Sunday, June 12, 2011

Oh Look, a Goldfish!

I used to be your standard, everyday, garden-variety procrastinator. I’d start folding laundry, and get distracted by the movie I was watching at the time, and keep watching the movie instead of getting the next load of laundry. I’d play computer games instead of paying the bills, cut flowers out of my rose garden instead of pulling weeds, and read novels instead of washing the dishes.

Now, though, my brain has ascended to a whole new level of procrastinatory subterfuge. Instead of finding myself suddenly in the mood for online Scrabble and British chick lit (which are easily identifiable time-wasters), my brain has a new strategy: USEFUL procrastination.

Oh, it’s devious. I have gradually gained the self-discipline to say to myself, “Self, NO. You do not need to knit a scarf for the homeless right now. Yes, that is a worthy activity, but you know perfectly well that you do it for fun, and that as soon as you put that scarf in the Salvation Army basket, you’ll start another one with that lovely fuzzy brown yarn you’ve had your eye on. Go do your work.” But when my brain tells me to clean out the fishbowl, I’m completely derailed.

The fishbowl? Really? I hate cleaning the fishbowl! It smells funny, and I always end up spilling stinky water on myself. Fishfish (official name: Leif Erikson, in honor of our Norwegian heritage and my daughter’s recent school project on our Viking friend) freaks out every time he’s moved. Since I bought a bowl that’s round on the front and flat on the back so that I can tuck it neatly up in front of my box of imported teas, it’s a royal pain to get my hand into the odd little corners and scrub out the algae. The little rocks fall into the sink, and they’re hard to gather back up when they’re wet. And then there was that heart-stopping moment when Fishfish made a break for it and came within a wiggle of going down the garbage disposal.

There is no earthly reason why I should suddenly be overwhelmed with the conscientious urge to clean out Fishfish’s bowl, but such was the case today when I sat down to the computer to work. I do occasional freelance editing for a local publishing company, and I just started work on a new manuscript. This afternoon I had a clean desk, a nice block of time, minimal interruptions from family, and a goal to get through Chapter 1. Perfect! Of course, I would need a cup of tea. (pause for ominous music)

Now this is where my old brain would have gone on vacation. “Oo, a cup of tea! Yum. Black tea or herbal? British Breakfast, Earl Grey, PG Tips, or Sainsbury’s Red Label? In a bag or loose leaf? Wonder Woman mug or bone china with hand-painted violets? This water is taking forever to boil, I’ll just lean on the counter and read a book while I wait. [Two hours pass.] Mmm, good tea, good book, I love a quiet afternoon!” But no. My new-and-improved brain, now in Stealth Mode, said instead, “It would be a good day to pull hundreds of dandelions out of the front yard!”

I was a little startled, needless to say. Some days I really like going at the dandelions, but it hadn’t crossed my mind for a while. My brain continued, “Or sort out the toys in the family room that have been half-sorted into bins for a year! Empty the dishwasher! Organize your scrapbook materials like you’ve been meaning to do for the last several weeks! Go do some laundry!” But then my brain, high on self-righteousness and reckless optimism, made its fatal blunder: “You want to clean the fishbowl!”

“Ahhh,” I thought. “I’m not THAT desperate to avoid my editing.” It wasn’t about motivation at all! I wasn’t really in the mood to pull weeds, and if I’d given myself permission to do so, I’m quite sure I would have gotten distracted and ended up reading a novel on the front porch instead. It was all about procrastination, and my clever subconscious had simply devised a more oblique route to its usual destination (tea and good books, and possibly knitting). I was onto myself. I wasn’t about to lose this one!

Sadly, I was smarter than I thought. Today I reorganized the kids’ toys, cleared a bunch of space in the family room, vacuumed, cleaned off the knick-knack shelves and dusted all of the precious items on display before carefully replacing them, did a load of laundry, drank a pot of tea (British Breakfast, loose leaf, Wonder Woman mug), read three chapters of my novel, and, I am embarrassed to admit, cleaned out the fishbowl. I didn’t mean to, but I couldn’t just leave that basket of toys sitting out, and … well, you see how that ended.

This evening I have a block of time, the kids are about to go to bed, and I even have a mug of tea right here. There is no reason in the world that I shouldn’t get that chapter finished, now that I’ve figured out my brain’s insidious new technique of suggesting useful activities to avoid real work. I will completely ignore it if, for example, it comes up with a ludicrous time-wasting suggestion such as “You should post on your blog!”

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Know When to Hold 'Em

"Know when to walk away, know when to run."

"A time for silence, and a time to speak."

One's Kenny Rogers and the other is King Solomon, but they were saying the same thing. Sometimes you have to speak up, but sometimes you do say it best when you say nothing at all. As a mom, I constantly struggle with this balance, especially having been blessed with a daughter who came from the womb convinced that every time is a time to speak.

Just ask my mom, though - Mary came by it honestly.

Some of my earliest memories are of watching my mother sew. In my recollection, I had a great view of the sewing machine and my mother's hands. But it wasn't until I was an adult that I discovered why my image of this activity wasn't from the vantage point of a little chair beside the sewing table, which is where my kids sit when they watch me sew. According to my mother, she sat on the front half of her chair and allowed me to stand on the back half of it, leaning over her shoulder watching her hands working the fabric and the machine, all the while chattering directly into her ear.

