Monday, December 23, 2013

The return

Five months after leaving town, College Girl is coming home for Christmas.
“Coming home” — moms of college kids love to hear those two words. Add the word “Christmas” and we fall onto the floor in a frenzy of motherly delight.
Of course, there were a few things to be done before we could roll out the red carpet.
First, her room needed to be cleaned out. In a small house with five people, an empty bedroom doesn’t stay that way for long.
Over the past few months, middle daughter had been found lounging on her sister’s bed, scavenging old art supplies, and smuggling the ferret into the room for “secret” ferret videos that can probably be viewed on something like
She also raided the closet for any leftover ugly sweaters that oldest daughter is so fond of.
Someone rifled through her nail polish collection and old makeup stash.
Another someone “borrowed” books from her room.
Everyone felt free to pilfer at will, yet oddly enough no one felt compelled to vacuum or dust the room. I had to put a stop to some of the invasion when I found myself repeatedly cleaning up a room no one was living in.
I take some of the blame. During November, I realized Oldest Daughter’s bedroom would make an excellent temporary gift storage and wrapping room. Shopping bags gathered on her dresser and desk. I could have turned her room into my private scrapbook den, but I didn’t want our girl to think she’d been replaced by a Martha Stewart craftland.
As her return date gets closer, I’ve turned into that kind of mom who goes around announcing to random strangers the number of days until our daughter comes home for Christmas, including the flight number (#2769) and arrival time (10:40 p.m.).
I may also issue a press release: MEDIA ALERT — HUFFMAN DAUGHTER RETURNS TO NAPA.
Note to self: contact advertising staff at Register to arrange for half-page “welcome back” ad. Correction — full page. They don’t call me the Most Embarrassing Mom Ever for nothing.
No visit home is complete without a fridge full of favorite foods, so I made a special trip to the grocery store to stock up. Our little carnivore must be living on Top Ramen and cereal because when I asked her what she wanted to eat, she asked for meat, meat and more meat.
B.C. (Before College) there were no special trips to the grocery store to buy pounds of bacon and steaks. But A.C. (After College) a mom will kill and butcher the cow herself if it means College Girl wants a hamburger for dinner.
I’ve also come up with a theme song for her visit inspired by “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” It’s called “College Girl Is Coming to Town.” I’m making a list and checking it twice. And it’s got bacon, ham and pork on it.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Sleep on it

Three co-workers have recently had babies, which means I now have a self-inflicted case of baby fever.
And there’s nothing cuter than a newborn baby. Especially one that goes home with someone else and wakes up in the middle of the night with that someone else.
I was the mother of all amateurs with our first baby. It was a rude awakening, literally. Out she came and boom, next thing you know, a thing that I am very fond of called sleep was sorely missing from my life.
As if channeling her future teen self, our newborn adopted the “You Are Not the Boss of Me” philosophy when it came to sleeping.
She was determined not to sleep. And when she was sleeping she was determined not to stay asleep for more than two hours at a time. I guess she figured, “Why sleep? I’ll miss all the action.”
On top of no sleep, emotions had their way with the new Mom me, causing many tears at many random moments.
I cried when the baby woke up right when we sat down to dinner.
I cried when I pulled up to Starbucks and the drive-through line was too long and our new baby couldn’t wait 10 minutes for me to get my mocha.
I cried in the middle of the night when she was wide awake and wanted to party.
They say to nap when your baby naps. You try sleeping in two-hour stints for about 13 weeks. You become a zombie. A zombie that can change a diaper in the dark and unsnap a onesie one-handed, but a zombie.
Another thing I figured out after weeks of only napping is that without a good five to six hours of sleep in a row — at night — the day feels like it never ends. It’s just one endless cycle of feed, burp, change, rock, nap, wake, feed, burp, change, rock, etc. Insert random shower every three days or so. Such a marathon will crush even the most Zen of moms.
Even when a new mom does sleep, she’s still on alert. The sound of your baby’s cry quickly imprints on your brain.
You hear it even when she’s not crying. You listen for it, because you know it will come again. And probably right when you’ve just sat down for that dinner.
It probably didn’t help that at the time we were living six states away from our family. It was just me, my husband and our new baby, who I knew would never sleep through the night. Ever.
This was pre-Facebook and almost pre-email, so the only way to share pictures or baby updates was the old-fashioned way, by snail mail or telephone.
I’m thinking I might have felt less alone if I’d had a few hundred Facebook friends I could share photos with like new moms today. Where were you in 1994 when I needed you the most, Mark Zuckerberg?
And then one night it happened. Our baby slept for six whole hours in a row. I woke up confused.
What happened? Where was I? I felt funny. Alert. Awake. That’s when I knew I was going to make it. I would survive motherhood.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Put a stamp on it.

Last week I spent about 17 too many hours fretting over ordering our family Christmas card. Choosing the family photos for the card wasn’t the hard part — I’d been forcing our girls into posing for group shots all year.
It was the rest of the card that gave me fits.
Like which uplifting phrase to choose to be printed next to our pictures.
Ask any parent of teenagers if any of the following sentiments sum up their year. Note: Make sure they’re not eating or drinking when you do.
“A year of love and laughter.”
“Blessings beyond measure.”
“Delightful days and merry moments.”
Or simply:
Really? Sparkle?
I would use a lot of words to describe 2013.
“Sparkle” is not one of them.
Next, each card also has a space to include a longer written message. Oh how I hate that space. I’m a writer. I love my words. But I just hate my words on a Christmas card.
I never know what to write. How do I describe a whole year in two paragraphs?
Use headlines? Verbs only? Adjectives only? Emoji icons? Hashtags? Censored with black boxes over the bad parts?
Write a glowing, five-star review of the “highlights”? Come up with a fake-sounding “happy news only” version?
Gag me with a Christmas spoon.
The truth is way too boring:
Mom and Dad didn’t get enough sleep. Teenagers got too much.
Children misbehaved in various appropriate and inappropriate ways.
There was grades drama. Boyfriend drama. Sharing-a-bedroom-don’t-touch-my-stuff drama.
A Huffman college student went to class. A Huffman college student did not go to class.
iPhone screens were shattered. Accidentally.
Teen Twitter accounts had to be suspended. A DMV driver’s permit test was taken four times.
There was rotator cuff surgery. Insurance deductibles were met. 5K races were run. 5K races were walked.
Too much money was “saved” using the Target red card. Way too much money was not saved buying caramel Frappuccinos and cake pops at Starbucks.
FasTrak violation notices were received. A dog wasn’t walked enough. A dog’s poop wasn’t scooped often enough. Laundry wasn’t always folded promptly. Dust on dressers was ignored. Stairs were definitely not vacuumed often enough.
Too much frozen food was served as “dinner.” Nobody ate enough vegetables. Nobody ate less ice cream. Not everyone made it to church every Sunday.
Ferrets were found living in a closet. Mice were found living under the house. 4-H rabbits multiplied in the backyard.
Children still aren’t able to kill spiders in bathrooms. The word “whatever” was heard way too often. Eye-rolling will likely continue into 2014.
Is there a card for that?
I didn’t think so.
I’ll just order the “Sparkle” one instead.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Choose your battles

