Monthly Archives: September 2011


Fair warning: this is going to be one of those columns in which I complain, yet again, about how hard it is to put up with picky eaters. Not how hard it is to feed them, mind you, since I stopped trying to feed my own picky eater years ago, but simply how hard it is to live with them.

Allow me to explain. When my daughter, Clementine, finally reached the point where she had managed to vote every single food off of her own personal “Survivor Food Island” (except for Yoplait Thick and Creamy Vanilla yogurt), I stopped trying to cook for her at all. This, for me, was a wonderful change. No longer did I have to make two versions of dinner every night: one with flavor, color and texture, and one without. Once again I could cook what I wanted, secure in the knowledge that, as long as I could find a reliable supply of Yoplait Thick and Creamy Vanilla yogurt, Clementine was not going to starve. This worked like a charm for at least a year. I’d make a big pot of chili; she’d peel back the lid on a container of Yoplait Thick and Creamy Vanilla yogurt. I’d make falafel; she’d peel back the lid on a container of Yoplait Thick and Creamy Vanilla yogurt.

And then she started to branch out. Foods that had already been tried once before and then rejected were invited back onto the island, for all the world like wayward boyfriends being taken back on the condition that, this time, they be better behaved. And apparently, they were: where once there was only Yoplait Thick and Creamy Vanilla yogurt, now there was a whole food pyramid (or at least a food cylinder) of things like plain mashed potatoes, noodles with butter, and ramen. In the alphabet of food, it was everything from A to B. But at least it was a start.

The thing about being a picky eater, though, is that pickiness is a dominant trait. And while you might temporarily drive it into submission through either force of will or desperation, it will still always be there somewhere, just looking for a way to get back out. And the way it got back out in my house was by mutating into Paranoid Eater.

What this means is that the Picky Eater who would once only eat a plain bagel and cream cheese will, when confronted with a cabinet full of plain bagels and a refrigerator full of cream cheese, change into Paranoid Eater. What’s the difference? Well, where Picky Eater will carefully check each bagel to make sure a stray poppyseed didn’t wander onto its surface, Paranoid Eater will carefully examine each bagel for mold spots. Then, finding none, Paranoid Eater will sniff the cream cheese, declare it “old,” and put it away in disgust. (It used to be “throw it away in disgust,” until my shrill protests convinced her that the lesser evolved members of the family were perfectly content eating tainted, yet already paid for, food.)

Picky Eater and Paranoid Eater often work together. Picky Eater will cook an entire pot of plain noodles and slather them with a whole stick of butter. Then, when Picky Eater steps out of the room (perhaps to check on that shipment of Yoplait Thick and Creamy Vanilla yogurt), Paranoid Eater will step in, see that the noodles have been sitting in the pot for more than five minutes, and pronounce them too “old” to eat. This pattern continues until I finally declare that enough is enough, and that while those noodles don’t have to get eaten, nothing else may be consumed until they are. Which, then, brings about yet a third mutation: Pissed Off Eater.

Fine by me: as long as she’s okay with Yoplait Thick and Creamy Vanilla yogurt.

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It’s September, which means that once again it’s time for my birthday. To be honest, the prospect of this fills me with a certain amount of dread. Not because of the grey hair (Clementine solved that problem for me—at least temporarily—when she had my hair dyed green and purple). And not because of the wrinkles (I have discovered to my somewhat delight that zits don’t tend to appear in the middle of a wrinkle). And not even because of any potential cognitive lapses—sometimes I think that forgetting is nature’s reward for agreeing to become a parent. No, my dread is not due to any of the age related aspects of having another birthday, but rather because of the fact that birthdays mean presents. And presents, for me, mean pretending that I like them.

I’ll be the first to admit it: I am a terrible person to buy presents for. No matter what you get me, I will always find something wrong with it: wrong size, wrong color, wrong price, wrong, wrong, wrong. I’m not proud about it, and I’m not bragging, I’m just stating the simple, unhappy, truth: I suck at getting presents.

This is okay where my husband is concerned (although he might tell you differently). After sixteen years of marriage he is used to the first words out of my mouth being, “Did you keep the receipt?” every time I open a gift. (In my defense, I must say that he can be spectacularly bad at buying presents. I will always remember the time I asked for something from Victoria’s Secret and instead got a pair of full length flannel nightgowns from J.C. Penney. That’s right: a pair. Two! I suppose his thinking was that this way I would always have one while the other was in the wash).

The problem I am currently having with my present-receiving disorder, however, is that now it no longer involves just my husband—it involves my children. And there’s no way I can ask my kids if they still have the receipt—not unless I want to have to do damage control for the rest of the night.

This used to not be such a problem, because instead of buying me presents they used to make them. And while I can almost always find a flaw with a store bought present, even I would have a hard time finding fault in a handmade one—especially one from my kids. Macaroni necklaces, stick figure drawings, amorphous lumps of clay—I have loved and will continue to love them all. But as my kids have gotten older, and busier, and more susceptible to advertising campaigns, their presents have changed. And not for the better.

