If I hadn’t been me

The other day, my 8 year old was having anxiety about who she would be if she’d never been born.  She’s never been one to present me with easy “worries before bed” topics.  One summer when she was around four, every night she worried about dynamite blowing up the house.  I could only calm her down with the white lie that dynamite ONLY works on boulders, such as in train track construction.  As she’s gotten older, things have become a bit more nuanced, but still quite challenging.  So I wasn’t exactly surprised by the nature of this most recent concern.  And strangely, I knew just how to relate–because as a kid, I had the exact same preoccupation:  if I wasn’t me, then who would I be?

I wonder if there’s a name for this particular obsession?  It gets to the heart of what it means to be human, what makes one unique in the cosmos, and the fleeting and illusory nature of consciousness.  Big thoughts to be having as an 8 year old.  While I remember having them at that age as well, for me the question didn’t exactly come out of the blue.  Rather it came from a book by Dr. Seuss that my Grandma Bier had, a big, hard covered picture book about a magical land that you go to on your birthday.  

happy birthday to you

Disturbing Dr. Seuss book

The book is probably intended to make kids giddy with with wild fantastical nature of a land all for you, but it mostly stressed me out.  I didn’t ever want to be whisked away from my bed by an odd, slightly bird looking yellow man only to go to a land of  very circuitously constructed aqueducts.  There was a line in the book something like “if you hadn’t been you, what would you be?…..You might be a bag of old dusty potatoes.”  Now that shook me up.  First, if I could be a bag of potatoes, that indicated that potatoes might be sentient, and I couldn’t even beginning to wrap my head around that.  Also, the idea that me-ness might be transmutable? No thank you, Dr. Seuss.  

potatoes

Imagine this, but hung in an unheated laundry room and you’ll get the general idea.

When I was little, the potatoes were hung in one of those wire baskets in the laundry room,  an unheated lean-to attached to the north side of the kitchen.  The basket also served as an improvised hanging area for dad’s umpiring uniform shirts.  Those potatoes led a fairly forlorn existence, and every time I caught sight of them, I thought of that stupid book.  What if I were the potatoes?

So I knew we were in trouble when my daughter came to me with a particularly disturbing book to read last night:  Sylvester and the Magic Pebble.

sylvester

Sylvester and the very concerning pebble.

In this shockingly award winning book, a donkey named Sylvester discovers a pebble that grants his wishes, and he accidentally wishes to become a rock.  Then he’s a sentient rock for OVER a YEAR until he luckily is turned back by a series of deus ex machina style plot twists.  He’s a rock out being snowed on day in day out while his parents cry at home.  GOOD LORD HOW WAS I READING THIS TO HER?  I tried to focus a lot on the more ridiculous aspects of the book, so that she wouldn’t realize just how disturbing the notion that you (or in this case, a donkey) could just turn into a rock version of themselves.  It just makes the whole potato proposition all  the more probable.

There’s a couple of lessons to be learned here.  One, children’s books can really freak people out, so let’s treat lightly, OK.  Two, treat your potatoes well.  And three, welcome to the world of lifelong existential angst, oh daughter of mine!

Halloween Do’s and Don’ts

I love Halloween.  It’s the beginning of that frantic roller coaster ride that starts mid-October-ish with the need to turn on the furnace and burn apple spice scented things and continues through January 1.  While there are plenty of lists out there about how to make Halloween safer / more nutritious / more crafty / less sexy-costumified, I’m going to focus on how to do Trick or Treating right.  (This is a completely subjective list.  I’m married to someone whose idea of the right way to Trick or Treat involves getting back with the kids ASAP and changing into sweats to watch football).

  • DO yield to your children’s wishes in terms of costume complexity.  Did I really want to make a “tree” costume two weeks before my due date with the second child?  Absolutely not.  Did I do it?  Yes, because Halloween should be associated with fatigue, hot glue gun burns, and insanely cute pictures–not guilt.
    Peri-Evelyn birth 030

    You want to be a tree you say?  No problem.