I’m supposed to be teaching our 16-year-old how to drive, but it looks like I’m the one who should be studying the DMV manual.
Can I blame it on Halloween? Because it was Oct. 31 when I had my run-in with the law. OK, it was a meter maid, but she wore a uniform and had a shiny badge. And instead of a gun, she had one of those handheld computer thingies aimed at my car.
I can explain. School tradition says eighth grade throws the annual Halloween carnival. So there I was last Thursday in the parking lot of the youngest Huffman’s school, wearing my witch hat and glittery witch cape. I was working at the nail polish booth painting Strawberry Shortcake’s fingernails when I heard our principal announce: “Parents, if you are parked illegally, move your car.”
I’m not parked illegally, I said to myself. I know not to park at a red curb, and a green curb and all the other colored curbs. I know not to block driveways or park in disabled spots. Because I am such a know-it-all, I just knew that it was OK that I happened to be parked next to a silver fire hydrant.
I was in that state of denial, the one where you think: “My car is fine parked next to that silver fire hydrant because the red ones are the only important fire hydrants.” That kind of denial.
A few minutes later I looked up and that’s when I saw her — Mrs. Meter Maid, or Ms. Parking Enforcement Officer, which I am now thinking is a more respectful sounding name. She was slowly walking up the sidewalk. Like a hunter stalking her prey, she looked up and down the street as if to say, “Who’s the next parking scofflaw/numbskull/dummy I’m going to run across today?”
And then I saw her look at my car.
“Tell me that car is not parked next to that silver fire hydrant,” read the imaginary thought bubble over her head.
Two things became very clear to me at that point. Parking next to a fire hydrant was not a good idea. And I was about to get a ticket for doing so.
From across the parking lot, I ran. I ran like my life depended on it.
“I’m coming,” I yelled, holding onto my witch hat, my cape billowing behind me.
Arriving at my car, I practically skidded to a stop at her side.
She looked at me sternly.
When is it OK to park next to a fire hydrant? she asked me.
When it’s silver? I said feebly.
As the words tumbled out of my mouth, I knew I’d given the wrong answer.
It’s never OK, she said, even more sternly.
I gulped.
You’re absolutely right, I said.
What if there was an emergency, she said? What if the fire department needed this hydrant?
She lectured me for another minute or two, throwing in numerical references to the California Vehicle Code during which I only nodded my witch hat in agreement to everything she said. I may have thrown in a few “yes ma’ams” as well. She had me dead to rights, and I knew it. I had no legs to stand on. I was at her mercy.
After more deep gulps on my part and more sternness on her part she left me standing there, ticket-free, in her wake.
Only I didn’t stand long. I jumped into my car and moved it far away from any fire hydrants.
An editor of mine always said never pick a battle with someone who buys ink by the barrel.
I say never pick a battle with a Parking Enforcement Officer.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Mother and child reunion

The oldest Huffman had been at her new college for around two months when the school invited us to its annual parents’ weekend, otherwise known as “Mom and dad, come visit and bring your checkbook.”
For a mom who had not seen her firstborn in about eight weeks — OK, 63.5 days — I was looking forward to the trip. Correction: I was pretty much dying to see our girl.
She’d left with barely a warning, and now she was living her new college girl life and I just had to clamp my own eyes on her to believe it. Plus I was sure she needed me for something.
Arriving in Boulder, Colo., we headed straight to see her at work at a local toy store. I figured her boss wasn’t expecting an emotional mother and child reunion between the Playmobil and Legos, so I tried to be cool when I walked in, but oh, seeing her again I had the best feelings in all the history of feelings.
I could hardly take my eyes off her. She looked good. She looked happy. She hadn’t starved, crashed her bike, gotten visible tattoos, dropped out of school or become homeless.
After she detangled herself from my mother-who-hasn’t-seen-her-daughter-in-63.5-days hug, we went to get lunch, where she even let me hold her hand for about 30 seconds, which was probably 23 seconds too long for her but three hours too short for me.
I wanted to pick her up and put her on my lap and squeeze her some more, only we had just gotten there and I was afraid she’d tell us to turn around and go right back home this instant.
She said she needed a bike fender and helmet, so she went back to work and we went to a bike store, where my husband got her fender and helmet plus the brightest bike light he could find.
It’s 400 lumens, my husband noted with satisfaction.
I’m not sure what a lumen is, but if 400 of them are illuminating our girl’s bike, that sounds pretty good to me. 
The next day her school invited us to an informational seminar about contemplative education, but we had bigger plans — a trip to SuperTarget.
We got fuzzy lined boots. We got shampoo. We got a can opener, a step stool, paper towels and a jumbo bag of Halloween candy. We got a furry rug for her floor and a hanging organizer for her closet. I tried to talk her into a handy underbed storage box but she declined. I guess College Girl is capable of figuring out her own underbed storage strategies from now on. Sigh.
We found a tool kit to install the bike fender that included screwdrivers and even a hacksaw. She said she wouldn’t need the hacksaw, but we got it anyway. Who knew when a fallen branch from a freak snowstorm would need to be sawed up for emergency kindling? She does live in the mountains, after all.
Cart filled, we stopped to get some breakfast at Starbucks inside the SuperTarget.
She and my husband ordered heated ham sandwiches.
Ahhh, she sighed, eating her sandwich.
Now I’m all warm inside, she said.
“We are, too,” said my husband.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Leave me out of it

For the past several years, I was under strict orders to leave the oldest Huffman out of this column. As a high-school student, she did not appreciate her mother broadcasting her so-called escapades, no matter how clever I thought I was being.
I get it. Most teens don’t want us moms blabbing about them to anyone — not to our friends, not to their grandparents — and definitely not in print and shared with thousands of strangers over breakfast.
So to keep the peace, I kept a lid on much of the high school years of the oldest girl.
Like the time she said she was going to sleep over at a girlfriend’s house and I found out that she, her friends and several b-o-y-s had instead gone camping at Lake Berryessa. Overnight. With tents. 
Or the time she and a girlfriend slept in her car in the parking lot at Napa Valley College after grad night because they were “too tired” to drive two miles home to our house.
Or how about that one semester when our girl, who happened to have spent more than a decade in Catholic schools, barely passed her religion class.
Yeah, I had to leave out stuff like that. What we writers do for our children.
But now, with oldest daughter at college one time zone away, I figure I have some wiggle room on our agreement.
There’s no Napa Valley Register sitting on her kitchen table each morning.
No teachers to comment during math class on my latest column.
No one to ask her if she is the sister in that one column I wrote about someone farting on someone else’s math book.
It’s not like I set out to embarrass them on purpose.
I like to think I poke more fun at myself in this column than I do our girls. I feel like I’m the one bumbling through motherhood.
They’re just along for the ride.
There have been a handful of times when I’ve been out with our girls and a reader has actually said something encouraging about this here column. How often does a mom get complimented in public, in front of her kids, and for something work related?
That’s the kind of role modeling our girls need. To see mom doing something she hopes to do well at, no matter how badly I fumble through my 500-word limit. That it’s OK to be more than just “mom.”
I wonder if the other two Huffman girls are worried mom’s column-writing attention will swing their way now that oldest daughter has physically relocated.
True, I have written an awful lot about the youngest Huffman’s bunny farm lately.
Middle daughter is lying low, but she just got her driver’s permit. And we are going to see the oldest daughter for an upcoming parents weekend at her college.
Just think of the column possibilities. 

Sunday, September 29, 2013

A compact experience

So the oldest Huffman has disappeared to her new college, leaving behind enough old clothes to start our own Goodwill, 4,582 art pens and several half-eaten boxes of cereal in her room.
Then there’s her car. Well, it’s not exactly her car. It’s a “family car” that she happened to drive. The car, unlike the girl, did not leave for college.
After she left, I wondered about the car. It’s parked on the street, where a car can only remain for so long, lest the police or neighbors think it abandoned and one of those orange stickers gets plastered on its windshield. Not that it’s a junker — it’s a 2000-something Scion, and all its bumpers are in place. Sure, it has 108,000 miles on it, but who’s counting?
The little compact came preloaded with a bike rack on top, a Coldplay sticker on one window and a Giants sticker on the other. Inside there’s a USB plug and a button to choose the color of the inside dash lights — turquoise, green, yellow, red or purple.
This car definitely says 20-something. It does not say “Mom or Dad of 20-something.”
But that didn’t stop my husband from driving it one day. Might as well get some use out of it, he said. The fact that he was missing her had nothing to do with it. Not at all.
He came home that night with a look of wonder on his face. I drove the Scion to Lodi and back; it got 41 miles per gallon, he said, awestruck. Forty-one, he repeated. This is a man who for the past 10 years has driven an SUV the size of a small house. He knows gas mileage.
I’m taking her car again tomorrow, he said.
I like good gas mileage, too. I decided I should drive the car to the next school volleyball game in Santa Rosa. Sure enough, 90 miles later, the gas gauge had barely moved at all. It was like driving a Prius, but without the attitude.
Here’s another nifty thing about the little car. Some cars think they’re a compact. This car really is a compact. It’s so compact that when you have a passenger in the front seat, you can practically hear his or her heartbeat next to you. There’s no sharing the armrest in this car. There’s only one, and there’s only room for one arm on it.
Driving a real compact means you get to choose from a whole world of parking spaces. Compact parking here, compact parking there, compact parking everywhere!
It’s no show car, so I don’t worry about where I park it. Someone dings the door? No sweat. Wayward shopping carts, pooping seagulls, trees that drip sticky berries — I fear them not.
The little car reminds me of the last time I owned a real compact — before children moved in along with their strollers, car seats and jumbo boxes of diapers. Now the kid paraphernalia is gone. And I’m back in a compact car.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Take care

