Category Archives: Family

Baking Made Less Easy

Its starts with a simple thought; “let’s make cookies”. Unlike the vacuum of space where no one can hear your scream, the mere mention of cookies reverberates from every surface in the household until it sparks a small stampede of toddler toes. Sometimes I think they’re just part of the required baking equipment like a spatula or measuring cups; I need only to set down the Kitchen Aid mixer on the counter and turn around to find two new attachments hopping excitedly on either side.

Accepting that this will not be the efficient task I originally imagined we line up at the sink to remove a temporary layer of dirt from my volunteer assistants. I acknowledge that any attempts at full sanitation with be short lived, so we go through the motions mostly to encourage the concept of proper hygiene. We also have a rule regarding no touching and no coughing in or around the mixing bowl. Like Vegas, “What happens in your nose stays in your nose.”

The girls march back to their assigned step-stools with hands raised in the air like surgeons ready for operation. This is an appropriate state of mind because in the spirit of fairness every task must be precisely divided between them to avoid malpractice claims and disruptive hissy fits. One holds the whisk, while the other scoops the flour. Trade off, and the other whisks the flour while the first takes a scoop. One unwraps a stick of butter, the other unwraps a stick of butter. Crack one egg, crack one egg. I have specifically selected recipes with ingredients easily divisible by two. If your “Coco-loco Chocolate Chippo Cookie” calls for 1/3 cup of flour, it ain’t gonna happen in this kitchen, bucko!   And so it goes with tag team pouring and measuring right down to an even division of labor where one will lower and lock the mixer and the other will turn it on. As the plumes of flour settle about the kitchen so too do we settle into a predictable rhythm of sharing; taking turns fishing out egg shells and wiping off the sugar-coated counter surfaces to create the sugar-coated floor surface. Let it not be argued who was able to brush away more sugar onto the floor.

As we near the end of the process the real motivation behind my eager assistants becomes clear with our two important cooking concepts; “quality control” and “taster finger”. Quality control requires that key ingredients like chocolate chips and marshmallows be carefully scrutinized for taste and freshness. This requires a random sampling of say 3 to 30 pieces to ensure proper consistency. The “taster finger” is a related quality check on our resulting batter to prevent fingers (which are predictably dirty at this point) from plunging outright into the bowl. No sooner is the paddle attachment removed from the mixer than eager fingers descend upon it like a swarm of hungry piranha cleaning the carcass down to the bone.

As lips and fingers are licked clean (or dirty) and I prepare to start scooping out the cookies we proudly admire our shared creation. The grease smeared grins that spread across their faces more than makes up for the added hassle of managing these little cookie monsters; It was all worth it in the end. And just as I’m filled we a sense of fulfillment there comes the abrupt inevitable sneeze directly into the batter. Time to start again.

“Who wants to be the first flour scooper?”

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One in the Can

To all those who have ever experienced the undeniable, bowel wrenching need to sacrifice both your attachment to cleanliness and a small piece of your sanity in order to face the wretched conditions of a public restroom and heed the call for gastrointestinal relief you can appreciate the contrasting experience of heeding that same call in the comfort of your very own bathroom. No need to step over that hobo in the doorway. No need to question the random drips sprinkled about the stall. No need to gather a heaping handful of individually dispensed tissue squares to wipe away the sense of ick.   At home, in your private sanctuary, you have the clean seat, the tidy bowl, the stack of outdated yet unread magazines and the perfect combination of wipes and extra quilted paper for your delicate behind. It is the nirvana of potty breaks.

That is, of course, unless you live in a house filled with a motley assortment of teens, tweens and toddlers, in which case the home front is likely filled with bathrooms that are only one small step above the public facilities,… and that one small step is probably the hobo in the doorway which, thankfully, we rarely need to worry about. We do however still have the random sprinkling of drips and, more often than not, a clogged toilet. Could it be the carb heavy, fiber free diet of the average American youth or perhaps the California drought friendly low flow toilets that contribute to the maddeningly frequent clogs? I have no idea the cause but I’m quite familiar with the frequency. Approaching any toilet in the house is a paramount to visiting that old aunt that nobody likes and wondering if this is the visit that will find her face down in the kitchen with her four cats nibbling away at her recently deceased body. You approach cautiously, taking a tentative sniff at the air, deciding if it’s worth a peek to confirm your worst fears or if it would be better to just assume the worst and call in the cleanup crew now without further confirmation. I mean really, who needs to see that. Bad kitty!

