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, café 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.

Monday, March 14, 2011

New Art

Thanks to the Shabby Chic blog as the inspiration for the new art above the bed in the master bedroom. You will note that this room is undeniably, absolutely pink. My sons were recently quizzing me about the color and whether or not it bothered me. I told them that it didn't and that I thought it was a nice color. They looked at each other in disappointed amazement saying, "Man, he's got it bad. He says that and mom isn't even around!"

Chocolate Marshmallow Cookies... Oh Yeah...

Do you remember those fabulous cookie palaces found in shopping malls in the 90's? You know, the places that offered enormous, warm cookies, not to mention DOUGH cones?! Well, they're all but gone from what I can see, the last Mrs. Field's I visited was in Beverly Hills and has since been replaced by a Pinkberry, whatever that is.

In my own town there is one last vestige of this cookie culture. Visiting is like stepping back in time, into an episode of Full House, maybe? Just up the breezeway you'll also find a TCBY store... what a combination! Stuccoed strip mall, cookie store and frozen yogurt "parlour". You almost expect to see Steph and Uncle Jessie coming out of the Volume Shoe Source next door!

But, I digress, as I often do. After visiting Cookies! Cookies! Cookies!, in search of a Chocolate Marshmallow Cookie, I realized that I could recreate my own. With the help of a Google search, I found countless recipes, settling on the one listed below. And, let me tell you, these are BETTER than anything the long gone Cookie Cottage put out and, even though you shouldn't, you'll find yourself eating more than one.
The Cookie
1/2 cup softened butter
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 cup milk
1 3/4 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon soda
1/2 cup cocoa
20 large marshmallows, cut in half
Cream butter, sugar and egg. Add vanilla and milk, beating until combined. In a separate bowl, mix flour, salt, soda and cocoa. Add to butter mixture and stir until completely incorporated.
Using a small ice cream scoop, drop cookie dough on ungreased sheet, about 1inch apart. Bake in a 350 degree oven for 8 minutes. Remove from oven and press one half on a large marshmallow into the center of each cookie. Return to oven for 2 more minutes.
Cool on pan for 3 minutes and remove to cooling rack. Once cooled completely, frost with...
The Icing
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup milk
1/4 cup butter
1/c cup chocolate chips
Bring to a boil the sugar, milk and butter in small saucepan. Remove from heat and add chocolate chips. Allow to cool, stiring occasionally. Divide icing evenly among the cookies.

Cooky Book Challenge Update #1

It's happened! The first of hundreds of cookie recipes from the 1963 Betty Crocker Cooky Book has been made. To be completely honest, several other cookies have been made since I announced the challenge, but this is the first recipe from the aforementioned chronicle of cookies.

Saturday evening was launched with a batch of Tiny Fudge Tartlets. One of the many cookies I've been wanting to try from the book since my youth, Tiny Fudge Tartlets appear to be miniature pastry squares filled with, well, fudge. Perfectly formed and buttery in appearance, the finished product isn't quite as delicious as I'd hoped, but good all the same. They should definitely be served as a side to something like ice cream, as they're not exciting enough to stand on their own.

Having said that, the years and years of curiousity have now been fulfilled. Only 427 more recipes to try...
For information on another cookie of infinitely better proportions... read on to the next post...
Note: For the recipe to any of the cookies, please feel free to email me.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Spring Cleaning

It’s time for spring cleaning at our house and this will undoubtedly mean exciting discoveries. There will likely be several dollars worth of change, a dozen or so fuzzy teaspoons, batteries (we are always out of batteries, no matter how recently they’ve been bought) and a never-ending parade of pens and pencils, something else that we are also always out of . Phone messages in our house are generally written in barely visible “mac and cheese” colored crayons on the backs of envelopes or the already over-doodled phonebook.

Another remarkable aspect of spring cleaning is that you discover things about your children that you weren’t aware of and long burning questions are answered. For example, you never knew that they willingly ate fruits and vegetables. The evidence that they did generally comes in the form of the very black, very dry banana peels and ancient orange skins that were thrown behind the couch weeks or months before. Partially consumed apples are also in evidence and, once, a rather large remnant of steamed broccoli. You also understand why your dental bills are so high when you spy the incredible mountain of candy wrappers – Airheads, Kit Kat, Now and Later, Mike and Ike - the list of confectionary delights is neverending. And who thinks that it’s a good idea to put half-eaten Jolly Rancher’s under the cushions?

Annoyingly, you will also find those DVD player remotes you spent weeks searching for. Annoyingly because just the day before you gave the DVD player to Goodwill thinking you’d never find those @$#!% remotes anyway.

What you won’t find is that $100 bill you lost a few years ago. I know, because I’ve looked everywhere. Even in the furniture we didn’t own at the time. It’s $100 after all! You will also not find the many socks that are missing mates or your wife’s emerald and diamond engagement ring (you shouldn’t have made her mad!).

Looking at this list you probably think we’ve made some great headway, perhaps cleaning an entire room! Sadly, you’d be mistaken. We just cleaned in and around the couch.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Home, Sweet, Home

Last Father’s Day I was given the greatest gift a father of eight can possibly receive… three solid hours of peace and quiet. Unless your home life is a solid wall of diaper changes and toddler wrestling matches, you can’t possible imagine how even 20 minutes of silence can change a person’s whole outlook. Just being able to use the bathroom without someone calling at you through the door is a blessing of gigantic proportions. Don’t get me wrong, I know that the needs of small children can’t easily be postponed, but there are moments in one’s life when you would really rather not focus on someone else.

