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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Clipping away at family traditions for the good of my kids

By Karrie McAllister

I never know where I should be cutting my fingernails.
I know that sounds like a completely ridiculous statement, but it’s absolutely true.
Trimming my nails was not really something I thought about much growing up, because I learned from my mother that nails were clipped over the toilet.
And when I was old enough to do it myself, I did as I was taught, hunched over the toilet, trying desperately to get the little clippings to land in the bowl even though 90% of the time they flung off to far away corners of the bathroom.
But that’s how I thought it was done.
When my husband and I got married, we did not live with each other first, so those little everyday mundane things were rather shocking in the beginning. Just as I had been raised in one household, he was raised in another. And apparently his mother had different ideas.
I will never forget walking into our bathroom to find him hunched over the sink, clipping his nails.
“Uh, cutting my nails. Why? What’s wrong?”
“You’re not doing it over the toilet? You’re supposed to do it over the toilet. We always do it over the toilet. You’ve got to do it over the toilet.”
“Why? The little pieces just fling all over the place. This way I can just clean them up.”
And while he has a point about the cleaning up part, there was a greater issue at hand.
Where IS one supposed to clip their nails?
(Actually that’s not the greater issue. But if someone has good reasoning for a clipping location, please share.)
The real issue is this: Even if we’ve learned something from our parents, does it make it right? And if it’s not, what do you teach your own children?
A former co-worker once told me that the mother’s traditions are the ones that will be passed on because it’s usually the mother that spends the most time with the children. And for whatever reason, this thought stuck with me. Perhaps at the time I was thinking that I might have to concoct some traditions so that I’d have some to pass on, and hoping I’d not pass on any bad habits and poor clipping practices.
But now I know better. He was very right in his statement. I know this for many reasons. I know this because we celebrate my family’s horrendous Polish Christmas Even dinner and wash our hands with silver dollars on New Year’s Day. I know this because we leave the butter dish on the counter. I know this because we put the toilet paper going over the top instead of behind the back.
But I also know that I’m willing to accept new traditions as well. While I spent my entire youth eating chicken paprikash cooked with chicken on the bone, I now prepare it in the style of his family using cut-up chicken breasts. (Believe me, this is a BIG DEAL, and I’d appreciate it if no one told my Grandmother. She’ll have a fit.) And I know this cut-up method is the way I will teach my children to make it, shaking up the theory that only the mother’s traditions get passed on.
Meanwhile, I know half of the people reading this are wondering what chicken paprikash even is, let alone why it really matters how the chicken is prepared.
These people do not have relatives from Eastern Europe.
These people have not been trained by their parents and their parents before them on just the right way to prepare such an ethnic dish, and how that is the only way it should be prepared by someone who shares the same bloodline.
These people should stop focusing on chicken paprikash and start thinking about their fingernails and whether or not they need clipping, and if so, just where they are going to do it.

