Thursday, October 14, 2010

Wanted: Atonement

I abhor clutter. It goes along with my mildly anxious temperament, which I try to delicately balance in this crazy busy world by intense periods of quiet and solitude, sporadic yoga practice, and a home in which everything has its place. In addition, I grew up with a mother who seemed to be totally unaffected by sentimentality over anything old or used, her belief that anything could be replaced at anytime, and that nothing should be saved, because when you die, your treasures become someone else’s responsibility, which translates in most cases to garbage. As a result, I am very fickle with my possessions, and when something new comes in, something old must go.

I also have children. Children who, as I did as a child and before I knew better, save every chewed-on pencil eraser they have put their fingers on and every drawing on scrap paper they have created. Anything that comes into their possession is regarded by them as a part of their lives forever. Until they were old enough to clean their own rooms and do a generally satisfactory job of keeping their personal spaces neat and tidy, the task fell to me, who quickly boxed up and gave away or threw away everything they had ever cherished or wore or played with. Rare, semi-valuable objects of theirs were crated, labeled, and stored with the intention of being passed on to my children when they are adults and can more realistically decide what to do with them.

In recent months, my children have been bringing an alarming number of things into their bedrooms that they want to save. Whole mobile homes made out of shoe boxes for miniature stuffed animals, piles of scrap paper bearing the words “Good job!” and “Try better next time!” that they use when playing school, and large posterboards scrawled with pictures that are rolled into tubes. Not to mention the junk made from garbage like cereal boxes and egg cartons that are held together with pieces of tape and rubber bands filched from my desk drawer. A rubber ball stuck through with safety pins. Polyfill pulled from an opening in the gut of a stuffed pig is piled inside a shallow box and serves as a bed for a small toy squirrel. All this Junk is stored under their beds and on every flat surface, mocking the neatnik in me and daring me to put it into a bag and rid my soul of it forever.

Today is garbage day, and I did just that.

Maybe it finally got to me, or maybe it was that I felt that the children had earned enough time with and grew creatively enough from their art pieces, but I quickly and carefully bagged up exactly one garbage bag full so as not to alarm their animal-like acuity in sensing when things go awry in their bedroom-dens. I buried their treasures under real garbage like used tissues and meat packaging, and created garbage like shredded paper.

I would be lying if I said that I didn’t feel a little bad about it, but man, these kids are packrats. Nothing falls through their sticky fingers. And don’t think for a minute that that my children are helpless victims: they fight back with every shred of manipulation and excuse in their shrewdly sympathetic arsenal. Once I found a tag off of a new shirt displayed in the center of a pile of rubber bands on my son’s dresser. After I tried to throw the tag away, my son fished it out of the garbage can and informed me that he was saving it. For what purpose, I couldn’t imagine, but he explained it was from a shirt that he placed a high importance on wearing, and that it was obtained at a time in his life that he wanted to remember forever, and this makeshift shrine was exactly the way he wanted to display it. He told me once that he likes to have everything sitting out that he owns so that he can look at it. My husband told me the same thing once. Not to worry – there are a couple of Sports Illustrateds lying around that will be meeting their demise in a black garbage bag, and soon. I will figure out how bad I need to feel about that later.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Soul, Depleted

I think that raising kids to be decent human beings is one of the hardest things a person is ever asked to do.  It’s constant, and can often feel not unlike banging your head against a rock.  On good days, the angels sing, and on bad days, the most stanch and unfaltering mothers will weep.  On particularly bad days, I think raising children is like having your soul sucked right out of your body, just like the Dementors do in the Harry Potter book series.  I’ve read that the author, JK Rowling, wrote about these creatures when reflecting on a period of severe depression, but maybe this depiction could be a sub-conscious metaphor that she used, because as everybody knows she was a single mom when she wrote those books.  If I, a married mother of two half-grown children with no outside job to speak of, at times regards her offspring as soul-sucking zombies that thrive only by depleting her, then I’m sure the creator of Harry Potter felt the same way while she was busy working, writing, and raising a child.  Can I get a Hells Yeah, JK Rowling?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

