Tuesday, August 31, 2010

What I Found on My Porch: Update

E-mail from Boy#3 this morning: "Do you know what vehicle you are bringing up here on Saturday, and if it is the truck, would you be able to bring the extra propane tank I found up here (assuming we still have it)?"

Knowing how his room looked when he left for college, and that no one has been nagging him about his housekeeping for the past month, I don't even want to ask why he needs a flamethrower. 

Monday, August 30, 2010

How's It Going?

Someone asked me in church yesterday life how is in the Empty Nest.

I thought about it for a few minutes, then I said, well, first there was this:

Then we had children, and for 24 years it was this:

We miss all the clowns piling out of the tiny little car, but the silence is kind of refreshing.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Recipe for Fall

Start with the most beautiful late August morning created. Add a husband who had planned to go to the office, and generous friends with apple trees so loaded the branch tips are touching the ground.

Shuffle through the dewy grass and fill buckets with the apples. Then ride around with the windows down and look at dream houses. Smile regally, but graciously, when Husband admits that this was a better way to spend a Saturday morning than catching up on bookwork.

Arrange the four buckets of apples on the deck and try (unsuccessfully) to get the dog to pose with them. Hi, Pepper! Want to sit? No? Okay.

Cut up the apples and put them in the biggest soup pot you have. Add three small jam jars of water (because that's the only measuring device handy). I add this detail because every year when I make applesauce I cannot remember how much water to add. Unless the internet goes missing, I now have it in writing.

Cover. Bring to a boil. Go read a book for a while. Scrub the floor. Turn off the heat.

Remember you don't have any of your Super Special Ingredient. Dash to Wal-Mart and discover they have no Super Special Ingredient for sale. Don't panic. Check the two grocery stores in town, neither of which has Super Special Ingredient. Begin to panic, but then check Dollar General, and WOOT! Twelve bags of Super Special Ingredient. Buy them all.
This seems like a lot, but it's okay. Super Special Ingredient won't hurt you because it's a FAT FREE FOOD.

Now that your cooked apples have cooled, get out the Foley mill. This is a handy gizmo that turns cooked apples into applesauce and leaves behind a tiny little handful of seeds and trash for the composter. (Do not Google "Did the same person invent the Foley mill and the Foley catheter?" You will not find out.)

 Add one package of Super Special Ingredient and one-half cup sugar. This will turn the applesauce from its, let's face it, unappealing pea-green natural color to a beautiful, rosy pink.

Now. Put your face right next to the pot of applesauce and inhale the warm cinnamon apple steam.You'll see I'm right.

You've just made fall.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Perhaps the Best $1 I've Ever Spent

Flowers from the farmers' market. Eight for a dollar, and the nice lady throws in the greenery.

Alternate Title #1: Another Thing I Love About Living in a Small Town

Alternate Title #2: Ignore the Water Stain on the Music Cabinet

Alternate Title #3: I'll Be Happy All Week.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

An Open Message to the Phone Company

Dear AT&T,

Stop calling me.

Stop immediately, and forever. I'm making this demand for three reasons.

First of all, the privilege of calling my home phone number belongs to people who know how to pronounce my last name, and don't start the conversation with "Hello, Mrs...pause...$&*90$?" The name's not that hard, folks, especially if you follow the German name rule of silent-first-vowel-long-second-vowel.

Second, you always call at an inconvenient time. Granted, I cannot think of a time when I would be particularly eager to take your call. But holy cow, do you have a talent for picking the opposite of convenient. When I'm trying to drain the spaghetti. When I have exactly 10 minutes for a nap and not a second more. When I'm on the phone with SOMEONE I LIKE AND WOULD LIKE TO HEAR THE END OF HIS STORY. Ahem.

Finally, you are wasting your time. I do not do telephone, except for talking on it. I do not decide our carrier, or add new features to our service, or pay the bill. That is Husband's job. Asking me to talk to you about telephones would be like asking him to talk to you about when one of the Boys had his last tetanus shot. Ludicrous.

So, AT&T, leave me alone. Forever. Or else. And if you've ever been a teen-aged boy, you know the sincerity of that threat.


