Friday, August 31, 2007

In the Company of Women

Growing up, I usually only had one or two good friends at a time. In college, I didn't bother joining a sorority; the very idea went against my grain. So the big surprise for me as an adult is how many friends I have, whole groups of them, all of them women. Some I know well, and some have been virtually anonymous. How many women have I had heartfelt conversations with while we pushed our children on the swings, only to never see them again?

I remember once when I was in my twenties, before I was married or had children, telling a friend of mine that I found men more interesting than women. My friend was ten years older than I was, a lifetime wiser. She said, "Oh, women have always been more interesting to me."

And now I think she's right. Every woman I know plays a thousand different roles, juggles a hundred balls in the air at once. Really, some days I think we should all get medals. Most of us, anyway.

Tomorrow night, I'm going out to dinner with my two best friends, Amy and Danielle, to celebrate Amy's birthday. This has become our tradition: each of us gets a birthday dinner at the restaurant of our choice. We see each other frequently in everyday life (though not as frequently as when our firstborn sons were little, and we depended on each other for our sanity and survival), but the dinners are special. We dress up a little, wear makeup, go to grown-up places instead of the playground or the pool.

I remember reading about stuff like this in magazines, little articles in Women's Day (which, along with Family Circle, I read as a single woman in my twenties, a strange way to pass the time, in retrospect, sitting there in my apartment, listening to Public Enemy or Pavement as I read) about groups of friends who had little traditions and treats to cheer each other up. I thought it must be nice to have a group of friends. I hadn't had one since junior high.

And now I have one, which exists in various permutations and cross sections, shrinking and ballooning, expanding to hold whoever wants in. Danielle and I are in a book group with my old next-door neighbor, Kathryn; Amy and Kathryn and I hang out at the pool; Kathryn and I go to church with Meg and LiYing and Karla, who also go to the pool, where they are connected with other moms who have kids in the same schools or on the same teams or in the same dance classes. As far as I can tell, everyone is welcome, no one is turned away.

It's all so different from sixth grade, where exclusion was the name of the game with girls. Now the women I know are a bunch of socialists. Everybody's in, all the snacks and toys are shared. If you have a doctor's appointment, you can drop off the kids with somebody on your list. If you're going insane, you can drop off the kids with a friend who understands. The children's clothes are passed around and down. In fact, thanks to Danielle, I don't believe we've spent more than a total of fifty bucks on Fine Young Son No. 2's wardrobe. I mean, in his entire life.

This is not to say there is never tension or conflict. Your best friend's kid is rotten to your kid, and you care, you take it personally. And the next day (or ten minutes later), your kid is the rotten kid, and you dismount from your high horse. Somebody's husband gets laid off, and maybe nobody really understands what that's like, or everyone sort of forgets after a month or so. There are resentments.

But mostly the women I know take care of each other. They remember birthdays and that your kid has a nut allergy, they take your son down the slide at the pool because you don't like the slide. They pick you up from the airport. They're nice to your in-laws when they visit.

It makes you feel rich, doesn't it, to have these friends, some of whom you have nothing in common with other than you both have children? Amazingly, having that little in common turns out to be enough. Sometimes it's everything.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Revision Quest, or Tale of My Sweater

Last fall I decided to knit myself a sweater. It had been many years since I knitted a sweater, and the one I'd knit way back in 1992 was completed only by the good graces of the tiny, octagenerian who owned the yarn store I frequented, a lovely New Zealander named Alice. Alice walked me through the final stages, step by step, stitch by stitch. She did a good bit of the finishing herself, if I recall correctly, which is why my first sweater ever was a triumph. I knitted it for my boyfriend, who is now my husband, and the sweater is still with us, high up on a closet shelf. The neck, it has to be said, is a little tight, and we're a big-headed family, so it doesn't actually get worn. But it still looks great.

I knitted Fine Young Son No. 2 a baby sweater, a sweet little cardigan with buttons but no button holes, and aside from the cruddy job attaching the sleeves to the body, it turned out well. I knitted my goddaughter, Megan, a sweater, and did the same cruddy sleeve job, but it still turned out pretty dang cute.

