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Friday, July 30, 2010

Letting go of the June gene

Scientists haven’t discovered this one yet, but I’d bet it’s only because no one has taken the time to really look for it. I think it should be called the June gene, and it’s the part of a woman and mother’s DNA that makes us instinctively driven to be June Cleaver.
Not many young mothers of today actually watched June Cleaver—we grew up with Growing Pains and Family Ties to name just a few. But the essence of June is timeless. She was the picture perfect mother and housewife. The woman wore an apron and high heels on a daily basis, for Pete’s sake. Her hair was perfectly coiffed and if there was ever a scene without her wearing a pearl necklace, I’ll run out and kiss Eddie Haskell straight on the lips.
We all know that image of the picture perfect woman only appears on TV, but I for one have this inner desire to be that put together. I’ll pass on the high heels, but just to imagine a house so spotless and a pot roast coming out of the oven every day at 5:30 nearly makes me swoon. Conversely, if June sashayed over to my house in the afternoon she’d faint from the hotdogs cooking in the microwave and the counters piled with junk that reaches over her tall, tall head, not to mention the weeds that have taken my dead tomato plants hostage.
Deep down, I long to be her. I want to have the house all neat and clean with a feather duster and a wooden spoon perfectly perched in the pockets of my apron. I want my kids to take off their shoes when they come in the house looking as clean and as well-groomed as they do on Sunday mornings. I’d like to have ironed bed linens and a hairdo that doesn’t wilt before noon. And that’s just the beginning.
But I also like to have water fights and haul all of my kitchen chairs into the family room so that we can use every blanket in the entire house build a mansion of a fort with a room for everyone and their stuffed animals. I like to look at the pile of laundry and quickly shut the door and announce to everyone that it’s a great day to head to the park, even if it means our dinner comes in a flat box with extra pepperoni.
While it sounds like a ton of fun, it’s not always easy to do. When life piles up and I look at my son only to realize that I haven’t bathed him in a week and the closest thing to a vegetable we’ve eaten in days is ketchup, I long to tie on that apron and get down to business. The June gene takes over, and steam starts coming out of my ears at such a rate that the droopy hair starts flapping around and if I was wearing a pearl necklace, surely the bulging veins in my neck would send the pearls flying around the room.
That’s when I need to take a deep breath and silence that screaming gene. Because even though the Beav’ never really aged over the years and years of re-runs, my own children are breaking mach speed judging by how short all of their pants have become. Sadly, I know that one day I’ll long for a day filled with distracting fun and tiny muddy footprints through the house and look around only to find a coffee table not stacked high with board books and no granola bars smashed into my carpet.
So for the time being, I try turn down the volume on my June gene, although over the clatter of the children and the roar of the rolling dust bunnies, I, thankfully, can hardly even hear it.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

