Monday, September 24, 2007

The World's Most Perfect Food

My friend Amy is going to the beach this week. That is the only reason I'm not completely despondent over the resurgence of warm weather we're having--back in the high 80s after a week of mid-70s. Just when it was feeling like fall, summer comes back for another slap in the face. But since it will make the beach nicer for Amy and her family, I can live for another week of unbearable weather (which will be even more unbearable in South Carolina, where I'm headed this afternoon for three days of school visits, where I'll talk about my books and be asked "Where do you get your ideas" approximately 587 times).

Anyway, for me, the beach is about one thing: sitting on the screened porch and eating pimento cheese crackers. My husband and I live on pimento cheese crackers at the beach, supplemented by tall, icy glasses of Coke. This year, for the first time, Jack got into the game, too. He'd resisted pimento cheese for a full eight years, but finally, he could resist no longer. It happens to the best of us.

I never had pimento cheese until I moved back to North Carolina after several years of graduate school up North. I'd heard of it, seen it in little plastic containers in the Food Lion, but had not once been moved to eat it. I don't know what happened. I think my husband, a native North Carolinian, must have challenged me to try it (he did the same thing with liver mush, which is also downright yummy when fried up in a pan). I tried it. I liked it. And one day I made some myself.

Unlike banana pudding, you can have pimento cheese whenever you want it. However, I like keeping things seasonal and special, and besides, pimento cheese isn't exactly health food. So I make pimento cheese twice a year--beach week and the Christmas holidays. It is simple to make, and so delicious that you can't stop eating it. Here's the recipe:

Pimento Cheese

8 oz. extra sharp cheddar cheese, grated
2 oz. pimentos, drained
1-2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 Tbs. dijon mustard
1/2 cup onion, minced as fine as you can get it
enough mayo to hold everything together (start with 2-3 tablespoons and keep adding til you have it like you like it)

Pretty much you just mix everything together and let it sit for twenty-four hours before you eat it. When we go to the beach, I make pimento cheese as soon as we've checked into our house, so it will be ready by lunch the next day. It really is important to let it sit so all the flavors can blend in with each other.

When grating the cheese, try to grate it so the pieces are kind of short and stubby. That gives the pimento cheese a more pleasing texture.

I haven't given an exact measurement for the mayo because mayonnaise is a very personal thing. I personally can't stand too much, where the mayonnaise overwhelms everything else, but you have to have enough to hold things together and to make the cheese spreadable. Usually I start with a couple of tablespoons and just keep adding until it's right.

Serve on sturdy crackers--I use those Stone Wheat ones you get in the semi-fancy cracker section of the supermarket.

Once you have eaten homemade pimento cheese, you will never turn back.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Last night I made my son a peanut butter sandwich. It was the first peanut butter sandwich I'd made him in six years.

He wouldn't eat it. In fact, he was pretty sure it would kill him if he did.

When Jack was two (yep, I'm outing Fine Young Son No. 1, because I'm tired of writing Fine Young Son No. 1 and No. 2) he ate a cashew at playgroup. I didn't think a thing about it. A minute or two later, he started to complain that his throat hurt. Suck it up, I told him, or something equally as warm and maternal. He continued to complain. I thought he must be tired and ready to go home, so we left.

In the car, he complained that his eyes itched. Checking him out in the rearview mirror, I saw the skin around his eyes was a blotchy pink. I finally made the connection between the cashew and Jack's symptoms. As it happened, we were right by an Urgent Care facility, so I whipped into the parking lot, grabbed Jack, and ran inside, screaming that someone had to see Jack that very minute, that he was having an allergic reaction to nuts. I thought he was going to die.

Long story short: Jack was indeed allergic to nuts. He didn't go into anaphylactic shock on that day, nor has he ever. In fact, he has only had one other allergic reaction. About six months later, I bought some Nestle's Chocolate Chunks to make cookies with. I knew that Nestle's chocolate chips were nut free, and I assumed that the Chunks were too. Jack ate a handful, and almost immediately hives popped up around his eyes. I checked the package, and there it was, plain as day: This product may have been processed on machinery that also processes peanuts.

