Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Judging Our Parental Performance

It's been an awfully long time since I last posted here at The Wide World of Jake.  So often, when I'm writing for the "new" blog, Dapper and Dreamy, I come up with ideas that my wife suggests are better suited to this forum.  In other words, they aren't dapper or dreamy at all.

If you're a dad and are reading this, you might be familiar with the emotions that I am about to articulate.  If you are not a father, it might be interesting for you to know that such things occur to us.

I am never entirely certain whether I am a really good dad, or not.  If such an accolade were awarded based on desire and attempt, I'm sure I'd be in the top.  But, if it's results-based, I won't know for many years.  As it stands now, I generally see more of my mistakes that victories, and hope that my offspring don't suffer too much for them.

One thing must be acknowledged, though.  Sometimes it seems that the world is against the male parent.  Mothers, quite rightly, get first prize for devotion, sacrifice and love and dads?  Well, dad's get Father's Day.  In my life at least, the most trying days are generally those that are set aside just for me.  My birthday?  Ugh.  Father's Day?  Double ugh.  Not only am I legally required to be delightful and happy, but my poor children are forced to be unnaturally solicitous and giving.  Frankly, it makes me uncomfortable.

Here's another example of how the world is out to deprive fathers of confidence in their abilities...  The Cat's In the Cradle.  How can a mere song have such a negative impact?  Have you ever listened to this song?  It's guaranteed to make Fred MacMurray feel that he's deprived all three of those sons of the love and attention that they've needed and, now in the twilight of his life, he'll be lucky to get five minutes on the phone with one of those kids. This assuredly heartfelt song even makes me feel that I've neglected my children, despite the fact that I work from home, allow frequent interuptions to answer questions about math problems that I didn't understand twenty years ago, and still don't, and rarely leave the house without at least one, and usually at least five, of these small people in tow.  (Now that, my fair readers, is a run-on sentence!)

Thankfully, there are saving, golden moments when it all comes back into perspective and I can see that, maybe, I'm not doing so badly after all.  Sometimes, it's a kind word or a hug from one of my children.  Or, perhaps, it's a compliment from a stranger as we quietly leave a restaurant after a (thankfully) uneventful meal.  Today, it took a slightly different form...  Rather than praise or affection, it was through the words of another parent, overhead talking to her child as they perused the games selection at our local Target...  "Well, why don't you get that one.  Even a dumbass could win at that game!"  I shouldn't have been shocked to hear these words, they weren't delivered with any particular cruelty, in fact, they were said almost affectionately, with even a little pride.  Judging only by the looks of this particular parent, I suspect she's had a lot of opportunity to test out her theory.

So, in the final analysis, I've decided not to judge my parental performance on only what I do say, but also on the many, many things that I wouldn't even think to say!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Moody People

Yumm!  Could this possibly
make one unhappy?
 I think not!
There certainly are a lot of moody people about these days.  Just yesterday, an old man growled at me.  I mean, he really growled!

Unfortunately, I probably gave him a reason.  You see, quite by accident, I unloaded my large basketful of groceries onto the belt in the express lane.  It wasn't completely my fault.  The new signs they use to identify these special lanes are small, and look just like the signs for the "Family Friendly" and "Express Lane, 15 Items and a Check" and "Express Lane, 8 1/2 Items and Cash Only".  Really, it's getting awfully confusing.

If you add in the four children and a baby trailing along asking to buy everything from Tic Tacs to a first aid kit to a large bottle of Gatorade - "It's only a $1!!!!" - well, have some compassion.

This wasn't the worst of it.  Just last week I was at Baskin Robbins, a place I can't imagine not being happy in, to buy a couple of scoops of our favorite Peanut Butter Chocolate ice cream.  Delicious stuff...  Especially with lots of peanut butter and...  Sorry, I'm getting away from myself...

I was in line behind a rather short, rather mannish woman who clearly had an attitude.  Although professionally dressed and not someone you would assume would be a problem, this "lady" obviously had serious issues with the ice cream server (Creamarista?).  After being given her four scoop serving she picked up the cup purposefully, looked deeply within and slowly raised her head to meet the eyes of the unsuspecting girl. 

"You certainly don't give very large scoops, do you?"

"Oh!  I'm sorry!  You see, we are supposed to give the same sized scoops each time.  I am sure that I gave you the regular size, but if you'd like me to weigh them next time you are in, I'd be happy to."