To prepare for this inevitability every bathroom in the house comes equipped with a fully functional plunger. Each child knows what a plunger looks like and has at least a passing knowledge of how the thing works. And yet, none of them will make the effort to use one unless forced to at the end of a disapproving parental finger wagging in the direction of the offending clog.  More than that, not only will they not take action to clear said mess but they will all religiously swear that they were nowhere near the crime scene at the time of the incident. A unanimous chorus of “it wasn’t me” can be heard ringing through the halls. Alibis having nothing to do with anything start to percolate; “I haven’t been upstairs all day because I twisted my ankle during presidential testing in PE.” Accusations redirect blame to other random suspects; “I suspect Colonel Mustard, in the bathroom with the lead brick”.   This is a crime scene that no one wants to investigate. There will be no CBS series called “CSI: Downstairs Bathroom”. In the end, nobody cares. The residing adults play a quick game of rock, paper, plunger and whoever loses two out of three deals with the problem while somewhere in the house an unknown child giggles knowingly to themselves.

I just don’t want to think about it. I lose enough sanity dealing with everyone else’s mess, I don’t need to face that in my moment of need too. This is why no child is allowed in the master bathroom. I don’t care if every other bathroom is occupied (or clogged) and you just chugged a 32 oz. Gatorade on a dare. You can wait,… or discover the joys of operating a plunger. Whatever the supposed emergency at least one room in the house needs to be reserved for our little parental nirvana. Our blessed little brood may not care about trivial things like aiming or flushing, but those indiscretions will not be tolerated when I’ve intentionally avoided the public stalls in Costco only to race home with legs crossed and I need to know that a safe haven awaits me minus any potential clogs or hobos.

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Mean Cuisine

I would like to propose a new show for the Food Network; “Kitchen Swap – Iron Chef Edition” where top professional chefs and their picturesque TV kitchens trade places with random normal folks and their overused overpopulated suburban kitchens; Watch as Bobby Flay spends 25 minutes trying to find which drawer someone has hidden the good spatula in. Watch as he struggles to navigate the kitchen tripping over dogs and dodging Nerf bullets. Meanwhile watch as I casually prepare a full weekend brunch sipping a cocktail in the fully stocked kitchen with not a single interruption or distraction to be had. Ok perhaps more of a personal fantasy then a show pitch but it might help me to appreciate cooking again.

It had actually crossed my mind (albeit a quick sprint across the mostly vacant frontal cortex) to make this a cooking blog instead of a,… whatever this is. I could have been the next Pioneer Woman, minus the ranch, cattle and womanhood. I could have posted pretty pictures of culinary creations if I were actually capable of taking pictures half as good as the Pioneer Woman and if said creations weren’t just modified versions of stuff the Pioneer Woman has already posted.   “Ranch House Chili” lacks a certain credibility when coming from a computer programmer living in the suburbs. In all honestly I actually love to cook and have made a few recipes my own over the years or at least have waited out the fame of the original chefs enough to make my claims uncontested. The real problem comes in the form of 6 painfully picky eaters. I mean to the extent that 90% of their diet can be defined as ‘carbs and cheese’ with the remaining 10% being pure sugar. I can spend 3 hours preparing a delicious Coq au Vin only to have the kids push it aside in disgust and ask for seconds of the butter noodles I made as the side,… and then proceed to inform me, butter dripping from their chins, that the noodles would go great with frozen chicken nuggets, which in turn gets a boisterous roar of approval from the others, the very same boisterous roar of approval that my deluded mind somehow thought I’d hear for making the savory homemade chicken with a sauce reduction. “They’re both chicken for god’s sake!! Quit your bitchin and eat!” screams my inside voice, while my outside voice says with just a dash of bitterness “Fine! Eat your butter noodles, but don’t expect the Ranch House Chili tomorrow!” To which they respond with another boisterous roar of approval.

