Monday, March 31, 2008

Maybe I Should Do Like That Guy in Memento

I was born about 100 years too late.

I mean, I know they didn't have air-conditioning, or phones, or non-animal transportation back when everyone lived in a little house on the prairie, and that would be tough. There'd be no television, which would mean no Bravo, which would mean I'd never have learned that the Real Housewives of New York City make the Real Housewives of Orange County seem like simple God-fearing country girls. And I couldn't have a blog. So yes, all those things would be drawbacks.

But 150 years ago, life was a lot simpler. Sure, I'd have a lot to do, but each day would be pretty much the same. Get up with the sun, milk the cows, get the well water, feed the younguns and the varmints and the menfolk three times, wash and mend in between, go to bed about 8, and get up the next day and do it all over again. What I wouldn't have had back then is meetings, or appointments, or carpools, or freelance deadlines, or schedules.

And here's why that's important: I WOULDN'T NEED A CALENDAR.

This is on my mind today because I have lost mine. A few days ago I began to have the vague sense that my calendar was missing. Now I've looked everywhere and it is Officially Lost.

If you want to feel like a loser in a 24/7, multi-tasking, use-your-time-wisely world, just lose your calendar. It's speaks volumes about your ability to cope.

It's like publicly acknowledging that at 48, you still haven't quite gotten the hang of tying your shoelaces or telling your left from your right.

It's like saying "You Who?" when people are talking about YouTube.

It's like walking around with your skirt tucked in the back of your pantyhose.

It's also scary. A few of the dates that were written in the calendar are also floating around in my head. But as I've already written, my cranial hard drive is already full. I really need to be able to delete those dates from my brain files, or else something important, like my address or my shoe size, could fall out my ear at any time. But a lot more of those dates never spent five seconds in my brain. They went from the pen to the calendar, and that was that. Who knows what appointment I may be missing as you read this.

I suspect this happened last week when it rained in my dining room. I had to move everything out of there in about three minutes, and it's not all back yet. My guess is that my calendar was lost in the shuffle that day.

So tonight, I have two wishes. One, of course, is that I find the calendar. (April is a lousy month to try to find a new one.)

The other is that all those women I've volunteered with, who insist that I'm "so organized!", would finally get it. If I'm organized, Paris Hilton is Nobel Prize material.

And if I can remember when our next meeting is, I'll tell them.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Rainy Days in Dining Rooms Always Get Me Down

Here’s a riddle.

What is the connection between this

which is our dining room, and this

which is Billy's bathroom?

Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

I’ll give you a hint: The bathtub is right above this:

I know this because sometimes, when, ahem, issues arise in the bathtub area, water comes streaming out of the chandelier. It has something to do with gravity.

Seven or eight years ago, it rained in our dining room a couple of times after the boys had bathed in that tub. We were never exactly sure why. The rains had to stop, though, so Bob and I made the ultimate sacrifice.

We made Billy and Ben take their baths in our bathroom.

Four people are most definitely a crowd in the 7 x 10 confines (what a perfect word!) of our master bathroom. But we got used to it.

Besides, Billy’s bathroom was unfortunate. I don’t have photos, but I can draw you a couple. Here is what the floor looked like:

Here is what the walls looked like:

And here is the light switch cover.

(I had to keep it. Wouldn't you?)

The light switch cover is probably why Billy seemed perfectly happy for the longest time to share a bathroom with his parents. For years, we basically forgot about his bathroom. Our two cats had the biggest kitty litter room on the block.

But all good things must come to an end. And so one day about six months ago, all involved parties, except the cats, agreed that it was time to make Billy’s bathroom useable. For humans.

It started out such a tiny deal, as deals go: a miniscule deal, actually, involving only new floor covering, some fresh wallpaper, and a determination of why it was that every time I washed clothes in the laundry room next door, strange bubbles arose from the toilet.

But you, being the astute reader that you are, surely have figured out that remodeling that bathroom turned out to be a huge deal.

Putting up new wallpaper involved taking down the old, and trying to figure out why the two walls at one corner of the bathroom dormer had split. By the time the crack detectives had solved that mystery, we’d replaced half the drywall.

Replacing the Marsha Brady vinyl with ceramic tile meant that the vinyl had to be ripped up (please do not say scary things to me about asbestos -- the contractor told us we didn’t need to worry and it’s too late to start now). When they did that, they discovered that the plywood sub-floor was too thin to support tile. So they ripped up the sub-floor. This was in December, so I guess the most appropriate way to put what happened next would be this: “And what to the plumber’s wondering eyes did appear, but a whole system of drain pipes that was about to blow.”

Yes, folks, the plumber insisted that he had gotten there just in the nick of time – that if we’d been even a little later, a plumbing Armageddon would have transpired. The original builder, who apparently had the construction IQ of a cheese ravioli, had laid the drain pipes running uphill. Water had been sitting in that old and gnarly cast iron for years, just waiting to burst through our first floor ceiling at the least opportune moment. (Actually, when would a ceiling collapse be opportune?)

When layman like us receive this sort of news, we really have no choice but to put ourselves at the mercy of the plumber. This was actually not that hard, because we were otherwise occupied, what with buying Christmas presents with our few remaining pennies and worrying ourselves sick over what else the builder of our house had done catastrophically wrong.

