Monday, November 25, 2013

So What, Who Cares?: In-laws in the House, and Toddlers at the Thanksgiving Table

Dear Erin,

            My in-laws live a couple of hours away, close enough for them to visit fairly often.  They have described our home as their "vacation house."  So when they are here, they behave as though on vacation.  They expect to be waited on, for food to show up when they are hungry, beverages when they are thirsty, and for it all to be cleaned up when they are done. They also leave magazines and newspapers strewn all around the house.  When we are tired of waiting on them, we'll decide to go out for a meal.  We always end up paying for everything - they don't even offer.  They are otherwise nice people and are very good with our kids so I don't want to offend them.  How can we get them to pitch in?


This is not a bed-and-breakfast, -lunch, and –dinner

Dear This is not a bed-and-breakfast, -lunch, and –dinner:

 I knew a guy in New York, who had a dog named Rosy.   Rosy’s owner dated a woman for several months before he realized the relationship wasn’t right for him.  He silently agonized over how to tell her his feelings.   Then one night, after they fooled around, he got up to use the bathroom.   No sooner had he closed the door, than the dog raced into his bedroom, jumped up on the bed, climbed on the girlfriend, and peed on her.  

Awkward!   The girlfriend was horrified, of course.   But she was also offended because she could tell he wasn’t that upset.  He did feel bad.   But he also sort of believed that the dog had sensed his ambivalence about the relationship, and had taken action on his behalf.    In so many words, and none at all, the dog had told her to leave.  Which she did.  She broke up with him the next day.

Not-bed-and-breakfast, I don’t tell you this story because I think you should pee on your in-laws.  Not yet, anyway.  But hold that thought.  I’ll come back to it later.

Here’s my overall sense of your dilemma.  You’ve made a cozy home.  Your relatives are well intentioned, involved grandparents.  You care about their feelings.   And yet the fact remains that-- unless your in-laws are very old, and infirm, and short of money -- they are being terrible house guests.

I’m guessing that, over the years, you’ve tried to express your feelings in a million indirect ways.   You pick up their papers and ask, in a hint-hint voice: “Hey, are these yours?   I just wondered because the kids can’t find the couch.”   You finish a meal and declare, “Well, I guess I’ll do the dishes now! ” and then, you do the dishes anyway.    You get the restaurant check and declare, “Wow, that’s a lot!”  But your in-laws are busy sipping their tea, and praising the digestive benefits of Rooibos.  Your insinuations get you nowhere.

I understand why you’re worried about offending them.   Relatives are a lot like normal people, in the sense that they have widely different reactions to straight talk.   Some relatives-- particularly the ones we acquire through marriage – bristle at any emotional sharing.  Others serve it up for breakfast.  My husband and I know something about this.  He likes to say that his family keeps the peace, while my family says our piece.   I always think about that when we visit his people, and make sure never to act like my actual self.

My problem with subtle hints is that they are often lost on those who need them most.  It would be great if, when you politely pointed at the dishwasher, a helper switch went off in your in-laws’ vacation brains.   But hearing a polite hint requires more than just ears and a hearing aid.  It also requires empathy.   I don’t know your in-laws.  But people who let their grown offspring pay for all their meals, clean up their dishes, and moonlight as their chamber maids probably didn’t bring the gift of empathy along with them as a housewarming present, either.

So if you want things to change, you will need to express your feelings directly.  Just here and there, at first.  Test the waters.   This approach may cause minor discomfort – for both of you - -and it does run the risk of hurting their feelings.  But remember: Being direct doesn't necessarily mean being confrontational, getting angry, or acting like a total asshole.   There are good tricks for making straight talk less painful.   Here are 3 of my favorites:

                  1.  Couch your remarks in a compliment or lighthearted joke. 
                  2. Take on some emotional responsibility.  Make it about your feelings, not their behavior.
                  3. Tell a white lie, as a spoonful of sugar.

So, next time you see their used copies of Ladies Home Journal strewn across your TV room sofa, you could say: “Wow, Joe Bob and Betty Sue, you guys are such avid readers.  You must know so much.  Speaking of knowing stuff – maybe we forgot to mention this – we have a bigger recycling bin now.  It’s under the kitchen sink. So you can toss your papers in there when you’re done with them.”  

