Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Eh, I think I'll pass

It's always been a tradition of mine to hit the mall right around New Year's Eve and treat myself to something fabulous, frivolous and deeply discounted. (A tradition of mine, a tradition of yours, a tradition of almost every human being on the planet judging by the mall parking lots most years.)

The combination of gift cards to burn, a store credit or two from an exchange/return and those infamous after-Christmas sales has always been the perfect formula for a decadently guilt-free shopping spree. In years past I've gotten 100% cashmere sweaters at 60% off; a Coach tote for the price of a Nine West; "premium" brand denim for only a little more than I'd generally spend at the Gap.

This year, with a $100 Macy's credit and newspaper coupons for good measure, I couldn't wait to indulge in a new purse, an awesome little dress to wear for New Year's Eve, or maybe some shoes and a watch.

But after spending about an hour in a department store where in years past I've scored some fantastically low-priced loot, I just wanted to go home and take a nap.

And it wasn't for lack of loot. It was kind of like going to an all-you-can-eat buffet...right after you've just eaten a big meal. Nothing looked appealing, for some odd reason. I didn't long for a single object I saw; and whatever did catch my fancy (a cute Coach watch with a pink leather wriststrap) was overpriced.

I don't think I was alone in my anti-shopping sentiments. I eased into a prime parking spot within a stone's throw of the entrance, since the mall was shockingly uncrowded; it certainly wasn't the post-Christmas chaos of years past. It's the end of 2008 and we're all dealing with a chaos of a much deeper sort. The economy sucks; people are losing their jobs left and right. I almost felt un-American to be binging on baubles.

But, I reasoned, somebody's got to get money back into circulation--and I wouldn't be seeing discounts this deep again (Or would I?) So, even though I wasn't especially enthusiastic about it, I bought myself an INC dress...but then ultimately decided it was overpriced, and exchanged it for some DKNY tops, 60% off. And after hanging on to them for about ten minutes, I thought there really wasn't anything special about the DKNY tops, either, and exchanged them for a large Dooney & Burke patent leather gray tote, which was a steal at $139. Now that's what I'm talking about! I left the mall convinced that this purchase ranked right up there with that cashmere sweater from a few years ago that had cost very little cash.

That was before buyer's remorse, coupled with label-whore shame, set in. Once I had it home with me, I wasn't so thrilled with the Dooney & Burke, despite the low price-tag; hell, it could have been free and it wouldn't have been worth it, once I reconsidered it in the harsher light of my closet. It's too big and boxy for my frame, for one thing; for another, I just don't need it. I already have plenty of nice purses, and the gray color was too pale to accessorize with blacks or browns but too dull to go with pastels.

Thankfully I can return it; I'll probably exchange this year's sorry splurge for underwear or luggage. It won't be a happy return, though; going back to the mall isn't something I'm looking forward to. I guess I need to be surrounded by other shoppers eager to lighten their wallets to truly enjoy a sale.

Being practically alone in a deeply discounted store might sound like a shopaholic's fantasy, but until you're actually walking around in half-off Cole Haans, you don't know how you'll feel about it.

Who knew discounts could be such a downer?

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Best Movie I Didn't See

Four tickets to see "Bolt"on Christmas Day: $41 and change (those cheesy 3D glasses apparently give Muvico leverage to ratchet up the price.)

Spending the next hour and a half at first comforting my three year-old, who found the blasting noises and sudden darkness of the theater petrifying, and then playing with her in a deserted shopping mall plaza until Barry and Jacob emerged from the movie an hour and a half later: well, I'd say "priceless" if this were a Mastercard commercial. But I am pretty sure we paid by Visa.

I really did enjoy my evening not at the movies with Rebecca, though. Even the part when she clung to me, whimpering, "I'm scary, Mommy!" (Maybe even especially that part.)

While I shush-shushed in her ear and petted her silky, tangled curls, I realized just how rare it s, these days, that I get to comfort her like that. Sure, when she was a baby, shush-shushing, rocking, patting her back and telling her everything was okay was part of our daily repetoire. (Infancy can indeed me a scary experience; you never know when suddenly your diaper will become wet, or a painful bubble will form in your tiny tummy.)

She's a pretty tough toddler, though,; when she falls and hurts her knee, she will tell me, "Ow! Mommy, I hurt myself!" But when I offer to kiss it and make it better, she usually says, cheerfully, "No thanks!" and goes back to playing.

And Rebecca rarely is scared. This is mainly because Barry roars at and startles at our kids as part of his horsing around routine; they love it and beg him, "Scare me again, Daddy!" His impressions of enraged dinosaurs and lions hungry for a fleshy little arm or leg to nibble on have trained them to enjoy the little flutters of pretend-fear. They were the youngest and least frightened children on the "Pirates of the Caribbean" ride at Disney last year. But, to be fair to Rebecca, this ride didn't show a cute white puppy-dog being zapped by lasers or a little girl's father being kidnapped by terrorist-inspired bad guys.

So this time along with Rebecca--first calming her fears, then cheerfully exploring the closed-for-Christmas Shops at Sheridan Plaza while waiting for "Bolt" to let out--was a pretty special experience.

We did a lot of window shopping; "Look! I see a Mommy!" Rebecca said, pointing at a poster of a bikini-clad woman in the window of a wax salon. "I don't think that's a Mommy, honey," I muttered under my breath. ("Unless she'd had extensive stretch mark removal surgery," I added even more quietly.) And I taught Rebecca how to spell the words "thank you" by letting her point to every letter on a trash can about nine thousand times. "Yes, that's a 'T.' Yes, that's an 'H.' Yes, that's an 'A.' This trash can is very polite."

