like the Charlie Brown music-slump in Arrested Development

I was going to write this clever blog post about our epic and ill-fated attempt to buy a Christmas tree – foiled twice by the Market’s caprices and once by my own screwup – and still, two days later, unresolved. The story would have included personal injury, inept shopkeeps, money mismanagement, borrowed trucks that smell like mold, and an interesting few minutes this afternoon when I was an inch away from pulling a Clark Griswold freakout.

The defeating afternoon ended, appropriately, with a dispirited sojourn through the supermarket with my tired children after which I was double-charged for two packs of the irritatingly expensive, eco-friendly tampons I frequent. I almost wandered out of the store before I realized I shouldn’t have paid twenty three dollars – only to get back in line behind a family that was apparently buying a carneceria’s worth of meat. So I had to wait. And wait. And still, go home without a fucking tree!

Double-charging a woman for tampons? Really, middle-Swansons checkout dude? Really?

EPIC FAIL.

* My children, increasingly more thoughtful and amazing, consoled me about the tree as I finally, brokenly, made our way home. As I finished this blog post I heard that telltale smash of an ornament in their room. Nels emerged and came tumbling into my arms, crying. I picked him up and after a while his sobs became intelligible: “I was just trying to move the Christmas tree out here to make you happy.” He had packed up, unplugged, and was carefully trying to carry their fake (pink!) tree from his room to the living room, where he knew I wanted our real tree.

They are both so sweet it’s like I’m living with tiny Buddha-like creatures who are always trying to take care of my undeserving ass.

P.S., if it was you Ms. Pop Tart, you don’t have much to educate me on nutrition for children!

Today was an odd, ephemeral and lovely day for the most part, consisting of an enjoyable afternoon out first on the bike, then to lunch and grocery shopping with my parents and my children. I can usually only hope to steal my mother away for daily errands in between the events in her busy schedule (said “busyness” sometimes consisting of just being around the house for my dad – it’s very sweet, they like hanging out with each other and almost no one else). And of the four members of my FOO I’m the only one who likes going out to eat (not strictly true: my brother likes eating out but is so tight-fisted with cash he simultaneously judges others or feels guilty himself upon indulging), so it’s rare I have enthusiastic partners in this endeavor.

I may sound like I’m poking fun of my family but the truth is I enjoy spending time with them near as much as my own wee foursome. One of the chief good trappings of this day was that my father came along with us. He has been feeling better, despite new tumor growths in his lungs and bones. His good spirits seem largely due to the fact he’s had more than two months off chemo (his choice). It’s sad to see him off chemo because chemo keeps him alive (albeit tortured and sick). It’s almost, in its way, even sadder to see his hair thicken and his skintone liven and his skinny 6′ 3″ frame gain a few pounds. He starts to look startlingly good. I look at him and think to myself, imagine how healthy and hale he would be now without cancer treatment these last eight years. This is almost the worst kind of thought to think because it takes me back to What Could Have Been, a place I for the most part abandoned and don’t often glance at.

I feel oddly exhausted to recount a strange episode from this morning that almost ruined my day: we were visited by a gentleman from DSHS on an issue of child welfare – in fact my child, Nels. On Saturday afternoon my son had ventured out (in the nintey-plus degree heat making him restless, I suppose) two blocks afield and was asking neighbors for food and drink. A neighbor brought him back straight away (after feeding him bottled water and Pop Tart) and spoke to Ralph, who apologized for the trouble and thanked the neighbor for bringing our son home. My husband was pissed – cranky from the heat, angry at Nels for wandering off, irritated at me for – I’m not sure what. Because I know Nels and know there’s little we can do except to talk to him about what he shouldn’t do and why. But anyone suggesting we “make” him forgo venturing off on his own on some too-grown, precocious endeavor (harmless or otherwise)? Bitch, you don’t know my son!

