Thursday, October 27, 2011


You know what I mean.  Too much plastic crap, too much plastic crap, and oh yea, too much plastic crap. 

I’m not so much into it—the Jason-esque amputated limb in plastic chains, blood and guts kind of day.  If I’m going to bother to celebrate it, I more prefer a holiday with some real guts.  Some meaningful spiritual historical guts.   Earthy guts. 

What the heck does that mean? 

It means I want to know what I’m celebrating.  Many holidays find their origins in the cycles of the earth, and Halloween is no different.  It was traditionally a day when people believed that the veil between the living and dead stretched thin, allowing the dead to haunt the living.  Treats were left out to pacify evil spirits (origins of trick or treating).  Fearful people carried candles in gourds to ward off lingering souls (the origin of the jack-o-lantern).  

It’s no wonder this day focused on death.  The date marked the end of the Celtic calendar and the end of the harvest.  Life-giving plants withered and died, the leaves, strangled for chlorophyll, lost their green and fell to the ground. 

What of the people who depended on those plants for sustenance?  They must have seen these natural deaths as both a symbolic and a literal foreboding not only of the long winter ahead, but of their own mortality.  I suppose then, that it wasn’t unreasonable for people to let their imaginations run away with the worry that an occasional ghoul, or goblin or even a dead ancestor might come out to snatch them up in the “spirit” of the season!

Of course, I don’t believe in evil spirits, but if we’re going to pretend, I think the idea that one might curl its ghostly fingers around my soul is much creepier than the idea that a guy in a hockey mask might chop me up into bite-sized pieces.  After all, we’ll all meet our deaths eventually—and that’s what’s at the root of this, right? 

The more than vast majority of us will never meet Jason along the way. 

So what’s to celebrate in this? – our inevitable demise?  

Well, there’s always the element of fun in being afraid. In a sense, we mock death by dressing in silly or scary costumes, and ironically, we eat enough candy to kill us. 

In case you’re truly in the dumps about your mortality, the season pacifies us by answering death’s call with an extraordinary show, turning out the warm and comforting brilliances of red, yellow and orange in landscapes of magnificent proportion. 

Didn’t the trees get the word? 

And if the colors aren’t enough to cheer us, an incessant breeze lifts us, the crisp air invigorates us, warm food traditions of soup and chili assure us. 

These changes create a natural rhythm of life that includes death.  The beauty of fall and the fun of Halloween help us observe, accept and even celebrate that cycle. 

So, instead of a commercialized Shalloween, complete with Hollywood inspired gore and petroleum filled plastic decorations (that could never thump like a good squash), we fill our house with colorful gourds (to set the mood), eatable pumpkins (for soup, bread and freezing), drying herbs from the garden (to flavor the long winter), spooky ghosts and jack-o-lanterns (a nod to the wayward spirit).  We make chili.  And yes, we trick-or-treat. 

Monday, October 24, 2011

a hoarder at heart

Last canning day!  

I guess we’re “locavores.”  We try to eat seasonally, organically, and locally.    

We eased into this – as anybody must, I imagine.  I am to the point where I attempt to preserve as much as I can for the winter. 

I try to be flexible about it – often still buying the faves I just can’t give up like lemons, bananas and ginger.  Other times, I get a little out of hand, like the time I brought a bushel of black-eyed peas in a yard-sized trash bag to my niece’s birthday party and made my kids sit on the deck and help me shell them—our fingers turning a dirty purple while everyone else munched on salsa and cheese dip.  Since then, I try not to act so much like a desperate squirrel.

We eat local and organic food to address a variety of practical concerns that include oil consumption, pesticide use, and the quality of produce shipped over long distances.  Storing food for the winter, however, also hits on some sort of DNA-imbedded hoarding instinct of mine.  There’s something so satisfying about a cupboard lined with brimming jars.  They assure me of our potential to survive the winter—even if there is a grocery store less than 2 miles away.     

It’s a good thing canning hits on this ancient nerve, because quite honestly, it’s a pain in the neck.   And I’ve done my best to make it even harder!  A few years ago, I renovated my kitchen and made a big fat goof.  I bought a stove with a horrible cooktop that will not accommodate a canner.  Consequently, I have to use my camp stove in the back yard, monitor it constantly to be sure it hasn’t run out of fuel, and run my jars in and out of the cold air (which could cause them to crack). 