Now, I don't know about you, but I think I'd be able to do that with my kids for, oh, about THREE SECONDS. I simply can't imagine letting a kid quite literally hang over my shoulder while I worked, and my mother deserves a medal (or perhaps some nice chocolate truffles) for letting me do it. I remember talking to her while she baked bread, while she folded laundry, while she drove, while she did just about everything - my little voice had so much to say, and if I remember talking that much before my little sister was big enough to be a target for my long-winded discourses on stuffed animals and the neighbors' dogs and who knows what else, then my mother was probably the one listening.

She was good at it, too. She listened through middle school as I told her about the books I read, the classes I was taking, the teachers I loved and loathed. She let me tell her the same stories over and over (as I am still prone to do, if I don't catch myself), and listened every time. She listened to my high school woes of friendships and crushes and missing assignments, and listened to them again.

By the time I got to college, the listening had to be done over the phone, and I wasn't as good at checking in as I probably should have been. But she listened then, too - to the roommate disasters of my early college years, the hopeless crushes (still), the highs and lows of boyfriend issues (finally!), the missing assignments (some things didn't change much in college), and the endless discussion of what color of bridesmaid dresses I wanted.

Time went on, and she listened as I struggled to lose weight, hoped for a baby (MANY hours of patient listening on this subject), and told her about my piano students in my new and much-loved job as a piano teacher. She listened for hours about my frustrations with a musical group I was in, and listened again when I made the difficult decision to leave it. She listened even more when I was nearly keeling over with sleep deprivation when my children were babies, and if my lack of sleep made me incomprehensible, she politely didn't mention it.

There were years when I talked less than I should have, but I still knew she was there to listen. There were years when I talked far more than I should have, and still she listened. Now, don't get me wrong - she talked, too. We both talked, sometimes loudly and in frustration, sometimes joyfully, about everything from feminism to favorite authors to the best way to deal with a particularly tricky bit of sewing. (Her advice - read the instructions and take it slowly and carefully. My advice - sew really fast, and then backstitch all over it to hold it in place. My mother, needless to say, has neater corners on her clothing than I do.) Sometimes we talked at the same time, and when my sister was around, it wasn't unheard of for us all to talk at once - like Mom's sister explains, we get so much more said that way!

Mothering is full of trial and error, and all training is on the job. Mom seemed to know from the beginning, though, that one of the things children need is simply to be heard. To have someone say, "Yes. I see you. Your voice is heard, even when no one else can hear you, when the rest of the world is too loud and too fast and too busy, your little voice comes to my ears and I hear you." She knew, she knows, that simply listening can answer some questions better than talking, and that an open phone line and an email she checks every day can be a lighthouse in the dark.

I'm trying to talk more to her about things that matter, and less about things that don't. She listened to me for all of the thirty-seven years that it took for me to start figuring out that balance, though, and I'm doing my best to do the same. I listen now to stories about what my daughter thinks the cat is thinking, and about my son's elaborate plans to make a trap for moths out of Legos. (Don't ask.) And, wonder of wonders, I listen to my mom too.

Even with all this personal growth and soul-searching and maturing as a parent, though, I have my limits ... if Mom asks to stand on the back of my chair when I sew, she's outta luck.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Just Don't Land On Your Head.

Before I find myself in the semi-finals for the Bad Mother of the Year Award, let me be absolutely clear: My children use seatbelts, wear government-approved safety helmets when riding their bikes, and I do not allow them to climb 30-foot pine trees just to see the view from the top.

I am, of course, willfully ignoring the fact that my sister and I safely rode on the floor in the backseat of the family car from Sacramento to southern Oregon, using the seat as a table for our art supplies, all of which could have become fatal projectiles in the event of an accident. We routinely walked and rode “around the block” (which in our rural area was a two-mile trip) without helmets, cell phones, or cans of Mace. And while I was not technically allowed to climb that particular tree all the way to the top, I never once fell out of it.

After the obligatory new-mother panic, I found myself settling into a more easygoing approach to parenting. Part of it is because I realized that there’s no definitive rule book that enables you to protect your kid from everything – I dutifully strapped Peter into his carseat and held his hand when we crossed the street, and he managed to break his arm by falling less than three feet out of a swing in our own backyard.

It’s also partly because you just run out of energy after a while. When I’m at the park lying in the sun half-reading a book and half-not, and the kids are laughing and screeching on the jungle gym, my default answer to “MOM! Can we … ?” quickly fades from a snappy “Absolutely not!” to a sun-soused murmur of “OK, whatever, just don’t land on your head.”

One of the main reasons I’ve loosened up, though, is that I’m not exactly a Safety First girl myself when it comes to things I really, really want to do. Especially if I’m taking pictures with my beloved little camera, my approach to rules gets a little … flexible. A quick flip through my favorite pictures triggers a stream of memories: “I was holding onto a tree and trying not to fall into Mill Lake when I took that!” “Haha, I was TOTALLY trespassing when I took that shot – had to climb over two fences to get it.” “Oh man, I came SO close to sliding off that cliff. Good shot though, huh?” And when my daughter has watched me look both ways for cars and stand right on Highway 101 to get a better shot of the Coos Bay Bridge … well, “Don’t cross the street without a grown-up” loses a little of its punch.

