Wednesday, July 22, 2015

It's a Hard Knock Life

Emma does CLO musical theater camp every year.  She loves performing.  She loves to dance.  She loves to sing.  She has a great presence on stage.  But if you follow this blog much, you know that her track record is not spectacular when it comes to "parts" or "callbacks" or whatever.  And while I love watching her on stage, I secretly also dread the chill winnowing wind of auditions and the uncertainty of her role and her mental state when those roles are selected.

There's almost this feeling that the kids who go to CLO's school get selected over the kids who just attend the camp.  I can't say that's a 'for sure' thing, but I get that feeling, and it feels wrong and twists my guts at the perceived injustice of it.  And when she get's Tree #3, I'm forced to do the dad thing, which is, "Be the best Tree #3 that you can be, Emma.  Don't be ashamed of who you are, and what you do.  Own Tree #3, BE Tree #3, make the audience remember Tree #3."  Instead of what I FEEL like doing, which is calling up the people in charge and making a big stink about it because Tree #3 is beneath my daughter, and she's got way more talent than the girl you picked as the lead and blah blah blah.

This year's musical is Annie Jr.  And Emma was very apprehensive about it.  Not because of the auditions and possible roles, although she really wanted to get a good part, but also because most of the kids she knew from previous years had selected Mary Poppins instead of Annie Jr., and she didn't think she'd know anyone.  And she didn't want to feel left out of the little cliques of kids that naturally form around those sorts of camps.  Anyway...apprehensive.  Stressed.  Sleeping like crap.

Yesterday she got her role.  She texted me:

Emma:  "Guess who I got"

In the back of my mind I'm can't be Annie.  This isn't Dickens, where the good girl with the great heart overcomes adversity and not only comes out ahead, but wins it all.  This is real life.  Set your sights lower, Jim.  The only other female role I could remember from Annie was the lady who ran the orphanage...Mrs....whatsherass.  So I allowed myself to hope for Mrs. Whatsherass. 

Me:  "Who baby?"

Emma:  "LILY!"

I read the text and thought..."Who the fuck is Lily?"  Fucking musicals...why don't I know more about musicals.  I wanted to be supportive, but at the same time all I could think of was that it was someone I didn't know, so I'm thinking to myself, "Is this some orphan friend of Annie?" but I needed to congratulate her and so I googled it even as I replied.

Me:  "Awesome!  Are you happy??"

Emma:  "Ya!

And at that point two things happened.  The first was that Emma's picture of Lily from the old version of Annie came through via text.  And the second thing was I found a link that told me who Lily was.

And I knew who it was!  And I got genuinely excited for my little girl.  No, it wasn't Annie or Mrs. Whatsherass, but it was Lily, the con artist who pretends to be Annie's long lost mother for Warbucks' reward money.

Me:  "I'm super happy.  You can do a lot with that role!" (I actually spelled it roll, but nobody needs to know that)

And this is when I wanted SO MUCH to tell Leslie.  Leslie wouldn't have needed to google this shit.  Leslie would have known.  Leslie would have been just as anxious about the selection.  Leslie's heart would have been just exactly as invested in this.  Leslie would have carried along the exact same perceptions and baggage from past auditions that I would.  Leslie would have been so excited for Emma.  Leslie would get it.  Completely.  I wanted to share this with her and my heart just sort of sunk right then in my chest. 

I can't let happy things turn sad just because Leslie isn't here to share them with.  My happiness for Emma is unrelated to my inability to share it with Leslie.  It's no less happy.  It's no less awesome. 

I told Emma last night that I'm proud of her every day.  That getting a "good" part doesn't make me MORE proud of her.  But I did tell her that it made me happy for her.  That I was happy it was a part that made HER happy. 

Last night while Emma took out her contacts and got ready for bed, I walked in darkness through the grass of my back yard until I stood beneath the looming corkscrew willow I once bought Leslie for Mother's Day.  I stooped beneath the draped limbs and turned the light of my phone on so that I could see the ceramic butterfly Lily had helped make Leslie in school one year.  Beneath the butterfly we'd buried Leslie's memorial, a glass canister with playing cards and pictures, hand made cards and mementos that were special to us and special to Leslie, or special BECAUSE of Leslie. 

I hunkered down, using the phone light to direct my focus at the glazed butterfly and I talked to Leslie.  I told her about Emma's part.  I told her I was so happy for Emma and I knew she would have been too.  Because I needed to be able to tell her.  And when I finished telling her I told her to rest peacefully and that I loved her, and then I went back into the house and waited for Emma to finish getting ready for bed.

