Friday, April 27, 2012

How Can Playing With Legos Make Me Tired? (and other burning questions)

Sometimes I get down on myself for not doing more with my life professionally, not using my intellect or talents in a way that would bring security and financial gain to me and my family. For reasons beyond my limited understanding, this has not been the path for me.

After years of staying home to raise kids and keep house, I've had a few part-time jobs, but none have turned into a mid-life career. I regularly apply for jobs, usually entry-level office positions, but so far nothing has panned out.

In my dreams, I have the makings of an impressive "Girl Friday"-type of administrative assistant. I don't know how build a website or run Outlook, but I'd bring my real-world experience and common sense to thorny inter-office relationships, remember my boss's anniversary several days in advance, and always have my Shout stain-removal pen handy. I think I have much to offer, if you like a slightly younger, slightly thinner Aunt Bea-type of secretary.

In my nightmares, I picture myself as a myopic, incontinent Lucille Ball trying to run new product development at Apple - total overwhelmance. I'd probably be a disaster in any workplace. (Exception: Dairy Queen - I'd give that a try.)
As long as there are 200 applicants to each job for which I apply, it's safe to assume I won't be working full-time in the near future. So I continue to make my halfhearted efforts at "working" part-time,during the  few hours that I am not needed for kid transport, meal preparation, dog feeding and coffee drinking with neighbors.

Right now, I have an interesting job taking care of a 5 year-old boy, just a couple of days per week. (Please don't forward this to any of your friends in the IRS, if you get my drift.) Since my youngest is 14, it's been a while since I've been required to conduct discussions with a preschooler for any purposes other than my own entertainment. I've always loved hanging out with kids this age, but all the occasional 30 minute visits over the last 10 years did not prepare me for the hours-long demands of a 5 year-old who wants to know everything about everything.

And I'm not complaining. It's a gas, and I spend most of my time with him either smiling or laughing. But after a few short hours, I'm exhausted!

This should be balm to the souls of you mothers with toddlers. In all honesty, as mothers we get swept so quickly into the next stage of our kids' lives, whatever it is, that we forget to notice that the annoying stuff from the previous stage is no longer annoying us. For example, when you are done changing diapers, you don't get to have a "whew moment" and just enjoy saving diaper money and burning the ugly diaper bag and turning the changing table into a toy shelf. No, you are too busy chasing around after a potty-trainer, which involves lightning-quick reflexes, expanded psychic powers and pockets discreetly stuffed with toilet paper, wet wipes, a change of bottoms and hand sanitizer at all times.

My point being, once you've moved on to the next stage of development, it is possible, in a matter of only weeks, to find yourself thinking back longingly to the previous stage. It's a sophisticated nuance of programming, designed by God for the continuation of the species. Without this special ability embedded in our brain folds, our foremothers would have headed back to the treetops at the first sight of green poop, leaving the scary baby wailing on the forest floor for lesser mammals to take care of.

As the mother of two teenage girls, I know of what I speak. Have faith, mothers of toddlers. Your days with the smug group of carefree moms at the bus stop, in workout clothes and steaming coffee in hand, are closer than you think. The years of preschool drudgery will be a dim, sweet memory long before you have mastered the stage that follows.

But I digress...and don't I always?

My friend, my charge, is a young man who goes to pre-k and will be in kindergarten in the fall. I make his breakfast, get him ready for school, drive him there, have 3 hours on my own, then pick him up, and stay with him until 3:30 or so. In all, we are together for about 5.5 hours. But we cover an huge amount of information in that short time. And we usually construct no less than three original Lego masterpieces each day.

In the interest of protecting his innocence, I will refer to him by the name of his favorite Ninjago (ninja Lego) hero, Kai. Here is a sampling of a few of the questions that Kai posed in a mere 40 minutes yesterday before school:

Why can I only watch that show at 8pm7Central?*
Why doesn't the syrup melt the peanut butter?
Did Mary sit in my booster seat?
Why doesn't everybody live in Florida?
Do you ever let your kids go to bed without brushing their teeth?

I'm relieved to report that, on most mornings, I am not required to furnish believable answers, due to time constraints. But by midday, Kai and I are both engaged and at our leisure, so I try to address his questions with the seriousness they deserve. Like this one:

Did Darth Vader know he was going to turn into a bad guy?