Now instead of making me an ashtray in art class they buy me a “Mom” mug at the dollar store. And even though I do drink coffee, and I don’t smoke cigarettes, I can’t help but prefer the former to the latter. (Although, to be honest, the ashtray did cause more trouble than the mug. After Clyde gave it to me his older sister couldn’t resist pointing out to him gleefully that I didn’t smoke, at which point I felt compelled to lie and say that it didn’t matter because I was planning on taking up smoking anyway. It was, I thought, a harmless little white lie—until Clyde started pestering me daily, and in front of everyone I knew, about when I was finally going to start smoking. It’s been four years now, and he still hasn’t laid that one completely to rest.)

Still, if I’m being honest, I would admit that the problem isn’t really flannel nightgowns and ashtrays—it”s my own lack of tact and graciousness. And that maybe fixing that should be my present to everyone else.

Yeah. Or I could just learn to enjoy smoking—while wearing several yards of flannel.

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Love Scale

I read once that one of the most difficult, and therefore most highly paid jobs in the world was that of master jewel appraiser—more so even than that of jewel cutter. This is because while the ability to wield hammer and chisel in order to achieve the perfect cut is something that can be taught, the ability to look at a stone and be able to determine its worth—or better yet, glance at two stones and tell in an instant which is was worth more than the other—is just something that you are either born with or
you’re not.

I’m not sure, but I think that my kids might actually be blessed with this incredibly rare gift. Yes, both of them. Not that I’ve ever seen them judge one precious stone against another, mind you—there are precious few precious stones in our house—but I have seen them judge something that is, in my opinion, even more valuable (and rare), and judge it with a diligence and cold-blooded precision that would make any master jewel appraiser proud.

I am speaking, of course, of love.

Some people might say that love is intangible: that it can’t be quantified, and therefore can’t be measured. To those people I would say: obviously you have never seen the calculating way one child will look at another child’s Christmas presents. (Or the way they can weigh a cookie with just their eyes. I mean, have you ever really watched the way kids study a plateful of cookies? You would need x-ray vision to be able to better judge the comparative chocolate qualities of two seemingly identical chocolate chip cookies. I’m telling you: if chocolate ever becomes a controlled substance, we won’t have dogs at the airport anymore, we’ll have five year olds.)

But at least when it comes to chocolate chip cookies there is an actual difference—however slight—between cookie A and cookie B. The same can’t really be said about love, especially when it comes down to using material rewards to calibrate the scale. (And they always use material rewards to calculate the scale.) The worst part of such calculating is that it doesn’t matter if they are two very different children with two very different interests—believe me, they will find a way to compare apples to oranges. Or cheeseburgers to eyeliners, as it were. “You bought him another double cheeseburger? Where’s mine?” “But . . . you’re a vegetarian.” “So. You could’ve gotten me something. I’m out of eyeliner.”) And no, it’s no good explaining that Burger King doesn’t sell eyeliner. Or that Sally’s Beauty Supply doesn’t sell cheeseburgers—that I know of. The burger, and the eyeliner, aren’t the point. If they were, I would gladly make a detour to Sally’s every time I stopped at Burger King (and vice versa).

No, the point is the love. And on a child’s love scale, it is very simple to compare cheeseburgers to eyeliner. And then convert those figures to love. (They must be born knowing the conversion formula. Or they learn it in grade school, at the same time they learn how to convert gallons into liters and miles into kilometers.) Of course, I could make the argument that I am already giving the both of them all of my love, all of the time, but they would never buy that. And they shouldn’t, for the simple reason that it’s not true.

It isn’t that I love one more than the other. Really. It’s just that, if I’m being honest, I really don’t dole out equal amounts of love at equal times, for the same reason I don’t try and pour the same amount of milk into a bucket and a thimble: sometimes one just needs more than the other.

Come to think of it, maybe there is something to all this love appraisal stuff after all.

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Pen Killer

The other day, as I was loading the dishwasher for the third time that morning while discussing something important with my daughter, Clementine (multitasking!), I was vaguely aware of the fact that she was manipulating something in her hands. Spin, twist, pull—she spun the object around and around like a Rubik’s Cube, until finally, with a little sigh of triumph, she set it down, and I saw that it was a ballpoint pen. Or rather, it was the remnants of a ball point pen: what she set down on the table was just a pile of pen parts.

“My pen!” I said, chagrined.

She rolled her eyes at me. “It’s just a pen.”

“But it was my pen,” I insisted.

The eyes fluttered back again. “It’s a pen. They cost like five cents.”