When Jack was diagnosed as being allergic to nuts, I went into a deep funk. Knowing your child is just a nut-laden cookie away from death can really get to a girl. And every time I thought I'd made peace with Jack's condition, some kid would get near to him with a peanut butter sandwich, and I'd just about lose it. His first day of preschool, the mom in charge of snack brought in peanut butter crackers, despite the letter that went out to all the parents in Jack's class that no snacks with nuts were allowed. After telling Jack a hundred times not to eat those crackers, I went back to my car and wept.

How on earth were we going to get through school and birthday parties and Halloween and the people who don't believe in nut allergies and the people who say, "Oh, this cake--these cookies--this chocolate candy doesn't have nuts in it," and then are stunned when they actually read the label to find out it does have nuts? How would he survive--how would we survive--without keeping Jack under constant surveillance?

Sixth months after starting preschool at age four, Jack taught himself to read. This was a blessing, because now Jack could read food labels for himself. In fact, he has done an amazing job of self-policing over the years. And he has been a great sport. He has had to pass up all sorts of birthday cakes because the cake mix box had been thrown out or the store label had been torn off the plastic box and we had no way of knowing whether or not the cake was nut-free.

I should take a second here to give a shout-out to our many friends and neighbors who went rooting through the trash to find empty cake mix boxes or cookie packages or called the bakery that made the birthday cake. Another one goes to my friends who never forgot about Jack's allergies, who always made certifiably nut-free cakes and cookies, who always checked the labels on the crackers or the chips without having to be asked.

When Fine Young Son No. 2--aka Will--came along, we treated him as though he were allergic to nuts, too. It wasn't hard to do, since we don't keep peanut butter or any nuts at all in the house. We told his preschool teachers that we were treating him as potentially allergic to nuts, and they asked parents to bring in nut free snacks for snack time.

We were told we should get Jack tested around age eight, and so yesterday, we did. For good measure, we got Will tested, too. A nurse swabbed their backs, drew a lot of little horizontal lines, each one with a little code under it, and then she poked and pricked and we waited. One of the pokes was with a histamine, and on both boys that turned into a welt almost immediately. Other than that one welt, Will's back stayed clear. A short line of four welts appeared on Jack's back. When the nurse examined him, she said: Cashews. Almonds. English Walnuts. Hazelnuts.

No peanuts.

When you have spent six years worrying that your child will die after innocently consuming a fraction of a peanut, it is an amazing and wonderous thing to hear that he is safe.

"Let's go buy some peanut butter!" the boys yelled. And so, on our way home, we stopped at a mini-mart and bought a small jar of Jif. When we got home, I made the first peanut butter sandwich I'd made in six years.

No one would touch it.

Will, of course, does not eat strange food on principle, even when the idea of the food is appealing to him. Jack, on the other hand, is more adventurous. But psychologically, it must be hard to eat something that for your entire thinking life you have assumed would kill you. He may never eat peanut butter. I wouldn't blame him.

But if he wants to, he can. And I can let him go to Europe now, and New York City, and all those other places that would take him far away from me and his dad, without worrying that if we're not there to save him, who will? We'll still worry about drunk drivers and child predators and freak accidents and a wide and various assortment of diseases. But not peanuts. They're off our list.

But I'm keeping the epi-pen, just in case.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

So last night I'm at the preschool Parents' Night. The teacher describes all the interesting, neat things the kids are doing this year, which makes me want to be a fly on the wall everyday just to watch. Then she points to a row of drawings on the wall and tells us these are pictures the children have drawn of themselves doing their favorite things. Beneath each picture, the teacher has written a caption. "Go to the fair." "Play with Trucks." "Play with my friends."

All the parents scan the wall eagerly. What have their precious children drawn? It only takes me a second to find Fine Young Son No. 2's portrait. He has drawn himself using a gold crayon, little head, cocoon-like body, no neck or legs (but feet). The caption reads "Eat lunch at home."

My children are not subtle. When we took Fine Young Son No. 1 to the hospital for a tour before his brother was born, he was given a crafts project to do. Draw a happy face on this paper circle, the nice tour lady told all the children, and then we'll glue it to the popsicle stick, and when baby brother or sister is born, you can wave your picture at them--baby's love to look! The other children drew happy, smiling faces, clown faces, flower faces. My son, age three-and-a-half, scrawled a monster face all in black. With fangs. I still have it, little portent of things to come that it is.

