Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Half Way There


            Congratulations! You’re halfway there! If you’re asking “halfway where?” I’m guessing you don’t have children. Today is Wednesday and it is officially the halfway mark of Christmas vacation. In the earlier (and jobless) days of my parenthood, I always smugly remarked that you could tell the parents who spent a lot of time with their kids from the ones that don’t. It’s pretty obvious when they’re out at a mall or a museum or anyplace people take their kids when they’re desperate to find some way of entertaining them. 
            I’m not so smug about it anymore for a couple of reasons. Primarily because my children are now in school most of the time. I put them on a bus around 8:25 each morning and they get dropped off around 3:40. It’s a long stretch of time where they are now in someone else’s care. So I am no longer as used to having them around as I once was. It’s amazing how quickly we get out of practice.



Besides, they do a lot of changing once they get on that bus in September. School is a lot more structured than hanging around the house. The summer after my son Owen completed a year of full-day kindergarten. He would follow me around the house asking, “What are we going to do now Mom?” This was a kid who always entertained himself—building towers from blocks, spaceships from cardboard boxes, and armies from Play Doh. Now he wanted direction. Fortunately, after a few weeks he realized I wasn’t going to type up an agenda for him (or course, then he went back to school).
I’m a lot more empathetic about other people’s parenting skills and styles these days. This parenting job isn’t easy and there is no single perfect formula for being a good parent. And everyone has bad parenting days—and they usually happen at the mall or the grocery store during school vacation weeks. One of the most even-tempered moms I know confessed to spanking her son at the supermarket a few years back. She was sure she was going to get a call from a social worker that night.
When Owen was two and a half and James was a baby in a Snuggli. There was an afternoon that I realized we were about to get snow—a lot of snow and I was almost out of milk and diapers. Like most small children, mine were at their best in the mornings. I usually ran errands in the mornings before they morphed into afternoon/early evening unpredictable creatures. But I didn’t  that day so there was a stand off in the middle of Stop and Shop with Owen—he wanted to get out of the cart and walk. I wouldn’t let him. The snow was already falling and I knew the shopping would take twice as long if he was walking. Also, I had the baby in the Snuggli and I wouldn’t be able to pick up my giant two-year-old and get him back in the cart without the baby getting squished or kicked in the head. There was screaming and crying—some of it from my children and some of it from me. I felt like everyone in Stop & Shop was staring at us. My normal course of action when my children acted up out in public was to simply take them out of the situation. Unfortunately, we needed milk and diapers. It wasn’t one of those times where you nip out to get your favorite cookie to satisfy a craving. No matter how demonic my children were behaving I had to get my shopping done.
            Eventually the three of us calmed down and I managed to get everything we needed into the cart and headed for the checkout. I started to unload my groceries onto the belt. This is a very tricky operation if you’re 4’11” and have an infant strapped to your chest. I had to sort of stand on my toes and hold the baby to one side and lean on the other side to get the stuff from the bottom of my cart. Suddenly, an angel appeared. A beautiful, professionally dressed woman behind me said, “Can I help you unload your cart?” It was a simple gesture, but I was so grateful for her kindness that I nearly cried. It only took a moment of her time but it helped me so much.
            I think of that woman when I see a parent struggling. Is there something I can do? Maybe I can pick up the sippy cup her toddler has dropped for the tenth time and the mom looks like she’s about to hurl it through the window. Distract the four-year-old who is whining in the line at the bank by telling her I like her bright pink snow boots. Hold the elevator door open so the frantic dad doesn’t have to wait for the next one as his hungry baby screams. It doesn’t take much to make a big difference to someone who is exhausted, hungry and running out of ideas.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Afterglow

