Saturday, December 31, 2011

Do You Want to Be My Babysitter?

Ok, well, you probably don't. If you've read any of my posts, you are probably thinking that hanging with my daughter is about as fun as a root canal, and at the rate we are going, finding care for her will likely be just as expensive.

I've noticed that childless people don't really get the childcare problem. They make comments like "how hard can it be to find a babysitter?" and tag on things like "especially in this economy?" as if particle physicists and rheumatologists are banging down our door to earn $10-15 an hour.

People with kids understand. It is hard to find affordable, consistent, compassionate, attentive care. Very, very hard. At least if you are looking for someone with a car, no criminal record or super annoying habits, and whose presence you can tolerate without worries that they are going to be pawing through your underwear drawer (or hacking your bank accounts) the moment you are out the door.

When you hire a sitter, you are hiring more than someone to just keep your child safe, fed, and occupied (in roughly that order). You are hiring someone who will have full access to your world and be responsible for the most valuable thing in it. This person will shed their influence - not to mention the cloud of their bad grammar and scent of their lotion, perfume or cigarettes - on your child. And since much of the time that I have a sitter I am actually still at home, writing or otherwise taking care of businesses, I have to like our caretakers as much as our daughter. I have a low annoyance threshold and my husband is a curmudgeon with somewhat unreasonable standards for most things.

Which brings us back to the particle physicists and rheumatologists.

In the two years since my daughter was born she has had four sitters. All are incredible young women - bright, funny, outgoing, accomplished, and attractive. They have been students, usually at some kind of cross-roads, finished with or nearing the end of their respective programs,  and we were lucky enough to take advantage of their availability during a transitional period. But bright, outgoing people tend to move on to more promising things than digging Play-Doh out of sippy cup lids (unless, of course, they are parents) and because such people tend to get snapped up for jobs, internships, teaching assistant positions and the like...well, we tend to lose our sitters to jobs, internships, teaching assistant positions and the like.

I'm pretty sure we could hire people without graduate degrees, or ambition, and be just as happy with their care, but part of the problem has been a lack of access to sitter networks that might have been available to us had our daughter been born in a city where we had friends or family. Living in two totally new cities has forced us to rely on sites like or where we automatically end up treating potential sitters like job candidates. We check references. Obsess about their spelling and grammar and profile pictures. One person even showed up with a resume. It's a far cry from hiring a friend's daughter, or the kid down the block - which we would gladly do, if we had friends or neighbors younger than 83.

I started babysitting when I was fourteen. Let me say that again. FOURTEEN. This seems impossible to me now, not to mention ludicrous and likely illegal in some states. I would never hire a fourteen year old to watch my daughter. I'm iffy on anyone under twenty (or over eighty). I didn't know CPR or any kind of emergency care. If anything had happened on my watch I probably would have called my mom instead of dialing 911.

But even more baffling than the fact that some clueless parents actually left their children with me for extended periods of time - that's right, I said children: I was taking care of a three year old and a newborn when I was roughly twice seven years old - is that I was actually able to do the job. And apparently I did it well, or at least not terribly badly, because they asked me back and recommended me to their friends. In fact, I babysat all through high school and college without any major mishaps. So why is it that now I have my own child, taking care of one two year old pretty much reduces me to rubble every single day, and the idea of even beginning to think about considering the possibility of maybe one day talking about the timing of having another baby turns me into a blubbering, terrified wreck?

I'm sure it has something to do with the child in question being my own, and also with the difference between being responsible for a child in blocks of two to four hours rather than 24/7, and also with my daughter being roughly 400 times more intense than any child I ever cared for, and also with my being old. Gone are the days of blithely tripping into someone else's house with my babysitter's bag of crayons and Dr. Seuss and Richard Scary books, gamely playing endless rounds of tag and Candy Land, and coming up with silly tricks to entice chubby, happy babies to eat carrot puree.

Apparently I wasted all my good parenting and animated Richard Scary-reading on children who weren't my own, not to mention most of my functional brain cells on drinking and reading Heideigger.

Still, I do have some thoughts about who should be taking care of my child when I am in need of an hour, or eight, to myself. And like any boss who expects her new hire to outshine her, and then acts pissy when this actually happens, I also have some standards. So if, for some reason, you want to play Melanie Griffith to my Sigourney Weaver, but where our business has to do with making mac and cheese, rather than acquiring radio station conglomerates or Harrison Ford, then here are a few words of advice. (If that reference made no sense to you, then you are probably too young to take care of my daughter. But keep reading. You may learn something useful. Whippersnapper.)

1.) If you are going to post a profile picture on a website like, do not use your naughty pirate Halloween party photo - ditto drunk girl at bar photo, ditto creepy glamour shots, ditto crazy girl alone in her dorm room pics. We have all been there, sweetheart. But just because most moms out there have had our own dirty pirate days doesn't mean we want you to care for our children while you are living out yours. Think about it. Boozy floozy photographs are a turnoff; they say "flaky" not "good family fun." You're not trolling for dates here. Or at least you shouldn't be. And while taking care of my kid may not be as fun as dating, at least I pay you for your time.

2.) Spell check your personal information. Also consider proof-reading. It's not that a couple of missing or misspelled words reflect badly on your character - or your love of children. But when I'm scrolling through hundreds of profiles late at night, half asleep and three-quarters strung out, the former teaching assistant in me rears her ugly head and I'm going to look for any excuse to redline you, especially if the next profile I read is by Ms. I-graduated-from-Elmo-University and speak six languages and used to run my own daycare before I joined the peace corps. Just sayin'.

