Saturday, August 20, 2011

CARE – EEE! The Creative Naming Dilemma

I’m all for individual expression and creativity.  Just don’t make me pronounce it or spell it in an email.  When faced with the wildly original stabs at phonics that pass for naming many of my fellow human beings, I turn into a stiff-backed wing nut, spewing out exhortations for things like a Return to Discipline and Uncompromising Standards.

Here’s my reasoning – names are something given to babies, and babies grow into children, and here is what children want to do – blend in. Being a kid is hard enough.  If you’ve already got genetically dispensed unfortunate looks, or a last name that’s the same  as the horribly smelly character on a popular tv show – well, then, you don’t really need a first name that requires its own pronunciation guide for the first day of school.  The thing most parents won’t acknowledge is that they’re going to be providing a steady stream of misery to their children for the rest of their lives.  Does the suffering really have to start on the day that the Birth Certificate gets completed?

So, while I am a “whatever floats your boat” proponent for most human activities, I am a staunch supporter of Old Fashioned Values when it comes to naming. As a long-time volunteer at the Crisis Nursery, I’ve encountered some real doozies. Purpess, Jurnee and Promiss, for example, are some very small children with some very awful names that they most certainly don’t deserve. 

I’ve gotten over my initial despair at how someone whose idiot parent named her “Neveah” (Heaven spelled backwards, natch) could ever succeed in life.  Whenever I hold one of these sweet innocents, I just tell myself, “Think of Oprah,” and imagine thousands of middle-aged women bowing at the poorly named child's feet.  It’s not the long-term future that worries me for these kids.  It’s second grade. 

And then there is the spelling issue.  I’ve noticed more and more that the very people whose names are not easily spelled correctly are the ones who get most upset at any deviation from the “three Es in a row, the middle one capitalized” that their name requires.  I want to spell everything correctly, really I do.  But, just in my own circle of acquaintances with the moniker of  "Carrie," (spelled the Stephen King way), I know a Kari, a Cary, a Kerie, a Kerry and a Carri. (The only variant that hasn’t appeared so far is “Carry,” as in “Cash and …,” I suppose for obvious reasons). This is too much for my brain to compute, even on a good day.  

My one-plank presidential platform of the Universal Permission Slip might need to be expanded to include a 20-name list, standardized spelling, from which every family must choose a name. Given our recent successes with the budget, this one should be a slam dunk – oh, right.  Perhaps I’ll need to rethink my philosophy, just a bit.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

"No New Taxes?" Ha! Try "No New Permission Slips" to Win Moms' Votes

I’ve filled them out in doctor’s offices, surrounded by preschoolers who were spewing out rhinviruses the size of rhinos.  I’ve filled them out on the first day of school, trying to beat the clock before the school bus arrived.  I’ve filled them out while using my daughter’s back as an emergency desk, after I discovered that she wouldn’t be allowed on the camp bus because I’d forgotten to provide her fully mapped human genome on form FU-Mom, Part II.

So of course it makes perfect sense that I could easily win a run for president – all I have to do is look the mothers of America in their collectively weary faces and promise “No New Permission Slips.” 

First of all, I have to ask – who really needs this information, anyway?  The idea that there would be a serious injury at my grade schooler’s "Cupcake Surprise!" Summer Daycamp stretches incredulity beyond Spanx.  To think that the 16-year-old genius-in-charge, faced with a life-threatening buttercream incident, would really have the presence of mind to a)find the forms; b)start calling each of the 12 telephone numbers I was forced to provide and c)also ring up the health insurance company, just to see if the emergency sprinkles removal will be covered on our plan … no, it’s not gonna happen.

Second of all, I have to say – I don’t give a damn about privacy.  I’ve given birth, so that was the end of that, anyway.  You could paper a spare bedroom with the number of permission slips I’ve already completed with my name, address and any other deeply personal tidbits that were required of me. And don’t get all Trilateral Commission-ish, Brave New World-esque on me, either, because the cat, she is out the bag.  I’m just trying to control the litterbox situation here, if you follow the metaphor.

What I propose is simple:  One kid, one form.  When you fill out the birth certificate in the delivery room, you’ll get a Universal Permission Slip that will carry your child through every outing, class, summer camp and after-school detention for the next 17 years.  Tell them to bring a pen to college, because after that, they’re on their own.

And if you think the mothers of America wouldn’t vote for this one-plank platform, then you’ve never stirred frantically in the bottom of a purse for a working ballpoint, just so you can fill out one more damn sheet of paper for one more educational opportunity that isn’t complete without the name and cell number of your ex-husband’s stepmother. 

