Monday, July 31, 2006

Connie andb Fylo Caterpillar

Our cousins Colleen and Kevin gave Johnny and Richie two black swallowtail caterpillars. They're black with yellow polkadots and green striped. They were living on my aunt Maureen's fennel plant.

Their names are Connie and Fylo. (Well that's today's name Richie gave him. He renames him everyday and the names are so complicated that we can't remember them. I think one was Mongie Longie Lako Mako Si Fi Ni.)

Our cousins researched them and found a Web site that tells about raising caterpillars. They need a stick to go into their cocoon. But Connie and Fylo aren't ready for that yet. They just want to eat fennel. They polished off the fennel Colleen gave us. I tried to give them some mint, sage and store bought fennel, which they ignored.

We happened to be on the playground across the street. Some kids were playing there because their moms were working in the church garden next to it.

Johnny carried Connie over on a stick and announced loudly to himself, "My pet caterpillar needs some fresh air!"

"Wow you have a pet caterpillar?" the kids said.

"What's his name?"

"Can I hold him?"

Naturally, Johnny was in heaven.

I went over to talk to the women in the garden.

Just then, a woman said, "Does anyone need some fennel? We have all this fennel!"

My caterpillars would love some, I said.

So now their critter keeper is full of this licorice-smelling fennel instead of those sorry-looking storebought seeds. What a life!

I say my caterpillars because I feel like they're my pets, too. I keep them by my desk and watch them work. Their job is to eat. I like that about an animal.

Like a lot of people, caterpillars and butterflies fascinate me. I read that they're the only creature that completely changes it's DNA in the course of its life. Some cultures think they're a spirit caught between this world and the next. Other people think that if you're drawn to caterpillars, you need to be reminded that change need not be painful.

Not only is the end result beautiful--can you imagine falling into a deep sleep and being able to fly when you woke up. But the changing itself can be beautiful.

Last summer, I swear this butterfly was following me. This will illustrate how crazy I am because butterflies are everywhere in the summer. It's like saying crabgrass is following you when in fact you just don't like to use weedkiller.

But seriously, I would be driving in 40 miles per hour and the butterfly would cut in front of me. Or I'd look out the window for a second and the butterfly would be right there. I figured it was someone in heaven trying to tell me something. But I never figured out what they were trying to say.

Oh, what, like you never thought one of your dead relatives had taken the form of a butterfly and was following you.

Supposedly, depending on whether you're more interested in caterpillars or butterflies, says where you are in your life. You're either getting ready for a change or you just got some newfound freedom or something. Of course, this is all according to Web sites that sell crystals.

When I was little, I found a caterpillar in Colorado on a family vacation. On these vacations, my mom's 9 siblings and their families, and my Nana and Papa and the family who owned the cabin would be there.

So I told everybody, "He's trying to tell us something. He's one day old today. That's why he's making a straight line with his body."

And that night my mom and aunts threw him a birthday party--with cake and everything. I thought they were putting me on--that the party was really for someone else and they just said it was for him.

But at the party, they only sang to him. And my Papa posed for a picture holding up his pointer finger with the caterpillar on it to show he was one year old. The party was just for him.

See, everyone loves caterpillars because everyone is always on the verge of some change.

Well, I'll keep you updated on their status.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

My Three Sons

Johnny, 5, selling noodles in our front yard.
Richie, 4, at his superhero party taking a break after capturing the bad guy.
J.J., 1.

The Sucker Fish

After turning in a 1,600-word business story Friday, all my creativity was drained out of me. That would present a challenge when being a mom for the rest of the day.

How would I come up with a whopper when Johnny, 6, asked, "Why doesn't magic happen when I say abracadabra?"

How could I concoct evil plans when playing Joker to 4-year-old Richie's Batman.

What new special treat would I give J.J. since he's getting tired of frozen peas, or Dippin' Dots, as we call them around here?

I had to call in reinforcement.

"Why don't you ask Nicholas and Ryan over to play?" I asked Johnny and Richie.

With friends over, the boys entertained themselves.

They had a toy sale on the lawn. No one came. It reminded me of our last garage sale, when we made $47, or 79 cents per man hour.

They dressed as superheros. J.J., as usual, got stuck playing the bad guy.

They played chess. They ate bologna sandwiches. They pushed matchbox cars around the living room. They looked for ants. They played baseball. They held their pet caterpillars.

With nothing else to do, I swept the house 57 times. After the boys pick up their toys, there's always those mysterious cookie crumbs, raisins, cocoa pebbles, miniature swords, and dog hair left behind to sweep up.

Sometimes I feel like that fish in the aquarium that sucks the dirt off the sides all day. The other fish are like, "Hey we're going to a party in the fake castle. You wanna come?"

And she's like, "No, thanks, I'm going to suck the scum off the aquarium for the 7,453rd time today. You guys have fun though."

And at the party the other fish call her a sucker behind her back.

Still, our house is no cleaner than when I got started. I swear our dog gets a brand new head of hair every single day. I brush and pull off loose fur. Then he walks around the house and hair just sort of flies off him. It's like a hair storm. But it could be worse. I could have fur all over me this summer.

Poor Benny. Why can't he just shed all his hair, be bald, and get a new coat in the fall? Now that would be an intelligent design.

In the meantime, I'll just sweep my life away. I never liked those fake castle parties anyway. Everybody there is so fake.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Teaching the Wrong Lesson

Johnny asked for a gift certificate to Barnes and Noble for his birthday. We got him that and his frog. And the crickets. And the cricket keeper, cricket food, and cricket hydrating gel.