To Whom It May Concern

I feel no pressure to own a super-smart, robot-brained cellphone.  All the ads for new cellphones - apparently mostly smart phones - confuse me.  I mean, as soon as a new one comes out, another one slides in to take its place.  And the deals.  Oh, the deals.  You get a free one with one and if you sign up family members, they get theirs for free, too.  The monthly plans ensure you never have to talk to another person face-to-face again, and the fee only approximates your non-dominant arm and maybe one leg up to the knee. 

I've owned a cellphone for most of my adult life, and my current one is a pre-paid phone with no camera and simple texting features, and less-than-average coverage/larger-than-average dead zones.  It's about three years old, and it's fine for me; I do not employ an entourage who needs me to be at the ready with my phone in a hip holster.  I can go a day without being contacted when I'm out and about; there are not any people in this world who cannot go about their lives or do their jobs without contacting me first.

I understand that I am in the minority.  I see people all around me who text or talk while driving, while eating dinner with their parents, families, and friends, on vacation, even at weddings and funerals.  I have long ago realized that I do not want to be at anyone's disposal anywhere, at any hour of the day or night just because my cellphone is on.  Because of this and my pay-as-you-talk plan, which can really add up, I rarely give my cell phone number out to anyone.  The following is an example of a response I give to people who want to talk to me via cellphone instead of other more obscure ways, such as telephone, email, mailed communication, or real live conversation:

I can give you my cell number, but please use it as a last resort, because I have horrible cell service and if you have to leave a message, I probably won’t get until a week later.  My husband is always on me to get an iPhone or something, and I always feign ignorance on how this newfangled technology works and how it would be a complete waste of money because I would never really learn all the functions on a new gadget.  Actually, the truth is I hardly use my cellphone because if I did, my husband would call me incessantly to ask me to do menial tasks for him while he is at work, and I’d rather not be his secretary.  Plus, I never keep my cellphone in the same place – it gets lost a lot – and it would be a shame to lose it with a message from you on it.  I can also give you my husband’s cell number, but please call from an unlisted number, because he will store your number in his phone and might try to call you at an odd time to ask you to fill up the propane tank for the grill.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Real Combat

In February of this year I joined a gym. Let me say on the record that I hate exercise. Let me restate. I Loathe exercise. Sweat, exhaustion, aching muscles, being out of breath – these are not attributes that scream “preferred quality of life” to me. If I were a ditch digger or an athlete or a mover of furniture by profession, these are things that I would fully expect from life. But I am a stay-at-home mom, and instead of experiencing these things as by-products of a job I get paid for, I choose to pay to experience them. Believe me, I would much rather lie on a beach or my couch all day and not sweat or ache, but I like to eat and drink all kinds of things that are terrible for the health and wellness of a body, and I can’t really afford to buy a new wardrobe with every cheeseburger that I eat and box of wine that I drink, so I must exercise.

I joined this particular gym because they offer group exercise classes. Yoga, weightlifting, cycling, dance – you name it, they offer it. Because of my snarly attitude towards exercise, I am not generally a self-starter when it comes to it. I will not use weight machines or free weights that come without instructions or a plan on how to maximize the benefits of using. If I’m at the gym, I don’t want my time to be wasted. Once in a while I will tromp on the treadmill for a half hour or so, but for the most part, I must make a mental appointment to exercise, show up on time, and do whatever an instructor tells me to do. Then I go home and sit quietly for half an hour and wait for my muscles to stop twitching.  I am so out of shape.

