Saturday, October 30, 2010

Home Improvement Continued...

…or Why Home Improvement is Like Sharing Baked Goods with Wild Life

Have you read any of the children’s books by Felicia Bond and Laura Numeroff like If You Give a Moose a Muffin or If You Give a Pig a Pancake? Check them out if you haven’t—they’re a lot of fun. The stories follow a formula where one action leads to another and then to another until the characters come full circle to where they started off. You give a pig a pancake, he wants syrup. The syrup makes him sticky, he wants a bath. You give him a bath he wants a toy—and on and on until you give him another pancake and he gets sticky. Home improvement projects are just like that. 

 The brilliant Carol Kane reading "If You Give a Mouse a Cookie"

In my last blog post, I prematurely suggested that my porch project is just about finished. But I’m beginning to believe you’re never really finished. You paint the walls and realize you need new window shades. With the new paint and shades the rug looks really awful so that needs to be replaced. Along the way you run out of primer, your sander bites the dust, the wood screws you have are the wrong size and on and on until the folks at Home Depot know you on sight. If do it yourself projects are supposed to save money, how to people afford to hire folks to do all this stuff?
We are approximately 24 hours away from guests arriving for Halloween. We’ll be ready—more or less (or I’d be doing more working and less writing!). I remember reading an article about entertaining years ago that suggested if you are short on time, just make sure the bathrooms are clean, turn the lights down low and light some candles. Everyone will be having too much fun to notice if the house isn’t pristine. I would add, if all else fails, make sure there is plenty of booze for the grown-ups, sugar for the kids, and pizza for everyone.
Have a spooky and fun Halloween!
Proof that I'm a REALLY good sport.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Scrape, sand, repeat...

Forgive me Dear Readers. It’s been nearly a week since my last confession blog post. I’ve been distracted by a home improvement project. I have not only neglected this blog, but my day-to-day chores as well. The contents of my refrigerator has been retired to the compost bin and I have a giant laundry beast to slay (at least the laundry is clean—we have piles & piles of clean laundry).
Every project around here takes longer than I anticipate. I blame the age of the house (it was built in 1904) and the previous owner—Mickey Mouse. At least, I think that’s who did all the maintenance on this house before we bought it. It’s the only thing that could possibly explain his “creative” methods of home improvement. In honor of Halloween, I ought to tell you the horror stories of the electrical system—but it gives me chills just thinking about it. Fortunately, we exorcized those demons early on in our home ownership.
The room I’m working on is the porch. It was more or less winterized by previous owners (meaning it has radiators but no insulation) and the boys use it as a playroom. But since it’s the first room anyone sees it’s more of a playroom-art studio-mudroom-foyer sort of place.
I’ve been scraping, sanding and painting the walls and trim and my husband has had the Herculean task of wrestling in a new front door. Houses of this vintage have very few 90º angles and manufacturers have this silly policy of making all their doors true rectangles. He has done a lot of shaving, sanding and swearing lately. But it really had to be done (and I must say it looks fabulous!). For some reason, when Mickey installed the front door, he used a hollow core door—which is adequate for something like the door of your linen closet. As an exterior door it leaves a little to be desired in the way of insulation and security.
If hubby was Hercules in this adventure, I was merely Sisyphus: rolling the boulder of paint prep up hill for what seemed an eternity (over-dramatic? moi?). I am overjoyed to report we have achieved paint. Now it’s on to the window treatments and moving all the stuff out of my living room and back where it lives.
Back in August in a moment of self-delusion I ordered all toys, games, coat closets, shoe cubbies, etc. off the porch. It was time to paint and I was ready to jump headfirst. But then school started and with it came Cub Scouts, soccer, homework, daytime work hours and all the other shiny things that distract one from a task. Some time in the last few weeks I looked at the living room and looked at the calendar and looked back at the living room and realized that something had to be done.
Halloween is on the way and we’re having a little party. A couple of other families will join us for pre-trick-or-treating pizza and football (the Pat’s kickoff is 4:15 on Halloween afternoon). Suddenly I had a deadline. It turns out it was just what I needed. When I have all the time in the world, I take all the time in the world. If I have a week, I get it done in a week. Now that the porch is almost done, I’ll have to start another project. After all, Christmas sounds like a good deadline. I wonder how long it would take me to paint the dining room…