The certificate was for $20. He went straight for the grownup science section, where he zeroed in on several $50 books with pictures of volcanos on the front. Finally, he picked up a softcover book with a funny looking monkey on the front. It was $25.

I wanted to teach him a lesson about sticking to a budget.

When I saw the incredulous look on Justin's face later when I told him about it, I realized I made a mistake.

"You wouldn't give him the $5?" Justin asked.

No. Instead, I told Johnny that if he got that book, he'd have to pay me the extra $7 when we got home.

"But it's only $25," Johnny said.

"You have to pay taxes, though," I said.

"What are taxes?" he asked.

"That's what you pay the government."

"I have to pay the government?"

He started to cry. "Why do I have to pay the government?"

Great. Not only was I doing this all wrong. Now I couldn't turn back. I didn't want to promote throwing fits at a store.

He stopped crying.

As we left the section, he kissed the book and said, "I love you," (to the book, not me.)

"So you're going to pay the $7?" I asked.

"Yes," he said.

This surprised me. Johnny held lemonade stands and art sales just to fill his penny bank. I'd sooner try parting the Red Sea than Johnny from his money. (I wonder where he got that from?)

Richie wanted to look at Superhero books, so we went to the kids section.

Johnny loudly remarked, "I bought a SCIENCE book. But my brother wants to go the kids' section!"

As if everyone in the store was thinking, "Why on earth are those three little kids headed for the children's books? They must not be very smart."

As though the other customers were following our every move anyway. (I wonder where he got that from.)

Lo and behold, across from the X-Men and Superman books, were kids' science books. All for $19 or less. He chose the biggest kids encyclopedia he could find.

"I choose you," he said, kissing it. "And I'll see you--" (kissing the $25 book) "on Christmas Eve."

I guess he's going to ask Santa for it. He's not a cheapo like mom.

Then he held up his gift card.

"What do you want to do?" he asked it.

"I want you to spend me," the gift card said, sounding a lot like Johnny.

At check out, the total came to $20 and change. I dug out the coins from my purse and joked with Johnny, "You owe me. Big time."

He whipped his head around. "How much?" he asked.

Sometimes you try to teach one lesson but inadvertantly teach another. I wanted to teach Johnny to stick to a budget. Be happy with what he had. Find something in his price range.

Instead, I probably taught him to be an Ebeneezer Scrooge. I'm sure when he grows up, I'll get a $27 birthday gift and a bill for the $7 he went over the budget.

Monday, July 24, 2006

The End of Birthday Season

Saturday, we went to Lakeside Nature Center for Johnny's sixth birthday party. It's a nature reserve in the middle of the city.

I told the boys on Friday what to expect.

"We're going to see real animals," I said. "Just like the real Batman and Robin came to your party, Richie."

"Will they talk?" Richie asked. "Will they teach us?"

He must have been anticipating quite a party.

If the animals could talk, they didn't get in a word edgewise on Saturday.

When the worker brought out an owl, Johnny suddenly transformed into a member of the White House Press Corp.

Are the owls fast? Then how do they catch mice since mice are fast?

Do they grab mice with their claws? Do they see better with their big eyes? What do they eat? Where do they live? I hear owls at night, and they're so loud...

I imagined his kindergarten teacher's euphamisms this year: "He's very inquisitive. He asks between 300 and 400 questions daily."

Johnny's friend Parker, 2, asked, "Do people eat owls?"

"No," the lady said. "It is illegal to even have an owl's feather without permission."

"Do dinosaurs eat owls?" he asked.

Richie was wondering the same thing. After the party he asked, "Why was there none?"

"None of what?" I asked.

"None dinosaurs," he said.

He was right. Even though it was a dinosaur theme party, there were no actual dinosaurs there. There was, however, a king snake and a oppossom, which the kids got to pet.

Interesting fact: We learned that the saying "play opossom" comes from the fact that opossoms faint when they get scared. They don't mean to play dead; it comes naturally.

After cake and opening presents, we went on a nature hike, or as my dad called it a "death march." It was a little longer than we thought.

But it was cool along the shady trail. The perfect conclusion to birthday season.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Fish Fiasco

I was taking a shower when I heard J.J., 1, and Johnny, 6, crying in their bedroom.

"J.J., my fish is going to DIE," Johnny sobbed.

I ran in with my towel.

"J.J. dumped out my fish," Johnny cried.

He was holding J.J. in place so that he didn't play wackemall with Fish Face as he swam in the puddle on the hardwood floor.

Seriously, the beta was swimming sideways in a quarter inch of water. If I ran a company I would hire Fish Face. There isn't a challenge this little guy can't meet.

"Quick, get me a glass of water," I told Johnny. "And the chlorine neutralizer."

We poured it in the bowl. Then I set about trying to catch fish face as he lept all over the place. Finally landing on J.J.'s ankle.

J.J. momentarily stopped crying, obviously thinking, "Fishy swim in J.J.'s tummy?"

I caught Fish Face and threw him back in his bowl. He swam to the surface opening and closing his mouth like he does when he's hungry.

Clearly, he wanted to do some stress eating.

"Quick, get the food," I told Johnny.

He ran back with it and opened it quickly. Naturally, it went everywhere. We were having a birthday party for J.J. later that night and apparently our house wasn't dirty enough as it was.

