Rock on, Momma

Just drove home from school at 8 am on the return trip from an emergency flute drop off. Tears—none. Band director blow-up the day before the concert—narrowly averted. Points scored with my fifth grader—infinite.

And, as I ease back into the self-satisfied comfort of my minivan, what should come on my Time Life collection of the ’70s CD? My new parenting anthem, that’s what:

“…it’s been no bed of roses, no pleasure cruise—I consider it a challenge before the whole human race, and I ain’t gonna lose!”

Thank you, Queen. Most triumphant…even for a 42-year-old mother of two who hasn’t quite taken a shower yet.

We (parents, that is) truly are the champions, aren’t we?

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Elusive responsibility

What has the face of an angel, the wardrobe of a cartoon character, and the memory of a goldfish?

That would be my 12-year-old son, Jake.

Oh, responsibility! That so important life trait that stands continually just a smidgen outside of Jake’s grasp—when will it finally click? When will his room stay clean? When will his papers be right where he thinks they are? When will we stop finding 3-month-old, unsold raffle tickets from the long gone Halloween band fundraiser and notes to last year’s teachers? When, oh when, will Jake get all of his homework done in one sitting because he remembered all of his assignments all at one time?

Woe is me, but I think perhaps never.

Don’t get me wrong. He’s a good guy, Jake. He’s talented. He’s funny. He’s awfully personable. I just wish he’s put it together…get it together…keep it together, just long enough for whatever “it” is to take root so that it’s in his memory banks for whenever “it” pops up again.

As I think about it, though, even with the first 12 years behind us, growing up still has its phases, and responsibility is the challenge of now. We’ve already tackled sleeping through the night, antisocial biting, throwing food on the floor, running out into the street, taking turns, reading, writing, basic math, taking out the trash, being a team player, manners, pitching in to help, and basic money management. And, believe me, I couldn’t be more thankful that non-confrontational vegetarianism just came naturally to him. So with this, I encourage myself in the process. Responsibility is elusive now, but he’ll get it.

Then again, once he gets it, will he remember where he put it?

It’s all relative

The 33 trapped Chilean miners have been above ground for less than 48 hours, and already I’ve found myself responding to my daughter’s everyday complaints like this: “You think doing your homework is bad? Try spending 69 days in a collapsed mine.”

As inspired as I was yesterday by each miner’s emergence from the rescue shaft (a scene oddly reminiscent of my banking materials popping up from the pneumatic tube at the drive-up teller), I have to think that at some point—maybe not right away, but definitely at some time—the miners will use the “trapped in a mine” card to trump, nay, crush whatever complaints come their way. Hot? Try spending 69 days underground at a constant, stuffy, 86 degrees surrounded by 2 ½ dozen guys and a shortage of clean clothes. Hungry? Meatloaf again sure beats 2 spoonfuls of tuna fish every 48 hours. Long line at the grocery store? Even a never-ending price check on Yoo-hoo ain’t like waiting 21 hours behind 32 other guys just so you can climb into a sardine can and finally see the sun.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the miners are as noble as they appeared coming out of the mine. Maybe “trapped in a mine” will never become their version of walking uphill both ways. I have to say, though, that in the very black and white world that is my emotional center, where on the worst of days I categorize all things as either a bonus or a disappointment, I’m going to try to keep the miners’ predicament in mind. Really, compared to being trapped for 10 weeks underground, what do I have to complain about? What reason do I have to be impatient? What, for me, is so terrible—ever?

And, as I can’t resist sharing, my poor kids are likely to hear the “trapped in a mine” refrain more than once. Don’t want to practice the trumpet? It’s a walk in the park compared to being trapped in a mine. If you were trapped in a mine for 69 days, you’d be so bored that you’d give your right arm to practice your trumpet. For that matter, if you happened to have your trumpet with you when the mine collapsed, much in the way guys in prison movies do (despite their incarceration), you could keep the men going! You could be the hero! One day, when you’re rescued, the men will credit you with the retention of their sanity, telling the worldwide press, “If it weren’t for Aztec Fire, Surfin’ USA, and the theme from Two and a Half Men, I’d have scooped my shift boss’s eyes out with a plastic spoon!”

