Monday, June 27, 2011

Normalarkey No More: Meet Midlife Mixtape

It’s kind of a mixed blessing when a friend says, “I love your blog. But I can’t pronounce it.” One of the basic rules of branding is “try not to piss off your audience” and having a nonsensical blog name flies in the face of that tenet; just because it worked for and doesn’t mean it’ll work for me. So I’ve been thinking about giving the name Normalarkey the boot for a little while.

But more than that, this blog that I thought would be an ode to the absurd in everyday life (hence the amalgam of “normal” and “malarkey,” in case you wondered) has evolved into something more. It’s become a music blog, a parenting blog, a blog about working, a blog about modern life, a blog about my childhood family. In short, it’s a mixtape of what life looks like for a lot of us here at the midpoint, a blending of the demands of family, marriage, work, memories, with those things for which we’re still got some righteous passion – in my case, music in all its guises.

Hence the launch of Midlife Mixtape.

For better or for worse, what I wrote about on Normalarkey is exactly what I’ll write about on Midlife Mixed Tape, just organized a bit differently and hopefully easier to navigate. (Endless thanks are due to Nicole of The Pixel Boutique for helping me bring my vision to life so clearly.) I hope if you liked me there, you’ll like me over here too. And don’t worry, email and RSS subscribers will still get their alerts as before. If you’re not already subscribed to the site, hey, get in on the ground floor of Midlife Mixtape by adding your email address in the “Subscribe” box on the MM site! I’ve also set up a Facebook page for you to officially “like” me, and you can find me on Twitter at @midlifemixtape.

One other change worth noting: in recent months I’ve been approached by a number of companies who want me to write about their products. While I have always said no, I have decided to consider these on a careful, case by case basis, and to agree if and only if a.) I love, love, love the product and can come up with a good story around it and  b.) the company will provide me something tangible, desirable, and useful that I can pass on to my readers in a giveaway. I figure if I can get you something cool, who am I to deny it to you? But rest assured these posts will be clearly marked as such, and kept to a minimum.

There are some more blah blah blah details on my new About page if you’d like to read more about the new name and design, but I won’t bother you with them here.  I mostly want to say thank you to all of you who take the time out of your own crowded mixtape lives to read my posts, to comment, and share them with friends. If you guys didn’t inspire me to be better all the time, I’d probably still have a blog called Nancy’s Notes (yes that is too the first name I came up with. Sigh.)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Showers of Hypocrisy

The older I’ve gotten, the more deliberately I make choices that are eco-friendly. Part of the reason is because it's easier than ever to know what the right thing to do is; for instance, when the garbage cans at the elementary school are labelled "Compost," "Recycle," and "LANDFILL" (the latter with skull and crossbones and death heads drawn on it) it's a fair bet that you want to reduce your inputs to that bin. 

I also happen to live in a part of the country where large scale systems have been put into place to make it second nature to go easy on the earth. Our curbside recycling takes nearly every kind of paper and plastic in a single stream, the county composts our food scraps, and bins at the local grocery stores collect used batteries and compact fluorescent light bulbs. So it’s an ingrained habit now to carry reusable bags to the grocery store, to store leftover food in reusable containers, and to read by the humming yellow light of a CFL. I have put my arm (gingerly) into the nasty morass that is our green compost bin to fish out a piece of errant aluminum foil for recycling, and I switched to a homemade green cleanser that makes everything in my house smell minty fresh.

I even put a bucket in my shower to collect the water as it warms up, so I can use it later to pour on my (drought-tolerant, native, organic) garden plants.Then I step into the shower and all my good eco-intentions rise up in the steam. 

I love a long, hot shower.

I know the numbers – an average shower uses 5 gallons water per minute. If you're going to stay in for more than 5 minutes, you may as well sink into a claw foot porcelain tub (30-50 gallons of water per bath, on average) and have a servant fan you with a palm frond. Here in Northern California we’ve had drought years where short showers can make a big difference in maintaining enough water for the things we really need, like toilets that flush and water to drink. So it’s particularly virtuous where I live to keep showers as short as possible. 

