Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Like an Adventure...But Boring and Dirty

As I've been picking through my garage (a.k.a. the Pit of Despair) lately, beginning what promises to be a very long process of cleaning, sorting, and discarding, I've found myself thinking of the late George Carlin's routine on "stuff." I think I'm in the right frame of mind to be working on this task, because right now, I'm feeling very strongly that this "stuff" that I thought was so important to store (or at least was not willing to deal with in the moment, and thus chucked in the garage) is all sh*t. I have to admit, in the last couple of weeks I have entertained the notion of tossing a match on the lot of it, but I won't for the following reasons (not in order of importance):

  • Objectively speaking, there are items of worth in there that can be donated and be of use to someone else.
  • The garage is attached to the house, and therefore a fire in it could be less useful than I might otherwise suppose.
  • The kids don't really need to see their mom go to jail for arson.

Due to the weather being hot and the garage generally being filthy and spiderwebbed, I have been working on cleaning it out in (very) short bursts. I tried to make these daily, but one day of a higher-than-average number of PTA emails and calls blew that plan (and my diligence has been sporadic ever since). Nevertheless, I've made some minor progress while causing an explosion of stuff all over what remained of the visible garage floor.

I started out by cleaning out the cabinet just next to the door into the house. When we moved into the house, the previous owners had used this tall, relatively shallow cupboard to store old paint and other chemicals, which my father pointed out was perhaps not the best idea given that it is right next to the water heater. Over the years I had filled it with old toys, empty boxes for our wedding china, spare tiles for our bathroom, half a bag of concrete mix, and various other odds and ends. In emptying it to restock the shelves with things I had definitely decided to keep (for now, anyway) and which had good reasons for being easily accessible from the house, I unearthed delightful items such as a rubber ball found years ago in a hedge, which had actually gone sticky from being in our overheated garage for many summers.

As I expanded my range I found items that I had once put away on the theory that I might want to use them again some day. However, standing (on average) knee-deep in old junk brought me the clarity to realize that I was never going to reinstall the brass toilet paper holder that I thought was too ugly to keep in the half bathroom. Likewise, I had stored some of the boys' old lunch boxes on the theory that if they lost their current ones, we would have backups. However, I cleared out the inventory because a seventh grader is more likely to choose starvation over using their old ripped first-grade Cars lunch box.

Not everything I found went into the trash. I took several bags of random old baby clothes and other oddments, plus the high chair, over to Goodwill last week. (Don't ask me how I keep finding baby clothes around here--I thought I had done a very thorough purge after Son #3's babyhood. Since I found a few more items AFTER my trip to Goodwill, I'm beginning to suspect the baby clothes are sprouting in the dark like mushrooms. Or else someone is messing with me.) On a day when I was feeling particularly overwhelmed and indecisive, I salvaged my cleaning session by dumping a large pile of old proofs from a year-old proofreading job in the recycle bin.

Finally, I sent my husband to the household hazardous waste center with more dead batteries (!) and an assortment of old electronics, including a TV antenna he guessed was from our apartment in Berkeley (and therefore completely incompatible with modern TV technology) and a cordless phone set we discarded because the rechargeable batteries in the handsets would no longer hold a charge. My husband, while not thrilled to go on this particular errand, I think accepted it as the price he has to pay for not having to sort through the junk himself, particularly given that he is not fond of spiders. Good thing, too, because I know there is a dead Xbox out there somewhere, and as long as we've waited this long to clean the place out, we're going to do it properly.

So I've made some reasonable progress on the reboot of the 1,000-Pound Project, as follows:

50.8 pounds donated clothes, shoes, household items, and high chair
19.8 pounds recycled proofs
11.6 pounds trash (including WTF items like the sticky ball noted above)
13.8 pounds batteries and e-waste

Total: 96 pounds

The bad news is that this hardly looks like I did anything at all, except make a bigger mess by tearing apart the carefully stacked piles of boxes and bags to investigate their contents. In eleven years of living in this house, we've transformed from a family of three with barely enough furniture to provide something to sit down on in each room of the house, to a family of five bursting the house at the seams with all of our stuff. The mess in the garage did not happen all at once; it grew gradually out of a series of decisions (or indecisions, as the case may be), which resulted in a growing accretion of papers, toys, appliances, sporting equipment, holiday decorations, luggage, and yes, out and out trash.

Do I wish I'd thrown more stuff out along the way? Bought less? Recognized when things that had outlived their usefulness here needed to head on to their second life somewhere else? Yes, yes, and yes. But I didn't, so now I get to enjoy my karma.

