Monthly Archives: September 2012

Food for Thought

www.melindawentzel.comI’m pretty sure June Cleaver’s head would explode if she knew of my pitiful and often failed attempts to gather my brood at the dinner table for a real sit-down meal—Leave it to Beaver style. In a word, I am woefully inept when it comes to planning, preparing and placing said meal upon the table in a timely and aesthetically pleasing manner. So much so that my kids have apparently forgotten what it’s like to dine as a family within the confines of this particular circus-inspired, scheduled-to-the-max sort of establishment. Never mind that we did so for much of the summer, sweet corn having been shamelessly utilized as bait. But I digress.

“You want us to sit here? Together? And talk about our day?” my incredulous kids ask, clearly taken aback by the prospect of stopping whatever it is they’re doing to plunk themselves at the kitchen table for twenty to thirty minutes of food and not-so-idle conversation. Of course, my gentle demands are often met with a healthy dose of eye rolling coupled with I-can’t-possibly-set-the-table-if-I’m-tying-my-soccer-cleats-AND-doing-my-homework brand of snarky commentary. Par for the course in the trenches of Parentville, methinks.

Needless to say, the Gods of After School Madness rarely smile upon me and may, in fact, revel in my ineptitude, mocking my efforts to deal with the deluge of mini-crises that routinely befall our happy home at that critical juncture—that impossibly brief and patently crazed window of time wedged between the instant my charges make landfall and the race to the 437th extracurricular event of the week. As a less-than-composed parent, and seemingly without fail, this is the time when the wheels fly off and the bottom falls out.

That said, the phone typically rings just as the pots on the stove begin to boil over and shortly before godknowswho knocks at the door, sending the dog into an apoplectic barking seizure. Moments later, my dear progenies demand that I flit from the stove to hover nearby while they wrestle, by turns, with the concept of divisibility and the large and unwieldy vocabulary words that may or may not appear in a book I, stupidly, suggested. Granted, the experience itself is decidedly intolerable. Furthermore, it’s rumored that I may know next to nothing about math and even less about adverbs. However, the ceaseless petitions for my help continue—in the midst of meal preparation, listening to a certain French horn and clarinet, answering the door and phone, conducting backpack search and rescue missions (for decomposing food!) with disturbing regularity, frantically gathering whatever paraphernalia will be needed for this or that nightly venture and dealing with the occasional cat vomit surprise and/or dog-poo-on-the-bed bit of hideousness. (For the record, I’m not particularly interested in learning how the latter occurred).

At any rate, when and if I finally succeed in shepherding one and all to the celebrated table to feast on what (hopefully) will qualify as a palatable meal, I immediately remember why I went to such lengths at all.  Firstly, there’s compelling data that links sit-down meals with a child’s success, especially with respect to at-risk behaviors—so saith a team of researchers at Columbia University and Dan Harris of ABC News. Secondly, Anderson Cooper of CNN desperately wants “…to bring back the family dinner, one meal at a time” through his Sunday Supper Club and I, most assuredly, don’t want to disappoint him. Thirdly, and perhaps most notably, the discussion that takes place over peas and potatoes (or whatever I managed not to burn beyond recognition) is invaluable. That alone is worth the price of admission.

Often there is talk of “bad actors” on the bus and goose poop on the soccer field, who vomited profusely in the cafeteria and which dweeb dared to drink the “mystery brew” that a host of classmates lovingly prepared. Not to be outdone, my husband brings his own brand of bizarreness to the conversation, opening a tiny window into his day as well. As it should be, I suppose.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live (occasionally at the dinner table with my inimitable cast and crew). Visit me there at www.facebook.com/NotesfromPlanetMom.