If you have ever remodeled, you know that it won’t be long before “in for a dime, in for a dollar” becomes your favorite saying. The self-talk goes something like this: “Weeeeell, if we’ve got to replace most of the plumbing, we might as well move the toilet over there, because that’s a lot more private than right here. And if we do that, well, shoot -- suddenly there’d be room for a really neat storage closet. And honestly, who ever has enough closet space? I mean, turning down a closet is like telling a Girl Scout you don’t like Thin Mints. And since the closet has to have doors, it would really make a lot of sense to match them to the vanity. But we really can’t do that unless we replace the vanity. And if we replace the vanity, we’ve got to get a new countertop, because, I mean, it would be really, really stupid to put the ugly old sink and faucets into the new counter….”

And of course, we needed a better light switch too.

So that before we knew it, we had suddenly spent about seven times more money than planned on Billy’s bathroom. (And yes, I know you’re thinking, “But isn’t he the one who’s going to college in 16 months?” and yes, you are correct, and I appreciate that you’ve been paying close attention, but now really, if you’ve spent enough time reading me to know that, surely you’ve developed at least a fondness for me, and you wouldn’t want me to fall on the floor writhing with regret, now would you? So will you at least not remind me what a bad financial decision this was? Thank you.)

Anyway, in just a few short weeks, which in contractor math means 2½ months, Billy had a gorgeous, almost entirely new bathroom. We replaced every last thing except the toilet, the tub, and a little bit of pipe beneath each of them.

We never gave a second thought to the problems we'd had with the tub in the past.

Which brings me back to this week.

Now that he has a lovely new bath, we don’t see a whole lot of Billy. He shaves in that bathroom without being reminded and showers every morning and bathes every night. Which was what he was doing Tuesday night when Bob shouted “Shit!” from the dining room.

I ran in there to find water streaming down the chandelier cord, streaming around the fancy parts of the chandelier, and then scattering in oh, four or five directions, all of which ultimately ended at the surface of the dining room table. A huge white spot had already appeared, the laptop was wet, and there was a rapidly growing puddle on the floor.

What – what’s that you’re saying? “But I thought they just replaced all the plumbing in that bathroom!” What a coincidence – that’s EXACTLY WHAT I SAID!!!! Only I also said some bad words too.

But not nearly as many as I said the next morning, when the dining room ceiling appeared to be caving in.

I was in my office upstairs, reading blogs (what else?). A load of laundry was churning away in the upstairs laundry room. The friend who cleans my house (and believe me, only a friend would take that on) was downstairs. Suddenly, she was yelling just like Bob had the night before. “BETSY, THE WASHING MACHINE IS LEAKING THROUGH THE DOWNSTAIRS CEILING!!!!!!”

Not that I doubted her, but I did run downstairs for independent verification, stopping only to turn off the washer.

I had already left a message with our contractor that morning, asking (politely) that he come figure out why we’d had the chandelier leakage. Now I called back and, not quite as politely, told him that I really had an urgent need to know why water was POURING from ALL the drywall nails in the ceiling AND parts of the ceiling were SAGGING and EVEN the ceiling in the adjoining room was starting to look A LITTLE FUNNY!!!!!

My friend and I moved everything out of the dining room except the piano, which was too heavy, and the dining room table. I can’t stand that table, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to have my homeowner’s insurance buy me a replacement.

In just a few minutes, which is two hours in contractor math, our contractor’s right hand man was there. He disappeared into the bathroom and a few minutes later came out to ask me when the toilet overflowed.

I told him the toilet hadn’t overflowed.

He told me it surely appeared to have overflowed, there being all sorts of mushy paper and unspeakably gross black stuff all over it, and the bathroom floor, and the rugs, and the towels Billy had left on the floor.

Oh. That toilet.

I followed him up and saw what he meant. The source of the water wasn’t the washing machine. It was our geyser, I mean, toilet.

I was bound and determined to persuade him that there was a connection between the toilet overflow and the tub leak, and that the connection was the brand new drain pipes we’d spent so much money on. He was just as convinced there wasn’t.

So we did what any reasonable adults would do. We cut four holes in the dining room ceiling to see where the water was coming from.

He was right.

There was all kinds of wet stuff underneath the bathroom floor. Only none of it was under the new pipes -- only the two small stretches of pipe we’d chosen not to replace.

What’s more, the nighttime chandelier leak had resulted not from defective contracting work but from Billy’s filling the tub nearly to the rim and then sloshing water all over the edge of the tub, which, my contractor friend pointed out, had absolutely no caulk around it.

Which was probably, now that we think about it, why the tub leaked eight years ago.

And the toilet overflow? Billy’s disturbing propensity to put way too much toilet paper and assorted debris in toilets was all coming back to me. Nine years ago, we had to quit shopping at my favorite boys clothing store because Billy flushed so much toilet paper down the store’s stockroom toilet, he transformed it into a water volcano that damaged several thousand dollars of merchandise.

I couldn’t stand it. I had to know. So I drove to Billy’s school to haul him out of class to find out just what he’d been putting in his toilet.

I caught him between choir and chemistry. I didn't particularly care whether I embarrassed him or not.

“Billy, just what have you been flushing down your toilet?”

“Nothing. I mean, I flushed some paper towel the other day. But it was only a sheet or two.”

“What else?”

“Some matches."


"They were paper matches.”

“How many?”

“Oh, two or three.”

“Two or three every time you burn incense?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“What about the incense ash?”

“Well, that too.”