So I thought I was ready for a sweater of my own. I saw a pattern in Vogue Knitting last fall, in an ad, went on line, bought the pattern, bought the yarn (from Jimmy Beans, my favorite online yarn store) at quite a pretty penny, and got to knitting. It was an incredibly easy pattern, and I had the front, back and sleeves done in no time. I was not pleased with the neck, which had an unfinished look to it, but I thought maybe once I pieced everything together, I could mess around with the neck and get it to look the way I wanted it to.

(Note: I am actually not a good enough knitter to mess around and make things right. I was deluding myself).

I had learned a lot about piecing things together from working on my goddaughter's sweater, and I felt I was up to the job of my sweater. I pieced the front and back together. Lovely. I attached the sleeves. I took the sleeves off. Attached them. Took them off. Finally got one on right. The second sleeve, however, was too big. I tried everything I could think of to make it fit in nicely. It wouldn't. I decided to live with it.

Only when I put the sweater on, it didn't look good. One big problem: it was a drop sleeve sweater. I hadn't given this much thought when I bought the pattern, but now I realized this was a look I couldn't pull off. I'm a broadchested kinda gal, and drop sleeves only serve to emphasize this. Add to this that the neck was too wide and allowed a fair viewing of my bra straps.

By the time I pieced the sweater together, it was spring, so it wasn't like I was going to get a lot of wear out of it anyway. I put it away. Maybe it would look better in the fall.

Now here we are at the end of August. I was going through my study closet this morning (deciding yet again it was just too messy to organize) when I happened upon my sweater. Maybe things had changed over the summer. Maybe I'd been imagining all those problems. I took it into my bedroom and tried it on.

I'm sad to say it is still a problematic sweater. It made me look frumpy and lumpy. I stared at it in the mirror and thought about all the time and money I'd invested in it. Would I just have to chalk it up to an object lesson, eat the loss?

And then I had a realization. When I started knitting the sweater, I weighed about thirty-five pounds more than I do now (Weight Watcher's, baby: I highly recommend it). In fact, the sweater is huge. I took it off and laid it across my bed. The sweater looked even huger. I put it back on and went to the mirror. If I grabbed a big hunk of sweater in the back and pulled the sweater tight, it actually looked pretty good. One of the sleeves was still set in sort of funky, but that's to be expected of anything knitted by my left-handed self: there's going to be a funk factor.

So maybe I'll frog the entire thing and start again--this time in a smaller size. I am, it should be said, an excellent reviser. I never get things right the first time. Rarely on the second time, either. But the third time? Honey, it's the charm.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Fall Projects

I am a project girl. I like to have at least five projects up and running at any given time. That way, when I get bored with one, I can hop over to another. I hop around like a little bunny with half a brain, finishing things up, starting new projects, so I always feel my life has purpose and meaning. There are projects to be completed! Fear not the void!

My Fall Project List as of August 28 (officially speaking, still summer, but why procrastinate?):

1. Start and complete a rough draft of a new book. I write children's books, middle grade fiction to be specific, and this fall I'm writing a sequel to a book that was published a few years ago. I keep trying to get started, but until Fine Young Son No. 2 starts preschool, there's not much chance of any meaningful work will get done.

2. Finish knitting the sweater I started this summer. The back is done, the front is halfway done. This is a Christmas present for a recipient who shall remain unnamed. I made great progress on it earlier in the summer, but when it started hitting 100 degrees every dang day, well, the thought of a lapful of wool was not enticing. However, I'm back on the pony and plan to have this sucker done by the end of September.

3. Finish the Amy Butler throw also started earlier this summer, another Christmas present. The material was purchased, washed and ironed in April. It got boxed up, moved to the new house, and retired to a closet until two weeks ago. Re-ironing was necessary. Then the measuring and the cutting of many, many different sized blocks of fabric (see above picture). Now I'm ironing seams. Next: the laying out, and then--scary, scary--the actual sewing. I'm sure I'll only have to rip out stitches eight or nine hundred times before I get it right.

4. Knit socks for various folks I love for Christmas. I love knitting socks. In fact, I've knit so many, I don't need a pattern anymore. You can take socks anywhere, you can get the most wonderful, funky yarn without have to sell your first born to afford it, and everyone loves them. Every once in awhile, I knit my ownself a pair, just because there's nothing like a homemade sock. It puts all other socks to shame.