Recently, I did a class called Combat. It is a fast-moving cardiovascular workout, using a combination of martial arts – kicking and punching and the conditioning that goes with boxing like jumping rope and ducking. It is an anger-themed class, and it is set to angry pop/rock music with a good beat – songs from Metallica, Rage against the Machine, and Pink. The instructor tells us to focus on our target a lot. Like “Focus on your target, punch him in the face!” and “Focus your roundhouse kick on your target’s ribs!” In Combat, you punch an imaginary target in the face about 100 times, and then kick it in the groin, chin, or ribs, and then hold its head down and punch it into the ground about 100 times. I kind of like martial arts in terms of kung fu and ninjas, like in the movies. This Combat class is beyond the beautiful, floating Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon kind of martial arts I’m into. I’m pretty sure that military leaders should use this class to train soldiers to whip them into a killing frenzy immediately before going to war.

Combat is a little intense for 9:00 in the morning, especially for me. I am pretty pacifistic, believing that words and understanding are far more effective than killing and force. You know, “words are mightier than the sword” and all that. It goes along with my personality because I like to be calm and quiet. If you honk your car horn at me because I did something stupid while driving, I will flash you the peace sign rather than flip you the bird. Peace, love and understanding. That’s me. If I must exercise, my training of choice is yoga. It’s very serene, very internal, very smooth. In yoga, your muscles slowly stretch to achieve a more flexible, toned state. It might take years, but that’s okay with me.

Yoga wasn’t available that morning at the time I had carved out to exercise, so I did Combat instead. It was okay; I felt like I needed the cardio workout to flush out some of the harm I had been doing to my body in the name of junk food and liquor, despite my aversion to sweating. I showed up and took a prime spot on the floor around some people who were stretching and chatting up the instructor. One thing about any type of exercise class is that there will always be people in it who live, breathe, and will die taking this class. They love it, they are friends with the instructor, pick up on all the new moves right away. They are the rock stars in the class. If you’re not careful, you may even mistake them for the instructor, they look so good doing it. I usually position myself behind a person like this. That way, I can watch them if I can’t see the instructor. Today I found myself in back of two particular women who were obviously experts at Combat. As we warmed up and started the class, they ducked, kicked, and punched at all the right times, and had their own special extra moves that I of course tried to copy on the sly. I’m big and tall for a girl, and these two child-sized women looked like they could take turns kicking my butt with two hands tied behind their backs. The class went on; it was tough and I was sweating. As time passed, I felt I was keeping up and doing a pretty good job, shuffling across the floor, roundhousing the heck out of my target with my huge legs and feet, punching and ducking and speedballing as best I could. I was breathing hard and getting worn out, but I felt pretty good.

Until I glanced away from watching the Combat Rock Stars and saw myself in the mirror.

I was a mess. I started sneaking peeks at all the other participants, and couldn’t believe how off I was from the rest of the class. Awkward does not begin to describe how I looked compared to them. They were all punching and leading with their shoulders in tandem, and I was bending my wrists and elbows, punching with the wrong arm, twisting the wrong way, arms flailing when they were supposed to be protecting my face from my target, kicking when I was supposed to be shuffling, almost tripping when it was time to take a lap around the exercise studio. I stifled a laugh, and accidently punched myself in the face. Twice. Did a jump kick to the front when everyone else was squatting. I didn’t even try the three jab/one upper cut/front kick combo. And I was huffing and sweating. My pants kept riding up and sticking to me from all the sweat. My hair was falling out of the band that was holding it back and I kept stopping to fix it. I was determined to finish, so I tried to do the rest of the class by not looking at myself. It was ugly, but we all know that when there is a car accident, most of us will slow down to look. This wreck was relentlessly comical – I just couldn’t get it up to speed with the rest of the class now that my concentration was broken, and I couldn’t help but laugh at myself. I probably didn’t maximize my workout because of all the smiling I was doing at my own gawkiness, but I managed to finish the class, succeeded in not hurting myself or anyone else, and did my knees-down girl pushups while everyone else seemed to be cruising through the regular ones with no problem. I did ace the yoga stretches and down-dog position that we did to cool down, though. When it was all over, the instructor said goodbye to everyone and threw me a quizzical look and I just know she would be asking her fellow instructors just who the spastic, uncoordinated tall woman was in her Combat class. I flashed her the peace sign and got the heck out of there.