Life Goes On

When my mother died in December, suddenly and shockingly, my boss spoke to me after the funeral.

"Don't try to come back to work too soon," he said. "People will expect you to actually work."

The life transition Husband and I are going through now is nothing like losing Mom. Her death was an unexpected blow; this transition has been anticipated and planned for two decades. When it comes to my job, though, it's hard not to compare the aftermath.

This week is a milestone in my life, but in the lives of everyone else it's just the start of another academic year with its normal frantic pace. Everyone needs the brochures and invitations and press releases they've been promised, and they need them now.

I find myself having the same conversations in my mind I had in January.

"But I'm tired! Don't you see that, even though everything has gone well, this has been hard? I need a break," my brain shrieks as I open another e-mail that wonders why that poster isn't done yet. The deadline for the next major publication looms and the writing isn't even within imagination of being done.

It's such a momentous stage in my life that I find myself surprised that life has gone on in its old routines, but the routines, and the deadlines, continue with the precision of a Bach prelude.

If only I could get back into the rhythm.

Monday, August 23, 2010

First Day of School

This is a representative picture of one of my children, taken on his first day of school. I'm not identifying which child it is because frankly, they all look alike. (Oh, stop. I do, too, know which one it is; I just forgot for a few minutes.)

We started taking ceremonial pictures the first day of Boy#1's preschool, which means we have a couple dozen shots of kidlets lined up on the front steps with their summer tans and new backpacks. They are the photographic embodiment of unexplored possibility. Who will have the next desk? Will the teacher be nice?

The boys look so scrubbed and beautiful that I forget that the first day of school also was fraught with nervous tension. Do they have all the school supplies? Is each and every one of the 48-packs of crayons marked with the kid's name? Where is that fourth box of Kleenexes?

As the years went on the first day of school pictures took on less weight. The first year a high school kid got to sleep in one more day before his classes started, we crept up the stairs and gathered around his bed to make sure he was included as part of the first day. He did not find it particularly amusing.

By the time we had teenagers my cheery call of "Let's get a picture!" was likely to kick off a chain reaction of eyerolling. Granted, this is the default reaction of teenagers, and my cheery call was more along the lines of "Line up here, right now, and smile, and STOP DOING THAT, WE ARE LATE, " but childbirth amnesia mercifully extends to first days of school.

Today is the first day of school at the two universities where all four will be in class. For the law student and the freshman, this is a full day of newness. Where is that building? Will the teacher be nice? Who will have the next desk?

Someone, please, take a picture.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Men vs. Women

I was 27 years old, a college graduate who had worked in my profession and spent 3 1/2 years in the Peace Corps, when I first realized the most basic difference between men and women.

I was working in my new job in a city several hours from where I grew up. I didn't know anyone, but I was excited to be living there. But then I left work one day and my car wouldn't start. My boss helped me jump the battery, and I drove it to a gas station for repairs.

When I got home, I called my parents.

"Dad, my car wouldn't start when I left work today," I told my father.

There was silence on the line. Finally he spoke.

"I'm not sure what I can do from here."

I laughed (because by then I could) and said, "It's okay, Dad, I don't need you to do anything. Could you put Mom on the phone?"

And that was where I finally understood the most fundamental difference between men and women, one that seems to run true no matter what the setting--home, work, friendships. That difference is this:

Men need to fix things. Women need to comfort.

This week seems to have been fine for Boy#4 except for Thursday, which was one of those Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Days that seem inevitable for new college students. The long days of Band Week were already taking their toll on his endurance when he was stung by a bee during practice. Then he realized that the $50 he had in his wallet had disappeared somewhere.

When he texted us about the money, Husband immediately called him.

"Are you sure it didn't fall out in your room? You'd better get in touch with your dorm staff and let them know, so that it's on the record in case anyone else has problems. Here, your mother wants to talk to you."

Then he handed the phone to me.

"Honey, I'm so sorry. That just stinks."

He's the fixer, I'm the soother. I like to think we're a pretty good team.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

I Could Get Used to This

Husband and I dropped by the store for a few things last night. Imagine my surprise when "a few things" actually meant...well, a few things.

