Down Home Stories

The NPR affiliate in Washington, DC is WAMU. It’s run by American University, and is the home of the Diane Rehm Show. For a few years in the mid- to late 80s, it was also home to Down Home Stories. Down Home Stories were three-ish minute weekly commentaries written and read by my dad. As the name suggests, the subjects were slice of life-y little vignettes that addressed whatever happened to be on his mind at the time. Not unlike my humble offerings here, when you come right down to it. This was at the height of the Garrison Keeler/Lake Woebegone craze, and people listened to Prairie Home Companion like it contained secret important details about the coming apocalypse that would ensure survival. My dad’s series was well received, and the radio station even had him record a dozen or so of them on cassette to use as an incentive during their fund drive one year. I don’t remember all the subjects he discussed, but a couple stand out in my mind.

At the time we had a Burmese cat, and a twenty year old washing machine. The relationship between these two as described by my dad was that they were the two things in our house that made the most noise. Burmese cats are similar to Siamese; they have a similar deep, distinctive meow. The cat, whose name was Barnaby, used to stand in the stairwell leading from the first to the second floors, and meow. The acoustics of that space were such that his voice was amplified by a factor of about ten. The problem was, he would not shut up, and he often decided to do this at two in the morning. I don’t remember what else my dad  had to say about it, but this torment ended only with our move to a new house in 1987.

The washing machine was in the basement, and was there when we moved in. It had a maddening feature (for want of a better word, but feature seems to me to imply a positive trait, which was not the case in this instance) that would cause it to stop and buzz if the load got off balance. My father said he couldn’t understand why it needed to do this, as, he pointed out, water seeks its own level, but it did. If you didn’t hear it buzzing (and because our house was built in the 1930s and used plaster and lath and was well insulated, you often did not) you’d go downstairs after the amount of time it should have taken the wash cycle to complete, only to find it had stopped twenty minutes previously and had been making a noise like an enormous angry bumble bee ever since. The only solution was to redistribute whatever was in the drum and try to get it started again.

These commentaries had a fairly devoted fan base. It wasn’t large, but it was enthusiastic. My dad said the nicest compliment he ever got was from the movie critic for WAMU. He said, “Whenever one of your segments comes on, I stop what I’m doing for three minutes and just listen.” Another fan was my history teacher, Bill (I went to a fairly progressive school started by then-hippy types—who ended up, of course, being guys like my dad—and we called all our teachers by their first names).

On Valentine’s Day of 1985, Bill walked into History class and said, “Happy Valentine’s Day, Trace.” I’m pretty sure I gave him a weird look—why was he wishing me a happy Valentine’s day? Freak. (I was fifteen.) He asked me if I’d heard my dad’s commentary that morning. Being the teenage asshole that I was, I’m sure I rolled my eyes and said no.  The subject of that day’s offering  was Valentine’s Days through the years, with me being the final mention on a list of recipients of his affection. What Bill was repeating to me was the last line of the piece.

In retrospect I’m a little surprised I didn’t know about that particular mention, because I would help him time them after he’d written them. Once he’d typed them out on his Smith Corona using the fairly low quality yellow typing paper he always bought (low quality because it was cheap and he went through a lot of it) and typing in ALL CAPS, which was a hangover from his television news reporting and writing days, he would read them out loud while I timed him with an analog stop watch he had. They weren’t supposed to be over about two and a half to three minutes, with three and a half minutes being the final cut off. 

For all their local success, my dad’s commentaries never went any further than WAMU. It may have been that he was considered a poor man’s Garrison Keeler. He told me himself at the time he was probably too much like Keeler to be viable, and like so many writers, he wasn’t great at self-promotion. He never figured out how to differentiate himself, which I can sympathize with. It’s even harder today with the accessibility of blogs as a publishing medium. Explain how your funny words about X are different from fifty peskillion other people’s funny words about that subject. It can be hard to come with something beyond, “Because they’re my funny words.” No longer is voice sufficient; you have to have a hook, an angle, a twist.

Periodically I  have the urge to dig out his tapes (the print versions are long gone) and do something with them. Maybe I will. 

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: Chipdrunks

I'm rerunning an old favorite today.

When we bought our first “big” house (one with more than two bedrooms), it came with an in-ground pool. We couldn’t believe our luck. We could actually afford this? Really? It was true. So we jumped on it, and spent four years with an amazing luxury in our yard.

Yes, it cost us some money—about $300 a year to get someone to open and close it, and each year we had to shell out on average $300 to repair or replace some piece of equipment or other. Ultimately we had to have the pool deck replaced, and the pool resurfaced, but honestly I don’t think if you added up those expenses, plus the cost of the chemicals (which was minimal), it would add up to more than we would have spent on a pool membership, with the club house minimums and dues that involves. Plus it was ours all to ourselves, was open from whenever we wanted to whenever we wanted (not Memorial Day to Labor Day), and available 24x7. The pleasure far outweighed the pain.

There was, however, one experience we had with this pool that a pool membership would have spared us. Drowned chipmunks.

Overhanging the pool deck was a mulberry tree. All spring, summer, and fall, as the mulberries ripened, they fell on the pool deck. They’d sit in the hot sun, and ferment. They’d become boozy, high octane berries. Chipmunks like mulberries and they weigh about 3 ounces each, so they have the alcohol tolerance of a 19 year old sorority girl. They’d eat some berries, and be half in the bag, staggering around the pool deck.

The stages of drunk must be slightly different for chipmunks than for humans. It’s my experience that thirst doesn’t really hit until the alcohol wears off, and it’s part of the hangover stage. Evidently chipmunks get thirsty right away. These stupid chipmunks would lurch over to the pool and try to get a drink of water. The only problem was the level of the water they were trying to drink was about 6 millimeters further down from the lip of the pool edge than the length of the average chipmunk. You probably don’t need me to spell out the result of almost every single one of these attempts.

Another fact about chipmunks is they can’t swim. Squirrels can—one jumped in and went for a dip while I was sitting out there one day, and I chased that little asshole right out. But chipmunks are hopeless and pretty much drop like sinkers as soon as they hit the water. Chipmunks have a lung capacity of about ¼ of a teaspoon, so they also drown almost instantly. We were constantly hauling drowned drunken chipmunks out of our pool.