(I know what you are thinking. Believe me, I have a sensitive nose, and it can pick up pot from a mile away. He honestly just likes incense. I’m reminded every time I’m near his room of my father, who, during my baby sister’s incense-burning stage, told my mother he was sure there was a dead animal stuck in a wall somewhere.)

It was time for Billy to get to class, so the lesson on What Toilets Are For had to wait for last night. It was conducted while he scrubbed the toilet, the floor, and the tub.

Meanwhile, I had to go home and eat crow.

As it turned out, the contractor was a little bit at fault. They had forgotten to seal the tile floor, which meant when 50 gallons of water started spewing all over it, there was nothing to prevent it from seeping through the tile into the dining room.

But besides that, it was just bad luck, and a teenage boy with excellent personal hygiene.

Speaking of bad luck, the ceiling didn’t fall in. So I don’t even get a new dining room table.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

How Not to Lose a Car

It's Works for Me Wednesday over at Rocks in My Dryer, and have I got a tip for you. I have so little good advice that I can't participate every Wednesday, or else I'd exhaust my supply. But I'm so excited about this one that I couldn't wait any longer.

I am a Momnesiac. Once upon a time, I had a fabulous memory -- at least that's the way I remember it. But then my children were born, and my to-do lists got much longer, and my attention got pulled 32,019 different ways, and the next thing I knew every last gigabyte in my personal hard drive was full. My files began to be corrupted, and I couldn't remember whatshisname's name or what happened in the movie I saw last weekend or whether it was All the King's Men or All the President's Men I had read back in high school.

Or where I'd parked my car.

This last one was particularly vexing. I've come to depend on my car quite a lot, actually -- not as much as my lungs, perhaps, but way more than my vacuum. Leaving a store and spending the next 18 minutes traipsing back in forth through a parking lot pushing the panic button on my key chain was starting to really get me down.

And then one day I pulled into the parking lot at our brand-new Publix. Because I'm a poor planner, I go to the grocery several times each week. Every single one of those times I park. And on that auspicious day, a thought came to me: What If I Always Parked on the Same Row?

What a beautifully simple idea! I know now that no matter what -- summer, winter, rain, shine, just-a-gallon-of-milk or Thanksgiving-dinner-for-12 -- my car will be parked at the back end of the center row in Publix's parking lot. I don't even have to think about it, and as if it were on auto-pilot, my cart and I find my car instantly.

If I insisted on parking right next to the building, this plan might not work. But I don't. I'd much rather settle for a distant spot on the same row each visit than an up-close one on any random row. Besides, it's exercise.

If you've spent more time than you care to admit wandering around looking for a lost car, try this idea. It Works for Me!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Team Sofa

Happy Easter everyone!

Having worn myself to a frazzle fixing brunch, I am now parked on my back on the sofa, my laptop propped on my knees. This is where I plan to spend much of the rest of the day. (My contract only calls for me to cook these people one big meal per holiday. Tonight it's quite literally every man for himself.)

So it's the teensiest bit ironic that I've got the NCAA basketball tournament on the television, just like I have all weekend.

I am as unathletic as a person can be. I'm not just talking picked last for teams. I'm talking a fear of the ball so powerful that when I was asked by a partner at my old law firm to fill in on the firm softball team, I burst into tears.

Which is why it seems a bit odd that the four days during which the 64 are cut to the sweet 16 are some of my favorite days of the year.

It's not just the games. Shoot, I couldn't spot a pick and roll if it bit me on the leg. It's the upsets and the hype and the Cinderellas and the stupid fun facts about players ("Verne, he told me he really admires his dad."). It's that squeak that basketball shoes make on a gym floor.

And this year, more than I ever remember, it's the commercials.

One in particular has me mesmerized. Apparently it's for something called Nike Sparqs. (The fact that I can't tell you for sure what's being advertised suggests that maybe Nike could spend its advertising dollars more effectively.)

If you haven't seen it, this commercial shows all these muscular, athletic men and women doing muscular, athletic things, like running with parachutes attached to their backs and catching hails of tennis balls. The pictures are interspersed with screens that say "my agility is better," "my power is better," and my "quick is better." Editor that I am, I don't think that technically one's quick can get better, but it sure as hell sounds cool.

I find this very inspirational. In fact, as I lie here typing, I feel like a jock. I'm thinking about actually going for a walk later, maybe, if I feel like it.

Or maybe not. I wouldn't want to miss an upset they'll be talking about for years to come.

My lazy is better.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Catching Them If They Fall

So apparently a wrinkle in time occurred during College-Tour-a-palooza, because I just noticed that the post I wrote on Wednesday, March 19, is actually dated Tuesday, March 18. Yes, it's all been exhausting, but I know I wrote it on Wednesday. That's why the title is "If Yesterday was Tuesday ..." Maybe I got my wish to get my hour back ....

Anyway, we are home now, and not a moment too soon. College-Tour-a-palooza was a great success -- more on that in a minute -- but things were starting to get ugly, calorie-wise. I mean, I ate a cheeseburger and french fries dipped in feta cheese dressing for lunch Friday, for God's sake, and added some perfectly horrible McDonald's chocolate chip cookies during our final drive just to keep my strong coffee company. Of course, I've spent my first day home eating some more: I topped a hot brownie Ben had just baked with a large spoonful of peanut butter, and dinner was way too much pizza. But not too worry -- I have burned at least 50 calories typing today, and I managed to gather a load of laundry and actually walk all the way upstairs to wash it. (Yes, you're right -- I should be careful not to overdo it.)

