Friday, March 28, 2008

Community Theater

As I pull up to my grocery store I see Brenda, the deli clerk, smoking on the loading dock. This does not bode well for my prospects of getting my favorite sliced turkey today. Even if I start in produce and work my way around to the deli, chances are she’ll still be puffing away by the time I’m ready to check out. When I tell people in my town I go to this particular grocery store, they wonder why I put up with the long lines, surly workers, and half-empty shelves. We live in the comfort and plenty of suburbia, but occasionally my store’s shelves look more like those in a communist country when I can find neither milk nor bread.

There are many reasons I shop there.

The biggest reason is familiarity. Very little ever changes, so I know where everything is. A couple of years ago they moved the ricotta, but other than that, it seems to be the same place it was when I was a kid. I like how the store isn’t so big that I feel I’ve had a workout going from the fruit to the cereal. I have fond memories of my mom handing me a box of Fiddle Faddle, still found on the same shelf today, to eat while we shopped. We would sheepishly hand over the half-eaten box to the clerk when it was time to check out. I’m too much of a control freak to ply my kids with the same sugary snacks, but I love that memory and those conjured up by the full-sized Snickers bars still stacked near the register.

They checkers stay the same, too. There is Mr. Ed, a gentle man who has known me since I was a kid. I remember coming into the store after having been out of state for grad school and Mr. Ed asked after my mother. I had to tell him she died. We both felt pretty awkward. I found myself going to the super-store down the street for a couple of months, looking for some anonymity, but I was drawn back to Mr. Ed and my store.

He is the same clerk I talk high school basketball with, and the one who gently accepted my 4 year old’s apology when Jake stole a pack of gum. We were halfway home when I saw Jake holding it, and back to the store we went. A quick prayer of repentance in the parking lot, then in we went to seek out Mr. Ed. I have no recollection of stealing anything from the store when I was little, but I like the idea that my own mother would have dragged me back in to Mr. Ed, too.

Another clerk, Frank, is about my age. We went to rival high schools. He always thought he might like to go back to school to become a math teacher, and he wonders when I’ll go back to teaching. We talk about that sometimes. He continues to be a checker, and I show few signs of returning to my old job.

Raoul, in Dairy, has what my neighbor refers to as “bedroom eyes.” At first I thought he was coming on to me when he gazed at me with those smoldering looks, but I may have been flattering myself as more times than not I go in the store in my comfy pants, an inch of gray, and pink clog slippers. I enjoy listening as Raoul talks about the trials of being a single father to teenaged daughters. I like how our conversation goes beyond the weather or the price of milk.

My friends’ biggest complaint is the slow service and the length of the lines. I have never seen more than 3 of the 10 check stands open. I don’t mind. This wait time lets me read Us Weekly and other magazines I’d never buy. If I choose the right line, I can get a good dose of celebrity fluff by the time my cart reaches the check stand. This is also a good chance to listen to the bickering and banter of the staff. Managers come and go here, but the checkers stay and get on each other’s nerves.

I used to tell myself that my store, although smaller and dumpier than the competition, had lower prices, but my friend David says it’s not so. He and his wife did a comparison between the two stores in town, and mine came up the price loser. Maybe it’s that LOSER image that draws me to it anyway.

When we had a hurricane about 4 years ago, many homes and businesses lost power for days. I drove down the main street in our town and saw that my store had no power, but the super-store was gleaming and fully operational. I stopped in my store to buy something, anything, to show my support. Canned corn in hand, I walked past row upon row of open freezers, filled with thawing pizzas and Lean Cuisines that would eventually be tossed in the trash. That sealed it for me. Maybe my store should have had a better plan, a back-up generator for instance, but what underdog would?

I’m just so loyal. I want my store to succeed, and I’m willing to go without turkey if need be. Perhaps demanding a higher level of service would help it succeed, but I’ve never been much into tough love. Besides, I ask myself, should we always be able to get what we want?

