Sunday, August 30, 2009

HELLO my name is "Hey Mom"

My kitchen counters are made of Corian. It is a seamless, speckled, nonporous, stain-resistant product engineered by DuPont™ for convenience-minded homeowners like myself. Suburban camouflage.

It is possible to smear a Corian countertop with apricot jam followed by a topcoat of margarine and then drizzle the contents of a plastic Honey Bear over the whole thing without alerting the home’s residents that anything is amiss.
I believe my offspring have spent their entire summer vacation doing exactly this. Sadly, I hadn't noticed until last week when I casually leaned on the countertop while chatting with my daughter and couldn’t peel my forearm off it. The upside is that I’ll never pay for an arm wax again.

You could say I have been a little lax in the housework department. It’s all part of my philosophy that a home doesn’t really need deep cleaning if kids are just going to mess it up again. My children are 8 and 11. It is safe to say we won’t work our way through an entire bottle of Clorox Clean-up for at least a decade. Remember those aprons they used to make in the ‘70s that said "I Hate Housework?" Timeless.

Not that I don’t try. I have cleaning spasms from time to time. I run a vacuum over the living room carpet before company arrives, but only if they are non-family members or have never been here before. And I’m a big fan of the Swiffer Duster. True, mine mostly collects dust from the closet in which it is stored. I try to teach my kids how to pick up after themselves but really the best education is to live with a good role model, and that they don’t have.

When summer vacation started, I was all set with a darling new attempt to engage my children in treating our home with respect while earning what they hold dear – time on the computer. My “Computer Points” charting system enabled them to earn minutes on Club Penguin by performing small cleaning chores from a list. Wipe out kitchen drawer with Lysol wipe and neatly return contents – 5 points! Dust dining room baseboards – 10 points! Windex sliding glass doors – 10 points! Swab bathroom commode – 30 points! (extra for undesirability).

The system worked like a charm, until the kids realized that a half hour of acquiring coins so they could equip an online igloo with a disco ball was not worth sticking your hand into the toilet your sibling used.

That’s how summer vacations seem to go around here. They start off all good intentions and popsicles and day trips. Then they deteriorate into griping, lethargy and dinners of Lucky Charms and a cheese stick. I find myself losing my grip each year at this time. Nerve by nerve, I transform from feeling like a loving, supportive, good-hearted mother to a cranky, underpaid, elderly babysitter. I’m about ready to snap if I hear “Hey Mom” one more time this hour.

This is what I call end-of-summer syndrome. I know I am not the only parent who experiences it, although some mothers are simply better at rallying in the final weeks than others. Honestly, I’m patting myself on the back because I didn’t start having anxiety attacks until well into August this year, compared to the last two summer vacations when mid-July was my breaking point. As a stay-at-home mom with occasional freelance work, it is a wee bit disconcerting to discover I cannot live soundly in a comfortable home with my two generally well-behaved children and a loving, optimistic spouse for more than a few weeks without reaching for a Xanax.

One of the key ways this syndrome presents itself is lack of enthusiasm for daily activities. Like parenting. To be frank, I stopped feeding my children. If they seem weak, I point in the general direction of the kitchen and say “go eat a banana.” On a good morning I’ll put a variety pack of mini cereal boxes on the kitchen table and hope they have enough sense to swish out one of the dirty bowls in the sink.

I don’t believe in over-entertaining children because I come from an era when kids were sent outside in play clothes every day and weren’t expected back until the streetlights came on. Today, our kids spend more time indoors, trying to achieve the next level on their Wii games while remaining sedentary. And we are with them far more than is healthy for anyone. I can’t sit and play Legos or Mario Kart for more than about four minutes without my eyes rolling back in my head. And I’m sure my children have had quite enough of me badgering them to clean their rooms, too -- A trick I use to get them out of my hair when I’m feeling “Hey Mom-ed” to my limit.