Then again, I’m thinking that my child’s band director, having listened to the kids playing Aztec Fire and only Aztec Fire for the past 2 months, might appreciate a bit of a break. Not necessarily a 69-day break trapped in a collapsed mine, but, hey, you gotta start somewhere.

Stepping into the uncanny valley

Two weeks ago on our (can you spell ‘a-w-e-s-o-m-e’?) bus trip to NYC, Hayley and I visited American Girl Place on 5th Avenue. There, girls (that is, girls with means) can find mini-me versions of themselves (called Felicity, Elizabeth, or Lanie!), purchase matching outfits (School wear! Lounge wear! Swim wear! Camp wear!), accessorize for an infinite number of interests (Skating! Basketball! Baking! Cello!) and even bring their dolls to the salon for a new hairdo or a big girl ear piercing.

Nothing on the website yet about the availability of just-for-dolls exotic piercing or tattoo artistry to suit the interests of girls who are more in the Wednesday Addams vein. With the corner on the market of all things customizable, though, I’m sure that a Goth Girls outlet is just below the American Girl horizon.

The store was a hit, mainly because it’s just a lot of fun to see the miniature reproductions of everything in a girl’s life. The dolls were cute, the tiny clothes were cuter, and there’s something downright fun about watching real live hair stylists standing next to little pink salon chairs, combing, cutting, shovering and balloonifying little dolly heads of hair (at $10-20 a pop), while giddy girls on the verge of growing out of the doll phase look on. Things also got pretty exciting when I started to worry that we’d get kicked out of A.G. Place as Hayley and her friend whizzed mini-double strollers at top speed around the Bitty Baby boutique.

Little did I know as I admired the dolly & me Revolutionary War pajama dresses, that the dolly creep factor was about to get seriously cranked up. In fact, just this past Monday, I received my very first (and, I hope, last) My Twinn catalog. As if the double-n in ‘Twinn’ isn’t creepy enough, My Twinn is like the American Girl doll that Steven King would give to his granddaughter. You wouldn’t think it would be a problem, but the trouble is that the dolls are super-lifelike. Lifelike as in you send in a picture of your daughter and they reproduce her appearance. Lifelike as in when you place your order, you color in a facial diagram to show where your daughter’s freckles and moles are. Lifelike as in the dolls in the catalog look, um, life-threatening and the actual girls standing with them look they want to get the (blank) out of there.

Forget ‘Felicity’ and ‘Lanie.’ Think ‘Carrie’ and ‘Rosemary’s Baby.’

The eerie overtones of the My Twinn catalog reminded me of a useful concept I’ve come across called the uncanny valley. According to a recent NPR report, roboticist (whatever that is) Masahiro Mori theorized something like this: a robot that looks kinda human is neat, fun, even cool. If the robot looks really human, that’s even better. But if a robot looks almost completely human, then—whoa, we’ve got a problem. Writer Lawrence Weschler put it this way, “…a 95 percent lifelike robot is a robot that’s incredibly lifelike. A 96 percent lifelike robot is a human being with something wrong.” Wrong, as in, something like a corpse or zombie (see the following diagram).

http://www.architecture.uwaterloo.ca/fac 1

I have to say, I like cartoonish toy robots. I appreciate cute stuffed animals. I was a little creeped out by the borderline uncanny characters in The Polar Express. But when it comes to the My Twinn dolls, I would say the valley’s more than uncanny—it’s more like the valley of the shadow of death at the hands of a freaky little doll that looks just like me!!!!

And, I ask you, what would tell your daughter “I love you” quite like that?

Speak for yourself

Spaghetti.

It’s not just a stringy, carb-loaded, fork-twirler’s dream. It is now my son’s new randomly inserted catchword, as in, “Mom, do you know what I found on the soccer field at practice today? Spaghetti!” with that last word belted out in a tone that will one day split my eardrum, make my eyes bleed, and cause the wood floors of my house to erode as I wear them away with the figure 8 pattern that I will compulsively and repeatedly walk, while simultaneously scratching a bald spot into the back of my head.

I’ve heard the “Spaghetti!” refrain so many times that last night I made the bold move of banning its use in my presence. Unfortunately, I levied said ban when we were on the way to a Boy Scout event, where Jake found all too many willing recruits, whom he trained to taunt me with “Spaghetti!” as I passed by, helpless, in the pot-luck dinner line.

