Latest Chart: Where efficiency meets embarrassment

October 30, 2020

By Ekta R. Garg

Parents of teens and tweens everywhere, congratulate me. I’ve managed to embarrass both of my children with a single act. And all it took was saying yes to an opportunity.

More than two years ago, a magazine started in our part of town that’s meant for the residents here. It’s not for the entire town, mind you. Nor does it go to the sister town that’s a stone’s throw away. It’s just meant for a couple of dozen neighborhoods as well as the apartment complexes around us.

The magazine shares news of our local library, my book reviews, and information about local events. The main feature article every month, though, is a family from around here. The family appears on the cover and on the multi-page spread inside. You get softball information like favorite hobbies and vacations taken as well as what jobs the main couple hold and where the kids go to school.

Since my book reviews have been appearing in the magazine for a while now, I have occasional contact with the main feature writer and the publisher. In the middle of the summer, the publisher and I chatted on the phone about a variety of topics related to the magazine: how to add varied content, for example. I have a master’s degree in magazine publishing, so for me this conversation was a natural fit.

And, truly, it was kind of like coming home. I’m deeply grateful for all the amazing writing/editing/publishing opportunities I’ve been given and continue to get through the years, but I miss working with a team on a longstanding imprint. There’s something inherently satisfying about putting together a publication that is well-edited, well-written, and engages its target audience, and doing it on a regular cycle.

We talked in broad terms about what kind of contributions I might be able to make to the magazine but left it open-ended for now. Then, at some point in that conversation, the publisher asked me if our family would like to be the feature family for an upcoming issue. I said yes without batting an eye. After all, the magazine, as I said, is strictly local, and it doesn’t even go to everyone here in the area.

My father-in-law is generally happy to go along with whatever the majority of the family does, but I knew the magazine story might be a little bit of a hard sell to my husband. He works hard and is proud of all he’s accomplished, but he doesn’t like a lot of attention for it. Twelve is exactly the same way. Despite the deep drive she possesses to work on her art, she’s ultimately conflicted about sharing it.

On an intellectual level, she loves the idea of people seeing what she’s created. Emotionally and psychologically—and, let’s be honest, physically—she squirms whenever she gets compliments for her art. It makes her visibly uncomfortable. Like any creative person, she wants to be recognized but she doesn’t want the applause or the overflow of compliments.

I’m still not sure how that squares away in real life, but in her brain it does.

I figured that Fourteen might be a little fidgety with it all, because her hair or outfit might not cooperate on the day of the photo shoot, and she seemed a little embarrassed that something we get in the mail regularly would now feature her and her family. Her embarrassment was the vague sort that most teens feel, though, so I didn’t pay it much mind. I thought the photo shoot itself would be enough to buoy her spirits.

On the day of the shoot, before the photographer arrived at our house, I heard plenty of groaning and complaining.

“Why do we have to do this again?”

“Why can’t I just wear what I’m wearing?”

“How long is this going to take?”

“It’s too windy out there; we’ll all blow away. Oh, well, I guess we can’t take the pictures!”

“We’re going to look dumb standing in front of our house getting our pictures taken.”

“I hope no one sees us out there when the photographer comes.”

“Why do we have to wear long sleeves? It’s so hot outside!”

(The easy answer to that one, by the way, is that magazines are always planning two to three issues out. The photographer was taking pictures of us at the end of the summer for the November issue; we had to look fall’ish to fit the other content in the magazine.)

“I have a headache.”

“My face looks terrible.”

And on and on.

The photographer surprised all of us by finishing her work in about 15 minutes. I was a little surprised, and worried, that the pictures wouldn’t turn out. Everyone else ran inside the house in glee, happy to be done with the whole thing.

When it came time to provide content for the story about our family, no one seemed interesting in answering the questions the writer sent me. I shrugged and answered them myself. Soon enough, the magazine story became “out of sight, out of mind.”

Weeks later (as in, earlier this month,) the publisher let me know the issues had been printed and volunteered to drop off copies. He came, and we chatted some more about the magazine. He also complimented me on the pictures, which made me even more eager to see them. They turned out incredibly well, and I knew our extended family would be excited.

The immediate family, however…

“We’re on the cover?” Twelve exclaimed when she came home from school.

“That’s the whole point of this,” I explained patiently.

Groans filled the air above us.

A day or so later, I sent the publisher an email to thank him for taking the time to come drop the magazine copies at our house. In his response he complimented me again on the pictures and story and mentioned the November issue would “drop” into mailboxes within a day or so.

I figured it was best not to say anything about that; while we were showing our copy to my family on FaceTime, I let slip that thousands of homes would be getting it. My parents and sister were delighted. The exclamations of everyone on this side of the screen could have made it crack.

That was all before our friends start getting the magazine, of course.

“People at the hospital have been texting me all day,” my husband said with mild chagrin the day after it came in the mail.

“I made the mistake of mentioning it to my friends on our chat, and now they’re going to go ask their parents about it,” Fourteen said, covering her face with a hand. “My outfit is amazing, but my expression is horrible.”

Twelve came home from school in a huff. “A sixth grader was complimenting me on how our house looks. You did this, Mamma. You.”

Yes, I did this. I’ve always prided myself on efficiency in my tasks, and I managed to embarrass almost everyone in the family in one fell swoop. I think I can say my job as mom of teen and tween is accomplished for this month.

It’s so nice when minimal effort yields maximum result.

Newest Chart: I thought they stayed little forever…

June 26, 2020

By Ekta R. Garg

I blinked and became a mother.

I blinked and became a mother again.

I blinked and am the mother of a 14-year-old.

Is it just me, or does 14 sound more grown up? Hear me out on this. I think there are age markers where the kids are no longer kids. When they’re 5, we think, “Oh, so sweet, s/he’s just in kindergarten.” But then 6 rolls around, and suddenly they’re in elementary school.

They hit 10, and we think, “Wow, s/he’s still a kid.” But suddenly they turn 12, and they’re on the verge of becoming a teenager.

And now that I’m the mother of a 14-year-old, it’s become glaringly obvious to me that in four years I’ll be the mother of a college freshman.

Okay, wait a second. Maybe I need to back up. I need to think of Fourteen as she is now and not that far into the future.

