Thursday, December 13, 2007

STRANGER ANGELS


There's a new barista at my Starbucks. Well, she's new to that Starbucks but I know her from somehwere. She's in her late 40's, has black curly hair with some gray, and a heart-shaped face. She has a lilting accent I cannot identify (a little hispanic a little Indian?)and speaks in sing-song. I know her from somewhere but I can't quite place her. She's not a mom from my kids' schools. Not the gym. Maybe she was a checker at the Dominicks.

As I'm standing there trying to remember how I know her she sees me and recognition lights up her face. "How are you?" she asks as if we are old friends. Damn. Still don't know. "How is your little one?" she asks. Ah, finally a clue. When someone says my "little one" I know they mean Lilly because as my youngest, she is the only one who ever traveled solo with me. So she must be someone I knew when I used to run errands with just Lilly which narrows the timeframe down to the two years that she was an "only child" while her brother and sister were in school but before she started school.

"Oh she's great!" I answer. "She's in fourth grade now."

She smiles happily. "Bring her in some time."

The next three times I go to Starbucks we more or less repeat this scene and yet I still cannot place her so one day, after I drop my two oldest off at school early and have some time to kill before Lilly has school I say, "Hey, come to Starbucks with me and see if you remember who this lady is. I'll buy you a hot chocolate." Reluctantly, she agrees.

As soon as we walk in and get in line I see the barrista's face and my knees almost buckle. I do not know why but for some reason I feel like crying. I shake my head and swallow a lump in my throat, still not sure why this woman has this effect on me.

When it is our turn to order she smiles at Lilly and says in her delightful accent, "So sorry, no Forty-Niners today!" and BAM! it hits me and I know who she is. She is the waitress who served us every Tuesday at Walker Brothers' Pancake House that whole terrible time when Lilly was going through and then recovering from chemo. When she was bald and pale and couldn't eat a thing she could always choke down a few bites of her favorite pancakes--Forty-Niner-Flapjacks.

This lovely lady was the waitress we had every week who would say to Lilly, "The usual?" and bring the plate out with a flourish and a smile, knowing Lilly would only take a few bites and then she would have to wrap it all up to go. She always smiled when she saw us, always watched Lilly carefully, always served us like royalty.

There were a lot of angels in our lives during that time, five years ago,--friends, neighbors, family, church members, school friends. But there were more, these stranger-angels who helped us along and I don't even know their names like this barista. Once when Lilly had just lost all her hair we went out for dinner. It was a good night, we were laughing and having fun and when Jeff went to pay the bill the waiter said, "There is no bill sir, the gentleman who just left paid it for you." We have no idea who that generous person was, this stranger-angel.

I am thinking about all these angels again as I order my latte and a hot chocolate and I smile down on Lilly's head. When I look up I catch our stranger-angel smiling broadly at Lilly, still remarking about how tall she's gotten and how long her hair is and I say a little prayer for all the angels in our lives.

Merry Christmas

Friday, December 07, 2007

BECOMING A DOG PERSON


Don't be impressed, she almost never remembers to signal.


There was a movie in the sixties called "Charly" (based on a book we had to read in high school called "Flowers for Algernon) about a mentally challenged man who, through some Hollywood scientific process, was given the oppportunity to become "normal". His intelligence grew and grew until he was a genius, learning languages and devouring books. Unfortunately, the science was faulty (go figure) and he learned (according to Wikipedia) that " the neural enhancement is only temporary, and he too is doomed to revert to his original mental state. He records his struggles to find a way to stop the decay until he realizes the futility of his situation. Charlie's writings gradually begin to reflect the recession of his intelligence. He becomes depressed when he realizes that he can no longer understand his own proof – the pinnacle of his genius phase. By the end of the story, Charlie's brain has returned to its initial state." (Hey, I just realized that story is probably a metaphor for life in which we start out dumb, gain knowledge, and the pretty much lose our memory little by little)

Anyhoo, I was thinking of this movie because I realize that sort of like Charlie, my brain is deteriorating, --not because I had a Hollywood brain operation but because I now own a dog and my my dog-hating brain is slowly morphing into the crazy putty that is a dog-lovers' brain.

So like Charlie, who journals as he loses his intelligence, quick, before I lose all my good sense, I will give you some insight into the dog world while I can still remember what it's like to be a dog-hater. I'll try to explain some of the stuff that dog-haters worry about so you can understand why people love dogs so much.

Let's address the obvious things:

HAIR: You're wondering why a normally clean person would put up with all that goddamned hair in their house, on their couch, on their clothes, and in their car, arent' you? I know, you gag a little when you see a dog hair floating around anywhere near where you are going to eat. I know, because I was like that too. Well, let me explain. These buggers are hairy. It's really that simple. I now vacuum my house every single friggin day at 5:00, have two lint rollers laying around and one more in the car and there is still hair all over the place. So, unless I'm going to shave her, there you have it.

JUMPING: Before Molly I absolutely hated going to people's houses who have dogs because they jump on you. They jump up and put dig their sharp claws into your lets and slobber on you--yuck! Well, I still hate that but now I have a dog that does it too! It turns out that it's really, really, really, really hard to train them not to do that. They are so desperately needy. They dont' jump on us all day, they save that for the new person at the door. They just want you to love them (like that girl in college who stalked Jeff). They are needy, needy, needy. Short of a taser or as my father likes to say "a good swift kick with a boot" (both methods of discipline I am loathe to employ) it is difficult to break this habit. It requires immense discipline on the part of the owner. Even more than discipline than PARENTING requires for god's sake. My kids are much, much better behaved than this silly animal and they almost never jumped up on the UPS man when he comes to the door anymore but as for Molly, well, I'm not sure we've made any progress on that front.

WET NOSE: Yes. They have one and it is always wet and they always insist on sticking it on your bare leg. Unless I cut it off, (the nose not the leg) I see no solution for this one.

SMELL: You know that "wet dog smell"? I thought that was just when they were wet or dirty. No, they pretty much smell all the time except when you bring them home from their expensive visit to the "dog groomer". Good lord.

BARKING: People talk, dogs bark. That's life. Luckily, we have a quiet dog by nature so I am VERY happy to report, if you come over you will not be subjected to endless yapping or barking. (You will however be jumped on and covered with hair, but hey, stop by any time).

In short a dog is just as much of a pain in the ass to own as it would appear to those not owning a dog.

So why do dog-lovers love their dogs so very much? Well, like all great love it isn't very rational. She is a great companion to the children and very sweet and that does make up for a lot of the hair and other crap.

Still, the benefit to nuisance ratio is not tipping in Molly's favor.

But for now we'll keep her because she's the cutest little snookems who loves da mama, now don't you, my little pookie wookiee---

Help me, my mind is turning to mush. Before you know it I will dress her in a Santa hat and let her take food out of my mouth....aaaagghhhh I can't remember why I hate dogs...I need an operation to restore my brain......

Thursday, November 08, 2007

HIT IT STRAIGHT--REVISITED

Recent surveys reveal that an alarming number of college students answer "famous" to what they want to be when they grow up. Not a doctor or a teacher or even a movie star (who has some talent to offer) but just plain famous.

I find this disturbing and puzzling. Anyone truly famous will tell you that fame is often the price one pays for having achieved a high level of success in his or her given field. It should never be an actual goal, partly because it isn't a very nice thing to have (it turns out) but mostly because it is supposed to be a by-product of something worthy.

Look at Brittney--as soon as she started focusing on her fame and let her actual (though minimal) talents slide, she lost everything. Quite literally. She lost her looks, her husband, and worst of all her children.

All of this has got me to musing about how many things in life go wrong when we focus on the wrong thing. And since I am self-righteous, it got me thinking of just how messed up a lot of people can get when they focus on the wrong goal and that got me thinking about my own philosophies and anyway, it all led up to this essay which I may just turn into a best-selling self-help book but here it is in a nutshell. I'll call it the "Don't Focus on the ByProducts" philosophy.

If you focus on the right thing, other nice things will come to you as happy byproducts. But if you focus on the happy byproducts you will fail miserably or worse, get the byproduct but miss the point entirely and never find happiness.
Let's look at this point by point. Let's start with the biggies---

Money vs. Hard Work: Everyone I know who talked about making a ton of dough right out of college (versus those who talked about finding a good job) are no better off than we are right now. Actually, most are not as well off. As they scrambled to find a quick buck and spent as if they already had a bunch of money, we worked slowly along and saved and saved and saved. Turns out the proverbial ant and grasshopper story is true. Money should never be a goal unto itself as it turns people bitter and there is never enough to make that person happy.

Find a mate vs. Find yourself: If you go out looking for a mate you will scare off any potential partners. Desperation and neediness are not attractive. If you go out into the world looking for adventure, fun, or to serve those in need you will be very attractive to the opposite sex. I do not need to give examples of this, you've all seen it many times.