I didn't tell Emma I had talked to mommy.  And I didn't suggest to Emma that SHE talk to mommy.  Bringing it up seemed sad.  And she was very happy.  She had a good day yesterday, and I didn't want to mar it.  I don't want every triumph in her life to have an implied asterisk that says, "That's awesome*"  "* - if your mom was alive to see it, it would be better though".  I'll talk to her about it though.  I'll ask her if she still talks to mommy.  It's a nice segue to discussing "how we're doing". 

But certainly that will keep until tomorrow.  It's only a day away.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Fish out of Water

I started making a list a week ago of every entree that I can cook that Emma will eat.  Essentially it started out as a "cheat sheet" for grocery shopping, because, as has possibly been written of in days of yore, I create a weekly menu before grocery shopping, then I use that menu to populate my grocery list.  It's been extremely helpful honestly.  We always have everything we need to cook whatever is on the menu, and when we do it right, I'm not trying to figure out what we're eating at the last minute.

So I mapped out this list, and there are maybe 25 entrees on it, which actually is better than I thought it would be, but, as I told Emma:  "Unless you start eating other things, this list represents what I'm going to be cooking and eating at home...FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE."  Leslie and I used to try to cook something new every few weeks or so.  We loved researching recipes, finding ones we liked, and trying them out.  I have a friggin' recipe box stuffed with printouts, cards and copies of recipes we liked that I WILL NEVER EAT AGAIN...unless something changes.  Because, one of the other shitty things about losing a spouse when you cook, you're really cooking for one.  And there's no way I'm cooking chicken piccata just for me (for example.  See "Surprise" for the amusing (in my humble opinon) details on how to make chicken piccata my (Pioneer Woman) way).  And that became one of our favorite recipes!  I wish I could have included more parentheses in the sentence before that last one.

So...on the spot I told her "I'm going to start making you try something new every Tuesday." (And I picked Tuesday because she has dance on Wednesday and Thursday and I'll need time to cook it, and she just won't have time on that day).  But then...I was like...I wish it rhymed.  Like...Tuesday Tryday?  It has alliteration but if there were only a day of the week that rhymed with try-day...


So yeah, anyway, Friday (also have time to cook on Friday) is now officially Tryday, and Emma has selected the next thing that she's never really tried/wanted/liked and it is...

Fish sandwich.  Fish sandwiches are a Pittsburgh staple.  Pittsburgh has one of the highest percentages of Catholics in the nation, and so during lent every year, people line up around the block every Friday to order a fish sandwich.  Forget even trying to get into Red Lobster.  Emma doesn't even eat them, leaving her with cheese pizza, or grilled cheese, or mac and cheese as her choices.

So...I'm soliciting your feedback.  Do you have a favorite way of making a crispy fried fish sandwich (cod, by the way)?  I loved the feedback and interaction I got on facebook from my request for tips on spaghetti sauce.

The end result should look something like this:
Taken from WPXI's "best fish sandwish in Pittsburgh contest article
(The winner was actually a friend of mine who owns a restaurant/bar...I'd ask him, but I feel like it's his business secret)
And you should know that Emma does not eat food with any kind of sauce on it (except spaghetti).  She doesn't eat ketchup or ranch or honey dijon or tartar sauce.  When I mentioned that I might try to beer-batter it, she was concerned that the fish would taste like alcohol. 

Help me. 

Friday, July 17, 2015

Two Weeks

Yikes, has it really been two weeks since I wrote last?  That makes me feel bad, like I've lost stuff in between.  Lots of adventures in that time, but the high points are:

I ate some (okay, one) crickets.

I cooked a lasagna roll (yum).
no crickets

Lily played her last (I think) Challenger game yesterday.  I like the idea.  I like the concept.  I admire and respect the people doing the work in the trenches.  But it's just not for Lily.  Baseball is something she tolerates watching.  It is not a thing for playing.  She is a reluctant participant, and if it hadn't been something that Leslie really pushed for...I'd probably have quit halfway through this year.  Her season this year I think solidified in my head that it's just not a good fit for her...or me.  We finished the season she started, just like we would have if Emma would have started some team activity, but she does not enjoy it.  And her lack of enjoyment stresses me out the entire time I'm there.  It's better for us both. 

the little tiny girl second from the left.

My washing machine broke.  I've fixed my dryer a few times, but never my washer.  I took it apart to see if I could figure out what was broken.  I started by pushing the washing machine away from the wall and disconnecting the plug.  Underneath the washer were dust bunnies, a wet sock, a broken zip tie, a round rubber thing, and three broken pieces of hard white plastic.  The round rubber thing and the hard white plastic thing are called "direct drive coupler".  BAM!  I ordered one.