I’ve been told by the children that the “Spaghetti!” thing is funny because it’s random, and random is the new funny. But I’ve also been told that random isn’t random if it’s done intentionally to be random—if you say something random and say that it’s random, it’s not funny anymore. Because then it’s so not random.

So I guess the upshot is that even though my kids and their peers are laughing less and less at my jokes (because, duh, they’re so related to whatever we were talking about), there’s no way I can do a modern comedy makeover, because that would be too intentional, and intentional ain’t random, and random is where the funny is. So I am doomed, unless I come up with something so unexpected, so random, the non sequitur to end all non sequiturs—so expected that it’s unexpected, so unexpected that it’s completely hilarious. At the saying of it, kids will reach for their inhalers, stunned into jiggling, soundless hysteria, hoping against hope that at the end of the unending giggle there is some breath to be had. Dogs will howl, hamsters will dance, kings and queens will put their underwear on their heads and bow down to me, children will tug at my velvet cloak as I walk to my clown car with the square wheels and take my rightful throne as comedy regent.

But what, oh what, to say? What do I have that’s so ground-breaking, so non-mom, so now, so ridiculously random that it will one day take its place in the comedy hall of fame?

I got it.

Spaghetti.

 

 

Homework…HELP!

OK, I’ll admit it. Yesterday, I made Hayley cry.

She asked me to read through an essay she’d written for school, and I asked her before I did it, “Do you want me to just make corrections or can we also talk about the content? If you don’t want to hear suggestions about improvements, then I’ll stick to capitalizing and punctuation.” I’m not sure if she knew what she was getting into—not sure if she knew that I still pride myself on an award-winning writing from second grade, not sure if she knew that my typical approach is to provide three details (at least) for every point made, not sure if she knew that “Can you help me with my homework?” sessions with my Dad always ended in conflict and crying—but she agreed to the content review, and off we went.

Things went fine until we got to the following sentence fragment: “Not just with the problem I mentioned, but with all the kinds of problems that are destroying nature.” Yes, I told Hayley, there is a capital letter in the beginning of the sentence. And, yes, there is a period at the end. And, while ‘I’ is a noun and ‘mentioned’ is a verb, this is only part of a sentence and not a complete thought. How, I wondered, as she looked at me with an expression similar to the one she’d have if her balloon had just been ripped from her hand and released by her evil, uncaring excuse for a mother, who then shot down said floating balloon with a rocket-propelled grenade—how could I explain independent vs. dependent clauses to a 5th grader who was just trying to write a simple essay?

And even if I could get the clause concept across, how could I mandate that she write a complete sentence when this, her writer-mother’s blog, is probably riddled with fragments intended to ring snarky and hip? Let me tell you—I couldn’t. At least not with much authority. (See, there. A sentence fragment.) (Oops, that was another one.)

Well, as the tears rolled down Hayley’s cheeks and she said, “Dad said it was fine last night, and now you’re making all these changes,” as I saw the train lean dangerously close to the edge of the tracks, I said, “Dad was right! Your essay was fine last night! It’s still fine! And making some minor changes will make it even better! But if you want to leave it the way it is, that’s OK with me.” Then I told her, gently, that I wouldn’t be able to help her if she was crying, not because I thought she was stubborn or baby-ish, but because I felt uncomfortable helping her if it made her feel so bad that it drove her to tears.

At this point in the homework drama, I have to give Hayley credit. She left the room, wiped her eyes, and came back ready to work. We added 150 words worth of quality content to her essay (her words, not mine), and at the bus stop this morning she even volunteered to read her essay to a friend.

She learned a valuable lesson about writing that I didn’t learn until about a year ago: no matter how good you may think it is, a first draft is just that; the second draft is where the magic happens. Aside from that, Hayley may not know what a dependent clause or a sentence fragment is, but that’s OK. At least for now.

See? There I go again.

“I don’t want to, but I will.”

This is my son’s new catchphrase. I ask him, “Can you empty the dishwasher?” and he answers, “I don’t want to, but I will.” I ask him, “Can you pick up the towels from the bathroom floor?” and he says, “I don’t want to, but I will.” I pose a variety of questions, asking him to practice his trumpet/clean his room/walk the dog/brush his teeth/put away his pile of clean clothes, and I get the same answer: “I don’t want to, but I will.”