Now, another parent in the preschool classroom, seeing FYS2's self-portrait, might get warm, fuzzy feelings imagining what FYS2 means by "Eat lunch at home." Grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup at the kitchen table while he tells Mommy all about his day. A mug of hot chocolate. A plate of freshly baked cookies. When FYS2 is done eating, a crust or two left on his plate, he runs off to play with his trucks, pausing first to give Mommy a sweet kiss on the cheek. "T'anks for the great lunch, Mommy," he croons into her ear.


The only problem is, FYS2 doesn't actually eat. He scorns food, gives it the hairy eyeball, finds everything but frozen waffles and goldfish highly suspicious. I believe the only reason he continues to grow at a fairly regular rate is that he drinks copious amounts of chocolate milk.

Last year I tried to get him to go to lunch bunch. Give me one more hour, I pleaded silently. Out loud, I told him it would be like a daily play date with his best friend Benjamin, a longtime lunch buncher. I bought him a Batman lunch box. I bought juice boxes, which we usually only get for special treats. FYS2 was excited--until he realized the lunch bunch ladies actually expected him to eat his lunch. At that point, he rebelled. No more lunch bunch.

Every month or so, I'd ask him if he'd changed his mind. Nope. He wasn't going to do it. And I should say it wasn't just about the eating. If it had been, I might have pushed a little harder. But it was clear that three hours of school was enough for him. It wore him out. He loved school, but school was a lot of sound and color and light coming at him all at once. He could only take so much of it. Fair enough.

This year, I haven't even mentioned lunch bunch. Knowing my son, if I bring it up, he'll just dig in his heels more deeply. I hope that by spring he'll want to try it, because I worry about next year, when he'll be in school all day. He needs to start training for the marathon. But I have kept my mouth shut. No dropping of subtle lunch bunch hints, no wondering aloud about how much fun the lunch bunchers are having out on the playground. I've played it cool. It's a nonissue.

But FYS2 is taking no chances. What's your favorite thing to do, sweet pea, his teacher asks. And instead of saying, "Playing with my superhero guys," or "Dressing up as Batman," or "Pestering my big brother about watching his computer time," he says, "Eating lunch at home." Just in case anyone's thinking about making him stay for lunch bunch. He's Mr. Strategy, Mr. Taking No Chances. Now they probably wouldn't let him come to lunch bunch if he begged them to. "Go home and eat that nice grilled cheese, sweet heart," the lunch bunch ladies would tell him. "We can't take that away from you."

Smart, this kid. Very smart.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Monday, September 10, 2007

South Paw Blues

Once upon a time a few years ago, I was trying to convince my friend Danielle to take up knitting. I was sure that she would enjoy it. It would help her relax, meditate, be one with the universe. I did my best to sell knitting as a cure-all, but Danielle was hesitant. She was too left-handed, she felt, to be crafty. Too left-handed? Is there really such a thing, I wondered?

Over the years I've come to the conclusion that when it comes to arts and crafts, the answer, quite possibly, is yes. Left-hander that I am, I, too, have struggled with all manner of crafting, from pottery to crochet, cross stitch to quilting. I think it's possible that some of my, shall we say, limitations as an arts and crafts girl are related to my status as a south paw.

What I've learned is that I just have to work harder than other crafty girls. I'm going to make more mistakes, misread more directions, and generally just get it plain wrong more often, than my less challenged sisters. I've learned to anticipate where I'll be most likely to mess up. I transpose knitting directions onto a legal pad, writing things out, drawing charts, so I understand what I'm trying to do. But if I don't mind starting over, over and over and over, I can get the job done and feel pretty good about it.

My latest endeavor, as I've mentioned in earlier posts, is sewing. Yesterday, I spent an hour or so working on the throw I'm making. As always, I'm learning. My first lesson: I was an idiot not to buy a seam ripper the minute I bought a sewing machine. In fact, I think there should be a law that all sewing machines have to come with seam rippers scotch-taped to them. Why did I think I could live without one?