And herein lies the problem in our family. The ratio of 10 to 1 works beautifully in many of life’s circumstances. Can you imagine what our educational system would be like if we had classes of only 10 kids to 1 teacher? Imagine the lowering stress levels of middle managers if they had only 10 employees to keep track of. But, 10 to 1 is a decidedly troubling number when applied to the number of Gariepy's to the one, incredibly small bathroom that serves as our family’s privy. Imagine a room the size of an exceptionally small closet and you have a room at least twice the size of our powder room. It’s a charming room as far as it goes, but it is disconcerting to be able to brush your teeth and wash your feet in the tub all while sitting comfortably on the commode. There is something to be said for small rooms. My wife appreciates the ease with which she can clean this room and I am sure that it’s perfectly comfortable for the smallest people in our home. You also can’t beat the sink as a place to rest a heavy book, if you’re inclined to do so. However, the convenience of having at least two such rooms is highlighted a few times each year when the dreaded flu hits the family. Of course, I try to remind myself and my children that that when the house was built nearly one hundred years ago, it’s rather unlikely that this room existed at all. Farmer Joe would probably have found our bijou powder room quite luxurious.

It’s not just the size and singularity of the family bathroom that surprises people when they see the house. No, our house is rather small, especially in relation to our family size, in nearly everyone’s eyes. My mother frequently asks when we are going to move to a larger home. I don’t want to suggest that we’d be happy to move as soon as she was willing to pay the extra expense, but my wife and I like our house. It’s relatively easy to clean – no small consideration when at least 50% of your day is devoted to that activity – and having all of the boys in one room makes it unlikely that they will be able to get into too much trouble as the years go by. After all, it’s hard to hide really bad behavior when your youngest brother already runs to your mother and dad when you say a “bad word” (I wonder just what the “L” word is, anyway…). It’s also allows us to use a very effective form of discipline on our seventeen year old daughter. At the earliest hint of trouble from her we only need to mention that the boy’s room is getting rather crowded and shouldn’t we consider moving one of her brothers into her own private sanctuary? Problem averted.

I suppose a larger house would be more convenient, but it’s comforting to know where everyone is and to have a sense of what they’re doing. There’s enough time to be apart everyday but, in our small house, we are forced to spend time together and that’s not all bad. For the children, it’s a great way to learn how to get along in the world, and how to share. For their parents, it’s an opportunity to create a welcoming and secure place for the kids to land at the end of each day. However you explain it, it’s not the amount of space that counts, but what kind of feeling you fill it with.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Twenty-six missed calls. Eight new voice mail messages. Forty-five minutes away from home. That was our Friday night not so long ago. After attending the annual Pinewood Derby at out church, my wife and I, stuffed with Sloppy Joes and green beans (interesting combination), decided to drop the kids off at home and spend a little time together. Being the adventurous and romantic couple that we are, we settled on a trip to the local bookstore.

We settled down to our magazines – Country Home and Vogue for her, Vanity Fair and Majesty for me. After sitting in companionable silence for about forty-five minutes, we decided that it was time to head home. It was late, and our boy scout probably needed some consolation for coming in last in every race at the derby. Just judging by my magazine choice, you can probably guess I am not much of a woodworker.

Getting into the car, I usually make it a habit to check my Blackberry to see what important messages have come in since I last looked at it and, generally, there are none. None that are important that is. After work hours the most exciting calls I get are from one of the kids wondering when I will be home and did I pick up any watermelon, or an important message from Direct TV about my bill (yeah, so it’s late. I have three more days until there is any “service interruption”. Calm yourselves.). This night was different. Twenty-six missed calls in forty-five minutes was a lot even for my telephonically adept brood, and eight new voice mail messages seemed to spell trouble. I was right. The first one was from my daughter breathlessly telling me that my oldest son had probably broken his arm. The next was from my father-in-law telling me that my son had probably broken his arm and he was taking him to the emergency room. The third call was from my mother, just letting me know that Jack had broken his arm and that his grandfather was taking him to the hospital and why wasn’t I answering my phone? They continued in this vein.

The most interesting message was from the mother of a girl with whom my son was spending the evening. Of course, he was supposed to be with an entirely different friend, but somehow found his way to the school playground with a gaggle of admiring girls and a jump rope. Now, my son is a bit of a ham, and I have a feeling that with a group of other attentive early-teen females, he gets even hammier. Sadly, his trick jumproping show went south, along with his arm, making a very painful, and rather expensive, contact with the concrete.

Arriving at the hospital, my initial thoughts were about the poor kid and the pain he might be in. My wife was a little less empathic, not entirely pleased that we were at the hospital rather than the ice cream shop just a few blocks away. After seeing our son, obviously in some pain, but stoic to the end, I have to confess I had a little pang of hunger for a Prince Puckler’s sundae, but back to the situation at hand.

In-laws dispatched home, we had some one on one time with our son. Like so many other difficult family situations, it turned out to be a kind of fun evening. I can’t tell you how many great laughs and how many good talks I’ve had at those festive family events like funerals, late night visits to the doctor, kidney stone prompted ER calls or long drives home from the dentist’s office after an extraction. We're just that kind of family.

If there’s any point to this, it’s that some of the most annoying family situations can actually lead to some of the more rewarding advances in our relationships. Having said that, the next time my wife and I go out alone, we are hitting the ice cream parlor first.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Cooky Challenge!

I can remember spending many happy hours poring over my mom's copy of the Betty Crocker Cooky (yes, cookY) Book circa 1963. I don't think I've ever enjoyed a cookbook more, and I've enjoyed plenty. Happily, my own kids have followed suit. I can't count the number of times my seven year old son Harry has brought it to me, always open to the page displaying Candy Cane Cookies, with a suggestion that we make dessert together.