To prevent the propane from running out before I can finish, I heat the water on my electric stove inside.  So I also run frantically back and forth with boiling pots of water yelling “out of my way!” and “get the door!” 

To make it worse, it rained almost every time I canned this year.  When it rained, I moved the stove to the carport which, conveniently, floods with little provocation.  On one occasion, I had 14 quarts of spaghetti sauce bubbling on the stove when I looked up from my cauldron to notice that it had been raining all day.  Somehow I missed that forecast. With more sauce than I could ever fit in my refrigerator, I had to forge ahead. 

So there I was, carrying pots of boiling water through the cats and dogs, hunching over a huge stubborn and unboiling pot, standing in an ankle-deep river, listening to thunder roiling all around, and trying not to think about lightening. 

I was hot from the canner, cold from running through the rain, and sweating from both – my hair a soggy mat.  And I usually look so ravishing!

Yesterday, at least I had sun.  Under pressure to get Olivia to her soccer game on time, I shoved heaps of pears into jars, slung ladles of syrup over them, threw them in the canner and proclaimed the season complete.  Finis!

Now, with everything “put up,” I feel incredibly relieved, but equally satisfied.   It’s time to eat!

Or…perhaps to just sit back and relish.

During the fall, I tend more toward the hoarding than I do toward the eating.  I guess you could say I have trouble letting go.  I hesitate to open jars in case we need them for “later.”  In early spring, however, I’ll behave like a true schizophrenic and start zinging jars off the shelves, ordering my kids to “eat more peaches!” because God forbid we have anything left when the first strawberries come and we start all over again. 

Friday, October 21, 2011

the butt of the question: airsoft or errsoft?

Gareth, wants an Airsoft gun.  Ugh.

I “raised” him without toy guns or play that modeled violence. 


My dreamy new-mother fantasy lasted until preschool—a whimsical magical place that taught my innocent first born about numbers, colors, seasons and…perilous space-aged, laser-fied, contests to the death. 

Once those maniacal miniature ninja assassins enlightened my little angel about shooting (funny how it’s always other people’s kids who model negative behavior, never your own), Gareth commandeered everything in the house (the legos, the tinker toys, the link’n logs, the playdough, even the pretend ketchup and mustard) for battle. 

But this "natural" fascination with firearms didn't suggest to me that I should entertain it.  I mean, some kids "naturally" play with their own poop, but that doesn't mean we should let them! Kids have lots of urges that we teach them to control, don't they?  Most kids behave really selfishly until we teach them to share.  Others want nothing but sugary foods, but we teach them to eat fruits and vegetables. 

Why not discourage their interests in guns and violence?

I believe that the household models a miniature nation.  We make things in the home the way we want them in the world.  Likewise, through their play, kids practice the grown-up behavior they observe and may eventually adopt. 

I'm not suggesting that toy gun-wielding children grow up to be mass murderers, but I do think that kind of play normalizes a mindset that accepts “battle” as a legitimate way of solving problems i.e. the military and war. 

So my little mini-nation had been invaded by a ninja assassin.  What to do?  We justified that Gareth’s games were creative, didn’t involve screens, and often occurred in the glorious outside. 

To register our disapproval, we refused to buy toy guns.  I also refused to participate in what Gareth called “fighting games.”  So if he wanted me to play with him, he had to find a different activity.

Gareth squished the playdough pistols back into their containers years ago. 

But now, at 14, he wants a toy gun that actually shoots things. 


I suppose there are worse things: drugs and sex come immediately to mind.  But really?     

And he knows me well.  He lobbied for the gun by claiming it will get him off the couch, away from the video games, and outside. 

Um…mowing the lawn would do that too.  Does he realize that?

Still:  smart angle. 

Smart kid.

Smart alec.

Yet I’m swayed.  Crumbling.  Pathetic.  In fact, I’ve already given in. 

My logic: he already plays Airsoft when we go away with friends to their farm. They lay out battle fields, teams and strategies then hunt one another for hours.