    Now, the following year she wanted a $9.99 costume from Walgreens and I had to bite my tongue and let it happen.  The kid gets to drive the boat on the costume issue.  Here are a couple more of my greatest hits:

     

    Where did this ridiculous standard come from?  As with most things (at least according to my therapist) the blame lies squarely and wholly on my mother’s shoulders.  While I can sew straight lines from a pattern reasonable well, she can just make stuff up and it comes out looking great.  Mom would routinely wait until a couple of days before Halloween and begin taking requests from the five of us–and she delivered on ANYTHING. Between her mountains of scrap fabric, the refrigerator box housing previous years’ dance and Halloween costumes, and sheer ingenuity she created costumes including:  Minnie Mouse including padded shoe covers, Robin Hood, The Man in Black, Little Bo Peep, and Pepe Le Pew in addition to scores of witches, vampires and ghosts.  So whenever people suggest that I’m creative with costumes, I just roll my eyes.

  • DO dress your infant to toddler age child as a doll.  The caveat to the “kids drive the costume boat” rule outlined above is that this only applies once they are able to form really good full sentences.  Before that–they’re yours!  And kids as dolls are just too cute to pass up.  Their cheeks are so round and translucent for such a short period, that highlighting the fact through a well-timed doll costume is just too deliciously irresistible. 

    Like my mother, I went for Raggedy Ann.  Unlike my mother, I did NOT handmake my own yard wig in the days before You-tube tutorials were a thing.  Guys, she MADE UP her OWN version of a yarn wig.  I remember that she used leftover denim scraps for the underside skeleton of that red yarn wig I’m wearing above.  The woman is a technical genius.

  • If the baby is bald, DO take advantage of this with a costume highlighting the baldness.  We chose Shaolin Monk. 

    There are plenty of options however.  How about a Bruce Willis baby?  Mr. Clean?  Larry David?  Steve Harvey?  Rough time in her life Britney Spears?

  • DO NOT let Wisconsin weather be an excuse for staying inside.  Layer, layer, layer, and make sure that the headpiece at least gives a clue to the costume because chances are good that the rest won’t be seen at all.2011 November 035
  • DO let them trick or treat for as long as they want to.  This applies both to the day (a rule I find easier to apply since Jimmy is inevitably the one traversing the neighborhood in Wisconsin Halloweens) and over the years.  I will give out candy to anyone as long as they say “trick or treat” and are willing to let me identify their costume as “disaffected teenager.”
  • DO encourage a healthy sense of competition by opening a trading floor for the neighborhood children after trick or treating.

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    Cordani House Trading Floor after the opening bell, Halloween 2017

  • DO NOT insert yourself into this floor.  Despite the fact that my children will literally bicker about anything (example from today’s backseat:  does the “beginning of time” mean the beginning of the universe or when humans started keeping track of time?  Because this affects the argument about “most awesome since the beginning of time.), they will manage to both create and enforce their own set of rules and norms in this bartering system.  DO NOT be tempted to suggest that their trade of 6 fun size Butterfingers for a full size Hershey is dumb because nobody really likes Hershey.  You will be met with a look of utter disdain and exasperation.  Stay upstairs with the adult beverages.
  • DO dress up yourself.  DO NOT worry about how silly you look.  I find great delight in dressing up for Halloween, and  I think I come by this honestly, given my family history.  Check out this snapshot of my Grandma on the right from 1946:
    Halloween 1946

    Ann (Recchia) Yench, Philip Yench, Nell (Yench) Cousin, a.k.a., “Grandma”

    I’m fairly certain that whatever is happening to her right is completely inappropriate by modern standards, but it certainly lends a certain devil-may-care attitude to the whole scene.  My mother also still enjoys dressing up, and 10 points for whoever can name her spirit-animal as whom she dresses every Halloween.  Hint:  she is a teacher, and it’s a book character…

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    For those curious, yes, I believe she made this yarn wig too.  If you could see her stockings, they’re striped…

fall 2014-13

Grandma and the girls before getting lost on the way to the school Fall Festival and having to wait for help outside the car in this getup.

  • DO NOT let work keep you from dressing up.  Now, as pediatrician, it was perhaps somewhat easier for me to justify wearing a full costume to work.  However, I did not let concern for my patients’ literary fears affect my choices, as evidenced as two favorites that, yes, I wore to work:  Evil Queen and Dolores Umbridge.

 

Christmas 008

The year that I was senior resident during Halloween and “encouraged” the team to dress up as characters from Grease.  I can’t figure out why the reviews from my students were never higher…

  • DO let them eat the candy til they puke on Trick or Treat night.  It’s one night a year and provides a real sensory lesson on the notion of gluttony.   That whole consume-til-you-puke phenomenon is why I can no longer partake of either banana chips or Bailey’s.