Karma always seems funnier when it is happening to someone else.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Soft-hearted, Possibly Soft-headed

 The magic number where you go from cat owner to "crazy cat lady" is three. Specifically, when you get your third cat, even if it's a fluffy, meltingly adorable kitten, people stop cooing over how cute it is and start asking pointed questions about how many more cats you intend to get. I know this, because my husband and I passed this point in 1997. Even though our official number of cats stopped at four the following year, we've never quite shed the stigma of being crazy cat folk.
This is where the trouble starts.

The problem is that I have a soft heart. Our first cat was a fairly traditional adoption--my husband found an online ad at the Mac users' group he was a member of at the time for "fuzzy logic," and we ended up with a beautiful free grey tabby kitten, Molly, who had a soul of more-or-less pure evil. (She is now seventeen, and she is basically too lazy to take a swing at you. She still thinks about it, though.) Our second cat, though, became ours so gradually that we hesitated to claim to own him for quite a while.

One day we became aware of a cat hanging out in the parking lot of our six-unit apartment building, crying. I went out to take a look, but the orange tabby skittered out of arm's reach when I tried to approach him. I decided to put out a bowl of food by our apartment door for him, but he wouldn't follow me there. Finally, I caught up to him as he jumped up on the fence that separated our building's driveway from the lot of the much larger apartment building next door, and carried him over to the food dish. He meekly submitted, but refused to eat until I stepped inside and shut the door.

Over the next several weeks he gradually acclimated to us: he would eat outside when our apartment door was open, then he would eat just inside the open apartment door. We managed to shut him in one day so we could take him to the shot clinic, where the vet told us that he had previously been fixed. So clearly he had been someone's pet before, we just didn't know whose. We even got him a collar listing our names and number, and I waited for several weeks to get a call from a stranger demanding to know why we had put a collar on his cat. No call came.

The turning point came when Orange (as we finally came to call him, after so long referring to him only as "the orange cat") disappeared overnight one Saturday. We found him the next day in the parking lot, howling, and with his tail drooping unnaturally. We took him to the emergency vet, who gave us the bad news that his tail was broken in two places (he speculated that it had been run over by a car), and the good news that since he was only going to charge us the regular exam fee (instead of the double-on-Sunday usual fee) because he couldn't do a darn thing about it. We took Orange home and kept him in for several days while he began to heal, and after that he was really our kitty, in his own mind as well as ours.

The third cat, the one that pushed us over the edge to crazy, was actually my husband's fault. He went to the pet food store to get a lid that would fit a can of cat food, and came running home to tell me about the kittens they had up for adoption. Lying in bed with a headache, I looked at him skeptically. "We're just going to look!" he insisted. It turned out that he had put his hand inside the cage of kittens, and one had immediately jumped into it. That was it. We went to the store to "look" and came home with cat #3, Minnie. After that, it didn't seem like much of a big deal when cat #4, Jane, sucked up to me at a similar cat adoption event a year and a half later. The line from responsible pet owners to crazy cat hoarders had already been crossed.

I guess the reason I'm thinking about all this right now is that we have just crossed another line--we officially became a five-cat household a couple of days ago. Both Jane and Orange passed away in recent years (at 11 and 16 years of age, respectively). In the meantime we also added two new cats, Toothless (a black cat named by the kids for the dragon in How to Train Your Dragon, and no, he's not toothless) and Boo (a pale grey tabby adopted as a feral kitten from the warehouse at my husband's job, and who after a year of domesticity is still pretty weird), largely to spare our elderly cats from the overenthusiastic affections of our children. We figured we'd wait for nature to take its course and gradually end up as a two-cat household, with Toothless and Boo to keep each other company. At no point did we exceed four cats at one time.
I look into the future and see a scratched toddler in 3, 2, 1...

And then a black cat started hanging out in our back yard. When I first saw her I panicked, thinking Toothless had gotten outside. But it turned out she was just a stray, one who then frequently came to the window to check out our indoor kitties. Of course, soft-hearted me started feeding her. And she started hanging out more. Lounging on our patio furniture. Meowing imperiously in the morning for her breakfast. Not to be outdone in the soft-heartedness department, my husband bought her a cat bed. And she whiled away the winter on a heating pad in said cat bed, refusing all offers to be let inside.

However, other neighborhood cats recently discovered that there was free food to be had at our place. The cat we had started calling Extra (as in "our extra cat") began to hide as aggressive newcomers tried to muscle her out. And last week a raccoon paid a visit to the buffet. He began to amble towards our back patio while I was still outside, and I jumped inside, only to dart out again a moment later to snatch up a startled Extra and bring her inside with me. We stared out at the raccoon and he stared right back as he picked every stray bit of cat food out of the nearly-empty bowl. Then he left, but I kept Extra inside for another half-hour, just to be safe, despite her impatient protests.