            I’m pretty sure I’ve made it clear that I love Christmas. But this year I find myself enjoying the day after just a little more. The last few weeks have been a frenzy of baking, shopping, wrapping, food preparation and socializing. Today is all about unwinding. It helps that we’re having some serious snow around here. It started snowing around 8:30 this morning. We have blizzard warnings starting at noon today (Sunday) and extending until 6:00 Monday night. I couldn’t go anywhere if I wanted to—my car is terrible in slippery conditions.
I can’t think of a better day to be snowed in. I made prime rib for Christmas dinner and now the bones are simmering on the stove with veggies and herbs to make beef and barley soup for tonight’s supper. I have all the necessary provisions people scramble to acquire on a day like today: bread, milk and eggs. I also have some not-so-necessary things to make the day special like red wine, apple pie, proscuitto, good cheese, cookies, dark chocolate, and Knob Creek bourbon.
I have plenty of things to keep us all entertained. We have a couple of movies from Netflix that I didn’t have time to see over the past few crazy weeks. I can spend some time figuring out how to work my new GPS (thanks Santa!) and reading my new Sookie Stackhouse novel (don’t judge! I just finished Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections—I deserve a little brain candy). Not to mention the fact that I got Rock Band Country for the PS3. Video games aren’t really my thing, but I’ll take just about any excuse to sing. Move over Carrie and Martina—here comes Vickie!
My kids have been hopping from one new toy to the next since 6:30 yesterday morning—science experiments, Legos, magic tricks and video games. They jumped at the chance to play in the snow this afternoon. You know what I love about snow? It exhausts the kids! A couple of hours in the snow followed by some hot cocoa and a movie and they’ll be worn out.
There is even a Patriot’s game on TV this afternoon. It’s in Buffalo, where strangely, it isn’t snowing. So there is something for everyone.
Normally I work on Sundays so today is particularly special for me. I’m not going anywhere beyond my own yard at least until tomorrow. My boys could conceivably lure me outside to help build a snow fort later on. Right now they’re content on their own so I can read, write, play and relax. I hope you get the chance to do the same. If you’re one of those people who has a job keeping the rest of us safe—firefighters, police officers, medical professionals, and snow plow drivers—thank you and stay safe. I promise to stay out of your way.  Happy day after Christmas everyone! 
The snow before the BIG snow.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Getting My Act Together...


...or why I don't watch daytime television

             I had Monday off from my job in the wonderful world of retail. With Christmas only a few days away I had planned to use the time to “get my act together”. I made a discovery. It’s important when putting your “to do” list together on Christmas week that you be a lot more specific than “get your act together”. I got a few things accomplished, but I sure don’t feel together!
            One of the things I managed to get done was the wrapping. I gathered all the gifts, paper, tape, labels, etc. and plopped down in the living room in front of the Today show. I rarely have the TV on during the day. I might have it on when I’m ironing—but how often does that happen??? So the Today show had loads of ideas about Christmas—gifts to give, food to cook and ways to decorate.
            The first segment I saw featured two families who were each given $150 to pull together a festive dinner for eight people. It seemed like both families spent the majority of their budget on d├ęcor and the food was almost an afterthought. Clearly, these people are no relation to my family! One family only spent $75 on their decorations and dinner. Each person was given a cookie with his or her name on it—festive right? That served as napkin holder, place card, and dessert. They only spent half their budget and dessert was a cookie… ONE cookie. You call that a Christmas dessert? They had $75 bucks left over—hit the packie* and the bakery with the left over cash! Geesh!
            The next segment I watched was one in which someone gushed on and on about gifts you can buy your pet for Christmas. For real?  I love my cats but it seems to me that being a cat in a good home is already one of the best lives a creature can have. All your meals are taken care of, you don’t work (except for the occasional mousing but they really seem to enjoy that), and you spent half your time sleeping in sunny spots and getting petted. They need a stocking too? Bah! Humbug!
            Finally, someone whose title was “Lifestyle Editor” came along and talked about unique ways to wrap oddly shaped presents. That really caught my interest, because every once in while tips like that can be really helpful. Her first idea was a large barrel-shaped container in which you can “wrap” a kid’s bicycle. A bicycle? Wrap a bicycle? Whose lifestyle was she editing anyway? I clearly remember the first bicycle I got as a Christmas present—it was a royal blue Schwinn. I was probably in second or third grade and I was thrilled. Unwrapping it wouldn’t have made it any more special. Not to mention the fact that the container she was wrapping it in costs forty dollars. In my lifestyle, forty bucks is the cost of an entire gift. Here are some other uses for forty dollars: two hard cover books, several bottles of wine, classroom supplies for your kids teachers, Godiva chocolates for the bus driver, a chili dinner for twenty of your closest friends, two nice Lego sets (or one awesome one), a nice bottle of whiskey, two $20 gift cards to Dunkin’ Donuts for the mail man, or a half-hour massage for someone who has been wrapping gifts all day.
            I turned the TV off after that. I’ve come to the realization that the last thing I need a couple of weeks before Christmas is more ideas. I’ve already come up with enough things I’d like to do but won’t have time. I hate to sound like a Scrooge, but Christmas is wonderful enough without making yourself nuts. Christmas is a time to see people you don’t get to see all the time and indulge in a few once-a-year treats. It isn’t a time to make yourself crazy trying to please everyone. By the way, I got a bike for Christmas this year myself. My company gave every single one of its thousands of workers a mountain bike. It didn’t come wrapped and it needs to be assembled and it was an awesome gift.