5. Have at least two dinner parties. Next week (please, please) they are going to start building us a screened porch ("they" being the builder guys we contracted with in July). When it is completed, there should be plenty of warm weather left to have some folks over. It has always been my dream to have lots of dinner parties. It just seems so grown-up somehow ...

That's a preliminary list. Standing in the way of its completion will be travels to visit schools in Kentucky and South Carolina, various church committee meetings and commitments, school volunteer stuff, and the sheer necessity of cleaning a toilet or two. I will keep you updated as to my progress.

Two projects that most likely will not get done:

1. Clean out the closet in my study.

2. Make a scrapbook from various papers and artwork produced by Fine Young Son No. 1 in second grade. 'Nuff said.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Reality Check

Sometimes when I'm reading other people's blogs--blogs written by young moms who have three or four children whom they homeschool while running some fabulous cottage industry which involves sitting on the couch and knitting all day and then writing books about it while the (amazingly well-behaved and highly self-sufficient) children play with handcarved wooden blocks on the wide-planked hardwood floors--I wonder why I myself have failed so miserably as a mother and a human being.

The way some of these bloggers write about their families, it seems like it's nothing but good times and fuzzy moments and charming toddlers in calico dresses, everyone off to the farmers market or the Krafty Kids Co-Op or what have you. There are no TVs, no squabbles over computer time or whether or not the Nintendo DS is going to be taken out back and shot (because of course there is no Nintendo DS).

In case you were wondering, this is not my life. If I have written anything in the short history of this blog that would cause you to think that (and I don't think I have, but you never know), anything that would ever make you think I'm anything other than a broken woman contemplating sending her four-year-old son to military school out of sheer spite, well, I apologize. I don't want to be the cause of yet another woman walking around telling herself that everybody else is doing a better job of being a parent than she is, everybody else's kids are more emotionally well-adjusted and simply less insane than hers.

After a lovely back-to-school open house that made me all aflutter with back-to-school giddiness, reality crashed right back into our lives. When I picked Fine Young Son No. 1 from school yesterday, all hell broke loose in the minivan. Brothers yelling and screaming at each other, seatbelts unlatched so blows could be thrown. And despite my many threats, despite FYS2 being sent to his room for the afternoon, there was no improvement at any point up until the time the boys lost consciousness (clarify that: until they fell asleep; I did not drug their afternoon snacks, though in retrospect it wouldn't have been a half-bad idea). From about 4 p.m. on, I had a headache that wouldn't quit.

It's not that we don't have good days, days when my fine young sons play together and seem to halfway like each other. We do have those kind of days, or at least fragments of those kind of days. And I love my children and would take a bullet for them (but not one for their Nintendo DS) and can't imagine life without them, except for maybe having leisure time and not having spend a chunk of every day wiping syrup off of every available surface in the house. But, really, my life would be so much less without them. Emptier. Poorer. A lot less funny.

But if you ever read this blog and think, "Ah, I'd like to have her life because it seems so much simpler than mine, so much easier, her children so much better behaved than my own--why, everything at her house is fun and carefree and light," please remind yourself: It's a blog. That means most of the cruddy stuff is edited out.

Which is what makes it different from real life.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Back-to-School Redux

Okay, okay, after my "homesick for the home we never had" post the other day, I have to say that back-to-school time really is quite lovely. Yesterday we went to an open house at Fine Young Son No. 1's school and met his teacher and saw old friends, and Mr. "Do I have to go back to school?" was happy as a clam, making the rounds to see all of his old teachers, saying hey to everyone in sight.

As much as anything, I love the night before the first day of school. When I was a kid, I'd sort through all my new school supplies (how did I get them to school, I wonder--I didn't carry a backpack; no one did--a paper bag, maybe, since this was also pre-plastic bag?), lovingly sniffing the pencils, feeling rich in paper and pink erasers. And, ah, the thrill of a new lunch box! I had a purple Road Runner lunch box in the early years, graduating to a denim/vinyl tote thing around fourth grade, with a Peanuts lunch box thrown in there somewhere. My mom always put milk in my thermos (no Kool-Aid for moi), so my lunch boxes always acquired a sour smell by around week three.