The thing about washers and dryers...they come apart really easily if you know which screws to loosen.  Typically they're designed with a case that slides away to reveal the internals, but on the day that I decided to take it apart I was already behind the washer before I thought to look at the manual.  I scanned the shelves in the basement to see if it was there, but it wasn't.  I knew I would need to download it, and I didn't want to, so I just started taking screws out.  This was a mistake.

A week later the parts arrived and when I went to fix it, I couldn't really remember what all the screws and things were for.  I knew this was "bad" but there was nothing I could really do about it so I just fixed the washer, and put it back together.

There were some troubling things:  Three screws that had no homes.  One dangling green wire that might or might not belong in a terminal plug.  I plugged the washer back in when I'd finished.  Nothing worked.  I took it all apart and plugged the green wire into the terminal plug and put it back together again.  I plugged the washer back in and turned it on.  The washer spin cycle was fixed!  It spun faster and faster, but then started wobbling and bucking, but I figured I could address the balance after the fact.

Except that nothing else worked.  So I bought a new washer.  And because I was mad at both the washer and the dryer (by association) I bought a washer AND a dryer.  My mom and dad helped me with them yesterday.  They're magical.  The washer weighs the load to determine whether it thinks it's small/medium/large/heavy.  I just have to figure out where to put the drain so that I don't flood my basement every time I do laundry.  (again).  Anyway...magical.

There's this weird war going on inside me right now.  Responsible parent on one side, immature adult on the other.

In THIS corner:
I met with a financial planner about retirement, college and long term care stuff.  I needed to do it.  It's been something that Leslie and I always talked about doing, but never did.


I finished reading through my Will and my attorney is coming over next week to sign paper work.  It's something that Leslie and I always talked about doing, but never did.

These things are incredibly important.  Leslie was always my safety net, and I was hers.  We never had to worry about whether the kids' lives would be in order if one of us died because we had the other...but that safety net is gone, so I'm trying to get that stuff handled ASAP.

but in this corner:

I feel like Leslie's death might push me into the mid-life crisis I was never going to have when she was alive.  When she was alive, it was easy for me to push my own wants/desires/goals to the background, not because she stifled them (far from it, she always always encouraged me), but because I felt guilty spending money and time on me that I could be spending on US or HER or the kids.  And she wouldn't have been upset or angry, but...she was present, and that presence was enough to make me want to push ME into the background and focus on US.  I almost never went out with friends (maybe once or twice a year), I almost never spent money on me.  And I know that's a good thing for a husband and a father to do.  Focus on your marriage and your family.  But the sort of subtle check that Leslie's presence provided against "selfish spending" is gone.  And I find myself asking "Would you be doing this if Leslie was alive?"

I'm explaining this like shit.  One of the first things I bought after Leslie passed was a guitar.  I had always told Leslie that I wanted to learn to play.  And Emma had always wanted to learn.  And it was just this thing that wasn't important enough to actually execute.  But after she passed, I was on this kick where...I needed something positive to do now that this giant gulf had opened up in my life.  So much time was spent focusing on US that now that I'm not caring for her full time I just don't feel like spending "free time" with my sadness.  So I'm walking on a treadmill or playing a guitar or learning a new language or whatever...positive things that I've always wanted to do, but just couldn't find time for.

And I bought some new shirts and shorts (and some new clothes for the kids), because all the shirts in my closet were years old.  Les and I always talked about going out to buy clothes, but mostly we just bought at Christmas and birthdays because there was always something else to spend the money on.  Something important for the family or whatever.

And before Leslie passed we'd gotten a contractor friend to look at putting in a bannister in place of the half-walls we had on the stairs, and putting hardwood in the upstairs hall (since the cat was tearing up our carpet).  And when we went on vacation, I had him do the job Leslie had always wanted done.

And I know that clothes and a guitar and home improvement is a far cry from mid-life crisis...believe me, I do.  But I'm very aware/concerned that if the money is there...I'll spend it.  And that presence isn't there to keep me in check.  So I just have to watch it.  Clothes and a guitar is great.  Clothes and a guitar is awesome.  As long as it doesn't turn into clothes and a guitar, an Xbox One and a new car.

And both of those things are calling to me.  I was thinking about trying to sell the minivan and my car and maybe getting a crossover.  I was thinking about buying that Xbox One that I always joked about wanting as a Christmas present but felt guilty about because it would blow the budgeted amount we allotted for each other (but I knew she'd buy me if I just told her that THAT is what I wanted).

