Saturday, November 28, 2009

Thanksgiving Homecoming

Thank goodness for holiday traffic or we might have seen very little of Emily this Thanksgiving break. Originally, she was scheduled to arrive home on Wednesday evening on the train. She texted me on Tuesday morning to say that she was thinking about coming home that evening. A friend from high school had driven up for a visit and would give Emily a ride back to Los Angeles. She seemed so anxious to come home that she decided to blow off her Wednesday classes and had given her homework to a friend to turn in for her. I asked if I should plan dinner for her and I receive a quick "Yes, please!" in response. This is all coming in via text so I was assigning all the emotions that I was sure she wished to convey.

I quickly began planning a dinner that would be an appropriate "Welcome Home" meal that would not screw up Al's planned cholesterol test for the following morning. Salmon would work. The boys were out of school for the week and already plugged into the Playstation, so I convinced them to come with me, luring Joey in with the promise of a pit stop at the game store so he could blow his hard earned tutoring money on the latest combat game.

I was feeling a bit nervous about going to the grocery store with them as they have little patience for shopping and can only keep their hands off each other for about 90 seconds before the horseplay starts up again. (The reintroduction of the word "horseplay" into our everyday vernacular is one of the smaller joys of our parenting years...that, and "bellyache".) Surprisingly, the produce section was a great distraction. Both Jack and Joey took a keen interest in how to choose bell peppers, cucumbers and zucchini. Joey rolled his eyes at me when I told him he had to smell the pineapples but was taken aback when he discovered a difference. When Jack asked what an orange should smell like, Joey and I looked at each other a bit incredulously and responded in unison, "An orange!" Considering it was only two days before Thanksgiving, we got out of there pretty quickly and my cost for the pleasure of their company was held to only two root beers and a $5 4-pack of grapples.

Jack and I spent the afternoon in meal preparation while Joey was at basketball practice. Jack had been counting down the days until Emily came home and was visibly gleeful that her arrival was coming a day early. Late that afternoon, while picking up Joey, I got a text from Emily. You knew it was coming, right? She and her friend were just leaving Santa Barbara and she was coming home first to get her car and then head out to Pasadena to meet some friends for dinner. Our long awaited homecoming was quickly morphing into a fly-by. However, her continuous texts from the road kept us apprised of their slow-going. “Should it take this long to get through Santa Barbara? How far is it to Carpinteria? Will traffic break up after we get into the valley? (Ha!) I have to pee!” When she finally pulled in around 7:30, she had missed dinner with her friends. She was exhausted, hungry, a little crabby and looking for the bathroom. But her unexpected delay, (I think you have to be at least 30 before you truly believe that holiday traffic is a reality), became our good fortune. We spent the evening at home, watching reruns of “Bones” and listening to the kids bicker and banter. For this, we are truly thankful.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Facebook: To "Friend" or "Unfriend"?

I am a member of the generation that has hijacked Facebook from our kids. It started out innocently enough. Before the start of her junior year in high school, Emily created a Facebook page to better stay in touch with friends she had made during a trip to China over the summer. I had long held my ground against both MySpace and Facebook, having seen far too many incidents of reckless postings by naive teenagers. However, Emily was then 16 and had consistently demonstrated a level of personal responsibility that would allow her to navigate cyber space safely. My occasional glances over her shoulder reassured me that she was being smart, having fun, and not posting anything too provocative. I found it somewhat intriguing, but never thought of it as a tool that I would use.

The next year, I received a "friend" request from one of my best friends who lives with her family in India. Neither of us are great correspondents and the expanse of time and space created by our mutual globetrotting had made it increasingly difficult to keep up with one another. The appeal of having more regular communication with her was too hard to resist. In 10 minutes, I had created a Facebook profile of my own and sent a friend request to virtually every personal contact in my address book. I was surprised to discover how many of them were already on Facebook. I reconnected with one of my best friends from childhood. Our post college years had taken us in different directions, seemingly relegating our friendship to our distant past. When we met again, we were both thrilled to discover how our disparate pursuits had still given us so many common life experiences. And the deep bond from our childhood was still there, in spite of our protracted separation.