Imagine me last fall, novice sewer, stitching up my aprons with the smallest stitches possible--I thought it looked pretty that way, sort of french--sewing the most crooked seams you've ever seen (I'm thinking about having little labels made up that read "I was not drunk when I sewed this item"), and then picking them out with scissors. That right there is the reason it took me over a week to make an apron that was essentially an oversized handkerchief with ties.

Yesterday, I sewed plenty of crooked seams (though I also sewed some straight ones--I'm getting better with practice). With my handy dandy seam ripper, it took me about thirty seconds to rip them out. Genius!

Saturday, September 8, 2007

The View from Saturday

My dream of a perfect Saturday consists of this: A crisp fall day, a brisk hike, enjoyable errands—a run to the yarn store or the fabric store (or the wine store or the shoe store). A little leaf raking, a little bonding with the neighbors. A cookout planned for the evening, or else an outing to a restaurant. There would be reading time, knitting time, time spent chatting with my husband about all the amazing things we’re going to do with our house and yard over the years.

And the entire time I’m engaged in all of this pleasantry, my children would be in the woods out back, building a fort.

Understand this: the construction of this fort would in no way involve my driving to Home Depot to buy supplies. I would not be the one who came up with the exciting idea of building a backyard fort. Maybe Fine Young Son No. 1 would have thought of it himself after reading a book about some kids building a fort in the woods. Maybe Fine Young Son No. 2 would have found a two by four in the garage and yelled to his big brother, “Let’s build a fort!”

Together they would procure their supplies. They would go out into the woods and find large fallen branches. They would come up with an ingenious way to secure those branches into some kind of structure. Periodically, FYS1 would send FYS2 into the house for snacks.

Together they would decide that in fact what they were building wasn’t a fort at all—it was a pirate ship, and FYS2 would come in asking for black construction paper and white crayons, so they could make a pirate flag. FYS2 would come in and ask if they could take a couple of knives and pretend they were swords. I would suggest cutting swords out of cardboard instead.

They would work on their fort all day. They might squabble a little, but for the most part they would work together. FYS1 would finally realize that what we’ve been telling him for ages is true: if he is nice to his little brother and includes him in stuff, his little brother will worship him like a god.

At the end of the day, they would ask to sleep in the fort. My husband, the camper, would get them set up. Around nine, FYS2 would wander back into the house because he heard some strange noises. At ten, my husband would go out and collect the fast asleep FYS1 and deposit him in his bed.

It doesn’t seem like such an impossible dream, does it? But so far it hasn’t come to pass. Mostly I blame myself: Despite our limits on TV and computer, my children spend too much time indoors, immersed in their technological lives--or waiting for me to entertain them. I should do what my mother did: Kick 'em out of the house. Don’t come in ‘til dinner, I’ll tell them, and then I’ll bar the doors.

But maybe not all is lost. Maybe the idea of a fort is just beginning to ripen in my children's minds. It just needs a little more time to come fully to fruition. Fall is around the corner, the mosquitoes will die off, and our little woods behind the house will cry out to be explored. In an age of miracles, my children will abandon their Leapsters, their infernal Nintendo DS's, and run outside, free at last. And in the best possible way, I’ll be free, too.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Subversive in the Suburbs

My last post garnered a comment from Isabella in the 21st Century herself, in which she writes, "I am the Internet's foremost suburban subversive." I just have to say I love that so much. Because the thing is, it's so common to be subversive in the city. Everybody's doing it. But out here in the suburbs? You're on your own, kid.

It's actually one of my favorite things about the suburbs: If you've ever had any desire in your life to be bohemian or radical, this is the place to do it. It doesn't take much. Start a compost heap in your backyard. Homeschool your kids. Grow your own tomatoes in your backyard or buy them in the farmers market. Sit down one morning and write a poem. Or read one. No tattoos necessary! Nipples? Leave 'em unpierced.

I remember one time last summer, driving to the farmer’s market, I saw a sign for a yard sale, only it read “yART Sale.” This pleased me to no end. The sign was in an old suburban neighborhood, brick ranch houses circa 1960, a little bit shabby in spots, but one I’d suspected might have a little something going on underground. And it turns out I was right: in one unassuming little ranch house there lives an artist, and this artist has artist friends, and on this particular summer Saturday they decided to gather together and put on a show.