Yeah, maybe I'll stick to yoga.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Cake Fail

Dear Makers of Bake-and-Decorate Your Own Cake Toy: Although I am pleased by your implied optimism that my children and I can make the cake contained with your product look like the one on the package, I feel compelled to write that it did not, even the tiniest little bit, do so. Sincerely, Andrea, Mother and Fondant Failure

This is the letter that I should send to the makers of this toy which sat in my pantry for 8 months since my daughter received it for Christmas. Being a lazy mother with no desire to help my kids create a mess that I will be responsible for cleaning up, and despite the fact that I myself had bought it for my daughter, I hid it in the back of a medium-height shelf in the pantry with the hope that she would forget about it. Well, she did, but its disuse mocked me until I felt guilty enough to resurrect it and give it a whirl. On a cool and rainy end-of-summer day, I hauled the thing out of the cupboard and began to wash the roughly 1,000 components that came with the product. I soon realized that it took two “C” batteries that I just don’t happen to stock at home. We made a brief trip to the store to purchase the batteries, came home, opened the instructions and prepared ourselves to create a masterpiece.

We decided on a chocolate cake to start, so we dumped the included powdered cake batter into the provided bowl, added the suggested one spoonful of water, and mixed until smooth. We poured the batter into the kit’s cake pans and baked them in the microwave for 30 seconds, as instructed. My disbelief that a cake could actually bake in 30 seconds, without taking into account that this was a tiny cake baked from approximately four teaspoons of batter, was squashed as we removed the pan from the microwave and flipped the perfectly-baked cakes onto a paper towel and stacked one on top of the other to create a perfect, if tiny, two-tiered cake.

Now for the fondant. Now, I am not a fan of fondant. I do not like the texture or the taste, and I have seen just enough cooking shows and know just enough amateur cake-bakers to know that it is not the easiest substance to work with. Nevertheless, this toy’s purpose is to make the users feel like professional cake decorators, and fondant icing is the main ingredient in its objective, since everybody knows that all the trendy cake decorators use it. So we read the instructions and began to make fondant. Again with the powder in the bowl, again with the scant spoonful of water that seemed comically inadequate. We stirred and stirred until the substance resembled the homemade play-dough that I made – once – when my kids were toddlers and I was an infinitely better mom. My daughter deemed it the right consistency, and proceeded to roll it out onto the provided stick-free mat. We positioned it over the top of the cake and tried to flatten out the edges to make it look as fondant should – like a plastic covering. When we realized that it was as good as it was going to get with our expertise, we stood back and decided that it could only get better with more decorations, or details, as my daughter likes to call them, and dumped some sprinkles over the top of the fondant. When it was finished, we stepped back yet again to regard our masterpiece with a critical eye. This is what it looked like:
Of course, we laughed our faces off. It was so drastically different from the picture on the front of the package – the picture that it should have resembled, instead of this miniature tragedy. After we each tasted our masterpiece, we threw the remains away. Then when my kids weren’t looking, the whole toy met its demise in the kitchen trash. No one needs to relive this experience in MY house.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Ways to Ensure You Have a Happy Birthday

My birthday bugs me. There are people who loooooove their birthday with every fiber of their being, love parties, presents, and being surprised. These people are generally positive people, and when I look at them, I see rainbows and butterflies and smiley faces. I love people like this. I am NOT one of these people. I see the approaching thunderstorm under every silver-lined cloud. I see too many presents at Christmas as a waste of wrapping paper. I see the first day of school not as a new beginning, but as the sad end to waking up late and guilt-free margaritas at noon. And I see birthdays in terms of the likelihood that someone will tell the wait staff at lunch that it is your birthday, and twelve apathetic twenty-somethings will emerge from the kitchen and sing a terrible rendition of a happy birthday song that involves clapping and shouting.

