Friday, June 29, 2012

Cotton Candy

Whoever designed the park must have had children in mind.  It was absolutely unavoidable.  No matter which path your father took or how sneaky your mother thought she was, you had to pass it on your way out.

The glistening red cotton candy caboose stands immediately before the exit tunnel of Kennywood Park.  With the sunlight of the dying day painting the clean shiny windows of the caboose brilliant shades of orange and gold, the wind tosses the sugary scent from the mouth of the cotton candy drum, out the open front and onto the breezes where its slightly cloying candy fragrance assaults most adult nostrils and nauseates many grown up stomachs.  But to the still snub-noses of those four feet and under, the sweet sensation that even in the air sticks to the back of our throats tantalizes, and like a Pied Piper of Perfume, it beckons us from the four corners of the park.

I can clearly remember how the aching in my feet evaporated once that smell hit my nostrils on those summer nights as my parents literally dragged us from the park.  Somewhere around the Jackrabbit, I would catch the scent and no more pulling was necessary.  Instead, I propelled my parents toward the exit and that beautiful caboose.  Even now, my mouth waters at just the thought of that ubiquitous aroma, like a fog of fluff blanketing the area.  It didn’t really matter which parent I pushed, though, because at the end of the day, Mom was immune to whining, and Dad was aggressive toward anything standing between him and the car.

“Please!  Please!” I cried.  I was never very good at grabbing the sympathies of my parents, but I could alert my sister to begin begging.  No one ever refused my sister.

Without ado, my sister turned her big brown eyes on my father.  Her eyes are the spitting image of his mother’s and his sister’s eyes, and my father could never tell one of them, “no,” either.

“One.”  That was my mother’s final word.  Just one bag of cotton candy, rationed very carefully to three small children once they were safely in the backseat of the car.

Every time I heard that word, my watery mouth went dry and my heart, which had been in my throat with anticipation, plunged into my stomach where it attempted to fill the area that would never get enough cotton candy.

Every year, my mother carefully handed two puffs of the fluffy stuff to us over the back of the seat.  Two meager mouthfuls apiece.

“Later,” she would say.  “You can have some more tomorrow.”  I think she hoped we would fall asleep in the car if she limited our sugar.  You would think that the fact that I never fell asleep in the car even once after the age of six months would have cured her of that hope (and maybe even convinced her that she could avoid whining with more cotton candy), but she never gave up. 

We never got that cotton candy the next day, either.  Without fail, our dogs would get it.  Suzy, our small standard black poodle would greet my mother at the door and follow her every move until she put down that cotton candy.  My parents locked that dog in a cage every night, yet she managed to unlatch the top and jump out, squeeze through the bottom corner, or exact some other form of escape.  Again, you would think Mom would give up.  But she didn’t.

The morning after Kennywood, the crystalized strips cotton candy would be on the floor, stuck to the linoleum in front of the counter.  Even when Mom scolded, “Bad dog!” there was a gleam of satisfaction in Suzy’s eyes.  She was not sorry.

Yet the point of this story is not about my childhood but about my children’s.  Last week, as we walked out of the park and my little one whined, “But we didn’t even have a chance to have fun yet!” as if he had forgotten that I had just given him a piggyback ride from the Log Jammer to the arcade where he was so tired that someone had to wiggle the butt of his motorcycle while he raced it, we passed the cotton candy caboose.

\My big one stopped dead in his tracks.  His eyes filled with longing. The sweetness was so stuck in his throat he couldn’t even make words.

“Do you want cotton candy?” I asked.

“Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!” shrieked the little one, revived by the prospect of sugar.  The big one just nodded.

With the very last money I had, and just to spite my mother who never once bought me my own bag of cotton candy, I paid for three bags—one each for my two sons and their cousin who went to the car with Daddy.  They went home with sticky chins and sugar shivers, but they were happy.

In spite of my spite, though, I discovered Mom was right.  Ten days later, I still have bags of cotton candy (and no poodles to feed it to).

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

An Open Letter to My Little One's Kindergarten Teacher

Dear Miss Kindergarten Teacher (KT for short),

I MISS YOU!  The summer is not the same without you.  First of all, the little one thinks he knows it all since you are not here, and he is the only one to now correct his obviously errant mother.  Now, not only is my cinnamon toast flawed, but I have also failed to properly concoct a good stone soup.  The little one clearly remembers bringing a recipe home that he swears you helped him write.  I vaguely remember a brown piece of construction paper with various vegetable pictures glued to it.  By the time it got here though, two had fallen off and a portion had been ripped away on the bus.  In my haste, I admit I may have thrown this precious recipe out.  My incredible disregard for the finer things in life pains my little one to no end.