So when Mary came home with a vague assignment from her middle school cooking class to “cook something”, I vetoed her hesitant suggestion of pancakes. I was planning on making clam chowder, and I figured she might as well learn how to do it right. I showed her how to peel a potato, handed her the vegetable peeler, and said, “Don’t peel your skin off. It hurts.” And she didn’t. I got out my cherished Wüsthof chef’s knife (which cost more than everything else in the silverware drawer and could take a finger off if you’re not careful), showed her how to dice a potato, and said, “Don’t cut the end of your finger off. It hurts. Your uncle did it once, so don’t do that.” And she didn’t.

Everything went fine until it was time to add the bowl full of diced potatoes to the merrily bubbling mess of scallions and melted butter in the stock pot. Mary wanted me to get a few pictures of her culinary adventure, so I talked her through the process of tipping the bowl of potatoes into the pot while I watched through the digital viewfinder. I snapped the picture just as she dropped the bowl and jerked her hand away from the hot butter, which I’d forgotten to remind her about.

She ran to the sink and put her burned finger under a stream of cold water while I rescued the potatoes. I said, not without a certain amount of sympathy, “Well, I guess part of being a good cook is learning how to treat a grease burn.” And in that moment, my daughter made me proud: Instead of whimpering and moaning, blaming me for her burned finger, or complaining about the mess, Mary sniffled back her tears and asked, “Did you get the shot?”

Rule book or not, I must be doing something right.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Painting the Bathroom (Attention Deficit Disorder Edition)

I love painting! In theory, anyway. Reality somehow ends up looking a little different from what I've envisioned.

I have a form of ADHD that is less common than the usual variety, and is significantly different in that it doesn't include hyperactivity. (There's some argument about whether it's actually part of ADHD or is a separate neurological issue, but that's another post for another day. Unless I forget. Which I probably will.) It does, however, include a chronic tendency to overestimate my own abilities to multi-task, to prioritize like a rational human being, and to determine exactly how many activities will actually fit into any given hour of the day.

So, in practical terms, this means I can wait until the end of my sentence before I say, "Oh look, a squirrel!" But then when I see the squirrel, I'm not only distracted, I'm temporarily derailed. I think, "Oh, he's so cute, running around on the tree out there. All the leaves are off the tree now! I should probably rake. Oh hey, I didn't cut back my roses last fall, darn it! I should go do that, and I know where the clippers are, they're right on the front porch because I was going to do it in November but then I got so tired that day and forgot about it." And then I will go out in the January cold and prune my rosebushes, and not remember what I was originally doing until hours - perhaps days - later.

Can you see how this might be somewhat incompatible with a project involving wet paint?

So, when I take on a project like changing the bathroom's ivory-and-more-ivory color scheme into a more updated soft beige with crisp white trim, I have to be PREPARED. Caffeine - check! Hershey bar - check! Paint - check! (Priorities, you know.) Paintbrushes, tape, newspaper, drop cloths, screwdriver, paint stirrer, rags, ladder - checkcheckcheck! Horrible old jeans and dark pink shirt that was so ugly that paint splotches improved it. Pandora on the iPad. Hallway light turned off so that I will not see squirrels or their non-rodent distractionary equivalent. (Did you know there is only one instance on Google of someone else coining the word "distractionary"? How can that BE? It's such an obvious word!) (Oh. Whoops. Case in point, there.)

Anyway, I'm ready to go. I have everything All Planned Out, so that I will stay on task and finish what I'm doing. The Beach Boys will sing, the sun will shine in the window (in January! in Oregon!), the tape will all go on straight, and my drop cloths will not get scrunched up under my ladder. I will work industriously, painting perfect lines with my beautifully steady hand, never dripping, never spilling, never smacking my hip on the corner of the bathroom counter and swearing loud enough that it echoes off the bare walls. Somewhere in this increasingly rosy picture, I've developed the ability to effortlessly paint around the tricky bits and reach all the awkward corners. It's not until I notice that my dream self looks suspiciously like Reese Witherspoon at her most adorable that I get the uneasy feeling that things might not quite turn out exactly like this image, at least not in every detail.

Four hours pass, in a decidedly un-dreamlike manner.

I do not look at all like Reese Witherspoon by now. (I didn't look a whole heck of a lot like her in the first place, but now I really don't.) I am hot, tired, cranky, and distinctly wobbly from the paint fumes. The awkward corners have been attempted, fudged, and abandoned. Pandora has forgotten what I told her, and she is playing Boston. (Not that I don't like Boston, I do, but it's not always the most restful music.) My drop cloths look like they've been attacked by a flock of incontinent seagulls, my paint-flecked hair is escaping from its hastily arranged bun, and the ladder is in the bathtub. Swearing? Don't ask.

However, I have mostly managed (we'll just ignore that isolated instance of FarmVille) to stay on task. It has taken much longer than I expected, but my poor focus-challenged brain has managed to stay pointed in the right direction for most of the afternoon, and I have actually accomplished quite a lot. And then my daughter comes home and it all goes to pieces.

I am standing on the bathroom counter, the ladder long abandoned because it's not tall enough. (Or I might just be too short, but I'm not willing to consider that possibility right now.) She's talking to me through the partly open door, and I am trying to reach the corner with the roller. And then, CRACK! The much-abused wooden edging around the countertop finally gives up the ghost, falling with a clatter to the floor. Startled, I step into a puddle of paint on the counter that I swear was not there a minute ago. I am still dangerously close to the edge of the countertop, which is now just that crucial bit narrower than it was. Still brandishing my paint-covered roller, I shuffle onto a free bit of counter. NOOOO! I just got more paint on the counter!

