When I was seven, I used to cover my drawings with another piece of paper, shaded in black, so you’d have to hold it up to the light to see the images behind it. One was of a beautiful dead woman at the bottom of the sea, draped in wilting flowers. Every year, her lover would return to the place where she had fallen to her death to drop another rose.
When I was eight, I frightened my parents by building a guillotine out of Tinker Toys, which didn’t actually work. I used piano wire to make hoop skirts for my Barbies and cut out little folded fans with drawn-on birds and landscapes. I painstakingly covered their faces in white paint, drew exaggerated beauty marks, and pinned cotton balls and feathers into their heads until they looked just like 18th century aristocrats. I only owned one Ken doll, though, which complicated my reenactment a bit.
And when I was eleven, I won an award for a Thanksgiving short story I casually penned one day in class. My parents’ faces were so proud when they asked me to read it to them, then slowly fell as they realized it was written from the point of view of a turkey whose wife had been pulled from their humble wooden shack for slaughter, about how his heart had burned upon watching the pink-cheeked farmer’s daughter, with her bouncy blonde curls, giggling as she dragged his shivering wife to the block.
My grandmother proudly pulled the turkey out of the oven later that night. I was genuinely surprised when my parents went awkwardly quiet.
Maybe it was their fault for buying me all those kid-friendly Shakespeare books, or letting me watch Wagnerian operas at two, but I had never been the type to sell lemonade for a quarter with an adorably messed-up, hand-painted sign. Because I was too swept up in the beauty of tragic romanticism to understand what a creepy little kid I was.
But in time, I learned that adding a few punchy pop songs to your opera death-scene playlist was socially helpful. That maybe you shouldn’t bring up the history of torture and what it might mean about human psychology when people are discussing politics, or that when you’re in mom circles, maybe you keep to yourself that trying to make friends with bullies is really bad advice for children because sometimes, just windmilling your arms works ten times as well.
I had nearly forgotten that dark imagination until its echoes crept up on me today, in the form of my five-year-old daughter Brontë…
It would be Brontë, the child I named for my love of the Brontë sisters. I was in high school, having lost my taste for books for years, even though I felt guilty about it because reading was something smart people were supposed to do, even though it bored me senseless until I was forcing my way through a school-required Wuthering Heights and found the scene where Heathcliff runs to the broken window to scream for the ghost of Catherine to return…
Well, I was playing with the kids outside when I finally asked them why they kept throwing flowers into the rickety birdbath in the back of the yard.
Brontë’s face took on a quiet, reverential tone as she solemnly spoke to me…
“This is NOT a birdbath.”
“Okay, what is it?”
She took a breath. “This… is the monument to our dead queen.”
And, shocked that she knew the word “monument,” I prodded her further: “Oh?”
Pointing to the pool house, she continued: “That was her house and we don’t go in there. She was very old and very nice. She had long white hair and always smiled. She was so… kind. The bad guys killed her,”
Then, wiggling the top of the birdbath, she said, “You can never push this over because if you do, you will break the queen’s bones and destroy her soul. They killed her father too, but they cut off his head and all his body is in pieces so we can’t find his body, which is a very sad thing.”
“I see,” I told her, trying not to disrespect the sacred site with too casual a tone. Bridget nodded sadly, placing another picked flower on the birdbath and grabbing my hand. She walked me over to the gazebo to explain how this was her house, where they serve tacos, and sometimes chocolate cake.
“And we play hide-and-seek,” Brontë added. “And you should play with us…
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you’re browsing your Facebook feed when you come across a bunch of photos of your friend Alex deep-sea diving in New Zealand. Why look, the whole family is there… all bronzed and smiling.
You’re happy for Alex. Really. Because Alex is your buddy and you think it’s awesome to go to New Zealand, just like it was awesome when he went to Copenhagen a few months back.
Not that you’d know, having never been to either place yourself. (You start counting the years since you’ve been on vacation…)
Does it bug you? Does it bug you that it bugs you?
Well, don’t worry, because it’s completely normal. You see, researchers have found that money doesn’t buy happiness after all… unless we have more of it than our friends and colleagues do. We care most about how we’re doing compared to everyone else around us.
Which makes sense. I mean, if everyone in the village has two goats and your family has FOUR, then you’re probably feeling pretty successful and respect-worthy until someone in the village builds a skyscraper.
But that skyscraper family needs love too. Look, I’m not trying to be intimidating, but I’ve got some pretty impressive resources myself. I have assets that have only been available to an elite percentage of lucky people…
That is, as long as you’re counting all the people who have ever lived since the beginning of time. Which I am.
Laugh at my adorably child-like imagination if you must, but comparing myself to people who lived hundreds of years ago makes me feel a whole lot better than reading about the Kardashian sisters’ weekly armpit-bleaching (I may have made that last part up, but you get my drift).
Plus, it means feeling filthy rich every time that I:
1. Eat Oranges
My darling mother-in-law from North Carolina recently visited, seeing our new house for the very first time.
She was most gracious about it, but what seemed to truly impress her most was the orange tree we have in our backyard. Imagine seeing an orange tree through your bathroom window, she sighed wistfully.
Now, growing up near towns with names like “Citrus Heights” has left me somewhat oblivious to my backyard citrus privileges, but seeing her perspective helped me realize how unusual it actually is… Oh yeah, people used to receive oranges in Christmas stockings, back when they were an enormous deal because non-local goods were really expensive.
In fact, Marie Antoinette, who’s the very symbol of whimsical decadence if anyone is, had orange trees from Spain and Portugal wheeled into the gardens of Versailles in planter boxes every morning from their warming rooms, as a statement of her fabulous access to luxury goods.
And here I am, staring at oranges from my bathroom window. Like a BOSS.
2. Drink Hot Chocolate
I like to start my day with a nice cup of hot chocolate, like it’s no big deal at all.
