Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Number 19 on My List

Two days shy of my one-month blogging birthday, I’m beginning to realize that it’s awfully hard to find time to blog about being the mother of two teenage children if one is in fact the mother of two teenage children. Certain responsibilities and activities seem to push and shove their way to the top of my to-do list, leaving poor unassuming little “post blog entry” lying there neglected like a tiny box of shriveled raisins left in a plastic pumpkin once full of Halloween candy.

So I’m not making excuses. Actually, I am making excuses, but they’re good ones. In the last 72 hours, I have:

1) Attempted to bake a savarin with Ben for his French class.

2) Re-attempted to bake a savarin with Ben for his French class, after the “dough” for the first one remained liquid despite the addition of copious amounts of unauthorized flour.

3) Eaten part of a savarin that stuck to the non-stick pan.

4) Phoned 28 junior high school students, each of whom forgot to remember to sign up to rehearse for the upcoming talent show I am co-chairing over the next three weeks, and politely asked them when they’d like to practice.

5) Traveled to Wal-Mart (please God, forgive me, but I really needed to save 30 minutes by going there, even if my shopping trip tacitly supported the exploitation of some poor Chinese girl) to buy the makings for a William the Conqueror costume Ben must have for school in two weeks (you’re right -- that is before the talent show is over). Yes, he will be graded on the quality of both his design and execution. No, he does not know how to sew.

6) Responded to phone calls and e-mails from some of the 28 talent contestants who realized they couldn’t possibly rehearse when they said they could rehearse because they had a conflict they had failed to write down in their student planners.

7) Found the perfect college for Billy.

8) Looked at Billy’s calendar and discovered that he has committed to so many activities over the next few months that the only time he could possibly fly to perfect college for a visit this spring is March 10.

9) Perused school calendar and determined Billy has mid-term March 10.

10) Received e-mail requesting that “we” sell $400 worth of ads to help pay for musical in which Ben and Billy will appear next month.

11) Assigned the sale of part of these ads to Bob.

12) Attempted to complete 30-hour work assignment in order to pay for college, perfect or imperfect, for Billy.

13) Learned how to put a link within my blog to someone else’s blog (see “Only the Lonely Notebook”).

14) In preparation for cleaning woman's visit, put away papers, boxes, bags, books, coats, and crap lying on top of our dirt, as well as clean clothes that had been sitting in laundry basket since cleaning woman's last visit two weeks ago.

15) Sat down to write blog entry approximately 90 seconds before power went out.

16) Sat in dark and cussed.

17) Upon return of electricity, switched to battery-operated laptop. Signed on to blog.

18) Put down computer to run upstairs and rebalance banging washing machine.

So here I am, ready to get down to work. The washer has finished its load; the house is clean and quiet; the distractions are all gone.

There’s just one problem.

I’m so tired I can no longer type.

Only the Lonely Notebook

It is difficult to imagine a person who is less adept at both technological matters and self-promotion than your Betsy. In a slam to feminists everywhere, I scream for my menfolk the minute I encounter a frozen computer screen or an unruly mouse. Given its reliance on computing thingies, blogging comes only slightly more naturally to me than does tap dancing. Nor am I much for begging people to read me. Yet I realize that if I remain my only reader for much longer, my time would be better spent telling my stories to myself while I fold laundry. Therefore, with this post I am stepping out of my comfort zone by participating in Works for Me Wednesday, a weekly tipfest involving both technology and Emptying Our Nest promotion sponsored by the kind hostess of Rocks in My Dryer.

Comical as it may seem, I occasionally have a stroke of organizational genius, and one of them is this: The Notebook. Every few months I grab several cheap-cheap-cheap full-size spiral notebooks at the grocery. That's where everything, and I mean everything, goes. Need some Comet and a couple of shallots? I write them on the running grocery list. Need to remember the confirmation number for our rental car
reservation? I jot it down in the same notebook. Want to drive myself insane with a list of everything I need to do for the next six months? I put it in the notebook.

The key to this is to USE ONLY ONE NOTEBOOK AT A TIME. This is based on the amazing organizational principle that it is easier to keep up with one of something than several of something. (You have perhaps noticed this when you take children to the mall.) When you fill one notebook up, start another, but keep the old one and put dates on the front of it. That way, next year when you need to remember the name of the gutter-cleaner-outer you heard about last week, and all you can remember is that you heard it around the same time you gave the cast party, and you know that was in February, you'll have a general idea where to look. If you are tidy, perhaps you could put the notebook in a special Home for Notebooks. That, however, is not the Bird way. Mine stay in the Notebook Pile, which is right next to the Newspaper Articles to be Clipped Pile on top of the desk in the kitchen. All I know is It Works for Me.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Out on the Edge

Betsy’s been the eensiest bit testy the last few days.