I need a wet rag, stat. I stand on my non-painty right foot and reach with my painty left foot to get the damp rag off of the ladder. I manage to wipe up the worst of the paint with the rag clenched in my toes, and drop the rag in the sink. When I realize that my paint roller is dripping, I finally have the presence of mind to put it back in the pan. By now I've put my left foot down onto a patch of newspapers, which promptly stick to the bottom of my foot.

I have to laugh ... I can't help it. I look like an escapee from a lunatic asylum (apparently one undergoing interior redecorating), my daughter is doubled over in a hysterical fit of laughter, and the bathroom looks like a particularly stylish bomb has gone off. And Pandora, in one glorious, serendipitous moment of electronic clarity, has decided on Queen for the soundtrack:

"Another One Bites the Dust."

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Pride Goeth.

As I've gotten older, I've gotten increasingly less interested in the opinions of all but those who matter most to me. I don't worry as much about my hair, I spent less time fretting about my funny walk and ghostly skin, and I have even found a small measure of resigned acceptance of my post-baby figure.

That said, when I was approached with an offer to include me in a project featuring local artists doing what they do, I thought, “Oh yes, of course you can photograph me in the daily nitty-gritty of my work, as long as I can have an hour to do my hair and makeup, and I need to find that one good red lipstick, and I think maybe those REALLY flattering jeans and my good black boots, and can you not shoot me from the side because I don’t like my double chin?”

What I actually said was, “Yeah, sure!” You know, all casual-like. And then arranged for the photo shoot to take place at rehearsal (in the performance hall at the local university) instead of at my house as originally planned. I mean, sure, it’s a great idea in theory. But for a photographic feature that focuses on process (the hidden, solitary hours of solo practice) instead of the final product (the black-satin-clad, high-heeled, sparkly-jeweled performances), I was a little worried about just HOW nitty-gritty this might be.

My actual practice sessions involve stepping over an abandoned wooden train-track construction to get to the piano, clearing elaborate Lego creations off of the bench before I sit down, and making sure there are no marbles under the pedals. There's usually a cup of tea or a can of diet Coke on a coaster proclaiming "I had a mind once - now I have small children." A small pile of M&M candies (for energy, you know) is a distinct possibility. I generally have my hair in a ponytail to keep it out of my face, I rarely have makeup on when I'm at home, and I almost always practice barefoot. Pajamas and a bathrobe are not unheard of. I’m all for honesty, but this was a little more honesty than I wanted posted on the internet.

I thought this would be a good compromise – I’d be more casual than on a performance day, certainly, which is highly dependent on good makeup, hot rollers, hairspray, and a quite literally breath-taking amount of Lycra under that smooth sweep of black chiffon. On the other hand, this “casual” snapshot of my work would still include a lovely nine-foot Steinway, polished hardwood floors, and beautiful lighting. I decided on jeans, a black turtleneck sweater, my good black boots, and of course I would allow ample time for carefully understated makeup and a complete blow-dry of my waist-length hair. I’d leave my librarian-esque glasses at home for once in favor of contact lenses, put on a little eyeliner so you could see my eyes, maybe a touch of lipstick. As my imagination picked up pace, I envisioned (remember that thing about pride and falls?) my hands tenderly drawing music from the keys as my hair cascaded around me in a shining, smooth waterfall of blonde, eyes closed in a moment of transcendent oneness with the music.

So, at 8:45 I’m on the phone with Hannah, the soprano I’ll be working with, getting everything settled regarding the hall and the photographer. I’ve spent the last 45 minutes getting my son fed and ready for school, and I’m not as far along as I thought I’d be in my preparations. I realize I’m cutting it close, so I say my goodbyes to Hannah with a cheery “See you at ten!” Hannah says, “No, no, you mean 9:30!” I say, “Um, yeah! Sorry, you’re right, 9:30.”

At which point I hang up and explode into full-fledged Panic Mode. I am wearing a green nightshirt with a cartoon of a giant black bear on the front. I am barefoot, unfed, unshowered, and my sleep-tousled hair is rampaging in a highly unflattering multitude of directions. It takes twenty minutes to get to the university, and it is now 8:48.

I fly into the bathroom, barely taking the time to take my glasses off before I get into the shower. I take the fastest shower I’ve taken in years, forgoing conditioner (I know I’ll regret this shortly) in favor of speed. I hop back out of the shower, scrubbing my hair with a towel as I charge back to the bedroom to get dressed. Jeans! Black sweater! Earrings! Socks, I can’t find my socks, dang it! Here, laundry basket, socks, run, run, run, back to the bathroom … auuggghhh! My HAIR!

I am faced with the inevitable result of a fast shower, no conditioner, and a mad towel-drying rampage. Helena Bonham-Carter’s rats’-nest of hair in any one of her freakier movie roles is a good point of comparison. There is no way, NO way this is going to metamorphose into a smoothly shimmering waterfall, or even a moderately ripply stream. There is no help for it. I get it just dry enough and just detangled enough that it doesn’t appear to be harboring small birds and woodland creatures, and twist it into a bun, stabbing blindly with hairpins until it feels like it will withstand the mad rush to the university.