What an opportunity! Time to clear my throat and assume my lecture-hall persona. But wait: this is not Mary, who likes to talk about archetypes in mythology, or Camille, who enjoys analyzing ethical questions; this is Kai, who is 5, and Darth Vader is just a bad guy in movies and on toy shelves. Struggling mightily, I formed the shortest, simplest answer my normally long-winded mouth could construct:

Not at first, but I think he knew later.

This seemed to be all he needed to know. I was dying to say more, but I just pinched myself and held my breath. Years of putting my kids to sleep with explanations they didn't ask for about things they didn't care about had finally taught me something. Just answer the question, then stop. Wow, that was powerful.

And because Kai is 5, he had another, totally unrelated question, a few seconds later:

So when your grampa gets old does that make him the great-grampa?

Other interesting points of discussion in the last few days:

Why do you only have old goldfishes?

Why can't we use a fish net to catch butterflies?

What animal is salami? (If it's warthog it would taste bad.)

Could you really live in a house built of Legos if it had a bathroom?

Do you think it's weird that snakes can wrap around each other and not get hurt?

Why didn't you ever buy your kids Ninjagos?

Do you think a mulch monster could beat up a pine cone monster?

I know I'll always be older than Danielle, but will she ever be older than me?

And this is the most profound question I've been asked by anyone in quite a while:

Why do you need three dogs?

We talk quite a bit about sports, since he is a seasoned hockey, soccer and t-ball player. He pulls for IU and Notre Dame sports teams equally, and did not want to address the possibility of who to root for when these teams meet. He's just a fan of both, end of discussion. My lesson in sportsmanship. When I told him I graduated from IU, he asked,

Did you have to go to college to be a babysitter?

So it would seem, my little ninja, so it would seem.

*all one word

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Dear Kardashians: I'm So Glad I Could Help!

I received the award on the right in an anonymous email, but I think I know where it came from.

And I would never want to be accused of exaggeration or hyperbole, but please allow me to indulge myself for a minute.

Thanks in part to me and my blog, the Kardashian sisters have hit what some may call the pinnacle of success.

They have arrived.

Before, they were just rich, beautiful, cleavage-y celebutantes with a reality show.

Then, after allegations that one or more was involved in an affair with my poor, innocent husband, they suddenly achieved the creme de la creme of retail deals.

I refer, of course, to the new line of home decor merchandise being purveyed by the pouty, touseled trio via that edgiest, trendiest, coolest of mercantile giants,

Yes, Sears! Where the Brady Bunch went to celebrate after saving Hawaii from a shark invasion! Or was that the Partridge Family celebrating after playing Carnegie Hall? I'm confused. I think therefore I digress.

Anyway, those Kardashians are on the path to respectability with this enviable design/endorsement deal. From stodgy old Sears, they stand to gain much-needed stodginess, while Sears may just become the place to get sheets and towels with that tousled look I've been trying to achieve since Joan Collins and "Dynasty" first introduced the mussed bed.

Gentle reader, I write for myself and my own fulfillment. I don't look for fame or money or even guest spots on local radio. This is an altruistic endeavor and I don't mind being totally unknown, unloved and unrecognized.

So imagine my surprise and delight when, glancing at the Sunday circulars, I saw the unmistakable blur of eyes, lips and hair that, after closer study, turned out to be a Kardashian grouping. These girls, with no discernible intelligence or talent, have developed a following and created a brand that is inescapable. I don't begrudge them for achieving celebrity, and I can only assume they don't begrudge me whatever attention I can gain by using their name a minimum of 8 times per 500 words for maximum search engine optimization.  It's a win-win, right?

But I am somewhat upset about one aspect of this laudable achievement on the part of these girls. Their name, Kardashian, has become their brand. They've all got first names that begin with "K," which ups the "exoticness-per-syllable" quotient. Kim, Khloe and Kourtney realized they could kapitalize on the kuteness of their brand if they kept with the "K" motif. Herein lies my complaint.  This is the logo for their new Sears merchandise:

Yes, America, the kombined marketing/branding geniuses at Team Kardashian/Sears decided that kitschy kommerce trumps korrect spelling in the battle for your clothing and home decor dollar.  My milk glass, your stamps, your kid's Beanie Babies - those are collections. But correct spelling isn't good enough for the Diva Klass - they have to have a "Kollection." I fault them for turning their teachable moment into another konquest for kapitalizm. But I do wish them success in their endeavor.

