Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Table of Learning

Cranky fortune, August 2011.
Herr Cranky regularly brings home library books for the diversion of Crankies large and small. Most recently, he returned with a memoir of the foul-mouthed chef who operates Prune, a wildly popular East Village restaurant. Let's call her Eff Yu. Meta Cranky's virtual ears perked up at Eff Yu's description of her harrowing adolescence. EY's fascinating, colorful parents effectively lost track of their five children during the turmoil of their divorce. As a result, Eff Yu spent her 12th summer smoking cigarette butts found on the curb, stealing pawn-able valuables from neighbors' houses, and polishing her extensive swear vocabulary. The family blossomed under this not-quite-actionable neglect: one sister became a writer for Saveur. A brother became a Goldman Sachs billionaire-with-a-B. Eff Yu? She lied about her age and got the dishwashing job the led her to destiny. Upon reading Herr Cranky's library book, MC realized that 1979 was truly the golden age of sucky parenting. A time when parental units were completely down with the possibility that "Not all the baby turtles make it to the ocean," as Renaissance Mom has succinctly observed. What a glorious time to be alive.

Sadly, expectations for parents and children are different in the 21st century.  By the time MC has returned home from a dental appointment with Cranky #1, she has received email, voice mail, and text notification that her child has missed part of a school day from Purplish High. Really? Could administration officials not read the form where MC signed her out after showing a photo ID? Inventory control isn't MC's strong suit, so she appreciates that other want to keep count of their units. Still. Imagine this attention to detail applied to homework. Which brings MC to the mythical Table of Learning.

In MC's rich fantasy life, small children gather around the Table of Learning, beckoned by a homey lamp purchased from the Vermont Country Store, and then quietly, earnestly complete their daily studies using parchment and quills. In her dreams, MC plays Marmee, while the smaller Crankies take turns portraying the various March sisters. No wait, let's just go with Meg, the industrious Little Women character who doesn't bother being colorful. In actual practice, Cranky #1 heroically plows through her mountain of work, stopping occasionally to emit factoids about insulin resistance or to produce reams of papers to be signed, notarized, and monetized. Cranky #2 produces equally complicated paperwork, as well as spelling word lists and math problems graded by an inscrutable four-point system. When MC's dinner prep requires engagement with gelatinous meat products or complicated measurements, C2 emits a piteous plea for help, followed by a wracking sob of frustration. Not until MC puts down the task at hand will C2's message morph into: "Nevermind!" Every. Single. Time.

The Crankies' Table of Learning regularly sports a German dictionary and innumerable variations of number sentences. Eff Yu's table holds braised lamb shanks and grilled branzino. We're all getting an education.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Red State, Big Box Holiday

Cranky Girls' Farm, Dec. 26, 2010. Photo by Cranky #1. Temp: 15 degrees F.
The Crankies launched their own war on Christmas in 2010. Meta Cranky flogged her deadline until the last possible hour, then flung socks in a suitcase and conveyed small Crankies to CG Farm. Within two hours of arrival, Cranky #1 manifested her regular asthmatic symptoms, this time with a championship-quality cough for extra excitement. The Crankies visited Dr. Charlie's seriously terrific new office in Cranky Hometown to wheeze upon request (Cranky #1) and check out his selection of Barbies (Cranky #2). Charlie's dad is a veterinarian, and the Crankies have spent some time in that office, too. (Remember the dogs and the porcupine quills?) We've gotten sterling service at both establishments, but we have to say that Dr. Charlie's office smells much less like pink-eye dope and milk replacer. Extra points for the fireplace, Dr. C; if Dr. Ed had a fireplace, he'd just clutter it up with branding irons.

So now it's Dec. 21, and the Crankies' lack of holiday prep is beginning to show. Only a smattering of presents have been laid in. Exactly none of them are wrapped. And the C's haven't recollected where they put that wee fake-o tree that the contractor left for them a couple of holidays ago before he disappeared (apparently) into a witness-protection program. With four shopping days left until Christmas, the Crankies do not despair, because they can access two major shopping venues that would make urban shoppers weep if they could fathom their wonderfulness.