Without you, Miss KT, life is much harder in the morning.  There is no longer any bus to catch or lessons that we can't learn if we're too hungry.  If he doesn't want to go to summer activities, there is no Miss KT who might be sad if she doesn't see him.  There is no special song he might miss and no hamster whose glass he must remember not to tap, even if he really, really wants to.

Aside from that, Mommy is just not as cool as you are, Miss KT.  There are no centers at home, and it is not fair that I do not like either paint or Play-Doh on the carpet.  We have caught worms, made airplanes, and learned about rainbows, but, according to the little one, you could make it more fun.

We have reviewed our color rhymes ad nauseum, and I no longer have dreams about monsters that eat or destroy things but about Red sick in bed, Blue with the Flu, and poor Purple who needs to burple.  We resurrect our art projects on a regular basis, and everything done well merits a star that the little one draws the "Miss KT way."

Still, he has learned so much, and I am grateful for all you have taught him.  I love that he can spell even if it means that Daddy and I can no longer hold secret conversations in front of him without his editorial comments:  "But I don't want THAT for my birthday," "I want soda just like Daddy," or "I am NOT going to B-E-D after this!"  And I only get slightly frustrated when he wants to spell out an entire conversation with me.  "M-O-M!  M-O-M!  P-O-P-S-I-K-L P-L-E-Z!"  And I love that he knows two dimes and four pennies are almost a quarter.  It would be nice if he didn't need to upgrade those two dimes and four pennies, but that, alas, is not your fault.

But perhaps the best thing you taught him was apparent as he watched swim team practice the other day and confused the "alligator" kickboards the coach was hollering about with real alligators.

"I can't swim here anymore," he confided to me.

"Why?" I asked.

"There are alligators in the pool, Mom!"

"No, there aren't.  Those are just kickboards, sweetheart."

"No, Mom!  The teacher said, 'alligators,' and teachers never lie!"

No, Miss KT, you have never lied or done anything but model kindness and patience to a very impressionable young man.  And for that I thank you.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

No Service

Last weekend--I think it was last weekend, although which day last weekend I really couldn't say--my husband took the boys out while I got some much needed things done on my own.  I really, really, really wanted to buy them something yummy to eat, like General Tso's chicken, for many reasons:  I was busy, they don't really like my cooking all that much (sometimes I cook for my parents and the neighbors just to be appreciated), they really like food I buy, and (very importantly) I forgot to start the rice.  I hate rice, and I wonder if this forgetting to start it is often a Freudian slip as if I think if I forget the rice often enough we won't have to eat it anymore.  Of course, I forget everything all the time (ADHD and distractions), so maybe I just forget frequently because I have to do it frequently.  Anyway, I tried calling the Asian place in the plaza across the highway from us.  No answer.  I called again.  Still no answer.  I called another five times.  My heart fell.

"Do you just want to go down there and try?" my mom asked.

"No, not really," I said.  I really hoped everything was okay down there.  They're a new business, and I thought people liked them pretty well, but who comes out to where we live?  And people in this area are pretty set in their ways.  They want what they want when they want it and if not everyone all over the country does things the way they're done on this little patch of earth, well, it's the other 300 some million people in the US who are un-American.  We have it covered. 

In fact, even though I was born here, grew up here, and eventually moved back here, I have always been aware that I--the offspring of my Western-Ohio-raised parents, Republicans who were apparently not Catholic enough for our local parish and so, after the local priest declared both my sister and I illegitimate, became Protestant, whose mother doesn't like olive oil so much that she NEVER included it in our spaghetti sauce (sacrilege!) and who didn't think that every get together required a full sit down dinner, preferably with pasta and a salad--have never fit in here.  Perhaps that's why my friends growing up were the ones no one ever talked to, were the African-Americans until more African-Americans came, were the Chinese and then the Koreans, were the ones who didn't speak English at home, or didn't celebrate mass--or worse yet Christmas.  Maybe that's why I pray fervently for all the non-Irish/Italian non-Catholics (and their businesses) that I come across here.  Because I really know what it's like to be non-Irish/Italian, non-Catholic here.  And even though Derald Wing Sue may feel that we whites can just assimilate, let me tell you that in this little town, the locals know.  I used to think that they could smell the absence of garlic, but, after marrying a Korean and eating just as much garlic as any of them, I can tell you this is not the case.  It's something else.  But the point is, they know.  Or perhaps, I know.

