Monthly Archives: September 2021

Nature abhors a vacuum (but I do not)

My husband hurt his knee during a workout last spring, and it’s been the best thing to happen to our house in years. I promise there isn’t a scrap of schadenfreude involved here, though; it just happens to be a situation that had a most favorable result from my standpoint (which, in this case, is admittedly selfish). His doctor told him that the only way his knee would heal is after a period of recovery during which only low-impact exercise would be tolerated; basically, he told him, “You can’t run. You can’t jump. You shouldn’t even stretch. You know what you can do? You can walk.”

Well, let me tell you something about this man: he doesn’t relish having restrictions placed on his voluntary exercise regimen. However, as a responsible patient and knowledgeable athlete, he knew that fortune favors the brave, so he buckled down to suffer the enforced spell of respite.

Well, sort of. For the first few weeks, he went on long walks while listening to audiobooks as part of professional development, since he’s a teacher and school was still in session, but then summer came and we found ourselves with a week when the kids were in camp and he (for the first time in two years) didn’t have to focus the majority of his time and energy on his job. The novelty of this was joltingly visceral, and under normal circumstances he would most likely have diverted his predisposition for cardiovascular engagement into enriching his exercise regimen, but the embargo on aerobic activity manifested in his deciding to tackle the leviathan mission of organizing the house instead. This was a job that was both desperately in need of doing but also completely overwhelming, and I hadn’t felt equipped to begin it in light of the rest of the housework that falls incessantly under my purview.

If you’ve ever witnessed a lifelong athlete gone cold turkey against his or her own wishes, well, you can imagine how the week went. The man flung himself–almost literally–into this project, expending all of his frustrated physical energy into reimagining our organization systems, or lack thereof, and moving things from one floor to another to maximize efficiency and accessibility. We use all four levels of the house as livable space, so he basically was doing a stairs workout every day under the guise of “cleaning up”. And the house, over the course of many hours of concerted labor, slowly began resembling the home we have been missing: a place where books live on shelves, where outgrown toys no longer reside, where boxes are labeled and homes are found for all of the uncategorized items collectively filed under the umbrella of clutter. I helped, of course, but he pulled most of the weight that week, and the result was general betterment of our personal space.

One day near the midpoint of the week, I ran downstairs for glue because Arlo was engaged in an artistic endeavor necessitating its use, and I heard the vacuum rev up on the second floor. At the same moment, I walked by Brian’s phone, which was standing up on its charger in the kitchen, and a notification from his Fitbit was bannered across the home screen. Here it is:

I’m not saying I’m glad that he injured his knee jumping hurdles during middle school track practice with a bunch of spry, limber teenagers. I wouldn’t wish him the discomfort, inconvenience, mental distress or physical chagrin that the strain entailed, but I know we wouldn’t have made as much progress with the daunting house chore if he hadn’t been excommunicated from his cross-trainers that week. And I will admit that while I listened to the Hoovering music coming from the carpet above my head, an arrangement composed by a vacuum virtuoso other than myself, the phrase that bannered across the home screen of the wickedest corner of my wifely mind read “Your pain, my gain.”

On belay

During the spring and summer, we were dealing with trying to figure out what was going on with our six year-old. His behavior at night was becoming increasingly confounding, and we were starting to look for answers as to why his energy and mood, especially at that time of day, were mercurial, frenetic, and seemingly beyond his ability to manage. One night, feeling particularly perplexed, I hopped on Google to see if a diagnosis might just pop up to explain why my child was acting like a wind-up ninja robot crossed with a wild animal dispossessed from its natural habitat. Instead, the internet gave me this:

…which, admittedly, made me laugh despite my frustration and overarching concern. A month or so later, we began to suspect that we were dealing with a diagnosis of “twice exceptional”, which in our case meant a coexistence of ADHD with extraordinary intelligence quotient. Naturally, I looked into all of the media feeds I could find in hopes that information-sharing there could help us find ways to ease the repercussions of the complicated interplay of neurology transpiring inside my son’s mind. While researching the different groups devoted to kids who fall into the 2e category, this post stopped me in my tracks:

It felt a little like pieces of a puzzle fitting themselves together. And only few days later, after describing to my mom how Arlo insisted on scaling the staircase by holding onto the banister with both hands and stepping sideways up the moulding, putting one foot after the other between the vertical rails by reaching each leg behind the other to find the next foothold, she coincidentally sent this text:

While I don’t think it’s feasible for us to turn our house into a gymnastic warrior training course, this made me catch my breath a bit. Here was the maternal incentive at work, a desire to improve the life experience for kids with differences, to shape the world around exceptional children to befit their version of existence, to adapt the environment as a way of easing the walk they walk. Rather than trying to change them to comply with a reality that doesn’t belong to them, this was the inclination to meet them where they are and work with them there, forgoing even the faintest suggestion that they should be anywhere else or transform to conform with a landscape that doesn’t contain the niche their neurochemistry determines that they inhabit.