3.) Respond promptly. Whether to an email or my daughter trying to jump off a bookshelf, I value the fact that you pay attention. Do not assume that danger is ok just because I seem unphased by her antics. I can't catch everything. Feel free to stop my child from damaging herself. And do not wait days or weeks between communications if you are actually interested in working with our family. Again, this isn't dating. But even if it were, desperation is never attractive while attentiveness usually is.

4.) That said, do not spend all your time on your phone. I text, I email, I obsessively check to see if anyone has read my blog. I saw The Social Network. I get it. But still. I'm paying you to put the phone down when you are with my daughter. She gets enough neglect from me. If you want to pay me to get off the phone, I'll gladly watch my daughter for you.

5.) Do not tell me embarrassing or incriminating stories about yourself or refer to yourself as a "spaz" or "ditherbrain" or the like. Do not moan about failing classes or partying too much or getting dumped again. Everyone needs a filter. (See #1). What you do with your own time is your business, but I don't need extra worries. My husband is already giving me crap about kidnapping.

6.) It would help if you actually seemed like you liked kids. Maybe it is the economy, but nothing is a bigger turnoff than your looks of distain and horror when my daughter does normal kid things like pooping, crying, or having a tantrum. How will you be able to handle it when she starts acting like herself and combines all three in impressively terrible ways? There's a saying about heat and kitchens; there probably should be one about children and childcare.

7.) You can gain extra credit sitter points by giving me reports on what actually happened while you were hanging with my kid. Did she nap? Poop? Eat? Say a new word? I'm not trying to hovercraft my kid but sometimes the little things, like knowing how long she slept, or whether or not she ate, can make a huge difference to planning the rest of the day. It doesn't take that much time and it makes you look like a champ.

8.) Do not look through my underwear drawer. Do not hack my bank accounts. Do not drink my bourbon.

9.) If you are a particle physicist or rheumatologist, please contact me immediately. If you can perform a root canal, even better. Naughty pirate photo and all.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Parental Abbreviations

Parenting websites, like text messaging, rely on a shorthand system of abbreviations: DS/DD/DH (dear son, dear daughter, dear husband), TTC (trying to conceive), CIO (cry-it-out) as well as the more usual OMG, LOL, BRB and the like.

However, I find that many of the sentiments I am trying to express these days aren't covered by the usual technological lexicons. Here are a few of my own additions.

POTL - poop on the loose
SR - snot rag
MDE - mommy daddy Elmo
BBD/BBM - byebye daddy/byebye mommy
WCISD - when can I start drinking
YIWLAM - yes I would like another Mimosa
RAR - ringworm again? really?
AEI - another ear infection
DF - diaper fail
SCF - sippy cup fail
BF - babysitter fail
SB - stop biting
SHHOW - stop hitting head on wall
SLF - stop licking floor
SO - shoes on
SOP - shoes on, please
SOTGMOIWLMFM - shoes on this goddamn minute or I will lose my freaking mind
GTB - go to bed
DP - dance party!
HTO - hands to ourselves
BOTL - binky on the loose
BOAR - binky on a rope
WTB - where's the binky
JLMKITHWMKACNWDID - just locked my kids in the house with my keys and cellphone: now what do I do
JTPOMDDNOTCITW - just took photos of my daughter dancing naked on the couch, is that weird
WH - wash hands
SWH - stop washing hands
MDIOWWHHSIBW - my daughter is obsessed with washing her hands should I be worried
OOTH - out of the house
GMTHOOTH - get me the hell out of the house
DNTMC - do not touch my computer
IINTTGUY - it is not time to get up yet
GBTS/GBTB - go back to sleep/go back to bed
DYT - did you toot
DYP - did you poop
SS - stop screaming
SSS - slide! slide! slide!
ETYAITCYHTSITC - every time you are in the car you have to sit in the car seat
SD - sit down
SC - stop crying
TYFTH - thank you for the hug
NOMCFA - none of my clothes fit anymore
LMM - losing my mind
GWTV - go watch TV
ILAVDCMAAESWHP - I'd like a Venti decaf caramel macchiato and an egg sandwich with ham please
DPM - don't push me
IANARPBYAOMLN - I am normally a reasonable person but you are on my last nerve
LMMOWIALT - losing my mind...oh wait, I already listed that
GM - goodnight moon
UYW - use your words
WTAYCH - what time are you coming home
DNPYN - do not pick your nose
DNET - do not eat that
NNNNN - no, no, no, no, no!
AOAN - and once again no!
NL - not listening

Sample messages:

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Subourbon Mom

We're moving. Again. It's the third time in less than three years - but at least this time it's not across the darn country. It is, however, to the suburbs.

When we first moved to our current city, we drove around the area where our new house is located and looked at each other in horror. I think my exact words were: "I cannot live here. It feels like death." As it turns out, death comes with an awesome kitchen and some really nice bathrooms.

