Category Archives: work

Fondant Memories

The next time I agree to spend three figures on a birthday cake, someone douse me with ice water.

But that’s what happens when you combine a weird party theme, no time, and a bit of extra money.

Unable to find a professional falconer to give a talk, or a “bird guy” with a folding table and a few parakeets, or even a teenager in a bird costume, I decided to splurge on, well, the pastry. If we couldn’t have a live falcon we’d have the best fondant version you’d ever seen. On a custom made theme cake! From a highly-Yelp-rated bakery! Sure, their quote was astronomical, but they delivered! Plus, the local grocery store didn’t do raptors on their sheet cakes. No one did. I wasn’t in a position to haggle.

A huge price tag. A cake ordered sight unseen. Fifty people in a park. How could it go wrong?

“It’s a little small,” Mike told me on the phone when the cake arrived. It was the day before the party–I was at work, trying to sell yellow diamonds to people who really had money to burn.

“What do you mean, small?” I asked irritably, mouthing “just a minute” to my customers with a forced smile.

“I mean, it’s small. We may need a backup dessert.”

I felt my cortisone levels start to rise. “That makes no sense.”

I hadn’t told Mike how much I’d spent on the cake, and I didn’t intend to. I quickly changed tack. “Is it gorgeous, at least?”

I imagined something ornate and intricate. A skyscape, perhaps, with clouds, a vast mountain range. Stunning falcons soaring majestically over wide savannas. One diving, perhaps, towards a tiny rabbit on the buttercream “ground.” Multiple tiers, some scattered trees. A small village, stonework, haystacks–

“It’s…cute.”

I didn’t like his tone, inflected, as it was, with forced positivity.

“It should be amazing.”

There was a long pause. Mike cleared his throat. “Anyway. We might want to bake some cookies for the grownups.”

I took a deep breath. Stay calm. Mike tends to see the glass half empty. It’s probably fine. A work of art. And plenty big. Even if it’s not, kids don’t eat a lot of cake. They just rub their faces with frosting and then run amuck, like dogs with roadkill.

But that night, when I took the cake out of the fridge, I saw that Mike was right. It’s design, such as it was, was minimalist. Two falcons and a mountain. Period. Neither bird was flying—one was perched on a branch and the other was standing with his arms behind him, which is anatomically absurd. MJ had added a playmobile person and a toy hawk to the top to”dress it up” a bit. This irritated me unreasonably. For that much money additional set dressing shouldn’t have been necessary.

And it was tiny! I calculated the price of each slice in my head. Jesus. I may as well have just taken the kids to the Russian Tea Room. Including flights. We were looking at, like, thirty dollars a bite, here. I should trade a slice for a trip to Cabo.

I turned to Mike. “I’ve been had.”

He nodded kindly. “Looks tasty, though.”

“We’ll never know, will we?” I grumbled, stalking to the refrigerator to get butter out. I had cookies to bake.

It turned out the cake was good, and, thanks to the paper-thin slices Mike cut, there was even a tiny bit left for us to try. Everyone liked the decorations. MJ got a slice with mountain on it; it was her special treat.

I kept the cake’s cost to myself, of course, so no one laughed uncontrollably or yelled “suckah!” That was my special treat.

Still, next time I’m going to Vons and getting a plain sheet cake. It turns out MJ has a real talent for decorating, and God knows she has enough plastic birds and Playmobile people to populate an entire continent of pastries.

I’m hoping by next year, though, she’ll have moved on from falcons. They command too high a price tag, both materially and emotionally.

And clearly I can’t be trusted with a credit card when birthday time rolls around.

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Crying Fowl

Sometimes it sucks being a working mom. Like when you say to your incredibly excited daughter, who is dressed in her home-made Condor shirt and ready to leave for the zoo two hours before it opens:

“I wish I could be there today.”

And she says, simply, “Then come.”

It never gets easier.

“I can’t.” My voice is as cheerfully apologetic as I can make it.

“Why not?”

She knows I have to work. I’ve been working Saturdays since I went back to retail three years ago. This is not a practical question. It’s an existential one, and I can’t answer it to her satisfaction. “Because I have to sell diamonds to rich people” won’t do, that’s for sure.

“I just can’t.”

“Why don’t you call work and tell them you’re sick?” She says this like it’s a brilliant, unheard of solution.