If you’re like me, every passing year is the reminder that your life really hasn’t made much of a dent in the ways things work in the world. Despite the reality that we Americans are blessed beyond anyone else in any nation in the world, we are taught to think that we as individuals are to do Big Things with our Big Talents and make Big Money doing them, and anything less means that we are Big Losers. You might feel that you’re just idling by, maybe working at a dead-end job that doesn’t showcase your abilities or talents, or catering to the needs of spoiled children and family members who suck all your time and energy, thus stripping you of the opportunities to cultivate your creativity, or lazing around and wishing hours away on things that weren’t meant to be. Any of these things result in feeling trapped in the inevitability that we are just one step closer to the end of our lives, the one thing that we foolishly dream we can change without actually having any control over. Cruelly, each year that passes marks us in the form of another wrinkle, another gray hair, another inch of drooping skin.

Maybe you’re thinking, “this definitely does not describe ME or how I view my life or my birthday, I’m a star and I love myself and my place in this world!!!!” My response to you is: Good for you. But this is MY birthday, MY perspective, and MY list. There’s a song about this very moment, and YOU KNOW what it is.

Despite all this gloom and doom, I actually had a very, very good birthday this year. There were no fireworks, no extravagant gifts, and no parties. In general, there was no big fuss. It was just nice. I chalked this nice birthday up to a few effective strategies I used this year, and I’d like to share them with you:

1. If you have children, about a week before your birthday, emphasize through stories and exaggerated emotions how much you love something you like a lot. This year I talked to my children for 7 days before my birthday about how much I love chocolate and how my favorite gift as a child was a bag of chocolate, how my favorite holiday was Easter because of the chocolate we eat, and we had conversations about whole cities and worlds made out of chocolate. Guess what my kids gave me for my birthday this year.

2. If you have a husband, and he wants to get you something for your birthday, you must tell him exactly what you want, because if you don’t, he most likely will take you to a baseball game someone gave him tickets for that day, and try to pass that off as your gift.  Provide websites, addresses and phone numbers of stores, or pictures from catalogs. If he must order your gift, tell him the day he must order it so you get it on time. This year my husband gave me luxurious bath products. About a month before my birthday, I forwarded the link containing the items to his work email, telling him that I wanted these items for my birthday, and told him how much it would cost. About a week before my birthday, I asked him if he placed the order. You might think all this work takes the fun out of getting the gift, but you are wrong.

3. If you have friends who like to take you to restaurants and ask the wait staff to serenade you with embarrassing songs or make you wear silly hats or tie balloons to your chair on your birthday, mention as often as possible how much these things throw you into a fit of anxiety every year when your birthday approaches, and tell them how embarrassed you were at the last birthday party you attended where the birthday girl was forced to stand up in front of everyone and wear a coconut bra and dance to Mony Mony while shaking a pair of plastic maracas. Then claim previous plans when they ask you out to dinner.

4. On your birthday which falls on a Tuesday, go out with your family to the fancy Italian restaurant in town where nobody goes on a Tuesday and you and your family are the only people in the restaurant. Then silently high-five yourself as the owner brings you five shots of Sambuca to celebrate your birthday, while your kids eat the third loaf of bread you’ve asked for. Then go home and take a bath using your new luxurious bath products.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Some of These Things Are Not Like the Others

As I was folding the laundry today, it dawned on me that my husband, who is approaching forty, and although he has a good sense of humor, – obviously, he’s married to me – has not one ounce of whimsy or silliness in his being, and is the straight man to my comic, owns, and wears regularly, underpants featuring Spongebob Squarepants.