When the boys finally finished the flick, Rebecca ran over to them and hugged them as if she hadn't seen them in weeks. Jacob was eager to tell us all about the super-powered dog and his funny animal friends. I asked Barry if the movie was any good--meaning, in parent-to-parent language, was it bearable to watch the way "Wall-E" was or was it more like "Horton Hears a Who"? He shrugged and said it wasn't too bad, adding, "Too bad you guys missed it. So what did you do, for all that time while we were in the movies?"

"Nothing," I said, "absolutely nothing. But it was a lot of fun. Sometimes it's fun to do nothing, just us girls."

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Pointy-Heeled Beasts

Paging Dr. Scholls.

I’ve had a lot of luck in my life—an adorable husband, a daughter as cute as a cupcake and a sweetheart for a son—so it’s not uncommon for people to say to me, “A lot of people would love to be in your shoes.”

I know they mean this figuratively, and not literally, but because 99% of the time I am limping around with Band-Aids covering my toes and heels, I rarely can resist replying, “No they wouldn’t!”

The irony is that some of my livelihood in the past four years has come from writing “shoe porn,” by which I mean catalog copy describing shoes for sale, not sexual foot fetish fantasies or anything like that. Although, if you must know…partly why I got the coveted copywriting job at Marmi when I lived in St. Louis was the passionate way I handled the merchandise when I went in for the interview. “Nice. A 2 and ¾ inch heel, richly covered in opulent leather,” I murmured huskily, stroking the stiletto as the shoe designer watched me with his mouth dropped open. “Oooh, look at this plush foot bed! Slip these on and you’ll be sure to spoil your soles in luxury with every step you take!”

Fortunately all this shoe dirty talk distracted the interviewer from noticing my own shoes, which probably were either worn out flip-flops—or very cute heels with bloody Band-Aids peeking out from the sides.

Shoes and I have had a love/hate relationship spanning several decades, beginning in 1987 with my very first pair of pumps (bone-white leather Mary Janes intended to go with my Bat Mitzvah dress, but they gave me so much trouble I ended up dancing barefoot at my reception) and being punctuated most recently with me placing the following ad on the Internet: “FREE TO A GOOD HOME: Bag of Women’s Shoes, Size 8, Very Cute and Only Worn Once or Twice Because They Give Me Blisters.” (Somewhere in South Florida, a woman named Graciela is walking around in my favorite Matisse zebra-patterned Swarovski crystal studded buckle wedges without even so much as a wince. Bitch.)

The problem, according to one of the many podiatrists I’ve sought counsel from, is that I have flat arches and am too big for a size 8 shoe (they give me blisters on my toes) but too small for an 8.5 (chafing at the heel.) I’m only really comfortable in flip flops—even running shoes give me blisters when I wear them for more than, say, an hour-long step aerobics class. But flip flops are bad for your foot for other reasons, and are probably the reason why I have plantar fasciitis (one of my many foot ailments.)

Sore feet and blisters have accompanied every important event of my life. We’ve already talked about what the Mary Janes did to my toes at my Bat Mitzvah… I decided to go for much higher heels (Spanish silk covered stilettos) for my high school prom and ended up needing to ask my date for a piggyback ride from the dance floor to the banquet table. In college, with all that walking to and from class, I learned to carry a box of bandages in my backpack, and by the time I was working full-time, I was very Melanie Griffith in “Working Girl” by wearing flats on the street (I couldn’t quite bring myself to white tennis shoes and socks) and another, cuter pair of shoes once I was stationary at my desk.

Barry has no patience for my sad shoe stories. Knowing my long and sordid history with fashionable footwear, whenever we make plans to go anywhere that might inspire me to go for the pointy-heeled beasts in my closet, he makes me promise to opt for “sensible” shoes instead. Being a good wife—and someone who is adverse to pain—I usually do stick with low-heeled Aerosoles or Naturalizers…only to spend the entire night staring with envy at the other women frolicking about in their Ferragamos; painting the town red in their Tory Burches.

So if you see me at a party scowling at your feet, take it as a compliment. I might look mad, but what that sneer really means is that I think you have great taste in shoes. I am thinking bitterly to myself, “What does she have that I don’t have? How come she gets to look a few inches taller—and thinner—thanks to her stacked wedge espadrilles, while I have to wear Library Lady loafers instead?”

Now I know what you’re going to tell me. I shouldn’t go around envying other women, when I have a lot going for me—the adorable husband, cupcake daughter, sweetheart son, etc. etc.

“A lot of people,” I know you’re going to say, “would love to be in your shoes”

Well, if they really want to be in my shoes, they are welcome to them. Whatever Graciela’s left behind—it’s all theirs.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Christmas is a wonderful holiday. Too bad we don't celebrate it.

I think Hanukkah needs a new marketing campaign.

When you tell your kids they are getting eight presents--from you and their father alone, not to mention whatever gift-wrapped goodies the grandparents, aunts and uncles send--and they still pine for twinkle lights and Santa's lap, you know whoever's in charge of promoting our second-fiddle Jewish holiday needs to get reassigned to a smaller, less important campaign. (Like Pesach, perhaps, or Sukkot.) We need to put some Mad Men ad men in charge.

I know part of the problem is the material they're working with. There's just no way Hanukkah can compete with the merriment and beauty of Christmas. They have jolly Saint Nick and the reindeer. We, on the other hand, have no mascot at all. They have the miracle of the baby Jesus...we have the miracle of candles that will burn for eight straight nights, ladies and gentleman, without needing to be relit! (So powerful you won't waste matches. This exclusive TV offer available in three installments of $79.99; act now and we'll throw in this handy dandy wrench for free!) They have soft, buttery cookies and creamy, spiked drinks. We have oily oversized Tater Tots and flat chocolate gelt coins. It's an uphill battle for even the most gifted, creative marketing team, for certain.