Contacts … no time, I guess I’m Marian the Librarian today. Makeup … quick, a little powder and mascara, and let’s at least cover up that spot in case he decides that pimples add to the artist-at-work ambience. Lipstick? No time. DANG IT.

Run downstairs, gather music, grab a granola bar, no time for tea, do I have a pencil?, purse, boots! No time to go back and get them, I’m late, sneakers will have to do, but oh NO these are bootcut jeans, and I guess they’ll just have to drag on the ground, nothing to do for it now. Run to the car, run back for my cell phone, run to the car again, come on light turn GREEN, park, mad dash across campus, and I’m here.

Beautiful piano. Perfect light. Shining wood floor. Lovely Hannah. And my scuffed-up Converse sneakers, cheeks flushed from hurry, hair already trying to escape the hasty updo, and clothes disheveled from the careless dash from the car. Everything was rushed, mussed, breathless, and not at all what I had in mind. The photographer said it was perfect.

I can live with rushed, mussed, breathless and perfect.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Little Miss Smartypants, Version 2.0

My family and I spent the last few days at a retreat center at the Oregon coast with a large collection of in-laws, outlaws, and assorted relatives. Since the number of private rooms is limited, we usually give them to whoever has the smallest (read: loudest) children, or those from the grandparent generation who prefer not to climb into bunk beds, thank you very much. My family is in neither of those categories, so we happily staked out a corner in the dormitory with several other family members.

On Monday, Mary and I woke up around 8:15 after a somewhat patchy night of sleep. Our bunkbeds (wooden, with plastic-covered mattresses) were much better than the standard 1986-era accommodations I recall from Camp Glendawn, where I spent much of my summers in my teen years - ah, the delights of flattened mattresses, concave with the memory of decades of sleepless little bodies, sagging into the generous downward curve of the swaybacked metal bed frames. On the other hand, one thing we could be fairly sure of avoiding (at least in the girls’ dorm) was the bone-rattling buzzsaw snore of an adult man with a head cold.

I heard Mary rustling in her bunk overhead and whispered up to her, “Come down and snuggle with me?” I used to so love those early mornings when she was still tiny, and (if she wasn’t already in there with me) retrieving her warm wiry little self from her crib for that Mary & Mommy time. I loved looking down at her pink, wiggly little body, grinning up at me with her toothy smile and hyper-aware gaze. It always seemed like she was on the verge of some wry comment, if only she could talk. We don’t get many morning snuggles any more, so I took advantage of the opportunity to curl her into my sleeping bag to let our warm, sleepy bodies settle in under the blanket while we talked.

She yawned mid-sentence, and before she’d gotten halfway through it, the contagious nature of yawns caught me in a jaw-cracking yawn of my own. She’s getting old enough to be able to understand my particular brand of snark, so I quipped, “Thanks.” She shot back, “You’re welcome” in a tone of voice that reminded me that she’s my daughter and her Aunt Mary’s niece, and apparently whatever genetic code contains joking sarcasm, it has been passed down to little Mary entirely undiluted.

We chatted about nothing for a while, her morning “Wakey Girl” mode basically unchanged from her toddler years when she could go from slack-jawed sleep to standing on her little bed jabbering in (I am not making this up) less than ten seconds. This, combined with my usual slow emergence to consciousness, probably would have made for some amusing conversation to an observer. After a few minutes, Mary made a very Brenda-ish non sequitur in a mysterious voice: “There’s an EYE up there.”

I rallied my limited mental resources enough to determine that she was talking about a knot in the grain of the wood in the bunk overhead. I blindly groped until I located my glasses, and sure enough, some unknown camper had inked a pupil onto it and drawn a circle for an iris. We looked at it consideringly for a moment. It didn’t do anything. Then Mary said in a sepulchral voice (for a 10-year-old, anyway), “It’s WATCHING US.”

We both started giggling, and I launched into an early-morning-alto chorus of “It sees you when you’re sleeping, it knows when you’re awake,” and continued through the song with the words, “You better not shout, you better not cry, you better not whatever…” and I realized that my IQ points were not quite up to their maximum yet. We agreed that “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” is actually kind of a creepy song if you stop and think about it, and returned to our contemplation of The Great Eye.

I started to say something, and was peremptorily shushed: “Shh, I’m having a staring contest.” I replied, “Let me know how that works out for you,” and we both dissolved into giggles. Another long pause, and then: “… I think I’m WINNING.” More giggles, and then I regained just enough sense of maternal responsibility to say, “Yes, dear, but at some point you have to blink, and it doesn’t.” Extended silence, punctuated by muffled laughter, and finally: “It’s SQUINTING. I think it’s going to BLINK.”

At this point we both lost it entirely, and it was time to crawl out of our cocoon and make ourselves at least minimally presentable. I have to say, it felt pretty good to start the day knowing that even if she’d fallen off the bed as an infant and I’d let her eat a few too many M&M’s in her life and probably snapped at her when I was tired, if my daughter could be that funny before 9 a.m., I must have done something right.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Fat Woman Running

"Inside every fat person is a thin person trying to get out."
- attributed to hypnotist Milton Erickson

"Inside of me there is a thin person trying to get out, but I can usually sedate him with five or six doughnuts."
- humorist Pat Williams

Aside for the eighteen months I spent being pregnant, I am reasonably sure there has never been anybody else hitching a ride inside of me, thin or otherwise. But given that I weigh more at this moment than I did the morning I went into labor with my first child, and that was including water retention that made me look like an escapee from the hippo exhibit at the zoo, the actual existence of that hypothetical other person has become somewhat moot.

