Friday, January 17, 2014

An Epiphany, of Sorts, In a Cluttered Home

I had something of an epiphany the other day. Actually, epiphany is a bit strong, as I don't really think this was a lightning bolt of life-changing revelation, maybe more like a cartoon light bulb going on above a cartoon head in, you know, a cartoon.  But I do like the word epiphany, and they say that if you don't use your vocabulary, you lose it. It terrifies me to think of all the words I used to know that I have already lost command of through simple disuse.  So I will sprinkle the ones I still have left over this blog. Take that, impending Alzheimer's!

Anyway... the light bulb went on this past Sunday afternoon, when my brother in law dropped by unexpectedly to bring something for the girls.  Delia was recovering from a cold, and was still in her pajamas, even though it was about three thirty in the afternoon. She was wearing a pair of my high heels though, as was Fiona, because there was some kind of stuffed animal fashion show about to begin, and, as everyone knows, that is the perfect occasion for the high-low mix of heels and fleece pjs.  Mike and I had thrown on "casual" clothing early, because we knew the day would be full of laundry and chores and coffee and newspaper-reading.  So we all looked kind of sloppy, except for Fee, who had put on a fresh set of school clothes, because she had tired of the first set by noon.  (Clearly, that's why I do so much laundry.)  I don't believe any of us had combed our hair, though we had all brushed our teeth, because we're all mouth-breathing sleepers, and that means it's just icky to do anything but brush your teeth the second you get out of bed, before you even talk to anybody.  It's like a public service, you know?   

So Tim drops by, and in addition to the fact that we all looked kind of crappy, the house was a mess.  A real mess, because the girls set up a tea party on the table in the dining area, then built blanket forts in the space between the dining area and living room, then started art projects on the living room floor, getting out all the paper and drawing utensils.  You could see some of the floor, but most of it was pretty well covered by... stuff.  The girls' room was the scene of the pretend fashion show, so all the Barbies, dolls and animals were out, littering the hall, all over the floor and dresser, and lined up on the bed that I'd made before ten a.m., but which had somehow been unmade in the process of setting up the fashion show "runway." There were dishes from lunch in the kitchen sink, and, though the bathrooms were on my list of chores, I had not yet approached them for the day.  Oy!   I was suddenly ashamed to be reading the newspaper in my own house. I looked around in a panic, but there was nowhere to hide. 

Mike said, "Come on in," and Tim proceeded to pick his way through the clutter, saying "Hi" to the girls and commenting favorably on their high heels when they ran out to see him.  And then it happened.  Mike cleared some of the Times off the sofa, and Tim sat down, like there was nothing wrong with our living room.  As of my writing this, the world still has not yet exploded.  I have not been hit by a lightning bolt of judgmental wrath for the state of the house.  In case you missed the importance of this, let me spell it out for you:  I had a guest at my house while it was a crazy mess, and nothing in the universe has changed.  

While I'm certainly glad that my wretched slovenliness hasn't caused a rip in the time-space continuum or a nuclear implosion, I am kind of perplexed. (Did you catch all the vocabulary I stuffed into that sentence? Just saying...) This threatens the very foundation of my being, because I have always thought that if someone saw that my house was a mess, the world would end, or at least I would feel like it had because of the shameful judgment that would rain down upon my bowed head.  Now I'm beginning to question a lot of my dearly held assumptions, like, for instance, what if I step on a crack-- will my mother's back be okay? What about the need to wear nice underwear in case I'm in an accident?* What if one of the girls wears something two days in a row? How fast will child protective services come to get me-- or will they come at all?  

See, here's the thing: I like to think that I'm not all that concerned about what other people think and that I don't really worry much, but apparently I do care, and I do worry.  I don't want to anymore-- I want to be the relaxed person I am in my self-concept. Will I still keep my house clean?  Well, yeah, because I still want it to be clean. What I'm going to try to avoid is keeping it clean because someone might judge me if it's a mess or it's cluttered because kids leave their things out.  I'm going to try not to feel guilty reading the Sunday paper on Sunday, even if the house is a mess.  Because, really, nothing bad is going to happen...but I'm going to try to wear nice underwear anyway, just in case...