A very last-minute acceptance to a very small university very far from Napa had the oldest Huffman daughter scrambling to leave home the very next morning.
While this mom was still trying to swallow the news of our girl’s imminent departure, I tried to keep myself occupied by attempting to help her pack — the 40-pound limit on checked baggage would definitely impact what college girl would take with her on her solo plane ride to her new school.
She’d be living in a dorm, so we knew at least a bed and desk awaited her. Practical Mom gathered up bed sheets and towels. I think she packed few pairs of shoes, shorts and T-shirts, some sketchbooks, her favorite pillow and her childhood blankie.
At 5:15 a.m. the next day, our girl left home dragging a giant duffle bag and backpack behind her. I went to work that morning feeling dazed from the whirlwind packing session and abrupt disappearance of our first-born.
She’d been gone for about four days when she informed us we could send her a care package now. Aha! Never mind that she lives down the street from a Target and a Safeway. Nothing spurs a mom into action like the words “daughter needs care package.”
I wandered around the house thinking of what to send her. Lip balm, a favorite T-shirt and some art pens were gathered in a box. I stuck in some stamps and a few envelopes, too. I know — stamps and envelopes — so 1986, right? I put them in anyway.
A proper care package should always include food, so I picked out some granola bars. Post-it notes, a flash drive and even a Napa Valley Register refrigerator magnet were added. I was sure she hadn’t thought to pack scissors, so I included a kid-sized pair that she’d used in junior high school. As I put them in the box, I noticed her name was still visible on the side of the plastic handles where I had written it with a Sharpie pen many years ago. Leave it to an old pair of scissors to turn College Mom into a blubbering mess.
At the last minute, I added a small cross she’d been given by her grandparents for graduation. After 18 years of Catholic school parenting, old habits die hard.
The first box was barely shipped off when College Girl made her second request. Could we send her yellow and red Converse sneakers and running shoes? she texted.
Grabbing a bigger box this time, in went the Converse and the running shoes, which I had insisted on washing first. To save packing space, inside the shoes I stuffed extras like nail clippers, more lip balm (god forbid she get chapped lips!), nail polish, a notepad, more pens and a stuffed turtle I found in her room.
The next day, our daughter texted to say she’d gotten the first box.
“Thanks,” she wrote. “I needed scissors sooo bad.”
It’s good to be needed, even 1,200 miles away.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Birthin' Bunnies

Here’s the thing about pregnant bunnies. You never actually know they’re pregnant until one day you come home from work and find a baby bunny or three rooting around in your backyard rabbit cage.
Which is kind of what happened to us about two months ago. To recap: The youngest Huffman is raising rabbits for 4-H. After a first failed mating attempt, a new stud bunny had been found for her bunny Bonnie, and 31 days later the results were waiting for us after school one Wednesday afternoon.
Unfortunately, this surprise didn’t start out so well. The first baby rabbit found in the bunny condo was stillborn.
Peering inside the cage at the little creature, I didn’t know what to do. Of course, my husband, our resident animal expert, would be out of town that afternoon, so it was all on me. And to that point I had been a witness to exactly zero other rabbit births.
Do I pick it up? Take it out of the cage? Was it really dead? Can you do CPR on a bunny? What if it came back to life? Should I call a vet? Is there such thing as a bunny vet, anyway?
Looking for some advice, we called our rabbit breeder guru, Jessica. Jessica had raised dozens of rabbits. Jessica would know what to do.
Jessica’s mom answered.
Take it out of the cage, she said, obviously. Then Jessica’s mom asked if there were any other baby bunnies born.
No, I said confidently. This was the only one we found, I told her. Like I was an expert at baby rabbit finding.
I admit I had only looked at the shoebox-size “nesting” box inside Bonnie’s cage. I hadn’t actually investigated under the shredded bedding material inside it. Did I mention yet that I had no idea what I was doing?
Well, check inside the box, she said patiently.
I hesitated. As in, put my hand in the box? Yeah, I was chicken.
What if there was something in there? What if I touched it? What if it bit me?
Every so hesitantly, I put my hand in the box, felt around ... and lo and behold, there was a newborn bunny! A hairless little thing about as big as the palm of your hand with tiny rabbit ears and closed eyes.
Well, that changed everything.
We have a live one! I announced. He’s moving. He’s breathing.
Our daughter quickly scooped him up in an old towel.
Look for more, said Jessica’s mom.
Oh, jeez, here we go again.
Gingerly feeling around inside the box, sure enough, I found a second bunny, and then a third.
Our daughter’s sadness about the one that didn’t make it was replaced by the amazement of the three tiny creatures in front of us. Protectively she pulled more bedding around their little nest.
For the rest of the night we couldn’t stop peering inside the box and talking about what had happened. Sure, animals give birth every day, but not in our backyard.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Knead to relax

We moms don’t get enough time off our feet. We’ve been chasing after our kids since the day they were born, and boy, are our feet tired. So for my birthday earlier this month, I knew exactly what I wanted to do — get a foot massage.
I’d seen signs at a local spa advertising “foot reflexology.” My only other foot massage experience until then had been a quickie rubdown while getting a $20 pedicure, so the thought of someone noodling on my feet for a whole hour sounded like just what this mom’s feet needed.
Just walking into the spa was relaxing. The lights were turned down. That anonymous New Age “spa” music floated through the air. The sound of a waterfall trickled in the background. There may have been some kind of aromatherapy thing going on as well.
OK, so I was at a strip mall, not Sedona. The waterfall was a Costco-type plug-in model, and the music was canned. I didn’t care. Someone was going to spend the next hour exclusively devoted to my feet, no questions asked.
Unlike the guy at the walk-in nail salon who quizzes me about my job while he does my toes, my foot massager remained completely silent. Fine by me. I didn’t want him to get distracted. My feet were not there to make friends.
I lay back in a cushy recliner, but to my surprise, the foot massage started at my head. My scalp was rubbed. Strong fingers pushed down hard on my temples, as if to inspire deep thoughts. Or squash them. My neck and shoulders were squeezed and pulled. My arms and hands got a thorough massage as well, which anyone who spends 40 hours a week typing will really appreciate.
Flipping me over like a pancake, Massage Man grabbed and twisted the muscles on my back and shoulders like he was kneading bread dough. He cracked my back. In one move I call the “mugger,” he grabbed my shoulders and arms like he was about to shake the sense out of me, but then quickly let go. Grab and release. Grab, release. I didn’t know whether to laugh or brace for impact.
The foot part of the massage included plenty of rubbing and prodding. Massage Man played a reflexology version of “This Little Piggy.” He gave the soles of my feet a knuckle sandwich. He slapped the bottoms and the tops of my feet as if to say to them: “Bad feet. Baaaaad feet.”
All of this poking and prodding was starting to give me the giggles. I realized I was paying good money to be completely manhandled by a stranger in a dark room. I wasn’t sure how I was going to explain this to Mr. Huffman.
After my appointment was finished, I floated to the front desk to pay.
Feel good? asked the receptionist.
Mmmmhhhhh, was all I could say.
You’ll be back, she said confidently.
Yes, I thought. My feet will be back.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Who me, serious?