I’m not the only one. We were at the neighborhood pool with my friend Shelley (not her real name but darn close) the other day and she admitted her son hadn’t bathed all summer long. She figured his daily dose of chlorine during swim practice was sufficient. Makes for cool spiky green hair, too! As we chatted, I realized I had not put sunscreen on the kids – something I had been manic about the first two months of summer. Nor had I even brought the canvas tote in which we keep goggles, towels, change for the snack shack, flip flops and anything else considered a necessity for an afternoon of swimming. I found myself spinning my negligent parenting as irresponsibility on my daughter’s part:

I’m giving you the opportunity to be independent, I told her. You keep asking for more freedom. Well, next time maybe you’ll remember to bring your goggles and a towel when it's time to go.

I turned around just in time to see Heather coming into the pool area trailed by her two children, singing the familiar refrain: I’m sick and tired of listening to you two argue all day. It was validating.

Let me make it perfectly clear. We are the good moms. During the school year, we're the ones you want to carpool with. The ones who always chaperone field trips and make sure there are a variety of food groups in different colors in our children's lunchboxes. We're the gals who volunteer in classrooms each week so all the second graders who benefit from it can have math centers.

In defense of the good moms, we’re not complete slackers. My kids may have had a poor man's summer vacation, due to my stay-at-home status, but it hasn't been a complete bust. I’m estimating my children have had about 30 play dates this summer, attended art/basketball/cooking/photography classes, enjoyed a family trip to the mountains, visited their cousins, went to a wedding, attended a baptism, built a boat from cardboard for the local boat derby, swam at the neighborhood pool, hiked on nature trails, tubed down a river, made their own home movies, played on the Slip-N-Slide, climbed trees, constructed and consumed several ice cream sundaes, built Lego villages, had a handful of sleepovers, visited the Academy of Sciences, spied on each other, went to an outdoor concert of Caribbean music, built dozens of forts, participated in the public library’s summer reading program, turned the hose on our backyard hill and slid down it, saw every G and PG-rated summer movie in a theatre with a bucket of popcorn, visited all of their grandparents, had water balloon fights and ate a lot of pizza.
So, we really shouldn’t feel too guilty for missing a meal now and then, skipping a bath or thirty, lacking logic and patience on occassion or not modeling good housekeeping.
In two days, school starts again and we’ll all be cured. The family clock gets reset, normalcy returns and we start a fresh new chapter. I can’t wait to be a good parent again. I'm going to start by wiping down the counters.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

I Wish You Every Success (sic)