To back up a bit, when I met my husband, we were both living in urban-ish neighborhoods where we could pop out of our respective apartments/condos and walk to a variety of shops and restaurants. We didn't have a yard. We didn't know our neighbors. We didn't think about childproofing the cabinets. When we moved to the east coast, I was 6 months pregnant and we snapped up the first house that we found in order to avoid having our first child while living in a corporate apartment. Luckily for us, the first thing available happened to be new construction with insanely nice amenities. When we moved to the west coast a little over a year ago, we made the choice to trade closet space, solid construction, and a functional kitchen for a sweet view - and it was a great decision. I would make it again if I had to. I have loved watching the sunrise and sunset, rediscovering my legs after stomping up and down the hills in our neighborhood, and being five minutes away from the beach.

But my husband and I are midwesterners, and we both have higher than average needs for personal space. We are used to spreading out, accumulating. We expect homes to be built of brick - or failing that, at least to last more than a few decades before noticeably falling apart. We don't like ants, or mold, or having our clothes closet located in his study - all intractable annoyances in our current house. I will miss the view of water and reflected sunlight on sunny days and the feeling of living in a cloud on rainy ones. Still, the time comes when we have to do things we say we cannot do, or that we will never do. And that's where the bourbon comes in.

Kidding! Perhaps what has been oddest about the whole process of deciding to move inland, to a planned community where we have to drive everywhere, and where a lot of the houses look suspiciously alike and are conspicuously huge, is how easy the decision was and how excited we are about our new home.

For one thing, planned communities all look pretty much alike in certain key regards. Previously, this bothered me. Here in California where so much is foreign, and the lack of seasons is supremely unsettling to my sense of time, anything familiar is more reassuring than I would have anticipated. There will be days when it will seems like I could be living in Illinois, or Missouri, or New Jersey, and I like that. I can always look at the mountains we will now get to see, or hop in the car and drive to the ocean, or check the thermometer in January to remember where really I am.

It will be nice to have neighbors who are roughly our age and live in their houses year round. In our current neighborhood, most of our neighbors are upwards of 80 and use their homes as vacation properties, which adds to the sense of isolation living at the top of a mountain (where, by the way, we still have to drive everywhere). They also have children - young children for our daughter to play with, and older ones to babysit - which now seems delightful, rather than horrifying.

And we will have sidewalks. Lovely sidewalks for safe long walks, something which never bothered me until I had to hit the streets with a stroller. People really don't pay attention to pedestrians. And then there is the kitchen. My husband used to be a chef. He is also a curmudgeon. What makes him happy is good for everyone, especially my stomach.

My earlier self could not imagine my excitement about the exodus to suburbia. It seemed like selling out or giving up or giving in. But then again, my earlier self could never have imagined myself married or a mother. I know now, however, that I can be myself equally well in a studio apartment in St. Louis or a sprawling home in the suburbs. You're only selling out if you stop thinking for yourself or giving up if you stop doing the things you love. Oddly enough, I have done more to pursue the dreams of my youth in the last two post-baby years than in any of the previous decade. If I had known that tying myself down in certain ways would also provide opportunities for exploration and new kinds of freedom, I might have sold out much earlier.

It just goes to show, you never know where you will end up, and you never know how things will work out. You can be as conventional in the city as you can be subversive in the suburbs. If we lived in another city, or another part of the country, we would probably be making different choices. But we don't, and we aren't worrying about it. We'll probably be back east in under five years anyway, and all of this will just seem like California dreamin' anyway...the weather, the kitchen, the yard, the neighbors.

But about that bourbon...I'm pretty sure a Manhattan made in our new kitchen will taste every bit as delicious as it would in a townhouse or a beach house. Just don't ask what's in the Starbucks cup when I'm out on a walk. Trust me, you don't want to know.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Reject's Weekend Puzzler: Alien Abduction or New Parent?

Have you ever, or are you currently, experiencing any of the following:

1.) Lost or unaccounted for periods of time?

2.) Strange medical examinations involving poking and prodding, typically of reproductive organs?

3.) The belief that you have been secretly been captured and held hostage by an ersatz- or non-human, but humanoid, being?

4.) If yes to #3, did you also develop a mystical feeling of identification with or love of this captor? (Additional areas of concern: Is/are the size of their eyes/heads oddly out of proportion to the rest of their body? Is/was your initial impression that their skin is/was oddly colored - say, green or yellow?)

5.) A sense that some great change has occurred in the form of an experience no one else quite seems to understand but that generates intense emotions for you?

6.) If yes to #5, do occasional moments of return to previous life produce a feeling of profound disorientation?

7.) Have you sought out, or has it been suggested to you that you seek out, recovery & support groups in order to meet others struggling with the same issues?

If you answered yes to three or more of these questions, then you may have either had a baby or been abducted by aliens. Simple physical examinations are likely to be inconclusive under such circumstances, although the presence of a baby can be seen to tip the scale in favor of parenthood. However, even this evidence does not rule out the unlikely confluence of both alien abduction and new parenthood, nor the far more disturbing possibility that your baby is an alien sent to learn about humans and/or infiltrate our planet with the goal of upsetting the galactic order. If that's the case, I don't really have any advice, but you're probably going to need a lot more than a support group.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Parental Paranoia: Kidnappers

I think all parents are subject to bouts of paranoia regarding their children, some of which are more rational than others. I tend to worry about things like death, illness, and doing things that will land my daughter in therapy for multiple decades. My husband seems fixated on kidnapping. His reasoning goes something like this: kidnapping is clearly on the rise (his data source appears to be random stories from Fox News, Inside Edition, and People magazine), kidnappers are everywhere, kidnappers prefer cute kids, our daughter is cute, conclusion: our daughter is a prime kidnapping target.