Harry is a chef in the making. He's always up to help in the kitchen. If it includes cracking eggs, his favorite part of the cooking process, all the better. If it weren't for Harry, I might also weigh less. You see, there is no day that passes without the loaded question, "So, dad... What's for dee-ssert?" An answer better be forthcoming, and it also better be something good... and homemade. Tuesday night is probably his least favorite night in the week. You see, Tuesday evening is $1.50 scoop night at the local Baskin-Robbins. Now, Harry considers ice cream to be a perfectly acceptable snack or lunchtime dessert, but certainly not a suitable end to the evening meal.

The Betty Crocker Cooky Book is filled with over 450 cookie recipes. Some delicious, some not so appealing - I'm not sure what it was about dates that made them seem so appealing in the early 1960's. Growing up, just about every Christmas cooky my mom made came from Betty's book - Thumbprints, Petticoat Tails, Spritz and, best of all, Candy Canes. Oddly, although Candy Cane cookies are made to look like the confection from which their name is derived, they are flavored with vanilla and almond extracts. One of the reasons for their popularity was the work that it took to make them - tedious rolling and braiding strips of red and white dough together... dozens and dozens of times. Now, years later, I can completely understand why my mother grimmaced each time I requested them. But, like I do for my kids now, she obliged and made batch after batch throughout the holiday season.

These holiday treats were only the tip of the iceberg when it came to the delights contained within the Cooky Book - Shamrock Cookies, Tiny Fudge Tartlets, Cream Wafers, Empire Biscuits - the list goes on and on. Perhaps the most sought after items were the Merry Maker Cookies. These cookies were a Technicolor tribute to the beauty of baking. Buttery sugar cooky dough divided and then brightly tinted into several shocking colors - blue, green, red, yellow, pink, orange and purple. Each color was rolled thin and then cut into many shapes, layered together to make beautiful designs. My mother, bless her, was never willing to tackle the Merry Makers, and believe me, I begged. My sister, on the other hand, made them for me... once.

And, now, I've decided to take the plunge. I'm going to make those Merry Maker Cookies myself. Not only am I going to make the Merry Makers, I am going to make the Indian Jumanas, the Vermont Maples, the Love Letters... I'm going to make as many of these cookies as I can in the next year. And... I'm going to tell you all about them.

So, cooky lovers, stay tuned for reports and updates. I'm doing this... for you.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

How to bond with your baby, shop 'til you drop and be saved!

We’ve been pretty lucky with the latest addition to our family. Baby Max has been a good sleeper. And why not? He’s got to be exhausted at the end of a long day of, well, sleeping. I guess I should say that we were pretty lucky, because Max has found his inner night owl.

For me, the ideal day would start between 11 a.m. and noon, and last until the wee small hours. I love the idea of morning – the fresh start to a new day, filled with promise and hope, a delicious breakfast to provide energy for the excitement to come – there are lots of nice things about this idea. It’s the reality that I find objectionable. There’s the kitchen sink and counters, filled with dirty dishes even though it was clean when you went to bed, the garbage spilling forth from the trash can, again, clean before you went to bed. There are the pleas for cash from the kids, the permission slips to be signed for field trips never before heard of, the list goes on. As far as the delicious breakfast, if I eat it at all it’s usually a choice between Raisin Bran and Grape Nuts.

Recently, I’ve been able to achieve part of my scheduling goal. While there’s no change in the time I have to be up – someone has to pay for this place – I am getting to “enjoy” those wee, small hours I mentioned earlier. Just last night, Max and I were able to spend quality time together – from about midnight to 4:30…

Max is an adorable baby. He really is. He’s just as fat as you’d want him to be (should I worry about is BMI reading?), he can smile when he feels the need, and he smells divine. He’s also quite cuddly. So, spending this time with him is more of a pleasure than a chore. For the most part, Max doesn’t cry during these times, he sits. He coos. And he makes other sounds that, if I was to make them, would get some very strange looks. Max is basically just a creature of the night.

This nocturnal interlude has opened me up to a whole new world. It’s the world of late night/early morning television. Flipping through the channels I was surprised to see just how many programs require me to enter our parental control access code after about 1 a.m.. Evidently, TV becomes much more interesting at about this time – who knew? And then there are the channels that I want to watch during the day when I have no time – now showing only an endless stream of infomercials. And it’s those infomercials, along with religious programming, that’s most fascinating. Sure, I’ve become somewhat addicted to the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills (there is very little that’s real about these women, I assure you), but it’s hard to beat all of the wonderful products offered through the night. So far, I’ve learned that I can totally eliminate several inches from my mid-section with a t-shirt that’s only $19.95 (no more muffin top!) I can also add inches to… oops, let’s skip that one.

There are fabulous products like “tater gloves”, guaranteed to take the peel of any potato simply by rubbing it with your glove. Or, one of my personal favorites, the electric sandwich maker that can do so much more! Evidently, it can make every dish known to man – pies, cakes, omlettes and broccoli and cheddar pizzas (really?) – in 5 minutes or less. Who knew that the plump, peppy little lady who hocks this thing has the secret to the world’s best apple pie – margarine, two slices of Wonder bread, a can of apple pie filling and the incredible sandwich machine, all for only $29.95!

Late night/early morning religion is another thing altogether. Whether it’s the very old gentleman with his pronounced Southern twang or the middle-aged, grey haired ladies sitting around the dining room table on a set decorated in shades of misty blue and dusty rose, here’s the answer to all the world’s problems! At least, if you’re willing to spend a little. That’s right - you, too, can be saved for only (insert amount depending on quality of cable channel). While the geriatric minister and women wearing bunny sweaters and comfortable shoes charge on the lower end, the more charismatic programs ask for a lot more. Take the preacher who gave a sermon about his love of the Fed Ex truck. He get’s so excited every time he sees a Fed-Ex truck! And why not? According to the good reverend, at some point in the recent past he sent $1000 to a church of some sort (I’m guessing his own) and, as a result, he has received an endless stream of unexpected money each week for months! There he is, sitting at home, no doubt preparing next week’s message, and the doorbell rings. Who can it be? Why, it’s the Fed Ex man, and here’s another envelope containing $10,000, $20,000, even $30,000! Because of that $1000 in “seed money”, he now finds himself “favored” by God! For only $1000 I, too, can be “favored” by God! If I call and pledge NOW, I will receive 90 days of financial good fortune!

