Tuesday, May 27, 2014

I Think My Daughter is a Spy

You know how, in spy novels, there's always some secret catchphrase or password that the secret agents use to identify each other, to determine who's a good guy and who isn't? Something like, "The eagle flies at midnight" or "Joe sent me" or "A Volkswagen Carmen Ghia has no radiator" (if you've seen the movie Cars 2 a million times, as I have, that last one should sound very familiar). My daughter has been uttering phrases like that all week long, to everyone she meets, obviously hoping for a countersign. Some of the more common ones are, "Max the dragon has lost his glasses," "Rocks can't talk," and "Follow me, Gossie!"

I'm pretty sure she's a spy.

It's not just the secret passwords, either. I often find her speaking into random objects, like a Barbie doll, a toy car, a stuffed animal, or a shoe (Maxwell Smart, anyone?). And if I ask her what she's up to, she immediately puts on an innocent face and, with an angelic smile, informs me sweetly, "Nothin'!" I'm not buying it, though. I think she's setting up a meet with her weasel. But as it's generally in code ("Murth dawonga weebo, na poopah"), I can't be sure.

She likes to play with my Kindle Fire, my smartphone, and my desktop computer, all of which connect to the internet. And every time she finishes using one of them, the history only shows innocent sites like Lego videos and episodes of Nick Jr. shows and PBS Kids' Games. I'm not buying that, either. I'm pretty sure she's already computer-savvy enough to wipe the browser history and plant an innocuous trail of games. I'm starting to think that "Curious George: Roller Monkey" and "Elmo Asks, 'Where's Telly?'" are really just ways to pass along secret information on other spies; "drop sites," if you will.

The really scary part, though, is that I'm not entirely sure she's a good guy. She tends to cheer for the villains more often than a secret agent on the right side of the law should. The adoring way she announces, "Exborgs!" when the villainous army makes an appearance to fight the Power Rangers; the excitement in her voice when the letters crash down from the coconut tree in "Chicka Chicka Boom Boom"; the giddy laughter when one of the cartoon bad guys gets the best of Word Girl - those are all signs that she may not be playing on the good guys' team.

On the other hand, being a spy seems to be teaching her some really useful life skills. She can apparently speak multiple languages (one of them sort of being English), her computer hacking skills are right up there with the average freshman at MIT, and her innocent face could win her an Academy Award. When it comes to disguises, she is the queen of dressing up. She can transform herself into a princess, a hoppy frog, or a dragon in the blink of an eye, with a minimum of accessories. And she is almost hamster-like in her ability to squeeze into and through small spaces.

Oh well, maybe having an evil secret agent in the family isn't such a bad thing. Evil spies have minions, right? I could do with a minion or two around here. Preferably one that does laundry. And windows. Maybe even an evil pool boy minion. Yeah, I could get behind this secret agent thing. Okay, Joe sent me. Now get him to send me those minions!

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Thursday, May 15, 2014

Beautiful/Not Beautiful

I am not beautiful.

My features are not perfect and regular and symmetrical. They are not balanced and harmonious. They are not delicate and feminine.

My teeth are neither perfectly white nor perfectly straight. They are a bit too large for my face, a bit disproportionate and overly prominent. They are crooked. 

My skin is not creamy and smooth and unblemished. It bears scars, wrinkles, sun damage, stretch marks. There are furrows on my brow and crow’s feet at the corners of my eyes. I am developing a bit of a turkey wattle.

My hair is gray, and often unwashed. It is rarely styled, or even blow-dried.

My waist is not tiny, nor are my breasts full and ripe and “perky” any longer. I have a pooch, the remnants of two pregnancies after the age of 40. There is not even a hint of a gap between my thighs. My muscles, such as they are, are hidden beneath a layer of pudge.

There are bunions on my misshapen feet. My right hand is twisted and gnarled, like an old woman’s.

There is no physical perfection in me.

But my eyes have seen my children grow. They have watched over, and protected, and soothed. They have gone without sleep as I rocked and calmed and quieted a fussy child. My ears have listened to childish prattle, and childish wisdom. They have stayed alert for cries in the night. There are marks around my mouth, from laughing, and from weeping. The wrinkles around my eyes are from smiling, and from pain.

My teeth often show in a smile, a smile of pride, a smile of joy, a smile of relief. I smile back when my children smile at me, when I see them enjoying life, enjoying the world around them, enjoying the thrill of discovery. My smile may not be perfect, or beautiful, but it is genuine. It is heartfelt. It is sincere. It is joyful.

My skin may not bear the softness of youth, but it bears the kisses of children and the handprints of small people gazing intently into my eyes as they ask me questions about life and the world and their own existence. My scars are the reminder of the pains of my own childhood, reflected in my children’s pain – pain resulting from their curiosity and their exploration of the world around them and the imperfection of the same – and in the joys of discovery. The sun damage is from hours spent outside myself, curious and exploring. The stretch marks are badges of honor from carrying my children in my own body, of the months of nausea and anticipation and tears and excitement and fear and delight and watching my body change before my eyes. The furrows on my brow are echoes of my worries about my children – will they be happy? Successful? Employed? Lucky in love? Will their morals echo my own? Will they value God? Education? Family? Philanthropy? Will they be good people? Am I being a good mother? Am I teaching them what they need to know to have a good life? Did I raise them so they will make the world a better place?

