Monday, April 14, 2008

Keeping the house clean

In the interest of keeping my valued readers occupied and to help any “blank page syndrome” I may experience in the upcoming days, I have decided to start a series of related columns all falling under the category, “Things I Suck At.” There is nothing like a bit of self-deprecating humor to keep the finger-pointers away. So every few days I’ll write an entry based on the list I’ve put in the sidebar. That way, when I’m on #7, you’ll know which ones I’ve hit and which ones I still have to go. When I told my husband I was going to do a blog about things I suck at, he said to me, “Be careful. You might not quit writing.”
Ha ha.
Be careful, I retorted. I might put, “Picking my husband” on that list.
But I realized he is correct, in that I thought they would all fit into one blog, and after starting, they are all clearly each a blog of their own. So you know, they aren’t in hierarchical order. I suck at them all pretty equally.

#1- Keeping my house clean
When I got married I had these visions of how I wanted to be. How I wanted my house, how I would act and behave, how I would rule my little domestic paradise. My home would be organized and clean, well decorated and cozy, full of indirect light and honey colored walls that made you want to snuggle up with a good book and a warm cup of tea. I would deep sigh at my lovely abode, my immaculate carpet and revel at how very much my home looked like those pristine sets in the Pottery Barn catalogue.

I think it was about day four of my marriage when that image started tilting and I found myself hanging onto the magazine page as I raced around trying to pick up and keep organizingorganizingorganizing, looking at the page and then my house and then the page and then my house, and now the page has faded and I realized I was holding the wrong magazine.

Every now and then you have those little revelations—the clouds clear and that heavenly glow illuminates the darkness—when you realize things you previously had not known, or perhaps would have liked to ignore. I had one of those epiphanies the other day, as I walked into my house after being gone in Arizona for a week.

I realized that I am one of THOSE PEOPLE who live in one of THOSE HOUSES.

There is nothing like being gone from your home to make you aware of the true state of things upon your return. I ascended the five steps to the upper level and briefly scanned the living room. Pile upon pile of domestic clutter greeted me. Toys, papers, computer bags, duffel bags and books. There were piles on the mantel. There were piles next to the couch, on the couch and under the couch. Clean laundry, dirty laundry, too small clothes, out of season clothes, and these-do-not-belong-to-us-clothes. Piles on the excersaucer. Piles on every available surface in the kitchen. Old food, empty cereal boxes, clean cups, dirty cups and measuring spoons the baby plays with. I deep sighed and headed toward my bedroom. As I high-stepped my way over the laundry, I realized there are probably more clothes on the floor of the hallway than in all the drawers in my house combined. I dropped off my suitcase, which by the way was full of more crap to put away and more dirty laundry, and went to use the restroom.

My bathroom smelled like pee. It’s difficult to admit, but I turned to verify I was actually in my bathroom and that the doorway didn’t go all Narnia on me and send me reeling into a nursing home. The opening of the toilet bowl is 10 inches (I’ve measured) but that is clearly too small an opening for a 1 cm stream of urine, because inside the bowl is never where the urine ends up. There was more hair on my bathroom floor and in the corners of the bathtub than are currently growing on my head. That linty-dusty-black-film covered the corners of my floors especially behind the door, and for the life of me, I cannot find where this originates. After lining the seat in my own home—afraid of catching some new disease—I used the restroom and left, shutting the door behind me. God forbid my latest baby ends up sucking on that toilet seat like her sister. Visions of e-coli poisoning dancing through my head, I high stepped back to the bedroom to lay down for a respite and realized I couldn't do that either.

My bed looked like a homeless doll shelter. There were more babies, stuffed animals, doll blankets, and miniature pillows on my bed than reside in FAO Shwartz. The bed has not been made since I got married in 1998. As I tried to butt-slide onto the mattress, the air from my movement caused a small dust-surge from my side table, which glistened beautifully in the light streaming through my cobweb covered windows. This was not restful. This was not respite. And believe it or not, this was not the epiphany.