Thursday, October 21, 2010

I Stand Corrected

(...or dear Lord we may have another English Major in the family!)
             Sunday night the boys and I stopped by Wal-mart after dinner. “How long are we going to be here?” asked Owen. At the same time James asked, “Can we look at the toys?”
            “No guys. No stopping to look at toys today. It’s almost James’ bedtime. We’re just going to go in and grab a few things we need for the week. I’ve got to find my list.”
            “You mean you have to find your list,” said James.
            I was hunting around in the dark minivan so what he said didn’t quite register with me. “What did you say, honey?”
            I looked in the rear-view mirror to see a grin that went way beyond mischievous, “You mean you have to find your list, Mommy. You said you’ve got to find your list.”
            “James? Did you just correct my grammar?”  I sat there feeling a mixture of pride and horror. He was right of course. I don’t make a lot of grammatical mistakes in speaking. But I do make that one a lot. Sometimes I catch myself and correct myself in mid-sentence. It’s a weird verbal tic that I can’t seem to shake. Of course when the boys do it I correct them. But I’m their mother. I’m supposed to correct them. I also remind them to use their napkins rather than their sleeves, flush the toilet, wash their hands, zip their flies, cover their coughs… this list could go on for days. I’m the mother of small boys. Correcting behavior is part of my job.
            “No she didn’t,” said Owen. “Mommy didn’t say that.” I love Owen—he’s always got my back. I mean he always has my back. See, some things just don’t sound right when they’re correct.
            “Yes she did!” insisted James.
            “It’s okay Owen.” I conceded. “I probably did say it. It’s a mistake I make sometimes. I’m working on it.”
Now here’s the tricky part. It was kind of funny. Because he corrected me—not his teacher or principal. It won’t be funny then. When do you start teaching that correcting the behavior of others isn’t okay? I guess the time was Sunday night. I was just too stunned to do so.
            I’ll never forget a moment that happened many years ago when I was out for drinks with a couple of friends. We were tossing back margaritas at a steady pace when I remarked that some situation had made me nauseous.
            “Nauseates.” said one of our friends.
            “Excuse me?”  I said.
            “It doesn’t make you nauseous. It nauseates you.”
            I simply looked at him. I couldn’t believe I was out for drinks and someone was correcting my grammar. He must have realized I didn’t appreciate his comment because the next thing he said was, “Sorry. I was practically an English major. I can’t stand it when people make that mistake.” Practically an English Major? Dude, I was an English Major—I have a BA from an accredited college and everything. You can tell by my sparkling writing style and tiny paycheck. If everyone with a degree in English walked around correcting people’s grammar all the time you’d be able to recognize them by their lack of teeth and abundance of bruises.
            So next time my darling little imp notices my grammatical imperfections. I’ll have to remind him that such things are not polite. I wonder how long it will be before he tells me it isn’t polite of me to tell him not to talk with his mouth full.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Theatre of the Absurd

(or Everything I Ever Needed to Know, I Learned On Stage)    

       A few weeks ago my kids and I were invited to a birthday party for my neighbor’s six-year-old daughter. You know how sometimes you go to a kid’s birthday party and you know you’re going to be wishing it was over before you get there? Their parties aren’t like that. This family knows how to throw a party. Everyone always has a great time—the kids and the adults. My husband was quite disappointed that he couldn’t attend because he had rehearsal.
I was chatting with one of my neighbor’s friends from out of town about our involvement in community theatre. She asked me how skills learned on stage could be applied to the corporate world. It was a great question, but one I wasn’t able to answer that night. We were interrupted repeatedly to administer first aid, break up fights, and fetch bottles of water. And that was from the adults—kidding! As if the adults would be drinking water. Her question has been rattling around in my head since that night. A few weeks ago I wrote about how the corporate world prepared me for motherhood. This week I’m writing about how the skills I’ve learned from theatre prepared me for the corporate world.