The real ace in the hole is a local farm equipment chain called Atwoods. The Crankies would like to vacation at Atwoods. They would admire the bunnies and the small multicolored chickens at their leisure. They would wear t-shirts with emblazoned with pictures of green tractors. They would ride green pedal tractors and relax on truck-a-saurus sized lawnmowers. But since they had serious work to do, they quickly found their favorites: Anti-Monkey Butt Powder for Uncle M. John Wayne movies from the Conservative Movie Department for Youngest Older Brother. And shirts without welding burns for Second Older Brother. It's so easy. And, because Atwoods also appeals to Red State chicks, some polka dot Wellies for the girls in our family.

Loading bales of hay, Dec. 22. Note the insulated coveralls.
However, do not underestimate the appeal of the  24/7 Walmart Super Store. Go ahead and scoff at the political incorrectness of the nation's largest retailer. So what if they've been sued by those women they forgot to promote. And that Walmart employees are more likely to win the Mega Millions lottery than to get health insurance. Whatever. But where else in Cranky Hometown are you going to get a teenager sweat pants that don't have a green tractor on the ass? You'll get them at Walmart unless you drive 90 minutes to the closest tasteful mall. So while Cranky #1 snuggled up on the sofa with her selection of inhalers, MC and C2 navigated the local Super Walmart. The results were surprisingly efficient and strangely satisfying. C2 agreed that picking out her own present was exactly what she wanted, so she made her selection, guided by MC's prejudice against toys with itty-bitty pieces. Christmas came early for MC when C2 picked out a paint-it-yourself flowerpot with this evaluation: "It's hard for me to shop at this store. It's got too much stuff." Since MC sucks so much at shopping, she was heartened to be in the company of another failed capitalist.
UM's calf, Dec. 5, 2010

With all this good mojo going, MC shouldn't have been surprised to find Christmas Eve grace in this very same Walmart. Have we mentioned that you can do just about everything at Walmart except perhaps listen to a reading by Noam Chomsky? One can order X-mas-y pictures online for the delight and amusement of one's family members. Which MC did, thrilled at the prospect of driving only 18 miles to pick them up the next day.

In the Walmart parking lot on Christmas Eve, MC was met by throngs of other losers and sucky shoppers. No surprise there. What she hadn't taken into account, however, was that people living on other continents had stopped shopping and had gone on to other pursuits. Ten a.m. Cranky Time is 3 p.m. Western European Time, and the Kings' College Choir was getting ready hold forth on the NPR station that locals think of as Music for Socialists. In their urban habitat, the Crankies attend the Church of Extremely Ambitious Music, and they annually hear performances of a program called Lessons and Carols. What the local folks lack, however, are the acoustics of a 500-year-old chapel in Cambridge and a boy tenor who has made some deal with a higher power. Who knows what extravagant promises this limey kid made to the great "I AM"--celibacy, poverty, a vow to shun the Arctic Monkeys. But there in the Walmart parking lot rang an impossibly clear voice, the fulfillment of Walmart's call to "Spend Less. Live Better."

Even after boy singer ended his carol, Walmart continued to demonstrate the true meaning of Christmas. At the checkout line, MC met perhaps the only living Walmart employee conversant in the Four Noble Truths, specifically, #2: "suffering is caused by craving." The previous customer had somehow failed in his transaction, leaving unhappy karma in MC's particular line. This wise clerk, however, began her own kind of protective chanting to ward off harm: "No one should be here. We should all be at home. It would be better if we were asleep." MC expressed her most sincere hope that Buddhist Walmart Associate would be able to go home soon, and exited the epicenter of American capitalism.

Cranky Girls' house, from the pasture. Cranky #1 photo.
Back in the parking lot, on the socialist radio station, the limeys had made it to the eighth lesson, and MC thought it was a nice touch to give the business about the wise men to someone with an Indian accent. The translation of lesson number nine, John's description of the incarnation, seemed to play to the  Monty Python school of religious instruction:
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made." 
Repetitious much?  Indulgently, MC was willing to grant them their slightly pompous King James version in consideration of that righteous boy singer. Then the Brits said their goodbyes, mentioning in passing that King's College had performed this baroque program annually since 1918. For MC, that little factoid was more breath-taking than the spectacular tenor. Insert every horrific statistic you know about the slaughter of World War I here. Now imagine an Edwardian boy singer performing, a mere month after Armistice Day, to the decimated class of 1918 and assorted grieving sweethearts. 