So imagine my mild surprise, then shock, then bemusement, offense, and small dark cloud of rage forming between my eyes when a stranger showed up and wanted to look at the state of my housekeeping, the food in my fridge, and the nurturing conditions and mental stimulus afforded my children (all of which were running smoothly, of course). Here’s the weird thing: of course I support these programs and am glad to see what I saw operating in Grays Harbor County this morning. And in theory I tell myself I wouldn’t judge nor place myself above the parent who would benefit from these services. But I found out today it’s another thing entirely to have them at my own doorstep.

The gentleman interrupted the kids and I as we were studying world atlases and preparing dough for chocolate croissants (the food tying into the geography lessons: croissants from France, as pointed out on the map, and chocolate from – usually – South America). The social worker – who was completely professional, matter-of-fact, and friendly, none of which made the incident less unpleasant – told me the call was from someone (maybe the neighbors who’d returned Nels, maybe not – who knows?) who had reported this was a “drug-addled” neighborhood (WTF?). The sole purpose of his visit seemed to be – besides “checking us out”, which had included a call to law enforcement – informing us of services we could take advantage of. In fact at no point did I hear an admonishment or feel chastised in any way; rather, I’d seen a window into institutional procedure based around helping people help themselves. This was an odd relief and in accordance with what I would want from social work at large. Still, I couldn’t help wonder: what if my fridge had been empty? What if my house was a pit, or I had a sick kid, or what if Nels runs off again?

Before the social worker left I sat my son on my lap and explained briefly that it’s a lot of trouble (for me), drama (for me), and paperwork (for Mr. DSHS) brought down on us for a four-year old to venture off like that, even once. I don’t think we made it too heavy-handed.

I know Nels couldn’t have known that for me the incident sparked this terrifying, irrational, yet nevertheless thoroughly soul-sickening feeling of the loss of one’s child, a fear that lives in the bottom third of my heart no matter waking or sleeping and pumps a noxious cold blood-substitute whenever circumstances hint toward anything of the kind.

even when I’m a mess / I still put on a vest / With an "S" on my chest

Today I felt defeated by the end of the day. Really, I’d had successes and I’d had good times but somehow around 4:30 I deflated with a big, listless pfffffthbh.

The Genius At WorkMaybe it was that I’d left my bike guy with the go-ahead to drill holes and install a piece of wood to part of my new bike work. I dunno, that took the starch out of me a bit; but it had to be done.

Bitar's Bike Shop, Detail
The Bike Shop has some excellent systems for running smoothly.
Here’s the thing, it’s so incredibly cluttered and crazy yet Terry will never lose even your tiniest set screw (although it might take him a minute to find it).

"Mama...  I Can't Feel My Legs."
Sophie makes do in the Lariat while we wait for our keys to be re-delivered to us. It has been so very, very cold – alternating between sunny, sleet, rain and wind.

Highlights of the day:

Cleaning up my sewing room (yay!) but even more meaningful, once again moving my tomato starts to an even sunnier spot and making a hallowed little place for them (tonight my mom asked if I’d named each one). I think growing green things might keep me cheerful this spring.

Driving next to Nels and listening to our latest download (Alicia Keys’ “As I Am”) while he puts his arms around me and sings to me.

Getting a coupon for free bread at the Franz outlet – what a creepy yet almost wondrous place that is! Nels got a “Cookie Credit Card”, an ingenious marketing ploy to inspire children to pester overworked parents to stop in for mass-produced refined grains.

Making dinner, despite being so tired I didn’t want to.

Having dinner with the kids; simple fare (homemade pizza dough with layered cheese; roasted brussel sprouts, sauteed tomatoes and squash) but so nice to see their joy in eating and pouring their own beverages from their little pitcher of water.

My husband trying to take care of me. He doesn’t always know how much I appreciate this.

back slowly away from the crazy woman

It’s just before six and I’m kneading dough for pita while my son helps clean the dough bowl. This is the third meal from scratch I’ve made today and normally this is doable but today, it’s not. And yesterday, Saturday, stretches out behind me of a day of cooking and having just a few dollars for groceries. The lack of money is only a problem in that I’m forced to be more creative, but I’m just tired in some elemental way that makes me exhausted tenfold to think on what to feed the family. And tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow I get to get up and do it again, amen.