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Dog Gone

Along with the four kids our combined family also came bundled with two canine additions; a brilliantly high-strung Border Collie, Meg and a dumber than a doorstop Siberian Husky, Maya. While Meg has her own assortment of doggie quirks (number one of which is her singular devotion to Nicole to the extent that she will pine miserably by the front door until her raison d’être returns), the many annoyances of Maya are much more difficult to catalog. We could talk about the “husky tumble weeds” that drift freely about the house requiring us to strap on a vacuum cleaner like the Ghostbusters and chase down the offending hairballs, or perhaps the way she sleeps on her back until roused by a convulsive burst of gagging snorts followed by a long series of sneezes.   But by far her single biggest doggie quirk is the fact that she’s not much of a dog at all; she doesn’t come when you call her, has not an ounce of loyalty and is driven solely by self-interest; basically, she’s a large, dumb cat. She is not a member of the family sharing our home, she is a ward of the state imprisoned within our house.   Given the choice she’d run wild without a backwards glance. She plots constantly for her escape and has succeeded on multiple occasions. We’ve met more neighbors through prisoner exchange then we have from PTA, and block parties combined. Unfortunately Maya comes equipped with both the old school dog tags and a sub-dermal GPS tracker that both direct the little convict back to our front door.   During one such prison break she was taken in by a nice family of dog lovers including one little girl that was hoping and praying that Maya’s owners would never find her. How many times since then have I regretted picking her up or thought about going back to make a little girls dreams come true. I thought about it when Maya peed all over the entryway the morning I was rushing out the door for a business trip. I thought about it when Maya started treating bathroom garbage cans as her own person smorgasbord.   I thought about it when Maya got sick repeatedly all over the house, 90% of which landed predictably on carpet.

Now this last one brings us to the other joy that is Maya; the expense. Being a husky she is already predisposed to have certain joint conditions, specifically in her hips, that require some additional expenses; supplements, medicine, therapeutic beds, a doggie walker with little tennis balls on the feet,… you get the idea. And I get it too. I’m a dog lover, and dogs can be an important part of the family. But an animal that runs past your outstretched arms choosing the open road over your loving embrace does not embody the spirit of Ohana. I start to ask myself “how much money do I want to invest in an apathetic animal”. This was the dilemma, when Maya started to have difficulty standing, then walking, and then the next day became a fountain of bile. Luckily our local vet is gracious enough to be open on Sundays so the first thing in the morning we brought Maya in for a checkup knowing full well the potential money pit we were leaping into. Our worse fears were confirmed on both fronts and after a $1000 visit the radiologist suspected a possible tumor in the stomach and throughout the intestines. Now I wouldn’t be telling this story if it actually ended that horribly, I may not be organizing a Maya fan club but I’m not completely heartless,… penniless perhaps, but not heartless. So when the vet suggested we follow up with an ultra-sound we reluctantly agreed. I figured that since the diagnosis had no real treatment options we at least owed it to her to get solid confirmation of her condition. In my mind though it was merely a formality. For a fleeting moment my mind danced with the freedom of having a single dog. A loyal dog. An intelligent dog. Not a chain sneezing flight risk. It was a world free of fur drifts, free of unpleasant surprises. It was a beautiful, peaceful, allergy-friendly world. And then it was gone.

After a $500 appointment with the ultra-sound the very same tech that had, only the day before, condemned our overgrown furball to imminent doom gracefully back pedaled with a new theory that maybe it was just something she ate, like a lump of clay or an extra helping of toilet paper. The governors’ pardon on her supposed death sentence. The convict was coming home.

And now every time I see one of those husky tumbleweeds I can’t help but see little money signs; money signs drifting off her body with every step, money signs bursting off her body with every sneeze, money signs littered down the hallway with the shredded tissue paper. Every annoyance that is Maya is now decorated with sad little money signs. Is it too late to make a little girl’s dreams come true?

 

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Parental Major / Parental Minor

During the initial stages of divorce you are forced to break down parenting duties into very impersonal numbers; “child 1 and child 2 are henceforth declared to be in the custody of parent 1 65% of the time and parent 2 35% of the time”. When you’re married you are simply a parent. There is no real break down in time or responsibility. Even if I have to work from 9 to 5 to pay the bills with only evenings and weekends to hit the park scene or build a Lego death star, I’m still considered an equal parent to the stay at home mom that suffers through multiple mealtimes and pickup patrol throughout the day.  I am the dad, with the sacred privileges and duties that come along with that. No matter if I’m bread winner or caregiver, my parental role is unique.

Once those impersonal legal numbers of are defined though everything starts to change. The distinction now is painfully evident to my kids. I can no longer emerge from my office to scoop them up for an adventure in the backyard or crash a tea party already in progress. Now, just as they are getting settled into whatever is keeping them entertained at mom’s house they are told to stop suddenly, pack up a few precious possessions and prepare for the trip to dad’s house. Their attitude for this transition I’m sure is mixed; sometimes they may really look forward to the change and sometimes not so much (I gauge this only from my experience on the other side). For my older son he can vocalize either reaction, but also we had enough experience together under the same roof that out relationship is pretty well established. My younger daughter though probably does not remember much before the divorce, so daddy is someone who lives outside her home. In her mind mommy is the main parent. Not only does she spend the majority of her time with mommy but there’s also the obvious bit about younger ones just needing that mommy-bond. Ok fine, mommies are always number one at that age right?! But again it’s different when the distinction is made so evident. When you’re under the same roof, the little ones may be thinking, “Who is this other person who gets me stuff and lets me drool all over him. He’s not my mommy but mommy seems to like him, and we’re ok with anything mommy’s like”.

