Sunday, November 28, 2010

Re-Killing the Turkey

Most of you were done on Thursday, but I just waved goodbye to the biggest feast of the season after having twenty in-laws over for a belated Thanksgiving meal last night.

That shriek you hear is the song to my crazed morning-after happy dance.

I am not an entertainer. I want to be. I try. But while some people are born to lay out lavish dinners for multitudes with nary a batted eyelash, I was born to be the rolls and veggie tray girl. It’s not really that I’m such a bad cook (although the facts of last night may point that way). It’s more that I’m a worrier who frets for weeks leading up to the event, and then lets pots boil over onto the stove while the guests arrive. And no matter how much planning I do ahead of time (in the middle of the night when I should be sleeping), I always seem to find myself driving to the store thirty minutes before go time to pick up that one last ingredient that will somehow lift the party from stressed-out mayhem to Martha Stewart perfection.

Last night’s meal involved a turkey—well, a turkey and a ham, because I was sick of turkey after eating leftovers since Thursday, but some of the guests were averse to ham. Ham’s easy (hel-lo, you can get them already cooked and sliced), but I had prepared precisely one turkey in my lifetime, and I think it was about eight years ago (or, roughly, the last time I couldn’t somehow escape hosting duties on Thanksgiving).

Now, you may be thinking that turkey is easy, too, but I beg to differ. Cooking a turkey involves wrestling eighteen pounds of cold, rubbery raw bird flesh onto a pan (brand new, since—duh—I didn’t actually own a roasting pan, which you don’t need for rolls or a veggie tray). First you have to fish out the neck (thanks for including that, Butterball!), and then you need to stand there for ten minutes or so with your arm swirling around the slimy innards while you frantically search for the bag of giblets. I knew they must be there somewhere—I have actually cooked poultry before—but nobody warned me that I should be looking in the turkey’s butt!

Finally (and you might be able to skip this step), I needed to run to the computer to Google how to insert a meat thermometer into “the meatiest part of the thigh.” I’ve eaten chicken thighs, but I wasn’t even sure where to find one on that nasty raw-meat monstrosity. (I think this experience may actually be the tipping point that turns me vegetarian.)

With the thermometer in according to the package directions and the wisdom of the Internet, I set the bird in the oven to cook for the promised four hours while I finished making the rest of the food and setting three tables. (Hubby was away working hard at his very important coaching job and picking up Danger Boy from basketball practice, so it was all on me—yippee!). Forty-five minutes early, the temperature alarm beeped, and I took the now-golden bird out to rest. It looked pretty good! On a whim, though, I decided to check the temp of the suspiciously firm-looking turkey breasts. I know that “firm” and “breasts” can be good in some situations, but I don’t think Thanksgiving dinner is one of those. When I inserted the probe, the meat let out the barest dusty sigh as I discovered with the rapidly rising temperature gauge that I had indeed killed the bird (again!). Damn.

“Gravy, people, you should definitely throw on some gravy. Or try the ham. The ham is great!”

Finally, the work was done, the house cleaned, the borrowed chairs in place, and the food laid out for the hungry masses. My older son looked at the food spread out before him and, sagely, made the observation of the night:

 “The problem with Thanksgiving is that the food isn’t even all that good. We have a whole day centered around turkey. Why don’t we have a day centered around something that tastes good, like hamburgers?”

Now that would be my kind of Thanksgiving! I’ll bring the buns.

Two of three tables... the top one still waiting on the BYOC (bring your own chairs)

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

I Got a Rock

Remember the holiday special, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown? I always felt so sorry for Charlie Brown in that show. Every Peanuts special was filled with his failures and social belittlement, but the Halloween special was the worst of all. Remember how he went trick-or-treating—the most delightfully anticipated kid event of the fall season—and got a mean trick instead of a treat at every single house? Each of the other kids got candy and apples and money, but after every door Charlie Brown would say, “I got a rock.”

I know it seems a little out of season, but I think of that TV show every year around this time for my own private reasons. You see, “I got a rock” is the refrain that haunts me as I remember my biggest holiday gift-giving failure ever.

Let me explain.

My older son was born just five days before Christmas, a surprise tax deduction and holiday-plan-changer, since he was not supposed to make an entrance until the end of January. He was fine (if a little pumpkin-colored), but his early entrance meant that he would forever have to share his birthday with the biggest gift-giving holiday of the year.

