Homemade cake with a side of red herring

 

When I was a new mom, I was the greatest. THE GREATEST. You could tell how great I was because of the ever-growing list of things I was too good of a mom to ever resort to.

I’m not talking about high standards; I’m talking about bonkers standards — things I rejected as lazy or third rate or tacky, for no reason at all. Mainly, it was time-savers and effort-savers that seemed like cheating to me. If something was easy, then that in itself was evidence that it was probably the crap way to do it, and people who take that route were crap moms.

When I had two kids, for instance, I used to sit in silent, scornful judgement of this other mom who would come to Mass five minutes late with her eight girls, and each one of those tragically undervalued waifs had a ponytail in her hair. A ponytail, can you imagine? How the heck do you manage to be late when you haven’t even spent any time at all doing their hair? This so-called “mother” never even reserved a small lock of hair to make into a tiny braid and wrap around the ponytail to hide the rubber band that is color-coordinated with their socks just in case it shows.

My kids, by the way, wanted their hair cut short so it was easy to brush. But they got tiny braids, because I loved them, unlike some moms.

Please visit my GoFundMe, where I’m currently raising funds toward the invention of a time machine. I need to go back twenty years and kick my own ass.

Here are a few things I allow in my house now, because guess what, you haughty, know-nothing, backwards, psychosnob former self? These things make life easier. Tah dah! Life is hard enough without putting extra hurdles in your own path just to prove that you can clamber over them with your martyred smile intact.

Box cakes. Oh yes. We have twelve birthday cakes every year, plus baptism cakes, confirmation cakes, First Communion cakes (first confession gets no cake. No cake!), not to mention “your actual birth date that we want to mark, and then we’ll have a separate cake when we can schedule a party with friends” cakes. No one expects them to taste like much. The important thing is making sure everyone gets their very own edible platform for a giant, flaming message saying, “Hey, we can currently remember your name and we think you’re swell!”

I do know how to bake a real cake. I’ve even baked two towering wedding cakes, one for my own wedding and one for my brother-in-law. You wanna get married, I’ll actually sift some flour for you. Otherwise: Betty Crocker, you’re coming home with me tonight.

Paper Plates. Lots of people use paper plates to get those tough weeks after giving birth, or they blushingly resort to them for a day or so while they’re moving to Finland or something. We use them most days, because they are paper, and you don’t have to wash them, and Fishers come in one size: Swarm.

Sometimes friends will share photos of their unspeakably messy kitchen, with a sink overflowing with dirty dishes. And I’m like, “Bitch, that’s us halfway through pre-breakfast snack.” If Gideon ever came to our house and watched my kids drink, none of them would make the cut, because the little creeps would rather lap out of the faucet than wash a cup, and all the cups are always dirty, and yes, I run the dishwasher twice a day. See: swarm.

If I’m serving soup or spaghetti or something drippy, then we drag out the china (and plastic), but paper plates are the standard. Sorry, environment. It’s just paper. I have faith in you.

Kiddie TV. Sometimes people will ask me, “How do you manage to get your writing done every morning with little kids in the house?” The answer is, “They watch TV.” Sorry. That is how it happens.I love the idea of children roaming wild through wooded dells, or spending idyllic hours mesmerized with nothing a spool of twine and their own imagination, but I don’t currently have the funds to hire an Idyllic Childhood Manager. Netflix, on the other hand, is quite cheap.

They have to get dressed and eat breakfast first, and then they can watch TV for a couple of hours. They don’t complain when it’s time to turn it off, because it’s part of the schedule. I sit in the room with them if possible, but if they’re bugging me, I go hide.

Mr. TV is not on nonstop. I do read to the kids most days (or I get someone else to read to them), and we squeeze in a craft maybe once a week, and they have active play every day, but for keeping the little shriekers occupied for chunk of time, there is nothing like TV. If I feel guilty about it, I toss a doll with a wooden head in their laps while they are watching Barbie: Life In the Dream House. That makes it Montessori.

Buspar. So, first, I had to get over the idea that you can just power your way through mental illness by trying harder. I needed to bite the bullet and start shopping for a therapist. Therapy is not for losers, or for people who don’t pray enough.
Then I had to get used to the idea that you really can tell your therapist anything, including, “I’ve made tons of progress with you, but I’ve hit a wall,” and I need to call my other doctor and see what kind of drugs are out there, to give me a leg up. Drugs are not for people too lazy to do the work of therapy.
Then I had to get used to the idea that all drugs have a trade-off, and if one particular one has outlived its usefulness, or the side effects are too ugly, you might have to try a different one; or, you might have to ask yourself if it makes sense to see how you do without any drugs, but not in the same way as you did before you got used to the idea that it was okay to take drugs.
Then, I had to get used to the idea that even people who have made tons of progress have bad days, and sometimes All The Things You’ve Learned aren’t making you calm the hell down so you can have a normal evening at home with your family. So you pop a couple of pills that settle down your brain, and make it possible for you to identify the walls of your life as not currently caving in around you.