This weekend I didn’t get things done I wanted to: printing out my finished zine, making more headway on my brother’s coat I’m sewing (I’m currently angry about some bound pockets that didn’t quite work), enjoying the family, relaxing. We did do a lot of chores and Ralph’s loft bed is finished and painted with the kids’ room all set up for them and I freeycled two things and got a buyer for Sophie’s old bed frame. But no amount of “getting done” helps me now because with my hands on the dough at the table it just seems all I do is cook and clean and clean the refrigerator and work for other people and when I take time to myself I’m too tired to do anything worthwhile. It’s a horrible feeling. It’s no one’s fault. It feels like being first trimester pregnant again. Wretched and uninspired.

At least today I got to tell my mother, remember that part in that Ya Ya Sisterhood book (we both read it) where the mom goes crazy and just leaves her family for month? I keep telling them I’m going to do it but they don’t realize I mean it. I think because to the outside world and to them it looks like I’m functioning the same, functioning well. My mom told me to take a job. I’m not sure that will help; I’m not sure what will help, really. And I don’t want help; I want to learn how to take care of myself so I can take care of my Others. And I want to be able to tell people I might be needing a Crazy Person Vacation, even if it doesn’t end up happening quite that way.

“Are you OK?” Yes, I’m OK. Just not every minute of every day.

"just like me… empty inside"

Tonight I walked the kids to my mom’s to have dinner. She was in a muddle of what her current state often is: stress / drinking to relax or relieve stress / over-giving / enjoying herself. The part that was enjoying herself was the part that invited us for dinner, made a lovely stew, and had rented some family movies. The part that was over-giving was the part that tried to make the stew “perfect” for us then (and this was the part that was stressed and used drink to manage it so inhibitions were dropped but not the underlying stress) used an angry tone on my children for preferring their cornbread and eating it first. My dad took some special medicine and seemed to be feeling better than he had over the last few days (something tipped this week and he has now become someone “dying”, no longer someone coping with illness. I’d like to feel differently on that one if I could) but this meant he retreated for our viewing of Harry Potter and I didn’t get to see him much. It was a nice dinner and I really did enormously appreciate the night out and the homecooked meal. But I can’t get away from the the strain and bad feelings that my life’s dinnerplate seems to hold when I look down at what I’m eating.

I’m getting that really paranoid, really perfectionist sense of angst. If anything goes wrong I am a wreck (internal, so as not to inconvenience anyone). Sometimes I get a vision of who I might be when age and senility set in. And it feels small, like tiny wheels turning in my head, mucked up and in semi-darkness and doubt, unsure of myself unless someone tells me they love me or not just that they love me, but they promise not to be mean to me. Today I missed two appointments I had. One I was able to recover OK; the other I just completely missed. This is rare for me. And when I screw up like that on a commitment I make to others, or something I told myself I’d do, or whatever, I really just hate myself and it eats away at me for an indeterminate amount of time.

I don’t think but two or three people close to me realize what a perfectionist I am. I laugh at the term “perfectionist” a bit because no one who knows me would think my life looked perfect. Yet that drive, that insatiable unsettledness, has a strong a grip on every aspect of my waking hours. I hold myself to ridiculous standards and then feel bad, like pit-of-the-stomach bad, when I inevitably screw up. I have to have a clean house or if I don’t, a plan to get it clean. I can’t relax until housework is taken care of; then I’d better relax correctly. I hate myself if I have something to drink, or if my husband and I aren’t getting along for the evening, or if somehow during the day I was amiss in my parenting. I have to take care of my kids properly which means clothing and grooming and brushing and flossing and if they miss a night of this I have to demand my husband help but if he doesn’t do it I feel like a failure that we don’t provide this to them. I have to meet my commitments on the three volunteer leadership positions I’m in. If I don’t meet them I feel I can’t get over it or make amends to those I might have (usually only minorly) inconvenienced. No, for me if I mess up, it means people hate me and they have a right to hate me. It takes me a lot of internal thought and sometimes discussion with a friend (Ralph, my mom, or Cyn mostly) to “talk me down” from the ledge of I-Suck.