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Love Letters

During each of my moves, a few boxes of letters have moved with me. They are all special to me, but one box stands out. It is a box of love letters. I am a saver, so some of these date back to high school when boys finally started to notice me (quite a few years after I first noticed them). Others are from college and beyond. The letters are worn out from being read, studied, and examined to the nth degree. Through these letters I learned of the writer’s character, how he felt about me, and his plans for us. I learned his strengths, weaknesses, and his values.

I remember walking to my mailbox with my breath held, hoping for a glimpse of familiar handwriting (maybe now it’s the feeling we get when we check our in-box for emails). As I look back over these letters, I laugh at the jokes and sigh over young romance. I remember studying each word, each nuance, each punctuation mark—analyzing the messages within. The contents filled me with joy and excitement, or, as relationships soured, with sadness and feelings of inadequacy. I cringe when I think of how I hurt the writers, or how they hurt me. I remember how sometimes we tried to make a relationship when there was no substance at all. Each one of these relationships held a degree of disappointment or disillusionment the more and more I got to know the person.

You see, even the letters from the man I would marry could not satisfy all the longings of my heart or explain why I am in this world. I have come to understand, as much as I enjoy these letters, there is only one love letter that cannot disappoint me. It is filled with stories of the past and plans for the future. It tells of ultimate sacrifice in the name of love. Its author is infallible and by His very nature cannot let me down. This love letter is to you and to me. It is God’s word in the Bible. I sometimes forget about this love letter and look elsewhere for my hope, leaving it unopened on my bedside table like a glorified coaster, and during those times I know I miss out.

Jeremiah 29:1

“For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.”

Happy Easter!

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Monday, March 17, 2008

Fruit of My Loins

I think God gives us an extra dose of tolerance for our kids so we won’t kill them before they reach adulthood. It also helps us deal with their myriad bodily functions without batting an eye. Back in the working world I was periodically handed a paycheck, but as a mom I’m more likely to be handed a booger or a chewed-up wad of gum. Not only am I accustomed to my kids’ bodily functions, I am also completely attuned to their fragile little psyches. I am, however, woefully under-equipped with the same tolerance or sympathy for other people’s kids. Before I go further, let me assure you that I am not, nor do I ever intend to be, a preschool teacher. I hope that eases your mind when you hear what a jerk I am.

I think back to volunteering in the church nursery. I dreaded being the one to smell a poop. The one who smelled it ended up changing it. I think my co-volunteers had very poor senses of smell, or a greater tolerance for letting kids run around (and sit!) in their poop, because I ended up changing a lot of diapers. Changing my own kids didn’t so much as provoke a gag reflex, but when it came time to change someone else’s kid, I was on the verge of losing it. I would start to sweat and have a vomit-related incident in my mouth. Tiny babies were fine, but when it was a 3 + year old with no potty training on the horizon and jeans that looked big enough to fit me-- big ugh. The same tolerance that allows me to pluck boogers out of my kids’ noses without a second thought, was absent last week as I wiped a kid’s vomit off of the cafeteria floor during lunch duty.

This inequality extends to kids’ behavior, too. While I can endlessly justify my own kids’ behavior, knowing the full back-story (he’s really tired, she didn’t eat much today), I am far less tolerant of others. I remember picking my son up from 4 year old preschool and having his little classmate give me the full run-down of his day through the fence: “Mrs. See, Jake had trouble listening again today.” I was miserable that my child had a miserable day, but I had to fight the urge to make a childish retort or send the little reporter flying over the gate.

Am I the only one who has found herself being snippy, short, self-righteous, preachy and heavy-handed with other people’s kids? Play-dates were often miserable because “the other mom” always seemed to be looking away when her kids clocked, clobbered or grabbed mine. On occasion, I found myself acting more like a 3 year old than a 35 year old as I glared and grumped my way through certain play-dates from hell.

I thought I was the only one with this mama-bear defensiveness until I noticed that during my sister’s phone calls she spent an inordinate amount of time griping about her neighbor’s 4 year old girl. This little girl was just enough older than my sister’s own kids to be deemed an unsavory influence. I never quite got what the problem was— using bad language, or perhaps wasting the last juice box by taking only one sip— but it was enough to make my sister happy when the offender moved away. The truth is, we love our kids best, and God made us this way.