“Because I’m not sick. So that would be like stealing from them.”

“No, it’s not.”

We clearly need to do some work on her moral compass.

“Honey, I have to go in. You’ll have a great time with Daddy.”

She’s not happy, and neither am I. But it’ll have to do. I’ll hear about everything tonight, in the half-hour we have together before she goes to sleep.

In the meantime,  I’ll imagine her at the zoo in her handmade shirt, holding Mike’s hand and skipping to the “World of Birds” show.

And I’ll try not to be too grouchy with the people, featherless and bland, who inhabit my world today.

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Pardon the Delay

OK, so two years is a pretty long coffee break. Especially when you’re a tea drinker.

What can I say? Working part time, raising a daughter, being a wife, having a home, trying to exercise, learn Mandarin, volunteer at my kid’s school, keep two pets alive and have a moment now and then to read a non-first-grade-level book–it’s a lot. This seemed like the lowest priority, and it just fell by the wayside. Fell and broke both legs. Did I mention the concussion?

But I had an awakening recently. It’s not working for me. Not writing–or having any creative output at all–is making me brittle. I’ve got to get back to it. For me. No one else much cares, but a life with all work and no words feels hopelessly incomplete. So I am hobbling back to Thumbstumbler, casts on both legs–figuratively speaking, people!–and a little pink in the cheeks. I suppose I’ve exposed myself as a dilettante.

Or a human. You choose.

Either way, not writing is not an option anymore. Something in me cracked when, the other day, I had to give someone a link to this blog. I hadn’t looked at it in over a year, but just logging in and seeing “No Towel for Owl” all hung out to dry like that, the last post in a series that wasn’t meant to stop, well, it made me melancholy. And irritated. It really doesn’t take much time to do this writing thing. Just a little commitment, some nimble scheduling, maybe one fewer “Grace and Frankie” episode. Still, I’ve been known to be a quitter in matters of personal endeavor, and that lone suspended owl reminded me how much I enjoyed doing this and how much I’d lost by letting it go.

Even then I worried. “There’s just no time. Where will I fit it back in?”

Then today I was at the Natural History museum with MJ–she’s six now–and I had a moment of clarity. I’d just snapped a picture of her, standing before her beloved Bird Gallery, crooning over her favorite taxidermied fowl (the Golden Eagle, in case you’re wondering), and I thought of that dangling, well-loved owl. And all the things that had come before.

And the things that are yet to come.

And I knew I had to find time.

So here I am. Because I do work part-time, and clean my house, and raise my kid, and love my husband, and read books, and jog, and volunteer, and try to be a friend, and watch too much TV, and grocery shop, and meditate. And it’s all a lot, and, as a result, I do none of it as well as I’d like.

But if I’m not writing about it I’m giving up the one thing that can make all of that OK.

And that would be for the birds, indeed.

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Doodle Day

Currently at a training for work; it’s sort of my worst nightmare–two full days, eight hours each. PowerPoint presentations, group exercises, too much AC, highlighters, easels with big pads of paper on them, trivia questions to relieve the boredom. Fortunately we’ve been given cardboard and markers so that those of us who “learn by doodling” can indulge our passion. Here’s doodle #1. It started out completely innocent, but when it was done my table mates managed to read lurid content into it. Now I feel dirty. But I like it, too, even if it does look like a pterodactyl fellating a T. rex.

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Bird Flew

Stages of grief. There are the ones famously described by Elisabeth Kubler Ross. But there are other, lesser known types as well. Those, for example, experienced by a four-year-old girl who has to return a favorite bird book to the library. A book she has had out for two-and-a-half months. A book that can no longer be renewed and is many days overdue.

These stages look something like this:

Denial.

Realization.

Meltdown.

Strong-arming parent into buying book on Amazon.

Whereas Kubler Ross’s stages can take months, we went through all of ours in a couple of hours.

First, MJ lost it with the babysitter. I wasn’t there for that part. But I heard about it.

“MJ was a little tender tonight,” the sitter told me when I got home from work. “She realized her bird books had gone back to the library,” here she gave me a meaningful look.

I winced. “Oh, right.”

“So she had nothing to read at dinner…”

“But we have other books.”

She nodded sadly. “She wanted the library ones.”

I felt myself growing defensive. “I told her. She knew they had to go back.”

“I know. She was just really upset.”

Shit. “Like, freakout level?

