The absent-minded genius

quadraticformulaMy husband is a genius of sorts. He can fill a white board with an algorithm no one else understands, but he cannot find his glasses.

Seriously! He has even, at times, worn his glasses on a granny chain around his neck to keep track of them. It makes him look like a cross between a rugby player and a 1940’s-era movie librarian.

(These would be his regular glasses he can’t find. He knows where his prescription sunglasses are. They are in the bottom of Lac Vieux Desert in Wisconsin.)

He has also misplaced his long underwear (yeah, I’m wondering about that too), his favorite pair of mittens (for which he blames the rest of us), and once, his wedding ring (he tried to replace it with a completely different ring, hoping I wouldn’t notice. I noticed.)

He is a conceptualist. I, on the other hand, am steeped in the practical, which some might say is my weakness. He is the dreamer of 100-foot windmills in the yard, perpetual motion engines, and running a business from a catamaran in the Bahamas. I’m “With the nice weather forecast for the weekend, it might be a good time to re-caulk the siding.”

But when you’re all about the big ideas, you sometimes miss the obvious – which is why it’s good to have someone like me around to bring you crashing back down to earth.  My favorite example is a conversation that went something like this:

Him: I need a 1/4″ washer for this project, but the hardware store didn’t have any. I’m not sure what I’m going to do.

Me: Why didn’t you just buy two 1/8″ washers?

Him: (Utter silence.)

And then the door slamming as he headed back to the hardware store.

If you live with an absent-minded genius, there will be compromises. You will need to manage all household expenses, bill payment, school schedules and medical appointments. You will need to feed, clothe, and transport the children. You will need to find storage for miscellaneous mechanical inventions in various prototypical states, and tolerate a lot of odds and ends in the garage.

The upside is…well, I’m sure there’s an upside, I just can’t think of one right now.

Well, maybe it’s that he can create just about anything he puts his mind to – a beautiful pergola in the yard, a house completely wired for a completely wired family, with access to whatever electronic activity you’d care to embark.

Ah, yes…the wireless network. Reminds me of another recent conversation. We were having some strange problem that brought down half our network – the upstairs TV, two of the four wireless connections, the printer in my office. He spent hours isolating the problem and trying to identify its cause.

Him: I can’t figure it out. The signal to the router is fine, but nothing connected to the router is working.

Me: Don’t you think the router probably just failed?

Him: (Utter silence.)

And then the trip downstairs to check the router.

We complete each other. Or something like that.

The day it finally froze over (our water service, that is)

The local news informs us we have now awakened to 50 below-zero mornings so far this season, as if it were something we were all hoping to accomplish. I, for one, have had enough of winter, especially given the swift kick in the shins it gave us last Friday.

kettle

Our water service froze. No, not the pipes we can thaw ourselves with a hair dryer and a little swearing – the pipe between the curb and the water main. It seems this is our responsibility, even though it is in the street.

I watched with a sense of dread Friday afternoon as my water went from a trickle, to a drip, to nothing, despite my herculean efforts with heating tape, a hair dryer (now cracked, alas, from an unfortunate contact with the garage floor), and a space heater.

My dread turned to outright anxiety when I tried to reach the city and found they all go home at 3:30. The contact at the emergency number, a police dispatcher, told us to call a plumber. Yes, but who? And to do what? The city inspector would tell us, it seemed, in the morning.

My first advice, should you find yourself in this situation, is to make sure you have 10 or 12 empty milk jugs sitting around so you can go door-to-door for water. Fortunately, this is not a problem at my house where most of the inhabitants sport a permanent milk-moustache. (An aside: Later, when the water was back on, my son asked if we had to return what we’d borrowed.)

My second advice is to keep your cool (ha, ha – like that pun?) A situation like this does not inspire the most rational behavior. My reaction ran along the lines of:

  • Leaping at anyone who took out a clean fork, or attempted to change their socks.
  • Cranking up the heat in the house like it would somehow magically melt a pipe that’s 80 feet away under 6 feet of soil and a snow bank.
  • Meting out what little water we had like we were on a life boat in the Pacific. You want a drink of water? No way! We need to save it for more important things like…well, I’m not sure but I know drinking it isn’t at the top of the list.

My husband reacted by purchasing a blueberry pie that he warmed up, forgot to eat, and later attempted to use to bribe the city inspector who couldn’t really help us anyway.