But this habit would’ve once pegged me as a pampered aristocrat.
Because chocolate used to be unbelievably expensive. The Aztecs believed it was a divine gift and used it for currency.
It first appeared at the French court of Versailles in 1666, during the wedding of Louis XIII and Anne of Austria. Versailles, of course, was world-renowned for ridiculous self-indulgences and nearly pornographic levels of luxury at the time.
And even THEY were impressed by chocolate. After Louis XIV’s married Marie Thérèse of Spain, who loved the stuff, the king granted the first chocolate manufacturer in France, David Chaillou, a monopoly, which kept chocolate unbelievably expensive for a very long time.
Yet here I am, starting each day with a heaping cup of chocolate, the 17th century equivalent of breakfasting on Beluga caviar sprinkled in gold dust while setting hundred dollar bills on fire.
3. Pepper My Food
Black pepper (Piper nigrum) is the dried spice everyone keeps in half of their salt and pepper shakers. Nowadays, it’s the bare minimum of any spice collection, something found on every table at any truck stop in any random backwater town.
But it used to be something only insanely wealthy people could afford to use.
In fact, the Dutch still use the expression “peperduur,” which means “pepper expensive,” to refer to outrageously costly things. It’s a holdover from earlier times, when pepper was literally more valuable than gold. It’s rumored that Alaric I, King of the Visigoths, and Attila, who ruled the Huns, both demanded ransoms of black pepper in exchange for stopping their attacks on Rome during the 5th century.
4. Salt My Food
The word “salary” is actually derived from the word salt, coming from the Latin “salarium,” or “money to buy salt with.” Apparently, people used to picture incomes in terms of how much salt they could buy.
Salt is sacred. Greek, Jewish, Catholics, Buddhists, Tibetans,followers of Shinto, Southwest Native Americans, and other religious groups historically involved salt in holy rituals.
And yet, I can boast an embarrassing wealth of saltiness. I have table salt, Kosher salt, and two kinds of sea salt at my disposal… I can throw salt into my baths, as well as on my food. I can buy a HUGE amount of salt, more salt than I could use in years, and I don’t even run around bragging about it.
5. Flip On the Air-Conditioning
For most of human history, we’ve had to live in the elements the best that we could.
If it was snowing, we could build shelters, sew thick clothing, wrap ourselves in furs, or build a fire.
But if it was blisteringly hot, there wasn’t much we could do, except not wear a bunch of clothes (I’m talking to you, Victorian England).
Before that, there wasn’t much people could do to deal with the heat, apart from jumping in the lake or making someone wave a fan at you.
So whenever I flip on the air-conditioning, it’s basically the new world equivalent of filling the room with expensive ice cubes or having a team of servants waving a bunch of ostrich feathers in my face.
I should probably be reclining on a couch and eating grapes whenever I do it.
These are just a few of the ways I like to pretend I’m a powerful empress in the ancient world. Just think about how impressed medieval people would be if they travelled forward in time to behold the splendor of my lifestyle.
But don’t be jealous. You’re probably an aristocrat too.
Hey, we all have to make tough choices in our lives, each involving unique hardships and challenges. So instead of fighting, I’d like to take a moment today to appreciate all the other women out there. Especially the ones who are typically at war:
You guys are bucking the trend, facing criticism from everyone who believes any “normal” woman’s primary focus should be on having children. You’re changing ancient stereotypes about women being walking uteri while creating more independence and career opportunities for future women everywhere.
We don’t ALL need to have kids, and I thank you for bearing with those of us who are trying desperately to calm ours down at the restaurant or grocery store. Your taxes help pay for the next generation’s education too, so I thank you for being team players who are contributing to the group at large.
Plus, there didn’t used to be many options for women who didn’t want to focus on being moms, and that’s unfair. Our wages were pitiful, we were locked out of many career tracks, and were eventually viewed as old maids trying our best to scrape together something resembling a life after clearly being unable to land a man.
Thank you so much for helping to change this.
You guys have it ROUGH. You’ve got the pro-life crowd demanding you see every pregnancy through, regardless of circumstance, while experts demand you leave dysfunctional relationships or marriages, and then your morality is considered questionable after following everyone’s advice.
I have a hard enough time raising kids with a supportive partner, so I can’t imagine dealing with a screaming kid for hours, day after day, all by yourself… no one to shoulder the burden for a bit, while you regain your sanity. I honesty don’t know how you do it, but I’m impressed as hell that you keep it together the way you do.
Kids are a nearly-endless pool of energy and irrational desires. It’s DRAINING to take care of kids all day, Sisyphean at times… you slave over meals they refuse to eat or even throw on the floor. You clean out bodies and butts that get dirty five minutes later. You spend hours trying to either figure out why they won’t stop yelling, dumping out every jar in the house, or trying to stick silverware in the light sockets, only to relive the cycle again and again.
Trying to keep a house with little kids in it clean is like trying to file a huge stack of papers in front of high-powered fans. You can spend the entire day on your feet: chasing kids, putting out high-priority fires, and never getting a break, only to feel like you’ve accomplished nothing at the end of it.
And meanwhile, everyone’s rolling their eyes about how you’ve probably been eating bon-bons and watching soap operas all day, while assuming you’d undoubtedly be doing something more important (i.e. better paid) if you had the skills for it. It’s tough to be a SAHM in a society that equates work with identity, but you’re still doing important work. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have to pay other people to it.
You guys are troopers, taking on a full work week during the day, then spending your evenings raising your kids. While SAHM’s don’t always get to take breaks, they do get some control over their own schedules, whereas you’re locked into a sunrise-to-sunset grind from the moment your alarm first starts screaming.