Friends should break bread, not share it

By Karrie McAllister

While visiting a friend a few weeks ago, she served the most delicious bread. It was moist, sweet, and I could easily see in my husband’s eyes that he was falling in love.
And like good husbands should, he overly complimented my friend on her baking. [Note: Any guy who wants to earn bonus points should always compliment a woman’s cooking, regardless of just how much you have to lie.]
And then he said those dreaded words, “Karrie, you’ve GOT to get this recipe.”
What he didn’t know was that this was no ordinary bread. This was the infamous, the notorious, the legendary Friendship Bread.
For those of you who have not yet been blessed with this delicacy that starts with a bag of spoiling goo, let me explain. A concoction of milk, sugar, and flour which has been added to and divided for years ends up at a friend of yours. She then follows the directions and after serving you the delicious bread, gives you your very own bag of goo, which is the ‘starter’ for the bread.
Once you have received your bag of goo, you keep it on your counter so that all the world can see that you’ve got a fermenting sludge that releases gases that you are caring for as if it were a pet. You’ve got to mush it daily for 10 days, and on the 5th day, you feed it.
(What’s next? I wondered. Take it out for a walk?)
On day five, with five days to go, you add yet more flour, sugar, and milk. Keep in mind that if you left a cup of milk on your counter for five days and then tried to eat it, the results would be anything but delicious. But for whatever reason, in the spirit of Friendship, the curdling, growing mixture will not only taste good, but it won’t kill you either.
After feeding your starter, you continue to mush it and let the toxic gases out of the bag until day ten rolls around. That is the day of baking. You are supposed to divide the goo into four, use one to bake yourself some Friendship Bread, and then put the other three sections into baggies and pass on this wonderful stuff to three of your friends, or three people you can sucker into doing this. Whichever you can find first.
For me, this was the hardest part. I’m not one of those people who are always asking things of my friends when I know they will say yes just because they are, well, my friends. I don’t do home parties (although I’m fabulous at shopping at them), and I do not participate in email chain letters (and am now up to probably 25,000 years of bad luck for not forwarding things on.)
I’m sure some of my friends would have actually enjoyed a bit of the goo, I just couldn’t bring myself to ask. If I asked, I know they would graciously accept the sludge and then for the next 10 days I’d be walking around in a cloud of guilt because for certain they’d be mumbling bad things about this goo, just as I had been yelling at mine for the entire time it lived on my counter.
Therefore, when it came time to pass on my bags of goo, I certainly did not want to burden any of my friends or even people willing to be suckered in with the mushing and feeding and baking. So I did the only thing I could think of.
I baked the entire starter’s worth of bread.
Six tasty loaves of bread and a bunch of muffins because I was feeling inventive.
And as a result of my being a coward, I now have a freezer full of Friendship Bread. Some I have given away, some we have eaten, but the majority rests in a deep freeze, waiting to be pulled out in the event that a friend stops by for a coffee, a conversation, and maybe a slice or two.
I just hope she doesn’t ask for the recipe.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

The shortness of Sundays

By Karrie McAllister

Mondays are usually pretty long for me. We’re usually swamped with the big mess of the weekend and the luring stress of what lies ahead for the rest of the week.
Tuesdays are rather ho-hum. Wednesdays are always a struggle because we’re trying so hard to get over the hump of the week.
Thursdays are spent attempting to clean up the mess we’ve been putting off for the past three days, before the weekend comes again.
Fridays are rather fun, and Saturdays drag on because usually means it’s time to do some work around the house, in the house, or trying to think of reasons to get out of the house so we don’t need to do any work.
But Sundays are faster than a mom running after a child holding scissors in one hand and a lock of his sister’s hair in the other. They are the one day each week that my family spends real quality time just being a family, and I just can’t get enough of it.
For me, it’s always been this way. The Sundays of my youth were spent at a cottage on a lake, far, far away from anything but a bait shop. We took hikes and boat rides and dreaded the long car ride back home to where real life and the work week were waiting for us.
When I was older, we didn’t travel to that cottage so often, but that didn’t change the quality of our togetherness. It’s strange how some memories stand out in your mind, and for no real reason, there is one particular Sunday morning that I’ll never forget.
We lived far from the road, and because the weather was rather sunny that morning, I walked all the way out to get the newspaper. Walking back up to the house, I heard the sounds of my Grandfather playing polkas on the piano, which meant that for certain my mom and Grandma were dancing around the kitchen and that I’d join in as soon as I put down the paper. And that’s what happened.
When Grandpa’s fingers were tired, the three women in the house set to making a big breakfast for everyone, but not before putting on Patsy Cline’s Greatest Hits, an album that would definitely be included in the soundtrack of my life.
“I fall to pieeeeeces…” we sang as we fried bacon and cracked eggs.
For me, those random memories are the most precious, and the ones I strive so hard to give my children.
Last Sunday at our home was one of those memory making days. Sunny skies, newspapers, and bacon, it started out perfectly and just got better as the day went on. We played outside, visited with neighbors, ate popsicles and just really enjoyed our time together as a family. That doesn’t happen often enough anymore.
That Sunday, we stayed out all day until we cooked hotdogs and marshmallows on the campfire for dinner. And when there were more marshmallows on my kids’ faces than in their tummies and the fire was starting to die down, I looked at those sticky faces and hoped they would remember the fun day we had.
But for all the fun, I was kind of sad that the day was over; I wished my Sunday would never end.
I wished it would last forever—or at least a month of Sundays.

