Well That Was Fun

We attended our yearly neighborhood camping trip last weekend. “Camping” for me has become driving up for the day, after a hot shower and a couple cups of strong coffee of course, hiking around for a few hours in my trail shoes, getting my yearly dose of trees and fresh air, and then driving home alone in time to make myself a nice dinner I’ll eat in front of Real Housewives. That’s about as much camping as I can handle. When I was Virginia’s age, I could have spent an entire summer outdoors, barefoot and sleeping in a tent by a lake and living off of hard salami, Triscuits, and fruit. No longer. This is what a few decades of hotels and city living and easy access to plumbing can do to a girl. Now, I freak if I’m someplace I can’t blow out my hair or grab a cup of good coffee. Seriously. I’ve become the lady I used to roll my eyes at—I may now be in Goldie-Hawn-at-the-beginning-of-Overboard territory.

This got me thinking: my menu of what I consider fun changes as I get older. You know what’s fun now? Trying different kinds of cheese. When I see a cheese plate these days, I pounce and have to restrain myself from inhaling the whole thing. My ten-year-old palate was not exactly sophisticated, and I remember instantly recoiling at just a whiff of “stinky” cheese. Museums are a lot more fun since I’ve hit adulthood, too. Strolling leisurely as I take in gorgeous works of art is such heaven. I can’t go on vacation without visiting a city’s signature art museum. Turns out, this is not an activity that tops Virginia’s list. It’s an exercise in extreme patience for her to wander among the paintings and sculptures, and I remember feeling the same way.

A few weeks ago I took Virginia to a baseball game. She didn’t want to go at first, recalling how mind-numbingly bored she was two years ago when Josh and I dragged her to a summer afternoon game, and I knew this trip to the ballpark could be an expensive mistake. But as soon as we arrived, I started to see her turn around. I don’t know that the entire experience was all that exciting for her, but as soon as we walked through the gate, she was handed a bat bag—free for all kids that day. I bought her a Phillies hat. She enjoyed the opportunity to pig out on hotdogs and French fries. And after we settled into our seats, she actually watched the game and asked questions about the rules of baseball and how fans are selected to get onto the Jumbotron (criteria seems to hinge on behaving like an energetic moron). I thought, she’s warming to baseball—she must be growing up!

Yeah, “growing up.” Before I know it, she’ll be talking me into going glamping.

Tofu Goes West

So last Friday, I made dinner for the three of us. It was a new recipe and had all the components that I thought we’d enjoy: chicken thighs, brie, pear, fig jam, seasoned, chopped lettuce, great bread. Instead it turned out to be a big yuck—a drippy, sweet sandwich that none of us liked. Virginia was the first to bow out. Gamely, after the first disastrous bite, she divided the sandwich into its separate parts and tried to each one separately. No dice. She argued for a new dinner, but I refused—I already made dinner. She pushed her plate away in a huff. Josh got a little farther. He was starving, and probably could have made a meal out of his left arm, but instead went for the yucky sandwich first. He got through half before pushing his plate away and then raiding the refrigerator for the last piece of pizza from the night before. I, on the other hand, ate the entire sandwich. The whole thing. Every bite. This is totally out of character for me.

When I was Virginia’s age, my mom (who is a great cook) made dinners that I ate about half the time. I hardly ever ate dinner, and it wasn’t because I wasn’t hungry. It was the late 1970s and early 1980s, and my mom was a health nut back when baby boomers seriously considered carob as a substitute for chocolate. My mom’s favorite grocery store was a crunchy health food store, and her favorite cookbook was Tofu Goes West. Let’s just let that sink in and marinate for a little bit. Tofu Goes West. Remember when Seinfeld’s wife wrote a cookbook about how to sneak broccoli into everything to make your kid eat broccoli? Well, Tofu Goes West, wasn’t so much sneaking tofu in, but saying “Hey, guess who’s in this burrito? You guessed it—it’s tofu!” The tofu in these recipes “hide” tofu like a 2-year-old “hides” during a game of hide-and-seek. My mom managed to sneak tofu into and subsequently ruin everything that I had previously considered edible. Or even delicious. Burritos. Stir fry. Lasagna. Meatballs. Soup. I was pissed. I looked just like Virginia looked after she took her first bite of that awful figgy-brie-pear-chicken sandwich. And like her, I went no farther. I pushed my plate away night after night, simply because I didn’t like what was served, even if it was prepared beautifully and exactly according to the recipe. I didn’t consider that my mother might have put in some serious effort to cook it. I was not wasting precious time eating something I hated.