A little friend who comes bearing hormones is about to visit, which is always good for making me want to slap anyone even remotely cheerful. And the month-long talent competition I’m co-chairing at Ben’s school is well underway, reminding me that the reason today’s kids don’t read is because their parents don’t read. “Are you aware that you’ve scheduled rehearsals the same week as cheerleader tryouts?” a mother asked one night this week, way past the time polite people have quit using the phone for the evening. As a matter of fact, I was. I was also aware that since said rehearsals were during the school day, when absolutely no cheerleader tryouts would be taking place, this wasn’t going to be a problem, a fact of which said mother also would have been cognizant had she read the copious amounts of information we’ve provided her and her multi-talented daughter these last few weeks.

Anyway, in retrospect, I guess this might not have been the best week to select new glasses frames. But I’m tired of not being able to see like I did as a minor. Talk about testy – being nearsighted, presbyopic, dry-eyed, and vain is a combination guaranteed to put one in a chronically foul mood. With my glasses off, I can’t see anything. With them on, I can’t see much. My doctor told me that even after laser surgery I'd still need reading glasses, which, as you 40-something readers undoubtedly have learned, actually means I'd need several pairs of reading glasses to account for phone books, regular books, computer screens, and the fact that reading glasses tend to end up in the same spot where socks escape to. (She also told me I have tiny cataracts, which is guaranteed to make a gal feel like she ought to start shopping for a Lil’ Rascal.) I’ve still got contacts, but after a few hours they start sticking like burnt cheese on the rim of a 9 x 13. New glasses with even-stronger progressive (i.e. bifocal that don't look like bifocal) lenses seemed the least unsatisfactory of an array of bad options. Besides, I’d been feeling vaguely unsettled about my eye wear since my sister suggested over the holidays that my glasses were both the wrong color and out of style.

As (I hope) readers with bad eyes know, one must never go glasses shopping alone. Who knows how many social lives have been tragically cut short by solitary eyewear-selection excursions? Back in the early 80s, on a day I was feeling feisty and independent, I acquired all by myself a pair of gigantic pink glasses that Elton John would have coveted. Only the intervention of a kind friend saved me from a life of Star Trek reruns, cat breeding, and eating Rocky Road alone.

Thursday, however, when I was ready to buy glasses, the only person available for consultation was Ben. This was not necessarily a bad thing. He’s the only man in this household who’s remotely fashion conscious; true, his taste tends toward mall stores that blare OSHA-infringing rock music and spew cologne through their air vents, but I’ve watched Project Runway with him, and he recognizes good lines. What’s more, he’s terrifically concerned with what I wear. He has studied the matter and determined that white is my best color; he’s thrilled when the pockets of my jeans bear designs that looks vaguely expensive. His ultimate compliment is “you’re looking very Fox Valley today.” A mom could do worse than have Ben serve as her eyewear consultant.

In taking the kids for eye appointments in recent months (guess who’s vision needs came last?), I’d spotted a comely pair of frames at a nearby optician’s, and it was to that office that we drove Thursday after Ben’s allergy shot. Despite my surly mood, I felt a bloom of cheer; this was going to be a quick trip. These frames were perfect; Ben would agree; I’d write a big check and we’d be home by 5.

We entered the store, and I made a beeline for the adorable frames. What luck! They were still there. I pulled off my old glasses, put on the new ones, turned to Ben, and smiled. “What do you think?”

“I think they make you look like a librarian.”



And how were you planning on getting home, son? It’s a long walk, and it sure is cold.

Actually, I’d love to be a librarian. It’s nice and quiet where they work, and they get to see all the new books fresh off the presses. But I don’t want to look like one – at least not the way a 14-year-old boy thinks of one. If my own flesh and blood thought I looked frumpy, what would the general public think? And that wasn’t the only reason I wanted Ben’s approval. I wanted this whole process to be quick and easy. I have a talent show to co-chair; I don’t have time to scour the countryside for glasses.

“What do you mean, a librarian? I think they’re cute.”

“I just think you need some that don’t make you look so old.”

What had ever made me think this child was adorable? Clearly he was a mouthy adolescent who needed to establish himself a college savings plan posthaste.

Ben could tell he’d touched a nerve. “It’s not that they look bad, Mom. I just think it would be better if you got some that were edgy.”

Has Ben looked at me lately? I wear low-heeled shoes and flannel pajamas and the occasional pair of elastic-waist pants. My idea of a thrilling evening is watching Jane Austen on Masterpiece Theatre. Edgy? I wish.

Clearly we needed the voice of reason. I asked one of the women who worked there, a gal around my age, for help.

She liked the frames, as well as several other pairs, all of which elicited the same librarian look from Ben. But though they weren’t on exactly the same page, they were simpatico on one thing: everything in the store was better than what I’ve been wearing.

“Let’s see,” she said. “How long have you been wearing those?” She pulled my file and searched for a date. “Goodness – four years. The styles have changed a lot.”

Since when did glasses become extinct after four years? My mother wore the same pair of cat eyes for most of my childhood. Of course I was embarrassed to be seen outside the house with her, but that was my own immaturity, not any fashion statement. And whose side was this lady on, anyway? After all, Ben had whispered to me that her glasses looked like a secretary’s.