The American workplace doesn’t accommodate parenthood nearly as well as the rest of the developed world. You weren’t necessarily given much maternity leave, if any at all, and may have a brutal time reconciling your work schedule with the needs of your family without either shortchanging your kids or damaging your upward mobility. It’s a constant tightrope walk.
Meanwhile, you’re being shamed about letting strangers raise your kids, as if it were always a choice. Keeping a roof over their heads and food on the table is probably a higher priority, right?
And even if it is a choice, what’s wrong with being invested in your career? Maybe you’ve worked long and hard to get where you are and didn’t stop caring about it the moment you had a baby. Why doesn’t anyone question working fathers like this?
Even though it sounds like the most natural thing in the world, breastfeeding can be incredibly challenging. The technique is tricky to master, it HURTS for the first few weeks, and it’s very easy to get discouraged and give up.
It also takes an enormous amount of time. You have to breastfeed babies every couple of hours, which makes it tough to do much else. Doing so in public makes many people uncomfortable, which means you’re either living under house arrest for the better part of a year, or suffering lots of uncomfortable stares from people who find it disgusting.
But experts now recommend it as the healthiest way to feed your infant, so you’re working hard to do right by your kid. Good luck, and keep your chin up.
Since experts now strongly encourage breastfeeding, moms who use formula also face loads of social disapproval, even the unspoken suggestion that they’re lazy or don’t care about their baby’s health.
And that’s an incredibly painful judgment, especially if you really wanted to breastfeed but couldn’t build up enough milk or had a baby with latching issues. Beyond that, there’s a good chance you had to go straight back to work, which makes it exponentially harder.
Pumping enough milk takes more time than I can imagine being available to you at a full-time job, even with breaks, and women who try are looked down upon by their coworkers. It’s also much tougher to produce milk for a machine than a baby. Many moms smell their baby’s clothing or look at baby pictures when they try because the right mindset helps. I have the deepest respect for any working moms who manage it at all.
It’s easy to feel like a failure when you feed your baby formula, but don’t. Many, many generations of healthy babies were raised on formula and your kids will be absolutely fine.
It’s a bad time right now for liberals in America. Our side lost, and the entire government is packed with members of the other team.
And now we’re fighting amongst ourselves as we scramble to understand how it all happened. There’s a lot of finger-pointing going on, many calling another subgroup the weak link in the chain as we splinter into warring factions. Was it racism? Was it elitism? Was it the failure to focus on the economy or the failure to do what we were doing even harder?
I don’t know, but I hope we don’t cannibalize ourselves in the process. We’ve got to keep our heads in the game, guys. That win margin was awfully narrow.
I may not be on your team, but I’m friends with many of your teammates.
In other words, we may not back the same horse, but we often have similar values. I think most of us want to live in a world where people don’t fear for their safety, where they can be productive and take care of their families, and where our kids can grow up with a good education and ample opportunity.
We both want less crime, fewer unwanted pregnancies, healthy people, and a healthy economy where we can live comfortably after putting in a hard day’s work.
We both want these things, even if we have different ideas about how we can get there. Maybe it’s naive, but I’m really hoping we can both learn to start talking to each other instead of demonizing the other side. I think we’ve probably got more in common than we realize, because it’s usually the extremists taking up all the air in the room.
Besides, we’ve kind of been forced to pick teams in the grand Super Bowl that is American politics. I’ll bet most Americans aren’t 100 % strict adherents to EVERY last position and theory spouted off by their political camp. Most are probably more moderate than that, which means we have some common ground to logically hash out some of these issues.
In short, I think we’d all do well to recognize that while we face some hardships, everyone else has hardships of their own. We’re all doing the best we can with what we’ve got, so maybe we could put down our arms and try to understand someone else’s perspective, while giving ourselves a break at the same time.
I’m afraid of ghosts, even though I don’t believe in ghosts.
To start with, it doesn’t make sense that most ghosts come from the 19th century. Where are all the old guys in Bermuda shorts? You never hear about mundane ghost problems like Uncle Rob eating all the mixed nuts every time you leave the room.
It’s never Aunt Josie hanging her orthopedic bra over your shower or some 80’s kid who keeps flipping the stereo to Michael Jackson hits. No, it’s always some creepy little girl in a white dress staring you down in the hallway, or an axe murderer writing blood messages on the mirror. What about Neanderthals?
The rational part of my brain doesn’t believe in ghosts for a second, but that doesn’t stop me from flipping the light on every time I think about them too long. I’d never be able to sleep in a haunted house because I’d be too busy curling into a quivering ball at every random noise (Being a ball totally protects me from supernatural powers, right?)
These days, if I need to walk across my house in the middle of the night, there’s a very good chance of encountering a discarded doll along my journey. She’ll just be lying on the floor, staring at me in the quiet darkness with her menacing dead eyes as I crab-walk sideways to grab a glass of water.
And it was in this creepy hellscape of frozen dolls and off-key music boxes last night that my four-year-old daughter Brontë asked me, “I don’t like dead bodies, mommy. Do you?”
“NO. I do not like dead bodies,” I told her while wondering what put this idea in her head.
“Where have you seen dead bodies?” I asked.
“I’m seeing themright now.”
Aaaand that’s when my blood turned to ice.
Heart pounding, I looked down at the Wii balance board I was fixing up for her, sorting out what direction to insert the double AA’s. Something clicked.
“Dead… BAT-TER-IES?” I ask.
“Yeah,” Brontë says. “Dead batteries means your stuff doesn’t work! You don’t like them, right?”
The other day, my four-year-old daughter abruptly stopped building her Lego princess skyscrapers to stare off into the distance, clearly lost in thought.
After a while, she turned to me and said, “You know… mummies would always have toilet paper on them.”
I laughed, which was not okay.
“That’s NOT funny!”
She’s fond of mummies, so maybe she found the mockery of their toilet-paper bodies unacceptable. Or maybe I was supposed to be wildly impressed by her deductive reasoning. Maybe anything bathroom-related is sacred, or she views not having toilet paper as a very serious issue that should never be taken lightly.