Although I haven’t taken advantage of any of these special offers, and in all cases we are assured that these offers are “special” - only good for the next 20 minutes or 20,000 callers, whichever comes last - I am guessing that they don’t live up to their promises. In the dark of night we are willing to believe in a lot of things that wouldn’t hold up in the cold, hard light of day (refer back to the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills). But, it doesn’t really matter. Someday, Max will grow up and move away, but… we’ll always have the Sham-Wow.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

What a life!

For the many people who’ve been kind enough to read my many ramblings over the years, you know that I try to keep things pretty light. It’s not that I am a shallow person, I’ve got loads of political diatribes on my hard drive just waiting to see the light of day, and I have a few treatises on the nature of God and religion, too. But, I think attempts at humor are more entertaining. Having said that, I’m having a hard time seeing the lighter side this week.

Our local news has been headlined by two dreadful stories – the accidental death of two bright and talented high school seniors, out for a day at the beach with friends also engaged in good works, and the trial surrounding the tragic and unspeakable death of a young girl at the hands of her mother. In both cases, the details are heartbreaking and, in one, they are simply unfathomable.

I thought it important to take a moment away from trying to think of clever and witty little stories about my family life, and to focus some serious attention at how fortunate I am, and most of us are, in the lives we lead and the families we have.

If you are like me, you are not living the life you planned to live. It was all very clear to me at one time. I would go to Europe, first walking from London to the northern tip of Scotland and then following the seasons, picking fruit on the continent to support an extended stay. College would follow, probably studying political science or foreign relations in order to pursue a career in government – something with the State Department at first, and then running for office. After the Senate, the presidency, at least an attempt, followed by something with the United Nations. A fabulous apartment, a vast and expensive wardrobe and perhaps a Jaguar rounded out the picture. At some point I moved on to the idea of a life of travel, research and writing. And, finally, I’ve come to realize that my life is not some plan for the future, some distant idea of what I will one day do, my life is here and now.

In that life there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t look at my painted wood floors and realize how much they could use refinishing. I’m also keenly aware that every bit of white woodwork in the house needs its’ semi-annual touch up. Then there’s the perennial problem of the one tiny, albeit charming, bathroom that serves my family of ten. Later in the day, usually just after the mail has come, the question of how to make one income stretch to cover our growing expenses comes up. The bills arrive, sometimes more than a little past due, and the ever increasing letters from colleges addressed to my older children remind me of the vast sums of money that I haven’t saved for my children’s college education.

People have often asked, certainly rhetorically, “how do you do it?!” Well, I’ll tell you… I’m coming out of the closet - it’s a lot of work. It’s sometimes incredibly hard and exhausting work at that. Some days I feel unequal to the task. And, despite my frequent lighthearted answer of, “Well, you just do it”, it can be a bit more complicated than that. There’s the frequent financial juggling that goes on – what bill can wait so you can pay for the school trip of the week. And there’s the endless question of whether you are giving your children everything they need (I am always sure that the answer is a resounding “no”.). In short, there’s not a day that goes by without some time spent worrying about something or someone.

Now, before you think I’m writing a sob story about the woes of parenthood, let me set the record straight. I wouldn’t trade this life for anything. If I stop and give it a moment’s thought, I couldn’t be happier. The things that I’ve listed above make little difference and, one day, my endless economic challenges and petty household concerns will mean absolutely nothing. Besides, anyone reading this will probably be able to relate to every obstacle I’ve listed, and perhaps many more that I haven’t.

You see, just this evening, so many things have happened in my home that make me so glad to be where I am now, at this very moment. I made cookies with my seven year old son, a boy whose love of food is matched only by his love of jumping around the house, singing and dancing to Jack Johnson’s soundtrack from the Curious George movie. He also happens to tell me that he loves me every day, usually more than once, and will do anything to make me laugh.

I also spent part of my afternoon alone with my five year old son, looking through a local thrift store for some fun little toy that would keep his attention for an hour or two. Rather than find a toy, he found a rocking chair, perfectly sized just for him, that he spent a good hour sitting in, next to me, as he held his three month old brother. This particular son also tells me, repeatedly, that I am, “so cool”. He falls asleep next to me each night after wrapping his arms around my neck and telling me how much he loves me.

There’s also my ten and eleven year old boys, who would choose to spend time playing games, bowling or just watching television with me over any other activity. Not just great sons, but truly good friends, something I feel about each of my children. My fourteen year old son who, as I was sick and taking a nap the other day, gave me a hug and told me that he loved me. And, last but certainly not least, my fifteen year old son and seventeen year old daughter who try so hard to please and impress my wife and me, and who live lives so exemplary that I can look up to and admire them.

All of this is held together by my wife, the one person who understands, accepts and encourages me in everything I do. It would be impossible to write a coherent paragraph about my feelings toward her, so I won’t even try.

When I think of those two sad stories filling our newspapers, I feel so much sympathy for the parents in one case, and the poor child in the other. The one will be robbed of the love of their sons, and the other was robbed of the love of a family. At the same time, I feel an incredible surge of gratitude for the life that I have, and a huge desire to gather my family around me, not for any particular purpose, but simply to bask in the warmth, love and companionship that we all share.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Honesty Can Be Highly Overrated...