I am not that girl anymore. As I put together our weekly dinner menu, I picked the yucky sandwich recipe out of the latest issue of Cooking Light, a magazine that has successfully provided dozens of yummy recipes for meals that wowed the three of us. I chose and bought each ingredient. I know how much a jar of fig jam and good brie cost. I cooked those chicken thighs to perfection and waited for them to rest. I even stopped Josh from eating that pear. “No,” I scolded. “That’s for Friday night’s dinner.” I assembled the sandwich’s components and placed each sandwich back on the grill pan, where I flattened them on a large grill pan, creating the grill marks and allowing the sandwiches to blend and smoosh together into what should have been its delicious glory. In short, I knew exactly what went into making those horrible sandwiches, and because of that, I ate it. Maybe I ate the sandwich to make up for all of the tofu dishes I didn’t eat that my mom served up to me. Maybe I’m just making amends to my poor, unappreciated mother. Or maybe I’m just wrong and just should have made The Girl a grilled cheese sandwich.

Free Time Makes Me Nervous

I love a schedule. The whole family loves a schedule. Even our dog loves a schedule. In fact, he has a pretty solid routine. This is Jazzy on most days: morning walk, breakfast, play time, sitting at human’s feet, nap, lunchtime walk, treat, nap, afternoon walk, lap time, dinner, fetch, couch, nighttime walk, and bed.

As I imagine it must be for Jazz, I find my own routine both comfortable and comforting. It’s hard to overstate the joy that checking things off of lists brings me. Even though my days may not look identical day in and day out, I’ve pretty much chained myself to my calendar. And I think, I must be productive if I stick to a plan, right? And for most days, that’s what I—and I’m assuming (hoping) most of us—must ask myself before choosing to answer in the affirmative.

But sometimes I have to wrench myself away from my calendar and do something off the schedule. It doesn’t usually feel right immediately. Like I’m being undisciplined. Like I’m cheating or flaking on something. Like I’m letting my responsibilities slide. It makes me feel like I’m 19 and deciding to ditch class (again) and lounge by the dorm pool all afternoon instead. You do that enough (and I did—I had the deep tan, blonde highlights, and shitty grades to show for it), and you start to feel like a slug. And now, as the days start to lengthen and the rays of the sun filter onto my skin, I’m drawn once again to the outdoors. I’m so torn—do I skip an afternoon of essay grading to sit on my porch, catch a few rays on my calves, and finish my Tom Perotta novel instead? Or forgo a day of chipping away at my latest work in progress to attend a Sunday Phillies game with Josh and Virginia? For me, a schedule is good for the soul, but so is goofing off. Too much of either and I’m rendered as useless as a slug.

Our plans this weekend fell through, and to be honest, I’m nervous. I could easily fill my time with work. In fact, at this point in my semester, I won’t have much choice but to read through and grade a few stacks of papers Saturday and Sunday, otherwise I’ll be buried all next week. But I’d like to carve out at least one afternoon of free time to spend with Josh and VA, doing who knows what. I’ll figure it out when I get there.

A Good Deal

You wouldn’t think that the way in which a person prefers to buy and consume ice-cream would say all that much about an individual, but it does. Josh and I are totally different in this respect. I like to buy ice-cream in a single-serve cone form preferably from a hoity-toity ice-cream shop. I will happily plunk down $4 for a single scoop of outstanding strawberry ice-cream stuffed into a sugar cone. If Josh, on the other hand, witnesses me do that, I get the angry smile. Josh’s favorite ice-cream store? Shop Rite. Or Costco. Anyplace that sells ice-cream that comes in a tub.

He’s tried reasoning with me: “For $4, you can get a whole gallon of ice-cream, not just a scoop.” But that logic just bounces right off me. I don’t see buying ice-cream scoop by scoop as wasteful. In fact, I see buying a large quantity of ice-cream as wasteful. I typically don’t want ice-cream all that often, which is why I buy and eat it on a scoop-by-scoop basis. If I bought ice-cream in a larger size I’d 1) be stuck with that flavor for a while. Boring. 2) I wouldn’t eat all of it and weeks later it would render itself into that sticky goo topped with ice crystals. 3) Or alternatively, I would eat it so as not to be “wasteful.” And I’d be consuming ice-cream more often than I’d want and probably enjoying it a lot less, since I’d be so bored from having the same flavor day in, day out. Plus we’re stuck with crappy ice-cream

Me? Just give me one standout cone of high-quality ice-cream from Franklin Fountain. That tops off the end to a delightful summer afternoon. I would stand in a long line for that, and with Virginia, excitedly go back and forth on what each of us might order. Cookies ‘n’ cream? Rocky road? Sweet cream? I relish the whole experience right up to the last bite. Josh is more about quantity over quality. A gallon of Bryer’s or Friendly’s ice-cream? Fine. His enjoyment of ice-cream is directly correlated to the amount he gets. So if he gets a great deal on a great deal of ice-cream that can take him through a week or more of daily scoops, then he’s happy. Really happy. Like happy for more than a week.