I hope you’re curious about what we did with the corpses, because you’re going to find out. The house behind us was empty—the people who lived in it moved out about two weeks after we moved in (a coincidence? I don’t know) so the yard was overgrown with ivy and other vines. We would scoop the chipmunks out of the pool with the long handled skimmer, and using it as a sort of catapult, fling them over the fence into all that brush.

Just about the time we were moving out, someone started renovating that house behind us. They started with the house itself, and hadn’t gotten to the yard before we moved to the other side of the country, so I have no idea when they may have discovered the chipmunk mass grave at the far edge of their property, nor what they concluded when they did. I myself would probably have assumed it was some kind of Jonestown/Heaven’s Gate scenario, but with chipmunks. I’m also not sure what the people who bought our house are doing with the drowned chipmunks now since our disposal option is not available to them. Because I’m quite sure those stupid chipmunks are still getting shitfaced on fermented mulberries and drowning in that pool.

Halloween Candy: What to Avoid

Kids love Halloween and kids love candy. As we grow older, we forget that all candy isn’t created equal. Just dropping a morsel of sugar, regardless of its pedigree, into a tyke’s sack isn’t enough. It needs to be decent candy, good candy. With the rare exception, good equals chocolate. Tread carefully around things with peanuts, even if they're chocolate, (although it’s hard to find candy that doesn’t have some form of peanut in it), but by all means, lean toward chocolate. The problem is that candy that is not chocolate is so often something completely weird and beyond consumption.

Take Bit O Honey. Having recently read the ingredients on these, I can assure you that the name is well suited, as they contain about as much honey as my body contains manganese (which is to say, very fucking little). These are bits of sweetened hard plastic shaped into squares. I believe they were invented by a dentist whose business was slow. Once he started distributing them, he saw an increase in child patients with cavities, and additionally in their parents, who had yanked their fillings out and needed to have them replaced.

Similar to Bit O Honey are Mary Janes. Instead of honey flavor, Mary Janes are peanut butter flavored. They have an almost identical consistency, and were probably created by someone who was both a dentist, and whose father in law was a peanut wholesaler. These are made by the same company that makes a candy that is in competition for the Worst Candy Ever Made in the History of the World. I speak of course, of NECCO Wafers.

Anyone who grew up in New England, or to a lesser extent in the Middle Atlantic states, knows NECCO Wafers. Because they’ve been manufactured since 1847. Because of this NECCO wafers have a shroud of nostalgia-induced legitimacy around them. Your grandmother remembers getting them for Halloween when she was a little girl. They’re imbued with cultural history. They’re an historical part of the fabric of society.

This is all fucking bullshit. NECCO wafers are round disks of sugar which, based on their consistency, are made of chalk. They are flavored with the polishing paste your dental hygienist uses when you get your teeth cleaned. The flavors are similar—chocolate, orange, wintergreen. No one actually likes them, and children despise them because eating them is like repeatedly licking a flavored blackboard eraser.

On the other end of the consistency spectrum are Jujubees. Not gritty or dusty, but more like chewing a wad of allegedly fruit flavored rubber bands. Jujubees come in the approximate shape of the fruit they’re supposed to taste like, but the shapes all look more or less the same, so you have to go with color to determine flavor (assuming you want to eat them in the first place). Like Gatorade and Kool-Aid (and probably any other product whose name ends with the sound –ade), Jujube flavors are usually described as their color. Red flavored, yellow flavored, etc. Their actual flavor (corn syrup) defies description.

But worse than any other candy (maybe worse than NECCO wafers—it’s a close call) are Circus Peanuts. Circus Peanuts get my vote for the worst candy ever. Worse than anything made of chalk or rubber, Circus Peanuts seem to be made of foam insulation. I’m sure that I could take the spray foam my husband uses to seal off the cracks around our hose bibs and form it into this candy. To make it less edible (in case you didn’t realize that was possible) Circus Peanuts are banana flavored. I am not a fan of banana in any form, but artificial banana flavoring is what sin and betrayal and despair and failure taste like. All in one.

Please avoid all of these candies unless you’re eager to redecorate the exterior of your home in the style commonly referred to as November First Shitty Candy Givers. It’s easily recognizable by a notable presence of both toilet paper and broken raw eggs. Remember, when in doubt, give out chocolate

Salted Caramel Cheesecake: I'm Cheating

This is cheating, I suppose. This is a post from another blog I used to have. Republishing it because I need content for this challenge!

This post has gotten so much traffic via Pinerest that I have to comment further on those who say, "It's too salty." The idea is that it's a salty caramel dessert. But, everyone has a different level of salt tolerance. So, here's my suggestion--make the crust with just a little salt--a teaspoon or two. Then make the filling with just a teaspoon or two of salt. Then TASTE IT. People watch Food Network and see those people just scatter in some salt, take a small taste, and go, "Mmmm GOOD!" But that's just TV--they're supposed to say that so they don't spend precious air time adjusting the seasoning. You MUST TASTE as you go. Make the filling with everything but the eggs (raw eggs can be dangerous--I can't recommend eating anything with raw eggs in it) then TASTE it. The idea is that you taste some salt, but not that you go, "Ugh, salty." You're supposed to taste the contrast between sweet and salty. If you don't like things pretty salty, just leave the majority of the salt out and make a caramel cheesecake--caramel cheesecake is delicious too! If you taste it and it's not salty, and you want it salty, add a 1/2 teaspoon salt at a time until you get it to where you think it tastes OK. But I strongly recommend you taste as you go.

N.B. It was brought to my attention that if this recipe is made with regular salt, it is WAY too salty. I always use kosher salt. Don't use table salt or this will be truly inedible. My apologies to anyone who may have tried it already without that caveat!