Four apples. A half gallon of milk. One package of lunch meat. One loaf of bread. A package of walnuts. Four ears of corn. Cotton balls. Two servings of yogurt.

Who are these people and what have they done to my shopping habits?

In the good old days, every trip to the grocery store started with six gallons of milk and six boxes of cereal, then spiraled upward from there. I would stare longingly at the single ham slices as I tossed a whole ham into the cart, and bypassed the two-to-a-package pork chops for the Family Size! Great Value! multi-pound pack.

Simply getting everything into the cart was something of an art form. Canned vegetables were stacked in cases in the bottom of the cart, eggs and bread in the baby seat, and the cereal rode underneath. By the time I reached the frozen food aisle I was rearranging the cereal boxes to form side rails so the frozen peas didn't slide off the top.

It was a magnitude of foraging that most of my fellow shoppers had never witnessed.

"I have four teenaged boys," I found myself explaining as I maneuvered past the retired fellow in the bread aisle who stared, horrified, at me and my selections (one loaf of nine-grain for my healthy-eating guy, a loaf of white for the ones who HAAAAATE that crunchy stuff, two packages of bagels for after school snacks, hamburger buns).

I was That Woman in the check-out line, no matter how quickly I unloaded the cart onto the conveyor belt.

"Four teenaged boys," I muttered over and over like an exculpating mantra.

So last night was a new experience. We took our few things and sauntered to the express check-out. The checker made polite conversation, and didn't even call for back-up to help sack our purchases. The receipt was only six inches long, far below my personal record receipt that maxed out the yardstick.

I could get used to this.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Wall Decor

At the top of Boy#4's college shopping list was a state flag. It was the only thing he specifically wanted to put display on the wall of his dorm room. Unfortunately, the Waco Wal-Mart had no Plasti-Tak, so he'll have to wait a few more days to let the Sons of the Six Flags know that you don't mess with Kansas, either.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Hardest One

This is the hardest one.

It isn't just because he's the youngest, and today we'll be driving toward an empty house where now we'll be the last ones awake at night.

It's because he's always been the shy one, and this first week will be so very far out of his comfort zone. It's because he's always been the one who preferred that his waking hours be the wee hours and now has 8 a.m. classes. It's because now when he says "Fine" I won't be able to see his face and know if he's really fine.

But then I remember that the hardest one was in 2004, the first one, when I didn't know what to expect and worried about every. single. thing. Then the hardest one was in 2006, when Boy#2 was so very, very far away. Followed by the hardest one in 2008, my sensitive child.

This is the hardest one. But only for today.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Out of Place

I never feel more Country Mouse than when I am standing at the counter of a fancy coffee place. (And by fancy coffee place, I mean anyplace that isn't our beloved local coffee shop.)

But I have carried around two Starbucks gift cards around in my wallet for years. Today, with no free breakfast at the Priceline GENIUS's luxurious find because the place is just that fancy (woohoo!), I bit the bullet and handed over the cards.

At this point I realize I'm not even sophisticated enough to order. I know I'm the last one to the party when it comes to complaining about made-up names for caffeinated drink sizes, but I have no idea. Do the cool kids really call it a venti? Or do insiders just say "large"?

"One laa..venti coffee, and a venti cappucino."

"Okay, and that leaves you with $19.01 on this card," the cheerful young cashier told me. Or maybe he wasn't a cashier. Maybe he was a barista. Did I need to tip him? Was this a place where tipping would be gauche ?

I took my two enormous...I mean venti...cups of deliciousness and slunk out the door. At least there's one silver lining here. At the prices for coffee here, $19.01 will only last about two more trips.


Friday, August 13, 2010

What I Will Miss

I read somewhere that it costs a million-gajillion-gabillion dollars to raise a child from birth to age 18. This is an approximate figure, but our experience bears out its accuracy.

Of all the money we have spent to raise all these children all these years, though, one discretionary expense I've never regretted has been the expense of music.