I’ve decided I need to lighten up. I am entirely too serious.
I think it’s a Mom self-preservation thing. Three teenagers, a full-time job, a husband, a mortgage, car payments, college funds — not to mention the five rabbits multiplying in the backyard — this so-called “Serious Mom” has some serious responsibilities.
Well, I’m sick of it. I need an attitude adjustment.
It came in the form of my brother, aka Uncle Chris. Uncle Chris is kind of cuckoo — and I mean that in a good way. He’s also zany, off the wall and occasionally bizarre. I guess it’s the artist in him. Or that he’s Buddhist. He doesn’t take life too seriously, and this was just what this Serious Mom needed.
It just so happened that Serious Mom, Uncle Chris and our families spent the past week together at the beach.
Unlike Serious Mom, Uncle Chris doesn’t mind horsing around, roughhousing or inventing new WWE wrestling moves. And there’s no better place to demonstrate his original take-downs than at the beach. On my 6-year-old nephew. Ever heard of the Pizza Cutter? The Lumber Jack? The Double Avocado? Then don’t get in the ring with Uncle Chris.
Serious Mom packed sensible hats for windy days by the surf. Uncle Chris brought a giant pink sponge cowboy hat from Knott’s Berry Farm. When the wind picked up, he wrapped a plastic bag around his hair like a hairnet and sang his own version of “opera.”
Another day at the beach, Uncle Chris announced a rock-hunting expedition. Let’s find as many green rocks as we can! The green rock search eventually dissolved into more wrestling moves on the sand. Even Serious Mom jumped in on a dog pile at one point. Later we invented our own vaguely German-sounding language, which was completely hilarious at the time. Yeah, you had to be there.
Uncle Chris might have gotten some of his goofy genes from Grandma Sue. She had the genius idea of bringing bubble wands to the beach house, and one afternoon we unleashed a torrent of bubbles throughout the neighborhood. Each passing car was treated to a bubble salute and group wave. Some drivers waved back, but others just stared straight ahead as if to say, “Do not make eye contact with the crazy people blowing bubbles on the street.”
It was working. I was getting my sillies out.
Our girls were getting confused.
Mom never acts like this at home, they said.
I know, I said. This is great, isn’t it?
They didn’t look too sure about that.
Our week at the beach house ended way too soon. Before long we were on the road and back to our Serious Life. At home I unpacked the sandy towels, put away the beach chairs and buckets and started sorting the piles of dirty laundry.
I should have kept that pink cowboy hat.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

How am I doing?

My attempt at running my first 5K this past May must have caused some brain damage, because shortly after I managed to stagger across the finish line at that race, I actually went, of my own free will, and signed up for even more running, this time with a beginner’s running group.
I figured if I could (barely) survive running 3.1 miles once, I might as well prove I could do it again.
My new running group meets twice a week, where our two coaches, Dame’ and Liisa, have slowly whipped our lazy bums into shape. We started with walking and then running, and six weeks later, for a bunch of former non-runners, we’re not looking too shabby.
But the biggest surprise hasn’t been faster miles or stronger legs. It comes from being coached.
A mom spends her whole life coaching her kids. It’s our job to cajole and convince, from the first bites of baby food to first days of kindergarten to first job applications. We give them high fives. We pat them on the back, literally and figuratively.
If we were a talking action figure, you’d press a button on our back and we’d say, “Good job!”
We do a whole lotta coaching. But who’s coaching us? 
Sure, our spouses give us kudos, but they have to; that’s part of their job description.
When was the last time someone we weren’t related to said “Good job” to us moms? And no, Mother’s Day does not count.
We moms are so busy raising our own kids, we don’t get to give many high fives to each other. We commiserate and trade child care tips, but we don’t actively coach each other.
We should have a special mom coach hotline that we call at the end of each day. Our mom coaches would say something like this: “Wow, Mom! You got up at 6:30 a.m., got everyone to school on time, worked all day, picked everyone up, made dinner, folded three loads of laundry, paid some bills, cleaned the kitchen, and now everyone’s in bed on time! High five! Now get back out there and do it all over again tomorrow!”
No one has invented the mom hotline yet, but I’m getting a good dose of coaching from Coach Dame’ and Coach Liisa. Each week, they persuade us to run a little bit farther. They tell us what a great job we’re doing. They cajole, they insist, they praise, they promise. 
Our coaches have managed to trick us into doing all kinds of crazy athletic stunts. Like the time last week when Coach Dame’ sidled up beside me as I huffed and puffed along one trail.
We’re going to go for it in 30 seconds, she said.
Go for it? I said. As in, run faster? I’m about to keel over and we’re going to speed it up?
Yeah, she said. You can do it.
Ready, she said. GO!
And I did. I ran faster. I ran faster because I could, but I also ran faster because Coach Dame’ made me believe I could.
“Feel your power!” she yelled as we ran side by side. “Feel strong!”
It worked. I felt my power. I felt strong.
Good job! she said.
Thanks, Coach.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Lofty ideas

The Huffman girls complain about many things, and sharing a room is definitely at the top of the list.
It’s not like they have much choice. With two bedrooms for three girls, at our house it’s a mathematical certainty that someone’s going to have a roommate.
For the past 10 years, youngest and middle daughter have shared a room with bunk beds and matching dressers. In a 10-by-12 room, vertical living is almost a requirement. Their room has been rearranged more times than I can count. We’ve had bunk beds up, bunk beds down, bunk beds in one corner and bunk beds in another corner.
Walls have been painted pink, then yellow, then blue, then pink again. Stuffed animals, Barbies, 4-H ribbons and photos of Taylor Lautner and Robert Pattinson have come and gone. A bunch of other junk has come and not gone. Safe to say, there’s a whole lot of c-r-a-p in their room. But the bunk beds were key.
Over the past year, as one approached the end of middle school and the other the end of high school, the level of roommate complaints reached an all-time high. Someone was always squawking about her stuff being touched, moved or pilfered. Accusations about missing dollar bills, nail polish and iPhone earbuds were being flung about like the dirty laundry that covered the floor.
I started imagining ways to make one room work for two teenage girls. Should we turn a closet built into the eaves into a bedroom nook for the oldest? Divide the room in two with a wall? Hang a curtain or paint a stripe down the middle of the room? Move one into the garage? Ship one off to Grandma’s house for the next two years?
This called for a room makeover. I emailed April, a friend who just started her own interior redesign business. April lives with four kids in an even smaller house. If anyone knows how to squeeze kids into a room, it’s April. After a brainstorming session with the girls, April came up with a plan ... and it’s called “loft bed.”
A loft bed is essentially a big bunk bed, but with a much cooler name. The high school girl will have the loft and the middle school girl will have the bottom space. A larger dresser will be procured. Cute pillows, a new rug and new window treatments will be bought on the cheap. Much of this will be financed by the sale of the older dressers and bunk beds.
A “for sale” listing on a Napa garage sale Facebook group worked like a charm.
The dressers were gone in 24 hours and the bunks shortly after that. The family that bought the bunk beds has five kids, said the dad when he showed up to claim the furniture. These are perfect for us, he said, lugging the wooden beds down the stairs to his truck.
Great, I said. Call me in 10 years when you need a loft bed.

Monday, June 24, 2013

A Grand time.