EXTRA! EXTRA! I hope you are sitting down for this news flash. While over at the Sears website to copy the above logo, I discovered that they have officially named this "Kardashian Week." Why am I only just now hearing about this? If I mail a card today, will they get it in time?

(I should clarify: their clothing line was launched in 2011. This home line is what is "new" and deserving of its own special week.)

I'm wondering how this partnership between the beautiful young trendsetters and the once-great retailer will fare. According to my fashionista neighbor, the venture is off to a slow start. As she said, "It will take more than trashy clothes to get me to shop at Sears." But some celebrity-retail alliances bear long-term fruit: I'm thinking Jaclyn Smith and KMart, I'm thinking George Strait and Tractor Supply Company, and ... many others that I don't have time to think of. So how do the experts see it?

Well, I tried to do some online research, but got so distracted by the stories of the girls and their men that I completely lost track of the original articles on Investors Business Daily and The Motley Fool. Suffice to say that experts espouse the dire prediction that Sears is a retail dinosaur and the Kardashians can't stop them from going the way of T-Rex and becoming a fossil in the near future.

Now I do shop at Sears. I get replacement vacuum cleaner bags and filters for my old canister there, once every year or so. And because Sears is strategically located in my local mall, I park in their empty parking lot and look at stuff on clearance as I pass through on my way to somewhere else in the mall.  I am usually one of the youngest people in the store whenever I go to Sears, and most of us shoppers are alone rather than with kids or teens. When I see a couple shopping there, the wife is usually holding the broken lawnmower part so the husband can manage his walker. Even with a Land's End shop inside the Sears store 2 miles from me, I still sometimes have trouble spending a $300 gift card there.

But now that the Kardashians signed on, Sears is gonna ROCK!

Wait until Eric sees what the Kardashian sisters suggest for our room:

And who among you would not be bursting with pride to think you'd played a part, however small, in bringing this scrap of frippery to market? 

This may be just the thing to get your hubby/man/sig-o interested in shopping, ladies.
Well, I just had to toot my horn, since I know Kourtney, Khloe and Kim are much too busy being billionaires to toot it for me. Speaking of which, I'd better get busy myself. Errands to run, a house to clean, dogs to walk...I may not live the chic and komfortable life of a Kardashian, but I'm rich in the ways that count. And tonight I have a special outing planned with my husband. Not a glitzy, glamorous evening on the town a la K, K and K, but one befitting the suburban matron that I am: dinner at Golden Corral, followed by a romantic walk through the intimates department at Sears.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Write or Sleep? It Depends on the Chair

I composed this masterpiece one day a few weeks ago, sitting in a recliner with the laptop on my lap. It afforded me a short walk down memory lane, thinking of my typing teacher at Fairhope High School (Miss Thomas), and the buns-numbingly boring job of calling out individual letters of the alphabet for the class to translate into keystrokes on paper. She was a nice lady and I possess one of my few useful skill thanks to her efforts.

But I couldn't turn it into a blog, or a poem, or anything else useful. Reclining in the La-Z-Boy, with two dogs sharing my lap with the laptop, the old typing exercise didn't cause the juices of creativity to come gushing out. In fact, shortly after composing "asdfjkl;," I think I dozed off.

A few days later I was stationed across the family room in my overstuffed chair, with a dog in my lap, a dog on the ottoman and the laptop perched awkwardly on the edge of the chest next to me. At my feet lay another dog, next to my sewing basket. A pouch containing supplies for a much-needed manicure sat on top of a huge stack of books I'm supposedly reading. Surrounded by so many competing interests, I sat with my blog composition page open for several minutes, before typing this:

"You will not make me do that. There is no way you can make me do that. Under no circumstances will you force me to do that."

For some reason, that paragraph was one I always practiced before typing tests. I don't know where it came from, but after 30 years it just sprung from my fingertips.

It's pleasant to type, but it makes for a pretty dull blog entry. Unsure of what to do next, I think I took a short nap.

Inspiration is a fleeting thing. Some days, I have to open five or six tabs to handle all the writing ideas I have. Other days are just "asdfjkl;" days. Sometimes I'm distracted by my surroundings, other days I'm distracted by my thoughts, and occasionally (but not often), I have something better to do than sit at the computer.

A couple of weeks ago, I was working on an idea for a blog that I submitted to a website. I was very excited at the opportunity to write for a different audience, one full of strangers who aren't already tired of my schtick. I put myself under lots of unnecessary pressure and yelled at people and dogs who tried to talk to me while I "worked." I finally moved upstairs to the big library desk in my bedroom. Sitting on a hard wooden desk chair, I quickly made several pages of hand-written notes, gathered some pictures and began to write the piece, beginning to end, until I was done.

