Saturday, May 29, 2010

Tuna Tuesday

I come from a short line of bad cooks. My mother always said that anyone who could read could cook, but she and I proved her wrong. At Mama’s funeral, my brother brought us all to tears when he said, “There wasn't a can our mother wouldn’t open to make sure we were fed.” Because I am a more modern cook, my preferred mode of culinary conveyance is the microwave. I not only nuke normal items like potatoes and frozen foods, I also microwave meatloaf and barbecued chicken, dishes known for their slow cooking in order to develop flavor. I tend to believe fast cooking just develops it faster.

When I was married, The Big Kat said that whatever fell out of the freezer when I opened it was what we had for supper on any given day. That wasn’t true, but about once a month we would have what I liked to call our Missionary Meal, which was made up of all the tiny bits of leftovers from former tasty meals I’d packed away in the freezer. There would be a spoonful of this and a spoonful of that on each of our plates, all suffering from some degree of freezer burn. I think that was about the time Melissa started eating soup from a can, literally from the can without benefit of bowl or stove-top or even microwave. Billy still swears he starts swelling up when he just gets a gander at my French fries because of the amount of salt I put on them. I am one of those cooks who thinks if a little bit of something is good, a lot of it will be that much better, especially when that something is salt.

Then there was my powdered milk phase. When Melissa and Billy were little, instead of buying milk and just having to throw it out when it went bad, I discovered the wonderfulness of powdered milk. It was especially great for cereal. My technique was this: pour the cereal in a bowl, pour on some still-granulated powdered milk, walk over to the sink to add a little water from the faucet, stir, and, finally, holler "breakfast is ready!" It was perfect for kids who knew no better until their Aunt Dianne invited them for a sleepover and ruined everything with her refrigerated real milk the next morning.

I’ve passed the bad cooking gene down to all three of my kids. Billy has as his signature dish something known as Flaming Fart Dip, and Melissa has been relegated to dish-washing duty in her family. The other day, I was talking on the phone to Molly and there was a strange noise in the background. When I asked her if she was peeling carrots, she said she wasn’t because she didn’t know how to peel anything. The noise was, instead, associated with tearing the plastic wrap off of something before putting it in the microwave, which, I surmise, is a form of peeling, thereby proving Molly wrong as she can, indeed, peel something.

Not too long ago, my friend Allison invited Molly and me over for dinner. She said it wouldn't be any trouble, she's just do up a London Broil. When I told Molly about it she was really excited, but, because she is my child, she wasn't quite sure what a London Broil was. When she got home, she called Billy in Oregon, asking him what he thought it was. His response: "I'm not absolutely sure, but I'm pretty confident it's some kind of fish."

Although not a good cook, I am an organized planner. When the kids were growing up, they could always expect fish sticks on Friday even though we were Methodist and not Catholic. Monday was tacos; Tuesday, spaghetti; Wednesday, Tuna Helper; and Thursday, dogs in a blanket. Since I didn't want to have the DFACS people stopping by and interfering in my life, there were usually some vegetables thrown in each evening, mostly broccoli.

Now that I live alone and because I love alliteration, most every week I have Salmon Sunday, Meatloaf Monday and Tuna Tuesday. After that, it falls apart since I can’t cook anything that begins with W or Th and because Allison and I do our early bird dinner on Fridays. Saturdays are sometimes saved for my current specialty, which I first called Mexican Goulash because of its cilantro and noodles. Then when I realized that I might not have offended enough ethnic or food groups with that name and when I remembered my special secret seasoning (Tony Chachere's) and the fact that I sort of stir fry it, I changed it to Mexican Cajun Asian Goulash. So far, no one has accepted my invitations to stop by for a taste.

As sad as this story has been so far, there is a happy ending. When I'm in Portland, I eat like the queen I was meant to eat like. That's because of Melissa. Whereas some people marry into money, Melissa married into culinary expertise in the form of Trevor Stelson. Melissa's husband, Trevor, is a fantastic cook who creates dishes out of his brain and out of his garden, things I don't even know what they are, but they sure are good. If it weren't for Trevor, we'd all be skinny or dead or most likely both.

