May 31, 2012

Pointless Mortification

Edward has been home sick all week with strep. It was a little satisfying taking him to the doctor yesterday: the nurse said "I'd be VERY SURPRISED if he had strep" and the doctor said "Well, we've been seeing some sore throats but they're all just viruses...."---and then the doctor looked in his throat and said, "Huh. Well, we should do a strep test," and did the strep test, and it was positive. My phone issues artificially skew my success rate: I'm not likely to bring a kid in unless I'm pretty certain there's a problem.

This morning Elizabeth told me that a boy in Edward's class told her that he didn't think Edward was sick, because HE heard the assistant teacher telling Edward's teacher that she drove by and saw Edward playing outside. This has left me stricken with Pointless Mortification. Edward has NOT been playing outside; he has been in on the couch. But Henry looks very much like Edward (enough so that if I'm out with just Henry, people who know us casually aren't sure who it is), and Henry HAS been playing outside. And today Edward is feeling way better, but has to stay home another day because of contagion risk, so he very well MIGHT go play outside. But now I feel like the teachers might think I'm lying about him being sick, or that Edward is lying to me about being sick. But I can't exactly go up to them and say "Elizabeth said that Max said that he heard Ms. Jorry say to Mrs. Givens that SHE saw..."

And please note that ALL of this is from a report from two first graders, so it might not even be ACCURATE. And even if it IS accurate, the teacher might not have even recorded that information as significant: plenty of kids who have symptoms that mean they're not allowed in school (fevers, barfing, pink eye) still feel well enough to play outside---especially when the rule is that they have to wait 24 hours before coming back. Which makes it MULTI-LEVELED Pointless Mortification: don't know if it's true, don't know if it matters, can't do much about it no matter what.

I am sending a note with Edward tomorrow (as I usually would, after a child's absence, so that the teacher knows what's going on even if the office didn't tell her) that mentions taking him to the doctor and the strep diagnosis and the antibiotics, so I'm hoping if there IS any doubt, that will clear it up.

May 29, 2012

Death Frets: Catless Edition

Do you remember when our cat died and it put me into a morbid, death-considering, not-really-cat-related thought process for awhile? Last week my father-in-law died suddenly (likely from a heart attack), and that event has tipped me into another such thinkhole.

If you remember him from previous posts (in that last one, I compare him to Britney Spears), you'll know we aren't wearing black arm bands; we're more startled-but-relieved, and grateful that his body was coincidentally found quickly. My sad-spectrum feelings have mostly been pity-based, for how a life can look when it's put in a packet at the end like this (he spent pretty much the whole thing lamenting his unappreciated potential), and for how he lived it so that his kids aren't sad and don't want to have a service for him. And then of course I've been Margaret-you-mourn-for-ing that maybe my life will look sad when it's all packeted up and that my children won't want to have a service for me and that they'll be nothing but relieved when I die.

I'm also fretting because this means both Paul's parents died of heart attacks in their sixties. That looks a bit grim for Paul's future.

And I'm fretting because we JUST finished my mother-in-law's estate (it took over two years), and now ANOTHER one! This one at least looks like it will be less complicated: the most likely final outcome is that we will split with Paul's sister the cost of cremation and the cost of hiring someone to carry decades of hoarding out of an apartment, and that there will be nothing valuable to have to figure out how to divide.

I feel weird that the kids have already lost two grandparents, even though I know that's more common than what happened with me, which is that I didn't start losing grandparents until after I had children. The kids themselves were only slightly weirded: they'd never met this grandfather or had any contact with him, so it was more of a theoretical impact on their emotions.

I'm also fretting because of something my mom told me once, about how when all four of my grandparents had died, she realized she was in the next group lined up to go.

Because my father-in-law's death was so sudden, as was Paul's mother's, it's made me feel out-of-proportion-to-likelihood anxious that I will die suddenly. I was lying awake fretting intensely about this ("IT COULD HAPPEN ANY SECOND!!"), so I decided to try doing some psych solution I read about somewhere, which was to try to figure out which parts scared me, and then divide those into "Anything I can do something about" and "Anything I can't," in the hopes of reducing the fret-spiral.