Good grades vs. working hard and learning: When I was in school I know that those kids who focused on good grades, only took classes they knew they could get an "A" in and worried endlessly about their GPA were not the brightest kids in my class. In fact, some of them were kind of stupid. The smartest guy I knew (he had a perfect SAT score) was not our valedictorian because he challenged himself to take things he wasn't very good at (the arts, shop, PE) and didn't whine when he didn't get good grades. He's also a hell of a lot more interesting than a lot of other "all A" people I knew. Despite peer pressure on this topic from other kids and other parents, I have stuck strongly to this philosophy for my own children and I am happy to report it seems to work. Because they focus on learning and working hard they do get good grades, but that is not what they aim for. As a result they are critical thinkers and good learners but not always all A students.

Doing things because they look good on your resume vs. doing things you like: I wonder what happened to Marty "it looks good on my resume" Schwartz. That was his nickname in the dorm. Let's just say I haven't heard his name on any who's who lists or winning any Nobel prizes. The poor boy was dictated by that one mantra. This approach of trying to please a future employer who does not even exist yet is absurd in the extreme. The acquaintance we know who took up golf to impress future bosses languishes in the third circle of hell mid-level management. I have never seen this pay off. On the other hand, my friends who followed their passions, took chances, never worried about gaps on their resumes, and did what was right have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. When Jeff and I took a year off to live in Europe out of grad school the wags repeatedly told us "that gap on your resume will be hard to explain". That did not prove to be the case.

Eating/living to look good vs. eating/living to be healthy: Oh I could go on and on about this topic. Well,actually I already have in the essay I wrote about how to stay fit. People, this is so simple--if you want to look good you have to eat really healthy food and you have exercise. Yes. Fruits, vegetables, whole foods not processed crap. And you have to get up and move your body as God intended. Unless you are farming the fields you need to exercise. Regularly. Not just a long walk around the block. You do not need surgery, or drugs, or diets. Those are all quick fixes that will not result in long-term change. That is focusing on the wrong thing.
I have to add that this was reinforced at church yesterday (yes the self righteous housewife is a church lady too) when the minister read this passage from 1 Timothy 6:17-19

"17Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. 19In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life."

Okay, enough preaching for today. I'll finish with one more quote, this from an earlier essay about Jeff the golf pro--"Hit the ball straight, don't try to hit it as far as you can. In the end, the ball will go much further."

Monday, November 05, 2007

WHO'S YOURS?





Jeff Ludwig and Daniel Craig. Separated at birth?



When I was little my mother had a crush on Hal Linden. This was funny to us all, not only because mothers aren't supposed to have crushes, but because Hal Linden looks a great deal like my father.

Since that time, I've noticed that most married people have a crush on a famous person and that very often that person resembles their spouse. Or rather, the spouse resembles the famous person.

I suspsect this is another measure of a good marriage. For example, if you were married to a dumpy white man and found Lenny Kravitz to be the hottest thing you've ever seen that doesn't bode well for the pasty spouse.

Now of course, in the vast majority of these crushes, the spouse is not quite as beautiful as the celebrity because, let's face it, normal people are just not as pretty as celebs. But they do indeed resemble the person.

Our neighbor when I was growing up, Mrs. Stabenau, used to say her husband reminded her of Paul Newman. Well, he did resemble a celeb, but not Paul Newman. More like Jonathan Winters.

My current spouse-crush is Daniel Craig. As you can see by the photos above, my husband does indeed resemble him. I mean, they could be twins!

So, who is your spouse-crush? Does your spouse have a spouse-crush too? This is excellent cocktail-party material. Feel free to use it but I'd like a mention if you do.

Monday, October 29, 2007

I SPEAK MIDDLE SCHOOL

Today I will helpfully translate the names of the classes our children in junior high are enrolled in.

Let's start at the very beginning a very good place to be:

Middle School means Junior High. At orientation night they will tell you that middle school is a more nurturing and transitional educational experience than junior high. Instead of moving every hour on the hour to a new class as they do in high school, the kids move from "block" to "block" every hour or hour and a half or two hours depending on the complex scheduling grid that only a Homeland Security spy or a junior high kid can even keep track of. Whatever. If it's a school full of 11 to 14 year olds with poor personal hygiene habits and an obsession with the word "popular" it's still Junior High to me.

English class is now called Language Arts: I have no idea when or why this changed but I strongly suspect it is due to the propensity of all vocations to invent jargon to make them sound more knowledgeable/inscrutable. Because it is "arty" it means a heavy emphasis on the creative-writing and not so much on the grammar and punctuation but that switch occurred way back when. Diagramming sentences and using good grammar is so 1950's.

The Library is now the Learning Center: Now this one I can embrace a little--I mean the need to rename a library. As books are replaced with computers it does seem a little silly to keep calling it a library. Still, "learning center" is a little vague --isn't the whole school a learning center?

Foreign Language is now Global Language: Who knows why? Maybe foreign sounded derogatory? But isn't any language that isn't your own foreign? Whose feelings were being hurt here?

Art is Visual Art: So as not to be confused with the other arts such as music and dance, I suppose. But isn't this derogatory to the sightless? I think it should be "visual if able art".

Good news--Math, Science, and Social Studies are still Math, Science, and Social Studies. For now.

And now, for my personal favorite. The other day my son said he'd have time to finish his homework in PCT. Please elaborate, I said. Productive Choice Time, he said, snickering. Do you mean homeroom? I asked incredulously. Yes indeed.

Now I don't know about you but I'd have to say that in Junior High, a time in which I made more unproductive choices than any other time in my life (with the possible exception of the last term of my senior year in college), I made the MOST unproductive choices of all in homeroom. Passing notes in the form of quizzes (How bored are you? Check one: bored enough to 1. Yawn noisily 2. gouge my eyes out 3. actually do my homework), discussing who likes who and who said that to whom and endlessly ranking my crushes though the list was almost always topped by bad-boy Joe Doga and boy-next-door Kenny Gratton. Sigh. Now that was productive choice time.

So, if you have kids heading into Junior High, consider yourself a little more prepared now that you've read my handy guide but remember that Junior High, like politics and sausage, is best if you don't look at how it is made.

Friday, October 12, 2007

I SPEAK MARATHON


That's a lot of crazy runners.



Last Sunday was the annual Chicago Marathon. My hubby, Jeff, ran it for the fourth consecutive year. But this Chicago Marathon, the 30th, was unlike any other Chicago Marathon. This one was run in record high heat. With temps soaring to near 90 (freakishly hot for a Midwestern October day) runners were keeling over, emergency teams were taxed, and the organizers ran out of water. They were forced to cancel the race before even half the runners were done.

Jeff, walking and running, managed to finish the race but it took him much longer than usual. While he ran the course he saw people vomit, lose control of their bowels, and fall down to be carted away by ambulance. More than 350 people were taken to area hospitals and one man died. But still, most of the runners hung in there. In fact, even when the police announced on the bullhorn that the race was over and they should stop running, they kept running. Only when the police lied to them and said the clock had been stopped did they stop running and walk the last four miles.

By now, unless you are a marathoner or married to a marathoner you are no doubt shaking your head in disbelief, wondering (not for the first time) why on earth someone would even want to run 26.2 miles (yes all marathons are 26.2 miles and by the way if you want to make a marathoner crazy, be sure to ask him, "So, how long is this marathon?") let alone run it in dangerous heat.

Well, I would have wondered that too a few years ago but by now, after living with a crazy runner for the past four years and watching how it all goes down, I get it. I mean I really get why 35,000 of the 45,000 people who signed up for the race last week showed up to run despite heat warnings. And I get why 25,000 of those who started that race managed to finish it.

So as a fairly sane, non-running, yoga-practicing person, I feel I am uniquely positioned to translate for you why Jeff ran in that blistering heat last week.

First off, you need to understand that just to CONSIDER marathon training requires a certain obsessive personality. Type B's need not apply. If you have never stayed up late cramming for an exam, pushed yourself to lift a weight you had no business lifting, or stubbornly hung on as every one else fades away in boredom so you can claim victory over a monopoly game, then you are not someone who would even think about running a marathon. This trait--obsessiveness--is the main ingredient. It is more important than all the others that seem needed such as an abundance of freetime or an incredibly healthy physique. In fact, you don't need either of those. You just need drive, will, chutzpah, obsession...whatever you want to call it.

So you start with an obsessive person who by nature is already busier than you and I are. Now you take that person who has to cram hours (yes hours) of running time into his already busy day. He will do it. He will give up sleep, bartime (though not much--most runners are big drinkers too--did I mention they have obsessive tendencies?), family time, and TV/leisure time to log the running it requires to train for a marathon. If he does this properly, he will do this for nearly six months. He will run almost every day. Not once or twice or even three times a week but almost EVERY DAY for six months.