*Translation from New Englandish: Liquor Store

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Oh Fudge!

            I had my annual physical this morning. You’ll be happy to know I seem to be in excellent health. I don’t even need blood work this year because last year’s tests results were so good. I’m thrilled because of the fasting involved in blood work—skipping breakfast makes me VERY cranky. Unfortunately, I was informed that I need to drop 10-15 pounds—which wasn’t really a surprise. I have not been getting my butt to the gym as obsessively as I was last year and I haven’t altered my diet to account for the drop in exercise.
            So I did what anyone else would do after getting news like that. I went home and made a few pounds of fudge. It’s not for me! I make “goody” baskets for my sister-in-law and brother-in-law and their families at Christmas. Today was the day I set aside for making all the treats. I made Cookies & Cream Fudge (aka crack—only tastier) and Chocolate with Walnuts both from the Nestle website for the second year in a row. Last year I made Alton Brown’s recipe for peanut butter fudge and the flavor was pretty good and it was ridiculously easy—but the texture was somewhere between chalk and paste. So I decided to try something new. After perusing a number of Peanut Butter Fudge recipes I cobbled together this one I want to share with you.

One of my famous care packages from a previous year.


Vickie’s Fabulous Peanut Butter Fudge

You will need:

3 cups confectioner’s sugar
2 1/4 cups of brown sugar
1/2 cup milk or evaporated milk**
1/2 cup butter
1 1/4 Cup of Peanut Butter*
1 tsp. vanilla extract

Line a 9x9 baking pan with parchment or foil.

Place confectioner’s sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer and set aside.

Combine milk, butter and brown sugar in a saucepan and mix over medium heat. Bring to a boil and stir constantly for 3 minutes.

Remove from heat and stir in peanut butter and vanilla extract.

Pour over confectioner’s sugar and mix until thoroughly combined.

Spread in pan and chill for about 2 hours or until set.


*I use all-natural chunky peanut butter from Trader Joe’s. Don’t groan! Even if you don’t like the natural stuff in a sandwich, it makes WAY better fudge. Think of all the sugar and fat we’re going to be adding.

**I prefer evaporated milk because I keep low-fat milk in the house and I certainly don’t want anything low-fat going in my candy!


            Now I know a lot of bloggers include step-by-step photos with their recipes. But I didn’t know that this fudge was going to so tasty that I’d want to share it with you. Plus, I’m not so sure I’m skilled enough to cook and click at the same time. Next time I’ll show you the pretty way I package up the fudge. Enjoy!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Sick?


