Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Hold the Sprinkles

Jack was six years old when the ice cream shop opened its doors down the street. He thought a piece of heaven had descended into his backyard. It became almost impossible to walk past the thick aroma of sugar and cream without succumbing to its intoxicating sweetness. Like most folks in our neighborhood, I fell thrall to the ice cream shop's oh-so-Mayberrry appeal.
   One day after school, we popped in for a cone. As Jack pondered the abundance beyond the glass freezer case, the man behind the counter doled out ice cream to a nice family of four. Each received a scoop or two of their favorite flavor and then chose toppings. I watched in awe at the ease in which the mother paid for her family's treats. She didn't once wince at the selections being made. She didn't tell her children to only order one scoop or limit their toppings, nor did she grumble and argue when the man behind the counter tallied up her total. She seemed almost—dare I say—happy to shell out almost $25 for their treats.
Jack still enjoys a good cone of Superman.
  As the family lapped at their confections, Jack stepped up to the counter and chose a flavor called Superman—which is actually less of a flavor and more of a color combination (red, blue and yellow.) The man behind the counter scooped up a mound of the sweet, frozen stuff and pushed it into a sugar cone.
   "What do you want on top?" he asked.
    "Ah ... I don't know ... " I said.
    I swallowed hard as Jack eyed the mounds of cookie crumbs, gummy worms, M&Ms and almond brickle available to top his cone. I glanced up at the menu on the wall. Of course I wasn't surprised to see that a single scoop cost $2.50. Going out for ice cream at a locally owned sweet shop has it's own merit, so I tried to set aside my usual "I can buy a half-gallon for the same price" mentality. But realizing that a spoonful of the bright-colored candy would set me back another dollar—the retail price of an entire container—triggered a deep-seated response that I hadn't touched on in a while. My distress at the over-priced non-pareils was so palatable that the nice family of four surely heard my pocketbook squeak as it tightened.
    I admit my aversion to overpriced treats is—no matter how righteous—not an enlightened response in this day and age, but it's one that's hard for me to shake. I was raised by parents who grew up in the Depression. When I was a kid, we rarely went out to dinner because my Mom insisted "we could make it at home for so much less—and it will taste better"—which was pretty much true. (And BTW, my Mom worked full-time, so it would have been a lot more convenient for her to go through the drive-thru at Wendy's.) On rare and special occasions we stopped for McDonalds or Kentucky Fried Chicken or to get a soft-serve cone from the Taste-T-Freeze. To my recollection we never sat down at a "nice" restaurant as a family when I was a kid.
   Of course, all childhood experiences are shaped by our own limited perception. I can appreciate now that my parents—wisely—decided not to spend their hard-earned money on eating out. Going to dinner at a restaurant wasn't a priority for them. They chose to spend their money on other things, such as sending their four daughters to parochial school. We were a family of six and the economic benefit of dining at home was significant.
   Today, I admire my parents' mindful spending habits. In fact, something about that frugality must have seeped into my DNA. I'm the woman whose oversized handbag is rattling with contraband candy as she climbs the steps to take her seat at the cineplex. It's not that I can't afford to buy that over-priced candy bar, soda or snack. I'm just wired to not overspend to the point of compulsion. (There are those who are worse. I know a man who carries his own individually-wrapped slice of American cheese in his pocket so he can save a quarter when he dines at Hamburger Heaven.)
   You might think my thriftiness an admirable trait, but in fact this inability to part with my money can be debilitating. My neurosis can rob me of enjoyment of a pleasant moment. I often wonder what it feels like to be one of those blissed-out, spend-thrift moms who dole out dollars for sprinkles and jimmies without a second thought. I admire people who freely and happily shell out $25 for candy, popcorn and a coke at the movie theatre without imagining all the popcorn and Cokes and candy—and yes, gallons of ice cream— that same money could buy at the grocery store. There are a lot of benefits to being mindful, but when it comes to spending money, I often wish I could just turn off my overzealous mental analysis, kick back, order the jumbo popcorn combo and enjoy the show.