Or, when you finish breakfast, and they absentmindedly push their plates across the table at you while they search for a six-letter word for a sponge made from Old World vines, try something like:  “Hey, Mr. Magoo and McBarker.  I know you love the crosswords, but could you please load the breakfast stuff into the dishwasher today?    My house chores are piling up and right now, I have a hot date with the cat litter.”  

When they come downstairs after a long nap and ask what’s for dinner, consider saying: “Good morning, Captain and Tenille!  You know I like to cook.  But I’ve been doing it a lot lately.  Are you interested in cooking dinner for the group tonight?  I'm sure we'd love it!”

The restaurant thing is the hardest, to my mind, because it’s so egregious.  How does someone just stare at a check and not offer to contribute?    That’s all the more reason to say it directly.   “Listen, Fresh Prince, Bel-Air.  We’d love to go out again.  But we’ve been spending a lot at restaurants lately.  If you’d be okay with picking up the check this time, we’re totally up for it.  Otherwise, let’s just order pizza.”

There will always be glitches, when grown adults come together in the dead of winter and spend long periods of time together under the same roof.  But in my experience, emotional directness is often less scary and damaging than you anticipate.   You may even discover something surprising.  That they didn't want to impose.  Or they actually didn't know where the recycling bin was.
Which leads me back to the Rosy story.   There are people who will not change their behavior, even when you directly ask them to.    I hope this doesn’t describe your in-laws.  But if it turns out that they are impervious to change --or alternatively, you decide you just can’t say something direct -- your only recourse may be the Rosy option.  

Make their vacation home less comfortable.  
Stop cleaning their dishes, even if it means their mess sits on the table all day.   Stop cooking when they come downstairs.  If they ask for a meal, excuse yourself from the room without explanation.  Or, calmly shrug and point at the Pop Tart shelf.   Make plans at dinnertime yourselves.  Or just order pizza every night, without asking their preference.   And if they leave their stuff everywhere, don’t recycle it for them.  Just gather it all up in an untidy pile, and dump it right on their guest bed.   

That may sound harsh but look, it’s not pee.  And it might just be the nonverbal signal they need, to figure out their behavior is not wanted.  Good luck! 

Postscript:  It obviously would have been better if Rosy’s owner had been direct with his feelings.   But he did meet another woman shortly after that peeing debacle, and they ended up getting married.   So, was Rosy so wrong?  You tell me.


Dear Erin,

I have a three year old son who loves nothing more than driving his match box cars across the dinner table and using the serving spoons to play drums on my wedding China. And, although it doesn't often bother me, and I have accepted the chaos at our smaller family meals as a stage we will one day out grow and master, this year my strict Irish Catholic mother and my well-mannered and reserved Jewish father-in-law are coming to celebrate the combined Thanksgiving and Hanukkah celebrations. Tell me please, how I might find a way to tame the toddler beast and get my son to practice some table manners at our holiday table this year. I should emphasize, as is the case with most little boys, our son can color and eat a meal and make nice dinner conversations about Spider Man for about ten minutes before he starts turning the crystal water glasses upside down and starts pulling down his pants to show us his Batman underwear. 

Godzilla's Mother 

Dear Godzilla’s Mother,

Oh mommy, I so hear you.  

 I actually used to like Thanksgiving.   Sitting in a cozy house.  Chatting with drunk relatives.  Eating starch-on-starch pie.  Until one year, when I invited a few guests  – a playwright friend of ours, and one of my husband’s legal associates, who was visiting from China – to join our family feast.   I spent 3 days buying all the food, schlepping it up to our apartment, and looking over menus.   I spent all of Thanksgiving Day cooking the bird and its accompanying sides and gravies, while my toddler pulled down my pants and my infant wailed for more rice mush.

At dusk, we finally sat down, and I assembled my plate of food.  At which point, I got exactly six minutes of nibbling – which progressed to quickly shoveling food into my mouth -- before both of my children started fussing, crying, jumping in my lap, and throwing my carefully prepared food onto the floor.   No, I said to myself.  Never again.   Because 3 days of work -- for 6 minutes of rest -- is not a good formula for holiday happiness.  

And yet, I hear Godzilla, too.  Like his cinematic namesake, Godzilla sometimes feels out of control.  He sometimes gets so MAD.  He is cuddly and sweet, then turns on his parents on a whim.  But Godzilla, that poor confused monster, just can’t help it.  Because he’s three.  Or worse yet, three and a half.  He's still figuring out who his enemies and allies are.  Most days, they are both his mother. 