We gave fish face a few fish bits and he swam around wide eyed for a while, occassionally glaring at me as if to ask, "You want to hire me? Could I wear a name tag that says, 'Ask me about how bad my job sucks'?"

J.J., exhausted and wet after his show down with Fish Face, laid down for a nap.

With fishy water, fish food, toys and laundry everywhere, and company coming in eight hours, I sprung into action...And searched for my cup of coffee. Finally, I found it in the microwave.

I needed some debriefing.

What hapened was Johnny had moved all his pets to the World's Best Police station in the corner of his room. This is where he keeps his badges and clues. So Fish Face's bowl was sitting on top of Frankly the Frog's aquarium--out of J.J.'s reach. But when Johnny fed Frankly, he had to move Fish Face to the floor. That's where J.J. found him and tried to drink him.

The night before, Johnny prayed, "I hope Frankly doesn't die like all my other pets."

With the exception of Fish Face, who has led a Job-like existance at our house, we took good care of our little pets. But they still died.

There were the hermit crabs. We poured water over their rocks everyday and put the lamp over them to create a nice humid atmosphere--like the directions said. We fed them flakes of food and salted their water. They occassionally got lost among Johnny's shell collection. But we always found them and returned them home. Still, they died one by one.

There were the other betas. The ones who were not dumped out or given a fin cut, but still died.

There were the turtles who ran away. Or walked away, rather, while getting fresh air in our yard. But I'm pretty sure they're living in our neighbor's overgrown yard. That wasn't very responsible on my part, come to think of it.

But the first cut was the deepest. Stingy wingy, the lady bug. We found him next to our front door. He had a broken wing and Johnny laid him on a bed made of toilet paper next to his bed. He laid a couple of pieces of grass next to him for hospital food. The next day, Stingy Wingy was dead.

"He was just a baby," Johnny wailed.

"No, no, he was very old," I said. "He had a wonderful life until the wing broke."

A discussion of life and death and heaven and earth ensued. I thought it would kill me.

But a couple hours later, Johnny was fine.

And months later, he buried his hermit crabs with matter of fact prayers. He was brave during toilet side services for the fish.

So I thought he'd made peace with the fragility of tiny pets.

But the morning of the fish fiasco, he dumped crickets into Frankly's cage and watched worriedly.

"Eat, Frankly," Johnny said.

Frankly just sat in his water.

"Is he eating the crickets?" I asked peaking my head in the door.

"No, but the crickets are eating each other," he said.

These crickets are awful. I know that we're all God's creatures, even insects. But God must have created these guys at 4:59 p.m. on a Friday when all his friends were calling him from the pub.

I'm not an entimologist, but this is what it looks like to me is happening inside their cage.

You know how sometimes you eat so much that you feel like if you take one more bite, you'll burst? Well, the crickets take that next bite. And they do burst. Then another cricket eats the food out of the last cricket's stomach and that cricket bursts. They're as dumb as they are ruthless. They jump in water even though they can't swim. They eat their injured friends. We're done with crickets. Eating their injured...that was a deal breaker right there. We're switching to earthworms.

The good news is Fish Face is fine and now lives on my dresser. And Frankly ate all his crickets the next morning.

I guess Johnny never got over the fragility of little creatures. I hope he never does.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Baby Gift

Today is J.J.'s first birthday. It's hard to believe that this time last year, J.J. wasn't even born yet.

Now it seems like he's been around forever.

Last night, we went to the Rainforest Cafe for Johnny's birthday. Everyonce in a while, the lights go dim and it sounds like a big rainstorm. Chimpanzees start hootin' and hollerin' and elephants blow their trunks. When this happened last night, J.J. looked at me quizically.

It was as if he was wondering, "Is this the part where we get attacked by monkeys and washed away by a monsoon, mom?"

But my brother Josh said J.J. was simply thinking, "We're still going to eat, right?"

Weighing 30 pounds, J.J. is a good eater. A smart kid, if I do say so myself. And a dynamite dancer. But things didn't always look so rosy for him.

Things didn't go as planned last year. Nothing ever does. (Everybody should just stop making plans come to think of it.)

The baby's heartrate was too low during labor and the nurse kept calling the doctor. She thought I needed a c-section. But the same thing happened with Johnny, so I just thought it was a side effect of the pitosin, the drug given to induce labor and multiply your labor pains by 3 million. I was hoping for a regular delivery.

Finally, the doctor said I needed an emergency c-section. It's a good thing he did, because the nurse said later that the umbilical cord was wrapped around J.J.'s neck three times.

In my morphine/laughing gas/narcotics-they-use-on-injured-race-horses fog, I heard "It's a boy!" and saw them hold J.J. up. He had the typical newborn expression on his face asking, "Where the hell am I?"

We'd chosen a boy's name a few hours earlier only because the labor was taking so long and we were bored. I was sure he was a boy.

And another surprise: I heard a nurse tell Justin, "See, he has an extra toe here, and an extra finger here. And, oh here's another extra finger. But this one's more like a nub."

Justin, in typical laid-back fashion, chuckled and said, "Oh, okay."

"I see I'm hallucinating," I thought.

But it turned out he really did have extra fingers and toes, and I was sure they grew because I waited to have a c-section. I should have demanded one. Or at least not have prayed so hard not to have one. I was still feeling the drugs, obviously.

Plus, having worked with kids with special needs, I was sure this was a signal of a bigger issue. Developmental delays. Something. This would break our hearts. It was like that feeling when you're about to get in a car wreck you don't know yet how bad it's going to be.

While I was in recovery, J.J. was under observation because of the umbilical crisis.