The epiphany came when I high-stepped back through the hallway into the kitchen littered with last week's old dishes and dirty saucepans, opened the refrigerator to be greeted by cancer-causing molded food and a painters pallet of doorway condiments, closed the refrigerator in disgust, wiped crumbs-and-chunks off my bare feet from the kitchen floor while cursing and realized:

We live like this more than we don’t live like this.

Which makes me one of THOSE people. THOSE people who live in filth and squalor, whose houses you are afraid to go into because you’re never sure what you’ll be sitting on or what you’ll be breathing. There isn't fecal matter on the walls currently, but give me time: the baby hasn't figured that one out yet. I’m one of THOSE mothers who just can’t get it together enough to keep her house clean (read: What does she do all day, she stays home after all), and lives in one of THOSE houses (read: It’s sooo pretty on the outside) and I’m pretty sure that CPS would have some ammunition if it weren’t for the way I wipe everyone’s noses before sending them to school. (I can at least pretend I have a good game.) I’m one of THOSE people who apologize up and down for the current state of their house and how busy it’s been, how it was clean last week, while the guests nod and offer up, Oh don’t worry about it, Puh-lease, I’m not concerned at all, I totally understand, but what they are really thinking is, This is disgusting. How does she live like this? I’ve got three kids and my house looks WAY better. How does her husband put up with her slovenly nature?

This epiphany hits me and I realize I’m not only sooo not Pottery Barn, but that my house really belongs in an episode of “Storm Stories: The Aftermath,” and what I’d really like to do is stand on top of my life’s roof and exclaim at the top of my lungs, “I CAN KEEP A CLEAN HOUSE, REALLY I CAN, IF IT WEREN’T FOR THIS FAMILY THAT LIVES HERE WITH ME,” if for no other reason than it might give people pause before they nod their heads muttering under their breath, “Poor wretched woman… Poor wretched family…”

After this epiphany I did what any good mother—heck good woman—does when faced with a truth of this proportion: I grabbed my gardening book and sat on the front steps and read about planting vegetables. There’s no way this house is gonna change, say before the kids go to college, so why bother? What’s my hurry?

I have decided it is easier to hand people a hospital mask and latex-free gloves than to try and dig myself out of the hole that has become my home. My two hands simply do not work as fast as the 6 other hands working against me. I have decided to be a positive thinker and find the sliver lining. At least my children will have a strong and healthy immune system. My guests will have such low expectations that the slightest bit of straightening will elicit oohs and ahhs. I will be able to read those poems about old age and regrets and never be able to relate to the one that says, “I would have cleaned less and played more.” I suppose sucking at house cleaning does have its advantages.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Two Sure Things: Taxes and Birthday Parties

I have been asking my husband for a few weeks now, when he’s going to bring the filing cabinet to the man who does our taxes. He’s busy and our Taxman’s office is a few towns away so I’ll wait for him to do it, since I’m unwilling to schlep the baby on a 40 minute ride to deliver papers. I’m unwilling mind you, but I am happy to keep harping about it. That’s one of the beautiful things about being married to me.

I’m always amazed at those people who file their taxes by February 1st, and are already happily spending (or saving) their refunds by the time I have only finished gathering all the documentation. I haven’t met many people who have big tabs owed to the IRS, mainly I think, because all the people I know are probably in my income bracket and the government is sending us our money back as their way of saying, “No really. Keep your kids. Go buy groceries.” The last few tax years have been good to us; being a) a student or b) unemployed or c) a part-time worker or d) parents of yet another baby seems to keep our exemptions relatively high, while our income is relatively low. That equation equals a nice little refund check, oh say, come May. And this year I think we will spend all that cash on….birthday parties.