We went from Texas the beginning of the week to Georgia, where we visited Emory on Thursday and the University of Georgia on Friday. (No, Billy's not set on a southern school; it was just cheapest to stay in one region of the country on this trip.) Billy loved all of them.

There are actually two sets of impressions of all these schools. One is Billy's; the other is mine and Bob's. Although often we agreed, it's important to remember we're talking about two different entities. "We're" not going to college anywhere. Billy will be leaving us at home, which is best for all involved.

Yet trying to imagine my firstborn living and learning away from home -- in some cases far away from home -- is both exhilarating and anxiety-provoking. I realized as I crossed a busy street near Rice's campus that I was envisioning Billy being mowed down there by a car. By the time he actually enrolls somewhere he'll be 19, but in a part of my heart he will always be someone whose hand needs holding in traffic.

I saw that part of him last weekend at the Houston Rodeo, of all places.

Not being real experienced cattle folk, we Birds had no clue what exactly we'd be seeing during the calf roping, which was the first event. We settled into our seats and looked at the huge video screens (we were about $30 per ticket too far up in the arena to see what was actually happening without magnification) only to see that the parts of the calf that are roped are both the neck and the legs. In other words, a tiny little cow is strapped into a bundle sort of like a shoulder bag and dragged away.

We're not animal people. We have two rather neglected cats, one fish, and absolutely no desire for any other pets. But I found myself wincing as I watched this, and wondering whether PETA was listed at 1-800-FREE-411. I certainly could be wrong, but it appeared to me that the roped calves would never be the same.

Billy was two seats to my right, and I happened to glance over at him. His huge brown eyes were glistening. And he looked at me, and he said, almost in a whisper, "I don't like this."

He's taller than I am, and he drops the f-bomb way too often, and he has secrets I'll never know. But for a few moments, his world was wrong, and he was looking to me to make it right. He was my little boy.

I held his eyes, and a few seconds later I did the only thing I could. I whispered "I love you."

Soon the moment had passed, and he was back to being a teenager and ordering crappy food. But I had seen that part that my heart knows is always in there somewhere.

When kids are little, they need you in every way. You wipe their bottoms and buy their shoes and make their breakfast. As each birthday passes, they need you a little less, until one day you realize you don't have a clue what their bathroom habits are, they won't wear anything you buy, and they don't eat breakfast. They don't need you and they don't need you and they don't need you ... until all of a sudden, they do.

The trick to parenting teenagers is to remain both vigilant and out of the way. I remember when Billy and Ben were little how I would hover with my hands cupped, ready to catch them if they fell as they climbed the ladder up to the slide. In a sense, I'm still doing the same thing.

So I've got my own opinions about the various schools. I'd sleep soundly at night if he were at Rice. I'd be worried sick if he enrolled at Texas. No matter how hard I try, I can't see him at Emory. I'd be happy as a clam if he wound up at Georgia.

But this is his decision to make. And because I know that he's three parts young adult and one part kindergardener, I realize that our opinions, if he knows too much about them, ultimately will shape his. That's why I'm trying to keep them to myself.

And so we'll continue on, considering these colleges and visiting others. He'll sample the food and check out the dorms and think about majors. And I'll be in the background, my hands outstretched, waiting to catch him if he falls.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

If Yesterday Was Tuesday, Then What's the Name of This One Again??

Day 5 of College Tour-a-Palooza, and here's how it goes.

1) Get up while it's still dark.

2) Squeeze into tiny motel bathroom for your allotted seven minutes of personal care. Dry off after shower with towel the size of that new Apple laptop. Use more concealer than usual.

3) Grab two cups (or seven) of bad coffee and a few of those little cups of liquid plastic -- I mean Coffee Mate -- and get back in the rental car.

4) Get lost due to traffic construction not shown on -- I mean MapQuest.

5) Huddle in a corner of the admissions office while awaiting arrival of the other 497,913 families touring colleges this week.

6) Follow student tour guide who you cannot hear over the sound of torrential downpour.

7) Listen to adult admissions person talk about how painful it is to turn down several hundred totally qualified kids each year because there's just not enough spaces in the class.

8) Thumb through brochures. Spot tuition, room and board expenses for current school year. Lose appetite for lunch.

9) Eat lunch anyway, on campus. Realize reasonably priced meal plan is probably waste of money.

10) Attend class with your child. Discover they haven't made philosophy any easier to understand than it was 30 years ago.

11) Get in car. Take off soaking wet shoes. Drive to next town.

12) Eat way, way too much dinner. Wish you were not the designated driver.

13) Go to another motel that looks just like the previous motel. Attempt to sleep while children attend to important iPod, laptop, and cellphone business.

14) Do it all over again.

By this morning, our asses were dragging, so much so that we definitely needed this Flying Alarm Clock.

"This digital alarm clock launches a rotor into the air that flies around the room as the alarm sounds, hovering up to 9' in the air, and will not cease ringing until the rotor is returned to the alarm clock base, compelling even the most stubborn sleepers to get out of bed on time."

Now that's American innovation. I wonder where the inventor went to college?

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Bird Family Debating Society and Supper Club

Greetings from the Lone Star State!

We Birds flew the coop yesterday on spring break and ended up in Houston, long considered a major spring break destination.