Is it a coincidence that a day later she came in on her own for the first time? Even a cat can appreciate the value of air conditioning on a brutally hot day (especially a cat with black fur). Since then she's been in and out, but mostly in. This confirms my long-standing hunch that she was a stray and not a true feral cat. The rest of our cats, having long had a sniffing acquaintance with Extra through the screen door, seem to have accepted her with a minimum of histrionics (though there was some pro forma hissing and growling, just to establish that she is low cat on the totem pole).

So I guess I'll just have to own it--I'm a crazy cat lady in a crazy cat family. I'm already used to the reaction I get when people ask how many cats I have--they invariably repeat, "Four?" in wide-eyed disbelief, as if to say, "And here I thought you were sane all this time!" Only now they'll get to say "five." Welcome aboard, Extra. I may be crazy but I keep the food bowl full.
Not our future...I hope.

Next blog post we'll be back to The Adventures of Jen in the Pit of Despair, or Humility Lessons, Garage Style.

Monday, August 20, 2012


A learning experience is one of those things that say, "You know that thing you just did? Don't do that." --Douglas Adams

Today marked the start of the second week of school. I can tell we're already getting into our usual school routine because Son #1 announced at 7:30 this morning that he had forgotten to tell me that he needed a composition notebook for his theater class. One of us, however, is learning from past incidents of this nature, as I had squirreled a few composition notebooks away for such an occasion. Crisis averted.

Unlike at the start of last school year, I don't feel completely overwhelmed yet. But I realized last Friday, at the end of a day that had been largely frittered away accomplishing not much of anything, that I'm at loose ends. After two years spent completely overcommitted and in panic mode, having a day with a moderate to-do list and a reasonable stretch of time to finish it in feels alien, and lacking an adrenaline kick to keep me moving, I've been less than productive.

So this morning I made myself a to-do list, and put on it everything I hoped to accomplish before I picked the boys up from school. However, I made a deliberate choice to finish MY to-do list items first. So first I went for a two-mile walk (and not just because it's been hotter than the hinges of hell in LA the last week or so), ran an overdue household errand, tended to my email correspondence (including revising and emailing school fundraising materials out for approval), and started gathering some stuff to take to Goodwill. Overall I felt much better about my productivity today, even though a completely crazy packed parking lot meant that I made the snap decision to try to make my donation tomorrow, rather than risk being late for pick-up.

I know that I am in the midst of a reboot. This is something that I'm very familiar with, since my dad was the in the army and we moved regularly; at times, frequently. Each time it would be new house, new neighborhood, new school, new friends, and in theory, new me. I say in theory because I don't think I changed all that much from place to place, and I always tended to find my niche in with the brainy/geeky set. However, starting over amongst a set of strangers did give me the opportunity to leave inconvenient parts of my past behind (for example, my classmates in seventh grade blessedly did not know me as that girl who had to wear headgear in sixth grade). It also made learning from my mistakes that much less painful, since in doing things differently the next time around, I often didn't have to face any of the same people who had witnessed me screwing up the first time.

It's a little different when you know your life is changing but you're still in the same place you've been for the last ten years, and where you're likely to be for the foreseeable future. I've got a kindergartener now, and though I'm walking him into the same elementary school that at least one of his brothers has been at for the last seven years, I'm spending all my time on the opposite side of the campus from my usual haunts for the last four years. Few moms I know already also have kindergarteners, and so I'm meeting many new people after years of basically hanging out with the same group of "usual suspects" (so-called because we joke that when any volunteer task needs to get done, we "round up the usual suspects").

Now, I'm not fooling anyone. I know that I won't be able to reinvent myself by hiding out among the newbies. My reputation as a compulsive volunteer isn't likely to vanish because (a) the school is still full of people who know me very well and who know, say, if they call me at a moment's notice I will probably go pick up a stack of flyers from the copy shop or help them hang up posters, and (b) the chances of me going a whole year without volunteering for something are no greater than my chances of winning Mega Millions and paying the school $100,000 to lose my phone number. Somewhere between doing nothing and volunteering so much that the staff makes jokes about me sleeping in the office is a happy medium where I volunteer, enjoy it, and feel like I'm really contributing without feeling resentful about the things I'm not doing for my family and myself, or about all the parents who obviously aren't contributing if I have so much ----ing volunteer work to do myself.

So the question is, how do I find that happy medium without disappointing the people (many of whom I count as friends) who expect more from me? I do have real obligations this year--Son #1's approaching bar mitzvah being chief among them--that make it impossible for me to work at the level I have been. I'm going to have to learn to say no and stick to it, to step aside rather than rushing in, and to accept that the new me may disappoint some of the folks who are used to the old me. However, the last two years have definitely been a learning experience (see above), and regardless of the consequences, this reboot is necessary if I don't want my husband to commit me.