Yes. Not only is it tax season but also birthday party season, when in a span of 5 months every child in my family and every child in my children’s class will have a birthday. (Seriously, was noone having sex December thru April?) Not only does that mean we will have to host birthday parties, but we will be invited to them as well. This kind of funding can only be relieved with the tax return, because it seems to me that birthdays have gotten a bit out of hand. These days you need to:

Find a Second Job to Purchase Birthday Presents
I used to have a $10 limit on birthday presents for kids. That seemed like a good amount to spend on a child’s birthday present, especially given that the Christmas limit is $25. Today ten bucks will buy you two packs of gum and a card. When I was a kid we always brought a new coloring book (or two) and a new big box of crayons to every party. My mom said it was nice to get new crayons and coloring books get old. When is the last time you saw a kid open crayons and a coloring book during their birthday party extravaganza? Toys these days either have one million little pieces or run on solar power or batteries, making crayons and a coloring book seem Amish. I upped my limit to $15-20, and figured that should be sufficient. But I’m still croaking, “No honey, we can’t buy that, it’s more than fifteen dollars,” every 30 seconds down the toy isle.

Invite every child your son/daughter has ever looked at twice
or briefly mentioned.
There is nothing like trying to welcome kids to a party, whispering to your child, “Okay honey, who is that coming in the door now?” Only to have your child shrug and say “I don’t know. Someone in my class.” At the risk of sounding cliché, Back When I Was A Kid…we only invited our closest friends. I remember very clearly being able to invite maybe 8 or 9 people to my birthday parties. It was unheard of to invite kids in your class that you didn’t play with. Now it seems you must invite the entire class so nobody’s feelings get hurt. Boys, girls, kids your own kids hate, the boy that bullies your son and the girls that sneer and call your daughter names. Yes, invited one and all. It is a birthday after all; a time to engender good feelings for everyone and spread good cheer (or is that Christmas…I keep forgetting). I try to limit my children to no more than 10 kids at their parties. For one thing, they really don’t know the difference in the end. There is no way that they can possibly play with or pay attention to 22 friends. At that point I’m just hosting a play date with food and a place for parents to leave their kid for two hours. I might as well post a sign on the road, “Let me pay you to watch your child! They’ll even leave with a gift!”

Take out a second mortgage to hire Bobo the Clown.
Birthday parties hosted at the house are apparently unheard of anymore. It’s all about the venue. Gone are the days of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, make your own birthday hats, and cake and ice cream. We rent hotel pools, jumpy houses, sports arenas, indoor play spaces, magicians, balloon bending clowns and traveling zoos to entertain the three-thousand children we’ve invited. Let’s face it, when you have that many kids, I suppose bells and whistles are a necessity just to keep the children from organizing a coup d’état. These events are not cheap to plan and make my wedding budget look paltry. The going rate for parties at these venues run between $150-$300. What happens as they get older? No doubt we’ll be renting planes for a “Skydiving Party,” or maybe flying in the Jonas Brothers for a backyard concert.

Buy a present for each child at the party.
I’m sorry. I need to what?
Yes. It’s not enough to simply invite your child’s friend, feed them pizza, cake and juice boxes, and professionally entertain them for two hours. You must also provide them a present. Something to take home as a memento of the party they were invited to (originally) celebrating the birthday of your son or daughter. Candy from a piñata no longer cuts it. The happy memories they have of laughing and chasing each other will not do. This gift must be tangible. It must be cute. And you need three-thousand of them. A party is not a party, until you leave with a gift for yourself.

You knew it was coming. The anecdote.

For my daughter’s fourth birthday we invited 7 or eight of her preschool friends over to the house for a birthday party. The parents stayed. My house was small. There were bodies hugging every wall and hallway. We played a couple games. Made newspaper hats and painted them. Had cake and ice cream. Played music and danced in the living room. The moms had a great time. The kids had a great time. The gifts they took home were the projects they had made. My daughter actually opened her presents in their presence and got to say ‘thank you’ to each child. The party was an hour and a half long and cost about $80 bucks.