One of the things making me scared was picturing people finding my body, and that maybe I would look gross or awful or scary or contorted or horrifying or stare-eyed or whatever. That has to go into "Anything I can't": there isn't anything I can do about that part except to remember that everyone is in the same boat on that one, and to remember that when people find a body they go into Emergency Mode and aren't really prioritizing details of what someone looks like. They're probably thinking more like "OMG DEAD OMG DEAD." Plus, lots of people die in such a way that "find" is not the applicable verb. So.

Another thing upsetting me was what we're facing with my father-in-law, which is that we don't even know if/where he has accounts, or where his important papers are, or if he has a safe deposit box, or if/where he has a will, or ANYTHING. And that's a fret I CAN do something about, so yesterday I took some first steps. I made an "In Case of Death" file folder for the filing cabinet. I made a dated list (dated so I and anyone else would know how recently it had been updated) of all our accounts (bank, stocks, CDs, life insurance, retirement), and made a list of everyone's Social Security numbers, and mentioned the weird place I keep the checkbook for my personal account, and mentioned where I keep the key to the fireproof safe.

I might have missed an account or helpful detail, but at least I know I put down MOST of them. I had to override the impulse to leave it for the hypothetical Future Me who would know everything I should do to make The Perfect Nothing-Missing List, and who furthermore wouldn't mind doing the task at ALL and would in fact be EAGER to do so. Anything is better than nothing. Writing down ONE SINGLE account number is better than nothing. MAKING THE FOLDER is better than nothing: even just having that folder IN EXISTENCE helps motivate me to put things into it. My plan is to let my annual morbid birthday thoughts trigger me to update the information each year---but if I don't, this one list is still better than nothing.

I also worked on a "Notify" list, because it was upsetting to me that Paul and his sister don't even know if there's anyone they should contact about their dad's death. Does he have friends? belong to a church? play bingo? No one knows. And there are a few people I don't think my family would know to contact. But it was a little depressing to go through my address book and realize with how few people it matters if they hear it right away or just find out on Facebook.

May 25, 2012

Kids and Swearing 2: The Taco Bell Sauce Analogy

Do you remember when we were talking about kids and swearing? I stumbled upon an analogy that worked well to explain some things to 1st-grader Edward. It requires the children to be familiar with Taco Bell, but that's a sacrifice I'm willing to make. (It also helps that in our family there's a pretty clear correlation between increased age and increased liking of hot sauces.)

It started because he asked if he could use the f-word to say one funny thing, and I said no, he couldn't. (I first established that we were talking about "the one that rhymes with duck," because in the past there have been misunderstandings where I later discovered that, for example, "the s-word" was "stupid" or "snot.")

This led to a conversation where I was trying to discuss the difference between "mild" swears and "strong" swears---but also trying not to imply that strength (often a positive attribute) was necessarily positive in this case. It was when he asked what "mild" meant that I thought of the taco sauce he likes. So then it was a quick jump to the idea that although he likes one packet of mild sauce on a taco, it wouldn't be a good plan to use ten packets of fire sauce. And although fire sauce is "stronger" than mild sauce, that doesn't mean it's better, it means you need to be more careful with it and make sure it's what you want in that situation. And that someone might put mild sauce on tacos and nachos, and might work up to fire sauce with time and practice, but still not use any sauce at all on the cinnamon twists or in the strawberry slushie or on the table or in our eyes. And that using too much sauce, or putting the sauce in an inappropriate place, RUINS things.

This got across to him some concepts that I was having a little trouble getting across before: that just because it's okay to use something sometimes, doesn't mean you should use it constantly and in all situations; that the differences between levels of swears is a difference in intensity and danger; that just because something is okay in a mild form doesn't mean it's okay in a stronger form; that being allowed to use something doesn't mean you'll want to or that you SHOULD.