In many ways, she’s still a little girl. Already this summer I have had to give this child a hand to get out of bed, because she’d rather loll away her summer vacation instead of getting up at a decent hour in the morning. I’ve stood next to her, kissing her on the cheek several times in succession, calling her bluff every morning when she’s “sleeping” but not acting convincingly enough like it, and reaching under the comforter to pull her pajama shirt down in a gentle manner after it’s ridden up overnight.

I stroke her hair and sing stupid songs that I invent on the spot, and, when nothing else works, reach under the comforter again for her mile-long longs and swing them, again with the same gentleness I used when she was a baby, toward the floor. Her legs are so long that even this move doesn’t provide her body with upward momentum. Instead, she rubs her eyes and, after a few seconds, holds out her hands to me so I can pull her up. With a yawn, and suffering from extreme bedhead, she pads to the bathroom and shuts the door.

It’s when she shuts the door that I know she’s a teenager and not a little kid. Privacy, please, she’s saying with that one small gesture. I need a minute, and I need it alone.

I’ve seen these small shifts in other areas too. Although we bought Fourteen’s birthday cake (well, birthday brownies, but that’s beside the point,) she’s made it clear since the start of the summer that she’s going to bake her sister’s cake when it’s Eleven’s birthday. As a reward for pitching in to clean the house, we bought her a small succulent and a tiny cactus. A friend dropped off another succulent at our doorstep for her, and she’s keeping a close eye on all three plants in her room. She even went so far as to re-pot them herself when it became clear they needed it.

And she’s become quite savvy in her comebacks. Earlier today when she and Eleven and I were laughing our way through a game of Liar, she caught me lying about how many cards I’d put down.

“I know your tells,” she said.

“Really?” I asked. “What are they?”

“Wha—no. That’s not how this works. I’m not going to tell you, otherwise you’re going to try not to do them.”

She’s also become more tolerant and, in some ways, more lenient with her younger sister. On the days that aren’t too hot, the girls have taken to walking around the neighborhood for about 30 minutes. They use their alone time to dissect TV shows. I’m sure there’s also some complaining about “the parents” that goes on too. But I don’t mind. They’re bonding, and Fourteen leads the way in that.

“I’m a hoarder,” Eleven declares when I’m helping her clean out her closet, and I know she says and does this because her big sister has a strong connection with objects from various events and memorable dates. If either my husband or I tease Eleven about something, there’s a 50-50 shot she’ll get offended. If Fourteen jokes with Eleven, my younger daughter’s face cracks into a smile that then usually erupts in a laugh.

Fourteen doesn’t order her sister to leave her room; instead, the girls will fold their laundry together. And that game of Liar from earlier today? By the time I joined them, they’d already been playing for more than 30 minutes. The only reason I got in on the fun was because they were laughing so hard and getting so crazy that Fourteen, her eyes wide in dramatic fashion, begged me to join them.

“She’s crazy,” she stage-whispered of her younger sister, knowing and probably betting on the fact that Eleven was listening around the corner.

This older child of mine, bit by bit, is turning into a responsible young woman. She cares deeply for her friends, and she doesn’t hesitate to take the lead when asked. Most of the time, too, she’s in a sunny mood. None of that melodramatic teenage darkness for her, thank you, as she mocks teens who behave that way.

“[Eleven] is more of a teenager than I am,” she says with a roll of her eyes, and it’s true. On some days my younger child’s mood bounces like a ping pong ball, and it’s hard to predict when and where the bounce will go.

Of course, Fourteen is still a teenager. We have to remind her every week to clean her room. If a conversation doesn’t engage her directly, she’ll often drift off into her own thoughts and have to be brought back to Earth. If she’s got a plan for something on her own—painting her nails before a socially-distanced meeting with her friends—she’ll go after it without anyone reminding her, but try to get her to do the same for something we asked her to do and her face goes blank as she blinks once or twice.

“I forgot,” she’ll say; another one is, “I don’t know.”

That’s one of her tells, the classic “I don’t know” that translates to “I didn’t do it” or “I’m not interested and am annoyed you’re making me.”

Still a teen. Still at home for four more years. Always mine.

I love this kid.

 

Newest Chart: Joy and Sadness (or shelter-in-place Weeks 8 through 11)

May 29, 2020

By Ekta R. Garg

We’ve been doing this for 11 weeks now.

Eleven.

I had to look at my calendar to confirm that number, and when I did I realized two things: first, how I’ve slightly neglected Growth Chart. I felt a stab of guilt, because in the weeks I was supposed to post I thought of it with the best of intentions. Then another task would get in the way, or I would let it get in the way, or…something. Parenting is hard at the best of times. During a pandemic, it’s the equivalent of climbing Everest.

I promise to do better.

On a broader level, 11 weeks is almost three months. Am I the only one who still finds that number hard to believe? I mean, we’ve been staying at home, going to school at home, not meeting with friends, not arranging get togethers for almost three months.

I feel like the language around these topics is changing too. Thirteen finished 8th grade yesterday (and, believe me, I will definitely be posting in the coming weeks about what it means to be the mother of a high schooler now.) Earlier this week my husband asked if we should do something to celebrate her graduation from middle school.

This topic actually started back in January. My parents came to visit, and my mom teased Thirteen about throwing a full-blown desi, or Indian, party. Think lots of food, lots of adults standing/sitting around talking about the food, getting all dressed up, and little kids running around the house. All with the soundtrack of Bollywood’s latest hits or the evergreen ones, depending on who’s controlling the music at the moment.

I grew up attending parties like this one and even had a semi-desi party for my high school graduation. I remember that night with a lot of fondness. It was filled with music and singing, a big cake, me coming down the stairs with another family friend, who was also graduating, in our caps and gowns (at my parents’ insistence, even if I felt a little silly,) and my mother crying while I was cutting the cake as if I was going off to war.

I’m a parent myself now, so I get the emotion she felt, but still. I was going to college. Not the front lines. 😀

In any case, it was easy to throw a party. No doubt Mom probably spent days planning the menu and the flow of the evening. But my parents didn’t hesitate. They didn’t wonder, “What if…” or have to contend with the government about whether it made sense to hold a celebratory event.

That night, when my husband asked about the graduation, I hesitated. What could we possibly do? How could we possibly “celebrate” when the most important part of that concept—sharing the joy with other people—wasn’t allowed anymore?