“Well, I’ve really liked them,” I said defensively.

“Oh, they’re fine,” she said. “I’d just like to see you in a darker color. Something edgier.”

Great – just great. Now even the woman with secretary eyes was on the edgy bandwagon. Not only did this crew want me to look like something I’m not; they were both insinuating that I’d been walking around the last four years with glasses that made people think “I sure hope she’s got a great personality.” Had my sister set this whole thing up? It was like finding out I’ve had my skirt tucked in the back of my pantyhose for the greater part of George W.’s presidency.

The whole affair was enough to push my mood from foul to toxic. I said it was time to get home and I’d think about it. Ben and I engaged in a round of “you’re mad” – “no, I’m not” on the way home. I called Bob and told him I wasn’t cooking, and we all had nachos for dinner.

The next day I went glasses shopping alone. I know – I’ve already said that’s dangerous. But I was still nursing my vanity wounds from the previous day – and wearing corrective lenses only when it was absolutely essential that I be able to see.

I made the rounds of a few stores and put a couple of pairs on hold. After I touch up my roots this morning (if those glasses looked like a librarian, then my hair must look like Janet Reno’s), Bob and Ben are going to take a look and tell me what they think. (Perhaps mercifully for him, Billy is taking the SAT this morning. Bob and Ben probably wish they could trade places with him.) I think Ben at least will be surprised at my choices. “I love those!” the woman who was helping me yesterday shrieked. “They’re so … edgy!”

Maybe. But I’m not ready to give up elastic-waist pants. And I can’t wait for Masterpiece Theatre tomorrow night.


A POSTSCRIPT: Yesterday's trip to the eye wear store was a success (not so much the hair coloring; I give Nice 'n Easy's new Perfect 10 only one thumb up). I ended up buying the edgy frames from Friday. In an unexpected development, I actually fell in love with an even edgier pair, sort of miniature tortoise-shell Buddy Hollys with an inner, lavender layer. But they cost $200 more, and since Billy taking the SAT has ramped up the paying-for-college anxiety level to red from orange, I went with the less edgy of the two. Ben actually didn't say a lot; I think he was afraid to.

So in a couple of weeks I'll have a whole new look. I've got my fingers crossed these glasses won't induce anyone to begin a comment about me with the words "Bless her heart ..." But if you see a middle-aged woman walking around and you think she looks like Bono, just leave her be. You'll know she tried.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Snow Angels

It’s snowing today in Fox Valley.

That’s a rarity. Here in the South ice falls more frequently than snow, and since the globe started heating up, we haven’t gotten anything cold and frosty in a very long time. The first Christmas after we moved here 10 years ago, Billy put a Flexible Flyer at the top of his list. Suspecting that would never be used for anything but garage clutter, Bob and I flat out told Billy there would be no sled beneath the tree. He was sad, but if he looked back on it now, I’m sure he’d admit it would have been a tragic waste of a Christmas gift.

Billy wanted the sled because he and Ben were born in a place where two or three decent snows fell each year. They know what it is to sled and make snow angels, to eat vanilla-scented snow cream quickly before it melts, to feel their cheeks and noses chap as they sled away a morning.

Until recently, we had a photograph from those days up in the den. (We rearranged some furniture, and suddenly the frames that held six pictures of the boys as babies and toddlers didn’t really fit the d├ęcor anywhere. We took them down to the basement and stacked them with other pictures on an old sofa.) In it, Billy and Ben are 6 and 3, dressed in pull-on red rubber snow boots and an assortment of mismatched winter clothes, standing in our snow-covered back yard. Ben, a full foot shorter than Bobby, is wearing a drum-shaped green fleece hat I bought at Gap. I got it because it pulled on so easily, but it’s easily the strangest looking headgear since Devo and the flower pots, and someday soon he’s going to ask me to burn every photo that shows him wearing it. Bobby was in his ruin-every-photo stage at the time, and he’s making the most confident monkey face you’ve seen outside a zoo, his blue-tobogganed head cocked and his feet firmly planted against the chill.

I’m sure I complained the day the picture was taken about the hassles of wet clothes and puddles and the children who created them. In all likelihood I didn’t even go out in the snow with Billy and Ben; no doubt Bob pulled the sled and made the snowman and shot the picture. I probably watched from a window, and said I couldn’t wait until they were grown.

When Ben came downstairs this morning, he was excited. “It’s snowing!” he said. Usually one to stay in his bathrobe until we force him out of it, he quickly showered and dressed. He’s breaking in a pair of Converse Chuck Taylors for his role in an upcoming production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown (your Chuck Taylor’s have to get filthy if you’re Pigpen), and so he was wearing those and Levis and a pullover sweater reminiscent of one Wally Cleaver might have worn. In fact, we all seemed a bit Cleaver-ish this morning – I made bacon and homemade pancakes, and put on a pot of soup. I didn’t look much like June, though; I had on a pair of jeans so hideous they make Mom jeans look like Sevens, and a bottle green, long-sleeved t-shirt I’ve had since Billy was a baby.