When I got back to the hospital room, the pediatrician came in and said he was doing great. I didn't really believe this. Then again, I couldn't see a doctor lying about it, either.

Then I asked him about the fingers.

"Oh yeah," he said holding up his hands. "I was born with extra fingers, too."

They were no longer there, just the extra knuckles.

"You know none of us is born perfect," he said. "We all have something."

You can say that again.

But the thing is J.J. was born perfect. Every mother thinks so about her baby. And now it seems that way now as he sits on my lap drinking a bottle. I'm sure the sentiment will change later in the year when he hits the terrible twos. But for now, he's as perfect as the day he courageously fought off the umbilical chord and then managed to look like a helpless little baby for the rest of our stay in the hospital.

Thank goodness for medical advancements like c-sections. And it didn't hurt during the surgery, but during the recovery, this is what it felt like:

You know when you go to see a magician and they need a volunteer to lie in the box and supposedly be cut in half. But it's just a trick.

So you're like, "Pick me. pick me."

And he picks you! But then he accidentally does saw you in half.

Realizing his mistake, he says, "Don't worry. I have a staple gun."

Then, seriously, he staples you back together.

You're like, "Now what?"

And he says, "You're wondering if you'll still be able to wear a bikini, aren't you? The answer is yes. We sawed you in half low enough on your stomach to make sure of that."

"But will I be able to care for my children?" you wonder. "Will the pain ever stop?"

Then in one week, it did stop. And I got the best prize for volunteering, a beautiful baby boy.

As my nurse said when I told her I felt like someone had sawed me in half and stapled me back together, "We're in the healthy baby business. If you have a healthy baby, we did it right."

She was right, of course.

I'm sure we all have stories in our life when something could have gone badly but didn't. We survive something we shouldn't have. We think the world is crashing down on us when really good fortune is all around us. This was one of those times.

I also found out that a lot of people were praying for us when things started to go wrong. Johnny and Richie were with my aunt at the pool. She got the news and said a prayer with her friends, for instance.

Now it's time for J.J. to open his present. It's a baby walker. No match for the gift he is to us. But I think he'll like it.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Continued anyway, we went to the zoo instead of the spooky creek today.

It was a balmy 500,000 degrees outside. At the zoo, it was just us, a few other families and 300 Middle Eastern tourists. Well, I'm sure they were Americans of Middle East descent. I can't see 300 people in Afghanistan or Iran saying, "You know what we should do sometime? Go to the Kansas City Zoo. I hear their elephants paint on the weekends."

The only creature more miserable than us humans was a gorilla lying on his back staring at us as if to say, "Just kill me now, please.The rainforest feels like a movie theater compared to Kansas City."

I know it is hot everywhere. We're in a nationwide heat wave. Here, it is 101 degrees today. The heat index was the temperature of molten lava. I almost jumped in the water with the hippos but I couldn't remember if they ate people or not.

At the monkey cage, Johnny told a little boy we didn't know, "The last time we were at the zoo these monkeys were talking with their bottoms.

The kid replied, "Their butts look like ours."

As the monkey hopped by, the kid said, "Look, there goes his butt right now."

I knew Richie was hot when he didn't engage in this conversation. It's like he was using all his energy being miserable. But I really started getting worried when the kid pointed out the cheetah poop and Richie didn't even look.

But the zoo is always worth suffering through the heat. J.J. came face to face with a giraffe while we ate hotdogs on a high-up deck. All the animals were just sleeping--even the meercats, who usually are busy doing jobs like being the babysitter or sentry.

That's a pretty good policy: "Memo: We're going to shut this kingdom down for the summer because frankly it's too hot to run from the lions and hide from the tigers. We all need some r and r. We'll resume eating each other on September 5. Thanx, Mgmt."

Meanwhile, we have a new addition to the zoo that is our house: Frankly. He's a pacman frog. He eats live crickets, which also need their own food and water--or gel, rather, so they don't dehydrate.

"Can't I just give them water?" I asked the clerk, as he piled supplies into my cart.

"No because they would drown," he said.

I guess in their natural habitat, the rivers are made of gel.

But he is a cute frog and Johnny was very excited. And after this week, Johnny will be hunting for Frankly's food because he also eats earthworms and I don't feel right about buying bugs when they visit our house regularly for free.

So it's another successful trip around the sun for Johnny, future scientist, doctor, astronaut, inventor, lawyer and carpenter, according to his plans. Well, he's already a scientist, as he often reminds me. Happy birthday, son.

Two Birthdays

Today is Johnny's sixth birthday. J.J. turns one tomorrow.

So this day last year was doubly special.

I love the day before a baby is born. It's like Christmas Eve times 1,000.

But then it turns out, on Christmas, your present is 26 miles away and you have to run barefoot on blazing hot bricks, fighting off angry lions, crippling stomach pains and nurses posing as drill sargeants to open it. While your husband eats a sandwich.

It's worth it, of course. But I always like baby eve, when I imagine, despite scientific evidence and personal experience, that the gift will come wrapped in an Egyptian cotton cloth carried in the mouth of a stork.

This day one year ago, I wrapped things up at work, knowing the doctor was inducing labor the next day. I cleaned the house and bought a new fish to replace the one that died. I named him Maryanne after my favorite character on Gilligan's Island. (It's not my fault that the pet store only sells male fish. And what did he care that he had a girl's name? He's a fish.)

I was nesting, a phenomenon that lasts nine months for some women, an entire lifetime for others. For me, it lasts two and a half hours, so I had to work fast.