MC surveyed the Walmart parking lot and considered how very zen her Walmart holiday had become. The buying power of a multinational, union-busting mega retailer, juxtaposed with the achingly wistful carols of a bygone empire. Spend less. Live Better. God help us.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Day Off

sorbet tubular hangers
The Crankies experienced a regularly scheduled school holiday on Monday. Sadly, Meta Cranky's clutter meter simultaneously pegged into red zone.

MC's clutter meter is an unscheduled annoyance with an inconsistent trigger. Does it scream abuse at unattractive piles of work-related papers and mismatched socks? Frequently, no. Yet on this day, it howled like a air-raid siren at the sight of a few half-finished art projects lounging on the stair landing. The clutter meter lacks a breaker box; neither can you whack out its batteries with a broom handle as you can with the smoke alarm. There was no recourse for small Crankies except to perform compulsory acts of housework. Startled and unnerved by the meter's intensity, they peeled back layers of effluvia from flat surfaces until readings retreated to safe levels.
tubular hangers, primary colors

The Crankies' clutter meter functions a bit like a high colonic: after purging their collective toxins, the refreshed and clutter-diminished household sailed off to find amusing pursuits. Cranky #1 and her pal visited the local mega-plex for the latest installment of Goofy High School Comedy starring Talent-Challenged Cute Boy. Meanwhile, MC and Cranky #2 took a victory lap at OCD Gadget Store to get just one more clutter-fighting tool.
tubular hangers, ocean
C2 would happily acquire the store's entire obsessive inventory of keychains with light-up dolphins and pink magazine organizers with kitties on the top. Also the non-functional telephone and computer from the modular desk section. MC struck a compromise: pick six brightly colored tubular hangers from the Unnaturally Organized closet section. Don't sniff, skeptical readers: these are 52-gram plastic hangers, much sturdier and satisfying than the usual 34-gram numbers. While C2 made her color choices, a fellow organizer stopped to offer the benefit of his organizing experience. He gave high praise to the OCD tubular hangers, noting that he dedicates the orange sherbet-colored ones to his dress shirts.  MC nodded in admiration. But there was more. Hanger Guy had developed an entire closet system built around color-coded tubular hangers: royal blue hangers for jeans; yellow ones for t-shirts with paint splatters. MC was walking slowly backward and didn't catch what he does with the frosty greens or neon pinks

C2 has installed her cheerful hangers in a tidy yet casual way. C1 continues to enjoy seeing most of her bedroom floor. MC has seen household surfaces reappear, like the terrain left by a melting glacier. The household has been temporarily recalibrated.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

No Satisfaction

Some months back, Meta Cranky learned that an ancient essay of hers had been plagiarized. More specifically, someone named Dr. Shyam Prasad Swain lifted her essay from Studies in the Novel, twiddled with some prepositions, and republished it under his own name in a collection of essays. MC's stony heart was warmed watching placid English major types turn apoplectic on the subject of plagiarism, and she was heartily gratified by the expressions of concern and outrage that came her way.

Apparently, friends' heart-warming concern is the only satisfaction that MC can hope to receive from this theft of her intellectual property. MC is informed that the statute of limitations for prosecuting copyright infringement is three years; that deadline expired back in the George W. Bush administration. So the legal team representing the journal where her essay appeared will send a letter to the fraudulent book's publisher requesting that it cease publishing this particular title. The salient verb would be request, since the journal concedes, "we have no legal recourse at this stage."

MC has sighed heavily. Then she recollected that she was in good company: Stanley Fish was ripped off, too, and his legal satisfaction was as thin as hers. Professor Fish, though, got to air his grievance in the New York Times and proclaim that "the two scholars who began their concluding chapter by reproducing two of my pages are professionally culpable. They took something from me without asking and without acknowledgment, and they profited — if only in the currency of academic reputation — from work that I had done and signed."