Don't get me wrong--Hanukkah's image has definitely been shined up a bit since I was a kid. My version of Hanukkah, circa 1986, involved trudging behind my parents in my moon boots through the King of Prussia Mall on a December weekend, gazing with a mixture of cynicsm and envy at the velvet bows draped from the ceilings to the escalators; green and gold and silver and red glittery confections hanging like dangle-earrings from a towering, lush green Christmas tree.

Hanukkah shopping was a one-day, one-gift-per-recipient endeavor for us, and it wasn't particularly different from any other weekend trip to the mall, which we visited at least twice a month. It began with my dad paying his respects to Brooks Brothers, emerging with a new tie (he'd be sure to comment that all the other ones on display were overpriced and sold under a no-name label to Marshall's and TJ Maxx.) My mom was less into the whole ritual, but usually would end up with some new (boring) household good from the Macy's Cellar. Then it would be our turn. "Oh, by the way, Hanukkah is next week," they might mention in passing. "What do you want?"

Another Barbie for me, another Transformer for my brother Casey. Freshly crinkling in a plastic bag from KB Toys, it was all ours. Happy Hanukkah.

Now I don't mean to cry poor little me. Let me just make it clear--again--that this was how we spent nearly every weekend, whether it was December 24 or October 24 or February 12 or April 3. So I had dozens of Barbie dolls, and Casey had dozens of Transformers; my mother's linen closet was our very own Linens 'n Things, and my father, twenty or so years later, actually had an entire closet built to support his tie collection, which currently numbers in the thousands. No one was lacking for material goods in my family.

And neither are my children. Jacob and Rebecca receive at least one Star-of-David-paper-wrapped surprise on each night of the Festival of Lights. This year, by the glow of the menorah candles, they will be raking in baby dolls and puzzles and books and a scooter and a tricycle and a guitar and every single Disney Princess toy ever made. (Unlike my parents, Barry and I don't buy them toys at the mall every weekend, so we have a lot of territory to make up.)

As much as this sounds like a materialistic orgasm of consumerism, it won't just be about the ample piles of presents. We've also tried to bring more ritual and joy to Hanukkah, by saying the Hebrew prayers as we light the menorah, cooking all the traditional oily foods and explaining their symbolic significance, having Hanukkah parties, attending candle lighting ceremonies and partaking in festive games of competitive dreidel spinning and Hanukkah bingo.

Despite this, my kids still gaze wistfully at the four-foot-high candy canes impaled into our neighbor's front lawn as if they could eat them up whole, reminding me of how I used to stare at the mall ornaments. Jacob said to me recently, "I wish we could have Christmas because if you have Christmas you get Santa Claus and reindeer and a big Christmas tree."

I reminded him then that while all of his friends in kindergarten would have just one day of opening presents, he'd be opening gifts for more than a week; I talked up the potato latkes, gelt, the lighting of the candles, how super-cool and strong the Macabees were to win their battle and keep our ancestors alive. "They won!" I said to him excitedly. "They were so strong and so smart! And God kept the candles burning for more than a week. It was a miracle."

"How long to candles usually stay lit?"

"Maybe a few hours, at the most! Eight days is a super-long time."


Jacob then asked me if we weren't "allowed" to have a Santa Claus. I struggled for how to reply. I remembered having a similar discussion with my very cynical parents when I was in kindergarten. They'd mocked my Christian school friends for believing in a "fat man in a silly red suit" who didn't exist; I would watch made-for-television movies where Santa turned out to be real after all, and wonder if they'd been wrong to write him off as a fraud.

"You can sit on Santa's lap and watch movies and eat Christmas cookies," I conceded to my son. "But it's not our holiday. We can have fun, but we have our own traditions."

"Can we have a Christmas tree?" Jacob asked.

"No, because Christmas isn't our holiday. We have a menorah."


"Did I mention that you get to open at least one present every single night?"

"Yes, Mommy."

What I couldn't explain to Jacob, what I guess I am still coming to terms with myself, is sometimes, you can't compete. And you shouldn't try to. Being Jewish isn't about beating our Christian friends at the game of holiday cheer. We're defined by what we are as a people more than we're defined by the fact that we're "other;" that we're not Christian. And this is why I'm not a big fan of the Hanukkah bush (a sickly-thin pale white synthetic plant cowering in the presence of those great piney beasts) or asking Barry to pretend he's Hanukkah Harry.

If anything, our stories of latkes instead of cookies--and, in the spring, matzoh meal cookies instead of chocolate bunnies--are partially what binds us Members of the Tribe close together. When you're a Jew and you meet another Jew at a wedding or on a cruise or an airport, after you get done with "Jewish geography" ("so your second cousin's boyfriend went to summer camp with my best friend's neighbor's orthodontist's daughter? What a small world!") these tales of having our noses pressed against the window pane of the Christian celebrations are what often begin new friendships. It's what begins them, but from there, it's not what defines them; our closeness as a community, how girlfriends can love each other like sisters and guy friends can bond together like brothers is the gooey good stuff that we cynics might not admit in glittery Hallmark cards, but treasure deeply.

I can't really explain all this to Jacob right now. But I have faith that one day, he'll make some great friends who will smile wistfully at his stories of how his mom explained to him when he was a kid that, "Christmas is a wonderful holiday. Too bad we don't celebrate it." They'll surely relate, and have some war stories of their own.

Unless, of course, some marketing genius finds a better way to spin Hanukkah. Which I wouldn't rule out. With so many Jews in the advertising industry, there may be hope for Hanukkah Harry yet.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Work it, Baby

Happy Work-a-versary to me.

