Monday, July 30, 2012

Perception and Pancakes

The other morning started out like every other morning Chez Garth. I was making pancakes. The kids were taking WAY too long to come downstairs. Child #2 came down first. He was grumpy, which is not unusual because he's always grumpy before he eats breakfast.

I handed him a plate of pancakes and then, as I opened up a new bottle of syrup and poured a little bit on, I made a rookie parenting mistake. With one finger I sampled the syrup and said, "Huh, that tastes different."

"Different how? What do you mean?" he said poking his pancake with his fork and looking at it like it might bite him instead of the other way around.

Realizing my error I backtracked. "Not different at all. It's delicious. It tastes exactly like our ordinary syrup."

He took one suspicious bite, chewed a minute and then spit it out onto the plate. "I can't eat this," he said (and he actually threw up his hands in disgust). "This is awful. It tastes like throw-up. I think I'd like jam instead."

"Okay, Paddington Bear," I said as I dumped his pancake into the compost bin.

He was lucky because he caught me on a patient morning. Maybe the reason I was feeling patient is because I've been struggling with some of my own perceptions and I'm fresh from the realization of the power those perceptions hold.

My writing process is usually linear. I start at the beginning and work my way through to the bitter end. I've always done it that way and because that's the way I've always worked I didn't think any other way would work as well.

But suddenly, with this WIP, I'm hopping all over the place. I wrote the beginning and then several scenes in the middle and now I'm back to the beginning. It's a weird way for me to work. Like new syrup, it's different. Unlike new syrup, I suppose time is the only thing that will tell if the end result is delicious.

Friday, July 27, 2012

An Old-Fashioned Summer

I'm a big believer in old-fashioned summers.

The ability to give my kids a carefree summer is one of my favorite things about writing (okay, okay you all read about my hot and steamy love affair with the current WIP so maybe that's not exactly the truth, but it's high on the list).

I love the structureless days. I love the way we drift through entire weeks on nothing more than whims and odd food choices. Berries and deli meat for breakfast, okay, why not. Sometimes I declare it a day of snacking and grazing, no proper meals allowed and that's exactly what we do.

Summer, of course, isn't all easy, breezy, effortless days. There's a transition period. We go from racing from one scheduled activity to the next during the school year to doing not much besides summer swim team.

Due to my love of unstructure (I'm not sure that's a word) there are the days, especially at the beginning of the summer, where the kids will ask with more than a little desperation, "What are we doing today?"

I'll say, "Well, I'm plannng on writing, maybe I'll go for a run and I'm dying to finish the book I'm reading. What are you planning on doing?"

They always look at me as though I've gone insane when I say things like that.

It takes a few uncomfortable weeks before the message sinks in. There are arguments, grouchiness, sassiness and general irritability. Then, at precisely the moment when I think I can't take any more and I should really have signed them up for more camps, everything clicks.

They figure it out. Fun is their responsibility and they are capable of creating it.

Right now, there is an enormous fort in the basement with playing cards strewn everywhere. My daughter's room looks like a tornado of fabric pieces because she's in "design mode".

They've created an intricate pretend game that involves Beyblades, spinning tops that battle, for the uninitiated. All my big kitchen spoons have been co-opted for a game of spoon puppets. Swim suits and beach towels are hanging everywhere.

Summer has finally arrived. It's all in finding the right attitude.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Boys Will Be Boys.

Last week, instead of a girl and a boy at my house I had two boys.  Child #1 was off to sleepaway camp and I had my BFF's son staying with me during the week while she was on a special 40th birthday trip.

During that week I noticed a few consistent patterns among my son, his friend and the various other boys we dragged home with us. Here they are in no particular order of importance.

1. Boys eat a lot.

2. Sweaty soccer socks, shin guards and cleats are MUCH better left outside.

3. There's nothing better than clothing optional video game time (no accompanying pic with this one).

4. Boy conversation consists of a lot of oneupsmanship.

5. In boy world, leaving leftover fruit leather in your backpack to "attract ant pets" is a good idea.

6. Once you have ant pets it's fun to bring them with you, in the car, in the house, to camp. As an experiment, you can try setting them loose on an adult's leg...just to see how she reacts.