Either way, she was completely disgusted by my irreverence.
One should never mock how mummies could always conveniently wipe their butts.
Last week, a friend of mine wished everyone on Facebook a happy Thanksgiving by calling it the “eat whatever you want without feeling guilty” holiday.
She’s right, of course. Officially, Thanksgiving is about being grateful, but we all know the main focus is usually on making a ridiculous amount of food then trying to eat as much as possible.
It’s gluttony, really. One of the seven deadly sins.
Not that I’m against it. Giving into temptation every once in a while helps us build up enough willpower to truly deprive ourselves.
It’s an old idea. The Catholics have a long tradition of letting loose during the Carnival festive season right before buckling down into all the self-denial of Lent.
Maybe they’re onto something… America may not have a Carnival festival per se, but we DO have 7 major holidays, which just happens to be the same number as the official deadly sins.
1- Thanksgiving: Gluttony
Official purpose: Being grateful for what you already have
I already covered this one… On Thanksgiving, we’re all supposed to prepare a massive feast involving turkey, cheese-covered green beans, and a variety of seasonal gourds.
We then invite our families over to collectively lay siege to this food pile, not stopping until everyone is sleepy and no one can buckle their pants.
That’s when we break out the pumpkin pie…
2- Halloween: Lust
Official purpose: Making yourself look unappetizing
Traditionally, Halloween is about kids dressing up in scary costumes and going from house to house,collecting candy. So maybe, for kids, Halloween is about gluttony. They weren’t all that jazzed about eating turkey, after all.
But for adults, it’s the holiday where good taste fashion rules fly out the window. Naughty nurses, naughty witches, and naughty tavern wenches are EVERYWHERE.
It’s the one time of year women feel free to channel their inner dominatrix, parading around in glorified bikinis, weapons, and heavy eyeliner. Ironically enough, this all happens when it’s super cold outside.
3- Christmas: Greed
Official purpose: Caring about everyone else
Sure, Christmas is about the birth of our savior, trees with pretty lights, traditional songs and family togetherness. It’s lovely.
But who are we kidding? For kids, it’s all about the presents. They dream up wish lists for months, write letters to Santa, and wake up at the crack of dawn on Christmas, hungry to tear into that sweet new pile of toys.
And we parents absolutely break ourselves to make that possible.
4-New Year’s Eve: Sloth
Official purpose: Welcoming the challenges of a whole ‘nother year
NYE is basically a grownup’s holiday that mostly involves going somewhere to sit around and drink until the clock strikes midnight and everyone kisses each other.
I’m gonna argue NYE is all about sloth, because it’s not only the holiday that involves the least work (unless you’re throwing a giant party), but also the one where everyone expects to magically improve their lives.
Yeah, we just cheer for the brand new year, thinking this new year will automatically make great things happen without us having to do anything. Okay, maybe we throw out a New Year’s resolution or two, but we definitely won’t be starting them until tomorrow.
5- Valentine’s Day: Envy
Official purpose: Being grateful for your significant other
This is the holiday where some lucky women receive enormous bouquets of roses at work, in front of all their jealous coworkers, while others wonder why their deadbeat boyfriends/husbands never send them roses at work. Because apparently that guy has gotten a little too comfortable and it’s probably just a matter of time before he stops even bothering to sniff the armpits of his shirts before getting dressed to go out.
This is the day when people in seasoned relationships get to envy the emotional rollercoaster of fresh new relationships, and people in new relationships get to be disappointed when a bunch of dramatic gestures don’t end up leading to an incredibly romantic proposal.
Even worse, single people have to sit around being single while the whole world celebrates being in love. Hearts, chocolates, and chocolates in heart-shaped boxes… it’s the schmoopiest, most in-your-face kind of romantic comedy love propaganda on the planet, designed to remind anyone single just how tragic it is to be alone.
Of course, all those bells and whistles put a lot of pressure on couples. What if you’re exhausted and all you really feel like doing is ordering in a pizza and watching Netflix? This wouldn’t be a problem if you were single. Single people have nothing to prove and can do whatever they want. Lucky bastards…
6- Independence Day: Wrath
Official purpose: Patriotism
It’s tempting to say the 4th of July is all about Pride, because we Americans are feeling pretty smug about how awesome our country is and how smart we were to hide behind rocks while the British Redcoats lined up with giant X’s on their chest.
But I’m going to go with Wrath instead.
Why? Because the one thing that distinguishes Independence Day is our collective need to watch fireworks. (Maybe we set them off ourselves, or maybe we go watch a professional show… it depends on how your city ordinances deal with handling explosives).
And while fireworks are beautiful, their thundering noises, flashing lights, and thrilling potential danger have been commemorating the weapons of war since 1777.
That’s right, everyone casually eats watermelon and well-barbecued meats while fondly remembering how we really decimated the British with our musket fire and cannon balls. Cause that’s what we ‘Muricans do to folks who TAX US WITHOUT LETTING US REPRESENT.
You wanna TAX our tea?? Well, we’re gonna THROW IT INTO THE WATER and start DRINKING COFFEE INSTEAD.
You like them apples, England? How about you guys waltz into your nearest Starbucks, sip some lattes and think about what you did…
7- Easter: Pride
Official purpose: Celebrating the resurrection
Admittedly, saying Easter is all about the deadly sin of pride may be a hard sell. But I’ve only got one holiday and one deadly sin left, so I plan to plan to rationalize that square peg into this round hole until my theory completely fits.
So… what about the fact we think we know what we’re doing, even though we’re all celebrating Christ’s resurrection with a bunch of bunny rabbits and colorful eggs?
Does that seem reasonable to you? That a giant rabbit, who hides baskets of chocolate from children, should be a fitting symbol of our messiah’s return from the dead?