Please understand that this server was alone with no backup and was as friendly and accommodating as can be.  There was no sarcasm in her voice, not even a trace of annoyance.  Remarkable.

"Hmmm.  Well... How much is four scoops supposed to weigh?"

"Sixteen ounces, ma'am."

"And one scoop?  How much is that supposed to weigh?"  (Obviously not a math whiz, this one.)

"Four ounces."

(Heavily pregnant pause punctuated by a deep in the eyes stare from our lady of perpetual complaints...)

"Weigh it."

Our friendly Creamarista happily complied, setting the jolly, spotted ice cream dish on the scale.

15.95 ounces...

"Would you like me to put in a little more?" asked the server cheerfully.


Exit Mrs. Ice Cream.

I felt compelled to chime in as loudly as possible, "Well, your scoops always seem perfect to me!"

I got an extra chunk of peanut butter that night.

And, finally, another grocery store encounter...

Imagine an exceptionally thin, exceedingly pale, mousy woman with limp, brown hair (if it were a hair color, it would be called "Blah"), slightly stooped, undoubtedly from a dearth of healthy foods such as Oreo's and Pinwheels.  As slow as possible in all her movements, entirely unaware of the growing line behind her and the fact that people actually hoped to get out of the store before midnight (it was about 4 pm).

After using her multitude of coupons, she wanted to make sure that she got the 15 cents off of her bulk oat bran, or some such product, that had been rung in sometime at the beginning of her marathon check out session. 

Patiently, the checker looked through the as yet unprinted receipt, using the screen as his guide, until he found the item, coupon used and all.

After continuing in this way with other products - organic bean sprouts, Ezekiel bread, etc., she was finally ready to finish her transaction.  As she walked away, she suddenly stopped, stood erect and asked, "What about my bag discount!  Did you get my bag discount?!"

Again, the receipt is consulted.  NO BAG CREDIT!

"How many bags did you have, ma'am?"


"Two?  That's ten cents...  do you want me to get that for you?"

"Uh huh."

Five minutes of voiding, manager-overriding and key tapping later, our organic friend had her dime.

After my three items were totalled and I paid, we followed her back to the parking lot and noticed her large, shining black, late model SUV.  Obviously, that ten cents was imperative to her continuing lifestyle.

All I can really say is that people need to lighten up a little.  Next time you come across a person who's made a mistake or who's had to deal with an ungrateful customer, take an extra moment to say thanks and make a little pleasant conversation.  Let them know that their work is appreciated.  And, best of all, leave a big tip!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Graduation Obsession

I am the first to want to celebrate my children's achievements, and I'm eternally thankful that there's a lot to celebrate.  But, what's with this endless graduation obsession?

Let me explain...  tonight, one of my beloved sons is graduating...  for the fourth time in his life.  He is fourteen.  You see, there was the Teens and Tots (preschool) graduation (he may have attended two of these, therefore making tonight his fifth matriculatory celebration), his kindergarten graduation, his elementary school graduation and, now, his middle school graduation.  This will be the third set of such proceedings that I will have attended, my daughter and elder son already having passed the middle school mark, and I pretty much know what to expect.

First, the endless listing of awards and achievements.  There are at least twenty-four categories (Presidential Achievement, never missed a day of school, only went to the rest room during class breaks, etc., etc.), and all of these awards will be distributed among the same six or seven students.

Following the awards, there will be a speech, maybe two, by the most popular children in the "graduating" class.  Every third word will be "like" and we will be treated to, like, learning how they have, like, matured and learned a lot in, like, the past three years.  The words "destiny" and "journey" will be trotted out, followed by hoots from their classmates and cheers like, "Yooooah!  Kenzie!  Wooo!" (I am pretty certain at least one of the speakers will be named "Kenzie" in most middle school graduation ceremonies throughout the United States this year.  The other is probably a "Michaela" or a "Madison").

We can't forget the music.  Choirs will sing perfectly inappropriate music for such ensembles, or for people of middle school age for that matter.  There is a lot of really beautiful choral music out there, but it never seems to be sung by school choirs.  Instead, a retrospective of love songs from the 80's will be performed and lyrics about "makin' love" will come from the angelic faces of the sixth and seventh grade set.  Yes, kids, now that you've passed through the middle school mark, you truly will be able to "fly like and eagle."