Day after day, week after week, while you and I slumber under the warm covers he gets up, laces on his shoes and goes out into the chilly darkness of a pre-dawn morning. Night after night, as we sip a glass of wine on the couch and noodle over a crossword puzzle, he is at the gym on the elliptic machine putting in his cross-training time.

Now you take these two factors together--an already obsessive person who has given up DAYS of his time prepare for this one day event and you can see how it is that he would be a tiny bit reluctant to miss the big day. This person is unlikely to let a little heat warning get in his way.

So, that, my friends and family and strangers, is why Jeff ran the marathon despite the dangerous heat, the bodies falling, the amublances wailing. Because he is the kind of person who runs marathons.

I do not pretend to be this kind of person, but I am married to this person. And I have to say, having a marthoner in the house is both enlightening and inspirational. I have come to realize that like all great achievements: the novel written, the summit scaled, the foreign language mastered--the marathon is run by taking first one step, and then another, and then another, until one thinks he cannot take another and then take one more.

It is that simple, it is that impossible.

And I'm glad there are people that crazy. How wonderful for us mere mortals to see 25,000 people limp, hop, crawl and jump over a finish line that they have run thousands of miles to get to.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

BILLY DO BE A HERO



Tom Foust of my town Glenview--a genuine hero.




"Billy, don't be a hero, don't be a fool with your life
Billy, don't be a hero, come back and make me your wife
And as he started to go,
She said Billy keep your head low
Billy, don't be hero, come back to me.

The soldier blues were trapped on a hillside
The battle raging all around
The sergeant cried, 'We've got to hang on boys!
We've got to hold this piece of ground
I need a volunteer to ride up,
And bring us back some extra men',
And Billy's hand was up in a moment
Forgettin' all the words she said"

From "Billy Don't Be A Hero" by Mitch Murray and Peter Callander

If you remember that song from the (ahem) 70's you'll recall that Billy unfortunately became a casualty of war as well as a hero. I remembered Billy this week as I considered our own hometown heroes.

Perhaps you heard about our local heroes on TV a last week. Three teens, upon seeing an 83-year-old woman turn onto the railroad tracks (she thought it was the road) jumped out of their car to rescue her. She refused to get out of her '06 Lexus (she didn't want her car to get wrecked) so one of them, Tom Foust, had to open her door, unbuckle her, pull her out of the car, and finally throw his body over her as first one train, then a second coming from the other direction, plowed into her car.

This act of heroism has generated a firestorm of well-deserved national media coverage,regional award presentations, and kitchen-counter mom-to-mom coffee/cocktail talk around our town. While everyone marvels and admires the kids' courage, a few have suggested that they would kill their own kid (if he/she survived) for doing something so risky.

Hmmmm. This deserves a little thought. I am reminded of my (emotionally unstable) acquaintance who declared after 9/11 that SHE would not have been a victim of that tragedy because SHE would have run for the hills at the first sign of trouble and that she was teaching her children to do the same. Her take on it was--the hell with heroics, it's all about survival.

Well, I don't agree with either assessment. Yes, it would have been a terrible, terrible tragedy to trade three young lives to save a senile old bat who wouldn't abandon her Lexus (she has yet to thank the kids). Just as it was a tragedy that one of the victims of the Twin Towers was a man who refused to leave the side of his handicapped friend in a wheelchair and died doing so.

But ultimately, these are things I would want my children to do. To respond to someone in need, to do the right thing, to be a hero even if it means risking their own lives.

Because in the end, we don't get to choose how we die but every day, in ways big and small, we get to choose how we live.

Monday, September 24, 2007

OVERHEARD IN THE ZIMMERMAN/LUDWIG HOUSE



Here we all are. I don't know where my kids learned the sarcasm.




Me: (to my three children) You guys are pigs! Look at this place, you never pick anything up, there's stuff all over the floor. You only pick things up if I tell you to. What if I died tomorrow? Is this how the house would look all the time?

Atticus (13 year old son): Well, we'd probably pick up for the funeral.



Jeff: Hey Lilly, I forget, are you in the third or fourth grade this year?
Lilly: (rolling her eyes) I'm in the fourth grade. (Pause) Hey Dad, I forget, are you an insurance broker or a veterinarian?

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

SHE'S NOT FAT...BUT




Abs on the right are not air-brushed on.


Sept. 17, 2007

This is not my usual thoughtful essay. This is nothing but sheer gossip. So pull up a chair and grab some coffee....

Here's a quick observation on a pressing, weighty matter of our time (pun intended).

No, she isn't fat. If she showed up at the community pool with her two kids in that bikini we'd all admire her figure (though I did read in the supermarket line that the abs were air-brushed on--something to keep in mind for the next class reunion). So I think it is a bit unfair to say she's "fat" especially by today's supersized standards.

But--(as Pee Wee Herman says "everyone has a big but, what is yours?") --but she did not show up at the community pool. She showed up on INTERNATIONAL TV where she was paid BIG BUCKS to do a job. The job was (in no particular order) look hot, sing well, dance provocatively. She did not do any of those things. In fact, if she'd pulled off two of the three we may have overlooked the third. But she did not. She did not prepare for her job and just as your boss would judge you if you failed to file that paperwork or did not prepare for the presentation, we get to judge her for failing to prepare for a TV appearance.

And, while I'm being snarky, if she had simply pushed her children in a double-stroller (instead of paying an assistant to do that) and if she had nursed them (instead of giving them Pepsi in a baby-bottle) she would have lost all that alleged "baby-fat". (By the way, that is not "baby-fat". She's too young to hang on to baby-fat more than a few months after childbirth. What she has is "appletini-cheetos-mocha-frappacino-fat"). Or, God forbid, since her career depends on it, she could have gotten her WT ass to the gym and done a few situps. Instead, she has chosen to spend her life emulating the great women of our time Paris and LiLo.

So, that is why people get to make fun of her and that is why you should not feel sorry for her when she gets criticized. She wasn't just hanging out at the pool, she was getting paid to entertain us and not the way she inadvertently did.

Friday, August 24, 2007

ODE TO ELECTRICITY


No wonder there was no power.
Photo by Beth Ford


I'm so sorry I took you for granted. I know, I know, everyone warned me that some day you might not be there and I should remember that and have a backup plan. But you've always been so reliable I just, I just couldn't bring myself to buy a generator. I believe in your reliability so strongly, I didn't even bother to buy batteries for any of the six radios I have in the house. How could I? To do so would be to admit that you might not be there some day when I hit the switch.

But alas. Even you cannot keep up with 71 mile winds and 5 inches of rain in two hours. Trees were down, wires were knocked over. You couldn't help it. No one even blamed you as we sat on the front porch of Coffee Friend 2's house lamenting that none of us had enough batteries in the house to power a flashlight or a radio. No, we bore the blame as we should. It was our bad. Hadn't Maria Shriver warned us enough after Katrina that we needed to be prepared?

I guess I just never believed you could go away so long. Sure, you've gone away for a few hours or even once overnight. But that wasn't bad. In fact it was kind of fun as we sat in the dark, playing boardgames by candlelight. But this time you went away for days and I realized that your absence isn't a fun Amish-like adventure but a big pain in the ass.

I couldn't wash the laundry that was piling up. I couldn't vacuum the dirt that had been tracked in as mud but now dried everywhere. The food in the fridge spoiled and there was no ice to be found in town to save the frozen stuff. The kids, who at first embraced your absence and read actual books by candlelight grew cranky when they couldn't check their email or play their online games.

Just as it was getting irritating you came back! We rejoiced and gave thanks. We bought new groceries and threw clothes in the washing machine. And then you went away again. Now that was just cruel! Half-washed dishes sat in the dishwasher and half-washed clothes had to be pulled out of the washer and hung on the back deck hillbilly style.

You went away the second time with no warning. It was sunny, wind-free and we were enjoying our annual block party. Suddenly, the music stopped and the moonbounce deflated (that sucker comes down quickly) and children screamed as the sides of the giant plastic bouncy caved in on them and they realized they were again without TV.

In total you were gone four days and in all that time not once did I walk into a darkened room and remember you were gone. No, each and every time I'd hit that lightswitch instinctively. I wonder how long you would have to go away before I'd stop doing that?

You are back now. For good I think and I am going to prepare for the next time you have to go away. I'm going to buy batteries and a hand-crank radio and maybe, even a generator. Just as soon as I check my email and run a load of laundry.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

WHAT WILL YOU DO ALL DAY?


As we head back to school, please enjoy this column from the archives. And to all the mothers saying good bye to your first-grader, you have my sympathy. JZSeptember 2004

My youngest started first grade today and all week long everyone I run into says, “What will you do with your free time now?” A lot of people ask this in jest, knowing full well there isn’t much you can do with the few hours when all the kids are out of the house at once. Others ask in earnest knowing that a world of possibilities has just opened up. I have some ideas. I’m going to start exercising again. I’m going to write more. I’m going to finish my novel. Some of my friends will go back to work with the help of sitters and nannies. Others will fill up the time doing more around the house, taking part-time jobs, or volunteering even more of their time to the schools.