At that point I turned my back on the new pile of dishes that had just materialized, and explained to her at great length that, unless you bought pens by the gross, they cost more than five cents. And besides that, it wasn’t like there was some sort of pen vending machine in my living room where I could drop in a nickel and get a replacement—to spend that “five cents” on a new pen would involve at least fifty cents worth of gas. And what’s more, even if I could walk to this hypothetical pen store where they sold you one pen for a nickel, it would still involve at least a half hour of my time, which, despite what she seemed to think, was valuable, so actually, even if it turned out they were giving away pens at the neighborhood pen store, it would still end up being something like a twenty dollar pen. To finish it all off I added that, besides, even if by some miracle there was, at this moment, a nickel-pen dispenser in my house, it still wouldn’t matter, because she didn’t have a nickel anyway.

At the end of this rant she rolled her eyes so far back in her head that she was probably seeing gray matter, blew out an enormous sigh and said, “Geez. It’s a pen. A pen. I’ll buy you another one.” And then she walked away. I sat down and tried to put the remnants of my pen back together, so flustered by my diatribe that for a moment I couldn’t even remember what it was that we had been talking about before the pen mutilation distracted me. And then it all came back to me: we had been talking about chores. And money. And how she didn’t see the point of doing one for the other, since she didn’t care about material things like I did, and therefore had no need of money. And, by the way, she was going to need ten bucks for lunch the next day.

At that point a vital spring launched itself away from my pen corpse and made its successful bid for freedom, and with a sigh I gave up and tossed the whole thing in the trash.

Look: I understand the whole love/hate relationship people have with work and money. I have it myself. (I love money—hate that I have to work for it.) And part of me is glad that Clementine has managed to retain such a charming naivete when it comes to worldly concerns: knowing that there is still even one person out there who is not concerned with the getting of “filthy lucre” is kind of like knowing that there still might be a remote tribe somewhere in the Amazon rainforest where the children have never held a game controller. It gives me hope. It gives me faith.

If only it gave me an unlimited supply of pens, I would be set.

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Backpack Backpack!

My son, Clyde, will be starting fifth grade this year, which means that once again I will dig out “The Backpack.” Note the definite article, please: not a backpack, but rather the backpack. We’re not talking about some random bag with straps attached, something that could be had at any Target, WalMart, or, for the classy, Lands’ End, but rather the backpack. The only one.

At least, the only one Clyde has ever owned.

There are several reasons for this. The first is that I am incredibly cheap. Okay, to be honest, the second and third reasons are also that I am incredibly cheap. What can I say? I just don’t see the point in spending money on the same thing year after year, when, as far as I can see, it’s not like there have been any major advances in backpack technology. And even if there have been, so what? I mean, it’s not like I’m making him use an outdated insulin pump or something. And besides, hypothetical advances in backpack technology aside, the essential function of a backpack has remained the same for the last forty years: it is a place to lose your homework in. In that sense, a potato sack would probably work out just as well as the latest backpack, and might even work out better—especially if you left a few of the original potatoes inside.

Putting aside cheapness for the moment, though, (if I must), the second reason Clyde has never owned a different backpack (the fourth reason, actually, if you’re keeping track), is that I feel guilty about filling the landfills of the world with perfectly good, if outdated, backpacks. And yes, backpacks do become outdated: while I might be hesitant to accept that backpacks have been improved on structurally, I am completely cognizant of the fact they do change in a fashion sense, and that therefore, just like that Grand Funk Railroad t-shirt you wore to death back in sophomore year, can become outdated.

This hasn’t always been the case—back in my day, no one ever thought about whether or not their backpack was unfashionable: it was a backpack, and therefore, by its very nature, it was unfashionable. Sadly, this is no longer true, thanks to the same people who convinced our preteen daughters that they needed a new princess every other month. I’m speaking, of course, about the Disney people. Because before Disney got into the backpack business, your choice of backpacks was limited to blue or red. Once Disney got involved, however, and started putting people like Hannah Montana and the Jonas Brothers on backpacks (as well as the above-mentioned princesses), backpacks might as well have been made of soft cheese—their shelf life was that limited. (There’s a joke in there somewhere about Lindsay Lohan and Limburger, but I think I’ll let it pass.)

Of course, the same could be said about the lunchboxes we carried when I was in school, but at least our lunchboxes were durable enough to become collectible one day, so that, hopefully, the mom who had to suffer through swapping out the Grizzly Adams one one for the Happy Days one for the Dukes of Hazzard one was able to take early retirement off of the stash in her basement. The same can’t really be said about a backpack, though—no one is ever going to buy a used backpack as a “collectible,” not even the ones with “Milli Vanilli” on them. Why? Because, unlike a lunchbox, which is impermeable, a backpack is going to soak up every smell it comes in contact with.

Which is why Clyde’s great backpack run will almost certainly end this year: next year will bring middle school, and with it, gym class. And even my great, great cheapness is no match for the smell of fermented boy socks.

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