People in Stories

When I was a little girl, we lived in Tanzania. I was only four when we went to Tanzania and so the house in Tanzania and the house in Louisville that we lived in before merge together in my memories. Both houses had two bathrooms, but in Tanzania I avoided one of them because it frequently had lizards on the wall. In both houses, I shared a room with my older sister. In the house in Tanzania our room included a small table under the window. On the table I displayed and played with my various small animal figures. Some carved, some plastic, some stuffed. Elephants (or tembos in Swahili) were the majority and many of them became the start of a collection I still have. I also have an aluminum and Formica table from my childhood in my basement. I know it is not the same table as the one in Tanzania, but in my memory it is.

My sister went to school, but I was too young. I went to a pre-school/daycare situation, where I had one friend, a boy named John who gave me my first kiss. But for the most part, I had my animals and my books. In Tanzania, I learned how to read. According to my parents, one day they came into the room I shared with my sister and found me reading, maybe to the animals, maybe to myself. I also learned to swim in Tanzania, in what I think was an indoor pool connected to the university, but maybe not.

One day, we were on our way to swim and I did not want to go. I don’t know why, maybe I was tired, maybe I had something else I wanted to do. Maybe the heat made even going to the pool unattractive. My mother closed the door to the house and realized that she had locked the keys inside the house. We stood outside in the heat while mother debated what to do. Eventually it was decided that I, as the smallest, should climb through the window in my bedroom and on to my animal table. Then, go open the door. I was promised a new book for my efforts.

I remember standing on my table of animals, careful to avoid stepping on any of my friends. I remember wondering what it would be like not to open the door, to just stay there in my kingdom alone, forever. My mother banged on the window and I jumped down and went to open the door. I was soaked in sweat and my mother asked if I was sure I didn’t want to go swimming. I did, but I could not figure out a way to go back on my previous insistence that I did not want to go swimming, and so I said no. The hero of the day, I sat miserably by the pool while the rest of my family swam.

child's bookThe next day we went to the bookstore. The children’s books they had were imported from England and were color coded for reading level. Supply was spotty and when we went, there were no books in my level. So, I chose this book a level up and from then on, that was the level I read.

I thought of the story of me climbing through the window because yesterday in a parking lot a man was stuck outside his car. The car next to it was parked too close and he couldn’t fit in and was too large to climb over the passenger seat. So, I climbed over the passenger seat and backed his car out for him. It took some doing. The car was so large I had trouble getting in. I was reminded of a boy I knew in high school who drove a red pickup truck and how I would try to gracefully climb into his truck in my late-80s miniskirt. Thankfully yesterday I was wearing leggings.

But I was also reminded of me at five, climbing through a window in a different world. So much is different, so much is the same. I am small, and I can go places others can’t. My pride still gets in my way and often makes me miserable. I have a tendency to want to retreat into fantasy worlds of my own and others’ designs.

All the memories pile up on each other because in the end, we are all just people in the stories we tell.

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Of Deadly Importance

Lately, I have been thinking about the dead. Not my own personal dead, the people I carry with me, and write about, but all the dead. I have been wondering if the dead are too much with us, or not enough with us.

I recently read an article about the dead buried in London. Under almost every house or mall or parking garage in London is a graveyard. In London, they walk on centuries of dead people. Rich people, poor people, people buried in ways we cannot comprehend. They found a the skeleton of a dog, buried in her own grave with her collar but without her head; an iron ring welded in place around an arm. This dog was important to someone, but why? The burial of a dog is as mysterious to us as Easter Island or Stonehenge.

I had at least 10 conversations about what to eat for dinner this week. One day, perhaps while building the 26th century version of a parking garage, someone may find a bone fragment of me and wonder what 21st century people ate for dinner. All those  conversations, and in 600 years, no one will know what we ate for dinner. Not just what I ate for dinner, but what we, as a people, ate for dinner.

There was a man who died while hiking the Appalachian Trail. No one knew his name or where he came from. When he died, he was 83 lbs. He was found with cash and food. For months, people tried to unravel the mystery and created their own stories about him. When the truth came out, he was none of the things people thought. He was just a person. A little more screwed up and worse than a lot of people, but still, just a person who is now dead. Whatever we’ve learned, we still don’t really know why.