We are actually here because it's our first stop on College-Tour-a-palooza. For the virgins among you, this is the time in a parent's life when you spend a lot of money going around to visit schools that may not let your child in and that will cost you an arm and a leg if they do. The economic irony of the process would be intolerably painful, however, if we focused on that reality, so instead we laugh a lot and throw in some tourist attractions and really good food, thus putting an even heavier burden on the credit cards.

Yesterday, we drove around Rice University. Tomorrow we'll do the official tour and dog and pony show, but yesterday, we were just trying to get a feel for the place. What we felt was hot, which shouldn't have surprised us, this being the southern part of a southern state and all, but did catch us a bit off guard. Ben, who is trying to milk his "I-gave-up-the-beach-for-my-brother" martyrdom for all its worth, persuaded me to buy him some sunglasses to protect his dainty eyes from the Texas glare. This wasn't a problem, as Billy got off the plane with such painfully stopped-up ears that we had absolutely no choice but to hit up Walgreens. (Your travel correspondent is here to report that if you've seen one Walgreens, you've seen them all.) Ben chose some mirrored lenses, Billy downed some 12-hour Sudafed, and we were off.

It wouldn't be a Bird family vacation without an argument about where to eat.

We are all of us about the food, so much so that one of my roles as Mama Bird is to scope out restaurants in advance. I'd done plenty of research using magazine websites and my favorite, Chowhound, and printed off a great list of Houston possibilities. Which, apparently, are still lying in the printer tray back home.

This was a scary situation for a Bird to be in. Well not Bob -- he will eat anything, and as long as it doesn't cost much, deem it absolutely delicious. But the rest of us want to know in advance that those in the know have given our restaurant choice an A.

Thus, it was with a great deal of trepidation that we found ourselves adrift in Rice Village, a shopping area near the campus, trying to choose between an Italian place and a Turkish place, both of which I vaguely remembered from my research.

Billy, the world traveler, was all about the Turkish place. Ben, the picky eater who was already miffed that we weren't at his grandparents' beach house in the first place, thought we should play it safe with Italian. I was just ready to sit down and get out of the sun, and Bob, who's nursing the cold I gave him, just wanted to curl up in a corner somewhere and die.

So the four of us engaged in, shall we say, a spirited debate about which restaurant to choose. This is a scenario we've engaged in about 735,129 times in the past 18 years; the Bird boys can disagree about anything, but usually, it's about where to eat. Finally I proposed a diplomatic compromise a lot better than the State Department could come up with. (Perhaps this was because we were a stone's throw from a college school with a bunch of stuff named after James Baker.) We'd eat lunch at the Turkish place and dinner at the Italian place.

This decided, we went on to discover we loved Turkish food -- even Ben, of course. (It turns out Turks eat pizza.) His stomach full, Billy announced that between his cold and his horribly stopped-up ears and the fact that he'd only slept three hours the night before (we'd had terrifically bad hail storms during the night), all he really wanted to do was go to the hotel and go to sleep.

So we spent the rest of the afternoon not strolling around Rice but napping at a Fairfield Inn in Katy. Now I'll grant you that Katy isn't exactly tour-bus worthy, but it is the former home of Renee Zellweger, so the afternoon wasn't a total loss. And Bob and I were exhausted.

Why were we all the way out in Katy, which is like 45 minutes from Rice? Because we are visiting Houston right smack dab in the middle of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, which we will be attending this very afternoon. All the cowboys and cowgirls got the good rooms, and we are out her in Katy in a motel populated primarily by a European soccer team and its entourage and a bunch of American cheerleaders and pep band members who are apparently in town for a basketball tournament. (Not to digress, but when did it become mandatory for cheerleaders to wear GIGANTIC bows in their hair? In my day, cheerleaders were all about the long sexy hair, and now they look like they're all dressed up for the preschool Easter pageant. And whatever happened to the big pom-poms? Honestly.)

Anyway, back to yesterday ... after two-hour naps, we got up and began the arduous task of deciding where to eat dinner. I mean, you could be excused if you're thinking I could never travel with these people IN A MILLION YEARS. We even drive ourselves crazy, I can assure you. Armed with the names of three Tex-Mex places (perhaps because he'd had pizza at luch, Ben was willing to broaden his horizons and forget about the Italian place near Rice), we left the hotel for another arduous trek back into town.

Our first choice turned out to be located between an AutoZone and a liquor store, which meant there was no way, no how Ben was eating there. I found this a little surprising, seeing as how he was still wearing the mirrored sunglasses and looked vaguely menacing himself, but I was a bit uncomfortable with the parking situation, so we headed back to number two on our list. This place turned out to have limited parking as well, so that you pretty much had to pay $5 for valet parking. Bob and his congested head and chest hadn't been saying much, but no way no how was he paying someone $5 to park his car if he didn't have to. So we drove on, finally ending up at a Chuy's. Here you could park your car yourself for free; you could absorb a little history, since if I'm not mistaken, it was at a Chuy's in Austin that Jenna Bush got busted for underage drinking; and you could get a yummy frozen Margarita, which of course I was in dire need of at this point. It was our kind of place.

Now we're all up and almost ready for our first full day in Houston. (Thank God we've got brunch reservations, so we'll have at least one meal without a debate.) We're going to try to see a bit of the school we've paid all this money to come visit, and then we -- the least roping and wrangling of folks imaginable -- will make our way to the Rodeo. I'd appreciate your thoughts and prayers, because God only knows how many choices of food will be available there.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The One Thing Ann Coulter and I Have in Common

So we're sitting at dinner tonight, chatting, which as you all know now is our favorite family activity. (Read about it here.) It's been a long day, and I've felt every one of my 48 years. Billy mentions that a girl he knows wants to go to Cornell.