All I really know about child development comes from having raised two of these lizards, and from books.  I read a lot of books when I became a parent.  I also got many from my mother, who’s a child psychologist.  My favorites were the older developmental classics she had in her home library.  They can be old-fashioned in some ways, but they are actually full of super helpful information. Consider this juicy advice nugget from Louise Bates Ames, on how to cope with three year old resistance:     “Day care when necessary can reduce the time you will need to spend together.”  Her book on 3-year olds is deliciously subtitled, Friend or Enemy.    

Neither your reserved father-in-law, nor your strict mother, should be remotely surprised by his disruptive or obnoxious behavior.   They’ve seen the Batman underwear; they’ve cleaned up the broken stemware.   I do know from personal experience, however, that grandparents have a way of conveniently forgetting the unpleasant details about raising small children. 

Suddenly, at age 55, their holiday table was as orderly as the Last Supper.  Jesus was there, buttering up the challah, and the apostles made a chestnut stuffing that was to die for.   It’s crazy wrong, but I get it.  I have a habit of hearkening back to my early twenties, and remembering myself as being leggy and very fashionable.   Maybe I wasn’t, but who knows?  It was a long time ago.  

 In my opinion, the best thing you can do when balancing the needs of toddlers with the critical opinions of relatives is to remember – and confidently insist -- that you know your son best.  And plan accordingly.  Don’t let him sit next to anyone but you.  Don’t expect him to wait for the salad course.   If you sense that he’s about to launch a pre-salivated crouton into Grandpa Dave’s pumpkin soup, then redirect with a word game.   If you see that he’s getting bored by Grandma Sally’s story about how she kicked an imposter out of garden club, get him early dessert.   If he stands up and starts doing the superhero strip tease – and you really don’t think your mom would enjoy that more than listening to Grandpa Dave talk about derivatives – then excuse yourselves from the table and have it out with Godzilla in private.   You know he can’t help it.   

I give you this support and encouragement about table manners because I sense that you want him at the table.  But I also must ask: Why do you want him there?   I don’t know who convinced all of us modern parents that family dinners had to include both leafy greens and reptilian toddlers.  I suspect it was either yuppies, or Italians.  

If you really want to spend that time micromanaging Godzilla’s conquests, then you should.   But I predict that letting Godzilla leave the table after six minutes -- and giving him an attractive reason to stay away -- will make the holiday meal more pleasant for all of you.  If you need one more boost of confidence in that plan, here’s what Louise Bates Ames says about eating with the 3-year old:

  “It has always amazed me that families put up with mealtime struggles with the preschooler at the family table when a little planning to feed him before dinner would solve the problem so easily.” 

Amen, Louise.  

Whatever you decide to do – whether it’s taming the toddler beast, or letting him play on the Ipad so you can get your poultry on in peace --  I wish you good luck.  I remember those days.  You’re doing a great job.   It gets easier!  Until he turns four and a half, and King Kong arrives.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Mischievous Mixologist: The Global Warmer

The Global Warmer
(serves 2)

2 -3 Cups Whole Organic Grass Milk
4 Bars Mayordomo Oaxacan Chocolate
Teaspoon cinnamon
3-4 oz Flora de Caña Grand Reserve 7 year Rum

Yes, it’s true.  I’m THAT woman.   

The one who comes to school picnics with a Tropicana orange juice pitcher full of vodka cocktails.   

The one who walks around the community pool with a wine spritzer in my coffee thermos.   

The one who, after a bracing walk around the neighborhood in the pouring rain on a Sunday afternoon in November during a Tornado Watch, invites my friend in for a chat and ends up making a hot rum drink.   Yes. That just happened yesterday.

It’s not like I’m a hopeless drunk who can’t attend a group event without an alcoholic beverage.   Not by Wisconsin standards, at any rate.   But as anybody who has ever enjoyed one of my probably-prohibited-on-school-grounds cocktails knows, I often say that I missed my calling as an artisanal bartender.  Not because I'm so awesome at it.  But I like experimenting with mixed drinks.  I like using fresh ingredients.  I like sharing my laboratory work with the rest of the neighborhood.   And I’ve found that more people talk to you when you give them liquor.  It’s a tasty way to make friends or at least, hang out with people until your cocktail pitcher is empty.