Because honestly, it doesn't matter how good my hair is (not bad right now), how much I like my new red lipstick (a lot), or how much of my wardrobe is black and slimming (at least 60%). Disguising this much extra weight is going to require David Copperfield, not just serious amounts of Lycra and distractingly adorable leaf-green satin high heels.

Diet Coke does not, in fact, cancel out a Hershey bar.
Lots of people have one pivotal moment, but mine has been a gradual realization. I've probably lost in excess of 200 pounds in the last fifteen years, and if most of them weren't the same five pounds, that would be so much more impressive. However, the last few years have seen a steady gain, an extra biscuit here and a second helping of totally decadent macaroni-with-three-cheeses there, and what the heck, there's not really enough of this left to make a decent lunch tomorrow so I'll just eat it at the counter while I read the last chapter of my novel, because calories don't count if you eat while you're standing up, right?

Well, it turns out they do. They also count if it's your birthday. Or your child's birthday. Or your nephew's birthday. They count if they're consumed at a totally legitimate work event. They count if you're only having a piece to be polite. They count even if the person you're with is having a bigger dessert than you are. Calories count, and this is SO unfair, even if you're at a big family gathering and everybody's having pizza and nobody's counting calories and there's so much pizza that it'll just go to waste if it sits out there all evening and you're really just doing it to be helpful.

It gets worse! All this time, the broken cookies DID have calories. Tasting the Parmesan cream sauce to make sure it had enough garlic, no free pass there either. Calories eaten after midnight definitely counted, as did calories consumed at Christmas, Thanksgiving, and (sob) Valentine's Day. A diet Coke does not, in fact, cancel out a Hershey bar. And for the ultimate indignity, it turns out that I have been wrong since high school -- if you get up in the middle of the night and leave the light off in the kitchen, and open the fridge really fast and snag the leftover peanut butter cream cheese brownies and slam the door, the calories were not actually out running around in the refrigerator while the lights were off, and those brownies did in fact have 300 calories apiece, just like they did after dinner when you ate the other three.

And the silly thing is, I can't even claim ignorance. My mother has worked in a hospital for the last twenty years, several of which were in the hospital's fitness center. I've had earnest conversations with my doctor, who is less than amused at the mumblety-three pounds I've put on since we first met in 1995. I've done Jenny Craig (yummy muffins), Weight Watchers (frozen banana chocolate treats!), and mostly vegetarian (cheeeeeese!). I know about low-fat, low-sugar, low-glycemic, low-calorie, and how sad it is that I wanted to finish that off with "cheese pickles onions on a sesame seed bun"? Are you seeing a trend here?

I like food. I like to plan it, I like to cook it, I like to feed it to other people, I like to eat it, and I like to have seconds of it. One of my favorite ways to spend an evening in our D&D days (yeah, shut up, I'm a child of the eighties) was to invite ten people over for dinner and dessert. While they played the first round, I'd happily cook something involving insane amounts of pasta, several kinds of cheese, freshly made cream sauce, tomatoes, chicken, and maybe a couple of loaves of that nice crusty garlicky bread that the whole party has to have or nobody can stand to smell each other for the rest of the night. They'd suspend the game long enough to eat and do the dishes, and then I'd turn right back around and bake a pie or snickerdoodles or my deservedly famous Chocolate Brownie Cookie Thingies. I cook, we all eat, they do the dishes -- life is good.

Life is good, but having to buy four sizes' worth of "temporary" fat pants is not so good. I wasn't too enthused about not being able to get my rings cleaned because they were stuck on my fingers. I don't like looking at that one perfect green dress I bought on Solano Avenue all those years ago, into which I might possibly now be able to fit one jiggly thigh. And I really didn't like looking at the lovely pictures my cousin's wife took at a recent family gathering. I saw my beautiful cousins, their adorable children, and then hold on -- who is that fat woman in the black dress, and why is she wearing my head?

I did lose weight once, quite a bit of it, and I looked good and felt good. It wasn't very complicated, either, and it was the least stressful weight-loss program I ever did. I was walking fifteen to twenty miles a week, eating very little processed sugar, trying out some vegetarian recipes, and breaking myself of the habit of having seconds at nearly every meal. I had muscle tone, I lost weight, and I fit back into pants that were a good five years out of date. And then I got shin splints, bad ones, and over the next few years that served as a wonderful excuse to let myself go completely to pieces.

I still have the shin splints from time to time, but in the last week's return to some semblance of self-discipline, I was surprised to find that I also kept more of the muscle tone than I'd expected. I've gone on a couple of cautious runs, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it did not, in fact, kill me. On my last run, an elderly lady in her garden called out to me as I slogged by, "My goodness! You're very ambitious!" Now, granted, part of me wanted to trot back there and slap her, because really? Do I look that bad? But the nice part of me decided it was a compliment and called back, "Thanks!" And I guess maybe this will require a little more ambition than I'm used to, and perhaps the added motivation of periodic prizes (like maybe those utterly fabulous patent leather Mary Janes).