I have been reading a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I am struck by the fact that her family was poor, heart-breakingly poor in a way we can’t truly comprehend. They were poor for generations. Then, Laura wrote Little House and was quite wealthy when she died. Her daughter Rose, was an only child, and she died without children. Today, her estate is worth over $100,000,000 and will be inherited by the daughter of Rose’s lawyer/manager, Roger MacBride. MacBride was not a son of poverty. He went to Princeton and Harvard. What did all the Ingalls’ striving mean? All that work, for generations, for someone else to inherit the benefit.

It is tempting to equate a lack of knowing and a lack of permanence with a lack of importance.

Does it matter what I eat for dinner? Does it matter why a dog was buried without a head? Does it matter why a young man walked into the woods and never came out? Does what you do, what you want, what you work for matter if it won’t last for more than a generation?

Maybe it’s all important. Because the dead are with us. Or maybe none of it is important, because the dead are with us.

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Solipsism and the Riot

I was on  my way to Costco when I got news of the revolution. I started the day with the news that in response to some local politics, someone tried to throw a brick with the N word on it into the window of a local Black-owned coffee shop. It seemed like a big deal. Here in Oak Park, the most common response to the brick was that it must have come from somewhere else, that there simply aren’t people in Oak Park, the suburb so liberal even the expressway exits are on the left, who might throw a brick with the N word through a window.

The debates about where the brick came from started online. A rally and vigil were planned for the next day. It was big news. But then, in the afternoon, people tried to storm the Capitol.

The hot takes on what happened in DC and why came fast and furious, and continue to arrive now, three days later. My guess is we’ll be reading think pieces on what caused this breakdown and insurrection for a couple of weeks, and then again, four years from now when there’s a new transition of power. Maybe also any time something similar happens in another country. Our news cycle, our attention spans, our addiction to outrage and surprise won’t allow us to keep talking about it for long.

So, allow me to get my think piece in now, while it’s still relevant. The two most common explanations I’ve heard are “Trump incited it” and “There’s a lack of education and critical thinking skills.” Both of these are certainly true, but I think there’s a deeper reason. I think this Coup Clutz Clan is born out of a commitment to a kind of solipsism.

In philosophy, solipsism is the theory that the only thing we know for sure that exists is our own brain, our own thoughts. But we’re all familiar with it on a less theoretical level. Even if you haven’t read Piaget, you probably know that kids go through a self-centered stage, a stage where they really can’t think about anyone else’s needs. For the most part, they come out of it around 8 or 9. But, it doesn’t disappear. Anyone with teenagers or even those in their 20s will recognize some trouble in getting their child to notice what’s going on around them.

We also know it about ourselves. The times when what our spouse or partner needs or wants just doesn’t make sense. The times when we just can’t believe that someone who throws a brick at a window, or uses the N word, or commits some other crime, lives in our neighborhood.

Although we have probably only talked about it when stoned,  many of us spent at least a little time in our lives wondering if it’s possible that we are the only person who exists. If it’s possible that everyone else is a robot. Most of us can remember a childish or mushroom-induced moment when we wondered if others ceased to exist when we left the room.

For the most part, we move past these thoughts and stages. Most of us know that we are not alone in this world, that we aren’t the center of the world, but do we truly believe it?

Before the election my 14-year-old would often inform me that Biden would probably lose because “No one is interested in him. He’s boring.” I kept informing him that, in fact, many, many people were very interested in having a very boring president. When pressed to name who he meant by “no one” was, my son would say, his friends and “political tik tok.” When pressed to name what I meant by “many, many people,” I said “my friends and other middle age people.” Many of you are smiling and agreeing as you read this, but look what I did. I put “political tik tok” in quotes, as though it weren’t a real thing, as though it wasn’t comprised of real people, real people who by virtue of age and who knows what else have different beliefs and wants than I do. Back at the beginning, did you giggle at “Coup Clutz Clan” as though these weren’t real people with thoughts and feelings who attempted what they believed was a righteous rebellion, but rather characters in a Hee Haw skit?