   That day, standing before the ice cream counter my palms began to sweat. I wanted to say, "Yes! Load us up with sprinkles!" and watch Jack's delight, but I just couldn't. I was willing to pay $2.50 for an ice cream cone and even throw the extra fifty-cents into the tip jar, but to spend a dollar on sprinkles undid me.  Jack, oblivious to my affliction, awaited an answer, his blue eyes dancing in the glow of the sneeze guard.
   "That'll be all," I said to the man behind the counter.
    "But I wanted sprinkles!" Jack wailed.
    I sighed. What should I do? It was just a dollar! A dollar ... that could buy a lot more ...
    "Just a minute," I said to the man.
     I turned to Jack, leaned down and whispered in his ear, "Jack, those sprinkles cost a dollar. You can have the sprinkles, or you can have a dollar."
   Jack's eyes widened.
   "I'll take the dollar!" he said.
   I smiled and turned back to the ice cream shop man.
   "That'll be all," I said.
   Outside the ice cream shop as red, blue and yellow cream dripped down the front of his t-shirt, Jack proudly tucked the dollar in his pocket with sticky fingers. I wish I could say I taught my son a valuable lesson. I wish I could tell you that he took that dollar to Regions Bank and deposited it post-haste, then sat there and watched the .0002 interest turn it into ... $1.0002, but that was not the case. My inspired solution didn't do a lot to heal my over-priced-candy-aversion either, but maybe someday Jack will remember what I did and appreciate his thrifty mom—just as I appreciate mine today.


Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Salvation for a Football Agnostic

A few weeks ago, Jack borrowed my iPhone and returned it with new wallpaper. Apparently in order to shield me—or perhaps himself—from ridicule, he took down the cute photo of our cat and installed an image of an Arkansas Razorback. I honestly think he'd prefer telling his friends that his mother is Buddhist than admit that I just don't believe in football. Yes, in a state where folks are defined by their denomination in the church of SEC,  I am a football agnostic.
   It's not that I don't appreciate college football, I'm just not sure it exists for me. For example, when crisp, fall weekends roll around, I'm more inclined toward attending pumpkin patches and fall festivals than watching match-ups on ESPN. Last weekend was no exception.
Finding common ground with  Jack
becomes more of a challenge every day.
Just getting him to pose for a photo with his
Mom proves difficult enough!
 Image taken by Stacey Allen
   On Friday evening Jack invited his friend, Joe, to sleep over on Saturday night. He's almost 12 now and at the age when kids generally make plans to get together and then ask their parents. This is somewhat of a shift in power from the good ol' days when parents made playdates with other parents and then informed their child of the event. I like Joe so I didn't give it much thought. I texted his mom and we made tentative plans for him to come over the following afternoon. Jack was happy and I felt like a "good mom."
     But the next morning I began to regret my compliance. Jack would spend the day anticipating Joe's arrival, counting the minutes until Joe got there and the fun could begin. Once Joe got to my house, he and Jack would hole up and play video games, occasionally emerging to ask me to make Rice Krispy Treats or popcorn. And that's all fine and good. I really like being the Mom who makes warm chocolate chip cookies at a moment's notice. I relish being the cool Mom who lets her son have a friend over and doesn't interfere with their time together, but this weekend, I realized I didn't want Joe to come over on Saturday night.
   Jack's dad and I share custody, shuttling Jack back and forth between our homes throughout the week. But over the past two weeks, I hadn't really spent a lot of time with my son. Weeknights are now filled with after school activities and homework assignments, and the previous weekend was the middle school homecoming dance, and Jack spent the night with Joe.
  I was happy that Jack had friends and a social life, but in the process of trying to fit into the Super Mom costume I set aside my feelings and needs—and perhaps shortchanged Jack's as well. I'm so willing to please, that I often forget that being Super Mom also means saying no and doing what's best for both of us. It was only 10 a.m. and there was plenty of time to reverse my decision. As much as I don't like to disappoint anyone, I picked up the phone.

