Simmer, Don’t Boil

The morning before school routine at my house is a delicate dance, and if you don’t adhere to the intricately choreographed steps it will quickly turn into a clown show.

For example, I know that my 6-year-old will spend the first 15-20 minutes after he wakes up insisting that he’s not going to school. Just go with it. My 8-year-old will refuse to brush his teeth until 5 minutes before the bus comes. Don’t bother nagging until 7:52. My 11-year-old will lie about having brushed his teeth, and will inevitably be searching for something he lost. Call him on it.

It’s all quite simple, if not maddening, and I am well aware that we’re an ill-fitting sock, a mediocre lunch selection, or a missing sketchpad away from full-on meltdown. It’s an extremely volatile environment, and it’s important to keep things at a low simmer, then if something does ignite I can just throw a little baking soda on it or smother it with a lid, and we can move on. You can’t lose your shit with them unless there has been no progress at all, and you have to mean business.

My husband, despite my pleading for him to just get in the shower, get ready for work, and let us be, frequently insists on coming upstairs after his workout to “help.” Unfortunately he brings a full can of gasoline and a lit match with him, and the next thing you know I’m running for the fire extinguisher, which is loud, dramatic, messy, and would have been completely unnecessary had proper protocol been followed.

And guess who is left to clean up the aftermath?

Conversations I Never Thought I’d Have: Part I

Justin

He can’t wait to punch something that won’t get him in trouble.

Conversations in a household populated with four boys can be interesting, to say the least. And the most ridiculous part is when I try to respond. I start off perplexed, and end up being totally vested in it.

Justin: “Mom, what’s worse? Getting stabbed with a knife or a scissors?”
Me: “I don’t know. I suppose it would depend on where you’re stabbed.”
Justin: “But which is worse?”
Me: “Neither of them would be good.”
Justin: “But which one is WORSE?”
Me: “A knife.”
Justin: “How about a chainsaw, or, um…a pitchfork?”
Me: “Definitely a chainsaw.”
Justin: “A machete or one of those…like what do you call those ninja knives?”
Me: “You mean throwing stars?”
Justin: “No.”
Me: “A samurai sword?”
Justin: “No, like just a knife with a curve. Like this.” (Draws a swoosh in the air with his fingers.)
Me: “I don’t know. Probably a machete.”

© Jennifer Alys Windholz, 2014

Enjoy That Onion

I’ve written before about awkward conversations I’ve been forced into at my local grocery store. It seems one cashier is more socially inept than the next. There’s the one who tries to be helpful, I guess, by unintelligibly YELLING at you that you don’t need to take your diet Coke off the bottom of your cart. The one who makes random comments that have nothing to do with anything you’ve ever thought about. Or the one who asks you a thousand questions about your shopping experience. Or the one who won’t make eye contact. Interestingly enough, the one who may or may not be a satan worshipper is the most pleasant and engaging of anyone there.

Today was someone I hadn’t met before. It went a little something like this.

Cashier: “Did you have a good time today?”
Me: “What?”
Cashier: “In the store. Did you have a good time?”
Me: “Uh. I guess.”
Cashier: “It’s okay if you didn’t. I just like to ask.”

I laughed awkwardly, not sure what to make of this conversation. Meanwhile the transaction has stalled because the scale wasn’t working to weigh my single white onion. And the cashier was making even more bizarre comments about how things like this always happened at the most inopportune time. And I continued to smile sheepishly, praying that the thing would work so we could move this along, ready to tell him to either forget the onion, I don’t need it, or to just charge me whatever he wants for it. Just please make this stop.

Finally the woman cashier from the neighboring aisle came over and did something to fix it.

Cashier: “That’s exactly what I was doing. I guess sometimes it just takes a woman’s touch.”
Me: (More nervous laughter because I don’t know how to respond to that.)
Cashier: “I hope you enjoy that onion. Because, you know, it took a lot to get it through.”
Me: “Yeah, I will. I guess.”
Cashier: “You’ll need to slide your card through again. Everything wants to be touched a certain way today.”
Me: “Ok.” (Please stop talking about touching.)

