Friday, June 29, 2012

Mental Exercise, Physical Exercise, Creative Expression, and Household Contribution

I'm bad at keeping up on diaries. Always have been, ever since those padded fabric-covered journals in the mid-nineties (there's a box of them around here somewhere, or maybe in my mom's attic). I can't be the only one with this problem: When lots of stuff is going on, there's no time to write about it. And then, when things slow down a bit, the thought of getting caught up on everything that happened is too overwhelming, so you never quite get around to starting and you end up just starting another diary the next Christmas when you get another blank padded fabric-covered book.

I'm now facing the added bonus that I don't want to write about the bad stuff. I am in denial about the impending avalanche of teenage behavior, and I'd like to pretend that Twelve will keep on being a sweetie pie/smart-ass as we transition our mother-daughter relationship into a relationship of two adults.

A couple of weeks ago, Twelve was sullen for the first time. We were at a cookout at which a live band was playing, and instead of hanging out and making herself occasionally useful, Twelve had a piece of chicken and half a bag of chips, then declared the band to be the "worst music she's ever heard" and went and sat in the car.

For over an hour.


Texting me periodically: "Let's go!!!!!"

We were back to normal afterwards, so that evening felt like a fluke, but still. Sullen. 'Twas a new one on me.

I also had a bit of a chat with one of Twelve's teachers last week. We're going to need to keep closer tabs on school performance next year; my suspicions that Twelve is an underachiever were confirmed. "She's smart, she just needs to apply herself." Lovely. Just fantastic. I've taken a step back from my employment obligations for the summer and next school year with the idea of actually focusing on my dissertation, and I'm super duper excited about monitoring every seventh grade deadline and reviewing every seventh grade assignment.

In hopes of sparking some interest in something, I've told Twelve that she needs to come up with a schedule for herself for the summer that gives her something to do in each of four categories each day: Mental exercise, physical exercise, creative expression, and contribution to the household.

She's supposed to make a list of topics for the mental exercise category. In my imagination, she goes to the library in the morning and pores over a pile of books about, say, volcanoes, and then uses four-by-six note cards to compose a one-page summary of what she's learned. By the end of the summer, she'll have discovered a fascination with ancient Egypt, and we'll build a scale replica of Tutankhamen's tomb together, complete with the wadded-up linens that the priests shoved back in the trunks any which way.

In reality, maybe I'll get her to watch a few documentaries and poop out some lackluster run-on sentences.

We joined our neighborhood gym in pursuit of physical exercise today, Twelve because her doctor has prescribed core training to improve her posture and spinal alignment, me because it was a screamingly good promotion, and R because of the hot tub and sauna. Un/fortunately, Twelve cannot go to the gym by herself until she is fourteen, so I am destined (doomed) to become a gym goer.

JoAnn's had a big clearance sale a few days ago, so I picked up a few boxes of blank cards, lots of stick-on rhinestones, and some packets of fancy cutout accoutrements. Twelve was thrilled! And has yet to actually assemble a single card. Also: Does sticking stuff to pre-folded card stock count as creative expression? We'll see.

Twelve remains fun to buy things for because she understands that we don't buy things indiscriminately and is is gratifyingly appreciative. On the way home from the gym, we found her some workout clothes and the kind of chair she's been wanting for her room. (Side note regarding workout clothes: When did this become a special fashion category? What happened to the regular ol' sports bra and the ordinary t-shirt from last year's district track meet?) When we got home, Twelve (magnanimously - it's really obvious and very cute when she's feeling this way) offered that she would rake up the grass clippings in return for me buying her everything within a dozen blocks of home. Almost before she finished the sentence, you could see the gears turning and she appended that she'd get it done within the next couple of years.

Girl, you're too smart. Apply yourself to the rake and gather up those clippings.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Social Class: Snacks, Pyrex Bowls, and Grosgrain Ribbon

Twelve helped plan a going-away party for one of her friends last week, and she was responsible for bringing some of the food. Twelve is ridiculously good at selecting snacks and treats, probably because the hospitality gene runs in my family: We may not be great thinkers, or world leaders, but this is what we do. (However, we do read quite a bit and some of us used to run fairly fast.) If you need a formal dinner given, you check with my mom. If it's a cookout for 200 that you're after, I'm your gal. Twelve's specialty is classroom treats.