Vote for me.  And never complete a permission slip again.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Indirect Objects

Olivia nipped another warm Tollhouse cookie from the sheet and made a pronouncement that had the ring of  undisputed fact, not mere opinion:  “The thing is,” she said, still chewing reflectively, “that they taste okay now, right from the oven, but these cookies taste the very best when I eat them out of the Green Tin.” 

Oh honey. I smiled to myself and kept my mouth shut, but I felt like I had just knocked back a straight shot of pure joy. I was happy because I had helped to conjure a sacred object for someone I love, right in my own sticky-countered, fingerprint-ridden kitchen. That sacred object had been produced from the ever-potent mix of food and love and tradition. The Green Tin, bought for fifty cents at a garage sale a few years ago, has been invested with the power to summon up safe and happy memories for my good pal Olivia Louise, every time she thinks about it. That’s what you get for fifty cents and a few billion homemade cookies.

We all swim in deep, unseen currents of feeling for the objects of our youth, and even deeper ones about the food we remember from those times. So it stands to reason that everyone can recall one or two kitchen objects that summon up memories of unending sweetness and eternal comfort. And if those pasts weren't necessarily so rosy, one treasured object can become a featured player in a Mental Movie of good moments, repeated on an endless loop that deletes any scenes of shouting, worry or pain.

 When my mother died, and we cleaned out her house, I remember that what I really wanted to take away with me was her set of metal measuring spoons. They were the same cheap set that everyone’s mom had back then, at least moms of a certain age who hadn’t gone all modern and opted for the avocado green plastic set, earned as a hostess gift from a Tupperware party. Even though the spoons were not at all unique, they were a sacred object for me. They reminded me of cooking with my mother, which I did not do often, but which seemed, in retrospect, to be some of the most important time we spent together.

Holding those spoons, standing in her kitchen, just weeks after her funeral, I could feel myself back in that same room a child. I was so small that I was standing on a stool so I could see over the counter. I could hear the whir of the motor of the Sunbeam MixMaster, and I could see those beaters spinning and clanking against the white mixing bowl.

In my memory, she has found the bottle of vanilla on the narrow rack of shelves that hang over the back of one kitchen door. And now she’s standing over me, measuring vanilla into the bowl and letting a little extra spill over the edge of the spoon. “Always be generous with the vanilla,” she tells me, “because a little extra won’t hurt anything. But measure the salt in the sink, because too much of that is awful.” Then she tells me, as she does every time we bake together, that women used to put vanilla behind their ears as perfume.

Forty years from now, I will repeat all this to my daughters, and the words will spill from my lips as if I just thought of them. But that isn’t what happens. In fact, they are magic words that have been living in a place where thought doesn’t go. They have been conjured by the sacred object – the cheap metal spoons I use when I bake, the ones that bring me back to my mother. 

The day I saw the Green Tin at a garage sale, I knew that it had potential. I’d had a similar as an object in my childhood, one with a lid that was blue on the outside and deep red on the inside; it was covered with thin line drawings of men singing in barbershop quartets. The tin only appeared at Christmas, when cookies were baked. Every year, my mother told me that my grandfather, whom I’d never met, had been a singer in a barbershop quartet, the Missouri Belles. She told me this until I stopped listening, and I’ve only just now remembered it.

But back to the garage sale. When I say that I knew the tin had potential, what I mean to say is that it possessed a sort of uselessness that  I immediately admired. It was clearly too big, especially for any one-batch, God-fearing, “not too much” Minnesotan cook. To fill this tin with cookies would mean a triple batch, maybe a quadruple one, and people don’t act like that here, a place in which “over the top” means “just an inch shy of the rim, and lukewarm, please.”

When I saw the tin, I knew it would take work, too much work, to fill it with the chocolate chip cookies that Olivia and her siblings love. But I could picture that tin being stacked on top of all the other luggage, ready for trips to their cabin. I could see it being carried into the house by members of my family, all of them grateful for the invitation to be in a lovely place with the people they cared for most. The tin, filled with cookies, would be a thank-you, an offering and a talisman.

I thought all of this as I handed over two quarters and strolled down the sidewalk, holding the tin wth two hands in front of me, as if I were in some Holy Ceremony for Baked Goods, and had somehow broken loose from the rest of the procession.  I went home and I started to bake. It was exactly as much trouble to fill that tin as I had expected, but that was okay. There was power in the effort, not just that first time, but all the other summer weekdays when I slid sheet after sheet into and out of the oven, preparing for a Friday night trip to the cabin that would include a seemingly endless supply of cookies.

My mother's birthday was this week, and if she were alive, she’d be 91 years old. She would have hated being 91. She would have hated to slow down and feel old and watch her friends die. It’s better, I know, that she just fell down in my garden 13 years ago, better that she said “I don’t feel good,” and died in my arms before either of us had a chance to think about what was happening.