A few days later, I sat down to start selecting blogs for editing to go in a collection for a book. Mary and Camille were both writing on their respective computers in the living room, so I decided to set up shop in a huge, overstuffed chair we have in there. I wanted to chat with the girls while I worked, since we were planning spring break activities. I got a comfy blanket, a cup of decaf , a dog to warm my feet, my laptop and a notebook. Not only did I not get any work done, I don't think I talked much to the girls, and I also fell asleep there and spent the entire night, fully clothed, upright, my laptop keeping me warm in that cushy chair.

While I was in Virginia on spring break, I took my trusty notebook and favorite pen out on the deck of the rental house. The beautiful scenery of the Blue Ridge Mountains surrounded me, there was a light breeze, the sun was warm overhead, and I had an Adirondack chair and stool set up to enjoy the vista. I made some notes about our vacation activities up to that point, watched some bird activity through the binoculars, ate a cup of yogurt, and pondered blog topics. The combination of physical relaxation and mental effort made my eyes close, and soon I guessed it...napping.

This pattern has been emerging for months now probably evident if I'd been paying attention. I make a plan to do some writing, get nice and comfortable, and then don't write, because I haven't figured out how to write in my sleep. I think I've figured out the culprit in my occasional writer's block:

Comfortable chairs

The last few days I've been very productive. I've worked on several of my long-term commitment projects, set up my new blog, and cranked out a few pieces I've been working on for weeks. I've done all this writing at my kitchen counter, on a straight-back barstool with a small cushion. The laptop doesn't sit on my lap, but on the counter, and my feet aren't pointing at the ceiling, they are underneath me, perched on rungs and cold from lack of dog heat.

I think it is ironic that it took me this long to realize that what applies to others should apply to me as well. I encourage my kids to do their homework at a table or desk, with minimal distractions, with an attitude of attentiveness and a goal of getting it done. Why did I think I could undertake the "job" of being a writer slumped in a club chair, covered in animals?

My new approach will be to use each of my comfortable chairs for specific activities. The club chair is ideal for reading and sewing. The recliners are nice for watching TV. The overstuffed chair is perfectly situated for visiting with the girls in the evening, away from the kitchen and the TV.

And my current perch, the kitchen island, allows for quiet background music, monitoring the progress of the meal I'm cooking, and offers a view of the kitchen sink, some streaky windows and the gorgeous expanse of my backyard.

I think this spot works for me.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Tuesday's Term Turnaround, v. 2

The blockbuster yet awkwardly-titled series returns after taking a week off for spring break. Now I'm back, well-nourished and ready to introduce some words that need to disappear from use in their currently misused forms. I'm depending on my brilliant and literate reading audience to assist me in achieving that goal.

There have been thousands of articles and blog entries devoted to the topic of word overuse, which means I didn't have to look very far to discover some candidates for this week's list. After you read mine, go here and here if you want to see some real effort. I'm pretty haphazard: I scratch my head, think about my personal pet peeves and start writing.  But some of these people devote their whole professional lives to creating complete and useful lists of words they want to bury. I wonder if that pays well.

If you still don't know where I'm going with this post, please look at the first installment of Tuesday's Term Turnaround, where I explain why "perhaps a vocabulary tune-up is in order."

For the rest of you, let us begin to examine some truly overused words.

basically - adverb
Here's an example of how people like to use "basically" to start as sentence in which they'd like to sound sincere, although the facts dispute this:

Man: "Basically, I'm a one-woman man."
Date: "How many times have you been married?"
Man: "Four. But only to one woman at a time."

This guy wants his date to believe that his fundamental nature is monogamous, so he precedes his statement with "basically." But "basic" is not a perfect replacement for "true" or "accurate."

Another abuse of "basically" is when the speaker wants to convey they idea that they are only sharing part of a more complex or lengthy story, as in:

Prisoner X: "So what are you in for?"
Prisoner Y: "Murder, robbery, possession, speeding and illegal lane-change."
Prisoner X: "What happened?"
Prisoner Y: "Basically, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Notice how "basically" spares the listener of the sordid details leading to Prisoner Y's incarceration. By saying "basically," he suggests unnamed, complicated circumstances which are central to the truth of the story, but unrevealed.