Copyright 2011 Melinda L. Wentzel

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Filed under Homework Hell, Meat & Potatoes, School Schmool, The Natives are Decidedly Restless

A Tale of Two Schools

Middle school is an exhausting, uber-dramatic, soul-sucking affair—or at least that’s the impression my sixth-grade daughters would have the world at large believe. I could be wrong. Maybe it’s just me they’ve tried so desperately to convince—that life as an 11-year-old is hard, especially during said epic transition to the Land of Angsty Tweens. But I’m a tough sell. What’s more, I find their collective woe-is-me sort of grousing fairly amusing, which, I assume, will ensure me a cozy spot in hell. Possibly a corner office, with a window overlooking a bumper crop of my shortcomings.

At any rate, between the histrionics involved with not having the right notebooks, Sharpie markers and/or molecularly superior two-pocket folders, animated accounts of kids almost getting stuffed inside lockers and my so-called insensitivity regarding polka-dotted underwear on gym days, I can’t keep up. Indeed, during these first few weeks of school I’ve failed in a fashion that is nothing short of spectacular. That said, I’ve been less than attentive to the delicate nuance of fashion trends germane to Hollister, Hello Kitty and the hideous nature of skinny jeans. I’ve expressed outrage and, occasionally, an air of indifference toward their ever-changing moods, the irony of which is not lost on me. But perhaps most disturbingly, I’ve neglected to commiserate with those who deem their plight wholly intolerable.

Shame on me.

Hence, the commentary I’ve grown far too accustomed to hearing: “Mom, for your information, we’re going to die. Unless, of course, you go back to Staples and buy the stuff I told you we needed for science. Otherwise, we’re going to die. Also, would you puleeeeease refrain from visiting our school and putting cutesy notes inside our lockers? It’s entirely possible WE WILL DIE OF EMBARRASSMENT if you keep doing that. Either way, we’re dead.”

Point taken.

As one might expect, however, the discussion doesn’t end there. “Yeah, Mom, it’s not enough that we have to lug our backpacks and instruments ALL THE WAY to our lockers, remember the stupid combination, dump 17 million things in there and try to make it to the right class with the right stuff at the right time. We also have to deal with the possibility that someone might see your note reminding us to bring our instruments home or telling us to have a terrific day. How can we have a terrific day if you treat us like babies?!” said the soul-crushing, self-absorbed demon seed who probably doubts I ever attended junior high or wore a training bra.

Ouch. Naturally, I feel compelled to defend, and enlighten, and perhaps embellish—all in the name of making an impression upon the difficult-to-impress crowd.

“It’s not as if I haven’t navigated the thorny path of adolescence myself,” I shriek inside my head, delivering a soliloquy to end all soliloquies, “anxiously wending my way through hallways crawling with upperclassmen eager to feast upon my naïveté and/or steal my milk money. Needless to say, I’ve been stuffed inside plenty of smelly lockers. Probably. Possibly. Well, almost. I lived in CONSTANT FEAR of such an occurrence anyway, scarring me for life. And believe it or not, I, too, was burdened with the insurmountable task of (gasp!) memorizing locker combinations. Furthermore, there were no backpacks to speak of, let alone ones with a profusion of padding and ergonomic designs for the namby-pamby among us. We actually carried our books and pencils and massive quantities of notes to and from school. Through the blinding snow. Uphill. Both ways. Don’t even get me started on the banal quality of cafeteria offerings back then. Suffice it to say, you will never grow to know and loathe the essence of ‘mystery meat,’ nor will you develop a crippling aversion to sloppy joes, destined to last a lifetime.”

“Need I even mention the communal showers…or the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad gym suits we were required to wear, grades seven through twelve—the ones that were obscenely restrictive and stylistically heinous?! Of course, I must, lest you fail to appreciate the good fortune you now enjoy, to include deodorant. Lots of deodorant, for one and all. Never mind that insufferable wedge of the calendar designated for obligatory boy/girl square dancing during the 70s era—an event that could only be classified as sheer misery, especially in the eyes of teens and tweens whose lives were devoted to building a society of budding wallflowers,” said the veteran wallflower, as she recounted that which, ostensibly, was a soul-sucking affair.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live (reminiscing, sort of). Visit me there at www.facebook.com/NotesfromPlanetMom.