   "Change in plans," I announced to Jack after I called Joe's Mom and cancelled the sleepover.
    "Aw! Why can't Joe spend the night?" Jack asked, peering over his Kindle game of Angry Birds.
   "We'll have him over next weekend," I said.
   "Okay," said Jack.
   And that ... was that. No drama. No fits. No outrage about what a bad mother I am.
    "I thought we'd do something together,"I said. "Your choice."
   "Anything?" Jack asked.
   "Well, within reason," I said.
   We talked about going to see a movie or going to the zoo, but then Jack mentioned the Georgia/LSU game, which—of course—I had no idea was on ESPN later today.  Jack is a Bulldog fan. Sure, he pulled for Auburn and then Alabama when they took their turns at the BCS Championships, but his loyalty lies just east of the state line with the state of his birth, Georgia.
   "It's no big deal," he said, knowing my lack of interest in the sport—and my lack of cable television in my home. "But I sure would like to see that game."
   "Okay!" I said. "We can make that happen."
   Jack was happy, and, strangely, so was I.   
   "But we'll have to go somewhere to watch it," Jack said, dubiously.
   "No problem," I said. "Sounds like fun."

   We decided on a family-friendly pub within walking distance of my house. It was a beautiful fall day, warm but without the oppressive southern humidity. By the time we arrived at the pub, the game was already in progress. We sat down at a table near a large TV and settled in to watch.
   Jack brought me up to speed on who was winning and how much time was left in the quarter. He explained to me what it sounds like when a stadium full of Georgia fans starts barking like their mascot. We shared a cherry cola and Jack ate chicken fingers while I enjoyed a fried green tomato sandwich. And during the commercials we talked about all sorts of very important things; How we preferred thin, crunchy french fries to thick, steak fries; about the homecoming dance and the girl Jack asked to meet him there;  about his friend, Joe, and how he might move out of town next year because of Joe's mother's job. Mostly, Jack taught me about football.
  The game was exciting. First Georgia was in the lead and then LSU scored. Jack told me what the penalties meant and he accurately identified whether the LSU quarterback would pass or run it before he made the play. I liked watching football with my own personal color commentator.
   In the fourth quarter when LSU pulled ahead by four points, Jack groaned but did not give up hope. Then the Georgia quarterback drove the ball down the field and threw a perfect pass for a touchdown that put them back in the lead. With less than two minutes on the clock LSU took possession of the ball and I found myself holding my breath and covering my eyes in anxiety over the outcome. When the clock finally ran down, Georgia had held their lead. Jack and I leapt to our feet and cheered.
  During our walk home, we recounted the most exciting moments in the game. I realized I had more fun watching that game with Jack than I'd ever had watching sports on TV, except maybe when I watched the World Series with my Dad. As we strolled home, enjoying the cool fall evening, Jack's hand swung down and grasped mine. I smiled. If I done the easy thing and let Joe spend the night as planned, this afternoon would not have happened—this moment would not have happened. And if I hadn't given myself over to Jack's love of the Georgia Bulldogs, we would not have shared this wonderful time together.
   "That was an awesome game," I said. "I really enjoyed watching it with you."
   "Yeah," said Jack. "Can you believe Georgia won? Oh my God!"
   We walked for a while holding hands.
   "Hey, the Alabama/Ole Miss game is on now," Jack said. "Do you want to meet Jason at the Mexican restaurant and watch it together?"
   "Sure," I said. "Sounds good."
    I had to laugh at myself. I was willing to watch not one, but two college games concurrently in one afternoon. "There's nothing like a convert," my Dad used to say about those who joined the Catholic church later in life. Yep. Just like that, it was a conversion—and one worth a lot more than two points, at that. I found the best reason ever to believe in football.