It is best to use "basically" sparingly, and to apply it when only one feature, factor or variable is being measured or analyzed. It should refer to something in the base form, i.e. simple, essential, primary. If you need to discuss something complicated, don't confuse the issue by introducing the idea as simple.  For example:

DON'T: "Basically, an anti-quark is just a really small part of an atom that is the opposite of a quark."

DO: "I am incapable of describing a quark or an anti-quark in terms you can understand. Basically, you should look it up."

totally - adverb
Another adverb, (for those of you keeping track), "totally" is like fingers on chalkboard for me. When it is used to confirm attendance at something ("Are you going to the party?" "I'm totally there!"), I clench my fists and grit my teeth.

Other abuses worthy of a citizen's arrest, and some suggested substitutes:

"She totally shouldn't wear those skinny jeans because her butt is totally hanging out and she basically just looks like a totally flat slob."
Instead, try:
"Those skinny jeans aren't very flattering to a size XXL figure. Her mother was completely justified in suggesting she wear something else." 

"The Patriots will totally dominate the Giants."
Instead, try:
"The Patriots were completely dominated by the Giants." 

"If I'm crowned Miss Northeast Granger, I will be totally about stopping global warming before it totally kills the Earth."
Instead, try:
"If crowned Miss Northeast Granger, I will devote myself to the awesome cause of ending global warming, since that is guarantees lots of publicity." 
Think of "totally" as a word reserved for statements of mathematical precision. If you can quantify your response at or above the 99% threshhold, you can totally use "totally." And in the name of all that is sacred, please apply that same rule of thumb to the word "absolutely."

This word shows up on many overused word lists. "Amazing" must be the go-to substitute for people who were told they say "awesome" too much.

Ending in -ing, you'd expect it to be used as a verb. Something that is amazing should cause amazement to occur. But in this sample exchange which passes for polite conversation:

A: Hi! How are you?
B: I'm amazing! How are you?
A: I'm awesome, thanks for asking.
B: No problem.

you'll notice that neither person mentioned any experience or activity that would inspire awe or amazement. They just referred to their current status as being capable of doing so. ("No problem" in place of "you're welcome" is a peeve for another day.) Referring to the capacity to amaze without specifying how you achieve this effect is inconclusive. If you never describe a person, including yourself, as "amazing," you are safe.

Since grammar is never far from the mind of any of my devoted readers, let's pause to hurriedly open another tab and find out exactly what part of speech "amazing" generally functions as, in lazy daily speech. Since it often describes or modifies a noun, but ends in "-ing," it must be a present participle. As such, "amazing" cannot be the main verb, much less the lone word, in a sentence.

"Amazing" is usually applied liberally when discussing issues of beauty and fashion. Examples gushing from the red carpet commentary prior to an award ceremony might include:

"Jennifer Aniston's dress is an amazing shade of gunmetal grey that does absolutely nothing for her complexion."
"Check out the number of ripples on Ryan Reynolds' abs. Amazing!" 
"That Kardashian sister is going to have slit her skirt much higher if she wants to compete with Angelina's amazing thigh exposure."
If you want to use "amazing" correctly, reserve it for situations where something truly caused amazement. "To amaze" suggests an extreme level of surprise. The original meaning actually conveyed fear, as in an alarming or terrifying thing or event. The word has evolved to connote a lesser affect, but should still be used for exceptional cases, not just a modifier of exaggeration.

Miss Aniston's dress was probably a "pretty" or "dull" shade of grey. The color of the dress probably didn't cause astonishment; the dress probably didn't impress or astound the audience purely by virtue of the "amazing" color. Sometimes an "amazing" dress is simply a "nice" dress.

Last time on Tuesday's Term Turnaround, I dissected five words, which took much too long for the limited appeal. I decided to stop at three this week, which means I'm done.  Next week, I'll be whining about the misuse of the following words: diversityaddictiveneed and possibly exhausted. I'm also taking requests for this Hit Parade, so if you would like to suggest a word or term that drives you crazy, post a comment and let me know, and I'll try to find something annoying  and overly-complicated to say about it.

So what's left to say? Basically, go have a totally amazing day!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Monday Morning Moan-a-Thon

Don't get me wrong. I'm in a good mood and feeling very positive and have no serious complaints, but...

UUUGGGHHH! Monday after a week's vacation is such a drag!

