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Archive for February, 2010

I’m standing in line to talk to the ninth grade guidance counselor at Bleeding Crown of Thorns Catholic Girls High School.  Miss Guidance.

It’s new parents night at Bleeding Crown of Thorns. 

Miss Guidance looks young.  Blonde hair, hip clothes, makeup – a contrast to the nuns-in-street clothes look of most of the school administrators.  In her talk before the entire assembly, she referred repeatedly the students as “my girls”.

We haven’t yet decided where Alani will go to school.  It’s down to two choices: 1) Bleeding Crown of Thorns, or 2) Fancy Wasp Prep School.  Alani prefers Fancy Prep.  She’s articulated many thoughtful reasons for her preference, including small classes, top-notch teachers, and the theater program.  I suspect, however, that her choice is 90% driven by two factors:  1) boys, and 2) uniforms.

The Catholic school is all girls.  Alani is 13, and dreads four years on a boy-less desert island.  She also loves clothes, fingernail polish and shoes.  She has a pair of Timberland women’s boots that get her compliments wherever she goes: black suede, up to just below the knee, with extensive grommets and laces.  A grown woman once yelled out “That’s what I’m  talking about!” when Alani walked by in those boots.

I realize, waiting to talk to Miss Guidance, that Alani and two of her friends are standing in the same line.  I step aside when we reach the front of the  line, curious to hear what the girls will ask.

They don’t ask about AP science courses.

Alani’s friend Katrina asks about the dress code.  Miss Guidance describes the permitted style of white blouse.  She draws a demure little curve below her neck, describing the required collar shape for the blouse.  Plaid uniform skirts, she says, with a different plaid for each class.  No pants under the skirts.  Leggings yes, pants no.

“No heels,” Miss Guidance says.  “Flats or tennis shoes only.”   She zeroes in on Alani’s Timberland boots.  “You couldn’t wear those,” she says. 

I suddenly don’t like her.  She seems more Mean Girl than kindly guidance counselor.

When it is Alani’s turn to ask a question, she displays her fingernails.  She’s painted each nail with little Swedish flags – a yellow cross on a blue field.  (Alani is rooting for the Swedish Olympic ice hockey team, because its full of players from her beloved Detroit Red Wings).

“What about this?” Alani asks, thrusting her Swedish flags toward Miss Guidance. 

Miss Guidance looks.  She says – grudgingly, it seems to me – that Alani’s fingernails would be permitted.

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The Disappearing Sore Throat

“”My throat is sore” Michael says.

It’s the Sunday before winter break.  Tomorrow, Michael’s mom is taking him skiing up north.  He loves skiing.

He doesn’t realize that he’s made a mistake until his mom says “It is?  I don’t think that seven hours skiing in the cold….”

“No, no, no” Michael realizes his error, and hurries to backtrack.  “It’s fine . . . it only hurts when I yawn.”

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Rachel came home last night, ending my three days of bachelorhood.  The boys had winter break and she took them Up North.  Alani was with her mom. 

She upacked while I lay on the bed.

“I vacuumed,” I said.

“You vacuumed what?” she asked. 

“The living room” I said.   I must have been hoping for a pat on the back.  I didn’t get it.

“Really?” Rachel said. 

She was right to be skeptical.  I actually only vacuumed a one-yard square patch of the living room, by the couch.  I’d spilled a beer, and when I stuck a wet dishtowel into a couch crevass to sop up the spilled Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, I pulled out a shower of couch-debris onto the floor: lint, candy wrappers, coins, pencils, string, lint-covered hard candy.   It was disgusting, even to me, so I got out the vacuum for a surgical strike.

I admitted to Rachel that I just vacuumed that one spot.   She didn’t comment.  She continued to unpack.

“I cleaned off the coffee table,” I said. 

 “… most of it,” I qualified.

Again, no pat on the back.

“What am I supposed to say?”  Rachel asks, folding clothes into a drawer.  “Thank you?  Good job?”

I’ve been married long enough to know when a conversation with my wife is heading down a dark alley.  I picked up a book from the bedstand and busied myself inside it.

The reason for Rachel’s testiness was that, despite having a demanding, full time job,  she does most of the straightening up in the house.  But, contrary to conventional feminine wisdom, the reason I seldom  pick up stuff is not because I expect my wife to do it:  It’s because clutter is invisible to me. Women have the equivalent of night-vision goggles. They see things men can’t, like pants (mine) that have been draped over the bannister for two weeks.  (In fact, the longer clutter sits, the more invisible it gets.)