I think this is possible, as long as I don't reward myself for each workout with M&M's. It's definitely necessary, whether I want to do it or not. I like noodles and bread and fried things and cheese (did I mention the cheese?), but I remember now that I also liked running. I liked the wind in my hair, the road under my feet, the rain on my face (this IS Oregon, after all), and the feeling of accomplishment.

So maybe there is someone else inside this fat woman, a reasonably fit runner who's yelling, "Why the HECK are we carrying the weight equivalent of an eight-year-old with us?" I'd prefer that she didn't start talking out loud, or ordering her own workout DVDs off the internet, but I'd like to see if I can get her to change her refrain to "Look what we did!" And maybe, with enough time, there won't be anybody else inside there -- that reasonably fit runner will be me.

Author's Note: I have lost 2.5 pounds so far, and I am cautiously optimistic. Also, all recipes are available on request except for the Chocolate Brownie Cookie Thingies ... sorry, that and my actual weight are on a need-to-know basis.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Postscript for Aspiring Fashion Designers

It is a lot harder than it looks to get two giggly ten-year-olds into old vacuum cleaner boxes on uneven stairs. There was much giggling and falling over, and I cannot guarantee that no spiders were injured in the making of this photo shoot.

Alternative Fashion for the More Modest Tween

For years, I didn't understand the moaning and groaning of mothers about the difficulty of finding decent clothes for their preteen daughters. I mean, how hard can it be? Pants to cover up the bottom half, shirts to cover up the top half, put a ribbon in her hair, and you're done!

Then I discovered that this tactic only works until about halfway through the first grade, when all of a sudden those adorable little matched sets are a) uncool and b) impossible to buy in her size. It turns out that there are two sets of sizes for little girls -- 2T (T for toddler) to size 6, and size 7 to size 14. The first set of sizes tends to be sweet outfits that look fine on little girls who are freshly out of the ruffled underpants stage, and are now big enough to think mix-and-match is the coolest clothing concept since the second incarnation of bell bottoms. The second set of sizes ... well, does the name Britney Spears mean anything to you?

Apparently 14-year-olds don't have much desire to look like 7-year-olds, but an increasingly large number of 7-year-olds really want to look like 14-year-olds. The end result is that a little girl who just grew out of her purple corduroy pants and coordinating pink-and-purple striped shirt is now faced with an array of belly-baring, cleavage-enhancing, hip-hugging attire that her mother keeps holding up and saying, "No, they must have the sizes wrong, a ten-year-old could not possibly fit into this skirt." As it turns out, a ten-year-old can -- and if you're worried about the world at large seeing her underpants if she does anything drastic like, you know, walk or sit down or breathe too energetically, have no fear! If they're going to see her underpants anyway, you might as well buy her a backless pair that reads "Eye Candy" on the front! Or maybe a little pair of pink undies that say "Dive In!"

You only think I'm joking.

Well, OK, they recalled those, but only because so many parents threw fits.

Yesterday I tried to buy Mary a few pairs of shorts from the resale shop, nothing fancy, just a few pairs that she could run around in and not worry about if they got stained by glitter glue, mud, paint, or tree sap. (I love that these are equally likely possibilities for my daughter to ruin her clothes with - at least she's having fun, right?) We found three perfectly nice pairs of shorts, every single one of which, when turned around, had something stamped across the backside - "Dance", or maybe the brand name, and we were lucky they didn't say anything worse. (You don't want to know, really.) They all went back on the rack, and we left with empty hands. Call me old-fashioned, and I know some will, but I think that putting a sparkly purple word on something will make people look at it. And when that's my fifth-grader's backside we're talking about, count me OUT.

Since many essayists have articulately and loudly railed about this phenomenon for years, I'll leave that to the professionals. Instead, I'll just list a few alternatives. My grandmother used to joke about how in her day, you could get a hole in the knee of her swimsuit. (A quick phone call revealed that while she was teasing, her mother did in fact have a swimming costume in which it was technically possible to get a hole in the knee. So it's not quite as far back in the Dark Ages as it sounds like.) I know the fashion industry will never go for that, so it's time for moms of tweens to get out their needle and thread (or duct tape, as the case may be), and get creative!

There's always the retro look:

The ever-popular wrap dress gets a fun update with pink roses and Tinkerbell:

Madison models the newest take on the trendy "maxi-dress":

Buy an extra for a friend!

Mary models the latest in "green" clothing:

And for a final environmentally conscious fashion offering, the ladies show off the latest trend for recycled fibers. Madison is wearing a boxy-styled ensemble from the Eureka line, and Mary is in a fetching number with a square neckline by Hoover.

Until these catch on with the fashion industry, just let me know if you find the Holy Grail: A pair of girls' size 10 non-ripped non-skin-tight non-lowrider jeans, preferably for under thirty bucks. Thanks!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Strong Heart, Weak Stomach (or Vice Versa)

Motherhood is not for the fainthearted. It is also not for the weak-stomached, which is frequently much more relevant to daily life.

Fortunately, I've never had real issues with that. I am not, like my poor friend Erin, a sympathetic vomiter. I offered once to drive up to Portland to help her with the unstoppable chain reaction of her children's flu and her inevitable response, which would have earned me a star in my crown, if not three or four of them. I think that if it had gone on for one more hour, she might have taken me up on it.

