Cleaning Tips

I love reading about how to clean things around the house. I could spend hours reading instructions for the correct way to vacuum lampshades, suggestions for cleaning solutions for hardwood floors, and tips for how to clean baseboards. I’ve read books like “Martha Stewart’s Homekeeping Handbook,” and “Home Comforts” from cover to cover, both books about how to clean, disinfect, and maintain home furnishings and finishes. Magazines like Real Simple are a joy to my heart, because they do comparison tests of cleaning products and supplies, and write up detailed explanations of their methods and findings.

Part of it is that they make it so appealing. They make new brooms and cleaning cloths as sexy as a new sports car, and their descriptions of cleaning methods are so soothing; they sound so orderly and efficient. The process of mopping the kitchen floor sounds as graceful and effortless as the Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy. They use phrases like “a few drops of liquid castile soap” and “a little squirt of dishwashing detergent.” They talk about gently buffing, lightly rubbing, swishing.

Just like articles on parenting that make diffusing a raging tantrum sound like picking daisies (“Simply repeat, ‘I understand you are disappointed. This is my decision. When you calm down, we can get on with our day.’” Because, yeah, that’s exactly what I say. I’ve never shouted at the top of my lungs, “YOU CAN JUST STOP YELLING BECAUSE YOU’RE NOT GETTING IT AND IF YOU KEEP THIS UP, I’M GOING TO SELL YOUR WHINY LITTLE ASS TO THE GYPSIES!!”), cleaning articles make keeping the house clean sound so simple. Stash containers of wipes in each room, they suggest.  Every now and then, you can use one to wipe down the doorknobs and switch plates. It sounds so logical.

My obsession with cleaning products and tools is only slightly less than my obsession with office supplies (which could be charitably described as “boundless”). Those little parenthetical comments about suggested products after cleaning instructions (e.g. “[Such and such brand cleaning product], $3 for a pack of 50, Target”) are as tempting and dangerous to me as the siren’s song was to Homer. They call to me to seek them out, to purchase them, to stash them under my sink (because let’s be realistic, shall we?).

They offer instructions for cleaning things that I would never in a million years think to clean (and probably never in a million years bother to clean). Sliding-door tracks, the refrigerator coils, the vacuum cleaner. In twenty plus years of keeping my own house, it has never occurred to me to clean the vacuum cleaner. I pay a little attention to the bristles on the attachment when I’m done vacuuming, but wiping down the canister with a damp cloth? I’m about as likely to do that as I am to invite my children to make glitter and glue collages on the dining room rug.

The truth is that reading about all this stuff is far more appealing than actually doing it. Oh, I’ll do something now and then—make vinegar “ice cubes” and occasionally toss one into the garbage disposal and grind it up, but that requires so little in the way of effort. The only things I have to do are pour vinegar, and toss the frozen cubes down the drain. The freezer and the garbage disposal do the majority of the work. (If you do this, maybe label the Ziplock bag they’re in so your husband doesn’t use them as actual ice cubes in his iced tea. He will not thank you for your efforts at keeping the drains fresh. Not that this happened to me or anything.) When it comes to using that rubbing alcohol-water-dish soap concoction to actually clean anything, I am a failure. I buy the products, make the mixtures, and they sit quietly on a shelf, sad and forgotten.

But surely, I can hear you say, you clean your house. So wouldn’t you use those things? In theory, yes, but my mental image of the cleaning that these books and magazines talks about is intense, dedicated cleaning. My cleaning consists more of either forcing my children to pick up the dog toys and vacuum the various rooms, or seeing something that’s so repulsively filthy that even I can’t bear it anymore and cleaning it (like the baseboards, or the windowsills). In my fantasy world, I devote an hour or two to cleaning the house every day, using these ecologically responsible, non-toxic cleaning solutions. I swish, rub, and buff. I wear an apron to keep my housedress clean.

In reality the only thing I would use an apron for is to help me work the cork out of the fucking wine bottle.

Every now and then, I’ll get a free weekend and go on a marathon cleaning spree, and then I remember--I actually hate cleaning. This past weekend was just such a weekend. I spent two and a half hours cleaning out the refrigerator. Two and a half fucking hours. It progressed from being no big deal to being completely disgusting. The top shelf or two—no big deal. Toss some stuff that was expired, pop out the shelves, wipe them down. Then I got to the cheese keeper drawer, and that son of a bitch  has to be completely emptied to even be removed. The vegetable drawers were just repulsive (when you can’t tell if it was celery or scallions, I think it’s safe to say it’s been in there too long).

Probably the fact that I can never remember how to take the pieces apart when I’m cleaning it is an indication that I don’t do it often enough (combined with how nasty the vegetable crisper drawers were). But here’s the thing: I swear to god the people who design refrigerators (and toilets) don’t have to fucking clean them. If they did, they wouldn’t make them so hard to take apart, and have so many little crevices out of which dust and crud need to be wiped.

After I finished with the refrigerator, I was pretty well spent, but I decided to do a bit more. Can anyone explain to me just how filth gets into the space between the drawer and the piece of cabinet under it? Like, when the drawer is pushed in, and you look at the ledge immediately below it, in my kitchen it’s caked with crud. How the hell does that happen? And speaking of gathering dirt, here’s a word of advice if you’re planning on remodeling a kitchen, contemplating an island, and thinking of having it have shelving. Put fucking doors on the shelves. Even if they’re just simple glass ones. I do my prep standing at my island, and the amount of just downright disgusting shit that collects in the shelves under my island is mind boggling. And soul-killing. Because the amount of time it would take to remove all the cookbooks, magazines, and small appliances that live on them, wipe them out, and return all that stuff is probably another two and a half hour task. So, you’re welcome. Please benefit from my suffering.

The worst thing about the whole process was that every chore led to another one – as I cleaned out the fridge, I had to empty the trash to get rid of the stuff that I was throwing out. When I took out the trash bag out, I realized the inside of the trash can needed to be rinsed out. As I went outside to hose out the trash can, it occurred to me that the flowers needed to be watered and deadheaded. When I walked back in the front door I realized the door was filthy and should be wiped down. It sucks when you’re ADD and OCD. I finally stopped trying to do things and just started a list.

I wish I was the sort of person who had two hours every day to apply all the wonderful cleaning ideas I read (which is to say, I wish I was independently wealthy. That's it--next time I'm marrying for money). I wish I was the kind of person who cleaned her vacuum cleaner. I wish I was the sort of person with a container of wipes in every room, and that I wiped down my doorknobs regularly. I am none of these things. Instead I am the sort of person with one container of dried out cleaning wipes under the sink in the kitchen who walks around thinking about how disgusting sticky doorknobs are.

Through the Wringer

Let’s talk about my husband and the washer and dryer. I know it seems super passive-aggressive to whine about my spouse and his relationship with our appliances here, but since he doesn’t read this crap I write, I assert that it’s not passive-aggressive (I’m not expecting him to read this and change his behavior), but just venting to a group of people who may sympathize (or may say, quit whining and STFU, you passive-aggressive bitch).

So, we have this washer and dryer that my husband claims are total pieces of shit. I’m not even sure what brand they are (yes, I could go look—no, I’m not going to) but they were expensive and he claims they’ve never been worth what we paid. Yes, well, here’s the thing—everything that’s gone wrong with them has been his fault.

My husband does all the kids’ laundry. I know—I’m lucky. Right there I should be told to STFU because he washes and folds it all. In return (in my defense), I do all the grocery shopping and cooking, plus handle everything to do with school, homework, or kids’ health (plus hold down a full time job). But here’s the problem—we have four kids, and naturally they have a lot of clothes. To him, “a load of laundry” is “as much shit as you can cram in the washing machine and still have room for water.” Also, sorting is a foreign concept to him. Wash whites separately from darks? Why would you do that? That just takes extra time and makes more loads. Um, so everything doesn’t turn the color of a Krakow apartment block?

So he’s been overloading the washer and dryer for 8 years, and naturally that’s starting to have an effect on the poor things (plus all the kids’ socks are the color of cigarette ash). I’ve kept my pie hole shut, because he’s been doing it so who am I to complain? But now that the machines are starting to break down, he’s blaming them. I finally had to say something. The response was the expected, “Do you want to do their laundry?” to which I responded, “Yes, I will” (and meant it). He didn’t take me up on that.

There’s another thing to consider—he fucked up the machines a couple of years ago switching them around. For whatever reason, he got a bee in his boxer briefs about having the machines go from right to left, instead of from left to right (as in, the washer was on the left, and you moved the stuff to the right to put it in the dryer. For reasons that I no longer remember, he wanted it the other way. I can’t see that it matters, because they’re both front loaders). The dryer is…well, whatever the word is like ambidextrous that means the dryer door can be hinged either on the left or the right, depending on which way you want the door to swing open. So he flipped that, and moved over to do the same thing to the washer. His plan after that was to swap the position of the machines, with the dryer on the left and the washer on the right.