Here it is at last. I’ve been trying to get a picture of a single slice of this for months. And you know what happens? That’s right—every time I’m ready to photograph it, I look for the slice I saved as my “model” and it’s gone. Someone has eaten my model. So you’re just going to have to content yourself with the picture of the whole cheesecake that I happen to have snapped once with my camera phone. It doesn’t really do it justice, but you get the idea.
I made this for Thanksgiving in 2010. It was proclaimed, “The best dessert you’ve ever made.” Praise, indeed. Well, actually, considering all the desserts I’ve made in 15 years of marriage, plus probably 3 years of dating, that could be saying quite a bit. In the event, I was asked to make it again for Christmas. And again for my husband’s birthday. And again for our anniversary. And every time I made it, I would post about it on Facebook, and my friends would say how much they wanted a piece. Finally, in August of 2012, I made a cheesecake, and invited all my friends over for a Friday night Happy Hour and Cheesecake Devouring Event.
I could have taken numerous pictures of my friends eating it, but when the dust settled, once again, I was left with no model. In fact, I didn’t even get a piece. So the next day, I made another Salted Caramel Cheesecake. I took it to a birthday party for a friend, where once again it was completely consumed, and while I didn’t have anything left to take a picture of, at least I got a slice of it this time.
So, rather than make you wait until November for this recipe, when I might actually be able to get a decent picture of it, I’m giving it to you now and you can make it for Thanksgiving and Christmas and your husband’s birthday and your anniversary. I hope it’s the best dessert you’ll ever make.

Salted Caramel Cheesecake
Serves 2
Ha ha! Just kidding—I’ve served up to 20 people with one cheesecake. Ideally it probably serves about 10-12 people.

For the crust

About 15 graham crackers
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 stick unsalted butter, melted
1 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt (note: I reduced this from 2 teaspoons. A number of folks in the comments said they found it was too salty. I made this recipe 4 times before posting this, and checked the measurements pretty carefully, I thought. However, I made it for Thanksgiving 2011 and realized that they WAY the crust is distributed in the pan can make it seem quite salty--if there's a significant slope between the bottom and the sides, that fairly dense piece of crust can be overpowering to the rest of the recipe. So I'm recommending the reduction to the salt to account for the possible variations in the way people make the crust.)
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. In a food processor, grind graham crackers to crumbs. (If you’re using premade crumbs, you want about 8 oz or 2 cups, and you’ll want to do all these steps in a bowl.) Add sugar and salt and pulse to combine. With motor running, add butter through feed tube. Process for another few seconds until combined.
2. Transfer the mixture to a 9” or 10” (I have a 10” myself) springform pan sprayed with cooking spray. Pat crumb mixture into the bottom of the pan, and up the sides about 2”. Don’t worry if it’s not perfectly even around the top; you just want to be sure it’s deep enough to hold all the cheesecake mixture.
3. Bake crust until slightly brown. You’ll just be able to smell it. This will take anywhere from 10-12 minutes. Remove crust from the oven and allow to cool on a rack. Reduce oven temperature to 300 degrees F.
For the cheesecake

3 8oz packages cream cheese, at room temperature
1 13-14 oz. can dulce de leche
2 tablespoons all purpose flour
3 teaspoons kosher salt
1 ¼ cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
4 large eggs, at room temperature

1. In a stand mixture fitted with the paddle attachment beat cream cheese until smooth, add dulce de leche and beat to combine.
2. Add flour and salt, beat to combine, stopping to scrape down the sides as necessary. Beat until smooth and fluffy, about 5 minutes. There should be no lumps.
3. Add the sugar and beat to combine.
4. Add the vanilla, and then beat in the eggs one at a time until just combined, about 30 seconds each. Don’t overbeat once the eggs are added; the cheesecake will puff up too much while baking, and the top will crack.
5. Pour the cream cheese mixture into the cooled crust and smooth the top.
6. Bake at 300 degrees F for 55 – 65 minutes. The center will seem to be only slightly set, and will be wobbly if you nudge it. The sides will puff slightly.
7. Cool completely on a rack, then cover and refrigerate 8 hours or overnight (I have gotten away with a 5 hour cooling, but I was on edge that it wouldn’t turn out; overnight is really best). When I put it in the refrigerator to set up, I remove the ring from my springform, and put the cheesecake on a cake stand. You can leave it in the springform if you don't have a cake stand.
For the caramel

½ cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons water
½ cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. In a large saucepan over medium heat, combine the sugar and water. Swirl to combine. All those warnings about stirring caramel and brushing down the sides of the pan with a wet pastry brush to avoid crystal formation? I avoid all that by just never stirring it at all. If I need to move it around the pan, I just swirl it.
2. Continue cooking until the sugar turns golden brown, swirling occasionally. You’re looking for something that’s about the color of dark honey. The problem with caramel is that it goes from perfect to burnt in the blink of an eye, so just when you find yourself thinking, “Any second now…” pull it off the heat. It should take 3-5 minutes.
3. Off the heat, carefully add the butter, then the cream. Don’t wait until the butter is melted; toss in the butter, give it a whisk, then pour in the cream. It will foam up, seize, and otherwise look like a total failure. Persevere! Add the vanilla extract and salt and continue whisking.
4. Return to medium low heat and whisk until smooth. (Added note: if your caramel is too thin, let it cook for awhile over a low heat. I've actually let it boil a bit--unintentionally--and just when I thought I'd ruined it, it turned out to be perfect.) Allow to cool slightly, about 15 minutes.
5. Remove cheesecake from the refrigerator and pour caramel over the top. I try to encourage mine to pool in the middle, but if you’re more of a drip-down-the-sides type, you can go with that. I just think the drippy makes sort of a mess on my cake stand, but maybe that doesn’t bother you.
6. Return the cheesecake to the refrigerator to let the caramel set, about 30 minutes. To serve, cut in slices (it’s pretty rich) with a sharp knife, wiping the blade clean after every slice.

Six Children's Games That Teach Adult Skills

Kids, I know you think your fun and games are all…well, fun and games, but what you may not realize is that some of your games are teaching you skills that will serve you well in adulthood. Not all games are both entertaining and prepare you for the challenges you face as a grown up and a parent, but some do although you may not realize it, because they may be quite subtle.