At about 1 p.m. I picked up Johnny at my mom's, and we went to Indian Creek to look for shells.

It had rained that morning, so where you can usually walk along the banks was ankle deep water. We plodded along, stopping to catch minnows in a sandwich bag. You can't catch minnows with a sandwich bag. We gave up. We filled a grocery back with black and white speckled shells the size of thumbprints. It was about 90 degrees. The water was warm. It was a perfect day.

Then, half a mile down stream, we saw a deer leg on a high bank. Not the deer. Just the leg. It was picked clean except for a single tuft of hair. My heart was in my throat.

I stared at the muddy water, expecting an alligator to pop up. I looked in the trees lining the creek for mountain lions.

"Can we keep it?" Johnny asked.

"What? No!" I said. "Let's get out of here."

We rushed back to the trail, without getting eaten, needless to say.

And now Johnny is waking up ready to open his big surprise...a pacman frog...To be continued...

Monday, July 17, 2006

Oprah's Debt Diet

I've been watching Oprah's debt diet this week hoping for pointers on how to save money. But let me tell you, the families profiled are a trip. They make about $100,000 per year and spend about as much per day.

In the throes of financial strife, one woman seemingly dove off her front porch and tore her rotator cuff. She said it's a yearly thing--falling off her porch. I'm sorry, but I already know not to fall off my porch annually.

Then her financial counselor suggested she sell some of her daughter's designer clothes on ebay for quick cash. She was going to get $200 from her daughters jeans alone, but she wouldn't do it! So her husband had to say he paid $26 instead of $20 for gas so that he could buy Pabst Blue Ribbon. He was caught on hidden camera.

But I did get a few good pointers. For instance, you're supposed to put all your grocery/entertainment cash in an envelope at the beginning of the month and when it's gone it's gone. By taking your lunch to work, you can save like $1,000 per year, too. We're going to try it, and see what happens.

Also, you can get your credit card balance transferred to a zero interest account with a little haggling over the phone. Now, the real coup will be getting our credit card balance to zero. We made a budget and it looks like we should be on our way now...if I don't fall off the porch.

Watching the show kind of made me feel superior. "Well," I thought haughtily, "I certainly don't buy Baby Grand pianos as if they're gum at the checkout counter."

But honestly, late movie fees, fender benders, forgetting to make dinner and ordering pizza, writing in this blog instead of drumming up more business (oops, doing that right now) --I do my share of diving off the porch.

Oprah said people are living their lives unconscious about money. But the main thing with us is I need to bring in more income. I mean we are pretty darn cheap already. Our old budget plan, for instance, was, "Don't spend any money on anything."

To make more money, I have three new customers, hopefully. So I'll be writing in this blog a little less if it all pans out. If I'm still writing in this everyday, feel free to tell me, "Stop diving off the porch."

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Opposite Personalities

It was Bastille Day yesterday and my aunt Mo had a French dinner. Everyone brought a French dish. I made baked brie.

Well, I supervised the making anyway.

For the boys, this was a lesson in French cooking. For me, it was a study in opposites.

Richie, 4, dabbed a tiny bit of melted butter on his pastry brush and painted the phyllo sheet as if perfecting Mona Lisa's smile.

Johnny, 5, on the other hand, drenched the brush in butter, catching the drippings with his fingers and licking them. He repeated this about 10 times. With the other hand, he slathered the phyllo in three generous brush strokes. He managed to do this while jumping up and down as though the kitchen was a trampoline. A few times, I told him to go into the living room to calm down. He would step one foot into the living room and bounce back in the room announcing boisterously, "Okay, I calmed down!"

Richie didn't lick his fingers once. He concentrated wholeheartedly on his French masterpiece. Then again, knowing how Richie is in his own world, he might have thought he was really dipping the pastry brush in yellow paint.

Two brothers. Two opposite personalities. Energetic. Calm. Type A. Type B. Logical. Imaginative. Justin says Johnny is like me and I say Richie is like Justin.

Of course, that is only the black and white picture of the two. Richie can argue quite logically when he wants to watch Teen Titans after watching enough T.V for the day. Johnny thinks thumb-sized people are living under a table in his bedroom. Richie, at times, climbs on me like a monkey, and Johnny can work on a project for hours. But I tend to see their extremes.

Richie wandered around the party last night. His best friend Tommy wasn't there and he looked a little lost. He wanted me to go with him to get a sprite. He absentmindedly ate some strawberries out of their plastic package.

Meanwhile, the older cousins were playing big kid video games in the basement and I made Johnny come upstairs.

I watched Johnny throw his hands up in the air as he complained to his cousin, "My mom lets me watch Pirates of the Carribean Part II, Fantastic Four and King Kong, and she won't let me watch PG-13 video games???!!!"

Richie left the party on an even keel and Johnny was a little aggitated about the whole video game thing.

Today, we had to have a talk about 5-year-olds thinking they know better than their mommies. Of course, the whole time I worried that maybe he was right. Maybe I was being illogical.

I always worry about playing favorites. So much of parenting is split second decisions that it's hard to tell if you're being fair or not. Is one kid getting in trouble and one getting off the hook? Is one getting more attention? To add to this confusion: opposite personalities, different needs. Johnny responds best to being read the riot act or hearing a logical explanation. Richie changes his tune if he even hears the words "time out." J.J...well, we'll see what he is like by and by.

It's so funny to me when I see kids I used to know who are now grown up.