And a week's vacation spent eating junk and staying up late is a perfect recipe for the crash-and-burn morning I'm currently experiencing.

If you saw my last blog, you already know of my heroic efforts to gain a record amount of weight while visiting the Blue Ridge Mountains last week. Not content to eat myself into oblivion while travelling, I came home and started planning our Easter feast. As I conferred with my husband and kids about the menu, a pattern began to emerge. Start with basically healthy appetizers, then gradually decline into high-fat, calorie-dense dishes until arriving at a selection of 5 separate desserts, each of which serves 8, for a party of 8. The flagrantly hedonistic menu included: 

boiled shrimp with mild cocktail sauce and sinus-draining cocktail sauce
one dozen each bacon-cheese and curry-horseradish devilled eggs
fruit platter
Eric's Savory Artery-Clogging Mashed Potatoes with gravy
steamed asparagus with Hollandaise sauce
green beans with butter
composed fruit salad with yogurt-poppy seed dressing
two loaves buttered French bread
mixed berry tart
peach-cherry tart
vanilla bean ice cream
double-chocolate fudge brownies
bunny-shaped chocolate layer cake

I'm ashamed to say that I probably even forgot something. And whatever I forgot, I'm still sure that I ate some of it, memorable or not. Plus I didn't mention that there were bowls of jelly beans sitting around everywhere, and two of our guests brought candy- and chocolate-filled baskets. And I had to wash it all down with coffee laced with Irish cream liquer.

The DTs from going cold-turkey after that much sugar will probably last all week.

And I'll do it. I'll get back on the wagon today, and start detoxing from the excessive sugar and starch and caffeine and fat and preservatives and all the other unhealthy components of my vacation diet.

But I reserve the right to complain until I feel better.

I need a catchy name for my complaint. Considering how much junk I've eaten and the length of time I've been eating this way, I'm likely to feel bad for a while. I need a shorthand way of referring to my symptoms, to mask the fact that I've been unapologetically consuming any and all food-like substances within reach for several weeks. Since I know my condition is not my fault, but due to pre-vacation stress, vacation excitement and post-vacation letdown, blaming my behavior on vacation seems to be the best approach.

I'm suffering from Post-Vacation Excessive Eating Letdown.

If I don't get better soon, I can call it a condition. A few weeks of persistent symptoms, and I've got a syndrome. Soon, I'll be able to claim my "disability" and refer to it only in acronym form.

"My P-VEEL is bothering me today." would this work...

A neighbor calls to see if I want to take an early morning walk:

Neighbor: Hi, Michele. Ready for a brisk walk on this gorgeous spring morning?
Me: Oh, I'd love to. Really, I would. But my P-VEEL flared up overnight, and I think I'd better take it easy today.

  Another friend calls to see if I can babysit:
Friend: Are you available to watch Baby Lucifer for a couple of hours today?  
Me: I'm feeling terrible today. I think my P-VEEL is coming back.              

Friend: That's awful. But I really need a sitter. Is it contagious? 
 Me: I don't know for sure, but I wouldn't want to take that chance (silent chuckle).

P-VEEL may come in handy for the constant requests to volunteer. I envision my answer to the next email response to bake something, or sell tickets, or chair a committee:
Dear Mrs. Slavedriver,
     I regret to inform you that I've been diagnosed with P-VEEL and will be unable to assist with any more of your pointless projects. Please remove me from your volunteer list and purge every trace of my contact information from your files.
Yours in eternal exhaustion,
Michele Arnett
I'm beginning to see some real advantages to having a scary-sounding diagnosis. In a perfect world, it would most commonly flare up on Monday mornings and could last through Friday afternoons. Treatment options would include rest, sunshine and live-in help.

(Cue haunting music):

P-VEEL -  are you at risk? Research into a cure has been affected due to the poor economy and budget cuts. Please give generously to your local P-VEEL foundation. 

Alright. Enough already. I'm done blogging as an excuse to goof off.

I'm healthy, well-fed, well-rested, laying around my climate-controlled home in comfy pajamas on a cushy chair, drinking imported coffee. Whining. It's time I get up and get going. Earn my keep. Clean my kitchen. Walk my dogs. Sew something. Weed the front garden. Take a jog on the treadmill.