A recipe for roughing it

For many years, since the invention of fire, people have been flocking to the great out-of-doors and returning to our native roots. Granted, those first fire-makers were probably making campfires outside because they weren’t smart enough to invent ventilation systems, but I bet even if they had, they’d still occasionally pack up everything they own, throw it on their Flintstone wheel-mobile, drive an hour, and argue for hours over the flattest spot of ground.
Because despite it all, people love camping.
I did not grow up a campground-type camper, and by the time I could make the decision myself, I chose to go full bore, outpost wilderness camping. The kind without the amenities, if you will, unless you call sanitizing puddle water to drink and cooking your dinner of dehydrated foods over a fire built from cow dung “the cushy life.” (True stories, both of them. Don’t tell my mother.)
But there remains a natural draw to the outdoors, whether you choose to be alone in the wild with nothing but a tent and a topographic map to protect you, or if you prefer the type of site that has a shower house within walking distance and a neighbor with an awesome pop-up with little dangly lantern lights who moved their televisions outside on the picnic table so they could watch the rerun of some sporting event. We humans just love to “rough it.”
We recently had our chance to sleep with the raccoons at a state park over a weekend family reunion. It was great fun seeing relatives, playing games, and eating mysterious salads (does anyone know who made this?) It was the camping part of it, however, that stood out. Because it was there, and only there, while I attempted to cook bacon over my teeny backwoods stove, squatting on the ground in my own filth, that I noticed the other people in the campground.
THEY had elaborate cooking tools and meals. THEY had real giant flashlights still sitting on their tables covered with festive table clothes. THEY had chairs. THEY were relaxing. I had 3 measly strips of bacon, one spoon to do all duties, a dim headlamp, and cramped up legs from hovering next to that little stove for 4 hours while the bacon cooked.
And at that very moment, a thousand children zoomed by on their bikes on their way to the latrine that was located directly across from our campsite. They went by at such speed, that they sent a wave of fragrant air that was coming out of the trash bin that was conveniently on our campsite. Sure, we didn’t have to walk far to dispose of anything, but when the smell of dirty diapers and rancid meat hits you, you almost wish the raccoons would have hauled off the entire dumpster last night while you were trying to enjoy the peace and quiet of nature.
Looking around, my eyes still hazy from the smoky bacon, a little lantern mantle finally caught flame in my head. We “camp” because we like to be outside…with all the conveniences of being inside. Check out the campsites that morph in to party central—they have televisions, campers with electricity, some even have outdoor carpeting that stretches all the way from their front door to their clothesline with coordinating towels and bathing suits.
I’m not knocking this sort of camping, because I for one prefer an air mattress over a cow field. I’m just wondering if wearing flip-flops to a shower house can ever compare to a cool mountain stream.
But if you block it all out—the latrine, the dangly decorative lighting, the raccoons and the bicycles-- the sweet summer sound of the cicada is still there. He’s up in the tops of the trees, singing his song, rolling his buggy eyes and craning his neck to get a better view of the TV.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Unhappy Meal letter

Dear mega-giant fast food chains,

Because I so often frequent your restaurants, there’s something I thought I would bring to your attention that has obviously been blinded by years of grease buildup and ketchup stains. While I adore the kid’s meal idea more than the fruit-instead-of-fries option, a major flaw has developed over time and I would be remiss if I didn’t let you know just how I feel.
I’m not the kind of mom who eats fast food out of laziness; I’d much rather eat a homemade meal. Instead, I’m the kind of mom who finds herself toting children and running errands all around the state on a regular basis, most of the time running late and yelling “hurry up!” until I’m blue in the face. Sure, my car is well stocked with snacks, but sometimes a kid (and a mom) just has to eat something substantial.
Unfortunately, we’re a traveling band rivaling the gypsies I’m always threatening to sell my children to, and I can order a Happy Meal better than anyone else I know out of sheer practice. Most definitely I am better than my husband, because it’s a well known fact that men cannot successfully order a child’s meal at a drive through window if their life depended on it.
I’m well-versed in the kid’s meal at most any fast food establishment, mostly because we gauge our visitation on the toy de jour. I have such fond memories of my visits to your restaurants. Once we got past my father’s ordering bumbles, I knew what was waiting for me: cheeseburger, fries, fruit punch, and a wonderful, fabulous toy. I collected race cars, cassette tapes, tiny puzzles, quality dolls. Each item a genuine toy, something real I could hold, cherish, and eventually lose in the cracks in the back seat of our wood-sided station wagon. But for those first few days, it was really great.
And that’s where you’ve gone wrong.
Today’s toys are as lacking as the nutrients in the French fries. We recently drove past our favorite place (judged by my preferred coffee) because the toys all involved a movie we’ll never see, only to find another fast food restaurant advertising a different movie.
This time, though, it was a movie rated PG-13.
My children are ages 2, 6, and 8. They don’t watch PG-13 movies. Not that I personally wanted to see the movie either, but now my children are the proud owners of paraphernalia of a movie they won’t see for years to come.
So I ask, just why are you marketing “toys” (“oh, mom, what fun! A purse with a picture of some strange man on it!”) to children who have no idea what they are looking at? You’d be better off giving them an algebra workbook or a locket with a picture of my grandmother in it.
Because of the excellent way we’ve all learned to eat and scarf down super-sized portions, the only people small enough to actually eat a regular size meal are nowhere near the age that could even purchase a ticket to see a movie of that sort. What happened to age appropriate toys? Why have girls become babies when they play with dolls at age 8? Why are racecars so old and boring for boys? Where did we all go wrong?
In a time where our children’s innocence is slipping away further and further with each click of the mouse or the remote control, I truly wish that you, Great Fryer of the Chicken Nugget, could help us busy parents in our losing battle of raising children and not minature adults.
That would make my meal very, very happy.
Number four, hold the cheese and mayo, and can you sub in a coffee please?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Staying cool on hot summer nights