After our hot rum drink yesterday, my friend Karen urged me to start writing a little bit about the drinks I make.   So here, in my first random installment of the occasional blog column, The Mischievous Mixologist, I am posting the recipe (with pictures, and happy birthday Karen!) of what I made.  I named the drink in honor of yesterday’s warm-cold-rainy-windy-bizarro global-warming weather.

To Make:

First, go on a walk outside in Wisconsin in November.   Pick an hour of the day when there is a steady downpour, and a tornado watch, even though that kind of weather used to characterize St. Louis in early June.

When you get home, tired and soaking wet, and ready to talk about postpartum depression, forget the cold glass of water that you normally drink after you exercise.  You need a hot rum drink! 

So, pour 2 ½ cups of milk into a saucepan (any kind will do but local organic cow milk is the best).   Heat milk on low.  This will take a few minutes but you don’t want it to burn and anyway, you have the time, because your friend has gone off to change into dry clothes.  

When the milk is steaming hot, drop in 4 bars of Oaxacan chocolate and stir while continuing to heat.  If you don’t have Oaxacan chocolate, because your mother-in-law didn’t bring any to you from Mexico like mine did (thanks Jacquie!), then you can get it on line or at a speciality grocery.  Or use any high quality variety.  I really prefer the chocolate bars that melt, though.  Much richer.   Many of the Mexican chocolate varieties are spicy and taste even better with rum. 

NB: If you have any tree nut allergies, find a melting chocolate without nuts too, because this one has almonds.   

Also, if you have a few minutes and you’re curious, you can watch this pretty cool video about how they make the chocolate in Mexico:

At the beginning, I was worried about how close Victor’s hand got to that chocolate grinder.  But don’t worry, it all turns out fine.

ANYWAY.  Sprinkle in cinnamon to taste.   There is already cinnamon in the Mayordomo blend, but I like it stronger.  Then begin to whisk the milk vigorously, so the granules of chocolate blend in.   I didn’t do it yesterday.  But I was cold and wet and frankly, my standards were lower than normal.  It's better when whisked.

When the chocolate is completely dissolved and the blend is smooth enough for your taste, pour the milk into two mugs, and add a jigger of rum to each glass.   I used Flora de Caña, an award-winning rum from Nicaragua.  You can buy the more expensive varieties that are aged longer, or cheaper varieties that are aged for less time, but the one I have is the 7 year Grand Reserve.  I got it at Steve’s Liquor for about 23 dollars.  Bong recommended it (thanks Bong!).  I have to agree with him, that it’s wonderful for mixed drinks.  If you’re not local, you can find it most anywhere.  Like, here.

If you read the Wikipedia entry about the rum, you will learn that in the 80’s, funds from a Honduran distillery were used by the Contras to fund death squads.  I’m sure the Flora De Caña folks are pretty psyched that some middle-aged hippie inserted that fact nugget into their wiki page.  I get it, though.   I spent a lot of time in college dressed up as a counterrevolutionary soldier, because I was protesting death squads . This factoid did give me pause.  

But ultimately, I don’t think we should hold the rum responsible.  Blame Oliver North!   And drink up!  

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Dear Erin.

 I try not to offend people within the first few minutes of meeting them.   That’s usually not a huge problem, but shit happens. 

Like when I’m at a holiday party, and someone is blocking my access to the buffet table.  In an ideal world, I can slip past them without disrupting the conversation.  But I have no problem pushing through a gaggle of friendly colleagues to get at some sliced meats. Reasonable people get surly when they’re hungry.  Especially when they're already on their second cocktail.   So what I’m telling you is, if you see me at a party and I look even the slightest bit hungry, give me meat before I elbow strike you in the face.

No.  Actually. I’ve never started a fight over food.   I did once spit on the face of a taxi driver, sort of accidentally, while skating by on my roller blades.  I’m not sure where I learned that trick, but I think it might have been finishing school.  

I’ve offended people in more hygienic ways, too.    Sometimes, for example, I express very strong opinions.  That may be hard to believe, given that I just threatened to hit you for an ounce of tenderloin.  But in fact, strong opinions can feel a lot like elbow attacks.  They can be sharp.   Often unwelcome.   And come when you least expect them.   And I feel like that is particularly true in the Midwest, where people like me – [fill in the blank about what people like me means to you] – sometimes come on a little strong.    