It is strange but as a stay-at-home mom if you do your job really well you are rewarded by having your job taken away from you little by little. Today I was demoted to part-time. It’s not a huge chunk of time; 9:00 to 2:30 due to staggered start times among my three children, but nevertheless it’s a much bigger chunk of time than I’ve had in eleven years.

It’s not a total shock of course. The free-time comes quite gradually really, from the crazed frenzied days of breast-feeding and diaper-changing to the slightly less frantic days of potty-training and pre-school schedules to the relative calm of kindergarten and early elementary days. But some parts of it are not so gradual. Like today, the first day of school. It’s a wrenching change in my life.

My youngest is the best of my three children at expressing herself. This makes parenting her sometimes easier and sometimes much more challenging. Last night, she sat in my lap as I read “The Kissing Hand” and as I struggled to get through that tear-jerker she interrupted me to say, “Mama, I am not ready for first grade.”

“What do you mean?” I asked prepared to give her a pep-talk, to remind her that her best friend is in her class, she has the same bus route as last year, and she can already read chapter books.

“I’m not ready to be away from you for so many hours,” she said simply. This stopped me dead in my tracks because the truth is I’m not really ready to be away from her for so many hours either. I mean maybe more than the 2 ½ hours of a kindergarten day but I really don’t need her to be gone from me more than seven hours which is what it turns out to be with the bus ride to and from school. Can’t they have a four hour day in first grade while we all adjust?

My eyes filled with tears but I turned my head so she could not see. I forced a cheerful answer, “But honey, you were gone that many hours just yesterday with Margaret when you went to her house and then to the movies and you didn’t mind that.”

“But I can’t be away from you that many hours every day,” she countered.

Now I began to cry in earnest, thankful that children seldom look their moms in the eye and as I sat with her in my lap trying to compose myself and most unhelpfully I remembered a Dave Barry column in which he drives his son Rob to Kindergarten for the first time and as they sit in the car outside the school, saying goodbye, Rob asks, “Daddy, how long do I have to do this?” and he can’t bring himself to answer, but he thinks, “Forever and ever.” I remember crying when I read that column and I didn’t even have children then. I shook my head trying to get the image of Rob and Dave Barry out of my head and to distract myself I tried to figure out how old Rob must be now. He’s probably in college or older, and not nearly as close to his father as he was when he was five. That was no help so I lifted Lilly off my lap and told her I’d be right back.

I went into the bathroom and closed the door and sobbed into a bathroom towel. I was thinking of all the other mothers in my town, in my state, and probably in the world doing the same thing; crying into a bathroom towel because who else can you cry to? If only we had some acceptable way to share our collective grief maybe it would help but parenthood demands we act cheerful and even relieved when our little ones begin to leave the nest.

For the most part we are relieved. But we are grieving too. So please remember that when you see us looking a little dazed at the bus stop in the morning or a little anxious for the bus in the afternoon. Do not be deceived by our breezy answers to your question, “What will you do with your day now that the kids are all in school?” Because we’re not really sure ourselves. Oh we have lots of ideas; but we are afraid that any them will pale in comparison to the wondrous job we are leaving behind, the privilege of caring for a little one 24/7.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

CAR WASH



Jenny, Judy, John, and Jack--masters of doing nothing circa 1972

As I am on summer vacation, please enjoy this re-run essay:

I am a big proponent of giving kids downtime. The experts, whoever they are, tell us that all kids need a lot of time to just be kids. We should not be rushing them from class to class or event to event. They should learn to use their imaginations and learn to play quietly in the corner with simple toys like a potato or a piece of paper. The experts assure us that children do not acquire these self-entertaining skills unless we give them plenty of time to lie around and come up with fun creative things to do with their time.

Never mind that as children we had plenty of downtime and the most creative thing we ever came up with was tying Jack Stabenau to a tree and hurling chestnuts at him. What’s important is that we had the chance to come up with this kind of creative play by ourselves and so should our children.

So I give my kids a lot of down time. That’s another way of saying I’m too cheap and too lazy to sign them up for and pay for and drive them to class after class after class. Because of all this down time my children are very good at entertaining themselves on their own. Oh sure, if there were a blackout we’d be in trouble because the way my children entertain themselves is to turn on the nearest electronic, mind-numbing device with a screen. Their idea of special downtime is for one to be on PlayStation 2, one to be on the P.C., and the youngest to be parked in front of PBS Kids.

Last summer I decided this needed to change. When we went to stay with my parents for a few weeks I concluded that it was time my kids learned to enjoy downtime without the aid of electronic devices. I was also motivated by the fact that I was embarrassed that my parents might figure out that most of my parenting skills depend on the help of “Zoo Tycoon” and “Arthur.”So on my way to my parents I declared that our days at Grandma and Grandpa’s house would be “screen-free” from 9:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m.

Now I do not know about your kids but my kids always like the idea of these schemes. They embraced the whole notion.
“Sure Mom, we can go down to the beach,” said the oldest.
“And make sand castles!” said the middle.
“And play in the woods,” said the youngest.

This enthusiasm lasted at least ten minutes into our stay.“Please Mom, just a little T.V.” they begged. But I would not relent. I would not relent because my parents were watching me, waiting to see if I would cave and I realized you’re never too old to stop trying to please your parents.“No,” I said in my best June Cleaver voice, “You kids go on up to the playroom and figure out something that all of you can do that does not involve a screen.”They complained but they went up to the playroom. I sipped coffee and read the paper. I chatted with my parents. From time to time I heard yelling up there but I knew the experts would tell me to ignore it and let them work it out so I did not interfere.

At lunchtime they all trooped down, big smiles on their faces.“So, what did you come up with?” I asked.
“We made up a new game called ‘Car Wash’,” said the oldest.
“We found an old Matchbox set with a car wash and we drive our cars in it,” said the middle.
“It’s really fun,” said the youngest.

The experts were right! If you just give them enough time alone they will come up with something new. I smiled at my parents as if to say, “Aren’t I good at this?”All week long I would pass the door to the stairs leading up to the playroom and hear soft laughter or even silence.“What are you doing up there?” I’d call.

“Just playing ‘Car Wash’,” said the oldest.
“It’s so fun,” said the middle.
“It’s our favorite,” said the youngest.

I’d pause, smile smugly and think, “I wish everyone could give their kids such a great opportunity.”

The days passed quickly and the children seemed more content than usual. I was astonishingly full of parental self-righteousness. I patted myself on the back again and again for my ability to employ superior parenting skills.On the last day, as I was getting ready to pack I headed up to the playroom to find my son’s suitcase. I went up the stairs quickly and I guess quietly, for when I reached the top of the stairs I found my three, creative, resourceful offspring huddled around the T.V. that had been so recently turned off it nearly smoked. Spread out in front of the T.V. was the Matchbox car wash, which they all suddenly pretended to play with.

“You little demons,” I said. “You’ve been saying ‘play Car Wash’ to mean ‘watch T.V. secretly’.”

“No, no Mom, not us,” said the oldest.
“Well we played car wash too,” said the middle.
“Mostly we watched T.V.” said the youngest.

This is really the story of how I parent. Just when I think I’m doing the best I’m really, well, not. Still, it wasn’t a complete waste of time. They were resourceful enough to invent the ruse and getting along well enough to pull it off for two weeks. And nobody got tied to a tree.

By Judy Zimmerman

Monday, July 23, 2007

CONSUMERISM


These are the things I have purchased since I took a vow not to buy anything.

In the space of one month last fall I read three separate articles about a group of friends in San Francisco who decided not to purchase anything new for one year. I was struck by the novelty of this idea and though I was not willing to follow the stringent rules they had set for themselves (they were not allowed to buy a new computer if theirs crashed, for example) I was inspired enough to vow to not buy any new clothes for myself or anything new for the house for one year.

There were some allowable exceptions. I can buy cleaning supplies for the house and I can buy new undies for myself (but not fancy lingerie).

So here's how I've done so far, six plus months into it. In a nutshell--not bad--but certainly-- as the picture shows--I've cheated more than a few times. For each purchase I had a justification (lame excuse). The yoga clothes I bought because I forgot to pack them on a vacation. The dress and red shoes are my birthday present. The silver shoes and jewelry were to accessorize a hand-me-down dress from my Grandmother (see, by promoting the use of a used dress I was advancing my cause..no I'm not buying that one either) and the sandals were because I was getting an awful backache from walking around in my flip-flops. In hindsight, the only purchase really necessary was the sandals. On the household side I've done much better. The only thing I have purchased are a few new dischcloths.