The first problem is, you can’t do that to the washer. The washer has to be hinged on the left because the latching mechanism is on the right side only. Because it’s a front loader, it has to lock so your toddler couldn’t open the door in mid-cycle to get out the binky you were trying to wash and have water and suds go everywhere in a flood unrivaled since the days of Noah. So he undid the washer hinges, only to discover that he couldn’t do what he wanted to do, and had to put the door back the way it was in the first place.

The second problem is, when the hinge screws on the washer were tightened when the thing was assembled, they used a pneumatic drill to tighten them. So they were really, really tight. Tighter than any suburbanite asshat with Black & Decker rechargeable drill could ever get them. You see where this is going. The hinges have never been the same since, which means the washer leaks unless it’s stuffed so full of clothes that what’s in it absorbs so much water that there’s none left to leak out. So that reinforces his bad “overloading the washer” behavior, which stresses out the washing machine motor.

As a charming sub-problem to the hinges not being tight enough, the “male” piece of the locking mechanism (not to get kinky, but that is the technical term) is now out of alignment with the female piece that’s actually in the machine housing. Therefore, if you don’t close the door very carefully, you slam the sticky-out part against the machine, and that sticky-out part is not made of titanium. It’s just plastic, and sooner or later, if you accidentally slam it enough times, it breaks. It can be replaced—it’s just a matter of buying the part and screwing it in place, and the part only costs four bucks or something, but they have to be ordered online and take a couple of days to arrive (unless you pay the extra twenty bucks for overnight shipping. No thanks). We have four spares around somewhere, because the last time we had to order them, I said, “Fuck ordering them one at a time; let’s order a bunch so we have them when we need them.” What that also means is that sometimes you don’t close the door tightly enough the first time, because you’re afraid to slam it and risk breaking the sticky-out part, so you have to give it a kick to make it close completely. When your foot is one of the indispensable tools you use to get a load of laundry going, it’s getting ridiculous.

But the dryer is also showing signs of this abuse. A year or so ago a belt broke (because drying the equivalent of 27 sopping wet towels at a time every time you turn it on takes its toll) so he replaced it. As you probably don’t need to be told, my husband is not the Maytag Man. (He’s a Customer Loyalty Manager for a software company.) The dryer squeaked unbearably forever after that. It sounded like someone was torturing baby chicks in my laundry room every time we dried a load of clothes. The only thing to do was close the laundry room door and grit your teeth.

Yesterday it stopped working again. Again he took it apart to see what was going on. Another broken belt. Or maybe the same belt had broken again. I don’t know how many belts the damned thing has. So he repaired that, and now it doesn’t squeak, but this morning he announced that the load he tried to dry last night didn’t dry properly—it’s now not heating up, it seems. What the fuck? I went up after he left for work this morning and checked it, and the stuff that was in there drying felt warm, and was mostly dry, so maybe he just did something wrong when he dried the  previous load.

He wants to buy a $1400 replacement dryer, and no doubt he’ll feel like we should replace the washer at the same time. At this point, I’m not sure the machines we have are salvageable. We may have crossed the point of no return with our abuse of them. All I know is, if we do replace them with machines that will cost as much as airfare to Europe for a family of six, we are not burning out their motors with the “college load” method of clothes washing he’s been doing up to this point (you know, when nothing really gets clean, but it all gets wet and comes out on the other side smelling OK). I may be forced to take over the kids’ laundry so we don’t have to keep replacing washers and dryers, but it’s a small price to pay to possibly get to go to Europe someday.

Assholes and Drama Queens

My daughter is made of pretty tough stuff. Not surprising, since she has three older brothers. Mostly she prefers to hang out with boys, and I don’t discourage her. I’m dreading what will happen when she gets a little older, because I had a nightmare friendship in high school and I’m terrified the same thing will happen to her. On the one hand, I can honestly say it was the worst relationship experience I’ve ever had with anyone of either gender, but on the other hand, I think I needed to have it because it taught me so much that I think I needed to learn. I wish I could have learned it all in an easier way, but I don’t think that’s possible. And while I want my daughter to learn the same lesson (“Tell the drama queens and assholes to fuck off out of your life the instant you recognize that they’re drama queens and assholes”), I don’t want her to have to live through an Ellie.

Ellie transferred to my school when we were in 10th grade. At our first meeting she seemed fun, nice, if a little shy and quiet. I was never the most popular kid in school, and I was happy to find a new best friend (not to reveal a spoiler here, but the previous best friend that I dropped? We made up and are friends to this day. Ellie? No idea. Don’t care).

So here’s Ellie, and I have no idea what she’s like, other than that she seems fun. She and a girl named Morgan and I become a clique of three. Three is a bad number for kids, even worse for teenage girls. The first glimpse I had into what Ellie was really like was on an Assembly Day early in the school year. We had an all-school assembly every Tuesday and Thursday. On the day in question, we all agreed to meet at Ellie’s locker or something, and walk down together.

I went to the assigned meeting place and looked for them, but I didn’t see them. After a minute, I decided to just walk down and find her at the actual assembly. I mean, big deal, right? The assembly space was a large room in the basement of the school. As I walked down the stairs, I saw Ellie and Morgan on the other side of the room. I mouthed, “I looked for you,” and gave a kind of puzzled shrug. Two faces of stone met my gaze. Ellie mouthed, “SURE,” and turned away.

What the fuck?

Thus began a seemingly endless cycle of Ellie being “mad” at either me or Morgan, and having the other one act as her confederate. Morgan and I went along with this, I can’t tell you why. Because we were fourteen, I guess. I can’t even remember all the things she got “mad” at us about. Sometimes it was because we talked to someone Ellie didn’t like (as you may imagine, Ellie had a very long list of people she didn’t like). I also recall huge dramas about clothes—every evening we would talk on the phone about what we were going to wear the next day. If by some chance we, oh, I don’t know, changed our fucking minds, and wore something other than the outfit that had been “approved” in the conversation with Ellie, she would be “mad.”

“You said you were going to wear your turquoise double dyed jeans. If you hadn’t said that, I would have worn my pink ones, but I didn’t want us both to show up in something so similar.”

She would express her anger in the form of a hostile silence, and whomever she was “mad” at would initially have to plead to even understand the transgression, then (assuming she would deign to reveal this) we would spew apologies and regrets, begging to return to her good graces. She would make us suffer—“But you always act like this when such and such happens, and I’m just sick of it,” she would lecture. After a day or two she’d simmer down and we’d all be friends again. For a little while.

The slightest thing would set her off, and she loathed not being the center of attention (which often was what set her off). She had a soap opera habit, and she was in the process of converting me. We liked to watch “Days of our Lives” at my house. One afternoon at school our English teacher walked up to me and handed me a 3 inch long pencil that had almost no eraser and had been lightly gnawed. It said “I [heart] the Soaps” on it.

“Here,” he smiled, “I found this; it must be yours.”

He was being kind, trying to reach out to connect with a snotty, disaffected fourteen year old (who, to be honest, didn’t want to be connected with—I’m sorry, Mr. Weinstein; I was an asshole, and I appreciate your teaching me that “alright” is not a word, even though spell check let it pass when I typed it just now).

“What is it?” Ellie asked.

“Just a pencil,” I said, showing it to her. Ellie pounced on me.

“That’s mine!” she insisted vehemently, “Mine. I used it today during our quiz in History class!”

I should have called her on it. I should have said, “Actually, during the quiz you were using one of those erasable pens.” (And those things have totally disappeared from the face of the earth, haven’t they? No loss—they didn’t work for shit.) Because I remembered that, but we were a few months into this “getting mad” shit and I was a coward. I couldn’t bear to have her “mad” at me, ganging up with Morgan, standing a few feet away from me whispering and eyeing me, then laughing loudly. And since I was her partner in crime when Morgan was the victim, I knew the kinds of things they were saying.

“Look at those hideous pants. Who would wear such hideous pants? Someone with no taste, that’s who!” Or, “Ohmahgod, how gross can you get?”

Pencils were bad, but boys were a thousand times worse.

In a way I won’t go into (mostly because I don’t remember it), she started dating a guy named Mike. He didn’t go to our school—I think she just picked him up on a city bus somewhere. One of the few nice things about being a teenager is the odds are pretty low that another teenager is a serial killer, and what with siblings and intramural sports, you likely have lots of mutual friends (which was the case in this instance). So picking up a fifteen year old isn’t quite as risky as picking up a thirty year old guy at a bar.

Ellie was so insecure that she manipulated for the sake of manipulation. With Mike, she wanted to know what he was thinking—how he felt about her, how he felt about other girls, how he visualized their relationship progressing (in her mind, marriage was the natural conclusion. Yes, she was fifteen). Her strategy was to get me to call him and ask him a bunch of questions and then call her and relay the answers. God forbid I was vague or uncertain about how the conversation progressed.

“So, what did he say then?”

“Well, I think that was when he said…”


I learned to speak in specifics, never to hedge. “He said X,“ versus, “I think he said X,” even if I wasn’t quite sure. When I was finished, she’d say, “OK, call him back and ask him…” And if she ever didn’t like the answers, it was my fault, and she’d get “mad.” At me. Of course.

I swear I’m not making this shit up.