You’ve hear the one about how, if you don’t like the weather in Ohio, wait a day and it will change? Or the one about “you know you’re from Ohio if you use the heat and the air-conditioning in the same day?”
And even more, someone will say both of these old jokes in the same breath as saying, “there’s nothing like an Ohio summer,” and then in the next breath start whining about the humidity.
If there’s one thing we Ohioans can handle, it’s a change in weather. We’re trained at an early age to adjust to the elements. From our youngest days in the back seat, we watch our parents pull out contraptions for every season. From under the bottomless front seat I have seen my own mother pull out, on the same day, umbrellas, sun block, ice scraper and I’m pretty sure there was 25 pounds of rock salt in there too.
Now, in the midst of the heat of summer, the thought of shoveling off our cars is so distant, it’s like a fading memory, a mirage within a desert of humidity with air so thick you could probably put that shovel to good use again.
But as I said, we genuine Ohioans are trained for this. I’ve been sweating through the summer for as many years as I can remember. We didn’t have air conditioning, or if we did my parents didn’t turn it on because I specifically remember laying in my bed in a pool of my own perspiration. I tried many various ways of cooling off. I’d stick a leg or two out from under the covers for just a few seconds, just long enough for them to drop a few degrees but not so long that the unavoidable boogie monsters would smell fresh meat and come out to eat me.
I also remember doing the “pillow flip,” where I would toss and turn on one side of the pillow until I swore it was going to burst into flames, right there under my head. And when I couldn’t take it a single second more, I’d turn it over to the other side, where the heat of my boogie-man-safe body hadn’t melted the interior feathers into an ashy mess. From there I’d wait until I had preheated that side of the pillow and could flip it over once again.
Chances are that side of the pillow was still warm, so I’d have to stick my legs out again, taking my chances against whatever was really out there. A vicious, and sizzling, circle.
At our family weekend getaway there was definitely no air conditioning, and I know this because I would often see my dad sleeping on top of all the blankets, an obviously ridiculous way to expose oneself to the boogie man. To remedy the heat, he had big box fans in every window, securely fastened with a bungee cord that stretched from pull tie to pull tie and kept the fan, which hummed and vibrated at supersonic speeds, mildly safe all night long.
I know this because I would lay there awake, flipping my pillow from the safety of my covers wondering if the cord would hold or if the fan would take flight in the wee hours of the morning and zip around the room. I also pondered which direction it would go because my dad had it rigged up so that the direction of flow pointed out the window so that, and I quote, “it will blow the hot air out of your room.” Oh, how I longed to be on the other side of that window, where a breeze, albeit warm, would slightly cool me down, instead of being in the room with all of that heat.
But I wasn’t. Instead I was in Ohio Summer Boot Camp, paying my dues and earning my stripes as an official Ohioan, easily learning to love a beautiful summer.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Rock Blocks beat the heat, make mama happy