I see the chain of thought, but feel compelled to break down the argument a bit. First off, it is neither clear that kidnappers are everywhere, nor that kidnapping is on the rise. It does seem that certain high-profile kidnapping cases attract a great deal of press, and that there are a greater number of outlets for news about such cases than there used to be when I was a kid.

And while I am not going to do a bunch of research to back this next assertion up, it is my impression that the majority of kidnappings are actually attempted by family members, usually an estranged parent. If this is truly the case, then my husband and I would be the most likely suspects, but as we spend nearly all our free time together and are no more (or less) estranged than any other couple, it would be hard for either of us to kidnap our daughter without the other knowing about it, and if we worked together to kidnap her, well, that wouldn't really be kidnapping would it? Or maybe it would be kidnapping, technically, but I doubt we would care because our daughter would be with us. Huh. Looked at that way, maybe we have already kidnapped our daughter without realizing it. Although most evenings and weekends, it certainly seems like the reverse. But more on that later.

Okay, so I broke down and looked up some data. True "stranger" kidnappings are indeed, relatively rare,  and it appears that the majority of non-family member kidnappings actually occur with teenagers and involve a non-familial caretaker. (Maybe that's the silver lining of not being able to find or retain babysitters!)

But regarding kidnapping by a non-familial acquaintance or stranger, while I do agree that my daughter is cute, she is also a total hellion who resists being touched or held by almost anyone but me, hates being restrained in any way, and will squawk like a pteradactyl for hours on end at the slightest provocation. If my husband ever spent more than a few hours with her in public he would quickly realize that potential kidnappers would likely take one look at her antics and select a far more easygoing cute kid to deal with. I mean, who would you want to kidnap? Lindsay Lohan or Kim Kardashian? Do you want to try traveling around the country on the downlow with Courtney Love or Lauren Conrad? Do you break into the car with the alarm system or the one with the open window? I'm pretty sure our babysitters realize this too and are totally relieved to collect their money and run at the end of an evening.

Another quick internet search also suggests that the fact that we do not live in Columbia and are not involved in the drug trade are also in our favor. I would add to that the fact that we do not live in Turkey, which appears to top the list for European kidnappings, or Austria, where parents do apparently kidnap their own children and force them to live in a cellar. We don't have cellars in southern California. Ditto attics. Or adequate closets. Even if we wanted to kidnap our own daughter, we would be hard-pressed to find a sneaky place to put her since neither of us is going to move a shoebox or bottle of shampoo or otherwise give up an inch of our own personal space to accommodate a noisy, wiggly, snotty hostage who pulls hair and throws poop.

In conclusion: much like the puzzling rise in nut allergies since I was a kid, the reasons for the apparent increase in kidnappings are similarly mysterious and/or controversial, but the advent of measures like the Amber Alert and child ID campaigns run by local schools and law enforcement agencies has certainly raised our awareness of the issue. Not that I think this is a bad thing: the idea that anyone could take my child (stranger or family member) is absolutely horrifying. But I do think there are probably a lot more reasonable things for our family to be worried about than kidnapping.

Like whether or not my husband and I are the ones being held hostage - and how we'd know it if we were. I'd write more on this but my mini-warden is watching me right now and looks about ready to start screaming.  The one who pulls hair and throws poop. I hate it when she screams at me. Have I told you about how cute she is?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Maternal Meltdowns and Existential Opacity

In high school, our dean used the acronym PDA to refer to Public Displays of Affection. Some twenty years later I still find the acronym to be an apt descriptor of behavior in which it might be inappropriate to engage in front of innocent bystanders, although it now stands for Parental Displays of Anger.

When my daughter was around 5-6 months old, I remember being out on a walk with her asleep in her stroller. We lived right by an elementary school, and on that particular afternoon we encountered a mother engaged in an enraged altercation with her son that also involved his coat, the sidewalk, and possibly a plastic guitar. The mom was furious, the kid was crying, and there was some screaming, and forceful shoving into a carseat, and much mini-van door slamming followed by an angry screech of tires.

I spent the first 9 months of my daughter's life in a blissed-out bubble, and I could not at that time comprehend how this mother could be so impatient with her child. Her angel. Her sweet baby. Flesh of her flesh. I looked at the peaceful face of my sleeping infant, and felt foolishly superior. Never would that mother be me. Flash forward a few months, and the bubble burst, as bubbles tend to do.

It happened at an airport, at the end of a long flight following an even longer trip involving hotels and rental cars and restaurants and guest rooms and disrupted nap and bed times. I don't even remember what happened. I'm sure it was some routine and minor annoyance, but it was one more than I was ready to deal with and suddenly I was that screaming mother, shoving my daughter forcefully into her stroller, slamming my suitcase around, and pushing my way angrily up the walkway toward the ticket counter, uncomfortably aware of my audience of flight attendants and gate agents who had, undoubtedly, seen it all before (and probably worse) but whose wide-eyed opprobrium still made me feel like a terrible person, not to mention a bad mom.

How I longed to give the backstory! I wanted to lay out for them how this was just the inevitable endpoint of holding everything together so well the past five days. How I had been a model parent through pteradactyl tantrums and jelly legs and evenings where I couldn't leave my hotel room after 7 pm. Beyond that, I wished I could hand them a flier tallying up the nights I had lain awake with my daughter as she wheezed her way through a cold or cried her way through an ear infection without so much as a peep of protest from me. I felt like I should be wearing a sign outlining the sacrifices I had made and indignities I had suffered as a mother because I know what I looked like in that one moment: an inpatient, inflexible lunatic.