I still don’t have an answer to that question. At the time, I just said we’d think about it, spend some time brainstorming. Come up with some sort of idea.

Our worlds have contracted to those immediately around us in our dwellings. While “family time” is great, the inability to bring others into our lives for good occasions and bad has become almost stifling. The opportunities that arise—attending an author event in a bookstore almost 250 miles away via Zoom—are something of a solace, but they can’t replace person-to-person interaction.

Even as I write that, I know my family is incredibly fortunate to be healthy and safe. There are so many across our country and the world who have had to fight this out alone, either due to personal life choices or being sick and in quarantine or getting stuck in a location due to travel that got upended by COVID-19. It’s hard enough to come to terms with the fact that our world has been like this for 11 weeks now. I can’t even begin to imagine fighting this out with no one else or in unsafe conditions.

In a philosophical way, it almost seems silly or childish—or maybe even selfish—to ask for the opportunity to share exciting moments like graduation from middle school with others. I’m amazed at Thirteen’s poise and good humor during this entire time. She’s disappointed, yes, and she wishes more than ever that she could have finished out the school year with friends, dispensing hugs, slamming locker doors for the “end-of-the-year locker slam” their school does.

Yet, she doesn’t let her intense wish for normalcy sully the good things: weekly Zoom meetings with a dear theater friend. A surprise gift from a classmate who, due to social distancing, didn’t linger long enough to talk, just dropped the gift on our doorstep and then texted from her mom’s car that she’d left something. The plans for a poster to hang on the van, as well as other items to decorate it, for the parade we’ll drive through later today at the school, the first time any of the students have converged on the parking lot en masse since mid-March.

Through the last few weeks, I’ve thought of that moment toward the end of Pixar’s Inside Out when Joy learns that Sadness actually helped create one of Riley’s favorite memories. One of her happiest memories. And, of course, we’ve had conversations about perspective, about keeping our eye on the bigger things, the important things. Safety and health.

Eleven, admittedly, has struggled with this entire concept and situation more, but that’s because she processes emotions and expresses them to a different degree than her big sister. Yet, she, too has found moments to laugh and get involved and make jokes about being stuck at home. Maybe it’s from having a sister who handles herself with poise, consciously and subconsciously, all the time. Maybe it’s because she understands that her sister has had to give up more, as an 8th grader, than she does in 6th grade.

Maybe Joy and Sadness can, and do, work together, so that when we turn the orbs of our memories one way, we experience one side of the event and when we turn them the other way we can appreciate the other side.

Maybe it’s time to get brainstorming in earnest.

Brand new Chart: Let’s talk about love…

February 14, 2020

By Ekta R. Garg

Today is a day to celebrate love, in all its forms. Valentine’s Day is often associated with romantic love, but I’m glad more and more people are using it as a day to recognize the ones they feel close to no matter what the relationship. Of course, not everyone feels like they need a special day to show they love someone. Not everyone feels comfortable showing their emotions at all.

Take Eleven, for instance. This child always has a joke on hand, is ready to act as “the funny one” when the occasion presents itself (or the mood strikes her.) The minute the conversation veers into emotional territory, though, she begins to fidget. Her tone of voice gets flat, and she avoids eye contact. At some point she’ll laugh in an embarrassed way or try to shrug off the conversation. It’s only in the last couple of years she’s become more comfortable with the tight hugs I ask for in the mornings after she wakes up.

So imagine my surprise when we got into a conversation a few days ago about how some middle schoolers seem to have a new crush every week, and she volunteered an opinion.

“I think Di-Di would be the kind of person who wouldn’t have a crush for just a little while,” she said.

It’s times like these I’m so glad the kids are used to me focusing on the road and not offering them any sort of facial reaction. It gives me a chance to think through my responses. Of course, it’s a little harder now that they can sit in the front passenger seat. Still, I get a chance to process what I’m going to say. Because, you know, traffic. I’m not stalling at all.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I mean, I think if she’s going to have a crush, it’s going to last a long time,” she explained. “Like, she would take it seriously. She’d tell the boy, ‘You’re sticking around. You’re not going anywhere.’”

“I can see that,” I said. “Of course, that means that if he broke her heart, she’d be devastated.”

“If he did that,” she replied, her tone becoming fierce, “I’d have to hurt him.”

We’d have to hurt him,” I said.

“In some very unpleasant places for boys,” she added, the ferocity carrying over. “I’d hurt him in some very unpleasant places.”

I didn’t know quite what to say to that. Should I have been proud that she felt so protective of her big sister or worried that she was threatening bodily harm to any boy who dared to leave her sister crying? I decided to go with the former.

“It would be terrible if he broke up with her just to go with some other girl,” Eleven said after a few quiet minutes. “Then I’d have to hurt him and the other girl.”

“Oh, but why would you want to do that to the poor girl?” I said.

“I’d hurt him so that it would last the rest of his life,” she said, ignoring my question.

“How about just for a year?” I said.

“Ten years,” she bargained.

“No, I think a year is long enough. And you don’t need to hurt the girl,” I went on. “The fact that you’d hurt the boy is good enough.”

“Yeah, I guess so,” she conceded. “But he better be careful.”

We didn’t talk about it the rest of the way home, our conversation instead turning to other things. But her bold loyalty to her older sister surprised me. Not so much that she felt that way, I suppose. We often tell people we meet that the girls are best friends, and it really is the truth.

I think what surprised me was Eleven’s answer to the question of someone hurting her sister. She’d hurt that person back, plain and simple. Despite her getting older and understanding that the world is comprised of layers and not black and white answers, her thoughts in this case really were black and white.

Not that I advocate violence, but this child doesn’t talk about her feelings. She would rather make a joke or avoid the conversation altogether. She gets irritated when pressed on the topic.

It reminds me, again, that love comes in a variety of forms and expressions. It doesn’t always require big bouquets of flowers or long letters proclaiming one’s affections for another. Sometimes it can just be a promise to beat up the hypothetical guy who would theoretically break your sister’s heart. Promise made, hands dusted, love declared. Now on to something else.

 

 

 

 

 

Latest Chart: The teenage angst is real

January 31, 2020

By Ekta R. Garg

Parents of teens, congratulate me: I’ve officially become one of you.