A few weeks later I’m with my daughter at a birthday party for another kid in her preschool class. Every child from her class is there. Every parent is there with their child. It’s in an inflatable jumper room, comes with pizza, cake, ice cream, and three “Personal Party People,” who play (in the non-creepy sense) with your son/daughter. After having the Jumpy Room for 45 minutes, we are escorted down the hall to the party room, where we eat. With all children and adults, there are easily 100 people in the room. The presents for this child were stacked Dr. Seuss high, teetering on each other and looming largely over the child’s head. The Personal Party People each had a job. One would hand the child a present. Child rips open present and passes it to Party Person #2, who tells Party Person #3 what it is and who it’s from. And this is the way the birthday boy received his gifts, opening, passing, opening, passing. The child opened presents for 30 minutes.

Now, while watching and trying not to barf during this obscene display of avarice, (what better lesson to teach to a 4 year old), a mom in front of me—whose daughter was at my daughter’s party—leans back and says, “I just have to tell you, XXX had such a good time at your daughter’s party. It was soo simple, and the kids had soo much fun! Isn’t this party crazy? I think the party you gave was so nice. No one gives old-fashioned birthday’s anymore. We just really had a good time. We can’t wait for your daughter to come to XXX’s birthday in a couple weeks.”

I’ll admit, my heart soared. Yeah for me! I planned a simple, fun birthday and no children’s psyches were damaged due to lack of bells and whistles! Maybe my daughter won’t be labeled PWT (poor white trash) after all! Maybe everyone will think she’s cool! We throw old-fashioned birthdays!

Two weeks later, this same girl had her own birthday party. My husband had to take our daughter. Can’t remember what I was doing, but I couldn’t go. She’ll probably throw an old-fashioned party herself. Isn’t that just what she loved about mine? Finally, another mom who’s on the same page as me!

“How’d the party go?” I asked my husband upon return.
“Fine.” He replied.
“Well, what was the theme? Was it simple and old-fashioned?”
“It was a Western theme. They had ponies.”
“What do you mean? Like, they have their own horses? Did the kids get to ride them?”
“No, I mean they brought in ponies. Little ponies like they have at the fair. There were three of them. The kids got to ride them around in a circle.”
Up walks my daughter with a new cowboy hat, new red bandana around her neck and a huge (well made) stuffed horse.
“Where did you get these?” I ask.
“At the party,” she replied. “We got to ride ponies.”

Now a couple things went through my mind at the same time.
  1. That my four-year-old daughter has now compared her paint-some-newspaper-hats and seven-gift birthday, to a birthday in Toyland and another one straight from Barnum and Bailey, and that she feels slighted, neglected and poor. And,
  2. “THAT STINKING LYING WITCH!” How DARE she placate me with ‘Cute Old-Fashioned Party’ and ‘No one Throws Them Anymore,’ crap! Ponies? PONIES?? SHE BROUGHT IN PONIES???? And what’s with the HAT? And the STUFFED ANIMAL? Everyone got a FULL WESTERN COSTUME for CRYSE SAKE??

It has taken some time for me to get over this event and forgive the woman who not only lied to me, but tried to make me feel like we were on the same page. I think I would rather she had just said to me, “You know, you threw a great party with such a limited budget. I’m really impressed that the party was so nice, seeing as how small your house was and how few children you invited. Your daughter seemed happy too, even though she clearly goes without. Good for you, for making it work.”

I only need a few minutes of daily self-talk now (You are a great mom. You throw your kids good parties. They are not damaged, not damaged, not damaged...) and the wound is healing and scar tissue starting to form. Yeah for me indeed.

Don’t get me wrong. I want my children to love me and think I’m cool, just like the next mom. I want them to think back on their childhood with tears in their eyes as they remember the ball-juggling clown, the limo ride to Papa Gino’s, and the 12 story birthday cake they had all to themselves. But I also don’t want them to be greedy, selfish kids. Their behavior sometimes borders that and (apparently) I don’t even provide them with a lot. My son’s birthday is at the end of this month. He wants to invite friends over for a game of baseball and then have a tailgate party, where we grill hotdogs and hamburgers. I like the simplicity of that idea. He’s happy just spending time with friends.

Of course, Big Pappi and Varitek will be there to sign balls at the end. Our tax refund at work.
Shhh. He doesn’t know yet.