Exactly one year ago today, I pushed past the jeans and yoga pants in my closet for the first time in almost five years—and instead zipped myself up into something tailored and peppy; went for the hair dryer instead of the ponytail holder; chose kitten-heel mary janes instead of flip flops. Then I tearfully bid goodbye to my small, bewildered children, tossed my cap into the air and began singing the Mary Tyler Moore Show theme song, “You're gonna make it after all…”

Okay, the last part was in jest, but the rest of it is all true, especially the part about the tearful goodbyes. I was the one crying, by the way. They were fine. While I was weeping as I careened southward down I-75, the first of my many daily laps to Doral, they went off to preschool as usual.

Now, at 3 p.m., when a pretty 20 year-old babysitter pulled up into carpool line to collect them instead of their mommy, tears did ensue—which many mothers at the school and teachers were sure to report to me (just dig that knife in a little deeper, thank you very much). And in an office twenty-five miles away, exactly as the clock struck three, I had to wobble into the ladies room (after years of being in flat shoes all day, the kitten-heels were giving me blisters) and have another good cry myself.

The blisters, of course, weren’t what caused this second bout of tears…I was crying because I was worried that by returning to the working world, I was ruining their lives forever.

My own mother worked for much of my childhood and I turned out fine (mmm…okay, a little neurotic, but overall fine), so it is a little surprising that I had this concern. If anything, I should have known firsthand that a happy mom equals a happy family—we were all much happier when she was working, while her unhappiness seemed to correspond in direct proportion to her yield of home baked, burned cookies. (My ineptitude in the kitchen is genetic.)

But while my mother’s choices somewhat influenced my own choices as an adult, there was a woman whose opinions had a much more dramatic impact during my formative years: Dr. Laura Schlessinger.

It might be surprising to see Dr. Laura’s name in my blog. She’s of the uber-conservative, anti-abortion, if-the-husband-cheats-it’s-the-wife’s-fault-for-not-putting-out-when-she’s-exhausted ilk. And I am, well, the opposite of that.

Whatever Dr. Laura’s offenses might be, however, listening to her is still a lot more interesting than the FM channels on the radio—and during my early 20s, when I was a graduate student in Washington, D.C., the Traffic Capital of the U.S. as much as it is the Capitol—I spent a lot of time, bored, in the car, waiting twenty minutes to move twenty inches on Connecticut Avenue.

The first time I flipped the channel to Dr. Laura, she was verbally beating the crap out of some woman who had “shacked up” with a “stud” and ten years later was a bit concerned that he hadn’t popped the question yet. Juicy stuff. The calls that followed were equally brimming with drama. Messy divorces, dysfunctional families, unplanned pregnancies, extramarital affairs—it was better than a soap opera! I was hooked.

An hour with Dr. Laura became my new guilty pleasure, not to mention a method for surviving rush-hour commute without swearing or honking at a single Beltway motorist.

I saved my swearing for when Dr. Laura said something I disagreed with—which was about 95% of the time—but that didn’t mean I didn’t look forward to my time with the Church Lady of Talk Radio. What I didn’t realize during these drives, though, was that even though consciously I disagreed with her, subconsciously Dr. Laura’s line of thinking was creeping into my own world view and would eventually impact the choices I made.

On the issue of working mothers, Dr. Laura had no shades of gray. Women shouldn’t work. They should learn to live happily on their husband’s paychecks, even if that meant tremendous financial hardship. Women who worked for reasons of fulfillment, satisfaction, etc. were scum of the earth selfish beings who were scarring their children forever. (Not an exaggeration but as close to a direct quote as I can get ten years after the fact; Dr. Laura doesn’t mince words.)

It’s beyond ironic that the years I spent getting a master’s degree—which increased my job prospects—were the same years I spent learning I should spend my childbearing years jobless.

About four years after I became a Dr. Laura groupie, I was married, employed, and pregnant with my first child. The inevitable question at last arose: whether I'd be returning after my maternity leave. While my job had become increasingly frustrating during my pregnancy—a combination of hormones and a boss who told me at one point I needed “writing lessons”—I am pretty sure it was the shrill voice in the back of my head insisting that working was wrong that ultimately motivated me to become a stay-at-home-mom.

Now, I know many women love staying at home with their children, and view it as a tremendous honor and privilege to spend every hour of every day with their offspring. But I am not one of those women.

The problem with staying at home for me was that after about six months of enjoying not having anywhere to be but playgroup or the pediatrician’s, I was bored. Bored out of my skull. When I worked, I was used to being paged over the intercom when I was needed; among the nonworking, the only “paging” I responded to was, “wahhh!” It's not that I didn't love those special months with Jacob...it's just that I needed more than that. And, I was concerned that the consistency of my brain was turning into the consistency of the stuff in Jacob's Gerber jars.

That being said, something just didn’t feel right about putting my kids in daycare—probably all those years of Dr. Laura berating women who had “strangers raise their children.” So over the next four years, I straddled the fence by freelancing—at first one project at a time, then two…eventually, close to 40 hours a week. By the time Jacob was four and my baby, Rebecca, was two, I was staying up till midnight to get projects done. And yet, I was a “stay at home mom” (or as the doctor would put it, "I am my kid's mom") because I did literally stay home.

I think this is when I realized that with no benefits, job security or adult interaction beyond teleconferencing calls with my kids clamoring for my attention in the background, staying home wasn’t such a great deal. Barry, who had never listened to Dr. Laura before and knew I'd be happier in a full-time gig, forcefully agreed. And so I began the interview process…and voila! Within a few months, I was back in the game. And aside for the tearful first weeks, I haven’t looked back since.