It's been a very interesting experiment. Here's what I've learned about my own buying.

1.I shop more than I thought: Although I do not shop for entertainment, I do shop for myself as I go about my day. I found myself lingering over new tops at Target or considering a new dress as I passed the window of Ann Taylor Loft. This surprised me. I always thought I was just a non-shopper.

2.I'm a special-event shopper: If there is a wedding coming up I want a new dress. If I'm going to a Cubs game I want a new Cubs shirt. If I'm on vacation, I want a souvenir. This was a little harder to deprive myself of then I expected.

3.I like sprucing up my seasonal wardrobe with just a few new items: This has also been a challenge. With absolutely nothing new in my summer wardrobe, I'm sick to death of it by mid-July--a full month and a half sooner than I usually start yearning for cooler weather so I can switch to my fall clothes.

4.Knowing that I cannot buy anything is often liberating: I can throw the ads in the Sunday paper out without a glance, I can keep walking past the women's section in Target without pausing, I can flip past the fashion pages in the newspaper. Why look when you know you won't buy? I like this part a lot.

5.People talk about stuff they buy or want to buy a lot: I never noticed this until now. I mean, there are some people who always talk about larger purchases in a braggy way, and that we all notice. But I never realized how much almost everyone talks about stuff--from the acquisition of a little item on a coffee table or a new pair of earrings to a new car, there's a lot of talk about buying stuff.


So those are my observations so far. For the most part I like not having to give it any thought at all. Takes the pressure off when you're at one of those home shopping parties.

I've got five and a half months to go including another fashion season. I'll have trouble saying no to a new outfit for our annual Christmas party but for the most part, I feel pretty good taking a pass on the newest look in fall fashions.

Peace.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

CAN THE NEW FIFTY JUST BE FIFTY?


Would you love Aunt Bea more if she had waxed her brows and had her jowls lifted?


Paul McCartney has a new CD out and it's featured prominently at your local Starbucks. Perhaps you've seen this as you've waited for your double decaf whip cinammon extra shot latte. In this photo he
wears both his signature pout and his signature mop hair. Both look ridiculous on a grown man. That haircut hasn't looked good on anyone since Scout in "To Kill a Mockingbird." No, that's not fair, it used to look great on Paul--but that was four decades ago. He needs a grown-man haircut. This one only accentuates the fact that he is most decidedly in his sixties.

The juxtaposition of a young haircut on an old face is jarring and sometimes even horrifying. Like the woman I saw the other day leaving the gym--she was wearing tennis togs, had long tan legs and long bleach blonde hair. Only upon getting closer to her did I see that she was well into her 70's. The discordant images made me literally gasp in dismay.

Sir Paul and Old Tennis Lady certainly aren't alone. Look at Nora Ephron (if you can without cringing) who in the twilight of her years when she could be directing a thougtful, insightful, move about the wit, and wisdom of older women chooses to write a pathetic book about her aging, crepey neck. And the cosmetic surgery she's had done--what the hell? Her face looks like a Picasso painting. Yikes.

Paul, Old Tennis Lady, Nora, it doesn't have to be this way. You can choose to go a little more gracefully--get an adult haircut, dress like a grown-up, stop talking about your neck and puhleeze, keep the surgery to a minimum. You do have role models. Meryl Streep, Paul Newman, Sean Connery, Sophia Loren, Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher. You get the idea.

I know--it's a struggle. Fifty is the new forty and with all the cosmetic procedures that are now somewhat affordable and socially acceptable --and some that are almost expected for god's sake (do I really have to bleach my teeth?)--most of us will consider fighting back mightily like Nora. I mean who among us hasn't stood in the mirror and pulled something back or up or out of the way?

I've been thinking about it lately as I stand in the mirror and lift my parts. It is tempting--a quick procedure and a new look. But I keep thinking about Aunt Bea from the Andy Griffith show. Did you know she was 58 when that show started? Younger than Sir Paul and Nora and four years younger than Goldie Hawn who really, really must get new hair and stop giggling like a 14-year-old. Did Aunt Bea ever stand in the mirror and wish she could still play the part of the young hottie dating Andy? What if she had played that role? Would you remember her now? Why are we so afraid of looking like Aunt Bea when we reach the Aunt Bea years?

Remember this the next time you stand in the mirror and wonder if you should have something nipped or tucked. Would you have loved your favorite aunt one tiny bit more if she'd had a tummy-tuck before you sat on her lap? Would you admire Abraham Lincoln just a smidge more if only he'd had that wart removed and his brows waxed while he was freeing the slaves?


So is fifty the new forty? I don't know about that but when I'm Paul's age (he is now past the much sung-about 64) I hope I will be comfortable wearing a grown-up haircut and an Aunt Bea tummy.


Thursday, June 07, 2007

THEY'RE HEE-ER








This morning they were so loud they woke me up. I dreamed someone was using a power drill but when I awoke I realized it was the cicadas, already starting their daily drone.

The seventeen-year plague of cicadas is in full swing here in the Chicago suburbs. For those of you not enjoying this phenomenon of nature let me enlighten you. Most of us have heard cicadas--they're the bugs high in the trees who buzz on a hot, August afternoon--those are the annual cicadas and you seldom see them. These are relatives--but they only appear every 17 years in droves and cause a mass infestation that lasts about six weeks.

They are incredibly large bugs--about two inches long with goofy red, beady eyes. They crawl out of the ground at night as nymphs, climb up a tree, shed their shell, let their new wings dry out, and go find a mate.

After feasting underground on tree sap for 17 years they have no need to eat. Like crazed bachelors on a Vegas bender they have one thing in mind and they don't bother to stop to eat or sleep. Once they've mated, the male has a cigarette and dies with a smile on his face. The female finds another tree, burrows her tail into the bark, lays 600 eggs and then, exhausted and cranky, dies. Her eggs will hatch into ant-sized nymphs that will fall from the trees like rain to burrow underground where they will wait for another 17 years to repeat the process.

The paper says there are about a million per acre out there. I think that number is low. Four and five cling to every leaf of our maple tree. For some reason they love my car tires and I find a dozen on each wheel every time I get into the car. They sun themselves on my back fence and as I type I see them whirring through the air of my back yard.

They started to come out exactly when the scientists told us they would on May22 which by sheer coincidence, is the day we went to the shelter and got our new puppy, Molly. She finds them very tasty. The first time she gobbled one up I was appalled. They're still quite active when she eats them and sometimes if she opens her mouth up too soon they fly away. The paper says they are good protein and we should let the dogs eat them. As if I could stop her.

They came somewhat gradually. The first weekend, as we came out of church I said, "Do you hear that?" It was a roar in the distance, not unlike the sound you hear when you leave the undergrad library at University of Michigan on a game-day Saturday afternoon. But by now, two and a half weeks into it, the sound is more like we live in the stadium. When we are outside we have to shout to be heard. They are more active now too as time is running out--flying in a frenzy from shrub to tree to car in search of each other like patrons in a bar just before closing time.

I'm deathly afraid of bugs but I have become de-sensitized. The key is to not look too closesly at anything. If you do you will see them in Hitchock-ian numbers crawling in the grass, littering the sidewalk, covering a plant. Driving down the street we see pedestrians doing "The Cicada Dance" as we've dubbed it--the crazed herky-jerky movements we do to shake one off when it lands on you. They don't bite or anything but they are so big they give anyone the willies if they land on you.

Yesterday, two of them were copulating on my windshield as I drove along. I kind of felt sorry for them as I flicked them off--(they were distracting the driver). Imagine being underground for 17 years, finally hooking up, and being tossed aside by a windshield wiper in mid-act.

It's been fun watching them and learning about them. The kids are experts on them and collect them and tell me the blue-eyed ones are rare and "valuable" (to whom I don't know). They are indeed an awesome display of nature. Coming up from out of the ground on cue. Like my neighbor says, how do they know to come out at 17 years? Not 16, not 18 but 17? And what kind of life cycle is that? To only be above ground 6 weeks after being underground 878 weeks? Do they communicate while they're under there? Talk about what they're going to do when they finally see the light of day? I doubt that any of them plan to take their maiden flight and get eaten by a pup who has only been on earth 9 weeks. What the hell kind of ending is that?

I think we're all growing rather fond of them and take pity on them for having such a desperately short life above ground. As Coffee Friend 1 says, "I even flip them over on their feet if they get stuck on their backs. Imagine waiting all this time and then getting stuck on your back before you find someone."