In news story after news story at polling places before and after the election you heard people on both sides being confident that their candidate would win because (gestures widely) look around. The people who believe Trump won the election can’t fathom that their corner of the world, of the Internet, isn’t the only corner of the world and the Internet. That there are other, real people in the world who believe, think, and vote differently than they do.

Those of us against Trump are no better. How surprised were you when Trump was elected in 2016? Not the next day, when you had time to think about it and realize that “Yeah, that tracks,” but when watching the votes come in. Did you truly believe that there were that many people who could be so devoted to being anti-abortion, or pro-gun, or just wanting something different, that they would vote for a racist, sexist, molester? Or did you assume that most people think like you do. That most people wouldn’t vote for a man so clearly unqualified in experience and temperament?

Many people talk about the need for greater empathy, greater understanding, greater caring for each other. Our politicians, especially President-elect Biden, talk about the need to unify to realize that “more unites us than divides us.” I am not asking for that. I am not asking for unity or understanding.

I think we need to get more basic. Before we can understand others, before we can look at what we have in common, we need to first admit that other people exist.

 

 

 

 

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What the New Year May Bring

I do not remember what, if anything, we did for New Year’s Eve 2019. I know what my expectations were. I thought the year would be about my son and his turning 13 and his bar mitzvah.

For a while, it was. My daughter was halfway through her freshman year in high school and doing great. I had given notice at a job that was stressing me out. The focus was all on the bar mitzvah. Then, there was a polar freeze of February. It was so cold that my hand momentarily stuck to the inside handle of our screen door. The polar freeze caused the pipes to burst at the restaurant that was supposed to cater my son’s bar mitzvah. The owner, a young woman, lost her business. I lost a caterer and a little bit of my mind. A year later I saw her, undoubtedly still struggling with the loss of her business, but pregnant and happy, it was not something she expected.

With the help of my friends, my son’s bar mitzvah happened. He did a great job, we had food, it was all great. While under-employed I decided to catch up on  medical appointments. Then, the year became not about my son’s bar mitzvah but about my having cancer. My having a mastectomy, my having complications and surgeries and a frozen shoulder and depression. Towards the end of the year, my husband left for France on Sabbatical and the year became about surviving.

We spent New Year’s Eve 2020 in Paris. Thanks to my husband’s Parisian cousins, we spent New Year’s Eve drinking pink Champagne at the Eiffel Tower. When I shared the photo on social media I said that I was so excited to put 2019 behind me I had flown around the world to get to 2020 sooner. Insert wry, knowing chuckle here.

New Year’s Eve 2020 was undoubtedly a more glamorous and exciting event than the undocumented New Year’s Eve 2019, or 2021. Last night, for New Years, we ate a lot of food, made donuts and watched a movie. At midnight, we turned on the always-sad Chicago countdown, our beloved city following an hour behind the big ball drop. Somehow, it was a little less sad this year. We were too lazy to open our bottle of Costco Prosecco. At 2:30 am on January 1, 2021 we were woken up by horrible noises from our radiators. We turned off the radiators and went back to sleep. The dogs woke up at 7:00 am, as usual, and we turned the radiators back on, and all is temporarily well. After cleaning the kitchen from last night, we’ll call the heating company and hope they can get to us before the noise starts again.

When I look at the picture from 2020, I don’t see hope or glamour. I see how sick and in pain I am. I see how bloated my face is, how exhausted I am. I will not pretend that 2020 has been some great year. It has been painful and exhausting. But, I am undoubtedly healthier. I still have pain, but it is not constant. I can move, I can walk, I can last a day without a nap. I’m still not crazy about the way I look, but I look better.

A certain kind of person is fond of saying that New Year’s Eve is an artificial separation. It’s the same type person who does not buy a loved one flowers or a card on Valentine’s Day, because that too is artificial. But I think there is something magical that happens at midnight. It is not the first kiss of rom-coms, or the erasure of the year before. It is the chance to look to the future. For a little while, the next year is both perfect and horrible. It is the loss of a business, the loss of a spouse, a cancer diagnosis, a global pandemic. But it is also a new job a new baby, a recovery, a new love. It is the mundane problems of owning a home and the mundane joys of loving your children, snuggling your dogs, and eating good food. The new year brings everything and nothing.

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What If There Isn’t a Real World?