I found myself reconnecting with old friends from school and work as well as friends to whom we had said good-bye in one of our many moves. Each friend with whom I connected was like a Hydra, leading me to at least 2 or 3 new friends. Facebook has become a great way for us to stay in touch with family and friends around the country whom we do not get to see as often as we would like. However, in cyber space, a friend can be almost anyone with whom one has ever crossed paths. I befriended a woman from high school who had created her senior yearbook page in the Runic alphabet. One of my brother's friends, whom I had not seen in more than 25 years, not only friended me but offered us college guidance counseling. I accepted one guy's friend request because he said we were friends in high school. For the life of me, I cannot recall a single memory of him. The only request I flat out ignored was that of a guy who had carved a swastika into his forehead in high school. I was not interested in his story of personal redemption, assuming he had one. Emily is the one friend who has consistently refused me, saying it would just be too weird to be friends with her mom. But, as I said, I trust her.

I now find myself having enough Facebook friends, allowing me to be more selective with new requests, which are easy enough to ignore. To "unfriend", (the newly named 2009 Word of the Year by the New Oxford American Dictionary), however, is much dicier. After having received several snarky responses to posting I had made, I decided that girl from high school whom I used to think was just a quirky nonconformist was now just mean and rude. So I blocked her. It felt kind of good. There is another friend whose Facebook life hangs in the balance. I have not yet had the courage to off her but I certainly regret befriending her. I will probably never see or interact with her outside of Facebook but I am still subjected to her polarizing political rants. Yet I find myself surprisingly hesitant to unfriend her. I recently discovered that a former high school classmate had blocked me. I recovered from that rejection quickly enough so perhaps I should just bite the bullet and hope for the best.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Family Day

Last Saturday was Parent and Family Weekend at UCSB. For $30 per person, you could arrive on Thursday for a full weekend of planned activities and events for your family and your student. Options included attending classes with your kid, several campus tours and student comedy and improv shows. We opted for our own plan and drove up to Santa Barbara on Saturday morning to spend the day with Emily. It was a great chance to reconnect and to see Emily in her new role as college student, roommate and dorm resident.
Earlier that week, I had received from Emily a list of items she wanted us to bring. Among them were shampoo, conditioner, laundry detergent and a printer cartridge. I was a bit surprised as she does get a monthly allowance to cover her expenses. I quickly realized that she thinks of her allowance as her money, to be used towards things she wants. The items on her list were necessities, hence we should pay for them. I wondered what she would have done had we not come up for the day. The other items on her list were all snack options. Knowing what a nutritionista I am, she made sure to ask for something healthy to offset every junk food request: apples and fruit snacks; carrots and Cheezits; edamame and candy. Al loaded up a duffle bag with Nestle candy, feeling a bit like Santa Claus. Her friends in her dorm had all been anticipating this delivery of sweet treats and were drawn to him likes moths to the light as soon as we arrived. With not a shred of humility, they came with their backpacks to load up on an assortment of Crunch bars, Kazoozles and Nerds. We met several of her friends, including the track star and the surfer. It was amazing to see how quickly they had all bonded and how much they seemed to enjoy each other. Unfortunately, we missed the maneaters, two girls who live in a room down the hall. According to Emily, they bring a different boy home each night, hence the nickname. It is remarkable how these two girls found each other. Back in the beginning of the summer, Emily had to complete a roommate questionnaire, which posed questions such as: Do you study with music on or off? Are you an early bird or a night owl? Are you neatnik or a slob? (Shockingly, she answered "neatnik", thinking of it as some kind of goal setting.) Nowhere on the questionnaire was there anything about promiscuity, so how these two girls ended up as roommates is some strange twist of fate. Perhaps that question should be added so they too could be encouraged to amend their bad habits.
Some college truisms transcend all generations, especially laundry. Walking to the elevator, we were sideswiped by a shirtless freshman, loaded down with two enormous mesh bags, making a mad dash for the laundry room. He was hoping to get his laundry finished before his parents arrived. One could only assume they were not coming for several days. Emily had done her best to hide most of her dirty clothes in her closet but they still burst forth from her bulging laundry bag. One of Emily's friends joined us for dinner that evening. She was wearing shorts and a tank top. At 6:00 in the evening, the sun had set and the moist beach air draped heavily around me. I asked her if she was chilly but she assured me she was fine. Leaving the restaurant a couple hours later, I heard her say how cold she was and that she had to do laundry soon. I asked her if she was dressed as she was because all her other clothes were dirty. She sheepishly copped to the truth but gladly accepted my sherpa jacket.
Al's brother and sister-in-law drove down from San Luis Obispo to spend the afternoon with us at the pier. After lunch, we walked along the beach. Joey and Jack made up some crazy game where the tried to keep their balance while running along the edge of a ridge at the shoreline. One misstep and down they rolled toward the surf. Delighting in making his brother and sister laugh, Jack took a dive time after time. Back on campus, they found a basketball and shot around for a bit until darkness and their hunger chased them back indoors. It was great to watch them having so much fun just being together. One could have expected that at age 15, Joey might have been reluctant to spend the day away from his friends but I think the appeal of seeing Emily was enough to make spending the day with his family seem worthwhile. She will be home for Thanksgiving in a couple weeks and then for winter break a few weeks after that. So, it appears that we will successfully manage her absence for the first quarter as we will have enjoyed several restorative pit stops with her. But I am battening down the hatches for a long winter.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Life Lessons I Learned the Hard Way