Last week, my husband and I spent four days with three teenagers in one car driving to the Grand Canyon.
It was all my husband’s idea. “We’re going to the Grand Canyon!” he declared a few months ago. Seeing as the oldest Huffman daughter is college age and beginning that whole parent/child separation thing we simultaneously dread and can’t wait for, he figured it was now or never to herd all five of us into a family road trip.
Traveling with three teens is easier and harder than when they were little kids. For one, I don’t have to pack assortments of juice boxes, Polly Pockets and Littlest Pets to entertain them. On the other hand, there was still plenty of “Don't touch me,” and “Stop it” plus a whole bunch of fighting over iPhone charging cords.  
Arriving in Las Vegas via frequent-flyer miles, we hit the road to Hoover Dam. That’s when we noticed the temperature on our car’s dashboard — 114 degrees. From inside our air-conditioned car, this was merely a curiosity, as in, “Gosh, it’s 114 degrees out there.”
The full power of such Hades-like heat wasn’t fully realized until we arrived at the dam. It was hot. Mind-numbingly, stupefyingly hot.
Thankfully, the visitor’s center was air-conditioned. Dad and middle daughter were handling the heat better than swooning mom, so I parked myself next to an air vent. An hour later, I managed to stumble back to our car without being rendered unconscious from our visit to Hoover Oven, I mean, Dam.
We took a detour down Route 66, stopping in Seligman, Ariz. I think the town was the inspiration for the movie “Cars,” because the girls started making all kinds of references to Radiator Springs and Lightning McQueen. A carful of happy teens makes for happy parents, so we gladly let them explore the trinket shops that completely enthralled them. If the price for family harmony includes two leather bracelets, three postcards and one “Route 66” refrigerator magnet made in China, I say “Where do I pay?”
They say the Grand Canyon is big. That’s not true. It’s not big. It’s ginormous. It feels like you’ve stepped inside a huge painting at a natural history museum. I almost expected a mountain goat to amble by. Or a small plane to fly by at eye level.
Even these “Where’s the Wi-Fi” teens were impressed. But when I insisted on taking group photos, one Huffman teen loudly accused me of: 1. Taking too many pictures. 2. Caring too much about taking pictures. 3. Bugging certain people too much about posing for pictures. Let’s just say it was a good thing that at that point we were standing at a part of the Grand Canyon that had railings.
Gritting my teeth, I eventually “persuaded” all three to pose for a group shot, which I was already mentally placing into a Christmas card. And then it was time to leave. I took one last look on my way back to the car. Who knows when we’ll be at the Grand Canyon together again?
At least I have the pictures.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Lights out

What is it with our kids and lights? Our girls never met a lamp or other light they couldn’t turn on … and leave on, long after they’ve left that particular room, or even the house. Thomas Edison would feel right at home at my house: plenty of lightbulbs in every room, and most of them burning brightly.
When they were little, it was easy enough to flip switches off and keep them off. The kids were too small to reach them in the first place. But now that they’re taller, I find myself trailing after them, like their own personal light turner-offer.
It seems so obvious to me: leave a room, turn the lights off. But these kids seem oblivious to the concept. It’s like they think PG&E stands for Probably Gonna Exit (and leave all the lights on).
A child of the 1970s, I know where my “lights off” campaign comes from. My mom was always chasing after us during that era’s energy crisis.
“You’re wasting electricity,” she’d call out, slapping down switches every chance she got.
Lately, lights have become a bigger issue at home after I got what seemed like a great invitation from PG&E. Apparently, if I’d sign up for their SmartRate program, on most days during summer our electric rates will be lower. Of course there’s a catch. On up to 14 days, from 2 to 7 p.m., our electric rates will be higher.
My eyes skipped right over the “higher” bit and went right to the “lower” part. Sign me up.
Now I just had to inform the other Huffman residents of our new arrangement. I broke it to them over dinner one night.
We’re going to save money on our PG&E bill this summer, I said brightly, like they even knew what a PG&E bill was. It’ll be easy, I told them. No problem. On a few afternoons, we’ll just take a little vacation from the TV and computers, I said. As a test run, a few days later, I told the girls that we were having a SmartRate afternoon. No TV, computer or lights after school, I warned them.
Six suspicious eyeballs looked back at me. Don’t worry, I told them. After 7 p.m. you can turn it all back on. I wasn’t sure how much buy-in I’d get, so just to be sure I took all the TV remotes, computer keyboards and mice with me to work that day.
That afternoon I reminded them about our plan.
But I’m at 17 percent, complained one daughter, holding out her iPhone and showing me her declining battery status.
Try not to do much texting for the next few hours, I told her.
She looked at me woefully.
You can do it, I told her.
Sure enough, the world did not end during our “brownout.” At 7 p.m., I unpacked the keyboards and remotes and passed them out to eager hands. Summer has only begun, but I’m sure they’ve seen the light.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Running on empty

I’m not a real runner. Which does not explain how I recently found myself attempting to run 3.1 miles — in a row — on a hot Sunday afternoon at Napa Valley College.
However, I do have a treadmill in our garage. And when my long-standing love affair with chocolate was threatening to send several pairs of my pants to Goodwill, onto the treadmill I went. I got an app on my phone that monitors my walking with a green bubble that counts each step. Once, after some fast walking, a little purple bubble popped up to report that I’d “run” 420 steps. Hmmm. If that was “running,” how far could I run for real?
Three months later, I had an industrial-size fan and TV to keep me company on the treadmill. I was counting those purple bubbles and working my way toward three-mile runs.
Meanwhile my column companion, “Gal on the Go” Michelle Sander, was literally running circles around me. She ran in Washington, D.C., she ran at Disneyland and she ran at a combination rave/race. Michelle made running look like fun, especially when she brought home race schwag such as Tinkerbell medals and Tiffany necklaces.
That was it. I figured if I could run three miles on my treadmill, surely I could run 3.1 miles at the Napa Valley College 5K Race For Education. How hard could it be?
Real runners: Go ahead and have a good laugh now.
Lucky for me, I had no idea what I was getting into. But that Sunday, arriving at the start of the race, I began having buyer’s remorse. What am I doing here? What made me think I could do this? Who are all these spandex-wearing people? And where was the nearest porta-potty?
And then we were off. Squeezing in between runners, walkers and baby-joggers, I realized immediately I was out of my element. My normal bouncy treadmill stride was nowhere to be found. My legs felt like jelly or lead or both. I knew my feet were moving, but was I actually running?
I’d barely hit the first turn and already I was sure I’d made a big mistake. I had planned to use my normal peppy running soundtrack on my headphones to help me keep pace, but at that point, I was in no mood for Prince’s “Baby I’m a Star.”
The clapping people, high school bands and cheerleaders on the sidelines were of no help either. I could barely acknowledge them. Do not distract me, people, I am on a mission here, and if I look up I may veer off course and into a ditch.
And then we hit the first hill. OK, it was more of a slight incline, but in my panic, I couldn’t imagine running up it, let alone past it. I slowed to a fast walk. I’ll walk only to the water station, I told myself. After a few sips, I willed my wobbly legs to start running again.
Oh Lord, I’m going to collapse for sure, I thought. I hope there’s a nice paramedic nearby to help peel me off the pavement. They’ll have to inform my husband that I will not be crossing the finish line. I hope someone has a stretcher and a cool bottle of water.
As I hobbled along at my snail’s pace, it seemed like every other runner was passing me by. I was running so slow, even a race-walker passed me. I’m going to be last, I just know it, I thought. Would I even finish this grueling slog? Had I reached the halfway point yet? I longed for my treadmill and my nice dark garage and fan and TV.
The route twisted through the campus. The switchbacks up and down different sections of the parking lot were like torture. After what seemed like hours, I noticed that I was actually heading back toward where we had started this death march of a run.
Finally, I could see the finish line. Don’t stop now, I told myself. Somehow, my rubbery legs kept running as I turned that final corner. I was going to make it. I was actually going to finish. Crossing the line, the announcer called out my name, which made me smile in spite of myself.
There was my husband with my water bottle. Go get your medal, he said, pointing to people holding out ribbons to all the finishers. I took it and immediately put it around my neck. It wasn’t Tiffany silver but it was mine.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Mystery animal