            I think my son is allergic to school. If you’re a regular reader, you may recall a warm and fuzzy post a about me playing hooky with my son last week. He was coughing up a storm at school, but his symptoms mysteriously got better by the time I picked him up. I really enjoyed spending time alone with him and truthfully I didn’t feel like being at work any more than he wanted to be in school.
            The next day was Wednesday and he seemed perfectly healthy so I packed him off to school. I was feeling less warm and fuzzy when I got another call from the school nurse. He was coughing uncontrollably again. It sounds like he’s faking doesn’t it? That’s what I thought too. But then the nurse told me that he had begged her not to call me. He figured I wouldn’t let him go to the Cub Scout holiday party that night. And normally I wouldn’t—but he seemed so perfectly fine a few hours later that I let him go.
            Thursday morning he woke up bright and early. He certainly didn’t look like a kid who was too sick to go to school. He looked like he was ready to take on the world and eagerly got his jacket and backpack when it was time to go. Guess what happened? I love the nurse at the boys’ school, but I do not like seeing her number come up on my cell phone. When I picked him up, she told me to have him seen by his pediatrician.
            So as soon as my older son got off the bus, we headed across town to see the doctor. She thought he seemed pretty healthy too and said that maybe it was an allergy. We left with a prescription for Zyrtec nasal spray and tablets. She told me it might take a few days to take effect.
            I shouldn’t have bothered sending him to school on Friday. I should have just let him hang out with me while the Zyrtec worked it’s magic. But I just couldn’t bring myself to keep this perfectly healthy kid home from school. My bad. I picked him up at 1:00. The nurse and I agreed that maybe the medicine just needed a little time to work. Once again, I took him home.
            We had a great weekend. His grandmother is in town and we went to Edaville USA with the Cub Scouts. Even spending Friday night outside in the bitter cold, he had no more than an occasional sniffle or cough—nothing like the uncontrollable spasms he had at school. 

Look Mom! No symptoms!

            So I packed him up and sent him on his merry way Monday morning. At 10am I was out Christmas shopping with my mother-in-law. Guess whose number came up on my cell phone? I offered to come over to the school and just get him outside into the fresh air for a while and bring him back in. She thought that was a good idea and said she’d do it. Then she thought perhaps she could try sending him to a different classroom—maybe there is something about the particular room that’s aggravating him. She called back about 15 minutes later—fresh air, a cough drop, and a bottle of water did nothing to help him. I picked him up around 10:30. His school days are getting shorter.
            He’s finished all of the schoolwork he brought home and was sitting at the computer playing on the PBS website by noon. He hasn’t coughed all day, hasn’t needed to blow his nose, and doesn’t have a fever.
            I left a message with the adjustment counselor at school. Maybe there is something going on that’s bothering him. I’m getting paranoid that I’m going to have to home school this boy. I wouldn’t mind, but then I’d have to home school his brother—that would be ugly. I love him without end and he is one of the smartest, most ethical people I’ve ever known—adult or child. But he’s wired so differently that I get a little crazy just helping him with his homework. As usual, I’m over thinking things and getting ahead of myself. I really wish the adjustment counselor would call me back. James may not be going crazy, but I’m pretty sure I am.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Grammie's Coming to Town!