Yesterday afternoon, I vacuumed FYS1's room--which he had supposedly picked up: ha!--and straightened up his desk, and generally made everything tidy for the big day. First day of school equals fresh start, in my book. In the kitchen, I washed out the Mystery Van lunch box and scrubbed the vinyl and even attempted to clean the cloth handle, which has gotten grubby over the years since first grade.

Then last night I made lunch. I am a "Do it the Night Before" kind of gal--lay out the clothes, take the shower, make the lunch. We are not a family of morning people, and it is best not to have too much to think about while the coffee is percolating. Making FYS1's lunch is usually the last chore of the day, as I almost always forget about it until right before I'm ready to go to bed. I can't put if off until morning, because I must have ample time for coffee drinking. So I sleepily make the tuna sandwich (he's allergic to nuts, so no peanut butter for him), wash off the grapes or cut up the apple, shove a couple of Oreos into a baggie. I do my best not to forget the snack.

Last night, of course, because it was the night before the first day of school, making lunch was a little celebration. I lovingly cut the tuna sandwich into triangles. I happily washed the grapes. I thought about throwing in an extra Oreo into the baggie, but then I remembered FYS1's dental bills.

This morning, FYS1 was up twenty minutes earlier than he needed to be and dressed before I got downstairs. This will never happen again--as early as tomorrow, I will be dragging his sluggish body out of bed and yelling at him that he'll lose computer time if he doesn't finish breakfast in two minutes. But this morning he was all enthusiasm.

Typically another mother in the carpool will be driving in the mornings, but this morning FYS1 asked me to take him, it being the first day of school and all, so I did. And when I dropped him off I said what I always say when I drop him off at school: "I love you, Daddy loves you, God loves you, and yes, even your little brother loves you."

And just like he always does, Fine Young Son No. 1 rolled his eyes and said, "See ya later, Mom."

And just like that, he was back to school.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Back to the School of Our Dreams

I think back-to-school time is a bit like Christmas. The very phrase "back to school" triggers a bout of nostalgia for so many of us--and mostly it's a nostalgia for something that never really existed. Yes, we all went back to school, but how many of us walked there kicking through piles of red and yellow leaves, the air slightly chilled and autumnal, our brand new shoes shining in the morning light?

Okay, maybe you did, but not me, baby. Having spent a lot of my growing-up time in Virginia, the first days of school I experienced were hot and muggy. I did walk to school through third grade, and I did wear new Mary Janes and knee high socks (this was in the early '70s), but summer was a long ways from being over. There were no leaves on the sidewalk, and the air was not crisp with the promise of fall.

So when nostalgia wells up in me, it is not for the humid Virginia mornings I dragged myself through to the squat, pink-bricked school that was Kings Park Elementary, but for a 1950's New England scene that I never actually experienced--in the same way that I've never experienced a Victorian Christmas straight out of Dickens, and yet that's what I start pining for around December 12th.

Fine Young Son No. 1 starts third grade next Tuesday, August 21st. We are told temperatures should be hovering in the mid-nineties. Talk about crisp and autumnal! And because it's the 21st century, he will wear pretty much what he's worn all summer, shorts and tee shirts. He'll wear tennis shoes instead of sandals, and because we don't buy him new tennis shoes until he absolutely needs them (otherwise we'd go broke), he will not be trotting into room 207 in shiny new footwear.

He will have new school supplies, but they will be arriving in the same backpack he's been carrying since preschool. It is a red Gap backpack and there's a small hole in the bottom so that pencils fall out fairly easily. I've offered every year for the last two years to buy him a new one, but he is attached to this one. If he ends up carrying it through high school graduation, I for one will not be surprised.

Moreover, he will be bringing lunch in the same Scooby Doo lunch box (The Mystery Machine) that's he's had since the spring of first grade. I offered to buy him a new one, but no. The old one will do just fine.

He has been this way all his life. No changes, thank you very much. We moved to a new house in May, and I'm amazed we convinced him to come along. I think he would have been perfectly happy if we'd let him rent the old one from us.