For a half year I wouldn’t allow myself to buy the family clothes but had to scrump, sew or thrift them. This was a fun and interesting project, sure – but it also became a burden at some point. I hold myself to the standard of preparing nutritious meals without taking culinary shortcuts. I feel bad if I buy anything “extravagant” or even buy anything without having it on a list first – or else I eschew cooking altogether and go out to eat (which, for some reason, feels like a tremendous ease on my daily cooking burdens). I choose to, for God’s sake, plan, write, edit, layout, and design for a zine which I then have to publish on our shoestring budget. I have to balance my marriage such that I support my husband and manage my own needs without asking for his emotional help when I’m fragile – which I am all the time these days, whether it’s apparent to others or not.

Some reading here may think these confessions mean I’m a miserable person all the time. That is precisely the problem; I’m not miserable, I love doing so many of these things. Every effort of mine is born of love and energy. I thrive on creativity, on learning now to do things well, on pushing myself just a little bit because it seems like I can. I do sometimes congratulate myself on the fact that I can “coast” as a housemom on some days and do well at providing for my loved ones. I love every single thing I write, or sew, or every meal I cook or the way my counter looks when I wipe it down. It is precisely the dual love-hate of the work vs. the drive to do the work right, every time, that makes for tricky terrain.

Perfectionism, as far as I can tell, has no easy cure. It isn’t a matter of, “Why don’t you do less?”* That question is like asking, “Why don’t you stop having the Kelly-brain?” or, “Have you thought about leaving your tits at home before you go out in the day?” It’s a non-sequitur. It doesn’t follow. My struggle with perfectionism could probably only be helped by – no offense to any reader who thought I was more hip in some way – prayer and discourse with God. My struggle with perfectionism was manageable in PT. It has become at least trebly difficult since moving here. I have my ideas of why this would be; for now it’s enough to recognize it’s happening.

One thing, the walk with the kids over to my parents’ was nice. I’d prepared us for the cold – coats, hats, gloves and good shoes – but the rain started falling intensely and there was nothing to save us from the wet of eight blocks. How to explain a Pacific Northwest winter rain? It is not violent at all but rather like a cold spell that covers us, the air filling with rain that is safe, nourishing, life-giving. You expect rain so you don’t begrudge it except a few weak moments, here and there, in the five solidly soaking months we get per year. You get home and strip off your clothes and put some in the dryer and towel your hair (we don’t generally use umbrellas here) and fix coffee and look outside at our beautiful weather. Tonight I watch my children on the walk. Sophie walks self-protectively. She puts her hat on firmly and zips her coat and steps carefully but purposefully. Nels just barges out into the elements, sure that he will be fine. I start to know he’s cold and wet when his hand creeps into mine and he falls silent. The children act as if they were born for this weather.

* If any well-meaning friend writes or says, “You should relax your housekeeping standards,” or “Why don’t you give up such-and-such?” I will deliver a cock-punch via Airmail.

"just go in and do it really half-assed… that’s the American way!"

When you spend your time with a series of mentally non-challenging and thankless (as in, you get directly acknowledged for around ten percent of your) tasks – a huge, bottomless series that swallows you up – it feels one thousand times worse when you screw up. Because it’s not like you fail in something that was really difficult or time-consuming or even Big Picture Important. You screw up on some tiny thing that most people might think, “What’s your problem? Pull it together!” or maybe, “Who cares?” about.