Probably another adventure to file under "supposed to be for the kids, but mom ends up doing it anyway," but that's really OK. I just about love this idea.
Everyone has painted rocks. I myself have painted more rocks than most people, but it seems that every time I do it, I raise the bar. Of course, I can remember one of my earliest rock-painting experiences-- painting porous gravel with some white paint that I swear was wall primer.
But I loved 'em.
These, however, are much better, and make for a great activity, both while you make them and after you're done.
To make your own rock blocks, you need a pack of rocks. Sure you can collect them if you're lucky enough to live in an area of polished and smooth non-sedimentary rocks. Or, for a whopping $2, you can get a bag at a craft store. I suggest the craft store, because the rocks will be mostly similar in size and also conveniently located in the same place as the other materials you will need:
OUTDOOR paints

Then you just paint away, outside when it's pleasant, inside when it's a scorcher. These rocks took a few coats to make them so appealingly opaque, and once they are dry, feel free to decorate some, all, or none. Once dry, step back and smile because you've just created the perfect bridge between indoor and outdoor play. These babies are [supposed to be] waterproof, so leave them outside if you want! Or bring them in for a little substantial playtime.

Build with them: can you stack them 3 high? What about 4? A pyramid?
Game with them: copy this pattern? Look at this pile--close your eyes while i take one away-- what's missing?
Art with them: make a decorative center piece, line a trail around yard with the best-looking cairns you've ever seen
etc. etc. etc.

Mostly, enjoy the connection between inside, outside, nature, toy, math, and art. All in one beautiful pile of rocks.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Fourth of July is first in my book

As most families do, we enjoy holidays. But every family has their holiday. My neighbor now has an Easter egg hunt with little plastic eggs by the hundreds (literally) so much that come June they are still finding them. My in-laws rival that egg number with their Christmas trees, it seems. There is one in every room on every level and in every corner. Growing up, there was a family in my neighborhood that loved Halloween so much that I swear they re-landscaped their yard just so that the dad could put on a scary mask and jump out of some bush and scare the daylights out of us.
But us, we love the Fourth of July. I look forward to it every year and have for as long as I can remember, counting down the days until the fireworks flew. My love for this holiday is genetic or inherited, and I am so proud that my own family has the Fever of the Fourth and totally agree with my adoration for the mid-summer festival.
My husband wasn’t hard to convince. He quickly learned that the #1 best thing about the Fourth of July is that there are no fancy clothes involved. Shorts are required, and button down shirts will only get you laughed at. The most you have to focus on your wardrobe is pulling on a shirt with red, white and/or blue on it and dig around for those hokey flag socks you only wear once a year. You don’t even really have to shower because you’ll be so covered in bug spray that no one will be able to smell anything else.
The second best thing about the Fourth is the food. Most other major holidays, the women (at least in my life) do the cooking. I will churn out at least four pies everything Thanksgiving and dozens of pierogi come Easter, but for the Fourth, there’s minimal work. A tub of potato salad, a can of baked beans, and toss a pack of hot dogs at my husband while the kids are on ketchup and mustard duty, and my work is done.
Even better than the preparation is the clean-up. There are no fancy table settings come the Fourth of July. We get paper plates, plastic silverware, paper napkins. If you’re lucky there’s a red checkered table cloth and if you’re even luckier, you get to sit at the table instead of the famous “picnic style!” I try to convince my kids is more than just eating on the ground. Sometimes there are occasional patriotic decorations, but usually you can put them and take them down in the same time it takes you to unravel one string of Christmas lights.
There are no presents to buy, no presents to wrap, no special bakery, no traveling from family party to family party. The Fourth of July lasts one day, one glorious day, and then, when the day is done, the holiday gets even better.
Fireworks are as magically outstanding as I can think of. There is something so unnatural about them, the way hot, flaming chemicals burn in the sky and form beautiful pictures of weeping willows and sizzling bees. I watch in awe of them, not sure whether I should be in complete silence or hoot and holler for each and every one. (I usually hoot and holler.)
I know fireworks are dangerous. Apparently 9,300 injuries occur every year, with 45% of those being children under 14 years of age. Personally, I still love to run to run through smoke bombs with my kids and write our names with sparklers. Whether or not anyone else chooses to do so, is completely up to them to decide. We’re free do to what we want…
Which reminds me of the last great thing about the Fourth of July: The reason we celebrate.
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