Of course. Because we all know what we’re doing here. Why shouldn’t we call this holiday “Easter,” which comes from the Teutonic fertility goddess “Eostre,” which we celebrate in the Spring with a bunch of fertility symbols, like eggs and rabbits?
Nothing weird about that.
And while we’re on the subject of pride, how about the way we celebrate the holiday by hiding baskets and eggs from little kids. Kids have trouble finding them even when we put them in really obvious places, which makes us feel pretty smart.
Easter, the day we get to feel like geniuses by outwitting a pack of tiny children.
So, am I completely off the mark here? Because I’m basically saying that while we set up these holidays to celebrate the greatest of human virtues, we kind of end up reveling in the worst.
Not that it’s a bad thing. Maybe we need these “safe,” official spaces to get out all our selfishness. Maybe it makes us better people for the rest of the year.
Or maybe we’re inventing new holidays to do it better. I mean, what the heck is Black Friday about, if not our willingness to trample our countrymen to get our hands on a bigger TV?
UPDATE: After reading this post, my blogging buddy Amanda at Just in Queso wrote a hilarious post where she assigned the 7 deadly sins to characters on the show Friends. You should check it out: Sins and Friends.
My four-year-old daughter Brontë’s favorite meal is pesto pasta, which she calls “green pasta.” She’s usually thrilled whenever she finds out we’re having it, but the last couple of times haven’t been up to par.
My husband John makes a great pesto sauce using fresh basil leaves, aged parmesan, and toasted pine nuts, but he tried to save time one night by using pre-grated cheese.
Brontë noticed, and it dimmed her enthusiasm quite a bit. “How do you like your pasta?” we asked her.
“Umm, it’s… good,” she said, looking sideways.
At least she ate it. Last night, John tried to save even more time by using a pre-made pesto sauce from Nugget. Brontë took one bite, quietly set her fork down, and asked to be excused.
We only have ourselves to blame, creating this monster by giving her fantastic cheeses since before she had teeth. My kids were raised on Manchego and aged Dubliner Cheddar. Whenever I can’t find the good block of Parmesan, I start hunting through my kids’ hiding places until I find it, chewed down to the rind.
They poach fine cheeses from the fridge all the time, and while I’m proud they can handle the strong flavors, I’m also getting frustrated by how high-maintenance they’ve become.
They won’t eat string cheese, for example. One time, I handed Bridget a stick, after she’d been begging for cheese, and she took one bite before throwing it on the floor and having a complete meltdown.
I guess she had a “cheese fit,” if there is such a thing.
But something about pesto indignation really put things into perspective, maybe because it reminded me how excited I was, years ago, when Trader Joe’s finally started offering decent pesto sauce.
I have to warn you that what I’m about to say is going to sound really old fart, but back when I was a kid, you couldn’t get your hands on good pesto for love or money.
Kids today don’t know how good they have it, with their easily-obtainable Arabica coffee beans and quality pesto. Say what you will about the market saturation of Starbucks, but at least they brought good coffee to the masses. When I was little, if you wanted anything better than the kind of swill that tastes like it’s been sitting in some gas station’s drip coffee machine all day, you had to special order it.
I travelled through Europe some while growing up, which was great, except it turned me onto a bunch of good food I couldn’t find anywhere in the US.
Like decent coffee or Nutella. Nutella absolutely rocked my kid world (spreadable CHOCOLATE? Were they serious!?), but we didn’t carry it over here. I just had to choke down my strawberry Pop-tart, shut up, and try to be grateful for access to peanut butter.
And then there was pesto.
After experiencing the wonders of pesto pasta in southern Italy, I became obsessed with finding more after returning home. But that was tough, because any pesto you could actually find tasted like crap. Weirdly bitter and garlicky. They always replaced the olive oil and pine nuts with canola and walnuts.
Trader Joes’ pre-made pesto seemed like the first halfway-edible stuff I came across until the great pesto revolution of the mid-nineties, when Americans everywhere suddenly decided pesto was a great idea.
It’s not just pesto… you can get diverse and complicated foodstuffs from across the world in every run-of-the-mill grocery store these days, even Marmite (if you like that sort of thing). I remember when this stuff was regional, being horrified when my first husband (who was from Virginia) brought home a jar of Pace picante sauce one night.
“NOOOOOOO!” I told him. “You get salsa from the clear tubs at the deli!” He looked at me, completely baffled (“The what?”). Poor guy was from Virginia, after all. He found it hysterical when I mixed brown sugar into grits.
Whatever… it looked like Cream of Wheat.
Say what you will about the threats of globalization, but at least we’re now getting our hands on lots of good food. The jarred salsa incident pales in comparison, for example, to the great tortilla fiasco my parents experienced in the 1970’s.
Before I was born, my father was stationed for a while at a naval base in Gulfport, Mississippi. The food was excellent, if you like cornbread and crawdads, but being Californians, my folks had a hankering for Mexican food that simply would not be denied.
It grew and grew until they finally set out on an epic taco quest. Problem was, they couldn’t find any tortillas.
They looked and looked, and finally, found some one day.
They were canned.
Canned, you may be thinking… What on earth do canned tortillas even taste like?
Well, according to my dad, they’re horrible. Or in his words, “You’re probably better off nailing them to the soles of your shoes than eating them.”
Unable to get a decent taco before returning to California, I’m sure my folks think my generation is packed with insufferable foodies, with our caramelized onion cheeses and almond milk. We grew up with cafe latte’s on every corner, after all, wondering whether or not our oils were cold-pressed. They probably shake their heads at us the same way I do when my toddlers stare at mac & cheese like it’s going to crawl over and bite them.
And my parents’ generation probably seemed just as snotty to their predecessors. I’ll never forget the time my great grandmother, who grew up during the Depression, pulled a huge tub of expired cottage cheese out of her refrigerator.