I’ve always made a big deal about his birthday, with a party and friends and a firm commitment to never have him hear the dreaded words, “happy-birthday-merry-Christmas” as we hand him a two-fer Christmas/birthday gift in one.

When he was younger, I considered celebrating his half birthday instead, but for a number of reasons—including having a cousin born on his first birthday—that never really appealed to him. So that means he gets every gift he’ll receive all year within a five-day period in late December. That can present challenges when you’re trying to think of ideas for a child who already has way too much.

When he was in about fifth grade (I think), he really wanted Guitar Hero for Christmas. That was his entire list. I bought it early and had it waiting to put under the tree. Unfortunately, there was still that other gift-giving occasion to shop for, so I got…well…creative. And while creativity is great if you’re selling napkin rings on, it’s met with just a dash more scorn when you’re cobbling together a “surprise” for an eleven-year-old.

His class had done a unit on rocks and minerals that year, and he had expressed a real interest in collecting his own specimens. He was particularly taken with crystals, and showed me several in books that were especially pretty. So I decided to get him an extra-nice rock collection—including various crystals, geodes, some petrified dinosaur poop, and a professional-grade rock tumbler—as his birthday present. (I know. You can see the problem already, but I was delusional.)

So there we all were on his birthday, gathered around Austin, whose eyes sparkled with anticipation for the Guitar Hero he thought would be in that big box on the table. The paper was torn away, and there it was, stamped clearly across his face as he tried to give me a grateful smile: “I got a rock.”

It’s a beautiful set. Honest! It still sits in its place of shame next to the never-used rock tumbler on a high shelf in the back of his closet, taunting me when I have to reach into those dark recesses to put away something old or unwanted or outgrown. 

An excellent fake smile, whipped out later for the photo op.

These are the lessons I learned from my ill-fated foray into the world of rock hounds:

1.   If two gifts will eventually be given, always start with the video game.
2.   Educational gifts are best left to the grandparents.
3.   Creativity is best for gifts intended for the really old or the really young.

The search is on for two non-geological gifts for this year. Suggestions will be gratefully considered. Good grief!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

A Question of Feelings

[A note: I really wanted to make this blog post funny, but it didn’t want to come out that way. Some stories are like that.]

My younger son asked me a question that really struck me hard the other night. “Mom,” he said. “What did it feel like—you know, emotionally­—to have a baby that didn’t have all it’s parts?”

Wow. That question really laid it bare. What did it feel like?

To fill in a little background, my son was born with a congenital malformation of his hand and chest called Poland’s Syndrome. It’s really rare­—just one in about 30,000 babies born each year is diagnosed with it worldwide. It’s nowhere on the radar of scary stuff that you worry about when you’re pregnant. Heck, it’s not even on the radar of the doctors and specialists we went to for answers in the years after our birthing room surprise. It took us two and a half years to get a diagnosis even though our son could be a poster child for the condition.

So, how did it feel emotionally? The day he was born started with me nearly skipping into the maternity ward from my scheduled prenatal appointment. The baby was measuring over nine pounds, so they wanted to induce me. It was August, and a couple of days shaved off the end of my third trimester felt a little like an early Christmas. Unfortunately, my big bruiser of a baby was already just a little too big to make it out completely unscathed. A loud crack let me know that my little guy would have some healing to do as his broken clavicle mended in the weeks after he was born.

Then, when they placed him on my chest, I looked down and felt a jolt as he pushed his little left hand up toward my face. Something was clearly wrong. What was wrong with his hand? Was anything else wrong with him? Oh my god, what was wrong with my baby?

It took a while to convince the doctor that the baby didn’t just have his little hand in a fist. I saw my husband drop down to the floor with his head in his hands. My mother kept telling someone to turn off the video camera—a video I've still never brought myself to watch.

How did it feel? The initial wave of shock was followed by fear, wondering what was wrong with my little boy—not knowing if he was facing a lifetime of physical challenges. That was followed almost immediately by awkwardness, as friends and family shuffled into the room with painted smiles on their faces, cooing over his cuteness and remarking on how wonderful it was to have a new little man in our lives. I could tell that they didn’t know how to act, didn’t know what to say. What do you say in a moment like that?

Then we sank into an informational black hole, where answers and understanding were notable only by their absence. I’m an information junkie. I needed to know what had happened and why it had happened and whether I had done something that had caused it. Did I eat the wrong foods? Sleep too long on my back? Was it that fever I had back in December? And then there was the biggest question of all: What could I do to fix it?