Talk about tipping points. Somehow mine are doozies, and they always seem to happen in public.

It happened again this week at Starbucks. We'd gotten our usual egg sandwich and a foamy drink, and my daughter was (mostly) sitting (mostly) happily (mostly) eating when out of nowhere she started screaming "Egg! Egg! Egg!" (even though one was sitting on the table right in front of her) and crying and rubbing milk foam on her face while trying to stick her fingers into my scalding coffee. When I tried to hold her hand back from the cup, she started a crazy lip splutter which ended up spraying the contents of her mouth onto my face, the only upside of which was that it tasted like caramel and we both ended up smelling like sticky cupcakes. Still, I hadn't signed on for a sticky cupcake morning and, momentarily enraged, I set her down forcefully in her seat, packed up her food, wiped the chair off and hustled her out of the store. The lunatic strikes again. All that was missing was the plastic guitar.

Cooling down in the car on the way home, I thought back on that mother and son and their previously inexplicable altercation. It doesn't seem inexplicable to me now. In fact, I feel a great deal of empathy for both that mother and her son. It's hard to be a parent, sure. But it's also hard to be a kid. As a parent, I often feel like my life is ruled - directly and indirectly - by my child. And yet, I remember very clearly that feeling as a child that I had control over nothing. And no one likes to feel out of control. Well, at least I don't.

In graduate school, I spent some time forced to contemplate the indeterminacy of translation. (Philosophy rears its ugly head!) The classic example, from Willard Van Orman Quine, is when a foreign speaker points to something, like a rabbit, and says "gavagai." How do you figure out to what they are referring? You can't take for granted that what they are really saying is simply "Lo, a rabbit." Maybe they're referring to undifferentiated rabbit parts, maybe to time-slices of rabbits. Maybe they are talking about hunting, or food, or magic tricks.

I wasn't a huge fan of this kind of inquiry. At the time it seemed like loopy, self-indulgent, hair-splitting. And quite possibly delusional. However, in the past year, I have come to see that the problem of referential opacity can serve as a useful model highlighting the problem of existential opacity. Well beyond the imprecision of language, you never know what is going on in someone's head or life - or at their table in Starbucks - until you have some backstory. Or context.

This is Quine's response to the indeterminacy of language; you must be pragmatic and gather enough data to make conclusions that are consistent with behavioral evidence.

When I snap at my daughter and storm out of a store, it could be because I was up all the night before cuddling her croup-y body, worrying about her wheezing and snuffling, soothing and singing to her. Or it could be because she was screaming the entire way to the store, and will be screaming the entire way home again, and I am just beyond gosh awful tired of screaming. It could be because she begs for eggs all the time and then refuses to eat them and no amount of reasoning or refusal seems to break this interminable cycle. It could be because I am a selfish, shallow, spiteful person who should never have reproduced. Or if could be that once again the kid agenda and adult agenda have come into conflict, and I am just too frustrated, or furious, or flummoxed to take a step back or a deep breath and negotiate this particular impasse with poise or humor.

I have little hope for the middle east when this most primal of power struggles rages regularly in bedrooms, and carseats, and shopping carts and, yes - in airports and Starbucks - around this country. I wish for more patience on my end, and more tolerance, and a more mellow toddler - or at least better judgment about when and where to take her our in public - but I also find myself returning to my earlier wish that I could somehow situate this moment in time for those who are looking at me like some shrew of a mother.

There are always a million things threatening to spiral out of control as my daughter spins along like a pre-verbal cyclone of partially-met wants and needs. But most days, most errands, I am reasonably good at managing and responding to her emotional typhoon. Not that I'm perfect at it. But not a total maniac, either. In both public and private, I am far more likely to engage in displays of affection than anger.

If only I could hand out a highlight reel of my best parenting moments or find a snappy way to fit them on a message tee. Because that would be a whole new world of PDA: Pretty Darn Awesome.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Reject's Top Five: Notable First Dates

One of my readers - a friend who is possibly my only reader - mentioned that she enjoyed reading posts but wished I had been blogging during my pre-child, pre-married life. Although many of those stories are not for mass consumption, it's never too late for a look back at those that are. Here is a post in her honor.

5.) Two for one at the Indian Buffet - a good female friend and I ate lunch at our favorite Indian buffet at least 2-3 times a week for a period in graduate school. All the servers got to know us, not only because we were at the restaurant so often but also because most of the other patrons were men who worked in the surrounding offices or large Indian families. There weren't a lot of other single ladies going crazy over the goat curry. One day, while grabbing a plate for my second round of pakoras, one of the servers stocking the buffet asked me out. I explained that I had a boyfriend. Without missing a beat, he asked "what about your friend?" Although not technically a first date, I feel like I have to include this because I still find it so darn funny.