That's not to say that I like barf, I just can't get all that worked up about it. I've been living for seven years with a mildly autistic child who has what are politely termed "eating issues". Some textures just don't work, when combined with the wrong mood, busy day, or (for all I know) misalignment of the planets. As a result, I am fully capable of cleaning a recycled dinner off of the placemat, the plate, the chair, the floor, the child's clothing and his hair (how do they do that?!), fixing him a sandwich, and serenely sitting back at my own place to eat my serving of the same dinner I just flushed. I was going to say something at this point about what halved grapes look like the second time around, but I'll spare you that. (You're welcome.)

Pee? No problem. I've cleaned whizz off their chubby little baby bodies, their clothes, my clothes, the bathtub, the bathmat, the kitchen floor (THAT was a low day in the potty-training saga of 2002), the sheets, the blankets, the mattress pad, the carpet, and the bathroom floor at significant distances from the toilet for reasons that I cannot, as a woman, begin to envision.

Yes, I'll say it, the other p-word: Poop doesn't bother me. I'm not saying I'd like to decorate my kitchen in a cowplop motif, but spending most of my childhood crossing a field full of horses and cows to play with the neighbor kids gave me a high tolerance for the stuff (not to mention a fair ability at obstacle courses later in life). If you've cleaned up one of those baby blowouts that end up with it inexplicably settling under their hats, there's not a lot that can bother you down the road when it comes to the brown stuff.

Blood? Still OK. I had a dear friend who spent most of his adult life in various jobs in the medical field, and was one of the most supremely capable men I have ever known ... right up until he cut his finger working on his VW Beetle and had to close his eyes and holler until his wife brought him a Band-Aid, or run the very real risk of passing out cold right then and there. I never had that issue, and in fact chickened out only at the last minute when I had the opportunity to watch a surgery being done on my own foot. I don't like seeing my children bleed, but I've survived front-row seats for their many vaccinations, the broken arm incident, two suspected concussions, tear duct surgery, gymnastics-related bangs and bumps, and the countless scrapes and scratches that naturally result from combining small children with bicycles, stairs, and excitable cats.

So, with this stellar track record of stainless-steel-stomached motherhood behind me, you can imagine how surprised I was to find myself with my head between my knees at Dr. Robertson's office last week. My daughter has had a tiny mole under her right arm since infancy, and while it gave no cause for concern, it chafed when she wore sleeveless tops, so we opted to have it removed. The doctor said it was a simple skin tag that could be treated with a local anesthetic and snipped off with minimal fuss. I was fine through the whole description of the procedure, and my calmness helped my daughter, as I hoped it would. The needle didn't bother me, but as soon as I saw those scissors, I felt ... nervous. You know, just a little ... concerned. Maybe a little fluttery. Is it hot in here? My goodness, I must have had less sleep last night than I thought. I think I'm ... um ...

At this point the doctor realized that Mom wasn't going to be much help, and might actually permanently warp her daughter by passing out cold on the floor, so he excused me from the room. I waited out the rest of the procedure in an adjacent exam room with a line of sight to my daughter, but too far away to see exactly what he was doing with those scissors. I dutifully put my head between my knees when I felt dizzy, but there wasn't anywhere I could put my head to remove the embarrassment.

And even more than feeling silly for being caught off-guard and having to leave, I felt that I had let my daughter down by leaving her right when she needed me. She was fine -- a little zing of pain from the anesthetic, a quick snip, and a brightly colored Band-Aid, and she was good to go. (A trip to Baskin Robbins also seemed to accelerate the healing process.) But I was far from fine, and the bowl of dark chocolate goodness didn't take care of my sore heart.

I know, intellectually, have always known, that I can't go with my daughter and spare her all the hurts of life, and it would be very wrong to do so even if I had such supernatural power. She will need to experience pain, and loneliness, and the heart-strengthening effects of dealing with life's inevitable bruises (physical and metaphysical both) on her own. I know this. I know that I can't even walk along beside her every step of the way to hold her when she cries, because honestly, who really wants to bring their mom to college for the first time they're stood up by a date? I know this, I do. But this day, all I could think of was that she was in there, and I was out here, and I didn't know what to do.

I like to think that she will forget the fast-fading scar and her mother's lightheaded abandonment, and remember only that she was allowed to order the long-coveted clown ice cream treat. I am probably right in this. I suspect, though, that this is only one in a long line of occasions where I am not enough for her, when my weakness makes me fall short of what she needs at that moment. I hope she some day grows up to the point that she knows my love leapt across the hallway even as my body sat hunched on the red plastic chair in the other room.

I won't always be able to catch her, to hold her, to wipe the tears, but I'll keep throwing love across the hall (across the world if necessary), and hopefully enough of it will stick that she'll feel the warmth of it. For tonight, I think I'll carefully ease into her room and hold her warm, sleepy self close, banking against the next time I drop the ball.

It was so much easier when all I had to do was wipe faces and hands and tiny bottoms, but (not too surprisingly) I'd never turn back the clock to those endless, exhausting, smelly, ketchup-stained years. I'll adjust, somehow, to the inevitable independence that will grow and mature out of her childish "My do it!" and propel her into adulthood. For the moment, though, I'm glad the days only go by one at a time ... I don't think my heart could manage more than one of them at once.