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    Natalie, Halloween 2007.  FYI, no evidence of candy desensitization as of yet

Wedding Dancer

The younger of the girls, Evie, is a lot like me.  We both hang out quite a bit in our heads and enjoy worrying about things completely out of our control.  We also enjoy exerting the maximum control over those things we can.  For example, last night she was interested in ranking, in order of likelihood and severity, natural disasters.  You see, we like to have some sort of a thoughtful approach to our rumination.  As you might imagine, this can get a bit taxing at times.

That’s why I will forever cherish a certain, newly-formed memory for the rest of my sentient days.  It is already nestled safely in that Jewel Box of Perfect Memories.  The metaphorical box is populated with those crystallized moments that exist in perfect, freeze-frame clarity.  If my life were a long bunch of film, these moments would make up the highlight reel.  My newest gem for the collection is Evie as wedding dancer.

A couple of weeks ago, we celebrated a family wedding, and pretty much all of my mom’s family was there.  Now, this family loves a wedding dance.  My Grandma and Grandpa Cousin (my mom’s parents) were famous for cutting a rug at any opportunity, and the entire bunch of us are unabashed wedding dancers.  My childhood is littered with memories of relatives’ weddings and us as kids cramming the front of the dance floor before we retreated, bleary with sleep, to the tables to watch the grown ups dominate the scene.  One of the best include my Great Aunt Helen, my Grandpa’s sister, who was also a recreation square dancer.

Of course, at some point I entered into that bleak, black period of childhood wherein we I was too embarrassed to freely dance.  What a waste of good dancing time this was, but there you go.  To truly enjoy wedding dancing, you can’t give even the slightest concern to how you look doing it.

Wedding dancing 1988

I’m pretty  much in that bleak, awkward period here as evidenced by the hand snapping.   But at least my glasses aren’t as large as my mother’s

In everyday life, Evie has this same burden overwhelming concern about what people think of her.  However.  This absolutely does not apply to wedding dances, where she truly lets her freak flag fly.  She comes by this honestly and was taught by the best…

And she was in rare form a couple of weeks ago.  The girl couldn’t get enough, and she simply embodied joy.  It was perfect.At one point, right around the climax of the party when everything is at its peak and you know that it’s probably only downhill from here, they started playing a loooong Santana number.  Something about the Latin rhythms, the thrumming guitar, spoke to Evie.  She flung herself wholly into the music, threw her head back and DANCED.  And, like moths to a flame, we were all drawn to her.  Without discussing it, we began following her childish moves that translated so easily into dance.  Every eight bars she’d switch her move up, the circle of adult acolytes would grin, and we’d pick up the beat.  She didn’t miss a step, and neither did we.  If nothing else, the girl has a future as a Zumba instructor.

So, if you want your day made, get a load of this gem from the Jewel Box of Perfect Memories:

 

Imponderables

Well, it’s happened again and I missed it.  I turned down Rawson the other day, and the trees there were definitely fall-ish.  Not majority fall-ish mind you, but the seasonal corner had been turned.  Despite my best efforts and intentions to notice it this year, once again I blinked during the slight course-correction that marked this veering into autumn.

It is one of those miniscule changes, a tiny, ephemeral, imperceptible shift that markes the borderline between one and the other.  I miss it every spring, too, when I set the goal to notice the moment when the trees are more green than bare.  I’ll mentally catalog the increasing spray of green over the winter-bare branches, waiting until that aha! moment when it’s tipped over into spring.  I always miss it.  Same with sunsets, the halfway point of an ice cream cone, and the moment during a party when it’s peaked and starts to head downhill.

2010 Flordia and others 092sunset

Maybe it’s not so much that we can’t sense these moments, but that our brains can hold onto the enormity of the moment.  The best word for them, therefore might be imponderable.

One time when the girls were both still young, we waited near the baggage carousel at O’Hare.  These were the days of a stroller, diaper bags, and relatively useless kids.  Sure the older one carried her sippy cup,  but I was still in full on sherpa mode while Jimmy waited to snag a few more bags.  I’m sure my face looked exhausted.  Perhaps that’s why a woman came over to chat with me–motherly solidarity in face of the hell that is an airport with kids.  She was perhaps 20 years older than I was, and had a nice, relaxed, sensible face.  She commented on the girls’ adorableness (true), and how traveling with kids is not for the faint of heart (also true).  She was waiting to pick up her adult son.