4.) Rude Boy - I embarked on this date with an ex-hockey player full of misgivings. He had basically stopped his car and asked me out on the street, which was novel enough to get my attention. Also, at that time I had been on enough bad dates with reasonable people that he got to take advantage of the "why not" heyday of my dating days. He was cute, but something seemed off. Minutes into our drinks, it became obvious what that was: his sense of appropriate conversation, not to mention boundaries and personal space. He kept trying to touch me and started telling stories (really, really loudly) about training camp when the coach "dumped a box of condoms on the table" and asked whether women still "wore their pubic hair in the landing strip." He told me all about ex-wife "The Bitch," his daughter "The Mini-bitch" (seriously?), and driving drunk. The date ended with an unpleasant kiss - him leering in with a creepy poker tongue, me trying to get away and winding up getting licked on the cheek. Next.

3.) MBA - Most Boring American. As bad as being rude on a first date is being boring. If you've seen the movie LA Story, remember that scene where Steve Martin and the blond british chick are at a dinner and sneak off to fool around while some super-dull dude is giving an interminable yawner of a speech? This date was like that - the speech, not the sneaking off part. He was in business school and spent at least half an hour chronicling the ordeal of getting his name badge for his summer internship. From what I can recall, this involved a lot of miscommunications about what building he needed to report to for his photo. ("And then I went to Building B. But they sent me to Building A. And the folks in Building A send me back to Building B! But the folks in Building B had already sent me to Building A. So I went back to Building A. Can you believe it? Heh heh!") Heh heh. Meh. What could have actually been presented as a funny comedy of errors in under 3 minutes nearly put me to sleep in closer to 30. He ended the evening with a delusional "Wow. What a great date!" Couldn't disagree more.

2.) You, me, your friend, and the drunk girl - for this first date, we doubled with the guy's best friend and his date; a weird arrangement, in retrospect: me and three strangers. The friend and his date were in an unspecified relationship that today would probably be classified as "friends with benefits." Although I think it was maybe just about the benefits minus the friendship. Anyway, the date was dressed like a naughty nurse. Wait, no. That's wrong. She was a nurse, and she was just dressed naughty according to Midwestern standards. We went to a brewpub where there were a bunch of taxidermy animal heads hanging behind the bar (also weird decor, in retrospect) and right above where we were sitting there was some kind of stuffed cat. She spent the evening getting drunker and drunker and making more and more references to "pussy" and pointing at the cat head, cackling, until she - literally - fell off the bar stool. The three of them went home together, which was by that point, quite a relief.

1.) You and Tequila - the night after I explained how I was totally not ready for a relationship, I met this guy for coffee. "Coffee" actually turned out to mean "sushi and sake" and we had a bunch of both. As we were leaving, the guy said sushi never seemed like a meal and asked if I wanted to go to the restaurant across the street for some real food. He ordered us butternut squash ravioli with brown butter and sage and a bottle of '96 Dom Perignon. Then we walked to his apartment to see his collection of balalaika records. Ha ha! Kidding! (That's a Bell Jar reference, ducklings.) I mean his collection of tequilas! We drank most of a bottle of Herradura Anejo and I explained that I could not drive home but that I would not take off any of my clothes. He slept on the couch and gave me his bed, which was made up with insanely high thread-count sheets and smelled quite good. In the morning, he made me a cappuccino and a plate of melon wrapped in proscuitto with limes. I think this was the best first date of all time. Two years later I married him.

What about you? Good dates? Bad dates? Memorable dates?

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Reject Entertains: Canapés for those you Hate

At some point during the holidays, you will likely be called upon to entertain. If not this year, then some year. And even if the idea of planning a Martha Stewart style "cocktail and canapé buffet for 27" fills you with glee, there will be guests you do not like but to whom you must extend an invitation. If you must deal with these people, try to make the evening as pleasurable and stress-free as possible - at least for you. Do not attempt to minimize annoyance by sprinkling a few undesired guests into a series of dinners and open houses otherwise populated by friends: like a few rancid pine nuts they will spoil the whole pesto. Instead, throw one special party for guests you detest and get the whole darn thing over in one swoop. You pick the date and place, here is what you serve:


Tataki chicken (sashimi style) - who doesn't like a perfectly seared piece of tataki tuna? Well, here's a way to give your guests what they want without having to worry about potentially dangerous levels of mercury OR the environmental impact of over-fishing! (After all, you're never going to help that ex catch the eye of the cutie across the room sipping spiced cider if they've got their nose buried in the list of safe and sustainable species!) Substitute thinly sliced chicken breast and limit your concerns to a more manageable exposure to salmonella! (Prettily wrapped Z-pacs make a thoughtful take-away gift.) Save time by using pre-cut chicken tenders.

Anchovy paste faux "dog doo" tartlets - delight the animal lovers among your guests by filling pre-made canape shells with anchovy paste, twirling tube as you go for realistic presentation. Couldn't be easier! May substitute crackers for canape shells, or blini if you are expecting a more discerning crowd.

Jellied fish sauce consommé "shooters" - mix fermented fish sauce with unflavored gelatin and follow package directions. Serve in shot glasses. Jicama or cucumber spikes add a nice garnish. (Also a subtle way to touch on the missing element of tuna in the tataki appetizer. Guests appreciate that kind of attention to detail.)


Chocolate strawberry "cream" cups - melt chocolate chips and drizzle or spread in cupcake liners. Chill until chocolate hardens. Fill with cut up organic strawberries and garnish with jaunty dollop of shaving creme. Add sprig of mint if desired. (Scotch bonnet peppers or grape tomatoes may be used in place of strawberries if organic strawberries are unavailable.)