And in the spirit of rebooting, I've decided that it is time to reboot the 1,000-Pound Project. This time, however, I'm giving it a secondary goal. Our ostensibly two-car garage has been so full of crap for over a year that it has been impossible to park even one car in it. The first goal, as before, is to get rid of 1,000 pounds of stuff from my house. The secondary goal is to be able to park my minivan in the garage again before the rainy season starts (so I can forgo the pleasure of having three boys track a gallon of water into the house through the front door on every rainy school day).

It may not qualify as instant gratification, but I suspect that in my quest to get rid of stuff I'm going to find a lot of low-hanging fruit to pick in the garage. For example, one of the artifacts I didn't quite get to drop off at Goodwill today was the high chair, and since the "baby" is now five and a half, I think it is safe to get rid of it. We'll see just how many walks down memory lane and humility lessons I get before I can pull the minivan in out of the rain.

And rebooted me? She'll undoubtedly be older, and hopefully wiser, than Jen 1.0.

Yes, some of us otherwise intelligent folks learn things this way.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

First World Problems

Back in the days when I used to work full-time (pre-kids, roughly the Jurassic Period), we had a client who was among my favorites. An elderly gentleman, he volunteered for an organization that published one annual journal, and each year he delivered the manuscript to our offices. We were located on the second floor, up a rather daunting staircase, and it was clear that the ascent took some doing for him. He and I would exchange polite greetings, and when I asked him how he was, he would invariably drawl, in posh accents, "Oh, I routinely complain."

Of course, as I think back on it now, I don't remember him actually complaining, just making the same self-deprecating joke each time I saw him. Most of us do routinely complain; I've done plenty myself this week as our family tries to get back into the school routine. But it did hit me (right around the time I was filling out the third emergency card on the first day of school and feeling pretty sorry for myself because poor mom had more homework than any of the kids did that day), that literally every single problem I have right now is a first world problem. So lest I think a pity party for myself is appropriate, here is a debunking of a few of my so-called problems, in no particular order:

My house is too full of stuff! Okay, seriously. Yes, we have too much stuff, exacerbated by my inability to get things out of the house promptly when they have outlived their usefulness. But my family has everything they need and quite a bit of what they want. We have clothes to wear, food to eat, beds to sleep in, and plenty of forms of entertainment (books, toys, TV, video games, etc.). Even if my kids' sock drawers seem to consist of 80% mismatched socks and 20% dirt-colored socks that were formerly white, they have both socks and drawers to put them in. Enough said.

The boys' soccer schedules are nuts! Yes, I am remembering two soccer practices into the season how much I hate the narrow parking lot at the park and the crazy drivers (my fellow soccer parents) who populate it. Yes, I am remembering how much I hate the stuff management involved in dealing with cleats, shin guards, and water bottles, and how much I loathe the scent of sweat that descends on the house after a Saturday of soccer games. But we're lucky our kids get to participate in the local AYSO program, which is actually at a park close enough to walk to. So when the weather cools down from sauna temperatures I am going to explain to the boys that the irony of driving them to the park to get exercise is not the good kind of irony, and we'll spare the last shreds of my sanity the trip through the parking lot.

I hate homework more than the kids do! I have to pay Son #1 a dollar to give me project assignment sheets on the day he gets them so that he doesn't give me an aneurysm by waiting to tell me about them the night before they are due. Son #2 came home with a boatload of homework and a project on the first day of school. And Son #3 hasn't quite realized that homework is now a feature of his life, rather than a novelty his teacher tossed in his folder, so he hasn't quite grasped that he can't watch TV/play on the computer/go for a playdate before homework is done every day. But the kids go to good schools, and I have both time and (barely) sufficient brain power to make sure they are getting their work done correctly and on time. If my hair turns white in the process, well, it'll be a real conversation piece.

We have too many family commitments! Okay, I don't complain about this too much, because whenever I do, some friend or another of mine whose extended family lives in another time zone threatens to beat me about the head and shoulders with a sack full of bricks. Yes, our family holidays could do with a social secretary to manage our engagements, and I probably still couldn't draw my husband's cast-of-thousands family tree accurately if you put a gun to my head. However, there's nothing quite like having the grandparents snatch your children away from you and insist you go have a night out to make you appreciate the true pricelessness of FREE BABYSITTING!

I could go on, but you get the point. Life isn't perfect, but it's worth reminding myself that the good vastly outweighs the bad. And the as far as the bad goes...well, I wouldn't be truly happy if I didn't have something to complain about, right?

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

First Day of School! First Day of School!

This was me. The kids were actually happy to go.