One day we will no longer live in pandemic-world and I will be able to start a blog post with a phrase other than “The other day on Facebook.” But, we don’t live in that world yet. So …

The other day on Facebook some parents were concerned about finals at the high school. They were concerned about the stress, drama and pressure students are facing while trying to go to remote high school. Predictably, some people agreed and some people did not. Along with various versions of “yes,” there were several comments along the lines of  “How will they learn to study for finals in college if they don’t do it now” and “But that’s not the way the real world works.”

Ahh, the real world. Last night on Facebook I got into a little bit of a tiff with a woman I don’t know because she wrote a review of the Hallmark Hanukkah movie and called it a “shanda” (Yiddish for shameful) and then shared that review in a group we’re both in. I spent last night lying on the couch watching the Hallmark Hanukkah movie, primarily because it seemed like a good way to get everyone in my family to leave me alone for two hours. The alone time was excellent, the movie was not. But, one of this woman’s complaints about the movie was that the Jewish family had a wreath with blue ornaments on their door. She declared that impossible.

Believe me when I tell you, the wreath was not the least plausible thing about this movie. For example, it does not occur to a mom who gave a girl up for adoption years ago that the mystery DNA match might be her daughter, until said daughter reveals her birthdate. Also, everyone in the movie runs a restaurant and no one is the least bit worried about being closed for an extended period of time. Finally, the least realistic element, there’s a guy who makes a really nice living as a freelance restaurant critic. Wreath on a Jewish door? Meh, it’s plausible.

Now, obviously, wreaths aren’t very Jewish, but I certainly know families that have them. In our conversation, it came out that the critic’s Jewish experience is entirely with Chabad, an ultra-orthodox group. At that point, I had to bow out of the conversation. Because despite both having lived in Louisville and Chicago, her “real world” of Jews was entirely different than my “real world” of Jews.

A few years ago when there were dress code debates at the high school a parent complained that “in the real world” women could not wear leggings to work, so they shouldn’t be allowed to do so in high school. In my over 25 years of professional work, I’ve worked exactly two places with any sort of dress code. I’ve seen people doing highly paid work in leggings, pajama pants, short shorts, flip flops and halter tops. The truth is, there is no dress code in the real world.

Or I should say, there’s no dress code in my real world. I’m sure that just like the movie critic lives in a world where American Jews and Christians don’t share a culture, other people live in a world where everyone wears suits and dresses to work. Still other people live in worlds where everyone wears coveralls, scrubs, or waitress uniforms.

If nothing else, I would think that a Trump presidency and Covid-19 has taught us that what we think is the “real world,” just doesn’t exist.

Education has always been about preparing kids for what the adults around them feel the “real world” has in store. Many people forget that the Montessori method, today generally only affordable to wealthier families, was started in 1906 to train poor kids to become better factory workers. Similarly, the even more exclusive Reggio Emilia method was developed to help post-WW II children in Reggio Emilia, a town in Italy. It’s natural that we expect a high school grading policy or dress code to be relevant to the real world we think our kids will inhabit. But we shouldn’t tie their entire educational experience to that vision.

So many of the things that inhabit our “real world” today, from the Internet to Covid to cell phones, did not exist when I was in high school. As late as graduate school, I was learning to do research involving microfiche machines, because when I did research “in the real world,” it would be important.

I don’t know about you, but no part of my post-school life has involved a card catalog, let alone a microfiche machine. I’ve also never been asked to recite Hamlet’s soliloquy, or the periodic table of the elements. I am a professional writer, and I cannot diagram a sentence.

In short, I’ve learned to live in a world totally different than the one my teachers and parents prepared me for. I have to trust that come what may, finals, or dress codes, or wreaths on the door, our children will as well.

 

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A Bodhi Tree of One’s Own

Yesterday on the radio I heard that this coming Tuesday, December 8th, is “Bodhi Day,” the day that Buddhists believe Siddhartha became the Buddha. I’ve been interested in Buddhism lately. I’ve been interested in its beliefs and in the idea that the founding myth of Buddhism is that a wealthy prince retreats from his riches and sits alone under the Bodhi tree and reaches enlightenment.