Maybe it was wearing that shirt, which I so strongly associate with those one-on-each-hip years, or the fact that Ben went out to the deck – coatless, of course -- to see if our meager accumulation would support a snow angel, or the Cleaverness of our morning. But something about this morning brought those preschool days back to me. I went down to the basement and hauled up the picture. It warmed me like oatmeal.

After awhile, Ben grew tired of the snow. Today became just another video-game-Saturday. Billy woke up around 10; he had to attend a luncheon of some sort to honor the cast of a play he’d been in. Like many of those things he does these days, I don’t know all that much about it; he’s quickly getting better than I am at things like RSVPs, and this was his deal.

As Billy headed for the shower, I pointed out the snow. “I know,” he said, sounding as if he thought he should be excited but wasn’t. Instead of boots and a toboggan, he dressed in a coat and tie. Everything matched, and he tied his tie himself. Bob and I did a lot of driving coaching -- there’s a mountain between Fox Valley and the site of the luncheon, and this is a kid who’s never driven icy roads – but soon he was off to the luncheon, a young man on his own.

My sister lives in New England. A couple of years ago, I kept her girls, then 1 and 4, for a week in January. Of course it snowed, so much that even those hardy New Englanders shut the schools. Each trip out the door meant pulling on coats and snowsuits, mittens and hats; each trip back home required hanging all that stuff up to dry, soothing static electricity shocks, finding Chapstick and dry clothes. It was exhausting. I came back home to kids who can dress themselves and don’t wear coats till the temperature drops to the twenties. I told everyone I knew that it was crazy to live in the Northeast with babies.

So it’s not that I’ve forgotten the demands of young children. Yet today, I’m looking at that picture of my own little angels on a snow day, and I keep tearing up.

I love my kids with a bright white light. They’re my friends now -folks I look forward to having home every night so that I can hear what they thought about the world that day. They don’t need me for the demanding physical things anymore. They tie their shoes and fix their breakfasts and respond to invitations on time (well, mostly). Sure, they need me, but not in the same exhausting way. My life is much more my own.

But I miss the snow days. I wish I’d known then what I’m starting to realize now: that each and every moment of our love affair with our children, the good moments and the miserable ones alike, will eventually melt like snow. Sure, there are photographs, but it’s not the same. I’d give anything right now to kiss a chapped, chubby cheek and hang a dripping jacket up to dry. I wish I’d done it more when I had the chance.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Do Not Attempt This at Home

They say yoga is relaxing. Clearly "they" haven't done it at my house.

Making good on my new year vow to do at least a little yoga every day (yes, I know this is the 14th, but you're not supposed to point that out -- I'm trying to relax), this morning I dug out an old yoga video from the back corner of the linen closet and prepared to be enlightened. While I waited for the tape to rewind, I pulled out my little-used yoga mat, reached for my Christmas-present yoga blocks, and came to an abrupt halt.

The blocks were not where I was absolutely certain I'd left them. I discovered this, of course, just as the tape was about to begin. My shoes were off because you can't do yoga with them on. But because my plantar fasciitis is raging like wildfire, I can't walk around barefoot, either. So I pulled on a shoe-and-a-half and hop-walked quickly around the main clutter population centers of the downstairs. No blocks.

I let out the kind of sigh that would have undoubtedly prompted one of the boys to ask "What's wrong, Mom?" had they been home. Three minutes into my 20-minute yoga experience and I was actually feeling a lot more stressed than when I'd started. It was okay, though. We were beginning with a quiet relaxation exercise. I'd be concentrating before I knew it.

I was right. Seconds after I hit the floor, I was concentrating -- on cat hair. The carpet was covered in it. That got me to thinking how much better our house would look if I vacuumed every day, which quickly led to my realization that I'm not doing that, to quote Roseanne Barr, until they invent a riding vacuum, which in turn caused me to question what had ever possessed me to acquire both white carpet and two balding cats in the first place. Odds are I was both exhaling and inhaling during this shame spiral, but honestly, I wasn't paying attention.

My instructor, however, had become one with the universe, so it was time to move on to some flexibility work. Lying on his back with his legs in the air, he spread them and encouraged me to follow suit. I did, and kicked the dresser. This is not a tiny house, but we have about six square feet of useable exercise floor space, and obviously I was not properly centered within them. I readjusted and managed to spread both legs evenly about the time Rodney put his back down on the floor. It didn't matter anyway. I was still thinking about the damn carpet.

We moved on through various poses, and I finally started to get into it. My breathing slowed; my face relaxed. Lying on my back, I lowered my outstretched arms to my side. The left one touched the floor. The right one hit the dresser. I said several things, and "namaste" wasn't one of them. But I wasn't getting up and moving again. My right arm would just have to make do.