I am of the"get a bigger hammer" school of thought. I am always looking for a shortcut, a step to eliminate, a trick to minimize the clean-up. That whole "measure twice, cut once" mentality does not come naturally to me. Al says I am a "hack". But some of the most valuable life lessons and handy family and household tips I have learned came completely by chance or trial and error. Some have scarred me, physically and emotionally, but I am better off for the knowledge I have gained. Like the many uses of a hot glue gun. Did you know that piping hot glue could burn off a wart? You might be tempted to forgo that trip to the dermatologist and that ever-increasing co-pay, but I would not recommend it. So here, in no particular order, is an incomplete listing of my stumbled upon helpful hints.
  1. Don't tell your pediatrician if you still use a mercury thermometer. They work fine if still intact but are frowned upon by the medical community.
  2. Do not let your teenage son use the guest bathroom. Ever. Guaranteed, he would use it at an inopportune time and the aromatic candle has not yet been made that will clear the air quickly enough to avoid an embarrassing situation.
  3. Your eyelash curler works much better if you heat it up with your blow dryer. Be sure to use a low setting and cool the ends with your thumbs to avoid burning your brow bone.
  4. Onion skins, cucumber peels and potato peels will all hopelessly clog your garbage disposal.
  5. Rolling down all four electric windows of your car at the same time will overload the circuit and cause a short. There is usually a reset button under the dashboard.
  6. Baking soda is underused. In addition to its use in baking and as an antacid, it is a great household and personal cleanser. It is a great inexpensive teeth whitener and facial exfoliant. It will also douse most small kitchen fires
  7. Apple tart en flambe is surprisingly good.
  8. A turkey baster can double as a medicine dropper.
  9. A three-year old boy will usually pass the metal marble from a "Mousetrap" game within 24 hours.
  10. To a harassed mom, her husband's unsolicited participation in household chores constitutes foreplay.
  11. When attempting to talk your way out of a traffic ticket, "cute and plaintive" goes a lot farther than "argumentative and sarcastic."
  12. When stringing the lights on your Christmas tree, plug the light string in first and start at the bottom. Although they say to connect no more than 3 strings, you can probably get away with 5 but definitely not 10.
  13. McDonald's french fries have restorative properties. Getting tired on the road? Grab a large chocolate shake and an order of fries. Hungover? Try a large Diet Coke and fries.
  14. At a crowded venue such as an amusement park, dress your kids in bright-colored tops so they are easy to spot in a crowd if (when) they get separated from you. Surprisingly, tie-dyed shirts act more like camouflage.
  15. Add a clean sewing needle to a manicure kit and you have everything you need to get out a splinter, remove stitches or pop a pimple
  16. Tell your kids that a car's engine must be kept running after a successful jump start. Do not let the tow truck driver leave before you double check that the engine is still going.
  17. Teach your teenage driver that the burning odor they detect while driving is probably because the parking brake is still set.
  18. On a 1986 BMW, the neutral safety switch was not standard and the key could be removed from the ignition when the car was not in "Park" or "Neutral".
  19. Watching your 1986 BMW roll perfectly straight down your driveway, across the street and into the the neighbors landscaping constitutes an alignment check.
That is probably enough for now. There are many more to come.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Ghosts of Halloween Past, Present and Future