            My mother-in-law Barbara is flying up from Maryland later today. No, there won’t be any mother-in-law bashing in this post. I hit the jackpot when I met my husband. I not only got a fantastic husband, but a great extended family as well. My son Owen has been wandering around all week muttering, “I can’t wait for Grammie to be here.”
            The boys were a little disappointed to hear that Grammie’s visit wouldn’t last all the way until Christmas. So in my typical speak before you think style I said, “Don’t worry. We’ll have Christmas before she leaves. I’ll roast a turkey and we’ll make a pie.”
            “Can we open presents?” Owen asked.
            “Can we have apple pie?” James asked.
            “Can we have pumpkin pie?” Owen asked.
            “Of course!” I answered to each of their questions.
            Now the visit is upon us and the house isn’t quite as clean as I’d like it to be for Barbara’s visit. Fortunately, I’ve been married to her son for fourteen years now. She knows I’m absolutely obsessive when it comes to finding great gifts and making tasty meals. But my obsession ends a little before housekeeping starts.
            I try. I really do. Okay, maybe I don’t try that hard. It’s a simple matter of priorities and making choices. Let’s see, I have time to either make homemade meatballs or scrub the bathtub—the meatballs win. I mean, those are really good meatballs. How about this one—there is a pile of shirts that need to be ironed and my kids want me to watch Finding Nemo with them. Nemo and the boys swim away with my time and attention. And, yes to the multi-tasking crowd, I suppose I could set up the ironing board and iron while I watch. But then, how will the boys cuddle up to me when Nemo and Dory encounter the sharks? And I won’t get any popcorn!
            Take right now for instance. There is a week’s worth of unsorted mail cluttering up the dining room table and my mother in law’s plane lands in about an hour. But I’m also trying to make writing a priority. Once again, I have chosen the creative task over the practical one. At least there are clean sheets on the guest room bed, both bathrooms are sparkling, and the dishes are washed… most of them.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Playing Hooky


            This morning as my six-year-old son James was getting his coat on he announced that he wasn’t feeling well. He had been awake for almost two hours exhibiting only the slightest sign of having the sniffles. Being a concerned parent, I naturally responded with sympathy. I believe my exact words were, “Get your coat on.”
            James somewhere, somehow acquired a penchant for drama. So I’m not quick to believe that he’s sick—even when he’s putting on a pretty good show. This morning he wasn’t even putting on his normal Oscar worthy song and dance. I figured he’d be distracted once he got to school and forget about being “sick”.
            A couple of hours later (while lying on the copy-room floor attempting to extract a sliver of paper from the inner workings of the copy machine) my cell phone rang. It was the school nurse. He didn’t seem that sick to her either. But there he was in the nurses office coughing—but only when the nurse said, “You don’t seem to be coughing.” 
            Back in the spring, I wrote the following piece for a writing class. It is written from the point of view of myself as a five-year-old and is based upon a day I remember spending with my dad. Thinking about days like this are probably the reason I left work and picked James up instead of sending him back to class. It's called “The Best Day Ever”.

It’s still dark outside when my mother wakes me up. I want to stay under my green and white gingham bedspread. She lets me hide a little longer while she works on getting my brothers out of bed. I can hear my sister in the shower. Kindergarten starts later than everyone else’s school and they are too busy in the morning to try to get me out of bed early. I love my bed—it is a river raft, and a stage, and a parade float, and a trampoline.
            Eventually my dad comes in to wake me up. They had something called lay-offs where he works so he gets to spend more time with me. He goes to school now too—just like me.
            “Come on My Little Chickadee,” he says. “Time to get up.”
            “I don’t feel good.” I tell him.
            “Why don’t you come downstairs? Maybe some orange juice will make you feel better.”
            “Okay. But I don’t think it will work,” I say with a sigh.
            He gets me an English muffin and a glass of orange juice. It does make me feel better but I still don’t want to go to school.
            “What’s the matter Sweetie? I thought you loved kindergarten.”
            I do love kindergarten. I love learning my letters and numbers. I love snack time—sometimes we get saltines with peanut butter! I love the monkey bars at recess. I even like naptime. I just don’t like the bus. Lisa will make fun of me. She is tall and wears pretty dresses.  She has shiny blond hair like Nellie on “Little House on the Prairie”.  My hair is brown. Lisa makes fun of my sweater—it is navy blue. Hers is pink. She says my sweater is black and looks like a boy’s sweater. I have begged my mother for a pink sweater. But she says my navy blue sweater is very practical—it goes with everything and doesn’t get dirty as quickly. I don’t want to tell Daddy about Lisa.
            “I do like kindergarten Daddy.” I tell him. “I just don’t feel like going today.”
             “Well I wasn’t going to get any yard work done today anyway,” He says looking out the window at the rain. I suppose one day off won’t kill you. Okay. But you have to help me around the house this morning and let me get some homework done.”
            I giggle when he says that. I think it’s funny that Daddy has homework like my sister and brothers. He is studying to be a teacher like Mommy.
            Daddy vacuumed and I dusted. I got to watch “Sesame Street” and “Mister Rogers” while Daddy did his homework. He bought a small bag of potato chips to have with our lunch. Mommy doesn’t buy junk food so it was a big treat. The best part was playing checkers—I won three times.
            I tried to get Daddy to let me stay home again the next day. But he said if I was well enough to beat him in checkers three times, I was well enough to go to school. At least it isn’t going to rain tomorrow. We’ll be able to play on the monkey bars at recess. Lisa may have a prettier sweater than I do, but she misses all the fun trying to keep it clean.