Matching games
At first it may not seem that remembering which card was Elsa and which was Olaf in the Frozen memory game is applicable to adult life, but this skill will actually prove more useful than you imagine. When doing laundry, sorting socks is nothing more than a never ending game of matching pairs. Remembering where the Hanes ankle sock or the Adidas soccer sock was when you pull the other one out of the basket will save you from having to root through the entire goddamned pile in front of you on the table. It may also be beneficial in the endless search for your car keys that will consume your entire adult life.

Although the concept is somewhat reversed, loading the dishwasher is very similar to this game. Instead of removing pieces from a precarious stack of intricately entwined blocks, you’re trying to create a pattern that maximizes the number of items you can get into a predefined space. Of course, there’s almost no chance that the dishes will topple and break, but a poorly configured load of dishes will result in some of them not getting properly clean, which means they’ll either have to go through again or be washed by hand. This can cause the same sort of “Oh shit!” reaction as the destruction of a Jenga tower.

Your suspects may no longer be a collection of fictitious characters named after various colors, but your ability to make keen observations and keep track of facts will go a long way toward figuring out who’s responsible for the drawing on the wall, the milk spilled on the kitchen counter, or the dent in the driver’s side rear fender.

Pick up sticks
The skills you gain in this game may not seem particularly applicable to parenting, but you’d be surprised how similar easing the sticks away from one another without moving any of the rest of them is to getting out of a sleeping infant’s room without waking it. You move extremely slowly, hoping that shifting your weight from one foot to the next doesn’t make the floor boards squeak. You ease your way to the door with bated breath, sure the sound of your heart pounding with fear will wake the little bugger up. As with pick up sticks, just when you’re sure you’re free, you realize you didn’t take into consideration the complete trajectory of the stick—or in the case of the baby, the click as you turn the knob to slip out into the hall. Dammit!

There’s no better practice for the jumping and balancing required to avoid the dreaded experience of stepping on a fucking Lego in the minefield of the playroom than a few rounds up and down a numbered board in quest of a rock or bottle cap.

Left hand, feeding spoon; right hand, sign permission form; left foot, push puking dog off rug; right foot, prevent toddler from reaching scissors on kitchen counter.

Signs Your Boss Secretly Hates You

Your performance review includes a section describing in detail all of your annoying personal habits
This includes the way you constantly click your pen in meetings, picking your nose in the elevator, and the fact that you sometimes chew loudly. It’s the reason your performance rating  is downgraded from “on track” to “falling behind/needs immediate improvement.”

He or she leaves Post It notes on your monitor that say “I Hate You. Signed, [Your Boss's Name]”
This may seem like a lighthearted, playful gesture, but studies have shown that when a boss leaves a note saying they hate you, signed with their own name, there’s a 1 in 5 chance it’s true.

Your boss “forgets” to invite you to every single staff meeting, and the company holiday party and picnic
All through the year you hear your coworkers talking about the helpful time management seminar from the last staff meeting, or that hilarious thing Jason from IT did to Mike from Finance with the ketchup bottle at the company picnic, and you realize that the invitations to those events never showed up in your email or mailbox. If you confront your boss directly, she’ll deny having excluded you, saying it must have gone to your spam folder, or that everyone knows the mailroom guy is a total stoner jerkoff who should be fired.

When you walk up to your boss’s office door, he picks up the phone as soon as he sees you, and starts pretending to talk to someone
As soon as you appear in the doorway, your boss grabs the handset of his phone and says, “So, Pete, about that RFP we were discussing. I have a long list of questions for you that will probably take at least an hour and a half to get through. Maybe two hours. Definitely until lunchtime, if not longer. You OK with that? You are? Great!” Then your boss then looks at you and shrugs his shoulders to say, “Whatever you need will have to wait; this is has to take precedence.”

During fire drills, your boss tells you it’s OK for you to stay at your desk and work instead of practicing how to evacuate the building in the event of an emergency because your work is so vital to the success of the organization
This one is really subtle. It sounds like he’s doing you a favor, not making you get up and walk down fifteen flights of stairs, and then having to wait around for the elevator for ten minutes to get back up to your desk. But the day there’s an actual emergency, you’re going to be at the mercy of your boss to know just where that emergency exit is at the bottom of the stairs, and since your boss hates you, he’s not likely to tell you where it is, or worse may intentionally point you in the wrong direction. Don’t be fooled by this one.

When you mention you have weekend plans, your boss asks if you’ll be doing anything that might result in a tragic life-threatening accident
You know what? Forget this one. She’s probably just worried about your safety and well-being.

So You Want to Be an Internet Troll

So you want to be an Internet troll. Bravo. It’s a growth industry.

Having said that, there are a lot of trolls who make some very basic mistakes when leaving nasty comments. You don’t want to be one of those—you want to be the best troll you can be. Here’s a quick primer on some things to watch out for when spewing your venom and vitriol across the Internet.

Actually read the article, not just the title
Understand what the author is saying, and what their intent is. Try not to intentionally misunderstand the author’s message. If they’re expressing an opinion, do not assume what they’re really saying is, “This isn’t just my opinion; it is the truth and the light. If you don’t agree with me, you are wrong and you should be ashamed of your shameful wrongness.” If they’re trying to be funny, even if it isn’t your style of humor, try not to be a massive dick about it. If they’re suggesting something completely ridiculous (like, oh, people actually setting out to be Internet trolls and needing instructions for things they shouldn’t do, to offer a completely random example) don’t take them seriously. Try to act like you have a sense of humor that extends beyond knock knock jokes and the kind of shit you read on Bazooka bubblegum wrappers.

Brush up on grammar, spelling, and punctuation
Remember, you’re slashing a writer here. There’s a pretty good chance he or she knows the difference between your and you’re, and when to use who versus whom. Stupid shit like using 12 periods in between each sentence, or blatant misspellings (hint: almost every comment section has a Spell Check built into it; make it your friend), are going to arouse scorn and mockery, and we will laugh at you in our writer secret Facebook groups. Your comment will be dismissed as pathetic bullshit from an uneducated moron. I mean, you’re leaving a nasty trollish comment anyway, so you’re pretty sure to be dismissed even if your prose is a miracle of linguistic composition with flawless syntax and dazzling arguments, but try not to embarrass yourself on a technical level as well.