I received an email the other day, forwarded from a friend whose daughter is a production assistant in LA. It was originally from an assistant casting director who is looking for married couples that might like to appear on a new TV show called "Marriage Ref" created by Jerry Seinfeld.
Now, I love my reality TV. I fantasize about having a three-way with Vern Yip and David Bromstad (after they’ve painted an accent wall and redesigned my master bedroom in Tuscan-villa-meets-mid-century-modern style.) I don’t care if they don’t swing my way, it’s my fantasy.
I’m a TLC and HGTV junkie who loves nothing more than avoiding my own cluttered garage by watching other people find storage solutions with the help of the "Mission Organization" team. (Toss broken items, paint furniture to give it new life, install shelving to get the mess off the floor – the original ideas are dizzying!)
Shows about little people doing everything I do except being tall? Well, I can’t get enough of them. And I’ve been known to unwind with “The Girls Next Door” or “The Bachelor” after the kids have gone to bed. It is possible I caught an episode or two of "Rock of Love" and “I Love New York” (can you believe her mother? Well, it’s no wonder…)
So, receiving an email from a friend in the entertainment business soliciting “real” people for a TV show piqued my interest. Here’s what it said:
We are looking for all ages, races etc. They don't need to be "TV Friendly" or look a certain way. All shapes and sizes are welcome.
OK, so far, so good. I don’t have to be attractive, just married. The email went on:
…the idea is to celebrate marriage and the small quibbles that make it so wonderfully "frustrating" at times.
Now, I don’t know about you, but broadcasting petty squabbles between me and my husband does not sound like an affair you’d bring a hostess gift to. I’m beginning to think NBC defines “celebrate” a little differently than I do. I kept reading…
We are looking for couples who have a particular "issue" with one and issues, no marriage wrecking problems. Again, this is to CELEBRATE marriage and have fun, not unearth deep dark secrets and bring up serious situations. Examples would be, a husband who wears the same pants everyday, or a wife who can’t put her blackberry down. They should be genuine annoyances though.
Alright, well that’s better.
Wait, no it’s not. If the issue itself isn’t relationship destroying, broadcasting our little marital wrinkles certainly won’t smooth them out. Still, it could be fun. You know what would make it even more pleasurable, though, is if my flawed spouse and my righteous self were to somehow compete against each other while being judged. I find those are two essential elements to serene coexistence.
Hey, I’m in luck!
The couple will then have their case "plead" in front of a panel of MAJOR celebrities...and the refs will rule in favor of one spouse or the other. It involves no major travel on the part of the couple, just local filming, will pay $1500 and the spouse who wins will receive a major prize.
Whoa, Nelly! That’s a lot of “major.” Celebrities judging us, money awarded, prizes for the one left standing – and all in the comfort of our own home? This is too good to be true. All this for simply selling out my spouse and checking my dignity at the door? Sign me up!
(If you are more thick-skinned than I am or have been puzzling over the quickest way to get out of a bad marriage, go to and sign yourself up – I dare you! You know I'll be watching!)
I forwarded the email to my husband (because although we both live and work in the same modest house, this is generally how we communicate – but I’m not publicly quibbling, really I’m not). My email said “Interested?” His said “Uh, no.” Neither of us was surprised or disappointed.
Within the first months of dating him, my beloved man of the house (MOH) and I had established one ground rule:
No jokes at the other’s expense.
I don’t remember what event led to the establishment of this rule, but it has stood us in good stead for 15 years. This rule also can be loosely translated as: no criticizing the other for financial gain, no airing dirty laundry in front of anyone who has ever worked with Kevin Bacon, and no exchanging the covenant of marriage for a stainless steel convection oven.
At this point I would like to offer a new word to the Mirriam-Webster people for consideration:
cess \suk-‘ses\ 1 : unfavorable outcome inversely proportional to the one desired. 2 : the gaining of wealth and fame at the expense of your marriage by appearing on a *reality* television program. abbr Jon and Kate Plus Eight.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Party of One or a Multiple Choice Memory Game

I started blogging to give myself a reason to write. Right. It turns out having an online presence, such as it is, is more a hindrance than a motivator. To date, I think my friend Linda in Texas is my only follower. Not that I'd know what to do with actual Followers. There is most definitely a creep factor built into that. But still...
Now that I have a blog (that still sounds so pretentious), I find I have nothing to say. But since I have a fan base now, I owe it to them, uh her, at least to make an effort. And lucky for me I have a communications degree so I can apply the number one rule of effective communication: Know your audience.
So Linda, since you're out there, here is a little trip down memory lane. This particular lane is most certainly cobblestone and covered in the spit of old fishermen.
Oh, and one disclaimer: There are great gaping holes in my memory due to age, four years of college at Chico State, and losing a third of my brain cells with the placenta during two childbirths. So, this may become sort of a game of multiple choice. Also coming into play here is the fact that I was absorbing the following experience while living in a country whose language I did not speak. Let's see how well my memory holds up and if you recollect these events the way I do...
It is September 1980. We are 18 years old. We are simultaneously giddy and courageous, but somewhat unaware of this. We are both exchange students in Portugal with a reputable organization that promotes world peace by sending naive American kids to other parts of the globe so they'll personally know someone from a foreign land, thus preventing all wars. (I am selected as an alternate from my high school. At the last minute, I get a placement in Lisbon, Portugal, much to my 43-year-old mother's horror.)
We meet at "language orientation," which will essentially be four days of repeating simple Portuguese phrases, such as Onde esta o quarto do bano? To get there, we must first drag a year's worth of our belongings for muitos kilometers from the train station, uphill, through a lush, scenic road to our destination. Orientation is held in a gorgeous, dilapidated old building in Sintra that:
(a) was once a vacation home for visiting royalty, or
(b) was a former sanatorium for lepers.
During this orientation we participate in a talent show in which I attempt to sing a comical rendition of Indian Love Song -- though what was supposed to be funny escapes me -- and you:
(a) do a skit with Belinda from Australia and Ralph from St. Louis, or
(b) yodel.
On our first night there, amidst the ancient tiles and creeping vines covering the castle/sanatorium, the sensitive program director informs me: "you were obviously unloved as a child." This she discerns from the way I wrap my arms around the flimsy pillow they have assigned me. I am lying in a cot preparing for my first night's sleep in a room full of strangers in a country where I know no one else and this is my warm welcome. Her name is Bela, which means beautiful. She is not. Therefore she is a bitch.
Late that night, unable to sleep, you and I sneak into the kitchen and scarf down the leftover bread from dinner. We mix up some powdered cocoa mix with water to dip the crusty bread rolls in. Portuguese bread is divine, no matter what region you are in. It is also a staple delivered warm daily to your back door by the baker and has addictive properties that will lead to the 10-lb weight gain we each experience during our year abroad. Come to think of it, I could write an entire blog just on Portuguese bread, so we're getting somewhere.
Anyway, alone in the cabbage-scented kitchen we dissolve in a fit of giggles and:
(a) get busted and sent back to bed, marked as the trouble makers of the group, or
(b) get away with it but still somehow get a bad reputation.