I spent Friday night in sleepless desperation but by dawn had decided to unleash my inner pioneer. I’ve always loved Little House on the Prairie, and what better way to reenact it but from a house with central heating?

Saturday found me boiling snow on the stove to wash dishes, hauling water to the toilets, and other roughing-it behavior, until the inspector showed up to confirm what we already knew – we were out of luck. He did, however, give us a list of plumbers. And an offer to shower at the city rec center. (I must have looked a little rough around the edges.)

We were extremely fortunate. Thanks to my instinctually calling the plumber that was geographically the closest, and doing a little groveling, we had water again in 24 hours. This helped me avoid the pioneer task I was most dreading. (OK, so maybe taking your delicates to a laundromat with wifi isn’t exactly roughing it, but I can only say that in hindsight.)

The only issue now is that we have to run our water non-stop until at least mid-April. Aaah, everyone loves the restful sound of water running somewhere in the house. I’m trying to get my husband to think of it as a zen water feature, only in the utility room.

Now that I know that the water flow in the street is our responsibility, in future winters I will be standing out there blocking the path of the city plow so we can maintain the snow cover on the asphalt. We know from past experience that he’s not too keen on plowing us out anyway, and since we are at the end of a cul de sac, it will only inconvenience one or two neighbors, and the mail delivery. And I don’t need most of that mail anyway. So I don’t see a problem.

What’s your worst end-of-winter story? Or is winter even over yet?

Trying to eat healthy? Read these cautions…

A few years ago, I made the decision to transition our family to a (mostly) whole foods diet. No, it’s not perfect – my kids still sometimes eat food that comes in a box – but overall, we do a pretty decent job.

IMG_0258If you’re trying to eat healthier you’ll find that like any life change, this one has it ups and downs. You will make mistakes and find gaping holes in your knowledge. Unless, that is, you have someone like me willing to let untold thousands (I wish) read about my mistakes so you have more time to dice your produce.

Here are my guidelines for buying and serving healthy food:

  • Always check organic greens.  Yes, for critters. I’ve found all manner of creatures – large and small, alive and dead. That’s one of the trade-offs for pesticide-free food. Worms happen, you just want to spot them before the kids do. (Over a glass of wine sometime, ask me about the night I sautéed a large, green caterpillar.)
  • Learn to love imperfect produce. As much as I hate to admit it, engineered food looks better. When you buy organics, the green beans have spots. The beets and carrots are not all the same size. The tomatoes are a little warty. Just cut it in small enough pieces and no one can tell the difference.
  • Get comfortable with phrases like “Just a minute, I’m soaking my besan.” It takes some confidence to throw out a phrase like that.
  • Label your grains. You may not want to admit it, but there will be a day you cannot tell your millet from your quinoa. (I mean that in the nicest way.)
  • Try raw food. It’s way faster than actually cooking! Another tip – if your kids don’t like dressings and marinades, just lift some of the salad out before you dress it. At my house we call this by the sophisticated name “salad with no dressing”.
  • Find a family farm and buy your naturally-raised, grass-fed meat from them. I love my farm. They deliver to our area once a month in a south-metro parking lot from an unmarked, refrigerated van. You hand them a check and they hand you a box. It feels a little like making a drug buy, but the meat is great.
  • If you buy grains and other items in bulk, make sure you take a second look at the bulk price per pound before you fill up the bag or you could end up buying $15 worth of quinoa at one time. Oops. Which brings me to my final point…
  • Get out your checkbook (or payment method of choice). It’s expensive. I hate to say it, but it’s true. But being a person who is constantly looking to balance the value equation, I figure a healthy family means fewer missed school days, fewer doctor bills, and more energy to take on the things I need them to do. I’m all about the long-term outcomes, baby.

Since I inevitably wake up in the morning to the question, “What am I going to serve for dinner?” (OK, I’m a little obsessive) I’m contemplating what to sling on the table this evening. A nice kale salad? A hearty soup?

A ridiculous exercise. If your house is like mine, it will take me twice as long to decide, and about eight times as long to prepare it, as it will for them to scarf it down.

Share recipes? Share thoughts? Tell me I’m obsessive (as if I don’t already know)?

A grocery-store faux pas?

Help me, please, wise reading public…in my zeal to reduce, reuse and recycle I think I might be violating grocery store etiquette. I just can’t tell for sure.