Our oldest daughter’s room is pretty much off limits to us these days. I know how to choose my battles, and I surrendered a long time ago in the Clean Your Room war.
So it was a rare occurrence when I entered her inner sanctum a few weeks ago to prepare for the carpet cleaners. A desk floor mat had to be retrieved and the clothes picked up off the floor. But besides the general disaster scene, nothing looked out of the ordinary.
A day later the carpets were dry and I carried the mat back into her room. Dropping it back onto the floor, I glanced over at the corner. And that’s when I saw them.
Not one, but two ferrets in a cage tucked into her closet.
The little creatures were clinging to the frame of the three-story cage, scaling the sides like some kind of ferret jungle gym. There was a ferret hammock and a ferret blankie. There was even a ferret litter box.
The ferrets blinked their ferret eyes like they were just as surprised to see me as I was them.
A mom of three teenagers should expect surprises, but the sight of the two mini mammals tucked away in the corner of our daughter’s bedroom had me completely stupefied.
What the “h-e-double hockey sticks” is going on here? She was already harboring two turtles and a guinea pig, and now we have two ferrets?
The number of animals living in her bedroom was now equal to the number of humans in the entire house.
What was next? Lemurs? Potbellied pigs? Jackalopes?
You better come in here and see this, I yelled to my husband.
Are those ferrets? he asked, after he came into the room.
I think so, I said.
How long have they been there?
I have no idea, I said.
I texted our daughter.
We need to discuss the visitors in your room when you get home, I wrote.
A few hours later, mom, dad and daughter held a ferret summit at the kitchen table.
Exactly how long have the ferrets been living in her closet? What were her plans for taking care of them? And where did they come from, because I don’t recall seeing ferrets at our local PetCo.
I bought them in Carson City, she explained.
You made a ferret run to Nevada? Oh, this was just getting better and better by the hour.
I immediately started brainstorming on ideas of how quickly I could extract the ferrets from the house.
Perhaps someone would consider a ferret “trade”? Or couldn’t we just release the ferrets into the wild a la “Free Willy”? Actually, that wouldn’t work. Turns out ferrets are taboo in California.
A few days went by and another thing about the ferrets quickly became apparent.
Ferrets stink. They stink like a cross between a dirty, wet dog and a hormonal skunk. After ferret odor started wafting through the home, I didn’t care how cute the critters were. The ferrets had to move out.
By the next weekend, dad and daughter had constructed a deluxe outdoor ferret cage in the backyard under a nice shady tree. The ferret hammock was installed, and a special sleeping bunk hammered into place. A private nook allows for uninterrupted ferret napping. I’m sure it’s what every ferret dreams of.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

On the record

Our girls have many complaints about my behavior, but lately, they’ve been harping on me for one particular “offense.”
Interviewing them.
Apparently, I need to stop doing that.
Hey, I happen to be a reporter. I interview people for a living. I ask questions all day long. And when I get home, I keep on asking.
Our children are the perfect story sources. Unlike my day job, where I meet someone for an hour or two, write a story and be done with it, I live with these subjects. I’m like the mom version of the journalist who’s embedded with an army unit behind front lines. And yes, that battle metaphor is particularly fitting at our home. 
Unfortunately, our teens aren’t exactly falling all over themselves to grant “access” to this reporter.
“Let me tell you all about my day,” said no Huffman teen ever. If any of my questions dare to tread beyond the generic “how was school today,” or “have you done your homework?” these kids go into full-on lockdown mode and start acting like a territorial PR representative. “Who wants to know? Why do you want to know? What’s this story about? Who else are you interviewing for this story?”
Apparently, it’s even worse when I’m around their friends. I swear I don’t realize I’m doing it. To me, I’m just being curious.
What’s new in 7th grade? I like to ask. Have you finished your science project yet? What color TOMS shoes is everyone wearing these days? Have you been to the new yogurt place in town? What are your favorite toppings? What books are you reading?
Stop interviewing, my girls tell me.
“You’re like a cop,” said one Huffman daughter. She also compared me to someone giving a lie detector test. You ask too many questions, she said.
Whoever said “curiosity killed the cat” didn’t have three teenagers. As a mother, it is my job to extract as much information I can from them. A mom needs to be a combination CIA agent and the talk-show host version of Katie Couric. We need intel, but we also need them to sit with us on the couch and have a friendly chat about makeup or One Direction. It also wouldn’t hurt to have a little round of applause at the end of said chat, either.
When they do deign to answer my questions, our teens can actually be helpful. They can show me new apps for my iPhone. They can tell me who got eliminated on “American Idol” the night before. They know who sings that “Thrift Shop” song and can explain what “popping tags” means.
I tried to interview my girls for this column about my pesky interviewing but I think they’re onto me.
My interview request was denied.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The wild one

I always thought of my Uncle Jimmy as the “wild one” in my mom’s family. The youngest brother of four siblings, he was the kind of guy who hung out at VFW bars, smoked too much, shot and cleaned his own dinner and once had a raccoon for a pet.
Seeing as he lived in St. Louis and I grew up in California, many of my Uncle Jimmy stories are secondhand. I never knew how many of them were true and which were just part of the Uncle Jimmy legend.
He joined the Navy and said he went to Vietnam. I heard he brought back a large quantity of marijuana, which he hid in Grandma’s basement, and a 4-foot-tall bomb shell casing, which he stashed in her attic. Supposedly, one time he and Grandpa had a fight and he punched Uncle Jimmy so hard he flew through the back door out onto the porch.
He had a reputation in the neighborhood, said my aunt. Once when she was riding her purple Schwinn with the banana seat, three kids tried to steal the bike from her. Wielding his name like her own personal talisman, she yelled at them: “Don’t you know who my big brother is?” It worked. They turned and ran, she said.
My grandpa refused to let my aunt wear jeans because “jeans are for hippies,” she was told. But Uncle Jimmy gave her her first pair of bell bottoms, which she can describe in detail to this day. Grandpa wouldn’t let her drive until she was 18, but Jimmy secretly taught her how to drive a stick shift when she was 16.
Uncle Jimmy took me to my first bar when I was about 13. I drank a soda and wondered if my mom knew we were hanging out in a south St. Louis dive. Don’t worry about your mom, he said. Earlier that day he had been mightily offended when she told him she did not feed her children processed cheese. There’s nothing wrong with processed cheese, he sputtered indignantly.
During another visit, my brother and I spent the night at his house. Uncle Jimmy built us a fort out of blankets and we all played Monopoly under the tent for what seemed like hours. We slept under the blanket tent that night.
When my grandpa was sick, we flew out to St. Louis to see him. He was in a hospital bed in the dining room of their brick house on Vermont Street. That afternoon, when it became obvious that Grandpa was about to pass away, Uncle Jimmy hustled me and my brother out of the house and into the back of his pickup. We went to get ice cream and he gently told us that Grandpa had died.
Then there was the time Uncle Jimmy met my husband for the first time. Arriving around dinner time, Jimmy shook his hand.
“Want to come with me to get a pack of cigarettes?” he said.
Sure, my husband said.
Eight hours later my husband returned.
“We went to one VFW bar, and then another one,” he said, slightly dazed from his Uncle Jimmy escapade. “He introduced me to everybody as his nephew.”
Grandma was pissed at him, but not for long.
The next day we went to Jimmy’s house and found him sitting at his kitchen table, hands covered in blood from cleaning the birds he’d caught hunting. He gave us a tour of the ruins of the old carriage house in his backyard. Take whatever you like, he said, gesturing at the dusty old dime-store candy dispensers and leftovers from my great aunt and uncle’s former gift shop.
Our girls knew Uncle Jimmy as the zany uncle who’d send them boxes of Dollar Store trinkets for Christmas. That and the fruitcake. He started a Christmas tradition of passing an old fruitcake from brother to sister and back again.
Years of drinking and smoking caught up with Uncle Jimmy. A few months ago, he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Later I heard he had stomach cancer and pancreatic cancer too. It was serious but he was stable. He was in the VA hospital. I thought I’d go see him this summer, but I didn’t get the chance. He died on Holy Thursday. He was just 62.
I asked my aunt about the fruitcake. We agreed we should keep the tradition going, for sure.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Spining round