I always think, "That makes perfect sense that they turned out like this. "

Even if they used to be quiet and now they're funny or they used to be hyper and now they're calm, it just seems like a perfect extension of who they were. But when they were kids, for the life of me, I could never imagine them as adults at all. I suppose it will be the same way with my own kids.

Friday, July 14, 2006

All These Upgrades Have Got Me Down

Every once in a while, a news report comes out promoting the latest technology. Some make sense, like, years ago, e-mail, and more recently the hybrid car. (Although I thought it made more sense when a group of college kids converted their vehicle to burn cooking oil--an energy source diners and fast food joints give away for free.)

But so many are just an expensive way to fix something that wasn't broken. Take dvds. What was wrong with VCR tapes? The big deal was that you could skip to scenes without pressing rewind or fast forward. I can just imagine consumers everywhere--in the old days--saying, "If I have to rewind to my favorite scene again, I'm going to go ballistic. I haaaaate rewiiiiiinding!@#$!"

The great thing about VCR tapes was they didn't get scratched. Every DVD Justin and I watch ends up breaking during a crucial scene.

First it was "Open Water," the movie about a scuba diving couple that gets left behind by their boat in shark infested waters. We watched them turn out the lights at their suburban home, tying up lose ends at work, complaining about their hotel room, trying on funny sunglasses, and finally petting fish while scuba diving. All this was excruciating, but we put up with it knowing that we'd soon see them fight off sharks.

The boat people miscounted the passengers and took off. One passenger commented that he saw a shark. The young couple emerged from underwater, took off their mask and asked, "Where'd our boat go?"

Then the movie broke.

"Noooooo!!!!" I cried. I felt like I was being attacked by sharks. Well, that's a bit of an exaggeration. But it was disappointing.

Last night, we watched "The Closer" with no sound, relying entirely on Russian subtitles. Okay, they were English, but we didn't know who was saying what.

"What was wrong with VCR tapes?" Justin asked.

Nothing, except that people stopped renting them out.

Now, there's Tivo or whatever they call it in your neck of the woods. The technology that allows you to save T.V. shows for later. Newspapers asked if it was the end of serendipity, spontaneity, T.V. dinners, rushing home for your favorite show and discussing it at the water cooler the next day. As far as I'm concerned, it was only the end of taping shows on your VCR tape. I don't see what's new about it.

The same thing happened with my e-mail account. It used to keep a separate folder for my spam. You know, so that I could buy my xanax and give my bank account number out to the nigerian politico when it was convenient for me. No more. The new upgraded e-mail package offers spam protection, but not my old e-mail account, which was just fine. Until it stopped screening for spam.

I'll never know what happened to that poor couple at sea. But I know that their airconditioner was broken in their hotel room. They should have upgraded.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Bedtime: Never the Right Time

My kids are supposed to go to bed at 8 p.m. By that time, they're tired, I'm tired, Justin is tired. And several prime time dramas begin that are difficult to explain to children.

But in the summer, late sunsets conspire against us as we try our usual routine.

"It's very late," I say.

"Almost midnight," Justin says.

"Why is it still light out?" Richie asks.

They want to catch fireflies, work up a sweat after their bath, shoot the mosquitos off each other with giant water guns.

I give in a lot.

For instance, the other night, the kids were watching a movie at night when their cousins were over. At 10 p.m. I told them it was time for bed. We needed to shut off the movie.

Johnny asked, "Why can't we just live our dreams?"

And I thought, yeah, why can't you just live your dreams? That's a good question. I let them watch a little bit more of Babe: Pig in the City, since that was his goal in life, apparently.

Then there's Richie, who sneaks out of bed and hides behind the couch. Johnny will come running into the living room and Richie will appear out of nowhere, doing a little jig. Then I let them watch Treasure Hunters or some T.V. show. This allows me to do a running commentary on the show for their benefit, since Justin, for some reason, doesn't appreciate when I do this.

Finally, J.J. He's so determined not to fall asleep that he often dozes off sitting Indian-style with a chubby cheek pressed against the bars of his crib. Of course, I have to take a picture of that, not realizing that the flash will be like disco lights in his eyes and wake him up.

So summer bedtimes present a new challenge. But the good news is, it's 7:30 a.m. and two of my kids are still asleep. I guess I can live my dream of having my children sleep past the crack of dawn.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The Skit

My mom's 60th birthday was this weekend. It couldn't be a surprise because my mom has ESP, but we planned a surprise roast/storytelling.

Being 12 years old (approximately), I decided to write a skit instead of speech for my brother, sister-in-law and our kids to perform.

The play started with my mom, played by me, telling tall tales to warn us against things like falling asleep in the sun. Then we did a scene where she/I drove off with the groceries on the top of the car, which made for a funny story at the party she was having that night.

People couldn't hear us, so my sister-in-law Erin, the narrator, had to echo everything we said over the microphone.

As we quietly performed family stories in the noisy backyard for people sitting too close to politely ignore us, I got that oops/we should have rehearsed this/I'm not an actor but I thought I was when I wrote this feeling.

In short, I had a flashback to when my friend Matt Hall and I sang "Together at Last" from Annie for our seventh grade talent show. I was Annie and he was Daddy Warbucks. I had had this song memorized for eight years. Annie was my favorite musical, and I thought that a boy-girl duet would go over better than an all-girl or all-boy group song, which most people did. Somehow, I talked Matt, a pretty shy guy, into getting on stage with me. We practiced and came up with a dance routine. Well, I'm sure I made up the dance and was bossy enough that he didn't argue about it. I remembered during the third line: "I don't need sunshine now to turn my life around..." one crucial factor. I can't sing. I mean, everyone says that and then they get up to sing karaoke and sound like Carly Simon or Frank Sinatra. But I really can't sing. People were looking at me like, "Honey, singing in the talent show isn't a graduation requirement. And if it was, you should have dropped out of school."