Then she started dating a guy that she took away from another girl. His name was Adrien and he’d been dating Kate for years when Ellie decided he was irresistible and she had to have him (he was not irresistible; he was gross). This began a whole drama in which he was torn between Kate and Ellie, and cheated on Kate with Ellie before finally breaking up with Kate, and Ellie loved every second of it. Since this is already pretty long, I’ll skip to the end and tell you that she got him, and he was the biggest loser on the planet. He ended up working at a CVS because he had zero ambition. However, that was the catalyst for the demise of our friendship. She was so caught up in her relationship with him that she didn’t have time for me, which turned out to be an excellent thing.

The summer before senior year, when I hadn’t seen her for weeks, and had started hanging out again with the friend I’d dropped, she called me to find out why I hadn’t called her, and we had a very long phone conversation in which I told her just what I thought of her and her bullying ways, and that I wasn’t going to have anything to do with her in the upcoming school year. Surprisingly, she was devastated. Adrien had broken up with her, and her cat had died, she sobbed to me (yes, the fact that her cat died was a reason why she wanted to stay friends with me). She would stop, she would change, she was so sorry she’d hurt me.

For probably the first time in my life, I made a good decision. I told her it was too fucking late, and she should piss off. Not those words exactly, but that was the very obvious gist of my message. And never since have I ever let anyone treat me the way she did, or use me so shamelessly. I won’t say I haven’t gotten myself into similar situations (lookin’ at you Jon Henderson), but as soon as I realized it, I walked out.

You may be thinking, “What the hell were your parents doing through all of this?” and the answer is, wishing their daughter had more of a spine and hoping that she’d eventually develop one (which, as I just said, I did). To be fair, there was a lot of this they didn’t realize was happening, but what they did realize they disapproved of heartily. Her parents didn’t have a clue what a little bitch their daughter was. In fact, early on in senior year, her father confronted me at a school function and flat out demanded that I reinstate my friendship with Ellie. I just turned around and walked away. Thanks to his daughter, that’s how I learned to deal with assholes and drama queens.

Why Cheese Sticks Suck and Other Whining

I love my children, but like all kids with all mothers, they have a few habits that make me want to chew broken glass. With four of them, this is inevitable, but of course they each do their annoying thing on a random schedule, so that I’m being bombarded by irritating behavior from all sides, and then I lose my shit. I think I might even be OK if they did the annoying thing(s) on some sort of timetable, and those who weren’t scheduled to be annoying would hold off. You know, my oldest could take 9 to 11 in the morning, the twins would each take a shift from 11 to 1 and 1 to 3, and then my daughter could work clean up from 3 to 5. Clearly by the time 5 p.m. rolled around, I would be ready to retire to my room and pluck out my eyebrows, one hair at a time, with my fingernails.

There are some little habits or behaviors they all share, and some that are unique to specific children. The one thing they all do that sends me in to a snarling rage faster than anything else is leave fucking cheese stick wrappers everywhere. Partly it’s the fact that they eat roughly 27,319 cheese sticks per child, per week, and that might be a conservative estimate. Of course, every stick comes in its own little plastic sleeve. They grab the number they think they will need before the next commercial break (approximately 2,642) and take them to the living room. Here they peel the plastic off of each stick, one by one, and carefully deposit them on the end table next to the couch. At the next commercial, they hop up to fortify themselves (with more mothereffing cheese sticks), and walk out to the kitchen leaving the two thousand plus goddamned wrappers on the table. Holy. Fucking. Shit.

I have tried everything to discourage this behavior. I’ve scolded, I’ve threatened, I’ve even praised when on the rare occasions they do manage to remember to take a lone wrapper out and chuck it in the general direction of the garbage can. Hell, I’ve praised them for even looking at the wrappers before getting up and getting more cheese sticks (“Thank you for acknowledging the pile of cheese stick wrappers on the end table. Next time maybe we can take it a little further, and actually touch them before getting up to get more. Good job!”). I think the only “cure” for this is going to be when they move out. Is 12 too young for a kid to have his own apartment? It is, isn’t it. Fuck.

The oldest, being a tween, has some special annoyances all his own. The one that has a fingernails-on-the-blackboard quality for me is, “C’mon please?” He asks for something, usually more of something he’s already had—more candy, more soda, more computer time—and I say, “No, you had your half hour computer turn today, you don’t need another one.” The immediate response is “C’mon please?” I’ve taken to saying “Don’t ‘c’mon please’ me. If you say that, there is no chance I will say yes to this request.” And since he’s just said it, guess what? Sometimes he stomps off to sulk, sometimes he gets mad and has a tantrum. Most of the time he just resigns himself and goes and finds something else to do. But I still hate “C’mon please?”

One of the twins is a total smartass (no clue how this could have happened). When he’s annoying, he knows it. It is one hundred percent intentional. The oldest with his “C’mon please” isn’t trying to annoy, he’s trying to plead, and just happened to pick a phrase, tone, and inflection that annoys. The smartass is just being a smartass, plain and simple. One of his favorite techniques is to ask, “What’s a [whatever]?” I’ll say something like, “First we’ll go to the grocery store.” He responds, “What’s a grocery store?” I say, “You’ll find out.” He says, “What’s a you’ll find out?” You see where this is going. And being nine, he doesn’t know when to stop because he’s about to get his ass kicked. About the only way to discourage him is to stop talking to him.

And then there are the “what ifs.” I tell my children, if X happens, Y will be the consequence. And all of them (but especially the smartass) have seven thousand what-ifs they need clarified. Most of them are either ludicrous or impossible, or both ("But what if we fill the house with chocolate pudding?" "But what if a cow gets elected president?" etc). On my death certificate, where it says, "Cause of Death," the doctor will write, "What If."

Another one all four of them share is the inability to tolerate anyone (other than themselves, of course) standing directly in front of the TV set. Why they can’t sit the fuck down is beyond me. We have thousands of dollars’ worth of furniture in the living room—chairs, sofas, ottomans—and they park their asses smack in front of the goddamned set. Of course the other three shriek out “MOOOOOOOVVVVVVVEEEEUUUUHHHH” like a chorus of outraged beef cattle. What I find so amusing is that they all do it, in spite of how livid they know they get when their siblings do it. Children are just shit at self-awareness.

Related to “MOOOOOOOVVVVVVVEEEEUUUUHHHH” is “STOOOOOOOPPPPPPUUUUUUHHHH.” It’s generally expressed with the same degree of outrage, and has the same extra “UH” syllable on the end. This one is employed in a myriad of situations, everything from one of them checking the “Guide” on the satellite with the remote while everyone else is watching the show, to any touching, looking, or breathing that’s found to be objectionable (which is to say, just about all of it).

Although I’m not sure if it qualifies as an annoying habit as much as reflection of my failure as a parent, their complete inability to go to bed quietly is beyond maddening. When you read parenting magazines, they urge you to make bedtime a quiet time. Pajamas, stuffed animals, sleepy books about bears and bunnies, a reliable routine that just oozes warm fuzzy cuddles. Bedtime at my house? Picture Grand Central Station at 5:30 p.m. on the Friday of a three day weekend with crowd control provided by a platoon of Marines on their first day at Parris Island. Only louder. And less organized.

My hope is that they’ll eventually grow out of these habits. I’m fairly confident they’ll be replaced by new annoying habits, possibly worse than these. They’ll have the advantage of being novel, I suppose, and because they’re new, they won’t be quite as annoying as the current ones, which I’ve been dealing with for several years now. And eventually the new habits will become old annoying habits. It’s a bit depressing when you consider it.

However, now that I really think about it, if my experience with parents and in laws is anything to go on, eventually tables will turn, and they’ll be driven to the brink of insanity by the fact that I tap the top of my Diet Coke can three times before I open it (what? That keeps it from exploding—am I the only one who does this? Yeah, I know it doesn’t work; it’s a habit), or that I refuse to make my lists in my “To Do” notebook in anything other than pencil (and that I have to find the “right” pencil—I like a soft, dark lead, and go back and forth between mechanical and “traditional” based on my mood). And those are just the ones I recognize. I’m sure I have more. I might even develop a few more tics, just in case I don’t have enough now.

Because I’ll be honest with you, now that I give it some thought, I am really looking forward to this.

This Post Contains A LOT of TMI: You Have Been Warned

Since you regular readers are four of my very best friends, and based on what I’ve read on some other blogs, it’s clear we’re all comfortable with a little TMI, I’m going to put this out there.

I am 45 years old, and I am still embarrassed when I have to buy tampons.

There. I said it.

I know, "it" happens to almost all women (except those lucky bitches who have, one way or another, rid themselves of the massive pain in the ass that is the monthly menstrual cycle; I long for menopause), and it’s a natural part of life and blah blah blah, but I can’t help it. I reach for that box of Tampax, or that package of Stay Free Maxi Pads, and I’m fourteen years old again. Why don’t I just wear an enormous sign that says, “GUESS WHAT TIME OF THE MONTH IT IS FOR ME?” What's more, inevitably when I'm buying them, every fucking guy in the entire store needs something that's on the same aisle with the feminine products. I can feel their eyes following me as I make sure I get the right things (yes, I know, not really, but that's how it feels, you know?). Creeps.