Don’t bother slamming the piece as “poorly written”
You may as well just skip that part. Especially if you haven’t heeded the previous tip. But even if your comment meets the aforementioned bar of flawless syntax and dazzling argument, your critique of our writing style really doesn’t matter to us. You’re not our editor or our English teacher, so you can fuck off with condemning our output as poorly written garbage. If you think you can do better, we challenge you to try.

Which brings us to…

Consider doing some writing and trying to get published yourself
I’m willing to bet most people who troll sites have never published a damned word. I said most—I’m sure there are authors who are also assholes who would go after a fellow writer. But most writers know the pain of rejection, the struggle it is to make it into print (even digitally), and the fierce competition for eyeballs on the published work. They’re less likely to lash out at a comrade who has traveled such a long and agonizing path for even the most minor of professional exposure. We suggest you write about something that’s important to you, then get it published (yeah, good luck with that) and see how much you appreciate the trolls coming in and passing judgment on your feelings, with no opportunity for you to reply to their nasty attacks. (Because, please—you’re a troll, and this isn’t a dialog; just vomit up your rude and hateful opinions and never darken the door of that comment thread again.)

I hope with this list to improve the quality of the nasty responses I see on websites. It’s incredibly frustrating for an author to write about something that’s important and personal to them, and have a bunch of people come in and leave asshole comments that are that are rude, conceived from a position of ignorance, and poorly constructed. As a troll you owe it to the author you’re slamming to provide the highest caliber of nasty comment you can.

On Writing

Our topic today is writing, and this is quite timely, as I can use this opportunity to inform (warn?) you that I’m taking part in a month-long writing challenge. The goal is to write and publish every day in the month of October with the theory that writing every day brings new ideas into focus, and helps stimulate creativity. The reality is that by October 15th you may be getting posts that consist of little more than my grocery list, or the lyrics to “Stairway to Heaven.” But we’ll see about that.

For today at least, I have a subject of some significance in mind, and that is writing and the creative process.

Most of the readers of my blog are themselves bloggers, so I suspect they’ll be able to relate. Writing down words is a very personal act, almost an intimate one. It’s the print version of not just showing the boys your underwear in the cloakroom, but showing them to everyone in front of the whole class. It’s scary. The words on the page represent your brain, your soul. Even if you’re being funny, you’re baring a part of your self, leaving it open to criticism or worse, to ridicule. Additionally, the writing landscape today is so volatile. What’s hot and exciting today is forgotten tomorrow. A writer’s emotions follow a pattern, a repeating roller coaster of ups and downs that only someone who has dared to brave the terrors of the ride can genuinely understand. Let’s examine this pattern.

Step 1: No one is going to pay any attention to this. But I’m putting it out there anyway.
With great reluctance you put your modest offering out to the world, either on your own blog, or by sending it to a sympathetic site for publication. You’re pretty sure no one will read it, but in your secret mind you can’t help but think, “It might be big. It might go viral and get picked up by major media outlets.” You tell yourself the odds are so small, but in that tiny part of your heart that you barely admit exists, you’re hoping so hard you’re clamping your virtual butt cheeks together.

Step 2: Wait, someone likes that? Well, I might be an OK writer
It goes live, and within a few minutes, someone has commented favorably on it. You get a few more comments—positive, supportive, “I love this!” You sit up a little straighter, and unclench your virtual butt cheeks. Maybe this won’t be so bad. Maybe it’ll even be fine. Maybe you’re even a pretty good writer!

Step 3: Hey! They like me! I'm pretty good!
Many more comments, all of them nice—“You’re hilarious!” “You always make me laugh!” “THIS!” Maybe even a few shares on social media. Oh boy! They like you, they really, really like you! This is just incredible. You are high on recognition, and drunk with affirmation. And who knows? Maybe this one is your ticket! This is the one that will catch just the right attention. You could be on your way to widespread recognition! Ohpleaseohpleaseohplease.

Step 4: Wait? Where are you going?
But time passes (not much—an hour in the blogsphere is like seven years to a dog. Or something) and you’re not the shit anymore. Someone else has published something else that’s grabbing the spotlight. You’re old news, and your piece has only been out in the world for six hours. You try a little promotion—Facebook, maybe even a Twitter link (although you know that can be perceived as a sign of desperation). You just can’t compete with that other attention-grabber.

Step 5: I’m not as good as X.
You click on the link of the piece that’s splatted all over your Facebook feed, being shared by all your friends, writer and non-writer alike. What the fuck? This? This is what pulled the attention away from you? Yeah, OK it’s amusing and all, but is it really that much better than your piece? You read it again. And again. It…it really is better, isn’t it. Damn it. You’re not as good as s/he is, and why didn’t you think of that topic first? You’ve got tons to say about it. Damn. Damn. Damn.

Step 6: Maybe I should try to be more like X.
Maybe you should try to be more like the person who’s in the spotlight now. You read through some old posts of theirs, and jot down some ideas that you get. You notice how they present a joke, how they tackle a sensitive topic. You can do that. You’re as good as that. You snap open a Word doc and dive in to write something with their voice still in your head. You got this!

Step 7: I can’t do that—that’s not me. I’ll never be anything.
After half a dozen attempts, you realize you’re not going to be able to do it, because we can’t stifle our own voices. Despair sets in. You’ll never think of a good topic again. Screw this. You have ice cream. And Oreos. And wine.

You may spend several hours, days, or even weeks in Step 7. The funk is real. Then one day inspiration strikes, and you write something again. The cycle starts all over.

And this, people who do not write, is what it’s like to be a writer. The stress of coming up with a fresh angle on a topic.The fear our work won’t be accepted, the delight when it strikes the right note with an audience, the let down when it’s brushed aside like sand in the gutter, and the despair of ever finding inspiration again. Over and over and over. Day after day.

People who dismiss any form of written output, no matter how small, as “just words” or “no big deal” have never felt the pride of having their work recognized, nor the pain of having the feeling or opinion they’ve shared dismissed, belittled, or credited to someone else. Those feelings are real, and they are strong.

