting trims—were the size of a pirate’s eye patch. If those bras were intended to support a sagging breast, I’ll eat my nursing pad. They could fit squirrels.

After 1.7 beers in the Grippie family’s backyard tonight, I opened up on this topic. The sorry state of the rush to adulthood in this country, that is.

Kate, for all I knew, was already grossly delayed in owning a bra. A milestone of apparel ownership that I have every intention of staying on top of so as not to leave her, or Paige, tragically behind the pack as I was as a kid. It’s true. I was the last girl in my class to get a bra. The adolescent trauma of it all still grips me with an uneasy feeling, bringing to mind the florid tones of Love’s Baby Soft perfume.

My tardiness was due mainly to my inability to tell my mother what I wanted. All the girls at school had bras. And not just any bras, Sassoon bras. (Someone at the 80′s-era jean co no doubt got a big thump on the back and a promotion when she suggested they break into the training bra market.) Anyway, my awkwardness in discussing this subject was one part New England prudishness, and one part fear that my old-school mom would never understand that my need for the bra had little to do with mammary support, and everything to do with social survival.

I will not allow my daughters to suffer the same delayed-ownership-of-unnecessary-bra fate!

And yet, half of Kate’s preschool class may already be clad in the latest La Perla Preschool Demi Cup when school starts in two weeks.

Amidst my boozed-up-on-barely-two-beers rant, my friend, who I’ll call X since I’m uncertain what the statute of limitations is for her crime, and truly hope I won’t be implicated as her accomplice since I’ve been made aware of the details of the offense… Wait, where was I? What I’m trying to say, is X listens to my diatribe, then casually tosses out, “The first thing I ever stole was a bra.”

Um, helloooooooo? This pre-teen factoid is such an utterly perfect and tasty life morsel (even to me now, sober) I was shocked to think it wasn’t the first thing she said upon our introduction a year back.

“Hi. My name is X. I shoplifted my first bra.”

Just when you think you can’t love someone any more than you do, they wallop you with a brilliant gem like that.

Well, one stealing story deserves another, right? And since I never went to sleep-away camp or got a perm or took a same-sex partner to prom—since I missed out on so many of puberty’s best life-intensifying moments, I wanted to bond about thieving.

I was hardly a Dickensian pick-pocket mind you, but oh, I’ve done my share of shoplifting. One—well, really three—items started my limited career, and later (and finally), I nabbed a greeting card from a long-deceased Providence store called Ashby Dean. An establishment whose demise I no doubt accelerated from depleting them of one unit of their belated birthday card inventory.

To summarize: In my lifetime I’ve stolen a total of four things. (Though really, I’m not dead yet.)

At nightfall, the evening of my first foray into the thieving life, I tossed and turned in my sheets. My heart was filled with anguish, my conscience wracked with guilt. Sleep seemed an impossibility.

I went to my mother’s room. She was sitting up in bed, reading. It could have been very very late, since Mom was a hardcore night-owl. Or maybe it was just, like, 8:30, since I was pretty young at the time and had a correspondingly early bedtime.

Me: “Mom? What happens to people who steal?”

Mom: [casually looks up from her book] “They go to prison.”

Me: “Oh, okay. Well, good night then!”

She let a few minutes pass. Minutes in which, back in my bed, I began sobbing at the thought of a lifetime relegated to horizontal black-and-white striped jumpsuits. Even if those stripes might be slimming.

Eventually, she came in and sat at the edge of my bed.

Mom: “Do you have something to tell me?”

Me: [wincing] “Yes. I… I stole something. Three things, actually.”

Mom: “Would you like to tell me what those things were?”

At which point I got up, went to my bureau, and pulled down a lacquer box with a gold and orange leaf design that my Dad brought me back from a business trip. I opened it, turned it over in my palm, and dumped out three seeds.

Seeds for purple flowers of some sort. A blossom so beautiful its image compelled me to tear a wedge off a paper Burpee pack, and hide the seeds away in my pocket. If only I’d thrown them out my window to sprout a tall vine climbing into the clouds, the course of my life might’ve taken a very different turn.

But I digress.

The next day my mother marched me into Almacs. (That’s the kinda weird local grocery store you shopped at when you lived in Rhode Island back then.) Some pimply-faced stock boy was piling up heads of iceberg lettuce, like they do. I swear I’d be able to pick him out of a line-up today. (Yet somehow I have difficulty remembering my husband’s birthday.)

Mom pushed me towards the kid, and made me recite, “I’m sorry. I took these and I shouldn’t have. I will never do it again.”

I dumped the seeds from my clammy hand to the kid’s clammy hand in an exchange which can best be described as deep contrition meets utter confusion.

The kid muttered some, “Okay, yeah” type thing. My mother, I imagine, gave him some kinda high sign for the role he played in her parenting life lesson, and we left.

So tonight X explained that she used a yellow raincoat her mom bought her to smuggle the bra out of the store. She never said whether her mom found out. Or if, when her mother saw it in the laundry weeks later, X easily covered up her crime with a, “That bra? Oh, that’s Betheny’s.” (“And the joint you’ll find in my jeans four years from now? Also Betheny’s.”) Maybe her mother did figure out the unethical origins of the undergarment, but didn’t enforce the zero tolerance policy my mom ascribed to.

At any rate, the conversation got me all excited to see what it is that Kate and Paige will steal some day.

And reminded me that, for so many reasons, it’s never to early to buy a girl her first bra.

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