Yes, I have given birth three times, with all the delicacy and modesty that implies. The first time I started a vaginal birth, and I’m convinced that every single person who worked in that hospital, with the possible exception of the woman who ran the gift shop and one of the part time maintenance guys (he wasn’t working that day), stuck their head between my knees and had a look at my…you know. I ended up with an emergency C-section, which meant that the twenty three people in the operating room got to look not only at The Place We Mean When We Talk About Feeling Not So Fresh, but at what that looked like from the point of view of my unborn child. It was a very special moment for all of us, I’m sure. I know it was for me. Fortunately 17 hours of labor had kind of dulled my sense of embarrassment (that, plus there were all those people who’d already seen everything anyway, so there wasn’t much more I could offer them in the way of oversharing).

And god help me when I’m buying these things and the checker is a man. I’ve been known to go to another store to avoid having to have a guy check me out.

I was in New England a few weeks ago when A Need Arose. I was running an errand (OK, fine, I was going to the liquor store—and really, Massachusetts, please join the rest of us in the 21st century and sell wine in the goddamned grocery stores) and figured I’d pop in someplace and pick up a box of tampons. I looked for a CVS or similar and when I came up short, was forced to seek out a convenience store for the task. (Dear Town of North Andover, feel free to reach out to CVS and suggest a location for them in your area. You have the world’s worst Cracker Barrel—it was worse than any other one I’ve been in, and that’s saying something because Cracker Barrel is pretty nasty to start with, but this one literally made me barf—but you don’t seem to have a drug store? That’s just weird. If nothing else, your residents need access to Pepto Bismol and Tums to help them get over eating at that shitty Cracker Barrel. Love, Me.)

I knew I was going to be annoyed at the selection a convenience store would have. Most likely the only thing that would be available would be “Regular.” Since I’m clearly going full TMI on you poor folks today, I’ll just share that I’m more of a “Super Plus” kinda gal most of the time. We’ll leave it at that. I want you to be able to come back here without fear that you’ll be subjected to too many graphic details.

There was a convenience store next to the liquor store, so I checked it out. Sure enough, the checker was a guy. Well, fuck that. Next.

I drove back toward the hotel in which we were staying, and remembered there was a gas station with an attached convenience store. Since I was running out of time, as well as options, this was it, and if there was a male checker, well, that was just going to be how it was.

Guess what? There was not a male checker. There were two goddamned male checkers. And a male customer who stuck his head around the point of sale display between us to look for a different flavor of Copenhagen or Trident or something just as I had gently and discretely laid my intended purchase on the counter in front of Butch (I’m assuming he was wearing his own shirt, and therefore the name on the tag was his).

Here’s the really shitty thing: I blush.

If I get embarrassed because I think I’ve made a mistake, or because I feel like I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about (these two things happen regularly at work), or if I just feel like I’ve said something stupid, I turn bright red. Naturally this also happens when I feel like I’m in an awkward situation. Like, oh, I don’t know, buying tampons from a guy named Butch in a convenience store and having a male customer stick his head around and see exactly what I’m buying. You know, hypothetically speaking something like that would make me blush. And when I feel myself blush, I feel stupider than I did when the thing that made me blush happened, which I’m sure makes me blush more. I hate my blood vessels.

It’s clear that like my dislike of eggplant, or lack of interest in Science Fiction, this embarrassment over the purchase of feminine products is not something I’m going to “get over” when I get older. In fact, I suspect that the only thing that will enable me to get over this is actual menopause. I’ll spare you the gory details of how things are going in that department. I’ve probably done enough oversharing for one post. Or one lifetime. So I guess I shouldn't add that it’s been recommended that I get an IUD. Oops. Sorry about that. I’ll stop talking now. I think that’s for the best. I’ve started blushing, and that’s usually an indicator that I should just shut up.

I Hate Video Games

I know it makes me sound horribly cranky, but I simply loathe video games. Handheld, console, online, I hate them all. I hate the noises they make, I hate the ideas they give my children, I hate having to monitor “computer turns,” and I hate the fights they cause. I didn’t play them much as a kid—I didn’t have an Atari (and didn’t really want one), and only occasionally did I go to the houses of friends who did and play theirs. I played a little Ms. Pac Man, but it seemed like a waste of money. So I am quick to admit that I don’t “get” video games or what’s so great about them.

My kids, of course, love them, with varying degrees of adoration. The oldest would play all day if I’d let him, eyes glazed, completely absorbed, and oblivious to everything around him, including natural disasters. The house could flood and he wouldn’t notice until the internet connectivity was affected. Maybe not even then—he’d probably just look up at me and whine about how “laggy” the machine was. That’s his explanation for any disruption in his game—the “lagginess” of the machine.

My daughter likes them a lot—she likes to watch while her oldest brother plays, as well as play herself, and the two of them talk about characters and strategies. But at 7, my daughter is still young enough that eventually she decides to turn the game off and go run around outside. My oldest, at 11, is quickly growing out of the “playing outside” phase. I remember when it happened to me, in about 6th or 7th grade. No longer did Laura Albert and I play “Laura and Mary” (based on the TV show “Little House on the Prairie” of course, but with only two daughters—Carrie was always off with Ma, or napping, and once I think we had her dying of some mysterious disease, and acting out a funeral at which we sang “Jesus Loves Me” and  pretended to bury her on the “hill” above our “house,” which in the book was how they buried the dog when it died, which I knew but she didn’t, and at the time seemed fine, but in retrospect seems a bit morbid). Instead I just wanted to sit around and talk. I don’t remember what we talked about—nothing particularly spectacular or shocking—but I distinctly recall not wanting to “play.” This was also about the time that video games started to be mainstream, and you could find Space Invaders and Asteroids machines in pizza restaurants, and we had actual arcades in the basements of places. Arcades always seemed to be in dark basements in the 80s.

The twins like video games well enough. They have Nintendo DS handheld games, and will play things online like Club Penguin or Roblox. But they too are inclined to turn it off and go do something else after a spell on the computer. Neither of them cares much for the Xbox or the Wii (they get used infrequently by the oldest and the youngest, which causes me to ask regularly why we still have the goddamned things, a question that has still not been answered to my satisfaction).

The number of game systems and devices for playing games is staggering (although probably not particularly uncommon). We have 5 laptop computers, 4 Nintendo DSs, an iPad, a Kindle Fire, a Kindle Fire XD, an Xbox, and a Wii. Thank god, I always say, that we have fourteen fucking devices with which to connect to the internet.  And of course they nag me to be allowed to play them. I finally had to insist we have “Screenless Saturday” because they would just rotate from one screen to another—TV, computer, iPad, DS, Xbox. I’d shut down one and they’d move to another one, like rats relocating to a new nesting area when the homeowner gets a cat.

I’m not much of a fan of any video game, but there are a couple that set my teeth on edge and make me want to put my fist through a screen. The first of these to come into my life was Webkinz.

If you’re not familiar with it, Webkinz is an “online world” (they all seem to be online worlds) inhabited by animals. These animals are the “pets” of the individual player. Players obtain these pets by nagging the shit out of their parents in a store that sells stuffed versions of the pets, then when their parent is worn down and vulnerable, the kid takes the animal home, types a special code into the computer from the tag on the animal, and plays a song on the site called “Piggy Plum Pie” four hundred and thirty seven times in a row. This completely demoralizes the parent, they disintegrate into a quivering pile of unresponsive mush and, when the kid asks, allow him to eat nothing but ice cream and frozen waffles for dinner. Take my word for it.

Kids can play games and win “money” on the site, which they can use to buy clothes and furniture for their “pet.” When they get tired of games and shopping, there’s music they can listen to. It is, without exception, absolutely unbearable. The worst song is the aforementioned “Piggy Plum Pie,” but there are others almost as bad. They all have strong, positive messages about being brave, having fun, not stealing cars, that sort of thing. They’re all music videos of sorts, where they have a cartoon with an animal or animals acting out whatever the message of the song is. And every single one of them sucks. Of course, children love them.

The other one that sends me into profanity-spewing fit of rage is fucking Minecraft. I always refer to it as fucking Minecraft (unless I’m addressing my children; then I call it fucking Minecraft in my head, but edit the name when I speak it). If you don’t know what this is, you don’t know how lucky you are. Fucking Minecraft is what would happen if Webkinz and Pokemon had a baby, and it was a complete asshole. It has the most annoying traits of both. It’s a game that’s played online as either a single player or multi player game, and the players create “worlds” for themselves. The graphics are very blocky and technologically primitive looking. There’s a lot of stuff about diamond swords and diamonds in general, and some guy named Steve and something called a Creeper (I think; or is that in Dora the Explorer? No, in Dora it was Swiper. Right, so I think it is Creeper), and leveling up, and servers and I don’t know what all. I confess I don’t really understand it all that well, in spite of having heard about it in painful detail almost every day for the last year or so. I could look on Wikipedia or something, but that would mean I was voluntarily involving myself with something to do with fucking Minecraft. There are even songs about it, although they’re not part of the game itself; someone (some bastard or group of bastards) takes popular songs and rewrites all the lyrics to be about fucking Minecraft. My kids whine and beg to get me to buy these songs for them. They’re as bad as the game itself. Worse, actually, because the game requires them to be somewhere with internet connectivity, but the songs are saved locally on portable devices and can be played anywhere.