It’s fascinating to me that where Christianity, Judaism, and Islam start with the idea of relatively middle-class prophets (carpenter, shepherd, son of a servant and the aforementioned shepherd, respectively), Buddhism starts with a wealthy guy. I feel like a lot of the “popular” Buddhists and meditation coaches today follow this same path, but don’t acknowledge it. When you listen to their apps or podcasts, or read the books, they all have a story about being a stressed out executive who then took time out to (metaphorically) sit under the Bodhi tree. Now they give, or sell, their enlightenment to those of us who are not under the tree.

These modern-day gurus follow other American myths about this idea of retreat and enlightenment. For years, I have been drawn to the stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family always moving west to find more quiet, of Huck Finn “Lighting out for the territory” to get away from civilization, of Jack Kerouac getting stoned and driving to Mexico. Even knowing the truth about Henry David Thoreau moving to the edge of his mother’s property so he could better boink his buddy’s wife in solitude, and then writing a treatise about his independence, he still speaks to me.

Every weekend I make a “to do list” of chores and tasks. I put on the top of every list “Write, Read, Journal,” to remind myself to take time out of the weekend to read something, write in my journal, and try and create something. Even before Covid meant that my family was home with me 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, I had trouble finding enough mental space to think or create for myself. It is not that I am sooo busy. I have a comparatively relaxed and reasonable work schedule, and of course, no one currently has any activities. But two kids, two dogs, a husband, a house, work a previously cancerous breast, a global pandemic, it all takes up a lot of mental space. There are constant interruptions, and when there are not interruptions, there is still half of my brain listening and waiting for the interruptions.

I love the bustle of a house with dogs and kids and at the same time, I long for the solitude of the Bodhi tree, the three chairs of Walden, a joint and a road trip.

When I was reading about the Buddha and Bodhi Day I can across this line describing the difficulty Buddha had at transitioning away from the tree, “It is difficult for a liberated being who is free from desires and motivation to return to the world and become involved with people and their ways.” You can say that again sister. It’s also hard to get to the tree in the first place.

 

 

 

 

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My BIG Economic Theory

I love small businesses. I have spent a large part of my career supporting them. I’m happy to spend a little more and order a book from my local independent bookstore instead of Amazon. I’m happy to get a Turmeric Latte from the Ethiopian coffee shop or a Kashmiri Latte from the Indian one instead of going to Starbucks.

I have often dreamed of owning a small store. In my late 20s I began researching the possibility of my own bookstore. In my 30s it was a boutique with essential oils and massage services. My retirement dream is to own a hotel or Bed & Breakfast. I love living in a place with an assortment of small businesses. My favorite thing to do on vacation is wander in and out of cute stores and antique stores. See, proof that I really love small businesses

But also, I’m getting really annoyed at all the calls to “shop small.” It’s not that I don’t want to shop small, but I see four problems with this mantra:

  1. Shopping is not a virtue. Buying things you do not need may help one business, but isn’t so good for the world.
  2. Going on FB and asking where you can get your Organic Himalayan Sea Salt Candle “but local, because I want to support local businesses” is an act of both extreme virtue signaling and privilege, also it’s super-annoying.
  3. Most communities actually need businesses of all sizes.
  4. Shopping small isn’t actually going to save these businesses.

I’m not an economist (or even good at math) but I’m pretty sure that convincing people that in the middle of a global pandemic and economic crisis spending their own dwindling cash reserves at a local business will somehow save that business is like telling 20-somethings that they could afford to buy a house if they gave up their daily latte. The lattes aren’t the problem. The high cost of college, interest on student loans, the lack of job security and the lack of affordable healthcare are the problem.

Likewise, we are not going to shop our way out of this financial crisis. What we need, instead of FB groups asking people to commit to spending $25 on local takeout a week (invited to one this week, also, please, I’d love to get my weekly takeout budget down to $25/week) is FB groups asking people to commit to demanding a financial relief package. Small stores, restaurants, and bars are all being forced to remain open because our government refuses to send financial relief. These places being open contributes to the rate of Corona, and the inability for schools to be open, both of which further hamper the economy.

I hope the local businesses where I live survive. I plan to continue shopping at them. But I reserve the right to be grumpy whenever someone tells me to do so.