1.)   Thinking on your feet (also known as improvising) When you’re on stage anything could go wrong at any time. A prop could be missing, a sound effect might never happen, a fellow actor might forget his lines, you might forget your own lines. As an actor you need to figure out a way to work around it—hopefully without the audience ever knowing. There is an old theatre legend—usually attributed to John Barrymore. He was in a scene in which he was supposed to shoot someone, but the gun didn’t make a sound when he fired. So he used the gun to bludgeon the other character to death. Coming up with a way to get yourself out of a sticky situation comes in handy regardless of your occupation.

Ever feel like you're dodging knives at work?
2.)   Being articulate It is astonishing to me how badly most people communicate. The ability to express yourself clearly is vital not only in the corporate world, but in day-to-day situations. I work in a retail setting. Many of my customers are well educated but can’t seem to ask a simple question. Rather than saying, “I’m interested in buying the Norsjo bed frame. Can you tell me if it’s in stock?” They will instead ask me to follow them to the product on the showroom floor, kick the product, and grunt. If only they had been under the direction of my high school drama teacher—my displays would be in far better repair.
3.)   Dressing for success We all know you need to dress a certain way to be taken seriously. Actors love to dress up. The men hardly ever complain about having to wear a tie and the women put up with uncomfortable shoes if they look good. Actors know that the right costume is essential to the character. When I was leaving my corporate job to take up the mantle of mommy hood, a candidate showed up for an interview in a lovely suit…and flip-flops. This was a very buttoned-down corporation—you have to know how to dress to make a good impression on clients. She didn’t get the part… I mean the job.
4.)   Faking it (also known as acting) Don’t pretend you don’t ever have to do any acting at your job. Ever had a client with an awful toupee or a giant hairy mole? You act like you don’t notice and try your damnedest to not stare at it. How about a boss whose politics are the polar opposite of your own. You don’t have to act like you agree—but you do have to control your nausea. Actors have the training to keep a straight face through the most giggle-inducing circumstances. 
5.)   Working on a deadline If your show opens in eight weeks—everything must be done in eight weeks. The audience doesn’t care if you had to cancel rehearsals for a snow storm, half your cast came down with strep throat, the set had to be rebuilt because part of it wouldn’t fit on the stage, the leading lady gained ten pounds and her costume won’t fit, and the stage manager isn’t speaking to the producer because he made a pass at the ingénue. All the audience knows is they have tickets for opening night and they expect to be entertained. This is probably the most tangible parallel between the corporate world and the artistic world. If you’re meeting with your client on a given day, you’re expected to be there with your presentation, prepared to answer questions. Your client doesn’t care that your son has a double ear infection, your car wouldn’t start this morning, your cat threw up on your shoes, and your laptop has a virus. The client is paying you to perform—you better perform.

So if you’re in the corporate world and you’re hiring, you may want to explore your local drama program for qualified candidates. Cause frankly, those kids could really use a paying job—and they usually work cheap.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Great Lunch Snafu

            A couple of weeks ago my children were clearly disgruntled when they got off the school bus. Since they normally greet me with hugs so enthusiastic I’m nearly knocked to the ground I knew something was seriously wrong. And Man, was it wrong! Mommy, goddess of food and all things domestic (but especially food) had messed up the lunch boxes (gasp!). Normally, the boys’ lunches contain one sandwich, one serving of fruit or baby carrots, one snack like goldfish or a granola bar, and one drink—a water bottle or a juice box. But on this fateful day that will live in lunchbox infamy, I (in my early-morning haze) gave one boy got both containers of baby carrots and gave the other both granola bars.
            Owen wrote me this note:

            Owen’s sense of fair play would never have allowed him to eat both granola bars (or gunola bars as he calls them in his note)—he knew perfectly well that one was supposed to be for his brother so he didn’t touch it.  And James was never going to eat two servings of carrots—I mean a carrot is a vegetable. I’m grateful that he’ll eat one serving—never mind two. So I’m sure they were a little more hungry than usual when they got off the bus that fateful day—fortunately the remedy for hunger was a five-minute walk away.
It’s tough to discover that our parents make mistakes. Especially when those mistakes involve food. It’s probably even more upsetting when Mommy doesn’t feel especially remorseful about it. Let’s face it, there are children at school who didn’t have dinner waiting for them that night. My kids can be pretty certain that there will not only be dinner, but snacks and dessert if necessary (and when isn’t dessert necessary?). I figure if I make four people three meals a day, seven days a week (minus the very occasional take-out or Sunday breakfast out) I’m bound to screw up sooner or later. I’m not going to waste too much energy feeling badly about it.
I take yoga classes with a very devout Christian. She often says, “Remember to give yourself Grace.” I think it’s her sunny way of saying “Everyone f#$@s up now and then. Forgive yourself and move on.”  It’s good advice—especially for parents. It can be so easy to succumb to guilt. Children are really good at dishing it out. Don’t get me wrong. There are things we do that we ought to be guilty about and things that we shouldn’t. Here are a few:
Your client is a jackass who makes your life a living hell so after a really bad day you scream at your kids for laughing too loud. Feel guilty for that one—leave the client at work where he belongs, grab the kid with the craziest laugh and tickle him until you’re both laughing.
It’s time to get the kids to school and someone is suddenly feeling a little under the weather. You tell him to stop complaining and get ready for school. A few hours later you get a call from the school nurse. Little Freddy has a temperature of 103 and is the color of wet newspaper. Skip the guilt. If he truly didn’t seem sick, don’t sweat it. If on the other hand, you really thought he might be sick and dosed him with Tylenol and crossed your fingers, you deserve the guilt.
It’s been a busy week and you haven’t had time to shop. There is almost nothing in the house to eat and you just can’t drag yourself to go grocery shopping. If your budget allows, order pizza. If not, make pancakes—kids love breakfast for dinner. You probably have flour, eggs, sugar, oil, baking powder, milk and salt in the house. No? Really? Maybe you should feel guilty. Sorry, my mother was a Home Ec Teacher. My worldview may be a bit skewed when in comes to pantry essentials.
As a parent, you learn pretty early on that you need to pick your battles. It’s the same thing with guilt. If your mistakes cause no one in your family any harm—physical or emotional, skip the guilt trip. Admit it, apologize, make it right and move on. Remember to give yourself grace.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

And Now for Something Completely Different...

