Anatomy of a Meltdown

Yesterday began well and ended very badly, so I am now trying to sort through the layers and identify where exactly it went so wrong. I think it was something of death by ten thousand small cuts. But let’s see.

9:00 a.m.: Pilates:

Ben was out of town, which created only a minor awkwardness in the morning. I had a Pilates class at 9:30, which is a recent re-addition to my life. It’s a net positive, this returning to Pilates after years away. Indeed, although I’m horribly out of shape, the teacher says that my body “remembers” the Pilates. She can tell me to do a cat stretch or make my spine neutral or whatever and I find that I understand these concepts in a riding a bike kind of way. However this entailed leaving the kids alone for an hour or so.

The previous night I let them stay up late by themselves– it was the launch of three-day weekend after all. I had gone to bed and they had crawled in with me probably around midnight. So come along 9:00 a.m. when it was getting to be Pilates time, they were still asleep. I decided it best to tap Isaac and tell him I was leaving, as this is all quite new and I feared they would wake up to an empty house and panic. So I tapped Isaac, and to my dismay he woke up, and woke Elias up. Instead of just easily sneaking away I had to deal with them for a few moments. Elias had a sore throat and claimed he didn’t know how to make tea, for instance. They needed pants, which I had to help find. Anyway I ended up rushing crazily to class and arriving ten minutes late. Perhaps this was the first small ripple in what ultimately became a tsunami of stress.

Pilates went well, although other becalmed ladies were staying for more leg work and I felt I needed to leave promptly on time because the kids were watching the clock at home for my return.

11:00: Errands

Elias needed his new glasses. I needed to pick up some of my many prescriptions. We needed gas in the car. I came home after Pilates, got him, and we drove around doing these things without much trouble at all. The roads were bad, but not terribly so.

12:00 food.

I cooked us all some bacon and eggs and happily made a mess without cleaning it up. This became an issue later.

1:00 snowstorm interlude.

There was a major snow storm going on, with snow blowing vigorously all over the place. Ben was not due home for many hours and it was becoming increasingly clear that I would have to plow. His car was in front of the garage, though, and the John Deere mini-tractor with plow was inside the garage. When I tried to move the car, it was stuck. I tried many Minnesotan-native maneuvers to dislodge it, but could not. It was on a slight incline that was comprised of a layer of snow with a base of glare ice. I went inside and got cat litter, dumping some under each wheel. This did not work. I put the car in neutral and began to shoulder it with my fullest possible measure of strength. I could sort of rock it but not actually shift it. I went in and got the boys, really just Isaac, to come and help. Elias is only 8 and his pushing ability is greatly outweighed by his risk of being crushed by the car. But Isaac is a strapping young lad of 12 now– topping 5’3″ and weighing in at 125 pounds or so. He shouldered one door, I took the other, and rocking it together, we managed to budge it a few feet. It was bitterly cold, exhausting work.

Then Isaac took it in his own hands to plow, which I thought would be good but turned out to be a mixed blessing. He does know how to drive the plow, but without the years of car handling experience immediately got it wedged sideways. I had to take over, and some yelling was also involved. Isaac seemed to blame me for not know this or that about the plow’s workings. At the heart of the problem was the jockeying for who is the “man of the house” when Daddy is away. We could not get the plow to lay properly. It was either too high or too low or turned this or that way. Isaac was high strung and screaming. Ultimately it was a tiresome, half-assed job performed by Isaac, who drove the plow rapidly and angrily all over the place with a great deal of hostility and teen-age angst layered on for no real reason.

Then since I was already freezing and tired I decided that I’d just as well put on the new plates on the new car. The temporary plates were to expire today, and I knew it wasn’t going to get any more balmy. Indeed today’s HIGH is 2 below zero. So I scared up a Philips screwdriver and removed the old temp plates with great skill and efficiency. I installed the front plate with equal aplomb, and all was lovely until I couldn’t find the other plate to put on the back. I searched. The kids searched. We removed and searched three TaeKwonDo bags full of gear, Isaac’s back pack and music supplies, many lunch boxes, and various other odds and ends that have been collecting in the new car despite my extreme vigilance to keep in clear of debris. No plate. I began to feel this rage welling up inside me about how everything in my life is just unstable, it seems. I set something down and it’s immediately gone. Vanished. Disappeared. That items in my life shift on their own. The boys take my computer. Someone wanders away with my phone. The dog takes my glasses. And so on, until the disappearance of things becomes a maddening daily struggle. The lost plate– it’s total absence just made no sense, and exasperated me. Isaac began saying I should just take Dad’s car, which of course was stuck in the snow bank, where we had shoved it to get the plow out.