But worse than the games, worse even than the songs, are the YouTube videos. Now the popular thing is to make a video of yourself playing fucking Minecraft while you narrate your activities, and post it on YouTube for other people to watch. This activity seems to me to be the most tiresome, blatant display of navel gazing ever exhibited (yes, I recognize the irony in making that statement on a blog). Of course my oldest wants in on this. He wants to make videos of himself playing so he can post them and get hundreds of “views.” For reasons of internet security, I refuse to allow this. He’s only 11, after all, and I don’t want to expose him to the comment trolls any earlier than I have to. I know he’s already seen them in the comment threads of the videos he watches, but to have the dickhead trolls commenting on his own efforts brings it to a much more personal level.

What’s maddening is that every product now produced on planet Earth has some form of online game that kids can play. Open a box of graham crackers, a can of soup, a jar of peanut butter, and somewhere on the label is a message urging kids to “go online and play!” FUCK. THAT. Even at the dentist's office, they give away little plastic toys in plastic bubbles, and when you open the plastic bubble to get the toy out, there’s a little slip of paper that falls out encouraging kids to go to or some shit to “play online.” Again, FUCK. THAT.

I don’t really know where all this will end. I assume that one day they’ll lose interest in some of these games, but some of them I predict will stay with me for a lifetime. I work with engineers, and some of them still play crap like Halo and Living Dead Auto Theft Shoot Kill Maim Zombie Attack In An Online World or whatever the hell those games are. I suppose eventually I’m going to have to let my kid do the video thing he wants to do so badly too. All I can say is, I hope that what they say is true about listening to your kids talk when they’re little encouraging them to communicate with you as teenagers. Because if it’s not, and my kids stop talking to me at 13, I’ll have listened to thousands of hours of pointless drivel about fucking Minecraft and Club Penguin for nothing.

Caution: Children At Play

I was an only child and I hated it. Actually I hated it. Even though I probably got more in the way of experiences (like getting to go on vacation in places like England and Ireland) and toys (although not some of the ones I wanted most), I still hated it. I was lonely a lot of the time. My dad developed Parkinson’s disease when he was fairly young (he was 32, I was 2), and my mom ended up having to work to support us. She worked long hours, he wasn’t always mobile or feeling well, so I ended up on my own a lot. I used to long for someone to play with. I knew kids with siblings, and I knew their relationships with them weren’t always Connect Four championships and let’s play pretend, but there were times when they played nicely together, and I envied them those times. As a result, I swore I’d never have an only child, and I have four that are all fairly close together (the widest gap is four years, between the oldest and the youngest). Now I expect them to play together, and sometimes they even do. And when they do, I’ve noticed that they go through an interesting series of phases.
Phase 1: "There’s No One To Play With!"
This one always gets me. Dude. I endured three pregnancies just so I would never have to hear anyone say that. Morning sickness, the world’s itchiest fucking stretch marks, and feet that got just big enough that my kick ass cowboy boots I’d had since college didn’t fit anymore. All so you would never know the feeling of being lonely, and wanting the companionship of someone your own age on a rainy day when there seemed to be nothing to do. There are three other children in this household. Go find one of them and engage him or her in play. Because guess what? I am not going to play with you. Not Clue, not War, not Monopoly. Go find a sibling and ask them to play Clue or War or Monopoly with you. There’s no one to play with, my ass.  And no, you may not watch TV.
Phase 2: "UGGGGGHHHH I Don’t Want To Play With My Brother"
Yeah, see above. This gets a pretty high rating on my Tough Shit-O-Meter. Go find him and STFU. Of course, this is the phase that includes the most declarations that there’s nothing to do, and that they are so booooooooorrrrrred. They are never amused to hear my stories about being an only child and not even having anyone to not want to play with. It’s usually these stories that drive them away and push them into the next phase.  
Phase 3: The Picking Stage
Having been thrown together in an unwelcome partnership, one child decides that, fine, I will amuse myself with this sibling. He generally begins by picking at, pestering, or otherwise bugging the child he’s been sent to play with. (I’m using the male pronoun across the board here, because with three boys and a girl, in every combination of my children, at least one of them has to be a boy.)  It might be toy taking, teasing, or poking/prodding type behavior, but whatever it is, it causes the other child to become highly agitated. It’s not quite what I had in mind, but it occupies one of them. The other one spends the whole time yelling “STOOOOOOPPPPPPPUUUUUHHHHH!” This phase lasts for anywhere from ten minutes to forever.
Phase 4: The Playing Stage
At some point, they make a peace of sorts, and work out an activity that’s amenable to both parties. Lots of times the poking/prodding behavior becomes more mutual, and they end up in wrestling matches, usually in my living room. This does not thrill me for many reasons—the fireplace/hearth in the living room being a perfect surface for head smashing, the lamps being perfect for knocking over and breaking, the fact that they’re so fucking loud about it—and I end up banishing them to the basement or outside. Still, playing is playing and I am grateful for the consensual interaction. The only downside is that this phase has an uncertain duration. They may play together nicely for an hour or more. Or it may last only six minutes. In either case, it’s inevitably followed by…
Phase 5: The Attempted Murder Stage
Sooner or later, someone takes a liberty in the game. Someone oversteps their bounds, usually physically. These are boys (and one girl with three older brothers) after all—it’s almost always a push or a shove or a trip or some other form of perceived physical abuse. The victim always swears it was, “on purpose!” and, “for no reason whatsoever!” the abuser always claims repeatedly that it was, “on accident!” Either way, the victim inevitably accuses his sibling of trying to kill him. Oh yes, that’s right—he was hoping that he’d step on your foot, injure a toenail that would become infected, and cause your death by sepsis. Give me a fucking break. I’d say 90% of the time, the initial injury inflicted is in fact an accident. It’s a seven- or nine- or eleven-year-old who gets too enthusiastic in his play and accidently hurts the other person. But that doesn’t stop them from moving to the next phase.
Phase 6: The Revenge + Tattling Phase
Now that one person feels they’ve been abused, the gloves are off. They do what they can to harm one another, each feeling that they’re entitled to retribution for the wrongs done them by the other. They never try to hurt each other seriously (I would assume if they really wanted to cause serious harm that they’d just beat each other with one of our many baseball bats). It’s always small, stupid things. But with each offense comes a tattle. “He hit me!” “He threw the airplane right at my face!” “She pushed me off the chair!” Oh for fuck’s sake. My reaction to this is usually to dismiss them initially, then when they start getting to a point when they’re mad enough that they might genuinely hurt one another, I’m forced to separate them. And so, we transition to another phase.
Phase 7: The Time Out Stage
Usually they get sent to their room in an effort to put an end to Phase 6. It’s not really intended as a time out per se, because a time out in my mind implies a disciplinary measure that forces them to stop everything, sit quietly, and reflect on their choices. Sending them to their room—where, yes, they have toys and books and other amusements—is intended only to redirect them, and physically distance them from one another. Sometimes the tactic will be dividing the four of them among the two parents, separating the most recently acrimonious pair. My husband will take two of them to Home Depot, for instance, and I’ll take two of them to the library. Either way, they find a new focus, and are removed from the presence of the child with whom they were most recently doing battle, even if it’s for only a short time. Eventually the time out or errand comes to an end, and they are once again drifting through the kitchen, pestering me while I’m trying to do important things (like write a goddamned blog post, for the love of biscuits) and they start all over again.
“There’s no one to play with!”
Fuck. Me.

Note: I do play with them sometimes, of course. It’s not that I don’t want to interact with my children. But roughly half the times when they ask me to play, I genuinely can’t because some chore or task that is integral to keeping our household functioning requires my attention.

If the Shirt Fits...

I know teachers aren’t fazed by much that kids come up with. If they’ve been teachers for any length of time, they’ve probably seen just about everything there is to see. Be that as it may, I still feel a twinge when I realize I’ve sent my daughter off to school without brushing her hair. For the third day in a row. To counter this, I’m thinking of coming up with a new line of t-shirts, or possibly stickers that could be stuck on kids without their knowledge, with explanations that will cover for me on days when I’m sure the teacher is compiling notes to pass along to CPS, and it looks like today’s transgressions might seal the deal.

The first one in my line is for my daughter and others like her. It will say “I refuse to let my parents brush my hair.” This will go a long way toward explaining the snarls and mats. Beyond hating to have her hair brushed, my daughter loves hats and hoods. She won a polyester hat (at the fucking carnival) that looks like the face of a cow, with two long flaps that hang down over her ears. She wears this hat day and night. She sleeps in it, she wears it to school. The only reason she takes it off is for baths, and then under protest, so you can bet taking it off so I can brush her hair isn’t a priority. Plus wearing a hat or hood causes hair to snarl up and get ratty, and since she won’t let me brush it, that just makes things worse.