This kind of thing is right up my alley. I am in love with the local and the idiosyncratic, and anything that’s homemade and interesting to look at (or eat) will get my attention every time. I’m pleased to report that the art was good and so were the prices. I got myself a quilted pillow case, a simple pattern with beautiful fabrics, ivory and pale pink and ocean green, for a whopping fifteen bucks, and baby, it was a bargain. And I got to see somebody’s lovely backyard garden and look at some very nice prints and jewelry, to boot.

Most of all, I got to enjoy the fact that sometimes things can get funky in the suburbs. Admittedly, this particular suburban neighborhood had a higher funk quotient than most, because it’s a little older and so there are tall trees and variations in the houses, and it’s the sort of place where an artist on a budget who’s got a couple of kids running around might land.

It’s easy to get down on the suburbs. Not enough yART sales, for one thing. Too many SUVs for another. Funk quotient: very low. There’s a book out now called Death by Suburb that I’ve been meaning to read, just to confirm all my prejudices.

But one time when I was watching my son’s soccer practice (yep, I’m a soccer mom, yep, I drive a minivan), just as I was about to launch into a silent tirade against suburban folk, armies of which surrounded me on all sides, I realized everyone around me seemed like pretty decent human beings. I mean, it was nice that all these people had come to watch their kids practice soccer. Slightly insane, maybe, but nice. They sat on those collapsible chairs you can buy at the hardware store or Target and chatted with one another and handed their kids icy water jugs whenever the coaches called a water break.

It would have been easy to make fun of them (somehow, even though every Wednesday I was doing exactly the same thing as all the other soccer moms and dads, I didn't count myself in their number, maybe because I was doing the artsy-fartsy knitting thing while I was sitting there, maybe because I had a Drive-By Truckers CD cued up in the van, maybe because I’m too stupid to notice that I was there watching my kid practice, too). What a cliché, right? A bunch of overprotective parents who can’t bear to drop their kids off at the soccer field and let them fend for themselves. Everyone is middle class or upper-middle class, nobody’s got any fashion sense at all, ninety-eight percent of the conversations are about the kids—this one’s just been diagnosed with ADHD, that one is gifted in math but has no social skills, the baby still isn’t sleeping through the night. It couldn’t be more banal.

But the fact is, they were there. Some of them clearly left work early to take their kids to practice, others were stay-at-home moms like me and looked slightly frazzled after a long day of running errands and yelling their heads off or trying like hell not to yell their heads off. They were busy, they were stressed, who knows what was going on at home, but they got their kids’ butts to soccer practice every week at 5 p.m. and they cheered and signed up to bring snacks for the game on Saturday. They showed up. Maybe they showed up too much, I don’t know. But at least they were trying as hard as they could to do the right thing. Not everybody does. A lot of people don’t.

I have many days when I wished I lived in some cool downtown arts and crafts bungalow and had neighbors who could discuss the new Drive-By Truckers CD with me. None of my current neighbors can. I’m pretty sure none of the women I’m friendly with at the gym can, either. I’m downright positive nobody at church has the slightest idea who the Truckers are. It makes me feel a little lonely, if you want to know the truth.

But here’s the thing: living downtown, a yART sale would not yield the same delightful surprise it does in the suburbs. Of course you’d find a yART sale downtown, with all sorts of angel-headed hipsters milling about, making knowing comments and sarcastic asides, wearing supercool shoes. What fun is that? The big fun is when life pops out where you least expect it. Big flower decals on the side of somebody’s minivan, the cramped comic book store tucked in between the Harris Teeter and the TCBY, the guy who looks like your basic corporate pawn, but whose tee shirt on closer inspection reads “Rednecks for Peace.” Downtown, nobody would give that stuff a second thought. In the suburbs, it makes you happy to be alive.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The Revolution Begins

There was an interesting post the other day over at Isabella in the 21st Century ( called "Women's Work and the Simple Life." Ultimately it's a pean to women's traditional skills, why they should be valued, and why those of us who employ them or seek to learn them are countercultural, practically revolutionary.