So how did my kids fare over the last 365 days? Would you be surprised to learn that they are absolutely fine?? Jacob is as bonded to me as he was before and likes the little freebies I occasionally bring home from work (he has a growing collection of Met Life Snoopy dolls our HR department is regularly handing out). I can’t really see any difference in Rebecca’s behavior at all—and I am glad that she two working parents as role models. I’ve got two happy, well-adjusted kids, a resume resumed, more income and a better wardrobe. Aside from the seven pounds I’ve gained from replacing my 10 a.m. spin classes with 10 a.m. marketing meetings, it’s been pretty much a win-win situation.

One new unpleasant thing I do have to deal with now that I am a working mother is the commute. It's about 25-30 minutes each way. But thanks to the advent of Air America, I no longer spend my down time in the car being brainwashed by Dr. Laura.

Thank goodness for the Stephanie Miller Show. These days, I’m “Walking on Sunshine” indeed.

Friday, December 5, 2008

French Roast

Most kids want to be doctors or lawyers or movie stars when they grow up. I wanted to be a 1950s-era French ingénue. An unfortunate aspiration for three reasons:

1. I was born 20 years after the 1950s had passed
2. There’s a demand for doctors and lawyers. Not so much for French ingénues. Even in a strong economy.
3. I’m not French. Je suis americane avec un mal accent francaise. (I am an American with a bad French accent. At least, that’s what I think I just wrote. I was never very good at French.)

But I tried. Oh did I try. As a teenager, I walked around in flirty full-skirted flouncy dresses and white high heeled shoes, carrying a weathered notebook which I looked up from with theatrically wide, heavily-mascaraed-yet-innocent eyes, as if to say, je ne sais quoi. I eventually found within the city limits of Philadelphia one single authentically French café, Caribou, owned by one authentically French café owner who made my heart go ron-ron-ron.

And I moved in there. More or less.

When I was not in school or sleeping, I could be found seated upstairs in the dimly lit café, below a Toulouse Lautrec print, across the table from my best friend Kelly, who also was a 1950s-era French ingénue type (but she had a much better accent), hoping to get noticed by the French café owner. (In case you are wondering, he did not in fact notice me. Even with my white shoes and flouncy skirts. Even when I spoke to him in stilted English, like the subtitles on a French film. Le batard.)

Of course to pay the rent on my tiny table, I was expected (I assumed) to order lots of coffee, which I did. Espresso, cappuccino, café au lait and iced coffee. But I didn’t really like coffee, so I didn’t drink very much of it.

But then I grew older, began college, and faced with no other options, I had to come to terms with the fact that I was an American writer and not une fille francaise. It was a bittersweet departure, but the one silver lining was no one expected me to drink coffee any longer. No more dark, bitter stuff lightened with heavy cream (it hadn’t seemed very French to request skim milk or Land O Lakes Fat Free Half and Half) to choke down as I read expensive imported translations of Aimez Vous Brahms and Rose Mellie Rose. I joined the college newspaper and switched to Diet Coke as my caffeine source—and haven’t looked back since.

Until recently, that is. Let's fast-forward a few decades. I’m now so far beyond my fake-French ingénue days that I can remember them tenderly, without even slightly cringing. I actually think to myself, “Aww, wasn’t I a cute little pretentious thing!” instead of blushing at the thought of myself saying to the French café owner, “I want you to, how you say it, age me”—that’s how long ago all this was. Now I have two very American kids, am married to a very American doctor, and I work as a writer in the marketing department of a company that, while it is based in Madrid and Nice, has not employed me for the purpose of looking fetching while pretending to write poetry at a café table (if there is staff charged with that responsibility, they probably work out of the French headquarters.) And for the past 15+ years, I’ve had Diet Coke by the gallons, but coffee sparingly.

Then a few months ago, my department decided to purchase a Keurig. If you’ve never experienced coffee from a Keurig before, even if you are not a coffee drinker, it might be fair to say you are missing one of life’s greatest pleasures. Next time you're getting your oil changed or are waiting to get extensions put in at your favorite salon, please give it a try. It's easy. You choose your favorite flavor (I like butter toffee, Magie Noire and Fall Harvest), pop in the K-cup, and within moments you have a steaming, perfectly prepared cup of coffee so divine and so that you’ll be crying out spontaneously, “Mon Dieu! Oooh la la! C’est si bon!” in ecstasy. You may not know what “Mon Dieu! Oooh la la! C’est si bon!” means, perhaps you usually speak Spanish when you’re not speaking English. It doesn’t matter; this coffee is so exquisite that just drinking a cup makes you a little bit French.

So of course I had to get myself my own Keurig, to enjoy Magie Noire from the privacy of my home, where my kids and husband, who are used to me being a bit eccentric, aren’t nearly as off-put when I begin shouting out expressions of bliss in a foreign language. If only I felt this way about the French café owner’s comparatively crappy coffee—perhaps we would have gotten further than, “Miz, are you reh-dee for ze check?”

Random bit of trivia: did you know Keurig is a Dutch word that means excellence. Dutch. Huh. And the Keurig corporation is American. Still, their brew makes my heart go ron-ron-ron all the same…

Monday, December 1, 2008

On birthdays & birth order

Wishing the happiest of birthdays to my baby Rebecca, who turns three tomorrow. What a difference three years makes. She sings, she dances, she uses the potty, she dresses herself, she tells stories ("Once upon a time there was a baby and a mommy. The end!"). It's hard to believe that just 36 months ago, she was a gooey little blob.

Something else that's hard for me to believe, when I look back at her baby pictures: that her big brother Jacob was younger when she was born than she is now. He was just two and a half at the time, but as soon as Rebecca arrived, he suddenly seemed so grown up.

The moment he stepped into our hospital suite, in fact, I remember being shocked by how large and strong and mature he seemed, as I held my helpless newborn in my arms. Then and there his Pull-Ups seemed less like training diapers and more like Depends; watching him eat French fries and chicken nuggets next to me as I picked at my hospital tray, I became aware of how many teeth he had, compared to the toothless infant I was nursing.