I persuade myself it’s a glorified game of tag that is creative, imaginative, outside. 

Haven’t I said that before?

Maybe it’s ok.

BUT, maybe it’s not.  Doesn’t it mimic war? 

I know it does.  BUT we’ve modeled nonviolence for so many years, “using our words,” taking spiders outside like good little pacifists.  Could Airsoft undo all that?

Probably not.  BUT, I don’t want him to own a gun – toy or not. 

BUT he has grown.  He needs to start making his own decisions.  As much as we show him guidance, we should also show him trust and confidence. 

BUT …everything has a “but” in this post—right down to the guns themselves!

BUT, letting him own the gun breaks a longtime rule, insinuating my approval.    

BUT, he’s going to buy it with his own hard-earned money.

BUT, he will keep it under our roof, play with it in our yard.

BUT, he’ll play anyway with borrowed guns.

BUT, I don’t want him to own a gun – toy or not. 

OK – I’ve definitely said that before. 

And so it goes.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

soccer mom manifesto

I agree.  But too much fruit can give you diarrhea, and too much cheese can make you constipated.  What does too much soccer do to you? 

I happened upon the Fall Festival while biking this weekend.  Smelling funnel cakes and popcorn, feeling the anticipation of the first crunch of dried leaves and the thump of a good pumpkin, I thought of Olivia, an hour away, running around on the still-green plastic grass of a turf field, smelling the smell of recycled rubber tires—again. 

I confess: I am a soccer heretic.  While I love the actual sport, I resent the all-consuming package, the soccer-industrial complex, if you will: competitive clubs, obsessive coaches, capitalizing merchandisers, and of course, lunatic parents with unresolved sports failures who scream from the sidelines with streaks of crazed spittle running down their intense chins (OK, I got a little carried away).  

The result:  burnt out kids, hijacked childhoods.

Who better to change this than us soccer moms, the slaves to the machine? Thus, I offer a Soccer Mom Manifesto, 8 theses to simplify soccer, nailed here, to the cyber-wall of said soccer-industrial complex.

1.   NO post game “snack” - This is a pain in the neck, which is why everyone buys the easiest (and thus, junkiest) thing possible.  Why give our kids individually wrapped shots of sugar and preservatives just after all that great exercise? 

YES – Oranges at half-time.

2.   NO team pictures – a waste of time and money.

YES - We all have cameras, right? Have a parent take a picture of the team for free and disseminate over email.  We’ve done it—it works.

3.   NO “participant” trophies – Ludicrous waste and bad message!  Gareth tossed all of his at the age of 11 because even his hyper-sentimental sports-loving heart deemed them “meaningless.” 

YES - Provide trophies for actual accomplishments like 1st place or “most improved”—your kids will be really proud of those.  Ask the coach to say a word about each player’s progress at the end of the year.  

4.   NO end of season parties at paid venues - Ugh! A hyper sweaty soccer team crammed into the local pizza joint eating more junk food.  Parents standing around with nowhere to sit.  More money. If you have multiple kids, these multiple parties pile up! 

YES - Have a party once a year, during the last practice, right on the soccer field.  Let the kids scrimmage unsupervised, or for the younger ones, go to the playground with the coach.  Great fun! 

5.   NO to 3 mandatory practices a week - These rob time from other activities. Coaches should remember that they’re mentoring kids, not soccer robots.  Most if not all of their players will never play in college.    

YES – 1 weekly practice for rec, two for club. If the club coach holds an optional third for flexibility, great.  

6.   NO lengthy warm-ups and post-game talks - With these little tricks, coaches take a 2-2 ½ hour chunk of precious weekend to fulfill a 1 hour game commitment (more when you count the commute).  Besides, too much warm-up is taxing, and the kids hear nothing at game’s end. 

YES – Arrive 30 minutes before the game for a 20 minute warm-up, 5 minute strategy session and 5 minute wiggle room.  And coaches – we heard enough during the game.  We’ll give you 5 minutes to wrap it up so we can get on with our day.