This isn’t to say that I think life should, or can, be easy for anyone, let alone children with exceptionalities, and removing all difficulty and challenge surrounding them would be doing them a disservice. But it is a cheerful notion to consider the ways we can mitigate some of the hardship involved in their climb through life, offering handholds and footholds here and here and here, so the path they’ll follow, though it won’t be any less steep, will provide more points of purchase, more good grace to grip.

Garden variety

In addition to the “Buy Nothing” group on Facebook that has proven useful in the past, I’m also a member of a local group devoted to plants and gardening. Frequently people offer extra cuttings or rootlings they are looking to rehome, ask questions about botanical identification or pest control solutions, or seek advice about how to prune or when to pick or where to plant, and sometimes the poster’s sense of humor creeps in, infusing my day with the welcome distraction of levity. Here’s one of my favorite examples:

What’s nice is that this received lots of positive attention, many people offering comical monikers and just generally sharing in the hilarity, not one single sourpuss carping that the group is for serious inquiries and information or complaining that this violates some remote clause in the membership bylaws.

Some of the people in this group post and comment so frequently that they develop an online persona, and I’ve actually acquired a good friend and a few friendly acquaintances this way. One of them posted a question about the carrots she’d harvested, inquiring as to why they had grown straight at first but then had all turned a practically forty-five degree angle, yielding a harvest of bent-elbow-shaped and oddly formed root vegetables. Here is her photo:

My first thought upon beholding this bouquet was that it looked like quite the luscious home harvest, each carrot perfect by virtue of its imperfection, so organically, unapologetically real and actively defying conformity, not to mention expectation. These weren’t your garden variety (an idiom which demands to be replaced by “chain grocery store aisle”), straight-laced, arrow-shaped, saturated-orange vegetables; their variegation, striation, and fanciful forms seemed more like a handful of funhouse snowflakes, and they spoke to me on an existential plane. I had no idea why they didn’t look like the carrots in a Beatrix Potter book, but I liked them so much more.

My affinity for this bunch deepened further when I learned the horticultural cause of their individuation and differentiation: Virginia clay. When the carrots had grown down to a depth where they encountered a layer of that impenetrable, rust-colored sediment, their growth was hindered by the density and thickness of the substrate, and they either had to extend themselves at an angle or find cracks in the clay in which they could inch their carroty growth, finding little holes in the barrier to fill themselves into. What a marvelous example these carrots provide! They wear the badge of perseverance in the shape of their own empirical entities, embodying the survival mentality in the whole of their figuration, each unique form visual proof positive of the growth mindset of instinct, of nature waving its steadfast flag in the face of adversity. These carrots, driven by the powerful force of enoughness (the combination of enough water, enough space, enough sun, enough nutrients), weren’t stopped in their tracks by the impenetrable sediment of red clay; no, they just changed direction, found detours, swerved for the sake of unswerving development. The ways nature models problem-solving and indomitable purpose never fails to amaze.

One of the commenters on my friendly acquaintance’s post quipped, “Clay is clay and gets in the way,” which I found right delightful. But no soil was intractable enough for those committed carrots, their bodies bent on the impetus to survive and thereby find avenues to thrive. I picture them humming along underground, putting out one minuscule feeler of root matter after another until one gained purchase in a hospitably soft spot, then lodging itself in that promising direction and devoting energy to enlarge its presence, to essentially increase itself.

Some of us show signs of our own survival potential to the naked eye; we have slings and scars, prosthetics and wheelchairs, crutches and canes. But most of us carry our life force of fortitude in ways and places that aren’t visible, that lie beneath the surface of our appearances, that aren’t sensed as accessibly or discovered as readily. Now imagine for a minute a world in which the evidence of our personal growth, the evolution of our selves, were emblazoned as part and parcel of our physical form. How gnarled would we be, how torqued and twisted and knobbed and knotted! We’d be a mass of angles and jangles, curlicues and curves. We’d be like those carrots, creative in the face of clay in the way, refusing to cease growth despite the hardness ahead. And how very, very beautiful we’d be.