We had to wait six weeks to see the pediatric orthopedist, and that was considered a short wait in the medical world—a favor to our pediatrician. I spent those weeks touching my baby’s little hand, feeling for bones that I was sure were just hiding under the skin, waiting for the miracle surgeon to reshape them into a normal hand.

The surgeon, unfortunately, was unaware that he was supposed to be my son’s salvation. We were a pretty routine, unimpressive case to him (and, frankly, the man had the bedside manner of a goat). There wasn’t much he could do, although he did eventually perform one small surgery to widen the web space and improve Caden’s grasp. When I asked him that first day if there were any support groups we could turn to, he told us we could head up to the children’s hospital, but that we’d feel stupid because our son’s hand was not a big deal. In hindsight, it turns out he was right, but it sure felt like a big deal at the time.

Weeks turned to months, and every single day brought the same questions from strangers. The checkers at the grocery store and the people walking by us at the mall would all turn to me and say, “Excuse me. Can I ask what happened to his hand?” I’m sure they thought they were being polite enough and that they were just expressing their curiosity, but every single time, I felt like that stranger was looking at me and saying, “Excuse me, but what the hell did you do wrong while you were pregnant?” And I’d look back and think, “Yeah, what the hell did I do wrong?”

I’d sit at home imagining snappy responses to the daily barrage of questions: “His hand? Holy crap! What happened to his other fingers? They were there when I left home!” or “Shark bite! Bit ‘em clean off.” But every day, instead, I’d shrink down inside myself and say, “I don’t know what happened. He was just born that way. He does great with both of his hands. He’ll be just fine.” One woman working in a nail salon actually responded back, “Well, he might be fine now, but when he grows up, he’s going to want fingers! If that happened to me, I’d kill myself!” I haven’t had my nails done since.

Eventually, though, two things happened that changed everything. The first was that we finally got a diagnosis. After years of pushing and questioning, I found a specialist intrigued enough to do some digging after we left his office. He called me three days later with the term “Poland’s Syndrome,” and it was like someone finally switched on a light in the room. Pair the name of anything—even something obscure and rare—with the power of the Internet, and suddenly you go from being all alone in a bizarre and unexpected reality to befriending moms in southern California and Europe and Australia who are all going through the same exact experience you are. Knowledge brought comfort and camaraderie and a measure of peace from the “what did I do” questions that had echoed through his early years.

The second and most profound thing that happened was that Caden became, well… Caden. First, he developed the most shockingly blue eyes I’d ever seen. Strangers would stop me on the street, not to ask about missing fingers, but to tell me how beautiful my son’s eyes were. As time passed, he also developed an incredibly buoyant, uncommonly confident personality to go with his baby blues. He has actually known people—both kids and adults—who had no idea he was missing parts even after being around him for months.

How does it feel these days? I’ve passed through shock and denial, self-blame and fierce protectiveness… and now? I think I’ve definitely reached acceptance. I honestly don’t think  much about his hand—or his chest, which will be a bigger deal when his muscles start developing—day-to-day any more, but I also can’t imagine him without it. His “lucky hand” is part of his uniqueness, so much a part of his quirky self-image that I can’t picture him with a boring old matched set. He’s got the personality to confidently whip out the “shark bite” quip with a laugh, and I know he’ll be the guy who wins bets in college about being able to put his whole hand in his mouth.

How did it feel—emotionally—to have a kid who was missing parts? It felt a lot like it feels to have any kid. You love them, and you hurt when they hurt. You growl like a mama bear when the world makes them sad, and you hope that their future holds every single possibility that could make them happy. When my kid scores a goal or wins an award at school, though, our high-fives are missing a couple of digits (“Gimme three! Woo hoo!”).

Postscript: Several years ago, after finally getting Caden’s diagnosis, we were traveling down to California to visit my sister and her family. We stopped at a restaurant to get everybody some food, and the waitress came by with an odd expression on her face. “Excuse me,” she said. “Can I ask you a question about his hand?” I remember smiling, feeling so much calmer that time because I knew I finally had some answers to share. “Sure, I said. What do you want to know?”

“I hate to ask,” she started. “It’s just… I just had a baby with a hand exactly like that, and I don’t know what happened or what else might be wrong with him. I’m just so worried and I don’t know what to do!”