When our older child added the dreaded “teen” to the end of her age, I was kind of curious what would happen. We’ve all read about those mood swings, those irrational outbursts. The shrugging off of love and affection one day and the hugs that won’t stop the next.

Up until now, Thirteen was handling teendom pretty well. We noticed her getting a little edgy, but we knew we could also chalk that up to a change in hormones. Plus the stress of middle school.

Then came the day of The Rubberbands on the Braces.

Just before school started this year, Thirteen got braces. At the beginning of this month, at a regular orthodontic checkup, the doctor told us it was time to add rubberbands to the routine. Thirteen had to wear them at all times, except for when she was eating or brushing her teeth. The hygienist gave her a handy little tool to put the rubberbands on her wires, and she made sure Thirteen practiced a few times before we left the office.

Then came The Next Morning.

(Sound melodramatic yet? What can I say, I’m the mother of a teen now. Melodrama is clearly an option.)

Thirteen, in her usual dreamy-eyed sort of way, sauntered downstairs for breakfast. She ate her cereal without batting an eye at the clock. Meanwhile, I was pretending that it didn’t bother me that we were getting late. I was doing that whole nonchalant, “It’s your school day, not mine” routine.

(Can we be honest? It always bothers us more than it bothers the kids. Can’t wait until they become parents so I can laugh at them for this one.)

I reminded Thirteen that she needed to brush her teeth after breakfast (another bone of contention between us, but, whatever) and replace her rubberbands. She resisted at first. Said she had a system. Had it all worked out. She was totally chill about the way she’d handle this newest addition to her morning routine.

I told her that the rubberbands weren’t an option. No, she couldn’t wait until after lunch to put them on. Yes, she needed to do it now. No, she couldn’t skip brushing her teeth.

She stomped (quite impressively, I have to say) up the stairs and brushed her teeth. Then she stomped back downstairs and headed to the powder room. For reasons known only to herself, she’s decided to store her rubberbands and the handy tool in there.

(Could I have argued that point? Sure, but why add more drama to the morning? We were already approaching the “melo” line.)

Thirteen started to take her sweet time to put on the rubberband, and I…kind of…lost it.

(Remember that whole thing with the clock? Yes, we were definitely running late by this point.)

To be fair (mostly to me,) I kept my tone pretty even at first.

“[Thirteen], you need to hustle,” I called across the house. “We’re going to be late.”

“I am,” she said.

Another minute or two rolled by. I know this, because I was obsessing over the clock. Eleven was peeping at me from the mudroom, her eyes getting fractionally bigger as the minutes ticked past.

“[Thirteen], what’s taking you so long?”

“This is hard,” she said, a whining edge encroaching her tone.

“Well, maybe if you hadn’t spent all your time listening to the radio this morning, you would have moved faster and you would have been down here in time to do this,” I said. “Get moving!”

(This is where my voice got a little louder and Eleven’s eyes a little wider.)

“I’m giving you sixty seconds,” I yelled—yes, at this point we could definitely call it a full-blown yell—“otherwise you’re going to be punished for wasting time.”

“I’m doing it!” she screamed back.

Yes, she screamed. Not in that small child “why-is-my-mom-bothering-me” kind of scream but in that “you’re-such-a-pain-and-you-don’t-understand-anything-about-my-life” kind of scream. Her tone challenged me and leveled the communication playing field. You know what I’m talking about: that moment when you’ve gone from towering over your child in your mode of instruction to looking at them eye-to-eye because all of a sudden they have opinions too.

(Or, in my case, looking slightly up. Thirteen is now taller than me by a few inches. It’s a little disconcerting, to say the least.)

“I don’t appreciate your tone,” I yelled back. “Now get moving!”

Which she did, eventually. And, of course, I did what every veteran parent of a teen does: I lectured her in the car during the 1.1-mile drive to school. Eleven’s shock had abated just a touch, but she still looked like she wanted to let her jaw drop open.

There are lots of drawbacks to yelling at your teen first thing in the morning. I’ll admit, I felt terrible. I don’t like starting my day with so much tension, and I certainly don’t like sending the kids to school with that kind of conflict weighing on them.

There are also some perks, though, to getting this out of the way in the morning. By the time the girls got home from school, they were both their normal sunny selves. They’d had the space of an entire day to distract them and, probably, make them even forget the harsh words from that morning.

Later that evening, when we were trading stories over dinner about our day, Eleven’s eyes got wide again.

“You need to tell Daddy what happened,” she said with a smirk but also an air of disbelief. Sort of like a, “I still can’t believe we did that this morning.”

Well, Daddy, here you go. Now you know what happened. And now you also know that we’re officially parents of a teenager.

Someone please tell me the screaming matches get a little quieter from here on out…?

Latest Spurts: Fake food and wookies

December 27, 2019

By Ekta R. Garg

Enjoy these Spurts from the last two weeks, readers!

Last week, on Monday, we woke up to a couple of inches of snow. After breakfast, as I stood in the mudroom waiting for the girls to pull on jackets and shoes for school, I planted my feet into a pair of ankle-length boots. Eleven looked at the boots, glanced at the bathrobe I still wore, and looked down again.

“Nice shoes, Mamma,” she said.

“I like to be prepared,” I explained, “in case I ever have to get out of the car and trudge through the snow.”

Thirteen took a closer look at my shoes and smirked.

“Are you going to zip them up?”

“No, I figure if I get stuck somewhere, I can take half a second to zip them.”

“What if the police are chasing you?” Eleven asked.

“Then I’ll just bring them back here. You know. Offer them coffee.”

“All she said was, ‘nice shoes’,” Thirteen murmured, “and we get a whole story.”

“All right, let’s move it along.”

*****

Eleven likes a challenge. She also, these days, loves Star Wars and everything to do with the series. Somewhere online she found out about an artist named James Raiz who sketched an enormous mural, in ink, including almost single character important to the franchise.

Then she said she wanted to duplicate it.

When she first mentioned the mural, I did my parental duty: I nodded and smiled like it says to in my contract. One day last week, I asked her to show it to me. In between chopping vegetables and stirring pots on the stove, I took a look at she planned to draw.

My mouth dropped open, but I didn’t want her to mistake my shock for disapproval.

“That’s amazing,” I said. “Look at the level of detail.”