It's fun to think that every time you knit a sock, you're sticking it to the man.

Reading domestic histories, where I'm confronted by the amazing skills women (and men) once had to possess in order to run a house, I feel sorely lacking. I confess this Blog's title is somewhat of a misnomer. Instead of "Left-handed Housewife," it should be something like "Left-Handed Homebody Who Wishes Somebody Would Clean Up Around Here."

I do cook, and I knit, and I have an herb garden. I would like to learn how to can vegetables. My husband's Aunt Jean is a major league canner, and I'm hoping we can get her over here for a tutorial one of these days.

Nowadays my dearest wish is to learn to sew. I bought a machine last fall, but haven't done much with it. Two aprons to be exact. Today I started sewing the throw I've been working on. I'm not sure I'm coordinated enough to do this. In fact, I called my mother the other day to ask for tips for machine sewing little squares of fabric onto a piece of muslin approximately the size of Rhode Island. I was having a hard time visualizing how one does this, shy of investing in a room-sized quilting frame and a church full of elderly women with bifocals and sharpened needles.

My mother has machine sewn a number of quilts. She is a skilled seamstress in general. She has one of those amazing computurized sewing machines that you can sew a modular home with if need be. I knew she would clarify things for me, unlock all the secret mysteries of machine sewing. After all she is right-handed, which is to say, her brain functions in an orderly and systematic fashion. Unlike some people's I know.

"You just kind of scrunch up the fabric as best you can until you get the part you need to sew under the needle," was my mother's sage advice.

And you wonder why I can barely tie my shoes.

But you know what? It worked. I scrunched everything up and manuevered it here and there, back and forth, and I actually got two pieces sewn on before it was time to go pick up Fine Young Son No. 1 from school. And really, the profanity was at a bare minimum. Just enough to keep things interesting.

I doubt I will become an ace seamstress any time soon. I'd like to think that one of these days I'll sew myself a shirt. Certainly some napkins. Maybe even a sun dress for my goddaughter.

But no matter what great heights of housewifery genius I aspire to, I will never, ever be able to twist the head off a chicken.

Just thought I'd be clear about that from the get-go.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Banana Pudding: The Final Days

There are those who believe that summer ends when school begins, even if school begins the third week of August. These people are wrong.

There are some who believe that summer ends September 23rd, the official first day of fall for 2007. My third grader, legalistic child that he is, belongs in this category. He is wrong.

There are some who believe that summer ends in February. They live in Australia.

But I believe most of us, at least those of us in this particular spot of the Northern Hemisphere, believe firmly in our hearts that summer ends the day after Labor Day. And we are correct.

That is why on Labor Day, it is important to serve Banana Pudding, before it's too late. Because after Labor Day, Banana Pudding is no longer allowed. It is a thing of summertime. Oh, sure, it can make an early appearance, along with potato salad, at Easter or Passover celebrations, but really it's to be brought out on Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Labor Day, and any day in August where you're feeling that late summer malaise. Verily I say unto thee, Banana Pudding will cure what ails you.

Against my better judgment, I'm going to share my Banana Pudding recipe with you. Please do not take this as permission to make Banana Pudding off-season. I'm only sharing this now because I have the recipe out, and because some of you reading this may be from Australia, and therefore are at perfect rights to serve Banana Pudding in the upcoming weeks.

Note: This recipe is for chilled Banana Pudding, a very different creature from baked Banana Pudding. I like both, though I only make the former. Be forewarned, once your children have chilled Banana Pudding, they will be more than likely to turn their noses up at baked Banana Pudding. Baked Banana Pudding, while often delicious, is not as visually attractive to children. Also, it lacks copious amounts of Cool Whip in its makeup. This can be fatal when it comes to attracting a child's attention and securing his or her gustatory love.

Creamy Banana Pudding
(Makes 8-10 servings)


1 (14 oz) can Sweetened Condensed Milk
1.5 cups cold water
1 (4-serving size) package instant vanilla pudding mix
2 cups whipped cream
36 vanilla wafers
3 medium bananas, sliced and dipped in lemon juice

In a large bowl, combine sweetened condensed milk and water. Add pudding mix; beat well. Chill five minutes. Fold in whipped cream. Spoon one cup pudding mixture into 2 1/2 quart glass serving bowl. Top with one-third each of the wafers, bananas and pudding. Repeat layering twice, ending with pudding. Chill thoroughly.