They are also a reassuring reminder that despite alarming news of global warming and inane news of Paris Hilton some things are constant and the cicadas will return in 17 years.
When they come back our new pup will be an old 17-year-old dog (if she is still with us). Perhaps she'll gobble up a cicada and the sweet tickling sensation on her tongue will remind her of the summer she was a pup and first came to live with us and just for a moment she will be young again.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

I THOUGHT YOU DIDN'T WANT A PUPPY



So, part two in the dog story. Let's see, I was telling you that I really wanted a mature dog so I didn't have to train it and because puppies are such a hassle and blah, blah, blah. We went to the shelter the day I wrote that blog and we took a mature dog out for a test walk. he was great. He was calm, well-behaved, and very sweet--his name was appropriately--Placid. Lilly could walk him (which is the real test because she's not very big). She was sure she could handle a dog like that.

I was a little skeptical, just because she looked to be almost as big as Lilly. No, she assured me, she could walk Placid no problem. Well, I countered, what if he saw a squirrel or something and took off. Again she assured me she could handle that. So we tested it. I had Grace throw a tennis ball. Placid (ignoring his moniker) took off like a shot, dragging Lilly around the shelter yard on her stomach, just like in the movies. While I screamed, "Oh, oh, oh," Grace had the presence of mind to shout, "Let go of the leash!" which she did. Fortunately, only her pride was truly wounded (and her knees and elbows a little).

We tried to walk two more mature dogs. But they were both very strong, muscular, and not well-behaved. I didn't even try to walk one of them which was jumping up on me. "See what you did," the trainer admonished as she led him back to his prison, which made me feel bad.

Frustrated, I reluctantly took Grace's suggestion to at least check out the puppies. They led us to a small room with three crates. In one crate, three, tiny, tan puppies stood barking sweetly at us. I don't even know who was in the other two crates because Grace made a beeline for that crate of three and that was the end of that. Grace took one puppy out who immediately snuggled in her arms like a kitten with her head on her shoulder. Then I held her and said, "Okay, which one of these three is going home with us?" Grace pointed to the shy one, now trying to hide in the corner. She had to reach in to get her.

The whole time I filled out the paperwork (what the hell, there's less paperwork when you have a baby) and heard about our new dog's short life (she'd been picked up by Animal Control in Chicago with her four littermates at the age of 7 weeks), the puppy sat on Grace's lap. She did not wiggle, or bark or move except to snuggle closer to Grace.


In the car on the way home, Grace declared her name was to be "Molly". That night, despite advice to keep her in her crate I let her sleep with the girls. Everyone said puppies have to get up and go out at least twice a night so the girls had flashlights and elaborate plans about who would get up and take her out first. But when they woke up in the morning, Molly was right where they'd left her, between them on the bed, waiting for her new girls to wake up and play with her.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

DOG DAYS OF MAY

Preparing for the new arrival


Well the day has finally come. It's my own fault because I once said "I never want to become one of those dog-walkers" when I noticed that the moms with older kids all seemed to get dogs. I cursed myself just as surely as I have too many times to count--never say never.

I had an inkling it was coming about a year ago when I was bragging to Coffee Friend 2 about how responsible my girls were with their new dog-walking business. They'd developed their own advertising, gotten a client and faithfully walked the two dogs without having to be reminded. They took their earnings and bought toys for the dogs and gave the rest to an animal shelter. Coffee Friend 2 looked me square in the eye and said, "You know you have to get them a dog, don't you?"

But I held out a long time. I held out nearly 10 years under a constant barrage of begging for a dog. All kids are dog-obsessed at some point but my girls are like crazy dog stalkers. They ask for a dog daily--if I say "Can I get you anything at the grocery store?" they say "A dog." They own a dog collar, leash, bowl and cage that they play doggie with. Every book they read, every movie they see is about a dog. Every wishbone, birthday candle, loose eyelash wish has been spent on wishing for a dog.

Yet I resisted. For all the usual reasons, I resisted. I told them that if they could find a dog that does not poop or shed or need to be taken out we could have it. For years I stuck to that. But alas, they have worn me down.

To put it succinctly--their desire to get a dog has finally outweighed my desire to not get a dog.

I never had a dog as a kid. Well, we had a few but my mother always came up with reasons to get rid of them. Calhoun the beagle puppy chewed too much. Of course he chewed too much--he was a puppy. And Herbie the mutt was fine but when we moved my mother managed to find a rental house that would not allow dogs. At least that's what she said. But it was okay because Herbie went to live on a nice farm. No, really. I think.

What can I expect from my mom though? Her own dog, Belle Star, had to be "put down" because she had mange. When that came up recently I went to the encyclopedia to find out what mange is. Imagine my mother's disappointment to learn that her father had offed her childhood pet for having a bad case of dandruff. Ah, well, that's why we have therapists.

Anyway, we're all prepared for the new arrival. First we had to get rid of some of the stupid pets we've acquired over the years in my misguided effort to avoid getting a dog. In fact, it was the demise of dear Oreo the guinea pig that got me thinking of a dog at all. With her out the door that left only four stupid pets. I talked Lilly into getting rid of the parakeets (they went to live on a farm) and we now ONLY have WonderBunny and Snuggles the guinea pig.

To prepare for our new arrival we've begun talking as if we already have a dog. I frequently shout out, "Get that damn dog off the couch!" or "Tell Starbucks to get his nose out of my crotch." Lilly (just turned 9) gets into this game. I heard her yell, "Smokey, quit drinking from the toilet!" yesterday.

Today is the day. We will go to the shelter to see who needs us. The girls have been checking the shelter online daily and watch the dogs they want come and go but we just weren't ready until this week (too many travel plans). Yesterday they noted with chagrin that their #1 pup, Lenny the houndog, was gone--apparently adopted over the weekend.

Grace (11) was sad that we may have missed the perfect dog but Lilly reassured her--"When we get there, God will make sure that the dog that was meant to be with us will be there."

I like her faith. I'm sure we'll find the perfect dog who needs us and in the end the perfect dog we need even more.


Let's just hope he never develops a fatal case of mange.


J. Zimmerman

5/07

Friday, May 11, 2007

MOMMY TO MOMMY

A mothers' day observation:

If men are from Mars and women are from Venus I'm not sure where moms are from. I have noticed that there is a fairly complex and subtle communication process between moms when trying to negotiate playdates, sleepovers, and carpools and I think that most dads are not attuned to it. That is why if a kid has stayed at your house through not one but two meal times without a phone call from home you can pretty much assume that mom is gone for the weekend and has left dad in charge. Dads are all about the status quo and see no need to call the neighbor's house to ask a few sublte questions to find out if little Suzy has overstayed her welcome. In fact, most dads are pretty much oblivious to the unspoken mom-to-mom communication rules that exist.

I know at our house, Jeff is aware that they exist but also aware that he doesn't really grasp them very well. Still, he's a good sport and gives it a try when called upon.

Take the other night when I was going out for dinner with friends. As I left the house Lilly looked at me with panic and said, "But you can't go! I need to set up a play date!" I pointed out to her that the man sitting at the kitchen counter, her father who runs a mid-sized company, was probably capable of taking care of that. He nodded affably--yep, he could do that. So I set off for dinner knowing that the issue was in competent hands. The problem was, I forgot that this was a first-time playdate which has a certain decorum attached to it because you need to assure the mother who has never met you that you are responsible and on top of things.

The next morning I asked how it went. According to eyewitnesses, here is how it looked:

First Lilly called her friend and invited her to play next week. Kate said yes and at this point, as is custom, handed the phone to her mom to finalize/authorize the transaction. Lilly handed the phone to Jeff who at that moment realized he did not, in fact, know how to set up a playdate. There was a protracted silence on both ends of the line and finally Jeff said, "Hello, Kate's mom?"

"Yes?"

"Um, I guess we're setting up a playdate. Bear with me, I don't usually do this."

Kate's Mom, laughing nervously as she realizes she's been stuck talking to the second-in-command, "Oh, that's alright."

Jeff,"Okay, let's see --what do we need to do to make a playdate? Well, let's start with a date."


"Yes, the girls were talking about next Tuesday."

"Okay, and we need to know how they will get home. Can Kate take the bus home with Lilly?"

Now Jeff had committed a major playdate blunder--Lilly does not take the bus--she walks to school. In fact, she has walked to school for nearly a year but this tiny detail has escaped him. The blunder?--by revealing his lack of knowledge in his own daughter's life, he shows the potential playdate's mother that he is not a very involved parent, thus sending up a red flag for her as she decides whether or not she wants to entrust her child with us.

Lilly, who knows a social faux pas when she sees one smacks her forehead with her palm and hisses at her father, "I don't take the bus!!"

To his credit, Jeff immediately realizes his gaffe and the depth of his crime, "Oh, ha, ha," he says trying to laugh it off, "My other kids take the bus, I must have gotten confused," and he resists the temptation to show just how much he really knows about Lilly by spouting the name of her school and teacher (which is a good thing because he can do neither) and moves on to finish up the transaction by exchanging cell phone numbers and establishing a pick-up time.