The choir will not be the highlight of this evening's musical offerings, though.  Oh, no.  There will be the soloist.  That one, poor girl in the spangly dress - far, far too tight and painfully short - precariously balanced on stiletto heels that could easily have been purchased at Frederick's of Hollywood, singing a Lady Gaga song meant to somehow inspire, and to prove that this girl is headed for American Idol!  Maybe, if you're in a more rural setting, something by Carrie Underwood will be substituted.  It too will be totally inappropriate, completely off tune and utterly heart-rending in it's awfulness.  But, in spite of it all, Shanti's father will be standing in the bleachers, alone, clutching a massive balloon bouquet to his chest, swaying to the music.  At the end of it all, the crowd will cheer, painfully aware that this was probably the musical highlight of this budding performer's life.

And now, the moment we've all been waiting for...  the presentation of "Certificates of Completion".  Each and every name is called (you had no idea that your child's school had 400 eighth graders).  To some is given a massive cheer - "Whoooooo!  Austin!  Yeaaaah!".  Others will get the, "We love you!!!" , generally shouted by the sixth grade girls who have been infatuated with this "graduate" since he played the title role in last year's musical production of "Bye, Bye Birdie".  Then there are those poor children who receive the barely audible, rather pathetic, smattering of pitiful "we have no idea who you are" applause.  And, finally, those students who have reached the apex of their family's educational accomplishment - completion of the eighth grade!  "You go McKenzie!!! We didn't think you'd make it!!!"  (Yes, I really have heard those precise words at one of these events.)

Once all of the "certificates" (at least they don't actually call them "diplomas") are passed out, the audience can see the briefest of lights at the end of the tunnel.  It's the Principal's turn (we have two co-principals...  that's twice the fun!).  Words like, "future", "responsibility", "achievement", "you can do anything you want in life" (except shrink-wrapping the Principal's car like last year!) will be pronounced.

Finally, at long last...  the thank yous.  This will be the longest part of the evening.  Volunteers, other parents, classified staff who are paid too little but receive a dinky Safeway bouquet at the end of the school year, and that one staff member who has nothing better to do in life than to devote every waking moment to these middle schooler's fundraisers, field trips, bottle drives, spaghetti feeds, musicals, plays and choir concerts will be brought forth.  Her mid-eighties, blond, tightly permed pageboy hairstyle in place, clad in her special "graduation" vest and turtleneck, Mrs. Smith will receive the appreciation of staff and students alike, and you will finally see the face behind the endless emails requesting help for "Popcorn Day", "Staff Appreciation Day" (I believe in real businesses that's actually called "payday"), and any number of field trips and events.

At long last, it's over.  Really over.  The bleachers you've been sitting on for two and a half hours start to shake violently as everyone rises, the airless gym begins to empty, your spasmed back begins to loosen and you can now find your graduate and drop them off at the "all-night" pizza party (be sure to pick them up promptly at 10 pm).

I don't want to sound like the Scrooge of "graduations", but judging by the fact that what used to be a virtually non-existent event in my not-so-long-past school years has now become virtually akin to the real graduation - high school- I think it's time to take a step back.  Celebrate!  Have fun!  But, perhaps, we could do it without "Pomp and Circumstance", mortarboards and shouts of, "Sammi!!!!  We can't believe you finally passed eighth grade!!!!!  Wooooohoooo!"

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Holiday Food - Memorial Day

Like most people, I believe that particular foods go with particular holidays and Memorial Day is no exception.  Somehow, holiday eating is more about comfort and nostalgia than gourmet experimentation.  For example, I am no great fan of Jell-O and her many associated "salads", but none of the winter festivities are complete without Oreange Dreamsicle Salad. 

For me, Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day are virtually interchangeable when it comes to the menu.  What are your favorite dishes for the summer holidays?  Are there any that a long gone relative used to make that you pine for?

In my opinion, it just isn't a holiday picnic without Shrimp Macaroni Salad.  This is something my mother would often make in the summer, and something I'd frequently request for my birthday.  One of the benefits of getting older and being the family cook is that I can make these traditional recipes conform to my tastes.  As a confirmed raw onion hater, I no longer have to pick through the mayonnaise dressed macaroni to remove these awful, crunchy little chunks.  My mother still tries to "fool" me when she makes this or potato salad...  Onion powder and, even worse, dried, minced onions are just as bad, Mom...

But, I digress.  Like so many of these kinds of recipes, there are no exact measurments.  It all depends on how many people you have to feed and what ratio of mayonnaise to mac you prefer.  So, feel free to ignore my measurement suggestions here and make it to your taste!