Sometimes, honesty is just not the best policy. We all know, or should know, that our spouses never look fat, no matter how tight that dress may fit, or how snug the back of that suit jacket may be. There’s no entirely safe way to answer that question, “Honey, do I look fat?”, but there are some choices that are better than others.

The same is true of other spousal questions, such as, “Darling, do you notice anything different?” The pitfalls here are too numerous to mention. To say “no” indicates a general lack of awareness or interest in the appearance, health or well-being of said spouse, but what if the answer is really, “yes” and the thing you notice isn’t at all flattering? Evasion is the key here, or at least some very well-chosen words.

My real beef isn’t even with spousal truth seeking at all. In fact, just having written the above will probably give rise to some questions when my wife reads this, but I digress. My real point here is that there are just certain things that you shouldn’t say to people, and some of them are patently obvious.

Take my recent visit to the local optical shop. First, notice that your new pair of glasses are no longer “ready in one hour!” Now, they are “ready in about an hour*…” No one mentions that the “about” in that phrase could add days to your wait, and there is no explanation about that asterisk at all, which probably has something to do with the fact that your glasses require parts to be sent from somewhere in rural Wisconsin.

I’ve had the same boring style of glasses for years. They do nothing to artistically frame my eyes and they don’t particularly show off the arch of my perfectly formed eyebrow. After considering several colors, styles and shapes, I landed on two that seemed suitable. The first was simple and much like my past selections, the second was what you might call a Cary Grant style of frame. I know that there’s a fine line between the effortless panache of Cary and the head of the high school A/V club, but I live in hope that I can carry off the former and not succumb to the latter. Well, that hope has been forever extinguished.

As I sat down before the very peppy, reluctantly middle-aged optician, complete with official lab coat and eyeglasses that could have landed her a spot on the Republican presidential ticket, she took my little eyeglass bin and proceeded to “fit” me. The first pair didn’t elicit much of a response. Probably a good sign. The second, however, ruined all hopes of suavity that remained. “I just thought I’d try these Cary Grant glasses,” I said, trying to give a hint at what I was going for. Although my reflection didn’t even fully convince me, I didn’t need Sarah Palin’s opinion. “No! You look just like Drew Carey!”

Drew Carey? As in the plump, moon-faced, crew cut wearing comedian? Drew Carey?! Ugh.
Seeing my disappointment, “Sarah” was quick to add a little too dreamily, “Oh, but I just love Drew Carey…”

So, you see, sometimes it’s wise to think before we speak, and definitely before we speak too honestly. Think of the sales we could make and the joy we could spread if we just took a hint or two. “Oh yes, Mr. Gariepy! You look just like Mr. Grant!” Deal cinched… “I’ll take ten pairs!” But no, it couldn’t be that easy. Mr. Carey took his business elsewhere. And I didn’t even mention Cary this time.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Such Blessings!

As the father of so many children, there are things said to me that most other parents might not hear. For example, on telling my mostly aged clients that I have seven boys and a girl, the men can rarely resist that hilarious question – “Haven’t you figured out what causes that yet?!?!” Ha ha ha ha! Hadn’t heard that one before, Wilbur! I wonder what Wilbur’s response would be if I were to respond, “No, I haven’t. Can you explain it to me?” Somehow, I imagine that Wilbur might be less interested in enlightening me – at least I hope so.

One also can’t overlook the oft-repeated declaration, nearly always by the darling, blue-haired ladies who’ve obviously forgotten what it’s like to visit the grocery store accompanied by any number of children, let alone seven – “Oh look! You have all your little helpers with you!” Lady, you and your blue rinse better get out of my way before I run you down with my shopping cart. So far, my little “helpers” have broken a family-sized jar of spaghetti sauce on aisle five, shoplifted three packs of gum and… I don’t even know where two of them are.

I can’t forget, as hard as I try too, the obviously deluded woman who followed me from aisle to aisle at the local Walmart. Passing her on the freezer aisle I was able to overhear her tell another passerby, “Now there’s a real dad!” Well, that was rather nice, I thought. I’ll stop trying to run down my six year old now. He really isn’t being that annoying with that giant Dora the Explorer ball he’s bouncing. On the next aisle, I was less convinced by her breathless, “Aren’t they precious!” Finally, in our third encounter she stopped me and asked, “Do you know what the Bible says about children?” “Uh, not exactly. I guess God likes them?” “It says that they are the arrows in God’s quiver!”, she said tremulously, looking heavenward. It was only then that I really noticed that one of her eyes was looking the other way.

As my wife knows, almost entirely through vicarious experience, shopping with the kids is a chore to be avoided. Therefore, she avoids it. The problems with this are many, though. First, because there are so many of them, trips to the store are frequent. Since our refrigerator only holds eight gallons of milk, we have to head back at least once every couple of days. And then, after spending the equivalent of a small country’s annual defense budget, once three days have passed, there is, as my daughter will moodily inform me, “Nothing to eat!” And, naturally, she is STARVING. There is the option of going to the store after they’ve all gone to sleep, but the prospect of going to a 24-hour grocery store at 2 am is less than exciting. So, I continue to do it. Me, the kids and the grocery store.

Finally, yes, as I am reminded almost as often as I hear the line about my little helpers, children are such blessings! I would suggest, however, that the next time you share this little bit of inspiration with someone, you choose a different time and place. About to spend half my monthly income to feed the screaming infant climbing out of my cart and his seven surly siblings – I’m going to find it hard to believe you could possibly be serious.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

A Poem for George

For some reason, I've been feeling awfully poetic this year. So, here's another little rhyme for your reading enjoyment...

Once upon a time,
In the town of Eugene,
Lived the cutest darn boy
You ever had seen.

This boy was named Georgie,
And most of the time,
His face was angelic,
Pure and quite fine.

But once in awhile,
When the mood so struck,
Georgie could barrel through life
Like a truck.