The three Huffman girls have always pined for the latest Apple gadget — iPods, iPhones, iTouches… If it starts with an “i,” “iWant” it, they’d say.
But last week one Huffman announced she was saving her money for something a little different.
I want a turntable, she said.
You mean a record player, I said.
Yeah, she said, as if she hadn’t been begging for an iPad just three days before.
Was this a trick? Was she trying to lull me into reliving the 1980s, a decade I couldn’t wait to escape at the time but now look back on with the kind of nostalgia that only 30 years and three teenagers can bring?
Did she really want a RECORD PLAYER — one with a needle and arm? The kind that you plug in with a cord, and turn on with the click of a dial, not the tap of a touchscreen?
Yeah, she said. They’re cool.
So a record player is cool now?
This is it, I said to myself. My generation is so old that we’re new again. We’re so old that companies are reinventing our old technology into “new” technology. They’re reproducing our era, only this time with Wi-Fi, USB ports and iPhone apps.
What’s next? Eight-track players? Gramophones with those cone-shaped speakers? Morse code jam sessions?
A friend has a record player, our daughter informed me. She has fun. on vinyl.
Fun? I knew enough to recognize the name of the newish band I’d heard on the radio. But what band in 2013 is releasing music on actual vinyl? It turns out more than you’d think. Our daughter rattled off a bunch of other current bands that had done the same.
She showed me a photo online (naturally) of a record player. It looked a lot like something you might have seen in my bedroom in about 1978, only it comes in her choice of a blue, green, orange, pink or turquoise case.
This got me reminiscing about my early record purchases. First there was the recorded book “Black Beauty,” complete with illustrated pages, then 45s by Bobby Sherman, and the “Grease” soundtrack, eventually followed by the Police’s “Synchronicity” album and “Whammy” by the B-52s.
I probably would have kept on buying vinyl, but then I upgraded to the latest and greatest technology: a Realistic brand cassette tape recorder bought at the local Radio Shack. It had not one, but two cassette tape players, which the Jennifer of 1983 referred to as “totally rad.”
My daughter told me that her friend has even been going to the thrift store and buying old records to play on her turntable.
Like what?, I said dubiously.
Led Zeppelin. The Eagles, she said.
Hmm … it was hard to argue with classic rock.
I considered the possible upsides to a record player. If she got the turntable, she could start visiting Goodwill looking for old vinyl records. Who knows, maybe she could even run across an old dual-track cassette player. I could teach our girl how to make a mixtape.

Monday, March 18, 2013

This little piggy

As if our upstart bunny breeding business weren’t enough, yet another new animal is now inhabiting the Huffman house.
It seems that oldest daughter and her boyfriend were at the pet store and felt inspired to adopt a guinea pig.
The guinea pig, which looks a lot like an oversized hamster, officially belongs to the boyfriend, but apparently they have joint custody and our home seems to have become the primary residence of said guinea pig.
My husband, who grew up on a farm and raised his own animals, just shrugged at the news.
I was not as excited. With a dog, two turtles, a tankful of fish, one rabbit and likely more on the way, I’d rather get off the train to Dr. Doolittle-ville.
And then I saw the little creature.
Named Turner, and alternatively referred to as Nugget, he’s a brown, white and black little guy, with fur that’s softer than you’d think.
Until I met Turner, all the guinea pigs I had met had that long shaggy hair with crazy cowlicks that seemed to go every which way. But Turner has good guinea pig hair. It’s short and sleek. His black eyes are bright and shiny. His little whiskers are Disney-cartoon cute.
“Take a picture of how adorable I look as I nibble on this piece of apple and post it on,” he all but told me telepathically.
Naturally, the two younger Huffmans went gaga over Turner/Nugget.
Let’s play with him on the kitchen floor, they said.
No, said big sister. He might go under the refrigerator, she said knowingly. Apparently earlier that week Turner had scampered under the boyfriend’s bed at his house.
It took us forever to get him out, oldest daughter said.
Turner was so cute, he even had me forgetting about my normal aversion to pet poop. Turns out that Turner’s little “nuggets” are small and hard, like brown rice kernels. I like a pet with easily scooped poop. I imagine it will therefore be easier for the pet owner to keep a cage clean. And we moms like our pet cages kept clean.
The girls just about died after Turner started chirping like a bird and wiggling his little nose. His tweets, chirps and squeals made him sound like a cross between a mini R2-D2 and a Zhu Zhu Pet.
When one of the girls started petting him and he actually purred like a cat, it was enough to melt the heart of even this “not another pet” parent.
The youngest Huffman saw her own angle. A new pet means a new kind of animal to show at the fair and more ribbons to compete for.
Her hopes were somewhat dashed after she noticed one of Turner’s toes was crooked. He’d be disqualified in the breed category, she said resignedly. But I could still enter him in showmanship, she said, brightening up.
Teenage romances don’t always last forever, but the average guinea pig lives up to eight years. Welcome to the family, Turner, crooked toe and all.

Monday, March 04, 2013

28 days later

We need to move Bonnie inside, our youngest daughter announced last week.
She was referring to Bonnie, her bunny. Normally, Bonnie lives in a rabbit hutch in the backyard. But apparently, Bonnie’s living quarters needed an upgrade.
Inside? I asked. As in, inside the house?
Our daughter sighed and gave me one of her “mom needs to get with the program” looks.
Yes, she said. According to her, it was only five days till bunny D-day.
About three weeks earlier, Bonnie had a “romantic encounter” with a boy bunny named Willie. Bonnie was predicted to become a mommy 28 days later, subsequently tripling the pet population at the Huffman home.
What about the garage?, I said. Surely the garage would be a nice spot for a temporary bunny obstetrics ward. There’s plenty of room. She could make a nest out of all the paper towels from our latest Costco run.
It’ll be too cold out there, said my husband, who is also the family animal husbandry expert.
Where in the house were we going to put a bunny cage? We’re talking about a 1,700-square-foot space that’s already bulging at the seams. We have a hard time squeezing the Christmas tree in every year, let alone a pregnant bunny and her offspring.
We’ll put her where the Christmas tree goes, our girl said in an “Isn’t it obvious?” tone of voice.
Great. Somehow I didn’t think Bonnie’s cage would smell like a pine tree and winterberry candles. Bonnie is cute and fluffy, but her bunny byproduct isn’t. I’m talking about bunny poop. This rabbit poops. A lot. And I was not looking forward to waking up to the scent of bunny droppings. Or the sound of bunny droppings dropping.
But there were the baby bunnies to think of. Soon afterward, Bonnie’s new roost was installed inside. The bunny baby watch had begun. We waited. And waited some more.
It turns out that it’s not obvious when a bunny is pregnant or not. She doesn’t complain of swelling ankles or demand a Big Mac first thing in the morning. Target doesn’t sell bunny home pregnancy tests.
As the due date got closer, everyone was on bunny birthing alert. Relatives from Texas and Missouri were even phoning in for updates.
After Bonnie was seen hopping energetically around her cage one night, a short-lived rumor of impending labor spread through the family, but it turned out to be a false alarm.
One afternoon, I came home to find Bonnie sleeping on her side in her heated indoor palace. Maybe she’s just resting up before the big event, I thought. Or not.
Human mothers-to-be often do that “nesting” thing where we clean everything in sight right before we go into labor. Bonnie wasn’t doing any cleaning. Just a lot of lounging. And pooping.
By days 30 and 31, there was still no sign of baby bunnies. Reluctantly, our girl concluded that the bunny breeding was a bust.
Disappointed, but resigned, she emailed bunny breeder Jessica.
When would Willie be in town again?, she asked.
If they could mate this weekend, we could have bunnies by Easter.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Toddlers vs. teens

When our girls were toddlers, I couldn’t wait for them to outgrow the temper tantrums, the whiny meltdowns and the tattletales.
I just knew that once they became young adults, life would be so much easier. The crying fits and screaming would end, and the Huffman home would then be inhabited by civilized people talking to each other in a kind and sensible manner, Jane Austen-style.
I know, I know. How wrong I was. I was wrong in the wrongest way.
It turns out having teenagers is almost the same as having toddlers all over again, only these “babies” have car keys, Tumblr accounts and boyfriends.
This became even more clear to me after reading a toddler parenting advice column. I figured reading about preschoolers would give me a vacation from the mental contortions of raising three teenagers. At least we don’t have potty training to worry about anymore, I thought smugly.
There was just one problem as I started reading. The column, while written about toddlers, was sounding very familiar. Like mom-of-teenagers familiar.
I pretty much wanted to cry when I realized all I had to do was substitute the word “teenager” for “toddler” and lo and behold, the advice still fit. Was there no escape?
“Don’t be inflexible” with your toddler, the column advised. “Toddlerhood may represent the most stubborn, inflexible time in the life of a child. Too often parents do not recognize this as a normal part of development, and are frustrated as their child increasingly seems irrational and out of control.”
Stubborn, check. Irrational, check. Out of control, check. We have all of this and more at our house these days. We’ve got enough stubbornness, irrationality and attitude to start our own snarky farm. Twelve crabby comments for a dollar. Bulk discounts available!
The toddler/teen combo advice continued. “Toddlers need someone to be in charge, and that’s you. While you can benefit from giving your child choices, you will also benefit from setting loving boundaries so your child can feel safe and satisfied in the choices she has made.”
Boundaries. Choices. Safety. Three more words that circle every mom’s head when her teenager is begging for a later curfew and a ride to a concert in Oakland with her three friends.
“Don’t reason with a defiant toddler,” the column advised. “Toddlers are irrational by nature, and as a parent it’s important to simply accept this fact.”
You got that part right. Have you ever tried to reason with a defiant teenager? Vaya con dios, mommy.
The column concluded with a cheerful pep talk for toddler moms.
“Toddlers are interesting little beings, filled with passion, humor, curiosity and willfulness. … By trusting your instincts and implementing rules that you are comfortable with, you will be doing all the right things to help not just your child, but your entire family.”
Better advice for parents of teenagers was never written.

