Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Public Speaking

Darcey turns 14 months in two days, and she is starting to attempt a step or two on her own. She isn't saying any words yet, not like her friend/rival Olivia who is two months younger and already has quite the little vocabulary (that's okay, Darcey could totally take her on physically - she's waaay better at standing up). Darcey says something that sounds like "tickle tickle" but it's random and not usually related to a tickling incident. Two women who were playing with her in church swear up and down that Darcey said "pretty" when they put a ribbon on her head, but those results have yet to be replicated. Besides, how can she say "pretty" or "tickle" when she's not saying "hi" or "mama" yet?

It doesn't matter really, because Zack does enough talking for both of them. Seriously, I don't need a fourth talking child because my ears are ready to bleed from listening to the first three yap constantly. Not Brad, so much - he's already beginning the tween/teen withdrawal so that whenever he wants to talk, I want to listen. Noah is at that great age where he is saying insightful and interesting things. But Zack, well, he's just killing me a little more each day.

Some things that he says are hilarious. He has no inhibitions and doesn't get embarrassed so he'll say some bizarre, random things. He'll see a stranger walking down the sidewalk and from across the street he'll shout, "Hey! What's your name?" He gets words wrong, like pronouncing licorice "snick-orice." And he can be tender, like when he told his swim teacher that she had the sweetest swim suit. He's hit the joke-telling phase, which is funny only in the absolute stupidity of the jokes he makes up. For example: How does a cow touch a hand? It eats it! (followed by screams of laughter and six more jokes about cows eating various objects including arms, houses, and trees.)

Other things he says are less hilarious and more grating. His recent addition to his lexicon is "I can't do it" and its many variations. It has to be said in a long, drawn-out whine, so that the whole phrase takes 15 seconds or so to get out. I could count the hours I've spent listening to "I can't do it" and the corollary "It's too hard." He spent his thirty minute swim lesson repeating those two phrases over and over while he did every single thing the instructor told him to do. I finally told him that he had to start saying "It's too easy" instead of "it's too hard" for the sole purpose of my entertainment. It makes me giggle to hear the whiny "it's too easy" - but don't feel sorry for him, that may have just saved his life.

Today in particular he Mommed me to death. Every single phrase, sentence, question, thought, whine, comment to come out of his mouth started with "Mom?" and then a pause while he waited for me to acknowledge him. And if I didn't acknowledge him quickly enough, he'd repeat it - "Mom?" pause "Mom?" Sometimes he wouldn't hear me so it would go like this: "Mom?" "What?" "Mom?" "What??" "Mom?" "WHAT!!!" It's the Chinese Water Torture all over again, I'm strapped to a chair and getting "Mom?"s plunked on my forehead until I am ready to spill my secrets just so long as they will STOP SAYING MOM!!!

I finally lost it today when Zack had spent the better part of ten minutes downstairs at the computer, calling "Mom?" up to me in the living room, where I was on the phone, which I mentioned to him more than once in increasingly aggravated tones. He was oblivious, though, and just kept repeating "Mom? Mom? Mo-o-o-o-o-m? Hey Mom! MOM! Mom-mom-mom-mom-mom-mom-mom! Mom? Mom? Mom!!" The rest of the afternoon was no better, and at dinnertime I finally declared, "Don't say Mom anymore! You are not allowed to call me Mom! Got it?" I doubt he got it.

He's asleep now, the picture of beauty and childhood innocence. One day he isn't going to want to acknowledge that I'm even related to him, let alone his mother, so I ought to be patient and count my blessings. But for now, the only thing I'm counting is the number of days before I've got one more kid chanting "mom" at me. Maybe this is one contest I'll let Olivia win.

Monday, July 28, 2008

A Moratorium

Watching my kids on allowance day is both amusing and so, so painful. The money doesn't just burn a hole in their pocket, it sets their pants on fire and the only place to extinguish the blaze is Wal-Mart. It's as if they have a physical aversion to money, a money allergy, so that as soon as they get any money at all they need to spend it to avoid breaking out in a rash.

Allowance has been a minor source of contention between Ryan and myself, until he decided to wave the white flag and let me have my way. His opinion had been: why should we just hand kids money for no reason? They should have to work for the money. For me, I had some experience with that plan as a child, when my mom attempted to institute a pay-for-performance system with my brothers and myself. In theory it works, but in practice there came a point very early on when I realized, Hey - I'd rather not have money than have to mop the kitchen floor for 50 cents.