We ended, my teacher and I, with a few moments of guided meditation. Watching his face, I really think he was listening to the ocean waves in the background. I seriously doubt I looked that peaceful, though. I was straining to hear whether the washing machine had gotten off balance.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

My Laundry, My Life

It’s been a busy day for Betsy Bird. Good intentions notwithstanding, I’ve somehow managed not to do any laundry for a week, save for a load I washed on Monday and then left to sour. The kids are wearing highly questionable ensembles and I’m pulling clothes from the charitable donations box, so I’ve had no other choice but to stay home and wash.

I have friends who claim they can’t sleep at night until every last dirty sock has been washed, dried, and put away to be thrown on the floor another day. These are the same people who scrub floors and clean closets when they’re mad. If you ask me, these gals just need a lesson in the power of chocolate-covered pretzels. The absolute last thing I want to do when I’m stressed is clean anything except my plate. And I can sleep like a baby with a week’s worth of jeans lined up outside the laundry room.

I may be the nagging mother who urges the boys to start big school projects early, but when it comes to laundry, I’m the party girl who waits till the night before the really big test to start studying. Part of this is that I like to live dangerously. It’s taken me awhile to realize it, but my body prefers the adrenaline rush of completing a seemingly insurmountable task to the steady drip-drip-drip of doing a little every day. I know your typical thrill seeker climbs mountains or races cars, but I’m really afraid of heights and I wouldn’t dream of going over the speed limit on a twisty mountain road. Cutting it really close on clean underwear is risk enough for me; I mean, you’re talking to a girl who asked for a new front door for Christmas. (Try that next time you want your children to feel really sorry for you.) If I need mountains, all I have to do is look next to the hampers.

The other reason I’m a laundry procrastinator is geographical. Our washer and dryer are at the top of the stairs; our dirty clothes are mostly at the bottom. Wanna know how to determine whether you really want something? Put a flight of stairs between you and it. There are some things I’m more than willing to hike uphill for, but pre-treating and folding aren’t among them. And I fear this will only get worse. Show me a person over 60 who doesn’t complain about her knees and I’ll show you an Aleve addict. If Bob and I don’t move to a one-story place by the time we retire, we’ll have to cash in our retirement accounts to buy 25 years’ worth of socks and underwear and a closet full of Dry Clean Onlys.

It’s time to start dinner, and I’ve got loads to go before I sleep. In another few hours I’ll swear that no adrenaline rush is worth this sort of exhaustion. I’ll tell myself it’s time to grow up. I’ll promise myself that I’ll run a load tomorrow and get it folded and put away before bed.

And then, along about Sunday, I’ll find that same load soured at the bottom of the washer.

Monday, January 7, 2008

At Least the Older Ones Sleep Through the Night

Gather 'round, mothers of young children.  But first, pour yourself a glass of wine.  I've got some bad news.

You know how you tell yourself that as soon as Sam and Sally sleep through the night/stop nursing/start walking/give up Pull-ups/pick up their toys/stop throwing their toys/start sharing their toys/toddle off to school, it's going to get a lot easier?  Well, honey, I hate to break this to you, but it's not.  Oh sure -- you'll get to sit down more.  But easy?  I'll let you judge for yourself.

Picture this.  My guys and I are in line yesterday at a fast-casual restaurant for a little light lunch after church, and the following conversation (the transcript of which contains a few editorial comments) takes place:

Billy:  So last night, after work, I went by Circuit City to use the rest of my gift card.

Me:  That's nice.  What'd you buy?

Billy:  "Last Tango in Paris."  (Glances thoughtfully at menu.)  I think it's Brando's best work.

Me:  (gasping sound, hand waving, eyes bugging)

Billy (indignantly):  What?  What's wrong?  Roger Ebert gave it four stars!  

Me:  Billy!  You're kidding!  That movie's an X!

Billy:  Not anymore.  Now it's an NC-17.  And I'm 17-and-a-half.  (A 17-and-a-half-year-old who's grinning like a 7-and-a-half-year-old who just learned a new bad word.)

Me:  Who would sell a movie like that to a kid your age?  (A kid who can't yet grow sideburns.)

Billy:  Circuit City is not a sleazy store.  It's a chain! 

Me:  What were you thinking!

Billy: What's wrong?  It's just a story with images.

Me (to Bob):  Can you believe our son watched "Last Tango in Paris" last night?

Ben:  Shhh!  There are people I know in here.

Billy:  It got an 80% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  Besides, it's Brando's best work.  (Again with the Brando. That's supposed to persuade me this was okay?  The thought of Marlon Brando naked is almost as horrifying as the thought that my son watched a movie in which Marlon Brando was naked with a woman.  I hope she got paid a lot.)

Me:  Just how many movies have you seen Marlon Brando in?

Billy (grin ever-so-slightly diminishing):  Two.  "The Godfather" and "Guys and Dolls."

Waitress:  May I take your order?