No, finally I decided, Okay, it’s legal to drive with one plate, it just has to be on the back. So gnashing my teeth in frustration I removed the new plate from the front, planning to install it on the back. And that’s when I found the second plate. Thin as tissue and perfectly married to the first one. I had installed them both on the front.


I think this whole process may have added an hour to our outside, sub-zero, snow-battling experience. It was 100% my fault, but still I felt that a cruel hand of fate had played a role.

3:00: Pre-apocalypse grocery shopping.

In this already beleaguered state, I had to get groceries. It was Valentine’s Day after all, and Ben was going to come home for dinner. I wanted it to be something nice. We talked about the menu on the phone and decided on a simple Cobb Salad, white wine for him, burgers for the kids, and I wanted to make this Paleo chocolate pot de creme (dairy free, made with coconut milk) for a treat.

However the grocery store was in full pre-apocalypse mode. Not only was everyone else on Earth also there to get stuff for their Valentine’s dinner, the Quirky Alones not doing that were there because there was huge winter weather panic going on. I felt muddled and could not remember what all I needed, and Elias was along with me, wandering off with the cart while I was in mid-sentence, driving recklessly down the dairy aisle, not listening to me, and also whining for jelly beans, etc., whining to go home and are we done yet. This shopping trip comprised yet another trial of my patience and calm and nerves, which were becoming more and more frayed.

4:30: Rescuing a frozen cat we don’t really love all that much.

Zane Grey, our 14 year old mad woman in the garage, is getting awfully old to be outside when it’s literally 25 below. So with great effort I hauled a large crate upstairs for her, and set up a bed and litter box and food and water. Then Elias and I went outside and again with no small amount of effort managed to capture her. This involved climbing among cobwebs and wallowing around behind large dusty objects to catch her and then preventing her from scratching me to death while I carried her in for her own safety and comfort. That’s one thing that’s annoying about this cat. She doesn’t help when things are in her own best interests.

5:00 Ben’s travel disruption.

Ben had flown from NYC to Detroit, and then been stranded because of the weather. The last leg of his flight to Cleveland was flat out canceled. His option was to stay over night and fly home at 5:00 p.m. today or to rent a car and drive the three hours home. So we were texting and he was in various lines in Detroit, with one presumes also panicked anxious Valentine-oriented crowds also all trying to get where they had intended to go and the horizontal snow outside creating an atmosphere of strife. I got on my computer and set up a rental car for him as he walked through labyrinthine terminals. Eventually he found his way to a rental car place and shortly texted me that he was en route.

This made me anxious in that I was concerned he would crash, end up in a ditch, or in a ghastly 20 car pileup, such as the one that had just closed a stretch of 77 north of us, a major highway which is very rarely shut down.

At this point, I really felt I needed to stop and rest, and I attempted to. I realized that I was frozen to the marrow and running through things I wanted to cook and still in my Pilates clothes which somehow I had never found a moment to change. I thought I’d just rest a moment and get warm, but what I really wanted to do was take a shower, put on something cozy, and take a long peaceful nap.

Instead I got up and began to tidy the house, and try to flog the lazy children into helping me. My thought was– Ben has been traveling all day, he’s stressed, he’s exhausted, it’s Valentine’s Day, he just wants to come home to some semblance of order and a nice meal. ¬†I put on some music and got Elias some Valentine making supplies and together we each made a Valentine for Ben. I rousted Isaac from his screen stupor and got him to make one too. Then I began to cook.

7:00 attempting to cook dinner

The meal cooking part is where things really, really began to go south. The kids were getting hungry and crabby, perhaps that was part of it. Maybe they sensed my building exhaustion/stress combination. Maybe they were wound up about Valentine’s Day, or daddy coming home, or whatever.

I don’t know.