After what seemed like an eternity, I moved quickly to start bagging my groceries, happy to have a task that will keep me from being subjected to further chit-chat. Behind me was YELLING cashier, in civilian clothes, bagging his personal purchases, talking to a woman near him.

Woman: “What’s a chimichanga?”
Yelling Cashier: “THEY’RE LIKE BURRITOS ONLY THEY TASTE GOOD. THEY’RE A MAIN STAPLE OF MY DIET, WHICH IS VERY UNHEALTHY. CHIMICHANGAS AND POWERADE AND BRISK TEA.”

Get me out of here!

© Jennifer Alys Windholz, 2014

Heaven’s Feisty New Angel

Katherine (Younker) Schmidt was raised on a farm in Ellis County, Kansas. Born in 1922, she endured the dust bowl, an alcoholic husband, being a single mom, and too many orthopedic surgeries to count. She came from Volga German immigrants, grew up speaking German, and only had an 8th grade education, yet by the time she retired she was probably better off financially than most of today’s educated suburbanites. She got up at 5:00 every morning to go to work as a cleaning lady for a college dorm, and when finished went to her second job as a seamstress at a custom drapery shop. She never wasted a penny, but also never missed sending a birthday card with a $10 bill slipped inside.

Grandma shutting the place down at my sister's wedding only six years ago.

Only six years ago my grandma was shutting the place down  at my sister’s wedding dance.

My birthday is May 12. Hers was May 11, and we both epitomize the stereotypical bull-headed, stubborn Taurus. My mom says any artistic talent I have came from her. She was a wizard with a sewing machine and designed and made most of her own clothes. She wasn’t an affectionate, saccharine sweet grandma, but there was no doubt she loved all of her grandkids and was proud of every one of us. She had a great sense of humor, spoke her mind, was a good Catholic, though not overtly religious, and always had some cans of Old Milwaukee in the fridge. It will be hard to say goodbye, but the last year has been a difficult one for her. She got by on sheer tenacity, and I’m glad she can finally get some rest. Here are a few random memories that will always make me smile.