Or get started on my new favorite most important list:

The Netflix Instant Queue.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Eating My Way Through Spring Break

When one of my dearest relatives became ill in February, I was shaken to the core. After losing my mother so suddenly last summer, I was unprepared for a health scare involving another loved one. And when my Uncle Bill recovered, I wanted to see him and spend time with him. With the cunning often practiced by housewives who don't earn much and have to justify  the cost of such indulgences, I quickly hatched my vacation plan,  Operation Spring Break Relaxing Mountain Excursion (codename: OpS BrReME).

There's a bit of irony here, since Eric usually has some hectic, long-distance travel plan for the 10-day break, while I usually whine that we never get to just stay home and be lazy for a week. Then, when we go wherever he planned, I have a ball and feel sorry for the poor sots who were too lazy to leave the house for a springtime adventure. This year, however, with a tight budget and high gas prices, we had no such adventure in the works.

Mary Kathleen, my eldest, already had plans. Her high school orchestra arranges an optional spring break performance trip every other year, and she was headed to New York City to see the sights and play a concert at South Street Seaport. Mary had been saving faithfully from her numerous babysitting and dogsitting jobs, her birthday windfall and school fundraisers; she financed a large portion of her trip, and I give her great credit for her contribution.

Eric preferred to use his vacation time during the summer fishing season, so Camille and I had no fixed engagements for the week leading up to Easter, and commenced to plan a visit to the Blue Ridge Mountains to see Uncle Bill.

I'm not good at writing travelogues, since I can rarely remember what I do, no matter how memorable it should be. I may describe a wonderful meal, but name the wrong restaurant, or describe a beautiful view but forget the state I was in when I saw it. I'm not good with the minute-by-minute details. I just recall the general flavor of an event, and then embellish, hoping I trip over an actual memory in the process.

This trip was wonderful in many ways, but it can best be described by two verbs: driving and eating. I think the drive down was about 12 hours, and the drive home was at least that long, which makes 24 hours driving to and from my destination from Friday through Wednesday, six days. The distance from my house to my uncle's is roughly 600 miles, and the shortest route is an exercise in zig-zags. I know many people drove much further, but I'll wager they didn't go around as many curves or down as many 5% grades as we did. The driving was, in a word, adventurous.

So was the eating. It was adventurous on a competition scale. Six days of vacation should have included around 18 meals, give or take, and some snacks when meals weren't possible. If we estimate the average meal time as around 30 minutes, I should have spent about 9 hours eating over the course of the vacation. But I assure you, I spent more time eating than I did driving, which I already calculated at 24 hours. There were so many opportunities to sample a wide variety of food products, from homemade goods to haute cuisine, and I didn't pass up any of them.

I started the trip with good intentions. I packed a shoebox full of semi-healthy snacks for the drive: fruit/grain bars, roasted nuts and some cookies for the odd sugar emergency. In the ice chest were carrots, string cheese, yogurt and sugar-free drinks. We had a flat of bottled water and I took a thermal coffee cup for refills. I was prepared to eat well, but sensibly.

That lasted until the first gasoline stop. Sun Chips beckoned from the end-cap nearest the register. Crushed ice in the soda fountain convinced me break to my pop-free diet. A childish whisper from the end of an aisle turned out to be my sweet friend, Little Debbie, and her Cosmic Brownies were so fresh and colorful I couldn't resist.

Once I'd blown my sensible travel diet, four hours into the drive, that set the stage for my patented "Never Diet on Vacation" attitude, perfected after years of conflict between intentions and actions on vacation. I ratcheted down my discipline and amped up my appetite to meet the demands of the area hotspots and sightseeing venues. I did not disappoint myself.

I seemed to be eating something all the time. If my eyes were open, I had food at arm's length, or closer. Not that everything I ate was bad - I had some oatmeal for breakfast one morning on the screened porch overlooking the babbling brook that ran through the property of our rental house in Fancy Gap, VA.

But by the end of that day, I'd eaten a protein bar, a bowl of soup, a large salad, two huge chocolate chip cookies, an enormous bag of movie popcorn (shared) and no doubt a huge dinner I've already forgotten.  Oops, after consulting my notes I just remembered - it was a binge-a-thon at the only mall restaurant with available seating at 8pm on Saturday night: Golden Corral. (I'm hanging my head in shame as I write this admission. At least give me credit for feeling bad about it after the fact.)