7.   NO team crap - who needs it? Bags, warm-ups, practice shirts, chairs for parents (really?).  A total money grab. 

YES - Save all this rah rah for the high school team when it represents something local and community oriented for a teenager.   

8.   The biggest NO of all: Tournaments! – a farce.  Unless your child is a high school aged player with real hopes for college play, these mind-numbing events are nothing more than fund-raising, club-building, injury inducing, holiday-weekend wrecking, burnout machines. 

YES – Soccer moms, take back your family’s holiday weekends! Go camping, visit a museum, sneak off to the beach, go to a Fall Festival! Stay home and chill—whatever your fam likes to do in addition to soccer. Give your kids a chance to miss "the game." 

Monday, October 10, 2011

big picture

When we tried to move to a bigger house a few years ago, I discovered I couldn’t disentangle myself from this little house.  Like a plant in a small pot, our roots had grown through the bottom, binding us in a tangle I was loathe to rip up. 

So, we renovated.

A little. 

We added almost 200 square feet to the living room, added insulation, replaced our drafty windows and rearranged a few walls to make better use of space.   

Still, it’s true that sometimes we have to wait to use the bathroom.  And if anything untoward happens in there, you can bet that the rest of the fam will find out about it.  No matter where we’re going, we have to step over the dog, and my friends who used to bring their teeny children to dinner, now bring their teen children.  These monsters actually expect to sit on furniture, and in a sprawling and selfish sort of way that seriously challenges our seating capacity. 

With no storage space on the ground level (no garage, no basement, little closets), there’s only one place to put our extra stuff:  out the door and up the ladder to the attic over the carport.  Need a low-usage item like a sleeping bag, an extra lunch box or the fondue pot? Out the door and up the ladder.

BUT, I love that we can find each other without raising our voices. When we lose our cell phones, we can hear the ring from any room.  If I stand in the middle of my kitchen, I can touch my sink, stove, refrigerator, and trash can without taking a step (and at the same time if I had four arms).  From this lucky spot, I can cook dinner without chasing myself silly around an obtrusive kitchen island. 

I hadn’t realized how the house had shaped us, like a meatball, or a cup of brown sugar, packed tight. 

Steve and I sleep in a double bed because anything bigger would turn bedroom to padded playpen.  I know what you’re thinking, but what to do in said playpen after a real knock-down-drag-out? Even after the worst of arguments, it takes a lot of work to stay in one corner of a small bed all night, untouching and untouchable for a ridiculous marital standoff.  Eventually, a toe or a knee goes astray, burrowing into enemy territory without intent. It’s not long before everything else follows.  Then you wake to find yourself thoroughly snuggled and probably drooling on the shoulder of last night’s mortal enemy.  The only way out of that is a quick apology and a new day—or sex.  Neither makes for a bad end to a fight.

Until 3 years ago, the kids shared a room just 5 steps from our main living area.  During those sweet innocent years, they fell asleep to the rustle of each others bed clothes, and to the comforting sounds of their parent’s voices outside the door.  If they feared that an ugly green witch had a leg up on their window sill, we could practically douse her from the couch.  We cook, eat, do homework, watch TV, practice musical instruments, and egad, play soccer, in a large central living area that includes kitchen/dining/living room.  The noise, the clutter, the frenzy is enough to drive a mother mad.  The only thing that could be worse: the quiet of children sequestered in a basement, or an upstairs bedroom. 

The kids do have a small TV room in which to retreat or entertain friends. I don’t spy, but if I need to, I can hear every word they utter in there.  Mostly, however, I don’t listen—I think the house taught us this—to give each other privacy.  Otherwise, we’d never have it.  Don’t listen to other people’s conversations – even when you can hear them; don’t stand outside the bathroom door snickering (we haven’t mastered this one yet—apparently there’s a learning curve); don’t walk into rooms without knocking (none of our bedroom doors lock – is this a characteristic of a small house, or just a broken down one?).  

The house has also taught us about simplicity and moderation: about need.  We quickly learned if there’s no room for it, don’t buy it! Kitchen-Aid? No way.  George Foreman Grill? Uh-uh. Electric can opener? Good-God!  And the bonus: all of these space-eating appliances also eat electricity.  Surely we can open our own cans without plugging in? 