You’d think I would have learned to expect the unexpected.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Laundry Lessons (Or How I Escaped the 1950s)

I taught my 8th grade son how to do laundry yesterday. It’s been long overdue, I know, and I apologize to his future wife for letting it go this long. Sometimes it's just less painful to do it than to teach it. But his highness and I finally reached a tipping point on Saturday night. Yup. Right in the middle of preparing dinner, Mom went on strike.

OK, it was a really short strike, lasting just long enough for me to turn off the burners, abandon the half-cooked meal in the pans on the stove, and drive to the closest Starbucks for a mocha and a much-needed timeout with a good book. But I think I made my point. A little. I hope.

You see, I am the lone female in a family populated by boys. It’s testosterone soup around here—all puppy dog tails and Axe body spray. I’ve always considered myself a bit of a feminist, really, but somehow I’ve let my life devolve into a snapshot of 1950s domestic bliss, with Mom in charge of the inside of the house while Dad takes care of the lawn. I’ve even been known to greet my dear husband wearing heels, a ladylike dress and an apron (with a bow in my ponytail) just to make a point about how far from the ideal modern balance we’ve fallen. Unfortunately, the point actually taken was that there was something oddly alluring about June Cleaver waiting for him all dolled up after work. But I digress.

My husband would have been a perfect mid-20th-century provider. He works hard, takes great care of the yard, and successfully fixes almost anything that breaks (and that’s saying a lot in the realm of Danger Boy and Captain Chaos). He’s a great guy—a catch (according to him)—but he doesn’t cook. This despite many attempts by me to get him interested in the process (“It’s just following directions… like building a ‘some assembly required’ bookcase...”). And because he doesn’t cook, my boys have grown up with a horrifyingly sexist vision of how things work in the kitchen and around the house in general. Mom cooks; everyone else sits down when it’s ready and then rushes off to their very important soccer and basketball practices while Mom does the dishes.

To make matters worse, my older son has suddenly transformed from a generally likeable kid into (and it pains me to say this) a teenager. And just like everything else my oldest has taken on in life, he has embraced this metamorphosis with uncommon gusto. Whereas some teens may be occasionally surly, mine is like a sorority girl on PMS… every single day.

So, back to dinner and the laundry. I had been battling with the 13-year-old dark phantom all day. Every small step toward accomplishing anything was met with open hostility and scorn. Attempts to elicit help or even basic civility were devoured by the teenage wraith and expelled as unrecognizable emotional shrapnel. So, when my husband walked through the door after being away for hours scouting a high school basketball game (for his very important other job as a high school coach) it didn’t take much to send me over the edge into my Starbucks seclusion. (I'm usually more stable than this. Honest.)

The very next day, I decided that the time had come to end all of this ridiculous 1950s let’s-let-Mom-do-it garbage once and for all. The kid needed some life skill training and a bit more respect for how hard his parents (especially his sainted mother) work for him every day. I decided that since cooking required dishwashingand since our last lesson in cooking involved me forgetting to mention that hot bacon grease does not get washed down the sink when you’re done fryingI’d start with something simpler: doing his own damn laundry.

Shockingly, he was oddly receptive to the whole idea (“This is easy! I don’t know why you guys complain about this so much.”). He made his way through the two-and-a-half loads of post-teenage-boy grungies on his bedroom floor, and ensured that he would indeed have fresh boxers to wear on Monday morning (without yelling at Mom about it—what a concept).

The upside of all of this is that Grumble-butt now knows how to launder his own dirty drawers, meaning he will have one less thing to grouse about in the dark mom-hasn't-had-coffee-yet hours as he prepares for school  And maybe my son will not be completely helpless when I send him out into the world in the not-too-distant future. The downside is that I forgot to explain that not everything goes in the dryer after it has been washed (forgetting the important follow-up lessons is getting to be a pattern with me). To complete that final half load, the boy had grabbed a few of my sweaters and, um… underpinnings to fill the machine. [Sigh]

So, if you know any eight-year-old girls who like to wear somewhat motherly but now-so-very-small freshly cleaned sweaters, drop me a line. I’ll just be sitting here in a borrowed Aéropostale sweatshirt and some nice clean boxers waiting for my laundryman to get home from school.

P.S. If you want the greatest picture book ever for teaching these lessons to your own little boys, check out Piggybook, by Anthony Browne.