May 23, 2012

The Two Areas of Household Upkeep That Drive Me the Most Nuts

I have put my finger on the two areas of household upkeep that drive me the most nuts. This was quite a task, as there are so many to choose from, and of course there is the area of "Things I do that no one really notices, and then they carelessly mess it up again within seconds, making my life feel like a pointless wearying dismal struggle towards death," which is its own thing and too large to call "an area."

The first area is "Anything where I am the only one who does it, ever." The toilet springs to mind. Has anyone but me cleaned a toilet in this household in the last seventeen years? No.

It doesn't matter if it's FAIR or not. For example, Paul could very well feel the same way about me and lawn-mowing. Well, except that I HAVE mowed the lawn periodically. Let me think if I can think of some other example of something he ALWAYS does and I NEVER do. Well, I'm sure there are things, and what I mean is that it wouldn't even matter if he were doing a larger share of housework, or doing plenty of things I never do, I'm STILL crabby about tasks that are ALWAYS mine, as if unbreakably declared so by a deity thousands of years ago.

Nor does it matter if I could have asked someone else to do it, or could have trained the children to do it. If anything, those points make it worse: now it's not only my job to do it, it's my fault if I haven't explicitly told anyone that I don't want exclusive rights to cleaning the toilet. Must I do that for each individual task in life? "Hear ye, hear ye, I have NOT claimed all printer-refilling duties for this office!" "Attention, colleagues! I did not dibs the rights to inspect every empty coffee pot! Please feel free to sometimes make more coffee yourself!" What a waste of time. No, this is why we are already equipped with empathy and brains.

I'm NOT talking about areas where we've agreed that I should be the only one to handle something, such as the checkbook (DO NOT TOUCH IT, HISSSSSSSSS!!!). Or where we can agree it doesn't really NEED to be done but I would like it done anyway, and/or where the task affects only me. For example, if I'm the only one sorting books by how old I was when I first read them, or if I'm the only one who puts the socks in the drawer in color groups, or if I'm the only one who drinks the coffee, I think we can agree it's not right for me to demand everyone else follow/maintain my system. I can demand that they not SCREW UP my system, but I can't reasonably demand that they follow it, or that they agree with me that the pipes under the sink really need to be polished weekly and that we all need to work on that as a family. Which is why I used the toilet as the example: I think we can all agree that that is a non-optional task, and also that all household members are contributing to the necessity of the task-doing, as well as benefiting from the results. It doesn't matter if I'm the only one who cares if the toilet is clean: it still needs to be cleaned, and it's still everyone's responsibility.

The second area is "Anything that is left aside, apparently for me to handle, but without comment." An especially soiled item of clothing, left wordlessly on top of the washing machine. A bowl/pan that will need scrubbing, left wordlessly in the sink before someone leaves for work all day (i.e., so there is no room here for "Oh, it just needed to soak, and I was going to scrub it myself"). A throw rug that had a Dead Rodent Gift on it, left outside on the steps---presumably to be hosed off or disinfected or something? I don't know, but it's been sitting out there in the rain and sun for several days, because the fact of it being there has awakened a stubborn streak known as "Oh, did you expect ME to handle that? How ODD."

This is true EVEN WHEN a comment would have done nothing but result in an exasperated reply from me to just LEAVE it for me, I'M the expert in that, just let ME do it. YES, the end result is the same in regards to who will do the work. NO, the end results are not the same in regards to whose torment is being imagined.

And it is ESPECIALLY true if something is partially done, in a way that indicates that the person starting the task has a specific plan for dealing with the task but would like ME to carry out those plans. For example, if I had been the one to find the Dead Rodent Gift on a rug, I would have dealt with that problem in-house, using cleaning supplies well-suited to the task. If someone feels the task needs to be dealt with outdoors, then he or she may certainly do it that way. But it is a different story if someone drags the rug outside and then thinks they've done their share and it's up to me to complete it. Oh, I can keep stepping right over that rug, bub.