Monday, February 04, 2013

The birds and the bunnies

We need to breed Bonnie, said our youngest daughter.
There’s nothing like a 12-year-old talking about procreation to get a mom’s attention. Luckily, our girl was referring to Bonnie, her pet bunny.
Bonnie, a black-and-white Dutch rabbit, lives in a little hutch in our backyard. Over the past two years, she’s been proudly shown at various rabbit shows, fairs and 4-H meetings.
If we breed Bonnie, I can have more rabbits to show, our girl said. Plus, I can sell some of the bunnies and make some money, she said confidently.
I looked over at Dad. Was he behind this bunny breeding business?
He just shrugged his shoulders.
How do you play bunny matchmaker anyway? Its not like there’s a site for rabbits. Girl bunnies don’t take out singles ads in newspapers. What would the ad say — “Female Dutch looks for cute male Dutch, must enjoy long hops in the grass and carrots”?
But Dad and daughter had it all figured out. Turns out, Jessica, the bunny breeder we got Bonnie from, had plenty of boy bunnies to set up with Bonnie.
We can breed her at the rabbit show in Santa Rosa this weekend, Jessica said.
So much for any bunny courtship. No flowers or phone calls for these two. The bunnies would be simultaneously introduced and become parents with just a twitch of a whisker.
That’s how we met Willie, Bonnie’s “boyfriend.”
Turns out, Willie is a handsome fellow. He’s a show champion, my husband informed me, which means their offspring should be equally show-worthy.
Meeting up at the rabbit show, Jessica wasted no time with bunny introductions. She simply put the two rabbits into one cage so they could do their bunny thing. Only there was just one problem — Willie’s boy bunny parts didn’t exactly connect with Bonnie’s girl bunny parts.
I must pause here for a moment because I realize that writing about bunny sex is a first for this column. Add another notch on my “Most Embarrassing Mom” belt. 
Jessica pondered the failed mating. Maybe it was too noisy at the show, she said. Willie might have been distracted.
Maybe he had performance anxiety, I thought. Poor Willie. How can the average bunny be expected to, ahem, fulfill his obligation, in broad daylight and with all these people watching him? What about some soft lighting or candles? Maybe some romantic music? The theme from “Peter Rabbit” might be appropriate.
After several failed “attempts,” Jessica offered to take Willie and Bonnie home for the night. Apparently, the two needed more privacy. Maybe they could bond over a carrot for two.
The next afternoon, we picked up Bonnie.
I looked at the rabbit. She didn’t look like she was pregnant, but what did I know?
When should we expect the baby bunnies?, I asked Jessica.
In about 28 days, she said.
Get ready, I said to our girl. You’re about to become a mother.  

Monday, January 21, 2013

Going nutty

Last week, my husband left for a weeklong business trip. This was not good news. At our house, mom and dad are already outnumbered by three teenagers. Take away the dad and next thing you know, the kids have staged a revolution and mom has been deposed.
Garbage day, dog duty, sibling skirmishes, unclogging toilets — when dad leaves, mom has to do it all, in addition to holding down a day job, doing laundry, checking homework, driving to 4-H meetings and cooking some kind of dinner each night.
Before he left, I made a special trip to the grocery store for provisions. I figured we needed a meal plan while he was gone or we’d be eating plain pasta every night for a week. God help me if we ran out of milk or bread.
The first couple days were pretty good. My meal plan was working. The laundry was under control and no one had run away from home. I even had enough time between dinner and homework patrol to help the girls make their lunches.
Our girls are notoriously picky about sandwiches. Most of the time, they refuse to pack a sandwich for lunch. I think salami tastes better with some bread wrapped around it, but hey, that’s just me.
In an “Aha!” moment, I dug out a sandwich cookie cutter I almost forgot I had. It cuts a circle shape out of the bread while simultaneously crimping down the edges, making a neat little sandwich package.
Using the crimper, I managed to debut a new kind of sandwich using bread and liberal amounts of Nutella. I’m not actually sure what Nutella is made of. I suspect chocolate, sugar, something that starts with “nut,” and even more chocolate and more sugar.
Whatever it is, my girls can’t seem to get enough of Nutella. If it were up to them, they’d smear Nutella on their morning toast, drink Nutella milkshakes for lunch and slather their vegetables in Nutella at dinner. One daughter even took a jar of Nutella with her on vacation. I know enough about Nutella to know that it’s probably not one of the four food groups. I usually hide the container in the back of the pantry. I don’t encourage the Nutella.
The Nutella sandwich was a hit.
When I got home, the girls told me how much they loved the new sandwich.
I made two more when I got home, said one daughter.
Wow, I said. Finally, sandwich success.
And then I looked at the loaf of bread. To my horror, it was almost gone. Between toast for breakfast and the now-famous Nutella sandwiches, three girls had eaten more than half a loaf in two days. We had three days of No-Dad left, and we were almost out of bread.
Don’t panic, I told myself. Think calmly. Breathe. And then I realized all was not lost.
There was a very simple solution to my problem, and she was lounging in front of me on the couch.
Here’s $5, I said to my oldest daughter. Go to the store and get us some bread. And you better get more Nutella while you’re at it.

Monday, January 07, 2013

New year new me?

Well, here we are again with a whole new year ahead of us. From this vantage point, 2013 is looking all bright and shiny and full of Potential with a capital P.
A new year is kind of like that new technology device that you know can do really cool things, but you aren’t quite sure how to turn it on yet. Sort of like the Wii we got at our house two years ago.
If I could just figure out the controls, I know this year could be the best year yet.
A new year is my best shot at a do-over. Didn’t exercise enough in 2012? Ate too many chocolate cookies after 8 p.m.? Spent too much time fretting over college financial planning? Didn’t check homework every single night? All that could change in 2013.
A new year could mean a new me. Or a slightly revised me. Kind of like when you start a new school and you start going by a new name. Maybe I need a new name. Instead of Jennifer, I could transition to “Jenny” or the more snappy “Jen.” See how easy it is?
I could start by cleaning out the upstairs closet and that junk drawer in the kitchen. While I am at it, I could even clean out the downstairs closet — the one that looks like a garage sale waiting to happen. Heck, I could actually have a real garage sale.
I could transition from being an indifferent cook to the kind that actually plans dinners and varies nightly vegetable offerings beyond frozen peas, baby carrots and those pre-made salad packages. Better yet, one of our girls could suddenly express great interest in becoming a chef and take over all of the weekly meal planning and cooking. A mom can dream.
I could organize our family photos. I know some good stuff happened in 2003, but if I don’t put some pictures in an album and slap some stickers on a few pages, our descendants will wonder if the Napa Huffmans fell off the planet that year. Note to descendants: I kind of had my hands full with three kids under the age of 8 that year.
I could pick up a new hobby. A group called CirqueFly Aerial Acrobatics is offering a “kick-butt sculpting and toning workout” class taught by someone named “Cypher Zero.” Hey, I’m a mom of three teenagers. Maybe I could hire Cypher Zero to come kick some butt at my house.
I could write columns way better than this one. I could turn into such an amazing writer that some editor somewhere would start reading my columns and become convinced that I should write a book about how I “surrendered to motherhood” and look where it got me.
I could do a lot of things. That’s what I love best about the new year. The possibilities are endless.