So last week, Josh was faced with the choice to buy one box of Matzo for $2.50 or take home five boxes for free. Which do you think he chose?

Why I Run

I don’t really talk about running all that much. I like to do it. I do it most days of the week. I’ve done it for most of my life. But I don’t really talk about it. And the reason is because most people, especially those who don’t run and even some who do, find running really boring. I get that—I do. But today, as the outdoors looks more and more like optimal running weather, I’m going to be selfish and talk about why I run. So if running really isn’t your bag, feel free so swing by again next week—I’m sure I’ll have something stupid to complain about.

  1. I’ll start with the obvious: running makes me feel good. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah… Weight. Lung capacity. Pizza.
  1. Running keeps my brain sane. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah..blah, blah, blah. Blah.
  1. Also, running makes me feel close to my dad. Like a lot of baby boomers, my dad took up running in the 1970s. When he was just starting out as a runner, he’d let me tag along and I’d ride my bike alongside him as he ran. By the time I was Virginia’s age, I was running short distances with him—maybe two to three miles at most. Once I entered seventh grade, we started training for 5 and 10K races together. All through jr. high, high school, and college years, and throughout my twenties, we ran all over Palo Alto—through neighborhoods, around Stanford campus, and up and down the grassy hills near the “dish,” where on a clear day, you can look south and make out the skyline of San Jose and up north, San Francisco. On family vacations, we’d go on running tours through Boston, New Orleans, Chicago.

And running was a time when we could just talk about anything. Usually it wasn’t particularly deep. One ongoing conversation was considering how much someone would have to pay you to lick a square inch of the sidewalk in San Francisco’s Chinatown. (My number is surprisingly low.) Or coming up with answers to the question, what’s the grossest food or drink one could consumer after a long, summer run? (New England clam chowder.)

But running was always a time he’d check in with me and see what was on my mind, whether it was friendship dramas, applying to college, or soccer tryouts. I spent a lot of time trying to persuade him that modern music wasn’t all crap and sometimes succeeded. And that’s what I often think about now when I run. This Sunday, it’ll be fourteen years since I lost my dad. I don’t believe in angels or ghosts, and I don’t believe he’s looking down from heaven. But I do enjoy thinking about the conversations we would be having when I run now. And in my own way, I’m still running with my dad.

Handprints

Virginia’s spring break began yesterday, so instead of scrambling to find a camp or a friend to take her for the day, I took her with me to my community college campus. When she was little—preschool little—she’d accompany me to school every day. Our campus is fortunate to have an excellent (and affordable) early learning program. It isn’t a daycare, but an actual preschool. She loved preschool and pre-K so much, she never wanted to leave, and when I would arrive to pick her up, she’d give me a quick hug and then return to finish her necklace made of noodles, or put the finishing touches on her sand castle, or continue work on her masterpiece made entirely of colored masking tape.

When I told her Wednesday that she’d be joining me the following day at Bucks, Virginia rolled her eyes. “Really, Mom? I get to spend my first day of spring break at school?” She had a point. I took her anyway.

She patiently put up with me taking her around the Language and Literature department and letting the faculty and staff ooh and aah at how tall she’s getting and grown-up she’s looking. She responded with lots of “Thank you,” and “Yes, it’s my first day of spring break,” and “Uh-huh,” followed by a smile. I dragged her to two classes and a meeting, with promises she could use her Kindle and iPod as much as she wanted and I’d buy her lunch at the cafeteria. In my literature class, when invited by one of the students, she even sat in with a small group, tasked with discussing questions about a short film on Southern writers, William Faulkner and Zora Neale Hurston.

Overall, she took the day like a champ, and I was proud of her. But she was ready to go by the end of it, ready to return to her world and escape mine. I know she doesn’t look at what I do and think, “Wow, I want to be a community college professor when I grow up!” Which is OK. That’s never been my intention. Actually, I had no ulterior motive in bringing her with me other than getting out of spending $95 for a day of camp at the Handwork Studio*. And I think these infrequent visits to college must demystify the experience for her. I hope so. I hope she sees college students as mostly engaged and curious, professors and staff as mostly friendly and knowledgeable.