Today I sent my last child to his first day of school. He's been confident and excited about this day for some time; in fact, one of my sole consolations for LAUSD deciding to move their start date up this year, thus depriving us poor burned-out parents of a month of summer vacation, was that it meant that Son #3 would get to start kindergarten that much earlier.

I could say that I was surprised that a weepy little boy crawled into bed with me and my husband at midnight last night, but I wasn't, really. Sure, he mumbled something incoherent about having wanted to clean up on the last day as he drifted back to sleep between us*, but I think really he woke up in the dark and suddenly felt a bit insecure about actually being one of the big kids. He's been running around our local elementary school ever since he could run, as we either dropped off his brothers or picked them up, but now it is really his school. It's a big ----ing deal, if it's kosher to say that about kindergarten.

As for me, I'm not weepy by nature, so I didn't cry when it came time for me to leave him in his classroom and head off to an empty house. I'm not sad that he's growing up, though of course it is sad to say goodbye to the cute things that he did and said at earlier ages. (For example, I did experience a real pang when his last true toddlerism--"bwefixed"--became a perfectly pronounced "breakfast.") It is so much fun to see his unfettered joy in his growing accomplishments and his increasing abilities that I can't wish him to go backwards, or even to hold still.

Still, I was glad to have a kindergartener to escort this year. Son #1 headed out the door with my husband to his first day of seventh grade, knowing only his homeroom number. A little asking around had confirmed Son #1's hunch that his homeroom teacher is the only teacher in the school who still requires his students to tuck in their shirts, even though it is no longer required in the school uniform policy. So he gamely tucked in the shirt**, and reported back at the end of the day that his classes seemed good and adequately populated with friends of his. Aside from the convenient ride home I provided, he didn't need me, and I'm awaiting the day when he asks me to just pull up to the curb somewhere instead of parking and getting out of the car to come meet him near the school gate.

Son #2, who I did escort to his fifth grade class before taking Son #3 to his class, dropped several broad hints that I didn't need to stick around (under the guise of concern that his little brother be on time). However, when I teased him that he was trying to get rid of me, he wouldn't own up. He definitely prefers that if I have to kiss him, I do it where no-one can possibly see. This morning I overheard him and his friends marveling at the fact that they're fifth graders now, with the air of old classmates at their twentieth reunion marveling at where the years have gone. It's hard to believe that once upon a time, when he was between one and two years old, his feet barely hit the ground because he always wanted to be carried--by me--everywhere. The little boy I once fondly called my barnacle is now most often seen receding into the distance as he runs off to be with his friends.***

So yes, it's nice to have a kindergartener, a little boy who assuages his anxiety by slipping a hand into mine as we walk down the hall to his new classroom. A little boy who greets me with a big grin when I pick him up the afternoon because he can't wait to tell me about his first day of school. (Apparently the highlight was when his teacher accidentally stepped out of one of her shoes, which the students all found hilarious.) Now that I know where those growing steps are leading him, I appreciate even more that I still have one boy who doesn't roll his eyes when I insist that I be allowed to kiss him in public.

*I have faith that one day they will invent a bed big enough to comfortably sleep two average sized-adults and one five-year-old. As Son #3 seems to turn into a giant octopus composed entirely of elbows and knees when he sleeps, the king-sized bed we own doesn't cut it.

**When I ask Son #1 to tuck in his shirt (say, when we're going to a nice family event and I want to pretend that my boys aren't next door to feral children in matters of personal hygiene and style), he usually reacts with a level of indignation indicating that tucking in one's shirt is a torture any right-minded society would ban. We can add this to the long and growing list of Things My Children Do Willingly Only When Asked By Someone Other Than Me.

***Don't worry. I know my barnacle will be back the very minute he realizes that the project he thought was due next Wednesday is actually due this Friday and therefore he needs a ride to the library pronto.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Tying Up A Loose End

So I'm finally going to write about that accomplishment I hinted at here, even though from my nit-picky view it is not 100% finished yet. With school starting for all three boys next Tuesday, I concede that any finishing touches that get put on this project will not be occurring any time soon. (And as for the start of school, despite my best efforts over the last couple of weeks to get us on a better schedule, as of Friday morning at 8 a.m., two boys were hunched over the computer, awake but still in pajamas, I was in my nightgown trying to jump-start my brain with a cup of coffee, and our soon-to-be kindergartener sprawled in bed, snoring. We've never been late to the first day of school, but we've occasionally been on time calmly and in style, rather than rushing onto campus at the last moment in a panic. Looks like this is not going to be one of the "in-style" years.)