For those who want to stand in the shower longer, experts recommend stepping in, getting wet, turning off the water while lathering up, and then putting the water back on to rinse off – what my friend Andrea, a native Californian, taught me is called the Sailor’s Shower.

Me? I start off every shower thinking – “just a quick rinse off today.” Things start to go south almost immediately as the shower stall fills up with steam and that kink in my right shoulder blade, the one that tells me I’ve been sitting at the computer too long, starts to unclench. The jets of water against my neck act like a lever to lower my shoulders two inches, and I can feel the pinched wrinkle between my eyes start to smooth out.

I’m nearsighted and have long observed that when my glasses are off I don’t hear as well either, so being in the shower is as close as I’ll ever come to a sensory deprivation tank. Staring at the white wall of tiles, all sorts of ideas form, flit, and take flight. I think, “Ok, one more minute, then I’ll get out.” I think that 15 times or so. When I finally do shut the water off and step out into a bathroom that is like a nice Boca Raton steam room, I am filled with self loathing to the tips of my wrinkled fingers.

A few months ago I bought a shower timer at a store, something that I could just stick to the wall of the shower and watch as 4 minutes and 59 seconds went by. I've used timers before at various campsites, the ones where you have to feed in quarters every few minutes to keep the water flowing, so I know that even a three minute shower is within my capacity.

On the second use, the fancy timer fell to the floor of the shower and broke. I know I could set a kitchen timer. But it seemed as good a sign as any that in return for all my other earth friendly exertions, the universe has decided to give me a pass on the long showers.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Art of Fatherhood

All good fathers have certain things in common: they listen, are consistent, show affection, and support their offspring in ways both financial and moral. But what makes a good father unique is his art, that skill which makes him different from other dads. It's the habit that is immediately called to mind in fond exasperation when his kids are alone and talking about him, like the scene the "Christmas Story" when a lug nut lost in the snow calls forth the Art of Swearing, as perfected by Ralphie's father (played by Darren McGavin.)

My father in law, for instance, was a Gauguin of Grass Seed. My husband and his sibling remember seeing their dad, an intellectual man with PhD's in both chemistry and pharmacy, moving slowly around their New York lawn, different varieties of grass seed pooled in a Frisbee that he used like an artist's palette. A little fescue in this spot, a little bentgrass there, a little fertilizer spread meticulously on top. BT's front yard was a testament to the tablespoon by tablespoon care he lavished upon it.

As for my dad, he excels at the Art of the Long Distance Drive. There is no distance too vast nor destination too inconvenient nor route too complicated for him to say no to a road trip. With his travel mug full of coffee, some of my mom's meatloaf sandwiches wrapped in wax paper on the passenger seat, and a country music tape  to pop into his cassette player, my father would probably set off for Mercury without a second thought, perfectly content to be on the open road (as long as he could time it so as to miss rush hour on Mars.)  Our oldest daughter will be attending summer camp 3,000 miles away from us this summer, but only a few hours' drive from my parents' house. I think we were both reassured when I reminded her, "If Grandpa hears you sneeze, he'll pop in the car right away to drive four hours to hand you a box of tissues."

During my college years, my dad always came solo to pick me up in May to drive me home for the summer. Those long, hot, boring car rides with my dad down the Schuylkill Expressway and through the states of Pennsylvania and New York don't deserve to be called some of the nicest memories of my childhood-to-adulthood transition, but indeed they were. 

I was usually exhausted, enervated from the semester and finals, nervous about whatever summer job awaited. But it was always comforting to shoot the breeze with Dad for six straight hours, talk about school, the places we wanted to visit, what was happening with family and friends and neighbors. I’ve read child-rearing books that recommend you have your serious talks with your kids while driving – no one is looking directly at each other, and if the conversation speeds up or slows down there’s no awkwardness, you just blame the traffic.  At a point when I was creating an independent adult life in fits and starts, there was comfort in knowing that until we pulled off the NYS Thruway,  I was totally under the care and protection of my dad.

My meager offering to Dad, in return for his 12 straight hours of driving, was always a mix tape for him to keep. I played him all sorts of stuff that didn't stick, from The Blue Nile to U2 to the Housemartins, but when I brought him  The Blasters' Hard Line, we bonded over the rockabilly twang. Here's "Marie, Marie," some of the glue that holds us together despite all the miles between us.