7. Boys spend a lot of time with their hands down their pants.

8. The placement of their hands has zero bearing on whether they think they should wash them before having a snack.

9. Outdoor peeing will occur frequently and be competitive.

10. And boys, even the ones that don't belong to you, really need a story and a kiss before they can fall asleep.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Une Affaire d'Amour

Every now and then, usually right when I need it most, something will happen to remind me why I write.

The kids were at camp last week, which gave me time to hunker down in the corner of my favorite coffee shop and work on my WIP. Given the running around with my hoodlums that summer requires (children, I swear I meant children!) it's been awhile since I've been to this particular haunt. But, as it always does, it worked its special magic.

As writers, we all have those moments, when the words on the page become more real than anything in our lives. Hours slip by and the real world fades away.

I was well into my alternate universe when another patron of the coffee shop knocked on my table. Yes, he had to knock to get my attention. And said, "Good to see you back. I always wonder what you're working on that has you looking so flushed and intense."

His statement had two effects, the first one was to make me look much more flushed for a moment.

The second thing it did was much more important. It made me think about why I write. Why am I in such a hurry to lose myself to words? Why do I feel antsy and irritable after a day or two without writing?

Writing, I've realized, is my own personal love affair. There are the days when I try to picture what my life would be like without it. It might be easier. I wouldn't have to deal with the highs and the lows, but even as I toy with the idea, I know it's not really an option for me. The highs are too addictive and the lows leave me low, but not so low that I stop craving the highs.

It's my dopamine fix, my beloved love affair, the best (and sometimes simultaneously worst) part of my day. I write because I'm addicted, because I can't get by without it.

And, if it leaves me looking a little flushed and intense, well, all I can say is lucky me.

Friday, July 20, 2012

For the Love of Food

I'm not sure if the trend started in Portland but I'm going to argue Portland now does it better than any other place in the country.

We have the naked bike riders who keep congregating under the Joan of Arc statue in my neighborhood, the yoga enthusiasts (count me in on that trend), the urban farmers whose chickens have resulted in urban coyotes on the urban hunt but most importantly we have our food carts.

Portland is a food lover's town. Which is lucky for me because I can be counted in on that trend too. I'm a food adventurist. If it's fresh and looks appetizing, it's for me.

Enter Portland's food carts.

I know PDX didn't invent the food cart. Carts in NYC selling unleaded coffee and doughnuts have long been a staple. And I learned the hard way to avoid street food in Southeast Asia. A side note here, it's always best to avoid unidentifiable meat on sticks purchased from carts lacking refrigeration.

But I digress, because the NYC and Southeast Asian carts have nothing on what we have in Portland. Encampments of gourmet carts have sprung up all over my hipster side of town.

Most of them are reliably stationary. I can bike over to Belmont Street any day of the week with Child #2 in tow, pick up his favorite macaroni and cheese, which is so good it should be illegal, and a fancy-ish salad with fresh figs, honey and goat cheese for me.

The PDX food carts raise the bar on the whole food scene. It's like the minor leagues of the culinary world. If you wander through the cart settlement camps you might just discover the next darling of the food world preparing homemade ice cream or pork belly sandwiches.

Last week I placed an order for a vegan Portand bowl. The man at the window took my name and told me to pick it up around the corner at the pick-up window. I complied and walked around the corner where the same man greeted me.

"Orders on the other side," he said.

"Right, I just did."

"Cool. Do you have a name."

"Johanna," I repeated, even though I was the only customer and had given him my name no less than thirty seconds ago.

"Awesome, that's right. I remember you now," he said as he handed me my food. "Peace. Enjoy."

It was the true flavor of Portland, in more ways than one.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Swimming Holes

What would summer be without swimming? On those hot days when the air sits heavy and motionless and the pool is cloudy with other people's sunscreen there's nothing better than, what my kids call, "Nature's Swimming Pool."