But that's not my point either because as much as I really feel all of those things a whole lot and think about them on a daily basis because I am surrounded by kids who were cut with a different cookie cutter from different batter but just want to crumble like the little pizzelles that live here, I don't feel comfortable in those other settings either.

I didn't want to go sit down in the Asian place because it's dark (why are so many Asian restaurants dark?  Although, I don't like any dark restaurants).  The people never smile at me.  Of course, having lived with a Korean-raised Korean husband for the past 12 years and having spent a fair portion of time in Korea and now having many other Asian friends, I know that many Asian cultures perceive people who smile indiscriminately or frequently as fools.  My husband's family is particularly strict about this.  But I have a hard time overcoming my knee-jerk reaction.  If you don't smile at me, I feel disliked.  I try hard to get over it; I really do.  But it's not something that one easily gets over.  And the place is cold.  I don't do cold.

About ten minutes later, though, my husband called me. 

"Can you call the pizza place across the highway?  The big boy really wants a cheese pizza."

Once again I called.  No answer.  Five more tries.  Still no answer.

I called my husband.  "There's no answer down there.  There was no answer at the Asian place either.  I think the phone service in the plaza is down.  I'll just go down, order, sit, and wait."

"You don't mind?"

"Not at all."

So I went down and did just that, without ever minding, even though those people were not nearly as kind to me as the people in the Asian place have been in the past.  They made me wait an inordinately long time while they took friends before me even though I was in line first.  My pizza was made out of order, and nobody gave me the time of day except the delivery boy that I sympathized with because a customer had yelled at him (my husband has had to put up with that, and no one deserves it).  I had even paused at the door because of a display of police support.  It's not that I don't support the police; it's just that most of the people who support the police treat me and my Asian-American family like traitors.

But I felt really comfortable there because this is what I'm used to.  It was brightly lit.  Friends go first.  We don't need to talk to you if we don't know you.  These are the rules I know. 

Questions of race and racism are so much more about culture and familiarity than they ever are about other things.

To make that point, let me say that the Asian adoptees that I know who have grown up in this little town and the regions just beyond it flatly deny that they have ever been mistreated.  These reactions are what they are used to.  Most of the Asians I know who have moved into the area say that they are watched wherever they go and no one trusts them.  The African-Americans I know who live here do not speak with me about race.  Most of the non-Irish/Italian non-Catholics whites of the area recognize these issues and report flatly without malice that they have never belonged here, but for the most part, it's a great place to live and raise kids.  Do we see discrimination?  Sure.  Is it done with malice?  No.  Can we live with it?  Absolutely.  Why?  Because we don't perceive anywhere else as better. 

Was it racist of me to buy pizza and not General Tso's chicken?  To be honest, I don't think I'll ever know.

Friday, June 1, 2012

National Doughnut Day

Today is National Doughnut Day.  I'd never heard of it or at least never remembered it or given it another thought until today when I learned that it was declared in honor of the Salvation Army women who served doughnuts to American soldiers overseas during World War I.  For confirmation of that, you can read Time's article (by far the most entertaining I've read today, although I have to say that I like 4 of the 5 doughnuts they hate and 2 are my absolute favorites!).

But it stuck with me today because last November I discovered from my grandfather that he had been one of the many American soldiers in Germany who went up to Nuremberg during the trial in the days after World War II.  He didn't go to listen to the testimony, to hear the stories, to witness the end of the war.  No.  He and his companions went to bolster their spirits.  They went because the Red Cross was serving doughnuts.

Now I don't recommend emotional eating, but I have absolutely come to see its power.  As my in-laws and I sat together those many nights after my little one's seizures, we didn't just give thanks for the life of that sweet little child.  We chowed down on fried chicken in relief and emotional exhaustion.

Nothing says, "I love you," like the right food.  It can be cake saved for you from a party you couldn't attend, a small snack put together by your secretary who knew you didn't have a chance for lunch, microwave popcorn from a coworker who knows you usually buy it out of the vending machine, those cookies waiting for you as you tumbled off the bus.

Doughnut Day is not so much about doughnuts but more about those who spend their time showing their love for others in a concrete (albeit fattening) way.

And for that I say, "Thank you."