Here's to my dad,  and to all the others out there who are proud to practice the Art of Fatherhood.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Lady Food

In a stunning example of the predictability of human nature, I scanned the early reports of the unusually virulent outbreak of E. coli in Germany to find out what type of person was most frequently afflicted. It’s the “can’t happen to me or my family, right?” thinking that characterizes my immediate reaction to almost any bad news  - crotch photos, tropical diseases, cruise ship strandings. 

In this case, however, the group of people with the highest incidence of illness were women around my age, and I swear to you, my first reaction was “it’s from salad.” Is there a food more beloved to women to over 30 than salad, for its magical health properties which offset a myriad of other dietary evils like second helpings and Take 5 candy bars? Sure enough, it turned out to be bean sprouts, grown at an organic farm in Northern Germany. 

My thoughts go out to the people who died, to the sick, and to their families. I hope the incident can help prod governments into making basic food safety a higher priority to prevent it from happening again. Nicholas Kristof had a terrific column in Sunday's NYT about food safety and the overuse of antibiotics by Big Ag in healthy animals to make them grow faster, creating conditions under which increasingly severe strains of E. coli can thrive - well worth the read and the indignation that should follow.

More selfishly speaking, it got me thinking about other hotspots for E. coli that would target women in my demographic. If another outbreak occurs, here's a punch list for the Food and Drug Administration to work down, stat:
  1. Any processed food with “bran” in the title. Women in midlife are always looking for that magic bar, cereal, or topping that will, within an hour of being consumed, cause such a commotion that we will emerge from the bathroom, our hair combed, our lipstick freshened, and our figures restored to that of our twenty year old selves. “Colon Blow” may have been a joke on Saturday Night Live, but for generations of women it’s the pantry staple of our dreams.
  2. Teas that promise to de-stress or ease tension. We drink it by the gallon in an attempt to decompress lives that are packed with work, family, volunteering, maintaining some semblance of romantic relationships with our partners, and trying to carve out time for ourselves and with our friends. The teas rarely work, but if you hold your face over a steaming cup while it steeps, you can get a smidgen of that pore-opening aromatherapy facial that you don't have time to schedule.
  3. The veins of caramel, chocolate, or peanut butter in a pint of Ben and Jerry’s. My idea of a perfect night is when my husband and I settle on the couch to watch "Game of Thrones" and "Treme" with a pint of Vanilla Heath Bar Crunch and two spoons. He usually lets me have the first go at the ice cream, nice fellow that he is. A few minutes later, I hand him back a pint of plain vanilla ice cream, completely denuded of Heath Bars. To his repeated consternation, I say “If you gave me a bowl of rocks with a big fat diamond in the center, would I pick through the rocks first before grabbing the diamond?” Women who’ve made it out of their twenties know a thing or two about missed opportunities.
  4. The leftovers off the children’s plates after a family dinner. Who needs to scrape plates into the compost bin when there’s a mother in the kitchen who will eat them? We hate to see food go to waste and more than that, know exactly how much work went into preparing it. No way that pork loin with the homemade peach sauce is going to be unceremoniously thrown away. I'm not sure how the bacteria could replicate in so many separate children's meals in so many separate kitchens, but advise the FDA that it's probably linked to an iCarly broadcast.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Just One Perspective on Garage Sales

I know there's a theory that holding a garage sale is a good, clean way to get rid of unwanted junk and make a little money in the process. That's just never been my experience. Today I've been invited to guest post on the subject over on "Four Perspectives," a sweet, soulful blog that combines the worldview of four different writers in a way that recognizes that "no one ever sees things quite the same way."

Four Perspectives

But I know: it's Friday and we all need our music moment, so don't hop on over there just yet… apropos of Four Perspectives, I wanted a song that showcases a different point of view. And until this week, you just didn't hear much on the airwaves from a Wiener Dog's standpoint. Yes, for Bay Area residents who listen to KFOG, you will recognize this as a staple of "Acoustic Sunrise" on Sunday mornings. For the rest of you: enjoy the heartfelt interpretation of a Dachshund's lament, as written and sung by Peter Himmelman in his classic and hard to find "Dixie the Tiny Dog."