Quick and easy access to these perfectly round pools carved out by waterfalls is the thing I missed most during the sweltering summers when we lived in NYC.

"Didn't you go to any swimming holes when you were growing up?" I used to ask my husband. "There must be some undiscovered private places around here somewhere."

He was quick to remind me, that while NYC has lots of amazing things going for it, undiscovered swimming holes an hour's drive from the city aren't on that list. As a kid, he spent time going to the beach and hanging out at the pool. I spent time riding my bike five miles up a country road and playing at a place not unlike this one.

It was a place where you could jump from the top of the waterfall and your feet would just barely touch the bottom.


Last week I decided my kids needed a little swimming hole magic in their lives. I packed the car with kids, friends and food and drove an hour out of the city to this place.

Like the swimming holes of my youth there was a waterfall that had carved a pool deep enough to allow for jumping from fifteen feet above. Child #1 eyed it. "No," I said before she could even ask.

The water was so cold it took your breath away for a moment.

But the day was hot and so one-by-one we all dove in. A ledge of stone where the water was only two feet deep made the perfect entry point. The shore was lined with enormous rocks where we sat in the sun while the kids paddled around and tried to spot fish swimming beneath them in the crystal clear water.

It's true that Portland lacks many of the things that NYC has to offer. But in the summer when I can drive here

and still be back in time for dinner, I don't miss them at all.

Monday, July 16, 2012


The acronym alone makes me giggle. It's long, unweildy and makes me think of summer.

In case you aren't a dance junkie the acronym stands for So You Think You Can Dance.

Every summer I let my children stay up way too late watching episodes of the reality show that is the American Idol of dancing. For those of you who read my blog on a regular basis, they even cash in their poker chips to watch, which goes to show just how much the show means to them.

We watch it live, no DVRing. The only exception to that rule is if sleepaway camp or vacation happens to come in between us and our show. We scan the awkward audition rounds, ignoring the inevitable bad dancers while we search for gems. And every year there are gems to be found. People who move their bodies as though gravity is just a rule and they've decided not to follow it.

The kids always have same-sex crushes. Last year Child #1 was in love with Sasha Mallory and this year she's rooting for Eliana Girard. Child #2 crosses his fingers for Will Thomas and last year he was seduced by the break dancing skills of Tad Gadduang.

Although you might think my favorite part of SYTYCD would be the dancing, you would be wrong. My favorite, hands down, nothing better than this, part of the show is the moment when my children  start performing their own SYTYCD-inspired dance routines.

Experience has taught me it's important to keep a straight face during these numbers, even though it's hard when it's a break dancing routine that involves odd facial contortions, hip-thrusting and pieces of paper gratuitously shredded and thrown in the air mid-performance.

The second best part of these routines are the commercials. It's a mark of the difference between my childhood and theirs that, at first, they had no idea the commercial were separate from the program and incorporated them into their routine. It was modern dance with leaps off the coffee table and a side of Wendy's Berry Almond Chicken Salad.

It's still early in the season. I haven't been treated to any spectacular dance routines yet but I can feel them building. Yesterday I walked into Child #1's bedroom and found her practicing a pirouette with one leg in the air. Her eyes were locked on her own reflection in the mirror. "I wonder if Eliana can do this?" she said as she tucked a foot behind her head.

Eliana's skill sets are going to be nationally televised, but I'm lucky because I get my own private showing of SYTYCD, The Garth Family Episodes. I have a feeling season three might be the best yet!

Friday, July 13, 2012

Screen Time

Was this even a concept when I was growing up? Probably not because my childhood landscape wasn't littered with handheld gaming devices, XBoxs, Wiis, iPads, PC's, YouTube, Netflix with streaming capability, DVDs, DVR and plain old television.

That list makes for a lot of ways to sit in front of a screen. Every summer I dread the inevitible demands and every summer, at some point during the late afternoon heat, I cave. Once I cave the ensuing peace and amount of work I accomplish allows hours to slip by undetected.