Things start to get even more interesting once we introduce more parents into the mix; step parents. A title already made prickly by so much bad press, becomes more pokey when viewed from both sides of the split. In our household, we try to embrace the title for each others’ kids. We want to give them some label to attach to our new partners without stepping (pun intended) on any toes. I don’t want them simply calling me by my first name, but I also want to keep sacred the name and title of “daddy” for their biological dad. That all seems perfectly rational when I’m the one making the distinction but any mention from my kids of their “step-dad” makes me break out in hives,… and by hives I mean an irrational juvenile anger that spawns competing desires to either kick him in the balls or deeply embarrass him with a well-timed pantsing.

They say a child benefits from every additional person that loves them. That’s all well and good, and I guess on the surface I really have no problem with that part. For me it’s more about my ever diminishing role as dad for my own kids. How is my youngest supposed to understand the distinction now? It’s one thing for me to be their only dad, and just living outside their home, but accepting that the role of dad, in any degree, is now being played by someone else when they are not with me just grates on my happiness.

Really though it’s not his fault; No matter how appealing the groin shot or the public humiliation I need to consider that he’s doing nothing wrong. As far as I know he’s not actively trying to diminish my role or steal my title. I need to keep this in mind and be empathetic on both sides, understanding how hard it must be for the father of Nicole’s kids being away from his kids and understanding that the step-dad to my kids is doing the best he can. It’s my own damaged ego that’s really at play here anyway. I am mad that my ex, through her actions, has forever altered the relationship that I will have with my kids.   It’s different now and I just need to accept that.

Back here on the home front I am the minor parent with my kids but share the major parent role with the other kids and so I’m the minor parent to the major parent (or in Office terms my title is not “assistant major parent” but rather “assistant TO the major parent”). My authority and jurisdiction are bestowed on a case by case basis. Often times I’m no better than the 7 year old “informant” who just tattles on the other kids and suggests, in a passive-aggressive way, that they get severely busted. Granted I never envision myself as the “Father Knows Best” head of the family type who sits behind his desk in the study and dispenses justice to his wobbly kneed offspring who have been sent in after repeated threats of “just wait until your father gets home!” I don’t want to be the “bad cop” in this scenario. I’m fine with “passive-aggressive, tattling cop”.  And I guess underneath all the ego/anger issues I’m really ok with all of the parental roles I’ve been given. I just need to focus less on the numbers that label me a lesser parent and instead focus on how much I can give to all the kids in my life with whatever time I share with them.

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Start Anew

The packing tap screams out across the final box. And then the silence returns. It is the calm before the storm.  My final moments in the house that I made into a home after the divorce.  When I first moved in to this renovated house it was stark and empty. All the walls were white, all the surfaces new.  There weren’t even mirrors or shower doors in the bathrooms.  It was a blank canvas, which was oddly appropriate coming from my home of 10 years which had been so stuffed with memories and emotions.  That house had the rhythms of life that I had grown accustom to.  My family and the only life I had come to know all evolved in the house I left behind.  And then into this blank canvas. No wife, no kids, no cats, no dogs.  An empty house.  A quiet house. A quiet that was once overwhelming.  A quiet that I would banish with the TV on all day just to hear another voice from outside my office.  I was lost in the silence and emptiness.

As time went on the new routines became a part of me.  The walls eventually filled with pictures of new memories and the house filled with a new life with the kids.  “Daddy’s house” was a new concept for all of us, but we made it work, and learned to love it.

Then eight months ago another change for the better.  A new love and a new family awaits. Nicole and I have found a house to share.  A new home in which to combine our families into one.  One dad with two kids now becomes a full couple with six kids total. As much as I look forward to the new chapter in our life and the incredible memories and traditions we will share as a family, I reflect now on the silence and the quiet house that had once haunted me.  And in a few months from now, when kids are arguing, kids are screaming, dogs are barking and TV is blaring, I’ll look back and think, “what the hell was so bad about silence??!!”

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