Either way, the bond of friendship is sealed. Very little language is learned at orientation.
Subsequently, you are sent halfway back across the Atlantic, to the Acores Islands, and I move into a small three-bedroom apartment in the capitol city down the street from the bullfight ring. I am living with a family of seven, including four young children, a cranky grandma and a yappy dog called Lulu. You and I correspond through an ancient form of communication known as letter writing. Your letters and the presence of Ralph in Lis-bo-a become my lifeline. Ralph is all-American handsome, sarcastic, smart and argumentative. A perfect companion for me.
There are about 16 foreign exchange students in Portugal that year -- a handful from the United States. We all meet up several times during the year when we are gathered for:
(a) educational travel opportunities to various regions throughout the country, or
(b) three-day drinking binges.

(There is no drinking age in Portugal. We are 18 years old. Bela is our on-site support person -- that's an easy one).

During one of these get-togethers, in a remote town in central Portugal, Ralph and I show up dressed as tourists in Hawaiian shirts, black socks and sandals. We have subway maps and cameras sticking out of our travel bags to show how much we have assimilated. Bela is not amused. We celebrate with many bottles of Tres Marias.
Sometime during the year, you are moved back to the mainland because:
(a) your host parents are having marital problems, or
(b) there is nothing to do on a tiny island in the middle of nowhere so you get into trouble.
By the end of the year, you are settled with a nice family in the Algarve (I'm still envious!), have a gorgeous, affectionate boyfriend who you wear like a shawl and:
(a) your rich new host family throws you a birthday party, or
(b) you take advantage of your host family and throw yourself a birthday party.

By now we have abandoned the organization that is sponsoring us and are having our own foreign affairs. Ciao, Bela!
We all congregate for your 19th birthday. Ralph, Belinda, Aaron from Kansas (still wearing those striped Osh Kosh overalls, bless his heart!), the Norwegian girl, the English girl, and all your new Portuguese friends. You and I wear matching red jumpsuits because nothing says "I'm fitting in here" like two pale American teenagers in matching red jumpsuits amidst a sea of smoldering olive faces. Besides, they were a moda in 1981 Europe, really they were.
We have the time of our lives. We dance in the decorated garage to the disco beats provided by:
(a) the hired DJ, or
(b) your host brother/cousin/neighbor who owns a turntable and some Donna Summer records.