Be gentle with writers, for behind all their fine words, they are insecure, and easily hurt by carelessly flung barbs and thoughtless criticism. They really crave only acceptance and affection. If you can’t offer that, it’s best to just walk away without saying anything.

Embrace the Single Space

There’s been a lot of talk about Opus’s presidential campaign and his “wedge” issue. Opus is advocating for two spaces after a period. I think Opus is as qualified for office as any of the candidates, and in the case of Donald Trump, he may even be more qualified (given the choice between Donald Trump and a fictitious cartoon penguin, I’d vote for the fictitious cartoon penguin any day). The factions are vehement in their support of what they see as “right.” The rallying cries of, “bossy Liberals!” and “antiquated Neanderthals!” (as artist Berke Breathed characterized the two sides in one of his strips) are loud and many (and second only to those who want someone to take up the cause of the Oxford, or serial, comma, which really doesn’t need any help because it’s easy to prove how necessary it is with the Strippers-JFK-Stalin example—Google it).

I myself am a devoted one-spacer. When I typed on a typewriter, I was a two spacer, but when I started using Facebook and Twitter, which count spaces as “characters” I switched allegiances.  When you can add two or three or even four extra characters to a post or tweet, and when those characters can make or break a joke, I see a strong argument for converting. Sacrifice an unnecessary space in favor of a laugh? I’m in.

I have a friend (ahem*Jeff*ahem) who continues to adhere to the outdated, archaic practice of two spaces. His logic (inasmuch as one could call it “logic”) is that it makes a text easier to read. It’s more elegant. Well, so are hoop skirts, but you don’t see them on the street anymore.

My argument is that we’ve evolved beyond the need for two spaces. Just as we no longer use or need our appendix, two spaces is an idea whose time has passed. It’s not the only thing from earlier generations that has outlived its usefulness. New information has caused opinions to change and for us to ultimately reject many beliefs we previously regarded as nearly scriptural. Let’s have a little looksee at some of the wisdom we once accepted that has been proven false.

For starters, once upon a time there were four food groups. In that scenario both ice cream and cheese were considered a serving of dairy, providing calcium to build strong bones. Today cheese is a protein, and ice cream is in that unreachable tippy top of the pyramid, the Rapunzel’s tower of food, labeled, “sugar, added fats and salt: use sparingly.” What once would have been acceptable to consume daily as part of our necessary nutritional intake is now an occasional treat.

As a child, I was allowed to stand on the front seat of our VW bug with my head pressed against the roof. When forced to slam on the breaks suddenly, my mother would fling her right arm out to prevent me flying through the windshield. When I was too tall to stand (by about age four), I sat in the front seat and the same flinging arm restraint was employed. Today we wouldn’t dream of letting our four or five year old ride in the back seat without proper restraint, much less in the front seat, but back in the day it was the norm.

Automobile safety wasn’t the only thing we were misguided about as a society. How many times were we told to wait an hour to go swimming after we ate? Mothers cautioned us about the dire cramps we were liable to get if we went swimming too soon after lunch. We’d cramp up and drown, they said, and we all believed this, in spite of the fact that no deaths caused by ill-timed aquatic exertion ever made headlines.

Of course there are also things like red dye #2, chlorofluorocarbons, DDT, and cigarettes. All things we now know to be harmful, but which at one time we used and celebrated.

And so we return to the second space after a period. The argument for its pure aesthetic is a weak one. Studies have shown that the two space format does not, in fact, enhance readability in a text. To be fair, the argument of using only one space for the same reason doesn’t hold water, either. A single space saves real estate, whether in printed material, or in an electronic version. To continue to use two spaces when there is no real benefit or need is foolish. To do so because “that’s how we’ve always done it” is short sighted indeed. If that were the case, we’d be driving around without our seat belts, and smoking three packs a day.

The world evolves. Things change. Two spaces after a period has outlived its usefulness. Let us move forward as a society, and embrace the single space.

Here, Have a Meme or Two

This one is a favorite and, sadly, is all too true.

Parenting math: ("Pick up your socks" + "Take your bowl to the kitchen" + "Stop punching your brother") x ten billion = a one way ticket to the Funny Farm

Bonus meme! Because I give like that. It's what I do. I'm a giver.

I've never said this out loud. Yet.

Five Ways Toddlers are Better Than Tweens

I’m just about to have four tweens, and as I look back at their toddler and preschool years, I think that while they were a bigger challenge in some ways, there were some things that were much easier to manage when they were little.

Toddler tantrum caused by your refusal to let him “ice skate” on the hardwood floor using the potholders as skates. Duration:  three and a half minutes. Ended by distracting him by showing him how he could be Godzilla and knock over block towers.

Tween tantrum caused by your telling him his computer turn is over. Duration: five minutes of him telling you you’re the worst mother ever, followed by an hour and a half of sulking in his room with his ear buds jammed in his ears. Ended by his finally deigning to speak to you to demand that you to drive him to his friend’s house to hang out.

Spelling Things
A friend of ours was taking all four of the kids to the movies, and she wanted to know if she should get them pizza afterwards.  She spelled out the key word when she asked.

She said, “Should we stop for p-i-z-z-a on the way home?”

“Janey, they can all spell,” I told her.

Gone are the days of negotiating activities or treats via spelling out important concepts in conversation. It was a lot easier to plan when I could spell out the destination without raising hopes. My kids overhear my husband and me talking about going someplace, or possibly doing something, and they immediately spin up with excitement over it. Then as the conversation progresses, if it turns out that in fact the plan won’t work after all, they are disappointed. If I could still spell everything, they wouldn’t know what was happening until I chose to reveal it, and I’d be spared their whining when fun things didn’t work out.

I know there are mothers who think it’s a crime to lie to their children, and I think they’re missing out on a great coping strategy. When my kids were little, they’d bring me their (loud, obnoxious) battery powered toy saying it had stopped working.

“Oh gosh, “ I’d say, “I think the batteries are dead. Guess we’ll have to wait for Daddy to come home so he can change them!”