Another Halloween has come and gone. Al pulled out all the outdoor ornaments and we elicited the requisite "oohs" and "aahs" from all the elementary school kids who walked past our house each day. He really does a great job and the kids love it, especially the cat eyes in the top windows. But now that it is all behind us, I can't help but feel a little let down. When the kids were all younger, we had great neighborhood traditions that were fun for all of us. Emily was always going to be Jasmine, or some other glamorous Disney beauty. Joey would always choose a weapon first -- nunchucks, sword or gun -- and then find a costume to work with it -- ninja, pirate or soldier. And after some brief experimentation with the ubiquitous licensed costumes such as Spiderman, Jack too graduated to the weapon-based art of self presentation.
Our house was on the corner of a neighborhood densely populated with families about the same ages as ours so Halloween was a big deal. Each year, we would have a big pot of curried pumpkin soup, plenty of pizza, cold beer and wine. Several families would meet up for a quick bite to eat and then load up with some road beverages and a passel of trick-or-treaters. I would head out with several friends as our kids scoured the streets for the best offerings. We tried to stay close enough to make sure everyone (mostly) behaved but far enough away so the kids did not think we were hovering. However, we were often still chatting with a neighbor at his front door while the kids were two or three houses ahead of us.
When the kids were really little, they could barely hang in there for an hour. We would return to our house to swap duty, sending the menfolk out to forage, as we hung back with the younger kids and a fresh glass of wine. There was a steady stream of trick-or-treaters young and old, including the parents who came to rely on us as a refueling station. Unless someone was sick or otherwise detained, we could all count on Halloween as an exhausting but fun-filled evening.
Now that the kids are older, our role in Halloween is becoming more and more behind the scenes. Emily is now away at UCSB, home of the largest annual Halloween street party in the state of California. Some 40 to 50 thousand kids flock to Isla Vista each year where the partying starts two days before and does not end until a day or two after Halloween. We try not to think too much about what was going on but we are thrilled to know she survived unscathed. Joey went to a party with a friend in coordinating thrift store outfits that they picked up earlier that afternoon. I cannot say exactly what he was dressed as but his costume included neon colored beach pants and "Bud Light" Mardi Gras beads. Jack was a crazed clown, sporting a rubber mask and his favorite shirt which reads "It's my brother's fault."
I took Jack and four of his friends to a festive street a couple miles away. Virtually the whole street decorates big for Halloween and there are thousands of people milling about. It is quite a spectacle. While the kids delight in the carnival atmosphere, they complain about the slim pickings in the treats department. Make no doubt about it, this is a well managed process and each child gets one small piece of candy from each house. Many families have dispensing stations set up at the end of their driveways in an effort to promote efficiency and protect their landscaping. Although I usually bump into someone I know, I could easily wander about anonymously as I do not know any of the families who live on the street. I cannot quite come to terms with the fact that we drove here. When did Halloween become a destination?
While I wax nostalgically for the Halloweens of old, I realize that this transition would have occurred regardless of where we lived. Halloween is a holiday for kids and my kids are growing up. Jack is 11 years old and I doubt he will want me trick-or-treating with him and his buddies next year. Al says I can stay home with him and pass out candy, probably watching a baseball game while we are waiting for the doorbell to ring. I can delight in the faces of a new crop of children who watch wide-eyed as I drop handfuls of full-sized candy bars into their bags. Sounds okay. But I will cherish the memories and the ghosts of Halloween past.