It's also especially true in cases where someone's wordlessness on the subject has left me at a distinct disadvantage. If someone had TOLD me about the very soiled item of clothing, I would have done an immediate vigorous pre-rinse, followed by a soak in a stain treatment. But now it's been 24 hours, and I am facing despair and failure because of someone else's PRESUMPTIOUS WORDLESSNESS.

May 21, 2012

The Kind of Happiness That Comes From Material Things

I took Edward to two birthday parties this weekend. It felt like it took THE WHOLE WEEKEND. I didn't do anything else the whole weekend except get a UTI and have the best doctor experience of my entire life: he wrote the prescription for enough to cover two treatments so I could use it next time without having to come in, and he said he only does the $500 lab work if there's some reason to believe it's not a totally routine UTI. So. That was a nice change.

Should we talk about how much I hate the new Blogger update (back in the editing/writing area---nothing visible up front here), even after giving myself time to get used to the change since I always initially resist change? No? Are you sure? I'm pretty sure it would be fascinating to hear me discuss at length how it both (1) hugely discourages people from using HTML and also (2) makes it hugely frustrating to do any editing without knowing/using HTML. ...Still no? Really? Well, okay. But if you ever want to talk, I'm here.

Look at my cute new casserole dish:

Can you tell how cute/wee it is? It's about 5"x5". I should have put something in the picture for scale. There are some kid magazines on the shelf below it, but that's insufficient. I got very frustrated because there's no measurement marking on the dish, and I was trying to find it online but could only find the 1.5-quart version, and I got quite worked up before realizing I could, like, put volume into the dish, and see how much volume that turned out to be. It holds 2 cups, so it's a .5-quart dish. Isn't that adorable? It was on clearance at Marshalls for $5. I'm going to use it at Thanksgiving when I bake the single sweet potato only my dad eats.

This is not an excellent photo (reflections + needs polish + busy background), but I can't believe I almost didn't see (and then almost didn't buy) this reading-mousie candlestick, considering how much I love it now. It was in a used furniture store for $5. That's his tail wrapping around and holding up his reading light.

Paul got me this book for Mother's Day. I was pretty thrilled, since I'd been agonizing over whether to buy it myself or wait until Christmas/birthday to get it. I commented on what a good idea it was to get something with "Mother" in the title for Mother's Day, and he was like, "Oh! Is that what it's called? I just remembered you liked that author and saw she had a new book out. Huh!"

May 16, 2012

Working With Children

Recently I've been putting unusual (for me) effort into finding activities to do with Henry beyond reading to him, coloring with him, and pretending to listen to blow-by-blow accounts of a pretend fight he had with a minotaur. He's my last child, and he's only got about a year and a quarter until he's in school all day with the other kids, so this is a stage of my life that's wrapping up. I feel like it took a big chunk of this school year to recover from the years of having three little kids at home most of the day, but now I'm ready to try a little harder.

One day we made our own set of Memory cards: we drew matching pictures on pairs, or used matching stickers. Then we played Memory.

One day we experimented with natural dyes: we thought about things that stain the worst (spaghetti sauce, grass), and tried to use those things to deliberately dye a couple of white handkerchiefs.

One day we tried dripping highly-food-colored water on (1) coffee filters, (2) paper towels, (3) newspaper, and (4) regular white paper, to see the different effects. We also tried a single drop of straight food coloring, to see how different that would be. We used a medicine dropper, a q-tip, and a paintbrush to put the colored water on the papers, to see how those were different.

One day we made peanut brittle and fudge, and noticed the effects of different temperatures and different ingredients.

One day we made collages from magazine pictures and wrapping paper, and then made cards for his preschool teachers.

And what I have learned from all this is that I can cross the whole "working with children" category off the Future Possible Jobs list. I hate it and it's exhausting.