  • Grandma was forever buying things and then taking them back. She once returned a coat to JCPenney two years after she bought it. It was never used, had tags, receipt, and all, but my Aunt Betty was mortified. “People in this town KNOW me, and know she’s my mother, and she goes and does stuff like that.”
  • We lived two hours away, but my family never missed a holiday at her house. So many Easters, Thanksgivings, and Christmases. Everyone packed in around her kitchen table, eating in shifts. Turkey and out-of-this world dressing. This marshmallow cranberry frozen salad. I remember drinking a fuzzy navel for the first time at her house when I was probably in 9th grade and feeling like one of the adults.
  • Once she was babysitting me along with my older cousins, Vern and Tammy. Those two fought like cats and dogs. I don’t remember what Vern did to Tammy, but the next thing I knew Grandma sat his ass outside on the porch, and he didn’t get to come back in for a very long time. She and Vern were talkers, and he called her all the time, just to shoot the breeze, right up to the end.
  • It took many years before I realized that her favorite expression of exasperation, “YAY-zuss Gott,” was German for “Jesus Christ!”
  • When I was maybe 12, we were out Christmas shopping the day after Thanksgiving. I found this set of New York Times crossword puzzle books that my mom liked and weren’t easy to find. I was a few dollars short, and asked her to lend me the extra. And she did without question. I didn’t appreciate it then, but knowing now just how frugal she was with money, I realize what a big deal it was.
  • We always had well-stocked Easter baskets waiting for us after Mass, including a big chocolate bunny. When I was about 10, she changed it up, and gave us white chocolate bunnies. Being 10, I ate the whole damn thing. Then threw the whole damn thing back up. I’ve never gone near white chocolate since.
  • Putting things away in her kitchen was slightly overwhelming. She was into the whole reduce, recycle, reuse thing before it ever became the creed of tree huggers everywhere. Obviously the lessons of the Great Depression sunk in, and there was never a bread bag, margarine container, jelly jar, or paper sack that ever went unused. There comes a point in time when you can only use so many Cool Whip containers.
  • I’ll miss her crazy stories and gossip about people from town and bingo and work. I had no clue who any of them were, but listening to her describe how Rosie this-or-that cheated at bingo, or that Mary so-and-so said something about Helen whats-her-face was entertaining beyond words. Her stories about some woman they knew who had the mouth of a sailor literally brought me to tears.
  • When Barry and I were dating and he first met her, she thought his name was Perry. They hit it off right away.
  • She started collecting Santa Claus decorations about 25 years ago. When my mom and her sisters cleaned out her apartment before she moved into assisted living, she had boxes and boxes of them. Most of them were all richly designed, detailed, embroidered, made from velvet, satin, or brocade fabric. She let me pick out two of them last Christmas, and I got one more huge tall one this Christmas. They’ll always remind me of her.
  • Grandma had a closet full of all kinds of fabric, catalogs, wallpaper books, magazines, and clothes. I first discovered Cosmopolitan magazine, and cleavage, snooping through all the stuff in there.
  • My Uncle Guy, my dad’s younger brother, who knew my grandma before my parents were even married because he ran around with my Aunt Gerri, gave her endless shit. And she loved every minute of it. Though it’s hard to find super funny without context, some of his antics included photoshopping a large picture of her to look like she was giving the finger, writing a ridiculous letter to the editor that he read at her 90th birthday party, and captioning pictures of her saying all kind of outrageous and inappropriate things.
  • My grandma drove like Dale Junior. She had a gold Chevy Nova, and I remember driving home from bingo one snowy night with my cousin when I thought we might not make it back in one piece.
  • We took many a summer road trip with Grandma. My Aunt Gerri lived in Utah and my Aunt Pat lived in Minnesota, and we made at least two cross-country journeys to each place, six travelers of various combinations of my cousin, aunt, or my brother and sister packed into a big ol’ Buick. One trip with her car to Salt Lake City was rife with car trouble, squabbles, and mountain driving. And there was never a time when we filled gas that she didn’t have to note the number on the odometer, and calculate the gas mileage, and then discuss it. Every. Single. Fill.
  • She was always known to me as Grandma Schmidt. Of course I knew her first name was Katherine, but would have never called her that. One day I answered her phone, and the person on the line asked, “Is Katie there?” I told her she had the wrong number, and hung up. Then she called back again. “No, there’s no Katie here,” I said, and then someone took the phone, explaining to me that Grandma was Katie.
  • Grandma was always ready to party. She had an epic riverboat casino party in Kansas City for her 75th birthday, and a blowout for her 90th that I think half the town showed up for. She had a regular weekly card game, and was well-known at every smoky bingo joint in Hays, Kansas. The Elks, the Legion, the VFW, church basements…if there were little balls rolling around in a cylinder, she was there. I spent many an awesome Saturday night as a grade schooler sucking in copious amounts of second-hand smoke, playing my cards with Grandma. She’d warn me which ones to stay away from, either because they were “bad” cards, or because some of the other possessive cutthroat oldsters would have my head if I took one of “their” cards. Once I won a $12 pot, and had to split it like three ways. Bought a Kit Kat at the concession stand with part of my winnings. Best. Night. Ever.
  • My son, David stayed with my parents for a week when he was seven. My grandma, mom, Betty, and Gerri drove with him from Kansas to Iowa where I picked him up, and then went on to visit Pat in South Dakota. Grandma was a talker, but she has nothing on David, who can run on for days on any given subject. He sat in the back between her and Gerri, and entertained her the whole trip. But at one point she asked my mom, “Does he EVER stop talking?”
  • My grandma’s house was small. Two bedrooms with a basement apartment that she rented out to college students. When we’d stay with her over holiday weekends, my parents would be in the guest bedroom, I’d get the couch, and Chad and Kim had a foam mattress on the floor (sucks to be the youngest – ha). Grandma would get up at zero dark hundred to go to work in the morning, or actually even if she had the day off, and she did not give one single shit if anyone else was sleeping or what time it was. Clang, bang, rattle, whoosh, whirrrrr, clank. Coffee percolating, pots and pans noisily being put away. Better chance staying asleep on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. Holy shit, she could have woken up the dead from their graves.