He’d cry and he’d whine and
He’d make such a fuss,
That his mommy would say,
“Oh, Georgie, do hush!”

"But ice cream and brownies
And chocolate I want!"
Hollered Georgie, the angel,
A right little punk.

Victoria said, “No!
You mustn’t give in!”
And Nick said, “If you do
He’ll do it again.”

So daddy got up and
Looked at his boy,
And thought in his head,
“Silence would be such a joy.”

But to spoil little Georgie
Would be such a crime,
Even though he still did it,
All of the time.

He opened the cookie jar
And searched through the fridge
And decided a treat wouldn’t
Hurt him a smidge.

He’d already eaten breakfast:
Some Cookie Crisp and some pop,
And needed his strength
For the candy shoppe.

So daddy scooped some ice cream
And pulled out a spoon,
And gave it to Georgie,
Who started to swoon.

“Oh daddy, oh daddy,
I do love you so much!
Now how about a big bowl
Of sweet Captain Crunch!”

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Mullets, Mullets Everywhere!

I can only think of one reason that God or, more likely, some hairstylist in rural Mississippi, created the mullet. It had to be for the sheer hilarity of it. If you’re ever having a really horrible day, Google “mullet” and look at the images that fill your computer screen. If you don’t experience immediate projectile laughter, check your pulse. The fun can be compounded if you have a photo editing program. Put a mullet on your friends, family, enemies, celebrities - the list is endless – and you will reach a state of hilarious nirvana. I fully realize that this will expose my sometimes juvenile sense of humor, but there are times when a mindless and hearty laugh is preferable to cerebral wit.

For all the obvious drawbacks that the mullet has as a hairstyle, it remains strangely popular among some. Today, walking through the local Target, I saw a sight so tragic, that it seems almost wrong to write about it. A well-dressed, upper middle-aged woman was walking with her son. The mother was very attentive and kind, and seemed to care deeply for the boy. While this might have been a touching sight – the devotion of a mother to her son – the fact that the boy had a very pronounced mullet kind of ruined it. Why, I asked myself, would a woman do that to her son? If that’s not cruelty, I’m not sure what is.

I once went to church with a woman who was also blessed with a mullet of impressive proportions. Her shiny red hair was carefully coiffed – curled and sprayed in high-piled splendor on the top of her head. It was the long, straight, rather stringy, tendrils of hair falling down her ample back that just didn’t seem to work. I’ve often wondered at those hairdos that seem so carefully styled on top and front, only to have forgotten the sides or back. Flash back to the late seventies and early eighties. Imagine hair, carefully parted in the middle and flamboyantly feathered on each side. This look was most likely achieved through the use of the very large pink comb with its handle sticking out of the back pocket of the wearer’s too tight jeans.

Hair is important and, often, problematic. My own is always disappointing. When it’s too short I am told, often by my loving daughter and devoted mother, that it makes me look like a “pinhead”. When it gets too long I look like a big-haired televangelist who might have graced morning TV in the early ‘90s, tearfully admitting to his poor judgment in having an “inappropriate relationship” the church secretary .

Our family’s most recent hair crisis occurred when I took two of my sons to the local discount hair salon. You must understand that these boys are, at least in appearance, adorable. After Sasha (we’ll call her Sasha - it was the name on her tag) got through with them, they looked like little, well, nerds. Their bangs were so short that it looked like their foreheads had doubled in size over the past thirty minutes. The sides and back were no better. Although longer than the top (a mini mullet in the making), little clumps of hair peaked over their ears.

Few things can make one look better than a really good haircut. And few things can do more to damage your appearance, and maybe your reputation, than a really bad haircut. All you have to do to prove this point is think of the last person you saw wearing a mullet. I rest my case.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Burning the Midnight Oil...

There are few things I like better than writing. It gives me a great sense of accomplishment to look at a screen full of words that I’ve strung together. I also like the fact that writing can give one the greatest excuse to read, to question and to communicate. However, despite the huge amount of time I spend at the keyboard, I’m hesitant to tell people that I am a writer. You see, with few things to show for my work, it seems somehow disingenuous.

Those that know me understand that I’ve had a lifelong fascination with the great and near great. Certainly any member of the British Royal Family and nearly all presidents and first ladies can command my attention for a long period of time. For several years I’ve been working at researching, writing and understanding some of their stories. Unfortunately, despite my best efforts, this work has so far amounted to several large boxes of photocopied oral histories, State Dinner menus and guest lists, letters and memos from presidential libraries; kind but unhelpful responses from presidential spouses and their staff members reminding me that the role of first lady is much more than organizing the social side of the White House; endless letters from ladies-in-waiting and private secretaries cordially declining any assistance with my current subject (unless I first become a published author); and several quite extensive outlines and first drafts of what I am convinced will one day be real books. Oddly, I am not completely discouraged, not that I haven’t been over the years.

Perhaps the chief reason for my enduring hope is that there are so many people who have been supportive and encouraging throughout the years. Thankfully, my wife is at the top of that list. I don’t know anyone who is more convinced of my abilities – certainly I am not. And then there are my children. While I see my files of letters from the secretaries of presidents, first ladies, queens and dukes as a long catalogue of closed doors, they are mesmerized by the fact that I’ve even written to these people and someone, anyone, has written back.

Other writers have also been helpful in so many ways, while some have been less encouraging. Perhaps my favorite letters are from two English writers of great age who took the time to respond to my rather naieve queries. Both nonagenarians, Lady Elizabeth Longford (successful biographer of the Queen, the late Queen Mother and Queen Victoria) and Georgina Battiscombe (one of the few to have written a full-scale book about Queen Alexandra of England) wrote witty, friendly and genuinely helpful letters telling me to simply write and keep on writing no matter what. Two other well-known royal biographers were less encouraging. One suggested that, “as an American, there’s no way you could possibly understand our Royal Family.” Another stated that with all of the information currently available about the royals, the only way to make any sort of living at it was to “make things up!” Thankfully, American writers are, on the whole infinitely more helpful and give one at least the hope that there’s success at the end of the tunnel.