However, although Trevor is a great cook, he's not a perfect husband. One afternoon a couple of summers ago, Melissa and I were at her house with Miles, who was still a baby. Trevor, however, wasn't at home. He was out drinking beer. Melissa was talking about how it's usually the women who end up keeping the kids while the men are out carousing. I concurred, saying how women have to do it all, how we are overworked and under-appreciated. At that point, I looked at Melissa and asked, "What are we having for supper?" to which she responded, "I don't know. We'll have to wait until Trevor gets home."

So it looks like we'll have to keep Trevor, despite his need to play and/or watch every sporting event known to humankind and don't forget that beer thing. I just wonder if I could get him to spend his winters in Atlanta. I wonder if he would like my Mexican Cajun Asian Goulash.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

One Hundred Eighty Days

That’s how long we teachers get for a school year, give or take some days, depending on the weather and the political climate. When the education experts tell us we need more time with students, we gear up for that. When the politicians tell us we need to get it all done in less time, we try our best to do that.

This year, I had one hundred seventy six days with my twenty-two second graders. We had two weather days, one for a flood and one for snow. I missed a day when my granddaughter was born and another one for staff development. Each day was seven hours long. In those hours, we worked hard; we read, we wrote, we added and subtracted and began to understand what it means to multiply, we measured stuff and tried to figure out fractions and old fashioned clocks. We also learned some Georgia history, some geography, some economics, some life science, and some things about matter and the moon. All of these endeavors were deemed by the experts as being important for second-graders to know how to do.

During our time together this year, we cohabitants of Room 119 were also quite busy with things that had very little to do with our instructional standards as we learned about ourselves and each other. Twenty-three people in one room for approximately 900 hours, that’s a lot of time with a passel of people in a small space, a heaping mass of lively humanity.

We laughed, we cried, we tripped, we fell out of our chairs, we argued, we made up, we hurt each other’s feelings, we lied, we cheated, we forgave each other, we played, we drew, we spelled things wrong, we spelled things right, we bled, we asked for band-aids, we asked to see the nurse, we sneezed, we coughed, we had lice, we asked to call a parent, we asked to go to the bathroom, we said it was an emergency, we stayed too long, we said mean things, we said sweet things, we asked a thousand questions, we raised our hands, we spoke out of turn, we were rude, we were polite, we complained, we joked, we hit each other, we ran into each other, we poked each other with fingers and pencils, we sharpened pencils, we broke the points and sharpened them again, we lost scissors and books and notes and jackets and lunch boxes, we found some of those things and swore someone stole the others, we became friends, we became enemies, we became friends again, we told on each other, we broke things, we fixed things, we colored, we cut, we started over, we glued and stapled, we ate our snacks, we shared our snacks, we fought over our food, we had our hearts broken and glued back together, we lost teeth, we put them in a baggie, we shared, we kept secrets, we fooled around, we didn't pay attention, we were sorry, and we learned our lessons.

Our class this year was a passionate one. Our highs were higher and our lows were lower. Despite the fact we could break out in a rage at the the smallest thing, we were the most caring group I think I've ever seen. We helped each other when we needed a hand, we checked on our friends, we worried about hurt feelings, and we railed against an injustice to one of us.

Like the old woman in her shoe, there were times when I didn't know what to do, but we prevailed, and our sum became more than our parts, and we were known as Mayo's class. Before we knew it, seven-year-olds had become eight, and a fifty-nine-year-old teacher was somehow sixty, and then April became May.

And so, we will move on into summer and into our next year, to a new teacher, to new students, but never again will these 23 people ever spend hours together in Room 119. The thought makes me rather sad.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Little Man

This past Mother’s Day, I decided to re-read some letters my mother wrote to my father during the summer of 1952. Daddy was recalled to active duty by the Army during the Korean War and we were living at Fort Benning, Georgia. At some point, he had been sent to California for a few months and Mama was having to defend the home front all by herself, caring for my brother Sandy, who must have been about five, and two-year-old me. The letters are affirmations of my mother’s devotion to my father and her dedication to post-WWII family life. Here’s an excerpt from one of them:

I made an unauthorized $10 expenditure today. However, it will come out of my usual $30 per week household expense account. I bought the children a wading pool.