And it works, and there is not a damn thing wrong with it, because the goal is to be able to live your life.

And that’s what it all boils down to. What makes it possible to live the life you want and need and ought to live?  I started this post out as a lighthearted “Bad moms unite! Whatcha gonna do!” kind of thing, but now I think I have something to say.

It’s a good thing to have standards. But it’s a bad thing to assume that “difficult” is the same as “virtuous.” Sometimes, we put obstacles in our own paths as way of proving our worth or our dedication. Difficulties, even unnecessary ones that we choose for ourselves, can make us stronger or keep us from sliding into apathy or mediocrity; but they can also be a wonderful red herring that distract us from pursuing our true vocations.

It’s not about lowering our standards. It’s about remembering that standards aren’t ends in themselves. They’re there to help us achieve our goals; and if they’re not doing that, then it’s time to discard them.

So it’s a good thing to have standards, but it’s also a good thing to step back and reassess our standards from time to time. What am I actually trying to achieve? Is it a worthy goal? Are my standards actually helping me do what I need to do, or am I keeping them around mainly out of vanity, or a desire to punish myself, or a desire to prove something that no one actually cares about? Or even just out of habit? Do my standards fit my current, actual life, or have I moved past them? If I choose to do some things the hard way, is it really a personal choice, or am I making life harder for the people around me, too?

And wouldn’t you rather have pie? Because I make a killer apple pie, with homemade crust with this special technique I learned. See, an hour earlier, you take the butter, and you put it . . . no? You really want Betty Crocker Red Velvet cake, decorated with frosting from a can? That’s what would make you feel happy?

Can do.

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Image: By Lupo [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

World’s okayest mom’s list of tolerable kid’s TV shows

Last week, we chatted about some children’s TV shows that are so good, I’ll sit and watch them myself, rather than just let a glowing screen raise my kids while I shoot up in the kitchen, or whatever it is I do all day.

Here, now, is the B list: shows my kids enjoy, which don’t make my gnash my teeth with guilt. But I won’t sit and watch it, not with both eyeballs. So my reviews may be a slightly on the useless side, since I haven’t exactly seen them.

As with the A-listers, these are all either on Netflix Streaming or Amazon Prime Streaming.

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Masha’s Tales (Netflix)
This seems to be a Russian show dubbed into English, and it’s a spinoff from a show called Masha and the Bear, which we haven’t seen.

I think it’s a sort of fractured fairy tales thing, with a nutty little girl narrating the action. I like it because the narrator is an actual little girl, who occasionally endearingly stumbles over words, but who is very naturally dramatic and witty in her delivery. The music is often taken from great classical composers, too, so that’s excellent. It’s somewhat frenetic, but not too loud or obnoxious.

Wonder Pets (Amazon)
Popular for a reason. Whoever came up with the concept (I heard it was opera lovers) really was brilliant. Three kid animals who go on adventures all over the world in their homemade Flyboat to save baby animals in danger, and they sing lots of songs (and recitatives) along the way. This show is really quite dear to me, even if I won’t quite sit and watch it myself. One time, one of the kids asked the toddler what a sheep says, and she said, “Oh sheepy-hoo?”

They’ve locked down all the clips online, so this video is a clip of the game, not the actual show. Gives you the general idea:

It’s mildly witty and sweet, not screamy, not sassy, and the “photo-puppetry” animation, which imitates a child’s scissor-and-paste job, does not induce seizures. Lots of songs I don’t mind having in my head. I also enjoy the real kid voices, not supertrained America’s Kidz Got Singing-type voices.

Octonauts (Netflix)
This one violates a bunch of my “standards,” such as they are. I guess there are some animals and maybe some vegetables who go down in a submarine and have adventures, and also learn about the ocean? I am not sure. The animation is a big nothingburger, and I none of the characters seems especially interesting. I think they may learn a thing or two about the ocean.

However, for reasons I can’t explain, I LOVE the “Creature Report” song.

Creature report!!! I sing it to myself all the time. It’s just a good song!

Avatar: The Last Airbender (Amazon)

When a bunch of my kids requested handmade costumes of these characters for Halloween, I thought I was really gonna have to watch it, but I just fumbled through. It’s one of those shows that is just completely exhausting to me. First there is some teen drama and moping, and a few wisecracks and martial arts and sad parts, and then, in almost every episode, there is some version of a mystical volcano of light exploding and turning the mountain inside out, which triggers a lava of sound which causes the air to vibrate until it rains fire which makes everybody’s eyeballs turn into mirrors and unlocks the key to the mystery of the giant doors of ultimate power; and then, things start to get cuh-razy. Or so it seems to me. Here is a clip I chose at random:

All of my kids love this show (they are ages 18 to almost 2). I hear them laughing their heads off, and getting all somber together, gasping and shouting at the exciting parts. So, that’s why I let them watch it.