So at the end of the day on our way to the car, we approached the Early Learning Center. “Isn’t that my old preschool?” Virginia asked. “Yep,” I answered. We paused just outside the front door. “Want to say hello?” She nodded, and as soon as we stepped foot inside the door, Miss Mary, Virginia’s pre-K teacher saw us and made a beeline. It was hard for Virginia to be too cool in the Early Learning Center and soaked in the room that had brought so many hours of happiness and learning into her world six years prior.

She melted when she saw Miss Mary and didn’t bother to tamp down her smile. The room looked the same. Miss Mary doesn’t seem to age. We marveled at her little 4-year-old handprints on the class of 2009 ceiling tile—a project where each student of the out-going pre-K class dips their hands in paint and presses their palms onto a tile that’s later affixed to the classroom ceiling. And I watched Virginia wrestle with feelings of both cozy nostalgia and being too big for the space. It was no longer hers in the way it was when we both drove up and down I-95 every day during the years she attended the ELC while I taught in the building next door. And I wonder, if I bring her back in another couple of years, will her handprints still be there? As long as they are, 4-year-old Virginia will always be in the Early Learning Center.

*The Handwork Studio, by the way, is FABULOUS—we’re huge fans. It’s the one place where the projects that VA makes, we actually keep and use, rather than keep for a little while and then surreptitiously toss while she’s at school.

Keep Your Friends Close and Insurance Company Closer

Shame on me. Seriously. This week, Josh and I finally decided to buy a new car. We’re overdue. We need something safer and with all-wheel-drive, so we settled on a Subaru. And when you buy a new car, you need to also buy auto insurance. I was not looking forward to that phone call, though I happily considered the ways in which I could drop my current carrier. Because when I looked at previous years’ statements, our payments kept inching up every six months. I meant to look into it every time I watched the rate hike and find out why, but I didn’t, and this cost us. This month, after the rate increased again for our aging car, we were paying over $140 per month to insure our old, crappy car. Neither Josh nor I have had any tickets or accidents, so when you lump in a car whose worth is in a steady decline, logically, it would seem that our payments would go down. Nope.

Well, a couple of days ago, I called and when I mentioned I was shopping around for rates, they told me, “We’d hate to lose you after 13 years.” And I thought, holy crap, we’ve been loyal customers for 13 years and they’re screwing us? The representative offered me not only more coverage for both the new car and the old, but also for $50 less than what we’ve been paying for just one, old hatchback. So it got me thinking, am I just being scammed? Is auto insurance just one more way I’m slowly being ripped off? Do I now need to pay attention to my rates going up as Josh and I become more attractive drivers in their eyes and my cars age? I thought our payments were supposed to go down.

It reminds me of when we had cable. Every year or two, I had to make a phone call to the cable company and threaten to leave in order to get them to continue the deal we had before they jacked up my rates. I hated playing this game, which is why we eventually cut the cord. I feel like these companies are less concerned with customer satisfaction and instead count on their customers being too busy to comb through each bank and credit card statement every month even when they start feeling they’re getting ripped off. Most people have other, more pressing daily tasks that require their attention—working, walking the dog, helping a kid with their homework, making breakfast—and companies know that. So now I have to pay attention to my auto insurance. And by the way, we’re sticking with our auto insurance company despite the fact we now need to attend to our payments. You win, Geico, but I’m keeping my eye on you.

Sincerely Yours

Dear Sarah,

Welcome to your 70s! Wow, I must start off by saying—you look great. I mean, you clearly are drinking enough water and your skin, well, it’s the skin of a woman at least 10 years younger! All of the sunscreen you slathered on every day, year after year, is finally paying off. That “procedure” you had done to your face as a 65th birthday present to yourself really has made you look rested and refreshed all these years. I must say your face looks age-appropriate, but also elegant and soft. Well played, lady.

I am also way impressed with how active you are and how much energy you have. Are you seriously running another marathon this year? Well, I guess that’s what happens when you stay in fighting shape your whole life (and get your running shoes on and butt out the door even when you’re feeling lazy). I’m so glad you took up yoga in your early forties like you promised yourself you would—it’s absolutely saved your posture and flexibility. I see exercise isn’t your only healthy habit. Although you’re not a crazy nut about eating right and allow yourself the occasional indulgences, it’s obvious you think about what you eat and make smart choices most of the time. Cooking just about every night wasn’t always the easiest, especially after a full day of work and shuttling Virginia around for gymnastics and soccer. But your effort paid off—eating well-balanced meals and making sure you got your fruits and vegetables every day worked out for you. Switching over to wheat bread and laying off the Cheez-Its probably didn’t hurt either.

