Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Now We're Cooking

My father-in-law bought my 5-year-old son a chef’s jacket for stirring a pot of soup the other day, and now the kid thinks he’s Wolfgang Puck, cooking “masterpiece meals” made from Tinker Toy pieces.

So when the boy came home from school yesterday with news of a career fair later this month, he was erupting with enthusiasm.

“I’m gonna learn how to be a chef!” he howled.

My wife and I were excited, too. We jumped online to see if there was going to be a company representing the culinary arts at the job fair. Sure enough we found one.

“Can I cook dinner tonight?” the boy asked. “And can I use real food, not just Tinker Toys?”

The thought of my son cooking made me nervous. I’m not one for mess, and mess was inevitable with a 5-year-old in the kitchen.

When I cook, I clean the cutting board, the utensils, the measuring cups and the mixing bowls as I use them. If, by slim chance, I spill an ingredient on the counter, I wipe it up right away. Indeed, I can’t handle mess. But since my son was so excited to be a chef and so excited to cook, I couldn’t let him down.

So I called Grandpa and asked if he wanted to co-cook with his grandson.

Grandpa was busy.

Left with no other choice, I told my wife that she’d have to cook with our little chef. She said she was glad to do it -- provided I balance the checkbook. I considered my options carefully.

I put on my chef’s jacket and wrote up a simple scrambled eggs and toast recipe for my son to follow.

The mess began right away as my son cracked the eggs, leaving most of the egg on the counter. The kid also managed to spread butter all over his chef’s jacket, and worse, he got butter all over my chef’s jacket. Shredded cheese ended up on the floor, salt and pepper fell through the cracks between the stove and the counter, and dirty utensils, measuring cups and mixing bowls piled up in the sink.

But I didn’t notice the mess because my son was having so much fun. He counted out the eggs himself, and cracked the eggs without any assistance at all. He even turned on the stove by himself. The only real help I provided was a verbal queue here and there.

My son was so proud to be so self-sufficient in the kitchen. Though I must admit, I eventually took over with the toast because we would’ve been eating butter patties with bread crumb had I not stepped in.

My wife and I enjoyed the meal. Our son raved about it. And then he announced that he was ready to be a chef, asking Mom and Dad for a restaurant. Since my wife was working on the checkbook, I let her break the news to our boy that we weren’t financially able to take such an entrepreneurial leap.

We could, however, afford to sign our son up for kids’ cooking lessons. We also ordered kids’ cooking utensils -- not play tools, but actual cooking utensils that are small and easy for kids to handle. And we bought a chef’s hat to match the boy’s jacket. The stuff would arrive in time for the cooking classes.

Our son continued to cook at home, and my wife and I continued to encourage the dream. The more we worked toward our boy’s career, the more we became obsessed. We bought a little sign to hang in the kitchen proclaiming the space our son’s domain. We even wrote up a career timeline, which had the kid starring in his own cooking show in early 2022. When we got halfway through the restaurant business plan, our son finally burned out.

“I don’t wanna be a chef anymore,” he said. “Can I do something else?”

And just like that, the hopes and dreams of doing son’s homework for the next 13 years in exchange for him doing all the cooking vanished.

-April 2009

Don't 'Mess' with Me

I’ve always hated mess.

After my 5-year-old son and I decorated for my wife’s birthday, creating a set-up that required tools, heavy machinery and small explosives to take it all down, I found that I hated mess even more, so much so that I never want to decorate again.

At Christmastime, I draw, cut out and paint wooden holiday figures for my lawn, a display that usually takes months to prepare. For Halloween, I bring to life my very own haunted cemetery in the front yard, utilizing 5.1-channel surround sound, an action specialist and a team of stuntmen. I love it. But after decorating, I feel an anxiousness in my gut that doesn’t let me . . . gasp . . . breathe until the holiday is over, when I can take the stuff down and return my home to normal.

My wife says, “Don’t decorate if it’s just gonna torture you.”

“You never want me to do what I wanna do,” I respond.

Yup, I used to go all out when it came to decorating for holidays and special events. That all changed following the episode that took place last month.

My son asked if he and I could decorate the house for Mommy’s birthday. I said we could, not knowing my boy would actually outdo me in the decorating department and cause me even greater stress than usual. We put up the typical decorations -- party lights, banners, the birthday throne. And then my son provided some of his own additions.

He built a massive birthday cake using Tinker Toys and Lincoln Logs (not edible). He used loads of bendable Wikki Stix to make sticky, messy wall decorations, streamers and party favors. He managed to go through several reams of printer paper, rolls of Scotch tape and buckets of glue to make a birthday crown, birthday signs and cards, birthday games, wrapping paper and, worst of all, confetti. And then he got to the real decorating using building materials and paint.

I found I had no control of my son, my life flashing before my eyes. When we were finished decorating, I became so anxious to take it all down that I couldn’t catch my . . . gasp . . . breath. My son asked if I was having a good time.