So the plan that we came up with is this. Chores are mandatory and unpaid, it is just part of being in our family. Separately, the kids are given an allowance equal to their age on the 1st and 15th of the month. The idea is that they can get their hands on money early on, so that they can have experience spending, saving for bigger things, making mistakes while they're young and the cost won't be so high. Also, they won't have to ask for candy/toys/gum/trinkets every single solitary time I go to the store, because they have money and the ability to buy what they want.

In reality, though, all they seem to be experiencing is the momentary thrill of buying a new widget and then spending the next two weeks broke. There is no saving going on. There is no budgeting, no looking at the bigger picture. Only instant pleasure, in the form of Lemonheads and water balloons and keychain video games. They aren't even paying tithing, which I am loathe to mandate, only gently suggest every allowance day as I hand them their money.

To be fair, though, this is stuff that is hard for adults, too. Ryan and I recently decided that we had had enough fun for a while (i.e. trip to Europe) and that we needed to reinstate a spending moratorium. Our first moratorium came after we remodeled the kitchen, a painfully expensive process that left me never wanting to spend money again. The moratorium worked well for us that first time, because we agreed that we wouldn't make any largish purchases until some date several months later. It was nice, actually, because there were no spur-of-the-moments spending sprees that we regretted later - we knew we had lots of time to plan exactly what we wanted to spend our money on. Which ended up being the trip to Europe (instead of Lasik, a second car, new appliances, etc.)

We declared the second moratorium a couple of weeks ago. And then I found a killer deal on a almost-brand-new leather sectional on craigslist that I ended up getting for $700. So we reaffirmed the moratorium, and today woke up to a leak in our ceiling from the swamp cooler, which we've spent hundreds of dollars to fix every year since we bought the house and still never cools us off enough. And the dryer is making a new buzzing noise that mostly stops if I bang it, and the fridge emits a high-pitched whine that almost drowns out the high-pitched whine of the downstairs computer.

What makes us any different from the kids, blowing through their allowance like it's going out of style? I'll tell you:

1) Wal-Mart is the kids' shopping Mecca, but Ryan and I aren't content to spend every single penny there.
2) The boys only deal with a rather miniscule amount of money - $7 for Noah and now $11 for Brad, every two weeks. To them, $1,000 is more money than they could ever imagine spending. To us, it's not even enough for both a washer AND a dryer.
3) If the boys blow every penny at Wal-Mart, they just have to bide their time until another magical handout shows up. For us, there is a definite work-pay link.
4) If we run out of cash, Ryan and I have credit cards, so the spending can go on for a long, long time. I won't lend the boys any money, nor will I advance their allowance even a single day. They can't get into as much spending trouble as Ryan and I can.

To the untrained eye, it looks like the apple isn't falling far from the tree. And I have to ask myself if we don't do a pretty bad job of showing the kids the reality of our financial situation - we do save money, we prioritize what we buy and try to spend money only on our priorities, we don't go into debt, we put off our wants (second car) in favor of our needs (new furnace). We're planning on having a series of Family Home Evening lessons on personal finances, since it doesn't look like they will naturally learn any financial lessons just because they have money. After all, it doesn't work like that with the rest of America - plenty of adults have money and absolutely no common sense. We're going to have to work hard to get our kids there.

But right now, Brad has $50 in birthday money that he absolutely, positively cannot wait to spend, right this very second. If we don't get to Wal-Mart soon, I think the money in his pocket is going to spontaneously combust.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

My Guilty Pleasure

I'm almost finished reading (listening to, actually) a fabulous book called "Beautiful Boy," a true story of a father watching his son deal with a meth addiction. It is riveting to watch this boy's life implode while his parents ask themselves what more they could possibly do to save his life. The pain his parents feel is so powerful, and I have spent many hours while listening to this book picturing my children in their son's place. The boy was only 12 when he first tried pot. It's a terrifying thought.

I love the adventures that books provide. I love not knowing where the story is going to take you, not knowing where your heart is going to end up when you attach it to a character and follow him around, feeling what he does. I love exploring the choices that other people make - having the wonderful ability to disagree with every move the character makes, then having to see the results of those choices, but not having to live with it myself. It's like getting to live extra lives without the burden of really living them, or of any metaphysical reincarnation stuff. I can only imagine that being reincarnated would be a time-consuming way to experience more of life. Book are the cliff's notes version.

