Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Embarrassed By How Embarrassed I Get

I am way too self-conscious. 

When I saw that a neighbor’s house was being tented – in a tent with red and yellow circus stripes, no less – I admit that my first thought was, “Those poor people. Now, everyone knows they have bugs.”

Maybe there is something wrong with me, but then again, people were actually stopping their cars in front of the house to openly stare. C’mon, people, it’s not that big a deal. (Not that I should talk, since I took a picture.)

But I do think that my anxiety/self-consciousness level is set a wee bit high.

For example, although I am a complete goody two-shoes when it comes to driving – I have never received so much as a parking ticket, my registration sticker is never out of date, I always use my turn signals, I never parking in an ambiguous spot – I feel a little jolt when a police car shows up in my rearview mirror. (Yup, I am one of those people who slow down and won’t pass a patrol car.)

And when I go for my dental check-up, my biggest concern is to avoid the embarrassing event known around our house as “the hygiene lecture.” You know what happens: the hygienist, rooting around in there, clucks at the state of your gums, asks you if you ever floss, then hands you a mirror and proceeds to demonstrate, once again, how to brush your teeth properly. Mortifying.

In fact, I am currently dragging my feet on scheduling Lola the dog’s next grooming appointment because I know we are going to get a hygiene lecture about her. She is a complete mess. Not that she cares. She appears to relish her bad smells.

Maybe I need to learn to embrace my inner dog.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

How Do You Spell Intelligent?

Full disclosure: my kids can’t spell worth crap.

My son, diagnosed with dysgraphia (extreme difficulty with handwriting), recently got his Iowa Test scores back. As usual, all of his scores were high, except for the spelling subtest, where he scored in the 25th percentile. (And if you have ever seen how my son spells, you’d be asking, “Twenty-five percent of kids spell worse than that?)

Meanwhile, no one could possibly impersonate my daughter, who is both smart and dyslexic, when she texts. “Concussion” is “concoction,” her friend Michael is “Mickle,” and “weird” is invariably “weard.”

But, nope, I refuse to worry about spelling. Because so many abilities – reasoning, creative problem-solving, social skills – are far more important.

This opinion was strengthened recently when I was buying some books on language. Here are some honest-to-God Amazon reviews:
Hmph, sniffed one, "This is a usage guide, not a grammar guide," for a book called Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies. (Umm, did you not see the title?)
In a review entitled, "Bryson, you're an ass," for The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way, another writes, "I am an undergraduate student in linguistics and as a gramarian (sic) ... I must say that this book represents the lowest and least informed type of linguistic literature to date. Bryson has no concept of ... humility." (Emphases mine.)

While I’m all for proofreading, I’m also with Andrew Jackson, who said, “It’s a damn poor mind that can think of only one way to spell a word.”

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Packing It In

I hate packing. I mean, I really despise it.

It started when my children were small. I would be packing for them as well as myself – and I also did all the other tasks related to traveling: I bought the plane tickets, boarded the dog, arranged the car service, stopped the mail and the newspaper, sent in the “vacation watch” form to the local police, cleaned out the fridge so we wouldn’t come home to something hideous …

… And my husband, without fail, as he stuck piles of clothes – that I had laundered and folded – into his suitcase, would say, “OK, I’m done packing. Why aren’t you?”

He thought he was being funny. He didn’t realize how close he was to getting smacked.

Besides the desire to smack someone, packing brings out all my worst perfectionist tendencies.  It seems like it has to be done exactly right. And when my children were small, it kind of had to be. You needed to have distractions, new things they hadn’t seen before, packed in the diaper bag, along with, of course, diapers and changes of clothes and snacks and, I learned this one the hard way as a very new parent, baby pain-killer in case an ear infection flared while you were in the air. My father-in-law once, during a long car trip, saw me pull so many things out of that diaper bag that he compared it to Mary Poppin’s magic carpetbag.

It’s getting easier. My kids are teens now and pack for themselves. Now, I just have a little look-see and -- I can't help myself -- ask things like “Did you bring underwear?” and “How about your retainer?”

Still, the kids know to steer clear of me when I’m packing, even if my husband doesn’t.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

More Drama at the Fish Tank

He had been a gold gourami.
My daughter’s favorite in her fish tank was a gourami. He was the only one with any personality or smarts, the first to figure out that the sight of a person meant food (which may have contributed to his demise.)

Because, one day, the gourami looked a little fat … and over days, he kept getting fatter.

My daughter consulted tropical-fish experts, both at pet stores and the many who stand ready online to tell you what you are doing wrong. The consensus was that he was constipated.