When you make this--next summer--you will be among the beloved. I especially recommend taking it to church suppers or neighborhood potlucks. You will be the most popular girl on your block. Trust me.

Monday, September 3, 2007


So Saturday I'm in the shower, multitasking. I'm conditioning my hair and scrubbing away mildew between the wall tiles with an old toothbrush. I hate cleaning the tub, and I try to do as much as I can while I'm actually in it. What I really hate is cleaning the tub while fully dressed, especially the part where I'm rinsing away Ajax with the shower head. The water always goes up my sleeves. Brushing away mildew while I'm showering is a stroke of housewifely genius, as far as I'm concerned. I can hardly stand how brilliant it is.

I finish the job. I put the toothbrush down in its little corner of the tub. Then I turn and straighten up--and whack my head against the side of the hold-steady bar on my shower wall. My head must have been going forty miles per hour, because it is a serious whack. I've hit my head close to my right eye. Later, I will wait to see if a shiner surfaces, it was that close. But I can't even find a bruise.

I have a little bit of a headache for the rest of the day, about what you'd expect. But Sunday when I wake up, my head really hurts. The spot where I hit my head is tender to the touch. I feel vaguely ill.

Nothing touches the headache, not ibuprofin, not napping, not ice packs, not wine. I clean some and write some, but mostly I just lie on my bed and read and rub my head near the crown. That seems to help a little.

I'd planned on going to church and the grocery store. I'd planned to spend the afternoon at the sewing machine. None of this comes to pass. I read the middle grade novels I checked out of the library last week to get me motivated as I start a draft of a new book. I finish Easter Everywhere by Darcey Steinke. I read Letter to a Young Teacher by Jonathon Kozol. I read and read and my head aches and aches.

When I finally go to bed, I worry that I'll wake up to another day of my head hurting. So when I wake up Monday morning and my head feels fine, just a little sore at the spot where I whacked it, it's like getting a gift.

The best part is, I'm so happy about being back in a good head that my usual morning anxiety stays undercover. I have always had free-floating anxiety in the mornings, from the time I was little. When I was a kid, the anxiety manifested itself as a general nervous feeling that gave me butterflies in my stomach and made eating breakfast difficult. Nowadays it comes in the form of worry, mostly about things that are far off in the future--my parents are coming to visit in November and the house is a mess!--or things that in reality I know will be fine, including author visits to schools and school field trips when I'm the volunteer driver.

I don't have anxiety every morning; in fact, I go for long stretches without it. Interestingly enough, I never get it at the beach. And when I do get morning anxiety, it's easy enough to disperse. A brisk walk usually takes care of it (too much coffee, on the other hand, is a big mistake--with enough caffeine, I'll feel anxious until lunch).

Nonetheless, it's a real bummer. Negative thoughts come at me and I bat them away. I tell myself that in thirty minutes it will all be over. But there's always the fear that the anxiety won't go away, that today is the day it will finally make itself at home, set up shop, sit a spell. So there's anxiety on top of the anxiety. Great.

I'd had one of those anxiety weeks last week, where every day I woke up and thought, "Oh, no, there's so much I'm not getting done and I need a new bra and new clothes and I haven't done anything for Start-up Sunday and I have to get my teeth cleaned in two weeks ..." So when I woke up Monday, my head clear, my heart light, no worries, it was so lovely that I walked three miles and smiled at everybody, and when I came home I took the boys to the pool for two hours, even though I had lots to do at the house.

Although I hate that sometimes it takes a whack on my head to set me straight, it does seem to be the case that having a real problem--in this case, a deabilitating headache--cuts through a lot of noise. It gives you perspective. The things I get anxious about aren't problems at all. And while staying in bed all day because you have a headache is pretty minor league stuff (though it did make me feel awfully sympathetic to my friends who get migraines), it's real enough to kick the make-believe problems out the door.