Then go read about the great redistribution of wealth that was the 1970s era Virginia Colony garage sale. May you give as good as you get this weekend.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Five Telltale Signs It's the End of the School Year

Who needs the calendar or steady barrage of Father's Day shopping circulars to tell you that it's June? These five phenomenon occur like clockwork when the waning days of the academic year are upon us.

1.) You're Broke. Between the gift for the classroom teacher, the teacher's aides, the piano teacher, the math tutor, the babysitter graduating high school who wasn't much for cleanup but at least she could walk home, and the niece graduating college after the five year plan, you are clean out of $20 dollar bills. (Apologies if you are more of $100 dollar bill gifter, I didn't mean to insult you. Can I please be your babysitter?) It gets so bad that you could almost use a second job. But you can't do that, because…

2.) Your Productive Workday Has Been Shot to Hell. You have to be up at school to see the end-of-year talent show, of course, and your child would never forgive you for missing out on the end-of-year class picnic. Then the school districts get in on the act, fulfilling some budgetary or union contract obligation by cutting a bunch of June school days in half. Your to-do list becomes an archive, saved in its non-checked-off state for future generations to admire. It's enough to make you run for comfort to the cookie jar which is full because…

3.) You Have Baker's Elbow. Brownies for the ballet recital, pound cake for the Little League team party, chocolate chip cookies for the celebration of a completed Social Studies group project; you're churning them out like your middle name is Poppin' Fresh. You would like to buy stock in King Arthur Flour and Betty Crocker, but can't get out of the kitchen long enough to log onto E*trade. And if you're going anywhere past the stove it's going to be to the laundry room because….

4.) The Lunch Bags Look Like They've Been Beaten. Bruised, torn, bearing tiny flecks of unidentifiable foreign substances that may or may not be mold, the insulated lunchboxes that started off the year in bright primary colors have been reduced, through constant improvised use as seats, soccer balls, and weapons, to an indistinguishable grayish brown.  You weigh running them through the washer one last time. But would it be the cycle that finally separates the strap from the rest of the bag? That would probably make you cry, because…

5.) You Burst Out Crying At Inopportune Times. It's the inevitable result of being handed concrete evidence, in the form of a graduation certificate or a class council election, that Your Children Are Growing Up. The ultimate example was when the Kindergarten teacher rewrote Eric Carle's "A Very Hungry Caterpillar" to describe all the knowledge that our children had hungrily gobbled up throughout the year. Then she had them hold up wobbly, colorful pictures they'd drawn of butterflies and said, "And now you are beautiful butterflies who will fly off to First Grade!" Twenty-three moms, 15 dads, and one kindergarten teacher hit the deck sobbing, delaying the children's American Sign Language performance of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" until we'd (temporarily) recovered our composure.

But it happens every year. This time it was at the end of the year school choir concert, when I realized that my baby is going to be a 5th Grader which is really not babyish at all, and that she and her classmates are now eye-to-eye with the choir director (who, it must be said, is not tall.) Yes, that was me sniffling loudly all the way through their three-part-harmony rendition of  "Lean on Me."

Friday, June 3, 2011

Concert Crone Review: Lykke Li

The Concert Crone operates in a musical netherworld: too old for bouncers to ask her for ID, too young to give up the thrill of buying tickets using the secret presale code. In service to the mid-life music fans of the world, the Crone braves the Bay Area music scene and answers the question: Worth Hiring the Sitter?

The Band: Lykke Li, Monday May 31 2011. Indie darling Lykke (real name: Li Lykke Timotej Zachrisson, which would look terrible on a concert t-shirt,) may be the most under appreciated Swedish export since lingonberry jam. Sheer logic says that every teenage girl in America should love her: she contributed a song to the Twilight soundtrack, and Tina Cohen-Chang covered one of her tunes on the "Glee" episode called "A Night of Neglect." But she's nowhere close to mainstream. Tell people you are going to hear Lykke Li and they will nod and smile, then wonder what the hell you just said.