Martha Speaks (Netflix)

Pretty cute. It’s based on the books by Susan Meddaugh, which are funny and a little weird, and the cartoon seems to have preserved the spirit of the books pretty well. I like the theme music. I think it’s educational in some way, I guess for vocabulary or something.

I like how Martha is a smart dog who can talk and make jokes, but then Skits is just a regular old dumb dog.

Word Girl (Netflix)

The kids haven’t actually seen this show in a while, but I always tolerated it very well. It has some funny side characters, like Lady Redundant Woman and Sid the Evil Sandwich-Making Guy.

Someone put some effort into this one. It’s very PBS.

Barbie: Life In the Dreamhouse (Netflix)

I come pretty close to actually watching this show, which is genuinely entertaining. Barbie, Ken and their friends and frenemies go about their busy life, going on plastic camping trips, solving fashion and friendship problems, and throwing parties. The humor comes in because they are actual dolls, and they know it, so there’s no end of jokes about their articulated joints, their ability to make bake by flipping a stovetop over, Barbie’s agelessness and inexplicable number of careers, etc.

There are lots of references to other movies, and it’s very silly, but devoid of sexiness. My only objection to this show is that, being about Barbie and her friends, it is screeeeeeamy. Someone is always screaming or squealing or shrieking. It makes sense for the plot, but I can only deal with hearing a few episodes at a time.

I’m reluctantly including My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic (Netflix) for that reason. They did actually bother to write it, and the messages of cooperation, flexibility, teamwork, and friendship are perfectly fine. Some of the plots are witty or bizarre, with funny cameos and unexpected subplots. Here’s one of the songs from one of my kids’ favorite episodes:

But the screeeeeeaming, squeeeeeeealing, and shrieeeeeeeeking. Yikes. This one gets limited play time.

Teen Titans (oops, it turns out this isn’t available for free streaming after all!)
This show is so dang stupid. I don’t know what the appeal is; but, like Avatar, my kids all love it and get along when they’re watching it (and occasionally ask for Halloween costumes based on it), so I don’t object.

It is a flashy, silly “band of superheroes” cartoon of some kind, and some of the characters have emotional problems. One is purple and sad, and one is goofy and green. The theme song gets stuck in my head for this one, too, but I’m less thrilled about that. Sometimes the theme song is in Japanese, I guess.

The Adventure of Tintin (Amazon)
If you like the Tintin books by Hergé — and, oh, we do — there is no reason on heaven or earth that you would dislike these cartoons,

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NZsK4UDoo4o

except that they have this marvellous Canadian veneer of dullness that helps you just zo-o-o-o-o-o-o-one out. Wooah! Wooah!
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Welp, that’s my list. Hope you were able to get something done while you read it with one eyeball. What do you tolerate at your house?

6 animated kid’s shows I’ll sit and watch myself

Here are six animated shows my kids are always happy to watch. Not only do I not object, I’ll sit and watch it with them, because they’re genuinely entertaining, and the creators knew what they were about. We get our TV through DVDs, or by streaming Netflix or Amazon Prime.

Shaun the Sheep

Shaun the Sheep belongs in a category with The Three Stooges, The Marx Brothers, and the heyday of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. Miraculously evocative stop-motion animation by Aardman, the folks who made Wallace and Gromit, it serves up the clever and ridiculous adventures of a band of thrill-seeking, British sheep who never get tired of outwitting (and sometimes colluding with) poor Bitzer, the faithful, scrupulous working dog, who, with his knit cap, his terry cloth wristband, and his everlasting to-do list, manages the farm and fruitlessly strives to please the irascible farmer. There’s always a mild rebellion afoot, mainly consisting in eating all the pastries, ordering pizza, and putting underwear on their head.

In this episode, Bitzer loses control of a bottle of glue:

There’s plenty of pure slapstick (complete with special theme music for those times when you’re getting beat up by pigs, and those times when you’re balancing on top of a runaway rolling object) and well-conceived stock characters (the winsome lamb Timmy; the ponderously ravenous Shirley; the trio of malicious pigs; the dreaded visiting niece; some unnervingly canny crows, and the occasional curious alien); but the show also allows itself some fleeting peeks into the characters’ interior lives. In one animated filler between episodes, Bitzer in human mode throws a stick, and then, becoming pure dog, bounds after it. And then he tries to take it away from himself, but growls and resists, because he is a dog. Brilliant, impeccably crafted, immensely satisfying. No words, but the sheep bleat, Bitzer whimpers and barks, and the farmer mumbles, rants, and hollers their way through unmistakable dialogue.