Part of me appreciates the kid’s honesty. I mean, who really does want to do chores? People who are not lazy, TV-watching slugs like me, who hope against hope that house cleaning fairies really do exist and are about to make themselves known, that’s who.

Even so I wonder, is this the kind of honesty that borders on flip disrespect? I ask myself, would Mayberry’s Aunt Bea accept such an answer from Opie? Would she, as I do, just give a laugh and say, “Oh, you kid, get outta here and get it done!” or would she double Opie’s workload and take away his shoo-fly pie for a week as a consequence for his lippy sass? I haven’t consulted the Nick at Nite archives, but I’m pretty sure that we may never know.

Again, I find I have an opportunity for parenting self-reflection. Did I want to practice the viola as a kid? Um, that would be “no.” Did I do it when my parents asked me to? Again, “no.” Sure, I’m at a point now where I get nerdily excited about new music coming in the mail, and I’m choosing enriching, Alzheimer’s-busting musical practice over my usual diet of mind-numbing reality TV reruns. I’m at the “I want to, and I will” point. That’s still a far cry from “I don’t want to, but I will,” and I think it may take a bigger person to still do what he or she doesn’t want to do.

I guess it’s like drinking chocolate milk. If a kid doesn’t like white milk, it’s better for him to drink chocolate milk than no milk at all. In the same way, I’ll take the doing without the wanting to do, confident in the fact that practice at doing is likely to make future doing less painful.

Although now that I think about it, Jake may do things he doesn’t want to do, but he sure doesn’t drink milk—white, chocolate, or otherwise.

I guess I’ll take what I can get.

Pleasant surprises

The kids are just back to school after Spring Break, and, looking back, I’m astonished at the number of pleasant surprises that can happen in one week off.

First, the weather—temperatures in the ’80s for Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of last week. Just when I finally got both of my children outfitted in pants that fit, here comes the sweltering spring sunshine that makes you want to drag out your shorts. No matter. With our late winter wet down, the heat was a welcome change for me, and for my growing grass.

That’s another pleasant surprise—the growing, growing, growing. Growing kids are quite amazing. They report over 2 cm each, since Christmas!! No wonder they needed new clothes. Then there’s the growing flora all over my yard—it’s a joy! The bushes at the corner of my driveway have merged into one fuzzy, tentacled muppet of a thing—so crazy and enchanting! And another pleasant spring break surprise—the church I grew up in, where I visited yesterday, has grown to an astonishing size. What a pleasant surprise to be there with old faces and new, a new pastor, a fresh outlook, a super cool antique of a building with a new coat of paint. It wasn’t at all what I was expecting, but, again, I’ll take it.

Another surprise—the green of spring! And as I mowed down the new growth, inspiring yet more, I noticed that the once one square foot of ground cover under the bushes in my backyard has expanded to take up the entire end-to-end span of the back of my house, about 75 square feet! Perennial progress—a pleasant surprise! And as I surveyed the yard, I wondered, how many shades of green are there in nature? I count at least 2 in my yard, 3 on my bushes, and 3 or 4 more in the lawnscape outside where I’m writing. As I mowed the grass yesterday I noticed darks and light, color variations from new growth, my favorite blue greens to set off the tried and true forest greens.

Speaking of forest green, I was pleasantly surprised on my Spring Break excursion to my parents’ home in New Jersey, as I drove my husband and children to my high school alma mater, the school colors of which were (brace yourself) forest green and gold (Ugh!). All of us were bowled over by the amazing natural setting that I appreciated pretty much not at all back when I was a teenager. As we drove up the hill to approach the school, there were only trees all around, just budding with the first inkling of leaves. And my son said, “I want to go camping here!” I was retroactively thrilled to have had the opportunity to traverse such a beautiful space every day for so long. A long forgotten memory, pleasantly recalled.

On that NJ trip we made more pleasant discoveries—the crazy Fort Nonsense, built atop a steep hill as a fortification for the Continental Army; Jockey Hollow, home to some of George Washington’s troops, who slept 12 men to a cabin, through the worst winter of the 18th century; Ralston Park, a can’t miss community playground that Hayley spotted from the road, and wouldn’t let us forget until we stopped so she could play there.

There were other pleasant surprises last week: a clearing in my schedule that allowed me to make a long-desired visit to a sick friend; a quick stop at the Borders bookstore by the hospital where the $4 bargain bestsellers were practically throwing themselves into my handbag; clear breathing for the asthmatics in the group in a place that usually wheezes them out.