I started doing this new bacon trick where you simmer raw bacon in water until the water cooks away. The bacon meat parts simmer without burning, then the fat renders and you can fry the last bit to crispy, even perfection. Although I had done this successfully several times, it didn’t go like that at all this time.

I also was trying to convert grams into ounces of chocolate for these pots de creme. Isaac got involved and began hacking the chocolate up when I wanted the lines to help me measure it. I needed my phone for a calculator but it was dead and so I had to find a charger. Meanwhile, Elias was asking me to help him make a paper airplane with some of the beautiful paper I’d dug up for Valentines. I told him no and he became more persistent. He wanted me to sit down with him and watch a video of this guy making really awesome paper airplanes and then help him make one right then. I was trying to watch this egg and coconut milk custard, stirring often and not letting it simmer. Isaac was fooling with my chocolate and picking a fight with me about grams and ounces. He can be very belligerent when he feels he’s right, but he wasn’t right, and then numbers were daunting me. Elias starting outright screaming about the paper airplane. Isaac put him in the bathroom and began taping the door shut with packing tape. Elias was screaming. My custard was starting to simmer.

I got Isaac to stop with the taping and rescued Elias from the bathroom. At this point, Elias announced that he was so angry at me about the paper airplane business that he had thrown away his (beautiful!) Valentine for daddy. I looked in the trash and couldn’t find it. He wouldn’t reveal where it was. Isaac grabbed him by the scruff of the neck. I noticed my custard was about to boil and the bacon system was smoking. I rescued the foods. I tried to find forks for the table but none of the normal sized ones were clean. I opened the fridge and a door thing fell off and I couldn’t get it back on. I had a strong impulse to throw the thing down and break it, but I resisted. I took a deep breath and tried to calm myself down, but I could see it was getting worse. The clock was ticking. Ben was going to be home soon. I wanted the table set. Flowers, candles. I wanted the places set. I wanted the food ready to eat. The kids were getting more and more hungry and insane. I hadn’t even started the chicken breasts.

The beginning of my pot de creme recipe said, “This will go fine if you just take your time and stay calm.”

From upstairs there was a bloodcurdling scream. Elias came down shirtless, sans glasses, crying bitterly. Isaac followed maybe somewhat sheepishly. Elias flopped down on the kitchen floor sobbing and saying various things Isaac had done to him– “He held me down… he turned the light off… he said he would beat me to death… he cut my finger…” (I checked that, it was basically a paper cut) etc. Isaac admitted a few of these things– “I was interrogating him about the Valentine.” This was the explanation. I said, “Elias if he’s really hurting you come to me–” He said, “I couldn’t get away! I thought he was going to kill me!”

I took Isaac aside and scolded him harshly. Elias got a TaeKwonDo belt and began to whip Isaac with it. Isaac got a wooden gun and was waving it around threateningly. Isaac wrongfully used his martial arts skills and secured Elias to the ground. Then I turned off all burners. I let the bacon stew in its fat and the custard head the wrong direction towards cold. I got Elias on the couch with me. I said, “Let’s just sit here for a little while and watch a video about paper airplanes.” He was still shirtless and snuffling. Isaac positioned himself in a chair across from us and as far as I could tell was intent on stirring up trouble. My nerves were just about shattered. He kept saying “Elias, Come. Here.” and I kept saying, “Leave him alone!” It went on like that a bit until I was screaming at the top of my lungs and seeming like an insane asylum escapee. Isaac would not relent. He stalked away. Elias and I tried to return to our paper airplane video.

Isaac returned and interrupted again and I began to scream at the very top of my lungs. Who knows even what I was saying. Maybe “Get out of here! Leave us alone!” that sort of thing. And then Isaac said, “I was TRYING to apologize!” and then commenced to sulking and making bitter remarks about “I didn’t realize APOLOGIZING was going to be such a problem.”

Around this time, Ben arrived. Dinner was not ready. The table was not set. The chicken breasts were totally raw. It was 8:00. Ben was starving, cold and stressed. When he put down his stuff I burst into tears. And tried to tell him the problem. “Isaac had Elias up stairs.” and “Elias threw away your Valentine and I can’t find it now.” and “My custard is probably curdled.” And so on. Ben was sympathetic but wanted some cheese. He had been traveling since ten a.m. and was dying of hunger. He also was worried about the plow and car and snow situation. He could see dinner was not going to be soon. He went out and plowed.