Powder-dusted brownie bites - this is the go-to dessert for those who have no time to cook. Purchase pre-cooked brownie bites and display on festive/attractive plate. Dust with baby power or baking soda. Garnish plate with crushed-up candy canes.

San Marzano Cake Pop Surprises - creative gastronomy is all the rage! If you aren't ready to try your hand at this trend with a cheesecake "cigar" or octopus-ink "licorice", the following project is one that will have your guests talking for days! Drain liquid from can of whole plum tomatoes (San Marzano brand works well). Fill with stuffing of your choice: salmon mousse, goat cheese, or hummus are ideal. Insert Popsicle or craft stick (available at most confectionery and craft stores - can also use tongue depressors), freeze, and frost with your favorite icing. Serve cold for best effect.

Additional ideas

Serve toast points with thin-sliced slivers of garlic. Looks just like butter!

Spike punch with rubbing alcohol for an extra kick!

Legal Disclaimer: obviously, you shouldn't really serve any of these to anyone. No matter how much of a scrooge you are, no matter how much you dislike them. Except for maybe the fish sauce shooters and the toast points with garlic. Those could actually be good, if you like fish sauce or garlic.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Reject's Top Five: Holiday-siacs

Some of us love the period between Thanksgiving and New Year's and are ready for shopping, caroling, cookie-baking, dreidel-ing, candle-lighting and whatever other traditions we observe. Others hate the holidays with an abiding passion. And still others could go either way but require a bit of activation energy to get over the hump of dread or disinterest and into the holiday spirit.

I alternate between the first and third groups, depending on the year. So I thought I'd share a few of my favorite holiday-siacs in case you are similarly inclined and need a little boost to get in the mood. Not that I fancy myself a shlump-ier Gwyneth Paltrow (although you may choose to see my recommendations as "poop" to her "gloop") but I always love to hear about other people's holiday obsessions or buzzkills and figured I may as well share my own.

5.) Pine boughs and/or scented candles - nothing says "wintertime" to me like the smell of pine. If you are allergic to pine, or do not live in a geographic region that supports its existence, scented candles are a nice alternative. A good holiday candle must walk the fine line between evoking a midnight stroll through a forest lit by luminarias as snow gently falls and stumbling into Pine-sol territory. Not all "pine" or "winter" candles are created equal. This year we are burning two by NEST: the regular holiday version (think fresh and trendy day spa) and Elton John's holiday version (the darker, hipper W hotel lobby of holiday candles). Both are pricey, but worth it because they last and last, look pretty, and smell delicious. A slightly cheaper and year-round option is Trapp's Sexy Cinnamon (heady, and powdery, and perhaps a bit overpowering to some noses). Or, for the pine purist, The Thymes, Ltd.'s Frasier Fir is the next best thing to planting a tree in your living room. Votive versions of the Sexy Cinnamon and Frasier Fir candles are one way to test the scent without a $30-40 commitment.

4.) Books - my favorite all-time holiday book is "Christmastime" by Sandra Boynton. I think it is now out of print, so a close second is "The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook: Holidays." Whoops. It appears that is out of print, too. Well, they are still worth reading if you can score a copy somehow.

3.) Cookies - my mother's family pepparkakor (that's Swedish for gingerbread) recipe is a closely guarded secret. It is also a lot of work, if memory serves. Instead, I indulge my love of corn-flake wreath cookies which are cheap, easy, and do not require baking. They also provide a rare opportunity to rub my hands with butter, which is just so very "Handmaid's Tale," but oddly pleasing nonetheless. I like to garnish the cookies with red hots or cut up candied cherries. High fiber cereal can be substituted for regular corn flakes if you desire a healthier treat - or the opportunity to gift your friends in the cookie exchange with a surprise colon blow. If these don't grease your cookie sheet, a gingerbread biscotti from Starbucks is a sweet alternative.

2.) Music - I have over 500 holiday songs in my iTunes, so it is tough to narrow down. But any holiday album by Elvis or Dean Martin's is classic. I am currently coveting the "Christmas with the Rat Pack Album" that I assume will capture the holiday's boozy sensibility. Raul Malo's "Marshmallow World" nicely updates that genre. I can't get enough of Placido Domingo's "Christmas with Placido Domingo" and my secret pleasure is Enya's "And Winter Came." Most quirky - or annoying, depending on your taste - is "Music Box Christmas." And in the relatively empty menorah of Hannukah albums, "Erran Baron Cohen Presents: Songs in the Key of Hannukah" is a bright light.

1.) Drinks - my family's Glogg recipe (pronounced more like "gleg" - that's "greg" with an l - not "grog" rhyming with "frog"), a Swedish spiced and fortified wine, is like the velvet hammer of holiday drinking (recipe follows). However, it isn't for everyone. For one thing, it is served with raisins and blanched almonds in the bottom of the cup. After five or six glasses, the raisins can take on the appearance of rat droppings, which can be off-putting. Also, even when the glasses are small, the fortification packs a punch, so use with caution if you typically spend the holidays with mean drunks. Hot chocolate with or without amaretto or peppermint schnapps may be a safer - not to mention simpler - option. Then again, it does provide you with a sanctioned opportunity to light things on fire...even it is only sugar cubes. Enjoy!