Several said to feed him a shelled pea. I’m here to tell you that shelled peas drop like stones to the bottom of the tank, where all the more able-bodied fish rush to eat them. I ended up standing at the tank, one school day, per my daughter's request, holding a shelled pea on the end of a fork tine in front of the gourami’s face, who by this time wasn’t eating anything and really didn’t like having a fork in his face.

The guy at the small, independently owned fish store sold us a mysterious powder in an unmarked baggie. My daughter dropped it in the tank, per his instructions, where it turned the water suddenly green and caused all the fish to immediately and copiously poop … all of them, except for the gourami.

He was, by this time, so swollen that his eyes looked bulgy and his scales had started to stick out. My husband unhelpfully pointed out that the poor thing “couldn’t even scream.”

When he started to list to one side, it became clear he wasn't going to make it.

We euthanized him the way the Petsmart lady said was painless: we put him in a water-filled container and stuck him in the freezer.

It was sad.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

An Asian Version of Cabbage & Noodles

Since I am heartily sick of all my ideas for dinner, I asked my kids if they had any thoughts. They didn't, so I told them to Google around and see if they couldn't find some new recipes for us to try. My son Googled "meat pie." Good luck with that one, kid. I'll need some persuasion to tackle that.

My daughter found one, though, that turned out to be an Asian version of the cabbage & noodle recipe my Hungarian grandmother used to make (which I posted here). Instead of regular onions, this one uses green onions. Instead of egg noodles, it calls for angel hair. Instead of butter, there's oil (I used peanut) and sesame oil. Instead of salt, soy sauce.

Apparently, great minds, around the world, think alike.

This recipe was posted by papergoddess on www.food.com:

Shanghai Noodles

3 tablespoons oil
1-2 tablespoons sesame oil
2 cups shredded cabbage (can be Chinese cabbage)
1/2 cup chopped green onions
8 ounces angel hair pasta
2-4 tablespoons soy sauce, to taste

Optional ingredients: 4 ounces sliced cooked chicken and/or one can bean sprouts, drained.

Cook pasta.

Heat oil and sesame oil in skillet. (We used a wok, to feel official.)

Saute cabbage and green onions for about five minutes.

Drain pasta. Add it and the soy sauce to cabbage mixture and heat through.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Another Slow-Cooker Recipe

The vegetable-adverse boy likes this one because he likes beans, but his sister doesn’t like beans. Oh, well. Somehow, in our family, our food likes and dislikes are almost always in direct opposition to each other.

We set up the rice cooker with brown rice and mash up some guacamole to serve with this. Makes enough for two dinners for our family of four.

Three-Bean Turkey Chili

1 lb lean ground turkey
1 small onion chopped
1 28-ounce can diced tomato, undrained
1 15-ounce can chick peas, drained
1 15-ounce can kidney beans, drained
1 15-ounce can black beans, drained
1 8-ounce can tomato sauce
1 4-ounce can diced mild green chiles
1-2 tablespoon chili powder
Salt to taste

Cook onion and turkey in skillet till turkey no longer pink. Discard fat and put in slow cooker.

Add remaining ingredients; mix well. Cook on high for 6-8 hours.

I originally found this recipe on disneyfamily.com but can’t find it there now.

Slow Cookers Rule!

How else would we have calm, healthy dinners on weekday nights?

Numerous studies show that teens who eat dinner with their families regularly are less likely to smoke, to do drugs, to drink alcohol abusively, they get better grades and higher test scores, have larger vocabularies and better reading skills, have less obesity and eating disorders, and are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables than teens who do not.

Not to mention home-cooked meals are healthier and cheaper.

However, by the time evening rolls around, we are all tired and hungry. (And the poor kids are facing their nightly homework.) Not the time to start cooking an entire meal from scratch in the name of family harmony.

But if I can throw some ingredients into the slow cooker that morning, a meal like Norman Rockwell’s grandma might make can be waiting for us.

Like this pasta:

2 carrots
2 stalks celery
1 small onion
2-3 cloves garlic
1/2 cup olive oil
Pinch, dried oregano
Pinch, dried basil
1/2 cup red wine
1 pound, sliced mushrooms (Spring for presliced, saves time.)
28-oz. can diced tomatoes
28-oz. can tomato sauce
Salt to taste
1 ½ pounds whole-wheat rigate pasta

Chop carrot, celery, onion and garlic in a food processor. (You can chop these by hand, but the food processor saves time, plus it chops them so fine my vegetable-adverse son doesn't realize he is eating carrot.)