The need for change to the current system presented itself this spring when Child #2 announced his life ambition. "When I grow up I'm going to," he said at dinner and paused.

"Yes!" my husband and I said, eager to hear the incredible future Child #2 envisioned for himself.
"Work at the Plaid Pantry. And when I'm not working I'm going to come home and play video games in the basement." Without waiting for us to reply he added, "I might even live down there. That way I could still eat all my meals with you."

Nothing spells out intervention like an announcement that your son's life goal is to work at a convenience store and play video games in the basement. Not long after that I hatched the Poker Chip plan.

The Poker Chip plan is my attempt to achieve some kind of happy medium in our screen crazy world.

On Sunday night each kid gets seven poker chips. Each poker chip is worth one hour of screen time. How and when they spend their poker chips is up to them.

They can go big, like Child #2 did the first week, and indulge in five solid hours of screen time. They can save them up for a movie or they can cash in one a day for a little five o'clock down time. The only catch is the poker chips are use or lose, a necessity given Child #1's hoarding tendencies (but that's another blog post).

During the first week of the poker chip plan my husband was worried. "Child #2 is going to drive you crazy," he said after the five hour technology orgy. But he didn't. Even though his splurge meant he had to go four whole days *the horror* without staring at any kind of screen he accepted his fate as part of the deal.

The Poker Chip plan has also proved to be an excellent outlet for Child #1's junior lawyer skills.

She views the "use it or lose it" aspect as taxation without representation and has submitted numerous oral arguments in support of her position.

There's only one person who sits on the bench of the Garth Family Supreme Court and, unluckily for Child #1, that person also wrote the legislation. Her motions and appeals have been dismissed and denied. If you happen to know her, do me a solid and keep her in the dark about conflict of interest provisions.

As for the overall success of the plan, so far this summer has seen a higher hit rate of lounging around reading books and playing outside. Technically, poker chips are for gambling but I'm pretty sure this jack pot of an idea is better than anything I would have won at a casino.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012


When you think about it, freedom is the theme song to summer.

No more pencils, no more books and all that kind of thing. If you're a kid it means not having to get up early and complete the daily slog of breakfast, school, homework, dinner, bedtime.

If you're an adult, summer might signal the start of days where cubicles and offices are empty and the halls feel oddly vacant. Someone is always on vacation and if you're lucky, it's you.

For parents who stay at home the trend toward freedom is upside down. Instead of days of solitude followed by busy afternoons, we have days of busy followed by more busy. And most noticeably, unless we pay for the privilege, we are NEVER alone.

It's what I refer to as the summer transition period. If you're used to having six hours to set your own schedule, it comes as a rude awakening to realize people would like you to stop what you're doing and make lunch (the nerve), play a game, drive them somewhere, make brownies, go on a bike ride, pick them up from somewhere, explain the theory of relativity. The list could go on but I'm sure you get the idea.

Then, every summer, there comes that moment when the kids go stay with their grandparents and I go from one extreme to the other. Suddenly, every single minute of the day belong to me.

I wake up and no one needs me to make breakfast. There's no need to squeeze blogging time into those minutes between swim team practices.

My day is my own, completely. And my decisions are based solely on my preference.

I can sleep in and skip lunch without worrying about not setting a healthy eating example. I can hide out in coffee shops and write to my heart's content without ever giving a thought to the time of day. It's life untimed and at my own pace.

I've been trying to remember if I appreciated the freedom of doing exactly what I wanted, when I wanted, when I had it on a regular basis.

I'm pretty sure I didn't.

It would have been akin to asking me, right now, if I appreciate having fresh water to drink. I do, but not in the way someone would who hasn't had it in ten years.

Of course, by the time the kids return on Sunday their pristine bedrooms and the quiet house will have begun to make me sad. I'll long for the chatter, the demands, the laughter and the mess.

But right now, I'm enjoying my morning cup of coffee at noon and it's entirely possible I'll get so wrapped up in writing my newest book that hours will slip away, unheeded, because for the next few days I'm living life off the clock.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Strawberry Dreams

Maybe strawberries say summer to everyone.