In this case I’m speaking of Picture Day, which is today at Sophie’s school. So for either Ralph or I this involves filling out a form and writing a check and dressing the child and making sure they’re clean, presentable, and / or cute. Well, I completely forgot. So this morning Sophie went without money, without a form, and dressed “like a boy” (her words; sometimes she chooses this costume) which included a hand-me-down camouflaged longsleeve t-shirt. When I got back from dropping her off – actually ahead of the timeline, thanks – I checked my mail and discovered my error (thanks, GCal, for being on the ball!). This meant going back to the school with abovementioned details sorted out. The one neat thing about this annoying, small-potatoes quasi-waste of my time was seeing my daughter light up when I arrived. Not just happy to see me as she put her hand trustingly in mine, but I saw that she viewed my surprise visit not as evidence I screwed up (as an older child might) but purely as evidence that I take good care of her. Awwww.

Today I – yet again – watched a friend’s child for a few hours. This was a shift from 11:30 to 2:30 and I took the child C. along with Nels for a long walk to a local cafe and back. C. is loved especially by Nels and my husband. She is a very sweet, social, direct child. She has a few quirks that make me laugh, one of which is that most of the time her speech is like the Weekend Update guest suffering from voice immodulation; the other is that when she’s upset about something she descends into a sort of silent hangdog standing / crumpling / threatening-to-cry / series of events that is quite distinct (my children scream or do this crazy phoney hyperventilating thing which is filling me with rage even as I talk about it) and I only notice it after a few minutes when I realize she hasn’t spoken for a while. Nels loves, simply loves it when I have extra children to care for. Besides some kitten-torture (today Harris was banished outside our entire duration of in-home with C.; one of the reasons we went on the walk was to allow our Regal Prince his indoor naps) Nels and his (lady-)friends get along wonderfully.

Tonight’s family events: Abbi’s fingerling potatoes, our first Rifftrax (LOTR:FOTR), (hopefully) my brother over for dinner again.

Quote of the day: Sinead O’Connor, referencing Britney Spears:

“I think to attack someone as a mother is very dangerous. I would say that’s what puts a young girl on a precipice which is very, very dangerous, in my opinion. Some people may end up really regretting the way they’re treating her.”

all’s well that ends well – ouch!

I have been dying to make my own laundry soap. Because I get ideas like that and they are like a fevered, psychotic brain-termite and my poor family has to deal with it.

So with this project in mind after swim lessons we rode the bus to Aberdeen. The bus driver dropped us off over a block early, a long city block. I got burnt to a crisp and had to carry Nels far further than I should have, and in bad shoes. I honestly did not realize how far this walk would be, because I am used to it by vehicle. Anyway, after one hundred million steps I fell inside my bank (instead of ATM, for a brief respite of air conditioning) to get cash out, and while there asked for water for my children – the teller said ‘no’. We finally got to Rite Aid and they had ZERO supplies! I now have blisters and if it weren’t for getting sunblock at Rite Aid, we’d all be burnt very badly.

I love that I totally tortured myself for a couple hot hours today by trying to be all low-cost and environmentally friendly – riding the bus and making my own soap. I am dumb.

I’m calling it my eco self-fuck.

On the other hand, on our final, last-leg-of-journey approach I finally got to meet the Queen of the Neighborhood. I’ve been seeing this large, kind of sassy-looking woman in an old bathrobe and dirty braids walking her dog. I’m not sure if she smokes but in my mind she’s smoking and in the middle of the street, like she owns it. Not unfriendly or anything, just present.

She also has this fabulous lawn. Flowers and blooms at random intervals and mini-beds, well-maintained and luxurious, in the front yard. The backyard has a decrepit-looking set of laundry lines that almost look neglected but every day, there’s something different hanging there – a series of windsocks, a large old cotton throw. The house and lawn look so lived in, cluttered but in a very non-stagnant way that shows pride of ownership and a love of life.