I have some memories, and I have the measuring spoons, although I’ve lost a couple in the garbage disposal over the years (we were too poor for such a luxury, which is why she was able to hold onto hers until I inherited them).

And thinking of all that makes me think this:  Olivia is right. They are better from the tin. Right now, she doesn’t know why. But someday she will.

And I hope, when she does know, that she’ll think of me, maybe on my birthday, and wonder what I did to make those cookies taste so good.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Six People, One Bathroom, and a Tube of Darlie Toothpaste

Not that it ever came up in conversation, so I didn’t have a chance to verify, but I’m certain that I was the only person in my neighborhood who had a tube of Darlie toothpaste in her bathroom this week. Marketed as “Darkie” brand until 1985, and still featuring a Jolson-esque character, the brand retains its name of 黑人 (black person) in Chinese. Its presence in my bathroom generated quite a double take, even at six a.m., but it was just one of the many cross-cultural aha’s that came from hosting two girls from the Nanjing Language School as part of a 10-day exchange program. The initial plans had been to house them luxuriously (and out of our way) in the basement, which has its own bathroom, but the basement was flooded and we squeezed six people into the upstairs, sharing one bathroom – and several competing tubes of toothpaste – among us. 

Six people in one bathroom, four of them teenaged girls – there’s a life-education curriculum for you. And when the power went out Monday night, the girls got to see just what American know-how can provide in the midst of a blistering heat wave – for 14 hours, not much. We taught them how to curse CenterPoint Energy in many colorful new ways.

They arrived very late on Sunday night, and it was only through momming up (the female for “manning up,” I reckon) that I was able to stay awake until 11 p.m. to serve them a “welcome to America” meal of green tea, rice and dumplings. I’m sure it tasted nothing like home, but at least they knew I was trying. On the upside, I got to watch them eat their dessert –vanilla ice cream – with chopsticks, so it was almost worth the lost sleep. 

Food is always a worry when I host kids from places where the cuisine is superior to American grub (that is, just about everywhere). I'm sure that poor Angie, our Roman exchange student, never recovered from the shock of her “tubs o’ pasta” meal at Bucca. And we found out too late that the Chinese are creeped out by the ramming of dirty fists into a communal bowl, so the hesitancy of last year’s Nanjing student to dig into the popcorn on movie night suddenly became clear. Next year, I’ll ask for a kid from a place where they eat nothing but dried yak meat from the floor of their mud huts, and I’ll be a culinary hero.

Still, I tried to sustain them as best I could, dutifully packing turkey-sandwich lunches for the girls each day, until they politely asked that they be allowed to make their own walk up to the market, and came home laden with 7UP, doughnuts and fruit. They did like my thin-crust, homemade pizza, though. One of them told me that the Nanjing Pizza Hut was where her parents took her for a treat, but that she liked mine more. Beating out the fine folks at Yum! Brands may not be that difficult, but I decided to take it as a compliment.

During the visit, Emma continued her quest to learn every possible Mandarin insult and curse word, which ought to win her a lot of fast friends when she’s studying in Beijing this fall. I had my own experience with cross-cultural cursing, too, if an unintended one. Stepping out into the blasting heat of a summer evening, I said “holy moley,” and then explained to Vicky (they pick English names in the sure knowledge that we’d mangle theirs beyond recognition) that this was an American exclamation. She knit her brows, then said in her impeccable, BBC-level English, “I have heard before of holy shit, but not this holy moley. Are they similar?” When I stopped laughing, I tried to explain the difference, but the nuance of which curse can be used in which circumstances is difficult. Just ask Emma. She’s been reading “Dirty Words in Chinese” for months (yes, it was a birthday present and yes, I’m a bad mother, but I knew it would please her), and she said she still managed to pick up several handy new foul-mouthed pointers from the Nanjing group.

My only complaint during their visit involved that six-person bathroom situation. I don’t know if it was the shock of travel, the heat, or my awful turkey sandwiches, but the girls seemed to be shedding fistfuls of hair all over the place. I’m used to one head of lustrous teen-aged Chinese hair releasing follicles onto the tilework, but the addition of two more heads seemed to increase output by much more than a factor of three.

I’d still have to say that the extra cleanup was worth it. I scoured the bathroom yesterday, and it’s good as ever (which is not a high standard of sanitation, let me just say). I almost miss that smiling gentleman from the Darlie toothpaste tube looking up at me each morning. He may have been offensive, but he sure was dapper, and that's not a word I get to use very often, much as I'd like to.

Come to think of it, maybe it’s the racist toothpaste that’s making their hair fall out. I’ll send some tubes of Crest along with Emma when she heads to Beijing this fall.  I don’t want her Chinese host family to suffer through shedding all year long. It will be all they can do to survive the cursing.