All's well that ends well and the playdate went off without a hitch but I learned a lesson. If I'm going to leave it up to Jeff I'm going to have to give him just a little more direction on the unspoken rules of the mom world. I'm hoping that if all goes well and he pays attention he may graduate to being able to set up a sleepover! But that might be a little ambitious.

Anyway, I want to wish a Happy Mothers' Day to everyone out there who knows just how to set up a first-time playdate, a sleep-over for tweeners, and a complicated, two-stop, three-neighbor-kid car pool without missing a beat.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

HELLO MY NAME IS

Mysteriously, no one every forgot Eddie's name.


Don't you hate when you run into someone at the grocery store and cannot remember her name? You know how you stand there, while she says something chatty, and your mind is saying, "Think, think, think! You know this woman. She is a neighbor. She has three kids and she once brought rice-krispy treats shaped like shamrocks to a Brownie meeting. Think, think, think. You know this!" Meanwhile she chats on about the PTA carnival, remembering to call you by name, using your children's names and even (if she's very good) slipping in your husband's name. Then you feel you are getting closer--it starts with a J. No, maybe a K. Shit. what is her name, and then just as she says your name one more time you give up and say, "See you later," and slink through the grocery store, praying you won't do that weird thing where you manage to run into each other again down every aisle. You may even reconfigure your regular shopping pattern specifically so this won't happen. Don't you hate when that happens?

Later in the day you will remember her name as you are driving around running errands. You will even shout it out, "Debbie! Her name is Debbie!" and you pound the steering wheel and your children will ask you what you are talking about. You will tell them the story and your oldest might even point out the obvious, "Mom, how can you forget your sister's name?"

Well. Okay, maybe I'm not that bad, but pretty damn close. Some will say I am bad at names because I'm self-absorbed. Duh. Some will say it's because I'm getting older and my memory is fading. Again, duh. Some will say almost everyone is bad at this. And that is true enough, except for Mark Walther the principal at my children's school who is so good with names it is somewhat of a savant skill for him.

But for the rest of us, mere mortals, we are not very good at remembering names. That's why I really liked the name badges at the conference we attended last week. They had our names typed fully at the bottom but smack, dab in the middle, in a huge font that even aging eyes could read from a respectable distance, was our first names.

At these conferences you can sit next to someone at lunch and have a really long conversation but then the next day you will see them by the pool and not for the life of you remember their name. We discussed this---Linda from Ireland and I (see I rememberd her name because it was there for me to see the whole time). She said, "I love these name badges because I'm really bad with names. I will remember for years that I met you and you have three children and you live in Chicago but I will forget your name the second we walk out this door. But with this badge I can see you and say ,'Hey Judy' how's it going?" Exactly.

With these name badges I was freed of the task of trying to remember a name. I found that I used this freed-up energy to actually LISTEN to what the person was saying! It was positively exhilirating.
I also liked being called by my name by so many people. It made me feel semi-famous. It was great when the bartender said, "Judy, another gin and tonic" or other conferees would say, "Hey Judy, nice work at the hula hoop contest" or "Judy, you really nailed the Supremes imitation up on stage last night." (It was a really fun conference).

After a few days of this I came up with this brilliant idea--what if everyone had their first name monogrammed on every piece of their clothing!! In big, bold, easy-to-read Arial typeface!!

Think of how much easier life would be. You could see someone at Target--that woman you sort of remember you know from when your kids were in nursery school togheter or is it that you met her at school when you were on that board or maybe your kids played soccer together---and instead of wondering all day long what her name is you could just say it right outloud!

And think of all the other times it would be useful. At a restaurant when the hostess takes your name and it's noisy and you shout your name "Judy!" and they write down "Julie" instead you could just point to your shirt. At Starbucks they'd just look at your name on your shirt and write it on your half decaf/caf, soy, lowfat, extrashot latte cup. Wait--what if we had that order monogrammed on our shirts? And our orders for McDonalds too? No, wait, I'm getting carried away and our shirts would be full of words. I think just our name is good.

I'm sure there are dozens of ways this would improve the quality of life. Not to mention the people who do monogramming--they'd be thrilled with this idea.

Okay, I gotta go--lots of work to be done, shirts to be mongrammed--and I have to find a number for the monogramming lobbyists group.


Friday, April 06, 2007

GETTING OLD: GETTING WACKY

Warning: If you believe this is a symbol of fine dining--
this article might be about you.


April 6, 2007

Nearly everyone I know, it seems, is suddenly dealing with wacky aging parents. This is no surprise as we ourselves are not exactly spring chickens. Those of us fortunate to still have aging parents are headed into (or are well into) the wacky years.

Now of course, I am not talking about my own parents. No. My own parents are not getting wacky in their old age. And they read this blog regularly.

I am talking, of course, about everyone else's parents. Here are a few stories to illustrate this point:

-Friend A from college: her mother goes out to lunch and finds she has trouble paying the bill. She can't figure out how much it is and she is fumbling with the change. When she gets in the car she can't remember how to buckle her seatbelt. Her lunch friend does the logical thing--reaches over and buckles her up so she can (get this) START DRIVING!!! (well her lunch friend had to do it because she herself has macular degeneration and it wouldn't be safe for her to drive). Blocks later my friend's mother runs a red-light and crashes into another car because as you have no doubt guessed by now--she was having a stroke. On the upside, no one was hurt and she's recovering well. No report on the friend who was helpful enough to buckle her up.

-Friend B a neighbor: her parents live in Florida, God's waiting room. One day dad feels the symptoms of a heart attack coming on so he decides maybe his wife should take him to the hospital. He lets her drive (this is perhaps the first and only time he allows this). They do not call 911--that's for emergencies. They set off to the hospital but he insists they not drive to the closest hospital because that one is "No good" so they drive another hour and half to a better hospital. Miraculously he survives to attend another early bird senior special at the Cracker Barrel.

-Friend of a friend I don't even know but heard about: She goes to visit her mother in St. Louis. Her mother has to go to Steinmart every day (Steinmart, I am told, is like a TJ Maxx--a dishelveled discount department store that offers bargains for those willing to wade through a lot of crap surrounded by crazy people). She goes every day because "You never know what will be new." She yells at the young manager (who does not yet have crazy parents of his own but is starting to recognize the type) because he has the nerve to "move things around every day so I can't find anything." One day the daughter says she does not care to go to Steinmart with her mom. That's okay, mom is going anyway. She asks her daughter --who has lost a lot of weight--"What size are you nowadays? 10 or 12?" "No mother, more like a 4 or 6." "Right, okay a 6 or 8." "No, mom, I just said, a 4 or 6." When she comes home from her daily pilgrimage to Steinmart (even the name of that store makes me want to laugh) her mother has a treat--she has bought her a new wardrobe. Everything is a size 8.

You get the picture. You have parents. They are aging. You have your own collection of wacky stories. Though if you need some general topics to get started here are two: old people and being tight with a dollar or my personal favorite--old people who tell pointless stories in real time.

Speaking of pointless stories--I do have a point to make here--it's that apparently growing old means you grow wacky. I mean we all knew our parents would get older. We all knew their bodies would slow down, and maybe even their memories would fade. But what we didn't bargain on is that they would become different . Organized parents can get disturbingly sloppy. Disorganized parents can become fastidious. Parents who taught us important values can start ignoring them when convenient. Parents who once juggled full-time work and young children without complaint and little sleep are suddenly overwhelmed and "busy" with the overwhelming task of --of what?--being retired?They are always "busy, busy, busy."

Our parents aren't just getting older, frailer, or more forgetful--they're getting wackier and this can be challenging to live with. To quote Coffee Friend 2 who has the great fortune/misfortune of living around the corner from her retired parents, "At least twice a day I want to take my parents by the hair and bash their heads together."

So there you have it. And the worst of it all is that if they're ALL getting wackier we all know the inevitable truth--we will too.

Monday, April 02, 2007

HIT IT STRAIGHT

April 2, 2007

Today I venture into the very crowded field of diet advice. As a forty-(soon-to-be)-seven-year-old who weighs as much today as the day she was married, who has never been overweight (except when pregnant--I put 50 pounds on with one kid!) I guess I have as much credibility on the subject as anyone. So here is how I do it.

Wait, first I have a story that will be an analogy for how I approach eating. Actually it's an anology for how I approach a lot of things in life--here goes:

I once took golf lessons from a very zen-like young man named Jeff (no not my husband, an actual golf pro). He was a wonderfully laid-back guy who would answer almost any question or request with a slow, confident, "We could do that."

One day he took me and my three children out to the driving range. He said, "Now hit this first ball as hard as you can," and we all did. Mine sliced crazy and hit me in the ankle, my son's hooked into the woods, my daughter's dribbled off the tee, and the youngest sat down on the green and rolled balls around making them talk as if they were mice (admittedly, she wasn't really into the lesson.)