When they asked if I could do it, I would say I wasn’t sure where they went, or where the new batteries were. I’m quite sure that they got to a point where they thought I was a total moron because I couldn’t figure out how to change the batteries in  Chicken Dance Elmo, but I really didn’t care. Because by the time Daddy got home, they’d forgotten about said toy, and I’d bought another day of respite from listening to it.

Then came the fateful day that they figured out how to take the battery panel off the toy and change them for themselves. True, by that time they’d outgrown Chicken Dance Elmo, but they’d replaced him with something equally noisy and irritating.

I may be in the minority here, but I preferred toddler and preschool babble to tween babble. Even though it was hard to really get a coherent story out of them, and it was often endless unanswerable questions, it was adorable and charming. Now it’s about Minecraft and Boom Beach, or a million “what if” questions. The adorable and charming moments still happen, but they’re scattered between lectures about going OP, how much bigger his headquarters can be once he gets to level 11, or what if the world ends tomorrow. I try to care about the video games, really I do, because I understand it’s something they’re passionate about, but it’s hard to concentrate for fifteen minutes at a time. I guess it’s sort of the way they feel when I say things like, “Don’t leave your Go Gurt wrappers all over the couch—they go in the trash can!” So hard to pay attention through the whole thing.

I admit to being a complete germaphobe. Public restrooms gross me out beyond words, even though I’ve read all the studies about how the pen at the bank is more unsanitary than the toilet seat in the ladies room at the movie theater. Combine this with the fact that my children aren’t what you would call obsessive about washing their hands after they use a public restroom, and I’m over here basting myself with Purell just typing this.

I never had these problems when they were in diapers. Sure, I was wiping their shit covered asses, but at least I knew the level of sanitation of everyone involved. I would far rather change a diaper on a blanket in the back of my car, because I know just how clean (or not) my car is. Public restrooms are a total crap shoot (sorry) and give me the heebie-jeebies.  And when they were in diapers I had some control over when the change occurred. While I didn’t want to leave them in a wet diaper for long, if we had to go an extra ten minutes before we got to a rest area, we could. Now if they have to go, we need to find facilities fast, and of course they’re never synchronized in their needs.

I know better than to tell my friends with small children about any of these things. They would scoff and remind me of the constant chasing, the inability of small children to get their own damned Cheerios, and any number of other disadvantages to having people around who are under three feet tall and have the self-control and maturity level of Sean Penn and Justin Bieber combined and then halved. They would be right, of course, and it’s just nostalgia that makes me think any differently. Although it would be nice to still have children who didn’t roll their eyes every time I opened my mouth. But I guess that’s the price you pay for not having to wipe their asses for them anymore.

My Children's 238 Favorite Toys

In June I made a Christmas wreath out of my kids’ old toys. (Yes, in June. Shut up. Between homework and holidays there’s no way I can do anything that even remotely resembles a holiday craft after October first.) I bought a wreath form, wide red ribbon, and a tube of pretty strong adhesive at Michael’s and brought it all home. After wrapping the form in ribbon (if you try this, be warned—you will need a longer length of ribbon than you could ever conceive of, and Styrofoam sheds like a motherfucker, so wherever you’re working will end up looking like an outpost of Santaland at the Macy’s in Herald Square) I tripped down to the basement to check out the toy situation.

Like many families, we have relegated old toys to plastic storage boxes in the basement. Once upon a time my super-organized nanny printed out pictures of things like Matchbox cars, toy people, and Mr. Potato Head parts and stuck them on the front of the boxes so my children would know what toys they were supposed to put in the bins, assuming they actually put toys away when they were done playing with them, which HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!! Of course they don’t do that. So now I have all these plastic bins with pictures of what’s supposed to be in them, but what’s really in them is a huge mishmash of plastic toys from the past ten years of accumulating child-related shit.

I dragged three or four of the boxes upstairs with me, and began rooting through them. I found some very big toys to use as anchors, lots of medium and small toys to cover the majority of the surface area, and a bunch of small stuff like marbles and dice to fill the gaps. On the dining room table, I grouped them and started experimenting with positioning. Kids started drifting in, and asked what I was doing. I explained, and continued with my task. As my kids started poking at my piles, I got down to the business of attaching toys to the wreath form. I was interrupted by what sounded like the wail of a wounded wild animal whose favorite toy is about to be glued onto a Christmas wreath for all eternity.

"What? You're gluing that to the wreath? NO! I want to play with that! I want that!"

Um, no, that is a McDonald's Happy Meal toy that has been kicking around in a plastic storage bin in our basement for three years. You don't give a crap about it. You just see it now and think you want it. If I let you keep it, you will play with it for another twelve minutes before you abandon it in the living room, where it will stay for four days until I get sick of stepping over it, and pick it up and put it back in this bin. Then it will be returned to the storage area in the basement, where it will stay until your father goes on one of his quarterly cleaning jags and weeds out a bunch of stuff to sell at a yard sale, and makes up a few bags for Goodwill, which is where this will end up. To save us all time and effort, and contribute to our festive holiday spirit later this year, this is going on the wreath!

I mean, Jesus, AMIRITE? The only thing worse than “OMG I haven’t seen that toy in forever but it’s totally my favorite toy that I ever got and I will die if you get rid of it” is the one where it’s a completely undesirable toy that they have zero interest in until a sibling expresses an interest in it at which point it becomes the best toy ever which they must have or they will simply curl up and blow away from the unbearable devastation of their loss. After all, the best toy to have is a toy that someone else wants, and by preventing them from having it you are inflicting a sadistic and strangely pleasurable form of torture on them. Kids can be such assholes.

I managed to make the wreath without having them absorb any of those toys back into their orbit, although there were a couple that were highly coveted. The remaining toys are back in the basement, never given a second thought once they were out of sight again. Just as I predicted.