Copyright 2012 Melinda L. Wentzel

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Filed under I Pretty Much Suck at Parenting, School Schmool, The Natives are Decidedly Restless

Words Matter

I didn’t even know the woman, but I bristled when she spoke. Of course, her words weren’t even intended for me and I’m sure she had no idea how capably they would seize my joy and take me back in time to a day I’d rather not remember.

I was standing in the card aisle of a local department store of all places, wrestling with indecision famously. As I read and reread each of the selections I was considering (encouragement for a woman battling cancer and a birthday wish for a dear friend who had moved a world away), I weighed the words contained within each heartfelt message carefully, recognizing their power to connect souls in good times and in bad.

“CARDS DON’T MATTER,” I heard her grouse through clenched teeth, chiding her children who were likely picking out a birthday greeting for a friend or a favorite cousin. “We’ve already gotten a gift, now choose a 99-cent card and let’s get out of here,” she spat, indignation spilling from her lips. “He’ll just throw it out anyway,” she reasoned.

Though a towering wall of Hallmark’s finest separated us and I could see exactly none of what had transpired in the adjacent aisle, the exasperation that wafted over the transom was palpable and left little room for misinterpretation. Without question, it had been a long day and patience was nowhere to be found. Clearly the novelty of traipsing around K-Mart with kids in tow had long since worn off.

Granted, I had been there and done that as a parent, patently consumed by a simple yet impossible wish to be somewhere else in this life besides searching for the perfect gift for yet another Hello Kitty-themed birthday party. That said, I have frequented the brink of insanity while shopping with my brood more often than I’d care to admit, shamelessly enraged by something as ridiculous as a rogue wheel on a cart from hell coupled with my children’s irksome demands: “But we have to smell the smelly markers before we buy them, Mom. We have to make sure they smell juuuust right. And then we have to look for a birthday card with a little dog on it. Wearing a pink tutu. Maddy likes little dogs. And tutus.”

Frustration, I understood.

What rankled me to the core was the premise of this woman’s argument. That “cards don’t matter.” Because sometimes they do.

Like most people who learn of things that are unspeakably difficult to handle, I unearthed this little pearl of wisdom mired in grief and plagued by guilt. As if it were yesterday, I remember rummaging around my brother’s house in the days that followed his suicide, searching for answers or perhaps a tiny glimpse into his troubled world. Granted, I didn’t know him nearly as well as I could have…and probably should have. As I sifted through his CDs and thumbed through his books, eager to gain even a modicum of insight, I stumbled upon a drawer with a handful of cards neatly stacked within. Cards he had saved. Cards that likely meant something to him. Cards filled with words that apparently mattered.

It was at this point, I’m quite certain, that I felt a deep sense of regret and shame, for none of my cards were among those he had harvested. Surely, I had sent him a birthday greeting (or twenty), a congratulatory note regarding his beautiful home or his wonderful job, an irreverent get-well card to brighten an otherwise unenjoyable hospital stay, a wish-you-were-here postcard from Myrtle Beach or the Hoover Dam. Hadn’t I?

Incomprehensibly, I couldn’t remember. All I could wrap my mind around were the missed opportunities and the paltry thank-you note I had written that lay on his kitchen counter. Unopened. The one my four-year-old daughters had drawn pictures on as a way of offering thanks for his incredible generosity at Christmastime. The one that mocked my ineptitude and chided me for failing to mail it sooner…so that he might have read it…and felt in some small way more valued than perhaps he had before. The one that reminded me that words left unspoken are indeed the worst sort of words.

I’d like to think he occasionally sat on his couch and sifted through that cache of cards on a lazy afternoon, warmed by the messages scrawled within—a collection of remembrances worthy of holding close. Likewise, I hope he knows of the countless times since his death that I’ve been overcome with emotion in the card aisle of many a store, pausing in the section marked “brother” to read and reflect on what might have been—an odd yet cathartic sort of behavior.