Four seasons, originally on CBBC, available on Amazon Prime.

***

Puffin Rock

Just a little lullabye of a show. There’s a tiny paradise on Puffin Rock, a wild island off the coast of Ireland, where the puffins, little Oona and her baby brother Baba, explore their little world, make friends, have some mild adventures, and always end up safe and happy. Here’s a taste:

Narrated by the cozy, corduroy voice of Chris O’Dowd (Roy of The IT Crowd), the show is pretty and atmospheric, giving you the sense you’ve put your head out the window to feel the breeze and smell the salt air. Gentle and lovely, with child voice acting that doesn’t grate or irritate.

Two seasons, 26 episodes, available for streaming on Netflix.

***

Ronja the Robber’s Daughter

Amazon Prime original series. We’ve seen the first two episodes of this new Studio Ghibli anime series (released January 2017), set in Medieval Scandanavia(ish), based on a 1981 book by Pippi Longstocking author Astrid Lindgren, and directed by Goro(son of Hayao) Miyazaki, narrated by Gillian Anderson.

I’m into it so far, with some reservations. Unlike my kids, I’m not a huge anime fan, but the ickier aspects (some sentimentality around children, weird pacing, sometimes jerkily animated facial expressions) aren’t overwhelming in this show. The animation is mixed, sometimes blocky, sometimes brilliant; some of the watercolored scenes are gorgeously atmospheric, and the sound effects go a long way to creating an arresting, believable world. It’s offbeat and funny enough that I’m invested in watching the rest of the series.

I just about died watching the robber and his band of toothless, muscled henchmen trying to coax their adored baby girl to eat her cereal; and I got a real chill from the harpies swirling around the castle while the mother labors to give birth to Ronja. Here’s that scene (not in English, though, sorry! The Netflix series is dubbed into English):

The mother is a huge pain in the neck, and I hope she gets taken down a few pegs, or just fades out of the story. Looking forward to getting back to this show.

***

Pingu

Sweet and hilarious adventures of a penguin named Pingu, his baby sister Pinga, his erratic friend the seal, his affectionate but stodgy father, and his loving but harried penguin mother. The show is done in appealingly fingerprinty claymation, and the dialogue is inspired gibberish. Pingu acts exactly like every little boy I’ve ever met. He has spectacular ideas that backfire on him; he tries to evade his pesky little sister, but deep down he loves her passionately; and when he’s bored, he just staggers around making noise and hitting stuff.

He does dumb stuff and then repents, and his parents bug out and then forgive him. Real, warm family and community relationships played out deftly without sentimentality. Entertaining and endearing.

160 five-minute episodes (1986 to 2000), originally from Switzerland, now available on Amazon Prime

***

Batman: The Animated Series

A lovingly-designed homage to 1940’s noir, a complete feast for the eyes, with real suspense and actual stories. The creators of this series put together a “writer’s bible”, including guidelines like “The humor in our version of Batman should arise naturally from the larger than life characters and never tongue-in-cheek campiness … Dry lines in tough situations and occasional comments about the outlandishness of costumed villains is certainly within the realistic context of our vision of Batman.” And the Joker makes jokes, but he is scary.

No Robin, no partnering with the police, no origin stories. Batman is grim and strong, and doesn’t lean too much on gadgets. When it’s funny, it’s really pretty funny (as in “Almost Got ‘Im”). Each episode has three acts, with a set-up, story development and increased tension, and then climax and resolution. Did I mention how it looks? It looks so good. I’ll share the opening sequence, because it’s a work of love and captures the show so well.

This show, true to its style, includes truly sinister people, nail-biters and cliff hangers, and female characters in skin-tight clothes, so caveat viewer. If you watch any animated Batman, let it be this one.

Five seasons, (1992-1995), now available on Amazon Prime

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Sarah and Duck

This British animated show is made by people who really, really remember what it’s like to be a six-year-old. The matter-of-fact Sarah, a polite problem-solver, is accompanied by her slightly less patient friend, Duck, as they navigate adventures like becoming queen of the ducks, cheering up friends, going for a ride on the sea bus, and baking with ingredients that talk back.

The simple, big-headed characters came straight off your kid’s artwork on his fridge; and the plot lines and characters will ring true to anyone who’s listened to an imaginative kid tell a story. Weird and charming, devoid of sassiness and preching, it gives a very relatable model of considerate friendship. In this clip, Sarah and Duck fill in for the Bread Man:

Character include the daft scarf lady and her long-suffering handbag, a family of squeaky, cheerful shallots, and the moon. The music is also top notch.

Two seasons, originally on CBeebies, available for streaming on Netflix.

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Next time: Shows that I will watch with half an eyeball while I’m working, and that I won’t mind too much if my kids watch.