IMG_0255

I love shopping at Trader Joe’s, I really do. I love their products, and everyone is happy there – the clerks, the customers, the gal at the demo counter. But there is one thing I just can’t quite figure out.

Trader Joe’s, like other retailers, encourages customers to bring their own bags. At my local co-op this means you can bring your paper grocery sacks back in with you and they will refill them with your groceries. Unfortunately, the co-op’s bags are super-biodegradable, meaning they usually don’t even make it into the house before the handles fall off.

(Once I accidentally went to the co-op with Trader Joe’s bags. Trendy young checkout guy was so disgusted with me he wouldn’t even make eye contact.)

But Trader Joe’s bags are much sturdier. They can be used again and again, and I have a lot of them because I am feeding a hungry horde.

(“Did you know,” cute TJ checkout guy once asked, “That you buy two of everything? Is that on purpose?”)

Lately, however, I’ve noticed that when I bring my bags in I’m getting a less than warm reception. I thought it might be that I was presenting them with a minor inconvenience until the day I noticed one of the managers send a knowing glance at uncharacteristically-crabby TJ checkout gal as she walked by.

“Surely, that couldn’t be directed at me,” I thought. “I’m just standing here with my bags.”

On a subsequent visit, polite TJ checkout gal gently suggested, “These are really nice bags. You can use them for recycling, too. That’s what I do.” In case I didn’t know this because I had myself frozen in 1989 and am just coming around.

So now I’m leaving my paper bags at home. I’m afraid I’m breaking some unspoken bagging rule and everyone is too polite to tell me (although not too polite to drop a series of escalating hints).

So what do you think – have I become one of “those” people – the eccentric, bag-bringing, inconvenience-producing people soon to be hauling in my own handcart and using whole canisters of the disposable sanitary wipes at the entry? Could this be another strange manifestation of “Minnesota Nice”? Have I just missed the point?

Or maybe it’s all three. I think I’ll just have myself frozen.

Love, actually

I hear the muttering – the under-the-breath comments you don’t have the nerve to say too loudly. I know we don’t always agree. But it’s not my role to agree with you all the time.

Part of my job as your mom is to make unpopular decisions. To tell you no. To correct your behavior. I know that sometimes you interpret that to mean that I don’t love you. That I’m not of your side.

But it’s not true. I do love you, even if I don’t always express it in the way you expect. If I didn’t love you:

  • IMG_0165I wouldn’t make you wear a hat and gloves to school.
  • I wouldn’t spend hours shopping and cooking to put interesting, healthy food on the table even though I know at least one of you will refuse to eat it.
  • I wouldn’t make you redo your math problems when you get them wrong the first time.
  • I wouldn’t make your bed for you when you should be making it yourself.
  • I wouldn’t drive you all over the universe and spend entire days sitting on a cold, metal bench just to watch you lose a heartbreaking game.
  • I wouldn’t turn your dirty socks right-side out before I wash them.
  • I wouldn’t make you go to bed on time, eat your vegetables, and check in your phone at night.
  • I wouldn’t let you see the real me, faults and all. What better way for you to know that people are imperfect and you can love them anyway.

I wouldn’t tell you that winning isn’t everything. That self-respect is. That you are loved but you need to be your own best friend.

Happy Valentine’s Day, my loves. I am always on your side. And I know you love me, too, whether you say it or not.

Walking with dinosaurs (or, my family’s carbon footprint)

I don’t know that I fully understand the concept of a carbon footprint. The phrase makes me picture a spreading, black substance seeping off our lawn like an oil spill or that black mildew in the shower.

imageBut being a person with some free-floating guilt, I think from time to time about our impact on the planet – and how our well-meaning efforts to lessen it might not hit the mark.

Conserving Energy

The good. We conserve natural gas by keeping our house just below the level of “barely tolerable” all winter long. Cold? Put on a sweater.

The bad. My office is the coldest room in the house, whether or not we crank up the furnace. Some days I’m forced to use a space heater. If I don’t, after a few hours at the computer I resemble one of those neolithic men they occasionally find frozen in glaciers.

The ugly. We have a ridiculous number of energy-hogging electronic devices, more than two per person, and they are on at all times as evidenced by our family motto: “Go forth and seek a charger.”