Here, here. But there's also a question of degree. Professor Fish's plagiarists are into him for two pages. Dr. Shyam Prasad Swain lifted MC's entire essay. So, short of naming the offender in the pages of the New York Times, what satisfaction can MC manufacture for herself? She recalls a successful campaign waged by her Youngest Older Brother that he called Feed the Bitch. A co-worker got the best of him in office politics; however, her sweet tooth left her utterly vulnerable to the two pounds of M&Ms (plain and peanut) that he purchased each day for office consumption. As Bitchy Co-worker's ass grew, so did Youngest Older Brother's satisfaction.

MC is confident that her friends and acquaintances possess the creative genius to effectively modify Feed the Bitch for her purposes. Let's work the problem, people.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Shallow End

Years ago, a place called Atomic City sold MC the perfect t-shirt for Herr Cranky. On the front was a bare-chested man with the words "Victor Mature lives" written across his pecs and abs. The anguished dude's thought bubble read: "I wish I was deep instead of just macho." The Crankies were never quite sure why deep and macho were mutually exclusive, but ambiguity about Victor Mature's character didn't get in the way of their sartorial pleasure.

So now MC's enjoyment of contemporary memoirs has left her feeling that her own character is about an inch deep. David Sedaris and Rhoda Janzen's rip-roaring tales of substance abuse, emotional apocalypse,  and entertainingly wacko relatives didn't encourage self-doubt. Anne Lamott's essays, however, always leave MC scuffling her shoes in the dirt thinking, I could be a better person if I just meditated more. I should ask my neighbors to share their reflective personal insights. I should swim with seals more often.

Extra helpings of meditation could only improve MC's operating system, true enough. But her neighbors are already sufficiently sage. And on the whole, she doesn't see herself snorkeling with seals. Aquatic mammals can be plenty profound, but MC, sadly, is much too distracted to appreciate their offerings unless they come with English subtitles. Compared to Lamott's thoughtful spirituality, MC is decidedly swimming in the shallow end.

People who make their living writing sensitively about single motherhood really should have zen-master-type moments in the middle of traffic. The rest of us, however, show our breeding and character by not bringing firearms to the pediatrician's waiting room. Cranky 2 recently reactivated her strep throat, and MC repeated the familiar routine of doctor's office, pharmacy, and frozen fruit bars. In a waiting room of children dripping with viruses and bacteria, the selection of pregnant-mommy magazines and Fox News broadcasts creates an atmosphere that the CIA could productively use to extract information from suspected terrorists. And yet the parental units of these little petri dishes purposefully douse themselves with hand sanitizer and exit with scripts for Amoxicillin. MC thinks that germ-encrusted politeness is perhaps the height of civil discourse.

There's a time and a place for depth of character. The Richard Nixon impeachment hearings, for example. And happily, Barbara Jordan knew just what to say:
My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total. I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.

MC wishes she could manufacture pithy, quotable verbage like that on demand. Delivering stirring oratory is probably not in the cards for MC; however, a recently installed statue of Representative Jordan at Big State University invites one to reflect on depth of character, statesmanship, and why flawless enunciation and a baritone register sounds so, well, deep. C2 demonstrates what you can do after all that thoughtful reflection.

Monday, September 20, 2010


Locally famous for being green, Cranky Elementary School showcases shiny awards it has received for recycling. And composting. And installing a rainwater harvesting system in the backyard. Cranky Elementary has been recognized, repeatedly, for its environmental mojo. Last Tuesday, you could have seen Cranky Elementary sixth graders on a local television station demonstrating their classroom worm composting and the playground's vegetable gardens. Name a product produced in China, and Cranky kindergarteners are recycling it. Styrofoam? Check. Capri Sun pouches? They get paid for it. Sneakers? Well, doesn't everybody? Batteries, computer parts, used plastic gift cards. It's kind of a competitive green vibe they've got going on.