She pulled up a YouTube video of Raiz describing his love for Star Wars, his reasoning for wanting to create the mural, how he planned it, and (in a time lapse) the production and completion of it. I waved my husband over so he could see the final product. He was as impressed as I was, more so by the fact that our child wants to duplicate it.

“That’s really ambitious,” he said.

“Well, I’m a Slytherin,” she said. “I have lots of ambitiousness. Ambitious-ocity! I have ambitious-ocity.”

“That’s not a word,” I told her.

“Yes, it is,” she said, “because I’m a Slytherin and that’s what I have.”

I don’t know what J.K. Rowling and George Lucas would have to say about their universes crossing like that, but all righty then.

*****

I consider myself a pretty good cook, so it came as quite the amusing shock to me that last month the girls declared that all the food I make for them is fake food. The height of irony comes in the fact that they’re complaining about the fact that I don’t serve them processed meals with loads of preservatives, trans fat, or high fructose corn syrup. I take the meals we enjoy in restaurants or on vacations and try to replicate them or at least create something, from scratch, that tastes as good and is nutritious.

If anything, my food is more “real” than some of the stuff available on the market.

I explained this to them; they maintain their opinion.

The discussion of real versus fake food comes up in all sorts of places. Last week, before school got out, the drama teacher invited over the students who have stayed after school and come in on weekends to help out with costumes and sets. She cooked dinner for them, and they played games and got to socialize.

The next morning, I asked the girls what the teacher, Mrs. C., made for dinner.

“Chicken noodle soup,” Thirteen said with a sigh that comes from enjoying comfort food. “And she used real noodles, not the fake ones you do.”

Given that it’s been ages since I’ve made chicken soup, I wanted to protest. Of course, I figured that would just bring forth another complaint about why I hadn’t made the soup in so long. That would be followed by an objection from Eleven that she doesn’t even like soups very much to begin with, and why do we have to eat them during the winter months anyway. (Never mind that there’s nothing quite so warming, and, yes, nutritious, as a large bowl of soup from scratch.)

I’m officially the mother to two middle schoolers; I can’t win either way.

*****

For the past two years, Thirteen has complained good-naturedly about the science teacher, Ms. S. The assignments, Thirteen maintains, are boring, and why did they have to learn about tuberculosis and do experiments and research papers at home anyway? Not to mention that Ms. S. is the type of teacher who’s a stickler for grammar on her papers; misplace commas, and she’ll count it incomplete until all the requisite commas are in their right places.

Shortly after school started, Thirteen and Eleven came home with dread on their faces.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Science.”

“What do you mean?”

Turns out that Ms. S. was scheduled for knee replacement surgery and had assigned subs to carry the load for the two months she would be out. The subs had worked with Ms. S. extensively in the past and had a reputation for being as strict as her. The excitement the kids had at having substitute teachers for an extended period of time was dimmed by who the substitutes were.

At the end of the week last week, I went to say good night to Thirteen, and in the dark she sighed.

“I miss Ms. S.,” she said.

I didn’t know what to say for a minute. “You what?”

“I miss Ms. S.,” she said. “Ms. A.’s so strict.”

I was glad it was dark and she couldn’t see me smile. I offered the standard parental platitudes of how the subs would only be around for a little while longer, but they didn’t seem to comfort her much. Thirteen has said many times in the last two years how she wished Ms. S. would take it easy. I guess it’s true what they say: be careful what you wish for.

*****

One of our agendas for this Christmas break was to watch movies. Lots and lots of them. Eleven wanted to watch the Star Wars movies on the DVR to prep for the newest one in theaters. We started with the original trilogy, despite her mild complaint at watching the movies out of chronological order. I’ve seen the original ones several times before and knew they would be a good gateway into the Star Wars universe, so I overruled her vote to start with Episode 1.

Last night as we watched The Return of the Jedi, we couldn’t help giggling over the wookies. Given that Eleven considers herself a bear, she was tickled pink about the bear-like features of these cuddly creatures. As they waddled around and did their best to fight against the Storm Troopers to help Han Solo and Leia in the movie’s climax (often striking themselves or one another in the process,) we laughed so hard our eyes watered.

At one point, two wookies get knocked to the forest floor by a laser blast. They both lie on the ground for a moment; then one gets up and drags on the arm of his friend, still flat. The friend doesn’t get up, and the first wookie gets to his knees to check on the second one. He bends down and puts his face to his friend’s arm as if in an affectionate kiss.

The girls and I “aww”’ed immediately.

“I hope he’s okay,” I said about the unconscious wookie.

“He’s okay,” Eleven said in a bid of hope. “He’s gotta be okay. Nothing’s wrong with him.”

“I’m going to write a fanfic about those two,” Thirteen said, her eyes filled with compassion. “I’m going to write about how they’re friends.”

“And when you do, they’re both going to be okay,” Eleven said.

 

 

 

Latest Spurts: Aspiring to chicken tortellini alfredo and enjoying bribes

November 1, 2019

By Ekta R. Garg

Enjoy these Spurts from the last few weeks, readers!

Since the start of the school year, the girls, along with a handful of their schoolmates, have helped their drama teacher prepare for this year’s performances. They’ve built sets for the elementary kids and talked through blocking for middle school shows.

Typically this happens after school on Tuesdays, but with the sheer amount of work the teacher has asked the kids to come in a few Saturdays. On one or two Saturdays, the teacher has waited for us or left the door propped open around the time she knew we’d arrive. Two weeks ago, however, when we arrived at school at the meeting time, we found the school doors locked.

I sat in the car and watched Thirteen and Eleven peer through the glass doors leading to the hallway outside the gym. They both turned to me with a “Now what?” look, so I motioned for them to go down the sidewalk to the main entrance. Those doors were locked too.

Of course, on a morning like this, I forgot my cell phone. I huffed and sighed and drove home to grab my phone so I could text the teacher. Within minutes, she texted back that she would be at the door to open it for the kids. We turned around and went back to school.

“Can you imagine doing this without cell phones?” Eleven asked.

“We did,” I said. “We didn’t have cell phones when I was a kid.”

“So what would you do?” she asked. “I mean, if you went there and found that the doors were locked.”

“You’d just…go home, I guess,” I said. “You’d wait by the landline for the other person to call you back and ask where they were. Then you just set up another time to meet.”