Despite my sudden nausea, I manage to squeak out an order, and we proceed to our table.  Perhaps this would be an appropriate point to explain to you young folk that "Last Tango" was quite the scandal when it was released in 1972.  It was directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, who is an artsy director who's made lots of "stories with images" that are rated NC-17.  Here's a plot summary from the Internet Movie Database:  "A young Parisian woman begins a sordid affair with a middle-aged American businessman, who lays out ground rules that their clandestine relationship will be based only on sex." Oooooh-kay.  Roger Ebert did in fact give it four stars, describing it as "one of the great emotional experiences of our time."  Pauline Kael wrote that "Bertolucci and Brando have altered the face of an art form."  Some amateur reviewer on IMDB wrote that it "offers more than just the average 't & a' the genre has come to be known for." Well, that's a relief.

Back to the table.

Billy:  I don't get what the big deal is.  Lots of kids my age were out drinking and doing drugs last night, and I was home watching a movie.

Me:  That's a very good point, and I'm proud of you that you don't do those things.  But "Last Tango"?

Billy:  (growing frustrated)  People in this society are just too uptight about films.  (Warning:  When Sam and Sally get to be teenagers, they'll quit calling them movies and start calling them films.  And PG-13s will be the least of your worries.)

Bob (finally!):  I never saw it so I don't know that much about it.

Billy:  It's about lust as a devalued counterpart of love.

Ben:  It's about SEX!  (Another of the things you'll have to worry about in a few years is what Sam talks about in front of Sally.  And I don't mean whether there's a Santa Claus.)

Me:  Oh my God -- you didn't watch it, did you?

Ben:  No.  But Billy, would you please start keeping the volume lower?

Bob (changing subject):  Have you guys written those Christmas thank you notes yet?

Billy:  We'll get on it as soon as we get home.

Me (sarcastically):  Great.  "Dear Uncle George and Aunt Mary, Thank you for the gift card.  I used it to buy a really dirty movie."

Bob:  Were they the ones who gave you the gift card?

Billy:  No, it was Uncle Joe.  (Single-with-no-kids Uncle Joe.) 

Bob:  Well, that's different.  You can go ahead and tell him.

We went home, and I went online to learn more about the movie, which I can assure you I have never seen.  It was all very disturbing.   Billy and I had a long talk about the difference between being mature for one's age, which he is, and being grown, which he's not, and the difference between loving sex and the depraved, depressing acts that it seems Last Tango is known for.  I praised him once again for being the kind of kid who's not out drinking and doing drugs on the weekend.  But I also pointed out that there are lots of movies that got 4 stars from Roger Ebert and 80% Fresh ratings from Rotten Tomatoes that aren't rated NC-17, and that if he is really interested in seeing quality "films," he could try some of those as well.  Meanwhile, I learned a little more about this newfound reverence for Bertolucci.

It seems that during Billy's 5-week stay in France last summer as an exchange student, his host family took quite a liberal view of what was appropriate viewing for teenagers.  They introduced him to Bertolucci.   I learned, in fact, that he watched "The Dreamers," a more recent Bertolucci movie, with the grandmother of the family.  "The Dreamers" is also an NC-17.

"It was rated '12 and up' in France," Billy said.

"No way," I said.  "12?"

"It must work kind of like the exchange rate," Bob said.  "Or dog years."

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

No Woman is an Island, Unless She Lives in a House Full of Men

Today was quite obviously garbage day in our little corner of Fox Valley as I drove Ben to his job bagging groceries. (Fortunately for us, he's not relying on family money is his schemes to be filthy rich.) Cans lined the curbs, and because it was the first pickup since Christmas, many people had piled extra bags alongside. One yard had so many bags they were spilling out into the street. “I can’t believe those people,” I said in my looking-down-my-nose voice. “A person’s got to swerve into the other lane to avoid those.”

“If it was me driving, I’d swerve to hit ‘em,” Ben said. “That’s just part of being a guy.”

I’ll have to take his word on that. I may live in a House Full of Men (kind of like a Barrel Full of Monkeys), but I wouldn't in a million years swerve to hit anything, much less a garbage bag. I don’t exactly get my guys. And they certainly don’t get me.

I was born the girliest of girls. My favorite toys as a child were Barbies and eye shadow, and when I used my imagination, it was to picture myself being really well made-up as I married somebody famous. I ran like a girl and got picked last for teams and was terrified of balls of all sizes. Figure skating – as a spectator, not a participant – was my favorite sport.

Nothing changed as I got older, either. When I was single, I once found a half-dead mouse in the middle of my living room floor and called a friend’s dad, who’d been asleep a couple of hours, to come over and get it out of there!!!!! It happened to be snowing heavily at the time, but really, what other option did I have? And when the managing partner at my law firm insisted that I play on the firm softball team, I promptly burst into tears. (The legal term for that is “career-limiting gesture.”)

Yes, I married a man, but being heterosexual, I really didn’t have much other choice, now did I? Besides, I’d grown up in what one friend tactfully described as a “matriarchal family.” I assumed Bob would find girly stuff just as compelling as all those women I’d grown up around, or else just go along to get along like the few men in my family had learned to.