Not that same old song and dance

After years of tinkering with trying to create a quick and easy preparation for macaroni and cheese that everyone over here will eat, I finally landed on two versions that fit the bill. Neither one can be considered homemade, really, but we’ll call them “home-tweaked”. Both rely on that most magical potion, the starch-rich water in which the pasta cooks (with apologies to my dear gluten-free friends and a promise that the next recipe will contain one hundred percent ZERO gluten). Here I give you “Hack ‘n’ Cheese” two ways:

Hack ‘n’ Cheese (Take One)

1 boxed macaroni and cheese (we prefer Annie’s)
~2/3 cup shredded cheese (the kind you can buy in a bag that contains an anti-caking agent works beautifully…contrary to rumor, that ingredient does nothing to inhibit the melt factor, in this recipe at least); (we use cheddar but it would be fun to experiment with other kinds or blends)
~2/3 cup cooking liquid

Directions: Boil the pasta until al dente, then drain it while reserving a cup of the cooking liquid. Working quickly while pasta and water are still hot, add back 2/3 cup of the liquid along with the shredded cheese; stir to incorporate. Then add the dairy dust from the packet, sprinkling the powder into the pot while stirring until the shredded cheese has melted and all has been incorporated, adding more cooking liquid and shredded cheese if desired for flavor and consistency. (No butter or milk necessary!)

Hack ‘n’ Cheese (Take Two)

1 lb. pasta (we use elbow macaroni for that classic look, but anything from fusilli to farfalle to fettuccine feels fine)
8 wedges (1 whole round package) of Laughing Cow Creamy Original Cheese (I’ve never tried one of the other flavor varieties for this preparation…yet!)
1 cup cooking liquid
Salt and pepper (we use generous amounts here)
(Optional: basil pesto, sun-dried tomato pesto, Chinese spicy chili crisp, smoked paprika, one of the Trader Joe’s Seasoning Blends (my favorite is the Umami) or Truffle Powder Seasoning to liven things up for more adventuresome palates)

Directions: Boil the pasta until al dente, then drain while reserving a cup of the cooking liquid. Working quickly while pasta and water are still hot, add back the cup of liquid and the Laughing Cow cheese wedges (it occurs to me that if I were giving these directions to one of my children, I might remember to encourage them to unwrap the wedges before adding them and to dispose of the wrappers, as aluminum is widely considered inedible. I’d add that the cardboard wheel packaging is similarly not intended for human consumption, but it IS recyclable!). Stir and season and stir some more, until cheese has melted and the mixture reaches desired consistency (you might want to turn the burner on its lowest setting while stirring to encourage the cheese-melt factor). Adjust seasoning to taste. Sprinkle, drizzle, or stir in one or more of the optional garnishes, or try what my husband considers to be the universal solution to food prepared with tenderly-aged taste buds in mind: hot sauce.

Pro tip: While dousing your bowl of Hack ‘n Cheese with hot sauce, it’s recommended to sing (to the tune of Belafonte’s “Jump in the Line (Shake Señora)”):

“Shake, shake, shake, Cholula; shake your bottle line;
Shake, shake, shake, Cholula; shake it all the time.
Work, work, work, Cholula; work your bottle line;
Work, work, work, Cholula; work it all the time.”*

*Calypso dance moves are strongly suggested to enhance performance value, and bonus points will be immediately awarded to any parent who can get the kids to respond with “OK, I believe you!” Keep it spicy out there, people.

Napkin folding

You know those napkins that come with takeout, the ones emblazoned with the restaurant’s name and logo, providing an advertisement to account for the fact that the paper goods are ostensibly provided gratis along with the food? As if the price of the meal weren’t hiked up to account for the cost of dispensing those “extras”?

Well, I like some napkins more than others, and these aren’t my favorite, but they certainly are useful despite their dual function as miniature paper billboards, so I always save the ones left over to repurpose at future mealtimes. But something about smacking one of those down next to a plate of homemade food at the dinner table rubs against my aesthetic sensibilities; the juxtaposition feels jostling somehow, similar to my aversion to eating something like standing rib with plastic flatware. I realize this comes from a place of prejudice, perhaps inculcated from my years spent working in fine dining, but nonetheless I do love the look of a solid color or tasteful pattern in a linen near a plate of food. For this reason, I always take the extra second to fold the napkin so that the busy endorsements printed by whatever restaurant we’d recently frequented are tucked inside, a little pocket of commercialism hidden within. This way, what we see next to the dinner plates are neat and tidy monochromatic rectangles, unassuming and decidedly more nondescript.