Staring down the cheese tub raw determination, she popped off the tub and gave it a good sniff.
Then she scooped out a big mound with a giant silver spoon and bit it with true ferocity. She blinked a couple of times before attacking it again.
She kept at it until she had finally finished the entire tub and shivered. “I’m glad that’s over,” she told us. “It tingled a bit going down.”
It’s been well over a week’s since I’ve posted and high time I wrote something, before I completely lose momentum…
We’ve been in the depths of home-buying hell lately, scrambling to compete for limited Sacramento inventory while trying to sell our house to folks who don’t want to risk contingencies. Moving from a lower-demand area to a higher one is proving tricky.
Plus, I’m having sporadic panics about having to clear the evidence of two wild toddlers from our house quickly, so someone can check out our house before it re-explodes: “I said PUT THAT DOWN! Where are your SHOES… Did you just FLING YOGURT ALL OVER THE KITCHEN!?”
Momma is rapidly losing it.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: white carpets are where madness lies. White carpets and white tile and white grout and white painted decks were clearly the brainchild of some bourgeois masochist, hell-bent on providing suburban disciples with a daily atonement exercise.
It’s never clean. None of us are clean. There’s nothing so decaying as the core of Puritanical zealotry. Just keep scrubbing, just keep scrubbing (I’m picturing a wild-eyed Dori in a Thanksgiving hat as I say this).
In the midst of all this, however, my husband John surprised me with a three-day trip to Disneyland for my birthday, because he’s awesome like that. I thought we were just gonna hang out at Santa Cruz.
The trip was fantastic and I’ll be writing another post about it with adorable photos. But for now, I’d rather discuss getting older, since birthdays tend to make one reflect.
I don’t want to get too detailed about it, but let’s just say I had kids older than many, but young enough not to need medical help with it. I firmly believe there are different advantages to parenting at various ages, but in my case, this was the right path. I wasn’t financially or emotionally ready at 20.
Besides, the older I get, the more I grasp the grand relativity of age. For instance, I can still vaguely remember sixth graders looking SO grown-up, back when I was seven years old.
Now, many high schoolers look like kids.
In fact, I remember being baffled when my high school teacher parents called them that: “Kids.” Kids were single digit ages, to my way of thinking, who played hopscotch and dragged around dolls.
High schoolers, on the other hand, could almost vote. Clearly, my folks were delusional.
I can also remember thinking 30 was practically middle-aged, back when I was fourteen or so. Thirty now feels very “young adult,” the soonest a person should be trusted with important decisions. Possibly it sounds infantile to septuagenarians.
My recent Sue Grafton mystery novel reading jag has put all this into even greater perspective. I don’t know why I’ve been on a Grafton kick, except that I like mystery novels and read hers years ago, back when I was younger than the main character. Back when I had to check them out of the library and hope someone had brought the next alphabet letter book back.
I have to mention, she really developed an ingenious titling system: A is for Alibi, B is for Burglar, etc. Not only is is easy (she just comes up with a crime-related word for each alphabet letter), but it also activates any Obsessive-Compulsive tendencies within her readers.
You want to complete the set. You don’t want to be missing “E” or “J” in your beautifully-coordinated book set, because that would be like long division with an outrageously repeating decimal remainder. It’s a missing bicuspid in an otherwise uniform set of teeth.
Clever titles aside, it’s been eerie to reread a 80’s saga I once read in my youth. It’s world is forever frozen in the 1980’s of my childhood, with a detective who still uses phone books and card catalogs. A detective who once seemed worldly and mature to me, but is now younger than I am, locked into a world without internet or smart phones.
It’s amazing to think the kids growing up today will see phone booths as antiquated relics, the way my generation saw old-timey 1920’s phones with bells you talk into and little cranks on the side. Phone numbers that included addresses because everyone was on a party line, or something.
Even crazier is the idea that someday, Millennials will be the old farts. Whatever the next generations ends up being called, they’ll eventually be making fun of Millennial music and pants styles, pointing out how dated it is to tattoo your arms and cringing whenever someone born “way back in the 90’s” mangles the current slang.
Sigh… it’s all a big cycle, isn’t it? I’ve never understood the point of fixating on age (you won’t find me posting commiserating “age test” memes on Facebook), since we’re all alive on this planet for one brief lifetime (probably) and better off living our lives than complaining about unchangeable details, but there are a few points I’d like to make after all this reflection…
Every generation, probably since the dawn of time, thinks the next one is going to Hell in a hand basket
Right now, it’s Generation X complaining about Millennials: they’re entitled, they’re materialistic, they’re lazy, they have bad manners… blah blah blah. But a thousand years ago it was Socrates, saying:
The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.
Funny how everyone seems to think the world happened to reach its greatest potential within their lifetimes.
On everything: common sense, manners, the right amount of technology before people become socially-impaired…
And music, of course. Music just happened to be awesome until right after your college years, whereupon it went straight into the toilet. The world’s collective creative peak just happened to zenith along with you before sliding into another Dark Age.
I don’t know if it’s because we forget the follies of our youth or just resent the world going without us, but I have no doubt the Millennials will be making the same arguments in another 15 years.
2. We’re all convinced we were tireless gods in our youths, before our bodies betrayed us
“I used to stay up partying all night long, throw back some coffee, get into work early, and keep going like no one’s business. Can’t do it anymore, but boy, I used to be unstoppable.”
That’s roughly what I’ve heard thirty-somethings-or-more say about sixteen billion times. They never used to get tired. They could get by on no sleep and just keep going. They used to get up an hour before they went to bed to run seven miles, hungover, before partying all night long.
I don’t know… I don’t remember it quite the same way. I remember having 8 AM classes every morning before doing a work study job then sabre fencing until 2 AM, night after night…
And I also remember being EXTREMELY TIRED.