Last week my son and his friend were playing games on my computer, yes this very computer, while I cooked dinner. I walked by and saw a disturbing sight. The playmate was fondling himself—hands down pants in zero underwear glory—then typing on my keyboard! I thought I might barf right there. You should have seen me with the Clorox wipes after I sent him home. When I told my husband, he said, “That’s why I don’t let the kids use my computer.” Thanks. Now if that had been my own son doing the down the pants exploration perhaps I wouldn’t have been so grossed out. Never mind, it’s just plain icky.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Backseat Chatter

Today I thought I'd share some of the exchanges I've heard in the minivan. I can't wait to get a new car, but we sure have had some interesting times in there these past 9 years.

Backseat Chatter:

Molly (age 4):

Santa Claus isn’t real.

Jake (age 6):

Duh. I’ve known that for a long time!

Molly (age 4):

Yeah. It’s your mom and dad who put on the red suit and come down the chimney.

Jake (age 6):

(Hand to forehead) Aargh.

Backseat Chatter:

Molly (age 5):

They can’t have a baby. They aren’t married.

Jake (age 7):

Yes they can! It happens. It happened to Aunt Marie. She got too close to a man and these microscopic creatures went from his body into hers. That’s how she got Sean.

Backseat Chatter:

Molly (age 6):
Mom, can we get a kitten?

Mom (age 38):
We’ll see.

Jake (age 8):
Darn. “We’ll see” means NO. “I’ll think about” it means YES.

Molly (age 6)
You’re right. That’s always the way it is.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

I think my family got our dog at a really good time in our lives. I know there are many exceptions to what I’m about to say, so I don’t want anyone to get mad at me, but have you noticed the plight facing dogs owned by young couples with no kids? Life is rosy for them, but they are living on borrowed time. The first few years, they sleep in bed with their owners, play unlimited games of fetch, and grace the yearly Christmas card photo. A personalized doggy ornament hangs on the tree, and vacations are scheduled around the question, “do they take dogs?” These dogs are the prime objects of affection of their owners as the owners set up house and learn how to operate as a family. In some instances, they are the first “grand-dog” as well, and receive gifts, dog sitting, and love from extended family.

Things seem to go along swimmingly until baby makes three, or I guess four. Soon the sweet, hairy 4-legged member of the family plummets a few notches in everyone’s esteem. Doggy habits once considered endearing, are now vile, and potentially harmful to “the baby.”

New parents are strapped for sleep, energy, and cash. They are doing all they can to sustain the life of the new baby, and they are often stretched too thin to extend much grace to their furry friends. I remember those crazy days of early parenthood, feeling so clueless about parenting and life, and how one minor glitch felt as if the whole day was ruined. Once considered the baby of the house, a dog may find himself viewed as nothing more than a hairy, flatulent beast trying to upset whatever delicate balance of a routine the new parents have managed to establish.

By waiting until our kids were older to get a dog, we managed to avoid this all-too-frequent dance of displacement. I remember wondering when I was pregnant with my second child, who in comparison to my first was so “unknown,” whether I’d have enough love to give her. I loved my son so much, it was hard to imagine being able to love another. Of course, God enlarges our hearts enabling us to love all our children immensely. The same is not necessarily true for pets.

By waiting until our kids were desperate for a dog, we got to look good by making their little dreams come true. Having them froth at the mouth for a dog for a few years helped soften the edges on the little ways their lives were disrupted when she arrived on the scene. Also, with the kids gone at school all day, my nest was feeling a little empty. Shadow helped give more structure to my increasingly rudderless days.

As the kids have gotten older, their issues have become more complicated. Feeling left out, being bullied, and asking big questions about God made Shadow’s more straightforward issues of eating, pooping, sleeping, and peeing on the rug seem almost refreshing. My husband bonded with Shadow first and most strongly. With a new company to help get off the ground, an eight year old who says he’s the worst baseball player on the team, and a six year old taken to dancing and dressing like a “rock star,” life had become a little confusing for him.