Fine Young Son no. 1 neither walks to school nor takes the bus. He is driven. (This year the big excitement is we've been asked to join a car pool, and it looks like I'll be doing more picking up than dropping off--which is to say I can finally live out my dream of waving my child off to school while still in my PJs). So when he's an adult and is hit by a wave of back-to-school nostalgia, he'll probably envision the inside of a minivan ... which is driving through a crisp, New England fall morning toward a red brick school house, and all the kids are playing kickball, and everyone is happy forever.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

A Left-handed Moment at the Ballpark

I am fortunate enough to live in a city with a minor league baseball team. Given that my husband and I both like baseball a lot, and that we have two young sons who are ripe for baseball fandom, you think we'd run downtown every night the team played at home to worship at our local Church of Baseball. But Tuesday night was the first time all summer that we made a game. Had we known that Fine Young Son No. 2 would be so enthralled, we would have showed up on opening day in May.

I like watching baseball when I feel like I really know the team. When I don't know the team, I spend the innings at the ballpark people-watching and eavesdropping. Eavesdropping on Tuesday night was no problem, as the folks behind us were highly verbal and kept it turned up to about six. Not obnoxiously loud, but definitely audible. All sound, all the time. At first I enjoyed it, because a) they sounded like they were from Chicago or surrounding environs, and I love Chicago and midwesterners, who are friendly like southerners, but without all the baggage; and b) they were talking about food--in particular, about food they liked to cook.

As the evening went on, however, their conversation dwindled into endless blather, at which time it was hard to avoid questions such as: why this need for constant talk? do these people ever shut up? are they afraid they would no longer exist if they stopped talking? do they have inner lives?

The good news is: they didn't cuss. Because if they did, I'd have to turn around and give them the hairy eyeball and nod toward my kids as if to say, "Do you mind?"

The ballpark in our fair city is about ten or eleven years old, which is to say, still relatively spiffy and up-to-date. The outfield walls serve as billboards, the electronic kind that switch ads every five minutes or so. The only permanent ad was for Duke's Mayonnaise, a staple of southern cooking. This pleased me. We are in the south; there should be some southern icons strewn hither and yon in the midst of all the homogenization.

But the true housewife moment came when the ads flipped around and I came face-to-face with an ad for Hamburger Helper. For the life of me, I can't figure out why the folks at Hamburger Helper are advertising at baseball games, but I loved the ad. First, the little, white helper glove was left-handed. I have never noticed that before. Secondly, in the ad a baseball was headed right for it--for its little white helper glove face, with its little red dot nose and black button eyes and crescent-moon smile. Why, oh, why, I thought, is someone throwing a ball at this innocent little glove's face? It's a glove, sure, and gloves are used to catch baseballs--unless, of course, those gloves come with noses and mouths attached. Then perhaps some caution should be exercised.

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Hostess with the Mostest

It seemed like my mother was always having dinner parties. My father was a career army officer, and there was a certain amount of after-hours entertaining that came with the job. Add to that the fact it was the '70s. I think people just entertained more back then--real entertaining, I mean, with no children allowed, the women wearing dresses, the men in suits, cocktails and hors d'oeuvres, scotch and sodas.

For the life of me I can't remember what my mother served for dinner. I remember some of the appetizers, in particular cheese puffs kept warm in an electric warming basket. I remember wooden cheese boards laden with gouda and Triscuits, and cut glass bowls filled with cocktail peanuts. But what stays with me most vividly, in all their considerable glory, are my mother's dinner party desserts.

My mother made two desserts for her dinner parties. The fall-back, the old favorite, the go-to dessert, was pineapple upside down cake baked in a cast iron skillet. To assemble this masterpiece, one laid out the pineapple rings in the skillet's bottom, plopped a marischino cherry in the center of each one, and scattered pecans hither and yon. The pineapple, cherries and nuts were then drenched in yellow cake batter, and the whole thing was pushed into the oven for an hour.

It must have made a fair-sized cake, because there was always enough left over the next day to be cut into three slices, one for me and each of my brothers. I always dissembled my piece as I ate it, plucking off the pecans first, then the cherries, and finally lifting off the pineapple slice and popping it into my mouth. What was left was the yellow cake with its residue of pecan oil and pineapple juice. Oh, and bits of whipped cream. My mother always served pineapple upside down cake with Cool Whip, which my brothers and I layered on top of it like frosting.