In contrast, Rebecca has always been my baby. She might have been walking and talking months earlier than Jacob did (she is a girl and a second child, after all) but it's hard for me to see her as anything but my littlest one. When her preschool teacher told me that she knew her letters and her numbers, I was surprised. I hadn't even thought to go over this subject with her, since I'd been preoccupied with Jacob's ability to read Green Eggs & Ham cover to cover, not stumbling over a single word. Rebecca and I were still singing "Twinkle Little Star" during our moments alone together--who knew it was time to graduate to phonics?

I'm not sure who got the worse deal, my oldest or my baby. On one hand, sometimes it stinks being the first born. I know this because I'm a first born. New parents tend to overthink everything. Lucky kid #2 gets more laid-back parents who know that if they make a mistake, the kid will survive. Which ironically seems to result in fewer mistakes.

Indeed, there was a level of scrutiny and intensity to my relationship with Jacob that I just haven't had with Rebecca. I read parenting magazines and books for every major decision we made about Jacob's development. How to sleep and potty train, when and what first foods to feed, how to diffuse tantrums.

While I marveled at each and every moment in Jacob's development--I can tell you exactly when he first smiled, his favorite bedtime book and even which of the many Mommy & Me activities we did together he liked the best--with Rebecca, none of this was all that earth-shattering. Which also made our time together so easygoing and fun. Little outings to Publix alone with her were a gift, the way she'd grin at me, gumming on her free cookie, as I loaded items in the checkout lane. (Would I have let Jacob, when he was young enough to still be teething, eat a "real" cookie when he could have had a fruit-juice-sweetened teething biscuit from Whole Foods instead? No way.)

Jacob gets my A-game, but he also gets me at my Type A worst. Rebecca gets the mellower mama, who is also somewhat of a slacker. Poor kids. Lucky kids.

It's hard to believe I could have such different relationships with two children I adore and treasure so deeply and completely.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Pain in the Bundt

Most of the time, I am over the fact that I'm not a domestic diva. I have a history of collapsed soufflés, glue gun misfires and scrapbooking debacles attesting to my status as perpetual home ec reject.

Hey, we can't all be good at everything, right? It really shouldn't bother me that the only kitchen appliance I've mastered is the microwave. I've got a family that loves me despite the fact that I repeatedly misunderstand recipes, which, in my opinion, leave way too much open to interpretation. (Like when it comes to "lightly beating" eggs, don't we all have a different understanding of how much force to use? Your version of "lightly beating" might be my version of "briskly smacking.")

Barry likes to tell people how when we were dating, he came over for dinner one night and found me in the bathtub of my tiny studio apartment, crying, with a bowl of potatoes in my lap and the handmixer plugged in where the hairdryer usually was. (I was 22; I didn't know you had to soften the potatoes by boiling them before trying to blend them, and hard shards of potato had been flying all over the kitchen, so I took the entire operation into the bathtub to control the mess.) I've gotten better (a little) since then, but still, it's not without good reason that Barry begs me not to bake, when I'm "so good" at picking out exactly the right dessert at Publix instead.

But every now and then, I just want to be Rachel Ray. I just want to take the power of the immerser blender into my hands and create something decadent, fattening and perfect. I just want to see the fruits of my labor, in the form of the perfect fruit tart, formed by my very own fingers. (Part of my problem is a cake mix box won't do it for me, so I either am strictly a take-out kind of chick, or I'm attempting exotic pastries from scratch.)

Tonight's the night before Thanksgiving, and I had been hopeful to see once again whether there might be a gourmet goddess lurking within me, despite my track record with recipes for disaster. I'd secured the recipe for a truly decadent Bundt cake that seemed pretty much idiot-proof: eggs, butter, milk, shortening, baking powder, sugar, and five types of extract (vanilla, butter, coconut, rum, lemon.) My coworker had made this for a bake sale recently and it was seriously one of the most simple yet exotic desserts I'd ever tasted, and I wanted to share this find with my family. (I'm not sure if rum and lemon go well with turkey and cranberry sauce, but again, this is not my forte.)

So I bought the extracts (I already owned all of the other ingredients), dusted off the Kitchen-Aid Stand Mixer (which hadn't been used since last Thanksgiving) and thought, "piece of cake." Singing a little ditty ("Mama's little baby likes shortening bread" if you must know), I followed the instructions--this time to the letter of the law.

"Beat five eggs until they are as yellow as butter." I dropped each one in, turned on the mixer, and voila! Yellow-as-butter raw eggs. I went to remove the mixing bowl from the base of my Kitchen-Aid so I could move onto the next step in the recipe...and this is when the rest of my evening went kaput.

The bowl was stuck to the base. As hard as I wriggled, jostled, cajoled and cursed it, I couldn't get it out, and the eggs were in there! With sweat bursting across my forehead, I had a flashback to 12 years ago and remembered the mashed potato/bathtub scene. That was when I had the sinking feeling that this cake was headed for a similar fate. I called in Barry, and after calmly asking me--yet again--if I wouldn't rather pick something up at Publix--he tried to release the bowl, and failed as well.

Then I spent a good half hour on the phone with Kitchen Aid tech support, and employed the following tools, unsuccessfully, in my attempts to free the bowl: Pam spray (to lubricate the bowl), a hot wet towel, changing the surface I was using from the countertop to the floor.

Finally, they told me to get out a hammer, and that worked.

So that obstacle was cleared, the rest of the recipe went smoothly, but I suspected the jammed bowl had been merely Act I of this domestic misadventure. I felt a flash of hope when I took the Bundt pan out of the oven an hour or so later, and saw how perfect and lightly browned my cake was. Jacob and Rebecca smelled the cake and came running into the kitchen to see if they could have a piece, but I just smiled and explained no, this was a Thanksgiving treat.