With Shadow the dog, there are no surprises. You open the door, she jumps on you. You put on your sneakers, she heads for her leash. You leave it on the counter, she eats it. She’s open, accessible, no mystery at all. She’ll never reject the opportunity to throw the ball with dad just because a particularly compelling episode of Sponge Bob is on.

To all those dogs displaced by babies, I say this too shall pass. The babies will get older and sturdier. They will climb on your back and fall in love with you. Their toddler friends will stop screaming in fear, causing you to spend play-dates locked in the laundry room. And one day, not long from now, when your family is moving furniture, or going through holiday stuff, they will find that old personalized ornament with your name on it, perhaps a little chipped and dusty, and hang it back on the tree.

Shadow, if we ever decide to have another baby, I apologize in advance.

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Friday, March 7, 2008

Inconspicuous Consumption

The president thinks if he sends us all a check for $500 we’ll go on shopping sprees with our “free money,” thereby stimulating the economy. I thought this was taking an overly simplistic view of the problem, and was determined to put our $500 in savings. I didn’t want to feel manipulated into spending money. I wanted to be slightly mysterious and defy prediction.

I was feeling pretty virtuous about this plan—a paragon of self-control—until I thought a little more about my shopping habits. Maybe I wasn’t running out to Best Buy to get a flat panel TV, something my husband would love dearly, but I do have some wasteful habits.

When I go grocery shopping, I sometimes buy items I already have. In come the cans of whatever, to be placed on the pantry shelf in front of the previous cans of whatever that for some reason keep getting passed over instead of being used. In go the veggies to the fridge’s crisper (“rotter” would be a better name for it), and out go the limp, unconsumed ones from last week. My eco-friendly grocery bags next to me, I try to visualize where all the new food will fit. I have a feeling of unease that I can’t quite name. It’s the urge to purge. I want to use the new stuff, as the old stuff has lost its charm.

Things just seem more appealing when I’m at the store, even if I could make do with what I already have at home. Whether it’s because of the packaging, the price, or the advertising, I feel drawn to the new and exciting. This may explain why there is a pork roast sitting in our downstairs freezer marked 2004. Many casseroles, stews and other items have come and gone in that time, but the pork roast remains. After a few months, it just seemed to lose its appeal, and it never rose to the ranks of dinner material. My aunt, a farmer’s wife, has 3 of those enormous chest freezers. I am convinced she just uses the top layers, always adding another cake, more green beans from the garden, and barely scratching the surface of what lies beneath.

This manner of consumption is not limited to food. Have you ever brought home a brand spanking new bottle of shampoo and placed it beside your old, not quite used up one? The new one looks so pristine, so hopeful, while the other one may represent broken promises and unfulfilled dreams. Its lackluster status is aptly illustrated by a little mildew and a layer of soap scum.

It’s all I can do to use up the old shampoo before opening the new one. I might find myself using handfuls when only a little dab would do. This is when a Costco-sized bottle ceases to be cost saving. It lasts so darn long I become sick of it! If I simply can’t wait, I open the new one and my shower door becomes lined with half-used bottles. Same with soap. My “old” bar may be barely getting soft around the edges, but if I whip out a new bar of Irish Spring, the old one becomes nothing more than a pile of gunk.

Remember those little netty things from a generation ago that were used to corral scraps of soap so they would last longer? Now that is a product that has become obsolete. If other consumers are anything like me, they can’t wait to use up those scraps and move on to the next great thing.

Do you ever read “Hints from Heloise” in your paper? So many of her hints seem laughably anachronistic b/c in this age of consumerism, I don’t see a whole bunch of people who want to make a “soap saver,” mix their own bath salts or use a coffee filter as a handy popcorn bowl.

I know by putting this out there, I may come across as wasteful and loony, so I’d love to hear if anyone reading this has similar tendencies. Perhaps for you it is the lure of a brand new pen or a pristine pad of paper. I want to say I’m a pretty good steward of resources. I’ve been driving the same car for nine years, my clothes are from the thrift store, and my dumpster diving speaks for itself. On the surface, I do not look wasteful or overindulgent. The jars of under eye moisturizer in my medicine cabinet, each one destined to change my life, may tell a different story.

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