 

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Going Gentle Into That Good Night

Having only two children, neither of whom was fathered by either Frank Sinatra or Woody Allen, I have never felt that I had much in common with famous actress, famous mother, famous wife, famous daughter, Mia Farrow.

But this week, this tweet, I feel it. I saw a meme that I cannot find (because as you will see, I am now old). But it said something like, Lefties be like: We want open borders, and to defund the police. Liberals be like: and then there was a picture of Mia Farrow’s tweet.

I so get it, all of it. I started this election season, way back when I was young, voting for Elizabeth Warren. I started out wanting so much more than another old white guy playing nice with the Republicans.

I’ve seen this photo a lot lately, too. It brings all the feels, those nice Bush women playing with the Obama children.

I see this picture of two little girls and three grown women being kind to them and long for the days of peaceful, clear transition of power. I long for it so hard that I have trouble remembering that Bush was a war criminal, that he showed a depraved indifference to life in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. That he swift-boated John Kerry. John McCain is hailed as a Republican saint, a bastion of the old guard. I have to wonder how many people cooing at the Bush women playing with the first African-American daughters in the White House remember that in 2000 the Bush campaign created a push-poll campaign in South Carolina, asking primary voters how they felt about the fact that McCain had a black daughter, implying she was biological and not, as is true, adopted from Bangladesh. Have we all forgotten that he then stole the 2000 election.

If I try, I can remember all of the worry and anger I felt when Bush was president, before Michelle Obama gave him a cough drop and a hug. But, it’s vague, pushed to the back of my mind. It’s like the memories I have of dancing at bars that were open until 3:00 am, and then going to Howard Johnson’s for breakfast. I remember the feeling. I remember feeling the feeling, but I can’t actually feel it any more.

In the past four years we, as a country, have careened from crisis and scandal to crisis and scandal. I know the Bush years were bad. I know Joe Biden will not bring about lasting, needed change. I know that tomorrow, or next week, or both Donald Trump will say something horrible or do something horrible that continues to weaken our democracy and our country.

I know all of this. But I am tired. In the past nine months I have lost three loved ones. The school shootings, the scandals, the deaths, the virus, the school-from-home, my own cancer, the anxiety, my children’s anxiety, I am tired. In my heart of hearts I want more for our country, more for my children and my future grandchildren. I remember what it feels like to want that, but just like dancing until 3:00, I don’t feel it anymore. So, for now, I’m looking forward to the pictures of Champ and Major running on the White House lawn. I hope other people are not as tired as I am. I hope other people will continue to press, to want more and fight for more.

 

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A New Old World

As always, I think about Mark today.

No wait, that’s a lie. For the past few years November 8th has snuck up on me. A vague feeling of unease, a feeling that I was forgetting something, maybe someone’s birthday? Maybe a test at school, a project that was due? I spend the day wondering and  then, suddenly, sometimes not until bedtime, I remember. Mark died on November 8th.

Mark died on November 8th so many years ago. Decades ago. In a different century. In a different world. Mark died of AIDS in a time when almost everyone who had AIDS died of AIDS. Mark died of AIDS before Facebook, before Netflix. For a minute I wonder if it was before the Internet? It was not, we had dial up. We had AOL disks and chatrooms.

Mark lived so many years ago that his last job was as a “fashion consultant” for International Male Catalog. A few months ago I tried to explain to my children how we know our friend Jeff, that he once worked with Mark on the phones at International Male. And I tried to explain International Male and I tried to explain catalog phone sales and why grown men would call a catalog to flirt with younger men on the phone and even as I tried to explain it, it didn’t make any sense to me.

When I came back to Chicago after Mark’s funeral, my friend Chris met me at the gate. I walked off the plane and into his arms, something we can’t do any part of anymore.

Mark lived and died in a different world. And although I have a picture of him in my dining room and his mini Winnie the Pooh doll in my bedroom, and a sweater of his tucked away in a box in my attic, although I can watch all his favorite movies and TV shows whenever I want, I sometimes forget that he and his world existed.

This year has been life altering. Even the world that most of us thought we knew, a world Mark would have been surprised enough by, even that world has gone. We don’t know yet what’s in its place.