*This has already been questioned by several people I know in a lively debate, in which some people took the position that if a person was in a serious accident, their underwear might not remain clean anyway, relieving the victim of the responsibility for nice underwear in the first place.  But still, what if onlookers deemed the accident "not that serious" and then got all judgmental about the state of my undergarments?

Light bulb from here. Woman in cluttered room picture from here. Cluttered room illustration from here.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

I Gotta Be Me-- Only Better

If you're like me-- and I know I am-- you're all about self improvement at this time of year. Well, actually, I am kind of about judging others and allowing myself to feel a wee bit smug about my comparative superiority, but I am working on that, for sure.  The thing is, I usually compare myself to others and find myself lacking, except maybe in trivial matters, such as grammar or vocabulary, but anyone with a dictionary or a style manual could easily overtake me there as well, so really, maybe I should just crawl back into bed and stay there.  

But seriously folks, I am trying to improve every day, and jokes about there being so much to improve aside, I find that my goals for improvement are usually mental instead of physical.  Diet and exercise are definitely on the horizon, but I know that the cause of so much of my "comfort-eating" and lackluster physical condition have to do with stress.  

So, it seems that to make a go of any physical improvement program, I have to relieve some of the stress that causes the physical issues in the first place.  That's the way this philosopher thinks about it anyway:  get to the logical root of the problem to effectively solve it.   So I'm out to reduce stress.  But I know that, even if I found a big old bag of money to solve some of the basic subsistence problems that we have month to month, most of my stresses themselves would still exist, because they involve people or issues that are deeply integrated into my existence. Really, the only thing I can change is the way I handle stress. 

As usual, it's all back on me.  I guess that's why they call it self improvement.

Right now, I don't have any kind of well-laid plan or anything, but lately it seems that everything I read points me in the general direction of trying to stay in the present rather than letting my mind leap ahead to the unknown future or get lost in nostalgic memory of the past.  I like this article about Alan Watts and his ideas about reducing anxiety that recently showed up on Brain Pickings.  His thought was that people ruin their lives by wishing for a certain future, which is a futile hope.  The more we stress about what is going to happen, the less we can enjoy what is happening right now.  The same goes for wishing ourselves back to some time in our lives that seems better than the present.  While I don't consider myself an anxious person, per se, I know that some of my stress is about what will happen tomorrow or next month or if we can't pay our bills or if this or if that.  So Watts' ideas about living in the moment today, really being present as life happens, makes sense to me.  This is a first step in a continuing process, which I will be documenting periodically in the blog.  If I'm going to improve myself, I'm going to drag all of you with me!

Self-improvement image from here.  Stress image from here-- this page has a lot of good stuff on it.  

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Southwest Polar Vortex

Bloggers across the country are writing about the polar vortex-- the bitter cold, the power outages, the forced misery of life with children stuck inside for days on end because of prodigious amounts of snow and dangerously chilly daytime temperatures. Wind chill of 30 below, anyone?  I can at least say that I know the chill of this weather first hand.  The years we spent in Maine and Massachusetts contained more than one "storm of the century." I'm not exactly sure how that's possible, but that is the way I remember it, so it must be right.  

Here, we have projected highs in the 70s, and the girls have been happily back in school since yesterday.  I had to put the kids in long sleeves and jackets today, not to mention shoes with socks. There is also a small chance of rain in the next few days, and you know how messed up things get when it sprinkles.  I mean, the girls might have to take umbrellas to school, and then I'll have to listen to how they'd rather get wet than be embarrassed by using their Dora umbrella.  It's still perfectly good though, and we use them so seldom, that I am making them keep it until it doesn't actually keep rain from falling on their heads.  