My husband’s normal wardrobe, between work and church, and the occasional night out, consists of golf shirts and long-sleeve oxford shirts, and dress slacks. The rest of the time he is outfitted in one of about 12,000 assorted t-shirts advertising college and professional sports teams. He just isn’t a very avant garde dresser. But when I found the Spongebob drawers, I wondered what else do we keep in our closets that belie our everyday personas, and how much do they represent what we wish for our lives? My hub also owns a shirt with a picture of a cowboy with a dog, riding a horse. The caption reads: “You’ve brought home worse.” He wears it without any sense of irony, although I seethe a little when I see him in it. I’m pretty sure that people see that shirt he’s wearing, take a peek at his unkempt wife, and think to themselves, “Got that right, brother.” He also owns about five Hawaiian shirts, which he wears on vacations and outdoor parties in the summertime. They are all hideously ugly. I think he keeps these items around just to remind himself that he has the propensity to be wild and crazy. As if he was Clark Kent and his alter ego wasn’t Superman, but Carrot Top.

I’ve also got my share of things that don’t quite, well, fit. My current wardrobe consists of plain, boring shirts and shorts or pants I buy at Walmart or Target, which means that they are only made to last about 6 months, and I’ve had them all for about 4 years. In contrast, I own upwards of twenty pairs of gorgeous and insanely fancy 50’s and 60’s era jeweled clip-on earrings, and I wear one pair once a week to church for about a half hour and put them in my purse during church service, at which time I elbow my husband to look at how red and dented my earlobes are. Because clip-on earrings Pinch and Hurt and were obviously designed by torture specialists. But I wear a pair each week because although most of the time I am dressed like I will have my hands in a toilet all day, my inner fancy lady is screaming to get out.

When we were in our twenties, my husband and I lived in Charlotte, North Carolina. Because Charlotte is NASCAR country, we found ourselves at one or two – okay, five – NASCAR races, despite the fact that we didn’t really care about NASCAR at all. As a side note, if you have never been to a race, it is worth the trip just to see the sheer size of a race track and the volume of folks inside the track. Lowe’s Motor Speedway seats what appears to be one million people, and you can bring your own beer into the track as long as you can fit it under your seat, which is completely awesome. One day we attended a pre-race festival where they had promotional booths and food tents, some race cars to look at and other random race-related vendors and information. We stopped at several tables to load up on free stuff like refrigerator magnets and coupons for groceries. One booth in particular was giving away t-shirts to any man who could do ten pull-ups and any woman who could do a one-minute flexed-arm hang. I know as well as anyone that this is one of the most inequitable contests between men and women, because ten pull-ups are almost impossible for anyone who is weaker than the World’s Strongest Man, while my 2-year-old nephew could do a flexed-arm hang all day long. I knew I was walking away with a free t-shirt. And I did. After high-fiving myself and my husband and the friends we came with and some assorted strangers at my fantastic display, we unfolded it, at which point everyone doubled over laughing. For my new t-shirt proclaimed: “PAIN IS WEAKNESS LEAVING THE BODY.” Now, it is no secret in my circle of friends and family, and really anyone who knows me for more than 30 seconds, that I am not very tough. I don’t like to do anything athletic, and I don’t like to exercise or sweat, and for the love of everything good in the world, I do not welcome any kind of pain, whether physical or emotional. The slogan on this t-shirt represents so much the opposite of who I am that 12 years later, I still have it. And I wear it regularly to remember when I was tough for one minute, because honestly, I wish I was just a little bit tough most of the time.

You Are Not My Friend

I went to the gym two days in a row this week, after taking the summer off to goof around at home all day. Now I am stiff and sore and I feel Old. And then this just happened:

At the door: Knock, knock.
Me: Who’s there?
At the door: Forty.
Me: GO AWAY

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The First Day of Blog

So I started this blog despite my paltry web skills.  I mean, I know how to access my email account, but I still read "html" as "hotmail."   Having a place where I can catalog the minutiae of life that crack me up, well, makes me happy. Now if only something would happen that I can write about.