She considered this—a world without cell phones, in which we had to just wait on one another without instant confirmation about who was going where and when—and I thought for a moment about my own childhood. I remember life without the internet and smart devices, of course; anyone my age does. I guess, maybe, that’s why I’m still a little in awe of them.

*****

The girls go to art lessons straight after school on Wednesdays, but weeks after school started they started talking about quitting art. The level of homework Thirteen in particular is getting makes it hard for her to get it done on Wednesdays. After some back and forth, we finally agreed. At the end of this semester, they’ll get their Wednesday afternoons back.

Since my husband and I told the kids they could drop art in December, every Wednesday after school Thirteen has gotten into the car and said, “I just want to go home.”

I tried to make things better by counting down the Wednesdays left every week. Somehow that doesn’t seem to be helping. I just end up with two kids glaring at me.

This week, when I put their snacks together for the car ride to art class, I decided to make hot chocolate and put it in two travel mugs. The temperatures have dropped close to winter levels, and it’s cold outside. So I boiled milk, added cocoa mix, and poured steaming hot chocolate into the mugs. Then I packed up their snacks, the mugs, and their art supplies, and headed to school.

Thirteen got into the front seat and gasped with pleasure.

“It’s hot chocolate, isn’t it?” she asked with a grin of delight.

I smiled back and greeted Eleven as she got in the car too.

“Hot chocolate, [Eleven],” Thirteen said.

“Well, it’s cold out, so I thought you might like something warm to drink,” I said.

“And it’s Wednesday,” Eleven said in a resigned voice.

“Oh, don’t worry, the hot chocolate’s a bribe for going to art class,” Thirteen said.

“It’s not a bribe!” I said in an affronted manner.

(It was totally a bribe.)

“Sure,” Thirteen said with a gleam in her eye.

What can I say? These kids definitely have my number. I guess I’ll have to get better at, um, cold-weather treats. Yeah. ‘Cause that’s what I was doing.

*****

The girls had a half day today, so we made plans to go to Panera for lunch. As we sat and waited for their dad to join us, the girls dug into their meals. Thirteen scooped a spoonful of Panera’s turkey chili and devoured it.

“One day, I’m going to come to Panera and order the chicken tortellini alfredo,” she said.

“Well, it’s a huge portion,” I said, “but you can always share it.”

She paused over her bowl. “I can?”

“Sure.”

“But who would split it with me?”

“I’ll split it,” Eleven said.

“You will?”

“Yeah.”

Her entire lunch experience, I could see in her eyes, had just changed.

“The next time I come to Panera, I’m going to order the chicken tortellini alfredo.”

“One day I’ll come to Panera and order a whole bunch of sweets,” Eleven said.

“And get a stomachache,” I said.

“I’ll have a party and invite all my friends,” she said.

“You wouldn’t invite me?” I asked, feigning shock.

“No,” Thirteen said, “you’d probably tell us, ‘That’s way too much sugar.’”

Eleven broke into a laugh, and I couldn’t help laughing at Thirteen’s imitation of me. I probably would tell them it was too much sugar. Then I’d beg for a scone.

 

Brand new Spurts: The boomerang effect and driving fast

October 4, 2019

By Ekta R. Garg

Enjoy these Spurts from the last two weeks, readers!

A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I had to switch cars for the day. I drive a Honda Odyssey, which I absolutely adore. He drives a BMW. Which I love and hate all at the same time.

The BMW needed to go to the dealership for service, and I’ve had bad experiences with the dealership here in town. So any time it needs any oil change or anything else, I take the car to another dealership about 45 minutes away. With the drive there and back and the actual service time, that means the car has to stay with me for the whole day.

On this particular Friday, the kids loaded into the BMW before school and I fumbled for a minute with some of the controls.

“I don’t like driving this car,” I muttered.

“Why?” Thirteen asked.

“It just makes me a little nervous,” I said. “It’s an expensive car, and I’m always a little worried about doing something to it. And…”

“And?” Eleven prompted.

“Well,” I said sheepishly, “it goes from zero to sixty in, like, three seconds. And that’s really fun to do. So…”

We turned onto the main road outside our neighborhood, and I revved the engine just enough to pick up speed.

“You want to drive faster right now, don’t you?” Thirteen asked.

I grinned. “Little bit.”

“Yeah, here’s Mommy getting pulled over for speeding on the way to school,” Eleven joked, which would be quite the accomplishment considering we live a total of 1.1 miles away.

“That’s why I don’t like driving this car,” I said.

The girls continued to rib me all the way to the main entrance of the school. As they got out, Eleven called out a reprimand to drive properly. I pulled the car onto the main road again, revved the engine just a little more, and smiled.

*****

For anyone who hasn’t listened to the radio lately, collaborations seem to be the new thing. Ed Sheeran’s doing it with everyone under the sun. Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber—they’re all singing in all sorts of combinations with different artists.

One day as we were driving home, we were listening to the song called Eastside that features the talents of Benny Blanco, Khalid, and Halsey. (And the fact that I had to Google the song to get all three singers’ names right tells you how up to date I am with the singers of today.) Thirteen and Eleven didn’t seem to mind it all too much, although Thirteen kept talking about how creepy Halsey’s voice sounded.

“Who wants to go to the east side with her anyway?” Eleven said in a huff.

“Yeah, and why the east side?” Thirteen murmured. “What’s wrong with the west side?”

“Well, they’ve got their own story,” I quipped.

Thirteen groaned loud and long.

“That’s a terrible joke,” she said.

“Hey, I think it was pretty clever,” I replied.

She just shook her head at me. I thought she’d appreciate it more, being a theater kid and all. I’m still pretty proud of it myself, actually.

*****

Last week the entire middle school went on an overnight camping trip together. In the weeks leading up to the trip, the grades spent time preparing skits to perform for everyone. Eleven came home more than once expressing her frustration with the lack of seriousness on the part of the other sixth graders. They didn’t seem to spend too much time worrying about their lines, it seemed, and it didn’t help that it felt like they never had enough time to practice.

“If they’re not taking responsibility for it, then do something,” Thirteen suggested one morning before school. “You can rehearse before school, at recess, in advisory. Do something about not getting enough time to practice.”

Eleven rolled her eyes at her sister’s advice. Part of her, I know, appreciated it. Part of her wished that her big sister didn’t seem to have the answer to everything.