As an act of climate solidarity, I put some chicken in the crock pot to make a batch of enchiladas and some chicken tortilla soup.  I figured we could do with some warm comfort food too. After all, our high temperatures may be in the 60s, but our lows are dipping into the 40s, with, you know, a wind chill of, probably less than 40, if it ever gets windy.  For Scottsdale, Arizona, that's a polar vortex, baby!

Feeling like I could do even more, I baked a cinnamon bread pudding with salted caramel sauce and promptly ate two bowls full.  I did find that pretty darn comforting.  Otherwise, I got nothing.  But hey, check back with me next August, when we've got record highs, and the weather people are apologizing for the streak of over a hundred days above a hundred degrees.  Then you can enjoy a couple of bowls of ice cream, you know,  in solidarity with me.  

Snow picture from here.  Phoenix metro forecast from here

Monday, January 6, 2014

Back in the Saddle, so to Speak

Today is the first day back to school after what used to be called Christmas Vacation, which now goes by the more politically correct, but much less festive, Winter Break.  The girls are still sleeping, as I am still in the stick-to-itive-ness phase of the New Year's resolution cycle and I am writing early, as I promised myself I would every day.  If I make it for three weeks, this is supposed to become a habit, which, if it is anything like snapping my gum, or picking at small imperfections on my skin, should stick with me for life.  I have some fear though, that only bad habits get stuck this way, as my yearly resolutions to be a better person and eat less fat have not ever really taken hold, even after some good three week runs.  

But restarts are the order of the day, so I give myself credit for ignoring the siren call of Facebook and the many meandering diversions it offers, and diving right  in to the down-to-business beginning of the new year, the mini "back to school" after vacation-- I mean, break

Last night, I rounded up the school stuff and made one last plea for the girls to get their over-the-break homework done. Actually, it was yesterday afternoon, because I can't stay up late any more, and, really, I didn't want to be looking for folders and backpacks once Downton Abbey came on-- new season for that too, of course.  I had talked with the girls, especially Fiona, who came home two weeks ago with a forty page math "activity packet" and a small art project to be turned in today, about pacing themselves and not leaving everything for the last minute.  I knew the art project could be done in an hour at most, so I set it aside to preserve it, and planned to do it Sunday morning, which is technically a whole day before the last minute.

The packet though, was a tougher thing.  There is a part of me that doesn't believe in over-the-break homework--it is supposed to be vacation, even though they only call it break now-- so I had some moral pangs about hounding Fee to get it done.  On the other hand, my best friend, who is a reading specialist, told me that kids can lose six months' ground over a two week break.  Ouch! I was torn, but not torn enough to have it be an issue every day for two weeks.  We started it Saturday.  And it was painful. There was crying, begging, screaming, outrage-- and that was all me and Mike.  Fiona had a very dramatic love-hate relationship with the whole thing, insisting she had to do it, but protesting that she couldn't, or didn't want to, or was too tired, or too hungry or too bored.  After a day that included multiple time out sessions spent in her room reflecting on how wrong it is to talk back to your parents, Fee finally buckled down and got to work. As of this morning, we're at about 85% complete, and I think that's enough.  Besides, it's time to round 'em up and move 'em out, back to school we go!

*Update-- the packet was completely untouched in Fiona's folder when she got home from school today:  the work wasn't even collected!  All that crying and misery was for nothing... I think I need a time out in my room to reflect on how important it is to let vacation be vacation-- I mean, break.  


"Motivation Wall" from here.  Downton pic from here.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Close to Nothing, but Still Something

Almost missed posting for today.  It's been a bit hectic. The new year doesn't seem to be cooperating any more than the old one did, but so far there is still much promise.  A couple of days ago, I answered a Facebook challenge from my friend Filippa to post a couple of favorite pictures by an artist she would assign, and to say a few words about the artist.  Filippa is gifted with immense insight and so I was unsurprised when I found my artist was Mary Cassatt.  Cassatt was an American artist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who found intellectual and artistic acceptance among the developing Impressionist school in Paris.  My meager contribution for today is to share two of her paintings with you here.  