May 14, 2012

Book Reports & Book Giveaway

Bridge of Sighs went well, thank goodness. It took me longer than usual to get into it (I think of Richard Russo books as having a lot of dry humor, but there wasn't any for the whole first slightly-dismal chunk of the book), and I never did feel like I understood the younger Louis's character or why Sarah chose him, and there were a few sections where I thought the author got a bit swept up in the beauty of his writing and let it take over, so that I was thinking, "Okay, yes, lovely writing, well done, now let's get back to the story" or "Is he deliberately writing a character who would actually speak/write this way, or has he forgotten that this is supposed to be a real person talking?" But overall, I liked it very much, there were many good parts, and I was happy with all the nice filling-in-the-gaps details (like where you first see something through one character's eyes, but then later you get more information that spins it a different way). I'd recommend it.

Then I read This is How: Proven Aid in Overcoming Shyness, Molestation, Fatness, Spinsterhood, Grief, Disease, Lushery, Decrepitude & More, and I liked it well enough to immediately put it on my wish list because I want to OWN it. It's like three decades of psychotherapy, condensed---and better yet, written by someone funny and awesome. There were parts I thought could have stood a little FLESHING OUT: like, in the chapter on sexual issues in a relationship, he tells an anecdote about a woman who didn't want to have sex with her husband, and it turned out that this was because he couldn't stand her and was contemplating suicide to get out of the marriage. Ah ha! Well! I think that's a lesson ANYONE could apply! And the only idea for breaking addictions seems to be to...stop doing them. While he says wayyyy more about it than that, and in fact that's one of the parts I found so mind-blowing, afterward I thought to myself, "Well...but then, if that doesn't work...?" (He covers that too, but it's like "If that doesn't work, maybe you can't.") Or, sometimes I felt like he thought that because something worked for his personality/temperament, it would be the same for everyone. But mostly not, and I've found his ideas very interesting and complicated to think about (the stand-out ones for me are his thoughts on Alcoholics Anonymous and suicide), and I suspect I'll be applying a number of them over the years.

And then I've just finished The Final Testament of the Holy Bible, which I thought was really fun to read, but it will make some people want to stoke up the woodstove. It's about the return of the Messiah, and how he's treated. (Hint: second verse, same as the first.) My main objection is that the new Messiah thinks everyone should have jealousy-free sex with anyone they want to. And of course the whole book is putting the author's opinions into God's mouth and/or pants, so you'd have to think ahead of time about whether you could handle that in a fiction book. My second objection is that the story is told from many points of view, and I thought the author had a lot of trouble making the women sound like women. What I thought was the good part was the neat science-fictiony stuff about someone who isn't a regular human, and the parts about how WOULD the Messiah behave, and what would he have to be like for people come to believe that it was him, and how would the rest of the world react to the situation, and so on. And maybe the women don't quite sound like women, but each of the various storytellers does a very good job telling his/her own story. And there's quite a bit of suspense, because you know it can't end well but you don't know in what direction it's going to go poorly.


Let's do another book giveaway. I'll buy a copy of one of these three books for one randomly-selected commenter. You can still comment without being entered, if you want; if you want to enter, mention in your comment which book you'd want to win a copy of. I'll do the drawing on Thursday the 17th. [Edited to add: I guess it'll have to be U.S. shipping addresses only. I was planning to use my Amazon Prime to ship it for free, but I think that only works in the U.S.]

Update: The winner is Amanda!

May 12, 2012

OH, nothing

(Oh pardon. But if you want to enter a contest to win a $25 Amazon gift card, there's only one more day. Not even a full day. And I know I get very irritated to get a ton of "Just one more day!" and "HOURS LEFT!!" emails from a company, but this is not a company, this is Swistle, and I get no benefit from you entering except that it makes me feel happy when someone I KNOW wins a contest. And my boss hasn't even so much as suggested that I tell you about it, let alone required me to tell you about it, which makes me feel more like telling you about it. And so I'm telling you here, in case you don't read Milk and Cookies. Anyway here's the contest. You just leave a comment, any comment. And then maybe you get to spend the evening of Mother's Day choosing three paperbacks for yourself, or a hardcover and some MP3s, or some glow sticks or flax seed meal, I don't know what you like.)