So it was completely not weird that Meta Cranky spent multiple e-mails and phone calls today discussing some serious Cranky Elementary business: the 2010 Halloween pumpkin composting situation. Halloween 2009's  composting was fabulous, if a little frightening. MC herself had never seen that many dead pumpkins in one place. But there they were, piled in front of Cranky Elementary. Approximately the mass of a VW. Meta Cranky was sustained by the confidence and enthusiasm of Our Al Gore, the resident composting guru, who could compost anything that had ever formed carbohydrates from CO2 and water. Our Al enthusiastically guided MC and Herr Cranky to whack up hundreds of pounds of pumpkins with axes and machetes. Then, he provided instruction as the Crankies helped layer Dead Pumpkins with bags of leaves, like a massive jello salad. Sprinkle with a little rainwater from your rainwater collection system, and presto! One ginormous mass of carbon and nitrogen. Our Al was an animal when it came to decomposition.

Meta Cranky will never be as talented, compost-wise, as Our Al, whose child has happily moved on to middle school. So Cranky Elementary is leaving Dead Pumpkin 2010 to the professionals. No, seriously. The professional compost company that services Cranky Elementary's lunches will send a special truck for its post- Halloween offerings. This landfill diversion is all as it should be, and Meta Cranky can't believe that any thinking person would let a pumpkin get oozy and smelly in his/her garbage can. Please. But she understands the folks in Cranky Home Town might be scratching their heads over Dead Pumpkin 2010 as part of somebody's business plan. That's because it's much simpler in Cranky Hometown. You start with a pumpkin, like the one pictured above. From Cranky Girls' Farm, 2008 vintage. Thanks for asking. Then you add a varmint. Raccoon. Possum. Skunk? Ok, that'll work.

After that, it's pretty much low impact. No signage. No organized collection system. No whacking with machetes. In Cranky Hometown, Compost Happens, just like the bumper sticker says. Cranky Hometown may be in a red state, but don't say it's not green.--MC

*photo credits to Oldest Older Brother

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Urban Tranquility

Meta Cranky's unplanned hiatus from her blogging duties has left several of the Crankies' narrative threads awkwardly dangling. So, let's review, shall we?

The Crankies migrated back to their not-farm space and Crankies 1 and 2 have been begun receiving state-sponsored educations at their respective schools. C1 can now hold forth on the difference between specific heat and latent heat. C2 has helped make a city out of popsicle sticks, toilet paper tubes, and oatmeal boxes. Herr Cranky has attended a very great many committee meetings while retaining his good humor. Meta Cranky has begun a textbook project that requires rifling through reams of paper and seemingly limitless files from ftp sites. In the scrum of back-to-school hoo-haw, the Crankies have remained as serene and graceful as the Yellow Show, pictured at left, that is determined to bloom despite our city's ungodly heat. Pretty much, anyway.

Cranky Girls' Farm continues to put forth an exuberant crop of alfalfa and angus cattle in the Crankies' absence. Second Older Brother, the keeper of this alfalfa and livestock, has introduced a glitch by, uncharacteristically, requiring maintenance of his physical person. He has educated the entire Cranky extended family with his tales of the Medical Industrial Complex, which apparently demands $23,000 of people who are careless enough to develop kidney stones.

Second Brother's discomfort is not to be made light of, and the Crankies have every expectation that medical science will bring him relief. The Crankies have, however, watched with appreciation as the Medical Industrial Complex entered Second Brother's "I Can't Believe You're So Effing Stupid" Zone. Meta Cranky first learned of the Zone when Oldest Brother reported on Second Brother's hospital admission process: "I think the hospital is calling security to deal with Second Brother." The hospital that services Cranky Girls' Farm apparently requires full payment in advance of services rendered. Second Brother, who seriously wanted to say farewell to his kidney stones, habitually sees itemized invoices for his major purchases. Second Brother has never had a problem being billed by his tractor guy, his air conditioner guy, or his diesel mechanic, but Idiocracy General was unable to produce a document that told him what his first $11,000 payment was, um, paying for. Hence the specter for hospital security. The Crankies can't wait to see how he deals with his insurance company.

Long story short: The Crankies are city girls again. They appreciate the patience of their Cranky Readers and will be more timely in their updates. No need to call security.