The upper picture is called "Breakfast in Bed" and I love it because it so clearly shows the casual intimacy of mother and child-- there is something in the look on the mother's face that keeps the picture from being too sentimental-- something real and questioning that is more than just a loving motherly gaze.  The painting is rather simple, but the feelings captured are complex.  The lower picture is "Girl in a Blue Armchair" and I love it because it showcases the spectacular ease and boredom of being a child, and yet, it too, shows something more in the girl's expression and body language.  I wish I knew how to analyze art more cleverly, but alas... I only know what I like.  

More tomorrow.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

At Least Binge Watching Cooking Shows Isn't Actually Fattening...

This is the second day that the girls are binge-watching DC Cupcakes.  The show is about a pair of sisters in their late twenties or early thirties who still call their mother "Mommy." They own a cupcake shop in Georgetown. At least one of them has a husband with a job that pays well enough for them to open a shop without apparent regard for making a living. The binge started yesterday afternoon, when it was the only show they could both agree to watch on Netflix, on the computer, while Mike watched some obligatory New Year's Day football.  We had already vetoed more episodes of Shake It Up.  That third season binge watch already happened between Christmas and New Year, but at least it gave them some exercise as they danced through the routines in every episode. We also said no to Wizards of Waverly Place, and anything else that originally appeared on the Disney Channel.  Don't even get me started on what's wrong with Good Luck Charlie and Jessie, two shows that were apparently developed for the sole purpose of making complete fools of adults recklessly left in charge of precociously sarcastic children.  It just makes me thankful that my kids haven't had a stable of comedy writers crafting their comebacks and zingers. Fiona's "Mom, you're just so squishy!" sounds bad enough without the polish of professional gag writing.  

But I digress.  

The girls have always liked cooking shows.  It started with the Pioneer Woman, Ree Drummond, who I find to be a little precious, even though I always like her recipes.  I might be precious too if I was married to a cowboy and had abandoned the legal profession for a big Oklahoma ranch with my own cooking "lodge," instead of a tiny bike shop post office where I sneak the opportunity to write on my laptop. Now they like Trisha Yearwood, Giada, and strangely, Mary Ann Esposito of Ciao Italia.
(Not to take anything away from Ms. Esposito, who apparently has the longest running cooking show on TV, according to her website, but really, she's not exactly, you know, dazzling in her presentation.) When we had cable, we also used to watch some of the quirkier Cooking Channel shoes like Extra Virgin (Imagine a contemporary I Love Lucy, with recipes, where Lucille Ball is played by Debi Mazar and her Tuscan chef husband takes on the role of the put-upon but fiery spouse. Add a gay bff standing in for both Fred and Ethel and sit back as high jinks ensue!) and my favorite, Bitchin' Kitchen with Nadia G. Nadia G. rocked five inch heels, knuckle rings, and ridiculously long fingernails while spouting philosophy and prepping three course meals, always clustered around a theme, such as "getting that Shmuck to finally propose" and "what to serve to your parents to prove you're really a grown-up."  

But I digress again.

The DC Cupcakes phenomenon was a bit of a mystery to me, so I asked the girls what they liked about it. Delia said that she watches it because now she wants to be a cupcake shop owner and because they help a charity in every episode.  I didn't even catch that, probably because of the constant whining on the show, but when I clicked back through the episodes, she was right, there was the Boys and Girls Club, the Susan G. Komen foundation, the ASPCA, and a couple of local Georgetown organizations that got big cupcake displays crafted by the sisters who alternately bake and squabble about who is bossier, who is smarter and who is really the important one in the operation.   The cupcakes look delicious, and people seem to love them-- Fiona pointed this out as one of the show's virtues.  But in every episode, they court disaster with over-ambitious projects which are always barely finished just as the cupcakes need to be presented for serving.  Along the way, they routinely disagree about how to execute these projects which inevitably involve chicken wire, dowels and blow torches, not to mention hundreds of cupcakes precariously affixed to themed sculptural displays such as gigantic bras and diamond rings.  