Four years ago, Trump was elected on this day. Today we wake up on a new day, relieved and hopeful. But Mark is still dead. The 300,000 people who died of Corona in this country this year are still dead. Children and parents have still been separated. The country is still on the brink of chaos and civil war. Everything horrible that has happened, has still happened.

When we move into a new world we do not completely leave the old one behind. Fragments of it, a business card, a stuffed animal, a scar remain.

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Dinner Time

I’ve been going a little nuts with dinner at my house.

I’ve never been that interested in cooking. I mean, I can cook. I’m even a good cook. I just don’t care that much. When I first began cooking for my family, it went great. I made baby food, the kids ate the baby food. “This is easy,” I thought. “I don’t know how people let their kids become picky eaters.”

(At this point, I would like to divide my audience. I know it’s risky given how small an audience it is, but still I’m going to do it. I know that those of you who have kids that are “great eaters” believe it is because of something you did or did not do. Those of you who do not have kids might also believe that if you did have kids, they would be great eaters because you would do the right thing. All of you can sit in the corner for a few minutes and think about all the other things your kids do that you don’t love, and decide if you are as equally to responsible for those things as you are for the food thing of which you’re so proud.)

Those of you who have picky eating kids, and know that sometimes kids are just born the way they’re born and not everything is up to parents, you can keep reading. If you have kids who are picky eaters, you know that serving them sucks out a lot of whatever joy there might be in cooking. Especially, if like me, you don’t really care that much about food and have completely revamped your diet in response to cancer and have two who are picky in completely opposite ways (one vegan, one carnivore). I have to really like something to want to make it and know that one child will complain and the other will eat two bites and I’ll have to eat leftovers of it for the rest of the week.

Like every other suburban mom, back in the before times, I often complained about hockey practice or rehearsal, or my husband’s night classes. I complained about how hard it was to get dinner on the table with everyone so busy. In truth, I kind of liked having one, or two, or even three nights a week with an excuse to make sandwiches or order in, or serve everyone something different at a different time.

Now though, there is no excuse. One night a week my husband teaches an online night class and we have leftovers. In our house we ironically call leftover night “Helpie Selfie Night” because years ago when I worked in the party planning space I did a blog swap with a mommy blogger who created a weekly meal plan on a chalkboard in her kitchen. Helpie Selfie Night was written in multi-colored chalk and I laughed and laughed at the idea of someone who felt it necessary to give “leftover night” a cute name.

One night on the weekend we support our local restaurants and order (Ok, sometimes we also order during the week, by the time you get to Thursday, it’s kind of rough going). That leaves me with five nights a week that I have to cook dinner, not to mention seven days a week that a certain person asks for help with lunch. If cooking for picky eaters was boring before the pandemic, it’s downright depressing now.

So, the past couple of weeks, I’ve gone a little nuts. Last week I declared it “International Week.” We had Tacos, Indian food, Fried Rice, Chicken Pot Pie (British) and we were supposed to have an Italian night, but we watched a play my daughter was the AD for over Zoom and ordered instead. I printed out trivia facts for each country and tried not to think about the many things I now have in common with the Helpie Selfie mommy blogger.

This week is American Week (Southwestern: Chili & Cornbread, California: Avocado Toast, Native American: Wild Rice Pilaf & Fry Bread, Southern: BBQ, Biscuits, Fried Green Tomatoes). Next week is Jewish week (menu to be determined).

Here is the thing. I cannot say that I love cooking anymore than I used to. I can’t say that my kids are eating more or even that what I’m serving for dinner is that different than what I would serve if I hadn’t gone theme crazy. But, now sometimes, when I spend time thinking up the meal, and planning the meal and the grocery list, and cooking the meal, I think “Well, this I can do.” We are living in the middle of a pandemic. By next week, there might be a Civil War. My kids miss their friends. My son wonders if he’ll ever go to high school. My daughter wonders if she’ll get to go to college. There is nothing I can do about any of that. I do not know what this world is becoming and my kids are getting too big for me to protect. But I can do this. I can look up new recipes and print out facts about China. I can go a little wacky with food and hope that even if they don’t eat it, some part of what I do is nourishing.

Bonus: This fried rice recipe was amazing! I ate it for 2-3 meals and the vegan child ate it for breakfast one morning. The carnivore was not impressed.

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