The Venue: The Regency Ballroom in SanFrancisco, which looks like a dance hall from the 1910s, which is what it is. The Crone tried not to think about earthquake retrofitting during the show. Also somewhat nostalgic was the ladies' room, which had three seats and a line that was infinity miles long. Best to bring a Stadium Gal, or leave your beverages until after the show.

The Company: Maria, the Crone's best friend since the first day of college who is of Swedish descent and quick to support anything that comes from the mother country, including Ikea's pressboard furniture. In fact upon hearing that the Crone got tickets for the show, her immediate reaction was: "Maybe this will be like that Flintstones episode where the Swedish band rents Fred and Wilma's house!" Yes, Maria, it will probably be just like that. Have another meatball.

The Crowd: Chicks dig Lykke Li. Asian chicks, gay chicks, chicks with Cleopatra eye makeup and Olivia Newton John headbands, chicks so young they look newly hatched, and chicks leading good-natured smiling boyfriends behind them. There was a smattering of gay dudes, also dudes with manscaped facial hair who could have played for either team. The Concert Crone's point is, if you are a single, straight man at a Lykke Li show and you do not hook up, you are simply not paying attention. You should signal your straightness with a plaid shirt and a look of confusion; that seemed to be the most common hetero marking.

Age Humiliation Factor: Medium
The Concert Crone purposely did not remove her ID from her wallet on the way in, and the bouncer purposely did not ask for it as he attached the venue wristband. Then the elderly deaf grandma routine started.
Bouncer: "I need to look in your purse. Do you have gum?"
Crone: "Do I have a gun?" That seems like a strange question.
Bouncer: "Gum." This woman is an idiot.
Crone: "A gun?" What the heck is he saying? I can see his lips moving.
Bouncer: "GUM." Motions to giant stack of confiscated gum. Evidently, those Regency Ballroom folks do not want you Macgyvering your way into the men's room with some gum.
Crone, relieved. "No! No gum, no gun."
Behind the Crone, Maria is having a plastic baggie of contraband chocolate chip cookies confiscated and added to the gum pile. Who needs a gun? We rollin' with Tollhouse, bitches.

Cool Factor: Medium
The opening act was Grimes, a Canadian singer whose real name is Claire Boucher and who was evidently quite the buzz-generator at this year's SXSW. She is a lovely girl with a Kewpie doll voice and a ready giggle. Saying you've seen Grimes perform live could provide some real indie street cred.

The problem is that when Grimes performs, she constantly diddles the knobs on various synthesizers, all while singing in a made-up language that, according to one reviewers, includes references to Dune.  In fact, she kind of acts like a busy toddler at a water play station. Unfortunately, it was not long into Grimes' performance that memories of Gilda Radner and the Judy Miller Show on SNL bubbled into the Crone's brain. All hope for indie street cred was lost as Maria and the Crone guffawed into their drinks, just waiting for Grimes to put a skirt on her head and sing, "I am the most beautiful bride in the woooorld! And this is my showowowow!"

Worth Hiring the Sitter? Definitely, but good luck because she's already got tickets. 
You know why chicks dig Lykke Li, and why their boyfriends agree to see her play? Because she is girl power personified and made irresistible. Her YouTube clips, like "Dance, Dance, Dance" below, are full of soulful melodies and ballads. But she is not afraid to turn the volume up to 11 and shake her hair during a live show; this song had the whole joint jumping. It took two drum kits, not to mention the single drum stick that Lykke wielded at whatever percussion instrument was within reach, to keep up with her distinctive voice that absolutely overflowed the hall. Maria says, "What surprised me most was how much better she is in concert than her recordings would indicate. Lykke is a born live performer and her sound is a ton richer live than recorded."

The Crone has saved the best for last. Being of Northern European stock, Lykke's show ran like clockwork. Doors at 7. Grimes at 8. Lykke at 9. Bed by 11:12, still plenty of time for the Crone to bank some REM sleep before making school lunches on Tuesday morning. Skål!

Lykke Li is touring the coasts and Europe for the rest of the summer - catch her if you can at Did you see her play? Do you understand Grimes' made up language? Do you think the Regency Ballroom should lighten up on the chocolate chip cookie restriction? Let the Concert Crone know your thoughts in the comments section. She could talk music with you all day long.

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