Saute the vegetables in the olive oil, along with the herbs.

Pour into slow cooker. Deglaze the pan with the wine; add that to the slow cooker, along with the mushrooms¸ the tomatoes and tomato sauce and the salt. Stir, cover and set on high.

Come back in 6-8+ hours to boil up the pasta.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Cabbage & Noodles

This is not health food. Let’s get that out of the way upfront.

This is a recipe that people made in the old country (Hungary) when all they had to eat was cabbage.

But while all they had to work with was cabbage, they sure knew how to make it taste good.

Also, let me tell you what my Hungarian grandmother told my mother: You can’t really fiddle with this very simple recipe. Don’t try to add something, like bacon or whatever, to try to make it “better.” It’s good the way it is, and if you screw with it, you will just wreck it.

1 head of cabbage, shredded
2 onions, chopped
A whole lot of butter
A whole lot of salt
1 pound of egg noodles

Melt the butter (one stick, half a cup, really) in a large, high-sided skillet or pot. Add the onions and cook till golden. Then, add the cabbage and the salt (lots of salt) and cook till tender.

(Warning: The cooking cabbage will make your entire house stink.)

Meanwhile, put a big pot of water on to boil and cook the noodles. Drain.

Combine the cabbage mixture with the noodles – and you are done.

Friday, May 17, 2013

What's Up With Lola?

For some reason, our dog Lola has decided that the thing to do, when someone throws a blanket over her head, is to stay stock still until that someone removes it. We don’t know why.

How well humans and dogs get along and understand each other is, when you think about it, kind of miraculous. According to the scientists who study such things, dogs are the only other animals who understand what we mean when we point. Also, unlike other animals, dogs watch our faces for clues about what we are saying and doing. And dogs can understand a surprising number of our words.

But do we understand as much about them?

For instance, Lola is generally very intent on following me everywhere … until she isn’t. At some point during the day, she evidently thinks, “Enough of this crap” and stays asleep where she is.

Lola doesn't bark when someone comes
to our door. She just looks at them
through the sidelight.
And why does she always want to go on all car trips? Most such trips, such as when I go back and forth with to my kids’ schools, must be pretty boring for her, not to mention that sometimes she ends up at the groomer. Still, she always wants to go.

Lola is particularly stupid about cars. She is smart enough to know that there are people in cars. She can even tell when a car is a Prius, which is the kind of car my husband drives, getting visibly excited when she sees one. Unfortunately, she will purposely step in front of a moving car – so that the people will get out and pay attention to her or invite her along for the ride, I think. Which is, of course, the worst thing she could do – and I have no idea how to communicate that to her.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

With Feeling

My son, 14, loves being on stage.

His third-grade teacher had her kids write papers but also give presentations to an audience of parents. The awesome Ms. Negrin taught them how to give a speech, rather than just read their papers in a monotone.

As I watched my 8-year-old thoroughly enjoying himself up there, making jokes, taking questions, I’d think, “Whose little boy are you?”

Because I would rather take a bullet than get up in front of an audience.

In middle school, he always had a part in his school’s shows, which are straight out of To Kill A Mockingbird. The band plays, terribly. Each younger class, from the 3-year-olds to the fifth graders, perform. The kindergarteners, for example, might come on stage dressed as flowers. Some wave to their parents, others face the wrong way, only about half remember what they’re supposed to do.

And the middle-school drama kids put on a play.

This year, it was a musical and my son had a song. To sing. By himself.

Because he has zero singing experience; I figured he would suck (a thought I kept to myself).

But he belted it out. He knew the words. And the tune. He sang loud and with feeling.

And that's enough to rock a middle-school musical.

I guess I am a slow learner. It's only now, watching my kids do things like try out for school plays or sports teams, that I realize these kid things are eminently do-able, if you can just get over being scared. They've been set up to be that way by the coaches and teachers.

But when I was a kid, I was such a scaredy cat. All this stuff intimidated the hell out of me and I wouldn’t even try.

I regret that to this day.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Poodle Press

Our dog Lola likes to lie on the laundry. If there’s a pile of laundry anywhere – and there often is, she
Lola on the job.
will climb to the top of the teetering mound and lie on it.

The laundry I leave piled up is clean. (Honest.) Here’s my thinking: it’s clean so it’s done. You can just pull out what you need.

My husband is not entirely comfortable with this approach. So, I tell him that Lola provides an extra step in the laundry process, “the poodle press.” It’s why we look as crisp and pressed as we do, I say, plus it gives Lola a sense of purpose. He remains skeptical.