I’m sure there is more, and I’m sure she’ll have a hell of a wake where some stories will be told, but right now I’m feeling tired, a little lonely, and a lot older. Bye Grandma. It was fun while it lasted. Tell Aunt Pat we miss her. And try not to be too demanding of the wait staff up there.

© Jennifer Alys Windholz, 2014

We’re Living In A SOCIETY!

I don’t like to generalize, but people have been unusually bitchy this week. And by “bitchy” I mean they’ve been assholes. The weather in the Twin Cities has been oppressive. And by “oppressive” I mean that it would have to warm up 20 degrees for it to be habitable for the penguins of the Antarctic. But that’s no excuse to act like an entitled jerk. We’re all in this together. So I don’t know what everyone’s deal is, but I’m getting sick of it. As caustic and sarcastic a writer I am, it may come as a surprise that I’m almost militantly polite. I’m shy and not chatty, but never unpleasant without reason, even on days when my kids have again laid waste to my house or are battering each other to a pulp.

So apropos of nothing, here is my list of rules that I think we, as a society, should be required to abide by, or face the wrath of everyone around you. And by “wrath” I mean passive-aggressive stares, eye rolling, and audible sighs, for Minnesotans anyway.

  • If you want to watch or listen to something on your laptop or mobile device around others, use earphones. If you don’t have earphones with you, don’t listen to it. Ten years ago you wouldn’t have brought a portable television into a coffee shop and watched it at full volume, why is it any different if it’s on your computer?
  • Don’t clip your nails in public. And by “public” I mean the workplace. I can’t believe I even have to say this.
  • A busy drive-through ATM is not the place to do full-on banking. Go inside to cash your third-party check from the Bank of Cairo.
  • Don’t park like an asshat.
  • Hold the door for people. Doesn’t matter if you’re male, female, child, oldster, or extra-terrestrial, letting a door shut in someone’s face is selfish, lazy, and a sign that you are not fit to live with the other humans.
  • Don’t slow down, or worse, STOP, at a green light. If you need a refresher on the whole “red means stop, green means go” concept, I can hook you up with a Montessori pre-K program in my area and you can relearn it with all the other three-year-olds.
  • When you’re in the airport, grocery store, at a sporting event, or anywhere within earshot of someone else, put the Bluetooth away. You don’t need to be having a conversation that lasts long enough to be hands-free. No one wants to hear you making dinner plans or having an argument with your wife. You look like you’re a mental patient talking to the voices in your head. And frankly I’d rather encounter that person than you, you inconsiderate bastard.
  • The world is not your ashtray. Anyone who tosses out their cigarette butts at a stoplight should be force-fed a soup made from the cigarette litter on the side of the road.
  • If someone inadvertently blocks part of your narrow street, and inconveniences you for a minute, instead of opening the car door without knocking, and yelling hysterically at the group of startled 14-year-olds inside who have no control over the situation, maybe consider speaking to the owner of the car first, and give her a chance to apologize for what was clearly her mistake.
  • Don’t pay for scumbag crapfest stunts like the proposed DMX vs. George Zimmerman fight. If you do, you’re part of the problem.

© Jennifer Alys Windholz, 2014

Polar Vortex, You Have Five Seconds

At the risk of being a terrible Minnesota cliché, I’m going to spend some time on this post complaining about the weather. Specifically that the forecast for tomorrow morning is -20º F. Throw in a 10 mph wind, and we’re talking about a climate that is less habitable than the inside of a fucking meat locker on the frozen planet Hoth.