        So far all of my blog posts have had something to do with parenting. So it’s time to shake things up a little. I went out the other night. Moms can do that, you know. Not very often—my kids wake up really early. Getting the boys off to school is a little trickier when you’ve only gotten a few hours of sleep. Actually, it’s not so much the lack of sleep as the activity beforehand. There are plenty of nights I’m up late reading or writing (or slaying imaginary monsters in the boys’ bedroom). But if I’m in a bar, drinking and dancing the morning after is ugly. Plus, going out can be expensive and children have really expensive habits like eating and getting dressed.
       James Otto played an acoustic show at a local bar Thursday night. If you listen to country radio at all, you’ve heard his hit single “Just Got Started Loving You”. More recently his song “Groovy Little Summer Song” has been getting some airplay as well. The timing on that one was unfortunate. As the title suggests, it’s a catchy pop-country song about summer—driving with the top down, enjoying the sunshine, drinking, the usual. Although it was released in June, it didn’t get to the radio until late August. If it had gotten some play earlier in the year I suspect he would have had another hit on his hands. James, I have some friends who are really good publicists—maybe I can hook you up.
Anyway, the opening act had cancelled so he went on without one. He walked onto the stage and the first thing you notice is his size—he’s huge. I’m tiny myself so I rarely notice other people’s size because just about everyone is bigger than me. His two guitarists had their feet on the rung of their barstools. But he was so tall that when he sat down his feet were flat on the floor. You know how so many performers don’t sing particularly well without their studio magic? James Otto can really sing. He has a rich baritone that sounds more like a soul or gospel singer than a country singer. I didn’t know the first few songs but I was very impressed with his stage presence and talent.
       So I was getting into the music and really enjoying myself when I heard a conversation behind us.
       “That’s not him, is it?” a woman asked her friend.
       “I don’t know.” She taped me on the shoulder
       “Is that James Otto?” She asked me.
       “Um. Yes.”
       “It doesn’t look like him. Does it?”
       “I think so.” I told her and turned away to enjoy the music.
       “I’m so upset!” She told her friend.
       Upset? I thought. You’re upset because he isn’t as pretty as you thought he was? Sorry lady, some people are just talented not hot. I take that back. Real talent is hot. Some folks are just prettier than others.
       As the show progressed. Otto played a number of songs from his new CD as well as a couple of covers. He really got the crowd involved doing a sort of call and response thing with Bob Seger’s Night Moves. Irritatingly each time he started a new song the lady behind me would sigh like a twelve-year-old girl deprived of her cell phone and said, “He better play ‘Just Got Started Loving You’. I’m so upset!”
       Really? They guy has had one hit on the radio—he’s going to play it last so people will hear his new songs and possibly buy them. Haven’t you ever been to a concert before? I mean, I don’t get out much and even I know that. First the guy has the nerve to not be cute enough and then he has to play his new music first (which you didn’t get to appreciate how good it was because you’re too busy whining!).
       So I was there with my girls enjoying the music and trying not to get irritated by the woman behind me when I noticed something. Only about half the people in the bar were paying any attention to the band. I mean, we all paid ten bucks to get in. Don’t you want to listen? And watch? I’m beginning to believe there ought to be a class in public school called Being a Good Audience Member 101.
       This observation made me feel pretty good about myself. You see, I’ve taken the stage in this particular bar for karaoke contests now and then. I have been singing since I can remember—musicals, church choirs, bands, and so on. But I don’t have a whole lot of time to indulge that particular hobby these days—so karaoke contests are a sort of methadone for my performance addiction. The thing that I don’t like about singing karaoke in a bar is the fact that no one pays attention to the singer. I mean, there you are, in the spotlight, singing your heart out and everyone is having their own conversations or watching the game on TV. Well, apparently, they don’t just ignore soccer moms singing Martina McBride. They also ignore really big guys who have hit songs on the radio. That’s a piece of news will make me stand up a little straighter the next time I’m on that stage. That may be a while—who knows when I’ll recover enough for another girl’s night out.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Executive Mom

Before my boys were born, I was the Assistant to the Executive Vice President of Client Services for an investment firm. I really liked my job. I had a great boss and excellent coworkers. I loved wearing nice clothes and taking an hour for lunch. I even enjoyed my commute—I blew through a novel or two a week on the train. Back in those days I actually knew where my hairdryer was and how to use it. These days if I’m wearing pantyhose and makeup, chances are someone is getting married or buried.

Despite the changes in wardrobe and the remarkable lack of time to myself, I’ve come to the conclusion that being an Executive Assistant is not that different than being a Stay-At-Home-Mom. The major responsibilities of both jobs involve making sure people get to where they are supposed to be, on time, with the stuff they’re supposed to have. It turns out I am just as good at getting two little boys to Cub Scouts, in uniform, with their handbooks as I am getting a sales rep to a 10am meeting in Kansas City with twelve copies of his presentation. While it’s true I never had to tell an executive to tie his shoes or zip his fly (at least not the executive I worked for), I also couldn’t threaten to take away his Blackberry if he forgot his presentation.

Both jobs also entail answering questions—lots of questions. Often the same questions over and over again. When I was an Executive Assistant I would repeatedly answer: “How do you use Outlook Calendar?” , “How much more would it cost to fly business class to Amsterdam?”, and “Have you seen my expense report?”. As a Stay-at-Home-Mom I get: “Can I bring my Sea Monkeys to school?”, “Where are my shin guards?”, and “Can I have a snack?” With both children and adults, it’s best to try to act calm and pretend it’s the first time you’ve ever been asked.

Of course, as a Stay-at-Home-Mom (and part-time retail salesperson), my paycheck is smaller. But my expenses are fewer. I make nearly all of the meals my family eats (Chinese take-out how I’ve missed you!) and I don’t need to buy nice clothes, shoes or makeup—jeans and sneakers are my uniform nowadays. But, no matter how professional or efficient I might have been as an administrative assistant, I was never compensated as well as I am now. Oh sure, I made more money but I get a lot more dandelion bouquets, spaghetti stained toothless grins and cookie smeared hugs. So it’s a good thing I’ve given up those designer suits—the dry cleaning bills would be brutal.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Too Old???