            So today, instead of telling the school nurse to send James back to class, I said, “I’ll be there in fifteen minutes or so”. He definitely has a little cold—the inconsequential kind most of us work through and try to ignore. We had chicken noodle soup and peanut butter sandwiches for lunch. James helped me clean a little and he watched a little TV. When it was time to pick up his big brother at the bus stop, James declared, “I feel better Mom!” Maybe it was knowing he’d miss tomorrow’s Cub Scout Christmas party if he missed another day of school. But I like to think having a little one-on-one time with Mom made him feel better. Hanging out with him certainly made my day a little better.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Do You Believe?


            I have loved Christmas since I could wear little velvet dresses and black patent leather Mary Janes. I’m one of those annoyingly “in the spirit” people who start humming Christmas carols on black Friday and by Cyber Monday I’m singing them at the top of my lungs. Having kids makes Christmas even more fun. I have a new appreciation for what I once considered “tacky” Christmas decorations. The kids see the lights in our neighborhood and I see their faces light up and I forget all about what is  “tacky”.
            My boys are still young enough to believe in the Santa—although the older boy’s resolve is slipping. This year Owen asked permission to set up a video camera in the living room to find out for sure (he actually used the term surveilance). He’s eight, so I suppose the age is right for him to question Santa’s existence. I just wish he wouldn’t do it in front of his six-year-old brother!
            Fortunately there are few things in this world as unshakable as the convictions of a six-year-old at Christmas time. Whenever Owen ponders the possible non-existence of Santa, James responds with, “Well who do you think brings all the toys? Plus he eats the cookies we put out. Duh!”  You would think the fact that I don’t say, “James, please don’t say ‘duh’" like I normally do, would be a dead give away.
            I thought for sure the jig was up two years ago. It was a couple of hours after all the gifts were unwrapped and the boys were enthralled with their new stuff when my husband Dan asked, “Did we forget to put something out?” I too had the same nagging feeling. I checked the basement and sure enough there was a fairly substantial present for each child down there—one of the few that they specifically asked for.
            Since the boys were content with what they had I considered just putting them aside for their birthdays. But I knew that by July I would forget about them all over again. So Dan and I came up with a plan.
            The gifts were on the coffee table in the living room when the boys got up the next morning. The wrapping had gotten a little banged up and torn—that’s what happens when things fall out of Santa’s sleigh.
            “What are these?” Owen asked when he saw the presents.
            “I found them in the back yard when I went to put the trash out last night,” Dan said nonchalantly (how he did that with a straight face I’ll never know!). “They must have fallen out of Santa’s bag.”
            There was this look of near religious ecstasy on Owen’s face as he said, “He IS real!”
            Like every parent on the planet I screwed up. This time my screw up amidst a thousand Christmas details ensured another year or two of belief in Santa for my little boy. That’s my idea of a Christmas miracle.