Apparently, the summer was hot and the post pool didn't offer enough relief, so Mama had taken matters in her own capable hands. What I can't help but ponder is that the kind of frugality mentioned in the letter would be unfathomable today, as would be even considering having the husband “authorize” the purchase of a wading pool from twenty five hundred miles away (especially without the ability to text).

The letters are, indeed, sweet and evocative of the time; however; in re-reading them, I was struck by the theme that runs through them all, a theme as disconcerting with this latest reading as with former perusals.

And that theme is The Little Man and what a gem he was, the little man being my brother, Sandy. Now, you're probably thinking I'm making too much of the sibling rivalry thing here, but I'm not. Read below for evidence of my assertion:

On Sandy’s teeth pulling:

He had two teeth pulled this afternoon without a whimper. I was so proud of him and everyone made over him which pleased him no end..... Back to Sandy and the way he took this today. I really believe he is beginning to grow up and lose some of those vague fears he has always had.

Okay, maybe he was a suck-up little scaredy cat with delusional tendencies but she was still so proud of him.

Then there’s this about what a perfect little student he was at the age of five:

Did I tell you about Sandy’s report card? The comments were to the effect that Sandy is a quiet, mannerly child who is cooperative and well adjusted.

And athletic and brilliant, although a bit odd and perhaps a voyeur:

Wish you could see Sandy in the water. He’s a funny child. He learns more by watching than any other way. He was watching the life guards fooling around in the water and I looked up and there he was doing the breast stroke and not badly either. Last week he watched some boys for a while and then walked over to the edge of the pool and dived in – no preliminaries, no announcements or anything. I guess he figured it out in his head and then went and did it. Some child!

And did I mention good with money?

Sandy made a purchase today. He’s saved his allowance for 4 weeks plus his silver dollar for an inflated raft. He’s thrilled to death. By the way, he has 2 loose teeth – front bottom. One is awfully loose but he’s trying to save them till you get home so you can help him get them out. Of course, the whole idea is based on the return that the fairy is supposed to give him. I believe he'd swap every tooth in his head for suitable financial remuneration. He’s a money conscious little fellow – do you suppose he’ll be a tycoon?

It’s not that she never mentioned me, but notice how quickly she changed the subject.

We were in the water only about a short time and Marcia got mighty red. I was afraid last night that she would have blisters – but seems to be okay today. You should see Sandy. I took him out in water over his head and taught him to tread water. He did very well and would swim 3 or 4 feet out there.

Okay, the only mention of me was that I was too stupid to get out of the sun, but, at least I wasn't much trouble. See below for another example of my stupidity, but also a rather exceptional tolerance for pain.

That night she pulled the fire extinguisher over on her bare foot and I just knew I’d have to take her up for an x-ray – but apparently after the initial fright there was no damage except for white stuff being sprayed everywhere.

It was only after my mother's death that my brother owned up to being the one who dropped the fire extinguisher on my foot, the injured foot that caused me to be crippled and "different" for my entire life, having the fourth toe on my left foot be shorter than my pinkie toe.

I did, however, excel in one important way.

Wish you had seen Marcia eat tonight. She ate 2 and ½ pieces of chicken, 2 helpings of rice and gravy, English peas, cantaloupe, milk and then went over to the Olson’s and ate a piece of cake, 3 pieces of cheese, 3 carrot sticks, came back here and ate 2 graham crackers, small glass of milk and 3 mints. She probably won’t need to eat again for a week.

A great ending to this sad story would undoubtedly include additional evidence of my abuse and anecdotes about what an entitled ass my brother grew up to be. However, I must tell you that Mama was a wonderful mother to both my brother and me, and The Little Man grew into a big man and a good man, turning out to be all the things Mama predicted he would be when he was just five. I'm not sure one would call him a tycoon, but he did well in all the ways that are important, and he's my brother and I love him.