Feminism is all well and good until you hit a bunny nest

By Karrie McAllister

Whether you believe that we were created by God or evolved through nature, there is one thing we can all agree on: Women are completely lacking the gene that allows us to easily light a grill with a match.
No matter what color, race, creed or age we are, there’s not one woman that can turn on the gas and strike a match without trembling hands, a pounding heart and beads of sweat.
This past weekend, while at a friend’s house, we decided to enjoy the warm weather and treat our children to a cookout. And, like most early cookouts go, there were technical difficulties with the grill. The first grill we tried was out of propane, and because neither one of us was absolutely sure how to change the tank (surely there’d be an explosion), we headed for her mother’s nearby grill.
But the automatic starter wasn’t working.
And like we were performing a bypass with a Idiots’ Guide to Heart Surgery, three very intelligent women read the directions word for word and practically had to draw straws to see who would get stuck with striking the match.
A little cringing and finger crossing, and we actually had a splendid dinner. Not only had we fed our families well, but we also conquered the grill, something that for generations has been “man’s work.”
The next day, feeling quite powerful because we lit the stupid grill, I took on some yardwork without the help of my husband. He was away for the day, and I thought it’d be just dandy if he came home to a spiffed-up yard.
So in the warm air, I mowed and raked and even used a hatchet! Joan of Arc would be proud!
And so was I. Then, while beaming in my toughness, my shovel discovered none other than a nest of baby bunnies in my flowerbed. The mother had obviously abandoned them.
Small and furless, they weren’t moving.
And in their complete sadness and stillness, I ran screaming like a little girl and threw my shovel in to the woods.
(Faithful readers and friends know that this is yet another chapter in my never-ending run of bad luck with dead animals.)
So I ask you, what would you do? Without the aid of my husband, who would normally handle things like this, I did what any smart person would do, which would be to call on the help of my neighbor.
“Are you man enough for this?” I asked.
And with nearly a dozen neighbors outside, I tiptoed up to the nest and pointed out where it was, babbling on and on to help compensate for my girly insecurities.
Apparently I was talking too much and not paying attention, because my rambling speech was broken by my son.
“Mommy, you’re standing on the dead bunny.”
AND I WAS. My super-feminine big honkin’ work shoes had squished one bunny that had gotten out of the nest (but was already dead before I squashed it.)
Once again, I ran screaming like a little girl.
Thankfully, my neighbor came to my rescue and disposed of the little guys while I recovered and took deep breaths on the front porch.
In just a few minutes time, the simple satisfaction I had from lighting the grill the night before had completely worn off.
These days there is such a contradiction in feminine rolls. Women are expected to play traditional rolls as well as have that little bit of toughness, to ignore the fact that we’re missing that gene for lighting grills and just buck up and do it anyway.
And I will agree to that. I’m willing to light grills and mow lawns and even chop wood if I need to, just so long as there are no bunny nests involved.
For that, I’m glad to be the girly girl that lies within this tough woman.

Moms are 20 times more likely to be found at the sink than at the mirror

By Karrie McAllister

Finally some truth in advertising.
Suave has a new ad which I have taped to my bathroom mirror, only because I didn’t think tattooing it on my arm would be appropriate.
Apparently they have launched a new campaign designed to target mothers, thinking that we are an untapped resource when it comes to hair and beauty products.
Apparently they think we could all use a little help.
They don’t know how right they are.
The ad states in big bold letters, “The average mom devotes 87.9 minutes a day to meals and only 4.2 minutes to her hair.”
Well, duh.
In fact, there are quite a few of us who do both at one time, trying to shove breakfast in our mouth with one hand while we brush with the other.
Hair has always been a sensitive issue with me, only because I am forever thinking everyone else’s hair looks better than mine. Let’s call it a coiffure complex. And it stems from the fact that I honestly have no idea what I’m doing when it comes to hair.
This does not, however, stop me from trying an average 4.2 minutes a day. (I actually timed it last week and hit 4.5 minutes—maybe I needed the extra 0.3 because I was eating breakfast at the same time.)
But still I try, and although I don’t feel that I succeed, I don’t entirely fail. I am at least publicly presentable most of the time.
What is rather unfortunate, though, is that I torture my children with this inability to style.
Why is it that we parents think that, no matter how unskilled we are at hair, we can successfully cut our children’s locks? Sure, it saves a few bucks, but the humiliation they don’t know they are enduring is not worth the money.
Case in point: I spent my entire childhood with bangs that started on the left at my eyebrow, and then took a steep slope up to the top of my forehead on the right.
The curse of the crooked bangs, and you’d think I’d learn a lesson, but no. Just like millions of other unqualified parents out there, I catch myself saying those tragic words, “C’mon, kiddo, let’s just give you a little trim.”
We sit them outside, draped in a garbage bag, and use our sewing scissors to trim, trim, and then re-trim some more.
By the time we’re finished we could have practically just gotten out the clippers and preformed the old standard buzz cut.
My son, with his beautiful red hair, got his first buzz cut recently. You guessed it, outside, draped in a garbage bag, and while he thinks he can run faster with his new aerodynamic do and my husband is happy that he saved some cash, I know that he looks like a giant bald head sitting on a little body.
Such unfair things we do to our kids.
If it’s not the cutting that gets them, it’s the actual styling. There needs to be an extra chapter in parenting books telling us rookies how to do things like put clips in that won’t fall out, or how to make a ponytail on a girl who is dancing in front of the mirror. Maybe there could even be a bonus section on braids that aren’t crooked or lumpy?
I could really use something like that. It’s especially hard to get a ponytail straight when you’re the one who has been trimming and re-trimming their hair.
So maybe moms only spend 4.2 minutes (or 4.5 in my sorry case) on our own hair, but I know that I have put what seems like countless hours trying to figure out what to do with the hairs on the tiny heads that live in this house.
Poor things, with their bald heads and cock-eyed braids could really use some help. And so could their mother.
Maybe with all of the time we spend prepping meals (87.9 minutes), I could trade casseroles for cuts and soup for styles. Any takers?