I know those things aren't "bad".  I just wonder why I thought they were when Leslie was alive?  Why didn't I buy the guitar then?  Why didn't I buy the Xbox One then?  Why didn't we buy new clothes?  (We WERE pulling the trigger on the hardwood, she just didn't live to see it) Why didn't we enjoy more and worry less? 

I'm rambling.  This is just what's been going on in the back of my mind.  Leslie was always very fiscally conservative, and I feel like I've been buying so much since she passed.  The flooring, the washer and dryer, the clothes.

I've rambled enough...

Quick Leslie sidebar:

Emma told me that last night she woke up in the middle of the night (4:30) and thought it was 12 hours later than it was.  She looked at the clock and saw 4:30 and thought it was the evening.  And she was all brain-blind and struggled wrapping her head around the idea that she hadn't somehow slept through the entire day.  And slowly she told herself that it was 4:30 AM...and she was able to settle back down, and I told her, "You must get that from your mother."

Because Leslie would often wake up in the middle of the 2 in the morning and tell me we had to get going.  We were late.  Or she'd sit bolt upright, a look of panic on her face, staring at the ceiling and seeing spiders everywhere.  In both cases, her entire body would be tense and I would just have to say, "Go back to sleep Leslie, you're dreaming," and her entire body would deflate like a kiddie pool and she'd sink bonelessly back onto the pillow and fall immediately back into a deep sleep with no recollection the following day. 
So I told Emma she must have gotten that from her mother and I told her "Congratulations" and she rolled her eyes and said, "Yeah...awesome!"

Thursday, July 2, 2015

The First Vacation

I've been a little stuck of late.  I've wanted to write, but I've been mired in organizational issues that have me stressed out and stretched thin, and so the writing thing is added to a list of other things that I'm slowly pecking away at until I can dig out from under my mental "to do" list and breathe again.

We went on vacation last week.  It's just been sitting in my brain gnawing away at me.  I need to write about it before the details and feelings are lost, but it's one of those "big" things, so it'll fester for a while and then the danger is I'll just say fuck it and not write it at all.  So I'm going to give you just an overview while it's still fresh.

It wasn't great.  It was this feeling of being away from where I needed to be.  I think (reference first paragraph) I'm feeling a little like I have too much shit to do and not enough time to do it, and vacation was just one of those things that was supposed to be relaxing, but mostly made me aware of all the things I couldn't address because I was busy relaxing.

It wasn't great, but it WAS good.  There is, in my approach to life AL (after Leslie) this goal to make things as "normal" as I possibly can for the kids and myself and maintain routines and traditions (where possible) so that Leslie's passing isn't viewed as "the reason we never have fun anymore".  I know everything's different.  I know nothing will ever be the same again.  BUT...I can maintain some normalcy for myself and these kids, and I think that's important. 

And maybe that's not a great approach.  I don't know.  You know I'm just wingin' this shit, but a friend said, "You know, it seems like you're really in a hurry to get past all these 'firsts'."  And I think I copped to that.  I don't know if that's healthy or not.  I do recognize that even if I had a list of a 1,000 things/events that were meaningful in our lives to tick off as "first time doing ________ without Leslie" that still wouldn't mean that once I made it through the list..."Okay!  List is all crossed off!  I'm over it!  No more grieving!  Yay!"  I know it changes nothing REALLY...but I do feel like, maybe by having the FIRST one done, we'll be more prepared for the NEXT one.  By making it past the first one, the next one will hurt less and we'll be able to focus more on enjoying it. 

So in April when Leslie passed, a friend of my parents offered his condo in Myrtle to us free for a week if we wanted to get away from it all.  And I asked Emma and she said, "I think it's too soon.  I don't want to go yet," and I agreed.  And then a week or two later she said something else that I thought was wise (one of many little ways that girl has surprised and made me proud since Leslie died).  She said, "You know, dad, I think maybe we should go on vacation.  I was just thinking how hard it would be to do without mommy there, and then I thought...but so is everything else we're doing.  It's all really hard, but that doesn't mean we stop doing it.  So I think we should go."  And so I told my parents, and we decided to go.

Vacation to the beach was another Leslie tradition.  My family didn't have a tradition of yearly family vacations.  We did stuff, but I don't remember doing stuff like...for a week.  Every so often we would, but not yearly.  So after Leslie and I had been dating for a while, she started inviting me along to Ocean City, Maryland with her family.  We went there for years before we tried Nags Head (and fell in love with it) and then last year Myrtle (because my parents got a deal on it at an auction).

