Friday, August 13, 2004

Surf's Up

For all my trepidation, the trip to the shore was a qualified success. Good weather, fairly decent amounts of sleep (for the kids, at least), no major tantrums. The house was cramped, but everyone got along just fine.

Sean loved the beach. Before the trip, we'd been reading Clifford and the Missing Beach Ball, and apparently he had memorized quite a bit of it: whenever we talked to him about going to the beach, he'd say, "I'm going to build the best sandcastle EVERRRR!" And when we got to the actual beach, he did indeed play in the sand---given his predilection for fastidiousness, I'd had my doubts about how much contact with sand he could handle.

The water fascinated him; he loved to jump in the waves and sit at the water's edge as the waves cascaded around his legs. He also knew when he'd had enough and would head back toward our blanket in search of his towel to warm up.

(Here I go with morbid thoughts again: I was struck by just how vulnerable a child his age is near the water. Without us there to protect him, the pull of the undertow and the force of the waves could easily have ... well, you know.)

Allie proved to be slightly more challenging to entertain and keep happy. We held her in our arms by the water, or sat with her in a beach chair while the waves lapped up. She delighted in watching the waves; she'd wave at them and always had a huge smile on her face.

Back on dry land, though, it seemed as if she was saying, "Um, Mom, I liked hanging out with you and all, but I need some action, man!" She'd struggle to wrench herself out of my arms, and after I placed her on the blanket she'd head straight toward the sand. "Why, what's this stuff? Let me cram a fistful into my mouth to see how it tastes!" Trying to prevent her from meeting her manifest destiny with the sand became a little tiresome after a while. I briefly managed to distract her by filling a small bucket with water and showing her how she could dip her hands in. She'd plunk one hand in, splash it around, lift it out, wave it around, and repeat the process with the other hand. After a few minutes, though, she'd be ready for another sand snack.

After two days of the rather taxing effort involved with Allie Watch, on day 3 Jeff took Sean to the beach with his parents, and Allie and I hung out at the house. I'll admit, in a small voice reserved for voicing bratty opinions, that I miss just sitting on the beach and relaxing. I love to play with the kids, but I have to get used to the reality that beach + kids = exhausted parents.

Sean also got to experience amusement rides for the first time (he went on the carousel last year, but he wasn't big enough for any of the other rides). He had a ball, and Jeff, his mother, and I had nearly as much fun watching him. He went on all the typical go-in-a-circle rides, all pretty much the same except for the vehicle: cars, boats, fire engines, more cars, train. And Allie, whose reaction to being stuck in the stroller is always a wild card, was quite content watching the spectacle of lights and crowds and noise around her.

All in all, glad to have gone, very glad to be home again.

Best line of the trip: Sean woke up from his nap because Allison was crying lustily over something or other. When I went into our room to check on him, he informed me, "Allie's freaking out."

(In case we needed it, more proof that the kid absorbs what we say like a sponge!)

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

A Readerly Interlude

Before I launch into our recent trip, here's a quick report on the few books I've read:

The Mother Trip: Hip Mama's Guide to Staying Sane in the Chaos of Motherhood by Ariel Gore. I can't even begin to imagine living Ariel Gore's life. At 16, she ran away to China and embarked on a wild, harrowing trek across Europe. The trip culminated in giving birth to her daughter in Italy at 17. After returning to the United States, she went on welfare, earned a bachelor's and master's degree, and founded the zine Hip Mama, all the while battling both her abusive ex-boyfriend (and the father of her daughter) and the family court system.

This book is a series of really short essays about, of course, motherhood, but filtered through the lens of a remarkably intelligent, resourceful, funny, cool, politically engaged woman. Unlike Faulkner Fox, whose stridency left me cold, she leavens a lot her strong political views with self-deprecating humor. Her main point is that we need to reject the myth of the perfect mother, and instead embrace who we are, especially if we fall outside the traditional spectrum of what society considers "acceptable". My reaction: a refreshing and candid defense of why "good enough" is a perfectly reasonable approach to motherhood.

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller

First thoughts: A love letter to both the author's parents and to Africa. One of the most remarkable things about the book is the author's complete avoidance of judging her parents' virulent racism. She lets them speak for themselves, with damning results. And despite a childhood of near-constant heartache, physical discomfort, and danger, Fuller, technically British and now residing in the U.S., considers Africa to be her home, a part of the very fabric of her being. To my friends who told me this would be a funny book despite the grim topic: Huh? Did I fall asleep and miss it? Okay, there were some extremely dry and mordantly funny passages, but my overall reaction was sadness (and attendant white person's guilt) over the largely unrelenting mess that Africa has become since colonialism.

In Her Shoes by Jennifer Weiner

Hey, don't look at me like that. It's a perfect beach book. So there.

So Where Have I Been?

I am a busy person, you know. Lots of important stuff going on: travel to far-off and exotic locales, intellectually stimulating projects at work, natural disasters wreaking havoc in my basement.

Oh no, you groan. Could it be the dreaded Flooding of the Basement that every homeowner with a basement fears? Well, yes, indeed it could be.

I have to preface this by saying that the 10 inches of rain we received in one day caused us inconvenience and stress and will necessitate costly repairs, but compared to the overwhelming loss that people a few towns away from us experienced, I consider us almost lucky. Yes, our basement flooded, but no, we did not have to evacuate our home to elude a rushing river that used to be a street.

That said, it was not a fun experience. After almost an entire day of downpours, Jeff checks the basement to see if there is any water down there. We've lived in our house for almost 5 years, and we've never had so much as a damp spot. Bad news: water is seeping in from the perimeter of the finished part of the basement and the utility room. At this point we are calm homeowners. We can handle this by judicious use of our wet-dry vac. Reverting to comfortable gender stereotypes, Jeff steels himself for the task and I take care of the kids.