So anyway, that would be fine except that I continued to try to sing on stage even after that. Most notably, when I ran for class office in high school and sang Mary Chapin Carpenter's "I Feel Lucky." The feeling was deceptive. People watched as if viewing one of those televised surgeries. Then I lost.

And that was the last time I sang on stage. Oh wait. No, I sang karaoke this Christmas with my husband's friend Brian. Good lord. What is wrong with me?

But the skit picked up when it was time for the part my brother Luke came up with.

My mom and dad and us kids (played by Luke and I and our kids) stopped at a hotel on our way home from New Jersey. The man at the hotel said that since they didn't call ahead and it was so late, we'd have to sleep in the wing that was getting a new roof in the morning.

That night it rained. (My brother Josh poured a generous amount of water on Luke's head) Not only did we get wet, the lightbulbs got wet and exploded. (Erin clanged pot lids together, and because no one could hear her, said into the mike, "That loud clang was the sound of lightbulbs exploding."

The next morning, my mom asked the man (played by my dad) for a discount. He declined, citing the fair warning he gave us the night before.

Meanwhile, he had carefully arranged all the hotel's keys by number in front of him. My mom sweeped her arm across the table and knocked them on the floor, then she hopped in our car and we took off like we had just robbed a bank.

The point of the play was that whether my mom was telling the truth or stretching the truth, having fun or having her say, she did it with love. And that she turned thorny situations into sweet memories. Then we gave her roses.

And though I realized that night (for the 17th time) that I don't have the stage voice needed to perform for a crowd, it's funny to think about now. Just like the groceries falling off the car.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Busy Week

My mom's 60th birthday party was this weekend. My brother's family and my aunts and uncles were in town, and we had lots of get-togethers.

Justin went back to work Thursday. (Less than one week after the surgery.)

I'm trying to drum up legal stories for my new freelancing job.

And J.J. has a new favorite game called, "Tear it up, man." He crawls around the house, pulling all the books off the shelf, throwing handfuls of dirt from the plants on the floor, ripping apart People magazine before I read it, trying to eat the boys' finger paint. I'm sure you're all familiar with this game. He crawls around and rests on his knuckles as he plans his attack. Justin says he looks like a little gorilla.

Johnny, meanwhile, looks like a prize fighter after falling on his nose at my mom's party.

"I look so wierd," he cried when he looked in the mirror the next day. But now he has forgotten about it.

In parking lots, people look at him and then glare at me. It reminds me of when I was pregnant and drinking rootbeer out of a brown bottle at an art festival. People shook their heads at me as if to say, "Fie, Fie on you," and I'd look at Justin and say, "This rootbeer is delicious."

Only now I know that it takes a village to make you feel guilty for how you raise your child. So I don't worry so much.

This morning the boys have their cousins over after a sleepover and we're getting ready for our sixth consecutive party this weekend, this time at a dairy farm, so I can't write a real blog, just one to tell you why I haven't written lately. I have lots to catch up on starting tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Firecracker, Firecracker, boom, boom, boom

Every fourth of July, I make it my personal responsibility to have a heart attack as I watch people set off firecrackers. This doesn't make anyone safer. But somehow it makes me feel like I've done my patriotic duty.

So I tell small children: "That sparkler is the temperature of molten lava. Put shoes on. Do not catch the parachute mid-air. Where there's smoke (bombs) there's fire. Don't touch the tank. It's liable to go off again at any time. Consider the ashy snakes to be as dangerous as an actual fire. Or an actual snake. Johnny, you see where the other children are standing? I want you back 50 yards farther."

I have to keep my eye on that one. Johnny would catch a flaming rocket--just to have it as a souvenir.

Not that anyone was setting off trajectories, or anything. But even the kiddie firecrackers make me nervous.

It doesn't help that I have three boys. They just like firecrackers more than girls. At a party this week, even the grown up boys were hootin' and hollerin' over the firecrackers.

"Throw it in the puddle," they'd tell the grown up putting on the show. "Woah. It still goes off in the water!"

Meanwhile, the wives would yell to their husbands, "Don't throw that!" and suggest to their children, "Let's go find you a piece of cake," when it was time to light the sparklers.

Johnny must think I love firecrackers. Wherever they are, I am.

"Mom, I have to show you something," he told me last night. "Look what this tank did to this one. Awesome."

"Let's take a farther look at that," I told him.

When I'm ready to have a hamburger instead of a heart attack, I make the boys come inside with me. Maybe daddy would like an opportunity to see the firecrackers, I tell them.

I know some people say, leave the fireworks to the professionals, but I don't trust them either. Everytime I watch a show it seems like the boat or something catches on fire.

J.J. had the right idea last night when we watched a city fireworks display. He started crying and looking around as if to ask, "Why did people bring out their lawnchairs to watch this war? We're being bombed here, people. Move out."

"No, it's fun," I assured him. "See, pretty."

"How do they do that?" Johnny asked, clearly trying to determine if he could put on his own large fireworks display next year.

"It's gun powder, right?" I ask Justin.