May 11, 2012

The Ideal Birthday Party Invitation

The ideal birthday party invitation for a child's party would contain:

1. Name of child (with surname), and address of party location, and date of party, obvs.

2. Time of party---and this may seem like another for the "obvs" category, but I'm listing it on its own to specify start time AND end time because the two party invitations we got this week only have a start time.

3. It doesn't have to be a lengthy minute-by-minute thing, but a GIST of what is going to happen at the party. Whether it will be indoors or outdoors, so I can make decisions about sunscreen and tick repellent and outerwear. Whether food other than cake will be eaten, so I can make decisions about what to feed the child ahead of time. Whether it's one of those big family-reunion-type parties with a few school friends also invited, so no one is watching the kids because everyone's catching up and no one knows who belongs to whom, so I'll need to bring a book and stay. Plus, some of my kids are the anxious type, so this lets me prepare them a little ahead of time for how things are likely to go, and to review any safety/politeness rules that might be specific to the type of party.

4. For younger children, a line about whether parents should expect to stay or leave, or whether it's completely up to them.

5. The parents' names, especially if there's only a phone number for

6. If there is ANYTHING WEIRD about the location, DETAILS about that. Especially for apartment complexes: parking instructions, which building to go to, which door to go in, which button to press to get buzzed in ("Hey, these are all surnames! None of them say 'Jonathan's apartment'!").

7. An email address for, I beg of you. I BEG OF YOU.

May 9, 2012

The Critical Eye

I hadn't realized how many novels have characters who casually or seriously evaluate/criticize their parents until I found myself getting worn out with all the mental arguing I do with them: "Well, you know your parents were HUMAN, right? I mean, they absolutely HAD to have SOME flaws, and these were the ones they happened to have. Would you have preferred DIFFERENT flaws? No you WOULDN'T have, because if they'd had THOSE flaws you would have criticized those TOO. It's not as if your parents COULD have been perfect if only they'd TRIED. What is it you expect them to DO with their flaws, anyway? You think that just because it would have been better for YOU, the child, if your dad didn't have a short temper, that he could have easily and completely pulverized that part of his personality? 'Oh, it's better not to struggle with temper! I'll just STOP DOING IT, THEN!' And what about your criticisms of things that aren't even flaws? You think that just because you would have preferred the kind of mom would would RUN and LAUGH and PLAY just like a golden retriever, that she could have changed herself from the quiet, bookish, indoorsy type she was? And you think that she SHOULD have? Why shouldn't YOU transform YOUR active, social, outgoing personality into a quiet, bookish one? Does THAT make any sense to you? NO? You see how ridiculous that line of thought is, then! Why not focus on what your parents did RIGHT, instead of what they did WRONG? Or on the ways they were a GOOD fit for you, rather than the ways they were a BAD fit for you? Why not see if you can bring yourself to realize that your parents had the same limitations as any other human being, and were not required/able to be custom-made to your rigid specifications? Why not meditate on the idea that they didn't choose your temperament any more than you chose theirs, and that ALL parent/child relationships are a total crapshoot and we're lucky any of us get along AT ALL beyond the biological instincts to love each other? GEEZ."

Ahem. I may be a little touchy on that topic recently, with a teenager in the house.

It's been hard having that kind of light turned onto ME so fiercely. Every book I read reminds me of how he seems to see me at times: as someone who at every turn should have made a different decision; as someone who is willfully unfair; as someone who willfully fails to control her flaws and is not sorry about them and doesn't even TRY to change; as someone who COULD be perfect if I'd bother to TRY. It seems like so often he chooses to see me in the worst possible light.

I've gradually realized the only way to escape that variety of critical stare (their eyes! like gimlets!) is to die relatively young so they instead idolize me and pine for me and speak only of my virtues and how much they miss me and wish they could talk to me. Which reminds me of those things older people say when you ask how they're doing: "Better above ground than below it!" "Welllll, can't complain---it's better than the alternative har har!" "The only way to get my kids to remember me in a glowing light is to die young, so I guess this is better than that har har!" Har.