So as one might expect, the horribleness of that day flooded my mind the very instant I heard CARDS DON’T MATTER. But instead of letting it swallow me whole, I turned my thoughts to why I had come—to find the most ideally suited messages for two special people, knowing they would feel special in turn.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live. Visit me there at www.facebook.com/NotesfromPlanetMom.

Copyright 2012 Melinda L. Wentzel

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Filed under "G" is for Guilt, Love and Loss

In Praise of September

I love this time of year—the wedge of weeks during which the succulent remnants of summer collide almost seamlessly with a taste of autumn. Aside from the perfect marriage of warm days and cool nights, I suppose it’s the patented swirl of excitement surrounding the start of school that I find so completely intoxicating. Call me crazy.

I blame the mechanical pencils, mostly, in all their steely glory, and the Pink Pearl erasers that beckon to me unremittingly from the shelves of Staples and beyond. The 3-ring binders sometimes get to me, too, shouting above the tumult with their palette of delicious hues and fancy-schmancy features. Never mind the throngs of rugged backpacks, endowed with a profusion of zippered compartments and pouches, fueling my quiet obsession with organization, or at least some semblance thereof. And now that my progenies have joined the ranks of middle-schoolers, there are cavernous lockers to adorn as well—with chandeliers, plush carpeting and wallpaper, apparently.

Oh. My. Hell.

Granted, the inherent madness of the back-to-school rush, with its deluge of frenzied purchases, fiscal misery and impossibly giddified children, threatens to consume me each and every August. But it adds a much-needed dose of structure to my life as well and a certain rhythm to mothering—one that I suspect I’ll lament when I no longer have school-aged children in my charge.

There is something quietly reassuring about restoring our routine come September—even if it involves unpleasantries like bedtimes, alarm clocks and the evils of homework. In a sense, I think it’s the predictable nature of things that grounds me, and hopefully my children. Knowing what’s expected and what’s to come, at least in theory, encourages preparedness and some measure of assurance. Like calendars with the tiny squares filled in, a table of contents with more than a mere fragment of clarity and sock drawers with the suggestion of order.

Okay, maybe not sock drawers, so much.

At any rate, swarms of yellow school buses now inhabit the land as if commanded by the tides—a cadence and pattern by which a great many lives are governed. Mine is no exception. Mornings are now filled with the hustle and bustle of shepherding my brood out into the world of books and pencils—with shoes tied (mostly), lunches in hand (occasionally) and backpacks clattering and jouncing as they dash across the dew-laden lawn to the bus stop they’ve frequented since the early days of kindergarten. Of course, it was only yesterday that we sat side by side on the curb together, reading Stuart Little while we waited for the bus to round the bend and groan to a halt. But I digress.

Mornings are slightly more hectic now, and by the same token, afternoons with my sixth-grade daughters are the embodiment of chaos—the latest news of the day spilling from their mouths in a flurry of words from the moment they make landfall until they pour themselves into bed each night—a collective heap of exhaustion. Which is not to say that is a bad thing necessarily. Part of me truly enjoys the debriefing process I have come to know and expect as a parent at the close of each school day, and as I ferry them (ad nauseam) here and there throughout the entire year. And no matter how many stories I hear (ranging from angsty to the bounds of absurdity), I’d daresay the gemlike commentary I’ve gathered and the genuine connections I’ve made with my daughters will never grow old.

But somehow, the harvest of September is special—perhaps because it smacks of newness, in sharp contrast to August’s comparatively uninspired crop of parent-child conversations. Perhaps because of the sense of possibility the celebrated season of new beginnings engenders within each of us. Or perhaps, very simply, it is the omnipresence of tall pencils and full erasers that makes the month so special, suggesting the notion of a clean slate and starting over, anew.

Or maybe that’s why I hold September so dear.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live (in praise of September and Pink Pearl erasers, of course). Visit me there at www.facebook.com/NotesfromPlanetMom.

Copyright 2012 Melinda L. Wentzel

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Filed under Endless Summer, School Schmool