There’s an ease about you these days that you haven’t always had. You’ve learned to relax and enjoy the moment more. Was fretting about every mundane detail so important? No, of course not. You’ve learned to avoid stirring yourself up over things that don’t deserve it. I’m also glad you spent all that time with Virginia helping her with her homework, even when she was totally sick of you. Now you have that relationship you always wanted to have with her. And how great is it that you and Josh are still madly in love and partners in life after decades of marriage? I’m betting the increase in travel, especially after you both retired, kept the fires burning. Not harping on Josh about leaving the entryway light on all the time probably helped, too.

As write this letter to you, my older, wiser self, I’m thinking—I’m trying to everything right here and being old better be fucking worth it, or I’m gonna be pissed.

Best,

~Sarah

Pioneer Woman

There are few things more personally satisfying for me than polishing off dinner leftovers. There’s a teensy bit of that pioneer spirit that makes me want to repurpose last night’s dinner into something new and delicious and worthy of a second take. And often it is not “new and delicious,” but at least it’s gone.

I must say, lately we are killing it in the leftovers department. Last night’s roast chicken dinner? *Bam*—nuked and sliced over salad the next day for lunch. Or *bam*—diced and turned into chicken salad. Or *bam*—shredded and stirred in matzo-ball soup. And that’s just chicken. Most leftovers of any sort—pork chops, roasted veggies, salmon—I’ll pile on top of a salad for lunch. Or stir in with morning eggs. And my weariness of eating virtually the same thing for a few days in a row can’t steal my joy of finishing them. We’re eating our leftovers—yay, us! However, the days when I am forced to step on our garbage can pedal, hold my nose, and toss the ancient beef stew into the trash are sadly far from gone. When I must throw out leftovers gone bad—it’s a crushing defeat. Darn you, slow-cooker pork from last week—you’re just not worth the risk!

Calling myself a pioneer woman is a pretty grand overstatement. I shouldn’t be so proud of eating leftovers. But deep down, I know I’m just not tough enough to eat the same thing twice a day for days on end. A day and a half, yes. After that and I start to get cranky. And a pioneer woman would shovel her own damn snow. But yesterday, when I asked Josh if he needed help shoveling our front walk, I asked in that voice that really meant, “Please, please don’t take me up on my offer! I hate shoveling snow! And it’s so warm inside.” I’m sure the pioneer woman composts. When I think of composting, I think, yuck. I also think, bugs and rats. And a pioneer woman is probably a master camper, able to sleep every night under the stars and subsist on nuts, berries, and squirrel meat. My idea of camping is to go to the woods for the day and then catch a ride home before it gets dark. Home is where my bed is. And my hair dryer.

I know having that true pioneer spirit is probably the best way to be, but frankly, I’m going to have to settle for pride in finishing up my dinner leftovers. I’m just too lazy and not good enough to embrace my inner pioneer woman.

Your Opinion Could Get Me Fired

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post that explored the subject of how I take criticism, but also treaded—ever-so-lightly—on how I give it. I didn’t get very far. The post ended with how I might view and critique my creative writing students’ manuscripts and it felt, well, uncomfortable to say the least. “What do you think?” I asked Josh. He shrugged. I read each sentence over repeatedly, just to make sure I wasn’t saying anything that might be taken the wrong way. Landing on a title that wasn’t completely inappropriate proved to be a challenge, too.

As a community college professor, it’s 100% in my best interest to scrutinize every public phrase I write that is associated with my job, which is one reason why I don’t really write about it (the other is because no one wants to read about what college professors do except maybe other college professors). I’ve seen the fallout. Remember that Bucks County high school English teacher who called her students “dunderheads” and “lazy whiners” on her blog? Well she was fired for it. Seems like a minor indiscretion to me, though her blog upset many parents (how dare a teacher think those unkind thoughts about their children?). I can’t help but think it sounds pretty normal for a high school English teacher to become frustrated with her students now and then. Blogging those thoughts off your chest? Probably not the smartest way to vent in the media age, but it’s a shame she lost her job. And as a mom and a wife, I would think twice before posting something that could harm or embarrass my kid or my husband. My story doesn’t need to be their problem. I love my job. I love my family. I’d be super bummed if an offhand comment ruined my life as I now know it.

I feel strongly, though, that we should be able to tell our own stories, even if some take offense, even if these stories might hurt other peoples’ feelings, even if our own truth does not square with someone else’s who might have even played a role in the experience. It can come at a cost, though. It’s up to the writer to decide if the risk is worth the perceived reward of getting the story out there. But not me. Sharing my mad love of coffee and complaining about winter are pretty low stakes. I can’t imagine I’ll be any more forthcoming in the future because frankly, I’m too afraid. A tell-all memoir is probably not in my future.