Ben: That's where Ruth Bader Ginsburg went. (Ben is Ruth Bader Ginsburg's number one fan. He may be only 14, but he loves her with a bright white light. He is unquestionably the only boy at Fox Valley Junior High with a shirt that says "I Heart Ruth Bader Ginsburg."

Me (sarcastically): I'm sure that's why Billy's friend wants to go there.

Ben: Ann Coulter went there, too.

Billy: Ann Coulter is hot.

Ben: No she's not. She's too conservative to be hot. I think she's a man, anyway.

Billy: I don't care if she's conservative. She's hot.

Ben: She can't be hot, Billy. She's like 48 or something. You can't be hot if you're 48.

A perfect end to a perfect day.

Monday, March 10, 2008

College is Making Me Crazy

Many of you out there in the blogiverse are captivating reads.

I’m especially enamored of late with Whiskey in My Sippy Cup, BooMama, and breed ‘em and weep. These blogs are very different, but they share a common denominator: those ladies can write.

But I must confess that recently my eye has been roving. College Confidential has me hooked.

Those of you still worried about finding the right preschool probably haven’t heard of College Confidential. I hadn’t either, until I read a harrowing piece in the New York Times about the struggles of teenage geniuses who started free tutoring programs in the Sudan to get accepted at top colleges.

If your last brush with college admissions was two or three decades ago, let me tell you: things have changed.

Back in my day (What's that siren? Oh yeah ... the old coot alert!), you took the ACT the fall of your senior year. If your parents were rich and you could look at private schools, you took the SAT. You sent in an application or two or three (which took all of an afternoon to complete), and then you went back to riding around in cars with boys who horrified your parents, clandestinely drinking beer.

These days, if your family includes both a really promising kid (I’m not trying to brag, I'm just establishing the context – if Billy were a football player, we’d be fending off booster club offers of party girls and free Hummers) and one head-spinningly neurotic parent (see if you can guess which one), the whole process is way, way more complicated than that.

Unfortunately, we’ve come late to this party. The other completely wacko parents with talented children started getting nervous way earlier than I did. These kids were visiting colleges and taking the SAT "for fun" back in ninth grade. They were earning community service hours while still in diapers and doing promising research toward a cancer vaccine while Billy was still fixated on Pokemon cards and toilet humor.

Billy and I didn’t realize how competitive and crazy this whole thing had become until midway through his sophomore year, by which point it was getting a little late. We’re doing our best to catch up, though.

Billy is taking and re-taking entrance exams, meanwhile spending lots of money on test prep books that seem to have taken up permanent residence next to his toilet. (He clearly has inherited my tendency to prepare for any and all circumstances with a trip to the bookstore. When in doubt, buy a how-to book.)

I’m keeping up with the reams and reams of paper that various colleges send us, all of which show a group consisting of a white male, an Asian girl, a black professor, and a really happy person in a wheelchair sitting under a tree on a sunny afternoon just shooting the breeze. I'm trying to forget that the Class of 2009 is projected to have more kids applying to college (and thus more kids vying for top college acceptances) than any class in history.

Bob is earning the money that is just enough to keep us from qualifying for financial aid but not nearly enough to pay for anything other than a state school that’s really not a good fit for Billy. (Just this morning I learned that our EFC – Expected Family Contribution, or Extremely Fantastical Concept – was a figure so high we’d have to stop eating and using electricity in order to come up with it.)

Ben is going along for the ride on our trip next week to visit colleges. I keep telling him this trip is a good thing – that he’ll be happy later that he’s already visited those four schools. I think he believes he’s being cheated out of a perfectly good week at the beach.

And College Confidential? College Confidential is doing its best both to educate me (“need-blind admissions means the school is blind to your need”) and scare me to death (“I had a 2350 on the SAT, was first in my class, ran a multinational corporation, placed first in the state tennis tournament, and got rejected at Really Prestigious U.”) It’s one part Encyclopedia Brittanica (“it’s really easy to get from South Bend to Chicago – there’s a bus from campus that will drop students off at either airport”), one part US Weekly (the murder of Eve Carson at Chapel Hill last week “looks to be a carjacking gone bad. Vehicle is a favorite of gangbangers.”)

For a person the tinest bit prone to get TOTALLY AND COMPLETELY OBSESSED with a topic, College Confidential is a godsend. I haven’t visited TMZ in weeks.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

May I Please Have My Hour Back, Please?

By now I hope all of us have figured out that the time has changed. (If this is news to you, I bet it explains a lot about how well your day's been working for you.)

I'm all for the great outdoors, blue skies, chirping birds, and all that, but frankly, this time of year always sort of pisses me off. I have some peculiar version of Seasonal Affective Disorder that leaves me feeling the most like a surly hibernating bear when it's March outside, not the bleak midwinter. I appreciate exchanging an hour of sleep for an extra hour of daylight right now about as much as I'd appreciate a really cheerful person trying to sell me insurance before I've had my coffee. Daylight savings time doesn't make me want to go for a walk; instead, it makes me want to go back to bed.