It is not an inconsequential amount. This is the mathematical equation:

(4 boys x piano lessons) + (1 boy x trombone lessons) + (1 boy x violin lessons) + (1 boy x trumpet lessons) + (1 boy x French horn lessons) + (2 x trombones) + (1 x trumpet) + camps + miscellaneous = $4 million-gajillion-gabillion (minus snacks)

Of course, on the plus side of the equation is the self-knowledge I gained during the earliest years of piano lessons. That was when I sat down to "help" Boy#1 practice and we both ended up in tears. Every day. I knew at that point I could not possibly homeschool. I managed to minimize the musical trauma until Boy#4 started piano, two years after I had gone back to work full-time.

"You're really lucky," I overheard Boy#1 telling Four. "You don't have Mom yelling 'COUNT! COUNT! ONE-TWO-THREE!' from the kitchen while you're practicing."

(In my defense, how in the world can you not HEAR that songs don't normally change time signatures six times in two lines?)

We persisted past the painful early years, though, and eventually continuing in music became the Boys' decisions and not their parents'. Each found his own musical niche.

Boy#4 claimed that the best time to practice piano was at 10 p.m., after homework was done and I had gone to bed. The sounds of Hanon and scales, then "Claire de Lune" and Schumann, became my favorite lullaby.

Boy#2 discovered that his deepest college friendships were forged in the furnace of scorching two-a-day August marching band practices, and Boy#3 became a music major at my alma mater.

This fall we'll be following three Boys in two university marching bands. We'll set the DVR to rewind game tapes for any glimpses of the trombone section, and the horn section, and the tuba section. We'll shriek "There he is!" and marvel that a football game bookends this wonderful concert.

It's a moment that makes the $4 million-gajillion-gabillion investment worthwhile.

One Last Piece of Advice

1. Get some sleep.

2. Eat fruits and/or vegetables at every meal.

3. When you have a choice between the easy thing and the right thing, do the right thing. The right thing is always easier in the long run.

4. Remember who loves you.

5. Start reading assignments early.

6. Give it some time. What you're feeling right now probably won't be what you're feeling 24 hours from now.

7. Back up your data.

8. Don't ignore deadlines.

9. Actions have consequences--make good decisions.

10. God's in control.

11. Put your feet on the floor as soon as the alarm rings.

12. Don't sit in your room for more than two hours at a time unless it's between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

13. You are more capable than you think and are are well-prepared for all of this--the classes, the responsibility, the new.

14. Go to every single class and don't sit in the back row.

15. You are not alone, even if it may feel like that sometimes.

16. Drink lots of water.

17. Take a break after every hour of reading.

18. I know I'm wasting my time, but I'll say it anyway: Wear a bike helmet.

19. Do at least one thing for yourself every day.

20. Do at least one thing for someone else every day.

21. Pray without ceasing.

22. Don't hang out with people who make you feel bad.

23. Are you hungry? Tired? Lonely? Then be especially careful to make good decisions.

24. Never, ever, not even once, let someone drive who has been drinking. Ever. And if you have before, don't do it again. See #3 above.

25. Call your mother. She misses you.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Just Another Great Reason I Married Him

My husband has many wonderful qualities (he is a Priceline GENIUS). Perhaps the most useful at this time of the year, though, is an ability not acknowledged every day.

Boy#3 summed it up this way: "Dad could put 10 pounds of flour in a 5-pound sack."

So when it was time to get all of this:

into this:

who you gonna call?

That's right. Not Mom.


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Way It Should Be

Staying in a hotel with a big family is hard.

There aren't enough beds, so there's always a heated discussion about who gets the sleeping bags. Babies don't fall asleep when they should, and the room temperature tends to be too hot for some and too cold for others.

Still, I've always loved one aspect of staying in hotels with my family--I could reach out and touch every one of them.

Last night at 6:08, Boy#2 and Husband (formerly known as Boy the Eldest) walked in the back door. They had driven 3 1/2 days from Two's internship in California, surviving tire problems and temperatures that were 15 degrees higher every day they moved closer to the Kansas heat wave.

You know that sound a padlock makes when you've turned to the first number, spun it back a full turn and past to the next number, then back to the the final number and the tumblers click into place? That was the sound my psyche made at that moment. Everything felt the way it should be again.