See how it’s transformed from a noisy inkfest into a demure quadrilateral reminiscent of a manila folder, as if to say, “I may be environmentally unfriendly, but don’t I at least look recycled and unbleached?”

It’s a small thing, sure. But we all do things like this; it’s one of the ways we work to tailor the world around us so as to promote the kind of order that imparts just a little piece of peace. And if those small acts of arrangement can encourage any amount of harmony, they’ve all earned a place at the table.

Allegory of the turquoise underwear

spectrum (n): 1. a band of colors, as seen in a rainbow, produced by separation of the components of light by their different degrees of refraction according to wavelength
2. a range used to classify something, or suggest that it can be classified, in terms of its position on a scale between two extreme or opposite points

One day my husband, who’d been monitoring the kids changing into their swimsuits at my mother’s house, remarked that there was a pair of green underwear in the bathroom that he thought was our daughter’s. He said he’d asked her if she’d left behind a pair of green underwear and that she’d denied ownership of said garment. I shrugged it off, thinking that perhaps it belonged to my niece, who had also changed into swimming duds that day. A couple of hours later, when he was working on the other end of the pool day, which is to say facilitating the reinstatement of dry clothing, he came over to where my sister and I were sitting to share his mild annoyance over our child’s lack of attention to detail. He reported that the orphaned underwear, upon further investigation, did indeed belong to Summerly, and that the conversation had gone like this:

Brian (pointing at the underwear on the floor): “I really think those green underwear are yours.”
Summerly: “Oh, yeah, those are my underwear, but they’re not green; they’re blue.”

When he was telling us two women about this exchange, he held up the scrap of cotton in question as if to prove that his frustration was warranted and that our daughter was not only disorganized when it comes to her personal property but also misconstruing the shade of her own drawers. My sister and I took one glance at the underwear, looked at each other, and burst out laughing because it was obvious to both of us, without having to say a single word, that those underwear were conclusively, incontrovertibly, unmistakably, emphatically turquoise. I summed up the interaction by saying, “He saw, she saw,” and we laughed some more.

I’m frequently amazed by how much of life is all about interpretation, and how complicated communication can be as a result of it. The ways our senses and sensibilities transfer what we see and hear into apprehension, and how we internalize the stimuli that present themselves throughout each and every day, bring to bear such weighty significance on our experience of the world and its people. The fabric of human existence is spun with spectrum upon spectrum upon spectrum, perplexingly diverse and fascinatingly dynamic in their multitude and variability. Something that makes perfect sense to one person might be completely incomprehensible to someone else based on so very many factors, and this manifests itself in countless ways as we wend our way from one interaction to the next. What’s both humorous and ironic is that that day at the pool, when Brian described the underwear as green, he was including that detail with the intention of being helpful, adding specificity so as to promote clarity. In fact, if he hadn’t designated the color and simply inquired about the underwear without an adjective, perhaps the events would have unfolded differently and less confusingly. At any rate, at least now we all know one thing: when a man says something is green and a girl thinks that it’s blue, a woman and her sister can be sure it is definitely turquoise.

When a rhetorical question isn’t a rhetorical question

We’ve probably all heard someone, upon lifting a heavy bag or box, exclaim, “What in the world do you have in here, a bunch of rocks?!” Humor being one of the many purposes of rhetoric, what the person is really doing is remarking upon the heft of whatever they’re lifting, with the nuance of pointing out that he or she didn’t expect it to be as heavy as it is.

With some people, especially children, the use of rhetorical devices can at times cause confusion or an opportunity for explanation, whereas sometimes the figurative morphs into the literal due to one’s lack of understanding an expression’s idiomatic undertone. For example, you might ask a kid for her two cents and be handed a couple of pennies. Or, in a real-life story eight years ago that ended with a trip to the ER, your three year-old son might delightedly say he’s about to jump in the shower.