Recycling

The good. We recycle a lot. We could fit three members of my family (including me) in our recycling bin but we manage to fill it to the brim for every pick up. I have even, in desperate times, commandeered space in the neighbors’ bins.

The bad. A huge amount of that recycling is composed of 1) stuff we get in the mail that I don’t even read before I pitch it; and 2) empty gallon milk jugs (I truly hope they’re being made into furniture somewhere.)

The ugly. I have dozens of half-used gallons of paint that I can’t dispose of. Used to be I could put them on our city’s free listing service and people would haul them away by the wagonload until they were re-classified as hazardous waste. Now they take up space in our utility room. I’m thinking of leaving them on random doorsteps.

Reducing Consumption

The good. My husband and I have always valued doing things over having things and tend to spend our discretionary income on experiences and events rather than stuff.

The bad. Doing things usually requires transportation, in our case endless short, inefficient hops to dance class, baseball, lacrosse practice and on the coldest days to the bus stop. You can almost tell time by watching me head up and down the street.

The ugly. Activities also require gear – lots and lots of expensive gear that takes a beating, smells after a while and take up tons of space. And probably reduces my fuel efficiency when it’s all stuffed in the car.

Reducing Waste

The good. We compost. Or really, I compost like a compulsive freak. Every carrot peel, kale stem, melon rind. Except, of course, the ones that go into the stock whose other ingredient is the disgusting collection of bones my family leaves on the plates after meals. I can’t help it – I come from a tradition of composting as evidenced by my mother who would go so far as to bury fat in the yard “where the moles can’t find it.” (Sorry, Mom, I know how much you hate to star in my blog.)

The bad. I’ve given up backyard gardening. My last few attempts resulted in my feeding the local livestock – deer, rabbits, woodchucks – which raises the question what it is I’m going to do with all this compost.

The ugly. I throw out a lot of non-compostable “mystery food” because I have the world’s most inconvenient refrigerator. Stuff gets shoved to the back to be found later when it’s unrecognizable. I’m probably throwing out enough to feed a bobsled team.

All in all, I give us about a C+. Or maybe less if used sports gear is also classified as hazardous waste.

10 signs your day is off to a rough start

UnknownI know, carpe diem and all that stuff, but some days just don’t warrant a lot of enthusiasm. Ever wish you could go back to bed for an hour and wake up to a second start? Here’s some signs that might send you back to that still-warm pair of pajamas.

 10 signs your day is off to a rough start:

  1. The cat has thrown up in your shoe.
  2. You forgot to put the pot on the coffeemaker before you started it and are now cleaning up Lake Dark Roast.
  3. You have a voicemail from the school principal.
  4. You’re late and you’re out of gas OR it’s -8 and you’re out of gas OR all of the above.
  5. The day’s school lunch offering is something your kids call “that stuff that bounces when you drop it.”
  6.  Three members of your household have asked you a question that started with the phrase, “Have you seen my…”
  7.  You have to iron.
  8.  The only thing you can find for your breakfast is a granola bar that came free in the Sunday newspaper delivery.
  9. Your child leaves a musical instrument that cost more than your first car at the bus stop.
  10. Your black sweater is in the wash.

For any of you who are counting, this list includes five unplanned errands or chores and two rolls of paper towels. Not that I’m counting.

Some days are better than others, and some improve as the day goes on. I hope for you this is one of them.

What unbelievable obstacles will you overcome today?

18 reasons I can’t work on a snow day

My summer office

My summer office

Or a cold day to be more exact – air temperatures hovering around -20 with windchill around -40. This is the fourth cold-weather school closing this month, and we’re preparing for a fifth tomorrow. This in a school district where we haven’t had a single snow day in the ten years I’ve had kids in school, even when we had to traverse knee-deep snow or two inches of solid ice to reach the bus stop.

School closures are hard on all parents, and it’s no exception when you work from home. The kids are here all summer but it’s different. We have some space. I frequently head to our screened porch where I can get some distance and some fresh air while I work. The beach has wireless access so I can work there. Ditto for the bowling alley. But I’m at a complete loss when we’re all cooped up in the house.
In case you’re struggling with this issue, I’m offering up some justification you can provide to your clients.