My hair may be gray and unkempt, but its color is unnoticed by the small hands who stroke it as they fall asleep, who brush it and comb it and put combs and clips and barrettes in it, who kiss it and nuzzle it and tug at it and are fascinated by it.

The size of my waist doesn’t matter to small people who throw their arms around that same waist, who wrap their legs around it as I play horsey. My breasts may not be as pert as they once were, but they provide a soft pillow for a sleepy or sad child. What I think of as “pudge,” they see as embraceable, comforting softness. The limited muscle I have is enough for a piggyback ride, a toss in the air, a boost into the car.

The bunions on my feet don’t matter, as long as my children can stand on my feet as we waltz or tango around the room, laughing gaily. The twisted fingers of my hand can still comfort and soothe and snuggle. They can still steady unsure feet, swing a small body into the air, “scritch” a tired back, soothe a fevered brow.

There is no physical perfection in me. And yet, I am here. I care. I comfort. I love.

To my children, I am perfect.

In their eyes, I am beautiful.

No other eyes matter. To them, I am beautiful.

I am beautiful.

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Friday, May 9, 2014

The Art in my Heart

When I was a young, working single, I was surprised by how often executives had children’s art displayed prominently in their offices. The rest of their office d├ęcor was generally tasteful prints or paintings, interesting sculptures, various trophies or framed awards, a family portrait here or there. But amidst the “true” art, there would be a crayon drawing, a small handprint in paint, an unidentifiable lump of fired clay. I understood, at a certain level, that these were pieces of their children, mementoes of the smallest members of their families. But until I had children myself, I didn’t understand fully what these bits of immature artwork represent.

I don’t have an office, but my refrigerator is covered in such artwork. Twice a week, my son brings home a project from school. In the recent past, it has been a cutout paper window with two red felt tulips glued in the center, a letter C covered in cotton ball clouds, a smiling bunny made of miniature marshmallows glued onto pink paper, and – my personal favorite – a flower made from a green paint handprint with a photo of my son’s smiling face pasted in the middle. (His shame-faced admission that he had tasted the paste was the icing on the artistic cake.)

I understand now that the beauty of this art is not only in seeing the developing motor skills of a child, but in the sweetness of that child’s excitement in presenting the results of his artistic hard work to a beloved parent. Its beauty is in capturing a moment in time which will pass all too quickly – the small hand reaching for mine now will become a larger one seeking its own way. The messy, random brush strokes will mature into controlled, well thought-out technique. The teacher’s handwriting will soon become his own, at first labored and later neat and even. This artwork is a moment in time, a moment of innocence, and sweetness, and confidence, and potential. It captures, even more than a photograph can, the split-second of my son as he is now.

It’s not just the art on my fridge. It’s the art in my heart.

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Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Stupid Ways to Hurt Yourself

Way back in high school, I jumped off a high brick wall and managed to give myself something that the doctor referred to as a “bone bruise” on the bottom of my right heel. I remember that it didn’t hurt that much right away, and it didn’t swell, but there was a deep ache that felt like it was coming from my heel bone rather than the muscles or flesh below it, and the ache lasted for days. So when I hurt myself a few days ago and the pain reminded me of that old injury, I googled the term “bone bruise” to see if maybe that’s what it was. The category my injury fell in was called, rather impressively, a “subperiosteal hematoma.” And the most likely cause: “High velocity trauma to a bone: In general, any type of direct impact or high velocity trauma to a bone brought about by an incident such as a car accident, a high fall, or a blunt force can result in a hematoma, a contusion, or a bruise to the bone affected.” In my case, the cause was blunt force.

In medical terms, I am currently suffering from a subperiosteal hematoma caused by high velocity impact on the phalanx of my digital secondus manus by a glacialis slab of ground Bos primigenius.

In common terms, my right index finger is throbbing because I whacked it really hard with a frozen hamburger patty.

This has got to be the stupidest injury I have ever incurred in my entire life. And that bar is set pretty high. Aside from the previously mentioned jump off a wall, I knocked out my two front teeth falling off a balance beam, I have a scar on my left hip from attempting a high-speed turn in sand at the bottom of a steep hill on a bicycle and another just under my left eyebrow from attempting to see what was on top of the dining room table, I gave myself a goose egg from poking at a giant icicle hanging from the eaves, I nearly burned off one of my fingerprints in metal shop in junior high, and I’ve fallen out of more trees than I can count. But hematoma by burger is by far the stupidest. And the funniest.

And yet, it doesn’t hold a candle to my husband’s stupidest (and funniest) injury. When he was in college, he thought it would be funny to steal a keg of beer from a neighboring fraternity. A FULL keg of beer. Which he attempted to steal by himself and promptly dropped on his own foot. To make a long story short, he now has only 9-1/2 toes.