She nodded, “Pretty much.”

After she’d left–I paid her extra for her trouble–I went into the bedroom. MJ was putting her stuffed owls to sleep under a cloth napkin. She barely looked up when I came in.

“Hey,” I said gently, putting on my best horse-whisperer-near-skittish-colt voice.

“Hi, Mama.” she still didn’t turn around.

“Hear you had a tough night tonight.”

She looked up at me. Her face was streaked with dried tears, long salt stains on each cheek. “My bird books are gone.”

I knelt beside her. “I know. Remember we talked about this? We’d had them out for nine weeks. We had no more renewals.”

The tears immediately recommenced, tracing new paths over their predecessors. “I want ‘Look Up.’ I miss it. And the other one. ‘Birds!'”

“Which ‘Birds?” We had two–”

“The one with Blood Lust!” she sobbed. “I want my Blood Lust book!”

The situation devolved from there. She wanted the books back. NOW. Nothing could console her. I tried telling her calmly that it couldn’t happen at night–the library was closed. Big mistake. Reality was not of interest to her. We were at an emotional Defcon five. I could almost hear the sirens.

Opting for a different tack, I told her we could go tomorrow and try to take them out again. This worked for a second. But then I saw her face change.

“W-what if they’re gone?” she sobbed, voice quavering wildly.

“Well, they…might be. But–”

“They’re going to be gone!” she wailed. “My books! Another kid will get them!”

“Oh, honey,” I crooned. “I know. This is hard.”

Aimless sympathy was not what she was looking for. “I need to own them,” she screamed. “I want them always here!”

Ah. So this is was her endgame. Possession. I got it, but I wasn’t sure it was a good idea. After all, I couldn’t go buying her every library book she got attached to. We’d end up looking like Strand Bookstore. And being just as broke.

I told her as much.

“Then I’ll buy them!” she cried.

Really. I decided to call her bluff. “Well, you have loads of money in your piggy bank. Do you want to use some of it for this?

An upturned wet face, desperate with hope: “Yes!”

“It may not be cheap…”

“I don’t care. I have, like, ten hundreds of money.”

So, for the next half an hour, MJ and I traipsed around the house gathering cash from her various stashes. Most of it was coins, but she had some dollars, too. Adding it up as we went, we piled it all into a paper bag she occasionally uses as a purse. Once we’d gotten to $14–an amount I thought fair for two kid’s hardcover books–we went to my laptop and ordered.

“Fortunately for you,” I said, as I clicked the final button, “we have Amazon Prime.”

“What’s that?” asked Myra-Jean.

“Today’s Friday. You’ll have your first book on Sunday.”

She smiled beatifically and cuddled into my chest. “I’m ready for bed now.”

As promised,”Look Up!” came today. Myra-Jean was predictably thrilled. We read it this afternoon, at dinner, in the bathroom, and before bed. Tomorrow, God willing, we’ll receive “Blood Lust.” It’s coming from a third-party seller because–big surprise!–it’s out of print. Probably banned in some states. Used as kindling. Sold for mulch.

As for the money? It’s the first MJ has ever paid for anything. She had a hard time parting with it, in the end. But I think it’s important for her to understand that sometimes you have to buy the things you want. Not every day is Christmas. So I’m not giving it back.

I can’t, however, bring myself to put it in my wallet, either. I don’t want it. It’s her precious loot, after all. Meaning far more to her than it ever could to me.

So there the bag sits on our kitchen counter. A reminder of a sad night, a cycle of grief, a problem solved. Some good memories, some bad…

And some just out of print.

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Car-Oh Mio Ben

Have I mentioned? I’m blotto in love. You can tell my husband; he already knows. The symptoms are classic: I think about my new love all the time. I touch it gently whenever I walk by. I sing songs extolling its virtues. I tell everyone I know about it. Maybe it’s a midlife crisis kind of thing–it does, after all, involve a car. Mine.

My new electric car. I’m in love.

Friends, family, and co-workers have had it up to here. They’ve been listening to me for weeks. I’m like Shakespeare, but without language skills. I wax absolutely un-poetic. I can’t stop going on about it: my good fortune, its good mileage. My fellow salespeople roll their eyes dramatically when they hear me telling yet another customer about my Nissan Leaf.

“It’s all electric!” I gush. “No tailpipe. No gas!”