Anyway, here is the project that I finished during the two weeks the boys were in camp, to the detriment of my project to rid my house and garage of junk, but of immeasurable benefit to my mental health:
This is a picture of the side of my house, and the project I completed was to lay down those square pavers and gravel from the edge of the concrete (just visible at the end, past the bins) all the way to my back yard, to cover the packed dirt that was all that was there before. Dry and dusty in the summer, muddy and slippery in the winter, and ugly all year 'round, that walkway on the west side of our house that almost never gets sun and certainly doesn't get enough water to allow grass to grow has bugged me since we moved in in 2001.

Of course, it took me a long time to figure out what I wanted to do to create a path instead of dirt. The easiest thing would have been to throw down gravel, except that I needed to be able to roll our green bin for yard waste to the back yard. A gravel path seemed less than ideal for that. Not to mention, since Son #1 and Son #2 were rather young at that time, the thought of giving them a vast field of ammunition to throw at one another seemed like a spectacularly bad idea. (Son #2 was also a put-everything-in-your-mouth kind of baby/toddler, and while I don't gross out easily, the thought of fishing gravel out of his mouth on a regular basis did not appeal.)

Thoughts of what to do to improve this area got put on the back burner for many years, while I took up sporadic freelance proofreading/copyediting, volunteered at the boys' elementary school to the point of indentured servitude, had Son #3, and continued all of the above plus enrolling Son #3 in a co-op nursery school. With that to-do list, along with the general work involved in supporting the boys' education and trying to make sure they didn't blindside me with forgotten project deadlines and 9 p.m. requests for two dozen cupcakes to be delivered to school the following day, home-improvement projects were a lost cause.

Last year I finally came up with an idea that included all the necessary components: functional path for rolling a yard waste bin, reasonably priced construction materials all available from a nearby store, and a method I could actually do myself. The only tough part required me digging down far enough into the hard-packed soil to put the pavers at a level with the small portion of concrete just behind the gate to the front yard.

I attacked the project with enthusiasm the week before we headed to Minnesota that summer, which turned out to be ill-timed, to say the least. I finished off the first three rows of pavers, admired my work, started the digging for the next couple of rows, left on vacation, and flew back home into a storm of PTA and booster club emails that immediately sapped my energy and attention for the next, oh, ten months or so. And my project languished, adding to my guilt-load for things undone. (As an added bonus, we have a gardener who comes to mow our lawn and tend to our yard once a week, as do most folks in Southern California. So I had the added satisfaction of knowing that our gardener was well aware of my failure to complete this project as he wrestled our green bin over the uncompleted excavation every single week. Sigh.)

I hadn't exactly intended to dedicate the two weeks the boys were in camp to finishing this path, but once I got started, I found it hard to stop. For one thing, I borrowed a small pick mattock from my dad this year for breaking up the rock-hard compacted dirt, instead of using a hoe like I did last year. This tool was infinitely better for the task, and after many hours of swinging it, I can say this definitely makes the short list for my weapon of choice in a zombie apocalypse.

I also made a move I didn't realize was smart until several days into the task. I left my iPhone inside. Instead, I took the home phone (since I didn't want to be completely out of touch if the summer camp called to tell me one of the boys got hit in the head with a rock or something). No dings when emails came in. No melodious alerts when it was my turn in Words with Friends. Just me, my tools, and insanely hot L.A. weather. And a silent phone. It's amazing what you can accomplish when your attention isn't divided up into five-minute segments.

The one advantage to my delay of a year in completing the path was that I got to see that my plan (dig out the dirt, then tamp down a flat surface, cover with a underlaying polypropylene cloth to keep the gravel from gradually working down into the dirt, then lay down the stones and fill in the gaps with pea gravel) actually held up perfectly over the course of a year. One disadvantage was that I was so eager to jump in again to erase the shame of a year of delay that I started swinging the pick-mattock about an hour before it occurred to me that it might be a good idea to put on a pair of work gloves. The result? A large popped blister at the top of my palm where Band-Aids do not like to stay put, and a futile attempt over the days that followed to keep said blister clean and covered. Oh well. It did eventually heal.

As the path progressed I dug up enough rusty nails to give the entire neighborhood tetanus, many pieces of broken Mexican pavers (leftover from when the patio was finished, I'm guessing two homeowners ago), several bits of bathroom tile, and a toy plastic spoon, a little bit of suburban archaeology that gave a little bit of interest to an essentially boring task. I plotted out the path of the pavers around the drains to our sump system and the roots to the established vines that help to cover some of the cinder-block wall that encloses our back yard. I made multiple trips to the home improvement store to buy loads of pavers and gravel, enduring a bit of "hey-little-lady"ing as it became clear to the male employee loading my car that I wasn't simply taking these materials home for a hired helper or my husband to do the actual work. (I love my husband, but when he so much as picks up a drill driver I have to suppress the urge to pick up the phone in case a call to 9-1-1 is imminently needed. Mechanical ability and gender do not necessarily go hand in hand.) And I had to limit myself to a couple of hours of work a day, because the more I accomplished, the greater my drive to finish. However, there is only so much physical labor an essentially out-of-shape skinny forty-year-old can do in a day without making it impossible for herself to lift her arms the next day. So I played it smart.