Last summer, when readying the backpacks for a week of day camp, I picked up Arlo’s to make sure that he’d unloaded all of his school stuff from Kindergarten, only to find the bag surprisingly still quite weighty. I thought, “What in the world do you have in there?” and when I looked inside, well, you guessed it…

The contents of Arlo’s backpack, summer 2021.

…a bunch of rocks, among other things. Of course I removed them to this box for safekeeping before dumping out probably six ounces of dirt and sand. This just goes to show that sometimes when you ask a child a rhetorical question, it’s always safe to assume that there might be an actual answer.

P.S. When I opened the Play-Doh container, its contents were completely ossified, which is to say that the Play-Doh was as hard as a…oh, you know.

Allegory of the Slinky and the infinite lanyard loop

One day, while our kids were playing in various parts of the house, my friend Ellen and I were sitting in her kitchen and talking about a hundred things that overlap and coalesce and converge and circle back around on themselves the way we do, and at some point I noticed that she’d been working on unsnarling a plastic slinky that had become enmeshed in itself. This process is probably familiar to most parents, having been handed at some point at least one of these brainteasing challenges that somehow feels like an act of defiance against physics, requiring a combination of fine motor skills and mental dexterity to restore that signature shape. I almost asked her to let me have a crack at it, as I actually enjoy little projects like this and am known in my family for being the one to whom knotted necklaces and such should be given for rehabilitation. Instead, understanding that Ellen is like I am in so many ways and therefore was probably relishing in the tangible nature of this fixing this little predicament, I told her about how I’d spent a solid ten minutes the night before: trying to untie a knot that I’d noticed in the lanyard Arlo used for his mask.

I’m surprised and dismayed to be saying this, but I failed. It was a knot that, despite my best efforts, I could not figure out how to disentangle. This is because, after I’d loosened the cinch in the knot, this is what was produced:

That’s right; what I’d basically discovered was a Mobiüs strip situation. There was actually no way (as far as I could tell) to put the thing to rights without somehow pulling one end, which had been sewn to itself around the plastic washer that connects to the clip for the mask, through the hole in the spherical spring-loaded push-button slide toggle adjustment apparatus, but the hole was completely too small for the washer to fit through it. I don’t say this a lot, but I finally gave up and asked my husband for help, but he couldn’t fathom how to do it either.

That fouled-up Slinky and the puzzlement of the lanyard felt so familiar as human experiences: as we interact with and encounter one befuddling, sometimes supremely frustrating circumstance after another, we’re called upon to mindbend through each problem to smooth things out. Sure, once in a while these are enjoyable endeavors, just challenging enough to yield gratification upon achieving the desired result, but others spin us into a spiral of consternation if not a state of downright vexation. Think about all of those minor “twisted Slinky” moments we deal with on a daily basis: how to fold up a stroller with one hand, what to use in a recipe that calls for a can of diced tomatoes but there are no diced tomatoes in the pantry even though you swore you bought two cans last time, what words to choose when helping a kid work through a social dispute, when and how to address the unacceptable behavior of an overtired child. Even something as seemingly simple as meal planning can feel like an untangling of sorts, one that can weigh onerously at times but ultimately isn’t terribly difficult to accomplish. But then there are the Mobiüs moments, those “no solution” situations where there doesn’t appear to be any way to iron out a problem despite all manner of concerted effort and creative thinking. We’ve had some of those crop up around here recently, and it’s such a disorienting feeling to feel unequipped to see through a problem to its solution.

Identifying problems and figuring out how to fix them are what we do as people; it’s the work of life and a lifetime of work. Slinkies gone sideways and the knickers they twist are par for the course as we walk our way down the staircase of each day, and while sometimes it’s easy to stumble across an easy fix, there are times that unspooling a debacle is as simple as making a Slinky step its way upstairs.

May your day be full of more spring-twists than lanyard-loops, more Slinky than Mobiüs. And may the untangling feel like a victory that’s pure instead of Pyhrric, untrammeled triumph instead of toil.

And if anyone has an idea about how Arlo did that to his lanyard, please send help.

The DAD Talks Series: Episode 2

For those of you who tuned in on Monday to hear about the homework experience involving the wordless word search, it might prove entertaining to see what my dad had to say about it.

A note on the censorship: As a former teacher myself, I have all the mercy in the world for this woman and, although there’s no shame in making innocent mistakes, I didn’t think referring to her by name felt appropriate. Also, she had a baby not quite a year ago, so it isn’t hard to have compassion when one considers how easy it is that first year of parenthood to completely lose track of the days.