May 5, 2012

What Do You Spend on a Child's Birthday Party Gift?

I have noticed that there are times where I am going around thinking $x is the right amount to pay for something, and then I find out that everyone else considers even $2x to be totally cheapo. Haircuts can be like this: I think of myself as paying kind of a lot for a haircut, not a ton but not cheapo either, but it happens repeatedly that I will hear someone say "I'm never going to get around to going to my usual place, so I'm just going to get a cheapo $2x cut and hope for the best"---where $x is what I pay for a haircut. That kind of thing.

Anyway, what I'm wondering about is birthday party gifts you'd bring to someone else's child's party (not for a relative of yours, but for, like, your child's classmate). I definitely don't want to be cheaping out on that, but I don't need to bring the most expensive gift of the day, either. And I'd like to be SENSIBLE about it: we generally don't know the child's current toy inventory/preferences, so what we get could easily be a duplicate or something they don't like. So even if I found out that everyone else was spending $20-30, I might still stick with what I currently spend, which is "about $10." I will spend a little more for the perfect thing, but I was going to put a range there, and I'd thought "$8-13," and then I realized no, I don't think I'd spend $13 unless it was really truly irresistibly perfect---and it's rare to know such a thing about someone else's child.

Anyway-again, what I think is useful for these sorts of things is a POLL (over in the right-hand margin). [Poll closed; see results below.] But I also like the comments section, because I like hearing people say the DETAILS of they do: "Well, for someone we don't know, I spend $x; but for close friends' kids, I spend more like $2x" or "I let my child choose a gift, and anything up to $20 is fine" or "We've been spending $30, but that was when we hardly went to any parties; now that the kids are getting invited to more, we have to cut it back to more like $15" or "I don't have a plan: sometimes I spend $5, sometimes I spend $40" or "It depends on the location of the party: if it's a home party I aim for $10, but if it's a big exciting place I aim for more like $25" or "Well, we MAKE gifts, so it's harder to figure out, but probably $5 for the materials, and the result is the equivalent of a $15 gift."

(If you've never had to bring a gift to a child's birthday party, you can answer with what you think you'd be likely to do.)

May 4, 2012

Cranky Books

I have read THREE books in a row that made me cranky.

ONE: A book that was on the Librarian Picks shelf. It was apocalyptic fiction, which means it goes in my library bag whether or not it's on the L.P. shelf. Then I read about 3 pages, thought, "What on earth is going on here?" and checked the cover to read the plot summary again to try to remember why I'd chosen it---and noticed it was published by a Christian publisher. Ah. That explains it. I tried another few pages just in case, but no. Apocalyptic fiction can have religious themes, and it can even have a subtle message ("Look what will happen to us if we don't stop experimenting with crop chemicals!")---but it's ruined if it's PREACHY.

TWO: Then I read Dan Chaon's Stay Awake, which is a book of pleasingly creepy short stories. I liked them very much, but they were kind of sad (lots of stress and death themes), and I couldn't figure out what was going on in ANY of them. So again and I again I was in a state of unsatisfied suspense, which made me feel irritable and stupid. Then I spent a couple of hours online trying to find stuff written by people who HAD figured them out, and all I could find was (1) one hint that did in fact let me figure out one single story---making it feel as if I should be able to figure out all the others, and (2) a lot of people saying most stories COULDN'T be figured out, which made me cranky because I don't like to be toyed with like that, plus I was frustrated because I'd wasted so much time looking for something that didn't exist.