I tend to blame New York for my straight talking personality.  But honestly, I might have been a little bit born this way too.  When I was a baby, for example, I had red hair [Irish].   When I got a little older, my parents’ friends used to call me Mae West.   I think that’s because I made sassy and outrageous statements.  Or maybe it was because my mother was a corset model, and I was part African American.   I guess we’ll never really know. 

It’s also possible that my family culture influenced my personality.  Even though I grew up in the Midwest, I come from a family of conversational gladiators.   Talking, at Clune family meal times, meant firing your comments across the table quickly, confidently, and with intent to kill.  The slightest hesitation could result in a fatal interruption of your monologue, from which you might never recover the floor.

Not every dinner was a conversational fight to the death.   One year, for example, my parents decided to switch things up, and turn dinnertime into poetry hour.  They thought discussing poems -- as a family, at dinner -- would enrich our lives.   And you know how sometimes you don’t even realize how great a time you had, until you look back on it later?   Well poetry hour was not one of those times.   But in the end, I had to give my parents credit for getting a bunch of angry kids together once a week, to read poetry, really fast.  They totally invented the poetry slam.

One good thing about people who express strong opinions is that they often take criticism pretty well.   Because if they can dish it out, they can also take it.   In my case, there are other reasons, too.  One is that I’m female, so I’m used to hearing nonsense.  Another is that with the exception of a few postpartum years in my mid to late thirties, I have always been flat-chested.  And really, – and I think my flat-chested friends can back me up on this -- nothing builds resilience in a woman, like growing up in a society that describes small breasts as  flat.  

Writing has also thickened my skin (though oddly, hasn’t increased my breast size).   Writers welcome helpful suggestions from random strangers all the time.  These strangers are known as editors.  When these random strangers get back to you - [if] - they usually draft carefully-worded letters that strike at the heart of why you are an underachiever.  Here are some examples from my own rejection binder:

1.  “This essay was all smiles and no laughs.” 
2.  “I wish the meaning of some of these sentences – or all of them -- was a bit more clear.”
3.  “In this piece, your voice really crackles.  But it doesn’t slay.” 

My personal favorite, sent to me several years ago from an anonymous academic reader:

4.   “I would not even have given this woman a PhD.”  

I shared that one with my PhD advisor, who was pretty psyched about it.  
Of course he was.
That shit crackled and slayed.

Why am I telling you all this about my ethnicity and my editors and my bra size?    Because I am starting an in-blog ADVICE COLUMN!!            
Yes!  Right here!  
On this blog!  
It's called:  So what, who cares?

In the advice column, So what, who cares? ™, I will try my best to answer universal human questions like, So What?  And, Who Cares?   

Because I do, actually, care.   And I'll share my caring, thoughtful answers straight. Meaning I'll probably skip that whole Midwestern manners thing, where I tell you I like your outfit, even though you are obviously wearing your grandpa’s sweater, and that really isn’t appropriate attire on a morning TV news program.

In fact, So what, who cares? ™ will provide advice on any topic you need to talk about, including but not limited to eight-month winters, sliced meat, drinking problems, bad Mexican food, cursing, vegan mayonnaise, how to dress like local news anchors/your grandpa, tree-hugging neighbors, cross-copulating neighbors, gay guys who are married to women, sharing hot tubs at waterparks with tattooed people from Illinois, the unbearable suckyness of home depot, and/or dealing with parents who scream from the bleachers at their children, who are completely submerged underwater, at swim meets.

This thing will work best if people actually submit questions.  

For now, you can send me Dear Erin letters at one of three locations. 

                  1.  my email:  If you send me a sex tape or try to solicit money for your Nigerian inheritance pyramid scheme, I will drop your email in the SPAM box and then report you to my local elementary school principal.

                  2.  my facebook page, if we’re fb friends.  If we are not fb friends, you should friend me!  I’m silly.  And I never talk about religion or politics. Because I really just prefer to offend other people in person. 

                  3.  If you can figure out how to sign up here on my blog, leave your letter/question/idea in the comment section.  My mom doesn’t know how to do that so she may not write in.  Sorry mom!

Please write anonymously, or leave your name.  
Please pass this link on to friends, or colleagues.  
Please make something up if you want.  
I may still choose the letter because I won't really know.  
And thank you!