I barely made it to the end of my wife’s birthday. When it came time to clean up, I felt I couldn’t put anything away. The stress finally drove me insane. I piled everything up in the backyard with all of my other holiday decorations, and soaked the pile with lighter fluid. Then I grabbed a box of matches.

“What are you doing, Dad?” my son asked.

“I found a new way to illuminate the backyard,” I said.

He broke into tears when he figured out what was going to happen. He’d come to love decorating. It was great fun, he said. I felt bad for the boy. After all, I’d made him a decorating monster. I tried to comfort him.

“Don’t cry, son, we’ll find something else fun to do,” I said as I lit a match. The flame of the matchstick burned toward my two fingers, and I forgot about that while my son convinced me not to burn the decorations. When the fire on the match reached my fingertips, I instinctively threw it.

The pile of decorations went up like a chase car on impact in a Michael Bay movie.

My son ran to his room to catch his breath. I needed to follow him and cheer him up. I decided instead to stay back and put out the fire before it spread to my house and the surrounding neighborhood.

As I cleaned up the cinders that were once the decorations I’d spent so much money on throughout the years, I realized I’d never have to worry about the mess that goes along with a decorating effort ever again. I was very happy. I celebrated my huge victory.

My son decorated . . . gasp . . . for the occasion.

-April 2009

Donna Vita Corleone: The Godmother of the Park

As far back as I can remember I never wanted to be a gangster.

Last weekend at the park, I watched a group of parents line up to kiss some woman’s hand. Must’ve been out of respect.

This woman. She entered the park from a back entrance I didn’t know existed. She knew everyone. And everyone knew her or wanted to know her. She arrived, and the place went wild.

My 5-year-old son and I arrived, and nobody could care less. That was fine.

But then this woman’s two kids are given immediate access to the play equipment, when everyone else had to wait in line for a turn.

“Excuse me,” I said to this woman. “We were waiting in line to go next.”

Have you ever heard a park full of noisy kids and talkative parents go instantly silent? Let me tell you. All eyes looked at me as if it’d be for the last time.

“We haven’t met,” this woman said to me. “You can ask around about me. If you could just allow me this once to cut in front of you, I know how to return a favor.”

I told this woman to go ahead, said my son and I would play on something else. She hugged me.

“How would your son like to ride that red scooter over there?” she asked, pointing to one of the scooters parked at the bike rack.

“No, thanks,” I said, coming to understand that this woman must’ve been some sort of Mafia Don. I knew not to get involved.

She called over to some woman sitting on a park bench, a woman she called Terri “Ten Kids” who, I’m told, gave birth to 10 kids. This woman said that my son was going to take a spin on Terri “Ten Kids” son’s scooter. Terri “Ten Kids” said it was certainly OK, and, before I could turn down the offer a second time, my son jumped on the scooter and rode off down the sidewalk.

“Don’t go too far,” I yelled to my boy.

“It’s OK,” this woman said. “Nobody’s gonna hurt him here.”

I could feel this woman staring me down, probably trying to figure out if I was a good fella.

“Are you from the neighborhood?” she asked me. “What street do you live on?”

Geez, this woman was pushy. And nobody pushed me around. Nobody. Except for my maybe wife and, of course, people who are connected. So I told this woman that, yes, I was from the neighborhood. And I gave her the name of the street I lived on. I gave her my whole address, my phone number and even my social security number out of fear she’d have me whacked if I seemed out of line.

“I better go after my son,” I said nervously. “He’s gone too far.”

This woman grabbed a hold of me -- stopped me dead in my tracks. She said she’d send a couple kids to get my boy instead.

When her goons returned with my son, she gave him some fruit snacks from her goodie bag and asked if he wanted to take the red scooter home for a couple days. My boy flipped with excitement over the fruit snacks and the scooter offer -- he didn’t know what kind of danger he was involved with. I told the woman that we couldn’t accept either offer.

Before I could give the fruit snacks back, my son had already dug into the bag. I took his hand to leave.

“But what about the scooter?” he asked.

As I led my son away, I said, “Leave the scooter. Take the fruit snacks.”

Everyone at the park fell silent again. I should’ve accepted the scooter offer. But I knew what would’ve happened if I did. I’d be in. And once you’re in, there’s no getting out. You follow me?

Two moms at the perimeter of the park, with their right hands in their coat pockets, stopped me from leaving.

“She’d like you to join her at the picnic tables,” one of the moms said.

I told the ladies I wouldn’t go to the picnic tables. They couldn’t believe my response, as if I’d refused Don Vito Corleone -- in this case, Donna Vita Corleone.

“She’s gonna be disappointed, but we’ll tell Her what you said.”

After the message was delivered, this woman -- the Godmother of the park -- collected her kids and stomped off. Then all the parents at the park turned and headed toward me. I knew how this worked. They’d line up to kiss my hand, a sign that there was a transfer of power, power I didn’t want.

Turns out, everyone came over to tell me I’d been a jerk and that I’d hurt a nice lady’s feelings, someone who just wanted to be friends with me.

I guess I better cut back on the mob movies I watch.

-March 2009