The next one will also be for my daughter, but also for slightly younger kids. We’ve all seen kids in outfits that were clearly of their own design and consist of Ninjago pajamas, a tutu and three winter scarves (and maybe a hat that looks like the face of a cow) or whatever. Or little girls who insist on wearing their Snow White dresses everywhere, including the pool. But not all adults realize that these outfits stem from equal parts stubbornness (on the part of the child), and exhaustion and a reluctant acceptance that defeat is the only option (on the part of the parent). While it might be a challenge to get them to put them on, for these kids I would offer a shirt that reads “My mother thinks this outfit is as strange as you do.” They’d have to be in fantastic patterns or insane colors so that kids would be inclined to include them in their sartorial repertoire. I suspect this would also be a big seller in a large sticker that could be stuck on their backs as they were walking out the door (“Hurry along, little Kyndle, we don’t want to be late” the parent would say, placing a sticker-covered hand gently between their shoulder blades).

Another one for younger kids that I wish I’d had when my children were small will be for those times when their outfit is bizarre or inappropriate, but not because of the ramrod will of a four year old determined to wear his or her “favorite shirt” for the 15th day in a row. This is for those times when a child is dressed by his or her father, and that father happens to be one of “those” fathers. I don’t want to generalize—not all fathers have strange ideas about what constitutes an “outfit.” Some recognize that a child who is wearing a bathing suit and mittens is not a child who is wearing an ensemble fit for an audience with the Queen (or even a day at preschool), even if they do happen to be wearing matching socks. I’m fairly sure that 80% of the time my husband was in charge of dressing our children they were decently covered in something that didn’t look like he’d upended the dirty clothes hamper over their heads and called it a day. But for those days that missed the mark, I would have liked to be able to have them walk around with the disclaimer, “My daddy dressed me today” somewhere on their person.

Beyond their appearance, I worry about the things that might come out of my kids’ mouths. I am no saint when it comes to my language, I freely admit this. I have been known to describe myself as sounding like a drunk longshoreman with Tourette’s syndrome (note: I am not a longshoreman, and I have not been diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome). As you may have noticed, I use the word “fuck” the way the English language uses the letter “e” (which is to say, often, and with enthusiasm). But I don’t talk like that in front of my children. My children might occasionally hear, “What the hell is going on here?” or “Go brush your damn teeth right now!” But these are in extreme circumstances, like when my oldest son knocked out his little sister’s front tooth that wasn’t ready to come out and a Niagara Falls of blood was the result, or when I’ve sent them to brush their teeth five times and they’ve lied to me all five times. Then, yes, I use a mild swear word (mild: damn, hell, bastard; serious: shit, fuck, asshole).

But apparently they hear this sort of thing somewhere. I assume from kids who have older siblings. That’s where I picked up all my cuss words. Thank goodness for Ashely Templeton whose older sister taught her all the bad words, and she taught them to me. As we all know, that’s where that kind of thing often comes from, even when they’re very young. When my daughter was a toddler, there was another girl in her room at daycare who had a 19 year old brother. When nap time rolled around, and she didn’t feel like napping, she was known to sit on her mat and yell, “Fuckin’ bullshit! Fuckin’ bullshit!” in protest. I’m fairly confident her mother wasn’t the source that.

And sometimes it’s not even swear words, but potty stuff or goofy stuff. One of my twins has been calling his siblings “nose hair” in fits of frustration (“No, that’s MINE! Give it back, nose hair!”). My daughter went through a phase where she called everything “suckers.” (“Oh look I dropped those suckers. I better pick those suckers up.”)

However, as a parent, I never want the school staff to think they incorporate those words into their vocabularies because of exposure to them at home. So I would sell a shirt that said, “My mother doesn’t know where I pick these things up either.” An alternative for kids with older siblings would say, “I get my vocabulary from my older brother/sister.” That one’s a little sketchy, I suppose, because the teachers may simply assume that the older sibling is learning from the parents, and passing it on. Still, I’m hoping the teachers assume that the older kid picked this sort of thing up on the streets and taught it to the younger kids, since that's probably the reality.

So that’s my idea for a kids’ clothing line. I think it’s highly functional, and that parents would benefit from it. As I said, a few of them would need to be offered in sticker form as well as on shirts. They’d make great birthday presents (for the parents’ birthdays, of course), and I bet they’d be hot for back to school. Then I could go to parent/teacher conferences and not feel like I need to spend the first ten minutes explaining why my daughter’s hair looks like she was fathered by a reggae singer, and that her gutter mouth is not my fucking fault.

Get to Work

A couple of months ago we decided it was time our children had some regular chores. Up to that point, we’d forced them to help out sporadically, usually with the same result: they’d grudgingly do what we asked badly, and we’d have to do it after them. This time we decided to insist that they contribute to their own maintenance. Normally I’d muck out their rooms once a year, when my husband took them on a Boy Scout family camping trip over Memorial Day weekend. I’d drag everything out from under their beds, and everything they’d jammed in their closets in the last 364 days, and get rid of the garbage and the cheap ass fucking carnival stuffed animals. You know the ones—shit like a stuffed banana made out of crappy polyester that, had they seen it in the garbage, they would declare their favorite stuffed animal ever and oh my god how could I be so cruel as to throw it out?!?!? You know, the one they didn’t even miss when I actually did throw it out over Memorial Day weekend last year? Yeah, that one.

That used to take me all three days of the long weekend, and it was painful. So now they were instructed that they were going to have to muck out their own rooms weekly, and I would get to spend Memorial Day weekend drinking Mai Tais and having my nails done or, you know, cleaning the rest of the house. I made up a checklist and printed out copies. Each one has the same thing on it: remove the sheet from your bed, take it and all dirty clothes to the laundry room, put a new sheet on the bed, pick up all stuffed animals, pick up and vacuum one room (living room, dining room, mudroom/kitchen or hall), and a couple of lines for ad hoc write-in stuff. Each item has a check box so they can keep track of what they’ve done. Chore time is around 9 a.m. on either Saturday or Sunday (sometimes their sporting events interfere with the Saturday window).

The first two or three weeks went pretty well. It was a new thing, and they felt a sense of accomplishment when they were done. Then the novelty wore off, and that sense of accomplishment wasn’t sufficient to counter the drudgery of actually doing the chores. Congratulations, kids: you’re now prepared for life. These days they go to their rooms, ostensibly to do their chores, but they whine and fight and do everything but pick up their rooms. I think they may actually drag stuff out and make a bigger mess. So we have to ride their asses and make sure they’re making progress. I say “we,” but I think we all know who “we” is. Because interestingly, there always seem to be several “outdoor” tasks that become super ultra high priority and require my husband’s immediate attention as soon as the kids are sent off to do their weekly jobs. But, you know, I get it—those cardboard boxes aren’t going to break themselves down, y’all.

And of course, I hear how mean I am. This weekend my insistence that they pick up and vacuum a single room on the main level was labeled “child abuse,” and “forced slave labor.” I was declared to be the meanest, worst mom ever. (Two superlatives at once; you can imagine my pride.) I pointed out that I do every other fucking thing—the laundry, the cooking, the bathrooms. I suggested that if they were so unhappy about vacuuming the living room, they were more than welcome to clean the toilets. This was met with eye rolls, of course. It’s their most highly developed skill.

I’ve tried a reward system, but it kind of backfired. One week I was planning to run some errands (interesting errands, not just the grocery store, so they all wanted to go) and I said I would take two kids along. Whoever finished first would get to come with me. Problem number one is that of course we only have one vacuum cleaner, so whoever got the vacuum first was going to finish first. Problem number two was that my daughter stopped working entirely, crawled under a blanket on the floor of her bedroom, and started crying. When I finally pried out of her why she was crying, it turned out that she really, really wanted to come with me, just to spend some time with Mommy. This is a radical change from even a couple of months ago, when I would be leaving the house in the morning and would say, “Do you want a hug and a kiss?” and she’d think about it for a second and go, “Nah.” So the fact that she wanted to come with me was odd (although not unwelcome), and she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to finish in time to get her choice. Result: tears. So that kinda sucked (she got to go with me, even though she wasn’t the first one done).

These are tasks for which they do not get paid. I’ve had this debate with other parents, asking opinions on if they should get an allowance for maintenance work. I’m on the fence—I think about the “real world” that they’ll have to live in one day, and no one is going to give them a medal when they empty the fucking dishwasher and change their sheets. On the other hand, when you go to work you do get paid for your contribution to the overall success of the organization, and contributing to the success of the organization is what I’m asking them to do in this case. So for now they don’t get paid for making their beds and picking up their clothes, but they do for cleaning windows and dusting baseboards (I hate dusting baseboards, and they’re closer to the ground. They can do it, and I’ll give them a buck for it).

There is a downside to having them pull their own weight, and that is that I can’t get rid of the crap as easily. When I was doing it over Memorial Day weekends, I’d just dig everything out and make a big pile in the middle of the room. Then I’d pluck out the things that were just garbage, like all the stupid plastic slinkies from birthday party goody bags (have you read Kristin’s rant about goody bags? You should. Go ahead. I’ll wait), the aforementioned crap stuffed animals, random bits of unidentifiable toy (I don’t understand—I have some awareness of every toy that enters our house, one way or another, and yet I’m constantly finding little pieces of shit that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before; how is this possible? And what the hell are they?), and other precious gems that they would clutch to their bosom and shriek in outrage if they thought I was even suggesting that we get rid of it. I’ll just have to go into stealth mode to get rid of whatever replaces the stuffed banana.