I’m sorry, I can’t work right now because:

  1. I can’t hear over the three people in the next room arguing over the remote control.
  2. I’m still doing the breakfast dishes and it’s nearly time for the lunch dishes.
  3. I’m playing a 14th game of double Solitaire and we haven’t won one yet.
  4. I’m fruitlessly encouraging home study.
  5. I’m explaining for the 100th time that it’s too cold to drive anyone to the coffee shop/mall/bowling alley.
  6. I’m explaining for the 200th time why we won’t be inviting any friends over.
  7. My office is freezing cold and all the afghans are being used for the fort in the sunroom.
  8. There are so many people on the wireless we’ve brought it to its knees.
  9. I’m trying to sell fun family activities to an indifferent crowd.
  10. We’re drawing lots to see who goes down to the curb for the newspaper.
  11. I’m exercising my power by requiring everyone to clean out their closet.
  12. I’m confiscating all electronic devices – again.
  13. I’m trying to create dinner out of our remaining food – a can of tuna, a beer, half an acorn squash, and a lemon.
  14. I can’t get past the 4000 Legos in the hallway.
  15. We’re chipping the frost off the inside of the windows.
  16. I’m busy updating my calendar to reflect cancelled school-related events.
  17. I’m drawing up a list of possible activities with dreaded certainty that they will call off school again tomorrow.
  18. And finally..there isn’t enough coffee in the world to keep me going on a day like this.

I can’t help but think of the hardy souls who first populated this harsh country, huddling all day around a smoky fire, fingers stiff with cold, conserving their meager rations to keep the family fed through the winter. Makes us seem pretty wimpy when we’re arguing about what to watch on Netflix. But I’ll be more sympathetic to that line of thinking once I get all these people out of my office.

How can I keep them busy today – and tomorrow? Any ideas?

Productivity is in the eye of the beholder

On the days we clean, we follow an operational process – sort of. I have a list of all the tasks we need to complete and because I believe a little competition is healthy, my children sign up for them on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Feel like sleeping in today? Be prepared to scrub toilets. Didn’t hear me the first time I asked? Cat boxes for you. You snooze, you lose.

It’s a pretty long list but not as long as my pre-children days when I was apt to spend a Saturday morning cleaning out the inside of the fireplace or dusting the furnace (I know, I know). No time for those tasks anymore. My standards are considerably lower than they used to be.

Lest I leave you with the impression I am actually organized, I must confess that we do deviate from the list – for example, on the Saturday our mercurial dishwasher decided it wasn’t going to cooperate. The door kept popping open in mid-cycle and then guess what? It doesn’t run. After I’d closed and restarted it about twenty times, I assigned my youngest to sit on a stool in front of the dishwasher until the cycle ended. A productive use of time? It was that day.

We’re not cleaning today. Instead I’m enjoying the blissful silence of an empty house. But later, just for fun, I might dust the furnace.

Any great suggestions for accomplishing those mundane weekly tasks?

 

The worst gift I almost got

Lest readers of my last post think the hideous green vest is the worst gift ever, let me tell you about the one that got away.

I was three months pregnant and sick as (ironically) a dog when the call came.

“My husband is out of town,” I told the earnest young woman on the other end of the phone. “Is there something I can help you with?”

“I’m returning his call. He inquired about purchasing our retired sled dog team,” she said.

Retired sled-dog team? Wah?

IMG_0159Turns out my husband had hatched a plan to buy this for me for my birthday – eight retired dogs and a sled. It is true that I had often expressed an interest in riding on a sled pulled by sled dogs. That did not, however, equate to a desire to own one.

I’d had a rough pregnancy. I hadn’t eaten anything but boxed macaroni and cheese in weeks and had spent most of my evenings curled in the fetal position wishing for death. The thought of a future slinging dog food and picking up you-know-what sounded hideous. Fortunately, I was able to plead an upcoming change in family status and get off the phone.

My dear husband is a little hit-and-miss in the gift giving department. There is a lot of thought that goes into the purchase of a sled dog team. Not exactly sure what kind of thought, but I’ve got to give him credit for that. He was a big winner the year he handpicked every pearl for a beautiful long string I received as an anniversary gift. Ditto for the Mother’s Day I arrived home to one of the famous blue boxes. But there was a Christmas where he not only bought me a pair of slippers (unromantic) and left the price tag on (unobservant), but also stuck the box, unwrapped, on a branch of the Christmas tree (unmentionable).

He keeps me guessing, anyway. Maybe a little mystery is good in a marriage that’s lasted as long as ours.

More contributions for the worst gift ever? There have been some doozies so far.