But the best surprise of all, the one we couldn’t have predicted in a million Spring Breaks, was the one that I must swear you to keep secret from my sister, Linda, whose birthday is coming up on May 1st. Linda, if you’re reading, stop now…or else I won’t give you the cupcake that we got for you from Carlo’s Bakery in Hoboken, NJ, home of TV’s Cake Boss, Buddy Valastro. Yes, we road tripped it to Hoboken, expecting to buy a cake at the bakery, and happened on the entire extended Valastro family selling half-price cupcakes out on the sidewalk. We had no idea it was the 1st Annual Cupcake Day at Carlo’s. We ended up on film. We signed release forms. We shook Buddy’s hand. My poor father held a cupcake in his kung-fu grip for almost an hour on the ride home. Let me tell you, though, it was the highlight to end all highlights.

Unless you count the guy that we saw getting arrested on our way into town. Now that was totally awesome.

Reset

Yes, I know. I haven’t posted in over a week, and I know you’ve had one of two reactions:

(a) “Something awful must have happened, and Cheryl must be pinned under a large, overturned piece of mahogany furniture and unable to drag herself over to the keyboard!”

(b) “Something wonderful must have happened (on Cheryl’s Wheel of Fortune appearance), and Cheryl has been enjoying herself so much (on vacation in Aruba) that she hasn’t had time for her normally scheduled activities (like writing on her blog and dusting off her newly acquired porcelain dog).”

Truth is that by way of an unexpected chain of events, I have taken on some new writing work, for which I am very thankful, but which has given me a little bit of a challenge. In the last week, I’ve been wondering, how do I fit it all in?

This is the cliché of the working mother’s dilemma, isn’t it? And believe me, I’ve heard the advice—and I’ve even given some of my own. “You can do it all, but not all at the same time.” I think I remember reading that in a magazine article written by…oh yeah, me…at around this time last year. What can I say, but “Writer, appropriately prioritize thyself!”

I’m not perfect at the priorities thing, but I figure that even though I’m filling up more of my days with writing obligations, I am also needing to do the same things I did before, not so thrilling things like grocery shopping, laundry, and housecleaning, and much more my cup of tea things like cookie baking, tennis playing, and viola practicing. What I’m realizing is that I can fit it all in, but it just takes a little more planning, a little more waiting, and a lot more creatively fitting in-ing.

Oh, and it doesn’t hurt to have a husband who picks up the slack. Boy, Craig, have you picked up the slack. Yup, lots of slack being picked up by Craig.

What I’m loving the most is that together times with the family have become more precious—more of a break, more of a reconnecting time. I didn’t think that a walk to the park to throw the Frisbee could be so refreshing, but, let me tell you, after a long day it’s a welcome change of scenery and a great opportunity for hugs, encouragement, laughter, listening, and real relaxation. I know the “honeymoon” may wear off, but for now, I’m glad.

The not-uptight parenting award of the year goes to…

…Randy and Theresa Mariner of Dover, Delaware, who had ten preteen boys (including mine) at their house for a sleepover last night, even though they are moving to Virginia TODAY!!!

I know it’s early in the year to award this annual prize, but when it comes to being calm under pressure, gluttons for punishment Randy and Theresa have this competition sewn up. Call them crazy, but they figured that the last minute farewell party would give their two boys a last hurrah with their friends, with the added benefit of providing lots of mouths to eat up all the remaining tater tots, chicken nuggets, and soda in the house. Who better to eat the whole thing than two basketball teams worth of Wii playing pre-adolescents? Yup, while Randy and Theresa dismantled furniture and packed up all their worldly goods, the boys hung out, ate up, played on, and said goodbye in the way that only boys can.

In a million years I never would have predicted that this going away party would be a sleepover—when Theresa said I should pick Jake up at noon I nearly dropped the phone. She and her husband must be two cool, yet authoritative, customers.

With Randy and Theresa’s example, though, Craig and I are wondering whether we have the worldwide high score on the uptight-o-meter. Ten boys would be a major stretch for us under normal circumstances, let alone in a packing and moving environment. Sometimes one boy is too much for us. Sometimes getting up in the morning is too much for us.

We are such weaklings.

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