I was late to that 8 AM class, more often than not, and downing as much caffeine as possible while I dragged myself through my days, sneaking naps whenever I could get one.
I remember eating candy corn and pounding Jolt cola while pulling all-nighters to write fifteen page papers, walking in circles to stay awake and eyeing my bed with incredible longing… How sweet sleep sounded, to just lay down and close my eyes into restful oblivion. I’d get the paper in and come home to pass out for the next ten hours.
I’m not saying we don’t have more energy in our youth, just that it’s not as extreme a difference as people claim. We view our youth through the Golden Good Times filter, much like we view relationships in the first days of their disintegration. Suddenly you’re remembering all the special songs and inside jokes, forgetting all the zits and jealousy.
We were tired back then TOO, we just did it anyway. We didn’t care. We wanted to hang out with our friends and had breaks in-between classes. We weren’t about to to get fired and lose the house.
We’ve grown soft, that’s all. We have cars, regular schedules, and expect more for dinner than microwaved Hot Pockets and creamed corn. We’re tired and bored, because making spreadsheets in a cubicle is way more monotonous than discussing the philosophical implications of Family Guy.
3. You’ll eventually view your younger self as amazingly attractive, but stupid
I’m exaggerating a little for effect, but this is generally true.
While growing up, you’ll probably have a list of “flaws” you worry about: your chubby thighs, the shape of your nose, your zits or lack of six-pack abs, or whatever.
Ten years later, you’ll probably see an old photo of yourself and be amazed at how much cuter you were than you thought at the time. You may even want to reach through the photo to slap yourself, just for wasting so much time being insecure about nothing.
I think it’s a question of perspective. High schoolers spend most of their time around other high schoolers, so they don’t appreciate all the physical gifts that come so easily then… the fast metabolism (despite eating crap), the shiny thick hair (despite flatirons and bleach), and shadowless skin (despite stress).
They compare themselves to photo-shopped models, expensively-groomed Hollywood actors, and the select set of fresh-faced youths they run around with. Not the real world, the larger world of all times and ages, rush hours and cubicle jobs without exercise.
You’re so much better-looking than you realize. Even now, I look at “before” photos from five years ago and wonder why I felt so fat. Why I thought raspberry lipstick would look any different than fuchsia delight.
What a waste of time.
On the other hand, you’re probably deluded about how smart you are. I mean, you may be very clever, especially for your age, but you haven’t had the life experiences that will end up granting you wisdom over your next few decades. You’re taking things for granted you will end up appreciating later. Opportunities that you’ll wish you still had.
Because you’ll have some regrets. We all do. We all make mistakes and some of them stick with us.
And when you look back on your life, you see yourself heading into those mistakes, over and over again. Like watching Titanic and hoping the boat won’t sink, even though you know it will.
You may wonder how your life might’ve turned out differently if you had only done X or Y, wishing you had a time machine to see how it would’ve all played out. You want to impart this wisdom on another kid, hoping to spare them the consequences of your own idiocy.
But you can’t, because the story has been written.
Maybe that frustration is responsible for our tendency to remember the past differently than it really happened, to think we bounced from party to party, without sleep, and never had the irresponsible tendencies kids today seem to display.
I don’t know. But somewhere, faintly, I can hear F is for Fugitive calling my name.
Seven years ago, I lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Midtown Sacramento. I owned six pieces of furniture and all of my clothes and shoes could fit into one of them: a wooden IKEA wardrobe with guitars and fencing sabres piled on top.
I could walk to work in thirteen minutes, bike to the grocery store, and go for weeks without using my car.
My future husband lived a few streets over, in a fancier TWO bedroom apartment. Our courtship involved lots of margaritas and backgammon, plays and quirky coffee shops. River walks, museums and running around the city until 4…
We got married a few years later and found out I was pregnant a month after that… Surprise! With a family on the way, we figured it was high time to become conventional grown-ups. Time to settle down and buy ourselves a house.
And conventional wisdom says you should raise families in suburbs. Bigger houses, better school systems, less crime…
So we packed up our belongings and moved into a suburb roughly half an hour away. We found a big, beautiful house we could’ve never afforded in Sacramento and were incredibly excited about this new chapter of our lives.
But as time wore on, we couldn’t help wondering if we’d made a mistake. Especially after our car was vandalized, eventually stolen, and houses around us were broken into several times (so much for lower crime).
And now, four years later, we know that we did. Our house is lovely, but we’re isolated and bored. We feel it harder every time we visit Sacramento and will be putting our house on the market by the end of the month.
Which raises the question…
Is it better to to raise a family in the city or the suburbs?
I don’t think there’s a right answer.
Or at least, the right answer depends entirely on you.
Who are you and how do you define a good quality of life?
While the suburb I currently live in and Sacramento don’t necessarily represent all cities and suburbs as a whole, I’ve lived in a variety of cities and noticed some common differences. To help define priorities, I’ve come up with five telling questions I think anyone considering the leap should maybe ask themselves first:
1. How do you feel about your car?
When living in Sacramento, I usually walked to work. Instead of fighting traffic, scrambling to find parking or investing in passes, I’d listen to music while getting fresh air.
My monthly gasoline bill was a less than a hundred bucks.
Since I often came home for lunch, I had an hour of free exercise automatically built into my day. So, no need to join a gym or find time to work out.
That may have been an ideal situation, but city people generally live closer to work. Walking or biking are feasible options, unlike for suburbanites, who mostly face long commutes in unpredictable traffic.
Since my husband still works in Downtown Sacramento, moving back means two extra hours in his day. Two more hours to spend with his family, play outside, or just get extra sleep. We both consider that time invaluable, even at the price of higher property rates.
How about you?