I can’t mock him too much, though, because stupid injuries seem to run in my family. My grandfather managed to accidentally both drill through and cut the tip off of my dad’s finger. (Same finger; two separate accidents.) My sister once crashed her bike into the neighbor’s trash cans and knocked out (and subsequently swallowed) one of her teeth. My mom slipped on some ice on the way to the mailbox and broke her toe. Twice. (Same mailbox; two different toes.)

So I can only imagine the stupid sorts of injuries my children will come up with over the years. But judging by the scrapes they’ve gotten into thus far in their short lives, I have no doubt they will be spectacularly stupid. If they want to outdo their folks, they’ll have to be.

First Birthday, First Shiner. A Portent of Things to Come?

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Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Art of Making Art

I don’t consider myself to be a particularly artistic person. I can’t draw a straight line to save my life; my attempts at a self-portrait are barely recognizable as human, never mind as myself; and the only thing I’d ever be able to sculpt from a lump of clay would be, well, a lump of clay. I do, however, consider myself to be creative. And there are two places where I consider myself most creative: at the stove and at the sewing machine.

Although I generally like projects that require precision, I dislike the need for perfect accuracy in baking, so my kitchen exploits have always leaned more toward cooking than baking. Baking involves chemical reactions and balanced equations, and a bit too much of this or not quite enough of that changes not just the taste but the texture, and indeed the entire composition. You can’t just “play with” the amount of baking soda or salt or butter in a pastry recipe and come out with a good result.

Cooking, in contrast, allows the chef a huge amount of creative freedom. Recipe calls for shallots but you don’t have any? Throw in some onions, maybe some scallions, whatever you happen to have on hand that sounds good. Like it spicy? Go ahead, double the Tabasco. Got a more delicate palate? Scant that tablespoon of chili powder. Leave out what’s not to your taste, add things that aren’t called for but that sound interesting, test and taste and fiddle and create.

My favorite cooking category for creativity is soup. I rarely use a recipe for soup. I pretty much start with a basic idea, perhaps “chicken soup” or “bean soup,” so I pour some chicken or beef broth into a pot and start adding whatever I have on hand that sounds good. Some vegetables, some meat, some pasta, some herbs. The problem is that I usually keep thinking of more and more good things to add, and although the final result is invariably delicious, there also tends to be a lot more of it than I intended by the time I’m done.

This weekend I discovered that making a hat is very much like making soup: You start with a general idea, but then you look around you and keep finding wonderful additions, and you end up with a delicious concoction but one that is quite different – and significantly more voluminous – than your initial idea.

The reason I was making a hat is that my husband and I were attending a Kentucky Derby party. We had attended the party last year, and it included a competition for the best hat. My hat had been one of the winners. 

That particular hat was intended to be tall, voluminous, and bold. I knew I would have a tough time outdoing myself in terms of sheer size, so I decided to take a totally different direction and make a funky but petite fascinator. I poked around my sewing table and came up with a piece of fake leather that I had bought to make a grill cover that I could use for a base. A few more minutes of poking unearthed some lime green chiffon left over from a Tinkerbell costume I had made for my daughter a few years ago. I made a couple of small chiffon florets and stitched them to the base, but although the color was striking, the overall effect was a bit dull. So I dug out a few fancy buttons I had cut off an old, worn-out dress and added them to the flower centers. Better, but still too two-dimensional. I needed a bit of architectural structure. Perhaps some brightly colored pipe cleaners? A quick forage through my kids’ art drawer yielded only brown pipe cleaners, and once curled they didn’t have the height or visual interest I had in mind. One brief Google search and one trip to the recycling bin later and I was cutting an empty water bottle into a spiral, covering it with ruched fabric, twisting it into a funky coil, and stapling it on.

My creation was beginning to earn the name of “fascinator,” but it wasn’t quite done yet. It needed some kind of backdrop behind the plastic coil, so I dug back through my fabric bag, coming up with some bits of green and white tulle. I zipped them through the sewing machine, stapled them on, and surveyed my work. It was coming together, but something was still lacking: color. The fabric was bright and eye-catching, but it needed some contrast. I had learned many years ago in a theatrical costuming class about a concept called a “poison color.” A poison color is a small splash of contrasting, even clashing, color that sets off everything around it. A bright blue dress might have a vivid orange sash as its poison color; a pale pink shawl could be held in place with a deep emerald brooch. I needed a solid contrast to my acid green. Yet another trip to my craft drawers unearthed one of the red roses that had graced last year’s hat – perfect for the Run for the Roses! And right alongside it were a few black and white feathers from last year. In for a penny, in for a pound – three or four staples later, and I had my poison. My petite, graceful, feminine, delicate fascinator was complete!

Well, okay, it was neither petite nor delicate. But it was graceful and feminine. And cool. And much like my results when I make soup, it was unlike anything I have ever made before, and I don’t think I could recreate it if I tried. But it was wonderful in its uniqueness. And in its creativity. I suppose, if you were feeling generous, you could even call it art.

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