As sacrilegious as it seems to eat at a chain restaurant or go out to a movie while on vacation to a place I'd never been, I'm guilty. Travelling with teenage girls means at least one trip to a mall and/or movie. We did both that day. But we made up for our generic food choices by hitting some unique local eateries. I partook at Barney's Deli in Mt. Airy and The Gap Deli in Fancy Gap, shopped at Poor Farmer's Market and Old Fashioned Country Store and tasted and bought all manner of fudge and candy at Nancy's, both in lovely Meadows of Dan, VA. I even managed to sneak in some Chinese food in Wytheville, just to balance the hemispheres a bit.

But my award for best Performance in Eating Establishments was achieved at The Greenbrier, a huge, gorgeous resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.  My first act of gorging was due in part to the exertion of the long and fascinating underground bunker tour. If you've never heard or read about the secretly-constructed concrete bunker, intended to house the Congress in the event of a nuclear attack during the Cold War, click here for the link to an amazing attraction. As a five-star resort with golf courses, a casino and a 6,750 acre chunk of prime beauty in the Allegheny Mountains, you could hardly expect an activity like the bunker tour to be capped off by anything less than High Tea. 

We enjoyed being served delicious hot tea. I noshed with reckless abandon on biscuits, scones and other mysterious cookie-like confections until I felt fully recovered and able to wait the interminable three hours until dinner. Another uncle and aunt have a home in nearby Someplaceville, WV, about 30 minutes away, which is where we headed after tea to rest and change clothes for dinner at the Greenbrier's steakhouse. I had not asked my uncle many questions about our dinner plan, enjoying the mystery and anticipation of the occasion. I knew we had to dress nicely and be mindful of the many fork choices, but I didn't know what to expect in terms of the food.

Burning calories and working up an appetite just by struggling into body-shaping fat-relocation garments and the dreaded control-top pantyhose, I was approaching a feeling of hunger as we were leaving our lodgings. Camille was thrilled to be participating in such a grown-up evening, and we both primped for the camera as evidence of this special occasion.

As a side comment, I realize "hunger" is a relative term. I didn't experience true hunger on this whole trip. The closest I came was the faint echo of a threat of a growling stomach, usually occurring only moments before I popped some nutritionless morsel in my face. When I say I was hungry, I really mean that I was just physically and/or mentally prepared to eat without waiting to be hungry. But when we arrived back at the Greenbrier, and I got a whiff of the restaurants in full service mode, my digestive tract and salivary glands behaved like someone who truly needed to eat. In textbook Pavlovian fashion, the smell of sizzling beef fat on a hot metal charger sent my drool production into overdrive. I had to guzzle a glass of water just to get my mouth calmed down.

Named for Jerry West, a famed basketball player from the area, Prime 44 West Steakhouse is a pleasant, masculine restaurant with a full complement of servers to make the guests feel pampered. From the complimentary cornbread to the magically special ice cream, every bite was scrumptious. I skipped steak but filled up on a delicious salad, lobster bisque to die for and a huge Maryland crab cocktail. My companions said little about their steaks, but they grunted and moaned in that unmistakable way that communicates taste buds in paradise. We all shared a huge bowl of lobster mashed potatoes, for which the chef gets my nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize for Food. It was a meal for the record books, and you should look at the menu to appreciate the wonder of it all.

The next day was driving home day, and what I really wanted todo was hire a flatbed tow truck to drag my gigantic, distended food-filled gut home, while I lay prone in the backseat of my car. That was not to be. I drove, with numerous body-cleansing stops, up to Cleveland, then over to Granger, because my calorie-engorged body could barely manage turns, exits and lane changes. I wish I could say I just drove and didn't eat a bite, but that wouldn't be true. In fact I ate an entirely unnecessary meal in the mid-afternoon, and munched on car snacks with minimal awareness of what I was doing. It was pathetic.

Now I'm home, the car is unpacked, the laundry is done and I'm semi-rested from the trip. This blog has been an exercise in reminding myself how I pigged out in the beautiful states of Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and Ohio (I managed to eat normally during our brief time in Indiana). Today, Eric took the girls to the mall so I could have some quiet time to finish writing this installment.  After this act of purging with words, I hope to be able to step back on the straight and narrow road of sensible eating and regular exercise.

After all, vacations are special. They are time set aside to do things you don't normally get to do in everyday life. So what if I went up a full clothes size in less than a week? Someone has a steady job thanks to my need for some new elastic-waist pants. And I'll get back to my normal habits and comfortable weight very soon. Starting right after I finish this Dairy Queen Blizzard my well-meaning children just brought me.

Happy spring break and bon appetit!