I had a friend in college who, overwhelmed with projects, wanted to know just who was in charge of this time thing, as she was hoping to get special permission to hold on to her hour until after finals were over. She never did find out. I'm sure this is not the sort of information the government wants to let out, as it would take more Secret Service agents to protect the person than the government can spare, especially in an election year.

In a week or so, I'll adjust. In the meantime, I'm falling back while everyone else is springing forward. If you need me, I'll be in my cave.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Who Are These People and Why Do They Expect Me to Wash for Them?

Haiku Friday
Yesterday's post was lengthy, which means I didn't make much headway in clearing the piles of Hamper Overflow (this substance is a lot like lava, only it's room temperature and smells bad).

As faithful readers know, I have a bit of a problem with laundry. As in some of those piles have been there like, well, maybe ... a week? Thus, I participate in Haiku Friday with laundry on my mind.

Sorting boys' laundry,
I find clothes that are still clean.
They should do their own.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Can We Talk?

WARNING: The following post contains the ravings of an old fuddy-duddy. Please read it anyway.

My kids were born back in the dark ages. The neighbor's children drove five miles to school through the snow in a sedan, not an SUV. There was no such thing as TiVo. The Internet was that thing in a man's bathing suit.

Moms of my generation had to muddle our way through on our own, without the aid of technology. Oh sure, we had baby monitors, and a few people I knew actually sprang for that thermometer you stick in your kid's ear, but by and large we were on our own, stumbling alone in the dark through a pre-wired world.

Somehow, we survived, as did our children. Mine are teenagers now, which means I can once again read the newspaper. And that's how I happened upon Brad Stone's recent article in The New York Times. Headlined "The Modern Nursery, Batteries Required," this piece told me some of what I am now missing, having gotten out of the infant-raising game.

My, how things have changed! Some of the new gizmos sound fabulous. Did you know, for example, that there is now a pacifier that keeps itself clean? Aptly named the AlwaysClean Pacifier, this "na-na" (that's what Billy called his, and it stuck) "reliably falls backward, onto its handle, which activates a plastic shield that snaps closed over the nipple, so parents do not have to clean the thing repeatedly," according to Stone. That sounds so terrific that I almost want to have a third baby just to try it. (Almost. Not quite. Hear that, uterus?)

But some of the new technology sounds ... mmm, let's see ... how do I say this? ... well, stupid.

Take, for example, the Angel Care Movement Sensor, which Stone describes as a product "for parents who can and do imagine the absolute worst."

Those words got my attention, as I am a card-carrying member of the "if you can imagine it, it can happen" club. I am therefore not unsympathetic to parents who freak out on a regular basis. It comes with the territory, and I have indisputably done my share of it.

In my case, however, a genetic component clearly is involved. My sister became an absolute whirling dervish of anxiety during her second pregnancy when her husband, who was painting their kitchen, accidentally sanded a dime-sized spot on a cabinet that my sister feared was coated with lead-based paint. Now they weren't certain the paint was lead-based, mind you, and the spot was smaller than a thumbnail, and my sister herself hadn't been doing the sanding, but really, did any of that matter? Jennifer was absolutely. dead. certain. that she had inhaled enough paint dust to maim her six-month-old fetus, and she was even more convinced that her three-year-old's IQ had just dropped by about 40 points. Jennifer sat herself down in front of the computer and spent the next few months reading Internet horror stories about the dangers of lead poisoning. On the phone, she sounded like a woman who saw a tornado on the horizon and couldn't find the key to the storm cellar. Then she got up out of the chair, went to the hospital, and delivered a baby who has turned out to be so smart it's kind of scary. (That three-year-old is now in first grade, and I knew exactly what Jennifer was thinking when the girl's teacher told Jennifer last fall she was only reading at grade level. Since then, however, she's caught on, and now she beds down with a book and a flashlight each night. Stay tuned, however: I fear we are not out of the woods yet. Precalculus awaits.)

Anyway, here's the idea behind the Angel Care Movement Sensor. If you are terrified that your child might, as Stone puts it, expire in the crib, for $130 you can buy a pad that you put under the crib mattress. This pad, according to Stone's article, has "highly refined sensors that measure pressure and the slightest baby movements. If the sensors detect no movement for 20 seconds, an urgent alarm sounds on a receiver unit in the parent's room."

Now let me quickly say I can't imagine anything in the world worse than losing a child. Nothing. So if an expectant parent out there wants to buy an Angel Care Movement Sensor, I think she should go right ahead and do it. But, as a long-time parent, I would like to gently suggest she first consider the following.

It has been my experience that babies wake up. A lot. Especially at night, the only time, sadly, when our society dicates that it's okay for adults to try to sleep. Now I'm sure the creators of the Angel Care Movement Sensor know more about baby's sleep patterns than I do, but I am positive I've seen sleeping babies lie completely still for more than 20 seconds at a time. And that would seem to suggest that several times a night, the owners of the Angel Care Movement Sensor are going to awake to the sound of an alarm going off in their room.

I don't know about you, but if alarms had repeatedly gone off in my room at night when my kids were babies, I would have been even more nervous than I was just lying there worrying about them in the quiet. In fact, if I were going to design something to drive a parent absolutely freaking bananas, this might be it.

And it wouldn't be just the parents who were disturbed by the Angel Care sensor. If the crib is in the parents' room, as they so often are in the early days, the baby is also going to wake up and quite possibly act altogether un-angelic.