THREE: Then I read a book that I NEVER would have chosen if it hadn't been on the Librarian Picks shelf, and this book CLOSED THE DOOR on the L.P. shelf for me. It was narrated by a dog. The dog had a lot of insightful observations to make about human beings (we should listen more! we only get sick and die because we BELIEVE we will! and we should live in the NOW, just like the racecar driver who constantly anticipates the future and repeatedly watches tapes of the past! ...wait, what?). And it was sentimental/weepy fiction written by a man. Some people right now are going to want the name of the book because this is exactly their thing; for me, that is like the perfect trinity of unreadability. AND YET I READ IT ALL THE WAY TO THE END because I had to know how the unearned-suspenseful plot was going to resolve, so then I felt irritable and crabby but had only myself to blame. That's an unhappy place to be, let me tell you.

No, wait, it's FOUR cranky books, because before these three I read Unorthodox!

Now I'm reading Richard Russo's Bridge of Sighs, and if I don't like it I'm going to spend the weekend reading People magazine and watching television.

May 2, 2012

I Didn't Sign Up For This

Here is a recurring life problem I have not yet figured out how to handle: If you sign up to do something, but then you get the response last-minute and/or for something other than you thought you were agreeing to, but at this point backing out will cause other people some level of hassle---how do you deal with it gracefully? And by "gracefully" I mean "So that they fully realize it's their fault, not yours?"

Like, let's say several weeks ago you filled out a form saying you'd be happy to contribute an item to the Teacher Appreciation brunch, which the form doesn't give a date for. The form says someone will contact you to arrange what you'd like to bring. But then the first you hear back, it's "Great! Can you bring peeled, sliced, hard-boiled eggs and washed cut-up cauliflower for 45 people tomorrow morning? On trays, thanks!" And YOU'D been thinking that when you were contacted to see what you'd like to contribute, you'd say muffins; and you have no idea how much egg and cauliflower would be enough for 45 people, and you've never bought cauliflower in your life, and you can never get hard-boiled eggs to peel right, and you would have to drop today's plans to meet this request? WHAT DO YOU DO?

What I did was reply that I was sorry but I wouldn't be able to do that by the next day. I didn't give excuses or explanations, or get into what I would have chosen to contribute or how I felt about peeling eggs, I just said I wouldn't be able to---though I think "by tomorrow" implies the basic reason. And then I agitated and suffered, because I'm imagining that the person who contacted me will see this as "bailing," or wonder why I would sign up to do something I couldn't do. So I've been having all these imaginary conversations with that person, where I explain that the form didn't indicate that I'd just be ASSIGNED something, and also that I don't think one day's notice is reasonable, and also that hard-boiled eggs AND cut-up cauliflower seems like a lot to assign to just one person, and also that maybe it would be better to say how much food (e.g., "a dozen hard-boiled eggs and a head of cauliflower") rather than how many people, since probably MOST people aren't familiar with catering-type estimating, and also we don't know how many other foods are going to be there. ---Like that, but on and on because the other person is completely in my head so I get to deal with an endless stream of their imaginary unfair objections, accusations, and assumptions.

Anyway. It's the sort of thing I don't run into ALL that often, but nevertheless regularly over the years. When it happens repeatedly from the same source, I know to just stop signing up for things, or to clarify a few things at sign-up time. I stopped doing a writing job because it happened so consistently: they'd ask if I was interested in writing on a topic; I'd respond yes; and then I'd hear back three weeks later that they'd need a draft the next morning, thanks! I felt like I had SAID yes so now I needed to follow through---but that I WOULDN'T have said yes to THIS.

The problem is that it's usually less consistent/predictable than that, and it's usually coming from many separate sources---and/or else it's something I don't WANT to get out of, like contributing things to the kids' schools.

I guess the answer in general is that it would be a good idea to make some clarifying comments at sign-up time. For example, on school forms I could check the box saying I'll donate something, but then ignore the part about choosing something later and instead write "I can bring a dozen muffins" or whatever. That doesn't solve the problem of if they then contact me the night before (although I guess I could add something like "I'd need a couple days' notice") or if something else happens that I didn't realize would be an issue I'd need to anticipate---but thinking over the issues I run into most often, it seems like it would significantly reduce the problem.