“You know, I can’t remember the last time I held him,” she said.  “You spend all those days and nights just doing it, thinking it will never end.  But one of the times it will be the last time, and you just won’t notice it.  I don’t remember the last time I held him, I wish I did.”  She smiled a little sadly and looked up to wave to the tall young man coming down the escalator, hands entwined with a young woman–he belonged to her now, I suppose.  The woman turned to say goodbye and “I know it’s silly to say, but enjoy it.  You won’t realize when it’s ending.”

I’ve gone back to that bittersweet memory often, fully intending to note the last time I picked the girls up.  I tried to pick Evie out of bed this morning and I couldn’t–and I don’t remember the last time.  Another imponderable slipped past, like summer into fall.

First Date

Author’s note:  I kept trying to write this story, and there’s too many little detours that need to be mentioned.  So, I’m just going to write it as I’d tell it.  During the asides you have to imagine me holding up one hand, frozen, as if sustaining the main thread of the story, while the other hand provides colorful gestures.  Trust me it works and people love it.  I think.

 

I took the girls out to dinner the other night.  It was early, so the restaurant hadn’t really filled up yet.  We were seated in the back room, empty save for only one other family with kids;  we were in “kid wasteland.”  The other family consisted of what were clearly a new mother, her mom, and her babies.  They were tiny and new, curled up sleeping against the women’s as they quickly, anxiously finished a one-handed dinner.  Clearly this was a first “time out with the baby” experience, which they confirmed.  I was  immediately taken back;  except for the fact that there were two babies instead of one, it might as well have been me and my mom with a relatively new Natalie.

Aside 1:  The girls wondered how I knew that they were twins.  I pointed out that unless the grandmother had simultaneously had a baby (she heard that and guffawed) or that the family’s baby had already made a best friend of the same age, the best bet were that these babies OF THE SAME AGE UNDER THE CARE OF THE SAME PEOPLE were, in fact, twins.  I hear that parents of twins get asked stupid questions all the time.  “Are they twins?” is merely a variant of my 7 and 11-year-olds’ question.  Another favorite has to be when parents of a boy/girl twin pairing are asked if they’re identical.

 

. . . I would imagine that Natalie was quite a bit older than these little ones, maybe closer to a month, when we had or first date.  It took me quite some time to rally to the idea of actually facing the terrors of dining out with an infant.  That’s a realistic concern. However, heaping helping of postpartum depression added to my hermetic state.  Luckily, my mother is a professional “propper up of people,” and she spurred me on to a lunch at the nearest sit-down place:  On The Border.

Aside 2:  Natalie was born in Arizona in June.  This was fortunate for me, as my mother was still teaching school and could stay indefinitely over the summer break.  Lucky for me she did, as I really am not sure how else we would have survived.  Two of my most vivid memories of the time were staring out this one particular window, and setting a daily goal of emptying the dishwasher.  Postpartum depression is no joke, and my mom’s a winner.

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Mom and baby Natalie.  Note the St. Norbert College shirt;  I think she probably missed a lot of Pat’s stuff that summer.  Sorry about that one, Pat.

 

. . . On the Border is a chain Mexican restaurant, with the attendant loud decor and music.  It was the perfect place in which the cries of a baby would be lost in the shuffle.  I don’t remember what I ate, just the overwhelming desire to get to the part where they bring us the check!  My diaper bag bulged with enough supplies to sustain us for up to a month;  we never needed them.  She slept in her little carrier the entire time.  Thank you, On the Border!

Aside 3:  There are no On the Border restaurants in the immediate Milwaukee area, however there’s a strip joint a little ways off that bears the same name.  You really couldn’t mistake the two.  The different approaches to signage alone make this impossible (busty lady vs. cactus and lime).  Despite this, one of Jimmy’s coworkers once took her sister to the wrong On the Border for lunch.  Interestingly, they weren’t put off by the sign, the fact that all the cars were parked around back, the lack of windows, or the darkness of the entryway.  It wasn’t until they were asked to pay their cover that things finally clicked.  An honest mistake, I guess…

Image result for on the border

This is a family blog.  No comparison sign will be posted!