But this year I finished the path, several days before our annual trip to Minnesota. (I haven't figured out how long it is exactly, but each of those pavers is just under one foot square, if you're curious.) Of course, the satisfaction of essentially completing it didn't last long--after all, I have a garage full of stuff to empty, closets to sort, bookshelves to purge, kitchen cabinets to clean. Realistically, one item off the to-do list (even a big one) doesn't amount to much. But as a N.Y. friend of mine would say, it's not nothing...

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Vegas, Baby!

This last weekend my husband and I took a trip to Las Vegas. No kids. The whole story of how this particular trip came together (which was originally intended to be a jaunt for my husband and one of his friends from work to see an international soccer team play, with his friend's wife and I along for the ride) might just take longer to explain than the trip itself, so suffice it to say that when the original plans fell through, my husband and I were left with the time share suite that my parents had graciously booked for us and decided to make a weekend of it. His dad and stepmother took the boys for the weekend, and off we drove on Saturday, a mere day after he got back from his business trip.

Now, Vegas is a somewhat unlikely destination for us, since I don't particularly like to gamble. However, Vegas is a drive-able distance from L.A. and I am not one to turn down free accommodations.

I have to admit that I did lack a little enthusiasm when we left. The night before we went we finally got the lab results back for cranky kitty, and of course she needed a different antibiotic than the one the vet had originally given her. So I was a bit nervous about leaving her behind. Also, my week in survival mode during my husband's business trip meant that I felt behind and a bit discombobulated, and I couldn't help but think of all the things I should be doing to get ready for the rapid approach of the new school year during the time we were driving through the desert.

Nevertheless, I am glad we went for two reasons. I will start with the less-important reason first.

Just before we went on our trip, one of my friends (she of 25-pounds-of-batteries-disposal fame) lent me a book called Dirty Secret, by Jessie Sholl. This friend and I have discussed hoarding before, as well as lamenting the states of our own homes, and she thought I'd enjoy it. On Sunday, my husband and I headed out to relax by the pool, and while other time share guests waded through the adult pool with two-foot-tall plastic cups full of alcohol adorned with oversized dice at the bottom in hand, I sank back into my lounge chair and dove into the book.

The memoir itself is engagingly written, and I think I can attribute at least part of the mild sunburn I got that afternoon to my reluctance to stop reading long enough to head indoors again. It certainly gave me a different perspective on hoarding than I had had before, which had been gleaned mainly from a family trip wherein my sister-in-law, who had recently become fascinated with the show Hoarders, tuned into a couple of back-to-back episodes, which were fascinating in a traffic-accident kind of way. (I may never get over the food hoarder, who had a refrigerator in her basement full of expired yogurt, and the state of whose living room sent the professional organizer on that particular segment out into the yard, dry-heaving. I exasperate my husband by refusing to eat any dairy product that is so much as a day past its expiration date, sometimes not even ON its expiration date if I'm feeling skeptical.) The author's portrait of her mother as someone who was unable to make decisions about the stuff filling her house, unable to discriminate between trash and treasure, brought me a revelation that I will humbly file under the category of "duh."

That is, I am not a hoarder.

I have found some truly embarrassing things in my house just this summer (for example, cancelled checks from the checking account I had in college, back in the Paleolithic Era where your financial institution would let you put your social security number on your checks), but I didn't need someone else to tell me that there was no earthly reason to hold on to them. I do not buy things just for the sake of buying them, and then leave them sitting around in unopened shopping bags. My subconscious fear that somehow I was an embryonic hoarder, a "crazy cat lady" in the making, was nothing more than a Psych-101 self-diagnosis.

The second reason was that it was a lot of fun to spend time with my husband without kids, without obligations, and with not a whole lot on our agendas. We walked to our dinner destinations both nights, and while the view along our non-Strip route ranged from tacky (the barely-visible slogan on this billboard? "Always a Happy Ending.")

to depressing (vacant lot full of empties chucked over the fence--thank you open container law),

I enjoyed having the time to talk without our conversation being centered on what needed to get done at home, or work, or pertaining to the kids. We were able to relax and enjoy our freedom from home's obligations a little while, and remember that before 9-to-5, mortgage, kids, volunteer work, etc., there was just the two of us, deciding that we liked each other enough to vow to spend the rest of our lives together. And that deep down, that's still true, even if all we're doing together is hanging out in the middle of the adult pool (notably not the "mature" pool), people watching and trying not to laugh at what each of us is pointing out to the other one. (We had particular fun watching a group of twenty-somethings who were doing beer bongs in the pool before moving on to drinking games--this all before noon. It certainly helped to explain why a pool that was only four feet at its deepest point might need the life guard it had on duty.) Good thing, because someday, it will be just the two of us again, assuming we survive the teenage years. And the universe willing, those days will be fun...and clutter-free.