Shrimp Macaroni Salad

1 package of salad macaroni, boiled until it is tender but firm, drained and rinsed in cold water
1 cup of Best Foods (Hellman's) mayonnaise
salt and pepper to taste
4 hard cooked eggs, peeled and roughly chopped
1 small jar sweet gherkins, drained and roughly chopped
2 cans of tiny, pink shrimp (fresh shrimp will do as well)

Combine all of the above and serve well-chilled.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Planting Seeds

The family walk!
I am willing to admit that I am a complete and total nerd, but I like to think that can be a good quality.  Case in point - our family's Saturday evening.

Let me start by saying that this was not totally typical of family time at our house.  First, we had all of the children here at once.  This is unusual because with older kids, dances and time with friends often take precedence over unscheduled family time.  While we set aside Monday evening as a time for our family, Saturday's rarely work for familial togetherness.  Really, this Saturday wasn't so great either.  There was one of the aforementioned church dances scheduled, and one of our kids had tentative plans with a friend.  Like many parents, we decided to "take a stand".  We wanted time with our kids and this was going to be the night.

In some quarters, this event was met with celebration, while others were less than impressed.  "Can we please go?  Pleeeeeeeeease?"

"No, not this time."

"No, really, I'm serious....  PLEASE."

"No, really, NO."

Well, this went on throughout the evening.  "Why can't we go?"

"Because we want to have some family time."

"No, really, why?  What did we do wrong?"

"Nothing, really, we just want to have some time together as a family."

"Seriously...  Why do we have to do this?  Tonight?"

"Look...  We are going to spend some time together and you are GOING TO HAVE FUN!  NOW LET'S PLAY YAHTZEE!  WHERE'S THE YAHTZEE?!?!?!" 

As you can see, this was, at times, tension fraught.  Bolstered by our seven year old's sheer delight at sitting around the table playing a game with his family, we decided to soldier on.  And, in some ways, it was fun.  Two of our kids were having a raucous time, while the others looked like their world was about to end.  This is somewhat unusual because more often than not our children are pretty good sports, but I can also say that we haven't been as consistent with extra family time for a while.

Following a Yahtzee game that was finished in a record 75 minutes (nine people and one Yahtzee cup, what can you expect?), my wife was determined that we go on a family walk.  Not just any walk...  She made us line up in age order, marching up the street, led by a stroller pushed by our diminutive six year old.  Now, the point of this exercise had nothing to do with instilling military precision into our kids, although this is an interesting idea, we just wanted to see what kinds of looks we would get from passing motorists.  And looks we got - mouths agape, smiles and some doubletakes.  I guess you just don't see families like ours walking to the local park en famille.

Our destination, the park, was deserted.  This allowed  us to take over the swings, slides and teeter-totters with abandon.  We swung (swinged?  Enswingulated?), played freeze tag and tried to get our oldest son to join in.  For some reason, he'd assumed the position of a J.C. Penney underwear model, not wanting to admit that he was with these people.  I can't imagine why.

The evening ended, almost, at home with a round the piano singalong.  Before the cockles of your heart are warmed, I must tell you that this was met most reluctantly.  Our daughter was game, and we let her pick the songs.  Unfortunately, this led to a medley of every love song from 1990's Disney films, but at least she was playing along.  I can assure you, though, that the answer to "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" was a resounding, "No."

Disappointed that, overall, our dream of family togetherness did not go well, we had one of our little family meetings and it was straight to bed!

Now, here's where the seeds come in.  The last thing I expected was to have another "fun" family night in the near future.  But, as we gathered around the table for a very casual dinner of nachos, our oldest son asked if we could all play Yahtzee.  Another one of our children wanted to go on a walk to the park.  And, vintage copy of the Mitch Miller songbook in hand, we had another family singalong, complete with one of the kids accompanying on guitar.  And this time...  it really was fun.  Had we not plowed through Saturday night, Sunday night wouldn't ever have been so fun.