For example, for the winners of the geography contest a few weeks back, she did a box of nerds with a package of those awful sugar-and-sticks things on top, all tied with a narrow grosgrain ribbon in an impeccable bow. Okay, the ribbons were my idea, and Twelve hasn't yet mastered bow-tying so I ended up having most of the fun, but they were apparently a hit with the winning team. (Bow tying is just another one of those skills that impress people to no end but that can't quite go on my cv. It's an excellent substitute for a party trick in many nonalcoholic middle class realms, and it's one of the little things that keeps me from really understanding most other people. Or does it keep them from really understanding me?)

Anyway, after an hour at the Grocery Outlet, Twelve and I talked through all possible options for the going away party food and drink. After a certain amount of earnest negotiation, we settled on just the right assortment and quantity of canned beverages to signal my conflicting middle-class and granola hippie pretensions. (Sprite because it's name brand but caffeine free and Hanson's because it's made with Real Cane Sugar; quantity plentiful but not to the point of appearing crass.) I allowed the family size bag of Doritos as long as they were Cool Ranch instead of the grossly colored Nacho. I even good-naturedly drove Twelve across town to another grocery store to get huge bags of just the right candy in bulk.

Yes, I'm ridiculously indulgent with Twelve when it comes to the selection of foods for social occasions. We both have a great time with the process, and it's hard to articulate what it is that's so much fun.

Twelve loves to shop, that's for sure; she's great at narrowing down a range of selections to just the right one. Even with clothes, I'll think that three or four things are perfectly acceptable, but she'll still take just one or two, even if I'm willing to purchase all four. She also loves the freedom of buying treats for school; our regular grocery shopping outings are full of no, no, no in response to processed and/or conventional food items, but for treats she gets way more latitude. I'm sufficiently haunted by my own junior high experiences of not having the right brand names that I recognize and occasionally indulge Twelve's need to purchase a sense of community. Call me a hypocrite if you must.

I enjoy our earnest discussions about what to get. Because Twelve feels like she's getting away with murder, she's unusually cooperative. She acquiesces immediately to the Cool Ranch Doritos and conscientiously checks to see how much one scoop of Sour Patch Kids weighs before filling the bag. She demurs thriftily when I point out that we'd need a couple dozen cans of soda to make a respectable showing in the cooler, but eventually gives in when we discover a second variety of Hansen's.

On a deeper level, though, our treats shopping expeditions are an exercise in constructing and maintaining class privilege. We each know half of some kind of elaborate algorithm that accounts for what we think other people will think about what we select. I had a nice, long, complicated sentence going that involved phrases like "my assumptions about parent and teacher assessment" and "her innate knowledge of peer assessment," but the damn sentence was drooping under its own weight and there's no point in sugarcoating the truth: We are trying really, really hard to cultivate other people's approval using snack foods. I tend to couch my concerns in terms of appropriateness and logic, sometimes invoking convenience and cost. Really, I am trying to impress whatever adults are around to notice. Twelve never comes right out and says outright that x is cool and y is not, but I can tell that there's something going on in there, some knowledge of sixth grade coolness to which I'm not privy. Really, she's trying to impress the other kids.

When we got home, we discussed serving options for the chips and candy. I had unequivocally vetoed the purchase of a plastic serving bowl at $1.49 as a complete repudiation of our entire belief system. I offered my vintage Pyrex mixing bowls as the logical alternative.

Let me explain about vintage Pyrex mixing bowls. I'm not even sure why or how this tradition started, but every woman in my mother's side of the family is given a set of the classic large yellow/medium-large green/medium-small red/small blue Pyrex mixing bowls, usually at marriage. They are definitive. They are simply what bowls are - I forget what philosophers call this. Things are served out of them at all occasions. Tossed salads and tortilla chips go in the big yellow ones. Fritos go in the green, if you got the big bag of Fritos; otherwise the red will do. My aunt's pea and cashew salad goes in the red. The blue size is just right for mixed nuts, and is also excellent for heating soup in the microwave. I'm at a loss for further description here because this is how things are done.

So, reassuring Twelve that I trusted her to keep my bowls safe, I packed her a box with one bowl of each size: Chips, fruit snacks, Sour Patch Kids, and M&Ms, in descending order of volume. We hied off to the party.

Of course the bowls didn't make it out of the box. I'm not sure what I was thinking, really. Twelve didn't care one way or another, of course, but we did share a rueful smile as we hauled them home again. I might as well have tied a grosgrain bow around each can of Sprite, I suspect. The way we do things in my family isn't pretentious, though of course I wouldn't think so. It's just that I decant the damn tortilla chips into a bowl, damn it, and if the salsa is in a matching smaller bowl, so much the better. We use coasters, we arrange tufts of tissue paper to stick out of the gift bag, and we know that the fork with the short tines is either for salad or dessert.