I HATE folding laundry. It is a tedious, thankless, pointless, never-ending task. Everyone has chores they hate, right? My husband hates to unload the dishwasher. My sister hates to look through her mail. I hate to fold the freaking laundry.

And ironing? Ha! Among the many things my mother will not let me forget is the time we got our young daughter a doll house for Christmas and she held up a little plastic iron attached by a string to a little plastic ironing board. “What’s this?” she wanted to know.

But, hey, we don’t need an iron to press our clothes. We have Lola.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Showing Our Asses

We have a new saying around our house. When someone complains about themselves, we say, “At least you’re not the bare-assed lady in the biker bar.”

The biker bar in question is not far from our house. The kids and I drive past it at least twice a day. It has garage doors left open to reveal a bunch of old geezers drinking beer.

“There’s a naked lady!” my daughter shouted one afternoon. The lady was not, strictly speaking, naked. She was wearing a black Frederick’s-of-Hollywood-type ensemble made entirely of straps and a very wide-gauge mesh, with stiletto heels. Her ass was clearly and completely visible. She was more naked than if she were just naked.

We now look for her when we pass. (You would, too.)

And when we see her, I ask both of my kids, a boy and a girl, if they can think of a sadder spectacle.

They can’t.

People often decry how women are portrayed in the media: the super-skinny models, the singers who dress like pole dancers, the video-game heroines, their busts bursting out of their spandex outfits.


But girls are also constantly bombarded by messages that have a far greater impact, from the real women around them.

I personally want to shake:

Women who won’t leave their houses until they cover their faces in make-up;

Women who think that how much they hate their bodies is a suitable topic for small talk, like the weather or sports;

Grown women who think they are worthless unless a man is paying attention to them;

Women who snipe at each other, call each other “bitches,” tear each other down;

Women who apologize constantly.

“Stop being fools!” I want to shout as I shake them. “Girls are watching you.”

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Making The Grade

Until recently, my kids didn’t get grades.

They went to a school that specializes in learning differences. That school, tellingly, did not grade because many of its students had been so battered by the practice at regular schools.

Then, my kids mainstreamed.

They did figure this whole grade thing out and I think they had an easier time doing so because they first experienced grades as teens and not at a more tender age.

They saw that grades have very little to do with learning about the subjects. Or about your worth or intelligence. What grades did teach them is how to do what you need to do to get by.

“Grading for completion” is when the teacher gives a 100 for doing the homework at all, whether correctly or not. “They just look for writing, Ma,” says my daughter. “They don’t even read it.”

Then, there are the easy, grade-raising projects. (Teachers don’t want failing grades any more than students do.) Around our house, these assignments are known as “low-hanging fruit.”

“Test corrections” are when kids can raise a test grade by looking up the answers they got wrong and handing those in.

My kids have learned to pay attention to rubrics. Rubrics list concrete requirements, such as that every paragraph contains a certain number of sentences, which teachers check off when grading papers. My kids, who have thankfully already learned about being interesting, clear and entertaining writers, learned that writing a paper for school wasn’t about any of that. Since teachers don’t appear to read them, my kids write school papers to satisfy the rubric and get the grade, not to make sense.

I’m hoping my kids are learning something useful from this. Maybe about recognizing and fulfilling requirements?

Or is that wishful thinking?

Thursday, May 2, 2013

What's in a Name?

Driving around Houston, the city of strip malls, I often wonder about people’s thinking process when it comes to naming their businesses.

Most often what I wonder is, “Did you give this any thought whatsoever?”

The convenience store called “Runny Food Store,” for instance. Brings to mind such bad images: runny food, running to the bathroom, runny ... well, never mind, you get where my mind goes with it.

Hair salons, especially, tend toward terrible names, their owners trying too hard to come up with puns. “Hair Force One.” “The Hair Hut.” “Hair Desire.” “A Cut Above.”

There is a well-regarded Italian restaurant here in Houston called, I kid you not, “Crapitto’s.” (Don’t believe me? Click here.) Doesn’t that mean “little crap”? See, if my last name was Crapitto, I’d change my name, not plaster it on a restaurant, where, after all, I want people to eat.

Some businesses, however, do seem to hit it just right.

Some of my favorites from right here in Houston:

A salon that specializes in bikini waxes called “Pretty Kitty;”
A security company that calls itself “The Tattletale Alarm Company”;
“Sudden Death Pest Control,” the back of their truck is decorated with a cartoon tombstone marked RIP;
And one of the many bail bond companies in our neighborhood, called “Bada Bing Bail Bonds.”

What business names do you find, for good or ill, to be particularly memorable?