Sidebar Leslie story.  We went to the beach with the same group every year.  And every year it was the same thing.  Her dad and mom would give us the official copy of the trip tik and we had mapped out stops and regular breaks and the idea was that everyone would stay together as a group as we traveled.

And I was always like...why do we have to go this way?  Why do we have to stay together as a group?  Why can't we get our own trip tik?  What's the magic of this one?  And Leslie was ADAMANT.  We stay together.  That's what we do.  We all go this way.  We all stay together.  And I would just groan and roll my eyes and...stay together.  Can't get too far ahead.  Can't try this new route.  Can't stop to sight-see along the way.  STAY WITH THE GROUP!

Until the day a cop pulled me over.  I was so fucking mad.  Everyone in the group passed us. They passed us on the side of the road and never looked back.  Where was the goddamn group???  WHY AREN'T WE TOGETHER!!??  I get it.  I wouldn't have stopped either...except I WOULD HAVE!  But not because I wanted to.  I'd have stopped because my wife would have said, "Pull over and wait so that we stay with the group" and I'd have fumed and simmered and been irritated because I'm a grown-ass man (ish) and I don't NEED to drive in a group.  I can get there when I want.  I can go the way I want.  I can stop and take detours and buy gas from different gas stations if I want...but I'd have done it for Leslie. 

Until the day the cop pulled me over.  That ended the staying together as a group thing.  From that moment on I never accepted another trip tik (well, we took them, but didn't use them).  If I got ahead of the group, so be it.  If we stopped for an hour somewhere the group didn't be it.  And Leslie accepted this.

I won't go into the minutia of the beach vacation and all that we did or didn't do.  There were highs and lows.  We did have fun.  We did enjoy the ocean.  But there were many things I wished I could share with Leslie and there were lots of memories of the previous year to contend with.  We were in the exact same condo.  Always there was an invisible string behind my sternum stretched to Pittsburgh tugging at me, urging me to go back home. 

My parents were great about taking Lily to do Lily-things (the pool instead of the ocean, for example) so that I could take Emma to do Emma-things.  But there was a sense of guilt there too - that I was vacationing with Emma and not Lily.  So when I'd attempt to get both girls to the beach, and Lily would struggle, I had no choice but to abandon the beach with Lily AND Emma (because I couldn't leave her alone) and I became depressingly aware that the beach vacation wasn't something I could do myself.  At least not in a condo, where abandoning the beach meant dragging chairs and belongings back across the beach and past the pools and down the corridors to wait for an elevator, and into the condo to go to the bathroom, only to have to reverse course again to get BACK to the beach with no real sense that the return trip would be any more successful.  I felt a sense of fatherly failure at my inability to manage both kids' happiness and well-being and it dragged me down a bit.  (I don't need encouragement here...I've made my peace with this reality.  I'm not being hard on myself, I just need help.  I'll have to make sure I have it.  But it bummed me out at the time.)

One of the high points of the vacation, and it's such a little thing, was playing Perudo with Emma and my parents.  Leslie loved that game.  We didn't play last year because Leslie wasn't feeling great, and we went to Disney or didn't vacation or something the year before, and the year before that Emma wouldn't have been able to play (she wouldn't have "gotten" it).  But Leslie and I enjoyed MANY a game of Perudo at the beach with friends, drinking beer around a table and lying to each other about dice.  (It's a bluffing game a lot like "Liar's Dice" if you know that game)  Lots of laughter and lots of amused shouts and groans, and Leslie was GOOD at Perudo.  She was a gifted liar...and competitive.  She was so much fun to play games with.

Emma is her mother's least where Perudo was concerned.  After eliminating my mother and father it was down to the two of us.  I had all my dice.  She had all her dice.  I've never played a game like that where neither of the final two players still have all their dice.  And she beat me.  She beat me each head-to-head game.  I lost five consecutive times and slid my dice one after the other across the table after each loss until she at last triumphed.  It was so great.

But seriously...I gotta watch that kid.

On the way up and back we played the license plate game, trying to get all 50 states.  Leslie and I did it every year.  I still have the piece of paper she wrote all the state names on of the plates we got last year.  The whole vacation was like that.  Fun little traditions.  Recognition that it was without Leslie.  Bittersweet maybe?  I don't think that's the right word.  But maybe.

Anyway...vacation was good.  But it wasn't great.  And it was hard.  But we did it.  And now we move on to the next in a long line of firsts.

More Later...