Parenting Network: Shows for Modern Moms and Dads

Tune into Parenting Network for a great new line up this season! Parenting Network offers a range of shows specifically for parents, covering timely topics such as whining, temper tantrums, and teenage angst. There’s something for everyone on the Parenting Network! The best thing is that we understand how real life moms and dads live—our format offers ninety seconds of programming followed by a four minute commercial break to give you the opportunity to referee fights, clean up cat puke, and change the laundry. Grab a bowl of goldfish crackers and a juice box and join us for the fun this Fall! Here's a sneak peek at some of what's coming your way!

Teen Clean
Parents pay the show’s team to completely clean out, repaint, and update the d├ęcor of their teen’s room while the teen is away for a weekend. On Sunday afternoon the parent reveals the refurbished space to their child, resulting in the teen having a complete breakdown over the invasion of their privacy, and the disposal of their precious “stuff,” crying that their parents just don’t “get” them.

Tween Jeopardy
Using the same format as the iconic original, Tween Jeopardy’s topics target the interests of modern tweens and teens (Minecraft, the Kardashians, proper eyebrow grooming). The twist? When contestants present their answer-in-the-form-of-a-question, the other participants and the host tell them they’re wrong, and argue with them. The show will be moderated by a different guest presenter each week, including pop idols Zayn Malik, Harry Styles, and Zendaya.

What’s For Dinner?
Three moms are challenged to make dinner with what they can find in the show’s pantry (consisting primarily of Cheetos, canned tomatoes, snack size boxes of raisins, and mayonnaise), in between helping three children to complete math and spelling homework, and finish a science fair project assigned three weeks ago, completely ignored at the time, and now due the next day. The winner is the parent not actively having a nervous breakdown at the end of the show.

School Countdown
Kids have twenty minutes to get ready for school—get dressed, brush their teeth, collect their backpacks, and get to the school bus. Every episode offers a special challenge such as
  •          I can’t find my homework. No, I swear I left it right here.
  •          I need a green pot holder, four plastic soda bottles, and a traffic cone for a project today or I get a zero.
  •          Have you seen my shoes?
Viewers will be on the edge of their seats to see if the kids make it to the bus on time!

Are You My Family?
Join in the hilarity as four families swap kids around, sending them to live with other parents! The children discover that all parents are mean, make their kids do homework, and refuse to let them have unlimited screen time. Parents learn that all kids are whiny assholes sometimes, which of course they already knew.

Easy Living Summer
Follow the summer vacations of three families. Watch the parents’ resolve slowly deteriorate until the kids are eating popcorn and American cheese slices for breakfast, watching television and playing computer games all day long, and staying up until midnight every night. Share their pain as the kids morph into unresponsive zombies, hell bent on unlearning every particle of information from the previous school year. Each show ends with the parents confessing the complete abandonment of their will to live. You’ll cry and plead for the sweet release of death along with them!

Holiday Weekend Placeholder

As we reach the "other end" of summer, like so many of you, I will be grilling things and eating pie and such. Here's a meme I made of a tweet I wrote about an experience I had. I hope everyone has a happy Labor Day weekend!

Summer Reruns: "Knights" In White Satin

I wrote this post a couple of years ago. School starts in ten days, and while I don't mind the nice weather, I'm kind of over the whole lack of structure summer thing, to the point that I can't even force myself to be productive. So like the television networks, here's a rerun for you until I can get my act together sufficiently to come up with some new material.

A couple of weeks ago, I was reading a blog entry, the subject of which was, “I always thought…” (people said things like, I thought talk about euthanasia was about youth in Asia, or I thought Kosher pickles had no pork in them, that sort of thing). In the comments, people added hundreds and hundreds of further things that they misunderstood, in some cases for years. A lot of people thought Roy Orbison was blind because he always wears those sunglasses.

One of them was this:

“I thought the Moody Blues song was “Knights In White Satin”. I couldn’t understand why the knights wore white satin & not armor.”
And I confess that all these years I too had thought that song was about actual guys jousting and wooing ladies faire, not the part of the day when it’s not light outside. I mean, read the words—they really could be about anything:

“Nights (or, if you’re me, Knights) in white satin, never reaching the end,
Letters I've written, never meaning to send.
Beauty I'd always missed with these eyes before.
Just what the truth is, I can't say anymore.

'Cos I love you, yes I love you, oh how I love you.”

Etc. (Sure, there are two more verses, but one is exactly the same as the one above, and the other is just some philosophical bullshit about figuring out who you want to be. Or something. I confess I don’t really know, but since I spent the better part of thirty years thinking that the song was actually about guys who had been recognized by some king or other for their outstanding behavior, I’m not sure I’m the best candidate to analyze the lyrics.)
I mean, seriously all you’ve got there is a generic love song. And the “Late Lament” (the spoken bit at the end) doesn’t really add a clarifying element. It’s just there.

But when I posted about this on Facebook, several people thought I was nuts. Mostly guys who were old enough to remember when the song was a hit. One friend pointed out that the album has a very specific theme that, had I listened to the whole thing, would have made such an error impossible. But I had this specific set of images that went through my head when I heard the song, and the news that they were completely wrong just took the wind out of my sails.
I decided to share this amazing news with someone who I was sure would get it. I went in to talk to my boss. She’s about the same age I am, grew up in the same general area of the country, and has a lot of the same cultural background that I do.

I said, “So, I was reading this blog entry about things you misunderstood. And there was this one that said, ‘I always thought the Moody Blues song was, ‘Knights in White Satin’ like actual guys in armor but apparently it’s ‘night’ as in not daytime…’” And as I’m saying this out loud to her, I can see the same look crossing her face that crossed mine when I read it the first time.
It was the look that said, “You mean…it’s not?”

For almost the same length of time, she too had always had an image of guys in white satin suits cruising around doing chivalrous things. So it was nice to know I wasn’t alone. And really, I was even less alone than I’d originally thought, even taking into account my manager’s company in this age-old misconception. It turns out that in the comments section of this entry, there were dozens and dozens and dozens of people who had always thought the same thing.
And the truth about this song that caused me so much angst? Yeah, I actually don’t like it very much. It’s a very irritating and persistent ear worm for me. Even as I write this, I am tortured by it running through my head. And it will be with me for days now, dammit. But on the plus side, I did know Roy Orbison wasn’t blind.