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Stepfamily Seating Chart

I realized last week, at the dinner table, that everyone now has their designated spot.

Two years ago I came into the dining room with my plate and found my nine-year-old stepson, Michael, sitting where I usually sit – at the end of the table near the kitchen door.  It was just a couple weeks after Michael, his brother Jack, and his Rachel had moved into the house I’d shared with Alani.

My reaction was visceral:  That’s my seat.  I opened my mouth to oust him, then shut it.

Before our marriage, at his old house in Clarkston, Michael had been the oldest son by five years, prince of the realm.  Now, he was the middle child, sandwiched between a younger brother and a new stepsister with big, theatrical personalities.  Michael had been moved to a new house and a new school, exiled from his kingdom.

Conscious or unconscious, it was not an accident that he’d staked a claim to a power position at the table.

I went around and sat at the other end, facing the kitchen, with my back to the front windows.  I’ve been there ever since. 

Jack had his own designs over the spot I’d vacated.  Over the next several months he made several attempts to dislodge his older brother, but Michael easily swatted him aside.  Jack relented and is now settled into a spot on the east side of the table, next to his mom.  Alani, oblivious to the male head-butting rituals, presides by herself on the west side of the table.

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Snow Day

The kids performed all the traditional rituals Tuesday night to ensure a no-school snow day the next morning.  Spoon under the pillow, ice cube flushed down the toilet, and inside-out pajamas.  I told them that to be rock-sure of a snow day, they should put the ice cube under their pillow.  No takers.

I went downstairs at 6:30 a.m the next morning to check school cancellations on the laptop.  All the kids’ schools were closed.

I always liked waking Alani on these days.  Rousing her on a school day is a slow process, but when I whispered “Snow day!” in her ear, she’d whip back the covers and leap out of bed.

Regular vacation days arrive already cluttered with planned activities and errands.  A snow day arrives by surprise, as full of possibilities as the untouched snow outside.  Waffles for breakfast?  Build a snowfort?  Watch a Blockbuster movie in the morning?

But this morning, before I have a chance to go up and wake her, I look up from my laptop and see Alani  coming down the stairs in her pajamas.

“How did you know?” I ask.  I’m a little disappointed that I wouldn ‘t get to surprise her with the big announcement.

Three of her classmates, she said, already texted her. 

And then Alani did something she has never, in her entire life, done on a snow day morning. 

She went back to bed.

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I’m parked outside my daughter’s school at 8 am.

Alani is in the back seat, struggling to gather up all her equipment for pajama day:  bulging backpack, giant king-sized cotton sleeping bag, her lunch.  She’s trying to get out the car door carrying all this and the Dunkin Donuts Jamoca shake she’s having for breakfast.

“Dad,” Alani says, “Can you help me carry this stuff in?”

“Nope,” I say. 

I sip from my cup of Starbucks dark roast.

“Dad, seriously, I need help.”

“Make two trips.”

“C’mon, Dad.  Please?”

“You know my rule.”

I have one cup of coffee a day, in the morning.  I like to savor it.  I won’t interrupt it to do anything for anyone.

Alani, exasperated, climbs out of the car, hauling her load with her.  She sets off across the frozen field for the side door to the school.  It’s about sixty yards away.  I can see she’s having trouble gripping everything.

I sip my coffee.  It’s delicious.

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My stepson Jack asks, “What is Grandma Berry to me?”

He’s referring to my mom.  We’ll see her this weekend, in Chicago, for her 81st birthday.

Jack, six, has been wrestling with the complicated terminology of a stepfamily.  The last time we visited family on my side, he asked me what, exactly, my nieces and nephews were to him. 

Rachel and I are conscious, perhaps overly so, of not artificially forcing any instant relationships on the kids as a result of our marriage two years ago.  In line with this policy, we referred to my nieces and nephews as “the” cousins when speaking to Jack and Michael, not as “your” cousins.  We hoped that Rachel’s boys will develop cousin-like relationships with my brother and sisters’ kids, but didn’t want to force anything that would make the boys uncomfortable.

When we visited “the” cousins, over the holidays, Jack quizzed me repeatedly on the correct terminology. “Are Thomas and Rachel and Hannah my ‘STEP’-cousins?” he asked. The qualifier bothered me, but I told him yes, that was right. 

This week, when Jack asked me what Grandma Berry was to him, I dutifully told him that she was his “step-grandma”.

Jack mulled this over.  “I think I’m just going to call her, “Grandma’,” he said.

I told him that would be fine.

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