Tuning out for little prizes and lots of pride

By Karrie McAllister

Before me sits an ominous piece of paper. Actually, two pieces of paper, one for each child. My heart knows that we need to sign them and follow through with what we pledge, but my head thinks I’ve completely lost my mind and in one week’s time there’s a good chance that I might be totally bald from pulling my hair out.
Today, April 23, 2007, marks the beginning of a week-long challenge. Seven very long days of no background noise or animations. It is TV Turnoff Week.
We are no stranger to the television. I fully admit that my children watch plenty of it. In fact, in their innocence and total incomprehension of time, they ask me how long one hour is.
“Two TV shows,” I answer.
And sadly, they understand.
I am not unlike other mothers who use the TV to help rear my youngsters. I carefully choose the most educational programs that I can, but all too often I am pleading with them ever so nicely to “SIT DOWN and WATCH YOUR SHOW so I can get something done!!!” Not one of my better parenting moments.
On goes the TV, and for a short while, no one is fighting and I can hear myself think.
But there are times, too, when I catch them playing games and reenacting their favorite characters, and I think that TV isn’t all that bad. Their creative sides get a nice boost, and some shows even help teach things like vocabulary and manners.
It comes to no surprise that for me, the television is a rather bittersweet electronic device.
But a couple of days ago, I realized that it was getting a little more bitter than sweet when my daughter sat and colored and sang, “Sunnyside, Sunny will save you money!” And then, not but a few hours later, my son broke into another advertising jingle.
Oh no. Not only has TV programming rotted their brains, now it’s commercials, too!
So it was with good fortune that I found that TV Turnoff Week was coming up soon, and even better that one of my family’s favorite stores was offering prizes for days when the mighty picture box was ignored. Children simply sign their names on that ominous paper that they will pledge to have TV-free days, and trade cartoons for goodies.
It’s amazing what they’ll do for a little piece of plastic.
Meanwhile, while they are daydreaming about all of their earnings, I’m in a full-panic sweat wondering how we’re going to survive an entire week without my best rectangular babysitter.
I’m going to have to pull every last thing out of my bag of tricks to keep my children happy, only because I’m afraid that without the hum of PBS in the background, my family room will be less like a media room and more like a wrestling ring.
Not only that, but I can already feel the hairs on the back of my neck standing up, thinking about how many times I’m going to hear those three terrible words: Mom, I’m booorrrred.
Did I mention that I’m not allowed to watch anything either?
So while their trading their cartoons, I’m trading my sanity.
But they get prizes. What do I get?
I’m hoping I get to spend some focused quality time with my family. I’m hoping to make crafts and play board games and build forts and sing songs—basically all that good stuff that gets lost with the remote control.
I’m also hoping to be able to say with pride that, while the battle was rough, we prevailed in the mighty challenge of TV Turnoff Week.
I’m hoping my kids realize that they are actually allowed to play by themselves without fighting, without the aid of the television, and that they are proud of their accomplishment.
But in reality, I’m just hoping to survive. If this column isn’t in the paper next week, you’ll know why.
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