Act II occurred when it was time for me to free the cake from the Bundt pan, so I could apply the home-made frosting. I must have not greased the pan thoroughly enough (I just used Pam, not butter) because as soon as I turned it over onto the cake plate, it fell apart into big chunks.

I let out a sob as I tried--in vain--to piece the cake back together again. Fragrant from the rum-coconut extracts, buttery and velvety, the harder I pushed them, the more they crumbled.

My little protector, Jacob was by my side instantly, as soon as he saw my distress. "Can I have a piece now?" he asked.

Defeated, I handed him one giant crumb and said, "Sure, why not? The whole thing is ruined now."

Jacob quickly gobbled it, like a squirrel devouring a chestnut, and said, "Mmmm, Mommy, this is delicious! Who cares what it looks like? It tastes great!"

Awww, mama's little baby did like shortening bread! Which instantly cheered me up. What a sweetie. "Do you want a bigger piece?"

"Oooh, yes, Mommy! Thank you!"

I sliced and frosted the least messy remains of the Bundt cake into squares that I will serve tomorrow night. Then I dished out the sloppy, gooey, rummy part for us. We definitely enjoyed it. As far as culinary disasters go, this one was rather exquisite.

Jacob said again, "Thank you, Mommy, for this delicious cake!"

"You're welcome."

"And Mommy," Jacob added, "you should say thank you to me, too."

"Oh? Why?"

"Because I made you feel better when your cake fell apart."

I laughed. "Yes, you sure did. Thank you, Jacob."

Happy Thanksgiving to Jacob. To you, Rebecca and Barry I am indeed very grateful.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Thanksgiving Gothic

Most American children grow up celebrating Thanksgiving in the traditional way: football game on in the background, mothers and grandmothers arguing about how long it takes to cook the Butterball, the kitchen smelling of Crisco. You know, “Over the river and through the woods, to grandmother’s house we go…”

But my Thanksgiving as a kid was more along the lines of “Over the river and through the woods to a strange gothic-themed restaurant with surly serving wenches we go…”

This restaurant, the now-defunct Stokesay Castle in Reading, Pennsylvania, was more about celebrating the reign of Henry VIII than commemorating the first time the Pilgrims and Indians broke bread, but until recently, Tudor-inspired tapestries and parchment menus were my only associations with the great American holiday.

As the story goes, my parents got married on Thanksgiving in 1969 and had their first newlywed dinner at Stokesay, thus beginning a multiple-decades-long tradition of traveling several hours by car to eat pre-sliced turkey at a restaurant complete with its very own dungeon. (If you were restless during dinner, you could go downstairs and play in the dungeon, which had a very realistic looking mannequin stuck in some kind of authentic torturing device straight out of the days of Bloody Mary’s reign. It really was fun.)

Initially we were there to celebrate both Thanksgiving and my parents’ wedding anniversary. But after they divorced 19 years after their first turkey day together—which, if you’d been stuck in the car with them for hours during our increasingly angst-filled yearly treks to Reading from the Philly suburbs, you’d have seen coming—my stepmother and eventually my half-siblings began coming along.

And by that point I am not sure if the travels to Stokesay were even about Thanksgiving anymore…I think it was just the kind of thing that if you do the same thing 19 years in a row, do you really give up on the twentieth year? And if you can do it for 20 years, why stop after 21? The Green family name was quilled into Stokesay’s reservation book until the grand palace closed its heavy doors for the last time in 2006.

Our tradition certainly wasn’t about the food. I’m sure the dining experience was decent enough in the late 60s and early 70s for my parents to decide to make going gothic an annual event, but by the time I was old enough to distinguish good food from bad food, Stokesay’s cuisine registered right up there with Ikea meatballs and my mom’s occasional experiments with cabbage. (The last year I went there, I ordered the lobster instead of the Thanksgiving special because I had come to think of a turkey dinner as a barely palatable entrée—since then, I’ve discovered the real deal is definitely worth replicating November after November.)

Like I do every year since I moved away from Pennsylvania, I will miss my Green roots this Thanksgiving when I break bread in South Florida surrounded by my husband, children and in-laws. Sitting at my dinner table and enjoying my own made-from-scratch cranberry-walnut-mandarin orange sauce, Grandma Betty’s matzoh stuffing and my mother-in-law’s turkey, cooked not a minute too long, I will not be missing Stokesay itself, however.

Although, if the kids fidget halfway through the meal, it sure would be nice to send them to the dungeon to play, at least until the dessert arrives.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

I Can't Believe It's Not Better...

…for you to consume I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter fat-free spray, the way water, fruit and other things consumed in high volume are good for you.

And, I can’t believe the high volume of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter I actually consume.

I can’t believe it…and yet I can’t stop it.

My name is Jorie, I am an ICBINB-aholic.

This, in fact, is my most unique distinguishing trait. Attempting to describe me, you could refer to me as, “the girl with the dark hair,” but there are lots of girls with dark hair; you could refer to me as, “the mom with two kids” but there are lots of moms with two kids. Say, “the one who puts I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter Spray on her oatmeal, cous cous, saltines, pumpkin pie filling and apples” and yep, anyone who knows me will know who you’re talking about.

Why do I ingest so much of it, I’m often asked. I don’t know why…I just know I can’t stop. I gave up alcohol and caffeine during my pregnancies, but my kids probably have yellow liquid soybean oil coursing through their veins.

Another question I hear a lot, especially among the calorie-conscious: Do I really think it’s “fat free” when I go through one bottle a week? Nope, along with the rest of you scale stalkers, I’ve seen the post on HungryGirl.com claiming that one bottle of ICBINB has about 900 calories.