As for my tiny toe injury, I now believe Sandy told me it was his fault to make me feel better about being such an idiot when I was two. However, what would really make me feel better would be
2 and ½ pieces of chicken, 2 helpings of rice and gravy, English peas, cantaloupe, milk, a piece of cake, 3 pieces of cheese, 3 carrot sticks, 2 graham crackers, small glass of milk, and 3 mints.

Well, maybe not the English peas.

The Little Man and me. It's a wonder I could stand what with my injury.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Why I'm Not a Hoarder

I can’t watch the show, Hoarders, on A&E. It’s not that I don’t feel bad for those poor people because I do. And it’s not because it grosses me out, although it does.

It’s because I suspect I’m one of them.

Even though I don’t watch the show, I do sometimes run across an Oprah hoarding segment or a commercial for the program. When that happens, my eyes start ricocheting around my living room like ping pong balls in an after-school program, checking out the piles of books on my coffee table, the Christmas ornament on my book shelf (in May), my son Billy’s cowboy boots from when he was three, and the afghan I gave up on two years ago with the knitting needles still sticking out of it.

Right now, I’m looking at mardi gras beads I got from church (don't ask) which are suspended from iron candle stands I found in the trash, dried roses hanging up-side-down in my window (no clue what the occasion was), my mother’s souvenir necklaces adorning my walls, and a basket of CD cases on my floor. Where the CDs themselves are I don’t know, but I suspect they are somewhere in the back seat of my car.

However, from doing my Google research on the topic of hoarding, I find that I have only a couple of the traits of a true hoarder. For one thing, real hoarding, according to Google, is a sign of an obsessive-compulsive disorder, and I can say for pretty sure, that type of behavior would require a lot more work than I'm interested in doing.

Wait a minute. Maybe I have a few more than a couple of symptoms. I do have a cluttered living space and an inability to get rid of things. I also have an excessive attachment to Billy’s little boots and my mama’s necklaces. In addition, I don’t like people all that much and I do harbor the belief that I’ll be able to create next year’s Christmas gifts (for the few people I do like) out of those CD cases.

A friend just sent me a link to an NPR story on hoarding, hopefully because she knew I was writing about it and not because I'm a lost cause trapped under a pile of old Ladies' Home Journals. However, while reading it, I was horrified to find yet another personality trait that could indicate I have a problem, and that trait is my inability to categorize. I am one of those right-brained thinkers for whom most everything is gray. In other words, I'm not a black vs.white, good vs bad, take-a-stand kind of person, which causes me to be a Democrat, keeps me from being a Baptist, hinders my ability to tell the good from the bad and/or the ugly, and makes it difficult to decide what needs to stay and what needs to go.

Some of my few friends have similar problems with holding on to things for too long and sometimes not being able to locate them. My friend, Debbie, looked and looked for her Christmas tree stand one year, only to find it on her front porch where it had been since the previous Christmas. I also remember the Thanksgiving when Debbie had to purchase a new stove in order to cook her holiday turkey. Her old stove had been out of commission for, well, a long time. However, if Debbie were a true hoarder, she would have installed her new oven on top of her old one, which I don’t believe she did.

And here is an excerpt from a recent email from my friend, YeVette:

Yesterday I bought a sofa at the Junior Service League Attic sale. My neighbor, who is in the League, watched it and when it went to half price, twenty dollars, she put my name on it and then proceeded to pay for it and haul it home for me in her husband's pickup truck. She parked it under my carport until today when my other neighbors helped us haul it in. I was so excited to find an "antique" sofa. Okay, I admit it is a strange fabric and color, and no, I really do not have a place to put it, but I love it. I envision the day I can get it recovered for my living room. Until then, I will clean it and rearrange the living room to make a home for it. I thought about putting it in the dining room, but that just might be too much work for now.

Although YeVette has some of the attributes of a hoarder, her reference to rearranging her living room is a testament to the fact that she still has enough space
to rearrange. Again, a true hoarder would have placed her new sofa on top of her old sofa or under her dining table. I do, however, need to comment on the worrisome enabling behavior of her neighbors. I can't help but wonder if there are Hoard-Anon meetings in some church basement in Americus, Georgia.