I vaguely remember a college professor telling our history class that Western Civilization was the best. Why? "The Chineze had gun powder in ancient times," he said. "They made fireworks." You'd think that would be an argument for Eastern civilization being the best. You know, because fireworks are pretty. And guns are deadly. But, anyway...It turns out I was all wrong.

"They're made of stars and wood," Richie said of fireworks.

That explains his interest in firecrackers. I'd be mesmerized, too, if I thought I was watching stars blast out of toilet paper rolls.

On the way home from the fireworks display, Johnny asked, "How many fourth of July's are there this year?"

"Just the one," I said, breathing a sigh of relief. I love our country, just not the heart attack that comes with celebrating its birth.

Monday, July 03, 2006

The Puppet Show

We went to a puppet show on Saturday at Crown Center. The kids crowded on a piece of carpeting in front of the folding chairs that the grown ups sat on. I sat on the floor with baby J.J. and Richie, 4, who needed me with him because he is suspicious of puppets, among other things.

Johnny, 5, brought his notepad and pen for the case he was investigating about the missing man. He sat across from J.J., Richie and me.

As the frog puppets came out and sang "At the Hop," the other kids at the show bobbed their heads or stood up and danced. Johnny jotted down a few notes and rolled his eyes as if to say, "I can't believe I'm stuck working this case during a puppet show."

For J.J., the show was watching the kids. He sat with his back to the puppet show and clapped. It really was a good show. When the ballerina puppet swung through the air on a trapeze, the girls in the audience turned their heads back and forth as if watching a tennis match that they were starring in. The boys watched wide eyed when a skeleton puppet came out. Even Johnny paused his search for crucial evidence for a minute.

But what really brought down the house was the bunny rabbit puppet. As the song from Fletch played, the bunny pulled scarves out of a hat, sometimes getting tangled up in them. You'd expect the 2 and 3 year olds to think this was funny. But 6 and 7 year olds were throwing their heads back and laughing like hyenas. Meanwhile, they inched closer to the stage as the skit reached its surprise ending. The rabbit pulled a carrot out of the hat. Of course, that brought down the house.

When a little puppy puppet came out, all bets were off. The kids kneeled around the stage and the puppeteers came out to tell them to scoot back, sit on their bottoms, back away from the stage lights, etc. The kids took a step back. A few parents beckoned their kids back to their laps. Then, as if to taunt the children, the puppeteers brought out three poodle puppets.

That was it. Even J.J. crawled closer to the show, finally realizing what the kids were staring at in the first place. Johnny forgot his notebook and kneeled to watch the poodles do the can-can. Richie sat on my lap, mesmerized the whole time.

It's good to see that in the age of T.V. kids still like puppet shows. But the best show is seeing them laugh and dance along. T.V. shows spend a lot of money and make a lot of money amusing kids. But it turns out they'd rather see a rabbit pull a carrot out of a hat.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

First Steps

Justin's knee surgery went great yesterday. He's already walking on it and says it feels better than when he went in.

Meanwhile, everybody has their new interests this week.

Richie's is Batman and Bathound, a caped dog who, when you push on his tail, says things like, "Batman is my partner, not my owner."

Richie has Batman tell Bathound, "You're just a little guy. You can't go with me"

And Bathound says, "Well, I can do this." And he flies across the living room and lands right on top of Batman.

I think this is Richie's way of making peace with being the second child.

Johnny is in the middle of solving a mystery with his cousin Kevin. They saw flyers that said a man had gone missing. So far, they've uncovered the following clues: A dirty string at the swimming pool, the letters "t" and "h" spraypainted on a stop sign, and a talking building.

Everyday, Johnny puts on his police jacket and carries his walkie talkie and notepad into his office upstairs, where he...pours over his notes? makes phone calls? checks the priors on suspects? No, no, he looks at the pictures in encyclopedias, of course.

J.J.'s new thing is standing on his own. It's amazing how a skill like clapping, which you could go your whole life not knowing how to do, is important. It's the only reason J.J. lets go of the table or side of the pool or couch--to clap. Then we all clap with him. It's like having a guy holding an "Applause" sign in our house.

But another new skill we don't like is biting. Whenever J.J. doesn't know what to do, he either waves bye bye, claps or bites someone.

It's like he thinks, "I'm clapping. I'm clapping. Okay enough of that. Should I wave bye-bye? I'm waving, but nobody's leaving. Ho hum. Nothing to do. I know, I'll bite mom's arm."

We're trying to teach him to kiss instead. I think that if we reversed reactions this would work. If, when he kissed us, we said, "Ow. Owwwww. That's a real arm, J.J.," and when he bit us we said, "Aww, that's nice," he'd get bored with biting.

Well, J.J. will soon have something new to occupy his time. Last night, he might have taken his first step. The judges are still debating. He went from couch to table, but did he let go while walking?

We're going to allow it. Mainly for poetic reasons. We all were there for it--Justin, Johnny, Richie and me. We were watching a movie, well, watching J.J. actually, and he just went for it.

It was also kind of sweet that J.J. took his first step on the same day that Justin took his first step without his miniscus lodged in his knee joint. I'm sure J.J. planned it that way, being so advanced in medical understanding as he is.

It's funny how, as grownups, we have to go through surgery to get back to where we started, but kids get stronger--mentally and physically--everyday, just because time passes. I guess we change with them a little bit. I never knew so many clues were all around us, or there was so much to clap about, or that Bathound could teach a David and Goliath lesson. But that's kids for you. They see things that are not on our eye level.