(Not) Playing the Field

We’re going to be out of town for a couple of days next weekend, and my kids will miss a day of school. They’re bummed out because it’s “Field Day” they’ll be missing. “Aw, man, I LOVE Field Day!” my daughter announced at dinner last night when it became clear what would be happening at school the day they would be out. I’m now trying to figure out whose kids these are. They can’t be mine, because they would surely have inherited my loathing of Field Day. Right? (Note: in spite of this, they are mine.)

As an adult, there are things I dislike about being involved with school, most notably the Science Fair and the Carnival. When I was a kid, my school didn’t have Science Fairs (although I’m sure I would have hated them if we had), and I vaguely remember one sort of Carnival-esque thing, but it wasn’t the run around screaming-toss beanbags in a clown’s mouth-get a bag full of cheap plastic shit toys that will clog the vacuum in three weeks kind of affair that my kids’ school has. All I remember about it is that I somehow ended up doing magic tricks for small groups of parents that drifted by from time to time. I was stationed at a table in a hallway and had evidently volunteered to do this. That’s it—wine (and 33 years) has wiped out the rest of that memory. But we had Field Day, and boy did I hate it. In fact, on a list of things I didn’t like about school, Field Day must be about five of them. It doesn’t bother me as an adult, because I don’t have to participate in my kids’ Field Day, or try find a plausible excuse to miss it (and “plausible” was a relative term—I made up some pretty unbelievable shit trying to get out of it in my day).

As you may have gathered if you’re familiar with my rant about camping, I’m not outdoorsy. And although it’s not necessarily a given, in my case not being outdoorsy and not being athletic are parts of one another in the Venn diagram of Things That Totally Suck In My Opinion. In the first place, most sports are played outside. In the second place, as a normal human being, when someone throws something at me, my instinct is to duck, not stick out my hand and try to catch whatever the fuck they threw at me. And to address the obvious question (“Yeah, but wouldn’t you rather have done Field Day shit and gotten to miss class?”) the answer is, actually, hell no. The only thing worse than the academic part of school was the athletic part of school. If they had said, “You can do Field Day, or go sit in the library and read all day,” the wake that followed me as I raced down the hall to the library would have pulled everything off the walls and sent it swirling against the lockers in a tornado of homeroom announcements and “Just Say No to Drugs” posters.

I don’t even remember that much about Field Day (see wine and passage of time, above), but what I do remember about it was excruciating. It was always at the end of the school year, of course. I’m sure this had to do with the fact that they were basically running out of shit to teach us (plus the teachers were as eager for summer vacation as we were, maybe more) so they declared Field Day and it was a chance for the teachers to not have to do a lesson plan and try to teach something to a bunch of twelve year olds who were already checked out and anticipating spending their mornings watching reruns of “Gilligan’s Island” and “I Dream of Jeannie” before they went to the pool for the rest of the day.

I grew up on the East coast, and naturally the day of Field Day was always the first really hot day of almost-summer. The activities were held on playing fields that were twelve miles from the nearest tree, so there was no shade. This was long before concerns about things like sunscreen (we called it “sun tan lotion” of course, which only serves to underscore the fact that it wasn’t about protection, but about cosmetics) and hydration (no one had a “water bottle” in those days, and there was no bottled water, and the school administration apparently didn’t give a shit if we all passed out from heat stroke). As a child, I was often mistaken for Casper the Friendly Ghost, so lacking in pigmentation was I. As a result, I’m very sensitive to excessive exposure to heat. So right there I’m not all that excited about this whole thing.

And then they wanted us to run. I don’t remember anything we did at Field Day other than sprint up and down the field. The 100 yard dash, the 500 yard dash, the 1000 yard dash, the 4,927 yard dash or whatever the fuck. I suppose they had other activities, but I can’t recall what they were. I think we actually signed up for stuff in advance, so it’s very possible I just picked the things that required the least coordination. Of course, it’s impossible to have enough activities going at once to keep 250 kids occupied the whole time, so we spent a lot of time standing around waiting for shit to happen.

Out in a field for four or five hours, with the sun blazing down and with nothing to drink, waiting to get to run a few hundred yards so I could go stand around some more…I can’t quite put my finger on what about this I found so abhorrent.

The logical strategy was to find ways to get out of it. I did my damndest. If I had put as much effort into my schoolwork over the course of the year as I did in coming up with reasons I couldn’t participate in Field Day in the week before it happened, I’d have been a Rhodes Scholar. My first encounter with Field Day was in fourth grade. When the guidelines were explained to me, I immediately knew that this was something in which I would be gracefully declining to participate. Just about that time, I was starting orthodontic treatment. I had some little bits of wire between a few of my molars to make room for some bands they’d be putting on shortly. The pressure these were exerting on my teeth was causing them to ache, therefore I was so sorry, but it seemed to me it would be unwise for me to participate in this “Field Day” thingie.

That one was a failure. I realized that in future years, I was going to have to come up with something better. A doctor’s appointment or a broken bone would have been a godsend, but I was never that lucky. Probably because in order to break a bone, you had to be remotely athletic and perform potentially risky acts that could result in bone breakage. About the most dangerous injury I was ever likely to sustain was a severe paper cut, or perhaps a pinched finger from getting it caught in the hinge of my Barbie carrying case.

I tried a lot of different things, but the one that probably worked the best over the years was simply going to the bathroom, and never going back to the field. That probably wouldn’t fly these days—the schools are much more vigilant about things like where kids are, and visitors to the school buildings and such. But thirty years ago it was no problem. The trick was, I had to pretend enthusiasm up to the point where I allegedly needed to use the restroom. That was kind of challenging for me, since it wasn’t exactly a secret that I hated gym class and anything that resembled it even slightly.

Our school colors were blue and white, and when you enrolled, you were assigned a color, which was your “team” for the rest of your school career. On Field Day, success in events was rewarded with “points” for your team. The team with the most points at the end of the day was the winner. There was a lot of screaming about “GO BLUE!” and “GO WHITE!” Really, I always thought, who gives a shit? We’re not running for Congress here. It’s not like “winning” gets you anything tangible or important. In fact, about the only thing I can think of that you “got” was that if your team won, you got to say “Ha ha! We won at Field Day!” to anyone on the losing team for the next ten days until school was out for the summer, and everyone forgot about the whole thing until the next year on Field Day. But in order to make it seem like I cared, so I could be struck with such an unfortunate need to go to the restroom about 45 minutes into the whole stupid thing, I had to participate in the inane and pointless screaming. (I was a Blue, for the record.)

My memory of all this nonsense ends by about tenth grade. I don’t know if they didn’t force the older kids to participate, or if I managed to convince my mother to just let me stay home “sick” on Field Day day. Given how much my mother also hated physical exertion, I’ve always been a bit surprised by the memory I have of her urging me to give it a go. I suspect she didn’t feel like she could let a ten year old stay home by herself all day while she and my dad were at work. I know she sympathized with my distaste for all things athletic, especially since her genes were probably where I got it.

I’m grateful that as an adult, the few times I’ve been exposed to something that had a hint of a “corporate Field Day,” it’s always been completely optional. Unlike in elementary school, there’s no shame in saying, “Yeah, not my thing,” or, “You know, I don’t do team sports,” or, “I’d rather perform my own hysterectomy with a rusty corkscrew” (depending on your level of enthusiasm, or lack thereof). Also, when you do team building activities in a corporate setting, there’s almost always alcohol provided. Having to yell, “GO BLUE!” with a glass of wine in my hand is way more tolerable than it was when I was fourteen and empty handed. Also I can walk away whenever I want and drive home and no one can stop me. It’s not always obvious, but there are some really kick ass things about being an adult. Not having to participate in Field Day may be at least two of them.

A Study in Compulsions

I’ve recently had occasion to think a lot about my father in law. Some people have problems with their mothers in law. I’ve never had have too many problems with her because she’s been dead for most of my marriage. My problems were largely with my father in law, and mostly they had to do with his being alive. The reason I’ve been thinking about him a lot is because now he’s dead. If you’re one of those people who thinks that everything is funny but death, and death absolves people of all sin and we should just remember dead people as perfect and saintly, maybe navigate away now, because I’m about to get snarky about a dead guy.

My father in law was generally a good person, I’ll put that out there now. He didn’t cheat or steal or set fire to orphanages. But hoo boy did he lie. Maybe “lie” is harsh. He exaggerated. Except when you exaggerate, you expand on a story that’s true, and kind of tart it up, make it more interesting. And in retrospect, that’s not really what he did. He just made shit up. So I guess he was actually lying. But they were such patently obvious lies that they were funny.