That is assuming the way it should be is raucous, deafening, crowded, and filled with computer cables. Within minutes Two and Three were in front of the Wii, giggling uncontrollably and swinging the controllers as if they were castanets. Four was the cheerleader, and One was setting the table for supper. The decibel level elevated geometrically and in proportion with the computer boxing.

The non-stop babble continued through supper. Two loved California and his job, although the summer of research didn't solve the project he was working on ("but I think they pretty much expected that"). In this day of instant communications and unlimited texting, there is no catching up to be done, only joy in breathing the same air again.

And as I did when they were babies and we were all in the same hotel room, every so often I reached out and touched one of them, knowing we only have a few hours all together before the next journeys begin.

The boys are back in town.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

My Sons Are So Supportive

Boy#1, after I had sent him this link and told him I will enter next year: "YES! I heard the ad for this on NPR the other day and immediately thought of you. Well, after they said it was for ages 50 and over."

Boy#3: "She's going to win! Well, maybe not. There are a lot of old people who have nothing to do but spell."

Monday, August 9, 2010

What I Won't Miss So Much

Shoes. Everywhere.

There are shoes in the kitchen.

Sneakers in the dining room.

Slides in the sunroom.
Good shoes outside the downstairs bathroom,

and flip-flops behind the chair in the TV room.

But it's all good, because the sandals beside the backpack in the TV room...

...have a Boy's man-feet almost in them.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

How to Decorate a Dorm Room

When Boy#1 was getting ready to go to college, I asked him if he'd like to get in touch with his new roommate and coordinate colors of their bedspreads. He looked at me for a long moment without saying anything. Finally he spoke.

"Mom, when I was born, did the doctor forget to tell you I was a boy?"

When I was going off to college, my roommate and I carefully chose matching bedspreads, pillows, everything down to the dry erase boards we double-sided-taped to our doors. A boy, I have learned, needs to know only two words: Navy, and blue.

Navy is the decorating equivalent of the little black dress, and makes college shopping a breeze. Navy comforter, navy towels, navy sheets, navy trashcan, and for variety, three blue striped washcloths. Done.

Boy#4 is the final child I will outfit for college. It was my last chance to gussy up dorm room.

"How about a valance? That would look nice and homey."

He looked at me with the exact same expression his oldest brother had when I tried to put the decor in dorm decoration.

"Mom, we have mini-blinds."

Of course. Silly me.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

I Blame It On Banjo Bob

I am not a cat person.

I trace my ambivalence back to my days growing up on a farm. We always had cats, but that was like saying we always had lawnmowers. Cats were utilitarian, no-nonsense beings that fended off rodent invasions in the barn, much like the lawnmower fended off the creeping bermuda grass. I mean, you wouldn't pull the lawnmower up on your lap and scratch behind its ears, would you? The mower would have thought you were crazy, and so would the cat.

So I grew up appreciative but emotionally ambivalent about cats. I didn't officially become a non-cat person until college, when I met Banjo Bob.

Banjo Bob was the beloved pet of one of my friends (hi, Janie!), who had raised him from big-eyed, sharp-ribbed abandoned kittenhood. He had nothing but love and adoration from Janie as he passed through adolescence and into slinky adulthood.

And this proves that even in the animal world nature trumps nuture: Banjo Bob was a psycho. I was trying to become a cat person at that point, and approached BB with eager supplication: "What a pretty kitty! Aren't you a good boy? Come sit on my lap and let me pet you!"

Banjo Bob would ignore me until I gave up pathetically begging for his attention. Then, when my back was turned, he'd jump on my head. Or take a swipe at my ankles from under the couch. Or leer at me from the kitchen counter, which he KNEW drove me crazy.

I found myself wishing that Noah had seen this cat coming toward the ark: "Elephants? Check. Aardvarks? Check. Hyenas? Check. Banjo Bob? Oh, I don't think so."

But given that the cats did make it onto the Ark, I'm stuck trying to fake love for them when I'm around the portion of humanity that loves cats. Which is to say, most of it.