I managed to combine the chocolate with the custard (strained through a fine mesh sieve) and set a timer to let them marry. I got Isaac on the task of finding forks. I had a moment to myself in the kitchen. I started the chicken breasts and remembered I hadn’t made the burgers. I put them together and everything seemed to be going okay. Ben came in from plowing and put on some music. He got himself a snack and then went to see what the kids were doing. I set some paper towel on a plate beside the bacon pan and then turned around. When I turned back it was fully on fire. I picked it up and carried it to the sink, blazing. I ran water over it and yet somehow it was still burning quite vigorously. I managed to get the fire out and then returned to the bacon. At that moment the bacon fat exploded and my face was splattered with hot grease.

I screamed and threw the tongs I was holding. I threw them with all my might at the plate where I had just placed the new paper towels. The plate shattered. Ben returned to the kitchen. I began hysterically sobbing, hyperventilating and having a panic attack. Ben carefully talked me into going upstairs saying he would take the cooking from here. I got up to bed and just lay there on my stomach sobbing my eyes out for a few minutes. Like snotty, wet, ragged hopeless sobbing.

All I wanted was to have a nice dinner! I kept saying. All I wanted was to have the house nice when he came home. And I couldn’t. Do it. This is the part where I think I diverge from a normal person. This is the part where, yes, these were all minor nuisances, and you could see how this added up. But I think a normal person might have taken it in stride. But I feel that I live on the edge of a cliff, and when the bacon spattered in my face I went over the edge into a type of emotional disarray that is beyond the norm. Also, I didn’t want the kids to see how utterly fucked up I was by that point.

My face and neck were actually mildly sprinkled with burns. But that was not really the problem. The problem was that it was now almost 9:00 p.m. and I was still in my Pilates clothes and dinner was not ready. And it was Valentine’s Day.

9:00 Dining

While I was upstairs crying I heard distant sizzling. I came down and found the kitchen empty, save for the chicken breasts which were cooking hot and splattering all over the place. Ben was giving the children a lecture in the other room. I took several deep breaths and began again to cook. Soon I got the chicken breasts sauteed. I got the bacon crisp enough. I got salad greens into the bowl. I got blue cheese crumbles. I made a balsamic vinaigrette. I remembered avocado, not ripe enough, and wrestled it into submission. Everyone had a plate and food on it. I called in the troops. They got seated and Ben vanished into the bathroom. Elias began to devour his food. Isaac too began to devour his food. I told them to stop and to wait until grace. They couldn’t wait. I felt the hysteria rising again, in the impossible moment when they were there, eating, and Ben was not there! I was pinned between two forces, Ben’s propriety and their starvation. I felt a wave of panic ¬†overtaking me again and again feared I would start screaming. But Ben emerged just in time. We said grace and ate and began to exchange Valentines.

Elias hadn’t really thrown his away. He brought it out from wherever it was and Ben was duly touched and pleased. Isaac’s had a clever pop-up heart. Ben had brought candy and presents for everyone from New York. I brought out some heart-shaped frosted brownies I had bought for the kids. Ben gave me a beautiful copy of “Lucky Jim” and a stunning chocolate bar that was even more remarkable for the fact that he’d bought it on Park Avenue for $11.00.

I still felt like I was hanging by a thread. Ben wouldn’t eat his pot de creme because he said it didn’t match his wine. I ate mine and it was wonderful. But not as fun when he wouldn’t eat his. We discussed watching a movie. It was now 10:00. I decided to forsake everything else and just take a bath. Ben read to the kids, while I tried to regain some semblance of calm. Our bathroom tiles have fallen in and our bathtub is well below par. The new retreat bathroom is planned and will happen soon. In a month or two my ability to take a calming bath at the end of a day like this will be greatly improved.

I crawled into bed a much more bedraggled and weary person than the cheerful soul who set out for Pilates a scant 13 hours before. Days like this have a way of wearing a person down to a nub.

And now, amazingly, I need to stop writing this and cook dinner. Tonight will go better. Tonight will be fine. I think tonight will be lovely. There’s nothing to worry about, right?


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