Uncle Carl Lundquist's Glogg Recipe
2 quarts port wine
2 quarts claret
1 pint good brandy
15 whole cardamom seeds, peeled and crushed
25 whole cloves
1 pound white raisins
1-2 sticks cinnamon
peel of one whole orange
12 whole allspice
1/2 pound whole blanched almonds
1 1/2 pounds lump sugar

First pour all the wine into a fair sized enamel or stainless pan and bring to a simmer. DO NOT BOIL. Then wrap all the spices and raisins and nuts in cheesecloth bag and drop in the pot to simmer for 30 minutes.

When the wine is simmering, put all the lump sugar in a pie tin or heavy pan and pour the brandy over and light with a match. Leave burn until flame dies out. Then dump the whole thing into the simmering wine and continue to simmer for 15 minutes. Then let it cool, squeeze out the spice bag until as dry as possible, bottle, and you got it. It gets better with age. Heat to serve and add 2 raisins and 1 almond to each glass.

Note: my mother, who provided this recipe and is fundamentally incapable of following a recipe without tweaking it, shared the following advice for those of you who like to tinker or substitute. "Instead of the claret, which Uncle Carl always insisted upon, I use a bottle of merlot, a bottle of cabernet , a large bottle of port and a pint of brandy. Soaking the sugar cubes in the brandy and burning the brandy off really makes a difference. Let the cubes soak until partially melted, then light and watch the whole thing flame until a mushy mass. Then just scrape the whole mess into the pot and stir to dissolve the sugar. If you need to sweeten the mixture later, just add a little regular sugar to taste."

Okay. So go make up a batch, have a glass or three and then let me know...what are your favorite holiday traditions?

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Reject's Weekend Puzzler: Japanese Snack Food or IKEA Product?

Technically, this should go up tomorrow but it's my blog, and I declare that the weekend

So here's something to ponder while you test holiday lights or stand in line at the checkout counter or wrap packages or drink to forget that it is the holiday season. Or maybe you're not there yet. Or just a grinch. No matter.

Put on your thinking cap and test your knowledge of the similarities between the lands of lutefisk and sushi.

1.) Kappa Ebisen

2.) Calpis

3.) Kompisar

4.) Panapp

5.) Tobo

6.) Kroby

7.) Poifull

8.) Mata

9.) Cubyrop

10.) Poscam

11.) Dragon

12.) Klubbo

13.) Botan

14.) Benno

Japanese snack food - 1, 2, 4, 7, 9, 10, 13
IKEA product - 3, 5, 6, 8, 11, 12, 14

How'd you do?
12-14 right - Pickled herring and natto for you, my friend!
9-11 - Hot sake and a plate of meatballs.
4-8 - A bowl of edamame and grav lax.
1-3 - White rice and a bag of swedish fish.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Poop or Chocolate? The Reject Investigates!

There comes a time in all parents' and caretakers' lives when they must ask - and attempt to answer - the critical and dreaded question: poop or chocolate?

Here is handy series of steps to follow when your child bounds into the room sporting a suspicious smear.

1.) If child is reliably verbal, ask whether substance is poop or chocolate. If credible witness (i.e. sibling, babysitter, grandparent) is nearby, attempt to corroborate this report. If child is not reliably verbal or you are in doubt of whether or not any available witness is credible, move on to step 2.

2.) Inspect the surroundings. Try not to act panicked or angry as this may alarm child or unreliable witness and they may attempt to hide evidence. Is there an open chocolate/granola/candy bar wrapper anywhere in the vicinity of child in question? If yes, this is strong evidence for chocolate. However to be safe (or if no) move on to step 3.

3.) Inspect the hands or feet or other body parts of child. Attempt to ascertain whether substance looks more like poop or chocolate. If this is inconclusive, move on to step 4.

4.) Sniff test. If you are brave (or female) you can attempt to smell the substance in question. (Note to the very brave: do not taste.) If you have a weak stomach (or are male) move on to step 5.

5.) Removal of soiled clothing followed by laundry (if clothing is affected) or bath (if skin/hair/ or other body part of subject is affected). Bath is advised in either case. Sometimes determining provenance of mystery substance is less important than simply taking care of business. Erring on the side of caution is always a reasonable plan under such circumstances. If you are unable to remove clothing and/or access laundry or bath, proceed to step 6.

6.) Presumably you have baby wipes, hand sanitizer, and/or bottled fluids (i.e. milk/water/juice) on hand. MacGyver that stain out with whatever tools necessary and available. You are a parent. You conceived it, you clean it. If unable to clean with available tools, create diversionary stain (using ink, cheese, tomato sauce, peanut butter, etc.) and attempt to gloss over suspicion of poop by saying loudly to subject "Let's not smear chocolate (or ink, cheese, etc.) on our pants again, okay?" If previously unforthcoming child suddenly becomes perversely verbal and volunteers the fact that said smear was in fact poop, laugh and tousle hair with a jovial "You are such a sillyhead!" and beat a hasty retreat.

Advice for similar circumstances:
Poop or peanut butter?

Follow above steps substituting "peanut butter" for "chocolate" and "peanut butter jar/granola bar/sandwich" for "chocolate/granola/candy bar wrapper" in step 2.

May also use "bear test" if bear is available, as bears love peanut butter and can be relied upon to lick at it. Occasional false positives will occur as bears will also sometimes lick at/maul non-peanut butter presentations. Not recommended if you are fond of child or if bear is rather hungry.

Poop or blood?
Follow above procedure, but in step 2 investigate child [as well as sibling and witness(es)] for injury. Especially critical if you have opted to employ the "bear test" for poop or peanut butter.