“None?” my customers ask politely.

“None!” I croon.

“There she goes again,” my co-workers mutter.

I can’t help myself. This is a huge deal for me. I’ve wanted an electric car for, oh, ten years, and this is the first time I’ve been able to afford one. Used to be, in order to buy an EV you had to have the extra $2500 to install a charging station at your house. Now that’s no longer required. My car–my beautiful roadster–charges from a regular extension cord run (OK, rather unglamorously) out of our garage. Plug it in just like it’s a lamp. The next day–presto!–a full charge. Which, admittedly, only gets you 85 miles, but that’s far enough for my needs. And much farther than any lamp I’ve met.

Here’s what I love: the sound it makes (none), the emissions it puts out (repeat the former), the $2500 I’ll be receiving back next month from the state of CA, the little digital song it plays when I turn it on (“ding ding ding ding DONG”), and the heated seats. Which are, of course, an unnecessary drain on the battery, but provide such profound comfort that–hell, if it comes down to it? I’ll walk.

Anyway. It’s just a car. But with news about climate change growing so dire you don’t want to read it after 8PM (for fear of wrecking your night’s sleep) it’s a little bit more than that. It’s a statement. It’s a gesture of hope. It’s a source of encouragement.

And it’s many, many, many trips right past the gas pumps.

Can you hear the angels singing?

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Two in the Bush

Feast or famine. Either way, a bellyache.

Mike has gone from being terrifyingly unemployed to working so much that, well, it’s terrifying. I’m not sure humans are designed to pull off eighty-hour weeks. Certainly not when they’re over forty. Don’t get me wrong, the money is great. But we miss him. And his haggard face, when we do get a glimpse of it, makes me wish there was a bit more balance in his employment life. Like if he had a “regular” office job, maybe. You know, a nine to five. Word on the street is those are easy. But he doesn’t. And he won’t. And that’s probably, for him, at least, a good thing.

For us? Well, life must go on, and four-year-olds–too young to understand such subtleties–must be bodily entertained. Even on Sundays.

Since MJ’s so immersed in the bird thing right now, I decided to bring her back to the Arboretum. It’s been over a year since we went there; I knew she’d remember nothing. And I was right. Even when I tried to prompt her memory, she knew zilch.

“There are peacocks?” I reminded her. “We got attacked by a goose?”

A stare as blank as the great outdoors. This was fantastic. It would be like a whole new experience for her. The beauty of a pre-schooler’s mind: It’s re-writable, like a floppy disk.

Speaking of distant memories.

Anyway. Back we went. And it was, indeed, like a brand new outing. We may as well have been arriving on Pluto. With plumed denizens. And an atmosphere, of course.

Greeted, as always, by a flock of raucous and gorgeous peacocks, my daughter looked mind-blown.

“Mama look!” she shrieked. “Do you see them?”

“Wow, Yes!” I cried. (Silently adding: “My little sieve.”)

“And look, ducks!”

“I don’t believe it!”

“And turtles!”

“You must be kidding!”

Seriously, her delight was totally infectious. Who cares that I’d seen–and seen, and seen!–all of this previously. The day was bright and temperate, the crowds thin, and the place absolutely bursting with wildlife. The pond especially was a veritable cornucopia of fauna. In addition to the mallards (“Whoa! Iridescence!”) we saw coots, hawks, scrub jays, turtles in scads, Canada geese, a double-crested cormorant, and several lizards. Large fish (trout? Coi? I have no idea. We haven’t hit the piscatory obsession yet) virtually threw themselves at us for pretzel crumbs. Sunlight leaped and glanced prettily off of leaves, water, even my daughter’s plastic sunglasses.

Later, wandering the rose garden, we found a wide stretch of soft grass and lay down. It was a sweet spot–not too sunburny, not too cool. Dizzying peacefulness. “It’s so quiet,” MJ said finally. “All I can hear are birds’ songs.”

We listened. It was true.

“I wish Daddy was here.” Her tone was half mournful, half matter-of-fact.

“Me, too,” I replied.

Another long silence.

“I’m going to tell him I saw eight plus eight plus one peacocks today.”

“You definitely should.”

She rolled over and sat up. A wide smile sprang onto her face. “And that one was a juvenile!”

“Yes, indeed.”

“My favorite kind!”

Mine, too. Mine, too, my fledgling girl.

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