 

. . . The memory so fresh and real, I asked if the girls and I could come over and look at the babies.  They were sweet and gorgeous, and their mother really looked fabulous.  Before I even realized that the words were there, I was asking if they’d had to spend time in the NICU?  Luckily the mother provided me with an out, replying that “yes, they’re pretty small aren’t they.”

Aside 4:  Despite truly being small, they really just had that slightly NICU-ish look about them.   I have a problem digressing medical, as I have all of this information in my head rattling around that’s not being used any more.

 

. . . The mom and grandma didn’t seem taken aback, though, and my girls hovered over them making all the appropriate cooing noises.

Aside 5:  My medical colleagues can attest to the fact that any babies that spend more than a brief time in the NICU tend to take on a characteristic look.  Part of it is the charmingly nicknamed toaster head, which develops when these little ones spend long periods of time lying very, very still on cribs instead of floating in a nice buoyant belly.  But the other part is my observation that they always seem just a little more tense, even in sleep, as if awaiting the next interruption as they go about the tricky task of sustaining life.

 

. . . It was no more than a minute or two, but the exchange was important to me.  For the new mom, it will either be lost in the blessed forgetting fog of first few months, or it will be one of the sharp memories that comes back unbidden.  The moments of early motherhood are mostly snapshots for me, but I got to relive a vivid one:  the first date.

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Another great date night with Evie. Their manners may still be in process, but they’re generally quiet!

Pickup Lines

There are many  posts bemoaning the woes of the parent pickup line at school.  I have to admit–I’m part of the problem.  Last year, our carpool stood at four little girls who, despite my best efforts, were always painfully slow to board.  I would watch in horror as the cars ahead of me pulled away, making it excruciatingly clear that, yes, it was me holding up the pickup line.  And drop off?  I always felt that circus music should have been playing as the  kids and gear spilled explosively out of all orifices.

This year, we are adding one more kid to the mix, making a grand total of 5 girls in a 3-row midsize SUV in which seats need to be shifted ahead to access the third row.  Oy-vay.  In a desire to avoid being lambasted by mom bloggers such as those mentioned above, I  developed a surefire, guaranteed plan for the pickup line.  I’ve called it the Carefully Balanced Pickup Plan (C.B.P.P.), and I include it for your perusal below:

pickup plan_1

 

It really looks like a nice, well thought-out plan, doesn’t it?  The kids are sorted by size and skill level, with the lollygaggers relegated to later boarding in acknowledgement of their foot-dragging approach to the car.  We actually ran a drill several times in the driveway.  We had it down.  However.  First day of pickup, despite my getting out of the car to supervise and repeat instructions in a drill sergeant- like manner, we came in at an embarrassing 1 minute 12 seconds.  I know I was getting dirty looks as I returned, sweaty and panicked, to my driver’s seat and peeled away (ALL THE WHILE CAREFULLY FOLLOWING THE POSTED SPEED LIMIT.  Sheesh.).

How did this dismal failure in the face of preparation and practice occur?  You will note that the success of the C.B.P.P. depends on a number of assumptions.  And you know what they say about making assumptions.  

Here’s what really happened…

Assumption #1:  Participants will enter expeditiously and be on the alert at pickup.  3/5 kids noticed me pull up.  The others were distracted by fidget spinners and an invisible butterfly.

Assumption #2:  All “stuff” will be easily maneuvered and neatly packed.  One carried an art project apparently involving the entire contents of a recycling bin.  Another one had a cupcake, the least maneuverable and most despised birthday treat of all.

Assumption #3:  Snow gear will miraculously fit in trunk.  This hasn’t happened yet, but the fact that the kids are asked to stow their gear in those insane giant Ziploc bags makes it highly unlikely.

Assumption #4:  3rd row occupants will nicely pull 2nd row seats into position.  One of the third row occupants has a younger sister in the second row that needed to be teased rather than assisted.  The other third row occupant claimed to be unable to use her arms after a mysterious playground incident.

Assumption #5:  2nd row occupants will easily buckle up.  Have you seen how exhausted new kindergartners are after a full day of school?  Even I have to admit that this was asking too much.