It went without saying, of course, that all my children would be girls. I was so certain of this I bought a pink quilt before I was even pregnant. That turned out to have been a bit presumptuous on my part. The only kids I’m ever going to have turned out to be boys. (I finally ditched the quilt a few years ago.)

Once I got over the initial shock of ultrasounds showing penises (penii?), I discovered that there are some distinct advantages to mothering sons. As a rule, they do not care nearly as much about the presentability of their homestead as do girls. The ones I live with don’t really care whether I iron, and when Bob needs a crisp crease in his pants, he’s really good at putting it there himself. I happen to enjoy a gross-out movie now and then, and there’s always someone up for one around here. Most importantly, boys are far less concerned about what their mothers wear in public than all those girls my friends gave birth to. Ben likes it when my clothes look “Fox Valley-ish” (translation: expensive), but he’ll still get in the car with me when they don’t.

Still, there are many times when Bob and Billy and Ben start talking and I feel a wall go up around me. I don't understand what they're saying and worse, I don't want to. I could live with these guys a thousand years and still not care to talk about computers, tail lights, farts, or how airplanes work. And when I'm choosing a paint color for the bathroom, they are no help at all. They think there is only one shade of white and that it’s called “white.”

When things get really bad – when I’ve felt alone in the midst of my men for too long -- I’ll interrupt their discussion of the difference between volume and mass and say “It’s like I was telling Valerie just the other day.” They know that Valerie is my imaginary friend. She knows that there are thousands of shades of white and that not a single one is called “white.” She knows that a black sweater does not necessarily match a pair of black pants; she watches Giada De Laurentiis for her recipes, not her boobs. She knows how to pin up a hem and flute a pie crust, and there is nothing she would rather do than drive around and look at houses.

Usually the mention of Valerie will bring the conversation around to a topic we all care about, like politics, or where to eat lunch, or what a piece of crap our van is. (Mercifully, these guys care about team sports only marginally more than I do.) We’ll all be one big happy family again, until the next time they go off on a testosterone-juiced tangent.

Lately, I'm pleased to report, we’ve found a new activity we can all enjoy together: watching Project Runway, which is on tonight. I like the clothes and the tailoring technique and all the reality show drama. And the guys think the models are hot.

An update: For those of you who read yesterday’s entry, I am happy to report the sofa is gone. Garbage trucks must be roomier than I thought.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Of Yard Parking and Housekeeping, Blog and Otherwise

Astute readers may already notice that this is my second post of January 1, 2008.  In my first post, I referred to myself as Betsy.  While I much prefer this assumed name to Betty, in order to start this blog, I first had to get a new e-mail address, and I called myself Betty in that, and when I first set up the blog yesterday, I called myself Betty as well, and now I cannot figure out how to undo those.  (Don't expect this to be one of those blogs with pretty pictures, at least not for a while.  I can't figure out how to do that, either.)  So call me Betty.  But know in your heart that my essential nature is somehow Betsier than the name Betty suggests.

Good.  We've got the blog housekeeping out of the way.  The house housekeeping is much tougher, but this being the first day of a new year and all, I thought it would be appropriate for me to undertake at least a little of that kind as well.  The good news is that I'm on load of laundry No. 4.  The bad news is that there are six more where those came from, and there's still Christmas stuff everywhere.  Being an Episcopalian gives me a few extra days, but by January 6, even those whose 12 days start on December 25 would expect me to have pretty much everything packed away.  I'm here to tell you it ain't gonna happen, no more than I'm going to exercise today and the following 365 days.  (You forgot this is a leap year, didn't you?)  It seems to me that if our culture is going to begin rubbing our noses in Christmas on November 1, a full 55 days before the actual day, we should get at least 55 days after the 25th to get everything put away.  By my calculation (but I'll admit I'm bad at math), that means I have until February 18 to finish, which is why I'm sitting here writing instead of wrapping ornaments in tissue paper.

Besides, I have other things to do, like spying on my neighbors.  This brings me to yard parking.  (Southern readers likely know what I mean by yard parking, but I'm not so sure about people from other regions.  Somehow it seems quintessentially Southern -- or at least a certain type of Southern -- to park a car on grass.  But I'm not sure if blue state people engage in this kind of thing.)

Now I believe God and good taste will forgive anyone a bit of yard parking.  Your street is being paved, or seven cars attempt to park in your driveway and a few of them slip over the edge onto lawn; it could happen to anyone.  What I find far more questionable is the wholesale parking of a number of cars up very near the front door of a house with a big front yard that is not paved.  That's yard parking, and it goes on daily at a property on my street -- more importantly, a property within the area from which a hypothetical agent representing a hypothetical buyer of our house might someday seek comparable listings for the purpose of determining a reasonable offer.  (I once had a dear friend who said buying a house turned you into a Republican.  I think this is what he meant.)

The property in question serves as home to only a handful of people, not all of them adults. Apparently, however, everyone residing there entertains a lot.  And, though a few of their guests park on the street or in the driveway, most of them park in the yard.  Often the only cars at the house will be on grass, not pavement.