But there was never any chocolate mousse left over. Imagine, if you will, the lightest, sweetest ladyfingers layered across the bottom of a glass loaf pan, to be covered with a chocolate confection three or four inches deep, and topped with another layer of ladyfingers. The chocolate was laced with something--a splash of bourbon?--that added a dash of mystery to it. It was a grown-up taste, a taste that went with the Scotch and the cigarettes we picked out of the ashtrays the next morning and pretended to smoke.

Chocolate mousse was not for children; it was strictly the provence of the grown-ups. The other day it occurred to me that I may never have eaten an entire piece of it. I know I licked the beaters, and I'm sure I stuck my finger in the mousse when my mother wasn't looking. After the dessert plates were cleared from the table, I mostly likely snuck down to the kitchen to examine them for smidgens of leftovers. But I don't recall ever sitting down to a full dish and eating to my heart's content.

I have struggled with my weight my entire life, and I have a new theory why: I think I eat and eat and eat, hoping one day to be as satisfied as I know I would have been had I had one piece of my mother's chocolate mousse.

Maybe I should e-mail her for the recipe.

Friday, August 10, 2007

A Martha Stewart Interlude

Today I gift-wrapped an empty box. First I glued on sheets of fuscia tissue paper. Next, I glued sheets of pink polka dot tissue paper over the fuscia paper, leaving a bit of the fuscia showing. It is a lovely box. With any luck, when I place it at the coffee hour refreshment table at church on Sunday, it will become a lovely box filled with lovely clothes for the kids who live at the homeless shelter downtown.

Wrapping the box was my big, Martha Stewart idea. I wanted it to look friendly and festive. Frankly, my church needs all the friendly and festive boxes it can get. It's an Episcopal church that is struggling to hang in there. Two years ago, a new rector came to town, and he's good people. He's trying to make things happen. He and the curate (the second in command) are starting to get people excited about the place. They've got Children's Chapel and Youth Group up and running again, and a lot of new folks coming through the front doors. They've got me wrapping empty boxes.

I tried to take a picture of my box to post here. I thought, "This will be my chance to learn how to upload photographs to the computer." But after taking several shots, I realized I will have to learn something about using a camera first. Have you ever seen those pictures on E-Bay that look like they've been taken in somebody's mildewy rec room, a rec room with no recessed lighting, one you just know reeks of stale cigarette smoke and cat urine? That's how my box pictures came out. And I don't have a rec room or a cat. Or cigarettes, for that matter.

You will have to take my word for it: it's a nice box. One day maybe I'll figure out how to show it to you in a way that makes you realize just how nice an empty box can be.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Which Implies a Fierce Determination

It ain't easy being left-handed and trying to keep a house in order. At least not if you're my kind of left-handed, which is the messy kind. The kind that has wires crossed because she learned to do too many things right-handed growing up. The kind that can't read directions or a recipe without mixing everything up the first time around. The kind that does not possess strong organizational skills, despite claims to the contrary made on her resume.

But here I am, making a go of it. And not only do I try to keep a reasonably clean house (if by reasonably clean we mean the bathrooms get a go-over biweekly), I also knit. And I'm learning how to sew. I can make socks and sweaters, and so far have produced two aprons on my sewing machine--crooked seamed aprons, unevenly hemmed aprons, but aprons, by jiminey, aprons!

I read many wonderful blogs by women who are clearly creative and crafty, who post pictures of their wonderful creations, who have been given publishing contracts on the basis of their blogs, and I love these women, as probably do you. When their books come out, I buy them. I, however, am not one of them. First of all, I do not know how to upload photographs from my son's digital camera to the computer. (I'm going to learn to do this any minute now; it's on my list.) Secondly, while my homemade crafts are given with love and received, I hope and believe, with pleasure, nobody's going to be begging me to write books about my crafty life any time soon--unless it's a book called How to Get it Wrong the First Time--Every Time!

So if you're crafty, but uncoordinated, domestic but kind of sloppy and haphazard about the whole deal, then stay with me. We'll get it all figured out sooner or later.