2. How do you feel about your stuff?
While having two kids means I’ll never live as streamlined a life as I used to, now the pendulum has swung too far the other way. More space means accumulating more stuff… more stuff than we’ll be able to keep after moving back into a smaller house.
It’s great to have lots of things, but there’s also some downsides. While I used to tidy my apartment within thirty minutes, now I’m endlessly scrubbing a house that’s never completely clean. A bigger house means higher heating and cooling costs, every nook and cranny an ongoing entropy challenge…
They say the things you own start to own you, and I believe that’s true. I wrestle daily with wanting to get outside to DO something while simultaneously not wanting to live like a pig. We have stuff we forget we own and space we barely ever use… that nevertheless needs be cleaned, organized and maintained.
Plus a giant lawn to keep presentable so our neighbors won’t assault us with pitchforks and burning sticks.
Of course, that’s just MY opinion. We have a finite number of waking hours and I’d rather not spend half of them maintaining a bunch of stuff.
But others may feel differently, wanting nothing more than to build a gorgeous domestic palace, a vast receiving house for guests with a lush green lawn and extra bedrooms.
Whether you find this idea appealing or suffocating depends on you.
3. How do you feel about going outside and talking to strangers?
City people spend more random time outside. Everything is closer, often in walking distance, so you tend to get out of the house more when going about your day.
Not that suburbanites don’t get outside, but it tends to be more organized: soccer or swimming practice for the kids, working out at the gym or spending the weekend doing sporty things.
Even restaurants and shops are smaller in the city. You’ll be closer to the next table over, which means you’re more likely to strike up conversations with random people next to you. I’ve had strangers offer to let me try out their bikes in Sacramento within ten minutes of saying “hi.”
It’s not that suburbanites are unfriendly, it’s just more awkward to talk to folks from twenty feet away. Suburban areas are spread out, so everyone has more personal space. You’re less likely to transact with people unless you’re buying something or already know someone well.
Cramped city life, on the other hand, means people are relatively “in your face.” You have to deal with them, for better or worse.
And whether you like that depends on your comfort level. Are you a homebody who would rather keep to themselves, staying indoors to watch TV or read a book? If so, you might just want a bigger, nicer room to read it in.
4. How do you feel about familiarity vs the unexpected?
Not only will more city people talk to you, they’re more unconventional than folks in the ‘burbs.
Or even kinda weird. For example, my family attended a festival run by Sacramento Pirates last week.
And I mean PIRATES. They dress like pirates, talk like pirates, and run around doing pirate-y things (except for, of course, actually marauding ships).
Would that make you uncomfortable?
Personally, I think it’s great. The Sacramento Pirates are people who know what they want. At some point in their lives, they asked themselves what made them happy and decided, “the Hell with what anyone else thinks, I want to be a grownup who runs around acting like a pirate with my friends.”
That takes a lot of guts and I respect it.
The kids had the time of their lives, being incredibly popular amongst pirating folk. The pirates gave them loads of attention and make-believe gems. They even let them hold their parrot and lizard pets.
My kids also collected wheel presents from members of the Sacramento Chapter of Official Mermaids, longtime buddies of the pirates, of course.
My kids carried these gem and shell offerings in little buckets for hours, later hanging out with folks in the Sacramento Beard Society, a bunch of guys who grow unusual facial then run around wearing bowler hats and Victorian vests.
People dress weirder and are weirder in the city, which, depending on your personality, can be either creepy or liberating. Creepy for unsettling your expectations, but liberating because it means YOU can be weirder too. With fewer social penalties.
So, do you like living a conventional life with clear expectations, surrounded by people who behave in familiar ways? Or are you cool with bizarre hair colors, piercings, tattoos, and perspectives outside the comfortable norm?
I’m always surprised by how much culture and social rules can vary across a distance only thirty minutes away.
5. What kind of culture are you into?
Speaking of culture, what is yours? Do you love sports, football players and cheerleaders?
Are you a committed, born-again Christian who loves to socialize with other members of your flock?
Because if you are, suburbia may be the place for you. At least that’s how it is around here, where impressive mega-churches dominate the landscape and folks are gunning to get Donald Trump in charge.
Which is fine (some of my best friends are extremely religious), but it can be isolating for Unitarian Universalists like us. There’s a massive churchgoing element to socialization around these parts and not being born-again Christians, it can be hard to connect.
Some people worry about un-Christian influences facing shaping their kids once they start attending school.
Me? I’m more worried about them coming home insisting the Earth is just 10,000 years old. Or that other kids will shun them if they don’t
On the other hand, if museums and art galleries are more your speed, the city may be the place for you. It’s littered in theaters, concerts, bookstores, and writers’ groups. Not that museums don’t exist in suburbia, churches in the city, but it’s a question of proportion and saturation degree.
In the end, it comes down to your personality and priorities. Do you want a nicer house for your kids or more things to do?
And for me, it comes down to where you feel an emotional connection.
I love Sacramento. I love the people, the vibe, and its one-of-a-kind restaurants and historical spots. I love Corti Brothers, an Italian family-owned market that includes a full-time butcher, a wall of pasta, and 80 year old Scotch locked behind glass.
Our suburb includes lots of great chain stores and restaurants, but for me, nothing with Sacramento’s unique, irreplaceable charm.
I love Old Sac with its 200-year-old underground city, reading Joan Didion’s thoughts about growing up there and picturing Mark Twain on a Riverboat nearby. The underground flashlight Halloween tours offered for when you want to check out 19th century brothels, remains of the Gold Rush or old Pony Express.
I’ve lived in Los Angeles, Monterey, and San Francisco, but have spent more adult years in Sacramento than anywhere else. Now I’ve spent four years in suburbia feeling like an outsider, like I’m on a vacation that’s gone on too long.
A vacation that needs to end so I can return to Sacramento.
Because it’s home.
Where is your home?
Because in the end, that’s the most important question of all.