Okay, so not everything we saw in Vegas was gross. This was pretty good.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

A Sense of Humor Helps

Last week, while we were on vacation visiting my grandmother, my husband got a series of phone calls from work that culminated in the decision that he would be headed off for a business trip two days after we got back into town. Not even that long, really--we got back home late Saturday night, and he left at 7:30 a.m. on Monday for a three-hour cram session at his office before heading off to catch an international flight. I handled this news with the calm that can only come from true, deep denial. I know from experience that not only am I not a great solo mom, but the universe has a funny habit of dropping a lot of extra crap on me as soon as my husband departs for distant time zones. (The most extreme example is a one-week trip hubby took in 2009 that involved the computer that had my NaNoWriMo novel in progress on it dying the day he left, two kids with swine flu, him getting food poisoning overseas and being hospitalized, etc., etc.)

Life got complicated when we got home, since it became apparent that our cranky 17-year-old cat was having some kind of health crisis. My husband took her to the emergency vet clinic on Sunday morning, where they promptly performed a complete wallet-ectomy on us. Cranky kitty got a very expensive overnight stay, as well as bloodwork, an x-ray, oxygen, antibiotics, fluids, etc., and ultimately a diagnosis of renal failure that may or may not be caused by a suspected bladder infection (still waiting on the results of a culture right now). Emergency vet clinic only works emergency hours, which meant I had to go pick her up at 6:30 on Monday morning and bring her home just until I could call our regular vet and take her over there.

Don't get me wrong here--I am actually in love with this emergency vet clinic. The two prior times I have had the misfortune to rush a cat in crisis to an emergency vet clinic, I not only got to pay dearly for it, I got back a dead cat. The fact that this clinic gave me back a live cat makes me much happier about the bill.

Monday went like this: Pick up cat from emergency vet (blessedly, sans kids). Come home, shower, try to get kids ready to go so we can take cat to regular vet as soon as possible. Call regular vet at 9, get green light to bring her in. Drop her off, kids in tow. Run errands with them to pick up gift for my niece's birthday and get groceries. Take kids to previously scheduled medical checkups (so scheduled since we were supposed to have nothing else going on, ha ha). Run back to vet to pick up cat before they close for the night. Go over to brother- and sister-in-law's to have cupcakes for aforementioned niece's birthday. My demeanor for most of the day was fairly drill-sergeant-esque--I did not have time for my herd of three boys to indulge their usual urges to lollygag and get distracted by every shiny object we passed.

In fact, I've been pretty snappy the entire time my husband has been gone. Knowing that I have no co-parent backup puts me into what I think of as survival mode. I focus on getting through each day's to-do list, one item at a time, and try not to think of all the things I am, of necessity, not getting accomplished because I only have one set of hands and approximately sixteen hours of time each day to get stuff done.

Tonight I overheard my boys muttering to each other about me as they cleaned up the Game of Life that two of them had scattered all over the den floor. Son #1 pointed out to Son #2 that I was in a bad mood. I did not go in and point out to them that my bad mood had been precipitated by their superhuman ability to ignore my instructions to help clean up the house, which had escalated from polite requests through direct orders right on up to yelling. (Note to every ten-year-old boy on the planet: When your mom has let you play virtually all day, and you respond to her exasperated tenth demand to help clean up your room by saying that she thinks you are her slave, it is not going to end well for you. And you're going to have to clean up your room anyway.)

So I think I'm going to have to scale my ambitions for this week down even further than I already had (main goal: lead husband to believe I'm not totally hopeless on my own by having him return to an only moderately disastrous house containing three reasonably well-fed and fully dressed boys, no pets having perished on my watch) and just try to get my sense of humor back. Whether I am right or not about the need for the boys to take responsibility for their stuff and pitch in (who am I kidding, darn tooting I'm right!), it helps nothing for me to turn into crazy shrieking banshee mom this week.

So honey, if you're reading this, fair warning: I'm giving up on the laundry, and I wouldn't make bets on the likelihood of any beds being made. However, I promise not to try to sell the children on eBay no matter how crazy they make me with their unparalleled ability to belch at will or by doing boneheaded things like putting a container full of empty edamame pods back in the fridge. And most of all, I promise to do my best to keep cranky kitty going strong until you get back home so you can see all the funny places they shaved her at the vet's.

Not my kitty, though I'm sure after her week she feels much the same as this one does.