I need to say here that the two particular friends I've mentioned above aren’t lacking in smarts, education, or the ability to navigate the real world, as Debbie is a judge and YeVette, a college professor. They, like me, might be hurting a little in the womanly-arts department, and we’ll never have our homes featured in House Beautiful, but what do we care? We are people who find ourselves to be incredibly interesting (not to mention funny) and we don't really want people visiting us anyway.

Just this morning, I felt much better as I went to find my shoes for work. The bottom of my closet is currently a choreographed beauty of organized shoes, situated, two by two, like All God's Creatures hanging out in the Ark awaiting the Flood. This is so because I arranged them a few weeks ago, cleaning out my closet and putting things aside for charity, activities hoarders just don't do. I currently have my discarded shoes in a bag next to my closet and I have plans to drop them off soon. That's unless I can figure out a way to create some kind of op-art 3-D sculpture by nailing my shoes to my bedroom wall. I kind of like that idea.

Finally, I must admit some good can come from watching Hoarders. The last time I saw an episode, I ended up throwing out a bag of ice I’d purchased five years ago when I first moved to Atlanta, an act that made me feel good about myself, as I was taking control of my life. What I need to remember is that it's all about balance and taste and organization. I definitely think throwing away my five-year-old ice serves to make room in my life for other things, things like my shoe wall art. Ultimately, I'm just happy to know I don't have a problem.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Good Golly

Miss Molly

What a week this has been for you. After making the ridiculous decision to take four teacher-certification tests in one day, having had a total of eight weeks of education courses, you managed to pass all of them, getting your results a few days ago. And then there was the going to class and finding out you are now highly qualified (a No Child Left Behind leftover term) to teach either Special Ed or English or some kind of crazy combination of both.

But let’s go back about 25 years.

You were my late-in-life baby, a surprise but never a mistake. On the day you were born, as I put you to my shoulder to smell your sweetness, you patted me on my close-to -middle-aged back with your little hand, as if to say everything would be all right.

There were times during your teenage years when I questioned your commitment to that promise.

Although we had picked out Emily for you, you were a Molly from the first time I saw you. Whenever you complained about being named after a Little Richard song, your daddy told you to be grateful it wasn’t Tutti Frutti.

You didn’t have an easy childhood with your father and me divorcing when you were six, with your anxiety causing you to throw-up into Barbara’s kitty litter box each morning on your way to school, and with your sorry eyesight requiring your little pink glasses.

Barbara’s house was your safe haven while I traveled with work and other things. She did your hair, bought your clothes, packed your lunch, and was generally your mother while I climbed my ladder and followed my bliss. You were so good at school and so worried about it that I promised you a party if you’d just get into some kind of trouble.

That was a mistake. You later got into all kinds trouble and had your own parties. When you were in Middle School, I remember you drawing body parts in class and then proudly wearing the shameful orange vest with the other “misunderstood” miscreants.

And then there was high school and your first love, which could and probably should have done you in, but didn’t. I’ll never forget that day in July of 2004 when you told me you wished we could look ahead a few years so you could surprise me with how you would turn things around. Well, almost six years later, you’ve gotten your wish. However, even though I’ve been amazed by your intelligence, commitment, and stamina, and delighted with your success, I’m no longer surprised by the adult you’ve become.

The rest of that tough summer, you and I spent a lot of time together, getting to know each other all over again, reading good books and watching bad television. You began to make new friends while holding on to the old ones, who, like you, decided it was time to grow up.

I knew you were going to be fine when you got to college and started actually liking your professors, and when you changed your major from practical Computer Sciences to totally impractical English "because you loved it". At that point, those bits and pieces of earlier hard times managed to make you strong enough to take on the world, while also helping you to understand and accept the frailties of others, characteristics that will make you a wonderful teacher.

And so, my youngest child, friend to brilliant odd balls, old souls, and facile survivors, I predict you will continue to find your own way in this crazy world on whatever paths you decide to follow. In addition, it seems you have managed to keep that very first promise you made to me when you were just a few hours old. Everything is, indeed, all right.

The Curious Lament of a Former Second Grade Teacher

  The timing was perfect.   I was 56 and looking toward retirement but not yet ready, either physically, emotionally, or moneta...