Cats know I'm a non-convert, so they LOOOOOVE me. If I were one lone non-cat person among 10,000 other cat persons in a room, and I was hiding behind the floor-length drapes standing perfectly still and barely breathing, and a cat were randomly introduced into the room, that cat would make a beeline for those drapes and slither under them to find my black skirt, whereupon he would projectile shed every bit of its hair onto my skirt, then lick my face in his effort to convert me to the Feline Nation. And there I would stand, doing my best to love the cat, and failing, and feeling myself being judged by 9,999 cat persons.

I know what these cat persons would say to me as I stand there trying to brush the hair off my skirt: Cats are lovely, and loving, and loyal, and I just don't understand.

And I would reply, "You haven't met Banjo Bob."

I'll stick with my lawnmower.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Rites of Passage

My text message ringtone chimed as I drove down Bliss Street.

By the way, I just got into an at-fault accident at work. The car's jacked up.

He had been making deliveries in the company car and didn't see the old pick-up coming as he headed for a parking place. Police cars with flashing lights were on the scene as I approached; no one was hurt, but the fender of the car was crumpled and the pick-up hood gaped.

Boy was standing beside the car in his work uniform. He was holding it together, better than I would have been, but for my shy, conscientious last-born, this combination of exposure and knowledge of fault was excruciating. The strain showed on his face, making him look both older and heartbreakingly young.

I stood beside him in the noonday heat for a few minutes as measurements were taken and tow trucks called.

"Do you want me to stay, or would you rather I go?"

"You can go ahead."

So I drove away, as we do when our children are learning to be adults.

My first fender-bender crumpled the passenger door of my car. Like Boy, I was working when it happened and had to call my boss to explain why I was late getting back to the office.

"I'll be working late tonight," I told her. "I ran into a pole and I need to get an insurance estimate." My voice wobbled and broke.

Go home, she told me. The next morning she told me of her own son's first wreck, and their ensuing conversation.

"He was too grown-up to cry, but it hurt too much to laugh."

Now I know that mothers feel exactly the same way.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Trying New Things

Boy#4 wasn't the only one trying something new last week.

Look! I'm on a train!

And in no particular order, these are the things I loved about the trip:

1. The darling Costa Rican grandmother with whom I shared a seat between Temple and Fort Worth. I was giving her the "usted" treatment until I realized with dismay that this senora probably was younger than I am. Of course, I'm always 26 when I speak Spanish.

2. The charming conductors who helped with my suitcase, and didn't charge to bring it home with me. (Phooey to you, American Airlines.)

3. The sway of the train, and the distant train whistle. Hey! That's us!

4. Plenty of space for my bags, and my knees.

5. Reclining seats with pop-up footrests.

6. The sleeping.

7. The reading.

8. The knitting.

9. Did I mention the sleeping?

If the 3 1/2 hour lay-over in Fort Worth had been just a touch shorter, or had included just a dozen or so fewer shrieking children in the waiting room, this would have been the perfect trip.

Amtrak, I'll be baaaaaack!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Old Friends

What astounds me is this:

I love being middle-aged.

When I was the age my boys are now, I dreaded being un-young. The sensible shoes. The sprayed hair. The oversized glasses. The loss of cool.

Now that I'm there, though, I've realized that I've been middle-aged all my life, even when I was chronologically in my teens: I had no cool to lose. Sensible shoes are comfortable, oversized glasses accommodate bifocals, and sprayed hair is surprisingly practical.

An unexpected benefit of being 50-something is that my friends are also middle-aged.

I spent the weekend with the some of my oldest friends, at least in terms of years of friendship. These are the relationships that have survived since childhood, the kind that feels as if every conversation should begin "As we were saying..." even if it was a decade since we last spoke.

A few years ago the four of us decided to not let a decade go by between the conversations, so now we get together every summer for one weekend. The soundtrack sounds like this:


We discover that we're a little older, a little creakier, a little more forgetful, but we're also more our true selves every year. The years have worn off most of the sharp edges; there's no need to impress or dissemble.

We stay up late and eat pie for breakfast and squeeze a year of closeness into 48 hours.

Then we put on our sensible shoes, walk out the door, and miss each other for 11 months and 28 days.