"They are really life sisters," says Fiona, when I point out how much they argue, "of course they fight."  

"Yeah," says Delia, "they're together 24/7 and their mom drives them crazy.  They get on each others nerves. Who wouldn't?" And yet, she wants to own a cupcake shop.  She says she might let Fiona work for her.  Maybe.  All I know is that they've watched four episodes while I've written this, and they are still smitten.  

I find the sisters to be ridiculously neurotic and self-absorbed, but I guess that seeing grown-ups act that way must be as entertaining to children as seeing grown-ups consistently outwitted by sarcastic children.  Hey, call Disney-- they may want to add frosting to their usual formula. They could have a real hit on their hands...

Cupcake image from here.  Images of Mary Ann Esposito and Nadia G. are from their respective homepages.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Welcoming the New Year

Today was a quiet day.  The girls are still pretty well amused with the things Santa and their wonderful extended family brought them, and the gaps between sessions with the Barbie Glam Vacation house and the still-new art supplies are filled with some time spent with Hulu and Netflix.  I read the whole New York Times from this past Sunday and a few sections from the previous week.  I even got partway through the crossword puzzle.  And, of course, I cooked and baked a little and cleaned a little-- more like tidying I guess, but still... I won't get up tomorrow and reel in horror when I walk out of my bedroom.  Starting the year with reasonable expectations is the name of my game.  

That's right.  New year:  January 1st, 2014.  Am I the only one asking where the hell December 2013 went? 

I know I spent more time than usual at work, and the little post office was crazy-busy, so the days flew by as the packages piled themselves into what looked like gigantic forts and the Christmas cards filled bins and boxes at my feet. By the time I looked up, my oldest son had graduated from college-- no really, he did. We went and watched the ceremony in a gigantic crowd with his wonderful partner and her family.  We all saw him get his diploma on the Jumbotron usually reserved for awkward wedding proposals and instant replays of questionable basketball shots. I just have to say that my son has four syllables in his full name, and two of them were mispronounced.  But hey, who am I to quibble with the venerable degree-granting university? As long as his name is spelled correctly on the diploma.  

My younger son turned twenty nine, and spent the holiday week with his girlfriend's family across the country. That week I rushed along myself, I am sure, because I am always happier knowing he's back home. There are plans for an engagement next fall.  All of this means that, by this time next year, I will have two sons over thirty... but that's not the point is it? Both of them have college degrees and long term relationships.  The Jewish mother sighs gently, but is not crying...really.

And then there are the little girls.  Last night, to ring out the old year, we replaced dinner with a family cocktail party, feasting around the coffee table on appetizers like layered bean dip and pigs in blankets which we washed down with sparkling wine (grown-ups) and "kid champagne" (sparkling cider) for the young ladies.  Today Delia, the seven year old, slept late and stayed in her pajamas all day, giving us a sneak preview of what it will be like to have a teen-aged girl around the place.  The five year old Fiona annoyed the crap out of her all day, in all the little ways that little sisters do, giving us confirmation of what the next 10 or 12 years will be like. Every. Day.  

But as I work on this, I can hear the girls giggling in their beds.  They have been shushed and bribed and threatened, but still, they are not sleeping.  Delia is reading to Fiona, and I can make out every other word or so at first, but then Fee gets quiet as she gets into the story.  "...and then the sisters were finally friends.  The end," drifts toward me in Dee's small, clear voice, and then "now go to sleep."  And it's quiet for a minute, and maybe they finally are friends, at least until morning.

You weren't stellar, 2013, but you didn't break me, either.  Here's to 2014 and all it brings-- may it be a good year for all of us.

Image from here