The refrain I’ve drummed into the kids’ heads is, “Smart girls find a way to fix the problem.” It’s nice to know that Thirteen has taken that to heart. Now if only Eleven wouldn’t scoff every time her big sister reminded her of it.

*****

They say that a person only fully understands the difficulties of parenting when s/he becomes a parent. The longer I’m a parent myself, the more I appreciate my own mom and dad. I often think about the kinds of challenges they navigated with my sister and me. There’s the issue of parenting in general, and then they had the added challenge of steering us in a culture and country that they adopted as home but that wasn’t their birthplace.

My husband and I talk occasionally about how people without kids can’t fully grasp the speed bumps that trip us up. And certainly the kids can’t grasp them either. How can they, when they’re the cause of those speed bumps?

Occasionally, though, the boomerang comes back around sooner than anyone expects.

Eleven is the notorious early riser of the two girls, taking after her father and grandfather. Thirteen doesn’t get out of bed with ease; it generally takes her a little longer in the morning. I can commiserate, because I know exactly how she feels. While adulting requires early mornings sometimes, they’re not my most favorite.

In an interesting twist, though, once Thirteen is awake she moves fast. Eleven will wake up early, shower, get dressed, and come downstairs by 7:30. We aim to leave every morning by 8 a.m. for school. She can still find a way to be late.

Eleven’s freshest first thing in the morning, and she loves to chat. Her train of thought skips along from one subject to the next at lightning speed, and because she has a lot to say she’ll often just stand in the kitchen and talk. And talk. And talk. I have to remind her to keep moving on her way to get her breakfast or to keep eating it.

Yesterday morning, Thirteen came down after Eleven, as she often does, ate her breakfast, went back upstairs to brush her teeth, and came back down to see her sister still eating. At that point, Eleven decided she had to go pee. She left her breakfast and went to the bathroom.

“She gets down here before me,” Thirteen said, “and yet we’re still late for school.”

I suppressed a knowing grin. “This is exactly what it was like when you were in sixth grade. That’s why I yelled so much. And then I stopped yelling.”

“Yeah,” she said in that half-teasing voice of hers, “because now your favorite child’s in sixth grade.”

“No, I stopped yelling when you were halfway through sixth grade, because I realized it didn’t accomplish anything,” I said honestly.

She pondered this for a bit, and I smiled into my mug of tea. I don’t know if she remembers the yelling; she didn’t say one way or the other. But I know she understands now why I did it.

Gotta love that boomerang. Looking for it to swing back around again soon. Maybe this time on just how much we spend on the kids.

Newest Chart: When parenting boomerangs

September 20, 2019

By Ekta R. Garg

Two weeks ago, on the day after Labor Day, I woke up with a sore throat. No problem, I thought. When the seasons change here in Central Illinois, we expect a day or two of scratchiness.

On Wednesday of that week the scratchiness had disappeared, and congestion had arrived. Again, I didn’t bat an eye. Okay, so I would come down with a cold. Not fun but certainly nothing to worry about.

Then came Thursday. The day I woke up feeling like a truck had run over me. Twice.

Because my husband had to go to the clinic later that morning, he volunteered to take the kids to school. I followed the three of them to the mudroom and watched them put on shoes and pick up backpacks. Then I opened my mouth to bid the girls goodbye.

“Have a good—”

“Go sit down,” Thirteen interrupted with full-on teen stubbornness.

“I will, I just—”

“We love you too; go sit,” she repeated.

“I know, but—”

“We love you, we’ll have a good day, see you after school, there,” Eleven piped up behind her sister. “Go, Mamma. Take it easy.”

I looked at my husband.

“What has the world come to?” I asked, feigning shock. “Do you see the way the kids are ordering me around?”

He pecked a kiss on my forehead and reiterated what the kids told me. In essence, all three of them were banishing me to the sofa for the day. Since they outvoted me, I had no choice but to listen and was grateful to do so.

I spent that day catching up on HGTV and a movie or two. When it came time for dinner, we ordered Chinese. My husband and Eleven picked it up on the way home from soccer practice, and I watched them walk in with the takeout containers from the couch.

In a move rare for me, I didn’t get up to serve anyone. Instead, I let Thirteen come to me. She pulled a little side table to me.

“What do you want to eat?” she asked me and filled a plate per my requests then brought it to me.

“When you get all better, I’m sanitizing everything,” she said, picking up the remote a little gingerly. She set it on the coffee table and went to the island counter to join her sister and father for their own dinner. After a few minutes, when she saw my plate empty, she refilled it for me.

On Friday, though I didn’t know it was possible, I felt even worse. I also woke up with a temperature, which the girls monitored with me during the day. That evening when I announced the fever had dropped, they both cheered.

Throughout the weekend and all of last week, the girls went out of their way to take care of me. Eleven asked repeatedly if she could help with household chores not normally her responsibility. Thirteen made sure I stayed comfortable on my sofa spot for the week. Both of them took turns teasing me in the most good-natured fashion, gentle but still funny.

Last Thursday I felt good enough to do some small tasks, which took me to sorting through the mail right around the time the girls would come home from school. As he had done many times, my husband stepped up (despite starting to feel a little icky himself three days earlier) and brought the kids home. I happened to be standing at the small counter close to the mudroom where we drop mail and other items when everyone walked in

“Oh my gosh!” Thirteen exclaimed, taking a dramatic two steps back. “Oh my gosh!”

“What?” I asked, pretending not to know why she was reacting that way.

“What is happening here?” Eleven asked, tacking on to her sister’s performance with her eyes wide. “What’s going on?”

“What?” I asked again.

Thirteen put a hand to her chest in Victorian fashion, and both girls proceeded to go upstairs to their rooms to wash up. I just shook my head at all the silliness and went back to the sofa. By the time they came back down, I felt depleted of the little bit of energy I’d spent during the day. I went back to the sofa.

“What was going on before?” I asked Thirteen.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she said, our family’s code for taking the Fifth Amendment.

I suppressed a smile, a signal for me that I really was feeling better.

Since Monday we’ve all gone back to our normal routines. My husband recovered from his laryngitis. I’m almost back to a hundred percent after the cough/cold/flu I endured.

This morning, Thirteen came downstairs for breakfast before school.

“My throat feels a little scratchy,” she said.

I held up a finger to her. “No. I forbid it. You can’t.”

She rolled her eyes.