Assumption #6:  1st row occupants will not be distracted by the radio.  I was distracted by the fact that I’d accidentally left the audio version of the fifth Outlander book playing (highly recommended, not exactly suitable for children…).  Natalie was distracted by the need of all preteens to immediately reset the radio at all times.

Assumption #7:  All complaints and commentary will be held until disembarkation.  The following conversations continued despite instructions to focus on entering the vehicle:  who I sat by at lunch, who vomited during lunch, who was getting yelled at in the pickup line, can I go to Kayla’s house, can we have a smoothie, and I call dibs on the bathroom when we get home.  This was just one kid.

Assumption #8:  Participants will not attempt to circumvent the C.B.P.P.  

 

Goodbye Summer, Goodbye Slime

My new favorite phrase is that something is “having a moment.”  It stylishly captures the notion that some thing is seemingly everywhere.  In addition to being stylish, use of this phrase handily allows me to avoid its awkward cousin:  “zeitgeist.”  For example, while travelling abroad, my sister Louise was wont to order an Aperol spritz.  She mentioned that this delicious Italian aperitif was “having a moment” in NYC, and it appeared to be doing so in Germany and the Czech Republic as well.

aperol spritz

Aperol Spritz:  Having a moment

For the under 12 set of Southern Wisconsin, I am loathe to report that the thing which had its moment this summer was, unfortunately, slime.  All I have to do is say the word  “slime” to another caregiver, and a rending of  garments commences as we bewail the misery that is slime.

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Slavish creation of slime:  also having a moment

You aren’t familiar with slime, you say?  Well, I don’t speak of anything naturally- occurring or featured in Ghostbusters, nor even any slime that is Asian beauty product related.  Oh no, I speak of that monstrosity promoted by ‘tween You-tubers and created with any number of ingredients.  Regardless of the particular recipe, however, the main ingredients of slime are massive amounts of Elmer’s glue and pure evil.

glue

Avoid any endcaps featuring this product

And just before school let out, the kids were infected by this evil contagion.  The desire for slime infected our entire summer.  I tried to resist.  I’d resisted similar things like Play-Doh, but the slime fever was virulent.  I eventually caved and went out and bought the requisite industrial size Elmer’s glue, shaving cream, and contact solution.  I was immediately disillusioned and, after one afternoon, banned slime!  Or I tried to.  Here’s a sampling of the pro-slime arguments that constituted the sound track of 2017 for me:

“But mom, it’s like science!”  This is true only in the way that Grease II was like Grease.

“Wouldn’t you rather we be creative than sitting in front of our electronics?”  At this point of summer, no.  Your electronics do not produce an ever-escalating disaster, save for the slow erosion of all couch cushions into a pile on the floor.

“We’ll keep it in the kitchen.”  In kid mind this includes the floor.  Recall the new puppy?  Luckily we had taken up most of the rugs during housetraining, and the puppy slime prints were sort of easy to remove.

“…we’ll keep it in on the counter.”  Places I have found slime:  in the track of the sliding patio door, under my pillow, smeared into a screen, in Evelyn’s hair, in the puppy’s fur, on the seat of my toilet.

“…OK, fine, we’ll only play with it outside.”  Have you ever seen what grass coated with slime looks like?  I have.  It adheres with juuuuust enough stick that a broom can’t sweep it up off the floor, this must be accomplished by hand.

“But we always clean it up when you tell us to.”  Mmm hmm.  That’s why I’ve taken to locking myself in my room with an Aperol Spritz  after announcing to the two of them that it is time to clean up the slime.  The only way to truly get two little girls to accomplish a joint cleaning task is to hover over them, referee-like, for the duration of the what is essentially a G.L.O.W. match as both attempt to win by performing as little actual cleaning as possible.  I sip my drink, wait for the screaming to die down, and then exit, always hoping that they’ve somehow adopted my definition of “cleaned up.”  Somehow, despite an entire roll of paper towels having died in the fight, the telltale heart of slime will still beat steadily.

“But mom, it’s the last day of summer.  We just want to spend a last day doing what we think is fun”  Arrrrgh.  You got me with the sentimental ‘last day’ gambit.  OK, fine.  Keep it outside and I’m throwing it all away tomorrow!    (Yelling into the vacuum created by frantic exit of children given permission to make slime).  Did you hear me?  Tomoooooroooooow……