Jeff soon realizes that the water is coming in too fast for the wet-dry vac to possibly keep up. While he is growing increasingly frantic, I am bathing the kids and getting them ready for bed. I am certain that they picked up on the stress mounting in the house: Sean crumples into a crying, thrashing heap when I tell him that Daddy cannot not lie down next to him while he goes to sleep. Meanwhile, Allie needs her bottle and Jeff is beseeching me to find someone to help us.

Okay, think, focus. I give Allie her bottle, put her down in the crib before she is asleep, and pray that she will go to sleep on her own for the first time. Sean continues to scream at the top of his lungs: "Daddy! Where are you?" "Daddy! Mommy! Come here!" Approximately one minute after I put her down, Allie realizes that she is alone, that she is not asleep, and that she is NOT HAPPY. So she begins wailing as well.

Things in the basement are deteriorating rapidly. The carpet is like a soft sponge, there is an inch of water in the utility room, and we need to begin salvaging things. Most important: Jeff's drum set.

Meanwhile, the kids are still freaking out. I rescue Allison from her crib because I can't bear the agony in her cry. I feel like a complete monster for leaving Sean, but I know that he will calm down eventually.

While holding Allie, I call my mom, I call Gail, I call Mary Kay. Kathie and Gary are on vacation, so our usual pillars of support aren't available. Gail, bless her very generous heart, agrees to trek out in the pouring rain to Home Depot to buy us another wet-dry vac and then drive all the way from Cheltenham to our house. My mom thinks to call a friend of hers, and he says he will come over with his wet-dry vac. Mary Kay's phone is busy, and there's no answer on her cell phone.

Still holding Allie, I help Jeff carry the most valuable items up the stairs. Now there is about an inch of water in the carpeted part of the basement as well. My big fear is the deadly mixture of water and power cords running everywhere, so we try to prop up all the cords so that they are not submerged in water. We've both abandoned any pretense of calm. One good thing: Allie falls asleep in my arms despite the chaos, and Sean, having given up on the possibility that anyone will come to rescue him, has gone to sleep, too. (I wish I had another set of arms so that I can hold them both; even now, writing this almost a month later, I feel so sad for Sean, that he is too little to have understood all my explanations to him that night.)

Finally, finally, help arrives. Joe, my mom's friend and a veteran of many a flooded basement, has his wet-dry vac and offers to go rent us a small pump. This is the best advice of the entire night.

My mom calls, Gail calls---they are both caught in flooding en route to our house. My mom eventually gives up and drives back home because the roads were getting exceptionally dangerous. Gail manages to make it through, as does Mary Kay.

With all this help, we finally feel a little more in control, though not much. We all take turns running the wet-dry vacs, which keep overloading the circuit in the basement that controls the lights. What's a sure-fire way to make a stressful situation even more stressful? Right! Cut out the lights!

From here on, the night proceeds in an almost orderly fashion: run the vacs, empty the vacs, shift the pump around, repeat. Around 12:00, Gail heads on home. She has a job interview the next day; I feel a combination of overwhelming gratitude and guilt. Jerry arrives not long after Gail leaves; still in his work clothes, he helps us vacuum. At 2:00 a.m., Mary Kay leaves and I go to bed; Jeff joins me around 4:00. At that point, no more water is coming in, and the rain has finally stopped.

The fallout: The carpet is toast; drums and all valuable items are saved. There's some water damage to the drywall, but the heater/air conditioner seems okay. We had someone come in to remove the carpet, apply some no-doubt-cancer-causing anti-mold solution, and provide a heavy-duty dehumidifier. Those steps helped eliminate the pervasive, almost suffocating musty odor that filtered throughout the house.

Our psyches are a little scarred, too, but again I am trying to keep everything in perspective. I am so, so grateful to everyone who helped us that night. At one point, before reinforcements arrived, Jeff was feeling pretty despondent about not having anyone who could help us.

Now we have to decide what to do: Nothing and keep the basement unfinished? Nothing and reinstall carpeting? Install a french drain/sump-pump and reinstall carpeting? We opted for option C. We're trying to select a contractor as we speak.

Our encounter with one particular hard-sell, doomsday-scenario-spouting salesman was memorable. The pitch went something like this: Your foundation is about to buckle under the extreme PRESSURE of water! The house could crumble! Black mold could form, inducing a 7-day hospitalization like it did to me! Excavation [costing $40,000] may be necessary if you let this perilous situation continue! What, a French drain? Bah! They're garbage---what you need is our patented system, the one we charge $13,000 for. (The patented system? Basically a fancy french drain.)

And then came the slimy sales tactic. Note that this is at MIDNIGHT, and the guy has been at our house for 2 hours. Throughout the visit, the guy has commented on this big commercial job that's been canceled. Uh oh, I thought, I smell duplicity ahead! Sure enough, after he has attempted to scare us to death, he calls the office to see if a commercial crew will be available in 2 days for a small residential job. Why, of course there is. And we can get a several-thousand-dollar discount, but only if we sign up right now. Jeff and I exchange a look and say together, "No." If this guy had moved with the same alacrity during the preceding 2 hours as he did after we turned down his offer, well, we'd all have been done a lot sooner. He literally flew out the door.

A few days later, a rep from the same company calls to say that they reviewed our estimate, discovered that it was too high, and could offer us yet another substantial discount. With admirable restraint, Jeff politely told the woman that we were not interested and that we considered the sales tactics used by the company to be unethical. Honestly, how stupid do they think people are?

Next post: Exotic travel.