Then Jeff said, "Now hit the ball as straight as you can." My ball sailed off into the distance as far as I'd ever hit a ball. So did my son's and so did my daughter's. The youngest continued to play mousey.

Jeff had made his point and I have since then seen this truth about life play out in many arenas. In parenting, in careers choices, in caring for our bodies--you will always achieve greater success if you concentrate not on the final result but on pursuing your goal with honesty and good intentions.

Okay, so having said that I will tell you a secret on how I stay fit--I do not diet. Dieting makes people crazy and food-obsessed and it is not what God/Spirit/Mother Earth whatever you want to call it wants you to do. I concentrate on eating nutritiously and the pounds take care of themselves. Every time I make a meal I ask "Is this really the best food I can put in my mouth right now?" (Okay, not EVERY time--but most of the time).

I eat as many vegetables and fruits as I possibly can then I add the other stuff. It turns out that, yes, it is that simple. For a BILLION reasons we are supposed to be eating our veggies--not as medicine or poison or a condiment but great big servings of produce.

I do not start with a hunk of meat or casserole then add a pale, lifeless boiled vegetable. I start with beautiful fresh produce and add wonderful things like olive oil and garlic and make a masterpiece. I am not afraid of oil and butter --I believe in plenty of good fat because it fills you up and keeps you from eating processed crap. Then I might add a little meat or cheese or egg.

I only eat whole foods--not processed and I NEVER eat anything "lite", "lo-fat", or "diet". That is just a bunch of words that mean chemicals. If I want something sweet I add sugar. Not Equal. If I want something sauteed I add butter. Not margarine. If I want a beer I drink a beer. Not Lite. If I want coffee I drink coffee. Not decaf. It's about eating authentic, real food.

So that's my secret. You can join me. You can eat richly, deliciously, and abundantly if you eat this way.

So today, join me in the non-diet life. Make yourself a gorgeous vegetable fritatta with tomatoes, onions, asparagus and red peppers. Then add one egg to hold it all together. Make it two eggs if you're hungry--eggs are good too--pure and whole. Sautee it all in butter.

Eat well and quit worrying about the pounds.

Do it for Jeff. Hit it straight .

Thursday, March 29, 2007

THE REMODEL:WHITE BY DEFAULT


Grout comes in many colors. Who knew? Who cares?


Because I am on spring break I am being lazy and recycling an oldie but a goodie. Apologies to those who have already seen this one.

JZ March 29, 2007




We live in a very old neighborhood. Not old by European standards but old by American standards—most of the homes were built in the 1940s. The homes are charming and quaint by which I mean old and small. Until we put on our addition, we had one closet on the entire first floor to house the dozens of coats needed by a family of five to survive the vagaries of Chicago weather. We had a powder room that was so small (how small was it, you ask?) that I could literally wash my hands while using the toilet. I wouldn’t advise that though, it’s definitely putting the horse before the cart, if you know what I mean.


All the homes in my neighborhood are spatially-challenged. But because our neighborhood is also in a great town with friendly people and good schools and conveniently close to the city of Chicago, no one wants to move out to a farther suburb just to get a bigger house. So we all stay put but we all add on eventually. Everyone on my block has either added on, is adding on, or has the plans to add on.


Recently, it was our turn to add on. It had been our turn to add on for some time but little things like a job loss, and 9/11, and a health issue too depressing to even make a joke about had gotten in the way—but finally we were over all those minor hurdles and ready to add on. I was ready. I had done my research. I had heard all the horror stories—, how contractors and subcontractors can let you down in a million different ways, how living through the chaos and dust can drive a mother with young children mad and lastly about how the decisions you have to make while doing an addition can become overwhelming and in the end you may not make the best decisions.I had even heard several versions of the “white by default” horror story.


Though there are different variations, the story is the same. The homeowner, completely exhausted after picking out tile, countertops, doorknobs, and paint chips reaches a point in the process when she screams at the builder, “White, white, just make it white!” and inevitably there is one room, (hopefully the laundry room) that is strangely bereft of personality when a remodeling project is done. Now you know why. But I was sure this would not happen to me.


First of all, I do not now, nor have I ever had a white wall or white floor. I am all about the color. So no, I was not worried I could ever sink so low as to fall back on white.I was also not worried about the contractor stories I’d heard because I had Michael, the perfect contractor, and I knew in my heart he would never let me down.As for the issues that arise from trying to live in a house that is under major reconstruction—well, I was also not worried because I am like a pioneer, I welcome the challenge to live with no modern conveniences. I was prepared to wash dishes in the laundry tub and cook on a hot plate. No problem. Lastly, I was not concerned about any of this because despite all evidence to the contrary, I labor under the delusion that I am not subject to the same laws of the universe that everyone else is.


Things started out great. I had been right about Michael. He was indeed the perfect contactor: polite, professional, smart, and incredibly organized. He had his crew in every day including Saturdays and most Sundays. The project moved at a dizzying pace. He was honest, nice to the kids and a masterful negotiator with sub-contractors and suppliers alike. He brought a sort of zen-like balance into the chaos of the reconstruction. He remained calm in the face of inept electricians or slightly less than dependable dry-wallers. I didn’t have to worry about a single thing because Michael took care of everything. He was also hot. So I had that going for me.


Things went great for four weeks. Then they broke down the wall between the old house and new construction. I lasted two days before I fled with my children to my parents’ apartment in the city. I have no idea why I thought I could live in the house with all that concrete dust and asbestos flying around and no kitchen. I don’t even like to camp. So I was wrong about that one.


But as for the third concern, that I would cave under the pressure of making decisions—well I was right about that . In the first four weeks I picked out, purchased, and had delivered all the plumbing fixtures, two vanities, kitchen cabinets, four kinds of countertops, light fixtures for two bathrooms and the kitchen, and all new kitchen appliances. I was more than a little bit smug.


Then I went on vacation.When I got back I met Michael, my builder and life-coach, in the front yard to review the progress.“You need a painter in there. Today. Oh, and you need all the tile by tomorrow,” then he strode away confident that I could deliver the goods.


I headed out to the tile store. Now let me tell you that of all the bad places the builder will send you (and he will send you to many) the tile store is by far the worst. That is because there are eleventy billion different sizes, colors, shapes, textures, and materials to choose from in a tile store and not one human being salesperson willing to help you even the tiniest bit in making your decision. If you are a contractor and already know what you’re doing they will help you but if you are a mere homeowner with three cranky kids they will avoid you like an ebola virus carrier.


I was reduced to asking my five-year-old daughter for help with questions like, “Do you think this tile has too much orange in it to go with the countertop I picked out?” (Of course I hadn’t thought to bring paint chips or other samples to help me with this) and, “Is my shower too small to handle tile this large?”“It looks pretty, Mommy,” she said to everything I showed her, which was more helpful than my other two offspring who were hurling tile samples at each other out of boredom saying, “This is the worst! It’s more boring than the wallpaper store!”


Somehow, despite all of this, I managed to pick out the tile for two bathrooms, two showers, a mudroom, laundry room, and a sunroom in just two trips. In between, I was on my cell phone trying to find a reputable house painter who could start tomorrow, which is only slightly harder than you might imagine it to be. Finally, I strong-armed one into loaning me his nephew for a few days.


I met with Michael to tell him how I’d done. I was triumphant and a little cocky.


“Okay, that’s good," he was proud of his pupil but like all good masters needed to push me, "Now what color grout did you choose for each room?”


“Grout? It comes in colors?” I said weakly. “You mean like cream or white?”


“No, no. There are over thirty different colors to choose from. Didn’t you check that out at the tile store?”


“Oh for God’s sake, Michael! Who cares?” I shouted, panic rising in my voice. “Just make it all WHITE! WHITE! WHITE!”


Michael blinked and was quiet a moment. “You don’t really mean that,” he said quietly in a voice reserved for children and lunatics. “Grout color can make or break a room.”


“Please, Michael,” I whimpered, all dignity having left me, “Please don’t make me go back to the tile store. I don’t know what I did in a former life to deserve being sent there in the first place but I’m sorry for it, truly I am.”


Michael is not new to this business. He knows a broken homeowner when he sees one. He sighed and went out to his truck to rummage around a moment, coming back with an out-dated grout chart. He took me quietly through each room helping me choose the grout color he clearly knew I needed (“Now this color won’t show the dirt,” in the mudroom, and “This will bring out the warm tones in the tile,” in the sunroom.)


It was a pivotal moment in the project. My self-delusion was over and there was no turning back. I knew, and Michael knew, that despite my good intentions, that if it weren’t for him, I’d have white grout.


So if you’re thinking of adding on to your house my advice is to plan ahead. Go through the magazines and cut out things you like. Make notes of colors you like in other people’s houses. Visit home stores and jot down the names of fixtures and tile you like. Start a notebook and keep track of all your notes and pictures. After you’ve done that, throw it all away and call Michael. You’ll be glad you did.