We eat homemade bolos and smoke Gauloises and drink Sagres cerveja (and porto and sangria and vinho verde...) We are good at it by now. We have come to speak fluent Portuguese and are convinced that our accents are more precise when we're drunk. We lay out on the rooftop of your seaside house and bake in the Mediterranean sunshine. We look at the world from a different perspective -- upside down, mostly.
Soon after that, our year is up and we all return to our home states. Adult life begins shortly thereafter. (There are about a thousand other disjointed memories of that year, but I'll leave them for another time.) Memory is a funny thing. Sometimes it requires a little assistance.
So, thank you, Linda. I squeaked out a blog and it felt good. And, Linda, no matter who we have become, somewhere deep down we are still those giddy and courageous girls.
That's worth:
(a) remembering, or
(b) celebrating, or
(c) Both.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Starter Marriage

If the statute of limitations weren’t already up, I’d file a class action lawsuit on behalf of all 1980s brides. Our wedding consultants were grossly negligent when they told us that leg-o’-mutton sleeves were flattering on all body types.

My own frothy confection was a vision of sequin-encrusted Alençon lace and faux pearl beads. It required all eight bridesmaids to fasten the sixty satin-covered buttons that crept up my spine. Like most wedding dresses of the era, mine was punctuated with a gargantuan bow snapped to my tailbone – hideous and lovely like a dead bird.

That’s not why the marriage ended, of course. But looking back, the bulbous sleeves and grandiose bow certainly heralded lofty expectations of a charmed marriage that never came to pass.

I wasn’t too young to know better. Twenty-seven is a reasonable age for marriage. By my suburban, white-girl standards it was damn near spinsterhood. The problem was that my marriage was more about the wedding to me than the relationship. I couldn't see past the day set aside to celebrate with girlfriends and be the center of attention; a day to call up childish images of Cinderella coachmen and ladies in waiting. A culmination of twenty-some years of puffy princess fantasies played out in a local rental hall.

Long before epidemic reality programming, weddings were our one and only method for gaining unearned fame. As little girls, my friends and I prepared by playing the Mystery Date board game. We’d turn the little knob of the plastic door and pray that the latch wouldn’t stick on the photo of the “Dud.” We dressed up as brides for Halloween. As we entered our twenties, my girlfriends and I planned our colors and salivated over thick copies of Bride magazine years before anyone was engaged.

Finally, when it seemed most of my close friends had stutter-stepped their way down dimly-lit church aisles I figured it was my turn. I grabbed onto my current boyfriend's button-down shirt, and started planning my own Big Day. He looked good on paper: he was funny, college educated, gainfully employed and had been introduced to me by a co-worker. We had been seeing each other for more than a year when I started steering him toward jewelry shop windows.

He wasn’t in the same wedding trance that I was, but I didn’t pay attention to that. Nor did I put much thought into the troubled childhood he was still trying to sort out. I knew what I wanted – all he had to do was follow me.

Unfortunately, that’s what he did. On our wedding day, his buddies were lined up at the alter like pallbearers. They wore rented tuxedos with mauve cummerbunds to match the “you-can-wear-it-again” bridesmaid dresses and dyed-to-match shoes.

Looking back, I’m sure three-quarters of the invited guests knew it wouldn’t last. But they followed protocol: they sent the Gorham crystal wine goblets, the Lenox China from the presidential collection and the silver candlesticks listed on our Macy’s gift registry. They came to the reception and ate the chicken dinner, emptied the carafes of Chablis and applauded as we shuffled through our first dance – “When a Man Loves a Woman,” which I had selected all by myself.

They listened politely to the Best Man’s slurred and sloppy toast as he rambled about his childhood memories with my groom, forgetting to mention the bride or congratulate us on our marriage. The guests smiled as we fed each other first bites of cake without smashing butter cream frosting on each others’ faces, thanks to countless pre-wedding admonitions from me.

The reception lasted four hours; the marriage only two and a half years. I spent most nights of wedded bliss by myself in a crappy apartment while my new husband was “unwinding” at the neighborhood pub. We moved four times during our short marriage. Every neighborhood we lived in had a bar more inviting and comfortable to him than our own living room couch. He wasn’t mean or violent; He was simply not present.