I’ve heard women complain that they need a cleaning person to help them keep up with their big houses. I know they truly feel overwhelmed, because I feel overwhelmed too.   But with less surface area to scrub, I don’t need a cleaning person any more than I need a fat-handled toilet brush.  I also find myself asking: Why do we need a foosball table when we can play soccer in the yard? Why do I need a different glass for every type of cocktail? Who needs last year’s magazines? that sweater I haven’t worn in three years?  That old laptop with the blatzo hard drive…? 

I like battling clutter, buying less, conserving energy, reducing expenses, staying close, and staying close, and … staying close.

Even though we didn't plan this, I'm glad we landed here, and sprouted, and grew.  I confess that there are big things that we need, but they're the kinds of things that come in small houses.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

small house

“You have a small house.”

This five years ago from my daughter’s new playmate.  He stood, wedged in the corner of our kitchen and proclaimed his truth with authority. He wasn’t the first candid kindergartener to offer his opinion about our supposed shortage of square footage.  In those heady days of the booming real estate market, oversized houses had popped up like dandelions in my neighborhood. I felt like Gulliver in Brobdingnag.  

In the bigness of Brobdingnag, the ordinary appears small, and my 1940s rambler had suddenly taken on the characteristics of someone else’s walk-in closet.  Each of my two bathrooms, I was sure, could slip right down the drain of my new neighbor’s double Jacuzzi.  And my own closets?—about the size of a modern day medicine cabinet.

Bigness is contagious.  Stores now bulge with bloated household items designed to fill cavernous homes.  Couches and window treatments have swelled up like soaking raisins; wall hangings and coffee tables come bulkier than an athlete on steroids.  I saw a flower pot the size of a bathtub at our local nursery the other day.  Big stuff equals big price tag.  They wanted over $100 for that hunk of clay!  I went for the mini-replica at a whopping $10.  

Most of this big stuff won’t fit in my house.  Literally.  Even the small things have gotten big.  Have you bought a new garlic press lately? Measuring cups? A cheese grater? All of these tools have sprouted bulbous rubber handles that gobble up precious storage space.

I suppose it would be sad to find a skinny little melon-baller lying all alone in the corner of an oversized drawer, like a forgotten toothpick.  But should we pump up the melon baller? Or downsize the drawer?   

When we moved in 16 years ago, we found our 1,650 sq. ft. abode perfectly adequate, and I recognize that by some standards, it's not that small at all.   According to an unevaluated internet source, the average American house currently measures at around 2,800 square feet.  That makes us under average: not little, not teeny, just small.  But everything is relative, and since apparently, we live in Brobdingnag, where the idea of 6,000 square feet doesn’t turn a head, the house can feel teeny. 

A few years ago, I began to think bigger—not 6,000 square feet bigger, just something that could accommodate a modest melon baller.  Steve and I made the big decision to move.  We even picked out a house—a fairly ordinary 4 bedroom colonial with a sort-of-finished basement.  I liked it.  Steve loved it.  But when we tentatively agreed to buy it, I went home and, shockingly, cried for two days.  This had been my idea.  I had said I was frustrated with our lack of storage, tired of squeezing dinner guests into a sardine can for their meal, annoyed at moving the laundry basket so I could open the refrigerator door. 

So why the blubbering? 

I think I sensed something rotten in the state of Brobdingnag.  The market had a teetering quality to it.  Plus, how would we pay a bigger mortgage? How would we afford to heat and air condition so many rooms? And look at all those light bulbs! Did we want to burn that much energy?  How did this house address my concerns about climate change? How would I ride my bike for groceries on that windy road?

I also worried that the new house would stretch our little family too thin; I would become a desperately overreaching Gumby trying to keep a hand on each of three floors.  Would our connections grow thin and tenuous? It would be hard enough to talk to my kids as they approached middle and high school, how would I do it through imposing floors and ceilings?   

We didn’t set out to live in a small house; 16 years ago, we simply bought what we could afford, and we reveled in its unapartmentlikeness.  I expected we would someday “upgrade.”  I didn’t expect that the house would shape us, teach us, hold us.  I didn’t expect that we would stay.