I've always been a reader. My earliest reading memory would be The Bath Book, where I infamously (in my family at least) misread "Otter" and the story became: "Elders don't take baths in water, they just play and fish there." I was the nerd on the playground that would rather read than play. I remember sitting on top of a piece of equipment reading Bridge to Terabithia, one of my favorite books of my childhood. My dad was no help in the "how to be a reader but still be cool" department. He would bring a paperback book with him to Wet 'N Wild, a Florida waterpark, read while standing in line, then leave the book at the bottom of the stairs and pick it up when he came off the slide. To this day that sounds like a genius plan if I ever heard one, but registers on the "things that could get you beat up" scale.

No, reading did not make me cool, but I had friends and wasn't a complete loser. Being an adult means that I finally, finally, am not judged by my skill (or lack thereof) in gym class, and being a reader is an asset, not a liability. Sadly, though, being an adult means that there is not nearly as much time to read. I have to do all those adulty things, like paying bills, and doing laundry, and scrubbing the bathtub.

About four years ago, my dad introduced me to audiobooks, which is how us nerds can take something ubercool like an ipod and reduce it to nothing more than a convenient book-carrier. Not to sound melodramatic, but audiobooks have changed my life. I no longer have to decide whether we are going to have clean clothes to wear or if I'm going to polish off a novel - now I could do both! I love that I can multi-task, do the horrible, boring things that make the label "housewife" strike such dread in my heart, but still listen to a great novel, or biography, or history book, or whatever happens to be on my ipod that day. I love the efficiency of the whole thing so much that I've all but stopped reading books on paper (analog, my brother Drew calls them). For years now, my books have all been audio, and my reading has been in conjunction with accomplishing household tasks.

Yesterday, I happened to stumble across the perfect storm of reading opportunities. Ryan was in bed, sick with what might be the Parisian Death Virus starting a second round, so I led the boys in our Saturday morning cleaning ritual. On my way to the baptism of our next-door neighbor Ashley, another neighbor returned "The Host" by Stephenie Meyer, a book on paper that I had bought but hadn't found time to read yet. When we got home, with the boys outside playing and Darcey and Ryan down for naps, I sat on the couch for the first time in ages and read a book.

It was like giving a dying man in the desert a long drink of water. If the man didn't know how thirsty he was. Okay, better analogy: it was like breathing again after holding your breath for a really long time. No, this is the best one: It's like eating a fantastic meal after sticking to a diet for years. I've been on an all-audio diet, which was certainly healthier than regular books, but ends up being all salads and bran muffins, with the occasional low-fat brownie thrown in. Reading this book was a plate of fettucine alfredo with french fries on the side and a pint of Haagen-Dazs for dessert. Nothing at all healthy about it, but man, did it taste good going down.

I forgot how a book can so completely overwhelm the senses when you are sitting on a couch in a quiet house and focusing only on the story. The story knocked me off my feet like a rogue wave when I had my back turned to the water. I didn't see it coming. I sat in my living room, thinking I'd read a little bit and then get dinner ready, but before I knew it I was 100 pages in and ordering pizza. Then Darcey woke up and I sat outside reading while she crawled around the front yard. At the 200 page mark I took her inside and let her play in the tub while I sat on the floor of the bathroom and read. When Darcey and Zack were down, it was easy enough to let Brad and Noah play outside up until bedtime, and when they finally came in, they thought I was so nice to get pizza for dinner and let them stay out late that they went to bed without an argument.

I ended up reading from about 4:00 until 11:00 that night, a practice that used to be a common occurrence but had fallen by the wayside in the name of efficiency and productivity. Responsibility. Adulthood. Ohhh, but it feels so good to abandon myself in a story! To ignore the dishes in the sink and not think about what I should be doing or ought to be doing, and just revel in the pure pleasure of reading a good book. I can rack my brain all day long and I could not come up with anything I'd rather do than let a book swallow me whole and spit me out at the end of a long day, tired and maybe a little worn out from wherever the book had taken me. Of all their travels, my parents' best day was one beautiful day, where my mom, dad, and brother Tim were sitting in a park in Paris all reading or listening to an audiobook. They missed their flight home because of that, but none of them call it a mistake. That's my idea of a great travel day.

There's a Blind Melon song that has these lyrics, which I love: "All I can do is read a book to stay awake, and it rips my life away but it's a great escape." I realize that, just like a fattening meal, reading like this every day would make me a glutton. My life, and our household, would fall apart if I ordered pizza every night and put the dishes off until the morning. Maybe I have something in common with the addict I read about - having to balance the desire for pleasure with the responsibilities of normal life. Maybe it's better that I listen to audiobooks most of the time, because it's clear that when I get my hands on a good book, I tend to binge. But for now I'm going to revel in the joy of reading a good book, and hope for more days like this to come along. It might be my guilty pleasure, but it's still a pleasure.