So since your face can freeze off in like a minute, and limbs will turn to cord wood, and your tears of pain instantly turn into ice cubes before hitting the ground like that little penguin who tries to hitch along with Bugs Bunny in those old Warner Brothers cartoons, the local schools are cancelled again tomorrow. For the fourth day since returning from winter break. Not counting MLK Day. For those of you who do not know what it’s like to be trapped inside of a closed structure with children who’ve played the same video games, read the same books, watched the same movies, and hung out with the same friends for weeks on end, let me tell you a little bit about it. I realize most of these are very privileged problems to have, but I’m not gunning for sainthood, so I don’t really care.

The day starts out with someone giving you “five seconds” to help him out of bed or he’ll “explode.” Then you go through a hundred breakfast options, none of which are acceptable to any of them, but that’s okay because they can have a nice hot bowl of jack squat instead. Two minutes after stepping into the shower, there is pounding on the bathroom door with a warning that you have “five seconds” to stop his brother from making fun of him. Pretty soon another one is up, and he’s left a trail of drawing paper, pajama pants, socks, basketball cards, and Go-Gurt wrappers in his wake. Next someone wants to take a bath and “accidentally” floods the bathroom floor. A friendly board game breaks out, and lasts approximately five minutes before accusations of cheating and gamesmanship fly, and it ends in someone quitting in anger. Inevitably a war will be waged over control of the TV when they can’t agree on whether to watch SportsCenter, Spongebob, or a movie only one of them is interested in, and I hear that I have “five seconds” to make them give him the remote. Someone will decide to eat lunch at 10:00, and leave a trail of bread, peanut butter, knives, plates, and napkins all over my kitchen. Soon begins the first of five daily debates about whose turn it is to let the dog out. Chores are assigned, and are done, half-assed, only after an hour of nagging. Lunchtime means you’re a short order cook because one person wants fish sticks, another wants scrambled eggs, and someone else makes his own macaroni and cheese, leaving you to chisel dried residue off the pan after it’s been sitting on the counter for an hour. One of the main instigators has the genius idea of playing basketball downstairs, with a real basketball, dribbling, and shooting, but before that hot mess gets underway, he requires everyone to be properly outfitted in NBA attire, which means ransacking dressers to find the right jerseys and wrist bands. And because they all seem to have some rare disease that prevents them from closing any cabinet door, drawer, desk, or cereal box, all the dresser drawers are left open, resulting in great instability and frantic cries from the non-baller left behind in his room when it nearly tips over on him. You’re interrupted every two minutes like clockwork for some request, from resetting passwords to pouring orange juice to attending to phantom injuries. Just when you think they’ve settled into doing something productive, like making a video with iMovie, one of them decides to ruin every take by either farting, coughing, laughing, or diving into the shot. After begging, threatening, and pleading with him to stop acting like an idiot, to no avail, desperation sets in and, against your better judgement, you take out a contract on the perpetrator by texting his older brother to come take care of the problem. Of course excessive force is used, and now not just two people are unhappy, but all four of them, yelling at each other in four-part harmony like the world’s most dysfunctional barbershop quartet. The power cord gets pulled out of the wall awkwardly, severing it in half. Making dinner is a production because every time you are elbow deep in deboning a chicken, or have just chopped up an onion, someone needs your hands for something, and the dog tries to score a taste while you’re distracted. And then you turn around to see 25 sheets of paper strewn across the kitchen table because Picasso can’t get his drawing to look just right, and has to start over every single time, and you’re given another “five seconds” to draw the outline, but ONLY the outline for him. Out comes the rainbow loom, and frustration ensues when the right color rubber band can’t be located, or someone wants to make a “fishtail” design, but can’t get it to work, and you want to tell him that kids in Pakistan are weaving their own fucking magic carpets by the time they’re three years old, so figure it out for yourself. Now you have to drive a kid to his friend’s house, and you’re jealous that the lucky bastard gets to escape this loony bin, and make him aware that he owes you at least $30 in babysitting, which you are goddamnwell cashing in on tomorrow. When you return, your entryway looks like a Goodwill donation center, and you wonder why the coats, gloves, hats, boots, and shoes seem to increase exponentially with each passing week.

And tomorrow it happens all again.

“Okay campers, rise and shine! And don’t forget your booties because it’s cooooold out there today.”

© Jennifer Alys Windholz, 2014