Perhaps my greatest problem is a certain lack of focus. Ideas for books and articles flow freely… Entertaining at the White House: 80 Years of Presidential Style from the Roosevelts to the (insert administration in office when I actually finish this book!); Lady Bird Johnson: Unlimited Partner; Royal Sisters: The Lives of Queen Alexandra and the Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna; Pillow Talk: Doris Day and Her Early 1960’s Comedies; Life in LA: A Neighborhood by Neighborhood Look at America’s Greatest Megacity; Shiny Brite: An Illustrated Look at the Great Mid-Century Christmas; Kim Novak: The Art of Stardom… The list of titles goes on, and so does my seemingly endless enthusiasm. It’s the finished product that I’m missing.

Of course, there have been one or two successes – a series of articles in a historical journal, a (finished!) manuscript of essays about life with so many children and an illustrated children’s book. I keep assuring myself that, in time, I will finish them all. I’m young (ish) and I won’t be driving carloads of children around forever. In the meantime, I gather, I read, I take notes and, I try, to write every day. And I suppose that’s a little victory in itself. It can be a great challenge to keep up with the every day aspects of life – a family and a job and everything that comes with it – and to get anything else done is just icing on the cake.

Friday, January 28, 2011

An Ode to the Spritz Cookie

Well, Christmastime has come and gone and, if you're at all like me, you can't wait until the next yuletide season! Of course, there's lots of fun to be had in the meantime, but nothing beats Christmas in my book. For me, the best time of year starts on September 24 (my birthday!) and ends on December 31. Perhaps there is nothing I like better about the holiday season than the gift my mom and aunt put together for us each year. There's always a huge basket with lots of delicious homemade treats. And, in that basket, nothing is better than the much loved Spritz cookie...

An Ode to Spritz Cookies

By Jacob Gariepy, Poet?

Oh dear Spritz cookies, how I love thee so much,
So buttery and crispy and light to the touch.
How I could sit upon my bed and eat thee bite by bite,
All morning, all evening, and all through the night.

The tiny green trees leaving nothing to waste,
Their rich delicious aroma and wonderful taste,
The wee bitty stars and teeny pink wreaths,
Makes me so happy right down to my knees.

How I like to take you and pick you apart,
The taste of each cookie warmeth my heart.
As I munch and crunch and chew every bite,
I know nothing more fun, not by day or by night.

But then, at last, the tragic moment draws near,
The bag, once so full, is now empty, I fear.
And now for more Spritz cookies, I simply must wait,
Until next Christmas night, what a deplorable fate.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Start of a Series... Royal Jewels

This brooch was made in the late 19th century for the Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna of Russia. Marie, or Minny as she was known to her family, was the sister of Queen Alexandra of Great Britain, who was in turn the wife of Queen Victoria's heir King Edward VII. Minny was also the daughter of the King of Denmark, the sister of the King of the Hellenes (Greece) and the mother of the tragic Tsar Nicholas II - pretty well-connected, wouldn't you say? An avid collector of fabulous jewels, the Dowager Empress did have to leave some of her vast collection behind whe nshe fled Russia following the Russian Revolution. Exiled in her native Denmark, some of Minnie's lost jewels made their way to London with a cache of other Romanov baubles. Ever the opportunist, Queen Mary, the wife of Marie's nephew King George V, was given an advance look at the treaure trove housed at the Bank of England. Picking from countless sparkling tiaras, ropes of enormous pearls and stunning ruby, emerald, sapphire and diamond brooches, necklaces, bracelets and rings, this was one of the many acquisitions made by the Queen.

One of the present Queen's favorite pieces, the Empress Marie Feodorovna Sapphire Brooch is worn frequently by Elizabeth II, and will likely be passed on to future British queens.
This study was done in late 2008 and is the first in a series.
It’s oddly quiet in here. Where is the sound of crying? The blood-curdling screams of my two year old – being deprived of the one Matchbox car that he must have? LEGO’s being thrown down the stairs? Skateboard tricks being done in the attic (a space that our vertically challenged 8 year old can barely stand upright in).

The silence is unusual because we are the parents of, you got it - seven boys and a girl. Understand, I wouldn’t trade them for the world – a really good hot fudge sundae maybe, but generally, I can’t imagine life without them anymore. Not that I don’t try to from time to time, though.

Kids are amazing. When they are asleep next to you, warm, soft and silent, you can’t imagine how you could possibly have so much love for one little person. Then, they wake up, or grow up. The love is still there, but it’s a little harder to get to when you are in the midst of explaining why it’s not financially possible to meet every one of your child’s material demands. After all, little Johnny’s parents are sending him to baseball camp, buying him a new Ipod and taking him to Europe. Johnny’s dad also coaches the baseball team and takes the family out to dinner at least twice a week. Why can’t we just have another $20 to go to the movies, or buy another cell phone? Maybe I’m totally out of touch with the realities of today, but the expectations of a parent do seem to have changed. Simply providing guidance, love, food, shelter and clothing are the very least one can do. A father isn’t truly successful until he’s provided summer vacations, $200 skateboards and the latest and greatest from Nintendo for his growing brood. What are these kids expected to do when they are supposed to be asleep? If there’s no new video game to play, there’s precious little that can occupy the hours from 9:00 pm until they collapse from sheer exhaustion at an unspecified early morning hour.