I would like to say this doesn't bother me, especially since the family in question has been through very difficult times in recent years.  But I am my grandmother's granddaughter.  I find it tacky.  (Didn't I tell you -- I'm saying what you're thinking.)

The yard parking, however, pales in comparison to the sofa that appeared in the same yard over the weekend.   We headed out of our own driveway midday on Saturday and there it was -- a brown sofa with split cushions and a missing front leg.  (Here is where the photo would be really illustrative.)  Sunday morning it was still there.  Sunday afternoon it had moved to the other side of the driveway, closer to the broken trampoline, not far from where the refrigerators (plural) sat for more than a year.  (I am softhearted enough that I have not called my council person over these issues every other day, as some would say I should have.  But after the refrigerators sat there for many months, I finally did make my one and only call to the authorities, and learned that local municipal laws forbade property owners from keeping refrigerators in their driveways for safety reasons.  Not long afterwards, multiple strands of duct tape appeared on the refrigerators, but they didn't actually disappear until several months later.)

Now here's the thing.  Today would normally be our trash day, but because of the holiday, it won't be until tomorrow.  Is the sofa in the yard because its former owners intend it for the dump? Or is it just an accessory?  I guess we won't know until tomorrow.  Even if it is meant for trash pickup, however, will a sofa fit in the back of a garbage truck?  And given that it's rained the last few days, will the garbage men even be able to pick it up?  I'm assuming the stuffing in a brown vinyl sofa is comparable to what one would find in a Pamper, and as we all know, those things get really heavy when they're wet.  Stay tuned ...

Meet the Birds

Call me Betsy. It's not my real name, but it protects the innocent. I’m under 50, but not for much longer; the mother of two boys, ages 14 and 17; a gratefully retired lawyer; the author of an unfinished-but-pretty-damn-funny-and-full-of-potential novel; a so-so wife (it’s the thought that counts, right?); a tragically bad housekeeper; and an ambivalent Southerner. I spend an amazing amount of time on what I like to think of as “child maintenance” –- carpools and college planning and co-chairing school events that I’m really not all that interested in attending. Sometimes –- oh okay, lots of times –- I have snarky and unkind-but-true stories to tell about the people I encounter in my daily life (myself included). You may think “she shouldn’t say that,” but in your heart-of-hearts I know some of you’ll be whispering “I’m glad she did.”

As for the rest of my brood, there’s my husband, Bob, who hasn’t bailed out on the law yet. I am forever indebted to him for saving me from a life of billable hours and advance sheets. He works for a big corporation, loves not to spend money, “fixes” lots of things around the house, and fortunately for us all is quite receptive to my fashion advice. Billy is our 17-year-old. He’s involved in the maximum number of extracurricular activities allowed by law and is determined to live at least 12 time zones away from us as soon as is legally possible. And then there’s Ben, 14, who never met a Simpsons episode he couldn’t quote chapter and verse and has the hots for Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

We live in a suburb –- let’s call it Fox Valley –- of a mid-size Southern city. Citizens of this community tend to be well off, conservative, gregarious, thin, and blonde –- in other words, pretty much the antithesis of me. Yet I call many of them my friends. I’m watching their children grow up and they’re watching mine. I doubt I'll ever be "from here," and yet sometimes, this place feels like home.

For much of the last 17+ years, I’ve been first and foremost a mom. Like many of my peers who earned expensive graduate degrees and then decided not to use them, I’ve treated child-rearing as rocket science rather than something that women have been doing since the beginning of time, including some mothers who were certifiable bumps on pickles but managed to raise productive citizens nonetheless. Now my children are getting older. They need less of me – still the best part of me, but not all of me. And I welcome and resist that change in equal measure. Sometimes eagerly, sometimes with a breaking heart, I’m emptying my nest. That's a lot of what I'll write about.

I've also entered what even the kindest of folks would have to describe as middle age. That means things hurt: my feet, my back, my hips, and sometimes, even now, my feelings. Sometimes I'll write about that, as well as wrinkles, gray hair, my neck, my memory (or lack thereof), and various forms of puffiness.

I'm a girly girl from way back, so sometimes I'll talk about clothes and makeup and shoes and how I look. I love to cook so I'll talk about recipes. I have 20 to 30 pounds that continue to return home to me like the prodigal son, so I'll talk about losing weight. It probably won't take you long to notice there's an inherent conflict between the recipes and the weight loss. To quote then 4-year-old Billy, when I nagged at him about something he kept doing, "That's just the way God made me. You'll just have to get used to it."

I'll talk about housekeeping, and it won't be pretty. Apparently, I am constitutionally incapable of keeping a house either clean or orderly, despite the fact that nothing would make me happier. (A nicer gal would say something here about world peace, but I warned you, I'm not that kind of girl.) If I found out I had six months to live, I'd ask those Magic Moments people to get me a full-time maid.

And sometimes, I'll just talk about what's going on, in my household, my neighborhood, my city, my state, my region, my country, and/or my world. I was raised in the South, so I'll try to be sweet, but I'm not making any promises.