Oh, how bad could it be? Well, let’s see—did you know he was responsible for the development of the integrated circuit? He was. He told us a lot of his stories before the advent of the Smart Phone, and he’d tell us shit like this over dinner, so we’d just have to smile and nod and think, “What utter bullshit” instead of whipping out an iPhone and saying, “Let me Google that” and finding out the truth. Which in this case was that the integrated circuit was developed at Texas Instruments during a time when he was in Germany in the Army. So, you know, what utter bullshit.

And then there was Babe Ruth’s Bat. This story was told to his girlfriend (partner, whatever) while my husband and I were in the room. My husband and I keep looking at each other, rolling our eyes in disbelief and incredulity. Because she was hanging on every word, convinced that this was the absolute verbatim truth.

It seems that at some point in the…1940s? I don’t know, the timing wasn’t clear, because my father in law was born in 1939 and Babe Ruth played baseball in the 20s, but clearly this sort of detail was glossed over in the telling of this story because, you know, details. Anyway, sometime in the 1940s, when he was a kid, his dad somehow got hold of a bat that had belonged to Babe Ruth. Where his father found a 20 year old bat belonging to one of the greatest baseball players of all time near their home in Western Massachusetts, and how he was so sure of its provenance, was never clearly explained. Because, you know, details. Anyhoo, his dad brought this bat home, but it was broken. His father fixed it and gave it to my father in law to play with. My father in law, being a kid—8 or 10 or whatever—and not really understanding the significance, played with this bat, but just didn’t get what he’d been given. I think maybe the moral of the story was supposed to be that Kids Just Don’t Appreciate These Things.

But our eyerolling was based on the obvious: Babe Ruth’s bat? Come on. It was broken? And his dad repaired it? And in the 1940s there was a fixative strong enough to repair it so it could be used again? I’m no structural engineer, but even I know that a broken wooden bat can’t be repaired in a way to make it usable again. My brother in law is a structural engineer, and he confirmed that the integrity of the wood would be compromised sufficiently to render it as useful for either kindling or to fix tippy tables at a restaurant, your choice. And in the 1940s there was no such thing as Liquid Nails or Gorilla Glue or whatever, not that those would even work. And yet, his girlfriend believed every word of this preposterous horseshit.

Let me also add that always his lies were harmless. He never lied about anyone’s character, or actions, or motives (well, other than his own). He was never attacking an individual. It was just infuriating because they were so obviously lies, and while you could call him on them, they were always petty and stupid enough that to do so would make you appear…petty and stupid. And yet it was tiresome and sort of insulting to sit there knowing you were being lied to.

Like the Fourth of July Parade lie.

We live in a really small town that every year has a big old fashioned Fourth of July parade. Any group is welcome to march—the Rotary, the Boy Scouts, the roller hockey team, the local animal shelter, the LGBT support group, local businesses—the organic butcher, the organic baker, the organic candle stick maker. Anyone who wants to can march if they get permission from the parade committee. The joke around here is that half the town watches the parade, and the other half is in it. Ha ha.

Last year he and I attended the parade, while my husband and kids marched in it with my husband’s company. As we sat there, waiting for the parade to start, I told him this pathetic little tidbit of humor. He nodded for a minute, and then said, “You know, there’s this town where they have a Fourth of July parade, and one half of it watches it, and the other half is the parade. And then when it’s over, the ones who were watching get up and march, and the other half watch.”  So, seriously? You took the stupid one-liner I just delivered, and basically repeated it back to me as a “true story”? Seriously?

What most of his lies had in common was that they were delusions. Either they were things that he’d claim to have done, or facts that he “invented” that he then presented to his companions as unarguable truths. In a way it was sort of pathetic, because most of his stories were intended to make him appear brilliant and successful, or at least wickedly clever, in ways that he never really was. The saddest part is, I think he really believed every story he told. In fact I’m not sure he wasn’t completely out of his fucking mind. This suspicion deepened when we went and saw his house.

We took the kids to see “grandpa’s house.” He had moved from where my husband and his brother grew up to a different state in New England, to a house none of us had ever seen (he had always come to visit us, instead of us going to him). I wasn’t sure it was going to be terribly meaningful to the children, but we needed to get a feel for what was in the house, because of course it would have to be cleaned out and sold.

On the surface, it was very, very tidy. The living room looked fairly normal. His girlfriend had moved some of her things out and taken them to the townhouse in Maine she was moving to, so there were some bare spots, but it was neat and uncluttered. The kitchen was also neat and organized. The basement had lots of metal shelving with big plastic bins on it. Actually, I should say that everything was very neat and organized. What was notable was what you found when you started opening drawers.

Although we’re not anywhere near done, I can offer some preliminary observations.

We are now the owners of five digital cameras (one brand new in the box, most of them simply removed from the box, but never used), plus two MP3 players (again, one brand new in the box). We have three laptops, none of which are new, but none of which is more than maybe 5 years old. We left two there. And that was just the beginning of the Festival of Electronics that was in store for us. Wireless mice. Old keyboards. A couple of old printers. Three cordless phone sets. Miles of various kinds of cable. Four or five webcams. Twenty two power strips, all at least fifteen years old. I have no idea what one retired person planned to do with all of this, but he’d always fancied himself “technical,” and at one point in the 90s he had bought ten or twelve Macs, proclaiming that he would cobble them together in such a way that he claimed they would anticipate Apple’s future offerings by ten years (see: “delusions, comma, lies,” above) so I wasn’t as surprised as I might have been to find that stuff.

I was looking around on a desk in the basement, and it struck me there were six pairs of scissors in my field of vision. I started opening drawers, and started finding staplers. Seven total. Then those little bitey staple puller things. Nine of those. Another drawer held three boxes of 24 pencils, all unsharpened, and four sets of colored pencils. There were thirty six highlighters. There were five (five) Cross pen and pencil sets, all with the logo of a company at which he last worked twenty five years ago, plus a bunch of other pens in presentation boxes. A little more digging unearthed eighteen pocket knives (we later found one more in his car). And that was just one of his two desks.

As I was investigating all of this, my husband came downstairs and said, “Holy shit.” I wheeled around in the desk chair into which I had collapsed as I was counting highlighters and said, “What?” He pointed wordlessly at a set of heavy duty aluminum shelving that was behind me that I hadn’t noticed. On a set of shelves approximately five feet wide, seven feet high, and two feet deep, stacked on four shelves, from top to bottom, were boxes and boxes of train sets. Hundreds of cars, miles of HO gauge track. All purchased from eBay, I presume with the intention that he would build a huge train set in his basement, and his grandchildren would beg to be allowed to visit him to play with the amazing Train Set of Wonder and Delight. Holy shit, indeed.

I couldn’t imagine anything could top the trains. I was wrong. So very wrong.

In his office, I found a fairly good sized travel bag of prescription medication. Because he was in poor health and took a shit ton of various medications and vitamins every day (to no avail, clearly), I wasn’t surprised to find it (and, spoiler, it wasn’t Class 1 narcotics or anything). My brother in law advocated for tossing it, but we decided that since we weren’t sure what all it was, it should go to a pharmacy to be properly disposed of. I volunteered to take it, and grabbed a couple of those S-M-T-W-Th-F-S pill boxes with stuff in them off the table to add them to the pile. Someone suggested I’d better make sure they didn’t belong to his girlfriend. She said, no, they weren’t hers, but told me that there was another bag in the garage that I should take too. I went out to find it.

What I found was a bag, like the kind of bag they’d give you at Bed, Bath and Beyond, or Sheets ‘n’ Shit if you bought a king sized comforter, or one of those “bed in a bag” things. A big fucking bag, is where I’m going with this. This big fucking bag was, I shit you not, half full of medicine bottles. Let me repeat that, half fucking full of medicine bottles. Which all had pills in them. We’re not talking about a bunch of empty bottles, these all had shit in them. A lot of them were vitamins, but that only makes it worse. That means that he’d gone out and bought a bottle of vitamin E, and then two weeks later, had—I don’t know, forgotten he bought it, or was afraid he’d run out, or whatever the fuck he was thinking—and went out and bought another bottle of vitamin E, then did it again. And again. And again. Since I have little need for 34 pounds of vitamin E, it all got turned in to be disposed of.

It’s bad enough that he still has cassette tapes of Laura Branigan albums, and notebooks from classes he took in which the handouts were run off on a mimeograph machine, but he also has dozens of CDs for software that was probably five years out of date when he bought it or got it (AOL install disks with 100 free hours, anyone?), enough pairs of prescription glasses that he could have worn a new pair every week for a year with no repeats, and forty SD cards that may or may not have anything on them.

My brother in law and I started talking about what someone would think if they started cleaning out our stuff. Anyone doing it for me would shake their heads over the number of blank notebooks I had, or the fifteen three ring binders full of recipes. They would look at the big basket of nail polish and say, “How many nails did she think she had?” I think we all have a slight hoarding instinct, whether that manifests itself in the form of family pictures, coffee mugs, or washers and screws. But somehow I think having thirty colors of nail polish doesn’t quite put one into the category of “hoarder” the way having a box of 85 keys to nothing, 6 sets of brand new gardening gloves, 5 disposable charcoal grills, and 36 light switch plates of various configuration does. Holy shit.