But, I digress. Here I am with two more peaceful hours ahead of me. Nothing that I have to do, no one asking me for anything, just peace and quiet. It’s now that the panic sets in - I have no idea what to do with it! There are so many things that I could do, and yet it’s impossible to choose just one – listen to music? Watch a movie? Take a nap? Paint the kitchen? After mulling this problem over and wandering aimlessly around the house I finally decide on the book. Just as I crack the cover, I hear that familiar sound… the door. They’re back! Can’t those kids even let me have a minute to read a book?!!?!?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Coming Soon!

That's right... after months, maybe even years, of talking about it... "Severine", the story of a young girl and her adventures in Paris, will be in print soon! Watch this site for updates!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

“That guy looks terrified!”

This is my fifteen year old son speaking. We were in the waiting room of his mother’s OB watching as a very young couple stopped to make an appointment with the receptionist.

I couldn’t have agreed more. The man/boy did look terrified and I wondered if I had that same deer in the headlights look when we were having our first baby, almost seventeen years earlier. I don’t think I did, I was odd that way. Looking back, I see that I was more serious and more adult (also read as “stuffy”) when I was twenty than I am now. But, I can say that as I sat there, waiting for my pregnant wife to finish up her appointment for our eighth baby, I had never felt more relaxed at the prospect of another addition to our family.

Now that baby number eight, and son number seven, has arrived, that feeling of comfort has only increased. I’m much older now and my perspective has changed considerably. I know that waking up five times each night only lasts for a few months, and that there really is nothing better than laying around with a sleeping baby on your chest. Not only is there nothing better, there’s nothing more worthwhile. If you can throw reading a good book into that mix, you are about as close to heaven on earth as you can get.

My new son arrived just before Thanksgiving. As someone who loves the fall and winter, I was already into my favorite time of year. The pregnancy had been difficult compared to the previous seven, and the prospect of a post-natal wife seemed pretty exciting. I knew the discomfort she was feeling, referring to herself as a “trailer”, and we were both getting sick of eating Café Yumm, the one meal that did not impact her gestational diabetes negatively. It didn’t seem that our baby would ever come. But, of course, he did, and on his schedule, not ours.

This was the first time we’d had a baby at the new hospital, a giant brick pile that tries to look like a resort hotel in the Disney Grand Californian style, and the surroundings were unfamiliar. We arrived in the late afternoon and were escorted to the labor and delivery suite. It sounds quite luxurious, but all the tubes, cords and machines tend to dampen any spa-like atmosphere. Have you ever read the labels on the many drawers of supplies around a hospital room? The images of torturous pain that come from doing so is hardly comforting – catheters, swabs, lubricants… and those are the nicer things.

My wife is not one to act the role of victim under any circumstance. I can’t think of a single labor that occurred without lipstick and powder perfectly in place, and there’s little to no sound of pain emanating from her. She’s also always doing something until the last minute. She’s read, played handheld Yahtzee or, in this case, worked on some complex needlework until she absolutely has to give in to the fact that she’s really in labor and does, in fact, have to pause to have the baby.

Not for the first time, her stoicism resulted in the lack of proper pain relief. Her doctor, a diminutive man who really does think he knows everything (judging by some of his questions, I am not sure that he even knows that much about pregnancy and childbirth), had been with her through four pregnancies. Yet, in spite of countless office visits and four labors, he still had no idea how to approach my wife. “So, you let me know when you are REALLY in labor, O.K.? You know, there’s the part of labor where you’re kind of like, “I think I’m in labor”, and then there’s the REAL labor.” Yes, she knows, she’s done it before. Despite her assurances that she REALLY was in REAL labor, he didn’t seem to take it too seriously. After a lot of coming in and out of the room and doing nothing of much use, he was finally convinced that it might be time for an epidural. Understand that throughout this whole time, he bopped around the room and the halls in his annoying, peppy, “Isn’t it so fun to have a baby!” way. I’ve always thought he might be better suited to a role in one of those parades at Disneyland, dancing away, waving a colorful flag to the tunes of “High School Musical” or “The Lion King”.

Of course, it was far too late for an epidural. You see, my wife’s lack of screaming, grunting and thrashing often lead people to believe that she’s not really in pain. My own intervention is usually seen as that of an annoying and meddlesome husband.

Moments after the doctor and nurse informed us that we’d be having a baby in about twenty minutes, our little boy exited his mother and entered the world. The doctor was occupied elsewhere and the nurse looking at one of the many monitors around the room. Looking over at the bed, the nurse called, “We have a baby!” It was that fast.

As usual, I followed my routine – unable to speak for about fifteen minutes because I am so choked up. Walking around in a bit of a daze, I followed our little fellow through his check up under the heat lamp and back to my wife, over to the bath and back to my wife again. The usual questions were asked – “So, is this your last one, or are you trying for a baseball team? Ha ha ha…” I am really not prepared to answer either part of this question because, first of all, I am kind of focused on this baby and, secondly, I have no idea how many people comprise a baseball, football or basketball team.

The rest of the hospital stay is a bit of a daze. The night seemed to last forever. I can’t think of a less comfortable place to try to sleep, and I hadn’t just been through labor and delivery. Our night nurse had the personality of a piece of Wonder Bread, but this didn’t stop her from trying to engage in conversation, usually consisting of remarks that had absolutely no response followed by awkward silences. She also let us know that while my wife could have all the narcotics she needed to numb any pain, she wasn’t authorized to give her any kind of non-narcotic pain relievers. I had to sneak in some regular strength, Western Family acetaminophen – what a rebel.

The baby was another matter entirely. Perfectly healthy, perfectly content, he wouldn’t make a peep. I don’t just mean that he was quiet, I mean that no matter what happened, he would not respond. Poke his feet twenty times? Sleeping peacefully. Change him, take his temperature, toss him up in the air – nothing. I should note that he has since made up for this serenity by crying lustily each time I hold him, but that’s for another time.