So, to you parents, take courage!  Don't give up, because just when you think you've failed in your goal of creating a united family, you might be able to reap the harvest of those seeds you've sown.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Simple Home Repairs

Men get a bad rap. Think of the endless jokes that abound about duct tape repairs undertaken by the dense, male handyman. Just a few weeks ago I saved over $150 simply by employing duct tape as a replacement seal for my front loading washer. A call to a trusty plumber confirmed my fear that the seal alone would cost well over $100, not to mention his own hourly fee, probably not much less. Now, I do have to replace this “seal” after every other load, and duct tape isn’t as cheap as it used to be, but I am sure that even with the three rolls I’ve gone through this month, I’m saving a fortune. Oh, and then there are the bricks. The ones that I need to prop up the front of the washer so that any remaining “drippage” will flow back into the washer itself. And then I did needed to by some heavy duty plastic and a large tray to place under the machine… just to catch the few remaining drips. If you ask me, it’s an ingenious solution. Maybe not that attractive, though…

Back to my point… It’s not only men who are masters of substitution when it comes to household repairs. My wife, and I am sure she is typical of countless women, has her own tool box of solutions. Her favorite? Fabri-Tac. In her mind it can hem a pair of pants, serve as a substitute for tedious sewing in curtain and throw pillow making and repair just about anything that it loose or broken. Need to glue a tea cup together? Fabri-Tac! Hang a sink skirt on an enamel sink? Fabri-Tac! Fix a heavy falling finial on a wrought iron curtain rod? You guessed it, Fabri-Tac!

Now, the actual success of this remedy is another matter entirely. Although I am repeatedly reminded of my own shortcuts (painting around heavy furniture, mirrors and picture - you can just paint when you tire of their current location, placing a sofa in front of uneven, homemade draperies, the list goes on) I dare not mention the fact that that iron finial has been hanging by an ever lengthening string of Fabri-Tac. And the need to reglue that sink skirt every few days, and also replace the pins and nails that hold the edge to the crumbling plaster wall, is really just a minor nuisance. The curtains are not so bad either. If you balance the fabric very carefully on the rod, you really can see where the glue didn’t quite take.

For me, Fabri-Tac and duct tape are really minor league stuff, mere child’s play. If you want to get really serious, it’s all about Super Glue… Gel. That’s right… Super Glue Gel. Here, at last, is a product of such permanence and strength that it can handle a real man’s projects - curtain rods, cupboard handles, cupboard doors, even! There is no end to the usefulness and durability of Super Glue Gel. So strong is this product that I have three separate sets of curtain rod hardware on one set of windows. At the mere change of rod style, I can have formal rods, cafĂ© rods, even double-tiered valance and drape rods. Those babies are never coming off.

I know that there’s a right way and a wrong way to do things. But that’s so dull. It takes a true artist to decorate an entire room with only duct tape, Fabri-Tac and… Super Glue.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Cambridge Emeralds

In the second part of our series on the British Royal Jewels we look at one of the many pieces of jewelry created from the so-called Cambridge emeralds.

The Cambridge emeralds, like many pieces in the Royal Collection, have a strong connection to Queen Mary, the grandmother of the present Queen. Queen Mary was noted for her love of many beautiful things and was an avid collector, to say the least. During her visits to the great houses of England, many a smart hostess knew to put away her most treasured and valuable possessions for Queen Mary was not above strongly hinting at how much she might like to possess a particular item that caught her fancy. As you can imagine, it was quite difficult to deny the Queen!

Queen Mary appears in black and white photos and grand portraits as an imposing figure draped in jewels. It was often said that she was one of the few women who could wear a treasury of gems and not be in the least overwhelmed by them. In fact, Queen Mary could be imposing, but she had a softer side as well. Many American servicemen stationed near Badminton House, her home in the country through the duration of World War II, can attest to her spontaneous hospitality - often picking them up and taking them home for dinner as she encountered them along the road. The Queen was also known for another secret passion - pulling down ivy from trees in the forests surrounding Badminton. Many were shocked to come across the dowager Queen, billhook in hand, working among the trees with her personal staff and detectives.

The Cambridge emeralds were passed from Queen Mary's Aunt Augusta, whose husband the Duke of Cambridge had one them in a raffle in 1818. Favorites of the present Queen, the emeralds can be seen in necklaces, brooches (of which this is one) and earrings. Most spectacularly, the emeralds are found as drops in the Vladimir tiara, so named for it's original owner, the Grand Duchess Vladimir of Russia. This tiara was one of the many pieces of jewelry "acquired" by Queen Mary after the fall of the Romanovs. Originally containing pearl drops, Mary had interchangeable drops created from the Cambridge Emeralds. The Queen today wears this tiara with either the emeralds or, when more appropriate, the pearls.