My oldest son is eight so I am less aware of his personal business than I was a few years ago. With babies and toddlers there are days when life revolves around what is excreted from their bodies. If there is a rash or a mark on a two-year-old’s behind, his mom or dad can probably tell you how long it’s been there, if it’s gotten bigger, and if he’s been scratching. But eventually, they can dress themselves, wipe themselves, even shower by themselves (more or less). So it came as a shock when we were sorting through and trying on last year’s jeans that I saw nasty red welts on my son’s hips.
“Owen, what is that red mark?”
“It’s from my underwear?”
            “Your underwear is doing that? It’s time to get you new underwear.”
“Do we have to throw these away?”
“Yes. They’re too small. Look what they’re doing to your skin.”
“But they’re my favorite!”
            It wasn’t just any underwear. It was Star Wars: The Clone Wars underwear. He only has a few pair of character underwear. Plain underwear is a lot cheaper than the fun stuff and I am just too frugal to buy them. I can of course understand the attraction. I remember desperately wanting Wonder Woman Underoos when I was around his age. But when it comes to frugality and practicality, my own mother has me beat by a mile. And knowing my propensity for playing dress up, she probably figured I’d be wearing them constantly—outside my clothes. Or instead of my clothes. When Santa comes around he usually slips a pack or two of the pricey underwear into the boys’ stockings. Frugality gets a little reprieve at Christmas time. 

We were very lucky this year when it came to back to school shopping. The boys didn’t need much. Between hand-me-downs and the fact that I bought everything a little too big last year we got off pretty cheap. Their grandmother gave them L.L. Bean backpacks for their birthdays. So the only things we need to re-supply were sneakers and underwear.
            Remembering the time Owen fished his Transformers boxer briefs out of the trash despite a hole the size of a half-dollar, I knew throwing away his beloved Star Wars underwear could turn into a battle. So I decided to make a magnanimous anti-frugality gesture. After all, we wouldn’t need to spend much money on clothes this year.
            “What if I buy you new ones?” I offered
            “Will they be exactly the same?”
            “Maybe not exactly. Styles change. But I’ll do my best to find Star Wars underwear.”
            “The Clone Wars?”
            “I’ll do my best.” I promised.
            Notice my phrasing. I didn’t make any promises. If I’ve learned anything on this parenting journey it is this: never make a promise you aren’t absolutely certain you can keep. Come to think about it, it is pretty good advice in general. My search took me to two Targets, three Wal-Mart’s, one Kohl’s and one Marshall’s. None of them had character underwear big enough to fit my eight-year-old son. No Star Wars, no Bat Man, no Iron Man, no Lightening McQueen, no Transformers. Apparently eight is too old to want to wear a picture of Yoda on your butt. Maybe you’re thinking that my son is bigger than most eight-year-olds but it isn’t the case. Thanks to my meager genetic contribution, my boys just reach “average” in the size department (my tallest blood relative is about 5’10” so we aren’t breeding any future NBA or NFL stars in this house).
            Who decides when you’re too old for something? By the time most kids are eight they’ve already given up nursing, bottles, sippy cups, diapers, pull-ups, naps, binkies, blankies, and training wheels. They go to school for seven hours a day, spend 30-60 minutes on a school bus and finally come home and do an hour or so of homework then rush off to something else—scouting or soccer or karate or swimming. At eight years old I walked home from school then watched TV or played outside until it was dinnertime. There was no homework. There was no standardized testing for elementary school kids to stress over. Every once in a while my son wakes up in tears because he’s just plain tired.
            So if there is a small piece of childhood that he can keep close to his skin, he ought to be able to. Maybe some kids feel the need to be grown up down to their skivvies, but not my guys. It’s a little thing. But when you’ve had to give up so many of the big things from childhood, you ought to get to keep one or two of the little things.