Expectant parents, take my word for it: this will not a happy family make. Nor will all be sweetness and light when, as Stone has apparently learned firsthand, a parent (probably the dad) removes a completely healthy baby from the crib in the middle of the night for a bottle or a fresh diaper and forgets to turn off the alarm, thus abruptly awakening the other parent (probably the mom), whom in all likelihood the hapless dad was just trying to let grab a little more sleep because the sleeping parent had lately become the teensiest bit bitchy, because after all she hasn't had more than two hours of sleep at a stretch for three months and none of this baby weight is coming off even though she's nursing every 25 minutes the entire day and she realized she never even buttoned her shirt yesterday and her brain has turned to complete mush but you wouldn't understand because you, you, get to go out every day and talk to adults and have a life and--

Sorry -- flashback there. Anyway, were this to happen, the parent who allowed the alarm to go off would likely find the parent who was awakened by the alarm someone forgot to turn off had become even bitchier than she was when she went to sleep and frankly a hell of a lot less attractive than she was back when they were dating.

Suffice it to say that I believe the expectant couple's $130 is better spent elsewhere than on the Angel Care Movement Sensor.

But you could buy three of those for the price of one LENA System, which is quite frankly the most ridiculous product I've come across since those $399 talking Elvis heads that department stores stocked up on this past Christmas. (If you missed them, I suggest you keep an eye out at Big Lots. The last I saw of them they were marked 75% off.)

Here's how the LENA System, which coincidentally is also priced at $399, works. A parent, having read there's a connection between how much you talk to a baby and that baby's chance of making the Forbes 400 later in life, dresses his or her child in a special outfit with a pocket on the front. (The pocket on the blue outfit is adorned with a truck, which doesn't make any sense, because as any blue-collar worker will tell you, trucks won't get you on the Forbes 400 unless you own entire fleets of them.) The parent sticks something akin to a credit card in the pocket, where it records the "conversation" between the baby and the adult. The parent then takes the credit card, sticks it into a computer equipped with special software, and looks at the resulting analysis of how much the adult talked, how often the baby gurgled, and -- this being America -- how these stats compare to the rest of the population.

Now, not to brag, but I am an EXPERT at raising children who talk. If there's one thing the Bird boys are good at, it's talking. All the time. Everyday. About everything.

My mother used to tell me the reason I was so exhausted was that raising two of my children was like raising four of someone else's. Not only did they run around and make messes and drop toys and wake up at night: they also talked the entire time they were doing it. To me. And they expected a response. I'm certain that I will someday have to have a jaw replacement because mine will simply give out.

And this hasn't stopped with adolescence. "You should be so proud of Billy," a teacher will tell me. "He really knows how to talk to adults." Yes, I tell her. I know. "I love it when Ben's in my carpool," mothers will tell me. "That's the only way I ever find out what's going on at school." Me too.

Yes folks, talking is the Bird boys' sport. And I'm grateful, to a point: talking does not require expensive equipment, it does not require Bob and me to sit on bleachers till our butts bruise, and there's not much chance Billy or Ben will ever break a bone doing it. Unfortunately, however, I have not yet found a college that awards talking scholarships.

So I know how to raise talkers. And believe me, it does NOT require technology. Here is Betsy Bird's three-step plan for raising children who talk.

Step 1: Talk to your children. Any little thought that comes into your head, say it. Until they hit about 18 months, you can even say bad words.
Step 2: Listen.
Step 3: If in Step 2 you determine that you have stopped talking, start again. (See Step 1.)

It's really that simple. Better yet, the Bird system is free, does not require electricity, and is completely portable.

And believe me, when that baby gets to be a junior or senior in high school and you see just how expensive college is, that $399 the LENA system costs will really come in handy.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

These Little White Spots Are Making Me Crazy

I'm baaaack ... sort of.

Faithful readers of Emptying Our Nest (all five of you) may have noticed I've been absent since Haiku Friday. That's because, after one final miserable weekend with the heinous head cold (which has taught me that readers love it when you use the term "donkey balls" in a post)I had to buckle down and finish a bunch of work projects I didn't work on last week while my nose was dripping like a faucet. I'm almost done, and by tonight I may have time for a more leisurely post. For now, though, all I have time for is a moment with Works-for-Me Wednesday: The Backwards Edition.

Those of you who read Rocks in My Dryer -- it's a favorite of mine -- know that on backwards days, we bloggers ask questions. So here's mine.

How do you get toothpaste and soap splatters off a painted wall?

Yes, I know this is not exactly a weighty issue, and will certainly nip in the bud any credibility I might someday develop with the non-mommy crowd, but this issue is currently driving me a lot crazier, frankly, than what the presidential candidates think about NAFTA.

Last July we finally updated Ben's bathroom. His walls are now a lovely deep taupe called Warm Stone. (I don't know about you, but if the name of a color is wrong, I just can't go with it, no matter how great the shade. Warm Stone makes me think of a really great massage. Plus it went with his tile.)

Having at last made that bathroom presentable and crossed it off my guilt list, I was mighty peeved the other day when I realized that the toothpaste and soap splatters around his sink (yes, if you must know, it was the first time I'd cleaned around there since July) simply would not come off.

I sprayed. I sponged. I scrubbed. I scraped with my fingernail. Nothing. Those little white spots aren't budging.

So what do I do now? The paint is Sherwin Williams, with an eggshell finish. That's supposed to be washable, and I will note that all these removal efforts don't seemed to have harmed the paint in the least. But they haven't harmed the splatters, either.

Any thoughts?