So today as we passed her house I noticed she’d set up a large kiddie-pool with a floating blow-up armchair. I was thinking, “Cool”, but also preoccupied because Nels was yelling and crying. He’d been disciplined two minutes earlier after the bus driver snapped at me for allowing him to pull the stop requested cord (he has only got away with this twice; I try my best to help him not be naughty on the bus). So Nels is mad and ashamed and crying and I’m talking to him calmly as we walk down the block (hot, hot, hot). Then I hear a voice saying, “Need a sprinkle?” and it’s the Queen, talking to my son. My children look in the direction of this seemingly mysterious voice speaking out of the hedge. Their eyes are wide, Nels quiets, and they drift toward her property, which smells like good flowers and I can hear some classic rock and roll playing. She tells me she just set up her pool; there’s a hose mister on. The kids and I put our hands under. Nels’ foul mood is cured. We thank her and move on.

I’m going to make this woman a pie and bring it to her. She is exactly the kind of neighbor I want to know.

My feet still hurt, damn.

"That’s why when I have kids everytime we drive past McDonald’s I’m going to punch them in the face."

My brother recently told me the reason gambling is such an addictive behavior is that there is a constant potential for a random positive reward. According to him, that is the best way people learn, and that’s why it’s easy to “learn” to (become addicted to) gambling. I found the idea fascinating, and even though I’d never heard this until a few days ago, I now realize we have a constant potential of random reward thing going in my house. And I have actually found that my children operate well with that system. It doesn’t mean they don’t misbehave ever (the only systems that guarantee that result are authoritarian ones and there is a huge price to pay for those). It means we have more fun getting along in the house and every reward is a fun experience, not one the kids get to hound me about or expect.

We also have a constant system I do even better at, called you never know when Mama is going to lose it. Like today, as my son is on a two-day streak of bad behavior and by 11 AM this morning, I’m still doing well dealing with it. One small example of his particular mood of late: as I bring the kids to register Sophie for kindergarten today (lovely, clean and seemingly well-organized new buildings with cheerful staff a few blocks away – yay!) Nels decides he is upset I won’t let him play outside and makes the meanest, loudest yell I have ever heard. He stomps repeatedly and yells at me over and over right in front of the door we are about to pass through. Still, I patiently crouch down, ask him not to yell at Mama, pat his head, and lead him in. I really am a good Mama. The rest of our morning goes this way: he is unreasonable and pissed and says things like, “You don’t do that, Mama!” in a “big” voice and either yells or complains at most decisions I make. Finally we make it home and I am getting food out of the kitchen to make lunch (cheese quesadillas and salad w/romaine, carrots, baby corn, olives, cherry tomatoes, and Annie’s Goddess Dressing) and he is tagging right next to me in the fridge trying to paw rice milk out and loudly grousing when suddenly I cannot handle the near two-day complaints and I grab him up, whack him on the shoulder, and set him on his back three feet away in the living room, telling him “I’m going to cook lunch now. You must stay out of the kitchen.” He starts crying in earnest and writhes on the floor. I am instantly full of repentance but I take him up and bring him to his bed, gently. Then close the door and return to the kitchen. Sophie comes in, tearful, and says, “You are being mean to us all the time.” (not even remotely true; she has been teary and fearful since she got wind she is due for three shots before school next fall) and I say in a level but multilayered Crazy Voice, “Go to your room.” She runs off, crying as well. Great! Two for two.

But by some odd form of miracle they stay in their separate rooms quietly while I finish cooking and set the table. I call out, “Children, time for lunch! Please wash your hands.” and by God, they do, and cheerfully.

So I guess the Random, Crazy-Assed Mama Tirade works well enough, too. P.S. Use sparingly.

Tangentially: I owe my husband an apology. Recently at a movie while we watched the trailer for Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (in which I am inordinately pleased at how large the Surfer’s smooth and gleaming package is) I lean over to Ralph and whisper, “I thought the Silver Surfer was a good guy?” to which Ralph responds, “No, he was originally sent to destroy earth by Galactis.” Then I snort and say derisively, “No, Galactis was from Transformers,”* There was a confused silence as my husband thought that over, obviously questioning his Marvel ‘verse knowledge, and I smugly patted myself on the back for knowing more comic / action series lore than my husband. But today I see was, in fact, correct. It was Galactis (P.S. read, “This page is currently protected…” wikidendum for a good laugh).

* Turns out I was confused with Unicron.