My husband came home nights smelling of the Riccola cough drops he kept in the glove compartment to mask the stench of beer and cigarettes that clung to him. He fumbled and pawed his way into our apartment like a bear cub searching through campsite garbage. No honey, not now, I’d say in disgust. Large, sloppy animals don’t do much to whip me into a sexual frenzy. It was a downhill slide.

One Sunday, as we were relaxing together in our new house, he sort of giggled, looked away and said: I don’t want to be married anymore. I don’t think I’m any good at it. You’d think I would have been relieved, but I wasn’t. I’d always expected he would turn around -- grow into the image I’d held of him. My biggest mistake was marrying the potential and not the man.

There was anger, disappointment, therapy, yelling. Then, like a hurricane, it was suddenly over. The Bride magazine fantasies were moldy and ruined. The social expectations were cut away. It took two years to sort out the paperwork, with no money to hire a lawyer. I got a copy of How to Do Your Own Divorce from Nolo Press and went through the steps alone.

I took my eighties wedding dress to a consignment shop and left it there. For several months the trunk of my car held all my essentials and I worked out temporary living situations by housesitting and staying on friends’ couches. When I finally got the strength to make another commitment, I signed a rental agreement and lived alone for the first time in my life. What might have been a lonely time turned out to be my halcyon days. Sunlight streamed into my hilltop apartment in Oakland. I ate popcorn for dinner and browsed the cool boutiques and used bookstores in my funky neighborhood. It was glorious. Colors were brighter, the air was cleaner; I felt new.

I rarely missed my husband, but I missed his sisters and my mother-in-law. Once again, it was all about the girls. We’d spent holidays sitting around the kitchen table in his childhood home, laughing and eating his mother’s thick bacon and buttery popovers. His youngest sister used to stay at our apartment and clean the kitchen while I was at work. She’d leave with armloads of books from my bookshelf that never got returned. His other sister and I went to art galleries on the weekends. They had been my confidants and friends. When the marriage ended so did my relationships with them. They didn’t return my phone calls and I understood. Experiences I had with them are like filmstrip flickers now. The images are jumbled together with images of high school friends and college flings.

Last year, I read in the Examiner obituaries that my ex-husband’s mother had died. Without much hesitation, I picked up the phone to call him. It had been years since we’d talked. I’d had a corporate career, international travels, a variety of men and finally a whirlwind affair with a Hollywood stuntman that resulted in an imperfect yet stable marriage and two unique children. My ex-husband was listed in the phone book, still living in the same apartment he’d rented in San Francisco after our divorce. He picked up on the second ring.

I just heard, I said, I’m so sorry about your mom. He was surprised and happy to hear from me. He told me she’d had a stroke after many years of illness. He and his sisters were all with her when she passed. We talked amiably for a while, filling each other in on the past years. He was still working in the same financial services company. He had never married. He had medical problems of his own, including a heart condition that put him on the heart transplant donor list.

He asked me how I was doing. Self-consciously I told him: I work from home as a freelance editor, volunteer at the kids’ schools, keep busy with family. We’re not rich but we live well. My partner and I are an unconventional couple, but our marriage works.

He was silent for a moment. Then I heard him take a small breath and exhale slowly. So, you did it, he said. You got everything you wanted.

At that moment I realized he’d been holding his breath for a long time. He’d bathed in the failure of our marriage and kept reapplying the guilt. Like a good Catholic, he’d gorged himself on all the blame while I’d moved forward. I’d never considered what our relationship meant to him. I always assumed he’d been relieved just to get out of it. Over the years I realized I’d dodged a bullet and was grateful that we had divorced before having kids and making each other irreparably miserable. But I had never told him that.

Yes. I guess I did, I answered.

No one ever bought my wedding dress from the consignment store. After the six-month contract lapsed, I got a phone message saying I could come pick it up. But I never did.

Leg-o’-mutton sleeves, it turns out, don’t look good on anyone.