What's my point? I dunno. Twelve associates many of the niceties with her grandmother, and it's true that my mom does all of this much more effortfully than I ever will. I don't experience my affinity for serving dishes as an affectation of a higher class, especially since the family hosting the party at their suburban neighborhood clubhouse pool is much wealthier than we.

At the very least, grosgrain ribbon and colorful mixing bowls are something that Twelve and I share. I'll take it!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Unlike Mother, My Daughter

Twelve and I are very different. Yes, we're both snarky and sarcastic and occasionally funny, but last weekend I spent approximately 23 hours rescuing a vintage quilt top. I was obsessed. I declined a dinner/movie invitation because I was two hours into the (ultimately) twelve-hour process of hand basting the quilt sandwich.

While my sewing room is a testament to many projects started but not quite finished (yet), I was determined to finish this quilt. I found the top at our neighborhood thrift shop for $12.50. It's a not-terribly-special Log Cabin pattern from perhaps the 1940s, half hand-pieced and half machine-pieced. The fabrics are worn; some are nearly transparent, many are the original calicos that are reproduced everywhere now. It's not skillfully done, either; many of the seam allowances are too narrow, and the squares don't always line up. But I just couldn't bear to pass it up, despite the little old lady at the thrift shop who shook her head over the 'high' price tag ("It would be different if it were two fifty," she said sympathetically, as I spread it on the counter for inspection.)

I'll rescue it! I'll make it into something useable
, I suddenly resolved, and hied off to the fabric store for cotton batting and wide muslin for the back. Thirty-five bucks later, doubt began to niggle at the back of my mind, but I held fast to my plan and put the muslin in the washer for pre-shrinking.

Once I had the patchwork mended (oh, did I forget to mention that the patchwork needed mending?), I laid out the sandwich and got the layers pinned smoothly, then realized with resignation that it would be impossible to machine-quilt the damn thing without hand basting it first.

Had I realized that it would take an entire day, I'd like to think that I would have bailed, but by this time it was too late. I was in for the long haul and felt compelled to finish, come hell or high water. Twelve would never do this. Twelve declined my Mother-Daughter Bonding Time invitation to help baste for a few minutes, even when I said we'd watch Downton Abbey together while we stitched.

(Twelve tends to invoke Mother-Daughter Bonding Time to get her way. It sometimes works for me, but mostly if what I want to do involves shopping.)

Bins and baskets full of unfinished projects notwithstanding, I was about Twelve's age when I learned about sticking with and finishing seemingly insurmountable projects. I was working on a little gray corduroy backpack with a drawstring closure. I was sitting in front of my mother's Featherweight in the utility room, with a pile of belt loops for the drawstring next to me. I remember doing the first one and then assessing the stack of unfinished ones with dismay. There were so many! It was at that moment that I realized that I just needed to sit there and do them, and then - eventually - they would be done. And so I did, and so they were.

That self-same drawstring bag is hanging on the wall of my sewing room. It has a grand total of eight loops - I just counted them. I may have remembered there being a much bigger stack, but I refuse to allow the memory to be cheapened!

I persevered, and got the thing basted and quilted and bound with red fabric of which I happened to have just the right amount. It's beautiful. I'm in awe. All I have wanted to do this week is sit with it in my lap, but I'm kind of afraid to touch it.

One of my recurring worries about Twelve is that she doesn't really have any hobbies; she's not really into anything, and isn't really working on anything that could be termed a practice in the philosophical sense. She does volleyball, but she doesn't work on skills outside of scheduled events. She reads, which is great, but it's for entertainment and doesn't qualify as a practice. She likes to buy fabric paints, but she never seems to do much with them. I've sworn that she will not leave my household without knowing at least the basics of running a sewing machine, and she has done a few coasters on the machine I've designated as hers, but with zero enthusiasm.

She has discovered the magic of mending, however; she was visibly impressed when I restored a hoodie and a pair of yoga pants to like-new condition with some cones of black thread and the safety four thread stitch. Perhaps she will come to sewing through mending, acquire hobbies later in life, or perhaps she won't ever have any hobbies (how does that even work?).

Or perhaps it's okay that she's not like me, and I will just become resigned to that.

(We'll always have sarcasm.)