Or maybe they say it to me because I grew up in a town that claimed to serve the World's Largest Strawberry Shortcake during it's annual Strawberry Festival.

Whatever it is, nothing makes me feel more summery than the moment I spot red fruit peeking out from underneath green leaves.

And yes, I know you can purchase strawberries all year round at the grocery store but those aren't really strawberries. They might be called strawberries, look sort of like strawberries, but after that they lose any relationship to a real strawberry picked warm from the sun and eaten straight off the strawberry bush.

Real strawberries, as opposed to their mutant grocery story cousins, are not very big and not deep dark red. These warm, and sometimes slightly dirty, strawberries encapsulate summer. They are sweet, brief and best consumed immediately.

A few years ago I planted a border of strawberry bushes all around the stone patio in our backyard. Those bushes have become my bellweather for summer. Each year when I spot their blooms I rejoice because I know warm weather with it's lazy days and slower pace isn't far behind.

My strawberry bushes often provide breakfast, mid-morning snack and the opportunity to make a fancy dessert. Even though my children won't share memories of the World's Largest Strawberry Shortcake with me, I'm confident they are creating their very own summer strawberry memories.

Each morning when they come home from their marathon morning swim practice they collapse in the grass, pick strawberries and talk about the important issues of the day: BeyBlades battles, what Child #2 will do for his birthday and who's going to win So You Think You Can Dance.

I never interrupt that time because it's just for them, their time to bond, eat and relish summer.

I know when they grow up they'll probably cheat on summer strawberries with the supermarket variety. But I hope that somewhere in the backs of their minds I've helped forge a connection for them.

Strawberries, summer and bliss.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

4th of July Fun

Happy 4th of July. May your day be filled with slices of watermelon,

cupcakes that are too pretty to eat,

food cooked on the grill

and friends, family and fireworks galore.

Enjoy the holiday weekend and see you all on Monday.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Summer Lovin'

Happy July!

In Oregon July means, after patiently waiting through the April showers that brought May showers that brought June showers we finally have SUN.

The concept of true sun worship is hard to explain to my readers in sunnier climes.

In places where Vitamin D supplements aren't a regularly prescribed part of everyone's regime and skin doesn't turn glow-in-the-dark pale, it's impossible to have a clear picture of the excitement accompanying the appearance of that warm yellow orb up in the sky.

People crawl out of their hiding spots. Sidewalk cafes are filled to the brim and summer festivals abound.

The streets are crowded with summer bicyclists who infuriate the hardcore year-round cyclists (my apologies in advance to all the impatient spandex wearers forced to swerve around my slow moving trio of bikes. Quick sidenote, this isn't an episode of Portlandia and yelling, "One-side," has the effect of making me and my kids all veer in opposite directions).

Portland is a young town.

At least that's what all our visitors from New York tell us. And if they're right, it never feels younger than during summer.

For some reason, summer here makes age feel irrelevant. It's the time of year when you can see tattooed dreadlock sporting moms dancing in the street with their equally tattooed and dreadlocked children. Don't worry, I'm pretty sure the kids tattoos aren't permanent.

Summer is the time of year when you might walk into your favorite gelato shop and find it occupied by alternative musicians using a 1970's synthesizer with slide cards and occasionally screaming out nonsensical lyrics. When your daughter begins to accompany said musicians on the untuned piano, it's the kind of place where those musicians nod and say things like, "Keep it real, little sister."

It's the time of year when you stop to notice the enormous sun painted on an intersection, talk to the foodies who run the food carts and spend every moment available outside. After all, summer is short and we have to store up the Vitamin D while it's available.

I'm sure you've already guessed this month's theme. It's all about summer, which is vague, I know. But if you're going to be vague, what better time to do it then in the hot, lazy days when bedtimes are late and life revolves around ice cream?

In fact, I'm feeling so vague I might extend this theme into two months. It's broad, summer is short and I have a lot to say that fits under my hazy, lazy umbrella.