“It’s all you guys’s fault,” she said, glancing at me and her dad.

“What did we do?” my husband asked.

The ribbing continued, and Thirteen took a handful of cough drops to school just in case. I hope it’s just the run-of-the-mill, fall-season throat scratchiness and nothing more serious. From recent experience, I know how miserable the more serious version can make a person. But the girls have shown me that they know exactly what to expect if one of them does get sick, because they took such good care of me.

Sometimes when parents are in the thick of actual act of parenting, we don’t know if what we’re doing is making a difference. If what we’re trying to teach the kids is actually sticking. Weeks like this offer me reassurance that it is.

Latest Spurts: Getting haircuts and achieving world peace with Fruit Loops

August 30, 2019

By Ekta R. Garg

Enjoy these Spurts from the past few weeks, readers!

Last week before school started, I took the girls on an errand run. We had several things to do that day, including haircuts before school started and picking up some groceries. Along the way we chatted about the haircuts in particular.

For the last few years, Thirteen has enjoyed having long hair. She’s styled it a variety of ways, and relished its length halfway down her back. Earlier in the summer, though, she floated the idea of cutting it to her shoulders.

I didn’t say anything at the time. Kids have ideas and then change their minds. Also, between getting ready for our Norway trip and working on my novel, I didn’t want to spend time or energy on anything not crucial to either. I knew we’d have about five days before the kids started school to parse out the details on any potential hairstyle changes.

The girls went to Myrtle Beach to visit their grandparents, and when Thirteen came back she still wanted to get her hair cut. She’d already enlisted her grandmother as moral support for the idea. The only hurdle she had to cross was convincing her father.

In all honesty, I didn’t think he’d agree. Imagine my amazement when he did just that. As we drove to Great Clips last week, we discussed the conversation in the car.

“I still can’t believe Daddy agreed to let you cut your hair,” Eleven remarked.

“Yeah, well,” Thirteen said with a sigh, “he said I can only do it this one time. I can’t ever cut it again after this.”

“Why does it even matter to him?” Eleven said with her trademark bluntness. “I don’t get it. I mean, it’s not like it’s his hair.”

“Yeah,” Thirteen echoed.

“Well, in India, long hair is a sign of beauty,” I said. “Daddy grew up there, and culturally that’s what long hair stands for. It’s normal for him.”

“That’s weird,” Eleven declared.

“Maybe for you,” I said, “but there are so many cultures where people do things that we think are weird but they think are beautiful. In Africa people wear those rings around their necks to make their necks longer. In China people used to think small feet on women were beautiful, and they would break the feet of young girls and bind them so that their feet looked little.”

“Yeah, Mamma, I get it.”

“So, just like that, in India, long hair is a sign of beauty, and we don’t necessarily have to agree with it, but we do have to respect Daddy’s opinions and ideas, even if we don’t like them.”

“Maybe he’s just jealous because he can’t go for a haircut,” Thirteen mused about her father’s minimal hair.

We shared a laugh on that one, but I hope the main message got across.

*****

After the haircuts, we made our way to Sam’s to pick up a few items in bulk for the new school year like Capri Sun and favorite cereals that were running out. Our Sam’s club changed its layout in the last few weeks, so I had to make my way down most of the main aisles to get my bearings. The girls followed along and commented on all the foods we don’t eat.

“It’s so unfair,” Eleven said after the third or fourth item we crossed that we wouldn’t buy, “I don’t understand why we can’t try some of these things just once. Just once, and we’d never ask for them again.”

“It doesn’t work that way,” I said. “Once you’ll have them, you’ll want them again.”

“Yeah, but you’ve had most of them.”

Okay, so maybe not most, but it’s true that when it came to food choices my parents weren’t as stringent on what we did or didn’t eat as my husband. Of course, when I was a kid, food nutrition labels didn’t exist as we know them today. The FDA began mandatory labeling of food packages in 1990; before that time, some foods came labeled but not all did. And because I grew up as the child of immigrants, the kinds of foods we were eating were automatically different than most households.

All that to say that the conversations we have in this country today about protein, fat, and salt didn’t exist when I was growing up. People didn’t have all this information, so we ate with more pleasure and less guilt. Of course, I couldn’t express this last part to the kids, but I did remind them about the food labeling.

“We know, Mamma,” Eleven said in a sullen tone.

For the rest of the shopping trip through Sam’s, she hung back and didn’t say much. When it came time to pay, I directed the cart to the self check-out stand. Thirteen scurried forward to help load groceries into the cart after I scanned them.

“And what is [Eleven] doing?” she asked.

“She’s back here sulking because she can’t have Fruit Loops and Little Debbie Oatmeal Pies,” I said.

I turned to my younger daughter, and she cracked a smile. She couldn’t help it, even though she really wanted to hold onto that grumpiness. After a minute or two, she started helping with the groceries too.

Maybe this is the key to world peace. Forget diplomacy. Just offer everyone Fruit Loops.

*****

The first day of school was a half day, so the kids came home and ate their lunch. On the second day of school, I went to wish Eleven a good morning and found her grinning. I gave her a hug and asked what was making her so happy.

“We get to sit at the middle school tables,” she said, referring to herself and the other sixth graders, “and not because the middle schoolers are gone on the camp-out or a field trip or something. It’s because we are middle schoolers now.”

I couldn’t help grinning back at her myself. I remember what it felt like to cross the threshold from one major part of the school to another. The excitement that we were growing up and like the “big kids” now, although I know Eleven would never quite put it that way. I hope her excitement for middle school stays through these first few weeks.

*****

On Monday as I pulled into the school’s drop-off line in the morning, we spotted one of the new sixth graders.

“There’s A.,” I said.

“Oh, yeah,” Thirteen commented. “You know, her mom walked her into advisory on the first day.”

“Yeah,” Eleven added, “and she looked a little embarrassed.”

“Yeah,” Thirteen said, “she did.”

Before I could even open my mouth to tease the girls about walking them in, Thirteen turned to open the car door.

“It’s okay, Mamma, you don’t have to walk us inside,” she said with one foot out of the car.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Yeah, really,” she said and got out; Eleven was two steps behind her.

I had just enough time to get in a “Bye, love you!” before she shut the door. Not that I would have walked her in. But since she’s a teenager, I should at least get the pleasure of torturing her with the possibility, right?