I’d love to be skinny—seriously, I’m like Bridget Jones on steroids when it comes to yo-yo dieting. But while I can give up carbs, Alfredo sauce and mayonnaise, I can’t deprive myself of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter. (Which is why I can believe I’m not thinner.)

It’s not just the taste: vaguely salty, somewhat buttery, but not in the rich, filling way real butter is buttery.

It’s certainly not the aftertaste: pure chemicals.

It’s the sound. Spritz-spritz.

And it's the history. I’ve been spritz-spritzing for years, after all, since it came out in the peak of the lowfat madness of the 1990s. This sound is actually what my husband has awoken to for more than seven years now, as I’ve found I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter to be quite a tasty addition to a plain bowl of Quaker Oats, Farina, wheat toast or even eggs. If I didn’t spritz-spritz it, he’d probably oversleep, so much is it a part of our daily routines.

One day, I’ll do it. I’ll kick the habit once and for all. I’ll give up on yellow chemicals and start eating my food naked.

But it’s a bit early in the year for New Year’s Resolutions. I can’t get through Thanksgiving without my ICBINB spray. So until then…


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

"I'm not a giant, Mommy."

I truly savored my kids' baby days. Those squishy legs and arms, softly swaddled in Dreft-scented rompers. The way they'd sleep with their little tushies raised in the air, legs tucked under, and wake up from naps with their fine downy curls damp from sweat.

(Okay, I'd better cut it out, before I find myself in the throes of my third bout with baby fever; right now, at least, we really like our guest room strictly as a room for guests.)

As Jacob and Rebecca head further and further away from babyhood, the one thing that will occasionally inspire me to look away from their baby pictures is their fresh, surprising and often hilarious take on the world. Aside from a few isolated incidents (get me drunk and one day I will tell you about how the Culligan Man found my daughter, shortly after she learned how to walk, waddling down our street alone) surely they weren't so funny before they could talk like little grown-ups.

A few tidbits from Jacob, who at age 5 (and a half! he'd be quick to remind me), tackles some pretty weighty topics ranging from competitive birthdays to love to morality:

On why he's excited for Rebecca's upcoming birthday, "After Rebecca's birthday, I won't be the third one in line to have a birthday next! I'll be in second place!" The poor kid's been waiting since April 23 (his birthday is the 22nd) to be first in line again for a birthday.

When asked what he ate for lunch: "Bad news. I didn't eat my lunch because it was a ham sandwich."

The school cafeteria's offerings often get Jacob talking. On his first day of school what he wanted to talk about most--much more exciting than the new school, new teacher, new friends or even his new Superman backpack--was the experience of buying his first school lunch: "Mommy, it was like a giant chicken finger, but it was a big circle, and it was in between two pieces of two big round pieces of bread. It was called a chicken patty sandwich, and I loved it!"

He doesn't just care about his own food--he wants to make sure we're all happy with what we eat. We were just at an ice cream parlor and I ordered the fat free coffee frozen yogurt. Jacob asked me, "Is that your favorite kind of ice cream, Mommy?" Looking longingly at his full-fat rocky road, I admitted, "Not really." He said, "But you're a mommy and mommies LOVE coffee! Try it again, I know you will love it."

On good vs. evil: "Who is worse, Haman, King Pharoah or King George? I know Haman wanted to kill all the Jews, but King George made everyone pay taxes."

On the rule preventing siblings from marrying: "But why can't I marry Rebecca? I don't love any other kid as much as I love her. I will miss her if I have to marry someone else."

On why he wanted Obama to be the next President of the United States, "He's probably better at sports than McCain, because McCain looks like he's really old. Plus, he's on the blue team and blue is my favorite color."

Rebecca, meanwhile, is quite a chatterbox at age 3.

She's very concerned about emotions these days. She always asks me, "Mommy, you happy?" If I answer in a less than emotional voice, "yes," she corrects me: "No, say yessssssssssss!"

I was squinting over the New Yorker recently (I know, it might be time for reading glasses) and Rebecca asked me, "Why are you a little bit mad at your book?"

It just cracks me up to see the quirky way she strings words together. Like when I told her to wash her hands after using the bathroom, and there was no stepstool in front of the sink: "I'm not a giant, Mommy."

Trying to explain that the episode of"Little Einsteins" she was watching had recently ended: "Little Einsteins is only a little bit over."

Staring at her fingers: "This one's the Mommy finger," pointing to her middle finger, "and this one's the baby" (the pinkie.) [So next time you flip someone the bird, what you're really saying, according to my daughter, is 'your mama.']

* * *

Now, it's not always "Kids Say the Dardnest Things" in our house. Occasionally it's "Oh Where Did Mommy Leave the Duct Tape" like when Jacob asked me, "Mommy, do you have the biggest tushy in our whole family?" Or Rebecca, in a public restroom with me, "You a big girl, too, Mommy! You not wear Pull-Ups either, you have big girl panties like me!"

But then there are other moments, when I'm lying in bed with Rebecca, reading her her favorite bedtime book (the exceedingly politically correct "No Hitting" by Karen Katz, which teaches children to scribble on their art pads instead of writing on their big brother's homework and to lick a fruit pop when they have the urge to scornfully stick out their tongues at their parents).

Petting my arm like she's petting a dog, she says softly, "I like you, Mommy." Which, when she says it, is seriously more moving than the most profusely passionate declarations of love. Jacob turns me to mush as well when he says, "Chocolate pudding!? Wow, you really ARE the best mommy in the world! And, I really like your nail polish."

I guess that's payback for all those sleepless nights and diaper blow outs. Which, as much as I'd love to hop into a time machine once again hold my kids when they were squishy-limbed infants, I can't say I miss all that much.