At least for a day or two.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Truth or Consequences

"What if one woman told the truth about her life?
The world would break open."

--Muriel Rukeyser

Last night at dinner, Danielle told us about an old friend from high school who recently got in touch with her via e-mail. The first couple of exchanges were bright and cheerful. Life? Wonderful! Kids? Perfect. And then Danielle made the daring confession that her life was in fact is not always wonderful. Her children are in fact not perfect. She herself may be somewhat flawed as a parent and a human being.

Her friend wrote back along the lines of "Thank God!" and "Me, too!"

Isn't it a relief when someone tells the truth about her life? Because then you get to tell the truth, too. And you know you're not alone when it comes to having a flawed, problematic existence. It's nice not to be alone.

Of course, there will be times when you tell someone the truth and they reject you for it. They look at you like you're an alien because you've admitted that your child has some issues about bed-wetting or nose-picking ("Does Lester wipe mucus on his walls, too?" you ask oh-so-innocently, only to receive a cold stare in reply).

Now, frankly, I don't trust my fellow moms who can't give it up when it comes to admitting her child does strange things. Because as a mother and a former strange child myself, I'm of the opinion that most children, especially those under the age of six, are stark, raving mad. They engage in so much antisocial behavior it's amazing we don't institutionalize them until they can prove they're capable of going out in public without showing off their new Star Wars underwear to complete strangers.

Conversely, I owe a debt of gratitude to every human being in my life, male or female, who has made such daring confessions as sometimes their kids drive them so crazy, they have to lock themselves in their rooms for ten minutes just so they won't do something they'll regret later. I am grateful for every "me, too" I've gotten in response to some shameful admission on my part. I'm doubly grateful for every "Oh, you think you're an awful parent? I can top that easy."

The other day I read a blog where the writer said, "I never yell at my children. They're little for such a short time, and I want their childhoods to be happy."

Confession: Sometimes I yell at my kids so hard and so loud, it makes my throat hurt.

I've been meaning to mention a book I read recently called Dinner with Dad by Cameron Stracher. I picked it up at the library, thinking it would be a browser--a book I brought home and read a few pages of it before moving onto something else. But in fact, it was a keeper. There are a lot of reasons I'd recommend it: it's funny, it's well-written, and most of all, Stracher nails the life of the middle class, overeducated, overbusy suburban parent.

Here's the gist of it: Stracher is a law professor and a practicing lawyer who travels frequently. He commutes to Manhattan from Connecticut and often doesn't come home until after his children are in bed. One day it hits him: he's missing his children's lives. In fact, his family seems to be functioning completely separately from him.

So he makes a change in his life: he pledges that he will be home for dinner five nights a week; and on most of those nights he'll cook. He quits one job, works from home some of the time, tries hard to get home on time on days when he has to go into the city.

So you're expecting a heartwarming tale of a dad reunited with his family, happy dinnertimes filled with good food and lots of laughter. What you get instead is real life. A son who's a picky eater, a daughter who loves pasta with butter one night, hates it the next. Stracher works hard to make delicious meals and is constantly rejected. He gets mad. He yells. He stresses everybody out. His wife starts to complain about too much togetherness.

What I love about this book is Stracher's honesty about himself. At one point he writes, "Could it be that in trying to change my life I have accentuated the flaws I was trying to change? Before I started making dinner I was impatient, moody, and unavailable. Now I am impatient, moody, and available."

A little later he writes,

Instead of exercising patience with my daughter, her whining sets my teeth on edge, like nails across a blackboard. When she spills water at the table I take her to task for her clumsiness. When she leaves her markers uncapped, I make a show of tossing them into the garbage, even though they could probably be revived with a little water and a good recapping. I buy her a three-dollar bracelet, which she loses, and I give her a stern lecture about treating gifts with respect.

I am, in short, the father of my nightmares.

I love this kind of stuff. Not because it makes me feel superior. On the contrary, it makes me feel like I've found a comrade, a compadre, a partner in crime.

The good news, is slowly, over time, things improve. The kids become more adventurous in their eating. Stracher chills out. He's grateful for success, more philosophical about his failures. So ultimately it's a satisfying book, even a hopeful one. And it's an honest one.

Which is all I ask for.